I’ve commented on this before but Bush’s recent big promises for piloted missions to the moon and mars prompts me to comment again.
This is going to take so long, cost so much money and yield so little permanency, that the governments of Earth may as well focus on a much grander and longer term goal that will finally answer the only logical reason for humans to be in space: Colonization.
To do this, money would be better spent on building space elevators (Look that up if you don’t know what that is.), improved robotics and artificial intelligence (For example, building autonomous, self-reproducing factories that can refine asteroidal and lunar materials and build infrastructure.) and learning how to radically alter human biology so we can thrive permanently in the hostile environments elsewhere in the solar system. Changing humans will be easier than terraforming Mars or Venus. A much more useful goal for human spaceflight would be the construction of a permanent colony in the Lagrange Points between Earth and the Moon. How’s that for a long term goal? It’s the only one that makes sense, because the robots will always have exploration and science locked up, especially with the use of telepresence.
Flying to the moon seems to be more realistic than some elevator. I’m all for colonization of the moon and mars. We have to start sometime.
Well, you may be right. We have to start somewhere, and we probably will start in this way. My argument is mostly focused on the long term and consists of two points: 1) space colonization will never be permanent until we alter our bodies to live in low gravity environments; 2) space elevators is the cheapest way out of a gravity well because they work on Atwood’s principle.
If we want to move huge amounts of stuff on to and off of this planet, and this is what we must do if we are serious about space colonization, space elevators (And the huge rotating tethers, which are related.) are really the only way to go.
Also, since low gravity does terrible things to human bone and muscle tissue in the long run, early space colonies will have to consist of rotating, temporary crews as people restore their tissues back in Earth’s gravity. Perhaps we can harness centripetal forces in giant O’Neill cylinders as a gravity of sorts, but we really don’t know what the long term effects on human tissue these forces will have. Centripetal forces aren’t the same as gravity and it may be that our cells will deteriorate in some unexpected way.
The only solution I can see is that we bio-engineer ourselves to thrive in different gravity conditions. Heck, why not go the full route and design our bodies to grow natural space suits and huge lung capacity like dolphins? Perhaps make ourself very radiation resistant with metal scales in our skin and redundant DNA like Deinococcus radiodurans?
In the end, I think humans, assuming we broaden our definitions quite a bit, will colonize space but humans like ourselves will always be the minority.