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Space Science Technology

Space Is (Not) the Place, Says Professor 376

Posted by Soulskill
from the maybe-not-yet dept.
snoop.daub writes "A while back, we discussed UCSD professor Tom Murphy's post about the limits on growth in energy use and economies. Partly in reaction to Slashdot's response (and my own writeup!), he's back with a new post arguing that space is not a solution to enable continued growth. There's a lot of good stuff in here about public misconceptions regarding the difficulty of space travel and the like; again definitely worth the read."
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Space Is (Not) the Place, Says Professor

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @07:51PM (#37756690)

    The private sector couldn't have done any of the Apollo missions or any other space flight capabilities at the time. No one company had the resources or the motive or develop any sort of space flight, let alone manned space flight.

    We are now entering the age of private launch services as a result of cheaper technology and newer technology and the fact that the private sector has figured out how to make money on manned space flight.

    In the beginning, Government was the only entity that had the ability and direction to create manned space flight: without Government there wouldn't have been any Moon missions or Space race. I think if Government was never involved, the private sector would be just beginning to get folks into the space now in 2011 or whenever Burt Rutan and gang gets folks in space - high atmosphere doesn't count as manned space flight.

  • by Moryath (553296) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @07:56PM (#37756722)

    Oddly enough, the Earth seems to have no problem dealing with recycling waste. All it needs is a goodly variety of fish, insects, bivalves, and other organisms (both micro and macro) to handle the responsibility.

    The problem with Biodome experiments, and any living environment we construct artificially, is that we necessarily screw up and fail to include enough organisms to occupy all niches in the amount needed. The molds that popped up in MIR and the ISS happened because that was the precise sort of environment in which those molds happened to thrive, while other organisms that normally would keep them in balance by competing for resources weren't brought up.

    tl;dr version - Fish peed in your drinking water. Get over it and bring along a fucking aquarium rather than trying to do everything with "space age technology." Resources would be better spent on developing and refining either artificial gravity or controlled spin gravity substitutes.

  • by perpenso (1613749) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:01PM (#37756770)

    If the ship sinks, and you have a life raft, you stand some chance of rescue. The ocean is vast, but it’s a two-dimensional vastness teeming with human activity

    Since we are currently at the dawn of space travel and looking 500 years ahead, lets look 500 years into the past with respect to seafaring and their exploration and colonization of their new world. Seafarers of that day did not stand a chance if their vessel sunk, they did not have the survival equipment we have today, they did not have all the other traffic and human activity in the "area". Hell, if one of Columbus' ships had sunk at night the crew would probably have been doomed desperate sailing with two other ships.

    500 years ago people could be found to make the voyage to the Americas despite the misery and risks of the voyage. Today there would probably no shortage of informed people to go on a physically and emotionally miserable, and a very risky, voyage to the moon or mars. Now consider 500 years from now. While the physics of a voyage to mars may be the same the technology available to address comfort and risk will be vastly improved. Even with relatively spartan amenities for exploration and colonization that will be no shortage of informed volunteers. A spartan existence certainly did not prevent colonization of and movement into the frontier of the americas.

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:03PM (#37756794)

    Until you come up with essentially unlimited, cheap energy, space is not going to be the place for the huddled masses yearning to be free.

    Look up.

    See that bright thing in the sky?

    It's called 'The Sun'.

    Once you're away from Earth, there's a fsckload of cheap energy just blasting out into space; not enough to support exponential growth forever, but enough to support vastly more people than currently exist. The hard part is getting off of Earth in the first place.

  • by jamstar7 (694492) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:08PM (#37756842)

    Habitats fabricated in free space can provide thousands of times more habitable surface area than Earth.

    Sure they can. At some impressive energy cost (remember the gravity well, it sucks pretty hard). It would be much easier to make floating / submerged habitats than ones in outer space.

    Until you come up with essentially unlimited, cheap energy, space is not going to be the place for the huddled masses yearning to be free.

    Only if you demand every gram of every habitat come from the Earth. There are plenty of materials just laying around on the surface of the Moon. Smelting them via mirrors during the long Lunar day should be easy, as well as building an escape velocity catapult to launch the materials into space.

