Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Getting Over the Final Frontier - Part I

Ok, enough of girlie subjects like breeding and feeding, on to something with heft, with manly seriousness. I refer, of course, to space, and whether or not we'll be resolving our present crises by simply leaving earth's wrecked shell and heading off to another, virgin planet.

I run into the notion that space is and must be our destiny fairly often, and I think even people who don't think about it much in a conscious way have come to believe in the back of their heads that we have a future out in space. So much of our cultural vision of the future looks something like "Star Trek" that our relationship to space underlies a great deal of our imagined future. I thought it would be worth doing some writing and thinking on this subject, and I've divided it into two posts. The first is about the practicalities - are we going into space? And if we are, is that the answer to any or all of our present problems? The second post is about the meta-issues raised by our thinking about space. That is, how does what we have been taught to think about our future alter our present and the solutions to our present crises?

Since on this subject I'm talking out my ass even more than usual, I've imported an expert. Since this blog's budget for outside experts is nil, I'm more than fortunate in being married to this one. I can pay him off by washing his share of the dishes. Thus, I introduce my husband, Eric. Despite the obvious lapse in scientific judgement that led to his marrying me, he's fairly well qualified to comment here. Eric has a BA in Physics from MIT, a Ph.d in Astrophysics from Harvard, he's worked for NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope has taken pictures based on his research. He's presently a Professor at SUNY Albany, where he teaches, among other things, one of the University's most popular and heavily enrolled course, "The History of Space Exploration." He gets credit on this blog mostly for being a great father and being tolerant enough to put up with me, but he's really, really smart too ;-). The opinions here are mine, and so the errors, but Eric is responsible for all the good, useful facts.

This post will deal with the purely practical issues of going into space in a depleted world. And the first question that we have to ask is "is it possible, technologically speaking, for us to go into space on any large scale." Despite President Bush's 2005 call for a manned mission to Mars, despite the Russian announcement that they hope to move heavy industry into space by 2012, there are some real and serious reasons to be dubious about whether we can ever get off the planet (floating around in orbit for a couple of weeks is not really "off the planet" in any meaningful sense) and equal reasons to ask, even if we can, if that's where we should be placing our limited energies and resources.

It is important to understand here where we actually are in this process. At the moment, private industry is mostly concentrating on commercial space tourism - that is, short, suborbital trips that would allow very rich people to see the earth from space and say they've been there. Neither private industry nor government space programs seem immanently inclined to start the process of moving people into space as workers, colonists or even on long distance manned missions. Essentially, other than the refinement of existing space technologies for reusable shuttles and space stations, no major changes in our relationship to space have occurred since the moon landing almost 40 years ago. So why does this even matter? Can't we just fix our attention elsewhere and let things happen or not?

I think the answer is "no" for several reasons. The first is, how often has any peak oil activist, discussing the limits and problems of any given renewable technology as substitute for oil and gas run into the line "If we can put a man on the moon....?" Even people who don't think much about space at all have come to accept the rationale that pretty much anything is technically possible, if we just put our minds and wallets to it. This sense of space-as-proof-of- technological-achievement has given us a cornucopian vision (as has the history of the Manhattan project, which is a similar instance of "put in a coin and get the technology you want").

I think we have to think hard about the limitations of space if we want to point out that putting a man on the moon was one instance of technological success - but there are many more examples of technological limitation that didn't go our way. One of them, I would argue, seems to be space itself. That is, we put a man on the moon, but real limitations have prevented us from going much further.

The other reason is that there are a large number of people who either consciously or unconsciously believe that space is the human destiny - that whatever short term limitations we are encountering, ultimately, we are "meant" to go into space. This generally comes along with a view of history as manifest destiny - we came, we saw, we conquered one frontier, then the next, then the next, and now left with the ummm "final" one, we have to go to space. This is progress, and anything else would be tantimount to returning to the trees and throwing feces at each other. I'll talk about this vision of progress in my second post.

The other viewpoint, based on better reasoning, is that we have to get into space because humanity won't survive otherwise. Either the speaker believes we've destroyed the planet already and that our only hope of a future is to leave and colonize other worlds, or they are concerned about the real possibility of a meteor crash wiping out humanity. Because we are now aware of such problems, it is our duty, these speakers postulate, to prevent such a happening. Isaac Asimov famously summed up this viewpoint by saying "the earth is simply too fragile a basket for humanity to place all its eggs in."

I'd argue that that last notion is part of our problem, of course. It is hard to quantify how much of our sense that humanity has an "out" we can hold responsible for our trashing of the planet - probably not that much. But millions of people believe on some level that our future looks like a Star Trek episode, out colonizing new worlds in between life on our comfy aluminum tin cans. In fact, we're creating a world that valorizes and prioritizes the artificial in many ways, while it pretends to weep for nature. We mourn, of course, that the wild is gone, but increasingly we spend very little time in nature, and far more in our own little artificial environments. The doors don't whoosh open when we walk towards them, but when you spend your life in airconditioning, shooting pretend klingons on your playstation, how different is it, really? What would happen if we envisioned our future as one fully integrated with our environment? What would happen if we fully had it in our head that every future generation would depend on what we do now in this place we'll probably always live in?

So here are the questions. Can we colonize space? Should we colonize space? What would it get us? Who would go? What would be the outcomes? Part one is here now, part two will be forthcoming when I get to it.

There are considerably more caveats to the first question than most people know. For example, most space colonization postulations imagine us starting out on the moon - if you read science fiction at all, you've read a thousand such stories about our lunar bases. The reason we imagine using the moon as a base is because it is tremendously energy and fuel intensive to launch things up into space from Earth's atmosphere, but quite easy to launch things into space from the low gravity, atmosphereless moon. Thus, it is the logical place to build and repair space ships, locate heavy industry, and start out on any plan for a space based program of colonization. You've probably read a dozen novels that imagine we have a lunar base. My personal favorite such novel is Heinlein's _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. But we're unlikely to build a Moon colony (or a la Heinlein, a space based Guantanamo) as in the fiction novels, because in every one I've read, the Moon has water on it, in the form of ice, there for the mining.

