We are at the beginning of another age of exploration.
Artemis Rocket and the Moon
Every age of exploration has begun with a technological innovation. For the Europeans of the 16th century it was the square-rigged sailing ship. For us it spacecraft.
What will our explorers bring back? As with previous ages, explorers bring back items of high value and easy transportability.
Precious metals are a logical import. Our explorers might bring home metals such as lithium.
Lithium is necessary for manufacturing batteries. Demand for batteries is increasing as we move away from burning fossil fuels, but mining and refining metals has a significant negative impact on the environment. However if we utilize the metals we find in space, we can mine and refine them with no negative impact on earth's fragile environment.
Another logical import is energy. As we move away from burning fossil fuels, solar energy provides an option, but blanketing the earth with solar panels is not environmentally friendly. Not to mention the fact that solar energy is only generated during daylight hours and is reduced by clouds and precipitation.
But in space, large solar collectors make sense. They have no negative impact on earth’s environment and they generate power 24/7. That power can be transmitted to earth distribution stations using microwaves. This concept has been discussed for many years.
And we will import that most precious—and transportable—of all commodities: knowledge.
Not only knowledge about the universe, of which we are a part, but knowledge of how biological systems work. The zero-gee environment of the space station is a unique laboratory for advancing human health. Recent experiments include amyloid growth mechanisms, related to Alzheimers, and bone and muscle density loss mitigation related to osteoporosis. (NASA publication ISS Benefits for Humanity, P58-59).
Another precious commodity resulting from exploration is inspiration. When I see the smart young people involved in the space program I am inspired. These kids are smart, motivated, hard working, and they have a vision for our shared future. I see full participation of women and minorities. The technology is marvelous (and all of NASA-developed technology is available to all people).
It's great to be able to view rocket launches and spacecraft orbiting the moon in real time. Something I dreamed about when I was a kid.
Credits and sources:
Artemis mission photos and International Space Station photo: NASA
Power from Space: Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine August 2022, p14.
Resource Constraints and Renewable Energy: American Society of Mechanical Engineering Magazine, Dec 2022, page 14.
ISS Benefits for Humanity 2022, NASA publication.