Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
Those of us of a certain generation (and I'm afraid that includes most members of The SETI League) can recall with pride the glory days of the Space Race, when in the US, NASA represented humankind's boldest hopes. This was a time of Giant Leaps, when the agency was replete with brave astronauts, gifted scientists, brilliant engineers, powerful rockets, limitless dreams -- and a sizeable budget. It seemed as though we could accomplish the impossible -- and, in a way, we did.
Those days are, if not gone forever, at least rapidly fading into dim memory. Today, NASA is an agency with a space mission, but no ticket to ride. Does the end of the Shuttle era mean the end of the dream?
I hope not. Over the past half-century, we on Planet Earth have made halting strides away from ideological competition, toward global cooperation. The International Space Station, though still a work in progress, has shown us what can be accomplished when we put nationalism aside in favor of human progress. The fact that American astronauts are dependent upon our Russian neighbors to hitch a ride there, though an embarrassment to those who think in terms of a once-great spacefaring nation, speaks to our newfound status as a spacefaring world.
Still, here we are without a re-usable launch vehicle. At the very least, it's one small step backward.
Not that the Shuttle ever achieved its promise of being a re-usable launch vehicle. At best, it was a re-manufacturable one. Parts of it would return from a mission, get wheeled into the chop shop, and (months and millions later) re-emerge with little more in common with its previous iteration than a pile of bricks and a name. But, at least, it gave the illusion of an ongoing human spaceflight program. That illusion was shattered with the final landing of the last operational shuttle.
And what has all this to do with SETI, the electromagnetic Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence? More than you might think. Recall that when Congress terminated NASA's modestly funded SETI effort in 1993, many of us thought that was the end of the line. We were wrong, of course. Privatization of SETI kept the dream and the mission alive (though at a more measured pace) for the past two decades, and continues to do so today. So may the privatization of human spaceflight keep a different dream alive in a post-Shuttle era.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic venture, its Burt Rutan designed SpaceShip Two soon to carry passengers into sub-orbital flights, is admittedly a far cry from a Space Shuttle, and is wholly incapable of attaining orbital velocity. It is, however, a truly reusable space vehicle, one which can be turned around and re-launched in a matter of days, not months. I have little doubt that true orbital vehicles will follow (and, in fact, may be already waiting in the wings), ushering in a new era of access to space -- propelled as much by the profit motive as by hybrid rocket motors.
Much as happened in the early days of NASA SETI, the Space Shuttle era began in fits and starts. Cost overruns and launch delays were the norm. Thirty years ago, I had hanging on my office wall an STS-1 launch calendar. It showed the year (1981), and an artist's conception of a Shuttle orbiter, along with the optimistic words "STS-1 -- we will launch in March!" Below, in a bit of whimsy that proved both realistic and prophetic, were block calendars for the twelve months of the year, labeled January, February, March, March, March, March, March, March, and March. I suspect scheduled commercial spaceflights will run to a similar calendar.
Many of us in The SETI League happen to be licensed radio amateurs. We were motivated and inspired by the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiments, and some of us had the privilege of talking to astronaut/hams as they orbited the Earth. The SAREX program morphed into ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station), and continues to this day. We can still talk to astronauts in low Earth orbit. But, few of us ever contemplated being on the high-altitude end of such a radio contact. Now, we can. Sure, the ticket costs $200,000, but that's today. I can easily envision a tomorrow in which members of our fraternity can venture into space with our hand-held transceivers, handing out contacts for little more than the cost of an ocean cruise. And I'm talking ordinary citizens here, not just astronauts! With the privatization of spaceflight will come its true democratization.
I look forward to the day when commercial space access is the norm, when we look fondly back to the quaint old days of costly Shuttle missions, viewing the Space Shuttle as the technological ancestor to modern spacecraft. After all, with all that's been accomplished in the privatization of SETI over the past two decades, isn't that how we're beginning to view the brief (but fondly remembered) NASA SETI program?
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 1 October 2011
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