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JACQUES COUSTEAU AT NASA HEADQUARTERS
THE SPACE COLONIES IDEA 1969 - 1977
Jacques Cousteau at NASA Headquarters
Jacques Cousteau is not the only environmentalist to have discovered the uses of satellite monitoring of habitat, but his subject, the oceans, simply overwhelms any other method of measurement. As a result there is a growing alliance between Cousteau and NASA. In charge of that liaison is Astronaut Russell Sweickart who also set up this interview, which took place in 1976 in the office of NASA's No. 2 man, Deputy Administrator George Low. Low, who had been with NASA since the beginning, was about to leave to become president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Also on hand for the interview was Cousteau's son Phillipe, who remarked after the tape ended that the American navel commanders in the Revolutionary War always had the crew break up the lifeboats before a battle.
Cousteau's comments read most easily if you mentally restore their sexy French accent. He is a powerful Gallic presence as well as a mythic hero (Odysseus, Captain Nemo). You may want to join the Cousteau Society at 777 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017 or 8150 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA. 90048 $20/year.
Stewart Brand: Jacques, I'm interested to know why you're interested in the Space program.
Jacques Cousteau: At the very beginning of the space program, there was among all the ocean specialists a kind of scandalized reaction, saying, "How is it that so much money is going to be spent to explore distant things that have very little to do with our life, while the ocean seems so little known, and needs so much funding?'' I don't know why, but at that time I had the vision of what space would bring to oceanography. Since the beginning, I was convinced that our duty was to explore outer space as much as or more than inner space. The reasons that I had were purely philosophical, and since then they have become very practical. Everything that happens is demonstrating the need for space technology applied to the ocean. The only thing that worries me is that for the moment there is still no coherent program for systematic monitoring of the ocean from Space.
SB: What would be an ideal monitoring of the ocean from your standpoint?
Cousteau: Well, I think that it cannot be done unilaterally by any nation, but I think it has to be organized, at least between the nations who have space technology, to make it a worldwide survey in order to constantly have the pulse of the ocean. The health of the ocean has to be checked all the time.
SB: What are the indicators of health that you can get from Space?
Cousteau: Well, you can not have an indicator of health without having a thorough knowledge of the ocean, same as we can not predict the wind if we do not have a full knowledge of the atmosphere. So, to my opinion, a complete monitoring of the ocean involves two different techniques - remote sensing and tele-measurements made by interrogating sensors that are deeply anchored in the ocean. It's two different techniques, but both pass through a satellite.
SB: How rich would the data have to be for it to be useful?
Cousteau: This is a gigantic program. It's a gigantic program that at least has to be started one way or another, you just can't go full scale on a program like this, because it will cost probably billions of dollars. But it has to at least be experimented in all these phases systematically before a vast program is launched. Seasat was not a systematic oceanographic satellite.
SB: Well, has anything come out of the space program so far that has been useful in ocean monitoring?
Cousteau: Oh, yes. Lots of things. Bits and pieces.
SB: Like what?
Cousteau: Well, our knowledge of swell, currents, temperature, differences. Day to day there are quick changes in currents, for example, that information could be forwarded to ships.
George Low: Jeek, you had some ideas about looking for sea farms from Skylab . Did anything come out of that?
Cousteau: For the moment, not much that I have heard about.
Russell Schweickart: That's an interesting little thing. During the joint mission with the Russians, the ASTP mission, Jeek and I were down in Houston, I was showing him the Control Center, the tremendous accumulation of nerve endings there in Houston, and the way in which the mission is controlled. We went back through some of the support rooms, and as we got to one of the rooms which was assisting in what we call the visual observations program - which was the astronauts and cosmonauts looking at particular Earth features to gain information and to take photographs - Jeek went up to this big world map and immediately started circling about six or eight different areas of the world which are sort of bays, as I recall...
Cousteau: Areas which seemed to me to be favorable for mariculture. But of course they have to be checked very carefully.
Low: How do you define mariculture? What are you looking for?
Cousteau: Well, as we were discussing yesterday, in exploiting the Earth agriculture was the break through. Before, it was nomadic collecting, and when the first settlers began to plow the earth, they did this only because they had had ancestral knowledge and observation from thousands of years of father-to-son transmission of understanding of all the plants and the animals in the forest, and they had selected a number of things like wheat, like rice, like corn, a very few, that were favorable for culture. And also they selected among all the animals those that were favorable for livestock because they were directly transforming vegetables into protein. They did not choose the eagle, the falcon, the tiger, et cetera; they chose the cow, and so on. This was a formidable knowledge of nature that was accumulated for thousands and thousands of years, probably hundreds of thousands of years.
