All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2014:
The SpaceShipTwo Crash (Nov.)
To the Rt Hon Greg Clark (Oct.)
A Four-Point Plan for ESA (April)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Britain’s Major Tim defends the ISS against its critics
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
“For the sake of our own survival”
In a recent BBC news item, Britain’s ESA astronaut trainee Major Tim Peake vigorously defended the astronaut space programme:
“Humanity’s aim is to explore the Solar System, not just for the sake of exploration. I genuinely believe it is for the sake of our own survival in the future.”
But why, exactly? BBC correspondent Pallab Ghosh doesn’t press him for reasons in this piece, but does link to Peake’s appearance on Newsnight last May, after his mission to the ISS had been announced, where our man is subjected to the full Jeremy Paxman treatment.
How well does Peake stand up to Paxman’s vigorous show of skepticism? He certainly maintains his cool, and presents an articulate description of activities on the ISS and of the benefits he expects from his £16 million mission. Here are his main points:
So what’s not to like? Certainly Peake did a far better job of standing up for spaceflight against a critical questioner than ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain managed five years ago when interviewed by the BBC’s Stephen Sackur (shortly after I posted a review, the YouTube video of the interview was removed).
Spinoff … or survival?
But look again. Everything that Tim Peake said on the Newsnight video came down to the old story: science, spinoff, inspiration. (There was even the ghost of a reference to national prestige in the emphasis he gave to the word “British” at the start of the interview.) These are nice to have, but nothing to get wildly excited about, and in the view of many people not enough to justify the multi-billion expenditures on manned spaceflight.
Neither do they justify the claim that spaceflight is “for the sake of our own survival in the future”. I agree with this claim. But it needs to be defended. So let’s defend it!
Firstly, we must get away from the big Earth, tiny universe fallacy. Planet Earth looms large in our eyes, but in reality it is a tiny speck of dust in an effectively infinite universe of uncounted trillions of galaxies, stars and planets. If we want to make anything of ourselves we must live in the wider universe, and out there almost everywhere can only be reached by space travel. Almost all the universe’s natural resources and almost all our opportunities for growth are extraterrestrial. If our civilisation survives much longer, then almost all our descendants will be born, live and die away from Earth.
Secondly, we must recognise that the only known type of civilisation which gives the majority of its members material prosperity, an education, and economic, political and intellectual freedom is the Enlightenment model of liberal democratic market capitalist civilisation, which is based on the fundamental principles of growth and progress and the human right to freedom in the pursuit of happiness.
Thirdly, we must challenge the recent idea that the continued growth of civilisation is at an end, and that we must transition as soon as possible to a zero-growth society. That would be a recipe for disaster.
The progress of civilisation so far is real, and that progress must continue. As Gerard O’Neill emphasised in his classic The High Frontier, growth and progress cannot stop at this point, while a large fraction of the world’s population is still living in poverty, unless we wish to contemplate the massive destruction of human life in pursuit of the utopian dream of a changeless society imposed by an intolerant authoritarian elite.
Carl Sagan’s message was that we must diversify for our security aganist all kinds of threats, as Michael Huang reminded us a few years ago. This is true, but we need to go further, to engage with the issue of why growth is good, why it needs to continue and how it can do so by shifting the locus of material expansion from Earth to the inner Solar System.
Yes, of course industrial activities on Earth must be made more compatible with the pre-existing natural planetary surface environment, and this requires growth in areas such as the efficiency with which materials and energy are used. But continued growth in population and industrial infrastructure must now begin to move off Earth into space in order to preserve the fundamental character of a liberal civilisation with an open-ended future.
A strategy for open-ended progress
As I have said before, manned spaceflight needs a strategy based on this insight. Cdr Chris Hadfield argues in this interview that such a strategy is already being followed – click on the 4-minute sound recording in which he concludes: “We are leaving Earth permanently. It’s a huge historic step and we’re trying to do it right and it takes time, it takes patience and it takes tenacity, but we’re doing it.”
That’s great so far as it goes – but NASA, ESA and the others are trying to do it without growth other than technological growth, in other words, without one stage of exploration establishing the economic basis for the next.
How many space stations is it planned that will follow the ISS? How soon will the population in low Earth orbit double again from 6 to 12 people, from 12 to 24, and so on? How quickly will the whole business of getting to and from low Earth orbit, and of accommodation while there, graduate from a government monopoly to a self-sustaining economic activity? How many space agencies have any answers to these questions, other than in some vague and far-off future a century or more away, or any precise strategy for getting there from where we are now?
Perhaps it is hoping too much to expect civil servants to adopt politically sensitive points of view. Yet the immediate steps that need to be taken should be uncontroversial enough:
These steps are described in more detail in my October 2011 letter to ESA’s human spaceflight and operations boss Dr Thomas Reiter (item (3) on this page), to which I have not yet received a reply.
So, yes, it is our long-term survival as an enlightened civilisation that’s at stake, and we need more people to be saying this and explaining exactly why this is so, and what specific steps need to be taken to ensure that we do survive. And we need more people who are willing to use the term exponential growth as a target to which we should continue to strive, rather than an environmental abomination to be turned away from in shame.
Is it hoping too much to expect our man in the European astronaut corps to explain these points in more detail than he has done so far?