    Downside of course is if it's done by NASA, they won't let a gram of material off the face of the Moon, and no government in their right mind would allow a catapult on the Moon that has the potential to drop bigassed rocks & metal chunks weighing over 100 tons on Earth.

  • by chrb (1083577) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:17PM (#37756920)

    The rest of the quote was hilarious though

    20% thought we had been farther than the Moon. Some were indignant on learning the truth: “What do we use the space shuttle for, if not to go to the Moon?!” I can only guess that some students imagined the International Space Station as a remote outpost, certainly beyond the Moon, and likely strategically located next to a wormhole.

    20% of physics students, at this university level, thought that humanity had traveled beyond the Moon? And some thought that we routinely use the shuttle to travel to the moon...

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:23PM (#37756970) Homepage Journal

    Yes, anything the government does is "communist". If you're a Republican, and stupid - er, redundant.

    And NASA's existence prohibited private companies from going into space, which is why only governments ever succeeded in doing it. Right? Because one of them was a Communist government. Though, despite what you say, the US space programme was more successful. And despite the fact that private interests have succeeded only through the vast and long public subsidy of space development.

    Now NASA is "communist". You Republicans, er, "libertarians", are stupid.

  • water suits (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nten (709128) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:46PM (#37757146)

    I like the analogy of fish moving to land. They didn't build water domes, they didn't wear water suits, and they most certainly didn't modify the land to be more like the sea. The fish themselves changed. I am not proposing we wait for random mutations to make us capable of living in hard vacuum off of nothing but radiation and interstellar gas. I am proposing that we divorce our idea of what defines us as humanity from the animal homo sapiens sapiens, and work on ways to modify ourselves to be more adapted to our environment(s). Hairless apes are never going to thrive in space, but humanity might.

  • Citation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chrb (1083577) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:59PM (#37757230)

    The math has been done and it is clear: Habitats fabricated in free space can provide thousands of times more habitable surface area than Earth.

    Okay, I'll bite... if the math has been done and is clear, where is it? Obviously there is a lot of free space outside the Earth, but there is more to providing a habitable environment than unused volume; in fact, as far as I am aware nobody has ever claimed that it is a lack of unused landmass that is the constraint holding back continued expansion of the human population. A lack of energy, a lack of clean water, a lack of arable land, a lack of food, a lack of raw resources, a lack of medical care, these are all factors. But how is moving into space going to solve these problems? If we can't effectively harness solar energy on Earth, and we can't geo-engineer our deserts to grow crops, and we can't provide enough raw materials, clean water and medicine to our growing populations, then how are we supposed to solve the exact same problems in space - where everything is orders of magnitude more difficult?

    The problems that we have supporting growing populations here on Earth are only a subset of the problems of doing the same in outer space. I don't see how solving these problems in the domain of space could ever be easier than solving the same problems in the domain of Earth. Yes, if these problems were all solved, and free space were the prevailing constraint, then space might be the answer, but we already have 510 million square kilometers of surface here on Earth, all of which could hypothetically be covered in 20km high skyscrapers, so we are a long way away from lack of free space being the dominant constraint on growth.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:07PM (#37757290) Journal

    Actually, that's pretty easy. About 10% of the asteroids in the belt between here and Mars are mostly metal. The materials are already in space. The problem is not a lack of material or a lack of energy. The problem is a lack of motivation.

    As I posted on Facebook the other day, when animals find their local habitat too constrained, they venture out into the wider world to seek a better one. So, too, must we as a species venture out among the stars if we are to thrive.

    All the naysayers saying that the Earth can't handle the population don't get it. If we don't face evolutionary pressure to move out of our proverbial parents' house, we're never going to grow up as a species. It is precisely that adversity—that struggle to do more with limited resources—that is the force that drives the human race forward, and as such, it is no more something to be feared than life itself.

  • by Teancum (67324) <{ten.orezten} {ta} {gninroh_trebor}> on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:13PM (#37757326) Homepage Journal

    Mankind already lives in what is largely an artificial environment, especially if you live in a big city.