Now, we suddenly understand that in the sea we are not doing that at all. Fishing is hunting. Scientific fishing is scientific hunting. When we see those big factory ships we can compare them with the people who shoot wolves from an airplane or from a helicopter. It's high technology in the service of just hunting. It means raping the sea for what it has. That's all it is in fishing. So fishing must be eliminated completely and replaced by farming, if we are to be civilized in the sea as we are on land. What we call civilization originated in farming. We are still barbarians in the sea. When we are farmers we are all going to get many times the yield per acre that we are getting now, because we are skimming the production of the ocean at the top level, which means at the level of the eagle. The tuna is the eagle of the sea. The marlin is the tiger of the sea. But none of these is eating directly vegetables. For 1 pound of cow meat, we need about 10 pounds of grass. For 1 pound of tuna you need 10,000 pounds of grass or vegetables.
Illustration from "The Ocean Food and Energy Farm Project" by Howard A. Wilcox, distributed recently to the 150,000 members of the Cousteau Society. Dr. Wilcox preents a persuasive argument for open ocean kelp farming for food and energy use. The marine farm concept is conservativley projected to yield enough food to feed 3,000 to 5,000 persons per square mile of ocean area cultivated, and at the same time it will yield enough energy and other products to support more than 300 persons at today's U.S. per capita consumption levels or more than 1,000 to 2,000 persons at today's world average per capita consumption levels." (Sent by Bill Steinberg)
SB: We have an article in this issue of the magazine that is espousing krill as a good source for human food.
Cousteau: Well, that's a very shameless substitute for the whale. The whale was a very good way to exploit the sea, if we had kept it at the maximum yield. The maximum yield is something like 70 - 75,000 whales. Now the yield is 32,000 a year. A few years ago we were killing several hundred thousand. If we had kept the number of whales at the maximum yield, we would be exploiting the krill in the best possible way for mankind, because this is one of the most favorable chains that there is in the ocean. The krills are eating directly phyto-plankton, and 1 pound krill needs only 10 pounds of phyto-plankton. The whales are eating the krill directly, and there the transformation factor is fantastic. You need 4 pounds of krill to make 1 pound of whale. Which means that you have a 40-to-1 ratio instead of the 10,000-to-1 for the tuna. And besides, the krill is not so easy to digest for mankind, It's very good for whales, not so good for man. So, if you are just speaking of efficiency, the whale was the best transformer there was. The ratio was offering us a beautiful way to exploit the krill, and we've slaughtered them, eliminated the beautiful way. But you know, in any case I don't approve of using whales for food.
SB: Would it be possible to restore the whale to that function?
Cousteau: Yes. In 2027 there is a chance that there will be whales again. If we start now.
SB: What's good maricultural land? I mean. . .
Cousteau: You have good lands and bad lands in the sea. You have all the places where there is upwelling currents bringing in the nutrients from bottom - good lands. You have also the places that are not enriched.
Low: Can Space help you find the good ones and the bad ones?
Cousteau: Oh yes, because the upwelling currents are automatically near the surface, enriched in phyto-plankton, which means that by luminescence, by chlorophyll detection via satellite you can detect it.
Schweickart: In fact we talked earlier about getting together today with Dave Chalener who is the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian for science. It happens that he ended up working with the Panamanian government on trying to predict the coldwater upwellings which then start the whole food chain through the indigenous shrimp there, and which are presently in serious trouble. They have to preclude shrimping during the critical time when the shrimp first emerge until they reach a certain size. But that is depending on when the up-welling starts, and it's unpredictable, so the government forbids the shrimping at the wrong time.
Cousteau: But you see, here again, you are confusing fishing and mariculture. What the Panamanian government is trying to do with NASA is improve the destruction of the sea - the elimination of the shrimp once and for all.
Schweickart: Nope, let me disagree with you, Jeek. I can't allow that to pass, because in fact what the Panamanian government is interested in doing by monitoring the upwelling, is to preclude shrimping during that critical phase when the shrimp are first emerging. Right now they do that on a relatively arbitrary basis, and they miss the right time, and as a result they wipe out the baby shrimp.
Philippe Cousteau: That would be efficient if they had a limit to the amount caught every year. But that is not true. I just came back from that area, and there is no limit to the catch. So really, what you're talking about is an improvement in the amounts that are caught.
