Both NASA and private enterprise look to the stars for new areas of exploration
The Space Shuttle may have taken its final, valedictory tour across the United States, but that's no reason to think that our exploration of the heavens is over.
The Space Race -- both in terms of manned travel and remote sensing expeditions -- is as competitive now as during the days of Sputnik. Some new astronauts never leave the ground, but their remote probes travel hundreds of thousands of miles, sending back hi-res images and collecting terabytes of data.
Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that the Curiosity Mars Rover was the "equivalent of 18,000 Indy 500 race cars going at top speed, and in 17 minutes we had to land softly on the surface."
Needless to say, they stuck the landing, and for the last two months the human race has literally been driving over the surface of Mars. The mission has been closely monitored by scientists and millions of armchair enthusiasts following in realtime over the Internet.
According to Elachi, "Our technology now is that effectively we can do almost everything robotically," and yet, we must not take people out of the equation. "Great countries don't have to do everything for science ... or for direct profit, but for the human spirit."
He spoke Tuesday at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif., exploring innovations in science and technology.
One person with her eyes on space is Fiona Harrison -- principal investigator for NASA NuStar explorer mission, which explores black holes, and the remnants of supernova -- who also spoke at the summit. "We can see the heart of our galaxy," she said, referring to being able to take breathtaking pictures from telescopes and space probes. Her future goals include expensive projects like creating robots that can assemble high-powered telescopes in space, and she's firm in her belief that "the limitation is imagination."
But what about the rest of us who don't have the backing of NASA? Will Pomerantz, VP for Special Projects at Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is working on that: "I'm obsessed with the number 528 -- all the human beings who have ever been to space."
Pomerantz said that NASA's job is to increase that number incrementally, one by one, but it's the job of private enterprise to open space exploration to the masses. Virgin Galactic's goal is to lower the base price for getting regular people aloft, helping entrepreneurs to lift payloads and high school teachers to get their experiments to the stars, he said.
And what, exactly, will we do when we no longer need a national government to help get us to the moon? According to Moon Express founder Naveen Jain, what we'll do is start to make money.
"The moon is an aggregator of asteroids," he said during the panel. "Why not just process the platinum and bring it back? I mean, why not? Someone has to do it."
As we push further afield, there's a legitimate question about whether our laws -- and our culture -- can keep pace. Who owns the moon? Who regulates it? As the price of firing off a rocket drops from $100 million down to maybe $500,000, what will we all do with our new freedoms?
We don't yet know, but we're all about to find out.
- Zac Unger is a freelancer who has written for The Economist, Slate, Men's Journal, NPR, and many others. His memoir,