I have always wanted to travel in outer space.
When I was about 6, my dad took me out one night over by the railroad tracks by the street behind our house. From there to the other side of the Ohio River, there were no city lights to obscure the night sky. Telstar had been launched, and according to the sparse information available, we should be able to see it overhead. We searched the millions of spots of lights until Dad pointed straight up.
“There it is,” he said, in awe. I followed his finger, but didn’t pick it up. “It’s moving very slowly,” he told me.
I focused on the area, and then saw a white dot, so much the same as all the stars, but its relative position to them changed. We watched it move until we could no longer sort it from the stellar array.
“The future is in outer space,” Dad told me.
Telstar was the first telecommunications satellite, launched by AT&T. It long ago served its purpose and went dark, although it still hangs among all it decedents. Dad didn’t live to see men walk on the moon, but he would not be surprised at what we’re doing in space these days. He might even think we’re dawdling, considering that in 1963 he was working on a formula for propellant for space travel.
Dad could fix anything by figuring how it worked or what the end result was supposed to be. As a teenager he had souped up Model T Fords for the speedy transport of white lightening, then converted to dirt track racing. There was never a time in our huge garage that a car, or its engine, wasn’t in some stage of rebuild. So how hard could it be to develop something that would hurtle craft through a vacuum, where there are no deep ruts or steep curves in the gravel road?
There are theoretical propulsion systems that would cut the time of space travel by enough to make trips in our solar system remarkably short. Some of these theories appear workable; that is, they can transfer from paper to the real world (or outer worlds) with a few tweaks. Mars can be months away instead of a couple of years, and the Kuyper Belt – the vast asteroid ring beyond – only a few weeks more.
In the immediate vastness, there are hundreds of manmade objects orbiting Earth that need to be rounded up. It isn’t a great propulsion system that is required here. The more attainable challenge is to design a craft that can round up these critters and herd them to recycling centers in space. Robots will disassemble the units and the parts can be circulated to manufacturing facilities orbiting nearby.
When we can get to and from the asteroid fields quickly, unmanned craft can go there and set up the drilling and excavating that will load raw materials onto unmanned cargo ships hauling to the factories staffed by a handful of people skilled in operating and maintaining the automation.
I recently saw a piece about plans for a colony on Mars with something like 250,000 people. I wondered what they would do. Everything we will take from the Red Planet can be managed by one-half of one percent of that amount of folks operating the kind of equipment that has put most mine workers out of jobs here on Terra Firma.
Yes, the future is in outer space, but it isn’t really for humans. I would love the chance to help design and then build a space factory, but even that would be a one-time thing. I doubt they’ll need an old codger to take a long-term trip to the edge of the solar system. Unmanned guided space craft have already checked that out.
Maybe I can just hitch a ride on the ship that brings Telstar home to take its rightful place at the Smithsonian.
(Ed. note to Conaway: Maybe YOU’LL end up in the Smithsonian….)