Space advocates at this year's International Space Development Conference, put on by the National Space Society (NSS), said they believe they can help save the world. If they are united on any single philosophical point, it is this: space exploration can and will make life better on Earth.

Naturally, the means of making life better can vary, ranging from scientific inquiry to politics to economics. Charles Elachi, Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when asked why we explore, stated, "If we didn't, we'd still be in caves." Elon Musk, taking a page right from the NSS's Mission Statement, says he wants to make humanity a spacefaring civilization and make space financially viable. Burt Rutan declared, "We're not doing this for money, we're doing it to get humans into space."

With oil hovering near $70 a barrel, alternative energy needs have never been greater. Space advocates see a solution in solar power satellites (SPS)--orbiting, kilometer-wide sets of solar cells that would beam the energy to Earth in the form of microwaves. Our economy demands two seemingly incompatible things: high-yield electrical power that is also non-polluting--SPS promises both.

SPS still has some challenges to overcome, however: first, no one has built, launched, and tested a fully-functional SPS yet; second, the price per pound of payload to orbit still makes SPS a dubious financial proposition. According to one speaker, British Petroleum (BP) Solar wouldn't even consider development of SPS until launch costs dropped to around $1,000 per kilogram, one-fifth of current prices. However, more than one speaker felt that testing should start now. Both Peter Diamandis and Bill Nye the Science Guy suggested that new materials--especially carbon nanotubes--could provide the material means of building lightweight, reusable spacecraft. Such spacecraft could reduce the cost to orbit, thereby making SPS feasible.

Aside from the economic reasons, there are also environmental and political justifications for pursuing space solar power. When Bill Nye shouts from the podium, "We're all going to die!" people pay attention. His concerns focus on global warming, a term he doesn't like. "It sounds happy." Half-jokingly, he suggested that people call it "global baking." Human consumption of fossil fuels, he said, is causing more numerous and severe hurricanes due to atmospheric heating. Several members of Nye's audience questioned his assumptions about human impact on global warming, but few speakers at the conference argued with the idea that the world needs a substitute for petroleum. John Strickland, a long-time lecturer on SPS, said petroleum is more crucial as chemical feedstock for other materials.

Several speakers suggested that asteroid mining could increase the amount of available metals and reduce the amount of metal mining done on Earth. Peter Diamandis referred to asteroids as "$20 trillion checks" waiting to be cashed. Space, then, is not just seen as rocket science, but as a technological means of fixing pressing environmental problems.

Virgin Galactic's Wil Whitehorn noted that Burt Rutan didn't develop SpaceShipOne for "tree-hugging" purposes, but SS1 does have a lower CO2 output than other vehicles. Virgin operates under the "Gaia theory" of management, believing Earth behaves as if it were a superorganism, made up from all the living things and from their material environment. They believe in "Gaia capitalism," which is "providing solutions through technology, not tree-hugging."

The aforementioned carbon nanotubes might even be able to leapfrog past lightweight spacecraft and facilitate the construction of a space elevator. A space elevator would extend from the Earth's surface to a point in geosynchronous orbit, with the elevator staying aloft by balancing its weight of the material balanced against the centrifugal force of the Earth's spin. This super-strong cable or tape would allow carrier vehicles to haul cargo up to orbit without the need for rockets. Theoretically, this could cut costs to orbit to around $200/kg.

Space activities could even help America resolve its problems in the Middle East. Darel Preble, session chair of the SPS discussions, suggested that in addition to reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, SPS could provide a non-threatening alternative to nuclear weapons proliferation.

And, of course, space continues to represent to many Americans "the final frontier." Robert Zubrin, a long-time advocate for Mars exploration and settlement, embraces historian Frederick Jackson Turner's belief that the frontier is a crucial part of the American character. At ISDC he said, "I would like to see our traditions carried forward." NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale echoed this sentiment, as she believes the space program "reflects our national character" as explorers.

Education is another big motivator in space advocacy. Organizations from NASA to the big aerospace companies to non-profit organizations like the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) have programs inspire and educate students. John Powell, President of JP Aerospace, provides the opportunity for kids of all ages to have a hands-on experience with space by launching ping pong balls into space, which students fill with whatever experiment they can fit inside of them. Bill Boland of the Space Frontier Foundation described SFF's Teachers in Space program, which is designed to send teachers into space via one of the current or upcoming suborbital tourist vehicles (XCOR, etc.). The idea is for the teachers to come back to their classrooms and share the experience with their students. The hope of all of these efforts is to inspire kids to learn the "hard subjects" like math and science, much as they did during the Apollo era. Math and science are crucial to success in our ever-more-complex world economy.

So, are space advocates escapists or are they really trying to save the world? Powell doesn't expect all of these kids to become astronauts. "If some kid got inspired by this program and discovered the cure for cancer, I'd be okay with that."

Bart Leahy is a technical writer and National Space Society member living in Alexandria, Virginia.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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