by Rod D. Martin
January 16, 2004

Historians sometimes ask themselves questions like “How must Queen Isabella have felt when she finally gave permission for Columbus to sail to the New World?”

Maybe someday they will ask the same of George W. Bush.

Bush’s vision, announced this Wednesday to an overflow crowd at NASA headquarters, is a vow to expand “human presence across our Solar System”. Said the President: “We will set a new course for America’s space program; we will give NASA a new focus. We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe to gain a new foothold on the Moon and prepare for new journeys beyond Earth.”

Our Russian and European space allies cheered; so should every American. For the cost of one-tenth of one B-2 bomber (a tailfin perhaps?) per year, the President has set in motion the most dramatic change in NASA’s priorities since John F. Kennedy announced Apollo: a permanent Lunar colony, possibly as soon as 2015, followed by manned expeditions to Mars — among other places — within a decade. To get there, Bush proposes a new generation of state-of-the-art spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will take man to orbit, to the Moon, to Mars, and to anywhere else he might want to go; and an advanced nuclear rocket engine, already being designed under the name “Project Prometheus”, which will cut the travel time from Earth to Mars from eight months down to two.

It is certainly understandable why many people would fail to see the point. The Shuttle era was a dismal bureaucratic age of “U-Hauls to orbit,” and even the Apollo program — unquestionably one of the greatest achievements of man — was more geopolitical arm wrestle than otherworldly exploration. Few understand the potential of space, just as once upon a time few European serfs understood the value of expensive voyages to the Americas. But the past three decades notwithstanding, space is not merely a budget line-item or a money pit: space is a place. And it is a place in which much of the future of humanity will unfold.

Forget the cost of getting there for a moment: we’ll come back to that. Space is vast, and it’s far from empty. Virtually every non-living resource on Earth can be found on the Moon or on near-Earth asteroids; but unlike, say, the Amazon rainforest, mining in space involves no environmental damage, no harm to endangered species, no cancer-causing pollution, and no shady deals with the drug lords, Marxist guerrillas or Arab sheiks who control so much of the resource-rich area of the Earth.

It gets better: space contains not merely vast quantities of the things we have here, but also of things we don’t. Just one example: helium-3, an element which could be used to power tiny, safe fusion reactors of unbelievable power, is extremely potent, nonpolluting, and almost completely free of radioactive byproduct. Moreover, it’s worth a fortune. Measured in terms of its energy equivalent in oil, it’s worth $4 billion a ton; and one Space Shuttle load could supply the energy needs of the entire United States for a year. Earth has virtually no helium-3; the Moon alone has at least a million tons.

Opportunities like that could make space a very popular destination very quickly, not unlike — indeed exactly like — the New World in gold rush days. And this does not even begin to touch on the incredible potential of zero and low gravity manufacturing — once again, without pollution, but with scientific possibilities which cannot be duplicated on Earth — or the opportunities for scientific research — from super-sensitive observatories on the “dark side” of the Moon to drugs and medical procedures today unimagined — or the world-covering quantities of water just discovered on Mars, making real colonization or even terraforming a possibility, or even just the positive societal effects of having a new frontier.

But wait: what about the expense? Well, it turns out that once you’re actually in space, things get very cheap: it’s getting there that costs. That first hundred miles between the ground and orbit accounts for the lion’s share of the cost of space flight. Solve that problem, and flying to space will be like flying to Boston.

And in fact, there is a solution: the scramjet, or supersonic combustion ramjet. Scramjets — which after forty years of research flew for the first time in 2002, and which are already slated to power the next generation of cruise missiles — will make hypersonic flight (Mach 5 and above) routine. When combined with NASA’s newly-developed technology to eliminate sonic booms, this will change our world in ways which will make the 20th Century look like the 19th. People will travel as easily between continents as they do today between states, and America’s military will be able to project vast power anywhere without using foreign bases. But most important of all, with just minor modification, the same craft that will fly you to Japan will fly you to space, and at roughly the same cost.

This development will open new worlds; and its consequences will go a long way toward cleaning up and vastly enriching the old one. It will not be merely revolutionary: it will be Promethean.

The only real question is who will exploit it. Will America colonize those new worlds, controlling the economic life of humanity to a degree today’s Arabs can only dream of, or will we allow others to dominate us instead? Will Washington and Madison’s children continue to lead in science, military power, and political dominance, or will it cede that to the socialists in Brussels, or even the totalitarians in Beijing?

That question remains to be answered. But for today, while we wait for the new Orvilles and Wilburs to do their magic, George Bush is building — at a miniscule cost — the infrastructure to give America the early lead. The day may come when we and our children owe all we have to this single act of statesmanship.