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Crossing the Threshold – Advancing into space to benefit the earth by Paul O. Wieland, P.E.
Book Review by Travis Hardin, July 2010 issue

Originally published in NorbaMensa, the newsletter of North Alabama Mensa

May Dinner Meeting attendees enjoyed a talk by one of our own, retired senior NASA-Marshall engineer and recent author Paul Wieland. In January 2000, while Paul worked in the field of environmental control and life support systems, a request came from the White House for two pages on his view of the next 50 to 100 years in space. The report's enforced brevity inspired (or annoyed) him to write a fleshed-out vision for this decade. The result is the ambitious 255-page "Crossing the Threshold" published in 2010, and available at

Outline: Space travel is good and necessary from an ideological and a practical view. The practical purpose of going into space is to improve human conditions. What we do in space should address issues of broad concern. Some widely supported needs are energy, rescue and preservation of the ecosphere, and improved international relations.

Great achievements require three elements: Vision, broadly felt motivation, and the means for accomplishment.

Progress is slow until multiple enabling technologies mature either through incremental improvements or breakthroughs and permit rapid advancement. We stand now on the threshold of rapid advancements – exponential change -- in space travel and space activities. Paul uses as one analogy the settling of the West, which happened decades after Lewis and Clark opened the door, but which finally crossed a threshold and accelerated due to a convergence of technologies, namely: The steel plow, food canning, railroads, mining techniques, and the telegraph.

We are still in a pause and "it appears that major development is still only a very distant possibility." But convergence is nearing and the next decade will bring it. Motivation exists (private space vehicles) and we are still developing the means, but "no single vision has acquired broad appeal."

The author lays out a practical vision for the next decade along with the means.

1. Implement an International Space Decade to coordinate missions throughout the inner solar system to obtain information about various locations. The coordination will also promote international cooperation.

2. Provide a government guarantee that over a decade 1,000 specified spacecraft will be purchased for less than $15 million each, with the government as purchaser of last resort. Goal: Supports proposal 1, promote commercialization, and lower cost.

3. Promote the recovery of resources in space via research and demonstration missions (e.g., lunar mining, identifying earth-crossing asteroids -- the latter was mandated by Congress in 2005).

4. Promote manufacturing in space, including development of the robotics and techniques for constructing a "Cloud Nine," first proposed by Buckminster Fuller. They are huge un-pressurized geodesic spheres floating a mile high in the atmosphere by virtue of warm air inside them, to house a community of several thousand people. Lifting manufacturing material into orbit is prohibitive. Future manufacturing of them at the Earth-moon L1 Lagrange point by using asteroid or moon materials is possible. The "Cloud Nine" is an example of one thing that can be manufactured more easily in space than on Earth.

5. Concept demonstration of a space-based solar power system by 2020.

6. Advance the development of a space elevator via funding of research and by prizes or awards. Demonstrate a sub-scale elevator at GEO or a Lunar elevator by 2020.

7. Negotiate international treaties regarding property rights in space. Create organizations like INTELSAT to perform joint activities. Consider a homesteading act.

Each item represents, respectively, leadership in space; space commerce; resources from space; manufacturing in space; power from space; technology to reach space; and international agreements.

He endorses commercial space efforts stabilized by a strong government presence through NASA.

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Last updated April 2016