Sunday, July 19, 2009

Twisting Paths: A Perspective on Space Exploration

I was a child in the 1960s as the United States manned space program was just getting started, and arguably reached its peak in the landing on men on the Moon. My father was active in the program as a lead engineer for RCA, so I was able to learn as much as my preteen mind could handle about what was involved. As Apollo 8 circled the Moon, I already knew more about the features of the Moon than I knew about my own country, whose political torment I witnessed firsthand during the Washington, D.C. riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Like many Americans, I saw the space program as a transcendent human activity, seeking knowledge and a foothold in the settlement of the Universe for everyone’s benefit. My lifelong interest in astronomy and science was sparked at this time based on what I later learned was a venture laced with much darker motives.

First, and foremost, the drive to the Moon was a thinly veiled attempt to prove the technological superiority of the U.S. over the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, which included the civilian development of weapons delivery and intelligence capabilities. When the bulk of this development was over, so too was the main thrust of the space program. Space enthusiasts have since lamented that it we could have moved on to Mars within 20 years of the last Apollo flight, that a great opportunity was wasted; and if our leaders had been as great as our citizens believed (and still believe) our nation to be, the future of humanity would have been their focus and we would likely have a permanent presence on Mars and we would not face the possibly premature death of our species along with the actual extinction of far too many others.

I abandoned astronomy as a career in the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence. As part of a National Science Foundation program to educate about 30 high school juniors about the ongoing energy crisis, I was the only student in the group to ask why we needed so much energy in the first place; and posited as the premise of my term paper for college credit that our population would be like gas in a heated bottle, prone to explode from too much pressure if we didn’t either limit the energy or release part of our population into space. I realized that the search for knowledge about space, while honorable, was far less important than try to forestall such a disaster.

The manned space program searched for meaning after Apollo, and so did I. As limited minds tried in vain to make space profitable instead of developing this vast new commons for everyone, I worked with my father to remove some of the limits on our minds. Our educational research company sparked creative yet disciplined thought, teaching math as an intuitive language instead of as a set of facts and rules, which opened up a universe right in our own back yards. As a small business, we learned to live on very little, yet we felt that we had so much more than others. This was a welcome contrast to the life I could have led as befit my day job at the time: finding problems with missile radar antennas used to show the Soviets just how tough we were as they starved to death under the weight of their own repressive government. While we were making do with less, so was the robotic side of the space program, and making remarkable progress in its purely scientific missions; for the most part cataloguing the solar system and gaining a better understanding of its dynamics, including the workings of its greatest constituent: the Sun.

As the Shuttle sucked money with little to show for it, so did the company I helped nurse through that period. Both ventures suffered from too much optimism and a lack of demand for their products. The Shuttle program’s optimism led to the Challenger disaster and years of needed organizational restructuring. My father and I couldn’t get schools or investors to accept our approach, so we field-tested products and restructured our company, moving to a more business-friendly state and bootstrapping a mail order augmentation of existing programs with local tutoring paying for research and development. The need to meet schedules and follow a business model lowered everyone’s sights, it seemed.

My father died, and eventually I had to give up on our company. The manned space program signed on to the space station, which many space professionals and politicians alike concluded was a boondoggle of enormous proportions. Unmanned missions, with a few spectacular exceptions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers, suffered from cost cutting and a lack of strategic vision. I meanwhile was in the midst of reexamining my entire life, and reactivated my interest in astronomy. Like many others, I was stirred by the widely observed collision of a comet with Jupiter and the possibility that something similar could happen to Earth; this sparked the thought that life needed to be defended, and helped define my ultimate core value as the long-term survival and thriving of as much life as possible, especially human life. In this context, astronomy and space exploration became urgent necessities, especially when the limited lifetime of the Earth was taken into account; and when I connected with space activists pushing the settlement of Mars, I understood instantly why it should be pursued.

Gradually, the Mars activists gained sway with those who could do something about it; indeed, many of them were already part of the professional space establishment. The space program had its strategic vision and was finally moving in a direction that might enable people to again visit another world. The professionals and activists quibbled over the details, arguing whether we should go straight to Mars or first use the Moon as a training and development way station. The latter approach seemed to hold sway.

I considered it ironic that the president who had done the most damage in almost every other respect happened to be the one to sign on to this important goal. George Bush awakened my fear for what humans could do to our planet, and then I learned just how much harm we already had already done. I suddenly felt greatly conflicted. As an engineer and believer in the manifest destiny of our species to take over the Universe, I had shared the conviction of many of my peers that we (humans, Americans) were always the “good guys,” and technical and scientific “progress” was always the way to a better future. My high school questioning of whether more was better came back to haunt me, and I now had to reconcile this point of view with the facts I had learned. It had been easy to scoff at people who claimed we should learn how to clean up our planet before going to another one, because surely all we needed was better technology to do both. What if the desire to take over the Universe was itself wrong, and the application of technology without due consideration for its consequences caused more problems than it solved?

I attempted to theoretically derive the constraints on population size and surviving as long as possible, starting with reasonable scenarios for space settlement, and discovered that the main constraints on both population size and overall longevity of the population are the availability of natural resources and how fast we consume them. Technology affects both availability and consumption rate, but itself is limited by the laws of physics, the most critical being the inability of matter to travel at the speed of light or faster, which fixes how many resources we can consume in a given (reasonable) period of time. Of course other things affect population growth, which sets the scale of resources we need -- the more of us there are, the more we consume -- and I also found a convenient, if controversial, way to model them, which linked back to consumption.

My research showed that if we stop the growth of our population and our consumption without limiting our access to new resources, humanity can last a very long time (the preferred size of the population is then the main determinant of just how long). I also discovered that how much people thrive (which is proportional to how long they live) is increasingly costly in terms of consumption, so we would also need to hold this number near an acceptable value and accept the resulting lifetime of our species.

Since one’s values are the measure of “right" and “wrong,” and I was now equipped with some knowledge about what would bring the world more in alignment with my core values, I could begin to resolve the conflict I felt between the urge to support growth in space and technological advancement, and to make the most of what we have on Earth. I realized that the underlying issue was the common belief that growth -- especially exponential growth -- is always good. Because exponential growth in population, and therefore consumption, tends to quickly burn through resources, it will always cut short the lifetime of most members of a population and is therefore bad. I could, however, sign on to spurts of growth as a way to gain access to more resources (or more efficient use of resources) and to reduce the chances of everyone being killed by a single cause (such as the Sun expanding or a comet colliding with the Earth). In other words, to be acceptable, such activity had to have a defined purpose and be sufficiently controlled to reduce the risk to the population at large.

As the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing approached, the space program and I had each found a path, and for me they were sadly divergent. Further study had convinced me that the world was dangerously close to approaching the limits of its most important resources, from fresh water to precious minerals to energy, and it might already be too late to bring growth of consumption under control before mass death became inevitable. There was some hope that declining birth rates might account for much of the projected population loss, as it did leading up to the population peak, but there was already evidence that civilization was on the brink of something hellish, reflected in the economy, global warming, and a lack of sufficient preparation for survival without the resources it so heavily depended on. With time running short to do such preparation, I considered it irresponsible to support provisioning expeditions to other planets unless they could contribute to the direct and immediate remediation of the problems facing this world. I resolved to focus on the immediate future, and hope that the world could find a better way to live that could eventually allow for the continued expansion into space.

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