Dale M. Gray (Historian of the Frontiers) was in Washington, where he attended to the Space 2000 Symposium. Dale passed to us the following reportage from Jeff Foust, the editor of SpaceViews.

Space 2000 Symposium Overview

by Jeff Foust

Is it possible for a space conference to cover too much ground? That was the dilemma faced by organizers of the Space 2000 Symposium, who wanted to cover as broad a range of issues dealing with humanity's future as space as possible -- and cram it into a 13-hour day.

The conference was able to span a wide range of topics, from the history of spaceflight to prospects for the future, but the limited amount of time kept conference planners from exploring any concept in any detail. However, the hundreds of people who attended the meeting, held in a basketball arena on the campus of American University in Washington, DC, March 24, did get a fleeting glimpse of where we've been in spaceflight, and where we might be headed.

Journey into the Past

To help provide some perspective on future plans, the conference took a look at what we've done in space in the past. A striking point provided by Andrew Chaikin is that, if anything, we went to the Moon too soon. "We went to the moon at the very earliest moment in history we could," he said, saying that the technology needed for a lunar mission simply could not have existed sooner. "It was like taking a decade from the 21st century and splicing it into the 1960s."

Because of this incredible accomplishment, we created bold visions for the future: Frederick Ordway said that the late Stanley Kubrick feared in the 1960s that the manned mission to Jupiter portrayed in the movie 2001 might be unrealistic because NASA would have conducted such a mission before 2001! However, the geopolitical alignment that made Apollo a reality soon shifted, and Apollo became a "singular event", and not a gateway to further exploration of the solar system, Chaikin noted.

Reasonable Futures in Space

If Apollo set unreasonably high expectations for past plans for space exploration, what's reasonable to accept today? NASA administrator Dan Goldin outlined his vision for the near future of space agency in a featured address at the conference. Calling this "a wonderful time to be alive", he pointed out all the unmanned space science missions NASA has planned for the coming decade, ranging from Mars sample return missions to a Europa orbiter and a proposed space telescope devoted to search for terrestrial planets around other stars. He even talked of sending a spacecraft out to 500 Astronomical Units, more than 10 times Pluto's distance from the Sun, where the focal point of the Sun's gravitational lens lies: a telescope there, utilizing the Sun as a lens, could be able to see tremendous distances not possible otherwise.

For manned flight, Goldin said NASA should get out of operations in low Earth orbit by 2013 -- about 10 years after the International Space Station is completed -- and turn those operations over to commercial interests. This will require the development of new launch vehicles capable of greatly reducing the cost of space access, he noted. "The shuttle is a wonderful vehicle, but it can't open the space frontier," he said.

While Goldin's address bungled some of the technical details (he misidentified some of the moons in the outer solar system, as well as a particular kind of Russian rocket), he weaved a compelling vision for our near future in space. "It's okay to dream again in America," he said. "Dreams are wonderful and we shouldn't take them for granted."

Long-Term Visions: Why and How

While Goldin discussed NASA's vision for the near future, others took a longer-range, and sometimes more philosophical view, of humanity's future in space. Ted Koppel, moderating the final discussion panel of the evening, threw out an interesting proposal: would mankind be more interested in space exploration if confronted by the threat of extinction?

SETI scientist Jill Tarter noted that the Earth suffers a catastrophic collision about once every 100 million years. If humanity had a home on more than one world, she said, such a catastrophe would not wipe us out. Author Timothy Ferris agreed, saying that by "buying our descendents an insurance policy" by creating a home on another world, we would provide a motivation for the manned space program, which is otherwise "in danger of stalling."

Such a catastrophe does not have to come from an asteroid or comet impact, noted "Rocket Boys" author Homer Hickam. "We're quite able to cause calamity from within," he said. Civilization is passing through a "cheap energy bubble" created by fossil fuels now that will last only another 60-100 years. We have the capability now to go out and tap other energy resources in space, he said, but we may not be able to afford to do it when the cheap energy runs short.

Hickam also touched on how we should go into space in the future, expressing almost a contempt for conventional rockets. He said research should be going into advanced drives. Such drives, 100 to 1000 times more powerful than existing engines, could exist within 15 years if a concerted effort was started to develop them. With them, he said, "the solar system would become our neighborhood." (In fact, one such drive, the VASIMR concept by astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, was presented at the symposium earlier in the day.)

Others tried to put space exploration into a different perspective. Speaking in the first session of the day, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy, said that getting into space was not the first priority of humanity. Rather, he said, getting through the next century and the problems that will come with it is our top priority, and space can help. He suggested that a "green" space program, seen as an arm of the environmental movement, is the way to go: otherwise, he said, space efforts "have no natural constituency."

"Let's Go"

In a conference like this, which also featured a session on science education and a tribute to the late Carl Sagan, it's difficult to find a single theme or message to take away from the symposium. Perhaps the closest came from JPL director Ed Stone, who polled the audience and found most were interested in traveling in space. "If it's feasible, reliable, and affordable, people will go," Stone said. "There's no question the human race will be everywhere."

"I say we can do it," Hickam said. "Let's go."

-- Jeff Foust is editor of SpaceViews.

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