SPACE: Economic Role for Manned Space Stations
Sat, 17 Jul 1999 11:40:03 EDT

Is there a near-term role for manned space stations? I've just finished T.A. Heppenheimer's "Countdown: A History of Spaceflight." One of the theses of this book is that the original vision of the first and second generation of space pioneers has been made irrelevant by the advance of electronics and computers. He describes the story familiar to space enthusiasts of the original conception of a gradual "conquest of space" through the building of reusable spaceplanes, manned orbital space stations and eventual interplanetary exploration and development. This vision, so compellingly portrayed by Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell in the 1952 Colliers Magazine series, was adopted as essentially an article of faith by the second generation of rocket and space pioneers, among them Arthur Clarke and Werner von Braun. Heppenheimer makes the case that this vision has been handed down to subsequent generations of space technologists and policy makers as a plan of action that has been made at least partially irrelevant by the advance of electronics and automation. For instance, he discusses how in the 1930s, 40s and 50s Clarke and others envisioned geosynchronous communication "stations" as being manned by astronautical switchboard operators, something that's obviously not necessary now.

I grew up with this same vision and recall the Bonestell paintings illustrating the Colliers articles as some of the most formative images of my youth. The goal of building a permanently manned orbital platform as an important foundation of a program of space exploration and development is very deeply ingrained in my psyche. The idea that there will soon be humans living off Earth all the time (if not yet "permanently") is one of the exciting prospects raised for me by the first few ISS missions.

Now, it seems true to me that having a constant human presence off Earth (if only barely so) has important positive social and cultural impacts. But is there any economic rationale for it? I find NASA's relatively vague pronouncements about microgravity research unconvincing. For the near term, I can see ISS serving as a "construction shack" and repair base (the latter requiring a -- probably automated -- "tug" for retrieving satellites to be repaired) (such a tug could well be developed as a second-generation derivative of ESA's ATV vehicle being created as part of the ISS program; see: cenews/SpaceLeader/600 )

Is this latter mission for ISS really viable in the time before, say, 2025 or so? I know there's been quite a bit of talk lately about "space tourism", but I'm skeptical of this as a viable economic development within the next 25 years (after a fairly advanced nanotechnology is developed, yes). I'd be especially curious to hear the thoughts of younger folks who may well not be infected so strongly with the "space station meme".

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-

"Civilization is protest against nature;
progress requires us to take control of evolution." -- Thomas Huxley