(1) The battle for the future
All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) The battle for the future
Space futurists need to be aware of the groundswell of popular opinion which is hostile to continued growth and progress, including in space. Rather than ignoring this point of view, we need to engage constructively with it, be prepared to modify our expectations of the future if the skeptics can prove them to be untenable, but demand no less of those on the other side of this debate.
The key concepts here are: peak oil, climate change and socialism. We will run out of energy before we ever get the chance to colonise the Solar System. Or if we don’t, we will so wreck planet Earth that our civilisation will collapse anyway. Or if it doesn’t, it will still be morally wrong to go into space, because it will perpetuate patterns of injustice in terrestrial society and/or abandon the population of Earth to their miserable fate and/or cause unacceptable damage to other planets.
There is a strong moral element underlying all of this. For example, John P. Wiley wrote in 1970: “With the rest of our solar system inhospitable to life as we know it and with travel to the stars problematical, man must lie in the bed he is making on Earth for the foreseeable future” (quoted in Mallove and Matloff, Starflight Handbook, p.22). Spaceflight is seen as escapism by many, the despicable rat-hole for cowards who create problems on Earth with over-consumption and then flee to an imagined celestial paradise to avoid clearing up the mess they’ve made (depicted vividly in the 1989 novel and TV series Stark by the popular British comedian Ben Elton).
Do the Math
Case in point: Tom Murphy’s “Do the Math” blog, started July 2011.
Tom Murphy is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego. His praiseworthy object is “Using physics and estimation to assess energy, growth options”. But do his posts actually honour this noble goal?
Murphy’s first post, “Galactic-Scale Energy” (12 July 2011), makes the obvious point that the phase of exponential growth in energy usage from 1650 to the present cannot continue forever. His conclusion is: “The purpose of this exploration is to point out the absurdity that results from the assumption that we can continue growing our use of energy – even if doing so more modestly than the last 350 years have seen.” Agreed, at some point, growth must come to an end.
But there are two very different cases before us: civilisation confined to Earth, versus industrial and population growth in space. The relative opportunities and costs of these two options are the key question, and yet, though Murphy goes as far as to talk about our harnessing the power of all the stars in the Galaxy, he does not mention space colonisation in this post. Without space colonisation, according to his graph of Earth’s surface temperature, fundamental thermodynamic limits force growth to cease within no more than 200 years from today. With it, according to Murphy’s assessment of the total solar power available, energy growth can continue for 1350 years. These are radically different scenarios which for the time being he avoids addressing.
His second post, “Can Economic Growth Last?” (14 July 2011), applies the same argument to economic growth, with the same omission. A later post, “Sustainable Means Bunkty To Me” (5 Oct. 2011), examines the prospect of a sustainable energy future: “the big question is: can we transition to a truly sustainable lifestyle for the long haul at an energy level akin to what we enjoy today – or even several times higher? No one knows the answer”.
Some of the critical comments he attracts see an answer in the continued growth of civilisation into space. Murphy finally gets to grips with them in his essay “Why Not Space?” (12 Oct.).
Why Not Space?
This posting gets off to a bad start: “The subtext is that space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems whose denial could result in a backward slide.” This defines space activities right at the outset as “fantasies”. No, Tom: do the math first, and then decide whether you’re looking at a fantasy or not.
But the essay is short on math, long on impressionism. Murphy claims that the fact that we have not been back to the Moon since 1972 clashes with the “prevailing narrative that we march forever forward”. This is a simplistic view of progress; it should be clear that manned spaceflight was not sustainable then, and that considerable progress has been made since with the rise of commercial space ventures. For what it’s worth, the graph of man-days logged in space by calendar year is still on an upward trend, thanks to the ISS. Again, the retirement of the Space Shuttle does not support his view “Narratives can break”, as it had become a roadblock to progress, not the prerequisite for progress that he seems to think.
Space is vastly more hostile than the Earth’s oceans, Murphy says. True, but irrelevant. Murphy discusses occasions on which people have survived in a lifeboat after their ship sank, giving the impression that this is the general rule, and the oceans are quite hospitable to mankind. But 1500 passengers from the Titanic would disagree, along with countless others who have frozen, drowned or died of exhaustion at sea. The oceans are hostile. We have made progress in technologies to cross the oceans. Why can we not do the same in space? Murphy makes no convincing case that we cannot.