But the reality is that the more scientists study the moon, the more likely it seems that there is no water - period. Thus far, we've never yet come up with a substitute for water - not for drinking, not for industrial use, bathing, etc... Now the space program has led to many systems for recycling water, but it is hardly a closed system. Water that is drunk by people and excreted as sweat and urine are not wholly reclaimable, so there's a solid, steady net loss. We cannot as yet extract ammonia from urine efficiently. The Russians on Mir, whose water reclamation technologies are more advanced than our own, were ultimately able to reclaim about 50% of the water used on the station - and it is worth noting that they used very, very little water. Most industrial processes require huge quantities of water - and that water is also often non-recyclable, lost in manufacture.

Now there is a lot of oxygen tied up in rocks on the moon, and some proposals have argued that we could simply liberate it, combined it was hydrogen and make water (remember H2O). But the problem is that the moon doesn't have much hydrogen, and virtually none that is accessible. Which means that all our plans for moon bases involve use obtaining hydrogen on earth (generally extracted by energy intensive water electrolysis, now mostly run by coal plants), putting it onto space ships (hydrogen is light, but not massless, and there are chronic leakage problems), shooting it up into through our atmosphere and onto the moon, where we will then extract oxygen from rocks (also energy intensive), and combine it with hydrogen so that the lucky folks up there get to drink and bathe once a month or so (you stink in space - in a whole host of ways).

Now energy might not be a big problem on the moon if our expectations are correct - what the moon does have in abundance is Helium 3, not present on the earth in large quantities, and H3 makes a great little reactor and offers real power potential. There are several prototypes out there - so making the energy to extract oxygen from rocks, and the energy for manufacturing might not be a problem. But H3 power wouldn't help us get all that hydrogen off the earth. And consider the potential problem of people being dependent upon outside sources for something as basic as water - we're already people dying from water shortages. Where will the denizens of the moon line up for their water? What happens if infrastructure for something so basic fails?

Hydrogen isn't the only thing we'd have to bring up to the moon. If we were to make use of the moon on any scale, we'd have to bring up all the organic materials or hydroponic solutions that we planned to produce food with - or the food itself. Now astronauts subsist on dehydrated dinners, and cool stuff like Tang, but any kind of long term plan involves growing food. And there's no carbon on the moon at all to begin farming with. Every ounce of organic material required for growing food would have to be transported up, either directly, or in the form of food and water for colonists so that they could use their own effluents in soils. That's a lot of heavy stuff going back and forth, until a critical mass is achieved that would allow food production - if the water problem can be solved.

Now add to that that at first, a vast number of components and raw materials will also have to be transported up, first to build a decent sized habitat and industrial complex. So we're shooting hydrogen, plus all the raw materials and the people up into space to do this work. That means a lot of shuttle launches, no? Now the space shuttle hardly ever goes up right now - when it does, it is big news. In fact, half the time, the launches get delayed, windows missed (you can't reach every point is space every day). We'd be increasing space shots by a factor of thousands. What would the consequences of that be to the planet down here? Well the cost of putting a large scale, self-sustaining space colony on the moon is estimated at several trillion dollars. But besides money, there's the environmental costs. How will we make all this hydrogen? Typically now, hydrogen is seperated by coal burning electrical power - hardly good for the environment.
Perhaps we could build more nuclear plants - want one next door to you? But nuclear power is quite carbon intensive as well - fossil fuels are required at every stage of the process of nuclear fueling (here's my favorite illustration of that point: It is certainly less carbon intensive than coal or natural gas, but the larger question is "can we afford to warm the planet at all in order to go out into space?"

Even if it were feasible to provide that much hydrogen, it would represent a poor investment, a significant warming of the planet. There are other consequences. Every American Space Shuttle launch represents an emission of greenhouse gasses, as well as the dispersal of toxic rocket fuel across the globe. Toxic residues of rocket fuel have been found in salad greens, breast milk and water all over the globe. Perchlorate causes thyroid damage, which can lead to brain damage and lowered IQs in infants born to pregnant mothers who consume greens and drink perchlorate contaminated water. To be fair, perchlorate is not only produced by the space industry - most of it is military use. But that would change in a large scale space program.

Exactly what the global warming consequences of building a moon base or orbital space station on any scale would be is extremely debatable. Space tourism advocate Steven Fawkes asserts that the total impact of a single, short term suborbital flight would be 3 tonnes per flight per passenger, but Fawkes declines to include calculations in his estimate, which certainly makes me suspicious. And space tourism is, in fact, considerably different than the lifeting of industrial materials from earth to space. I have not yet located a single study on the global warming impact of space travel, but space travel is now energy and cost intensive in the extreme. Even with scalable transformation over time, there is little question that the manufacture, transportation, and lifting of everything needed to build a space colony would represent a significant impact on the evironment - that is, we'd be choosing to warm the planet further in the interest of someday getting off of it. Using an estimate based on dollars invested, and the American space program as a model, the figures for carbon intensiveness are far higher.

Add to that the reality that we can only do so many massive industrial build outs at one time and we will have choose - do we focus on space, or on mitigating the damage we're doing to the environment? On adapting to a low oil infrastructure or trying to get to Mars? Those are real choices - I am increasingly dubious that we'll be able to do even many of the adaptations we'd most like to accomplish. Space represents a potential boondoggle we can't afford.