Cousteau: Improving the fishing is always bad. It's a dead end. It's like improving hunting with machine guns and toxic gases. I know that administrations such as NASA, and mankind in general, will probably be obliged to make the switch progressively. The switch cannot be made overnight. Scientifically we are not at all in the same position as the primitive man of 12,000 or 15,000 years ago, because we do not have the accumulated knowledge of the behavior of the marine ecosystem that our ancestors had on land. So we are not about to come true before we increase tremendously our knowledge. That is why fishing is still as a kind of intermediate evil which is necessary. But improving fishing is in the long run a disaster.
SB: Dr. Low, why is space interested in the Cousteaus?
Low: I spent a very very enlightening week with Commander Cousteau on Calypso . It was Christmas a year ago, off a small island in Mexico. We started talking about what we can jointly do-the Space program and the Cousteau Society - in learning how to better understand the oceans and to begin to get on top of some of the problems that Jeek has been discussing here. The one thing that impressed me in those few days more than anything else is the great similarity of how science must be done in the oceans and how science is being done in space. When we went to the Moon we had men who were visible to the world in a hostile dangerous environment. The analog of that is the men under the sea. What our astronauts do on the Moon, or Cousteau's men do under the sea, is well-planned and has a detailed scientific purpose. When we sent astronauts to the Moon they had with them scientific instruments that they left there, or samples that they took, planned and programmed and detailed to get more knowledge of the Moon, but planned by people on the ground who were supporting them. They had the aid of communications systems, of navigation systems, of telemetry, of all sorts of instruments. Watching the kind of work being done on Calypso, it had great similarities. In fact, we did a joint project last summer in the Caribbean to try to see whether satellites can help determine the shallow ocean depths, the depths of the ocean where ships tend to run aground and spew oil all over. It was an experiment to decide whether a spacecraft called Landsat, or a variation thereof, could make those measurements on a global basis, because if you do it without a satellite, it is going to take you forever to make them.
SB: Most experiments don't work. How did this one turn out?
Low: Well, I think it was partially successful. We determined that down to a certain depth it can work. But the intriguing point was that in this experiment, thirty different satellites were involved, because they are the modern tools of science, the modern tools of exploration. There were six navigation satellites, I think, three or four weather satellites, the Landsats - two of them that actually made the measurements - communications satellites, direct communications back with NASA's Space Flight Center in Washington to help direct Calypso, to send weather maps back and forth, and to send photos of their area taken by a satellite that had just gone over. The Calypso divers were making measurements in the water of all sorts of quantities, of how the light was hitting the water, how turbid it was, things that others here can explain much better than I can. Instruments on Calypso were verifying how deep the ocean was while instruments in the satellites were making measurements and telling Calypso exactly where she was with a precision of what, feet? It was a tremendous example of how modern tools of scientists can be put together to get a better understanding of this globe we live on. I think that's really the key to our total future. We've got to use all of these tools, whether they're on the ocean, whether they're under the ocean, whether they're in space, to help understand the fundamental factors that govern our environment, our life, and everything else, before we can really help fix it.
SB: This is not widely perceived among environmentalists. In my experience most of them regard NASA as irrelevant.
Cousteau: May I add to what George has said? Three things. One is that we are using satellites already for the study of another environment than outer space. This is the land surface and weather. The second thing is, the very elaborate instrumentation in space that we mere using to support a very primitive instrumentation in the water demonstrates the fact that we have not yet started harmonizing the tools to work together. There is a big gap between the quality and the sophistication on both sides of the surface.
A third reason why we are trying to work together was illustrated to me (I'm not going to say this for my own glory, it's just because it is a matter of fact) when I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory discussing with all these scientists and looking at a program of Seasat, I had great hopes when I heard the word Seasat, "Ah, at last, an oceanographic satellite." Then I went to Jet Propulsion Lab, and it was a demonstration of the fact that oceanography is a very complicated, unrefined science. Most of the specialists, beautiful scientists in oceanography, they look at their own little alley, and they don't have a general global view, which I by definition have because I do not go very far in each one of these alleys. I'm more or less a sponsor of scientists than a scientist myself. Speaking their language, I can collect and try to synthesize what they're doing. To establish a program by putting together all the scientists into a committee will result in very little, because each one will pull on his side. There is a need for someone who understands the global problems of the ocean.
Schweickart: Jeek, you were talking about determining a "vitality" index for the oceans.....
