--- Not so boldly going forth
"...If we find any traces of life in the universe, we could see another
conceptual revolution in the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe." -- Alex Roland, historian Will humankind ever travel to the galaxies of distant stars? Alex Roland thinks so. But the former NASA historian and History Department chair at Duke University believes space travel and exploration will come into its own only after some significant technological breakthroughs -- and when such travel and exploration becomes lucrative. On the future on space travel in the next century: For the next 20 to 30 years, I'm quite sure we're going to see no difference whatsoever. We're going to have more of what we've had for the last 30 to 40 years, which is, at considerable risk and great expense, sending humans up into low orbit -- [who] float around and look busy and come back to Earth -- and not really accomplishing very much. And it will continue to be the case during this period of the next 20 to 30 years that automated spacecraft will perform the most useful functions in space, and make the most important discoveries. [One thing that could] change that, sometime in the next century, is ... a dramatic technological breakthrough in launch vehicle development, which will allow us to get off the surface of the Earth much more efficiently and much more safely than we can now. And once we can put people and more supplies and equipment and cargo in Earth orbit more effectively than we do now, then that will open up space in a way that's simply not available to us now. One other set of activities might make that happen even without a technological breakthrough -- "war" and "commerce." If we discovered a large-scale commercial enterprise in space that paid for itself -- then we might see large-scale space activity, and humans could go into space as part of the infrastructure. [Or if we see something like the Star Wars defense system that] was proposed in the 1980s. If we had put up the huge infrastructure envisaged for Star Wars, people would have gone along to operate and maintain the equipment at a fraction of the total cost of the enterprise. But I don't see either of those happening very soon -- either a military or a commercial activity large enough to justify and support large-scale human activity. On whether the space technologies imagined by popular culture, such as light-speed travel, will be possible: We don't know any technology now that can make those happen, nor can we foresee any technological trajectory that currently is within our grasp that will lead to those capabilities, because we just don't know how to do them. Until we get that technological breakthrough, it's impossible to predict when they're going to happen, or even if they're going to happen. On discovering life elsewhere in the universe: I expect eventually we'll find life out in the universe someplace. Whether it will be intelligent life is impossible to predict, and whether it will still be existent is impossible to predict. That is, I think it's possible to imagine life emerging on other bodies out in space, and running through its cycle, and going extinct. In fact, you would expect on the law of averages that we would discover eventually life at all different stages of evolution, just as space travelers from other places might have discovered Earth at different times in the past, and found life at a very different stage of evolution than it is now. On what today represents the future of space technology: I would expect it's probably nano-technology. That is, attempts to build computers and machines at virtually the atomic level, so that a very small package can prove to be a very powerful instrument in space -- not just a passive scientific instrument receiving information, but an actual machine that can do work out in space. And if that technology proceeds in the way it now seems to, we will be able to send very powerful instruments very long distances at very high rates of speed. Also, we can put very, very powerful instruments up into low Earth orbit at very slight cost. That has enormous commercial implications. Alex Roland Alex Roland is professor of history and chairman of the Department of History at Duke University in North Carolina, where he teaches military history and the history of technology. From 1973 to 1981 he was a historian with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Among his books are:
"Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail" (1978); "Model Research: The
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958" (1985); "A Spacefaring People: Perspectives on Early Spaceflight" (editor, 1985); and
"Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western
Society" (with Richard Preston and Sidney Wise; 5th edition, 1991). His principal area of research and teaching is the evolution of military technology in Western civilization. He has written and lectured widely in criticism of the United States manned space flight program. He is past president of the Society for the History of Technology and of the U.S. National Committee of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science.