It is time for the second age of exploration. In fact, it has been time for over 50 years. Ever since humanity sent man to the moon, we have been capable of so much more.
However, like many of our achievements, they have been almost entirely politically motivated. We sent rockets to the moon and beyond to demonstrate our dominance and scientific prowess to the rest of the world. Once the achievement is done or the re-election secured, the money goes elsewhere and the funding magically dries up.
Nevertheless, that is neither here nor now. Humanity is entering a new golden age of exploration to dwarf the likes of Magellan, The Vikings, Vespucci and their contemporaries. As we round out the 2010s, humanity is looking forward and upward. Companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are closing in on easier, cheaper and more reliable ways to live and work in space.
Not only do they have their own scientists and engineers, but NASA and the U.S. military are increasingly partnering with promising companies that can assist them with decades of research and experience in space travel. This is outlined in NASA’s 2019 press release. But first, let’s take a quick step back in order to understand a brief history of exploration.
What is the most important part of moving from one place to another in any circumstance? The answer is infrastructure. Humanity has mastered transportation on our own planet because we have innumerable roads, ports, airports, train tracks, tunnels and bridges that dot our planet. We have made getting from one place to another a matter of when and where, not how.
This is what we lack for space travel. Currently, we have one method of escaping our atmosphere and getting back, and that is by rocket. As of 2017, there are 29 spaceports that have managed to successfully launch payloads into space, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Only 21 of these are still active and only three of these have ever sent humans into space.
One of the main reasons this number is so low is due to the difficulty, expense and danger of sending humans into space. According to NASA, a rocket has to travel about 25,000 miles per hour to reach escape velocity. That is no exaggeration and not a typo. Most humans will probably never travel faster than a few hundred miles per hour when they are on a plane, never mind tens of thousands of miles per hour.
To get to that speed, rockets require a lot of propellant — this is what NASA calls the tyranny of the rocket equation. The general rule of thumb for rockets is 90% propellant and 10% rocket, which includes the structure of the rocket, so you can see how little space is left for anything extra. This is just the ideal scenario, not counting any design flaws, drag or whatever else may slow the rocket down.
So, sending anything into space is expensive and extremely inefficient in its current state. Is there an easier way? The short answer is yes, and there are many ideas floating around. From spaceplanes, to reusable rockets, to space elevators, scientists and engineers are constantly searching for a safer, more cost-efficient way to travel through the Earth’s atmosphere.
One of the more promising ideas is a space tether, more commonly referred to as a skyhook, described in a National Space Society article written by F. Burke Carley and Hans P. Moravec. It does not require new science, magic materials, or massive investments and it has been tested successfully in orbit already. Simply, it is a counterweight that holds a long cable in place as it rotates around a circle. Using its own momentum, a spacecraft can latch onto this and propel themselves to speeds in order to travel to other planets and locations faster and more efficiently.
Additionally, this can also be used to slow down incoming spacecrafts for landing, keeping the momentum cycle perpetual. A network of these in strategic parts of the solar system can be used to leapfrog humanity from one planet to another with relatively low cost and high efficiency. Once humanity has stronger footholds on the stars, space travel will become a profitable venture and will no longer be merely scientific. Spacecraft production and launch on lower gravity moons and planets will be easier and much more efficient.
All of this leads to the ultimate goal of further exploration and exploitation of the solar system. The asteroid belt contains untold wealth that could revolutionize humanity on its own. Gone will be the days of ravaging our planet for minerals and ore when we can pull them from deep space with zero consequence. NASA has found that rare and valuable elements can be extracted from planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, along with their various moons.
Jupiter’s moon Europa is covered in ice. NASA recently discovered water vapor on this moon, which could provide humanity with a limitless supply of water, solving the nearing water crises in many parts of the world. With a little more focus and investment, humanity can and will quickly become an interstellar species — this will solve many of the current issues we face right here on Earth.