You can’t leave Earth until you clean up your mess


Today I got all curmudgeonly about a stupid science fiction trope: the response to an environmental catastrophe that involves abandoning the planet to colonize Mars, or Titan (!), or some other mysterious planet, as if it’s just like leaving Sweden on a boat to start a farm in Minnesota. It’s pernicious, and leads to stupid decision-making.

Comments

  1. says

    Neil de Grasse asked once: if we were able to terraform Mars, why not repair the Earth instead? Well, on Mars there are no 7 or 10 billions of people who don’t care what will happen after they die and will not be easily convinced to protect environment or to stop wars.

    We may do our best in saving the planet for us – and fail. Or we may face astronomical event that will destroy most of the life on earth that is beyond our control.

    So extraterrestial colony may be the backup copy that can allow humanity to survive (even if it means 99.9% of people will not). Or to expand to other stars.
    It all comes down to economics, how much it will cost to do it and how much useful it will be. And currently it is impossible to do and will be impossible to do for a long time and even then it will be project for generations.

    There is huge difference between “lets send all people to another planet to save them” and “lets colonize another planet to save humanity so it doesn’t help to respond to one like it was the other, especially that both are unrealistic in our lifetime.

  2. bobphillips says

    Mel Brooks movie, Spaceballs, where the heros stop the huge robotic vacuumcleaner woman from sucking all the air off the earth to take to another planet. :)

  3. Rob Bos says

    I can’t watch the video just now, but a couple minor comments:

    Technologies needed to support humans in extreme environments (Mars, Antarctica, bottom of the ocean) are useful elsewhere; hydroponic farming, medicine, materials tech. So to that extent, it’s useful to pursue if nothing else.

    There’s also strong cases to be made for establishing heavy industry in space. No problems mucking up ecosystems there.

  4. daved says

    The trouble with establishing heavy industry in space is that you have to get the results of that industry back to Earth, which is probably going to be pretty expensive.
    I can, however, imagine scenarios where sticking around on Earth might not work out. Let’s say the Deccan Traps open up for business again and start spewing out massive amounts of lava continuously for millennia. I’m not sure our civilization could survive that, except on a very small scale. An extreme case, I grant you, but here’s one time it might make sense to go somewhere else.

  5. says

    Terraforming Mars might actually be the simplest solution. If Earth is hit by a disaster that strips off the oceans & atmosphere before freezing the core and throwing it into an orbit further from the sun.

    Pretty much any other scenario leaves Earth as a garden of Eden compared to Mars. I’m all for visiting and colonizing Mars (in due time), but not to save humanity.

  6. unclefrogy says

    well going to mars or Alpha Centaur will be surviving on a very small scale compared to earth it self.
    It is beginning to look like the only thing that the earth has that is not any where else in this solar system is an active biosphere everything else appears to be common. which makes me wonder why any space aliens would want to conquer this place especially when I consider what PZ explained about the likely incompatibility of our differing biologys.
    Why is it seen in these disaster movies that the solution of the problem of survival of humanity is to move from a planet we are making increasingly inhospitable to one that is all ready inhospitable, very difficult to get to and a project that would take at the least 100’s of years if not more?
    When most of the hard work of making earth conducive to biological life has already been done and what needs to be done is clean up the mess we have been making and harmonize what we do to be compatible with the way the systems work here and now?
    hhmmm? maybe what is at play is the helpless feeling that comes from pure ignorance of the earth and it’s systems, ignorant fear. might be at the root of stupid religious activity as well. and regressive politics. hmmmm?
    uncle frogy

  7. ardipithecus says

    As the sun ages, it gets more luminous. We only have 500,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 years before the oceans boil. Of course, it will get uncomfortably hot before that. We could hasten it by building the CO2 levels up to about 30,000ppm and triggering a runaway greenhouse effect.

    There are other options besides terraforming another planet, though. Some technological advancements will be required.

  8. says

    Or, you know, instead of rocketing off Earth to the another planet when disaster threatens, you could turn the Earth into a honking great rocket itself and take it with us which is the premise of The Wandering Earth, a big-budget Chinese SF movie coming soon (screenplay by Liu Cixin who won the Hugo a couple of years back with The Three-Body Problem, BTW). I mean, if you’re going to go big budget, go big, right?

    The SF writer Bruce Sterling made a similar point some years back where he said something like, “you want me to believe you can terraform Mars? Let me see you terraform the Gobi Desert first.” He’s got a point– it’s closer, it’s got an oxygen atmosphere and normal gravity, and you don’t have to haul your gear out of our gravity well to get it there. There are plenty of parts of the planet we’re on that are marginal for human habitation, especially with population growth and climate change, that would be ideal for some kind of pilot terraforming scheme but it’s nope, let’s do a hard one first, let’s try terraforming something millions of miles away when no human being has ever been more than an overnight stay on a body a couple of hundred thousand miles away. Yeah, that makes sense.

    People who talk about this stuff are blowing so much smoke, but it seems to offend the sensibilities of a particular type of libertarian-nothing-is-outside-the-realms-of-human-ingenuity-short-of-a-little-application-of-elbow-grease-and-some-bootstrap-pulling to suggest it can’t be done, or to suggest that human beings might face real physiological challenges attempting to live anywhere other than this particular pale blue dot. SF writer Charlie Stross wrote a post on his blog some years back called “The High Frontier, redux” where he attempted to sum up what we knew of the economic and physiological issues of space exploration and whether putting monkeys in cans was the right way to go about it, and a bunch of them brigaded the comments for his farting in The Church of Heinlein… 🙄

  9. Knabb says

    Forget terraforming the Gobi desert. I’d want to see “terraforming” to the effect of lowering atmosphere concentrations of one chemical by, oh, 200 PPM or so. If we can’t do that (and we’re not doing a good job) then anything conventionally described as “terraforming” is ludicrously infeasible.

  10. davidnangle says

    All unimpeachable comments. But too many people fall into the trap of, “Why go up there when there are problems down here?”

    Using that logic, we’d never be able to solve ANY problems… because there would still be other problems that we hadn’t solved yet. So, the science of seeding the galaxy with more humans, or even just the solar system, is centuries away. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards it.

  11. jack lecou says

    It seems like you have a blind spot on this topic, and for some reason it’s a pet peeve of mine, so here goes again:

    You had me for the first 9.5 minutes.

    The whole trope is absolutely an execrable pile of Hollywood laziness. An ever growing pile, unfortunately, since the mentioned films are obviously only a very partial list of examples. And there are plenty of reasons to dislike that situation, among them the fact that the crappy plots in movies like these are probably displacing other, better SF movies that might tackle the more interesting and challenging task of portraying some sense of the genuine wonder, excitement and perils of space exploration. This is a frustration that completely ruins movies like “Interstellar” for me. (Well, that and a dozen other plot holes – like how is it that astronauts exploring a black hole have never heard of either tides or time dilation before…?..!)

    BUT. You lost me at the pivot to “real people believe this”.

    Let’s digress for a minute, and imagine someone telling you they’d like to buy an electric scooter. They mention that, among others (like, “I think it’d be fun”), one of the things somewhere in their ‘pro’ column is that having a scooter means they might be able to temporarily get around a little better if their actual car should ever happen to die.

    You could jump in at that point and mount an elaborate and no doubt very solid argument about how they are idiots because an electric scooter is really not like a car at all as far as transportation options go (it’s slow, it’s dangerous, it’s open to the weather, etc.), and how everyone should also be responsible and maintain their car properly in the first place.

    Except.

    You might notice they never actually said the scooter was like a car, or that they weren’t planning to continue to try to responsibly maintain their primary vehicle… All they said was that it does make things slightly better on that dimension, however minimally. Somehow, some straw got injected in there. Possibly they should buy a scooter after all, possibly they shouldn’t. But what you’ve said never even engaged the issue.

    Similarly, the movie trope is NOT what Hawking or Musk or (as far as I know) anyone even marginally capable of putting coherent sentences together (aside from the previously implicated movie producers) is advocating.

    They’re not saying, as the movies do, “Whelp, Earth is already dead, nothing to be done, time to move on. No problem, one planet down, one planet to go”. They are saying “if something happened on Earth, than a little smidgen of human population off planet might hedge our bets as a species […this being one reason among many to pursue extra-planetary exploration and settlement]”. In other words, let’s take care of the one planet, and ALSO work on populating another. 1+1 = 2>1, not 1-1+1=1.

    I’m not going to pretend there aren’t some weaknesses in that argument too. There certainly are*. But by misrepresenting it as more or less the same thing as the Hollywood foolishness, you miss the chance to actually engage with them.

    You appear to be taking the presence of the Hollywood version as evidence that the actual argument made by real people is just a crappy, derivative thereof, with any differences being minor unimportant. But it’s not, and they are not. There’s literally a world of difference, and the borrowing — and subsequent mangling — goes, if anything, in quite the other direction.

    Which means, as far as I can tell, that the only person letting themselves be misled by Hollywood here is you.

    It’s hard. It’s expensive. Any self sustaining settlement is far in the future. The kind of disasters, man made or otherwise, that could conceivably result in total extinction of humanity on Earth are either preventable, incredibly unlikely, would make things just as bad/worse on Mars, or maybe both. Etc., etc.

  12. mcfrank0 says

    1) Looks like someone got another haircut and some styling product.

    2) Now I want to watch “When Worlds Collide” again.

    3) There is a movie that does address the social implications of a disaster with a global effect: “Deep Impact”. The dual meaning of the title says it all.

    4) There’s another movie that deals with global disaster without running away. Unfortunately the science sucks, but I guess you can’t have it all: 2012

    5) I’ve read good things about a movie that originally didn’t interest me: Annihilation. However the premise strikes me more as fantasy more than science fiction. PZ, you may find it particularly distasteful since “evolution” is somehow involved. (Forgive me if you’ve already addressed this film.)

