1. A Preamble on Space Myths
Idyllic views of the future always seem to come with the hidden assumption that human nature will change. That somehow, the flaws of mankind will just melt away amongst the awesomeness of living among the stars. People will abandon mundane flaws like booze and drugs, and also everyone will be super-efficient like some kind of environmentalist's dream. But that's never been the case as we march forward, so I don't see why it would happen in the future. —
Andy Weir, world famous sci-fi author who also writes really insightful commentary in books about booze in space.
Outlandish ideas about space settlement often function as a justification for the whole project, typically promising vast wealth, an improved humanity, or an escape from Earth-awfulness. Because much of this book hinges on the idea that there is no urgent need to settle space, here we'll try to convince you that most of the pro-settlement arguments are wrong. Some of these arguments may be unfamiliar to you, but all of them have at least some powerful advocates in government, military, or business settings. Bad Arguments for Space Settlement Argument 1: Space Will Save Humanity from Near-Term Calamity by Providing a New Home
The idea of a multiplanetary humanity as more resilient to extinction is a common one and is plausible over the very long term. However, over the short term, space settlement won't help with any catastrophe you're imagining right this second. Not global warming, not nuclear war, not overpopulation, probably not even a dinosaur-style asteroid event. Why? In short, because space is so terrible that in order to be a better option than Earth, one calamity won't do. An Earth with climate change and nuclear war and, like, zombies and werewolves is still a way better place than Mars. Staying alive on Earth requires fire and a pointy stick. Staying alive in space will require all sorts of high-tech gadgets we can barely manufacture on Earth. We'll elaborate on all of this over the course of the book, but the basic deal is that no off-world settlement anytime remotely soon will be able to survive the loss of Earth. Getting any kind of large settlement going will be hard enough, but economic independence may require millions of people.
We believe there's a decent case for a Plan B reserve of humanity off-world, but there isn't a good case for trying to do it fast. A commonly made argument for urgency is what's sometimes called the "short-window" argument. The idea is that historically, "golden ages" don't last long, so our current age of space travel might come to an end before we get to Mars. We don't know if that's a good analysis of history, but what we can say is that the current age is simply not golden enough to deliver an independent Mars economy. If you want a Mars that can survive the death of Earth, you'd better make sure Earth doesn't die for a very long time. Weinersmith Verdict:
Nah. Argument 2: Space Settlement Will Save Earth's Environment by Relocating Industry and Population Off-World
There are various flavors of this argument, many of which are popular with the rotating-space-station settlement community, including Jeff Bezos.
One version of this idea is that the solar system contains more than enough mass to create rotating space stations that can accommodate an almost endless number of humans in space. This is literally possible in the sense that there is lots of stuff in space, and the stuff could be refashioned into space bases, but we need a sense of proportion here. The Earth of 2022 puts on about 80 million people per year. If saving our ecology requires us to reduce Earth's human population, then we need to launch and house 220,000 volunteers per day
just to tread water.
A related idea is that space should be zoned for heavy industry, while Earth returns to an unpolluted Edenic state. All the nasty mining and manufacturing can be done elsewhere, with by-products cleanly disposed of into the vast landfill that is the solar system. As Jeff Bezos says, "Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial." Again, this is literally possible, and perhaps as long as you're just thinking in terms of big concepts like pollution and mass it sounds doable. But the details are where the difficulty lives. Consider for example cement. It's a major contributor to global warming, so can we make it in space?
Technically, most of the components of cement by mass exist on the Moon, but they won't be easy to dig up. Construction equipment will need to be built to function in an airless environment at low gravity with equatorial temperature swings from -130°C to 120°C. Little things start to loom in this context. Just getting a lubricant that can handle these temperature shifts without degrading is nearly impossible. The same goes for the machines themselves. At extreme cold some metals can undergo a ductile-to-brittle transition; below a certain temperature, metals behave more like stone. However strong they may be, they can't flex and bend. It's speculated that the Titanic
sank because its steel hull experienced a ductile-to-brittle transition before hitting the infamous iceberg. That's a nontrivial problem when you desire to use construction equipment that regularly slams into hard surfaces.
And that's just one detail of one part of the process, never mind replicating all those factories. How soon can we plausibly get all these problems solved and then scaled to the needs of Earth, which currently requires over 3.5 billion
metric tons of cement per year? And does it sound economically competitive with Earth-made cement even if we could do it? And, by the way, what are the rules for dropping 3.5 billion tons of rock on Earth annually?
Part of what's supposed to make these ideas work is cheap, plentiful energy thanks to space-based solar power. This is another bad idea. Space-based solar power figures prominently in space-settlement proposals for giant rotating space stations. It's also frequently proposed by governments and private space companies as a way to make money while greening the planet. You may have read an article recently about Chinese universities or the European Space Agency, or some new start-up planning to field this technology in the near future. They probably shouldn't.
It's certainly true that there's a whole Sun's worth of sunlight in space, unobstructed by annoying Earth features like weather and the atmosphere. Exactly how much more energy you might get per panel depends on exactly what assumptions you're prepared to make, but different estimates expect about an order of magnitude improvement. That sounds like a lot until you ask yourself what the cost differential will be between a panel in space and a panel in Australia.
It's conceivable that in a world where solar panels are incredibly expensive and there's an extreme collapse in the cost of launching objects to space, you might want to maximize your energy per panel by putting them above the atmosphere. But panels are cheap, and even if we assume pretty steep drops in the cost of space launch, the numbers don't add up. This becomes especially clear when you start to think about maintenance. Try to imagine acres upon acres of glass panels in space, regularly pelted by intense radiation and bits of space debris while enduring the extreme heat of perpetual sunlight. They'll have to be repaired and cared for either by astronauts or an army of advanced robots. Solar panels in Australia can be cleaned by a teenager with a squeegee.
