Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Final Frontier 3: The Environmental Argument

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is now safely in orbit, and the new Star Trek movie continues to be well received.

I have been spending this week arguing that the future of humanity is in space. The asteroid belt alone has enough material to build the surface-area equivalent of 30,000 earths in space cities, and the sun is a massive power source that is expected to last several billion years.

One of the arguments for the development of space is an environmental argument.

Consider two possible options for building a mine. You could cut yet another scar into the living earth, or you could mine an irradiated hunk of rock that has never seen a sign of life that we did not bring with us.

Or imagine a power station – a nuclear station that can spill radioactive contaminants over thousands of square miles, oil to be spilled on our shorelines, coal’s contributions to global warming, windmills chopping up the birds, and earth-bound solar cells with the poisons that result from their manufacturing and disposal.

There is nothing up there to kill except what travels with us. We can turn an iron asteroid into millions of tons of iron without bending a single blade of grass. We can build space based solar power plants where the only life comes from the engineers who came to build and maintain it.

This does not mean that space cannot be polluted. The problem with space debris tells us that our activities in space can generate 'negative externalities'. However, this is not the type of pollution that we find on Earth – cutting deeper and deeper scars into a living ecosystem.

Nor is it reasonable to argue that we can cut the environmental impact of this development even on Earth to zero. There will still be an impact on Earth as these materials and energy are delivered.

Still, it is the case that whatever percentage of our mining, refining, and energy production we can move into space is a percentage that is not doing harm to the living earth.

It is the case that the harvesting minerals and energy from space is expensive. However, harvesting minerals and energy on earth is expensive as well. Much of the cost of these activities is not included in the price. Of course we pay for the energy and materials that we consume. However, we also pay for the energy and materials that other people consume in the form of environmental degradation.

These externalities – these costs that we suffer as a result of the activities of others (and the costs of our own activities that we can pass on to others) – are a subsidy. We pay people to use more materials and to use more energy by offering to pick up a part of the bill – the part of the bill that is paid for in terms of the negative impacts of pollution and environmental degradation. It is simply not the case that you can look at the price of materials and energy on earth and think that we are looking at its cost.

The real question is whether or not the cost of harvesting materials and energy from space exceeds the cost (in terms of monetary and non-monetary losses) of that activity on earth.

That is an open question.

It is also the case that the Pentagon reports two major potential causes of future wars – with all of the costs that wars entail. Future wars will be wars over energy, and wars over water. And that space-based solar power may be a way to avert those future wars by reducing the perceived need to fight over energy.

(See: Space‐Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security)

We have a choice – to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on fighters, tanks, and the training of soldiers to blow up buildings and to kill people on earth. Or we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on rockets, space-based solar power stations, asteroid mining, and the training of scientists and engineers to provide the people of earth with energy, including the energy needed to manufacture clean drinking water.

While we are on the subject of environmental impacts, consider the environmental impact of wars. Consider the burning oil fields of Iraq, the mass wasting of armies moving over the land, and the fact that national security threats will always trump environmental regulations when it comes to getting men and materials to the front lines.

It is simply not rational to think that the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge will not be opened up to drilling the instant the United States finds itself in a serious conflict and needs oil for its military.

So, consider the cost of mining and manufacturing in space.

But consider the costs of not doing so. Consider the costs of cutting deeper scars into the living earth as we compete for resources. And consider the costs – in terms of lives lost as well as environmental impacts – of future wars fought over dwindling resources.

Not developing the resources of space has costs as well.


Keith Henson said...

That's thoughtful content.

Eventually, perhaps 5-10 years after the first power satellite, we probably will be mining the asteroids.

Meantime, engineers are thinking about ways to tap space resources at a low enough cost to displace coal and oil just by providing electric power and synthetic oil cheaper than they can be extracted from the ground.

There is work in progress here:


Mike said...

Just the other night, I just saw the documentary on PBS about the Columbia shuttle disaster. A two foot square piece of lightweight foam punched right through the wing which upon reentry, facilitated the complete disintegration of the craft.

That made me wonder if long term space occupation will be too risky due to the catastrophic damage a small piece of debris could cause to a vessel. As in Star Trek, wouldn't we need to develop a deflector shield mechanism before safely occupying this on a large scale? I know there is a lot of "space" to maneuver, but it only takes one hex bolt moving at 30,000 mph to bring a fatal end to a space mission.

Keith Henson said...

Mike, "many miners continue to die annually, either through direct accidents in coal mines or through adverse health consequences from working under poor conditions. China, in particular, has the highest number of coal mining related deaths in the world, with official statistic 6,027 deaths in 2004."

In the highly developed parts of the world, the concerns you expressed will probably control policy.

Which is why future space workers are likely to be Chinese or Indian.

Keith Henson

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There are people who are not afraid of hex bolts. Yes, one might die, but there are a lot of things that we can do in our live that might kill us - from getting into an automobile accident on the way to work to choking on food during lunch.

The occupant of a space station might die from a piece of space debris, but at least he does not need to worry about tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, being hit by lightning, drunk drivers, icey roads, falling off of a ladder, or many of the millions of other things that a person can die from.

Some people like adventure, even when it involves a risk to life and limb. In fact, it is not adventure unless it involves a risk to life and limb. Sky divers, race car drivers, and those who build experimental aircraft all fall into this category.

There will be no shortage of volunteers as long as people are allowed to volunteer.

In fact, this is a part of what this series is about - about promoting a sense of adventure and creating a population more willing to accept risks, rather than a population that hides in their safe homes afraid of anything and everything that goes on around them.

Michael Radosta said...


I don't quite see your rationale as we have no alternative but to live with the inherent risks on earth-but we can choose to go to space or not. And our current means of surviving in space, this planet, is at risk for a critical failure of its life support systems.

Also, I question the statistical probability and methods of tragic death on earth as being comparable to those in a space vessel. Arthur C. Clarke offered some frightening visualizations of what could happen in numerous short stories. It has all the risks of a car, airplane, and a submarine, plus the added bonus of drifting away into oblivion. That's not a deterent to solving those problems, it's just a massive undertaking.

And how can we ignore the financial cost of a lost vessel and its contents? Could not one space accident equal a major hurricane land strike in terms of dollars?

For data, I suppose we could look at the number of people who attempted to go to space versus the number that died in the process. We could also look at the dollars lost to accidents.

Noting that, I now understand your point- that humanity has benefited from these endeavors despite that cost and continued risk. I am just having a hard time imagining how we can consider expanding the scope of what we have done in space significantly without major technological breakthroughs (investment). The perils and costs are too high without coming up with proven solutions, and that will take another lifetime. Surely, renewable energy is more deserving of a trillion dollars at this juncture?