  13. jack lecou says

    [Oops. Last paragraph lost it’s footnote status somehow, presumably to the definitely fictional gods of oh so helpful smart text reformatting…]

  14. says

    #12: Nope. The idea that we can build a viable off-world colony and that it would somehow be life insurance for the species is hollywood crapola. If (and this is a gigantic if) we could somehow construct a lunar or Mars base, it’s going to be totally dependent on resupply from Earth — see the Antarctic science stations, for instance. The human race on Earth dies…your colony follows shortly afterwards. It’s mythology all the way down. As has already been noted, we haven’t been able to build a self-sustaining outpost in Antarctica or the Gobi desert, and those are places where we don’t have to mine for even the air we’d need to breathe.

    #13: Look up the Philosophers in Space podcast. I did two episodes with them on Annihilation.

  15. jack lecou says

    As has already been noted, we haven’t been able to build a self-sustaining outpost in Antarctica or the Gobi desert, and those are places where we don’t have to mine for even the air we’d need to breathe.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to build self sustaining outposts in either place. As an argument that building an off-planet settlement is impossible, that strikes me as a rather poor one.

    The only reason I can even readily see for doing such a thing anywhere on Earth (where you’d otherwise have ready access to relatively cheap cargo planes full of fresh fruit, letters from home, and so forth) would simply be to test the sort of technology that was being developed for ultimate use on, say, a Martian base.

    Which means this argument sort of boils down to saying that a Martian settlement is impossible, because an Antarctic settlement is impossible, which we know because nobody’s done it yet, which is because nobody has had a reason to yet, which is because nobody has developed the technology for a Martian settlement yet, and so hasn’t needed to test it somewhere on Earth first.

    The whole thing boils down to “we don’t have the technology yet to make self-sustaining base on Mars”.

    Which is true. But as an argument for not working on the problem in the first place, seems like it’s a little circular, no?

    (And of course it should go without saying that nobody — hollywood producers aside — is saying building a self-sustaining settlement would be easy. Or that it would/could happen overnight, or even in the next, say, half-millennium. Or, certainly, that it’d be wholly possible with present-day technology.

    Hell, a significant part of the argument for starting to try to take steps toward living off-planet is that some of the offshoots of the effort might be technology that would not only make building such self-sustaining bases in hostile environments off or on Earth possible, but would also not-coincidentally translate to making life even easier and more sustainable in the rather less hostile environments where most people live. Better greenhouses, say. Or automated medical technology that can be used in remote places where a doctor isn’t conveniently to hand.)

  16. says

    One of the big things that distances me from “geek” culture is that I don’t particularly like sci-fi, and this video touches on one of the reasons. In most literature, both the conflicts and solutions “represent” real world problems and solutions, but usually it’s just a literary representation. For example, nobody believes that you can literally address corruption through the struggles between superheroes and supervillains. But when it comes to sci-fi, there’s a tradition of trying to speculate what the “real” solutions to real problems would be. Which leads to lots of tropes that are neither realistically workable, nor represent any literary truth, and I just don’t know what the point is beyond eye candy.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    Aniara is not about colonizing Mars. The “ship to Mars” (more accurately “ship to Mars knocked way off course” in this case) is a device used to examine the human condition. And I don’t think it’s a “big budget” film.

  18. weylguy says

    One of my favorite sci-fi films is Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It couldn’t be improved upon, but try they did, with the disastrous 2008 bomb of the same name with Keanu Reeves, who should have known better.

    I know Myers likes Marvel super heroes, but to me it’s all a bunch of trash nowadays, with computer graphics far outstripping the plots and the writing. I laughed when I heard about (but did not see) any of the X-Men films, where mutated humans have powers like being able to create hurricanes and fire. Why, I ask, were none of the mutants given truly God-like powers to solve all of mankind’s problems? (Actually, those were probably the super villains who, if they’d been successful at destroying all of humanity, would have done the planet a favor.)

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    weylguy @20: Ah, the Golden Age. Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World, Them!. Whatever the “underlying message” (Red Menace, Fear of the Bomb, etc), they were good yarns, well told.

  20. consciousness razor says

    jack lecou, #17:

    Or that it would/could happen overnight, or even in the next, say, half-millennium. Or, certainly, that it’d be wholly possible with present-day technology.

    Hell, a significant part of the argument for starting to try to take steps toward living off-planet is that some of the offshoots of the effort might be technology that would not only make building such self-sustaining bases in hostile environments off or on Earth possible, but would also not-coincidentally translate to making life even easier and more sustainable in the rather less hostile environments where most people live. Better greenhouses, say. Or automated medical technology that can be used in remote places where a doctor isn’t conveniently to hand.)

    People already have good reasons to develop technologies like better greenhouses and such, and colonizing other planets/moons is obviously not the most compelling motivation for them. So we just don’t need Mars (or wherever) for that, which means you can’t dangle that in front of us, as if we’ll be missing out somehow if we don’t go along with that. Indeed, everything else being equal, more resources could be spent on those things if we don’t, because our resources aren’t infinite and some huge amount would not be devoted toward establishing a Martian colony.
    Plus, I’m sure most people would also prefer if it they don’t have to wait several centuries for some of this. But that is the kind of timetable you were giving yourself above. People in remote areas who need such medical treatment probably wouldn’t appreciate it that they first have to convince enough of us that colonizing Mars isn’t a totally dumb idea. They probably think there are more pressing concerns for them at the moment, such as not dying from the diseases they can’t treat.
    Also, just as you did with your scooter & car analogy, you should still be thinking of a Mars colony as providing (at best) some possible ancillary benefits in the very distant future, maybe for some people. But here, it definitely seems like you’re treating it as the primary goal, while the more down-to-Earth stuff (with much more tangible and plausible benefits) is more like an afterthought, like it’s supposed to be the icing on the cake rather than the other way around.

  21. unclefrogy says

    it is very unlikely that any time in the next 50 years we will be able to have a self sustaining colony on Mars unless we are going to build what could only be considered a gigantic biosphere in which we can grow enough food for the population of the colony
    other wise it will have to be supplied with provisions on a regular basis. even with an all year growing season supplanted with artificial light there would need to be substantial allotment of space per individual to maintain the nutrition. Forget about anything like a complete biosphere like silent running the problem of pathogen control would require lab technique. size of the agricultural operation would depend a lot on how the lower gravity effected the growth rate.
    Unless you can first figure out how to get the building supplies need locally they will have to be shipped as well along with the supplies needed by the crew that will build those martian farms. it wont be one rocket from earth with a hardy bunch of pioneers.
    nor one guy growing spuds in a covered patio with his own poo it will take much more than that and it will take a while to get the engineering right first
    subsistence farming in space will be just as difficult as it is here probably much harder

    uncle frogy

  22. jack lecou says

    @22

    I didn’t really come to have a debate about the general advisability of settling outer space. I came to point out that PZ’s argument that distantly related real-world statements about the matter can be dismissed out of hand because Hollywood willfully gets the wrong end of the stick with the whole thing is, you know, not quite sound. (And then, in the response, that “something hasn’t been done yet therefore we can’t possibly do that” isn’t a very good argument either.)

    And you’re now arguing with a literal parenthetical in the latter post.

    You might want to consider whether you’re inferring maybe a little more about my viewpoint from that carelessly dropped aside then it’s worth. Still…

    People already have good reasons to develop technologies like better greenhouses and such, and colonizing other planets/moons is obviously not the most compelling motivation for them.

    I think you might be assembling something of a strawman here. I’m not saying building a moon base is the only possible way to conduct research or produce innovation — nobody is, because that would be silly — or even that it’s the most effective way to do so.

    I’m saying you can build a moon base, and then, because any kind of ambitious, far-ranging research program of that scale will throw off innovation like mad. I.e., all sorts of peripherally or seemingly unrelated benefits. With fair odds that the dividends from those are going to be multiples of the original investment in the thing you (or someone else) wanted.

    In essence, even if you have no personal interest in moon bases, moon bases and their byproducts are still very likely to make your life better on net. With a moon base thrown in essentially for free in the bargain.

    This is really how almost any public investment in a big project works. We have slightly forgotten that, I think. Forgotten how to think big, and to think about positive externalities. Which is why we’re sitting around squabbling over what we think are the last few limited scraps, most of which are already hoarded by billionaires, even though we made the scraps in the first place, and we can make better ones…

    Greenhouses, etc. are just examples. You’re implying that we could just take these and tell the engineers to skip all the “boring” Mars stuff and go straight to building the “good” stuff instead, but you can’t. For one thing, you don’t even actually know half of what any of that stuff you might want to skip to even [i]is[/i] yet. That’s the nature of the out-of-the-blue stuff – which is often the best stuff.

    Besides, the engineers who were going to come up with that stuff might not want to skip there. Possibly you find Moon colonies boring, but they don’t. They wanted to work on space, because that’s what’s interesting and inspiring to them. If you tell them to work on something they find boring instead, you’re probably not going to get the same results, at least not from those particular people.

    And, again, it’s not an either/or. We can and should have more research in general, both pure and practical — programs where the scientists and engineers who want to build better vaccines or greenhouses or wind turbines or irrigation systems get to do that, for example. But by the same token, the engineers who want to figure out how a moon colony works should be able to do their thing too. Because we’ll all benefit.

    (It’s all positively interrelated. To the extent we can help somebody work on figuring out new antibiotics, robot doctors, better batteries, desalination membranes, or algae vats or a million other things directly, because they’re “actually useful on Earth”, well, great. Not only does the world get algae vats — with all their no doubt numerous benefits — but there are inevitably going to be spinoffs from those too. A more efficient kind of concrete or something, say, because the algae vat people had to figure the basic chemistry to solve some unrelated algae vat problem. And now not only is the algae vat problem at least partly solved for the space colony people, maybe it turns out that new concrete is adaptable as a good building material on a lunar base to boot. And now the space nerds can focus their energy on some even more esoteric spacey problems — in the course of which they come up with something else nobody’d even thought to think about that somehow makes robot doctors work better…You get the idea. And meanwhile, since the new algae vats are meeting the world’s nutritional needs better, more people are able to grow up and become space engineers or microbiological researchers or climatologists. Etc. Etc.)

