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Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Six Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)


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Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

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Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Letter to Professor Timothy Garton Ash

by Stephen Ashworth

Reprinted from Astronautical Evolution 18, 1 March 2007

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Professor Timothy Garton Ash, of the European Studies Centre, Oxford, has an article in the February 2007 issue of Prospect magazine entitled “Europe’s true stories”. His article begins: “Europe has lost the plot. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome on 25th March 2007 – the 50th birthday of the European economic community that became the European Union – Europe no longer knows what story it wants to tell. […] I propose that our new story should be woven from six strands, each of which represents a shared European goal. The strands are freedom, peace, law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity.”

Debate is encouraged at European Story, and I responded to his invitation with the following contribution. I can now find no trace of it on that website, which appears to be in a state of disrepair and has evidently not been updated since 22 October 2008. As of April 2015 neither have I yet received any reply.

Dear Professor Timothy Garton Ash,

I am interested to see that your article “Europe’s true stories” (Prospect, Feb. 2007, p.36-39) refrains from making any explicit reference to the one outstanding characteristic of Europe which is undeniably and uniquely European.

All six of your proposed strands or goals are essentially inward-looking, concerned with the internal organisation of society. None of them address the relationship of society with its wider environment. None of them refer directly to the way the world has been transformed by Europe over the past 500 years or so, though all of them are implicitly part of that transformation.

Of course, exploration is not uniquely European. The common ancestors of all non-African peoples left Africa around 80,000 years ago (according to Prof. Stephen Oppenheimer) to explore and colonise Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas. Later, in the age of pre-industrial civilisations, Arab traders explored widely around the south Asian and African coasts, Mongol armies aggressively explored the land mass of Eurasia, and the Ming Chinese were almost certainly the first to circumnavigate the world, in the great naval expedition led by Admiral Zheng He around 1421.

What is uniquely European is that, through an accident of history, Europe stumbled on a certain critical combination of exploration, colonisation, industrial growth, technological development, political organisation and networks of trade, and this pattern of activity has led to globalisation, i.e. to global unification.

Everywhere you go in the world today you will find a predominance of European-derived languages, technologies, concepts and cultures. The world’s currencies trade in a European-invented global financial system. Communications and media are conveyed by rockets, artificial satellites and electronics, people by jet aircraft and goods by ocean-going ships, all of which are quintessentially European, if not indeed British, in origin. The world has been shaped by the internal combusion engine, the jet engine, and products based on exploiting quantum mechanics, all from Europe. Technologies such as gunpowder, printing and metallurgy originated elsewhere, but it took European enterprise to turn them from curiosities to world-changing forces. The global economic, military and cultural balance has been dominated by a century of British and European imperial power, followed by over half a century of the similar power of their most successful New World colony.

I hope that nobody would be tempted to denigrate this process as “teleological mythology” (“Europe’s true stories”, p.36). According to Professor J. M. Roberts: “The change which came about in world history after 1500 is quite without precedent. Never before had one culture spread over the whole globe. […] This was a great transformation of world relationships and it was the work of Europeans. Underpinning it lay layer upon layer of exploration, enterprise, technical advantage and governmental patronage.” (History of the World, 1993 edn, p.500.)

Of course, it is probably obvious why people are so reluctant to draw on this history to illuminate or inspire modern European identity. As Prof. Roberts goes on to say (p.501): “Greed quickly led to the abuse of power, to domination and exploitation by force. In the end this led to great crimes – though they were often committed unconsciously.”

In other words, because European explorers, adventurers, traders and colonists of the past half millennium failed to observe the ethical norms of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, their activities are currently regarded as despicable and politically unacceptable. As a result, as you put it so succinctly: Europe has lost the plot.

This critical view of the European achievement fails to recognise that our modern values of tolerance, fairness, respect for life and so on are themselves products of this age of global expansionism, notably through the 18th-century Enlightenment. But the criticism is adhered to because people continue to imagine that ethical values should retain the sense which they have inherited from ancient religions, that of being timeless and god-given. European history cannot therefore be properly understood until the religious mode of thought is set aside in favour of an evolutionary model of ethics.

Fortunately, we do not need to wait for this to happen, as few people alive today would demand a return to the medieval past, and those that do so do not live in or identify with Europe. In spite of the pain and destruction that have been inflicted over the past few centuries in the name of progress, the lives of modern Europeans, and peoples of European origin or who have adopted European-style industry and culture, are on balance vastly better off than earlier generations.

So we should be able to add a seventh, and historically crucial, strand to those which you have already offered: exploration.

But the whole globe has been explored and, so far as practicable, colonised already. What relevance can exploration continue to have for Europe, other than as the most distinctive part of its past history? For one can only explore where there is an unexplored frontier, and one can only benefit from that exploration (other than spiritually) if that frontier contains unused natural resources.

One of the most significant historical features of the 20th century is that it marks the close of the age of global exploration, but the opening of a new age of exploration on a far vaster scale. The 20th century saw explorers – mostly European – reach the geographical poles for the first time, surmount Everest and plumb the oceanic depths. Finally the globe was wrapped up in an electronic web of communication. But at the same time we saw the launch of the liquid-propellant rocket, the digital computer and the aeroplane. By the 1960s this led to the first flights into low Earth orbit, the first robotic planetary missions, and the first manned landings on the Moon.

The astronomical universe is, for all practical purposes, infinite. It is essential to realise that almost all the universe’s natural resources of raw materials and power are extraterrestrial. Therefore we live once again in a frontier society.

