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Greens in Space, Part II

Earth as seen from MarsGreens in Space was one of the first long essays I posted to WorldChanging, back in January of 2004. In it, I argued that space exploration was an important tool for environmentalists, both because satellites give us otherwise unobtainable information about Earth and because studying the geophysics (and, potentially, biology) of non-Earth planets gives us points of comparison with our own world, moving us beyond trying to model planetary processes based on just a single data point. But the argument I made in that essay presumed that the space program(s) doing the exploration would be the traditional government-run agencies -- NASA, ESA, and the like. In that, I was probably wrong.

Over the next couple of decades, we could well be moving to a world in which space activities are no longer limited to governments and big corporations. From private space launches to space tourism to the (increasingly likely) space elevator, Earth's orbit (and potentially beyond) could become as accessible as the deep ocean -- not easy, not cheap, but still quite possible to visit. Author Robert Zimmerman referred to this emerging era as a "space renaissance" -- a revolution in how people on Earth see and can use space resources. Because of changes in our culture, a stagnant and hide-bound field -- aerospace -- is ripe for transformation:

For the last decade or so, however, kids have been raised in an atmosphere of wild and enthusiastic intellectual turmoil. [...] They have been raised knowing there is no such thing as accepted wisdom. Though they might hear an issue or idea argued from one perspective, they know they can quickly ferret out another that might be perhaps even more persuasive. [...]

Having an open-minded perspective, they know just because something has been done one way for decades it is not a reason to continue in the same manner. In fact, it might very well be a reason not to, and instead to devise a new approach to the problem.

Based on these patterns, the curtain might very well be rising on a new technological renaissance, making the colonization of the solar system in the coming decades not only possible, but very likely.

How could worldchangers take advantage of this? Several ways:

  • Microsatellites. Putting things in space will always be easier -- and cheaper -- than putting people there, and I expect that a number of the private space ventures will turn a steady profit by bringing up small satellites for specific uses. These won't be massive, multi-function birds meant to stay in orbit permanently, they'd be small, cheap devices with a sensor kit and radio, meant to study a particular phenomenon before eventually burning up in the atmosphere. Microsats could watch urban growth patterns, monitor fisheries, look for early signs of drought or flooding, even engage in a bit of open-source intelligence gathering.

  • Improved Climate Monitoring. A particularly important use of satellites -- whether micro or macro -- will be keeping a close watch on climate change. While both NASA and the ESA have climate-related satellite programs -- and China plans to have climate sats in orbit by 2012 -- private satellites could provide additional datasets, including rapidly-assembled and launched sats to answer new questions. Moreover, they could add to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an international cooperative effort for monitoring the planet.

  • Humanitarian Satellites. Not getting as much attention as it deserves is the growing use of satellite information to help humanitarian causes. Examples include support for relief in Darfur, support for the World Conservation Union, and the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters, which coordinates the provision of satellite data to assist in rescue and relief efforts globally. These are all worthy efforts, but they also all require the temporary redirection of satellite resources away from their primary missions. Cheap private launch vehicles would make it possible for humanitarian and conservation groups to have their own dedicated satellite networks.

    But the biggest prize -- and the greatest challenge -- would be sending satellites or even landers to other planets in our solar system. This may have to wait for the construction of an elevator to reduce the energy costs of getting to high orbit (and, potentially, serve as a launch "slingshot"), but even so, we could be on the verge of a revolution in our understanding of how planets function. Mars would undoubtedly get the most attention, given the intriguing possibility of life. Already universities are working on novel ideas for moving around the red planet, and improved technologies for detecting biological activity.

    There are potential downsides, of course. For Earth orbit, more satellites mean more chances for accidents; so-called "space junk" is already a concern, and a proliferation of private satellite launches will only add to that headache. Of greater long-term concern is the possibility of contaminating Mars with Earthly microbes on poorly-handled space probes. Most Earth-born bacteria would die quickly in the Martian environment -- no ozone layer means abundant ultraviolet radiation, on top of the sub-Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric density just a few percent of Earth's -- but we know all too well that evolution is a hardy process. It would be horrible to never really know if Mars has its own native microbes because Earthly extremophiles have found a new home.