    Indeed, everything else being equal, more resources could be spent on those things if we don’t, because our resources aren’t infinite and some huge amount would not be devoted toward establishing a Martian colony.

    That’s more zero-sum thinking. Resources aren’t technically infinite, but what’s available to do stuff with isn’t exactly fixed. It’s a product of how well we know how to use the stuff we do have. Infinite resources is meaningless. A pharaoh with “unlimited resources” — all the the stone, pottery, bronze, and reeds in the world — still wouldn’t have been able to build a Saturn V.

    As hinted at above, innovation, wherever it comes from, literally grows both the economic pie and the general sphere of possibilities. Something like the Apollo program — the entirety of which only cost maybe double what the F22 fighter program has (so far) — had spinoffs in everything from medicine to metallurgy to metrology, all of which arrived years or decades earlier than they otherwise might have.

    Some other program of research might have produced similar spinoffs as well, of course, but the point remains: the program didn’t actually cost anything. It was an investment that paid off, likely generating far more than was put into it. (The direct spinoffs aren’t even the end of the story. The abrupt jump in STEM interest that followed the moon landings likely powered a fair number of innovations over the next generation as well.)

    So, I don’t really think “all else equal” is the right way of thinking about this in the first place.

    But even if it was, your conceit here seems to be that the zero-sum tradeoff on offer is between space exploration and “worthy” stuff. And that’s equally misplaced. If NASA’s budget were cut to zero tomorrow, do you actually think the extra money would go to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless?

    Of course not. Five to one it’d just end up as a handful of new fighter planes, or an essentially inconsequential tax break for some billionaires. Neither of which is going to have many positive research spinoffs at all.

    If one or both of us were dictators of the world, I’d be more than happy to sit down with you and have a good humanist look at the whole general sort of budget thing. I suspect we could find a lot of pennies in the couch if we stopped spending it on so many expensive ways to blow up other human beings and/or other people’s expensive infrastructure, for example. Or stopped giving free money away to people who already have an awful lot of it. Or took a little more of it away from people who were just spending it on advertising to get other people to buy toaster pastries they either don’t need or were already going to buy anyway, or to lie to doctors about the safety of their new prescription pain medicine… And at that point, I doubt it would need to be an either/or proposition. Even if we handed over 99% of that savings to fund programs and people interested in fixing problems like climate change, healthcare, hunger and housing (all of which we should fund generously), there’d still be more than enough left over for some fairly ambitious work on a lunar base or something, or at least the pure-ish research that might eventually enable it.

    Alas, neither of us are dictator of the world. Not last I checked anyway. We have to live with the real world constraint of a frail and shortsighted elite.

    Also, just as you did with your scooter & car analogy, you should still be thinking of a Mars colony as providing (at best) some possible ancillary benefits in the very distant future, maybe for some people. But here, it definitely seems like you’re treating it as the primary goal, while the more down-to-Earth stuff (with much more tangible and plausible benefits) is more like an afterthought, like it’s supposed to be the icing on the cake rather than the other way around.

    I think you missed it. The scooter and the car analogy is to make the point that Hawking and Musk’s reason for building off-world settlements — or at least the one PZ is picking out — is only one of many. The idea is that there’s a master list of pros and cons for buying a scooter [mars base], and down there at like #782 on the ‘pros’ is “maybe it’d be sort of useful if an asteroid ever totaled my car”.

    This implies at least 781 other reasons on that list. To start with, numbers 1 through 99 are, if we’re being honest, pretty much “it’d be amazingly cool”. Which I don’t think anybody needs to apologize for.

    My biggest problem with the statements like the ones from Hawking and Musk is actually that putting the emphasis on the gloomy, marginal ones down near the bottom of the list makes it seem like the others aren’t good enough or don’t exist at all. Those first 99 should be more than enough all by themselves.

    I’ll let you have the rest of your straw back now — the scarce resources are probably better used to feed a rabbit or something — but let me just leave you with a thought.

    There are people in the world who think that, for example, digging up fossil fuels and piping their leavings straight into the atmosphere by the gigaton can’t possibly have any negative long term consequences, or at least none that are as important as that sweet petrodollar cash in their pocket. These are the destroyers. Here’s the question: do you think such people are generally more common or less common among the sort of people who think a lot about resource limitations, the fragility of closed cycle life support systems, and whose mental picture of our collective home is a literal and tiny one, framed, as it were, by the portal of the lunar command module through which it was taken?

  23. John Morales says

    jack lecou, the nub of your claim:

    In essence, even if you have no personal interest in moon bases, moon bases and their byproducts are still very likely to make your life better on net.

    Or: Blue-sky projects aren’t practical in themselves, but their byproducts and spinoffs may have some utility. Which is undeniable, but… on a cost-benefit basis, not-so-much.

    Moon bases? Maybe, even if ruinously expensive, they’re doable.
    Self-sustaining? Nope. Not without handwavium.

  24. says

    I can’t help but notice that many of the biggest advocates for colonizing Mars are also the most toxic kind of Libertarians. I think the real appeal for them is the prospect of cutting off everyone’s air to get more money.

  25. lochaber says

    I think a lot of people don’t understand quite how difficult interstellar travel would be for humans.
    (I’m not saying I understand, just that I’m aware of some very significant problems that are very hard to address…)

    this is also one of the reasons I’m so dismissive of UFOs and aliens and such.

    Our moon is practically next door, and we only managed to land people on it a few times, nearly half a century ago.

  26. chrislawson says

    davidnagle@11–

    I agree that we need to be careful not to kick the legs out of future prospects, but this is a case where the cost of terraforming Mars will be beyond the entire cumulative economy of Earth’s history so far, will take thousands of years to build up enough oxygen and water from selective meteorite bombardment and will require constant replenishment as Mars’ lower gravity means it keeps losing oxygen to space. It’s not so much “don’t solve problems up there when we’ve got problems down here.” It’s more “don’t plan to spend a huge chunk of our present and future resources on a difficult solution that requires millennia of concerted political will when we can’t even organise ourselves to reduce our petrochemical use and land clearance here on Earth.”

    I’m all for humanity working towards self-sustaining habitats on other worlds. But not as a solution for ecological collapse. Even the worst plausible eco-disaster on Earth — 100% ice cap melt, mass die-offs due to organic poisons in the environment and habitat loss, global crop failure — will still leave this planet more habitable than Mars.

  27. chrislawson says

    weylguy@20–

    The original Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the great science fiction movies. But it can definitely be improved upon. It was based on a story from 1940 “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates that had a markedly superior ending that the studio couldn’t live with.

    Story here if you’re interested.

  28. anchor says

    “Stupid Solutions to Serious Problems in Science Fiction”

    That title already contains the kernel of an oxymoron and supplies reason enough to ignore science fiction (especially the odious Hollywood variety) as a potential source of solutions to serious problems.

    What is it with the obsession of science fiction that persuades so many to consult it on questions of Serious Problems as if it was some important oracular fountain gushing up wisdoms? Science fiction tropes need attention as a source of solutions? Really? Tropes? Tropes generated by an industry to entertain while making a profit?

    I’m of a mind that coincides with #10 Knabb…but if we were really serious we’d also place population on the table as a viable parameter of ‘terraforming’ in recovering the Earth (or at least mitigating the destruction of the biosphere) and sustaining human civilization into any future worth living in.

  29. John Morales says

    anchor,

    What is it with the obsession of science fiction that persuades so many to consult it on questions of Serious Problems as if it was some important oracular fountain gushing up wisdoms? Science fiction tropes need attention as a source of solutions? Really?

    Yes. As in, this is a possible future (e.g. 1984), be aware, don’t go there — for example, cf. David Brin on The Self-Preventing Prophecy .

  30. John Morales says

    (Or, who wouldn’t want to be in the Culture? (if you were, you could opt out, it being the Culture!))

  31. anchor says

    John Morales,

    Of course. But there’s a pretty big difference between the “be aware-don’t go there’ sort in the literary form and a popular notion that seems to think it supplies ‘here is how to go about avoiding it’.

  32. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Since I work for the International World House of Rocket Exploration (IWHORE), I deal quite a bit with the “We have to get off of this rock” contingent, and I often have to throw cold water on their shiny optimism. Not only is any permanent, self-sustaining outpost at the very least far, far in the future, there are good reasons why the glowing future envisioned by the technological optimists might be impossible.
    It goes without saying that nobody has ever terraformed a planet before. There is no reason to believe it is possible. Certainly, the only reason Earth is still habitable is because the geomagnetic field prevents the solar wind from stripping its atmosphere. Generating a planetary magnetic field is probably not something that is achievable with any known technology.
    As to interstellar or even interplanetary travel, there is good reason to believe that galactic cosmic rays would kill off any interstellar astronauts well before they reached the next habitable planet. Indeed, even a trip to Mars is likely to significantly shorten the lives of the voyagers.

    And all of this is true even without the tendency of the optimists to downplay threats to our own fragile world. Freeman Dyson even denies the severity of climate change, probably because he fears addressing it would distract from his glorious future of starships and Dyson spheres.

  33. Dunc says

    davidnangle, @ #11: The issue is not so much “why work on problem X when we can’t solve problem Y?”, it’s more “why focus on this very hard and entirely speculative form of problem X when we can’t currently make any headway on this much easier and more pressing form of the same problem?”

  34. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    Yaay another sleepless night. How fortunate for you all, now you can partake of one of my rambling screeds.
    @ 4:36 into the video

    Or here’s another one from my youth Silent Running. It came out in 1972. I liked it, but even then as a naive 15 year old I could see all kinds of plot holes. In this one another environmental disaster everything is getting paved over by greedy humans. The solution? Send Earth biomes in domes to float in outer space.