These facts mean that the history of the current millennium will either be about the transformation of global civilisation into a multi-global, spacefaring, civilisation, or the story of the decline and fall of industrial civilisation, with a catastrophic decline in population, cultural assets and technological capabilities.

The most obvious illustration of this is to consider industrial power supply. This is currently dominated by fossil fuels, which have a number of well-known disadvantages which can only become more acute as the 21st century progresses. Fossil fuels can therefore only continue to power civilisation on a temporary basis, and ultimately we will be compelled to move to an environmentally benign and long-term sustainable source of energy. There are two alternatives capable of generating the amounts of power required. Artificial nuclear fusion is one, but is proving to be hard to develop. Nevertheless, Europe is leading its development, with the latest test reactor now being built at Cadarache in France.

The other alternative, solar power, needs to be harvested in space if it is to be accessed in the quantity and with the continuity of supply which terrestrial industry demands. The problem of transmitting it from an orbiting power satellite down to the ground was solved in the 1970s, and though much work has been done on the concept since then, and (in sharp contrast with nuclear fusion) little if any new technology development is required to get started, the world’s space agencies and power companies have yet to demonstrate the system by lighting a single electric light bulb on Earth with power collected in space.

I am not arguing that solar power from space will necessarily be the whole answer to the currently looming energy crisis. But I am asserting that it is an option which we should be exploring right now with the same sense of enterprise with which European visitors to the Middle East a century ago dug for oil and thereby powered the rest of their century. Given the vastness of the solar power output – 38 trillion times greater than current global industrial power consumption – its cleanliness, its sustainability and the simplicity of the technologies needed to harvest it, it would be incredible if it were not put to practical use very soon.

I am therefore also putting solar power forward as a concrete example of the infinite opportunities for expansion that lie ahead of us, opportunities that, if seized, have the potential to transform modern society at least as much as ours has changed since the age of Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake.

Since Europe is averse to its own history (for the reason which I have described above), its progress into space has been, shall we say?, hesitant. It also well illustrates the ambiguities inherent in the concept of “Europe”. Much early progress was made by Soviet Russia: a country of European racial stock, speaking a language closely related to Latin, part of the European mainstream in music, literature, science, engineering, religion and political thought, yet against which “Europe” defined itself during the Cold War. Further progress, culminating in the first manned Moon landings and in robotic probes which successfully landed on Mars and surveyed the outer gas giant planets in the 1970s, was made by the USA: a nation formed almost entirely of European colonies, with a history intimately entwined with mainland Europe through democratic institutions, music, literature, religion, North Atlantic commerce, and two world wars, yet against which “Europe” often tends to define itself today.

European space exploration in the narrow sense is now focused on the European Space Agency. This is regarded by many Europeans as a low priority at best, a waste of money at worst, and as being irrelevant to the introspective political themes which they prefer talking about – though on the rare occasions when ESA actually does something (the attempted landing of Beagle 2 on Mars, the successful landing of Huygens on Titan) public (if not political) enthusiasm is keen enough, in the UK, at least.

How might one see one’s way towards acknowledging the European Space Agency as a key European institution, with the future exploration and development of our astronomical environment as an essential part of the continuing European story?

Firstly, space exploration and development provide continuity with Europe’s unique past as the agent of globalisation. European empires, technologies and trading networks unified the planet, and now European culture leads us out into the wider Solar System. The other planets being uninhabited, the abuses of the colonial era cannot be repeated.

Secondly, we can anticipate an era of accelerating economic growth. As you say in your article, “the glory days of [20th-century] European growth are far behind us”, and the main reason for that growth was “the development and application of technology” (p.38). Projecting this same process into the near future implies developing space tourism and space conferencing, space-based satellite solar power, and the material resources of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids. It must be clear that new avenues of enterprise in space are necessary in order for the developed world to continue to make economic progress while at the same time developing countries such as China and India are taking over the world’s manufacturing industries at the lower-tech end of the spectrum.

Leaving this job to Europe’s richest North American colony would be an inefficient solution, as space in the United States is dominated by NASA, and NASA is hampered by an institutional belief “that for the foreseeable future, space travel is going to be expensive, difficult and dangerous” (in the words of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, repeated by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in his article “Why Explore Space”). This attitude prevents it from supporting high-volume public access to space, and means that American progress in space largely depends on American billionaires going against the grain of the mainstream aerospace industry, as we have seen recently with Paul Allen and the Ansari X-Prize.

Thirdly, space offers us a focus on external, material reality to supplement our interest in introspective political relationships. This function of science, technology and exploration is, I believe, an essential cultural factor which has allowed Europe to make unprecedented progress during the past half-millennium. The hard realities of physics, geography and so on force us to think clearly and logically. Whereas words, concepts and relationships – “freedom”, “peace” and so on – can be spun to suit the political mood, the law of gravity, the shape of a coastline and so on do not yield a millimetre to Orwellian thinking. This is another reason why it is so important for European culture that we continue looking outward.

And finally, the continued expansion into space invites a concept of Europe, not as one region among many, but as the heartland of an increasingly unified global civilisation: a region in which non-European races have a natural place as local representatives of Europe’s global reach. We do not define Europe in opposition to the USA, China, India, Arabia or anywhere else. Rather we define Europe as having been lucky enough to stumble first on the formula for the glue to hold all these disparate regions together – the glue of world-spanning technologies such as the steamship and the telegraph, the glue of world trade rather than world conquest, and the glue of tolerance, peace and democracy.

Europe without the exploration of new frontiers, formerly on the terrestrial globe, now those of the Solar System, would be a Europe shorn of both its unique historical significance and its best future opportunities.

Exploration is an essential strand of the European story.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
30 January 2007

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