Issue 5, 1 March 2006 -- 37th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Essay: Exploration is good; political and economic relevance is better
  2. News: BROHP 2006: the place to be this April

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(1) Exploration is good; political and economic relevance is better

by Stephen Ashworth

In their enthusiasm for exploring distant worlds, many space advocates have failed to notice some major controversies raging back on planet Earth. Furthermore, these controversies involve some of the very people whose support is essential for any major social undertaking such as space exploration.

I want to draw attention to two of these issues: one popular and one intellectual.

The popular issue is the anthropogenic climate change panic. This now dominates political life not because it is well established that industrial CO2 emissions are currently the determining factor in climate change (it is not) but because it indulges the sense of guilt and anti-progressive sentiment which built up during the 20th century.

The intellectual issue is the question of whether liberal political values can survive, particularly in competition with illiberal religious puritanism.

Space holds compelling answers to both these problems. Space supporters ought to be a major political force by virtue of their providing the progressive counterweight to the anti-progressive pessimism prevalent in these debates. Why is this not happening? Why is space almost always presented in terms of pure science, with spin-offs in education and technology? Why is it not universally acknowledged as a serious political force? -- as the champion of the West against the backwardness of traditional cultures? -- as the antidote to the upsets of the 20th century?

Take climate change. Let us assume that we do in fact have a major problem with industrial CO2 emissions, even though the world's oil and power companies have not yet managed to drive up Earth's atmospheric CO2 level to more than a tenth of the partial pressure found on Mars, that well-known tropical hothouse planet.

Obviously, industry has two long-term sources of large-scale, sustainable, clean energy: nuclear fusion, and solar power. Fusion is not yet available commercially, because the technology is not yet ready. But solar has been technically mature ever since the 1970s, when Peter Glaser solved the problem of getting large-scale solar power down to the surface of Earth. Agonising about where the energy of the future is coming from is therefore absurd.

In the words of Professor John S. Lewis, accessing that energy is an intelligence test: "If we pass the test, we will be able to provide unlimited amounts of energy to Earth at costs below current energy costs, without further fossil-fuel consumption or nuclear power-plant construction. If we flunk the test, we get to freeze in the dark." (Mining the Sky, p.133.)

"Space exploration can save the world with zero-CO2-emitting, eternally sustainable power" -- why aren't we seeing this in the newspaper headlines, or in Tony Blair's keynote speeches?

To repeat: the starting-point for any discussion of future energy usage, fossil fuel depletion and CO2 pollution has to be that the Sun supplies more than ten trillion times greater power than we currently need. This power is reliably expected to last ten million times longer than fossil fuels, and creates zero CO2 pollution and zero radioactive pollution. Almost all of this power can be accessed using currently understood technologies, BUT (here's the catch) to make it practical and economical it requires space development: harvesting the resources of the asteroids and the Moon for propulsion and construction materials.

Is this why space professionals are shy of it? -- because it would involve polluting the quintessential perfection of the heavens with grubby human commerce? Are they so affected by the anti-human, anti-progressive ideology already?

Second issue: the survival of liberalism. Here is a quote from an article by Edward Skidelsky about political philosopher Leo Strauss, "father of neoconservatism", in the current issue of Prospect magazine (a political and social monthly): "The trouble with liberalism is that it tends to relativise all ideals, to reduce them to mere opinions. Sacrifice becomes impossible, and politics in the true sense gives way to economic management. As a result, human beings sink into a purely private existence [...] New sources of idealism are urgently needed to counteract this rot." (p. 36); "But the neoconservative cure is, alas, worse than this disease. For the sad fact is that historical guilt is now all that remains of the political conscience of the west." (p.37)

Obviously, the astronautical perspective revolutionises political philosophy, because it places humanity in its true context in astronomical space and evolutionary time. Whereas primitive societies concocted a sense of authority by imagining an all-powerful alien being that was supposed to have created their world, modern global society has a far more reliable external framework in the scientific accounts of astronomy and biology. Yet all too often writers on this subject focus on the misinterpretation of science which suits an anti-progressive stance -- that science reduces us to mere mechanisms in an absurd and purposeless universe.

So, to repeat: the concept of human civilisation -- based on reason, science and industry -- expanding into space can save liberal political values, by placing them in their true cosmic context. This should be the essence of the coming 21st-century Enlightenment, complementing and completing the Enlightenment begun in the 18th century.

Both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have recently issued hard-hitting attacks on religion. Judging from what I have heard so far of their TV series and book, they have little to say on astronomy or astronautics. It will therefore be no wonder if their arguments carry little weight.

But astronautical values are only relevant if they lead to tangible material gain.

Modern global civilisation was not created by any selfless desire for pure knowledge or for new horizons. On the contrary: it was created by the lust for gold, silver, furs, spices, silks, slaves, coffee, tea, sugar, coal, iron, and so on, and at the same time by great-power conflicts among Protestant Britain and Holland, Catholic France, Spain and Portugal, and the Islamic Middle East. In other words: profits and power.

In the same way, the multi-global society of the future will not be created by Cassini-Huygens or any number of MERs or ExoMars rovers. It will not even be created by adding one or two UK astronauts to the roster on the ISS.

Multi-globalisation -- and the consequent securing of the future of liberal industrial civilisation -- will only come about if people can express their lust for profits through large-scale solar industrial power, asteroidal volatiles and precious metals, lunar silicon and oxygen, and orbital and lunar tourism operated at a level of at least a million passengers per year.

This is not the time to be conservationist about the material and energy resources just above our heads -- unless we are content to see space exploration peter out as the pressure builds up on Western governments from environmental pessimists, religious puritans, and all the rest of Earth's domestic woes.

-- Stephen Ashworth

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(2) BROHP 2006: the place to be this April

David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes says: "BROHP is the best three-day space event on the planet."

Alan Bond of Reaction Engines (and co-inventor of the Skylon spaceplane) referred to BROHP as "Three of the most worthwhile days in the UK Space calendar."

This year's conference of the British Rocketry Oral History Project (BROHP) will take place from 6 to 8 April at Charterhouse School, near Godalming in Surrey, UK.

This year the emphasis is "Europe, Education and Development", and the organisers are trying to target teachers and educators.

Highlights this year will include:

To enquire about the event, or to obtain a registration form, e-mail , or write to 17 Elsmere Avenue, Liverpool L17 4LB, or telephone 0151-281-1134.

-- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa(at)astronist.demon.co.uk.


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