    We’ll chalk this one up to the fact that you were a naive 15 yo that might not have grasped what was going on in the film and/or bad recollection given the passage of time. That was probably one of the worst movies you could have used to make your overall point.

    Your overall point being that sci-fi uses a trope that portrays abandoning the Earth as a tenable solution to disasters on Earth. Much like Musk’s Mars idea. The film Silent Running does just the opposite, it portrays that solution as an almost unmitigated failure, albeit with one infinitesimal twinkle of melancholic laden hope at the end. (In the film Lowell says “You know when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it.” Once again Lowell is throwing a bottle into an ocean. In the hopes that someday humanity will be able to find it. It’s a slim hope.)

    Broad bushing the ideological spectrum on the environment for brevity here. There are those who see their dominion over the environment as their “god given right”. Or the taming of nature as necessary, the exploitation and extraction of value from it as necessary, for a multitude of reasons. For the betterment of humanity, if we don’t our enemies will surpass us, for profit etc.

    There are others who are more moderate. Who think that we should set aside areas to be preserved. Think national parks. That way the exploitation, extraction can continue while still retaining some portion. I mean, preserving some of it is better than none, right? Lets hear it for the lesser evil.

    There are others who think that we should be living in harmony with the environment. (This too has a lot of baggage and perspectives, not the least of which is redefining our conception about our civilizations relationship with the environment we exist in, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.)

    Silent Running has portrayed the exploitation/eradication of the environment on Earth as complete, we’re supposed to be very unhappy with this outcome. But more importantly, the partial preservation of some small portion of the environment, in the form of a limited exodus, turns out to be a failure also. Thus the tertiary option, the perspective of Lowell, to try and live in harmony with the environment back on Earth in the first place, might have been the right choice after all.

    Unfortunately Silent Running is one of the few films that says the opposite of what you were asserting it does. I think so anyway. Not that the “exodus as a tenable solution to a problem” doesn’t exist in sci-fi. In fact that trope goes a lot deeper in culture than film.

  35. KG says

    We only have 500,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 years before the oceans boil… There are other options besides terraforming another planet, though. Some technological advancements will be required. – ardipithecus@8

    Yes. A sunshade is probably easier.

  36. John Morales says

    Mrdead:

    There are others who are more moderate. Who think that we should set aside areas to be preserved. Think national parks. That way the exploitation, extraction can continue while still retaining some portion. I mean, preserving some of it is better than none, right? Lets hear it for the lesser evil.

    What, build a really big dome, and air-condition it? It’s not like biomes are isolated.

    (What part of global is unclear to you?)

  37. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    #39 Your meaning is unclear, John Morales. What is it you think I’m saying there?

  38. John Morales says

    I quoted you, Mrdead. You think some biomes can be isolated from the system as a whole.

    Little islands of normality, is what you advocate.

    An admirable aspiration, but alas, not a plausible one.

  39. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    #41 John Morales

    I quoted you, Mrdead. You think some biomes can be isolated from the system as a whole.

    Sorry for the confusion, John. I thought I was clear that was the perspective of some moderates at the time Silent Running was made. I provided three broad brush perspectives about environmentalism held in that time period. Brief perspectives.

    Little islands of normality, is what you advocate.
    That was not my personal perspective. I was not of the former or moderate, I was of the latter of the three perspectives if I’m to be pigeonholed.

    More to the point, In the movie Silent Running the domes were a representation of the system of national parks which had always been a moderate position. Rather than seeking to adopt a different conception of how civilization needs to think of it’s environment, especially after industrialization, moderates sought to preserve pockets of it. From my personal perspective this was never going to work. It only set up an adversarial system wherein, those who believed the environment was there to be exploited constantly worked to wrest what they could from those who wanted to preserve some of it. Which is an advantageous situation for opposing political parties perhaps. But is ultimately putting our necks on the chopping block during a power struggle.

    A 15 year old like PZ at the time might have gotten one impression of the film. I was in my late 40’s and I definitely have a very different interpretation and recollection of that film and maybe that time period too. What he’s saying is that Silent Running is part of that sci-fi trope where “the response to an environmental catastrophe that involves abandoning the planet to colonize mars”. But if anything Silent Running was the anti-trope. It showed that leaving was the wrong choice. This is why the film is remembered as being a positive message about environmentalism, despite its somber theme. In the film they screwed up the Earth, they tried to preserve some small portion of it by cordoning it off on ships, which ultimately failed. And this was supposed to express to us that Lowell’s hippy dippy perspective of “getting back to the earth”, was ultimately vindicated.

    Also it’s not so clean cut that Lowell is a hero of any sort either. He ended up losing all but one of the domes, destroying some himself to kill his crewmates. The killing of the rest of the crew is used to further distance him from that hero status and casts him as the anti-hero of a sort. Even after he is alone in the dome with the robots, he can’t seem to keep things straight, ultimately he’s able to accomplish very little and the dome’s survival hangs on a very tenuous thread, as thin as a melancholy sentiment. A story about a hero would have saved the domes, gotten the robot and sired many little cyborgs, happily ever after. This film is veritably screaming “Abandoning the planet was not the answer!”. And as such it purported to repudiate the moderate position of cordoning off areas (national parks), or as you say “little islands” as an answer.

    So ironically when PZ asked if we know of any films that expressed ways to address solutions to environmental problems, well yeah off hand I can think of one. Silent Running. Which says that some of our assumptions about what a “pragmatic” solution is, may be wrong at a fundamental level. And you know, if you want to fix badly broken structure, it’s usually best to start at the foundation. Though what PZ might be looking for is some mild mannered, dumpster diving freegan that’s actually a superhero and fisticuffs with some cabal of industrialists is going to save our planet. (Hooo, I crack me up. Seriously though I’m just giddy tired PZ no offense intended here sir) I’m going to take a nap.

  40. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    “Little islands of normality, is what you advocate.” In my above comment should have been quoted. Honestly I too tired sorry about that.

  41. says

    I stand by what I said about Silent Running. It was a contrived, bad solution to a serious problem — no, you aren’t going to save the forests by launching a thousand square meter plot of trees into space. You could argue that Lowell was doing his very best in a noble cause, but it was an exercise in futility.

    I am always amused by people citing Elon Musk’s “plan” to build a Mars colony. I can guarantee a few things. It won’t happen. He’ll succeed in short-haul launches into earth orbit, where there’s some immediate utility and profit to be made, but the same can’t be said for a Mars trip. It’s orders of magnitude more difficult, and he has no experience and is making no effort to expand the technology needed for prolonged life support. We might, in his lifetime, make a crewed Mars landing, with a great deal of collaboration. That is not the same as a permanent base, which is also a far cry from a self-sustaining colony.

  42. Dunc says

    I stand by what I said about Silent Running. It was a contrived, bad solution to a serious problem — no, you aren’t going to save the forests by launching a thousand square meter plot of trees into space. You could argue that Lowell was doing his very best in a noble cause, but it was an exercise in futility.

    But, as Mrdead points out, that was exactly the point of the film. OK, they don’t hit you over the head with it like the Aesop at the end of a kid’s cartoon, but it’s not exactly subtle either. It’s an obvious allegory for the ultimate futility of the National Parks movement – as long as the rest of the world is being strip-mined, you can’t save the forests by setting aside a few parcels. (The fact that all of the freighters are named after National Parks is a bit of a clue.)

    Silent Running was not presenting a solution, it was illustrating the problem. If you think it really was presenting the idea of space greenhouses as a possible solution to deforestation, then you completely missed the point.

  43. logicalcat says

    The solution to our making the planet uninhabitable is not to move to a planet that is already uninhabitable. The proposed solution is astronomicaly more complex and difficult.

    We evolved on Earth. Half the work in terms of survival was already done for us. All we needed to di was not make it uninhabitable. We failed, and now people want to move to a planet that is already uninhabitable, where we did not evolve from. Where there will be a generic bottleneck. Where a wayward strain of influenza will probably kill the colony before it can even settle, and I don’t even want to imagine the psychological aspect. And many many more issues.

    If we cannot solve the problem of climate change here on Earth, then we as a species do not have the intellect, the maturity, or the willpower to handle planetary colonization.

  44. jack lecou says

    The nub of your claim […] Blue-sky projects aren’t practical in themselves, but their byproducts and spinoffs may have some utility. Which is undeniable, but… on a cost-benefit basis, not-so-much.

    Possibly not on a pre hoc basis, though that might depend on just how many factors your cost-benefit analysis considers. On an after-the-fact basis though, I think “some utility” is probably underplaying the jumps made a little…

    And I don’t necessarily think cost-benefit is the only metric, to consider. Not along traditional lines, anyway. It’s a terrible way to run a civilization. See reasons 1-99, e.g.

    Moon bases? Maybe, even if ruinously expensive, they’re doable.
    Self-sustaining? Nope. Not without handwavium.

    If “handwavium” is a shorthand for “decades, perhaps centuries of additional science and engineering, a lot of which will necessarily be performed and tested in situ” then I agree.

    If you mean you’re already certain it’s impossible, then not so much.

    Also, let’s put this together with the last and suppose I were to paraphrase the combination as:

    Blue sky projects like this produce only minor auxiliary benefits. Also, a moon base with any eye towards self sustainability has far too many problems to solve to be remotely viable anytime in the foreseeable future.

    (It’s not clear you’re staking out those particular positions that strongly, but bear with me.)

    Wouldn’t those statements be self-contradictory to a degree?

    After all, people more sanguine about the prospect might phrase the second point a little differently, but nobody really disagrees with the fact that there is an awfully long list lot of things we need to learn more about or master before even quasi-permanent settlements are really possible — settlements where healthy human births might take place, for example — nevermind economically independent and/or self-sustaining ones. (And yes, I’m fairly sure even Elon Musk has such a list, though he keeps it to himself. Be careful not to mistake optimism for actual ignorance of the challenges, it’s not really the same thing.)

