On Point: Into the Fourth Era of Space Exploration


by Austin Bay
April 12, 2011

April 12, 2011, marked the anniversaries of twoextraordinary historical events. One hundred fifty years ago, on April 12,1861, rebels in Charleston, S.C., fired on Fort Sumter, igniting the AmericanCivil War. That war had complex economic, political and social origins, buttaking seriously the Declaration of Independence's premise that "all menare created equal" was definitely one of those complexities.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight on April 12,1961, is the other extraordinary anniversary. Fifty very short years ago,Gagarin, in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, made a one-orbit trip around the Earth, andbecame the first human being to fly into space and return.

The American Civil War showcased two history-shapingtechnologies: the railroad and the telegraph. Both Union and Confederatelogisticians amazed European military observers by moving large armies hundredsof miles by rail, and then quickly throwing them into battle. For worse and forbetter, railroads would ultimately connect Paris to Berlin, then Baghdad, thenBeijing.

With the telegraph sending data at the speed of light, UnionGen. William Sherman, in Chattanooga, could contact the War Department inWashington in a matter of minutes. In some respects, the Internet is just atelegraph where everyone is his own telegrapher. In the shorthand method fordesignating upgrades of software and hardware, think of the telegraph asInternet 1.0.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark speculates thatin four or five centuries, people will remember the 20th century for the Apollomoon landings -- human beings physically landing on another heavenly body.Gagarin's spaceflight 50 years ago was the first dramatic success in thatventure.

Within the last decade, we have entered what I call theSpace Age's fourth phase, Space 4.0. Space 1.0 began with Robert Goddard'srocketry genius, meandered through World War II, and in the Cold War's firstdecade produced Sputnik and Telstar. Space 2.0 spanned the manned orbital and"moon race" era. It began with Gagarin and culminated with themagnificent Apollo missions.

The American shuttle defined Space 3.0. NASA's space"truck" engaged a Swiss Army knife array of missions, from deployingsatellites to experimental manufacturing to transporting astronauts to theInternational Space Station (ISS). Coincidentally, April 12, 2011, is the 30thanniversary of the first space shuttle flight (April 12, 1981).

NASA intends to formally end Space 3.0 this year, when thelast shuttle mission is scheduled to lift off. However, the transition to theage of commercialization and private space ventures -- Space 4.0, the age ofthe space entrepreneur -- is already well underway.

In 2009, Apollo 11's 40th anniversary, COTS (CommercialOrbital Transportation Services) moved from NASA acronym to reality. SpaceXcorporation's Falcon 1 missile launch provided future historians with themoment of indicative drama. On July 13, 2009, the privately financed andprivately built Falcon 1 missile placed the Malaysian RazakSAT EarthObservation satellite in orbit.

Other initiatives signal how varied -- and frenzied -- thenext three decades will be from low-Earth orbit to the moon. "Spacetourism" companies are booking jaunts to and from the ISS. A couple ofyears ago, another company, Orbital Sciences, tested its Cygnus PressurizedCargo Module (PCM), which will deliver supplies to the ISS.

Though the entrepreneurial era of transcontinental railroadsconnecting U.S. and Canadian coasts does capture a sense of this moment's expansivepossibilities, Space 4.0 defies historical analogy. Today's near-spaceentrepreneurs run markedly different kinds of companies and operations than therail barons. If the relative "high stakes" are comparable (for theNorth American transcontinental railroads were participants innation-building), the risks involved and accepted are more immediate andsubstantial.

The transition to 4.0 from 3.0 won't be smooth. Space 4.0requires risk capital -- lots of it. NASA's future role is murky. NASA has beenthe coordinating brain and inspirational heart of America's space effort. AsNASA's budget withers, having commercial services deliver cargo and personnelto and from orbit should free NASA to focus on deep-space projects -- the firststeps to Space 5.0. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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