    The original settlement of Buena Vista, Alta California (before the days of the 1849 gold rush) died out to the very last person because there was insufficient water resources to sustain the village. Yet today in that same place there are millions of people and generations of inhabitants of that same region. The difference is that technology has brought in the water and transportation links have been able to provide both the food and other resources for a major city of the world to exist in an otherwise hostile environment.

    There has been a more or less permanent "outpost" of humanity living at the South Pole for a great many years, where the environment is even more hostile to human survival. Some of them even reply on Slashdot from time to time, so it would be interesting to see what their perspective on this whole thing would be like.

    As you are kind of indicating, there is a whole lot to learn about "closed systems" environments that would be needed for a long-term stay on another planet or for that matter anywhere else besides the Earth. We've learned quite a bit over the past 50 years with regards to Antarctica as well as in dealing with the ISS. The technologies needed to establish a permanent "base", much less a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or Mars may very well be a century or two away, and I'm not going to completely dismiss the challenges needed for doing that.

    The problem I have with the main article as presented in this Slashdot post is that the author is more or less giving up and saying we shouldn't even bother trying. I think something is lost from the soul when somebody tells you that, particularly when they are willing to try on their own dime and just want to be allowed the chance to see if it could be done or not. It is like telling a kid they can never be an astronaut when they grow up, or that that a small kid in America can never grow up to become the President. Sure, the odds may be stacked against them heavily, but why shoot down dreams? Sometimes even the act of simply trying is enough to make a difference somewhere even if that attempt fails miserably.

  • by rubycodez (864176) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:29PM (#37757438)
    In my lifetime, mankind went from a single orbit of earth, to landing on the moon, having space stations orbiting earth, planetary and cometary and asteroidal probes. He equates the U.S. with mankind, ignoring that other nations are ramping up their space programs. He ignores that soon we will have the ability with genetic engineering to grow most everything we need on earth, with only solar input, freeing up nuclear fuels like thorium (of which we have centuries of supply) to be used to make hydrogen and oxygen for near term space travel as we master fusion for the longer term. We can make huge generational spaceships and habitats on the moon using solar power and then use the He3 to power them into space to get water and volatiles and metals from comets and asteroids. No vision, no courage, a wimp. The U.S. would have its population all mashed together on the eastern seaboard if our pioneer ancestor were like this psychological marshmallow.
  • by plopez (54068) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:57PM (#37757642) Journal

    *snip*

    The same reason the taxpayer pays for basic scientific research instead of waiting till it's cheap enough for any company to do so. If not for NASA then we wouldn't be spending people into space right now private or not. The private ventures build on top of the initial research work done by the the taxpayer Hell, some are still getting funded by the taxpayer.

    they've already proven the Dragon works.

    So you're using a rocket being paid for by a taxpayer contract to supply a taxpayer funded space station as an example of pure private space travel?

    Fixed that for you. Socialism, it just works better than the private sector sometimes. :)

  • by Jonner (189691) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @10:19PM (#37757808)

    If the ship sinks, and you have a life raft, you stand some chance of rescue. The ocean is vast, but it’s a two-dimensional vastness teeming with human activity

    Since we are currently at the dawn of space travel and looking 500 years ahead, lets look 500 years into the past with respect to seafaring and their exploration and colonization of their new world. Seafarers of that day did not stand a chance if their vessel sunk, they did not have the survival equipment we have today, they did not have all the other traffic and human activity in the "area". Hell, if one of Columbus' ships had sunk at night the crew would probably have been doomed desperate sailing with two other ships.

    500 years ago people could be found to make the voyage to the Americas despite the misery and risks of the voyage. Today there would probably no shortage of informed people to go on a physically and emotionally miserable, and a very risky, voyage to the moon or mars. Now consider 500 years from now. While the physics of a voyage to mars may be the same the technology available to address comfort and risk will be vastly improved. Even with relatively spartan amenities for exploration and colonization that will be no shortage of informed volunteers. A spartan existence certainly did not prevent colonization of and movement into the frontier of the americas.

