What Do We Really “Need” From Space?

Space Tourist Dennis Tito on the International Space Station -- harbinger of things to come?

Space Tourist Dennis Tito on the International Space Station — harbinger of things to come?

Because crepehanger thinking keeps cropping up – influencing mainstream writers and our national discourse, I want to share and comment on the Smithsonian Magazine’s latest Off the Road – The Travel Adventures of a Nomad on the Cheap post by blogger Alastair Bland, entitled Do we really need to take vacations in space?  The principal thesis of his piece is that although space tourism may emerge as a new field of human endeavor, such activity is undesirable because of its high cost and carbon footprint impact on Earth (Bland adopts the idea of “1000 flights a year, spewing 600 metric tons of soot” into the atmosphere from this 2010 piece).  The author indicates that (at least for himself) there are plenty of interesting places to explore (by walking and biking) right here on Earth.  Although a self-described “travel adventurer,”  Bland views space travel by the “extremely rich” as costly “science fiction” – dangerous to those participants, leading eventually to others following to exploit off-planet resources.  He suggests that instead of space tourism, we need to invest our time, effort and money into figuring out how to live sustainably on this planet – be content enjoying the simple pleasures of biking, hiking and swimming here on Earth.  I like biking, swimming and hiking and have indulged in all those activities, but I believe that we are on the threshold of learning to live and work productively in space – it isn’t an “either/or” situation.

Bland uses the concept of space tourism to denigrate the idea of space emigration and settlement (in fact, of emigration and settlement in general).  His attack is buttressed with the usual platitudes about the plunder and rape of our own planet – believing us guilty of despoiling the Earth, with plans to do the same on other worlds.  He challenges the concept that humans have any business extracting resources from extraterrestrial bodies, at least until we have sorted out “rampant poverty, pollution, inequality, starvation and extinctions” here on Earth.  From such discourse, one would be hard pressed to tell that we are now in the second decade of a new millennium – such thinking is identical to what was said in the 1960s about the “wastefulness” of our space program.

Bland’s use of the phrase “for better or worse” is particularly telling.  He uses it after his description of events that (I would imagine) most us think are predominantly good things, like the ability of ordinary people to make the trans-Atlantic crossing, or the settlement and development of the American west.  Based on the general thrust of the whole piece, the author appears to prefer to tie the “worse” consequences to human migration than to recognize the “better” ones.  Bland asks rhetorically, “Why must our species continue to advance?”  He finally (and resignedly) accepts that human expansion into space “may be inevitable” as we struggle to continue and increase our profligate and evil ways of mass consumption.

Have humans only used and abused?  The idea that we have no moral “right” to exploit the resources of space is closely tied to modern Malthusian philosophies of shortages and want, a favorite meme of the environmentally conscious and socially aware:  population growth and the hunger for resources and energy increases at an ever alarming rate.  Surely such trends portend doom!  We must repent immediately, reverse the rate of population growth, reduce our carbon footprint, and go live naked in a meadow somewhere peacefully munching grass, like a herd of placid cattle (no methane emissions, please).

The worldview behind such sentiments is that modern industrial civilization is inherently evil; that we should simplify our lives and go back to some Rousseauian state of nature, a pastoral existence when we lived peacefully with one other, sustained by nature and all was good and natural.  But there is another way to look at modern life:  More people are alive today than ever before and unlike the predictions of Malthus, they live better, longer, and happier lives than at any other time in history.  If shortage and want are inevitable, why have they decreased with time?  The most famous predictions of modern doomsayers have yet come to pass and yet invariably, they are not only listened to but also ardently believed and promoted by many, especially in the academy.  Nations falter and their economies constrict when such ideas are designed, popularized and eventually take root.

Space is simply another realm for humanity to venture into and use.  It is no more “immoral” to access and use some space material (such as water from the Moon) than it is to gather sunlight and generate electricity from a solar panel on a spacecraft (an activity of which I suspect Mr. Bland would heartily approve, and yet he describes the possible use of planetary materials as “plundering the resource banks of other worlds”).  The idea that using resources causes human suffering is ridiculous – most human suffering is caused either by naturally occurring events or by those who take by coercion or force that which they do not own – demanding that others live according to their prescription and ideology.  Compared to remaining on Earth, a huge advantage of developing space resources (both materials and energy) is that they are – literally – inexhaustible and infinite.  By learning to access and use what is available in space, insights and innovations unimaginable now will be revealed, answers to questions we cannot formulate yet will be answered, and the possibilities for humanity (on Earth and beyond) will grow exponentially.

