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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The social critics' reply

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2J

The social critics' reply

In spite of the long list of actual and potential benefits of space, social critics find that the standard case for exploration falls short of its target. For many important space activities do not have the obvious beneficial consequences of weather and communication satellites. Where is the obvious payoff from a probe of Jupiter or Titan, from landing a vehicle on Mars, from scooping a bit of Halley's comet? Few accomplishments of space exploration rank as high as the discoveries made with telescopes in orbit. But how is the information from space astronomy going to put food in children's mouths or a roof over their heads?

In emphasizing the practicality of space technology, the standard case makes intellectual orphans of the very things that bring to exploration an air of mystery and excitement. What it leaves out is the heart of space exploration: our sense of adventure, our urge to explore, our need to satisfy our curiosity. A justification along practical lines fails because it excludes those aspects of the enterprise that ignite the imagination and stir the soul about the conquest of the cosmos.

Many supporters of space exploration would like to argue at this point that scientific knowledge has value in itself, but this only brings us back to the original debate. Is scientific knowledge more valuable than achieving this or that social aim? We have not answered that question yet. Of course, merely a small portion of the space budget is allocated to science (while most of it presumably goes for more obviously practical activities), and since the space budget is not that large to begin with, taking the money away from the heart of space exploration is not going to solve the social problems anyway. Nevertheless many social critics would not accept this reply because the actual sums spent on space science are large, even if they represent a small fraction of the space budget in the U.S. The proposed price tag for the Hubble space telescope alone was around $1.5 billion, and the actual costs have run much higher. That kind of money will not solve all the social problems of the world, but the social critics think that its judicious investment may do a lot of good. Besides, the cost of the International Space Station is likely to rise to about $100 billion, an extraordinary sum by any standards (we will see in Ch. 7 that many space scientists actually oppose the space station).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ideological Critics' Reply

Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2I


The ideological critics' reply

A justification that involves technological and economic growth is not likely to impress ideological critics. Indeed, they see the alleged benefits as causes for concern. For many of these critics, and especially for some influenced by the environmentalist movement, the very idea of space exploration is not only unwise, but also immoral. They are particularly harsh to some of the grandiose proposals for going into outer space to solve pressing terrestrial problems. According to Wendell Berry, for example, the lesson that we should learn from the closing of the earthly frontiers "calls for an authentic series of changes in the human character and community that, if made, will afford us the spiritual resources to live both within our material means and with each other."[1]

Space exploration, he thinks, tries to outflank the lesson entirely. The space enthusiast – and here Berry has Gerard O'Neill in mind – ignores what is essentially a moral problem (i.e., the changing of human character and community) and offers technological solutions instead. The morality of the space enthusiast is thus both shallow and gullible, for he offers "a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change."[2] Space exploration, to someone like Berry, could only be "a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do."[3] According to another critic, Dennis Meadows, "What is needed to solve these problems on earth is different values and institutions – a better attitude towards equity, a loss of the growth ethic.... I would rather work at the problems here."[4]

At first sight Berry seems to beg the question. According to him, the closing of the earthly frontiers presents a moral problem to which only moral solutions are applicable. Gerard O'Neill and other space enthusiasts ignore the moral problem. Thus, Berry concludes, the space enthusiasts are not only doomed to failure but are also immoral (not just mistaken or unperceptive). But what O'Neill and the others question is precisely whether all the frontiers have in fact closed. And certainly, if those frontiers haven't closed, we have no reason to believe that we face a moral problem. In assuming that the high frontier is not a genuine option, Berry heaps moral blame on the space enthusiasts while begging the issue in question.[5]

But perhaps there is a more sympathetic reading of Berry's position. What he may have in mind is that the experience of the (partial) closing of the earthly frontiers is enough to show that Western man's approach to nature is inherently unwise, and thus that its extension through space exploration is destined to fail. On what grounds should we trust O'Neill's grandiose plans for gigantic solar power satellites, let alone those for artificial worlds (his space colonies)? Surely projects of such magnitude cannot be made plausible by mere theoretical proposals. How can we be assured that no essential detail has been left out?[6] The most straightforward way to resolve this issue might be to demonstrate the feasibility of increasingly more complex stages of these projects. O'Neill would have been quite agreeable to this suggestion, but Berry and many other ideological critics would probably resist it. The reason for resisting it is that to undertake such demonstrations we first need a large commitment to space exploration, for the demonstrations require that we build and operate very large structures in space. But given the poor record of big technology, Berry would say, why should we extend it the benefit of the doubt on such a scale?

