26
Apr
12

An Oft-Delayed Future

Posting by Jeffrey Winters:

When I was my son’s age, I was sold on the promise of a great future in space. I’d been watching Star Trek reruns after school, had pored over the old copies of National Geographic that presented the last of the Apollo missions, and kept track of the latest developments in planetary exploration. Sure, the Viking lander had just reported back from the desolate surface of Mars, but there were other destinations. 

One of my most cherished books from that time was Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer, which laid out the case that the best place—other than Earth—for people to live was not on the surface of the moon or Mars, but in orbiting structures that spun to create artificial gravity. (The same year, NASA physicist Gerard K. O’Neill made a similar case in his book, The High Frontier. I read an excerpt of that in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 1977 science annual.) To me, one of the neatest things about Heppenheimer’s book wasn’t just the mind-blowing illustrations of cities in a (very large) bottle, but that he drew up the business case for human settlement in space. In his telling, we could use the essentially unlimited mineral resources of the moon and asteroids to build solar power satellites that would beam electricity (in the form of microwaves) to Earth.

Colonies in Space has been uploaded onto the Internet in its entirety, which is good for me since I’ve lost my dog-eared copy. I was reminded of that book this week when the company Planetary Resources introduced itself to the world. Planetary Resources is backed by quite a few billionaires and is aiming to build robotic vessels that will find mineral-rich asteroids and—eventually—strip mine the good stuff for human consumption.

It’s hard to say whether that vision of robotic industrialism will be more feasible than the human colonization that animated me in the 1970s. Maybe space will be our destiny—someday—but for now we’d better hedge our bets by taking better care of the Earth we have.


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John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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