What would the human costs be? Right now, being an astronaut is pretty much the most dangerous job on earth. If you include all the astronauts who didn't quite make it into space (as in the Challenger astronauts), between the US and Russia, about 460 people have gone into space. The known death rate for astronauts is about 5% that is out of 100,000 astronauts, you could expect 5,000 of them to die. And the death rate for space ground crews is also quite high - more than 70 ground crew have died - that we know of. Neither Russia nor China fully reports its ground casualties and there are persistent rumors of more deaths in the early part of the Russian space program than reported.

Right now, when astronauts are sent up only rarely, after hundreds of people double check everything and launches are delayed for bird, being an astronaut is more dangerous than being a logger, police officer, high altitude mountaineer or elephant trainer - several times more. You are more likely to die in space then by soldiering in Iraq right now, today. We could only imagine that death rate rising if we were to colonize space - most true fronteir colonist populations have had death rates between 1/4 and 2/3. That means, the odds are good that when going into space becomes an ordinary business, with regular old business short cuts and bottom lines driving everything, significant chunks of the people sent there will die.

Historically speaking, we've resolved the problem of all the people who die when we conquer frontiers by sending out people we consider expendable. Prisoners, people who look different than us and who own the land we want, religious and cultural minorities, recent immigrants - those are the people we send off to die on frontiers, because we grant ourselves the privelege of not caring. There is little doubt that if we go to space, it will require of us a considerable sacrifice of human life. Who will do the dying this time? Where will we extract the populations that we're prepared to sacrifice, and what incentives will they be given?

Now what about going to Mars instead of to the moon? Mars does have water, so maybe we should start there. There are certainly scientists who make this argument, including Robert Zubrin, the main proponent of the "Mars Direct" mission plan. He argues we've had the technology to make a manned trip to Mars for at least a decade. George W. Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address called for us to move immediately towards Mars, a call that was promptly ignored.

The big problem of Mars is the fairly recent discovery that solar radiation is a much bigger factor than expected. Eugene Parker, the scientist most famous for the discovery of solar wind, estimates that during a 7 month space flight to Mars, 1/3 of all of an astronaut's DNA would be damaged or destroyed by exposure to solar radiation. We don't know precisely what that would mean in physical terms, but it isn't good.

The first issues is the real and serious question of whether astronauts headed for Mars would be dead before they reached the planet, or before they could come home. It is by no means self-evident that there would be any survivors of a trip to Mars. Even if we could make it there, and do it often enough to begin colonizing, would we ever want such a colony to be self-reproducing? Could it be? The annual radiation exposure would be between 10 and 20 rems, whereas our normal yearly exposure is .03 rems - there's little doubt that the lives of astronaut's children would be nasty, brutish and short.

What about shielding? After all, the Enterprise had shields, right? Here we bump up against the big technological problem. Up until now, we've protected people from radiation with mass - lots, and lots and lots of it. Water, concrete, lead - big heavy things that keep the radiation from reaching us. Things far to big to boost off the planet. Or we'd have to use ultra-powerful magnetic fields, which we can't do and which represent a cure worse than the disease - exposure to intense magnetic fields causes X in human beings. Or, we'd need a whole new technology.

And that's where the question of "we put a man on the moon so we can do anything" comes into this. Because scientists are genuinely stumped on this one. We really don't know if it is possible for us to leave the immediate area of our planet. And colonization of either Mars or the Moon means exposure to considerable quantities of radiation as well. Unless we were to create wholly underground habitats (and this is potentially quite problematic in itself), colonists on the moon or mars or in orbital colonies would be prone to cancers, mutations and other genetic damage.
It may just be that the radiation problem is insurmountable for us. Or that we might be able to fix it on a very small scale, using very expensive, energy intensive technologies that a warming planet and depleting fossil fuel supply wouldn't permit to be expanded on any scale.

Add to that the problem that we really have no evidence whatsever that we can create a long term, self sustaining artificial environment. The Biosphere 2 experiments, conducted in the 1990s were supposed to prove that we could - and we couldn't. The biosphere participants rapidly began to run short of food, suffer nutritional deficits for lack of trace minerals and even run short of oxygen. Scientists were forced to bring in additional gasses. Any biosphere we build in space won't have the option of importing additional ingredients - it takes a minimum of 8 months to get to Mars. So if we suddenly discover that there's an oxygen shortage, anyone on Mars is on their own for nearly a year.

We are increasingly learning what we don't understand about our own environment, and we simply don't seem to have the ability to reproduce the necessary degree of complexity. For example, the Biosphere 2 project lost oxygen through reactions with the concrete necessary to create the dome they lived in. The gas leakage rate alone would have to be dramatically improved in order to create livable conditions, and that would have to be done under ground, mostly far from the sun, if colonist DNA was to be protected. Adding new gases would be far more complex than simply letting in outside air as was done in the Biosphere project.

The reality is that the odds are increasingly great that all of our eggs really are in one basket. It turns out that getting to the moon was comparatively easy - getting into space on any scale is vastly harder. And doing it is likely to have real environmental consequence to the 99.999% of us who stay on earth - that is, we can choose to warm the planet and make the only habitable place we know of less habitable in the quest to create an artificial environment.

The simple, demographic reality is that even if everything went right, even if we could create distant colonies and insure their security and self-sufficiency, of the billions of people on the planet, only a tiny fraction would ever go into space. Most of us would stay here - and be left with the consequences of our quest for space - a warmer planet, a less secure environment, and a viewpoint focused on the distance, rather than the immediate. Is it worth the price? Space colonies would likely begin with thousands of people, and then become self-reproducing. Even if millions were to leave the earth, they'd be replaced almost immediately at the present birthrate. There's no sense in which space colonization is a solution to most people's problem of having a livable world.

