Introduction-The Case for and History of Manned Flights
Manned flights to space promise several rewards for the space industry and for humanity in general. Some of these rewards relate to the flight itself while others address themselves to the improvement in space exploration capabilities when man is present. First, manned flights require simpler flight control techniques and equipment since a human operator checks and adjusts flight parameters. The need for advanced equipment required for unmanned flights characterized by many sensors, actuators, and diagnostic tools reduces.
The net effect is the reduction of vehicular costs since these controls form a substantial part of research and development costs of space vehicles. Secondly, the need for manned flights lies in the realization that technology, no matter how developed, never adequately substitutes human judgment. Space knowledge is still infantile to allow for a complete simulation of anticipated conditions informing the design of craft. Human presence reduces the mission risks associated with unpredictable situations and environments.
Thirdly, the presence of man either at the Moon or in Mars, a product of manned flight, will improve data collection and analysis capacity on site. While there have been great strides made in the exploration of space in the last half of the twentieth century, a great portion of the Moon and Mars remain unexplored. Armed with a space lab, an astronaut remains capable of performing many experiments and tests, and making many more observations than what a Lander can do, no matter how sophisticated.
The fourth reason necessitating manned flights to space is that development of requisite technologies will lead to innumerable spinoff advantages in various aspects of human life. Olla notes that space technology, “is used to provide services and fulfill the goals for people on earth” (413). Finally, man will not be satisfied to experience space behind the controls of sophisticated equipment millions of miles away. True scientific inquiry will drive man to seek to experience space through his senses.
The Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the Moon represents the highest point yet in the conquest of the cosmos by man. The Apollo project arose amid many circumstances that had a rare confluence at the time. This was the height of the cold war and Russia had beaten America to space via the Sputnik. This was the United States way of reclaiming its place as a pioneer in the space race.
President Kennedy’s administration was pivotal in providing the resources NASA needed to accomplish this goal. In scale, the project compares to the construction of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project. This was the first time that a space vehicle delivered a man to an extraterrestrial body and later safely returned him to earth. Through this project, the world saw for the first time pictures of the earth taken from a different vantage point.
The key lessons of the Apollo project are that it takes a multidisciplinary team to attain the heights of space. It requires a careful balance of politics, project management, and favorable public opinion to pull off such projects. The project gave way to the shuttle program.
The shuttles development came about as a means of encouraging reusability of space vehicles as opposed to the hitherto single use rockets. The shuttles are not entirely reusable. They have external thrusters that propel them into space and drop off while their engines take over for the rest of the flights.
The shuttle itself reenters the earth’s atmosphere and later lands on a conventional runway. While not entirely reusable, the shuttles have reduced the costs of spaceflight significantly since there is no need to construct new shuttles every time there is need to go to space. They represent the model that will be the basis for new space vehicles.
There have been two disasters involving shuttles. One of them, the Challenger, blew up during take-off because of a fault in its external thrusters. The other, Columbia, blew up as it was reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The lesson from these disasters is that space vehicle design is ongoing and will remain a risk for as long as space travel excites man.
For an industry literally reaching for the heavens, the technology is still nascent and requires a great deal of refinement. The future of space vehicles lay in reusability. The shuttle is half way there. When we develop technologies, where space vehicles will only require refueling without external thrusters, then the industry will be mature.
Current development of space vehicles mills around the use of single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, which unlike the shuttle has only one rocket engine. The design reduces the number of opportunities for mishaps and increases the number of reusable parts. Other concepts attracting the imagination of designers include the runway- to-space design, where a vehicle takes off, not from a custom-built platform, but from a runway.
This will reduce the takeoff-associated risks and the very high temperatures a conventional takeoff generates. The need for new vehicles is acute as the shuttle program winds down. The International Space Station requires a regular means of access to provide supplies and to transfer experiments.
The shuttle program provided this means. Some new vehicle must replace it. Its design will reflect the state of the art of space vehicle design. Conley warns that in the area of space technology design, new designs will not necessarily do away with old problems but will come with a new set of challenges.
Exploration and Colonization of Moon and Mars
The need to colonize the Moon is no different from the needs that drove humanity to colonize every known corner of the world. It has always been about discovering the unknown, finding new grounds for habitation, location of fresh resources to meet the rising needs, and conquest. When science expands, humanity improves for it.
It is not always without risk, but more often than not, science provides practical answers to humanity’s problems. Exploration and colonization of the Moon and Mars will stretch our imagination beyond the basic instinct to survive. In the process, new knowledge that will contribute solutions to our earthly problems will arise.
