ASU KEDtalk: Weekending on the moon

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January 01, 2017
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ASU KEDtalk: Weekending on the moon

Is a weekend on the moon just around the corner? ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration Professor Jim Bell makes the case for why deep space is the new economic frontier and what that will mean for humanity.


Full transcript

Jim Bell: Hello, I am Jim Bell, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the NewSpace Initiative here at ASU.

I want to tell you all a story about a brand new, high-tech industry that is being lead by rich and famous entrepreneurs, who are building and testing amazing new machines that transport cargo and people far away rapidly and affordably. This industry is at the frontier of technology and engineering. It is pushing those frontiers to their limits, making inventions and innovations that can change the world as we know it.

Now, what if I were to tell you that this story happened in 1925. That this new industry was based on this strange concept called ‘commercial aviation.’ The luxury world of flyboys and flygirls and the super-rich would soon become a part of the everyday 21st century world. To the point today, where we regard air travel as relatively routine.

Well, it all started with something called the Air Mail Act of 1915. When the U.S. Government started giving these juicy contracts to start-up companies like American and United to deliver the mail. And they used those contracts to increase their safety levels, to increase their efficiency, to lower costs, and that led to the airline industry of today. 

This is actually a model to something similar to what is happening right now, but in the space business. New, small businesses are forming in businesses in rocketry, small satellites, space tourism, even mining. NASA and other space agencies are offering juicy government contracts to start-ups with names like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Bigelow Air and Space. Not to deliver the mail but to deliver cargo, supplies and eventually people to low Earth orbit. So this is a model we have seen before in the airline industry. A model we have seen before in the railroad industry. Will this lead to spaceline travel becoming as routine as airline travel is today? Is is absolutely crazy for me to imagine to be able to send the weekend on the Moon before I retire?    

Well, when I was growing up, I got turned on by guys driving cars on the Moon. How cool is that? They were driving cars on the moon. I had no idea why we were there. I didn’t know anything about the Cold War. I didn’t know anything about the geopolitics of space. All that I knew was that it was awesome. It was inspirational and I wanted to do that.

But I had to learn there are many reasons we explore space besides, ‘hey that’s really cool.’ Certainly the inspiration and the value of science and technology, engineering and math education are incredibly important reasons as is national pride, as is a greater appreciation of our country abroad. Because all of us are investors in space exploration, assuming you paid your taxes.  

We also explore space to learn about our planet, about our solar system and beyond so that, for example, we could save ourselves from a potential cosmic catastrophe like the giant impact that killed the ancient dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I have argued that exploring space is not just a luxury that we can opt to do. We have to learn how get out into space, how to get off this planet, because it is essential to the survival of our species.    

Exploring space also leads to tangible benefits in technology and infrastructure. Things like GPS, cell phones, weather satellites, new materials for harsh environments, new guidance systems for spacecraft, airplanes and even cars. There are other examples in foods, medicines, physiology in healing diseases. The space program is really a part of our lives. It is more than tang, but not quite yet growing potatoes on Mars.

As we expand farther out, I think it is reasonable to expect those benefits will expand farther out too. Just like the airlines changed the 20th century, space and spacelines will change the 21st. Space is the next economic frontier.

At low Earth orbit, the space closest to home, there already is an important part of our global economy. This is where the Shuttle went, where the Hubble Space Telescope is, where the International Space Station is, where more than 500 astronauts that have flown have gone. But most people don’t realize where low orbit is and how close to home it really is.

So I have a little demo to show you. First I will grab my prop number 1 then prop number 2.

[Holds basketball and dime.]

We are going to pretend this basketball is Earth. Where is low Earth orbit? Take a dime and hold it up against Earth. That’s it. Top of the dime, right there. That’s where the Shuttle went, that’s where the space station is, that’s where the Hubble Space Telescope is. Just at the top of that dime.

NASA has been criticized for cancelling the Space Shuttle, because that is the nation’s only way to get humans into space. I was a huge fan of the Space Shuttle. I watched it launch, watched it land, and was incredibly proud of what they were achieving and realizing of course, the risks they were taking. But I was sort of glad to see the Shuttle retired and to see NASA start to hand over low Earth orbit, that close to home part of space, to corporations, to others because it is no longer the exploration frontier. It is a different kind of place, very ripe for economic development. In fact, the economic sphere of our planet now extends out into space, at least to low Earth orbit. I have been happy to see these Earth-based companies get involved in space-based businesses. I want NASA to be pushing the frontiers to go off to new distant destinations like the Moon, which on that scale would be across the room, or Mars, which would be down the street. Those deep space destinations are where new opportunities await. New discoveries. New technology. New industries that will push the economic sphere even deeper into space. We should expect disruptive new technologies like the transistor and the internet that came before, that will change our world and our species.            