But what about the danger of an asteroid strike, about the danger of our having destroyed our own planet, and having our only hope in space? Well, first of all, let us dispense with the notion that things are hopeless. And we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by saying "the earth is trashed, let's trash it some more and pin our hopes on space." The odds are simply vastly better that human beings can live where they are adapted than in space, where they are not adapted.

And as we've seen, even if we could live in space, the odds are quite good that space colonies would be permanently or at least for a very long time, dependent on earth for basic things like hydrogen for water, or thousands of other possible things we might not be able to find on the moon or mars. That is, if we went into space, we'd need to preserve the earth more, not less, at least for a very, very long time. And since the process of getting there may cause more harm then we can tolerate, that means that we'd be damaging our chances in space by further damaging our chances on earth.

But what about meteors? Asteroids? Kligons? The reality is that periodically, large objects do strike the earth. Most of them are burned up in the atmosphere, but we all know that asteroids are dangerous to dinosaurs and other living things. And it is truly possible that something could be coming our way sooner or late. In fact, there's a tiny but non-trivial chance that one is on its way right now, and we simply don't know it is there. We aren't actually devoting many resources to avoiding such a collision today - for example, there are fewer than 1 dozen people in the entire world whose job it is to look for earth crossing asteroids. We have discovered significantly fewer than 1% of all such objects. In fact, depending on their orbit and issues of reflectivity, such an object could be only days or weeks away from us when we discovered it was about to strike the earth. Fortunately, this is not very likely.

In the worst case scenario, a truly huge such object could obliterate all life on earth. Most prior strikes have merely squashed anything under them, thrown up huge quantities of dust and gas and made life pretty horrible. And it might. It happens every 65 million years or so - at least as far as we know. Because 65 million years ago a 10 km across asteroid struck the earth, causing the Cretaceous period extinctions - about 60% of all plant and animal life died in the ensuing period of darkness and destruction. We're due - sometime in the next few million years. Likelihood of something on the order of the Cretaceous period suggests an average of 50-100 million years. So anytime now ;-).

But the simple fact is that if we found out one was coming today, we couldn't do anything about it. We'd be toast. The strategies for avoiding a collision involve parking a massive (much bigger than anything we have in any stage of development) space ship in orbit and hoping that they would shift the asteroid gravitationally. Or we could try to nuke it, but there's an equal shot that that would make things worse, sending two pieces into the earth.

On the other hand, on any given day, the likelihood of this is pretty damned small - we could have 50 or 100 million years before the next strike. Do we keep our entire, earth warming technological society alive on the vague hope that we would be able to avoid human extinction? Perhaps that would be a useful strategy if right now our resources were directed at that end. But there's no evidence that keeping up a high tech society will lead to be able to protect ourselves from a major asteroid strike - that is, right now, we have a highly technological society, and we aren't even looking for them, much less developing such technologies.

Generally speaking, I think this particular strain of thought derives mostly from a sense that we can control everything in the world. And that's simply untrue. All of our space hopes on some level derive from the idea that we as human beings can make anything we need - we can create faux-natural environments, terraform inhospitable places, protect ourselves from every single possible exigency. But the reality is this - if we protect ourselves from meteor's we'd still have massive volcanoes that could cause the same level of extinction, and we'd still have global warming, which combined with the impact of our society is presently causing the extinction of half of all species.

In trying to insulate ourselves from every consequence, in creating an increasingly secure, artificial environment for the rich people in the world, we've condemned countless millions to death from the consequences. We've made ourselves capable of rendering our own planet uninhabitable. That is, we're far more a danger to ourselves than any asteroid. Focusing on preventing the statistically unlikely scary thing out there keeps us from noticing the truth, that as Walt Kelly's Pogo famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

I don't claim to know whether it is possible for us to go into space. It is possible that over time we might surmount the technical obstacles. I do know it isn't a solution in any sense of the term. My husband speaks about how it is increasingly difficult for him to teach the history of space exploration to students who have dreams of space for themselves, who grew up with the hope of a future "out there somewhere" and the notion that progress involves going outward. He tries gently to point out the obstacles, and he spends the last days of each class focused on the earth, pointing out to his students that "Earth is a planet too, and we know very little about it, in fact." But he's fighting a quixotic battle - too much of our culture has focused on the final frontier as the only next place to go. And unless we offer children something else to dream about - a future here, we risk becoming stuck in a cultural paradigm that prevents us from seeing our own world as the real final frontier.



Weaseldog said...

Well, I think that colonization of the moon is possible at heavy expense.

For the problem of carbon, the moon does have carbon, but it will have to be extracted from rocks using electrical processes.

As to water and other gases, they do exist in space in comets. They do come near the earth on occasion.

That being said, such a colony would pose monumental difficulties in setting up. But, once it is self sufficient, it would take on a life of its own.

The problems of radiation ore serious ones. On the moon, a colony could in theory, drill into the interior for protection. Out in space though, long term travel would probably require ships with a lot of mass to shield them. Such ships could only be launched from the moon.

One big advantage the moon does have, is that it is bombarded with a lot of useful energy in the form of sunlight.

Is it worth it? I don't know. As you pointed out in arguments about asteroids and volcanoes, we will become extinct sooner or later if we don't leave the planet. Does that make a compelling argument?

As you know, I've taken the unpopular view that fifty years from now, our population will dwindle to perhaps 5% of current levels. I believe it will remain at least that low until man and the environment evolve together to create conditions that might allow a doubling or tripling of the population, over those levels. As this occurs, homo sapiens will once again be differentiating and evolving into different species.

This process was ongoing until fairly recently, when sailing ships began traveling the world and mixing humans up for a round of hybridization. Until then, people in various parts of the world were beginning to look noticeably different as they evolved to adapt to their local environments.

But even as I make these arguments, I don't think it matters. I do not believe that we'll ever colonize space. I believe that we are the last generation that will send any devices into orbit. the space program will die out as we descend the slope past Peak Oil.

jewishfarmer said...

