Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why Colonize Space? Part 2 of 2

3. What do we have to gain from humans in space?

Short term – not much beyond basic research

I’ll be the first to admit that, in the short term, it’s a daunting task to find a compelling reason to go. Economically, even the best prospects seem incredibly inefficient compared with developing an equivalent industry here on earth to serve earth’s population.

The argument that we’re running out of resources here on Earth is not a very convincing one. In terms of material resources, such as metals and rock, the type of resources we are likely to find in space, Earth has thousands of tons per capita available in readily extractable deposits. We simply are not going to run out of these. Rarer metals can be recycled quite easily from scrap (in fact, more easily recycled in some cases, than mined and refined). We may run out of oil, but we aren’t going to find oil in space anyway. We have sufficient deposits of uranium for the forseeable future. In terms of biological resources – we, the breadbasket of the world, aren’t using the majority of potential farmland available to us, and if we wanted to we could increase yields many times over using genetically modified crops, or farming more efficiently. Using crop rotations, we can harvest any reasonable quantity of wood needed and have it grow back in a decade or so. Pine trees are a type of weed anyway. And how are you going to do any of this better inside a space-limited dome on the moon or Mars?

The planets and moons available to us are stark barren wastelands. In the inner solar system, in terms of material resources available to a colony, you have variations on the theme of rock. Antarctica presents a friendlier face for would be colonists.

There are some methods that a space colony might have of generating income. These aren’t necessarily business-plan quality economic justifications of a space colony, but they can generate some cash and begin to pay back the earth for shelling out the resources to colonize.

A moon colony could build reflective mirrors out of the silicon and titanium in the lunar soil, run giant solar thermal plants, and beam the energy back to earth via a microwave or radio pulse. This would probably require relay satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Even though you could generate energy more efficiently by just building nuke plants on Earth, the Earth will never have a shortage in demand for energy. It will always be something that pays, for as long as civilization does industrial work. At present average prices (8 cents per kW-h), 10 GW of electricity would give you $200/sec. Of course, the inefficiencies involved in transmission might necessitate that a 10GW antenna on earth equate to a 100GW plant on the moon. But hey, $7 billion/year wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at. Already half NASA’s budget.

There are some interesting small-scale things we can do in zero gravity. We can reliably produce metal foams with small bubble geometry and no directional bias. We could conceivably produce some sort of biological products. That was the intent of some of the ISS experiments. If we could find something that we could only accomplish in zero-g, we could then justify a lunar colony on the basis of providing raw material to orbital factories. But I haven’t heard of anything yet. We need to get up there and start tinkering.

Medium Term

What is the purpose of running? It expends your body’s resources. It tires you. It requires your best efforts and exertion. But afterwards, you become fit. You learn to tolerate pain. You learn what you are capable of and what is required of you to perform. You are less prone to deteriorating health due to lack of exercise.

My argument is that in the medium term, exerting ourselves nationally to overcome the obstacle of space colonization will make our air and space capabilities fit, innovative, diverse (if the funding given meritocratically, which is going to be a bit of a challenge, in light of history). It will drive progress. It will also ensure that we maintain the ability to perform as we do. It’s harder to backslide technologically while pushing ahead. Basically, this is a rehash to my response to question 2.

Long Term:

In the long term, assuming that civilization confines itself to Earth, it will eventually (more distantly than in the immediate future, or even this century, but eventually) enter a zero sum situation. Probably not in terms of resources, but in terms of culture, in terms of what individuals can hope to build and achieve without stepping on each other’s toes. It would become a zero sum game in terms of what the best and brightest, most motivated could apply their efforts to. One company’s engineering achievement, say, a new jet-liner, could put thousands of aero engineers out of business for decades – because eventually in such a world, only one would be required to fill the entire niche. Without new industries being generated, or new products agitating the market, it would become a zero sum game in terms of the diversity of products and services. Expanding societies are healthy societies. Those that lose momentum tend to start caving inwards. There’s nowhere left for innovation to go, to grow to, away from the established society and culture, but up.

The solar system has the advantage of being absolutely huge. If we begin to develop a civilization that expands there, it will be long before we run up against similar boundaries.

Eventually, the probabilities are very small, and yet eventually, there may be another major asteroid strike on Earth. There are thousands of asteroids that orbit within the inner solar system. Our rather shell-shocked moon provides a myriad of examples of what a collision can do. 100 mile wide craters, the works. Defending Earth would be the ideal response to such a situation. Without a competently space-faring civilization capable of finding such asteroids on time, and sending enough H-bombs their way to vaporize them, we’ll probably end up being caught by surprise with minimal response time, and with no long distance launcher like the Saturn V to lob anything at it. We’d have to hope in a last minute explosion breaking the object up enough for our atmosphere to absorb the matter. It could still cause widespread damage (1000 1-mile wide craters vs 1 100 mile wide crater + massive secondary effects from shockwaves/tsunamis/ect).

A space faring civilization, one that has developed the capability to survive on bare rock and raw materials, that has refined it’s construction to the point where it can operate independently of nature, is a far more resilient civilization than exists at present, just as our civilization is a far more resilient civilization than the ancient Mycenians – who were forced into mass migration and invasion because of a climate change. Our technological development has enabled us to deal with more and more situations and disasters, and to inhabit and thrive in greater and greater regions of our world (not to mention thrive to greater and greater degrees). The ability to colonize space would mark a turning point in that, given raw material, we could conceivably survive anywhere. We would become, not just conquerors of new environments, but builders of our own environments. (Of course, we still have to do the work of getting to this point).

For that matter, we would also have the capability to expand to just about anywhere as well. Anything that could conceivably happen to Earth would not destroy a space-faring civilization.

(An additional, though somewhat odd point: a space-faring civilization would be immune from cultural nihilism and civilization collapse. Any degradation below a minimum competence in dealing with the environment, as well as any philosophy bent on opposing or destroying man’s constructive nature would result in death, hence would engage people’s survival instincts in preserving civilization. Perhaps this wouldn’t be total immunity, but I’d be surprised if a country run like Soviet Russia or North Korea could survive in space given that their people have or had a hard enough time surviving on Earth!)

Finally, in terms of the larger universe as a whole: While I hope life is abundant – that it resides wherever it possibly could reside, and that planets like Earth aren’t so very rare around other stars, we still have to face the fact that most of our own solar system is inhospitable to life, and that there is likely a large ratio of the wider universe that is also absolutely barren. Life has managed to conquer many niches, from high altitude mountain peaks, to hydrothermal vents in the ocean, to the interiors of volcanoes. So far, only mankind has managed to set foot and survive in space. All the ingenuity of life so far has only managed to allow it to survive beneath the thin envelope of our atmosphere, or the (comparative to the radius) thin oceans coating the surface of our planet. If we can accomplish our expansion into space, perhaps we will be doing it in the name of life on earth as well as human civilization.

(And doesn’t that sound like a sappy sound-byte that would go at the back of a documentary? :-P Oh well. I mean it.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outstanding, this is probably the best summarization of why we should go of any I have read or heard. It even beats Zubrin's philosophical musings.

Friday, December 16, 2005 6:38:00 AM  
Blogger qwerty182764 said...

Thank you. That is very high praise!

Monday, December 26, 2005 8:04:00 AM  

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