Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Future of Space Exploration

In this article, we speak to Dr. Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 Astronaut, who secured his place in history when, on July 20th 1969, he became one of the first two humans to set foot on the Moon. We talk to Dr. Aldrin about the relationship between humanity and space, the future of space exploration, its economics, and the commercial opportunities it presents.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, September 2009

Humanity has an innate spirit of adventure, which, over many thousands of years, has given our civilisation some of its greatest triumphs, conflicts, and evolutionary leaps. These leaps have (in the main) come from crossing frontiers, learning more about our place in ‘the grander scheme of things’ and thus bringing a paradoxical sense of humility and power. The former from understanding that we exist in a system larger and more complex than we could possibly comprehend of which we are a part, not the cause, and the latter from our sense of empowerment at being able to engage ourselves in adventures which cross frontiers of knowledge, reach and understanding.

Space has, throughout history, been regarded as the greatest of these frontiers, representing a right of passage for civilisation outside its safe-harbour (Earth) and regarded, by many space advocates, as an essential step in ensuring our race continues. "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years” said Stephen Hawking, “…unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars."

While Prof. Hawking’s view is based on his feeling that humanity has now got the tools to, whether by accident or design, destroy itself (specifically nuclear and genetic technology and artificial intelligence) there are many other reasons why Space exploration presents a necessary and inevitable step for our species’ ‘story’.

Dr. Buzz Aldrin is a man who requires little introduction. Following a distinguished career in the US Air Force, he joined NASA. After flying in the Gemini missions, he progressed to the Apollo programme, where, as the lunar module pilot of the Apollo 11 mission, on July 20th 1969, he and Neil Armstrong took their profoundly important steps, becoming the first two beings to observe Earth from another celestial body.

Since his retirement from NASA in 1971, Dr. Aldrin has been a major Space advocate, and in this exclusive interview, we talk to him about the relationship between humanity and Space, the future of space exploration, politics, economics, opportunities, innovation, and the spirit of adventure.
Q: What is the economic role and significance of space exploration in our civilisation’s future?

[Buzz Aldrin] I think the aerospace industries of the U.S. and all nations will gain from considering the return from, for example, satellite reconnaissance, and many other areas that I’ll touch on.

Reconnaissance and defence in particular though, are important not just for offensive operations, but to maintain peace. The more one knows about potential adversaries, their resources, and their abilities to damage the economics of other nations, for example, is the real return from reconnaissance activities. A missile launched upwards as high as possible, instead of “at a target”, which then detonates a nuclear device, could cripple most all of the low earth orbit satellites. This would be detrimental to all nations, especially those who rely so heavily on space assets. Defending against these kinds of attacks is hugely dependent on the health of the aerospace industries. As far as the United States are concerned, we have a history of being defensive of liberty and freedom throughout the world, and I want to stress that we have a lot of assets up there so we, in particular, need to stress the importance of these issues, with encouragement and co-operation of international organisations rather than just those who are critical of the weaponisation of space. At the opposite end of the defence spectrum, we have the issues concerning the survival of economies and major assets on the surface of the earth. This may depend on our ability to detect and defend against impacts from outer space which could be very damaging to entire civilisations, and major portions of the earth. In space, to advance to a point where we have planetary defence is a significant and important option for us.

The resources of the earth are not limitless. We are finding, through scouting, resources and minerals that are located on spotty locations around our planet. These did not all come from the core of the earth, but from the impact of objects with the earth. Those objects also impacted the Moon, and many of them have not yet done so. These objects are, of course, asteroids. The easiest transport of these asteroid resources is not, though, from the Moon or Mars, but using the asteroids themselves, and once space transport has matured, the time to deliver resources is no longer a function. For example, the speed of oil tankers is no longer a function once the supply line is set up.

As an observation, maybe as my observation for the short term for the United States, building up the capacity to visit beyond the Moon with significant capability including human visits, assures potential economic leadership in asteroid resources. At the Moon, excavating or inspecting around the surface and craters for minerals is, indeed, a hugely difficult task, but breakthroughs may come. Also, when we consider some who view oxygen (from surface dust, water or ice) as being an abundant resource on the Moon, they often don’t consider the paradox of using oxygen fuel from earth to go to the Moon, to get oxygen fuel and use oxygen fuel to get back. This may not, therefore, bear a good economic return. People have also mentioned helium three from the Moon. I’m a little sceptical because, as yet, we do not have a reactor that can use helium three. My view is that there may be other isotopes on the Moon like Boron 11 which are not radioactive, and are more plentiful. These could be processed sooner, and in a less costly manner than helium three (which does not generate neutron free reactions).