Actually, weaseldog, the moon is *extremely* deficient in carbon - there's very little in the rocks. Most of the rocks are metals - things that soils don't need in the quantities available. So we really would have to import most of the carbon. And capturing gasses and water from comets is well beyond any technology that we could realistically expect anytime in the forseeable future. The most optimistic forecasts don't imagine that we could do that.

I think the reality is that there's increasing doubt as to whether such a colony could *ever* be self sufficient - we have only hypothesis on this one, and most of the evidence we do have is entirely contrary - that is, we've failed in most of the preliminary experiments.


Anonymous said...

If the worry is astroids and volcanos, we could try to build mostly self-sufficient closed enviroments here on earth, that can survive atmosphere trashers. The sci-fi folks often call 'em arcologies. Heck build them underwater, or in Antartica, or underground for added protection. But until we can get closed systems to more or less work locally, it seems really dumb to try to get them to work elsewhere.
I mean, the Moon and Mars are a lot harder than Antarctica, or the continental shelves, or deep underground. Plenty of frontiers left in this gravity well. The first man set foot on Antarctica in 1821, and almost two centuries later we still haven't "colonized" it as much as set up small research stations, that don't pretend to be permanent or self-sufficient.

Contrariwise, what are the potentials for space exploitation as opposed to colonization? Is it plausible to make short term trips to the moon the get some of that He3 for energy usage? Could orbital factories, use the low-gs for manufacturing techniques that don't work in higher gs? What about extra-atmospheric solar? I'm not optimistic on these fronts but your analysis doesn't seem to have ruled them out yet. Heck, space tourism and comm satellites are already viable. Its hard to imagine humans living in space for more than a brief stint, without a lot more skill in closed-system management (and a solution to the radiation problems). But its easier to imagine short working trips, or robotic trips, aimed at some other goal than colonization. Even that probably isn't worth its ruinous cost, but hey rich people have the power, and Orlov argues that boondoggles can actually help.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I was thinking of you and your husband just this past Sunday as I read the cover story in Parade Magazine by Prof. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this article, he goes on and on with all the Manifest Destiny stuff you mention as well as arguing that we need a space program to continue the US technological revolution. He basically says that space programs create greater prosperity while the whole time I was reading and instead thinking that space programs are a RESULT of social prosperity rather than the cause of it. Take away that prosperity, via Peak Oil, or any number of other factors, and the available resources, financial and otherwise, dry up. Dr. deGrasse has it backwards. He points out we haven't been to the moon since the very early 1970s, and I'd point out that's right around the time US oil production peaked. It seems quite obvious in hindsight that the 1970s oil shocks took a great deal of money and interest out of our space program back then. This is hardly a coincidence I think.

Worldwide Peak Oil will have the same effect. Dr. deGrasse is worried about recent Chinese ventures into orbit, but unlike him, I don't think they'll get very far at all.

Thanks for expanding on this important topic.

Stephen Beltramini
from the ROE2 group

sgage said...

Rather than attempting to create self-sustaining space/moon/mars colonies... It would seem to me to be several orders of magnitude easier, cheaper, and with greater likelihood of success to develop a technology to deal with an incoming "killer asteroid".

I have been interested in the notion of space/moon/mars colonization since the mid-70's, when O'Neill's ideas were being talked about a lot. As an ecologist, I have always felt that it's an impossible fantasy.

I don't think people realize what a really nasty place space is. It's just really, really hard to get stuff done. Would-be colonizers are always saying "oh, we'll just get carbon from the rocks", or "we'll make rocket fuel from water and CO2" and suchlike.

Yes, these things are theoretically possible, but let's see it done on anything but a laboratory scale.

I have an idea: Let's see if we can build sustainable colonies on Earth.

Weaseldog said...

I was just pointing out that there is carbon on the moon, and capturing comets is theoretically possible.

And I agree that these things are hard to do.

So hard in fact, that it will never happen. Because of Peak Oil, future generations will never send rockets into space. We'll never create systems to stop killer asteroids.

The bio-dome was a nice start. It was not a failed experiment. It was a successful experiment that taught us a lot about how hard it is to do these things.

The space program and other important civilian activities are not very important to us. So we are not going to make a serious effort in these matters. Near Earth orbit technologies are supported because they make people rich. A self sustaining moon colony is unlikely to be worth corporate investments.

We demonstrate that we believe that spending trillions of dollars, destroying other nations and slaughtering people, is one of the best uses we can make of our resources. We spend more resources to slaughter other human beings, than we do on any other endeavor. This defines who and what we are.

A people who believe that they should spend most of their resources on genocide for private profit, and place education and research way down on the list, will not even make a serious attempt at building colonies in space. Such a people will not be able to accomplish such a feat.

If we were the sort of species that could get a colony on the moon up and running, we probably would've done it hundreds of years ago.

Forget about long term closed habitats on Earth. Such a habitat will need a reliable high quality energy supply. After the oil runs low, these won't exist anymore.

This is the one point that makes a moon colony technically possible in my view. There are several high quality energy sources available on the moon.

We face a choice. Make the colony work now, or accept that our kind will become extinct when that asteroid does arrive.

Weaseldog said...

As to carbon from moon rocks...

This would probably be a water problem at its root. Microorganisms and algae, already present on earth, could probably extract the carbon, using only filtered sunlight.

HRDeane said...