    So, have you actually tried to start making a list of those things for yourself? I don’t know about you, and I’m certainly no great expert, but off the top of my head my list has things like “major advances in materials science, pathogen control, reproductive biology, radiation health, autonomous robotics, team psychology, ecological system engineering, etc., etc.”

    I can’t think of even one that doesn’t have, at least potentially, profoundly useful applications back on Earth too*. In fact, many of the Earthly applications will probably be realized and producing dividends in human well-being long before the project itself ever sees much progress toward its ostensible primary goal.

    And I think you can see where I’m going here: the harder the problem, the more things there are to solve — or at least try to solve — the more and greater the benefits** tend to be.

    -———————
    * The fundamental problem for a moonbase, after all, is “how to keep humans and other life alive and happy”. When you drop the “on the moon” part from the patent application, that’s not so far off from what our goal as a civilization should probably be in general. It’s not surprising there’s a lot of crossover.

    ** Again, yes, we could, theoretically, research all of those things separately on their own merits, but it’s not necessarily the case that we actually are. Sometimes there might not ever really be enough short-term endogenous profit in it to make them individually “worthwhile”. Not for centuries, anyway – which is probably where that time estimate comes from. Why not bundle it all together in one inspirational package and put some real effort behind them?

  45. jack lecou says

    You’re correct that nobody has tried to build self-sustaining habitats in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert. But they have tried in Arizona. The project failed twice, at a cost of over $200 million.

    I’m aware, as anyone alive and sentient in the 90s probably is, of the Biosphere project(s). And they definitely had a lot of problems, from top to bottom.

    I might stop short of calling them a failure though. That would imply nothing was learned from the attempt, and that’s not true at all.

    Apropos of nothing, I’m kind of curious what people think progress toward a viable off-planet colony would actually look like in practice.

    From some of the replies here, it seems like there’s some expectation that the way something like that happens is it just gets created. Birthed out like a big shiny egg, perfect the first time. And so, since we can’t just get an off-the-shelf “fully operational moon-base” from the local big box store yet, it’s simply unpossible and shouldn’t be attempted. The end of the road is at least [insert large number] steps away so there’s no point in even trying. Might as well stay on the couch.

    Needless to say, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you really want to find out whether it’s possible to get to the end of that road or not, you have to start putting one foot in front of the other.

  46. jack lecou says

    Silent Running was not presenting a solution, it was illustrating the problem. If you think it really was presenting the idea of space greenhouses as a possible solution to deforestation, then you completely missed the point.

    For the most part, I think the filmmakers behind most of these films are probably coming from a good place — a message that ecological collapse is scary and bad and something we really don’t want. Many of the more recent ones are clearly parallels to global warming, pollution, overexploitation, etc., and the disasters are obviously never presented as a positive development.

    A very generous viewer might even observe that the outer-space escape hatch isn’t normally presented as an ideal solution either, just as a thread of hope. Usually a terrifyingly thin and fragile one, in danger of being smashed completely to bits several times within the film itself. (Or sometimes the creators explicitly declare that picking up and moving to a new world is an extremely undesirable thing to do. Unpleasant conditions on Earth are just a plot device they think they need to motivate the characters to leave it and embark on their adventure. I’m thinking in particular of the recent Lost In Space reboot here.)

    Still, they usually just make a hash of it. The environmental catastrophe is a good cautionary tale setup, but to drive the message home it needs to be made fairly clear that the real “escape hatch” is prevention or reversal, not running away. PZ’s dead right on that much at least.

    (Not a comment one way or the other about Silent Running’s treatment in particular – I haven’t seen it.)

  47. chigau (違う) says

    We should just genetically modify humans to live in the new conditions here.
    That should be easier than colonising Mars.
    Right?

  48. consciousness razor says

    Again, yes, we could, theoretically, research all of those things separately on their own merits, but it’s not necessarily the case that we actually are.

    It’s also not necessarily the case that it will actually give us any of these new technologies you’re promising. It’s just a promise that you’re making or a hope that you’re expressing, not something we can take as given. You could also show me your wishlist for Christmas 2030, but I don’t know if many interesting conclusions could be derived from that.

    It’s also not so clear what we can correctly say about “the cause” of an invention. (So using this as a justification should raise some suspicions). I mean, for one thing, many inventions throughout history have come about, in part, because of theoretical advances (in math, philosophy or the sciences), with no practical applications in sight. None. So if you had to bet about what kind of situation will cause a future invention, it’s not too unlikely that the story will be fairly similar from the ones we already know. And more generally, the typical story is that a huge variety of entirely accidental events played a role in causing something to eventually happen. When you consider something like, there just isn’t a single cause that you can honestly identify (including the one thing that you’d like to credit for it, whatever that might be).

    Sometimes there might not ever really be enough short-term endogenous profit in it to make them individually “worthwhile”. Not for centuries, anyway – which is probably where that time estimate comes from. Why not bundle it all together in one inspirational package and put some real effort behind them?

    Hold on, what’s the inspirational package stuff about?
    (1) We could “keep humans and other life alive and happy,” as you put it. That sounds pretty inspirational. I’m inspired. I already have good reasons to try a whole of things that could accomplish that.
    (2) We could “go on a suicide mission to a cold dead rock millions of miles away.” I have to be honest, I’m feeling less inspired about this. And I don’t get how this is either more inspiring than the first thing or how it adds an extra layer of inspiration which the first thing was lacking.
    Question: could it be that helping people is the less appealing option for the wealthy nerd class, like Elon Musk for instance? Sure, that may be how some of them feel. They really want to be in a sci-fi adventure, and if they even got laser swords as part of the deal, helping people might not be one of their top priorities anymore, if it ever was. They might forget that they were inspired to do anything like that.
    Follow-up question: Is this how they should feel? No, absolutely not. (And yes, I know that only Sith deal in absolutes.)

  49. Dunc says

    You know which activity has generated more beneficial spin-off inventions and technologies than any other, and probably more than all of the rest of them put together? Warfare. Yet if you were to propose that we should have a bloody great war because it would almost certainly generate lots of really interesting and useful spin-offs, most people would think you were completely out of your mind…

  50. Gnu Atheist says

    PZ, you hit on a little peeve of mine… you mentioned the movie Apollo 13 as if it were a science fiction movie. Grrrr. I was in a DVD store a few years ago and came across Apollo 13 in the Sci Fi section. The store manager was standing close by, so I said something to him, “You know this isn’t science fiction, right? This is history. It really happened. It should be with documentary-dramas or some such, and NOT with a bunch of mostly lame fictional space stories and fantasies.” His eyes glazed over and he said something like “whatever” and I left. It bothered me more than it should have.

    Anyway, I know that you know better. I just felt the need, once again, to defend a true adventure story and a really good movie.

    By the way, if you’d like to see another really good space drama, go see Apollo 11 in IMAX.

  51. jack lecou says

    It’s also not necessarily the case that it will actually give us any of these new technologies you’re promising. It’s just a promise that you’re making or a hope that you’re expressing, not something we can take as given.

    I’m not promising anything. I think I’ve made that clear, so I’m not sure why you’re using the word.

    On the other hand, there are some general observations we can make about the results of scientific investment on the order of what would (eventually) be required. I think it’s undeniable that there are at least likely to be many “unrelated” benefits and discoveries coming from something like, very possibly to a degree that they could justify the investment (if only after the fact) all on their own.

    It’s not a promise, or a pre hoc cost benefit analysis. It’s an observation that saying “this project is pointless and all this money could be used for other things” is a very short-sighted viewpoint. One that could be used to lambast essentially any kind of research conducted for its own sake, and which would be equally shortsighted and wrong in those circumstances too.

    Regardless of how much you might value the progress embodied in the moonbase or whatever per se, it’s probably not going to be pure cost even from your perspective. And my perspective — which values the moonbase achievement in its own right — shouldn’t count for shit either.

    I mean, for one thing, many inventions throughout history have come about, in part, because of theoretical advances (in math, philosophy or the sciences), with no practical applications in sight. None. So if you had to bet about what kind of situation will cause a future invention, it’s not too unlikely that the story will be fairly similar from the ones we already know.

    First of all, I’ve never used the word “cause” — that’s your introduction. You’re correct that the process of invention is far too nuanced for that. There are always many antecedents and precedents. We didn’t leap from stone flaking to tokomaks in one intuitive overnight leap. Inventions and discoveries build on previous inventions and theoretical discoveries and refinements, which enable or hint at the way toward further ones. Parallel discovery is common for exactly this reason.

    And we should expect inventions and innovations and novel discoveries of various kinds to come out of the sort of conditions that they have in the past.

    Like a well-resourced project with a well-defined goal, but a poorly understood route to achieving it, say. One that has to follow up speculative leads and long shots nobody else would, because they only might amount to something, for example.

    (2) We could “go on a suicide mission to a cold dead rock millions of miles away.” I have to be honest, I’m feeling less inspired about this. And I don’t get how this is either more inspiring than the first thing or how it adds an extra layer of inspiration which the first thing was lacking.

    Isn’t it wonderful that not everyone is exactly like you?

    I think it’s what make humanity interesting.

  52. jack lecou says

    Yet if you were to propose that we should have a bloody great war because it would almost certainly generate lots of really interesting and useful spin-offs, most people would think you were completely out of your mind…

    It’s a good thing we have peaceful and more appealing alternatives!

  53. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Jack Lecou is essentially echoing the argument of Vannevar Bush in favor of basic, curiosity research, and it is not a bad argument. Essentially, the argument goes that if you allow smart people to do research that satisfies their curiosity, the technologies they develop along the way will prove useful even if the research results do not find immediate application. However, not all curiosity-driven research is equal. In particular, manned space exploration demonstrably produces less data than unmanned–and the spin-offs of the latter are in no way superior to the latter.