The earth is finite. There is a limit to how much it can do for us. Eventually, the century old practice of searching for new grounds will catch up with us and once more, we will need to find fresh ground to settle our burgeoning population. As unlikely as it seems now, the Moon and Mars are the next frontiers.
They are vast, uninhabited, and with some work, they might just be habitable. The human race has never been comfortable with just knowing where the boundaries are. It is time to look elsewhere, outward, since we have mapped every inch of planet.
The colonization of the Moon and Mars provides a unique opportunity to uncover new resources that hold solutions to earth’s problems. In those environments, the possibility of discovery of elements not native on earth that may provide us with energy, chemical formulae for medication, materials for construction and with herculean creativity maybe arable land.
Observing the environment there will provide us with a better understanding of our own planet. For instance, if through research on Mars, evidence of life, past or present surfaces, questions such as where did we come from and how can we ensure our survival will be easier to answer.
The final reason to colonize Mars and the Moon is to facilitate a systematic conquest of the universe. It has always been in the nature of man to explore and conquer new grounds. Angelo states, “Space technology also helps us respond to another very fundamental human need: the need to explore” (3).
These two grounds are within a bowshot from us. Conquering them will provide us with the opportunity to conquer the rest of the universe. Indeed, this will not be possible unless we are able to build and commission new vehicles, which will transport the Columbus’s of this day. There is something in the human spirit that will never be quiet until we answer conclusively the question of whether we are alone in this universe.
The Moon provides an interesting possibility for facilitating a manned mission to Mars based on the difference in the force of gravity between the earth and the Moon. The earth has approximately six times the gravitational force of the Moon. It takes almost the same amount of energy to get an object out of earth’s gravitational pull as it does to power it all the way to Mars.
Therefore, it means that a Mars destined lunar takeoff would use much less energy as compared to a direct Earth to Mars flight, which means that it will be possible to launch a larger mass from the Moon at one-sixth the energy requirements of doing the same from the earth.
In reality, because of the law of conservation of energy, the process will still consume the same amount of energy provided all materials are leaving earth for Mars. The opportunity lies in the option of delivering small portions of a larger space vehicle to the Moon for assembly, then taking off from the Moon towards Mars.
This will reduce the technical difficulties of a very huge take off required for a large Mars bound Vehicle directly from earth. This makes it possible to have larger vehicles necessary for a manned flight to travel to Mars.
Energy is the key ingredient that determines how far a craft could cruise from the earth. With successful manned flights to Mars, explorers can scour Mars for potential sources of energy. If found these can form an extraterrestrial power source to provide energy for further colonization of the planet and the larger cosmos.
As a planet, Mars must be teeming with diverse natural resources some of which may provide supplies for space exploration reducing the need for expensive earth takeoffs. After their location because of successful manned flights, there will be the need to construct light industries capable of processing raw materials to forms of useable supply materials such as energy sources. This will reduce the cost of take-off from earth because any craft will need just enough fuel to get to Mars, from where it refills for the return trip.
The colonization of space will remain illusory until man can set foot on Mars, as humankind’s first planetary extraterrestrial colony. Just as man has literally colonized every part of the earth, ranging from the sweltering Sahara to the sub zero Tundra, it will take man to figure out how best to colonize Mars for successful human habitation. While “robotic agents have explored the planets in the solar system” no equipment, no matter how advanced will do it for us (Harra and Mason 1).
The universe remains unexplored. Through the centuries, man peered into the distance through spyglasses and after spying the heavens for thousands of years, he set foot on the Moon. With the Moon conquered, Mars is the next frontier. The lure to find out what lies beyond the horizon is as old as life.
Indeed, Mars now lies just a little beyond humanity’s technological capability, but is essentially the next target for man’s conquest. Barlow reports that, “Mars has been a major spacecraft destination ever since the early days of space exploration” (5). Mars remains the stepping-stone to conquering the cosmos. A manned flight to Mars will bring this dream to reality.
Man in Space
Placing a man in deep space, away from the atmosphere of the earth presents an unnatural situation in every sense of the word. The minimum conditions for life remain necessary. If anyone will stay on the Moon and in space for extended periods under conditions of low gravity, certain health problems arise.
In particular, there is loss of muscle tissue and loss of bone material. There is also risk of development of psychological problems associated with long term isolation such as a trip to Mars would entail. The question of provision of adequate in-flight medical attention remains difficult to answer in extraterrestrial locations.
Secondly, the human body needs oxygen for metabolism. Man can barely survive for more than a few minutes under oxygen deprivation. The Moon and Mars do not have any oxygen, and as such, the earth is the source of the full supply for missions. This requires storage that will last for the entire duration of extraterrestrial missions or a reliable means to produce oxygen on site.