Hey Sharon, thanks for this topic, every time I hear about these tourist expeditions to space I wonder if they are grooming particular people to get off the rock? :) It is funny though that the more recent sci-fi often refers to Earth as a shithole,and the last place travellers want to end up...I think there must have been a shift in the sci-fi environment in the last decade or so that could see the correlation between our toxic relationship with our planet and our desire to trash it and move on. Leaving only the most lowly behind!! I also appreciate you pointing out the notion that I have thought about for a long time, in that if we were to colonise other planets there would likely be huge economic incentives to poor communities to work on the interplanetary industry, mostly because they would die doing it (re. war and mining comes to mind. Astronauts have historically been very well off elite, but space colonists would be opportunists, often driven by the high incentive wages. It looks ugly no matter which way you spin it! Thanks for a fascinating topic.

Anonymous said...

Long term closed habitats, even on earth are far future science fiction, not short term goals. But there ARE plausible energy sources. Deep underground habitats might be able to use geo-thermal. Heck so might oceanic. Lifeforms based on exploiting deep sea geothermal vents are one of life's hedges against atmospheric damage to life's main energy source, solar. If humans are worried about surviving atmosphere wreckers long-term, those might be strategies, but they are unlikely to bear any fruit for centuries.

Also it's so hard to think at different time scales. Even if peak oil screws our civilization up for decades or more likely centuries, over a 1000 years, or 10,000 years, or 100,000 years, humans might come up with options as bizarre to us, as our current abilities would be to those 1000 years ago, 10,000, or 100,000. What will our space colonization potential be 10,000 years from now? Don't pretend to know, none of us do. Heck, quantum teleportation, might be plausible by then, who knows? So don't say things like "make the moon colony work now or accept that our kind will be extinct when that asteriod does arrive." If that asteroid comes in the next couple centuries we're most likely hosed either way, and earth-based survival is still more likely than moon-based. In a thousand years or ten thousand, we might have more options. And these are peanut time-scales to the 50-100 million year time-scale of likelihood of major asteroid impact. I believe there will come a time when Peak Oil, is a historical incident comparable with Peak Buffalo, Peak Tyrian Purple (murex brandaris), or Peak Mastadon. A historic or pre-historic tragedy that destroyed a way of life, led to hardship and adaptation, and was mostly forgotten by the descendents of the survivors.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

What did you mean by saying that "exposure to magnetic fields causes X in human beings"? Seems like you felt just sure it must cause something bad, but not having actually heard what, you filled in a placeholder and then forgot about it.

Anonymous said...

Once people begin to live on the moon there will be more than enough carbon to support plant life. Those people would be excreting it almost daily.

Much of the limitations posed are valid and mainly hinge on limited power. New power sources and ways to store them are desperately needed for our next phase of technological development, or we need levels of efficiency to increase by 1,000x.

Other ways to transport items in to space need to be investigated. The space elevator was a novel approach.

On earth when you have two people have the opposite sides of a chasm, we build a bridge. That's what we need in to space.

Anonymous said...

Considering science hasn't even figured out a healthy diet, I'm sceptical that we could build a reliable biosphere here on our own planet, nevermind on the moon. Just forget about anywhere else in the universe until such fundamentals can be better understood. We live for millions of years knowing what to eat, then we suddenly forget? This is to say nothing about the recent soil food web understandings and all the extinct ecologies we could be studying to meet such a challenge.

Anonymous said...

Sci Fi author Charles Stross has an interesting (and similar) discussion about the realities of the non-liklihood of space colonization on his blog.

Geoff said...

Certainly an interesting summation of the problems of space travel.

I do think we'll go into space with Mars as the first stop, but probably not in our current (genetic) forms. Humans maybe particularly susceptible to radiation damage, but some other creatures on earth aren't. I expect we'll be doing some heavy genetic modification to ourselves long before we're ready to colonise our galaxy on a large scale. We'll probably need to be terraforming our destinations, using autonomous robots, for long periods before we arrive too.

The problems of inter galaxy colonisation are another order of magnitude larger!

Weaseldog said...

I believe there will come a time when Peak Oil, is a historical incident comparable with Peak Buffalo, Peak Tyrian Purple (murex brandaris), or Peak Mastadon. A historic or pre-historic tragedy that destroyed a way of life, led to hardship and adaptation, and was mostly forgotten by the descendents of the survivors.

I've heard similar things from other proponents of faith based science fiction.

I'll accede that I can't prove that your imaginings won't come to fruition. For all I know, I might win three different state lotteries tomorrow.

What you're arguing is akin to what many of the peak oil naysayers argue. That we shouldn't worry because some billionaire genius working out of his garage will think of something, and save us all.

Such fantasies are pleasant, but they don't substitute for action. The human race uses such excuses to do nothing, all the time.

I can imagine similar things and fantasize about possible futures, but that's not going to make them happen. And I don't believe that these improbable futures will occur, for the same reasons that we won't make a national attempt to build a moon base now.

As to evolving, unless you believe that man will come up with a rational eugenics plan and stick to it, evolution will take its own course. We will evolve to fit our environment. And right now, our environment is on Earth, not the moon or vacuum of space. If we wish to evolve as a species to live off the planet, we need to get out there and live there first.

Now if we do tap into some currently unknown Star Trek type energy source, all bets are off. but gambling the future of our species that aliens will deliver such technology to us, isn't wise in my opinion.

All of the people I know that live their lives hoping to win the lottery, never seem to get anywhere in life. Such hope gets in the way of action. Some time back I read an essay from a holocaust survivor who said that the reason they went willingly to the gas chambers is because the clung to hope that they'd soon be free. And the German Soldiers fed that hope. He argued, that had understood their fate amd had abandoned hope, then they would've take n action. For it would've been better to die trying to fight back, than to suffer the false hope that they would soon see their freedom.

My grandfather had similar views. He never bothered to hope that a fence would fix itself at some later date, he just fixed it. Hope is just an excuse to refrain from taking action.

Ares Olympus said...

