Whenever we go some place new, it’s always interesting. But we’re kind of getting out of that phase of solar system exploration, where we can just go some place and see something we haven’t seen before. Now we’re getting down to, “What are we learning from this? How does this fit with the other information that we’ve got?”
It’s a really transitional period. To go to new places, it’s further away. In order to do new things like a sample return, it’s more expensive. These missions are more and more expensive to the point that they’ll eat your lunch. They’ll eat everybody’s lunch. So now we’re pushing into an era where we’re going to have to get smarter about our investigations. But there’s just so much more knowledge we have yet to gain and learn by doing that.
I see us playing a role in the future in human exploration. Can we live out there? Are there resources we can make use of that would minimize the cost or even make human activity in space self-sustaining? It’s not guaranteed to be yes, because the question hasn’t been seriously asked or investigated. But it’s a neat problem. The goal would be, if it is possible, to be the first people to establish a self-sustaining presence in space.
Where do we get water? What about near-Earth objects that come by at low velocities in the Earth-Moon system? A friend of mine calculated that at any one time there should be about a dozen of these things within the radius of the Moon. We just don’t see them. Is there a sufficient frequency of objects that would be potentially water-bearing, that could sustain our transportation needs once we’re in lower orbit?
You see what the options are, and you figure out what’s the most cost-effective way of following them. It would be an adventure, because we don’t know what the outcome is. There’s a lot of testing, a lot of experimentation, a lot of science that needs to be done. Planetary scientists would be the native guides. We’re the ones that know what’s out there and what needs to be done to read the grass and the footprints, and find the buffalo. Assuming that there’s vision at the national level, there could be a very interesting future for people in my profession.
My interest for several years now has been the economic pay-off of space exploration, making the resources and energy and materials of space available on Earth to solve our problems here. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on sources of energy for Earth to relieve our dependence on imported oil and fossil fuels in general. The energy resources of the solar system are effective to use, but getting to them is a real challenge. Getting that pipeline installed and opened is a real challenge. It makes the Alaska pipeline look like nothing.
Space science has to be done first, but if you draw up a list of the things that space science needs to know, and a list of, say, the things a mining engineer would need to know, the list has a huge overlap. There are many things that are on both lists. A science program that is well done, that has a few engineering tasks added on, will meet everybody’s needs, and will permit rational, informed planning of exploiting those resources.
We’re going to continue our active exploration of the solar system, and it’s hard to predict but I have a feeling it’s going to be a much more international adventure. We’re going to see the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians, the Europeans, and probably other nations that are just now gearing up—maybe Korea, Brazil—expanding into outer space. I think that’s a good thing, because it’s going to drive our competitive spirit, and there will be more resources put into space.
Space will become much more commercialized. You’re going to start to see real estate business setting up shop, either through tourism or advertising or bringing souvenir material back and selling it, that kind of thing. I think we’re going to see a huge explosion in the commercial development in space, and science will go along for the ride. It’ll be easier to get to space, we’ll be able get to these targets, and science will benefit enormously from that.