What to Do in Space?

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Thanks to Brian Dunbar, with assists from Jason Hoppes and Pboake.

So maybe this week’s most compelling space story actually has nothing to do with space. But there are plenty of interesting things going on in the final frontier that don’t involve attempted murder or adult diapers.

We have several billionaires building rockets and standing up companies to send tourists to space. Several others are building new launch systems for cargo. The ESA wants to do more in space, [and] we (via our agency NASA) are heading back to the moon…

98% of the resources in the solar system are extra-terrestrial, the sun is pouring energy across the solar system – we can go up and just get it for free. Given some luck and hard work it’s possible to relocate industry to orbit…

The solar system is becoming a more mysterious and complicated place the more we push out and explore…We might be on the cusp of a true space age.

Brian Dunbar, in a comment to Open Source, 1/11/07
Toys on the moon

Toys on the moon! [fdecomite / Flickr]

You’ve probably heard about the Mars Rover and space weapons a la China, but do you know about plans to build a space elevator? Or to mine asteroids? Do you know about the 181 things scientists hope we can accomplish by returning to the moon?

I know our blog is harboring a secret colony of space enthusiasts, so let’s have a go at this. What should we be doing in space? (And conversely, what should we not be doing?) Is space a future wasteland or a future gold mine? What are the most interesting, innovative, or unconventional projects in the works or on the horizon? What role, if any, should private space exploration play? What should be our motivations for space exploration, and should they be different than they were in the past?

Update, 2/14/07 6:13pm

Thanks for all your input so far guys. It looks like tomorrow’s show is shaping up to deal largely with the new frontiers of what some people call alt.space – private enterprise trailblazing the way forward. So adjust your antennae to think about the role of the market in space exploration.

Greg Klerkx

Author, Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age

Former senior manager, SETI Institute

Elon Musk

Co-founder, PayPal

Founder, CEO, CTO, Space Exploration Technologies

Michael Laine

Founder, president, LiftPort

Monte Davis

Author, Thinking Clearly About Space, adAstra Online

Helped launch Discover and Omni magazines

Extra Credit Reading

Patrick L. Barry, 181 Things To Do On The Moon, Nasa.gov, February 2, 2007: “More than half of the list deals with the many challenges of learning to live on an alien world: everything from keeping astronauts safe from radiation and micrometeors to setting up power and communications systems to growing food in the airless, arid lunar environment.”

Will Sullivan, interview with Robert Zubrin, Q&A: A Missionary for Mars Exploration, U.S. News & World Report, December 8, 2006: “The idea that your strategic goal is the moon as opposed to Mars I think is wrong. I think it’s too timid. I think it’s, well, un-American.”

Kelly Young, Budget cuts may delay shuttle replacement, New Scientist Space, February 5, 2007: “This could increase the gap between the retirement of the space shuttles in 2010 and the launch of their successors, the Orion spacecraft and Ares I rocket, forcing NASA to rely on Russian Soyuz and future commercial spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).”

Jeff, FY07 budget inches closer to approval, Space Politics, February 9, 2007: “The Senate is poised to vote on the FY2007 joint funding resolution as early as Tuesday, after a cloture vote to end debate on the bill.”

Bryan Bender, Pentagon eyeing weapons in space, The Boston Globe, March 14, 2006: “Rick Lehner, an agency spokesman, said there are no plans to base weapons in space, noting that out of $48 billion planned for missile defense over the next five years, just $570 million will fund space-related activities. ‘We just want to do some experiments’ on weapons technology in space, he said.”

Monte Davis, Thinking Clearly About Space Part I: Hustling the Future, Space.com, August 18, 2005: “I understand impatience for space: I’ve felt it since age six, when “space program” meant Wernher von Braun on Walt Disney’s TV shows. I felt it thirty years ago, as a science writer tracking the last Apollo missions and the development of the Shuttle. I feel it now, watching the evolution of the Vision for Space Exploration and of the private start-ups of alt.space. But our frustration will not be resolved by scapegoating, or – almost certainly — by any one radical development.”