When we cross space, where will we arrive? Murphy is adamant that there are no usable resources in space, no bounty or food or sense of safety, and emphasises in bold type: “We live on the bounty right now.” Yet elsewhere he has been warning us that the bounty on Earth is running out. We are struggling (in his view) to maintain our current industrial energy budget of around 15 TW, let alone expand it further. His personal solution (described in other posts) is to put solar panels on his house. The total output of the Sun amounts to 380 trillion TW, which he, being a physicist, is certainly well aware of. Almost all of this power can only be accessed in space. One does not need to believe that we can tap the Sun’s entire output to understand that there may be some margin for sustainable energy growth in space. Is there then at least a little bounty off-planet? Not according to Murphy.
He ends this essay with a plea: the fossil fuel bonanza is coming to an end: “I want to caution against harboring illusions of space as the answer to our collision course of growth on a finite planet. [...] This century, we will enter a new phase, untested by humanity. Dismissing the challenge this presents by looking beyond to a future in space is one of the best ways to ensure that such a future never comes to pass.” This is an extraordinary statement for someone who claims to put the math first (see the comparative power figures above).
Observe the logic: if we attempt to address the challenge with space resources, then by definition we will fail. Space resources cannot help us, not because I have inventoried them and found them to be less than terrestrial resources, or costed them and found them too expensive to acquire, but simply because they are “so mind-blowingly scattered that they would seem to be utterly absent to the casual observer”. Okay, so what does this tell us, other than that the Solar System is not likely to be colonised by casual observers?
The weight of argument is carried by the use of dismissive words: “dismissing the challenge”, “harboring illusions”, and not on the physics which is supposedly at the heart of this blog. Where numbers are given, they are of the “wow, fancy that!” kind: the density of stars in the local Milky Way is analogous to grains of sand 50 km apart. “Can you imagine this?” Well, we just did, thanks to your image.
The stark choice the reader is offered is between addressing present problems and looking beyond to a future in space – the argument of the excluded middle (Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, ch.12, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”, p.202). In reality, we can and should do both. Extending the image with which Murphy closes the essay, we need to both keep our eye on the ball, and look ahead across the field to see where the goal lies.
A major problem with this essay is that it criticises the pro-space movement and yet fails to engage with it. If I were to attend Tom Murphy’s physics lectures and criticise his account of quantum mechanics from a position of ignorance, he would surely send me away to read an undergraduate primer, and so acquire the basics of the theory.
The basics of the vision of a future in space are contained in Gerard O’Neill’s The High Frontier, John S. Lewis’s Mining the Sky and Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, among many other astronautical classics. It is the activities and calculations contained in these books which contain the essence of the vision, and Murphy needs to engage with these. Otherwise, without doing the math (or the astronomy), his emotional plea to rule space off-limits to our future plans (because by definition it “dismisses” the challenge we face) falls flat.
As any scientist when writing a paper knows, it is not enough to “do the math”, one must also do the literature in order to get up to speed on the subject.
Tom Murphy promises to make amends at the start of “Stranded Resources” (25 Oct. 2011), in which, “true to the brand”, he will “do the math on why the infinite [sic] resources of space appear to be of questionable use to our human enterprise.” Will we at last discover precise physical reasons for pessimism about the practical application of space for growth?
But first he relates the opinion of an anonymous NASA official that it would take “decades of serious research to answer two simple questions: ‘Can humans live and work in space for the long term?’ and ‘Can an economically viable activity can be found in space?’”. Despite the fact that fully five decades of serious research have already taken place, Murphy leaves the reader with the glum assessment: “We have no proof – or even firm expectation – that either is practical or possible.”
So are communications satellites not economically viable? How about the detailed physics, cost estimates and market surveys regarding a future space tourism industry in David Ashford’s Spaceflight Revolution? – another astronautical base text which Murphy seems not to have read. What about the fare-paying private visits to the ISS over the past ten years and the appearance of NewSpace companies on the scene? After the mismanagement of the Shuttle and ISS programmes, can a NASA official be regarded as so trustworthy a source that the views of the commercial spaceflight industry can safely be ignored altogether?
