6. Space exploration (part two)

Yesterday, I briefly discussed some of the technical considerations necessary to make space exploration possible. In summary, it requires massive amounts of energy to accelerate objects to the speed required to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. Today, I would like to review the innovation and business aspects of space exploration.

The origin of space exploration is not as honourable as it might now appear. Much of the science and technology used to propel humans into space was initially designed to drive missiles. Starting with the objective of developing weapons that could hit targets across the English Channel during the Second World War. Later, these efforts shifted into the development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles during the Cold War. With policies such as that of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD!), it was clear that neither the United States nor the then competing USSR would risk starting a war if they continue testing missiles. So, they shifted into a proxy demonstration. Firing Launching rockets towards the sky, and by the end of the 60s towards the Moon. This exercise would not only demonstrate their proficiency in the capabilities necessary to control and aim such devices with high reliability and precision, but it would also essentially decide who could win in a direct war between the two superpowers.

To understand such analogy, let’s consider the capabilities of the ICBMs at the peak of the Cold War. The Minuteman, perhaps the most prolific ICBM of the era, could travel up to 12,500 km, at a speed of 24,000 km/h with an accuracy of 200 m. Instead, the Saturn V rocket, used during the Apollo missions, propelled the Command and Service Module 382,500 km towards the Moon, at a speed of 37,500 km/h to reach a parking orbit not bigger than a couple of kilometres wide. On top of that, the Moon is also moving at a rate of 3,600 km/h. If we equate the maximum reach of the Minuteman to the maximum range of the Saturn V, it would be comparable to firing a bullet from Moscow to hit another moving bullet in New York. For this reason, it was expected that the country capable of achieving such a feat could virtually win a war.

The moon is far. Very, very far.

The so-called space race effectively began in 1955 with the launch of the Sputnik satellite from the USSR. Despite the geopolitical turmoil of the era, this event also started an unprecedented era of innovation and entrepreneurial efforts in the name of space exploration. Naturally, NASA is one of the key players that emerged and thrived during this period. And thanks to the relentless effort of its engineers, managers and brave astronauts, humans were roaming the Moon before the end of the 60s. Although much of the credit has been attributed to NASA, numerous organisations contributed and benefited from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and ISS programs. Caltech (home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, and IBM are some of the better-known partners that supported NASA along with these missions. And now, with the upcoming Artemis program, a new generation of companies, supported by NASA and other international agencies, is developing technologies to carry the first woman and the next man to the Moon and beyond.

We also have benefited from the long list of technological developments made to reach the Moon and other celestial bodies. NASA itself produce or collaborated in around 5,000 patents in various fields—such as telemedicine, agriculture, food and water security, and environmental conservation, besides space exploration. We can thank the space era for the memory foam in our seats, shoe insoles, cordless power tools, baby formula and freeze-dried food, solar panels, smoke detectors, infrared thermometers, and of course Satellites, among many others. Satellites have been proven to be one of the most versatile elements of space technology. Nowadays, thanks to the thousands of them orbiting around the Earth is possible to navigate, communicate, obtain images of the surface and in general have a better understanding of the world in which we live. However, this technological development has also raised concerns.

Starlink communication satellite

Despite all these benefits, there have are many questions about the value of space exploration. After all, it is one of the most expensive endeavours of humankind. Many people wonder, for example, if the 25 billion USD assigned to NASA each year might be better spent somewhere else. If we certainly need to go back to the Moon or reach as far as Mars and beyond. Is it worth it the money? Is it worth is the risk? Of course, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can assure you that all these questions emerge from the lack of a clear philosophy of space exploration.

During the 50s and 60s, although certainly ill-conceived, there was a clear motivation behind winning the space race. Then, just before the dissolution of the USSR, space becomes the mean to symbolise unity and reconciliation. But now, in a world profoundly divided and with increasing existential threats to the environment and consequently to humans, it is vital to establish a new philosophy. One that—beyond trying to escape this world as many would like to believe—enable us to expand our understanding of nature, to recognise that this blue planet might be the only one we would ever have, and to realise that we need decisive actions to keep it alive.

Rising Earth from Apollo 8.

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