Fourth Industrial Revolution

What humanity’s history in space tells us about our future in the stars

This is a stunning pair of interacting galaxies, the barred spiral Seyfert 1 galaxy NGC 7469 (Arp 298, Mrk 1514), a luminous infrared source with a powerful starburst deeply embedded into its circumnuclear region, and its smaller companion IC 5283.This system is located about 200 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus, the Winged Horse. This image is part of a large collection of 59 images of merging galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on the occasion of its 18th anniversary on April 24, 2008.  REUTERS/NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)/Handout   (UNITED STATES).  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

So far we have only ventured as far as the international space station, but that might be about to change. Image: REUTERS/NASA

Christopher Ingraham
Writer, Wonk Blog
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Fourth Industrial Revolution

Humans became a spacefaring species 60 years ago this month, when Russia launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. We're the only species to achieve this milestone in the 4.5 billion-year history of Earth, and to date we've seen no evidence that any other species in our own galaxy or outside it has the same capability.

That's a lot of responsibility to put on the collective shoulders of a few billion sentient apes huddled on a pale blue dot in a nondescript suburb of the Milky Way. How are we handling it so far?

Well, take a look.

Image: Wonkblog

This is a comprehensive chart of every attempted space launch from 1957 to the present day — roughly 5,730 of them, according to a database maintained by Harvard astrophysicist Johnathan McDowell. They include everything from satellite launches to manned flights to scientific missions like Cassini — successful attempts along with the (surprisingly few) failures. The entirety of human spacefaring ambition, in one chart.

There are two ways to look at these numbers. The first reading tells a narrative that most of us are probably familiar with, one of disappointment and decline. After Sputnik, the Space Age ramped up into high gear, driven in large part by competition between the United States and Russia. Orbital launches peaked in 1967, when humans sent 143 rockets into orbit containing satellites, lunar orbiters, and precursors to the first moon landing.

Launch activity remained high through the 1970s and 1980s. But it began to decline in the 1990s. The Challenger explosion in 1986 took some of the shine off manned spaceflight, and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Congress began appropriating ever-smaller chunks of the federal budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Launches hit a nadir in 2004 when humans made 55 attempts at orbital flight — a little more than one-third of the peak hit in 1967. Since then the numbers have rebounded but remain well under those in the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2016, for instance, there were 85 space launches, three of which failed. We're on track to hit about the same number this year, depending on how the year's remaining launches pan out.

What happened? It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the 1960s humanity dreamed of moon bases, space tourism and putting astronauts on Mars. So far, none of that has panned out. The future gave us “smart” toasters, suicidal robots and dank memes but no jet packs or flying cars.

Meanwhile, American space ambition — at least of the official, government-led variety — might appear to be rudderless. Since the last human left the lunar surface 45 years ago, administrations have vacillated between sending people back to the moon or on to Mars or someplace in between.

The result has been that nobody has been sent anywhere beyond the International Space Station, which orbits 250 miles above the surface — about the distance between D.C. and Pittsburgh.

But there's another way to look at these numbers, focusing on the roughly 50 percent increase in launch activity since 2004. Much of that has been driven not by governments but by private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, which has completed 15 successful launches in 2017 alone. That accounts for more than one-quarter of all orbital launches so far this year — nearly as many as Russia.

Orbital launches may be rarer than they once were, but they remain, in many respects, routine — humans have attempted to shoot something into space about once every four days this year, with a success rate greater than 93 percent. After decades of satellite launches there are more than 1,000 operational satellites orbiting Earth at this moment, facilitating even mundane tasks like directing you to the grocery store and delivering the Kardashians to your television.

Governments and private companies, meanwhile, have big plans for the coming years. The Trump administration wants to send people back to the moon. SpaceX hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars in seven years. Jeffrey P. Bezos's Blue Origin plans to send tourists into suborbital flight by the end of 2018 (Bezos owns The Washington Post).

But when it comes to space, nothing is guaranteed. Space is hard, the saying goes. And there's plenty of reason to be pessimistic: According to Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, there's a 50 percent chance that we're currently living in the last half of the Space Age, with less than 50 years of space travel ahead of us. It's easy to see how a small number of setbacks, like budget cuts or the loss of a crew, could derail our ambitions and make many of us decide that space travel isn't worth the cost or risks.

But that might end up being a big mistake. If there's anything we know about life on Earth, it's that it's fragile — all it would take is an errant comet or a nuclear war to render much of the planet uninhabitable. Setting up permanent outposts on the moon or Mars would be like taking out a species-level insurance policy against such events — to say nothing of the ancillary economic benefits of space exploration.

Such an effort could very well be worth the cost and risk. One possible reason we don't currently see evidence of aliens whizzing about the galaxy in high-tech spacecraft: Wherever it evolves, intelligent life may simply tend to get wiped out by natural disasters or internal strife before it develops the capacity to escape its planet of origin.

If that's the case those are daunting odds, to be sure. But every orbital launch brings us one step closer to beating them.

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