Cousteau: We are still working on that and we are not very far because of the hostility of some specialists. It's very very funny. What Rusty is saying is that we need to understand realistically what's happening in the ocean. Our divers look to the place where they have been twenty years before, and they see that it is going down the drain. They are unable to quantify, it is not a measurement, it is a subjective impression, and in science subjective impressions are laughed at. They are not considered as serious. I don't think it's right, because subjective impressions have their importance but nevertheless you cannot say, "I have observed a reduction in the general vitality of the ocean," without having scientists say, "Ha ha ha, how much, how do you measure it?" So we have to measure it. We have to determine an index, a coefficient that is not measuring really anything, but that will be comparable to itself over the years. It's like IQ. IQ doesn't mean anything. But it's comparable. And this is the type of coefficient that I want, using only measurements that can be done almost by anyone, not too difficult.
SB: This would be like the number of species in an area, the amount of big - mass in an area, or what?
Cousteau: That's too complicated. We have to find a more synthesizing thing. For the moment I'm orienting my research on the hormones that are excreted by animals in the water.
SB: It would be a straight chemical test then?
Low: But aren't you talking about very very slowly changing quantities?
Cousteau: The trouble is that these hormones disintegrate pretty rapidly. It's on the contrary very instantaneous measurement.
Low: Yes, but over time the changes are relatively slow, so you have to be in a position to make very very fine measurements.
Cousteau: I have the impression that if we had started this 20 years ago, we would already see at least 40 percent decrease.
Schweickart: In certain areas like the Mediterranean?
Cousteau: In most areas.
Low: We're facing a problem in Space now like that - the ozone layer. What are we doing down here on the surface of the Earth that may be destroying the ozone layer and destroying life on Earth ultimately.
Cousteau: It's very minute changes.
Low: Very very minute changes over any period of time over which you can make these measurements. In fact, the noise that changes daily because of other things may be much larger than the signal you're trying to measure. So the real question is how you make these measurements over a long enough period of time to really determine what's happening. I think what you're doing in the ocean leads very much to those kinds of measurements. We're worrying about things that may be perceived only over a period of five or ten years. Yet they become terribly important to what's going to be alive on the earth within 50 years.
Cousteau: George, I suppose you agree that even if you need five or ten years to understand it, you have to start.
Low: You have to. In fact, there's an interesting side-line to this ozone problem. That is, that this might be a problem was identified many years earlier than it otherwise would have been because we were looking at the planet Venus.
SB: Because of comparative data, or because of the sensing apparatus that you developed for Venus being used here?
Low: A little bit of both. It's really an analytical tie. Looking at Venus, the atmospheric scientists started asking themselves the question, "Why do we see in the upper atmosphere of Venus only carbon dioxide and no carbon monoxide? Why doesn't the Sun dissociate the carbon dioxide and make it into oxygen and carbon monoxide?" The answer was that there had to be another gas present that immediately recombined it. They then applied that same theory to the upper amosphere of the Earth, and said, "What would happen if there were chlorides present in the stratosphere of the Earth?" The answer was: they would surely dissociate the ozone, the ozone layer which protects us in keeping the ultra-violet light from hitting the surface of the Earth. It would dissociate the ozone into oxygen - O and O2. Having asked that question, they said, "Well, are there any chemicals being released on the surface of the Earth that might destroy the ozone layer?" And the answer was: it could well be the freons that are used in all the spray bottles. That's how this problem was discovered, probably a number of years earlier than it would otherwise have been discovered, and that's why it's being attacked so vigorously now.
Schweickart: Although we still in fact don't know what the effect is of the lower atmospheric release of these things on the ozone layer. one of the more interesting pieces of data that we've seen in the analysis of ozone data we've collected over the last five years, (we're still not done with that analysis, it's a very laborious process) but in the two and a half years or so of data which we have analyzed, the largest identifiable change in a cause-and-effect relationship was, as I recall, a solar flare, which released a great number of particles, which then had their effect in the upper atmosphere. There was a noticeable drop in the ozone concentration, which took something between 50 and 90 days to come back up to normal. So can you say that one medium-sized solar flare equals 106 sweet-smelling armpits, or some equivalent measure? We don't really know that yet.
SB: What kind of an index would you call that? Well, Jacques, are you interested in being an astronaut?
Cousteau: Well, it would be my dream, yes. But of course it's a matter of age. I should have started earlier.
Schweickart: It's a matter of vitality, Jeek, not age.