I've long reduced "Star Trek" future to the issue of energy, and getting into space takes a lot of energy. That along has been sufficient to me to scoff any claims that space travel will have any large scale affect on humanity - whether as a place to put "extra people", or any sort of wastes we want to get rid of.

I thought Bush's "vision" to renew the human exploration of the moon and on to Mars asks interesting questions, including all of the difficulties and more that you offer, but I don't see much value beyond vanity, and a high cost if cheaper missions for scientific understanding of the universe are reduced because of it.

I still do value imagination, and some thought experiments eventually need testing. The question of what sustains life, and what parts of that can be be "duplicated" in artificial environments.

There's Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis that sees life on earth as performing feedback loops that moderate the climate to sustain the diversity of life. Can such a system be reproduced at a subplanetary scale?

The most interesting thing I've though, in regards to Mars, is how we use energy on Earth. On Earth we have "fossil fuels" to power everything we do, but even if we discovered some oil or coal beds under the Martian surface, it would be useless to burn since there's no free oxygen. So, like the Mars Rover, if we want to do serious work on Mars (by robots or humans), solar power must be the primary energy source.

So this is profound for me, living in an industrial/technical culture that has temporarily escaped this direct solar dependence for energy.

Then I imagine, let's magically solve all our technical problems, and get a colony of 500 skilled men and women on Mars with the capacity to get a good majority of their resources from their direct environment.

Well, at best they'll be living maybe in an underground dome or something, with airless cold desert above them, not quite anyone's idea of Eden, although they probably can keep too busy trying to survive to notice how much they sacrificed for this life.

Then I imagine, if there's people who are willing to life a spartan, difficult life on Mars (for there mere challenge, because it's there), WELL, why not start the experiment here on Earth?

How about let's take the most inhospitable environments on earth, and find 500 recruits to live there, put together say a $5 billion infrastructure materials (ummm... ship wreck?) to have a starting point to keep them alive for a few years, and then "back off" and let them discover how to live within their local sustainable resource they can get.

Well, the naivity of the vision is embarrassing, but if we want to play games, it isn't as expensive (or difficult) as living on a different world. And since it doesn't have to remain in isolation, perhaps such "communities" could be "sold" as schools - since students are idealists and willing to work on the cheap.

Anyway, overall perhaps the key points of any such vision is that of breaking away from the dominant culture, breaking away from dependence upon a death-spiraling "global economy" that must implode sooner or later.

I'm not worried life on earth will end, but life as we know it, I'm definitely worried, considering the next 100 years MUST be much different than the last.

Anyway, the questions of space travel and living outside of the natural systems we evolved under are worthy to explore. I just don't think they really can solve any problems we face now on earth.

I mean its like "running away from home" when you're eight years old, and being proud you built a shelter of cardboard boxes or something. It's a fun game, but when dark comes, you must go home and even if you failed, you might appreciate what you had there.

R. A. Davies said...

I agree with the people who say, "If you can't build a sustainable society on this planet, then how in the world can you believe we will somehow be able to do it offworld?"

This level of magical thinking always baffles me. Why is it that the people who consider themselves science types, who read all the science fiction, cannot do the rather simple mass/energy balance equations which indicate how nearly impossible this would be? They always start in the middle of the fantasy, never at the beginning. For example, "We'll just drill into the rock and build quarters underground." WTF? Where did the drill come from? Where did the power to make the drill work come from? Where did all the drillers come from? Where does all their food come from? Their water?


This type of techno-masturbatory thinking is precisely what will cause the destruction of the earth. All the techno-fetishists who say, "All we have to do is destroy a 'little' more of the planet to escape our duties."

There will come a day when ordinary people will wake up and realize that the techno-worshippers are killing the planet and that they want to keep killing it. On that day, we may finally have a chance to save the earth. I for one would not want to be identified as one of the planet-wreckers.

Anonymous said...

The general precept of this argument is "since there is nothing there why go?" Obviously a lot of people waited until St Louis had a Wal-Mart before moving there.
However, 'people' will not risk their lives to live in a dome in Arizona. People WILL do so to 'tame a wild land' for their own (or their children's) benefit. The last couple of instances involved killing a lot of Injuns and Coons, but the threat to the individual settler was as real as a lack of water. There is nothing that will focus the mind and provoke a solution as much as a hissing noise in a Mars Base.
No, the world of Star Trek will not happen unless a few of us start in that direction and see what happens.
The first morons who flung themselves off cliffs certainly proved that man will never fly, the first motorists covered in grease, stinking of petrol and looking ridiculous with no horse in front (or worst, being towed by a horse) proved that equine power would never be matched. And the almost pointless Space Shuttle proves that extra-orbital spaceflight is an impossibility.
Find a copy of "the Space Elevator". This technology is better developed than digital computers were when Kennedy announced Apollo.
The miners in the Canadian Arctic are the sort of people you need initially - to dig a big hole out of the sun and extract whatever resources they can. Solar and wind power should be available on Mars.
Yes, like the first European Settlements of Greenland, the Americas & Australia there would be tremendous risk - but there were many people who tried then, as I suspect there a few people who would pull themselves away from their PS2 and go.
We had no idea the Mayflower would start the oil age (and it WAS good while it lasted) - please don't tell me Mars would not be worth it. It will take many lifetimes to answer that question even if we start tomorrow.
'Space' is not a solution - it is a goal. Unfortunately 'start a vegetable garden', though much sounder advice, will never have the same emotional effect.

Bryan: Darwin

Weaseldog said...

There will come a day when ordinary people will wake up and realize that the techno-worshippers are killing the planet and that they want to keep killing it. On that day, we may finally have a chance to save the earth. I for one would not want to be identified as one of the planet-wreckers.

The planet will recover nicely once we've wiped ourselves out.

Have no fear, the planet will be fine.

Ares Olympus said...

