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October 27, 2011 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Why not space? We've previously looked at Do The Math's assessment of energy use and economic growth. But could going to the stars allow us to escape?
posted by bitmage (31 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bonus link from the blog: an elegy for the space program.
posted by bitmage at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2011


Traditional linkage: The High Frontier, Redux, by cstross.
posted by Artw at 9:35 AM on October 27, 2011


Great article, meant to post this when I came across it awhile ago but never did. Thanks!
posted by odinsdream at 9:45 AM on October 27, 2011


meanwhile
posted by One Thousand and One at 9:49 AM on October 27, 2011


I really hope that's wrong, 1001. Terminating the manned space program could be argued as fiscal necessity, but ending all space exploration is just criminally shortsighted.
posted by bitmage at 9:52 AM on October 27, 2011


The current space program in this country is just a way to further subsidize defense contractors.
posted by ged at 10:03 AM on October 27, 2011


The author clearly believes in colonizing space, because they write as if they wish to occupy as much of it per idea as possible.
posted by zippy at 10:09 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The benefits of having a 'new' frontier are quite large. The logistics of trying to move enough population off Earth to make a difference (and the population problem is solving itself right now-another discussion) the psychological advantages of having a safety valve for the marginalized, the idealistic, the ambitious are huge. You are part of the 99% but can't make the right connections to move up in the world? Come to Mars, seek you fortune, you will find a job here! (much the same function the new world served for old Europe). A new frontier without the rigid social constructs of an established civilization allow for change in the old society as well as the new. Colonization and growth of a new civilization in the americas led to the end of monarchy, right of kings and serfdom in Europe, even though the original plan was to just replicate Europes social system here for the same old oligarchs there. New frontiers work out that way.
The resources in space will not be used here on the surface (unless/until we get a space elevator going or a very large infrastructure on the moon and near earth asteroids), but they will be used in space to build that infrastructure. The challenges are huge, but we aren't the same society that just barelymanaged to find the new world-we have such a huge resource and knowledge base now that the average poor person in this country has a lifestyle that the emporer of Rome would envy (not the same power in society, but don't underestimate the value of indoor plumbing, entertainment and rapid transport).
We are never going to solve all the problems on this planet (with people anyway-the poor will always be with us) but the opportunities and resources we could develop (both physical and in know how) in learning how to live in space can do more to better the human condition than welfare or wealth redistribution can (not that these aren't needed-that is a seperate argument) but providing a larger stage for all of it to happen on is far more valuable.
posted by bartonlong at 10:15 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm pessimistic about space exploration by meat machines. This is driven by my current understanding of physics, communications and logistics. However I keep hoping some new discovery will emerge.

From a physics perspective the energy involved to get a larger number of people from point a to b in a reasonable time is too large. From a communications perspective how do you avoid turning your colonists into castaways. Once they get a lightyear or two away sustaining communications becomes really challenging. From a logistics perspective keeping your colo IATA supplied, trained and equipped seems impossible.

Even knowing when and where your colonists are will be difficult. Since time dilation from their rapid speed would make even slight variations in speed change lots of things.
posted by humanfont at 10:28 AM on October 27, 2011


NASA is a relic of the post-war Big Government era. Maybe it's time for the private sector to take the lead. Elon Musk has said his ultimate goal is Mars. And Virgin Galatic's Richard Branson wants to go beyond LEO. And Amazon's Jeff Bezos has a lot of money, if not a steep learning curve. For all the pessimism about NASA there's some reasons to be optimistic things are not standing still. Plus initiatives in other countries, who cares in the end if it's the USA that does it, if your primary interest is "human" colonization, let China spend all the R&D to figure out the hard stuff for the rest of us.
posted by stbalbach at 10:37 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Both Tom Murphy's and J. M. Greer's blogs are consistently excellent.

From Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me:
Energy is not the only dimension to this problem. From a purely energetic point of view, we have enough solar input to allow sustained energy use at high rates (though not sustained growth). That’s the good news. But we would still strain the throughput of materials harvested from the planet. Pollution will continue to pile up; arable land will be lost to erosion, desertification, salinity increase, and exhaustion of ancient aquifers; fisheries will collapse; important metals will become ever harder to find and extract; we will learn too late that species driven to extinction by climate change and other human impositions are actually vital to our well-being. No one knows for sure what the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth is: many estimates indicate that we have already exceeded it. And it is distressing that we do not have a plan for living within our means at today’s level of industrial activity, let alone a 5× expansion.
and from The Energy Trap:
Let’s say that our nation (or world) uses 100 units of fossil fuel energy one year, and expects to get only 98 units the following year. We need to come up with 2 units of replacement energy within a year’s time to fill the gap. If, for example, the replacement:

has an EROEI of 10:1;
requires most of the energy investment up front (solar panel or wind turbine manufacture, nuclear plant construction, etc.);
and will last 40 years,

then we need an up-front energy investment amounting to 4 year’s worth of the new source’s output energy. Since we require an output of 2 units of energy to fill the gap, we will need 8 units of energy to bring the resource into use.