We have actually begun to explore those deep space destinations already with robots; flyby probes, orbiters, landers, and rovers with names like Viking, Voyager, Cassini, and Curiosity. Our first looks at that worlds around us are using these robots doing things robots can do like determining the size of something or its mass or its topography, or the basics of its geology and chemistry looking at planets, moons, asteroids and comets. Here at ASU, we have been an important part of that robotic exploration since it began in the 1960s. Faculty, staff and students worked on designing, testing, building, and operating for dozens of missions in the past. This continues to today.

Right now on campus, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team is taking pictures of the Moon in high resolution and the Opportunity and Curiosity rover teams are analyzing the data coming back from Mars every day. The Cassini mission that is exploring Saturn, the Dawn mission that is exploring the asteroid series. We are building instruments and entire small spacecraft on campus for the future exploration of low Earth orbit, the Moon and beyond. It is really an incredible time, and incredible era of space exploration. Textbooks are literally being re-written as we speak.

But it is important to ask, do we have to send people into space? Can we do it with robots? I don’t think we can. I think the things we can do with robots, we should do with robots. But there is a whole other realm of things, more complex work like the forensic work of field geology or the large scale complex work of setting up drill rigs, or the fine scale work of detailed sampling and analysis. Those are the kinds of skills that require the human brain, human intuition, and human experience. I think when people go back into space, back to the Moon, back to asteroids, to Mars and beyond, and they will, it will be with robots as our assistants and tools instead of just robots.               

At ASU, we're starting to use our robotics expertise to team with companies out there to explore. I am the director of the Space Technology and Science, or NewSpace, Initiative. We connect faculty, staff, students with commercial space companies, up and down the supply chain. We have good expertise in science, engineering, robotics, instrumentation, laboratory work and operations. Those companies want to be bringing products and services to the market in low Earth orbit and beyond. We can do this to advance our science, engineering, and technical objectives while working with these companies.

For example, some of my colleagues at ASU are experts in asteroids and meteorites. We partnered with a small company called Planetary Resources that is an asteroid mining company. Right now, they are prospecting, so we are helping them test their prospecting instruments that are looking for natural resources that could occur in asteroids. Probably the most economically important commodity – resource – out there is water as ice or water-bearing minerals on these asteroids. We can use it for drinking, use it for radiation shielding, we can separate the hydrogen and oxygen and use it for rocket fuel or breathable air. Water is really more valuable than gold in space in the future. 

At ASU we have astronomers and planetary scientists who know how to look for it and who know how to find it. So when these companies that we partner with begin their prospecting work in the coming decades, they will be doing what they need to be doing to look for those resources and we will be doing science as well. It is a great win-win partnership and it is kind of representative of what we are trying to do at ASU NewSpace, integrating the academic and the commercial space sectors. 

So what can you do to help move this NewSpace revolution forward? Three things. First, you can know you are already investors in the future of space exploration. If you think it has been a great investment, contact your member of congress and let them know. That is, advocate for steady funding of NASA and other space related agencies and industries. You can join organizations like The Planetary Society, which helps do this kind of advocacy as well. Full disclosure, I am the president of The Planetary Society so I am a big fan and I think it is a great way for like-minded people to get together and help advocate for space exploration. And finally, you can educate yourself and others about the place in space. You might be able to take classes at ASU for example is space science, engineering, or technology exploration. You can educate other people, especially kids. Take them to look through a telescope. Take them to your local astronomy club or astronomy night and let them see and experience the awe and wonder of the cosmos. Share that awe and wonder you feel inside yourself with others.           

Who could have imagined in 1920s that by the end of the 20th century it would be possible to take routine airline flights to almost anywhere on the planet? Now we are approaching the 2020's, and I think it is just as hard to imagine that by the end of this century, we will be able to take routine spaceline flights to just about anywhere in the solar system. That is the future that is coming and that is the future many of us across ASU are working to help create. So that weekend on the Moon is coming! I know it and I’m getting ready for it. You should too. Eat well, stay health, live long and prepare to strap on for the ride of your life.

Thank you.