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Greens in Space

This last week, news services and blogs were filled with reports about President Bush's plan to put bases on the Moon and on Mars. This "Leave No Planet Behind" plan is budgeted to cost over a trillion dollars over the coming years, although the initial boost to NASA's budget is around $750 million -- that is, less than 1% of the total proposed cost. There are quite a few critics of this idea, but, perhaps surprisingly, many of the sharpest barbs come from decidedly pro-science, pro-space sources. The consensus criticism seems to be that, as with many other of this administration's programs, the high-minded proposal will be matched with strangled funding and a lack of real attention or resources. In short, it's election-year hype.

This is short-sighted and painful, for many reasons. It distracts from real issues at home. It will gut NASA's science budget. But the big reason, for me, is that it continues to spin the issue of space exploration as a "conquest of space," pseudo-military, plant-the-flag effort. It's not.

Exploring space is Green.

Exploring space is a crucial component of our ongoing efforts to better understand -- and protect -- our home planet. The hallmarks of good, solid Green thinking are a focus on sustainability, a bias towards the accumulation of knowledge, and a preference for long-term thinking. These are also the principles that make for a good space program. These two realms are inextricably linked.

Over the past few decades, notions of environmental sustainability moved from a focus on cleaning up pollution to a focus on understanding (and, where needed, responding to) global environmental systems. Picking up litter and reducing smog are easy concepts to understand; the dynamics between climate cycles, insolation, CO2 emissions from natural and artificial sources, and solar cycles are a bit more complex. Simply put, we can't understand the details of how our environment functions without a better understanding of the larger environment in which our planet exists, along with additional examples of planetary development. Turning our backs on space exploration means cutting ourselves off from a wealth of potentially-critical knowledge about our planet and solar system.

A space program with a planetary focus would combine current research into Earth's climate and geography (much of which can only be done from orbit) with expanded research into how the rest of our solar system works. Plenty of big questions about our planetary neighbors remain unanswered. Venus, Earth and Mars all orbit within our Sun's "habitable belt," and there is some preliminary research suggesting that each may have started out with similar potential for life. Why did Venus fall victim to a runaway greenhouse effect, while Mars dried up? Why did Earth alone manage to get through its early uninhabitable "iceball" period? We can speculate, but on-site exploration will give us far better answers than will remote theorizing. If climate change is the potential disaster that many of us suspect it could be, these are not idle questions. The better we understand how similar planets work, the better we can understand our own planetology.

Ultimately, the Sun drives our climate. But what's the role of the solar cycle on Earth's climate system? Some Greens play down the effects of the Sun on climate change because it has become a convenient way for climate refuseniks to dismiss human sources of global warming. But we really don't fully understand the relationship between solar "weather" and Earth's weather. More research is desperately needed, and this means sending out more probes.

There are myriad connections between space research and Green issues. The discovery of life in the oceans under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, for example, would be our first opportunity to learn more about how life functions on Earth by comparing it to life evolved under utterly disparate conditions. Proposals to send a robotic probe to drill through Europa's ice crust, however, remain unfunded.

For now, and likely for the next couple of decades, a Green space program would not mean sending people into space. Instead, it would emphasize the currently underfunded robotic-science part of NASA. The automated science missions have done remarkably well, considering how little money has been made available for them. The Mars Exploration Rover is the most spectacular recent example, but in over past months, automated probes gathered material from a comet, monitored solar weather, and dove into the crushing atmosphere of Jupiter. Such robotic missions cost much less than trying to send humans into space; prior to the Columbia disaster, a single shuttle launch cost around $500 million, nearly as much as the entire Mars Exploration Rover program. In the context of the larger American federal budget (and European budgets, for that matter), robotic space exploration is inexpensive -- and the information we get back, with the potential to help us better understand global environmental problems, is simply priceless.

That the Bush administration's current space proposal is wrong-headed, financially-disastrous, politically-motivated, and ultimately doomed should not lead those with Green inclinations to believe that all space efforts are so benighted. They're not. On the contrary, smart space efforts are an increasingly important tool in our ongoing work to understand and repair the Earth's environment. We discard it at our own peril.

Comments (17)

Stefan Jones:

The amount of rotten comments the as-yet-unproposed space proposal has gotten makes me wonder if the Administration simply won't bother, and instead make a tepid placefiller announcement.

Wouldn't surprise me.

Hrm... I'm pretty doubtful about this too: we're just not in the right cultural state for a big push like this - no Communists to bankrupt or scare, and no economic boom to sustain it...

I'll believe it when I see it.

I don't know, a big push might be possible in our current economic state with the right level of impetus. FDR made a similar - though more scattershot - push as part of the New Deal.

Of course, Bush doesn't play on FDR's level. (He said, drastically understating the matter.)


If they do go ahead with the trip to Mars then all funding will be directed towards that end. No more space monitoring of Earth environment, no more Mission Earth.

