(With acknowledgments to David Brin, blogging at Contrary Brin, and a thank you for his feedback as I wrote this.)
Across my many years witnessing and participating in space marvels, too often my awe of the moment got rudely shoved aside by wondering what comes next. Some just can’t resist that temptation to look ahead, to speculate in writing, and to re-evaluate past predictions. Lately, I perused some that physicist and science fiction author David Brin ventured in 2012 about the near future of human spaceflight. As we do in NASA decadal surveys, let’s see how a look-back scores Brin’s look-ahead.
In 2012, Space Shuttle orbiters were parading through the streets on the way to museums, after their last flight a year earlier, though we never imagined a Shuttle would also hold up traffic in LA. Right along, SpaceX first docked its Dragon spacecraft, delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Further behind, but still on our minds, were Spaceship One’s historic crewed flights to the edge of Low Earth Orbit. So surely Spaceship Two’s offering for space tourists must be around the corner. Daring announcements were the norm, so Planetary Resources was going to mine asteroids, inflatable structures were in, and space hotels would be right along.
Back in NASA, which, contrary to the popular notion, did not shut down with the end of the Shuttle program, the course was firmly set for its new rocket — the entirely expendable Space Launch System, built from Shuttle tooling and hardware, set to launch by 2016.
Unsurprisingly, what was coming didn’t turn out quite as the headlines advertised. Dragon flights for crew would come, but they would take some time – starting eight years after that first cargo delivery. The billionaire Branson and Spaceship Two would eventually fly too, but only in 2021, and grounded since. For NASA’s new rocket, “for sure in 2016” became the next year, over and over, until finally launching in late 2022. As for asteroid mining or space hotels, no, we are not there yet. It will take a lot more preparation and new waves of zealous investors for that frontier to look realistic.
Welcome to Space. What matters more is seeing what other marvels did happen, either on or off schedule.
What is surprising, that grand dreams happened much later than advertised, or not at all? Welcome to Space. What matters more is seeing what other marvels did happen, either on or off schedule. In 2012 we celebrated the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. It’s still exploring, almost 4,000 Martian Sols on Mars later! And a mighty dream – long deferred – was finally wrestled into reality by a different team of hugely competent techs and scientists: today we celebrate the similarly incredible, if complex and costly, James Webb Space Telescope.
Breathe in, breathe out. A day at a time, the Webb telescope may also be astounding us with its discoveries a decade from now. We have to ask, what else might be amazing us too?
Back in 2012, Brin said he was “inspired about our prospects in space.” And there remain reasons to be inspired, if we take a close look at what’s happening in the space sector. Perhaps because of this, I am told my writing is so optimistic, which is odd, as I spent my time in NASA developing a reputation as a bearer of bad news. “That won’t be affordable. Here’s the cost estimate.” (Sticker shock.) “That’s too complex and will spend most of its time in the hangar. Here are the numbers to back that up.”
We knew how to pop technology balloons people floated long before it was in vogue. As time passed, I found myself in the company of others with these skills, quick to say “violates first law” or the classic “that’s not going to work.” These were skills, skills that made me a nightmare for project reviews.
Simply put, NASA does not have the dollars, or time, to explore every great idea with R&D, a prototype, and a crater where a test stand once stood.
Seeing rocks ahead as the boat crosses the river is more straightforward than it appears. The more real a project, the more pronounced the problems. This left ample time for me to realize that helping to find innovative, better paths forward was more productive – and enjoyable. Focus on the good news, and figuring out what’s needed, and the optimism comes naturally.
Exploring possibilities – with faith in a bright future – is necessary for survival. (Or perhaps automatic, inevitable, and evolutionary? No matter, I’ll take it.) NASA’s budget may go up, but it’s constantly losing purchasing power year after year. Simply put, NASA does not have the dollars, or time, to explore every great idea with R&D, a prototype, and a crater where a test stand once stood. Worse, if the dollars did show up, making craters is no longer in NASA’s DNA (if exploring them still is.)
And yet the testing, prototyping, playing, blowing up, and failing must be done. How else to learn, eventually succeeding by doing? Of course, projects have problems, and problems quickly breed pessimism. All is not lost if we know we will try again. Since 2012 many more people have been exploring possibilities, not just NASA. Here are just a few projects that weren’t on our visible horizons, ten years ago:
Want to explore 3D printing’s potential to make more of your rocket quickly, in-house? NASA will explore some 3D-printed parts here and there, but why not 3D-print the whole rocket – like Relativity Space.
Believe the old notion of hurling a payload to space mechanically has reached a tipping point, now a mere matter of engineering? Then, let’s try it out – at SpinLaunch.
Can we fuse structural, propulsion, and thermal management design so tightly it enables a reusable orbital rocket stage? While we are at it, let’s do distributed propulsion – at Stoke Space.
Or perhaps it’s time we bring in an automotive flair, remembering a rocket is a tank, with single-piston engines, minus the pistons. Can manufacturing yield economies of scale minus the fancy tech? Here, Astra is going old school with a factory on wheels, at scale.
And while NASA no longer says “reusable” much, it seems to be doing well for SpaceX, so let’s build on that in new ways – says Rocket Lab.
And even more-speculative notions that are getting seed grants from NASA’s Innovative & Advanced Concepts program – (NIAC) – such as new kinds of space optics, far side lunar radio telescopes, Titan submarines and new types of nuclear-cycle rockets, along with fungi-stabilized Mars habitats, Venus flyers, dozens of light-sail variants and neutrino-sensing missions to the Sun!
Everyone now, together, say “RLV.”
Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room – a Starship billed as a NASA lunar lander, where really NASA is investing in making space tankers. This means in-space refueling and the once-verboten space propellant depots, all based on a fully reusable launch vehicle. Everyone now, together, say “RLV.”
Next door, we see advances in AI, with sizable private sector investment in quantum computing. The dollars flowing into fusion energy are no longer for updating the same old studies either – crossing into the hundreds of millions of dollars to be remembered next to producing net positive energy.
In another timeline, NASA’s journey outward in our solar system would, like the Apollo program, have pushed all these rocket, software, computing, and power advances into existence by the brute force of necessity. Today, what we imagine as sci-fi may arrive in our timeline by other means.
The human spaceflight club is bound to expand its membership. NASA and SpaceX already went from an expendable launcher and a spacecraft carrying only cargo to reusing these, and carrying crew. Similarly, technology that seems far from human spaceflight today, orbital or sub-orbital, will easily benefit human spaceflight too. Failure (with cargo) will be an option because it’s part of exploring, and how will we know otherwise – did we check all the possibilities? If we fail, not if but when, the matter will be how quickly we burnt through the list of what might work, and work best for the need. Once NASA was tasked to do this rather alone, now the private sector is allied in the cause.
The future will never turn out as expected. With NASA and industry investment together though, the millions here and billions there, the R&D with the let’s go do it, it seems poised to turn out quite different. And it may be better than we might imagine.