Low: Von Braun made a speech about five years ago which said, in effect, "Five years ago I was too old to fly in space. Ten years from now, I will again be young enough, because then we'll have the space shuttle."
Cousteau: It's obvious that for me to have a visual contact with the ocean I have devoted my entire life to from outer Space would be the ultimate. Especially if I have the proper instruments. As I have said to NASA several times I'm ready to go any time, but of course obstacles are formidable. Money, program, instrumentation, all those things. I'm keeping in as good a shape as possible in order to eventually be able to go.
SB: What are the stresses on someone with the shuttle? Would that be reasonable?
Low: Well, since I intend to be there when he flies, and fly with him, the answer is yes. Seriously, the environment in the shuttle ought to be one that an average human being in reasonably good physical shape ought to be able to fly in. We still don't understand some of the problems that we faced back in Apollo and Skylab. Why does everybody tend to get motion sick for a day or two? That applies to the best trained astronaut as well as to somebody who's never been in space.
SB: Do you think that'll happen to you, Jacques? Do you get seasick at sea?
Cousteau: I did, in my youth. No more at the moment, but it may come back. You never know. But very rarely.
SB: Did you, Rusty?
Schweickart: Yeah. On Apollo 9 I avoided the issue for two days by not moving around, thinking that was the right thing to do. We know a little better now. On the third day, when I had to move around, I went through the space sickness thing for a day, and then after that was okay again.
SB: Once the shuttle gets really rolling, how many people is this apt to mean in space at any time?
Low: You know, we are terribly short-sighted when we project those kinds of things, because things happen much quicker than we expect, but we're talking about something like 40 to 60 flights a year.
SB: How many people on the bus each time?
Low: Say an average of 5. That's 200 people in space per year.
SB: Do you think this will change the public idea of the usefulness of Space, having that much traffic?
Low: Last Sunday I was preparing a speech I'm going to give in Salt Lake City this Friday night. It's a Bi-centennial event, and I thought one way of doing this is to go to the Tri-centennial and look back. I was trying to estimate how many babies will have been born in space by the year 2076. I came up with a number, I have no idea whether it's believable or not. I said it will be the event of the 100,000th birth in space.
Low: I had a much smaller number at first, and then I thought, it's probably going to be larger.
Schweickart: That would assume space colonies.
Low: It assumes space colonies, and I figured by that time half a million people living in space.
SB: Would these still be mostly Americans at that point, do you think? Or what?
Low: I'm not going to predict that. I stole a line from Carl Sagan's piece in your last magazine - "It's the 21st century equivalent of 19th-century America." That it'll be limited to Americans I doubt very much. I just don't see how it can be.
SB: Did you see this quantity of people being mostly still in the vicinity of Earth, or scattered rather thinly in the Solar System by then?
Low: I guess I look at it as still being relatively close to the Earth-Moon system, and still counting on some resources from the Earth or the Moon or the nearby planets, but I may be wrong on that. You know, I was deeply involved in Apollo and the lunar landing, yet if you'd asked me in 1957, before Sputnik, twelve years before the lunar landing, when did I think a man would first set foot on the Moon, I don't think I would have said 1969. I doubt whether I would have said 1979, I might have said 2009.
SB: Is that rate defined more by technical matters or by political matters? That it was '69 was largely a political decision by Kennedy.
Low: It was a technical capability and a political decision.
SB: Gerard O'Neill claims that his Space colonies in most of the configurations he's thought of so far are technically feasible. Does that seem realistic to you?
Low: Yes. Now, I'm not sure whether they will look exactly like his space colony, but I've seen nothing yet in the debate on those that says that it's not possible to do it technically.
SB: How about the short-term benefits, the cost-effectiveness, the political sexiness of the thing? He indicated a schedule of fifteen or twenty years to get a serious colony going. Does that seem realistic?
Low: Not to me today. But again, I'm an arch conservatist. I see other needs first.
SB: Such as?
Low: Solar power from space. I don't know whether that's going to come or not, but it's intriguing, it looks possible, that we might be able to collect solar energy in Space, and beam it down to the surface of the Earth to use it without doing all the bad things that we do when we generate power in any other way. I think that will probably take up our financial resources in the years where O'Neill first visualizes space colonies. But also they will help teach us how to build those colonies. There's an awful lot of things that we need to do in generating power in space that will lead toward the colonies.
