The case for space

Not long ago someone dear to me who is not particularly future orientated (she is more concerned with animals and environment) turned to me and said “Why should we spend all that money trying to get into space?”. I was momentarily stunned that I had failed so miserably to make the case with her in a way that made sense to her.

Having run this problem by like-minded friends and colleagues I found that I am not the only one. Why humanity needs to expand into space may seem obvious to those of us who think about the future on historical timescales but it is no more obvious to even our many of our admittedly intelligent and educated peers than was the reality of climate change a couple of decades ago. (I was among those who became concerned about that early and am delighted to see it become a mainstream issue today). So in the spirit of the prophet both warning and revealing (and with apologies to the space geeks who are already convinced) here is an attempt to round up the major arguments for humanity putting substantial investment into expansion beyond Earth. I will also attempt to answer common objections as best I can. Refer your personal doubters here and if you or your loved ones are unconvinced them tell me. I will expand on any weak points you highlight.

The following arguments have mostly be made before and fall into major categories I have listed. I am indebted to such visionaries as Hawking, Sagan, Zubrin and Dyson, though my last point is largely updated from a host of more recent sources. I am also painfully aware that long though the post is, many of the following statements are in summary form and require unpacking for many readers. I make none of them lightly and all of them after some research. Therefore I would naturally welcome questions. They might even help me work the material up into print-publishable form so here goes.

Major reasons why expansion into space is critical to humanities future:

  1. Innate curiosity, drive to explore and learn – ‘because it’s there!’.
    Some people believe that our species *needs* to explore, to ‘go’ and to learn all it can and will suffer (does already) spiritually from the kind of bounded, inward looking, zero-sum thinking that our near mastery of one planet and-no-more produces. We can see signs of this in many modern human societies but mainly in the way we are steadily turning on our selves and one another as the realisation dawns that the majority of what is on Earth is already discovered and the benefits of the room, resources, knowledge etc are far from evenly or even fairly distributed. Those who believe this also expect that once we make the necessary technical and physical leaps, the ‘high frontier’ will open up not only more solutions to terrestrial problems (see 4) but also lead to a more open attitude to our possibilities and issues.
  2. insurance against many of the plausible scenarios that could wipe our species off the Earth. That we can at any time – and eventually must again – be struck by an asteroid, comet or other object capable of wrecking our fragile world is now widely accepted. The possibility that we could do it our selves with Hydrogen bombs has long been accepted & feared even though that risk has gone down a little post USSR. Spreading human habitation beyond this little bubble is an obvious way to avoid complete catastrophe. The capabilities we will develop along the way to mastering space and the broader outlook gained, are also our very best defence for protecting the Earth from both natural and political disasters.
  3. Economic benefits of space based trade. We are only now beginning to adjust to the idea of a post oil-production peak economy. Other shortages will follow. There is money and prosperity to be had by expanding our resource base beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, Asteroids, Gas giants etc. There are no natives to oppress this time. Such colonisation will take from no-one. We cannot *afford* not to do it.
  4. To contribute crucial elements of solutions to our seemingly intractable problems and so improve and protect life on Earth. In my previous post I listed many of the major issues that are about to become critical for humanity in a global way we have never faced before. If we do not want to be the last chapter of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” we must work a lot smarter and more sustainably than the industrialised world has ever done before. We also need to find new resources, places and ways of living. Space offers critical pieces of solutions to many of our challenges. I realise that this is one of the statements I promised which may need much unpacking and explaining but that is what this blog is about so I will not attempt it all here.

Answers to common objections

  1. Costs outweigh benefits, at least in the short term.
    Probably so but only in the short term. How short you may ask? Well much of the investment we need to make can be paid back in decades and some can pay back in the sort of discount-rate dominated investment scales investors think on. As a civilization though, we have to deal with our critical historical challenges with more vision than the investment community is structured to do. One does not save ones own neck in order to make a buck in the coming quarter.
  2. Chasing after space is a distraction from the problems on Earth.
    Not if it is a part of solving those problems. Can we agree that most of the great problems that face us can be solved if we have *enough * (abundant) clean energy and a few times the physical resources we have on Earth? Think about it, which ones cannot? If we can take most of our pollution out of the biosphere and supply new clean energy to replace and exceed that currently supplied by fossil fuels – and there is reason to think we can indeed do this – we can solve all of our energy problems, make significant inroads on our resource problems and so give us time and bandwidth to do more on our human/political problems. Hardly a distraction wouldn’t you say?
  3. Too dangerous in the short term.
    The dangers some brave souls may face in space are really up to their own informed existential choices so I don’t believe the danger to those who, like me, want to go amount to a serious counter argument. Dangers to Earth’s biosphere and or humanity definitely need mitigation. I have yet to hear one that has no mitigation strategy however and the social/political methodology of managing risk is well developed. I will mention only a short list here;

    1. Space based weapons, including dropping rocks on ground targets. This could happen but only if war between terrestrial states erupts. We already have all the WMDs we need for annihilation and access to space is not going to increase the root risk even if it increases the options. Space weapons are certainly not poor mans options so no-one who gets access to them would lack destructive means without space.
    2. sub-orbital nuclear disasters, Exploring the outer solar system needs more power than photo-electrics can provide so far from the sun. This means that some of the manned and unmanned ships we launch may be powered by radio isotopes or even reactors. The risk is low but measurable. The trick will be to minimise it. One approach should be to avoid the ‘flags and footprints’ approach of the past and concentrate on developing capabilities in the inner system – including power sources (e.g. based on moon or other extraterrestrial resources) so we do not have to take too many risks in Earths atmosphere. Another great way to mitigate such risks would be to build a Space Elevator so that terrestrial launches and recovery’s can be safely gentle.
    3. Space Elevator failure. Assuming one is built, some fear what could happens if an SE came down as it does in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. Actually this could never be a threat to Earth. Current designs are to light to do anything but fly outwards or burn up. You would not want to be on the SE at the time but it would not be a significantly destructive disaster on the ground.
    4. Polution from rocketry. Certainly a possible danger if not monitored but given the cost of rocketry it is unlikely that they will ever be used so heavily. Important though space is to our future, we will need to minimise their use by developing some alternatives. We also need to balance the critical need of space development against our relatively frivolous uses of polluting technologies and rationalise our use accordingly.
  4. Nowhere else in solar system to support us & stars are too far.
    This one needs to be answered on different time scales. In the short to medium term both are true but unimportant. One thing we will not be going to space for is housing space for our burgeoning world population. We will have to build and supply the habitats for those who do go and we can expect some of those populations to grow over time but we can live out there in habitats. Who would want to? Well me for one… & I am not alone. In the longer run we can terraform, build and transform any number of places in our solar system and in the end (1-2 Centuries?) even the stars may not prove to far. The point though is that we can go in what numbers make sense and that solving the problems of Earth as well validates going from any point of view.

So there is the case for space in general terms. For a more detailed plan I suggest some light reading, including;Entering Space by Robert Zubrin, The Space Elevator by Edwards & Westling.

Let me say that I don’t believe that access to space is all we need to do. We have to learn a lot more about how to live sustainably on the Earth and far more about how to govern our world without oppressing one another. I do believe though that in the long run no strategy that does not include going into space can serve us well. I for one am happy to embark on the adventure despite the many risks but that is not why I want to go. I want to go because humanity must and because there is too much out there that we have to explore for a host of reasons. You of course will need your own reason to come but at least now you cannot argue that we shouldn’t go.

(If you want to so argue though, please do me the honour of doing so here)

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~ by clauswitz on May 31, 2007.

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