November 24, 2008

What have we learned in Space

Instead of going forward to the next big challenge of space exploration, maybe it's time to take a break and think about the past three decades. After thirty years of Space Shuttle missions and ten years of International Space Station operations, what have we learned?

Never before in the history of humankind are we making so many discoveries about our neighboring universe. Never in the fifty years of space exploration have we seen so many probes exploring so many interesting places in our solar system.

The International Space Station is 10 years old and will likely only last another 10 years, the Space Shuttle program will be at the end of its life in 2010... is there a future for manned space flight?

When we were growing up, Space was pushed to the public. TV's were rolled into classrooms to watch launches, and we all knew the names of at least some of the astronauts. Now Space news is something you have to pull... all the news is out there, but you have to go find it, read it, pass it on. It will take major discoveries for manned space travel to ever be feasible. Don't count on there ever being such a thing as Warp Drive or Light Speed engines. Don't count on there ever being such a thing as artificial gravity or replicators capable of turning energy into matter -- electricity into a glass of water, nuclear power into a turkey dinner, matter-antimatter reactors into cups of Earl Grey tea. Don't count on there ever being transporters or teleporters or traversable wormholes or suspended animation or starships holding hundreds or thousands of people. These are the cold, hard facts of what we have learned: other worlds are far, far away and it's not only extremely dangerous, but nearly impossible to pack enough resources for people to go very far. We can learn a lot by sending remotes to go and take a look at different areas of our solar system, and we can guess even more from the little slices of information we get back, but those probes can't send information back from even the nearest star system, let alone another galaxy. The future of space travel is in what we can see with telescopes and radio emissions that reach us from the depths of space and even then we are looking at information that is millions, sometimes billions of years old (because it takes that long for light to reach Earth from deep space). In this, despite 50 years of exploration, we haven't changed since we first turned our eyes to the heavens.

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