Looking at space tourism, my view is that we are a long way off. We may have people in orbit, but much beyond swinging by the Moon (an extension of earth orbit) I am not sure where the economic return comes from tourism in space.

The inspiration of youth for education in the science, technology and maths disciplines is also a critical role for space. A nation like the U.S. which has reached the peak of manufacturing and trade in comparison with other areas of the world, ought to hold onto what it has as far as the inspiration of the education system goes. I am concerned that we, in the U.S., are not doing this well, as we should be using space to inspire and motivate people into science, engineering and maths. This is obviously an economic return from space.

Philosophically, there is also the role of space in the ‘total survival’ of humanity. Sooner or later an intelligent species must realise its obligation, not just to future generations, but to all the lives that been lived productively in the past. All the knowledge, progress and dedication of these many billions of lives served could be wiped out. Many would judge that an even greater loss, than the loss of future generations.

Q: Will space teach us anything about our home environment on earth? And what is the role of private enterprise versus governments in the future of space exploration?

[Buzz Aldrin]There have been a few emails exchanged which talk about the results of a catastrophic loss of environmental control on earth. There are many influential individuals who are quite extreme about this, I am not among them. For the satisfaction, though, of those who are concerned about the extremes of conditions that could be brought about here on earth, it seems that the immediate expenditures are not shared between those producing the adverse affects, and those spending to mitigate them. People want just those who can afford it, rather than those who produce it (e.g. Asia which produces a lot of the environmental degradation) to spend the money. I suspect, personally, a lot of this field is political.

There may certainly be opportunities to learn from other planets about the evolving nature of natural influences which can teach us a good bit about nature here on earth, and how these influences could be detrimental in the long term to our environment. I mentioned before about mining and minerals, but I’m talking more about phenomenon such as climate change, and dust storms (such as those which exist on Mars) which would have to be coped with. The extremes of temperature, the scarcity of water, we will have to learn about how to deal with all these things on the Moon and other places. As we learn how to deal with these severe environmental conditions, in vacuum environments or limited atmospheres, and in very different gravity, we can inevitably learn how to understand and cope with changing conditions here on earth.

Looking at the role of private enterprise, I think we are beginning to see the areas where commercial profit making endeavours can stem; for example commercially designed space-craft and rockets which could deliver U.S. and other astronauts to the space station, in return for compensation. This provides an economic benefit which alleviates governments from getting involved in endeavours which are not directly involved in exploration. Commercial organisations are also able to get involved in refuelling, by taking fuel into space, and selling it to someone who wants to use it in low earth orbit, for lunar missions, or other purposes. This can be done by many nations who cannot afford big rockets and the total exploration package. This is something which I know is being looked at very seriously, and something which I firmly endorse as it makes the most out of in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) at the Moon, other objects, and the surface of Mars. This type of commercialisation will be very important for the sustainability of these missions, and opens up viable economic routes to ship resources and the means of processing them to the Moon, Mars and other bodies to sustain settlers there for whatever reason they have arrived.

Q: Historically, much of the progress in space exploration has come from the conflict and competition between nations. What is the role of competition in the current space exploration landscape?

[Buzz Aldrin] The key downside to competition is duplication at the operating end which is wasteful yet inevitable as there is always more than one way of doing something. Competition at the development end, though, in creating capabilities and then sharing internationally through co-operation allows us to get the most out of competition, without suffering the waste of duplicating. In this sense, we must compete at the supply end of developing rockets and space craft, but co-operate in the utilisation of them.

Looking at the participation of emerging nations, I’d much rather see early efforts at co-operation and collaboration which can then be carried on at the operating end of achieving specific goals, whether exploration or development. This ensures that the ‘best’ are selected, through means of competition, but we get the economic benefits as a group. I can see we’re starting to accomplish this for peaceful and commercial reasons, as the “end result” (operating end) competition is lessened when not in an aggressive or offensive capacity.

There is also an important lesson of resource destruction in low earth orbit by debris such as collision with objects which are no longer utilised. This cries out of a re-evaluation of what is allowed under international law to penetrate space. Perhaps the solution would be to register and inspect any object going up or down, to make sure it has an end of mission disposal which removes the asset from potential collision in the crowded space of derelict things. This can do nothing but enhance understanding and awareness of peaceful activities. Certainly every nation with assets has the right to defend those assets against deliberate attack by rogue nations, and the peaceful space faring nations can band together to discourage such rogue nations capabilities and aggressive actions. We need, in my opinion, to also urgently re-evaluate the Outer Space Treaty.

Q: What are your views of the American space programme?