The ideological critics are thus not impressed by the suggestion that space exploration can help correct some of the excesses and mishaps of technological civilization. Nor are they impressed by the claim that space exploration enables us to appraise better how critical our environmental situation is. Giving credit to space exploration in this regard may call to their minds the case of a drunk who drives his car into a bed of flowers. Should credit go to Detroit for inventing the tow truck that gets the drunk's car out? Such would be the wrong approach to the problem. What we need to do is prevent the situation in the first place. Space is, then, a delusion, for it offers more growth and technology to stop the mess caused by growth and technology. Of course, the more we foul up the world, the more space will look like a necessity. But this is a false technological panacea. It is rather like a pain reliever that keeps the patient from having the operation that will save his life. As Wilson Clark puts it, "[O'Neill] speaks in terms of a ‘first beachhead in space,’ evoking the image of greener grass on yonder hill. Unfortunately, we have little time in which to prevent the elimination of the vegetation altogether."[7]

The urgency of the situation, as these ideological critics perceive it, makes unwarranted our engaging in any more technological detours. Western man's approach has brought the world to the edge of crisis by marrying technology to the mentality of growth. This ideological criticism touches the heart of space exploration insofar as science is supposed to provide the promissory note that underwrites that marriage in the first place. Once again, the satisfaction of scientific curiosity – at least where "big science” is concerned – may be seen as a disturbance, an interference with nature. The emphasis on beneficial results is only a smoke screen: In the long run only a change of attitude can be beneficial. Anything not in harmony with nature is bound to make us fail. In the eyes of the ideological critics, space exploration amounts to a distraction at a time of crisis – the siren voice that calls us from the cosmos still sings the tune of our doom.

I will offer three comments on this controversy. First, most of the vehemence against O’Neill was caused by his suggestion to build space colonies, some of which would house millions of human beings. The idea that one could build artificial self-sufficient environments on that scale seemed naive and arrogant to his critics. As the many difficulties encountered in trying to create such a closed environment in Biosphere 2 indicate, we are a long way from knowing enough to attempt anything remotely approaching the ambition of O’Neill’s projects.

Biosphere 2 is a three-acre compound in the Arizona desert originally designed to prepare future space colonists by having them live sealed off from the rest of the world in a self-contained environment for long periods of time. The first attempt failed: crops were poor, oxygen fell to a dangerous level (15%), and there were several violations of the planned isolation. The second attempt was aborted. Eventually the facility was turned over to a team from Columbia University to perform environmental experiments, many of them connected to the ways buildup of CO2 affects a variety of habitats. Actually, the project still offers much promise, in spite of its initial difficulties.[8] Indeed, Biosphere 2 may contribute to the realization of O’Neill’s dream some day, but not soon. In the meantime it is clear that the ideological critics’ warnings were not entirely off the mark. A peculiar consequence of the scientific approach to Biosphere 2 is that environmentalists and supporters of exploration have found common ground.

Second, as I mentioned above, new, smaller (football-field size), and cheaper designs of solar power satellites are getting a good deal of attention and several demonstration projects have been proposed. If the experience of building the International Space Station is positive, our new confidence in building large structures in space may suggest solar power from space as a reasonable alternative to traditional power plants for generating electrical energy.

Third, space enthusiasts often present solar power satellites as the main scientific alternative to the energy crisis. But other scientific proposals may serve us just as well, if not better. For example, Roland Winston and others have demonstrated that by keeping light from forming images (non-imaging optics), it is possible to achieve here on Earth temperatures much higher than those on the surface of the sun. Non-imaging optics may also be used to power lasers and even spacecraft. At the moment, most of the applications are in the heating of buildings and the like, but with the advent of the right kind of photovoltaics, it will be possible to transform that energy into electricity.

If that happens we will have a revolution in electrical power plants analogous to that brought about by personal computers in information. Personal computers liberated us from the institutional giant computers of three decades ago. Non-imaging power generators would liberate us from giant power plants -- for a lot less money and at far less risk. Every building would have its own extremely efficient, non-polluting, and independent means of generating all the electrical power (as well as heat and air-conditioning) it needs. Power cables to housing areas would become a thing of the past. Of course, this particular technology may not pan out any better than solar power satellites, but its very possibility should make us beware of making space technology the only scientific alternative.[ix]

Solar power satellites are not even the only alternative space science and technology suggest. Jerry Kulcinski and John Santarius claim that a deuterium-helium-3 reactor would offer abundant, cheap energy free of radioactive-waste. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen and it is not difficult to get, but there is no helium-3 on our planet. We could mine it on the Moon, though, and, Robert Zubrin adds, we could also scoop up large quantities of it in the atmospheres of Jupiter and the other gas giants of the solar system.[x]

Of course, this proposal comes, as all do, with several ifs attached (if fusion can really be made to work, if we can really mine helium-3, etc.), as do the other proposals to solve our energy problems by going into space.