  • Comments (4)

    Smaller companies will play a growing role in space travel in the decades to come but I think your original essay is still mostly correct: space exploration will mostly be an endeavor for rich governments and global corporations.

    It's just a question of infrastructure. Apple Computer didn't start in a closet in some research station in Antartica. Apple computer started in one of the most overdeveloped states in the Union: California. There were plenty of roads, electricity, telecommunications networks, plumbing, medical support and so on. The two Steves didn't have to worry about all those hidden costs when building their prototypes.

    Space is like Antartica or the bottom of oceanic trenches, no infrastructure. Space is worse if we consider the scale.

    The first few space elevators, if and when they get built, will be massive government projects and global corporate patronage all the way.

    Despite the success of Spaceship One, space is still too big and too risky for startups to do more than piggyback on the bigger players for many decades to come. They are playing a bigger role but that's only because everyone is playing a bigger role.

    But getting back to the enviromental focus-- Maybe the company behind Spaceship One can offer a service to haul payloads for university groups doing climate research?

    space exploration will mostly be an endeavor for rich governments and global corporations.

    Agreed. But what I think you and Cascio are talking across two realms of activity. There is exploring space, and there is exploiting the resources you find there. Exploring - going hither and yon without a discernable profit motive or return on investment - will be the realm of the State and (increasingly) global corporations.

    Exploiting space - satellites, delivery systems, mining - is properly the realm of private enterprise. As launch costs decrease, the large corporations will find themselves needing to adapt to the new cost structure. If they can't (and the track record for adaption is not good) then start ups and other small organizations will come to the fore.

    The first few space elevators, if and when they get built, will be massive government projects and global corporate patronage all the way.

    I disagreee - but it depends on the costs involved. Most reasonable estimates seem to put the cost within reach of private enterprise. I suspect that if a space elevator must be funded by the State it won't be done at all.

    How could worldchangers take advantage of this? Several ways:

    I submit that the most fundamental and obvious changes are activities we can scarce describe, let alone lay out in detail. The smart fellow will keep his ears and eyes open for imaginative and brilliant ways to exploit the situation.

    Zimmerman's article also points out why a generation of dot com millionaires are interested in, and fund, space projects. The old gaurd sees them as newcomers who don't know how hard it all is - and they may well be right. The new guys see how to expoit the situation with their capital and can-do spirit. And they're right as well.

    Zimmerman's article is great - I've been a fan of his for a few years (actually, since I heard him lecture at an AIAA dinner on the history of the Russian (mostly) space stations) - I interviewed him for sciscoop shortly after that.

    But the worldchanging implications are much more profound than Jamais indicates. Apollo 8's look back at our planet from the Moon was our first real picture of this lonely planet we live on in the vast universe, and it and similar photographs changed a lot of hearts about how we need to care for our home. Real space colonization, with thousands, and not long after, millions of people venturing into space, living in space for long periods of time, will produce an even more radical shift in the human perspective. The vastness of the universe and its potential for us will make us look outwards once more, in a new way. It really is a very exciting time.

    Not to mention there's also the potential of space solar power...

    Real space colonization, with thousands, and not long after, millions of people venturing into space, living in space for long periods of time, will produce an even more radical shift in the human perspective.

    To add, it doesn't take many people to change a culture. In the 17th century 21,000 (and change) people emmigrated to New England. At the end of that century the populaiton was 90,000. Those people went to stay and they made an impact.

    The aborted culture of the cowboy was borrowed from the Mexican by the Anglo-Celts in Texas and then transmitted across the entire West - it's echoes still ring down today. There were probably never more than a few thousand people who were 'cowboys' in the traditional sense but the impact their culture had has been long lasting indeed.

    And how 'bout that solar power? If energy is the foundation of civilization what will happen when 'power' can lance down from the sky and an area can obtain power without massive public works or expensive infrastructure that is at risk from theft of the copper in the lines?


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