Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2010: Getting Off This Rock

One of the most important projects for the long-range survival of the human race (and its descendants) involves creating a viable civilization that could survive the destruction of the whole Earth.

That is to say, we need to get off this rock.

I envision a day when humans are collecting energy from the sun in space using space-based solar power stations, mining asteroids for their raw materials, smelting those materials in space, then shipping that material to earth.

I compare the harvesting of materials in the dead wasteland of space - where the only life that exists is the life we bring with us - to cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living earth where we are already having significant and detrimental effects on the whole planet.

That future is a long ways off. For the present, the question is whether we are going to make any significant steps towards that future in 2010.

It seems quite clear that President Obama is one who believes that we should be solving all of the problems here on Earth first before we waste money sending people into space. On this model, there would be no manned spaceflight until there is no hunger on earth, every child gets a decent education, every person has easy access to quality medical care, there are no wars and no crime of any kind. Once that has been accomplished, THEN we can look to space exploration.

One could, of course, make the same claim about there being no sitcoms on television, no sporting events, no playing golf or basketball, no computer games, no cuddling in front of the fire with a loved one sipping hot chocolate, no walks on the beach, no working on a jigsaw puzzle. None of these things should exist until all of the problems of Earth have been solved.

Politically, Obama is not able to end the space program. It would require shutting down too many offices and companies and disrupt too many lives - generating too many of the wrong kind of headlines. The politically viable course is to have the smallest manned spaceflight program that is politically viable, and to spend the money elsewhere.

I suggest that this is a mistake for a number reasons. I have already alluded to two of them.

The first is that the day will come when there are no humans living on Earth. When that day arrives, either we will be a space-faring civilization or we will be extinct.

The second is that space represents the solution to some of these problems. In space we have access to huge quantities of energy guaranteed not to run out for the next several billion years, and whole asteroids to mine and to turn into manufactured goods without disturbing a single living thing.

There are other reasons to consider.

Third, there are significant threats to human well-being and even human survival that come from space. These include the potential impact of space rocks to the potential sterilization of the planet form a nearby gamma ray burst. The latter is exemplified by the discovery of a binary system that will destroy itself some day and seems well positioned to send a massive gamma ray burst in the direction of Earth. (See Binary 'deathstar' has Earth in its sights.)

Fourth, the space program continues to draw people into the study of science, math, and engineering, even if they ultimately put their efforts someplace else (such as the study of moral philosophy). Of all of the museums in the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum is still the one that gets the most visitors. It would be foolish for those who recognize the value of having a public well versed in science and technology in general to eliminate the biggest attraction that the fields of science and technology has to offer


Yet, President Obama is not going to read this blog and I have no way of altering the course of the U.S. manned space program in the short term. That space program will probably be to do as little as politically possible.

Yet, there are still things to look forward to in 2010.

First, Virgin Galactic has recently shown us SpaceShipTwo - which will take paying passengers to the edge of space. SpaceX will likely launch Falcon 9 which has the ability to take cargo and, later, astronauts into space. Robert Bigalow is still working on his inflatable space modules, and several companies are working on was to get people economically to and from those modules. This is a start of an industry that could take people into space without government participation.

Second, a recent report from a panel charged with investigating manned space flight has identified a new goal for space exploration - a 'flexible plan' that puts the development of space itself above landings on the Moon or on Mars. It proposes projects for long-term spaceflights to asteroids and engage in long-term projects constructing and maintaining facilities such as space telescopes in deep space - outside of low earth orbit.

These two events are at least heading in the right direction.

So, one of the things I look forward to in 2010 is further development in this particular direction. Further development in a non-government space program where private entities take people into space and begin the work constructing the infrastructure that will harvest space resources, while NASA provides the research and technical development that helps this industry to survive.


profe said...

I strongly disagree with your initial comparisson between not having a space program this year and calling everyone to avoid leasurely spending until problems on earth are solved. It is a grossly unfair comparison.

Most of the problems you cite are very very long term- our president wants to take a few years to fix the earth and you freak out?

As you have mentioned yourself, there are many great space programs lined up for this year, and spaceflight of the kind you describe does not seem far off. Why go all nuts on Obama for this? Space programs are of no use if we kill this planet in a few years.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I suspect that Obama's attitudes towards space exploration and development to fully carry through the four (or eight) years of his Presidency - not just this next year. It reflects an attitude towards space exploration that is actually quite common.

As for the comparisons to leisure activities, Americans spend over $300 billion per year on sports. Some people say we need to cut $3 billion from NASA to solve the problems of the earth. Well, this seems to argue that we should cut If we need to cut NASA's budget by $3 billion to solve the problems of earth, think of the problems we could solve if we cut the $300 billion sports budget. Then add other luxury goods such as television, movies, and cosmetics.

Granted, the NASA budget is federal and the sports budget is personal (excepting government subsidies in building sports stadiums and other benefits that governments hand out to sports businesses). However, this does not affect the principle that if spending money on space exploration and development is a waste of time that ought to be eliminated, then spending a hundred times as much money on sports, movies, and television entertainment is an even graeter waste of time and money that ought to be eliminated.

Note that I am not calling on everyone to avoid leasure activities until the problems on earth are solved. I am saying that the argument that we should not develop and explore space until all the problems of the earth are solved is even more absurd than claiming that we should not engage in leisure activities until all the problems of the earth are solved.

My target is not Obama specifically. My target is a philosophy that says we should not develop space until the problems of the earth are solved. This is an absurd position to take, yet it is one that Obama seems to hold. Still, it is the idea, not the person, that I am targeting.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/30/2009, at The Unreligious Right

Keith Henson said...

The problem with all space programs is the cost of getting off the planet to somewhere useful, like GEO.

This is particularly true for SBSP where a reasonable start needs to lift a million tons per year to GEO.

There are probably many ways to solve the lift cost, you can see my take on it by Googling henson oil drum or ask for the paper I gave at the Beamed Energy Propulsion Conference.

Keith Henson
hkeithhenson at gmail dot com

xyz said...

Obama appears inclined to seek consensus in this matter, to look for a middle ground--which in my opinion is one of his greatest strengths, but sometimes his greatest weakness.

Based on reports this week, he likely will recommend dropping development of the problematic Ares I, and focus on speeding development of heavy lift capability, something more Ares V-like. Not a bad thing, since we have little comparable to the Saturn V or Titan IV series of heavy launchers. And he may also ask Europe, Canada, and Japan to contribute to the development of other essential components required for deep space exploration (e.g. landing module). This seems to me to be a reasonable plan for a nation that is strapped for cash and besieged by many other worthy demands (infrastructure, not the least).

I say this as someone who wishes we were further along in our manned exploration of the solar system (not that we haven't gained much for pioneering studies by unmanned missions). I do think we may end up accelerating efforts for all the wrong reasons (to beat the Chinese to the moon, say).

Beastinblack said...


this is my take on the future. maybe space is the solution to the problems on earth?