Professor gives space travel historical treatment
Jonathan Coopersmith was barely a teenager when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969. But the experience – Coopersmith remembers watching the launch of Apollo 11 – filled the now associate professor of history with a lifelong curiosity about space exploration.
Coopersmith, who is a historian of technology, has written several op-eds about space travel and politics. He will be featured in an upcoming issue of Issues in Science & Technology, published by the National Academy Press, with an article about affordable access to space. Coopersmith says that space exploration is a topic ripe for analysis through the historian’s lens.
“With space exploration and exploitation, you get issues of domestic and international politics, issues of technology evolution and development, issues of economics, and lots of social and cultural issues,” he said. “Everything’s there and it’s very visible, particularly the political aspects. Space exploration excites people in a way that infrastructure developments – say clean water and sewage – don’t.”
Coopersmith argues that, despite being more than a half-century old, space travel is still too costly and too risky. This, he claims, is primarily because the American government has not invested in it to the degree that it should.
“It costs three to five dollars per pound for me to purchase an airline ticket,” explained Coopersmith. “It takes about $10,000 to send a pound of something into space.”
Within the next year or so, civilians will be able to take “space tours” through Virgin Galactic for $200,000 a person. However, the trips will only reach 60 miles, well below earth orbit and demanding far less energy than actual space travel. Coopersmith believes the price is still too expensive and points out that the number of people who have reached orbit since 1961 could fit into one jumbo jet.
“On the one hand, it’s really impressive how far we’ve come in roughly five and a half decades,” he said. “On the other hand, you look at the potential – if you talk to some of the engineers and scientists – it’s like ‘Wow! Look what we could do.’ We think what we’ve accomplished is amazing, but we could do even more if it wasn’t so expensive. And one of the problems is that no one is talking about radical reductions in cost, partly because it costs money to figure it out.”
In his piece for Issues in Science & Technology, Coopersmith writes that the affordability of space travel is contingent upon new propulsion technology. Over 90 percent of a rocket’s weight is fuel. Coopersmith has researched ground-based systems that keep the majority of the fuel supply on the ground. These other alternatives, according to the historian, include beamed energy propulsion and space elevators.
Scientists and engineers, however, have barely scratched the surface of these technologies. And Coopersmith argues that only the federal government has the resources to invest in sustained research and the massive infrastructure required to build and operate these new propulsion systems.
Coopersmith hopes that his historical approach to space travel will help create a stronger space program in the future.
“One of the responsibilities we have as professors is to contribute to public debate and thinking, so in that I’m trying to fulfill one of my obligations as a professor at Texas A&M,” he said. “It’s looking at the past to help create a better tomorrow.”