[Buzz Aldrin] This has been my very challenge, realising the delay, wastefulness, and lack of productivity for the U.S to revisit the Moon. We’ve done it, we understand what’s there pretty well, and we can continue to investigate robotically much cheaper, exerting the leadership we developed forty years ago, and in the last five years, as evidence, to assist other nations in their efforts to put their humans on the Moon for whatever inspirational or motivational reasons they may have to demonstrate to their people, and the international community, the progressive nature of their achievements.

During this process, there will inevitably be the discovery of some now unknown economic benefit which can be responded to.

For my part, I propose a two phase, two decade plan. Where at the end of the first decade (around the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing) we re-evaluate the overall plan of, “clearing a pathway to settling on Mars, via the Moon of Mars as a stepping stone”. We re-evaluate at the end of one decade, and either ratchet up resources to complete that mission, have an off-ramp for asteroid or lunar development, or cancel the whole thing. Politically, if a wise pathway is charted to develop and settle on another planet, the historical significance of this is significant enough where it would not be apt to be negated by whoever is president at the Phase 2 time. I have, clearly, considered the politics involved.

Q: Does space exploration pose any threat from religious extremists who may not agree with it?

[Buzz Aldrin] I don’t think so at all. Twenty years ago or more, I was having a conversation with the (then) NASA administrator, Jim Fletcher. He was a Mormon, my wife was a Mormon (though not quite as orthodox) and he said to my wife, “Are you going to convert Buzz to the Mormon religion?” I answered, “No, I’m too busy planning space exploration in search of the celestial kingdom”.

Q: Do we currently have the technology to make space exploration and exploitation viable? And what are the critical areas of innovation for space?

[Buzz Aldrin] Of course I couldn’t blindly say we can tweak what we have and merely optimise flight paths, sequences and so forth. Clearly everybody is aware of the greatest impediment, which is the cost of access to space. Specifically this relates to propulsion into orbit, requiring high thrusts to offset drag of atmosphere and gravity. Once you are in orbit you can accelerate slowly, but there is also a clear need to reduce the time of travel with greater efficiencies and different propellants. Higher velocity changes need more energy, and if we can make this energy cheap, we will be able to make the high velocity changes to depart and arrive. This would be a major breakthrough, and would certainly make space more viable.

Communications systems are pretty good, and I don’t think we can improve on things too much. There are, though, improvements in encryption and also I was recently made aware of devices which can communicate using gravity waves, communicating not around the spherical earth, but through the centre. I know this sounds far fetched, but it is something which is being investigated as we speak at a number of U.S. sites (many of which are discouraged that China is ahead of the U.S. in this field of research).

Radiation protection is probably our primary concern for life support. With sufficient exercise we can deal with bone and calcium loss, and muscle degradation caused by reduced gravity and even these can be dealt with using rotating spacecraft (one around the other or internal centrifugal forces). If you have enough acceleration with thrust, you can just use that, but our current technologies will not allow that (though this presents another advantage of being able to thrust at a sizeable fraction of gravity).

Q: How can humanity share in the experience of space exploration? And what role does education play in stimulating the “spirit of adventure”?

[Buzz Aldrin] The ‘low end sharing of space’ must be addressed through marketing means. Essentially this could involve lottery-like investments for the low probability but high return of understanding and experiencing space. As long as this does not conflict with gambling and internet restrictions, and if it’s a non-transferable experience, the amount of investment can grow and grow to the user’s satisfaction to reduce the low probability of return. I personally don’t think that marketing activities like this have received their optimum consideration yet. It has always been desirable to market opportunities at the full value of one transaction (i.e. I’ve got a seat to sell, I’ll sell it when I have a passenger) rather than making a limited number of ‘seats’ available to thousands and figuring out the distribution mechanism whether by merit (competition) or zero merit (opportunity for all).

I think we need to also publicise the availability of partial experiences and their potential to increase knowledge. The simulators of shuttle launches in Florida, for example, are getting better and better. There’s also the centrifuge an Philadelphia which has a good simulation of Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital flights, and aircraft which fly for brief times at lunar, Martian, or zero gravity. There are also neutral buoyancy underwater experiences which could be further developed. Experiences like these could certainly also be considered educational to enhance the appreciation for the taxpayer “investments” in space exploration to help them understand why some of their money is going in that direction.

There are, though, certain prohibitions on governments spending taxpayer’s money to advertise their [government’s] activities. We need to enlighten judgement on doing that, opening more debate on vested and political interests and influences.

Q: Has your spaceflight experience changed your view on humanity and our place in the universe?

