Ben Bova: Wasted opportunity in space

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A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the 40th anniversary of our first landing on the moon.

Forty years.

We put a dozen astronauts on the moon between 1969 and 1972. And then we stopped. Washington killed the Apollo program.

How far would we have progressed in space if we hadn’t stopped? What could we have accomplished if we kept moving forward?

First, I want to get rid of the shibboleth about space operations being so expensive. I know NASA’s budget of some $15 billion is a hefty piece of change, but in reality space is one of the smallest government programs. All the money we have spent on NASA since the agency was founded in 1958 doesn’t equal two years’ worth of funding for the Defense Department or the Department of Health and Human Services.

And look at what we’ve gotten back for that investment! Home computers, satellite TV and weather observation, GPS systems, new fabrics and metal alloys, medical scanners, microminiaturized electronics that we use in everything from cell phones to heart pacemakers.

Space technology has pumped trillions of dollars into the American economy, made millions of new jobs. Space is the greatest bargain the American taxpayer has had since the Louisiana Purchase.

What if we had pushed ahead as vigorously after July 20, 1969, as we had in the years before the first lunar landing?

To begin with, we’d have a small city in orbit by now: a space station where hundreds of people live and work. One of the station’s main functions would be repairing and refurbishing satellites in space. When a multimillion-dollar satellite breaks down because a battery has died or its gyros have malfunctioned, maintenance personnel based at the space station would go out and repair it. Much more economical than building and launching a whole new satellite.

Industrial operations would be conducted in orbit, where the free solar energy, near-zero gravity and cleanliness of the vacuum environment would permit manufacturing metal alloys, pharmaceuticals and other specialized products of unprecedented purity. The United States could have become the world’s leader in specialized metal alloys, stronger than anything that can be manufactured on Earth, yet lighter.

Scientists would flock to space laboratories to study everything from astronomy to low-gravity metallurgy. Tourists would go up, try the zero-gee “honeymoon hotel,” among other delights.

Construction crews would be building solar-power satellites. Converting sunlight to electricity in high orbits where they’re always in sunshine, powersats would be beaming hundreds of gigawatts of clean electricity to receiving stations on the ground, making the U.S. the world’s energy leader.

The raw materials for such construction would come from the moon, most likely. The lunar crust is rich in aluminum, silicon, titanium and other valuable resources. And launching payloads from the surface of the moon “down” to Earth orbit is more than 20 times cheaper than lifting the same tonnages from Earth.

There would be a new industrial revolution taking place in space, a revolution that would make new fortunes and establish new industries.

One of the industries benefitted would be transportation. With a solid and expanding market for launch services, private companies would get into the rocket-launching business in a major way. And the rockets they develop to carry people and payloads into orbit efficiently and reliably could also be used to fly people across the world at hypersonic speeds — New York to Australia in an hour or less.

Transportation and electric power are both multitrillion-dollar industries. We could have been a world leader in both, had we pushed ahead vigorously in space after 1969.

Developing mining and manufacturing sites on the moon would lead to permanent settlements there. How would you like to retire to a place where gravity is only one-sixth of what it is on Earth? Or to a zero-gravity facility in orbit? You could lead a much longer and more active life without Earth’s heavy gravity pulling you down every moment of every day.

With some of the profits from space industries, we could afford to send explorers to Mars and elsewhere, to learn what the other worlds of our solar system are like, and to search for life — either extinct or still viable.

There are whole worlds to explore out there, and the knowledge we gain from them could change the way we think and behave toward each other.

Between Mars and Jupiter lies the asteroid belt, a region strewn with millions upon millions of smaller bodies of rock and ice. The asteroid belt could be the bonanza of the 21st century, the richest lode of metals and minerals ever discovered. One smallish metal asteroid, about the size across of a Little League baseball field, holds several trillion dollars worth of high-grade iron ore, plus many other metals — including many tons of gold, silver and platinum.

There’s a banquet of unimaginable riches in space, waiting for us to go out and make the human race wealthier than we could ever be if we remain nailed down to the surface of the Earth.

Even more important, perhaps, we would have the technology to divert asteroids or comets that threaten to crash into the Earth. A rock the size of Manhattan Island slammed into the Yucatan area some 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and half of all the other life forms on Earth.

There are lots of other rocks that could drive us into extinction if they strike the Earth. If we had kept pushing our space technology vigorously after 1969, today we would be able to find them early enough to divert them away from us.

A strong space program is vital to our economic well-being, to our understanding of the universe and to the very survival of our civilization and our species.

We’ve wasted the past four decades. Let’s not waste the next 40 years.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com

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