  54. jack lecou says

    However, not all curiosity-driven research is equal. In particular, manned space exploration demonstrably produces less data than unmanned–and the spin-offs of the [former] are in no way superior to the latter.

    I feel ungracious for questioning this, since you at least understand broadly where I’m coming from, but could you elaborate on this last point?

    It seems a little dubious to me on at least a couple of fronts.

    - What exactly does “less data” mean? Sheer gigabytes of Jovian magnetic field line maps? Because from where I sit, it looks like an awful lot of science has been done on Gemini, Apollo, Vostok, Salyut, Skylab, Shuttle, ISS, etc. too. Science that would have been impossible, impractical or at least far slower going without the manned component. How are you quantifying and comparing them exactly?

    - “less data” seems to be begging the question a little. I’ll concede that the volume of data from the unmanned missions to Mars is ~infinity times greater than the volume of data from the manned missions there, for example. Because there haven’t been any.

    Which sort of mission is capable of doing more science there is a more nuanced question. You could probably send enough rovers to learn just about everything there is to learn about Mars. Eventually. But you have to painstakingly design each one to conduct a specific handful of experiments. It’s an iterative process with a very long cycle time.

    On the other hand, just about all the data we have collected so far from Martian rovers, as amazing as they are, could have been collected by a single astronaut with a digital camera, a rock pick, and a couple of portable lab instruments in a week or two. And then they would have been able to perform follow up experiments…

    - How are we comparing the superiority of spinoffs? A lot of no doubt interesting ones have come from the unmanned program. I doubt nearly as many of them are going to involve, say, medical advances as the manned has though.

    One’s not necessarily better than the other, I agree. But they’re not exactly equivalent either.

    Obviously probes and satellites are unrivaled for imaging and mapping and sensing at scale, or where humans cannot go at all. Unmanned rovers are great for at least getting a handle on the basics of local conditions. Unmanned explorers should undoubtedly be the first things we’d want to send out into the universe. I’m much less convinced they should be the last.

  55. consciousness razor says

    Isn’t it wonderful that not everyone is exactly like you?

    I think it’s what make humanity interesting.

    Seriously, you’re going to attribute this to personality differences or something? The first one doesn’t seem to need an explanation, to put it simply. It would be hard to even formulate a coherent question about whether or not that’s genuinely worthwhile, to any rational and moral person who understands the meanings of those words. That’s basically just baked in to thing being described.
    The second one is nothing like that, even if you tried your hardest to make it sound much more inspirational than I did. And maybe that’s what threw you off, so I’m sorry for adding to the confusion…. But it simply doesn’t matter how you spin #2, and it doesn’t have the features that #1 does. Are we on the same page about that?
    You asked this: why not bundle them together, so that it really would be inspirational and people really would put some effort into it? The idea that is people need a kick, and this is the thing that will do the kicking.
    So then I’m trying to figure out how I could make any sense out of that. Why not….?? Well, first of all why? What makes you think in the first place that this is the sort of thing that has the potential to really drive people to accomplish X,Y,Z, while the other one just might not suffice? If anything, by reading the words and not putting much else into it at all, I would have said that you obviously have it completely backward. It’s at least a bit puzzling, no?
    If your answer is seriously going to be that different people are different, then okay, whatever floats your boat; but that hasn’t helped me understand your thought process any better than I did the first time around. I assume the reason for sharing it with us is to help us try to understand it, even if we might come to different conclusions. If it was for some other purpose, then I’m sorry for interrupting.

  56. jack lecou says

    Seriously, you’re going to attribute this to personality differences or something? The first one doesn’t seem to need an explanation, to put it simply. It would be hard to even formulate a coherent question about whether or not that’s genuinely worthwhile, to any rational and moral person who understands the meanings of those words. That’s basically just baked in to thing being described.

    I think I see the problem here: Worthwhile and inspirational are not the same thing.

    Flossing my teeth is worthwhile. I seldom find it inspirational. (My partner, OTOH, apparently genuinely enjoys it…)

    You’re right. Helping everyone live more and better lives is definitely worthwhile. Super worthwhile. The worthwhile thing, even.

    It’s not necessarily inspiring to everyone though. In practice, most people are not social workers or pure scientists or food bank volunteers. Even a lot of doctors are there going through the motions just because that’s where the money is, not because they want to help people, per se. And a lot of the rest of us would rather just putter away composing music, making film shorts, climbing mountains, or writing really satisfying computer algorithms.

    By the same token, you might not find the idea of some of your fellow human beings building something new on a previously lifeless rock very interesting, but that’s not universally true. There’s a contingent of people out there — a large one, if the general popular reaction to, e.g., the moon landing is any indication — who find the extension of humanity into space genuinely inspiring. Very. Enough that it has motivated — and could motivate — an awful lot of good work.

  57. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    PZ @ #44

    I stand by what I said about Silent Running. It was a contrived, bad solution to a serious problem —

    That was my, apparently badly made point though, the film was saying that also. It’s a bad solution. Exactly the opposite of the “lets just bugger off” sc-fi trope. That was the whole point of the film really. You’ve got it ass backward IMO.

    Also we should remember at that time environmental activism was not considered as dire a situation as it is today. There was a general Hippy vibe about getting back to mother Earth that only they took seriously. It was more a nebulous idea about changing ones consciousness than a warning that the Earth could become uninhabitable. It mostly focused on litter and polluting the waterways and whatnot. Oh Iron Eyes Cody why have we forsaken thee? lol

    Silent Running stood out in film making at that time because of that. Another movie from that time period that I recall having a environmental awareness theme is Godzilla vs Hedora. Which is a sci-fi also.

    I’ll give another example very similar to Silent Running in that way. How about Wall-E? The Earth becomes uninhabitable, so humanity takes to the stars. But can we say that movie falls into that trope? Did it portray abandoning the Earth as a solution or did it show exactly the opposite of that? Clearly one of the core principles of the film was changing our conception about how we deal with the environment as a civilization. The solution humanity chose in Wall-E, leaving on a cruise/spaceship is not shown in a good light. There was of course a lot more to that movie than the core “leaving Earth was not a good solution” message.

    Those are a few sci-fi, but you did ask for movies with environmental solutions to environmental problems in general. Erin Brockovitch comes to mind there, intersectional flick that. Environmentalism, feminism, class warfare etc. One of the main issues in the film is bringing awareness to the public about companies who find polluting the environment a cost of doing business.

    I’m racking my brain trying to dig out some others. Oh yeah there’s… Ahem *says almost a whisper. “On Deadly Ground”. Okay lets not go there.

    I’m often enlisted by the family to screen media for the kids, so here are two selections you might not be familiar with. Ferngully and Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. He was a fantastic filmmaker IMO. Granted these choices are kind of broad under your interpretation of “movies that explore actual environmental solutions”. I think they’re pertinent if you understand that bringing awareness to the public about the issue in the first place is key. And they portray the protagonists meeting the problems head on rather than fleeing into space.

  58. unclefrogy says

    there is a simple fact that seem to be missing from the general thinking about space it is that we are already in space it is all ready all around us we exist in space. It is not some place other that where we are. It is just outside of our breathable atmosphere. In many cases optimism is fed by ignorance and depends on it. It was optimism and ignorance that was a major component of the heroic era of polar exploration while the courage of the terra nova expedition is inspiring Scott and the others died because they were unprepared for the actual difficulties.
    You can think about great adventures in far away places but we are all ready in a far away place and traveling through space time on a small spec of accumulated matter
    the bullshit Hollywood adventure tropes seldom come very close to addressing that reality. half the time seem about as realistic as Mayan religion.
    uncle frogy

  59. consciousness razor says

    jack lecou:
    I don’t know what sort of claim you’re willing to make. Just to be clear, I’m talking specifically about colonizing Mars or elsewhere, not generic things like “manned missions to outer space” which are not in dispute.

    If you were not saying that we should do it, but in fact people will probably try to do it anyway, then of course I agree. But you have been trying to defend it as something we ought to do, which is something else. If you’re like others, you may think it’s not merely acceptable but that we’re morally obliged to do it, in order to protect our species.

    The thought could be “yes, this is good and here’s why, so let’s go for it.” Or it could be more like “give me a break, people don’t always do what’s good, but let’s hope we might still get something out of it, if that’s how they behave.” I don’t think you can have it both ways. You could give me either argument (preferably the one that you think is right), but there’s no way to get a grip on it if you slide back and forth between the two.

  60. says

    It’s been a while since I saw Silent Running, but from what I recall, my read of its theme would be that relying upon the military-industrial complex to preserve the environment is a bad idea. The event that kicks the plot into motion is a decision, by some corporate higher-ups that we never see and who provide no explanation, to abandon the domes and “return our ships to commercial service”. The domes were launched into space as a grand political gesture, and later, they are destroyed because American Airlines chose to cut back. And the one dome that the protagonist manages to save is in peril because, news flash, space is not actually a friendly environment for a forest.

    So, the scheme that an earlier generation of science fiction would have portrayed as noble gets 1972’ed.

  61. jack lecou says

    there is a simple fact that seem to be missing from the general thinking about space it is that we are already in space it is all ready all around us we exist in space.

    Yeesh. Maybe I’m not tuned into your wavelength here, but I’d say there’s a perfectly good reason that’s missing from the general thinking. Namely that it would constitute nothing but a particularly obtuse attempt to semantically erase a genuine difference, bordering on a deliberate attempt to miss the point completely. If someone says “I want to go out” do you tell them that, technically, since the window is open, they’re already “out”? I certainly hope not…

    It was optimism and ignorance that was a major component of the heroic era of polar exploration while the courage of the terra nova expedition is inspiring Scott and the others died because they were unprepared for the actual difficulties.

    On the other hand, expeditions like Amundsen’s proved that it was perfectly possible to anticipate and overcome the actual difficulties, with a bit of preparation and forethought. What’s your point?