In the meantime the ideological critics impatiently point to solutions that, they believe, truly get to the heart of our planet’s problems.

[1]. Wendell Berry in Space Colonies, Stewart Brand, ed., Penguin Books, 1977, p. 36.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid., p. 37.

[4]. Dennis Meadows, Space Colonies, p. 40.

[5]. And then, by all appearances, he piles abuse on top of bad argument.

[6]. Some question, for example, the belief that in just a few years we could build an entire ecosystem from scratch, as would be required in one of O'Neill's space colonies. In addition to that, proponents of the exploitation of the resources of the solar system are often very optimistic about doubtful technologies; for instance, they frequently make references to self-replicating machines. The implausibility of such machines, also called "von Neumann machines," will be discussed in Chapter 8.

[7]. Wilson Clark, Space Colonies, p. 38.

[8]. “Brave New World of Biosphere 2?” Science News, November 16, 1996, Vol. 150, No. 20, pp. 312-313. The relationship with Columbia University ended in 2003.

[ix]. Winston, R., “Nonimaging Optics,” Scientific American, March 1991, pp. 76-81.

[x] The standard fusion reactor design uses a deuterium-tritium reaction, which produces neutrons, which in turn generate radioactive materials in the metal structure of the reactor. See Zubrin, op. cit., particularly pp. 84-90 and 158-163.

Outline of the Case for Space

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2h

Outline of the Case for Space

Let us review the case for space in outline:



Save lives

Help agriculture

Help transportation


Find resources

Tell us about environmental impact


Find resources

Tell us about environmental impact


Help commerce

Make our lives easier


New technologies

New economic opportunities


More of the same, many new things, and all on a much grander scale

So what is wrong with this standard case? Supporters feel that the critics have received more than they had a right to demand – that they are looking a gift horse in the mouth and turning it down after finding his teeth in excellent condition. But lest we be too hasty in dismissing the critics, we should consider whether the spirit of their objections has been met.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Exploration and Future Opportunity

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2G

Exploration and Future Opportunity

In any event, the appraisal of how much space exploration has done for us pales by comparison with the appraisal of how much more it may do in the years to come. The change of perspective is significant: whereas until now we have only tried to reach outer space and survive there for short periods, we will soon be in a position to live in space, industrialize it, and really put it to work for our benefit. Space presumably has two main advantages for industrialization: low gravity and a nearly perfect vacuum. These two advantages combined can bring us a treasure of new materials, including metal alloys, super-crystals, and extremely pure semiconductors and pharmaceuticals.

Consider the technological promise of low gravity ("microgravity" in the jargon of the trade). Under the influence of gravity objects have weight. The denser an object, the heavier it is. When we mix substances of different densities, gravity pulls the heavier to the bottom and leaves the lighter on top. In a similar fashion gravity creates openings between molecules – openings that allow impurities into the mix. Remove gravity and we can mix the substances evenly and without impurities.

The prospects for new technologies dependent on microgravity are said to be very encouraging. One of those technologies is levitation melting, in which molten metals can solidify without the use of a container (further reducing the problem of impurities). By injecting gases into the heated mixtures we can produce alloys that are not possible on Earth. Some of those alloys may have extraordinary properties; we may, for example, produce a form of steel as light as balsa wood. In medicine, the new purification techniques may be valuable in the investigation of new drugs or in the mass production of some drugs that are currently too expensive to manufacture.

Some of these possible new products would have to be manufactured in space, but others could be developed in space and then made on the planet. Once the feasibility and practicality of these products has been demonstrated through space research, earthbound industry would be more willing to get around the obstacles that gravity presents to their manufacture down here. The vacuum of space combines with microgravity to provide further opportunity for this sort of industrial research in metallurgy, thin-film coating, and welding, among others.

I must point out, however, that these exciting possibilities have been proclaimed almost from the beginning of the space program. It is at least worrisome that over forty years later industrialists do not yet seem to be flocking to take advantage of them. Part of the problem may well be that the Space Shuttle, instead of reducing launching costs, which was the main purpose for building it, has increased them dramatically.

If the costs of transportation can be reduced, setting up factories in space may have several advantages. Large structures can be built in space without many of the problems of foundation and support that gravity forces us to solve down on Earth. Without atmosphere, to say nothing of bad weather and pollution, machines can work for extremely long periods of time. And the energy they require can be obtained cleanly and efficiently from the sun.

