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: http://www.peakoil.org.au/nuclear.co2.htm). 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.