By Fisher Smith, NSS Legal Fellow
Space, the final frontier of human exploration. For thousands of years, we have dreamed of going to the stars and in recent generations we’ve travelled further than many thought possible. But, today, save for the few men and women aboard the International Space Station, humanity remains on Earth. If we have always dreamed of traveling to outer space, and we have some of the technology available to do so, what is holding us back? What is preventing us from stepping foot on extraterrestrial bodies and expanding human communities beyond Earth?
According to the National Space Society (NSS), our biggest hurdle is the lack of extraplanetary infrastructure. Even though we’ve been launching satellites and astronauts into and beyond our orbit for decades, no previous program has developed infrastructure that makes it easier to return to space. Because of this, each mission we launch from Earth only has the resources with which it leaves the planet. This dramatically limits the scope of what we can do in space. By the development of infrastructure, NSS contends that humanity can expand much more quickly—at much less cost—and we would be able to reach further with each subsequent mission.
In recent years, extraplanetary entrepreneurs have echoed these sentiments. Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon, explained the purpose behind his newest company, Blue Origin: While future generations will focus on lunar settlement and further exploration of our solar system, Bezos said, our generation needs to focus on infrastructure, and he plans to use Blue Origin to start that process.
NSS recommends a number of infrastructure projects on which space organizations should focus. The most important elements are refueling stations and fuel refineries. NSS identifies three prime locations for refueling stations: Earth orbit, on the lunar surface, and at the Lagrange Points—the locations in the Earth-Moon system where gravity balances to allow objects to stay in the same place with minimum effort. By positioning rocket gas stations at these various points in space, our outbound missions will have a greater range and lower costs since fuel is not being lifted from Earth. NSS estimates that with refueling stations, we can accelerate efforts to mine and build habitats on the Moon, Mars, and numerous near-Earth asteroids. Our first stations would have to be supplied from Earth, but that wouldn’t always be the case.
Shipping fuel from Earth as payload is exorbitantly expensive; while we would need to ferry fuel for some time, in the long term, we should find alternate means of refueling our way-stations. NSS urges that we use the resources in outer space to make the fuel there, which seems entirely possible. All rockets need oxygen and a fuel such as hydrogen. The regions of outer space near Earth, these resources are present. Asteroids and our Moon contain a large amount of water ice (made, of course, of hydrogen and oxygen). The lunar soil is also oxygen rich. Using automated mining, gathering, and refining methods, we can separate the oxygen and hydrogen and transport it to the refueling stations. By reducing the costs of refueling, and by increasing the amount of resources available to future astronauts, NSS contends that the cost for expansion will be dramatically reduced. With these infrastructural improvements in place around our planet, many of the restrictions that keep us planet-bound would be lifted.
These initiatives are just the beginning of our spaceward journey. But, what comes after these steps? And, why should we spend the money, effort, and time focusing on outer space? Answers, and other insights into the expansion of humanity into space, can be found in the NSS Position Paper, U.S. Development and Settlement of the Moon and Near Earth Asteroids.
About NSS Legal Fellow Fisher Smith
Fisher Smith is a second year law student at the University of Mississippi where he is currently part of the Space Law concentration program. Additionally, he is part of the Ole Miss Trial Advocacy Board and a junior staff editor on the Air and Space Law Journal at the university. Since he was a child, Fisher has always been interested in science and outer space. Whether the thrilling adventures of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the exploration of the cosmos by Captain Kirk in Star Trek, or the boundless possibilities created in Isaac Asimov’s stories, outer space has been a world of wonder for Fisher. Throughout his undergraduate studies at Rhodes College, Fisher focused his Political Science and International Studies interests towards outer space policies. These research interests showed him that by cooperating as a multinational community, humanity can harness outer space to improve conditions here on Earth. This interest in outer space possibilities led him to the Air and Space Law Society at Ole Miss, and he hopes to use these motivations to aid the NSS mission.