"Bryan: Darwin" talks about the sea explorers of the past, Vikings and Colombus, going into the dangerous unknown for opportunity and profit.

I don't imagine space exploration can ever be such a heroic individual effort, individuals willing to sacrificed a life of comfort to create a "new world" for their children.

Space travel is a special activity of a large complex society, and something that can't clearly be continued without cheap energy and concentrations of wealth like now.

On the other hand, life on earth shows when the individual is sacrificed, whenever success and competition exceed local resources there is a pressure to expand. So humanity now stands on that mass and expansive pressure, and perhaps a time will come when life on earth seems "so miserable" that those standing on the top of the pyramid will focus their resources to build something new in space, and find plenty of people to accept the costs.

Perhaps a day will come when there's millions of skilled engineers cleaning toilets and sweeping the streets who will JUMP at a risky "mission" funded by a future Paul Allen looking for an inspiration use for his wealth.

I don't know, but I accept the energy bottleneck may still be expanded one more time somehow before we crash. I still think its a fool's dream, as long as humans can't live sustainbly on a still eden-like earth. But I accept there's enough technology and concentrations of wealth to allow a vast minority participate in such an effort.

Overall, I judge space-travel as one of the pinacles of all our extragant occupations in this fossil fuel age. I don't really believe it can ever be a priority when energy is scarce, again, except short term vanity within capitalism and concentrations of wealth and power.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the naysayers - how can a species that destroys (and doesn't even understand) one environment/species hope to create another world somewhere else? Fantasies of space saving us are both ludicrous and moronically arrogant.

On a side note, how are breeding and feeding 'girlie' subjects? Don't all humans of either sex require breeding and feeding to exist? If males find those subjects boring now, they had better BECOME interested - their lives or their families may depend on being more familiar with those topics very soon.

Also, isn't space colonization really about breeding and feeding?

I'm aware that you may have been intentionally tongue in cheek about 'girlie' (actually that should have been girly, to nitpick) and the 'manly' subject of thrusting ourselves into space - but I am so VERY tired of social sex segregation/identification of topics, even as a joke - it's not really funny anymore after years of such 'jokes' - especially when sexism is still a daily hell for millions around the world.

Anonymous said...


Cherenkov's comment is right on, and can be used to counter many of the idealistic techno fixes offered up as a response to peak oil.

We should start propagating it as "Cherenkov's Law of the Middle". Very useful for anyone's rhetorical arsenal!


Anonymous said...

I used to laugh at the Bush moon program announcement as pie in the sky post peak. Now it makes sense in light of the coming energy crisis.

The motive is the helium 3, a ton of which which can power a whole modern city for a year.

The actors are the corporate governments who want to control energy supply and thus control their nation-state competitors. The Russians had already been planning to go get the stuff by 2020. US Corporations just realized that NASA had better get there first. Hence the new NASA plan to go back to the moon by 2019.

The method is to throw [stolen]resources at the moon project that would have otherwise be used up in the global consumer economy. If they have to deny resources to the rest of us in order to bring lunar helium 3 to earth, they will. Plus I think heavy reliance on robotics makes 'sustainable' colonization unnecessary, especially initially.

Given the dire necessity of replacing fossil fuels by 2025-2035, the announced timeframe of 2019 makes sense.

From a sustainability perspective it sounds ludicrous. But they aren't concerned about sustainability. Just profits and power.

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, I did indeed leave out my material on magnetic fields - I was hoping DH had some useful study on the long term exposure of people to heavy duty magnetic fiels approximating those that we'd have to use in space, but no dice. Basically, even exposure to much lower level magnetic fields is such a bad idea that no one has tried it. I meant to say that, but forgot to replace my little "come back here and add the relevant studies marker" with anything. Thanks for pointing that out.

Brian, right now we can pretty much make a robot go back and forth - we're a good ways before we get to robots that can build and maintain and handle heavy industry independently. It isn't impossible, of course, but we're way, way, way off from that.

As for getting the Moon's H3 and sending it back, the problem is attenuation - that is, the problem with getting the energy is attenuation. The other problem is that we'd be shooting a lot of microwaves around, and that might not be so good for people, but the reality is that getting it from the moon to earth is probably not feasible, at least not for a long, long while.

Other anonymous, I was joking about breeding and feeding being girlie subjects. Apparently, as the old lightbulb joke goes, "That's not funny." But I
don't think those enduring the real hell of sexism are anything but diminished by turning every joke into a big deal that equates to real suffering.

Bryan:Darwin - What's in St. Louis now? I'm sure as heck not hauling my ass out there to see Walmart
;-). Seriously, though, I think you've missed the point. It isn't that nothing is out there, its that we can't go without further fucking up the planet, and its in the interest of the 99.999% of us not to waste resources so that 2/3 of those who can go can end up rotting in space.

As for the space elevator, my husband's immediate reaction was "Ha!" and to point out that on the list of technologies people who do this stuff take seriously, it is way, way, way down there. One flight of fifty feet before an unpleasant crash does not a solution make.

As someone wisely pointed out, I think people simply don't grasp how hostile an environment space is - it simply isn't like "taming an untamed land for your children." In fact, it has very little to do with getting familiar with *land* in any sense at all - it is very hard to develop a meaningful sense of ownership through a thick layer of plastic and metal. As you admit, autonomy is not going to be part of it - there will be no frontier settlement of a piece of land that you can independently nurse through. Space requires a communalism (communism?) unheard of on earth - there's no way to get away from one another. It is very much unlike colonization.


Anonymous said...

As I am mentioned in this post I feel I have the right of reply. i did not put calculations in my Space Review article on space tourism and carbon dioxide emissions, I have saved them for the peer reviewed article which will appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society soon. I also acknowledge they are estimates but they are a first attempt to calculate CO2 emissions from sub-orbital flights.

Steven Fawkes

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