Friday, May 14, 2010

Irrational Dreams of Space Colonization

Irrational Dreams of Space Colonization
Lynda Williams
Peace Review, a Journal of Social Justice
The New Arms Race in Outer Space (22.1, Spring 2010)

Since Sputnik was launched over 50 years ago and the first human walked on the moon
12 years later, we have associated the exploration and colonization of space, specifically
the Moon and Mars, as a necessary pursuit to guarantee our survival as a species, and to
satisfy an evolutionary drive to explore and inhabit worlds beyond our own. Space
enthusiasts claim that it is our manifest destiny, an expression of the human spirit, to
explore and colonize the solar system. World-renowned scientists such as Stephen
Hawking have made calls to colonize the Moon and Mars in order to preserve the species
due to the inevitability of certain future doom on Earth by environmental destruction,
plague or warfare. Commercial space developers promise private trips to space and
beyond, infusing dreams of space wanderlust and enthusiasm for space travel in citizens
who could never even afford such expensive and lofty excursions. Corporate space
interests promise the certainty of achieving these goals along with new technological
advances and resource riches from space exploration that will rival those gained from the
Apollo moon missions. This article will examine the validity of these threats and
promises, and their environmental and ethical consequences to life on Earth.

The Destruction of Earth Threat

According to scientific theory, the destruction of Earth is a certainty. About five billion
years from now, when our sun exhausts its nuclear fuel, it will expand in size and
envelope the inner planets, including the Earth, and burn them into oblivion. So yes, we
are doomed, but we have 5 billion years, plus or minus a few hund red million, to plan our
extraterrestrial escape. The need to colonize the Moon or Mars to guarantee our survival
based on this fact is not pressing. There are also real risks due to collisions with asteroids
and comets, though none are of immediate threat and do not necessitate extraterrestrial
colonization. There are many Earth-based technological strategies that can be developed
in time to mediate such astronomical threats such as gravitational tugboats that drag the
objects out of range. The solar system could also potentially be exposed to galactic
sources of high-energy gamma ray bursts that could fry all life on Earth, but any Moon or
Mars base would face a similar fate. Thus, Moon or Mars human based colonies would
not protect us from any of these astronomical threats in the near future.

The Destruction of Earth’s Biosphere

Life on Earth is more urgently threatened by the destruction of the biosphere and its life
sustaining habitat due environmental catastrophes such as climate change, ocean
acidification, disruption of the food chain, bio-warfare, nuclear war, nuclear winter, and
myriads of other man- made doomsday prophesies. If we accept these threats as
inevitabilities on par with real astronomical dangers and divert our natural, intellectual,
political and technological resources from solving these problems into escaping them,
will we playing into a self- fulfilling prophesy of our own planetary doom? Seeking space
based solutions to our Earthly problems may indeed exacerbate the planetary threats we
face. This is the core of the ethical dilemma posed by space colonization: should we put
our recourses and bets on developing human colonies on other worlds to survive natural
and man-made catastrophes or should we focus all of our energies on solving the
problems that create these threats on Earth?

Human Life on The Moon and Mars

What do the prospects of colonies or bases on the Moon and Mars offer? Both the Moon
and Mars host extreme environments that are uninhabitable to humans without very
sophisticated technological life supporting systems beyond any that are feasible now or
will be available in the near future. Both bodies are subjected to deadly levels of solar
radiation and are void of atmospheres that could sustain oxygen-based life forms such as
humans. Terra- forming either body is not feasible with current technologies or within any
reasonable time frames so any colony or base would be restricted to living in space
capsules or trailer park like structures which could not support a sufficient number of
humans to perpetuate and sustain the species in any long term manner.

Although evidence of water has been discovered on both bodies, it exists in a form that is
trapped in minerals, which would require huge amounts of energy to access. Water can be
converted into fuel either as hydrogen or oxygen, which would eliminate the need to
transport vast amounts of fuel from Earth. However, according to Britain's leading
spaceflight expert, Professor Colin Pillinger, "You would need to heat up a lot of lunar
soil to 200C to get yourself a glass of water." The promise of helium as an energy source
on the moon to is mostly hype. Helium-3 could be used in the production of nuclear
fusion energy, a process we have yet to prove viable or efficient on Earth. Mining helium
would require digging dozens of meters into the lunar surface and processing hundreds of
thousands of tons of soil to produce 1 ton of helium-3. (25 tons of helium-3 is required to
power the US for 1 year.) Fusion also requires the very rare element tritium, which does
not exist naturally on the Moon, Mars or on Earth in abundances needed to facilitate
nuclear fusion energy production. There are no current means for generating the energy
on the Moon to extract the helium-3 to produce the promised endless source of energy
from helium-3 on the Moon. Similar energy problems exist for using solar power on the
Moon, which has the additional problem of being sunlit two weeks a month and dark for
the other two weeks.