All the industrial and technological advantages mentioned so far suggest how space exploration may play a major part in solving some of the most urgent problems of the Earth. Our world faces a double jeopardy: increasing demand for energy and dwindling of resources. In trying to obtain more energy we use up even more resources and, to make matters worse, produce greater amounts of pollution, which in turn affects some of our other resources, as well as our health and general well-being. For example, fossil fuels are the usual source of industrial energy. As we use them, we release ever-greater amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. If the amount of CO2 continues to increase, some observers fear, the resulting greenhouse effect might raise the temperature of the planet enough to change the weather and melt much of the water now frozen in the polar caps.[1] In the worst-case scenario, large areas millions of humans inhabit will be flooded out of existence.[2]

To forestall these dire consequences (which I will discuss in Ch. 4), supporters of exploration have made proposals that range from the building of solar power satellites to the mining of the Moon, the asteroids, and eventually other planets. About thirty years ago, Peter Glaser proposed a solar power satellite to collect sunlight, transform it into electrical energy, and beam that energy down to Earth. In space, sunlight is plentiful and likely to last for billions of years; solar power satellites release no CO2; and environmental studies indicate that beaming this energy would be less harmful to plant and animal life than the existing alternatives. One solar power satellite the size of Manhattan would provide as much power as ten nuclear power plants without the attendant risks of radioactive leaks and meltdowns.[3] With advances in photovoltaics (e.g., solar cells) and other fields, a collector about the size of half a football field might be able to produce one megawatt of power. Other space exploration supporters have suggested moving some of the most polluting industries to space. The promise of space exploration is then very enticing: abundant energy and a safer, cleaner environment.

Critics of these proposals have argued that the mining of the enormous quantity of materials required to build such structures would cause major environmental headaches, while the many thousands of flights by giant rockets to haul the materials into orbit might damage the atmosphere and are certain to cost far too much – in the hundreds of billions of dollars, at least for the system as presented to the U.S. Congress in the late 1970s. Congress found the proposal technologically feasible but accepted the criticisms and refused funding.

These criticisms seemed misleading at the time. The late physicist Gerard O'Neill, one of the most vocal proponents of the idea, had said all along that most of the required materials (e.g., aluminum, oxygen, and silicon) could be rather easily extracted from the Moon, placed in lunar orbit and processed there.[4] The gravity pull of the Moon is only one sixth that of Earth, and thus the materials could be shot into lunar orbit, at great savings of energy and money, by what O'Neill called "mass drivers": long superconducting rails that use powerful electromagnetic fields to accelerate metal buckets full of lunar soil.

This project would be the beginning of the eventual colonization of the solar system, for no insurmountable technological barriers would then keep us from the abundant resources available in the asteroids, nor from building large habitats in space (Figure 2.3). To paraphrase O'Neill, the closing of the Earthly frontiers would be compensated for by the opening of the “high frontier” to the needs and hopes of humankind.

Whether projects of such magnitude are truly feasible in the next few decades remains a matter of controversy, while the enthusiasm for building O’Neill’s cities in the Lagrangian points between our planet and the Moon seems to have dissipated[5]. A sobering sense of reality developed in the late 1980s when people realized that the Shuttle would never be the transportation system that O’Neill had assumed. Instead of fifty inexpensive flights a year, we were lucky to get five, and at astronomical costs (pun intended). This was no system for colonizing and mining the Moon. More recent proposals for solar power satellites suggest much smaller projects, though still large, for considerably less money, even though all materials would come from Earth.[6]

To summarize, from the supporters of exploration we get an impression of great accomplishments in the past and even greater possibilities in the future. Their case, which by now is pretty much standard in the pro-exploration literature, seems quite impressive. It points out to social critics that space exploration reduces human misery and improves life on Earth. It tells ideological critics that space technology helps in controlling pollution and in monitoring the environment as a whole; and to both it promises that the new coming golden age of space exploration will do much to solve some of our most serious problems.

[1]. Satellites may prove crucial in monitoring the effect on the polar caps of the average global temperature rise.

[2]. Of course the change in weather may also be beneficial to some areas. A warm Siberia, for example, may become one of the largest gardens of the world.

[3]. For details see Gerard O'Neill's The High Frontier, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982 (2nd edition). See also T. Heppenheimer, Colonies in Space, Stackpole Books, 1977.

[4]. Ibid.

[5] These are points where the gravitational pulls of the Earth and the Moon on a body balance with the centrifugal force – with a zero net force. A city placed in one of them would be in a stable orbit and would not require frequent corrections in its motion.

