While the rise of the barbarous Islamic State and the spread of the modern day plague of Ebola has many concerned about the state of civilization here on earth, some at the White House are turning their attention beyond our planet. A Tuesday entry on the White House blog solicits ideas for "massless exploration and bootstrapping a Solar System civilization" and "how the [Obama] Administration, the private sector, philanthropists, the research community, and storytellers can further these goals."
"Bootstrapping" is a term employed by Dr. Phillip Metzger, former NASA research physicist now on the University of Central Florida faculty. Metzger explains:
If we want to want to create a robust civilization in our solar system, more of the energy, raw materials, and equipment that we use in space has to come from space. Launching everything we need from Earth is too expensive. It would also be too expensive to send all of the factories required to manufacture everything necessary to support a solar system civilization.
Ultimately what we need to do is to evolve a complete supply chain in space, utilizing the energy and resources of space along the way. We are calling this approach “bootstrapping” because of the old saying that you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Industry in space can start small then pull itself up to more advanced levels through its own productivity, minimizing the cost of launching things from Earth in the meantime. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen overnight, but I think that it is the right long-term goal.
Tom Kali, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and author of the White House blog post, says that NASA is already experimenting with 3D printing with the ultimate goal of printing replacement parts for spacecraft on long voyages, and even "self-replicating large structures" in future missions to Mars. The next rover to be sent to explore Mars will attempt to demonstrate something called "In-Situ Resource Utilization," which converts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on Mars to oxygen to provide fuel and air for future manned missions.
Anyone with ideas is invited to email the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.