Monday, 3 September 2012

A Giant Leap: Why its good to go to space


For those of you who know their Bible, you might know an important verse in Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” While this blog is no biblical commentary, good old King Solomon nevertheless understood an important truth about human nature; we need a vision, a prophecy, an ideology, a ‘grand narrative’ to drive our endeavours, to ignite the human genius. Every night human beings around the planet see the same sky, the same moon and the same celestial bodies. That view leaves us awe-struck, and I can only imagine what went through the minds of our distant ancestors who knew nothing of astronomy and physics. NASA’s probe ‘Curiosity’ could not have a more fitting name, because so much of our culture is the product of that uniquely human quality, without which we would find ourselves unrecognisable. However, as the French philosopher Lyotard predicted, we have allowed ourselves to be drowned in the flood of digitised, quantifiable knowledge, and rational behaviour has become equated with selfishness, perhaps the nastiest of human vices. The spirit of exploration is disappearing from our space programmes, and everything must have a so-called ‘rational’, economically driven motive to be held legitimate. Deeper questions about legitimation are disregarded, particularly those about the legitimation of the legitimators. We have been told that human suffering on earth should cause us to focus all our energies on this planet, rather than on the pursuit of science-fiction adventures in space. I want to question this assertion, and I hope to show you that to appeal to our collective conscience is misguided and possibly dangerous.

ESA probe approaching Mars
In 2009, each European from an ESA member state paid €8.64 on the space programme, while each American paid $57.54 to NASA. The current ESA budget of €4 billion is sufficient to finance dozens of missions, among them probes to Mars, Venus, and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. So, with a relatively small amount of money, quite a lot is possible. A manned mission to Mars however, would require an entirely different level of financing. Robert Zubrin and David Baker’s proposal of sending four astronauts to the Red Planet (see Mars Direct) would cost around €50 billion over a period of 10 years, while more conventional estimates for such a project easily reach €500 billion. Going to space is expensive; there is no way around that. The key to preventing you from thinking that this money could better be used to tackle problems here in Earth is an understanding of why space is so expensive.

You might think that it’s the energy costs that cause the problem, but this is certainly not the case. Let’s say it costs €10,000 to place one kilogram of material into orbit (admittedly a high estimate), requiring 50 litres of kerosene, costing about €1 per litre, then this accounts for merely €50 per kilogram. What makes launch costs high are the materials needed to construct rockets, the non-reusability of rockets, and the development costs. The latter refers to both paying staff and to trying out new technologies, which for the aforementioned reasons is quite expensive. However, it is very important to understand that in the current ESA budget, robotic exploration accounts for a mere 2.7%. Human spaceflight and launchers account for 8.8% and 15.1% respectively. The vast majority of money is spent on stuff like navigation systems and earth observation. A quick glance at the NASA budget confirms that impression. Effectively, Europe spends about €500 million a year on space exploration, which, if spent on development aid, would increase Europe’s development budget by a mere 1%. The money spent on space is insignificant when compared to healthcare or education.

Earth and terraformed Mars:
humanity's future on two planets
However, I have a point to make that is even more important. Is improving the state of affairs in the world really about money? Space technology has contributed massively to decreasing human suffering (weather satellites, navigation services, earth observation, disaster management, etc.), and money itself does not build schools and hospitals. This planet is suffering not from a lack of resources. A lack of money is artificially created scarcity, caused by our blind belief and religious adherence to the monetary system. If we burnt all our money, no resource would have disappeared. My point is that it is human beings that have to build and operate schools and hospitals, and that resources on this planet are not scarce, but unevenly distributed. A budget for space exploration that is ten times higher than the one we have now would easily be achievable, for it is not the lack of resources that prohibits it, but a lack of political will and public support. As so often, we are confronted also with a need for international coordination, preventing duplication and encouraging cooperation between the space-faring countries. A merger of all space agencies into a World Space Agency would allow for the colonisation of the Moon and Mars to begin in this decade. Europe can play a particularly important role in facilitating such cooperation, because ESA is the prime example of a successful international space programme.

There are ethical problems with going to space (mostly related to environmental arguments about the contamination of other planets with earth life), but the economic argument is certainly misleading. It makes us think that money itself feeds people, which could not be further from the truth. It is, in fact, a dangerous idea, because what is really required is the equal distribution of resources. The resources used on the space programme would not benefit people who are suffering, but the political institutions that enforce ‘free trade’ such as the World Trade Organisation give industrialised countries a competitive advantage that will forever deepen the gap between rich and poor. The cure for injustice is to be sought largely at the political level (as we discuss in various posts), and not in cutting space budgets for the mere reason that they no longer secure votes.

It is inevitably the destiny of humanity to go into space. Future generations will struggle with overpopulation and resource depletion to an extent that is completely unimaginable to us at this time. Existing on one planet implies the constant threat of extinction (epidemic, nuclear war, asteroid impact are but a few scenarios). SETI has had no results so far, and as far as we know, we are alone in the universe – we are its only consciousness, and it would be irresponsible to keep the consciousness of the universe on a single planet. Mars is just next door, and the colonisation of the solar system and nearby stars is technologically very feasible. ESA’s Aurora programme is an ambitious but underfunded project, intended to bring humans to Mars by 2035, and to begin colonisation in the 2040s. At least 25% of the ESA budget should be devoted to this end. At the moment, 19% are spent on building an unnecessary satellite navigation system that duplicates the already existing GPS. Combining the budgets of NASA, ESA, and ROSKOSMOS would make a manned mission to Mars feasible by 2022. No vision has a stronger appeal than space, and if humanity is to flourish we need to pursue this vision.

Harald Köpping


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