Shortly after President Bush announced his administration’s new goals for the space program, in mid-January, a more liberal than not friend of mine wrote from New Jersey that he was absolutely jazzed. He’s a science and engineering type. “Bush gets us out of the Gravity Sink!” he wrote.
Here’s the idea that so inspired my friend, from the whitehouse.gov fact sheet:
“(An) extended human presence on the Moon will enable astronauts to develop new technologies and harness the Moon’s abundant resources to allow manned exploration of more challenging environments. An extended human presence on the Moon could reduce the costs of further exploration, since lunar-based spacecraft could escape the Moon’s lower gravity using less energy at less cost than Earth-based vehicles.”
There’s lots more to the Bush space proposal than that, of course, but other key parts of it play off the “gravity sink” idea, too — the notion that the most wasteful part of space exploration involves lifting off from earth, so why not skip it. The extended orbital program of the Space Shuttle will be phased out, replaced by a new vehicle designed with construction and extension of the International Space Station in mind, most notably.
IT TOOK ME BACK, all these ideas, to the visionary sixties and seventies, and to the work of Princeton Professor Gerard K. O’Neill. I had remembered the title of his original book as Outposts in Space, but the only book of that title listed on Amazon is by another author. Instead, I turned up O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (William Morrow, 1977), in which, puzzlingly, O’Neill seems to refer to an earlier book, but never by title.
In any case, O’Neill is fun, setting aside his population-bomb alarmism about wasting resources and an overcrowded, overpolluted earth, as he looks into the rationales and imaginings of a future world where people live on huge space stations (one of his imaginary colonies holds 10 million people on twin 20-mile-long cylinders), and where mining, manufacturing, and research support vaulting prosperity on and above earth, first from the resources of the moon, then from mineral-rich asteroids.
O’Neill describes the gravity sink this way: “From Earth, to raise ourselves into free space is equivalent in energy to climbing out of a hole 4,000 miles deep, a distance more than six hundred times the height of Mt. Everest.” It makes little sense to climb out of that hole over and over again to low earth orbit, as in the Space Shuttle program. Instead, mine the moon, launch processed materials into Earth orbit, and build huge stations in zero-gravity near-space.
IT IS INSTRUCTIVE TO COMPARE O’Neill’s projected benefits from a reduced gravity launch program with those of the Bush administration proposal.
The Bush fact sheet at whitehouse.gov, striking a kind of “astronauts drink Tang” note, says, “President Bush is committed to a long-term space exploration program benefiting not only scientific research, but also the lives of all Americans. The exploration vision also has the potential to drive innovation, development, and advancement in the aerospace and other high-technology industries.”
To be fair, that’s probably about all you can say for public (and political) consumption. Imagine if the President had lined out some of the progress imagined by Prof. O’Neill. Apollo soil samples taken from the moon contain, O’Neill says, “more than 20 percent silicon, more than 12 percent aluminum, four percent iron, and three percent magnesium,” valuable construction materials all. Plus — surprise! — by weight, the lunar surface is 40 percent oxygen.
O’Neill envisions setting up a vast, low-gravity mining operation on the moon, together with a “mass accelerator,” which in illustration looks like a long, straight, ramped-up roller coaster, for thrusting materials and spacecraft into flight. Not back to earth — no, why go back down the 4,000-mile gravity hole, but to, initially, a construction station devoted to building what O’Neill calls “Island One,” a space station for 1,000 people, with self-sustaining agriculture. In turn, that station would lead to, among many other projects, the building of Satellite Solar Power Stations, collecting the unfiltered sunshine of space, converting it to microwave energy, and beaming it back to earth.
Cheap, abundant energy, anyone? What’s more, the whole process gets exponentially cheaper with expansion. Mining asteroids, for example, gets rid of even the minor gravitational pull of the moon.
SOME OF O’NEILL’S RAMBLES strike us funny today, true. I remember a passage from his earlier, now gone, book, where he pointed out that within 35 years of Columbus’s first voyage, there were two cities in the New World, Lima and Mexico City, bigger than any cities in the Old World — the attraction of fortune and progress were that powerful. That notion informs The High Frontier, as O’Neill rhapsodizes about space colonies of millions where “people could choose” or “people might decide” on all sorts of wonderful lifestyles.
Maybe. I’ve worked on a frontier, in modern Alaska, and I would caution spacey dreamers with three words: intoxication, sex, and divorce. Such space colonies as we inevitably see will have little room for what residents might “decide” or “choose,” resembling instead Dulles International Airport, hermetically sealed indoor liberal hell. Productive as all get out, understand, but with the buccaneer spirit conspicuously absent.
But here goes George W. Bush again, proposing a revolution. Funny thing about that guy.