  62. jack lecou says

    The thought could be “yes, this is good and here’s why, so let’s go for it.” Or it could be more like “give me a break, people don’t always do what’s good, but let’s hope we might still get something out of it, if that’s how they behave.” I don’t think you can have it both ways.

    Yes, it is good. And it is good, foremost, because (some) people want to do it.*

    At the same time, I can recognize that there are people who don’t want to do it. People who could somehow manage to characterize this grand adventure as “a suicide mission to a cold dead rock millions of miles away”.

    This is, to me, a bit like describing an adorable new kitten as a “a barely animate lump of proteins and biological goop”, but, by force of deliberate empathic effort, I can at least get my brain not to skitter immediately away from the idea that such a reaction is within the spectrum of possible human reactions.

    It is to the latter people** I say: please don’t hinder the dreamers overmuch. We can all support each other’s dreams. You may not share theirs in this case, but there is a practical appeal as well, and it is thus…

    -–
    * Not that anything people want to do would be good, but as long as it’s not intrinsically harmful to others, I think we should take a fairly broad view on that front. Part of our broader civilizational goal of making people’s lives better necessarily includes supporting them to whatever degree we can on the endeavors they’d like to embark upon.

    ** Who, I have to admit, seem to me must have a place inside that’s just as lifeless as the space rocks. But who am I to judge…

  63. unclefrogy says

    one was overly optimistic and ambitious and the other was ruthlessly pragmatic and practical.
    go ahead and do your research heroic optimism is all and well and good but reality is something else again.
    It will take much more to accomplish the task of colonizing outer space then it takes to keep a research station in Antarctica functioning.
    it is not the salvation of man to travel to far away planets it is something we may learn how to do after we have learned how to live on our first one first. not until then I fear the reality being what it is.
    uncle frogy

  64. jack lecou says

    one was overly optimistic and ambitious and the other was ruthlessly pragmatic and practical.
    go ahead and do your research heroic optimism is all and well and good but reality is something else again.

    Which again, I’m having trouble gleaning any meaning from. If we take this historical comparison literally, then I guess we can expect some ill prepared, ill fated missions that end in disaster, and some others (perhaps drawing lessons from) which are better prepared, more ruthless, and more successful. Eventually, both sorts will be consigned to cautionary footnotes in history as future generations of adventurer, move on to even bolder explorations.

    Is that about the size of it? What are we even talking about?

    it is not the salvation of man to travel to far away planets it is something we may learn how to do after we have learned how to live on our first one first.

    Not the salvation, but perhaps the future. And I see your deepity and raise you: What if we can’t properly learn to live on our own until we’ve learned to live on another?

  65. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Jack Lecou: “Because from where I sit, it looks like an awful lot of science has been done on Gemini, Apollo, Vostok, Salyut, Skylab, Shuttle, ISS, etc. too. Science that would have been impossible, impractical or at least far slower going without the manned component.”

    Really? I would say quite the opposite. Can you name one fundamental discovery made via these efforts that we would not have known via unmanned exploration or some other inquiry? Even the studies on the effects of space on human biology are somewhat marginal for lack of sample size, good controls and isolation of causes and effects. In my opinion, the best science fundamentally advances the state of our knowledge. Manned space just doesn’t do this.

  66. John Morales says

    Mrdead Inmypocket @42, I did misread you. Sorry.

    (Good response from you, though. Thanks)

  67. jack lecou says

    Really? I would say quite the opposite. Can you name one fundamental discovery made via these efforts that we would not have known via unmanned exploration or some other inquiry?

    Even the bare fact that humans can survive in space at all without going instantly insane or something qualifies as an advance in knowledge over what we knew previously. That was an actual thing people worried about before we went up and found out.

    Since then, literally thousands of experiments have been run on the ISS alone. Many of which are relatively simple: a little box of samples and equipment sent up on a supply ship, and a short procedure that can be run by an astronaut a couple times a week, say.

    For example, here’s one chosen at random. I didn’t bother reading the documentation that carefully, but my impression is that it would have taken a lot more effort to automate that and package it into a cubesat or something. Possible? Yes. But a lot more effort, risk, and expense. And that’s just a fairly simple physical science observation. Successfully tending to, for example, live animals of various kinds would be an order of magnitude more effort. Humans are obviously useful there for roughly the same reason PZ wouldn’t find it quite as convenient or productive to tend his spiders via tele-operated robots. That’s before you get down to all the student experiments, or educational demonstrations, etc. Can a robot do this?

    I don’t know if any of that qualifies as a “fundamental discovery” or not, but it’s certainly science. As are the many important observations of human biology that you want to try to exclude from consideration.*

    I know I questioned how you’re quantifying “amount of science”, so maybe I asked for it, but it seems like the distinction you’re making is pretty arbitrary. I can’t help but feel that the goal posts are being moved. Sort of a “heads I win, tails you lose” thing. What exactly is it about mapping the magnetic fields of Jupiter, say — or whatever it is you’d consider “real” science — that makes it superior to studying calcification in quail embryos? Is the former is “pure science” that doesn’t need to justify itself in practical terms, while the latter, and trying to learn how to live as human beings in space, isn’t somehow?

    -—-
    * With kind of a weird twist of logic, I might add. The limited sample size is a fair criticism — though that’s not by any means a concession that no useful results can be obtained from what we have. Normally the response to that sort of problem would be to increase the sample size. And yet here, it’s being used as an argument against doing so?

  68. unclefrogy says

    the biggest thing I can see that has any baring on living on this planet maybe the most important thing for our survival is that picture Sagan called the pale blue dot.
    it is the realization that of all we can see life as we know it can only exist here. On this pale blue dot this is our “rock” which is traveling through space/time along with our star, the sun. We are so small and live such a short time that we do not see much of the flight for the distances are so very vast that they are measured in light years. We are on a journey none the less.
    Space science may be more glamorous and exploring more heroic than dirt farming but without dirt farming most of us would be dead or never been born We rest upon this dirt we grow our food in there is no way to get away from that. That dirt and the water that moves about the earth makes it all possible.
    it is us and we are it.
    any ships we make that will take us very far safely will have to be very big so big as to be a self contained environment capable of supporting us indefinitely and supplying all the air, water, food, gravity and shielding from all kinds of deadly radiation all of which we need to remain healthy. All of which this planet already supplies. we have trouble from time to time just keeping our air planes in the air.
    uncle frogy

  69. unclefrogy says

    If someone says “I want to go out” do you tell them that, technically, since the window is open, they’re already “out”?

    its
    it’s more like we are traveling down the road and one of the passengers wants to go out and stand on the hood. OK if you want to but be f’n careful and wear so safety gear and tie this line so we can pull you back in easier
    uncle frogy

  70. jack lecou says

    its
    it’s more like we are traveling down the road and one of the passengers wants to go out and stand on the hood. OK if you want to but be f’n careful and wear so safety gear and tie this line so we can pull you back in easier
    uncle frogy

    I mean, this is an analogy stretched way past its breaking point already, but isn’t it more like you’re travelling down the road in a bus with about 7 billion passengers, and a small handful want to try to build ANOTHER vehicle (some kind of improvised electric scooter, say) and then sort of peel off to the side like Doc Brown at the end of BttF3?

    I think it’s ok to tell them to “be careful” if you feel like it, but be assured that advice is almost certainly going to be filed straight into the “no duh” category. And you’re not actually their mom. At the end of the day, it’s their lives, and there’ll still be ~7 billion people left on the bus either way.

    I feel like maybe you’re under the impression that if only there had been somebody to tell Captain Scott and his expedition to “be f’n careful” — or to just stay home — that things would have worked out better. But that’s obviously just not true. For one thing, I’m quite sure there were plenty of people telling them exactly that. They were brave, and prepared as well as they thought they needed to.

    What might have been more more useful was somebody saying “make preparations more like this Amundsen guy”. But of course nobody could do that. (Of course, people would have been telling Amundsen to “stay home” or “be careful” too – even though he needed the advice a lot less. A priori, both looked well-enough equipped. It’d be difficult for an outsider to know which one was truly prepared.)

    And at the end of the day, it wasn’t the end of the world. A tragic footnote in the history of exploration, a cautionary tale warning future explorers to be a little more certain of their preparations, but nothing more. The polar regions were still explored in the end. Practically routinely at this point.

  71. unclefrogy says

    yes the poles were explored and a permanent presence established all are heavily supported from the outside which turned out to be the key to success.
    the same goes for space exploration as it stands now and will stay for the foreseeable future it all has to be completely supported from earth. Nothing wrong with that at all. It is actually very cool and well will learn much again very cool I am very enthusiastic about space exploration but lets have no illusions. If we do not learn how to live on the mother-ship we will all die as it is now. The answer to that is here standing on this dirt without a full functioning mother-ship all the excursions out off it will mean nothing. The work to do that will be done here what we learn will make long term space colonization possible not the other way around.
    uncle frogy

  72. jack lecou says

    The work to do that will be done here what we learn will make long term space colonization possible not the other way around.

    Well, I guess that’s technically true. Like, I’d certainly agree, for instance, that approximately 99.999999% of the person-hours that have been or will ever be put in to figuring out how to live in space are going to be worked on Earth (in, e.g., space agency labs, or at universities).

    But that’s an almost tautological observation. So I’m not really sure what point you’d be making.

    And in other ways it’s an obviously false statement. There is simply no way you can figure out everything you’d need to know just from work in a lab on Earth. That would mean sending a spaceship full of essentially untested systems and equipment, unknown biology, and who knows what other unknowns out into the yonder and expecting everything to work out perfectly the first time.

    Nope.

