Space Architecture

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Social Anxiety, and the Potential of Space Development

The Space Review has an article titled "The Limits to Growth and the Return to the Heavens", by Nader Elhefnawy, dated 2 January 2007. He mentions that as energy prices increase, interest in off-world energy sources increases as well. It was during the 1970s that NASA pursued the solar power satellite concept.

The 1970s was a period of intense concern about natural resource shortages. It is associated strongly in the popular memory with the dire predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, the 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks, and dystopian films like Z.P.G., Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

One response to those concerns was increased interest in mining the oceans—and the skies. G. Harry Stine’s book The Third Industrial Revolution argued that the next great business opportunity was out in the heavens, as miners tapped the asteroids for their metals and manufacturing moved into orbit. After all, the Earth’s solar system is abundant in solar energy and raw materials, and an orbital environment has many advantages. Pollution is not a concern, and many industrial processes not feasible in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity become viable. Of course, getting all the plant and workers into orbit would be a challenge, but the idea was that space launch costs were set for a rapid drop, to well below $1,000 a pound. (Stine predicted that by 1990 they might be in the range of $150 a pound, if you adjust his figures for inflation.)


Concerns about natural resources and hopes for colonizing space did not vanish by any means, but they were given rather less mainstream attention. Indeed, it became fashionable to scoff at those concerns and hopes, but now the pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction, in large part because commodity prices are rising again. Oil prices shot back up to nearly $80 last summer, but this is only the most visible and extreme example. Prices for the very same metals on which Ehrlich lost his bet are rising almost as dramatically. To give but one example, the price of high-grade copper rose from 70 cents in 2002 to over $3 a pound this year. There is, in short, ample reason to think not that the gloomier predictions of the 1970s were fundamentally wrongheaded, but that the 1980s and 1990s represented just a temporary reprieve, a position Thomas Homer-Dixon took in his recent op-ed “The
End of Ingenuity”

As a result the “limits to growth” argument is enjoying renewed popularity, and to a lesser extent, so is the interest in overcoming those limits by going into space. Both the Chinese space agency and a private Russian firm have raised the possibility of mining the moon for helium-3, a potential fuel for fusion reactors. While not explicitly linked to such objectives, the United States and Japan also have plans to establish lunar bases by the 2020s. Along with the planned expansion of civilian and military space programs around the world in general, this suggests a heightening of interest in lowering the cost of space access (an objective long espoused in US National Space Policy documents). Even without deliberate efforts in that direction developments in materials science, particularly the prospect of low-cost carbon nanotubes, may make much lighter spacecraft feasible or, perhaps, even a space elevator. At the same time robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence seem to promise automated, miniaturized operations, reducing the launch burden further still.


It is an interesting, though logical, idea that as the future looks dim for earth-based energy, metals, food, etc, that space industrialization, commercialization, etc, starts being seen as a possibility.


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