[6]. Feingold, Harvey et al, “Space Solar Power: A Fresh Look at Generating Solar Power in Space for Use on Earth,” Rpt, SAIC-97/1005, 4 April 1997.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Some Reservations about the Economic Case

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2f

Some Reservations about the Economic Case

The enthusiasm for the economic case has waned since the Golden Age of exploration, in great part because the Space Shuttle makes it too expensive to place things in orbit. It has been said that if the alchemist dream of the “philosopher’s stone” (to turn lead into gold) could be realized simply by taking the lead aboard the Shuttle, it would cost more than just buying the gold!

To make matters worse, the Shuttle has not been exactly a model of reliability. After the Challenger blew up in 1986, the U.S. began to use rockets regularly again. The Russian, European, Japanese, and Chinese space agencies of course use rockets also[1], but although rockets are cheaper than the Shuttle, they are still expensive ($10,000 per kilogram, as of 1995).[2] One of the main disappointments of the Space Shuttle is that it had been billed as the inexpensive option because it was partially reusable. Eventually we might be able to build cheap and reliable space vehicles, but the gap between promise and performance during the last 25 years does not encourage much optimism, although perhaps the successful sub-orbital flights of inexpensive privately built craft will usher in a new era in space.

Even during the Golden Age, however, these economic studies might have been too optimistic. Some of them were based on assumptions about the general relationship between R&D and economic growth, with the expenditures for space technology plugged in – assumptions not universally accepted by economists. And studies that try to account for the specific influence of space technology on a wide collection of industries must surmount serious difficulties. The first difficulty is that knowledge is the most common byproduct of space exploration. It is difficult to quantify knowledge, and even more difficult to trace precisely how it affects the economy as a whole. A few examples of such effects can be given here and there, but a comprehensive account is a great challenge.[3]

The second difficulty is that space hardware’s effects on the economy are hard to trace because there is often a considerable lag between invention and assimilation, as it happened in the cases of television and penicillin. Moreover, the invention may undergo a series of transformations that are influenced by many factors, including other inventions from completely different fields, or the presence of special social and economic conditions. Catalytic converters to reduce automobile pollution, for example, depended for their acceptance on strong environmental activism in North America. In response to this activism, governments came to support the development of unleaded gasoline and passed laws against engines that used leaded gasoline. It also made automobiles more expensive. In many poor countries of the Third World, where the economic conditions are harsher, catalytic converters are a rarity.

Separating all these factors and settling all these issues is necessary before one can offer truly solid numbers to support the contention that space is a better investment than others that society may contemplate. Thus, in spite of all the money figures thrown around, with a few important exceptions such as telecommunications and navigation, the economic case is mainly qualitative,[iv] even if some find it very suggestive.

However faulty the econometric and comparative studies may be, the space enthusiasts can find solace in the realization that once an aspect of space exploration is commercialized, its economic impact may be considerable: in 2001 space commercial revenues worldwide reached about $83 billion.[v] This sum by itself, however, does not reveal the economic growth it spurs in many other industries. For example, the Consumer Electronics Association had projected that by 2009 the wireless technology market (computers, cell phones, etc.) will amount to $500 billion dollars. This technology, of course, would not exist without the Internet and other services provided by satellites. It seems that, after all, the onus is on the social critics to explain why the economic justification of space falls short of the mark.[vi]

[1] They are being joined by Brazil and several other countries.

[2] For a spirited discussion of these matters read R. Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, Chapter 2. His source for the cost/kilogram is S. Isakowitz, Space Launch Systems, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1995.

[3]. Holman discusses this point in detail. NASA acknowledges it also, as can be appreciated in the agency's response to a critique of the Chase Econometrics study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO). In Holman and Suranyi-Unger's words, "NASA simply stated that the GAO results showed that because empirical measurements in economics is an inexact science, ranges rather than absolute magnitudes are important. (My emphasis.) That is how NASA justified its claim that the GAO findings [that the NASA R&D rate of return was about 25 to 28 percent, instead of the 43 percent claimed by the Chase Econometrics study] in fact, reinforced the results of the Chase Study." op. cit.

[iv]. A variety of authors have challenged the notion that space research stimulated the economy. A book of some fame in this respect was Amitai Etizioni's The Moon-Doggle, Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race, Garden City, 1964.

[v] G. Genta and M. Rycroft, Space, the Final Frontier? Op.cit., p. 26. The amount in question is about ten times the budget for NASA.

[vi] Reported by Caron Alarab, “Gotta Have It,” Detroit Free Press, August 25, 2005.