Space, Our Destiny

Today at work I listened to an older episode of the excellent podcast Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour: “Marsifest Destiny.” I stole that title for this post, obviously, because it’s awesome. And the podcast was pretty awesome as well, featuring guest Dr. Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and founder of The Mars Society. In fact I had read parts of his book while doing research for Fugitives from Earth*, but I didn’t really know anything about him until I heard him speak.

Now he is my hero.

Two reasons for this. Three, actually, but the first is very simple: he’s an intelligent and highly reasonable person who profoundly believes in doing something to improve the human race. Given the political climate in America right now, smart, reasonable people count for a lot in my book.

The second reason is because he presented possibly the best idea for jump-starting human exploration of the Solar System that I’ve ever heard. He gave it the name “transorbital railroad” because it involves shifting our launching industry from a “pay to launch” system to a “pay for space” system, wherein medium- and heavy-lift rocket launches occur on a timetable and (subsidized) space is sold as if they were space-bound freight trains. Zubrin predicted that the economies of scale involved in such regular launches would mean that per-kilogram prices to orbit would drop by 100 times, opening space in much the same way that the transcontinental railroad opened up the American West.

This is an awesome idea. I don’t know exactly how feasible it is from an economic standpoint, but it does make a certain sense as an engineering problem. Even without this sort of easy access to space, there are still dozens of satellite launches per year in addition to those undertaken to support the cargo and personnel requirements of the ISS. The transorbital railroad, Zubrin argues, could support all of our current space missions in addition to facilitating everything from space hotels to Mars colonies. All NASA or communications companies or Bigelow Aerospace need do is buy space on the rockets, and all of their plans for space would be possible. Unpurchased space could be used to lift food, water, and fuel for later missions.

The best part of this plan is that we could implement it tomorrow, and do it for a fraction of the money of the Space Shuttle program.** In ten years it could cost you $10,000 to lift yourself into orbit. You should really read the article; it’s magnificent.

The third reason I was so impressed by him is that he made a simple analogy that really sums up my feelings on human spaceflight: he said that even when people are starving, you still put away seed corn for planting. Even if we have more immediate uses for NASA’s money, we still need to invest in the future of humanity, which as Carl Sagan concluded, over the long term must inevitably involve leaving Earth, and Mars is the next logical step. I can’t really add much to that.

Except this, of course.

* Someday I hope to have an Amazon link for this as well. Alas.

** Zubrin also, hilariously, referred to the Space Shuttles as not “reusable,” but “salvageable.” On a semi-related note, we arguably have Nixon to blame for the fact that we haven’t been on Mars for 30 years.

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