What do we “really” need from space?  We need the freedom to be pioneers, to explore everywhere and create from everything that is available and awaiting use in our ever-expanding universe.  We are on the verge of a completely new age of innovation and plenty.  By tapping the material and energy resources of space, we will not only survive – we will prosper.  That others would question our natural urge to go over the next “hill” or that they would suggest placing limits on the rights of others to pursue new horizons (shunned until Earth is made to work to their liking and timetable) is indeed folly, fraught with dangerous restrictions and biases that advanced and vibrant societies do not and will not entertain or subscribe to.

As a way of showing respect for the Earth and its physical boundaries, Alastair Bland proposes that we stop advancing and remain on Earth.  Mr. Bland needs to exercise his sense of adventure and open his mind to other possibilities – to seek and travel the “off-road” path to the stars.  Mother Earth might even approve.

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13 Responses to What Do We Really “Need” From Space?

  1. billgamesh says:

    What we “need” from space is protection from asteroids and comets to start with. I am hoping there is a big comet show in 13 that will open the minds of the public to this fact.

    http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/28/16217532-the-comet-of-the-century-and-other-night-sky-highlights-for-2013?lite

    Along with this external threat is the internal threat of an engineered pathogen that leaves no survivors. The answer to both threats is on the Moon. A survival colony on the Moon will insure our species is not wiped out and also serve to launch interceptor missions to deflect impact threats.

    The Moon is the place to launch any nuclear missions (outside the magnetosphere) and the SLS is the vehicle to transport those nuclear materials. Hobby rockets are not up to the task.

    http://lifeboat.com/blog/2012/12/forty-tons-of-plutonium-for-bomb-propulsion

  2. Pingback: Mission: Tomorrow » What Do We Really “Need” From Space? | Spudis Lunar Resources

  3. Space offers a near term alternative to further overpopulating the Earth and to the idea that all nations with massive nuclear arsenals are going to somehow love each other by the end of the century .

    If low gravity environments such as those that exist on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury turn out not to be deleterious to human health and reproduction then these worlds could be colonized by humans. We could possibly find out if the Moon’s low gravity is harmful to human health in less than 15 years if we just build a small manned outpost on the lunar surface.

    Earth has a total land area of approximately 150 million square kilometers. The Moon has a land area of approximately 38 million square kilometers; Mars: 145 million square kilometers, and Mercury: 75 million square kilometers. So humanity could potentially nearly triple the land area available for its survival by simply colonizing three other nearby worlds beyond the Earth.

    Marcel F. Williams

  4. Andrew W says:

    “Mr. Bland needs to exercise his sense of adventure and open his mind to other possibilities”

    No, first Mr. Bland needs to recognize the problems with the future he advocates; there are too many people on this planet for indefinite sustainability without the advanced technology that exists today and that technology consumes resources that are finite, and humans, being humans, will fight each other for their share if the pie is made to shrink.

    It’s go forward or go back, but the going back that’s likely is via the population reduction that happens in a collapse.

  5. Joe says:

    Hi Paul,

    Good take down of the Bland article.

    Andrew W says: December 30, 2012 at 1:11 am
    “… first Mr. Bland needs to recognize the problems with the future he advocates; there are too many people on this planet for indefinite sustainability without the advanced technology that exists today and that technology consumes resources that are finite, and humans, being humans, will fight each other for their share if the pie is made to shrink.”
    It’s go forward or go back, but the going back that’s likely is via the population reduction that happens in a collapse.”

    A very succinct description of the situation.

    About the only thing to add is that Mr. Bland’s Luddite philosophy (1. Any of a group of British workers who between 1811 and 1816 rioted and destroyed laborsaving textile machinery in the belief that such machinery would diminish employment. 2. One who opposes technical or technological change. After Ned Ludd, an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779.) far predates the beginning of the development of space technology.

    I suspect that when the first of our remote ancestors learned to start and control small fires (to keep them warm cold nights) another started the first anti developments organization – “Cro-Mags” against Camp Fires”.

  6. billgamesh says:

    “So humanity could potentially nearly triple the land area available for its survival by simply colonizing”

    “Land area available” implies agriculture Marcel. There are vast tracts of land on Earth that are uninhabited. I am not one of the Earth is overpopulated crowd. We could have a high quality of life for every man woman and child on this planet if we did not, as a species, spend most of our resources pandering to various moral weaknesses and cravings for profit. When I discuss this fact with others on forums I am invariably labeled a communist or socialist and excommunicated from the discussion by way of a dogpile of insults.

    The myth of scarcity is just a smokescreen for the reality of greed and ignorance. Which is why people like Gerard K. O’Neill sought to improve the human condition with space colonies.

    We need to go into space to first safeguard the Earth from impacts and the human race from extinction, and along with these missions to spread life into the universe through colonization. None of those three things has anything to do with getting filthy rich or intimidating other nations with firepower so we can steal their resources. Which is why it has not happened.

