Why we should not go to space

This may seem like heresy for an engineer, and for someone who grew up surrounded by the space program in general, but this thought needs to be raised – perhaps mankind shouldn’t go into space, at least not for a long time.   Our current predicaments in energy, environment, and fiances are the result of some very human foibles, and we certainly haven’t come up with good ways to handle them.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t *explore* space (with robots); it is just that there are a series of reasons why using immense amount of resources to get into space may not be too profitable in the near (or far term), given the way humanity deals with problems.

Here are a few points to consider:

1) It is expensive, and the future benefits from human spaceflight may be negligible, given the vast amount of sums and resources that are put into it.  Yes, we do get spinoffs, but that could have been gotten in other endeavors as well.  The pornography and gambling industries have been a driver of many technologies  (VCRs, online games. robotics); should we support them to improve all sorts of needed technologies?

2) Mankind will be exporting the same-old-same-old worldviews.  Unless only perfect (or near perfect humans) are allowed to emigrate to space, the worldviews of the old world will continue.   Is this a good idea?

3) As a corollary to item 2, when people get their hands on ’empowering’ technologies such as airplanes, they can do some pretty nasty things.  Likewise, technologies that would allow cheap spaceflight would also allow some pretty spectacular disasters.  Altering the orbits of asteroids for mining purposes could be done for immense profits, but also could be done to create amazingly destructive weapons of mass destruction.     Even robotic missions to mine the asteroids could be co-opted for nefarious purposes.   These issues aren’t due to the fact that we can’t make things perfectly; imperfection is inherent in all human endeavors.  It is just that the magnitude of failures can have far greater impacts.   Thinking about the kinetic energy in an asteroid 100 m wide moving at kilometer-per-second velocities is beyond most people.  It isn’t like having a plane go into a building; an asteroid impact can put enough dust in the atmosphere comparable to that of a small or medium sized nuclear exchange.

4) The idea of colonizing Mars or other places as a ‘backup’ Earth is a pipe dream.    Terraforming Mars (probably the most viable candidate for terraforming) would take centuries, if not longer, and a minimum viable population for breeding would require far too many resources.  Could we put a research station on Mars?  Perhaps.  Could we put a self-sustaining colony there, in the next twenty years, before our energy and resource situation gets dire?  My guess is not, and the burden is on the proponents of the plan to show that a self-sustaining colony could be created.   The Mars Direct plan may be great for exploration, but for a self supporting colony?

5) Space is really, really, inhospitable, as this Do The Math article sums up nicely.  Some of the commentary there echoes some of these arguments.   The science fiction worlds we’ve been shown and accustomed to, unfortunately, have almost no bearing in reality, and so the concept of going to and settling space has been warped for a very long time.   Just like the premise of interstellar flight, the problems of space travel and colonization are magnitudes different than any other endeavor.

6) A detour into space will use up precious resources, both physical and societal, that will detract from the serious problems here on Earth.   Ignoring those problems, thinking that we’ll go to space to “build better worlds” won’t get us a better place to live for even at tiny fraction of our population.   We do need to concentrate on fixing this world, or in the least (depending on your view of NTHE) getting a handle on the mess we’ve made here.

The Corvins might do something interesting one day, but then again, they might not.

Any more reasons why we shouldn’t go?


7 thoughts on “Why we should not go to space

  1. hopdavid

    1) We are only spending a tiny fraction of our budget on space exploration and an even tinier fraction on manned space flight.
    3) is pretty silly. We already have weapons capable of destroying cities. They’re called atomic bombs. Even if we had cheap spaceflight, the cost of sending a 100 meter asteroid earthward would be orders of magnitude higher than an atomic bomb. Atomic bombs are a little easier to aim, we’d be lucky to hit the right continent with a kinetic impactor. And we could see an asteroid coming from a long ways off.
    5) Murphy’s arguments against space are taken seriously by those who won’t or can’t do the math. His incompetence at patching conics would embarrass a freshman aerospace student: http://hopsblog-hop.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-most-common-delta-v-error.html .
    In his Stranded Resources Post Murphy imagines we’d be lucky to find an asteroid that could be retrieved with less than 5 km/s. He obviously knows next to nothing about near earth asteroids. I could go on. In short he deserves his science class for liberal arts majors. The man is nearly as clueless as the students he polls.

