Sustainability and space exploration

There hasn’t been all that much crossover between two of my major interests: sustainability and space exploration.  But there ought to be.

In some respects, this isn’t too surprising.  Environmentalists tend to look, at best, somewhat apathetically towards space exploration, and downright hostile at worst- usually because it’s either being perceived as a waste of money, or some sort of attempt to flee the ravages of Earth rather than clean up after ourselves (though if they knew more about the current state of space technology, they’d know no one is seriously planning on that- or, at least, they damn well shouldn’t be).   The latter element is also viewed sometimes by activist as playing into cornucopian and technotopian ideals -that our economy can grow indefinitely since we can, I don’t know, mine the asteroids or something (although the L-5 Society– which definitely does qualify as technotopian- doesn’t receive as much credit as it should for explicitly addressing the contradiction of maintaining infinite economic growth on a finite planet as starting point; sure, their solution (move off-planet) may not be economically plausible for the foreseeable future, but it is a valid solution).  The fact that the space industry is pretty enmeshed with the military-industrial complex doesn’t do it any favors in activists’ books, either.  Also to their credit, the Green Party of the US isn’t actively hostile towards space exploration (see point 3), either, though only as long as it doesn’t lead to militarization, and they’d much prefer more focus on robotic space exploration (which is a valid stance in the debate of humans vs robots, although one I’d wish they’d elaborate on, and maybe show a little nuance).  However, for the purposes of this essay, it’s human spaceflight that I have in mind for the most part.

Aerospace people generally tend to be apathetic towards the environment as well (mostly because it’s not really their thing, and they tend to be politically on the conservative side as well).   A few of them are downright antagonistic with environmentalism- I remember the wife of a well-known lunar scientist and moon-colonization-proponent would occasionally comment on some of the space blogs I frequented, and she basically implied that the reason Project Constellation got cancelled was that it was part of some sort of shadowy conspiracy by Presidential Science Adviserr John Holdren to “de-develop” the West, and possibly bring us under communist subjugation (sadly, I’m not exaggerating- not even a little); the fact that CxP got cancelled was because it was grossly overbudget, years behind schedule, and based around a flawed and totally unnecessary rocket didn’t seem to occur to her.

However, there’s no reason for this antagonism to exist.  There is one very, very crucial intersection of interest: life support.

We humans have not had much luck in creating closed-loop life support systems, but we’re going to have get good at it if we’re ever going to get serious about travel into deep space. This will, no doubt, involve a lot of applied ecology, and close scrutiny of material, nutrient, and energy flows.  If/when we get to the point of doing long-duration missions, I sincerely hope there is  an ecologist on board to keep track of all that.

Similarly, while I suspect many environmentalists would view offworld colonies as the ultimate in artificial and “unnatural” environments, I would urge them not dismiss them out of hand so quickly.  If (and hopefully when!) the first generation of children are born off-planet, I would not be surprised if we found them to be the amongst the most ecologically-sensitive humans to ever live- they will have to be, as they grew up in an environment where ecological imbalances (more respiration than production, deficient soil, accumulation of persistent contaminants) isn’t an abstract concern, but something that can kill them with very quickly and with surprisingly little warning.  I have often wondered if humanity’s expansion into space would lead to a new evolution of our species- and not in the wish-washy, New Age sort of way, but in the sense that people who don’t adapt quickly are, unfortunately, quite likely not to survive, given how incredibly hostile the environment is.

To put it another way: the next time you hear someone say that CO2 can’t be bad for the atmosphere, because it’s “natural” and not a pollutant and therefore couldn’t be harmful, remind yourself of what the Apollo 13 crew might think of that.


About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in human spaceflight, space exploration, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

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