There has never been a need to produce enough oxygen to last the extended periods that a mission to Mars would entail. This means that a reliable means for producing oxygen is a prerequisite for a successful manned mission to Mars and for extended stay at the Moon.
Thirdly, Nutrition is a prerequisite to the survival of human life. The long-term effects of the exclusive use of preserved foods remain unascertained. There is a knowledge gap in the risk of contamination of food supply by extraterrestrial environments because the knowledge of these environments is only introductory. These basic needs outline the basic requirements for a successful manned mission to Mars. The space vehicle must address them, and after arrival on site, there must be a means to provide them.
There some essential desirable elements of a new space vehicle designed to support manned flights to Martian and lunar destinations. They include reusability, multi-docking capabilities, high-level diagnostics, and long-term life support with rescue support capabilities. The NASA space shuttles remain the undisputed symbol of reusability as a desirable element of new space vehicles. It is very expensive to construct space vehicles. If they have reuse capabilities, then the operational costs of space exploration falls significantly.
The element of multi-docking capabilities means that the vehicles should be suited for surface landing on earth, the Moon, and Mars. In addition, they should be able to dock onto space stations in between to allow for servicing of equipment, and personnel movement. This coupled with high-level diagnostics will mean prompt discovery of faults that may threaten the people inside. Finally, they require long-term life support capacity with rescue capabilities.
This feature will avail time for rescue operations on whatever surface the space vehicle is on, even if a craft must leave earth for Mars to rescue stranded astronauts. The safety of the astronauts is the life of interplanetary expeditions. If these four elements feature in future space vehicles, then there will be quick progress in discovery of new frontiers.
Space Project Management
Space exploration is a very expensive affair. The insertion of small unit of equipment into space costs billions of dollars, and requires very large multidisciplinary teams to pull off. Until recently, only governments have had the capacity to run such projects. Over the last decade, the private sector has shown a growing interest in the space industry. It is therefore an issue of interest to examine these two approaches to financing the space expedition.
State governments through agencies such as NASA and intergovernmental agencies such as ESA have the budgetary capacity to meet the cost of research and development, and indeed to successfully run space projects. The development of new space vehicles to enable interplanetary flights stands to benefit from this capacity.
However, governments have too many issues to deal with. Political will, which in turn depends on public support, determines which projects get off the ground and which ones do not. With the economic crunch of the closing years of the last decade, yet to wear off completely, large-scale projects such as space exploration suffer.
Public support for space exploration in the United States has remained high enough to influence political will. However, with growing voices of discontent over the state of the economy and with a much more rights oriented environment, space projects face criticism from many quarters.
They include animal rights activists who feel use of animals for space tests is inhumane, environmental groups that blame the space exploration industry for release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, and others that want to see a stop to all nuclear related experiments-a key to fueling space vehicles. These factors hinder public sector participation.
The private sector on the other hand has a freer hand at what it does. It has much less public scrutiny and has multiple options to deal with poor public perception. They are also devoid of the red tape that slows down government action. This provides the private sector with the ability to quickly develop and implement projects. The private sector therefore, if sufficiently capitalized can propel space exploration much faster than the public sector. Its entry into the space industry is an encouraging phenomenon.
The most serious challenge that the private sector has when it comes to space exploration is the complex business models required to return a profit. Some of the projects have a very long profit cycle requiring vast sums of capital. The risks are very high too. Some aspects of space exploration are almost non-profit.
This does not auger well with stakeholders. The tendency for the private sector will be to drift towards targeted participation in space exploration to avoid the low profit or very risky components. This will limit their capacity to take on whole projects, and if they do, they may compromise on some elements to ensure they have a good return. If those compromises are on safety issues, it will put the very lives of the astronauts in danger.
Additionally, there is the challenge of ownership. What will happen if a privately run exploration project to Mars is successful in discovering a substance of universal value? Determination of the ownership structures of the exploration, which traditionally belongs to the discoverer, will be complicated. Since no one really owns Mars or the Moon, laying stake on anything there can produce conflicts of international proportions.
Angelo, Joseph A. Space Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Barlow, Nadine G. Mars: An Introduction into its Interior, Surface and Atmosphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Conley, Peter. Space Vehicle Mechanisms: Elements of Successful Design. New York, NY: Wiley-IEEE, 1998.
Harra, L K and Keith O Mason. Space science. London: Imperial College Press, 2004.
Olla, Philip. Space Technology for the Benefit of Human Society and Earth. Livonia, MI: Springer, 2009.