Way back in 1929, in a groundbreaking book called “The Problem of Space Travel,” a Slovenian engineer named Hermann (Potocnik) Noordung referred to cislunar space, the area encompassed by the Earth and the Moon, as “our immediate homeland in the universe.” This notion still has validity today, and could be useful in our strategic planning.
Think of cislunar space as analogous to the environment where you grew up. The Earth is the residential neighborhood of your youth, the Moon is the local elementary school and the playground where you learned to climb and swing and play in the sandbox with the other kids, and the space in between holds the local businesses, roads and bus stops. In the early years of our existence, this is what we experience as the training ground for the rest of our lives.
Moving into adolescence, we get our first job and start to range a little bit more widely — maybe across town, but not yet across the continent or the ocean. Our adolescence in space will see cislunar space developed into an industrial park where we can hold down permanent jobs, harvest materials and energy, and create new value-generating enterprises. When we reach adulthood, we can settle far from our original home, start a family and use our wisdom and maturity to accomplish things we never thought we could do when we were younger. Adulthood in spaceflight means establishing settlements in and beyond cislunar space, discovering and creating things that we couldn’t even imagine as infants. That’s what we are today — infant spacefarers.
This conceptualization of spacefaring evolution is akin to one expressed by the Space Task Group appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1969 to propose what should follow the Apollo program. They envisioned a long-range goal of human planetary exploration proceeding in three phases (quoted from the 1969 report):
- “Initially, activity should concentrate upon the dual theme of exploitation of existing capability and development of new capability, maintaining program balance within available resources.”
- “Second, an operational phase in which new capability and new systems would be utilized in Earth-moon space with groups of men living and working in this environment for extended periods of time. Continued exploitation of science and applications would be emphasized, making greater use of man or man-attendance as a result of anticipated lowered costs for these operations.”
- “Finally, manned exploration missions out of Earth-moon space, building upon the experience of the earlier two phases.”
Like the stages of a human life, the three stages of space development — let’s think of them as training ground, industrial park and settlement — can’t be reshuffled or skipped over. We have some control over the rate at which we traverse them based on factors such as the depth and persistence of our commitment and the level of our investment. Currently, these factors don’t seem to be working in favor of rapid space development. But that’s not an excuse to skip steps.
We’re still in stage one, seemingly a long way from reaching stage two. How long it takes us to advance is dependent on good strategic choices, sustained commitment and a reasonable amount of good luck. At this point in our development, it’s critical that we act wisely as we determine what will be the Next Great Thing in space. It should be something that moves us smartly toward stage two, turning cislunar space into an active industrial park. But caution is in order — some actions that seem bold and forward-leaning may actually be distractions, squandering scarce resources on projects that have been created in isolation from a well-conceived long-term strategy. Rather than moving us forward, such projects can set us back a generation or more.
Though less dramatic than headline-grabbing milestones like “the first humans on Planet X,” striving for stage two will challenge us to build new and better space capabilities, expand the frontiers of science, bring direct benefits to Earth, and eventually enable us to achieve stage three. The secondary benefits, including technology spinoffs and inspiration of our youth, are likely to be realized in great abundance, beyond anything we achieved in the aftermath of Apollo. But the enterprise must be justified by its primary benefits, not its spinoffs.
So how do we get to stage two from here? This will require more than evolutionary improvement of the space applications we’re already doing, which mostly consist of transmitting electrons back and forth. We’ll need to be able to harvest and process raw materials and energy in space. We’ll need to build things, large and small, in orbital space and on the Moon. We’ll need laboratories, manufacturing facilities and habitats. We’ll need the means to efficiently transport people, cargo and automated systems throughout cislunar space. Vital to all of this are proximity operations, the ability to rendezvous, dock and otherwise conduct activities involving separate spacecraft interacting in close proximity or direct physical contact.
Identifying proximity operations as the key to our future in space may seem odd since we’ve been doing rendezvous and docking of spacecraft since the 1960s, and they’re a routine part of international space station operations today. However, the bulk of this activity has been associated with high-profile human missions in low Earth orbit, and in lunar orbit during the Apollo era. It’s the spaceflight equivalent of brain surgery — it’s done by a small cadre of experts, and very, very carefully.
There are no operational manned or robotic systems that can perform rendezvous, capture, repair, refueling, reboost and retrieval of orbiting payloads throughout cislunar space. Since the retirement of the shuttle, there isn’t even an operational system that can do these things in low Earth orbit. Such systems are needed if ambitious space development goals are to have any chance of being achieved.
Short- to medium-term goals should seek to develop enduring infrastructure, skill sets and experience that will be essential for living, working, establishing communities and creating value in the inner solar system. These goals are capabilities — not destinations — that will be essential for creating a spacefaring society that can expand its knowledge, economy and sustainability. They include developing the technologies, processes, expertise and infrastructure for:
- Utilization of the unique characteristics of space, such as microgravity, vacuum, high-intensity solar exposure and isolation from Earth, to produce useful knowledge and products.
- Harvest and processing of extraterrestrial materials and energy resources.
- Building of progressively more sophisticated structures in Earth and lunar orbits.
- Building of installations on the Moon, constructed to the greatest extent possible with local materials.
- Advancement of space robotics to minimize the need for human presence in activities that are hazardous, remote or strong candidates for automation, and to provide direct assistance to humans where human involvement is required.
Achievement of these goals should lead to long-term goals as we approach midcentury:
- Construction and operation of advanced structures that minimize their dependence on supply lines from Earth, designed for science, commerce and other purposes.
- Aggregation of space structures into industrial parks at locations deemed valuable for their proximity to space resources, Lagrange points or other attributes.
- Realization of significant contributions to the terrestrial economy through energy and manufactured products for use on Earth and in space.
Note that none of these goals specifies a planetary destination beyond cislunar space. Certainly, the Moon and near-Earth objects will be early destinations due to their close proximity and the broad range of contributions they can make to the goals. What comes next, and when it should come, should be driven by progress toward the goals, the rate of technological advance, the lessons of experience and the availability of resources from all participants.
The gifted minds of post-Apollo generations will bring their own perspectives to the quest. For them, the adventures of being the first to reach Earth’s poles, the summit of Mount Everest and the surface of the Moon are ancient history. They’re looking for new capabilities and knowledge, not flags and footprints. They seek advanced technologies, economic opportunities, better stewardship of the Earth and purposeful exploration of the solar system. They envision a future that can increase the capacity and broaden the worldview (universe-view?) of both the individual and the human collective. From this perspective, the metrics for success should not be how quickly we get to Mars or how many people we have living in space; rather, we should be measuring how much we’re gaining in capabilities and knowledge, leading to increased prosperity, global solutions, and discovery.
James A. Vedda is a senior policy analyst at The Aerospace Corp. in Arlington, Va. This article is adapted from his new book “.” The opinions expressed here are his own.