If Murphy’s position was a strong one, he would find specific proposals for space tourism and energy industries and take them apart using the maths and physics. By avoiding this direct engagement, by being too quick to accept a negative view and not to consider alternatives, he creates the impression (rightly or wrongly) that his argument is too weak to stand such a direct comparison.
Murphy moves on to consider asteroidal raw materials: “It is indisputable that asteroids contain a trove of metals.” However, getting to them is another matter. After a lecture on the basics of orbital dynamics, we arrive at the concept of extraterrestrial refuelling. Murphy’s first stop is Jupiter, then Titan; neither of which is remotely attractive as a refuelling stop. He then considers moving a 1 km diameter asteroid from the asteroid belt to Earth, and finds he can’t do that either. He concludes: “I may not have exhausted the possibilities, but I’m personally exhausted. [...] I conclude with a reminder that the space angle is a distraction to the resource problems we will face on Earth this century – chiefly in the energy domain.”
This is simply ludicrous: I have tried to reinvent the wheel, I have ignored the literature describing circular wheels, I have applied the math to prove (correctly) that a square wheel is no good, so I conclude that the wheel is a distraction to our transport problems, and nobody should concern themselves any longer with trying to make wheels.
In the comments section below the article, a visitor called Toby Kelsey writes: “It is disappointing that you mislead your readers with straw men such as lifting round-trip rocket fuel from Earth’s surface” (28 Oct.). I can only agree that here is a classic case of the straw man style of argument (Sagan, p.203). No space proponent to my knowledge has remotely suggested mining hydrocarbons from Jupiter or Titan, or starting off an asteroid mining industry by trying to change the orbit of a km-sized object massing 10 billion tonnes.
The key points on space mining are: access the near-Earth asteroids first, and concentrate on recovering their water for in-space refuelling. A gradual build-up of capability starts with small steps to establish a growth-capable space economy. But by caricaturing such a process with impossible missions, and ignoring the relevant literature, Murphy has indeed misled those of his readers who, like him, had no prior knowledge of the subject. Although he offers an apology in his response to Kelsey’s comment, the damage will not be undone until he takes the time to seriously address the proposals of those who, like John S. Lewis of Arizona University, have studied the problem and come up with apparently viable mission plans.
Another key issue is the economics of space solar power, which are intrinsic to O’Neill’s space colony programme. A lively debate on this topic is currently in progress over at The Space Review. But although whether space solar power can be made to work or not is central to Murphy’s concerns, and involves a great deal of controversial math, he has not so far taken the trouble to address it.
Returning to “Why Not Space?”, Murphy writes of the views of space advocates: “The connotation is that we should not heed repeated warnings about our current collision course with a finite world when – by some clairvoyant means that eludes me – we know we are destined to colonize the infinite void beyond. Space is therefore seen as an escape hatch for the human endeavor and from our arguably botched track record on Earth. Escapism may be more accurate.” This is again the fallacy of the excluded middle, as described above.
Note the reference to escapism, betraying the moralising undercurrent to this blog. Note also another straw man: the idea that we are destined to inevitably colonise space. No doubt there are some who hold to this idea, and Murphy is right to challenge them – I have done so myself – but criticising such a view is irrelevant to the main issue of whether or not space can be colonised. I cannot think of any use of mystical ideas of human destiny in the serious astronautical literature (Carl Sagan in particular was an early publicist of the idea that nuclear war would be followed by a nuclear winter, destroying civilisation; clearly this was to him a real threat and continued human progress was by no means assured).
Murphy is, however, not addressing the technical literature; his blog reads more like a search for excuses to condemn advocates of continued growth.
Just to be perfectly clear: my own view is that astronautics is an evolutionary process, and therefore, while an up and a down for progress may be defined in terms of the diversity, complexity and range of life, species, like investments, can go down as well as up. We have no guarantees of success in space, and much work to do convincing the Tom Murphys of the world to apply the math fairly if we hope to continue to progress in the future.