When dumping solar power back to Earth, you have another problem. Solar panels on the ground can send their power right into the grid or to batteries. Space-based power has to be beamed to huge receivers on Earth, losing energy en route. But it can't be beamed at too high an intensity, lest it endanger birds and planes.
Space solar is valuable if you're already in space, as a way to generate energy without burning fuel. It may also be valuable on Earth in some very narrow cases, such as beaming energy to military bases where fossil fuel delivery would be dangerous. For more practical uses, you're better off with conventional boring renewables. Cover every rooftop with solar panels, followed by the Sahara desert, and then if the planet still needs energy, we can talk about space.
We are skeptical that it will ever be a great financial idea to harvest massive amounts of solar power in space and then use that energy to convert moondust into cement or steel or industrial chemicals. But even if we believe that this'll all happen one day, that one day will not come in time to spare us from any environmental concern of today. Weinersmith Verdict:
Unfortunately, no. Argument 3: Space Resources Will Make Us All Rich
It's certainly possible, but right now the economics of it aren't looking great. As we'll explore later, no place in space has something like a giant hunk of pure platinum or gold. What space resources do exist are likely to be very expensive to acquire and will remain so even with big improvements in technology.
Also, there's a real difference between access to commodities and universal wealth. Consider aluminum. Discovered in 1825, early on it was so valuable that only the wealthy could afford it. Victorian-era jewelry sometimes includes aluminum as a precious metal. Today, it's a way to cover lasagna. That's because by the late nineteenth century, industrial processes had made aluminum incredibly cheap, effectively flooding the market with a former luxury good. This is a great development, and of course aluminum has uncountable valuable applications from the kitchen to airplanes. But the fact that most of us can buy large quantities of a once-precious metal doesn't mean we're all millionaires.
In our experience, people tend to assume raw minerals are the major factor in human well-being. Although they're necessary inputs into our economies, according to a recent report by the World Bank, nonrenewable resources, in the sense of valuable stuff found in the ground, make up about 2.5 percent of Earth's wealth. And a lot of that is fossil fuels, which are not available in space. The really valuable thing for economies is humans, and our ideas and technology. You can convince yourself by melting down your phone and assessing the value of the resulting glass, metal, and plastic.
Even if space does produce inexpensive access to all sorts of commodities that make someone
rich, there's also no reason to assume anything like an equal distribution of wealth back on Earth. In fact, if you believe there's big money in space, the United States is uniquely poised to go get it, potentially harming the economies of less-developed countries dependent on commodities. Some readers will care about this more than others, but even if you don't think wealth distribution has much moral significance, it may still have geopolitical significance. As we'll see later, under some conditions, changes in the balance of power among nations can make war more likely. If space really does make some country especially rich, the consequences don't have to be uniformly good. Weinersmith Verdict:
It's complicated but no, not really. Argument 4: Space Settlement Will End, or at Least Mitigate, War
There are a few versions of this one, but we've found these three pretty common: space settlement will create more territory so we'll fight less about territory; space settlement will make us rich so we won't want to fight anymore; and space settlement will allow unhappy citizens to just leave for other settlements, which will reduce tension here on Earth.
The territory argument is the most silly. Nations don't fight over land, they fight over particular
land. You can't solve disputes over Jerusalem or Kashmir or Crimea by promising the parties involved equally large stretches of Antarctica. It'd be like going to a nasty divorce proceeding and trying to solve the custody fight by offering to just grab some other kids. Also, if we're defining land as "built structures humans live in," which is the definition you must
use for space habitats, well then, on Earth we are creating land all the time. Individual buildings create far more square footage than any space settlement likely to be built anytime soon. Meanwhile, if you personally just want any sort of land there's plenty. Google it. Small towns all over the developed world are offering free land
to people willing to move there instead of big cities.
The argument about riches may sound tempting; if humans are rich, why would we fight? But the "money makes us all friends" argument isn't one that all war scholars buy. Wars start for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with a bunch of people looking at their resource base and saying "hey, this is pretty good." A nonexhaustive list of causes of war includes: religious differences, leaders who don't bear the cost of the violence, and misperception about the other party's strengths or intentions. Even if space activity left everyone better off, it wouldn't stop nations from having religious differences, bad leaders, or suspicion about rivals.
As for peace through allowing people to just move between settlements, well, we should consider that most people aren't even allowed to do this between nations on Earth. Space will likely be worse. However you feel about immigrants coming to your country, one thing you probably don't fear is the possibility that they'll breathe too much air. In space, the atmosphere is constructed, as is the ground beneath your feet, and individual settlements will only be rated for certain population sizes. That's not obviously an environment where you'd expect to see open borders. Some advocates note that you can always just create a new place to live in space, but then the argument becomes "you can just pull up stakes by creating a million-ton space station," which, we suspect, will not be a live option for most of us. Even if it were, it's still not clearly desirable. Dr. De Witt Kilgore, one of the few historiographers of ideas about space, called it a form of celestial "white flight." That is, space not as a solution to politics, but as an escape from political realities one group finds uncomfortable. Weinersmith Verdict:
Nope. Argument 5: Space Exploration Is a Natural Human Urge
This is a popular one. The basic idea is that yeah, maybe there's not a good return-on-investment reason for space exploration, but if we don't do it, we'll be thwarting our own nature, resulting in widespread human stagnation. The prettiest version of this argument is of course from Dr. Carl Sagan: "For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood." It's a nice idea, and much better written than any of our Uranus jokes. Also, it can be hard to argue against views like these because it's not always clear what the exact claim is. However, when people do get specific, they tend to point to two things: famous human explorers, and the fact that humans have spread around the world.
Copyright © 2023 by Kelly Weinersmith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.