[In this story, which appeared in the Electronic Telegraph on Feb 5, 1996, writer Adrian Berry says that space-travel enthusiasts look forward to the day, not far distant, when private enterprise takes people into orbit. Furthermore, he says, we will then be able to exploit the vast resources of other planets, even asteroids, to finance our virtually limitless expansion as a space-faring species. One proponent of such grand schemes is none other than House Speaker Newt Gingrich.]
NEARLY four centuries ago, an Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Venice for the "crime" of suggesting that there exist an infinite number of planets. Astronomers have now fired enthusiasm for space exploration by demonstrating that he was probably right.
The discovery of four planets beyond the solar system, the announcement by scientists that microbial life probably does exist on Mars, the plunge of a spacecraft into Jupiter's atmosphere, the awe-inspiring photographs of the distant universe that pour down from the Hubble telescope -- all are making space seem exciting.
Not only that, but the impression is growing that the fictitious adventures of the Enterprise in Star Trek, although many of its scientific details are ludicrously wrong, may one day turn out to be not so fictitious. If giant planets exist, then there are bound to be smaller ones the size of ours that our descendants can colonise.
The space agency NASA has faltered in recent decades. Since its heroic epoch of the Moon landings, it has vacillated between one policy and another, becoming grossly overstaffed and producing few results. A leading astronomer has called NASA a "potato-faced" agency. It is rudely said that the "real" purpose of the space shuttles is to provide jobs for 20,000 civil servants, the number of staff that must be on duty during launch. As British expert David Ashford put it: "Space is the world's worst-managed industry."
But a new era is coming, one of private enterprise and light-weight rockets built with exotic new materials made possible by ever advancing technology in private hands and private wealth, with technical information exchanged through the Internet.
We have been using space since the Sixties, and great predictions have been made of its future since much earlier. But always it was governments that were expected to make the great achievements. Yet even the most powerful government cannot be expected to fund the conquest of the solar system. It is simply not its function, any more than it can fund industry. And profit, not science, is in future going to be the driving force of space exploration. As a result, space enthusiasts are now dreaming of the day when private companies can carry people up to Earth orbit and beyond without seeking funds from politicians.
An example of such a craft is the McDonnell Douglas SSTO (single stage to orbit) rocket being tested at White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico. Cone-shaped and looking rather like a salt-cellar, it takes off and lands vertically, which means that, unlike the shuttles, it has no need of heavy wings. Instead of requiring tens of thousands of people to attend its launches, it will need only three.
When such spaceships get into their stride during the next century, we are likely to see orbiting hotels. As Newt Gingrich prophesied recently: "People aboard privately-built spacecraft that operate with the regularity of airliners will fly out to the Hiltons and the Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have broken permanently free of the planet."
Countless ideas have been put forward on ways of exploiting the Moon. Mr. Gingrich sees it as an old people's home because its low gravity, one sixth of Earth's, will put less pressure on aged limbs and organs. The Moon is rich in raw materials. Its rocks contain huge quantities of the rare (on Earth) isotope helium-3 that alone could free future terrestrial fusion power stations from the danger of radiation accidents.
Liquid oxygen, if extracted from lunar rocks for use in rocket engines, could make the Moon the industrial hub of the inner solar system. And astronomers see in the lack of moonquakes and the 14 day-long lunar nights an opportunity to built telescopes 100,000 times more powerful than the Hubble.
Further off lies Mars, which will one day be "terraformed" to make a second home-world for mankind. Beyond are hundreds of thousands of asteroids, mini-worlds whose resources may for all practical purposes be inexhaustible. They are known to contain the following useful substances:
Water. Hydrogen, for fuel. Nitrogen, for air and agriculture. Carbon monoxide, for purifying metals. Oxygen, for air, and rocket engine ignition when liquefied. Methane, for fuel. Carbon dioxide, for agriculture. Hydrogen sulphide, for metallurgy.
Ammonia, for agriculture. Sulphur dioxide, as a refrigerant. Nickel carbonyl, for metallurgy. Sulphur trioxide, to make sulphuric acid. Methyl alcohol, for fuel. Ammonium hydroxide, for agriculture. Iron carbonyl, for metallurgy. Hydrogen peroxide, for rocket engine ignition.
A new book, "The Millennial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps," by Marshall T. Savage, predicts that the human race possessing such wealth will be able to spread itself to many parts of the solar system, multiplying its present population of 5.5 billion to 1,000 billion, with an economy 100 million times richer than today.
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