    To make a permanent, self-sufficient, sustainable settlement you’ll first have to first test things out and learn how to do things in a less permanent, less self-sufficient one. And that one will grow out of an even less permanent, less self sufficient one. Etc. That hypothetical permanent, self-sustaining settlement doesn’t just land like a big egg. It’s built piece by piece. There’s a lot of the figuring out — a lot of the work — that will need to be done in-situ first.

    In situ meaning in space.

    Things like food production, recycling systems, mining equipment and whatever else can, mostly, be developed on Earth, but they’re going to need to be tested before they’re relied upon. Then there’s human reproduction. A sustainable colony needs babies. By definition. But there’s just no way we’re going to figure out how or if that’s possible to do safely on, say, the Moon, without a lot of incremental observations and experimentation first. And that needs to be done in the relevant conditions: lunar gravity, lunar radiation, exposure to lunar dust, etc. I’m all ears to hear how you’re planning to replicate that on Earth…

  73. unclefrogy says

    the subject of the post is

    You can’t leave Earth until you clean up your mess

    unless we solve the problems with sustainability here and clean up the f’n mess we have made nothing else will mater.
    that is the point not that space exploration is good or bad but as the earth slides toward being inhospitable to our advanced civilization we will not be able to support space exploration. As it is today space exploration depends on the stability and prosperity of the countries involved for everything. without it no space exploration can happen.
    can we do both at the same time? perhaps, we will see
    uncle frogy

  74. jack lecou says

    the subject of the post is “You can’t leave Earth until you clean up your mess”

    Yep. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but that sounded to me like wordplay on a Jordon Petersonism. Both the cleaning your room part and the resemblance to his pretension that nobody is allowed to advocate for social change unless they’re perfect or omniscient or whatever (unless they’re Jordan Peterson, natch).

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it makes any more sense than a genuine Petersonism.

    To start with, a “cleaned up mess”, as it were, is incredibly ill-defined. Everyone has their own version, and they usually haven’t really thought even that one through.

    I’m assuming you’re primarily referencing global warming here, so, optimistically assuming that we as a species finally tackled that problem tomorrow and eventually solved it, what exactly is your endpoint? Would we have to wait a few centuries or millennia for CO2 levels and climate to fully stabilize, for example, or would it be sufficient to wait just a couple months until we could confirm that a suitable schedule of GHG emissions targets was going to start being met? I have questions.

    Obviously other people take the “clean your room” analogy all the way and argue that we shouldn’t spend a dime on space research until every other possible problem is solved first. Environmental degradation, yes, and also, war, hunger, social strife, and maybe socks going missing in the dryer. That end state is even less well-defined. What qualifies as “social strife”? Does war or hunger have to be impossible, or could it just be the case that it hasn’t happened in a while? How would we know they’re impossible? How long is a while exactly?

    Variations of this theme have also been an objection since the earliest days of space travel, a few decades before global warming was even on the radar. “Why are we spending money on space when [problem X] still exists?” Usually, the question asker is ignorant of both the actual cost of space exploration relative to national budgets, and also the various diffuse benefits that the space program was and is producing.

    If those people had gotten their way, we would not now have many of the most useful tools that can help us SOLVE our problems, like the satellites we use to observe deforestation, ice shelf masses, CO2 emissions, or changes in hurricane formation. Nor we would we have any of the images of the little blue dot that puts the importance of taking care of it in perspective.

    And I’m pretty sure there’s more understanding and useful tools still to be found up there. It’s an obvious observation, of course, but the problems of living sustainably in a little dome isn’t all that different from the problems of living on a really big sphere. There’s a lot of overlap.

    Then there’s the question of organization. It seems like an awful lot of our problems here on Earth aren’t actually environmental problems, or scientific problems, or engineering problems, they’re coordination problems. How do we get along with each other? How do we make responsible decisions together?

    Those are also problems people living in a dome are going to have to solve. What if that’s exactly the limited environment that lets us actually find a solution? An example the rest of us down here can use?

    You said before that we can’t live off planet until we learn to live on it. And I asked you “What if we can’t properly learn to live on our own until we’ve learned to live on another?”. Now, I was obviously half-poking fun at your reasoning and evidence free assertion in the other direction, but I was also half serious: what if is ultimately important to live on another planet before we can really learn to live with ourselves here?

    as the earth slides toward being inhospitable to our advanced civilization we will not be able to support space exploration.

    Well, obviously if things blow up or collapse and leave us back in the stone age — or worse — there’s not going to be any rocket launches for awhile. But until then, maybe we should keep trying. I don’t think it’s a question of “can we do both”. I think we will. And I think it might help.

  75. unclefrogy says

    the CO2 levels we can measure are not the problem it is the climate change that is the result of the increase in the energy holding ability of the atmosphere and how much of that is already baked in so projections are good by to southern Florida lots of other things are likely the cost of which is not going to be cheap. Global climate change is but one aspect of the mess we have been making these last few hundred years.
    none of it is conducive to the stability and prosperity that space exploration needs let alone the more ambitious ideas of outposts on the moon and mars or asteroid mining.
    That is going to take a lot of money over a sustained period to accomplish any but the most modest projects.
    All of the troubles could spell trouble for the economy which is the most precarious part of all.It will take more money than Elon has to accomplish what he proposed other then a quick hit and run or stay and die.
    I know that the reaction is to those who say “Why are we spending money on space when [problem X] still exists?” .
    that is not where I am coming from I want us to do space exploration but not like some dudes hanging on El Capitan More like Admiral Byrd flying over the south pole with plenty of support
    The reality is if we do not solve our problems on the mother ship we will do nothing
    uncle frogy

  76. jack lecou says

    the CO2 levels we can measure are not the problem it is the climate change that is the result of the increase in the energy holding ability of the atmosphere

    Of course. But it’s hard to solve any problem without good measurements. Satellite observations — since luckily we have them available — are an important source of those. CO2 observations from that vantage point let you do things like validate other types of measurement, spot unexpected emission sources, detect cheating on international agreements, map regional and seasonal variations that need to be accounted for to make more accurate models, etc.

    That is going to take a lot of money over a sustained period to accomplish any but the most modest projects.

    First of all, this is just the zero-sum fallacy thing again. Some of these steps are already being taken, and so far the result isn’t bankruptcy. Like building better, more reusable, rockets and reducing launch costs. That’s saving money, while simultaneously opening up new possibilities (like the multiple plans for fast, low-orbit communication satellites). It’s paying for itself. And down the road, who knows? Space-based solar energy might get interesting, if launch costs were to drop enough, or a clever enough system designed. That would be a pretty big deal, especially at scale.

    Second, you need to put some numbers on your “a lot of money”. From the way you’re saying it, it sort of sounds like you think this would take some kind of a total effort or something. The whole world mobilized, with entire national budgets disappearing up the drain, as it were.

    Consider that NASA budgets during the Apollo program* peaked at 4.4% of total federal spending, and that level was only sustained for a couple of years around `65. That comes to less than 0.7% of GDP. Peak.The average over the whole program was a fair amount lower.

    Now, I guess you might consider half a percent or so of GDP for a few years to be “a lot of money”, or consider the Apollo program to be a “most modest project”, but you should clarify.

    And of course, the US is a lot richer these days (overall anyway – the gains haven’t been well-distributed), so we would theoretically feel even less pinch from similar (or greater) amounts in absolute terms. Nor should the US be the only one contributing to such a program. I’m just not sure the financial situation really looks as dire as you’re making it out to be.

    I would also keep in mind that a “sustainable” settlement would by definition need to use entirely local resources. That means that developments toward such a thing need to start at least partially using local resources, each step of which could substantially reduce launch and support costs. A semi-permanent moon base, for example, would presumably be built with a relatively small proportion of Earth-launched mass. Inflatable modules buried in local dirt, say. With local resources extracted to meet a portion of demand for, e.g., oxygen and water. Further down the road, a relatively cheap asteroid capture mission could bring supplies of harder to access stuff (nitrogen, say) within easier reach. Such bases would obviously be far from independent, but still much less dependent, and so progressively cheaper to operate for an equivalent level of activity.

    I’m not saying that’s all cheap, but it needn’t be ruinously expensive either. Aside from the actual stuff launched, most of the money is being spent on Earth anyway, employing scientists, engineers, construction workers, etc., and going back into the economy one way or another.

    -—
    * And that’s the whole NASA budget – which was not entirely Apollo. The fraction that was actually Apollo related was never higher than about 70% of that. Often lower.

  77. unclefrogy says

    I agree with much of what you say, low earth obit monitoring via satellites. Moon bases will take a substantial commitment in resources which do not seem very easy to attain though when the Chinese establish one the funds might be more easily obtained that depend on if they are not needed to mitigate some of the negative effects of climate change which does seem to be unavoidable at this stage
    uncle frogy

  78. John Morales says

    jack lecou,

    Such [moon?] bases would obviously be far from independent, but still much less dependent […]

    Much less dependent that than what, exactly?

    (Will their staff be on a diet of 250 calories per day? I mean, it’s far from sufficient, but still much less sufficient than a diet of 0 calories per day.)

    A semi-permanent moon base, for example, would presumably be built with a relatively small proportion of Earth-launched mass.

    Well, anything whatsoever can be presumed. And “a relatively small proportion” is a very weaselly quantification.

    (Armwavium!)

    I’m not saying that’s all cheap, but it needn’t be ruinously expensive either. Aside from the actual stuff launched, most of the money is being spent on Earth anyway, employing scientists, engineers, construction workers, etc., and going back into the economy one way or another.

    Ahem. Perhaps part of cost-benefit analysis should include the opportunity costs.

  79. John Morales says

    [Erratum:
    →(Will their staff be on a diet of 250 calories per day? I mean, it’s far from sufficient, but still much less insufficient than a diet of 0 calories per day.)]

  80. jack lecou says

    Much less dependent that than what, exactly?

    (Will their staff be on a diet of 250 calories per day? I mean, it’s far from sufficient, but still much less insufficient than a diet of 0 calories per day.)

    Are you being deliberately obtuse?

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