A Moon base is envisioned as serving as a launch pad for Martian expeditions, so the
infeasibility of a lunar base may prohibit trips to Mars, unless they are launched directly
from Earth. Mars is, in its closest approach, 36 million miles from Earth and would
require a nine-month journey with astronauts exposed to deadly solar cosmic rays.
Providing sufficient shielding would require a spacecraft that weighs so much it becomes
prohibitive to carry enough fuel for a roundtrip. Either the astronauts get exposed to
lethal doses on a roundtrip, or they make a safe one-way journey and never return. Either
way, no one can survive a trip to Mars and whether or not people are willing to make that
sacrifice for the sake of scientific exploration, human missions to Mars do not guarantee
the survival of the species, but rather, only the death of any member who attempts the

Space Law and Space Ethics

The technological hurdles prohibiting practical space colonization of the Moon and Mars
in the near future are stratospherically high. The environmental and political
consequences of pursuing these lofty dreams are even higher. There are no international
laws governing the Moon or the protection of the space environment. The Moon Treaty,
created in 1979 by the United Nations, declares that the Moon shall be developed to
benefit all nations and that no military bases could be placed on the moon or on any
celestial body, and bans altering the environment of celestial bodies. To date, no space
faring nation has ratified this treaty, meaning, the moon, and all celestial bodies,
including Mars and asteroids are up for the taking. If a nation did place a military base on
the moon, they could potentially control all launches from Earth. The Moon is the
ultimate military high ground. How should we, as a species, control the exploration,
exploitation and control of the Moon and other celestial bodies if we can not even agree
on a legal regime to protect and share its resources?

Since the space race began 50 years ago with the launch of Sputnik, the space
environment around Earth has become overcrowded with satellites and space debris, so
much so, that circumterrestrial space has become a dangerous place with an increasing
risk of collision and destruction. Thousands of pieces of space junk created from launches
orbit the Earth in the same orbit as satellites, putting them at risk of collision. Every time
a rocket is launched, debris from the rocket stages are put into orbital space. In 2009
there was a disastrous collision between an Iridium satellite and a piece of space junk that
destroyed the satellite. In 2007 China blew up one of its defunct satellites to demonstrate
its antiballistic missile capabilities, increasing the debris field by 15%. There are no
international laws prohibiting anti-satellite actions. Every year, since the mid 1980s, a
treaty has been introduced into the UN for a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space
(PAROS), with all parties including Russia and China voting for it except for the US.

How can we hope to pursue a peaceful and environmentally sound route of space
exploration without international laws in place that protect space and Earth environments
and guarantee that the space race to the moon and beyond does not foster a war over
space resources? Indeed, if the space debris problem continues to grow unfettered or if
there is war in space, space will become too trashed for launches to take place without
risk of destruction.

The private development of space is growing at a flurried rate. Competitions such as the
X-Prize for companies to reach orbit and the Google Prize to land a robot on the Moon
has launched space wanderlust in citizens throughout the country who dream of traveling
to space. The reality is that there are few protections for the environment and the
passengers of these flights of fancy. The FAA, which regulates space launches, is under a
Congressional mandate to foster the industry. It is difficult if not impossible to have
objective regulation of an industry when it enjoys government incentives to profit.
We have much to determine on planet Earth before we launch willy nilly into another
race into space and a potential environmental disaster and arms race in outer space.

Spaceship Earth

If we direct our intellectual and technological resources toward space exploration without
consideration of the environmental and political consequences, what is left behind in the
wake? The hype surrounding space exploration leaves a dangerous vacuum in the
collective consciousness of solving the problems on Earth. If we accept the inevitability
of Earth’s destruction and its biosphere, we are left looking toward the heavens for our
solutions and resolution. Young scientists, rather than working on serious environmental
challenges on Earth, dream of Moon or Martian bases to save humanity, fueling the
prophesy of our planetary destruction, rather than working on solutions to solve the
problems on Earth.

Every space faring entity, be they governmental or corporate, face the same challenges.
Star Trek emboldened us all to dream of space, the final frontier. The reality is that our
planet Earth is a perfect spaceship. We travel around our star the sun once every year, and
the sun pull us with her gravitational force around the galaxy once every 250 million
years through star systems, star clusters and all the possible exosolar planets that may
host life or be habitable for us to colonize. The sun will be around for billions of years
and we have ample time to explore the stars. It woukd be wise and prudent for us as a
species to focus our intellectual and technological knowledge now into preserving our
spaceship for the long voyage through the stars, so that once we have figured out how to
make life on Earth work in an environmentally and politically sustainable way, we can
then venture off the planet into the final frontier of our dreams.

Lynda Williams

Physics Instructor, Santa Rosa Junior College