    He didn't say it was survival was likely stranded in the middle of the ocean, merely that it's possible. Far more important is what waits at the destination. Columbus and other explorers could only expect to survive round trip voyages because they'd find dry land, air, water and food somewhere even if they didn't know exactly where. Colonies were motivated by the rich natural resources just waiting to be exploited in the New World. Traveling to a planet or moon in our solar system, we can be quite certain that we have to bring everything necessary for survival with us. Maybe we'll eventually figure out how to make such colonies worthwhile, but it will many times more difficult than what explorers faced 500 years ago.

  • by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @10:30PM (#37757880)

    Oddly enough, the Earth seems to have no problem dealing with recycling waste. All it needs is a goodly variety of fish, insects, bivalves, and other organisms (both micro and macro) to handle the responsibility.

    At what population density? Long-term sustainability of life on earth at the current population density is FAR from demonstrated.

  • Straw horse (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fnj (64210) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @11:23PM (#37758242)

    The argument against the straw horse of expansion into space as a hedge against limits on growth is not of much interest, because no one with half a brain believes the premise anyway. It may allow some minor further growth at enormous expense, but that's not what space is for.

    Space is a hedge against extinction, and a challenge to the human urge to explore new places and try new things. If self-supporting colonies exist on other celestial bodies and on artificial constructions in space, the inevitable destructive hit to earth sooner or later by a large comet, large asteroid, or high percentile megacaldera eruption will not be able to terminate the entire human race. 50%, or 90%, or 99% of the race might be extinguished, but there would be survivors in an intact setting in any scenario.

    Conceivably multiple underground redoubts on earth with self-contained vast reserves of energy could provide the same assurance, but they can't satisfy the other need. That is the need to explore and settle new territory and rise to new challenges. A human race that had that snuffed out would not be recognizable as human, and would be no great loss if it DID become extinct. Also, if we do make contact with members of other races in space, we won't have to apologize for being satisfied huddled exclusively on the surface of our birthplace.

  • by Shihar (153932) on Wednesday October 19, 2011 @12:13AM (#37758466)

    Habitats fabricated in free space can provide thousands of times more habitable surface area than Earth.

    You are a moron.

    Who gives a fly fuck about 'surface area' to live on. Does the earth look full to you? Have you been to Canada, anywhere in the US that isn't a coast, most of Russia, or the fucking endless oceans that cover 2/3 the surface of the fucking planet? Do you know what all of those places have in common? They are all empty, and they all make vastly easier and better places to colonize than space. No one is lacking for "space" to toss more humans. What we lack is resources. Places to toss more humans are plentiful and cheap. Building a city on Canada, middle America, or even the ocean is a thousands times cheaper than trying to lug people into space. As a bonus, if you have a merry old ocean colony, you also get to score resources, the capacity to trade easily and very cheaply, and the air is free. How exciting.

    Lets pretend for a moment that space isn't an empty vacuum, and lets ignore for a moment that even the shittiest sea colony has a thousand times more resources than any space colony in the form of air, water, and trade. Let's ignore all of that... If you want to reduce earth to zero population growth, you would need to toss 300 THOUSAND people into to space a DAY. Good luck with that.

  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater&gmail,com> on Wednesday October 19, 2011 @02:42AM (#37759012) Homepage

    've been refitting an ocean cruising sailboat and learning more about metallurgy and materials science than I ever imagined

    the corrosion and other effects mean that few commercial vessels last over 20 years - it's cheaper to buy a new one than to fix the old one.

    You may have learned more about metallurgy and materials science than you ever imagined, but you know much less than than you think you do. Commercial ships routinely last more then 20 years, as do warships. The usual killer for commercial ships isn't corrosion, it's being outmoded. The usual killer for warships is the systems being worn out, hull corrosion is rarely a factor.
     
    Look at the Fleet Guide [wa.gov] for the Washington State Ferries - the bulk of the fleet is over thirty years old. (Though you'd never know it to ride aboard them.)

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