By Ben Iannotta|February 2019
This issue of the magazine has me thinking about society’s willingness to trust commercial technology for safe travels in air, orbit and deep space.
We’re about to find out if B-52s manufactured in the 1960s can be made to fly safely for 100 years or more in part by installing commercial jet engines on them. The U.S. needs to get this one right to assure the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrence mission for decades to come, assuming humanity doesn’t come to its senses and figure out how to banish these weapons.
In other matters, we’re about to learn if we can trust privately owned rockets and capsules to launch NASA astronauts and someday regular (if well-heeled) people into space. The Commercial Crew program represents an early start down that path. Our feature shows the stakes and the milestones that Boeing and SpaceX are facing this year.
My thinking is that we ought to be able to trust the private sector to perform well in this area, provided we set up a regulatory framework equivalent to the one that has made air travel so amazingly safe. Of course, a challenge is that reaching space and flying through it might always be more technically daunting and therefore risky than air travel. Launch costs could remain prohibitively high, because of the required safety measures. Those measures depend on humanity’s risk tolerance for space travel, which I don’t think we fully understand yet.
Even if launch costs and risks aren’t slashed as much as hoped, all is not lost for scientific exploration and commercial exploitation of space. We might need to shift our definition of what constitutes a multiplanet species. Instead of millions of people living in lava tubes on Mars or aboard a village on the moon or digging at asteroids, perhaps handfuls of explorers and space tourists will venture out there to give humanity the emotional satisfaction of in-situ presence. Instead of robots preparing the way for us, maybe it will be the other way around. Market realities could drive humanity toward robotics, automation and augmented reality as means of establishing a permanent presence in deep space. We can accept higher risks when we send inanimate investments to deep space. Government researchers and commercial entrepreneurs are making so much progress on optical communications, artificial intelligence and virtual reality that such a shift might not be as disappointing as it seems today.
We’re becoming extraterrestrials any way you look at it.