    1. peakfuture Post author

      This is outside my scope, but perhaps this question has be answered – of those earth-crossing asteroids (or any), what would it take in delta-V, at the right point in time, to actually impact it on earth?

      Thanks for bringing up the patched conics bit – that definitely was an eye opener.
      One of my next posts *will* be on ‘What if we are wrong?’, to be sure. If there is a way out of our current situation with resources in space/spaceflight, it will have to ramp up pretty damn quickly.

      Thanks for posting.

      1. hopdavid

        Zero delta V for some earth crossers. See Tunguska and Chelyabinsk.

        Of interest is the Keck Report: http://www.kiss.caltech.edu/study/asteroid/asteroid_final_report.pdf The plan is to look for asteroids with earth like orbits, there are plenty of these. With a tiny nudge, they can pass through earth’s neighborhood at the right time and place and lunar gravity swing by can do most of the work for capturing the rock to earth orbit. To park a rock like 2008 HU4 in lunar orbit takes .17 km/s.

        The Keck is looking at rocks 5 to 10 meters in diameter. A rock this size would burn up harmlessly in the upper atmosphere should it be sent earthward. The Keck report talks about safety bottom of page 15.

        A Chelyabinsk or Tunguska sized rock is quite a lot larger. But while parking such a rock in lunar orbit isn’t near term doable, it would take a lot less delta V to turn a near miss to an impact. As mentioned, it would be hard to aim, though. The asteroid retrieval vehicle is a very expensive piece of hardware. As I said, if Planetary Resources or some mega corporation wanted to wipe out a city, they could do it much more easily with nuclear weapons.

        And this can be turned around. It takes very little delta V to change an impact into a near miss. A vehicle capable of parking a 5 meter rock in lunar orbit might well have the ability to deflect a Tunguska or Chelyabinsk.

      2. hopdavid

        I want to make it clear that I don’t regard space resources as a solution to peak oil or over population. The average space enthusiast is actually more aware of our finite resources than the average person. I drive small cars, have two kids and zero grandkids. I’ve insulated our business, etc. Look at some of Musk’s efforts other than SpaceX: solar energy and electric cars.

        Where I disagree with Murphy et al is the futility of trying to use space resources. Murphy is concerned the possibility lulls us into a false sense of complacency. And so he starts with a pre-conceived conclusion and sets out to build his case. This alone earns him an F. Predictably much of his math is wrong and many of his arguments are silly straw men.

  2. peakfuture Post author

    Well, the point about deflecting an asteroid is probably one of the hugest things in the PLUS column (how was that missed?!!!), but it is, as we can see, a very sharp double-edged sword. As you noted – if you can deflect a Tunguska sized body *away* from the Earth, you can deflect it *towards* the Earth too! Hmmm. Perhaps then, because of the very real existential threat *of* asteroids and the like, we will need to go into space in a limited fashion, if only due to the probability of an asteroid impact multiplied by the number of people affected. That sort of power is something to be very well monitored. But the ‘get people offworld for sufficient backup’ or for space resources to solve Peak Oil – yeah, not likely.

    Murphy has done some good work, so my inclination is not throw the baby out with the bathwater; an ‘F’ is a bit harsh in my book, but your viewpoint is understandable. We all have our ‘hot button’ issues! One goal in writing about this stuff here is to get things out in the open, and hopefully bring about more rational discussion on these matters – hence the ‘more questions than answers’ tagline. There are some pretty sharp folks in the Peak Oil/Peak Everything world, but calm back-and-forth isn’t always a hallmark of the discussion. As soon as hyperbole appears, my fear of Godwin’s Law starts to increase exponentially (or was that comment a bit hyperbolic?).

    Again, thanks for blogging and calculating!

  3. Pingback: Why we fight, er, write | peakfuture

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