Despite all the political turmoil, angst and urgency in the U.S. and the world, despite the Pandemic, despite the economic downturn caused by the Pandemic, there has been a bright spot all year. Humanity continues its journey upward, into the Solar System and eventually the stars.
Five recent accomplishments capture the wonder of space and the triumph of science and ingenuity that combine into successful space missions.
Today Nov. 2, 2020 marks the 20th Anniversary of permanent human presence in space on board the Space Station. We have been continuously a space-faring civilization for two decades not to mention all the exploration for decades before.
Last week, in a mesmerizing live feed we watched the first touchdown and sample collection on a distant asteroid, actually 300 million kilometers distant from Earth. We are talking about OSIRIS-REx’s “Touch-And-Go” on Asteroid Bennu. It will take a couple of years for the sample to be returned to Earth. This mission, more than previous asteroid explorations, illustrates the possibilities of mining asteroids. This will not be for the purpose of returning asteroid materials to earth (perhaps very rarely) but rather for the purpose of collecting raw materials to manufacture habitats, craft, fuels and to collect water for use in space by the space civilization of the future.
Third, in just a couple of weeks if the schedule is maintained, SpaceX will launch a crew of four astronauts to the Space Station in a Dragon spacecraft, another milestone in providing greater human access to space.
Fourth, speaking of SpaceX, last week they completed their 100th successful launch of the Falcon reusable rocket, which has reduced the cost of launching payloads into space by a factor of up to 14.
Finally, SpaceX continues its fast iteration of building and testing versions of its ultimate interplanetary rocket, the Starship. Soon they will test a version to high altitude, with an orbital test to follow. The speed at which they are working is vastly different than the usually slow and steady process of space exploration up to now. If they succeed, both Moon and Mars missions within a few years become much more likely, even no matter the political status of U.S. government space agendas.
Is it not likely that from the vantage point of say, 200 years from now, humans may remember the era of 2020 more for these steps toward a multi-planetary civilization than for current political conflicts? Of course this assumes these conflicts are worked out in an eventually positive way, something I consider to be part of the “great filter” that humanity is passing through in this century. If we succeed, then centuries and millennia of success can follow. If not, then after many steps backward humanity will need to start again.