William J. Broad, Orbiting Junk, Once a Nuisance, Is Now a Threat, The New York Times, February 6, 2007: “Early this year, after a half-century of growth, the federal list of detectable objects (four inches wide or larger) reached 10,000, including dead satellites, spent rocket stages, a camera, a hand tool and junkyards of whirling debris left over from chance explosions and destructive tests.”

Peter B. de Selding, French Government Group Wants Europe To Join 2nd Space Race, Space News, February 12, 2007: “A French parliamentary group said China’s recent anti-satellite demonstrations, plus Chinese and Indian plans for lunar exploration, are clear signs that a second global space race has begun and that Europe should join it.”

James Vlahos, Robot Subs in Space, Popular Science, February, 2007: “The hope is that whether in an unexplored environment on Earth or Europa, [the DepthX robot] could discover a new branch on the tree of life. ‘As far as human endeavor,’ Stone says, ‘DepthX is the coolest thing we’ve ever done, period.'”

Mark, Friday, October 13, 2006, Curmudgeons Corner: “Unfortunately a new controversy seems to have replaced Robots vrs humans in its banality and its capacity to make otherwise intelligent people take absurd positions. I call it, Public vrs Private Space Exploration.”

Andy Pasztor, In Race to Take Tourists Into Orbit, Partners Split, Spar, The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007: “Mr. Benson has challenged his foe ‘to sit down in a public forum and go over the 200 emails’ detailing core engine contributions. The showdown features two self-assured and stubborn rivals, both used to getting their way.”


I think that’s a real difference between the space entrepreneurs today and the space entrepreneurs of, say, twenty years ago. Because there have been space entrepreneurs for quite some time, but I think the group now really understands it as more than just a technological challenge. They understand it as a financial challenge and a public relations challenge.

Greg Klerkx


Yes, there are robotic missions which bring back science, that’s important. But there have always been other reasons why people have been interested in space. People have been interested in it because, not to be too bland, but because it’s there, because it’s a place that you can explore, that inspires people. And I think that idea is why people go into space, and why people will always go into space, because whatever robots can do, they don’t give very good soundbites.

Greg Klerkx


Imagine having a ball on a string, and you’re spinning that over your head. The string stays straight, right? Okay, so now imagine that as a huge, Earth-sized system, where the Earth is providing rotation, and you have a counterweight, a satellite deep out in space, attached to a very long, very strong string. All the physics are essentially the same. The string stays straight, and once you have established that, it acts like a ladder that you can use a robot to climb back and forth into space.

Michael Laine


And so in the early days you’ll have technicians, and ultimately, construction workers: I mean, we’re going to have factories, and solar energy dams out in space collecting clean, green, limitless energy. Somebody’s going to have to build those.

Michael Laine


My background’s not in engineering or physics or chemistry, it’s actually in finance and business. So I looked at this from the very beginning as: it doesn’t matter whether the elevator works or not, this is a good business.

Michael Laine


This is in the context of life itself. And I think if you were to consider the expansion of life for the first time to another planet, it would rank in importance in that category. It would be probably at least as important as life moving from the oceans to land, and maybe a little more important, because the oceans to land thing could be gradual, whereas, obviously, there is nothing gradual about life going to another planet.

Elon Musk


I have wanted all of that good stuff, everything that has been mentioned, from the solar-power satellites that Michael talks about to a permanently manned Moon base to exploration of the planets, as far back as I can remember. It has been borne in upon me that my fellow citizens don’t want it as bad as I do, and as bad as many space enthusiasts do. The first step in getting some patience and some perspective is to accept that.

Monte Davis


We as a species can say: look, we want to explore the universe. We want to go beyond Earth and live on multiple planets. And that alone is sufficient motivation to do so. We need look no further for a reason.

Elon Musk

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