Of the 100 units of total energy resource in place in year one, only 92 are available for use—looking suddenly like an 8% decline. If we sit on our hands and do not launch a replacement infrastructure, we would have 98 units available for use next year. It’s still a decline, but a 2% decline is more palatable than an effective 8% decline. Since each subsequent year expects a similar fossil fuel decline, the game repeats. Where is the incentive to launch a new infrastructure? This is why I call it a trap. We need to exacerbate the sacrifice for a prolonged period in order to come out on top in the end.
I'll once again plug David MacKay's free book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, very similar in approach to the Do The Math blog.
posted by Bangaioh at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


People who seriously think space research is in any way going to "save humanity" are people I'd happily vote off the island. Bon voyage and don't forget how to write.
posted by flabdablet at 10:54 AM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Flabdablet: I think if we really master all it would take to actually live and travel around in space it will be in many hundred/thousands of years.

Meaning humanity will have to live that long.

We still have to solve all the problems of the present without hoping for space living as an actual solution. That said if we manage to continue to live on this planet for another 5,000 years, I would think it would be unlikely that we WOULDN'T master space travel. Think how exponentially technology is already advancing?
posted by xarnop at 11:00 AM on October 27, 2011


NASA is a relic of the post-war Big Government era. Maybe it's time for the private sector to take the lead.

So, tell me precisely how the private sector would be willing to fund, say, STEREO? Or Kepler? Or WISE? Or Voyager? Cassini?

The private sector is doing a great job running CERN, apparently, and has always done a fantastic job of convincing their shareholders to tolerate big ticket expensive basic-science research.

This is why research isn't done in universities anymore. The Wal*Mart telescopes in Hawaii and Chile are bringing in just bumper crops of excellent astronomical science. The Steve Jobs Mercury Orbiter is teaching us things we'd have never otherwise known about the formation of the solar system. Bell Labs is still running great, reaping Nobel Prizes almost yearly, and Virgin Galactic's latest *true* interstellar probe has just passed Voyager as the farthest man-made object in the universe!

Oh, wait. Your idea is not just foolish, it's completely ahistorical and divorced from market reality. In other words, dangerously ignorant. I hope you never wield any political power whatsoever when it comes to science.
posted by chimaera at 11:43 AM on October 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


xarnop: We still have to solve all the problems of the present without hoping for space living as an actual solution. That said if we manage to continue to live on this planet for another 5,000 years, I would think it would be unlikely that we WOULDN'T master space travel. Think how exponentially technology is already advancing?

Not every area is necessarily going to experience improvement. Based on what we know about physics, I'd say it's very unlikely we'll ever break the speed-of-light barrier by any means, nor ever find a functional workaround. Furthermore, I'm pretty pessimistic about us ever discovering a fundamentally better form of propulsion than what we have now. The only potential major advance in space travel I anticipate even having a chance to happen is a space elevator.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:50 AM on October 27, 2011


NASA is a relic of the post-war Big Government era. Maybe it's time for the private sector to take the lead.

It's a nice thought, except NASA is paying all of the new "private space" companies' bills right now, and will be for the foreseeable future (NASA owns the only destination in town, man).

There's a lot to be said for the whole "new space" thing, but government getting out of the business isn't one of them. SpaceX and Virgin (who doesn't really go to space, btw) simply don't have the overhead that NASA and the Lockheeds and Boeings do. It's the same reason JetBlue is cheaper than USAir...and it won't always be the case.
posted by zap rowsdower at 12:11 PM on October 27, 2011


The benefits of having a 'new' frontier are quite large. The logistics of trying to move enough population off Earth to make a difference (and the population problem is solving itself right now-another discussion) the psychological advantages of having a safety valve for the marginalized, the idealistic, the ambitious are huge.

Serious question: Did you not read the article at all?
posted by odinsdream at 12:32 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pournelle's A Step Farther Out is available on Kindle for a couple of bucks..
posted by mikelieman at 12:39 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


As noted, private enterprise is unlikely to invest in basic space research. The payback times are just too long. That's why One Thousand and One's link suggesting that the US is going to terminate most space research is so disheartening. If government won't fund this sort of work, then it won't be done.

Our society has grown up in a period of abundant concentrated energy sources. Those are being depleted, and once gone there are no easy replacements. After a certain point, access to space (and other minor things like air travel) will become very difficult.