    We are stuck between our wants and our needs. We want to keep competing instead of cooperating. We want to keep intimidating instead of interacting. We need to understand that the universe does not care if we thrive or go extinct. If we continue to indulge our our instinctive and tribal inheritance instead of investing in the future we will have no future. Our race will die as surely as each and every individual dies. That is our choice- the glorifying of individuality and certain extinction or the acceptance of the collective goal and a continued existance of humanity.
    Ayn Rand would not agree.

    • Its actually rather astonishing that the Earth is able to sustain 7 billion people on a planet that just 10,000 years ago could probably only sustain about 5 million hunter-gatherers. But I believe that the Earth could probably feed and provide fresh water for a human population that is at least ten times larger than today if vertical indoor farms were built using the plentiful power of the Earth’s uranium and thorium resources.

      But I’m also concerned about the fate of the other species on our planet. It really wouldn’t be the Earth without them, IMO. And I’m not so sure if the other species on our planet could survive this many human beings or more in the long run.

      I’m a strong believer in capitalism within the framework of a strong democratic republic. The problem with the US economy IMO is that many people and politicians have bought into the myth that a politically paralyzed government is better than a strong government. A weak government that can’t get anything done is bad for the economy no matter how big or small it is. The role of government should be to do those things that private enterprise either refuses to do, or can’t do, or cannot do as efficiently as the government can. The role of politicians, IMO, is to make sure that government works as efficiently as possible without wasting the tax payer’s dollars.

      The Federal government’s investment in space has been one of America’s greatest economic success stories. And there is no doubt in my mind that the American economy would be in much better shape today if the politicians had allowed NASA to set up permanent outpost on the Moon and Mars after the Apollo program. If that had happened, the political issue of the day might be whether or not to raise taxes on the extremely lucrative lunar corporations that might have currently dominated the satellite manufacturing and launch industry today:-)

      Marcel F. Williams

      • Andrew W says:

        “But I believe that the Earth could probably feed and provide fresh water for a human population that is at least ten times larger than today if vertical indoor farms were built using the plentiful power of the Earth’s uranium and thorium resources.”

        With enough inputs you could grow bananas at the top of Everest, but anyone investing in such an enterprise would not make any profits, their wealth would shrink, so you have to ask yourself: What’s the cost of the energy to grow the food vs the value of the food grown?

  7. JohnG says:

    I would think the good ‘Mother Earth’ would appreciate the expansion of human society to the Moon et al., and particularly the use of natural resources at those locations. If we were to produce rocket propellents in space, then there wouldn’t be the need for “1000 flights a year, spewing 600 metric tons of soot”, as much of what is launched into space is propellent. If we were to collect sunlight via solar arrays and ‘beam’ it back to earth via microwaves or other methods, or find a way to harvest and use He3 from the Moon, there wouldn’t be the need to expand our use of fossil fuels as the world population increases. The space age is here, like it or not, and there are many opportunities to make our lives better here on earth just like there were when ocean going ships, Conestoga wagons, automobiles, and airplanes came into existence. Mr. Bland needs to find a way to make ‘out-of-this-world’ lemonade out of his basket of space lemons.

  8. billgamesh says:

    “If we were to collect sunlight via solar arrays and ‘beam’ it back to earth via microwaves or other methods, or find a way to harvest and use He3 from the Moon, there wouldn’t be the need to expand our use of fossil fuels as the world population increases. The space age is here, like it or not,-”

    Well, the space age was here and we decided it cost too much.
    Lunar Solar Power is an exciting idea but He3 is more science fiction than probability.

    As for rocket propellents- while launching HLV’s to the Moon makes sense to build a base, that is about all rockets are good for. The ice on the Moon is much better used as radiation shielding for nuclear propelled spaceships.

    We “need” the Moon as a base from which to launch nuclear missions. Then comes solar energy, then comes other Lunar resources such or thorium for reactors and metal from which to build new ships and equipment for colonies.

  9. denniswingo says:

    Amen brother Paul, could not have said it better myself…

  10. Alex says:

    “If shortage and want are inevitable, why have they decreased with time?” Because we’ve been on a fossil fuel joyride, we’ve had access to vast supplies of cheap concentrated energy which has enabled the exponential growth and development of modern civilization. Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern civilization. In your articles about space exploration and utilization I’ve seen some of the most practical real world arguments for this area of human endeavor. But I suggest that you should also give more attention to Earthly issues and challenges, as they might stand between us and an awesome space future. That’s why I highly recommend reading this article, written by an astrophysicist working at the University of San Diego: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/why-not-space/

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I am familiar with this line of argument. We’ve heard it before a thousand times — such and such is “impossible” because it’s too expensive, too hard or technically infeasible. Fundamentally, it reflects the classic Malthusian argument that resources are finite and population is excessive. I don’t buy that argument. Your mileage may vary.

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