Also, it is my belief that this idea was hatched when Democrats started talking about a new Apollo Project for energy independence through renewables. What better way to confuse that issue by proposing a new Apollo Project that is an extended version of the old one?

Why not do this.... I mean... we've done so well on Earth... ;)

Truth is, exploration is good. But exploration should probably be outsourced. Consider that it took a drunk guy trying to get to India to find what are now the Americas...

Great post, Jamais.

Here's what Bruce S has to say on the subject:

"What would you do if you were head of NASA?

"*I'd throttle it way back with the cornball
sense-of-wonder Buck Rogers rhetoric,
(for it's nice but it never lasts). I'd pull
a Teddy Roosevelt on the aerospace trusts
like LockheedGrummanMartinGeneralDynamics,
outsource the launch biz to cheap and eager
Indians and Chinese, and then fill the sky
around the earth with sophisticated

"*There would be no Space Station, no
astronauts, no Shuttle.

"*Having then fired everyone with a
Cold-War relic military-industrial sinecure
and broken the iron rice-bowl, I would
hire young NASA engineers without preconceptions,
make them read the complete works of Freeman Dyson, and see if we couldn't get into making and
launching something along the lines of
his "space chickens." Something you can
throw into space that is cheap, small,
disposable and quasi-biological."

When we hardly understand the dynamics of the rhizosphere here on earth, Mars seems a liitle premature.......if only the military-industrial
complex could be as obsessed with the Earth as it is with space......


We can study life that has evolved under disparate conditions by looking at deep sea vents, our own ice caps, and at high altitudes. None of these studies would require budgets in the range of $500M per year, and would seem to promise similar gains in knowledge. Certainly we do not know all there is to know about these fields that can be studied in on our own planet.

I'm not sure I agree with your definition of Green, which in my mind has always included sustainble use, social justice, and non-violence set in a long-term framework. Should Greens want to go to space, given that going is not free and will involve tradeoffs in other areas? You seem to be altering your definition of Green to help prove your point.

Not that I don't agree with your main point; the future of space exploration seems to lie with smaller scale, unmanned scientific exploration. That is how Greens would go to space, if the previous question had been answered with the affirmative.

Min-Yang, the goal isn't simply to find life on other worlds -- although that would be a pretty remarkable discovery, and almost certainly far more distinct than even the most radical Earth-born extremophile -- but to understand how planets function as systems. Right now, we have pretty good (but incomplete) knowledge about a single example, with very limited knowledge about any others. Using a single data point to understand a big system is not the wisest course of action.

(As a single example, right now, the other planets orbiting our Sun are not subject to human-caused climate (and other system) effects. Whatever happens in their atmospheres is solely natural. Figuring out the processes underlying climate change and weather phenomena on other planets gives us a good opportunity to better understand which environmental effects on Earth are likely to have natural origins, and which are likely to have human origins.)

I would in general agree with what you include in the "Green" concept, but I'm not sure where they contradict the concepts and goals I discuss in the post. You note that exploring space "is not free and will involve tradeoffs." Yep. And that's true *regardless* of what we do. Moving to an all-renewable energy economy is not free and will involve tradeoffs. Adopting a foreign policy predicated on non-violence and social justice is not free and will involve tradeoffs. The question is whether the long-term results of the efforts are worth the short-term costs. I believe that they are.

Stefan Jones:

Studying the Earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive.

No "tradeoffs" are required.

We are members of a rich, diverse civilization, not inmates in a lifeboat reduced to squabbling over whether to use the remaining D-Cell batteries to power a flashlight or a boom-box.


Tradeoffs are not required but, judging from experience, the Bush administration will do exactly that, trading Earth monitoring for space exploration. New reports say that they will cut many NASA programs to fund the moon and Mars missions. Any guesses as to which programs they will be?

Jamais Cascio:

If I was truly cynical, I'd say they'd push for cuts to the science programs intended to learn more about climate change. But I'm not that cynical. I'm not. Honest.



My apologies, I don't believe that I was being clear in my previous comment.

1. I believe that you're equivocating on the term "Green," using a non-standard definition of the term.

2. You seem to have 2 separate arguments:
(a) going to space to learn in order to learn more about our environment is "Green"
(b) our future space program should have certain goals, namely "learning" instead "conquest."

While I don't agree with (a), I don't logically need to in order to agree with (b).

Regarding tradeoffs, while I know that "earth exploration" and "space exploration" are not mutually exculsive, that doesn't necessarily mean that there are no tradeoffs that need to be made. Will that $1B extra NASA funding make people better off in the long run? Probably.

But if the government found itself with an extra $1B, is an increase in the NASA budget the "best" way to spend it? Or is this a politically expedient expenditure (hey...alliteration!)

The comment from a kid being interviewed on NPR summed it all up. It went something like "It is a good idea, we are going to need some place to go when the earth is dead." GOP strategy, fear or realistic plan (then Lockheed, Haliburton and Boeing could charge everyone for a ticket off this mess they created)


Am I the only one here who thinks exploration, even without tangible benefits, is a fundamental part of being human?


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