Last Friday, December 9th, I sat in on a series of discussions at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. The NASA Future Forum brought together a group of experts on space and aviation to discuss the future of both manned and unmanned space flight, leaning a bit heavily on the new dependence on private enterprise, at least for trips to low earth orbit.
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, during the heady days of the Space Race. Every boy back then wanted to be an astronaut. At the time, my parents, always the dreamers, told me I couldn’t be an astronaut because I was going to be too tall. Thanks. Still, we were all convinced that by the time we were grown up in, like, the 1980s and 1990s, surely we would be living on the moon, probably Mars, too. Hell, we’d all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and Space: 1999. Space seemed like our birthright. Well, we all know how that turned out, but just because the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t exactly come true, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about when it comes to the future of space travel, and quite a bit of that came out during this event.
I registered for the conference more or less on a whim. I get emails from the Museum of Flight, and I can’t tell you how many of this sort of thing I’ve passed up, though several years ago I did attend a speech by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt where he autographed a copy of his book Return to the Moon for me. That was amazing, except for when I told him the story about my parents telling me I was too tall to be an astronaut. I had about eight or nine inches on Dr. Schmitt, who looked me up and down and said, “Yeah, you’re probably too tall.”
But even that hasn’t dampened my love of space travel, and the future as outlined last Friday seems like it may even be able to accommodate tall people. Before I get into any of that, though, it’s important to touch back to the purpose of this blog, which is to inform and inspire science fiction and fantasy writers, not necessarily to report on science and engineering news.
If you’re a writer, you have to write—everybody tells you that and everybody’s right—but you also have to get out of the house. This is a hard one for me. I’m busy. I’m a “home-body.” I can be lazy, sometimes, too. And I’m also terribly routine-driven. But at least I recognize these things about myself and have started to detect a trend toward too many “inside days” in a row. Valid excuses like racing against a book deadline and crappy Seattle fall/winter weather aside, I need to get out of the house more. And here comes, presented like a gift on my email account, the NASA Future Forum. It was free, which is my favorite price. It was here in Seattle—no expensive airline tickets and lonely hotel rooms. And it was NASA, for God’s sake. I went, and I listened, and though there isn’t a book or story I’m working on now that will be directly informed by anything I saw and heard there, it all gets filed away into the memory banks.
I listened carefully to the way they talked, the easy use of seemingly nonsensical acronyms, the sparkle in their eyes when they said words like “future” and “innovation.” I’ve spent most of my seminar time at SF/fantasy, gaming, and comic book conventions, eyes sparkling the same way. It was a delight to cross out of that universe and into the no less passionate world of the professional engineer. These are a whole different kind of geek, and though I don’t speak the language as fluently as I do at someplace like Comicon, every turn of phrase, even their clothes (they still wear suits, most of them, which is strange) have been carefully filed away for later use.
If you’re writing fiction and don’t have this kind of mental, or even written file, you better get busy starting one up. Not interested in space travel, and don’t write hard SF? Okay. What are you into? If you write steampunk and don’t go to Victoriana events you’re missing out. Fantasy authors should look for history or craft classes. Learn how to dip candles, or ride a horse, or start a campfire without matches. Writing about a country surrounded by mountains but you live in Iowa? Buy a plane ticket to Denver or Seattle and get your hiking boots on. Get out there!
Okay, then, so what about the future of space travel?
Not yet. Before that, I have to tell you that I sat four rows back from Bill Nye the Science Guy. I’ve seen him before—he lives in Seattle—but it was a gas to see him in this context. Some of the NASA and private space company people really fawned over him. He was a true celebrity in that context and he asked a couple of great, animated questions at a microphone set up only a few inches from my left shoulder. He even chastised the organizers of the event for having a door open on the side of the theater that was bringing in cold air (it’s been unseasonably chilly here) and noise. Bill Nye is big on energy efficiency. I was disappointed that they didn’t take him seriously and close the door, especially since the Museum of Flight sits off the edge of the big runway at Boeing Field and the occasional jet aircraft took off or landed less than 100 yards from that door during the event. That’s loud, by the way.
The keynote address was given by NASA Deputy Director Lori Garver, which put me in mind of a scene from A Mighty Wind, but that aside, she gave an interesting speech.
Though maybe a little smug in her delivery on the subject of adapting to new paradigms, she was absolutely right. No one in the “New Economy” is free to slavishly abide by the status quo. NASA, like everyone else except maybe the Saudi royal family, has some limit to their financial resources. No one has all the money in the world to spend, so priorities have to be set, and not every project is going to be fully funded, or funded at all. The basic gist of it is that NASA will be farming out LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to commercial concerns, including getting supplies and people up and down from the International Space Station. This will free up NASA to concentrate on deep space missions, including a manned mission to an asteroid, then on to Mars. How cool is that?
Ms. Garver did a great job handling questions from the audience, even a bizarre anti-Obama, pro-Lyndon LaRouche screed from one really creepy guy. But the overwhelming majority of the questions came from really smart, interesting and interested people, including a University of Washington professor emeritus who was part of the original Viking team and his daughter, an engineer herself.
The moderator of the second discussion, a panel of five scientists and engineers on the subject of the Importance of Technology Innovation for our Economic Future, NASA’s Deputy Chief Technologist, Joseph Parrish, had my favorite quote of the day. He said, “Innovation is the constructive rejection of the status quo.”
One of the participants on that panel was Dr. Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. He pointed out that the same computing power that existed in the Apollo spacecraft now resides in a Furbie, and that gave me chills. How do you not start to wonder about the next-level toys of 2051, when the computing power of IBM’s Watson super-computer runs the robot child from Brian Aldiss’s “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.”
The third discussion really got more deeply into the idea of privatizing low earth orbit, and some of the questions from the audience revealed a little of the bias that Deputy Administrator Garver railed against. There were frequent reminders that NASA has never done anything entirely on their own and civilian contractors have always been a part of manned and unmanned space flight. This wasn’t entirely lost on an audience that included several aerospace engineers from local employer Boeing.
So what is the future of space travel?
Near term: Private companies building cheap, efficient, small-scale rockets to deliver satellites to low earth orbit, and a few very rich people blasting up to the edge of space via Virgin Galactic.
Medium term: A private mini-shuttle that will take crews up and down from the ISS and on other sub-orbital and orbital scientific missions, and a new big rocket from NASA that will deliver payloads up to geostationary orbits.
Long term: NASA manned flight to an asteroid. I want to go on that trip. Badly. Also, less expensive sub-orbital and even orbital joy rides.
Very long term: Mars.
Longer than that? The colonization of the Milky Way galaxy.
How do I know that? Becuase it’s already been imagined, and imagining it in the first place is the hard part. Don’t believe me? Ask Jules Verne, the science fiction author who imagined the nuclear submarine and the fax machine, or Arthur C. Clarke, who first described the modern communication satellite. Figuring out how to actually do it is just a matter of funding and time.