Will the Human Race fulfill its destiny, and move out from this small blue planet and colonise other places in the solar system, and one day even travel to the stars?
I, and many other supporters of space exploration, and even fans of Star Wars and Star Trek and the like, would certainly hope that it will happen. Surely, it’s inevitable. Humanity has always been a race of explorers and colonists, filling every corner available on our own planet. It’s only a logical progression that we will one day move out and colonise the other planets and moons available nearby.
Well, I got to thinking, “Surely” and £2.00 will get you a cup of tea. “Surely”, on its own, is just another word for “Hope”
It would be interesting to take a look at our real prospects for the future of human space exploration and long-term settlement of the solar system. And to do that, we must look at the different potential drivers for doing so, and how they might shape this enterprise. After all, becoming a multi-planet species is going to be the most expensive thing we’ve ever done.
We will look at the following drivers
- Scientific Research
- Commercial Gain
- International Competition
- Prestige Projects
- The Merchant Princes
Since the start of the 1970’s, scientific exploration of space, the solar system and of human kind’s ability to live in the harsh space environment have been the primary focuses of space exploration activity.
Robots and space probes have visited most of the planets and landed on the more accessible ones, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids have been visited, and probes sent to investigate our sun.
We’ve learnt a lot about our cosmic neighbourhood, and there’s undoubtedly more to learn. During this time, however, the scope of human space exploration, humans actually going to new places and “placing boots on ground”, has actually shrunk. Since the end of the Apollo era, since 1972 when the last astronauts visited the moon, we have never sent a single person out of Earth orbit.
Why is this?
Sending people into space, let alone to other planets, is much more difficult than sending robots. A human mission to Mars, for example, would probably need a minimum crew of six (they’d need a variety of people to be able to mix with, if they’re going to be locked in a tin can for three years).
They would need to take all their air, food and water with them, which even allowing for some limited recycling, would be a significant weight. And they’d most likely want to come home afterwards, which means taking all their fuel for the return trip with them as well.
All of this would need a spaceship of a hundred tons at a minimum. A robotic probe needs none of the above and can weigh less than a ton.
All of this means that a crewed mission will always cost several orders of magnitude more than a robotic one.
Any endeavor is going to be extremely costly, for example, this would be my best guess at a price list for missions to Mars:
|Sending a one-off crew to stay a few months and come back||$100 Billion|
|Building a base where the crew can have more room, and more varied science can be carried out||$300 Billion|
|Building a permanent settlement, where people can go, live, and have children||$1 Trillion|
In comparison, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover cost around $2.5 Billion, expensive for a robotic probe, but cheap compared to a human mission.
NASA always claims that the reason to send people away from Earth is because they are better at searching and carrying our experiments than robots are. On Mars, they’re specifically talking about looking for signs of life, whether currently living bacteria or fossils of bacteria that were alive in the distant past.
But they’ve been talking about sending astronauts to Mars for the last fifty years, and still aren’t close to doing so. It’s too expensive and too risky.
Science, on its own, can be done by robotic probe. Science, on its own, won’t be a reason to send humans anywhere!
Next Blog: Commercial Gain as a driver for Human Space Exploration