[Buzz Aldrin] Without sounding trite, but during missions, we were busy with the items of the moment, and not too much into philosophising. In my personal life evolution, though, I don’t believe that these experiences have provided more direct involvement in my life than a background. I don’t believe the time of the experiences [e.g. walking on the Moon] and shortly thereafter had a major impact on my life, but what did have impact was dealing with my personal change in outlook as a result of dealing with, and recovering from, depression and alcoholism, which introduced the satisfying concept of a higher power in my life, totally eclipsing anything I had previously experienced including taking communion on the Moon. It caused me to take consideration, or reconsideration, of the forces, intellect, and powers of creation that have set this magnificent universe in motion including all aspects physical and spiritual.

We live in a totally ‘fogged’ atmosphere where you cannot see the enormity of the stars above us, and occasional meteorites, and other evidences. An individual without the intellect, wisdom or appreciation for these things will have a very restricted and narrow concept of the human intellect’s place in this universe, unlike those who have given considerably more thought, including astronomers, astrophysicists, nuclear and particle physicists and some philosophers. Often these individuals (such as Einstein) have been challenged because of their intellect and position, reflected only after publication of their wisdom. These individuals have had a significant impact on me as I value their intellect. I like Stephen Hawking, for example. I don’t have to understand string-theory and all the observations, but he has a reputation around the world for not being a dreamer, but a concrete philosopher of enormous capability. I can entrust his thoughts and opinions without having to say “I believe everything he says” I can simply grant a credit of comprehension, and go along with his views.

This can, though, get dangerous, when some high-brow scientist from an international organisation starts discussing how “before the end of the century, oceans will rise 10ft”. I’m not sure I see credentials in these predictions based on past evidence. I (personally) feel I am treading on very dangerous ground as in order to get my ideas and concepts and vision for space exploration heard, I have to deal with science advisors at the very highest levels who may not quite agree with my personal thoughts on these issues, and others such as climate change.

I also feel quite free to use the hoax and UFO people’s craze and desires to further publicise my points of view and to expand knowledge on these subjects. The ‘monolith on phobos’, for example, will get great attention in coming years. The Canadians, and others, who have observed shadows of this topographic structure are pretty scientific in their analysis of it. But in terms of these crazes stimulating adventure, when Canadian scientists detailed their proposed robotic study of phobos and were asked, “where are you going to land?” their response, “we’ll go for the monolith”.


Buzz Aldrin has, here, given us a pragmatic and realistic view of our society’s relationship with space. Our scientific advances, particularly over the last century, have enabled us to move “space” from being a philosophical concept into a potential new frontier for humanity.

While some critics such as the late Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize winning physicist) have argued that human space travel (to distinguish it from robotic missions) has, “never achieved any major scientific breakthroughs” we can see from our discussion that the underlying rationale behind space exploration is different. We are not dealing with a single experiment, or a single mission, which would lead to a ‘eureka’ moment. We are participating, as a civilisation, in understanding a great unknown which presents many opportunities to inspire, enrich, and develop humanity.

A great paradigm for our relationship with space can be found looking back in history at our relationship with the oceans. These vast unknown expanses, over thousands of years have been charted and explored, by iterations of human civilisation including the Greeks, Egyptians, and Polynesians on to the Vikings, Portuguese, and individuals such as (famously) Christopher Columbus. These explorers challenged our understanding of the oceans, (remember, many thought the horizon was the edge of the world) our place on earth, and brought about a new era of inspiration for the seas. These voyages created a wealth of new scientific knowledge, together with economic exchange for trade and resources, a great cultural exchange, and a theatre for defensive and offensive operations. This relationship between humans and the ocean, even though it stretches over thousands of years, is still in its infancy, as we continually discover new species, and new ways of using the ocean to further our world (particularly with regards energy and trade).

This paradigm is appropriate and poignant for space exploration. We are at the same early stage of our relationship with space, as civilisation was in AD400-1400 with its relationship with the oceans. Our faculties now will allow us to more rapidly extend our reach of understanding, exploration, and commercialisation, but we cannot expect this to happen in an instant. It will take generations to fully appreciate the benefits space will bring to society, and through all those generations, we cannot lose sight of the importance of the spirit of adventure to drive this exploration forward.

At a time when the world is beset with problems from war, to overpopulation, climate change and economic uncertainty, many would question the validity and relevance of space exploration in our story, but throughout history, civilisation has achieved great things, in spite of all manner of catastrophe. Our current introverted, risk-averse, attitudes cannot save or progress humanity, but merely allow us to coast perilously avoiding the great leaps in evolution we require to flourish.

We are, therefore, at a unique and profound stage in our story, where the sight of stars can not only make us dream, but can represent a new and exciting environment for our civilisation to create knowledge, inspiration and economic return. What a terrible shame it would be if, rather than leaping into the unknown, we took refuge in our seemingly safe-harbour.

Man” said Rene Dubos, “…could escape danger only by renouncing adventure, by abandoning that which has given to the human condition its unique character and genius among the rest of living things

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