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Volunteering for an Exploration into Mediocrity

July 21, 2009

The title of this article in the Guardian looked great “Space Exploration Volunteers Wanted (The catch? It’s a one way ticket)” but the authors must have had a deadline to meet for today’s Apollo 11 anniversary or else not be too interested in the subject, because they jump all over the place. The interesting part of the discussion was with John Olson, Nasa’s director of exploration systems integration :

A senior Nasa official has told the Guardian that the world’s space agencies, or the commercial firms that may eventually succeed them, could issue one-way tickets to space, with the travellers accepting that they would not come back.

Then the authors go on to conclude that after conquering Mars by 2050 we’ll be exploring the other planets forthwith and just perhaps, even the stars. Creating this opening, they spend the rest of the article talking about said interstellar exploration and how ludicrously expensive it would be to fly to Alpha Centauri. They leave the impression that very idea of putting people on space ships never to return to Earth would only be useful for visiting other stars and that such efforts are unethical dreams to be imposed on the doomed children of generational ships.

Like I said, they jump around a bit. I don’t really take much issue with the facts of the article, I’d rather put a more positive light on it, but the tone is unfortunate. I think Mr. Olson is right that more creative methods of exploration need to be, well, explored and I’m glad to hear him mention commercial firms in the same breath as other national space agencies. That is because I think these national agencies, and NASA in particular, are part of the problem.

They have made space exploration a mundane of safety protocols.

I think the future exciting growth in space exploration will come from private ventures first bringing tourists and then conducting all kinds of business in space. The Planetary Society has a plan for future manned space exploration that skips over a US return to the moon in favour of human visits to Earth crossing asteroids as practice runs for a manned visit to Mars mid-century. Wouldn’t that be more exciting? Why not let China and Europe visit the Moon and have NASA do something different for a change. Why not discuss longer manned missions, where people leave a large ship to visit Jupiter or other asteroids and are equipped to live for years before returning? Why not spend more time on solar sails?

With risky ventures there will be more failures but there will be more excitement as well. Now, lest begin to ramble as I accuse others of doing, Mr. Olson is right about one thing, risk and never returning home won’t stop the flow of volunteers. Not when the adventure is to go somewhere where literally no one has gone before. They’ll sign whatever you want for the chance too. Why should humanity limit itself to safe exploration, one step as a time? When did that ever get us anywhere?

How long would it have taken Europeans to find America if they’d run their exploration the way NASA does? They already had a route to Asia, why take risks on an unknown route that might lead nowhere? NASA would rather scrap the shuttle and not be able to reach the space station at all for 4 years without Russian help than risk using an old design that doesn’t meet their ever increasing safety standards.

Exploration indeed.

Adopt the Planetary Society exploration plan, set a firm date for visiting Mars and accelerate approval for commercial visits to space, lets get moving already!

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