November 26, 2012
When I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with astronomy. I knew that in 1999, Pluto and Neptune would swap places in distance from the sun, and I begged my parents to build a rocket so that we could see it happen live. My brother was into trains and we went on train rides all the time, but (obviously) I never got to go into space.
My dream never died though, and my dream for the next step in space exploration is simple: cheap access to space for the masses. Not $200000 for a suborbital flight that lasts a few minutes, like Virgin Galactic is planning. No. Last month, I spent $375 to fly round-trip from Pittsburgh to Seattle, across an entire continent. I want to be able to spend that amount (and I'll settle for maybe a little more) for a ticket to the Moon and back again!
Obviously, this isn't going to happen overnight, so my dream needs a bit of infrastructure. A space elevator for starters, so that launching a few dozen people into orbit doesn't cost millions of dollars in fuel. An array of space stations in low Earth orbit (and in Lunar orbit, and Martian orbit, and throughout the solar system) - travel hubs that can provide access to the surface of other worlds. We can still launch probes to the gas giants and to the Kuiper Belt; I'm fascinated by those missions as well. But we also should be building up the foundation for the return of manned spaceflight, on a far grander scale than anything we've attempted as a species so far!
There are more than seven billion people living on Earth right now, and in the past 51 years, just over 500 have been to space. I'd rather have the odds of getting there be more like a coin flip and less like a nine-figure lottery.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.