Posted by: spacewritinguy | February 13, 2008

Follow-Up: Space Advocates in Conflict

I appreciate the comments I’ve gotten on “Space Advocates in Conflict.” I think Dr. Livingston’s remark that DOD might be the biggest game in town is close to the truth. Having NASA absorbed into the military would, of course, undo the agency’s 50-year tradition of keeping NASA “civilian.” It would also drive a lot of people out of the agency, like those folks who have been fighting the rather intrusive HSPD-12 directive (you think that’s bad?). However, it would give NASA something it hasn’t had in 40 years: gobs and gobs of cash. And if you’re the president, faced with a fractious culture in a tiny part of your budget, might you not be tempted to put that agency under an agency where obedience and conformity are the norm? I am not saying I would support such a move–but the mere threat of absorption might force NASA’s internal factions to cooperate if only to keep the agency civilian. But it need not come to that, one would hope.

One thing I did want to do to follow up on that “state of the (dis)union” essay was come up with some suggestions. Dr. Livingston and I are on approximately the same side of this issue: we need to be able to tie space to a broader set of principles that embraces Earth-based issues as well as space.

The simplest way I know how to do this is to start with Earth and then talk about space. We know what our problems are in the world:

  • Energy supplies and costs
  • Population (overpopulation in poor countries, demographic collapse in rich countries)
  • Limited resources
  • Environmental issues
  • Wars resulting from any or all of the above

We know where the energy investments need to be made: in space solar power and helium-3 fusion. Solar power isn’t going to diminish in the lifetime of any foreseeable presidential administration, and space-based solar provides higher-density power than ground-based solar for longer periods of time (24/7 over the course of years). If the helium-3 in the lunar regolith isn’t enough, we can scoop it out of the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune (see Mining the Sky by John S. Lewis).

We know that the best way to reduce overpopulation in poor countries is to make those countries richer. We also know that families in richer countries produce more children when they have hope for the future. Space resources–especially abundant energy and metals–have the ability to make everyone on this planet embarassingly rich. Energy is not just about juicing up SUVs. High-density energy makes large-scale electricity feasible, along with every device powered by electricity, including factories that make tools that make tools that make things we take for granted, like toothpicks or fertilizer.

No one–not even smash-and-grab, filthy-rich Republicans–wants to live in a degraded environment. If we’re obtaining most of our energy and metals from space, we’re not performing dirty activities like mining on the Earth. We’re reducing the amount of pollutants and the strain on fossil fuel supplies, which we need for chemical feed stock.

And while some folks have an issue with admitting that the wars in the Middle East are for oil, I don’t, nor do I think that said wars are particularly shameful, given our current economy. However, if our economy was more space-resource-based, we wouldn’t be spending so much blood and treasure keeping the pipelines and tankers flowing. We wouldn’t really give a damn how the plutocracies of the Middle East ruled themselves, nor would we be as willing to send troops over there to keep things in order. If we invest in energy independence using space-based resources and nuclear power in the short term, we will be less inclined to play policeman in Mesopotamia. If you don’t believe me, consider how long it took us to send troops to Yugoslavia or the fact that we didn’t send troops to Rwanda or Darfur. The reasoning is simple: there was nothing in those areas that we needed.

So just to start, if America is more focused on space-based energy independence, it’ll be less inclined to intrude elsewhere and tend its own garden. That’ll make our friends and allies overseas happier. It might also give those-who-hate-us fewer reasons TO hate us, simply because we’re not fighting harder and harder for worse and worse pieces of real estate.

Note the approach: more emphasis on X, Y, and Z, which are Earth-based concerns, with concrete measures of success. If that’s a vision of the future that non-advocates can buy into, then the discussions of architecture become easier and less contentious because everyone understands what we’re doing and why.

This is my Ur-conservative ideal “future state.” There are others, to be certain. If our current run of presidential or legislative candidates will not articulate visions for a long-term future, perhaps we need to give them the ideas. But those ideas need to start from the ground and work their way up to the stars. If we start with the grand vistas of stars and spacecraft first and work our way down, we’ll lose more than half our audience, especially since most of that audience doesn’t give a fig about those things “when there are so many more important things to do on Earth.”

Our approach is exactly 180 degrees out of phase. Try this: “We have important things to do on Earth, why not use space to fix them?”

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Responses

  1. “We wouldn’t really give a damn how the plutocracies of the Middle East ruled themselves, nor would we be as willing to send troops over there to keep things in order.”

    I believe your statement is incorrect. When those plutocracies have weapons of mass destruction and the expressed will to use them, we had better give a damn.

  2. Pakistan being the case in point. However, the theory still stands: if we aren’t meddling, we don’t give whoever’s in charge as much incentive to want to direct those weapons at us.


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