Analogy for Space: Aviation or Seafaring?

Is space travel more like aviation or sea faring? It depends on your mission

From the oceans, from the stars. Arthur C. Clarke

Space flight has very little in common with aviation; it is much closer in spirit to ocean voyaging – Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, Harper and Row, New York, 1963.

The current drift of America’s civil space program has many reaching to discuss the philosophy and methods we rely on to pursue space travel.  Of late, the quote above (which I first read in high school in the late Sixties during my Arthur C. Clarke omnivorous reading campaign) has been tapping me on the shoulder.  Clarke’s captivating style gripped me for some time as I worked my way through both his fiction and non-fiction oeuvre.  Curiously, the above thought has stayed with me, and although I’d forgotten exactly where and in which of his books it occurred, I knew it was his and was able to find it.

From the beginning of the Space Age in 1957, spaceflight and rocket development has had a strong association with aviation, particularly the military variety.  The first astronauts were all military aviators (regardless of their branch of service) and those origins solidified the association of aviation with space.  Air Force public relations devised the term “aerospace” to make the association explicit.  The Army and the Navy had their own missile programs but the bulk of the early research and development was done to facilitate the deployment of a land-based ICBM system under the control of the Air Force.  Early ICBMs like Atlas and Titan (developed to lob nuclear warheads) became launch vehicles for the first human missions into space.

The analogy of manned spaceflight to aviation (at least in the first fifty years of spaceflight) is not altogether inappropriate.  Military and commercial aviation involves small crews that leave from a home base, travel great distances, sometimes fly over unknown territory (where they seldom land) before returning within a few to tens of hours.  Flight durations are short and the ability to deliver crew and cargo is limited.  In the military, this operational template is defined as a “mission,” where principal tasks are completed and then preparation for the next mission begins.  The only “permanence” in aviation is the mission.

The template for aviation has some resonating parallels in manned spaceflight. The pilot’s objective is to complete the assigned mission and return to base.  Astronauts can travel great distances, but are able to land at distant destinations only under extraordinary circumstances.  Mission duration (e.g., to the Moon) is short, on the order of a few days.  Single-purpose, one-shot trips are common and have little capability to deliver a large number of crew and large amounts of cargo.  Although the current plan is to carry more people on longer trips beyond low Earth orbit, the focus (mission) remains fixed on completing the task and returning home – not on creating a permanent, beneficial presence.

A navy has a different operational style.  Sea voyages can last many weeks or months, even years.  Navies can travel to any distant land, anchor off shore and explore it at length.  Ships are typically able to deliver large amounts of cargo and carry large crews and supplies; ships can remain for as long as is necessary to complete their assigned tasks, which can include extensive reconnaissance, including stops of varying lengths to many different ports of call.  A navy must be re-supplied on occasion and requires logistics bases (coaling stations, in 19th century terms) for replenishment and refurbishing.  A navy both projects power and creates presence; it is the international face of the nation from which it originates.

In contrast to its parallels with aviation, space has yet to show much correspondence with seafaring.  But we should begin to think in such terms – to move away from our emphasis on one-off missions and toward sighting distant lands and conducting remote reconnaissance aimed toward the creation of a long-term presence.  The International Space Station, now continuously occupied for over a decade, is a first step and transition toward this new template.  Note that such occupation does not necessarily imply settlement or even that the same people have been there for a decade.  But we are moving gradually toward that concept as human presence extends to longer periods of time.  As we move outward from LEO, we will build beachheads – staging nodes and depots (logistics bases).  Here, spacecraft can refuel and provision themselves for journeys onward to more distant destinations.

Clarke was articulating the natural progression of human reach and operations.  To transit and settle a frontier, we initially survey and scout on custom-designed trips to obtain knowledge for future exploitation.  As we transition from this “Mountain Man”-stage of pioneering (occasional random visit to scattered points in the wilderness) to permanent bases (outposts) and then settlement (built around trading posts), we need an operational template that satisfies the new needs of space pioneers.  In order to attain and exploit the vast utility of space, longer presence of larger crews and more complex logistical arrangements (the attributes that a space navy provides) is required.

None of this is to say that a space air force is obsolete; forward reconnaissance on the edge of the frontier will always be required.  But as that frontier pushes ever outward, to distances that demand more significant logistical requirements, the naval analogy becomes more pertinent.  After all, John F. Kennedy (a former naval officer) did call space “this new ocean.”

Perceptive guy, that Arthur C. Clarke.