Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey
One of my first reliable memories is sitting near my mother on a beautiful day in May while we both listened to the reporting of Alan Shepard's suborbital flight. Yes, on the radio. I think it was pretty much that moment when the endless unknowns and adventures of space travel.
From then until the last Apollo mission to the moon, I remained riveted. Even after our manned missions outside of earth orbit ended, there were other missions to follow and marvel at. Most vividly, the missions of the Voyager spacecraft as they swept through the solar system returning amazing heart-stopping images of distant planets and moons. Both probes are beyond the immediate boundaries of the solar system, but still have to navigate the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud before actually leaving their home star for good.
Exploration continues, albeit with robotic probes and not with humans. We now know what Pluto looks like. We have close-up images of two Kuiper Belt objects, one of which I still think should have been entitled "BB-8." Three dune buggies have been crawling along the surface of Mars, two of which have long outlasted their expected lives. While these missions have been informative, even scintillating they will never fully replace the human explorer.
So, what lies next? NASA is committed to establishing a permanent habitat on the moon, and is taking the long view towards eventually putting human boot prints on Mars. But there could be other things to do as well.
To truly undertake serious exploration of the outer solar system, there must be first a more economical place from which to launch. It takes a lot of rocket fuel to lift the hundreds of tons of equipment and supplies needed to sustain long-term exploration. It's much less difficult to leave from earth orbit, or the moon. So, the first step would be the establishment of a facility in orbit to construct ships designed for explorations lasting for years. The next step is to use that facility to send the supplies and equipment to establish a permanent base on the moon.
The United States sent seven manned missions to the moon and nobody has been back since. Proposals for a permanent base are many and varied, but I think the best method would be to establish habitats inside the many lava tubes below the moon's surface. There, the residents would be better protected against the cyclical rages of the sun. But once established, there are a host of activities that could be carried out there, from scientific research to industrial development and invention.
Eventually, humans would move on to Mars. The Red Planet has long fascinated people here on earth. It does has an atmosphere, albeit thin and mostly carbon dioxide, but there are indications now that there may be substantial amounts of water beneath those red sands. But since Mars has no magnetic field, the surface is wide open to all of the sun's solar radiation. Earth has a magnetic field, which is how life is able to thrive here. So, Martian explorers and residents would have to be protected which will require new technologies in space suits and habitats. This was a fairly late realization. As Apollo was ending in the 1970's, speculation then was that Mars was far more earth-like than it eventually turned out to be. And let me add that the trip to Mars will be more hazardous, not just because of increase radiation exposure, but the risk of collision with micrometeoroids which could hole the ship, exposing the astronauts to decompression. But these are hazards that can be overcome, or at least minimized by determined humans.
A base on Mars makes exploration of the outer solar system much easier. First of all, the transit time is cut dramatically. Second, the establishment of labs on Mars would mean that physical samples returned from those missions would be processed much faster, and the resulting data messaged to earth. From there, both manned and unmanned missions could be dispatched. For private industry, which would have to be a full partner in such and undertaking, there are untold riches in the metals and elements in asteroids waiting for discovery by those entrepreneurs willing to take the risk.
But to ensure even better opportunities, another base could be established further out.
Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter, the largest moon in the solar system. It is slightly larger than Mercury and some say that if Ganymede wasn't orbiting a planet, it would be counted as a minor planet. But the most important factor in its favor is that there are enormous quantities of water, in surface ice and a subterranean ocean. Even though it's likely a saltwater ocean, it's still water which is essential to human life. From Ganymede, close-up long-term observation of Jupiter could be undertaken. And a base there would provide access to the wonders of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
This is all decades in the future, and only if humans decide knowledge is more important than politics. Humans have always been explorers, and there are limitless opportunities for the acquisition of knowledge in planetary investigation, and the innate technological expansion such investigations would initiate. But the most important facet would be the human engagement in risk, taking chances to accomplish something important. That may be a character trait we've abandoned.
But I firmly believe humans will do this. We will reach a point where we will look outward together rather than finding ways to fight each other. One day, ships from earth will be exploring the planets and moons, and asteroids and comets of the Sun's family, sending back history-altering discoveries.
I only regret that I won't be alive to see it happen.