A wise society would be focusing all its efforts on solving these problems now, before the situation becomes a crisis. Obviously, humans aren't wired that way. They'd rather vote the gloomy scientists "off the island" (and out of funding), then go back to watching reality TV. Sic transit gloria humanitas.
posted by bitmage at 12:43 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


it will be in many hundred/thousands of years.

Personally, I think you might be off by an order of magnitude... or three. I'll plug the book I always do in threads like these: Gaiome: Notes on Ecology, Space Travel and Becoming Cosmic Species.

SpaceX and Virgin simply don't have the overhead that NASA and the Lockheeds and Boeings do.

And the Altair and the first Apple had nothing on the computing power of mainframes back in the day, but oh how the tables have turned.

After a certain point, access to space (and other minor things like air travel) will become very difficult.

Well, in the traditional manner, yes. But I can imagine a future in which a thriving biosphere (with or without humans) someway, somehow raises the timberline bit by bit... and if that's not possible then there's always biofuels (an industry only in it's infancy).

As noted, private enterprise is unlikely to invest in basic space research. The payback times are just too long.

Is there good proof of a return on "basic space research"? Can you provide anything specific?
posted by symbollocks at 1:04 PM on October 27, 2011


The logistics of trying to move enough population off Earth to make a difference

Discussions about changing things on Earth become moot after you consider this point.

There was a sum total of 78 million people added to the Earth's population last year.

Even if a) we just wanted to stabilize the population and b) we had all the technology we needed to move that many people, you would still have to convince 78 million people a year every year to move to another planet. You might manage it for a year or two, but at that point you're going to run out of willing emigrants.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:16 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


One Thousand and One's link suggesting that the US is going to terminate most space research is so disheartening. If government won't fund this sort of work, then it won't be done.

If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they put a man on the moon?
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:47 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about:
Identify target planets for colonization. Freeze a cloned embryos of peoples, animals, various food stocks. Create robots capable of building out the basic infrastructure for human existence and some self replication and repair. Upload consciousness and memories of thousands of individuals to computers. Grow everyone back in artificial wombs on arrival then download the memories and consciousness into the new bodies.

It does seem possible that we might be able to create these technologies in the next 500 years.
posted by humanfont at 4:10 PM on October 27, 2011


So, tell me precisely how the private sector would be willing to fund, say, STEREO? Or Kepler? Or WISE? Or Voyager? Cassini?

Well the FPP (and my comment) is about space travel, and your examples are basic research of a different kind. We already know a whole lot about space travel and could probably commercialize trips to Mars and back (per Robert Zubrin's plan) with existing technology, without NASA. NASA was never designed to make a profit and until a profit motive exists space travel will always be mired due to politics. History is very clear, initial exploration was often funded by governments, but then colonization by private enterprise (w/ some govt involvement, govt is always involved to some degree). NASA proved it could be done, and it learned a lot of valuable things, now it's time for the private sector to crank it up. Instead of one NASA, we should have 50 of them competing against one another.

I hope you never wield any political power whatsoever when it comes to science.

And I hope to never be a politician, life is too short.

NASA is paying all of the new "private space" companies' bills right now, and will be for the foreseeable future

Is that true? It's not what I understand anyway. It's not an either/or thing.
posted by stbalbach at 5:32 PM on October 27, 2011


Instead of one NASA, we should have 50 of them competing against one another.

I understand where you're coming from, but this sounds like a huge waste of resources. Don't we have better things to spend our money on while heading into what's probably a world-scale recession, coupled with very serious long-term environmental issues.

An alternative would be to pool resources, learn to work together and do it in a more efficient way. But you're right: Socialism!
posted by sneebler at 7:05 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


> But you're right: Socialism!

Sounds more like "Populism!"
posted by stbalbach at 7:33 PM on October 27, 2011


This rock is it, folks.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:06 PM on October 27, 2011


meanwhile

Debunked.
posted by Mcable at 6:07 AM on October 28, 2011


Well the FPP (and my comment) is about space travel, and your examples are basic research of a different kind.

I think if you made the case that NASA should get out of the putting people just in low Earth orbit because the market has caught up to its capability, that's a valid point -- NASA should be moving ahead where the market still fears to tread. And that's manned exploration of the solar system, leaving LEO to the SpaceX and Virgin Galactic crowd. But your comment lumped all of NASA together.
posted by chimaera at 1:52 PM on October 28, 2011


SpaceX and Virgin have yet to complete any form of orbit.
posted by Artw at 1:58 PM on October 28, 2011


Actually, Spacex HAVE done an unmanned orbit.
posted by Artw at 2:08 PM on October 28, 2011


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