SB: Jacques, I'm curious about your long-term vision of what's going to happen? You said last night that you expect a major calamity in the next 50 years - or string of calamities - that would leave only 1 in 10 people alive and only 1 in 10 species alive. And that then a much more harmonious far-reaching ingenious civilization would develop. How does any of that relate to Space?
Schweickart: Do you see us moving out, Jeek, before the major calamities?
Cousteau: I think the calamities that we are talking about are inner calamities, which means that when they spread there will be no moving out possible, because there will be chaos as well in NASA as in the street. When we are projecting that far I'm not serious. I think that we have our duty today to work in the direction that might reduce the chances for such a calamity and in any event reduce the size of the calamity.
Schweickart: Do you put some of your resource into the generation of life boats, even though you put most of your resource into the good navigation of the ship?
Cousteau: I think we certainly will have communities in outer space some day, and probably we will find uses for them that we have not anticipated, but I do not think that it is a way of life to live off the planet, same as I do not think that it is a way of life to live in underwater cities. I feel very much attached to my planet, and I think this is going to be true for generations to come.
One anecdote that happened to me just four days ago. I was with two eminent archeologists on a small island across from the ancient harbor at Knossos, Crete. We spotted from the ship some not ruins really, but a very old construction site There was a slope which obviously had been polished by prehistoric man to pull a boat out on the rock. We landed, and while the archeologists were looking in the neighborhood for artifacts - and they found not much - I was picking up wild flowers, The very simple little flowers, I associated with them on this hot day. While I was doing so I discovered the hidden entrance to a cave which they had been passing by without noticing. We entered this cave and it was a primitive neolithic temple. So it's just by looking at the flowers that you may have the discovery. The specialists look at progress and science and see nothing. You have to remain deeply attached to the Earth if you want to understand what's going on.
The Space Colonies Idea 1969-1977
At 22 Eric Drexler is an old Space Colony hand, having worked at the subject for seven years now. He's an MIT graduate student (Aeronautics and Astronautics) frequently in colleague with Gerard O'Neill. To keep from the narrow perspective that goes with a specialized discipline, he reads and travels widely. Eric grew up in half a dozen states and has seen his space fantasies accelerate from something he was doing for the next generation to something he's doing for his own. "I probably won't die on this planet.''
Space colonization and industrialization have increasingly filled my life since I began work on them seven years ago. In that time they have gone from an ancient germ of an idea to tons of research paper and increasing public attention. If the colonization of space happens, it will be both as a by-product of early, small scale space activity and as a result of a deeply felt yearning of most of the human race: a yearning for an open future for themselves and their descendants.
As a vague idea, space colonization is as old as myths of a better life beyond the sky. As an idea to toy with, it is as old as workable rockets and aircraft. As something to look at seriously, it is as old as the 1960's, when the future began to cloud and the Moon, with footprints, junk, and dust, flickered onto world television. As an evolving, public proposal, it was born in 1974 with Gerard O'Neill's article in Physics Today.
At this point I could wade off through the history of the idea, from O'Neill's conception of the idea in a freshman physics class that he taught in 1969 (a true story by the way, I recently indexed his working notes from 1969 to the present) to the first conference and publication in 1974 to the NASA interest and concrete proposals of today. However, if that story isn't told somewhere else in this book I would be most surprised. What may be lost in that story is a good impression of the range of people and of ideas that have participated in it.
O'Neill started with a basic idea: use materials from the asteroids to build attractive places for people to live in space. While not a new idea, this was at least unusual. Most thought in the 1960's suggested that the first thing to do in space was to get out of space, to land on another planet. once there, under an unbreathable atmosphere, with night to ruin solar energy prospects, with enough gravity to make building difficult but not enough to match Earth conditions, and with other planetary unpleasantnesses, the intrepid expedition would dig in, and eke out some kind of more-or-less self-supporting life. The general, and justified, reaction to this kind of "space colonization" was, "No, thank you . . . perhaps a scientific base might be nice, once the world's problems are solved?" The alternative that O'Neill (and myself, independently about a year later) began looking at was to stay in the clean, sunny environment of space as much as possible, to find materials convenient there, to build, and to live.
Ideas evolved. O'Neill settled on a cylindrical shape for a colony, then on a pair of counter-spun cylinders that could easily be kept pointed at the sun, and on three mirrors, three windows, and three land areas in each cylinder. He shifted from favoring the asteroids as materials sources to favoring our own, nearby, Moon.
He considered getting materials off the Moon with a rotating device with an arm that literally threw pellets into space, then settled on an electromagnetic catapult (mass driver) at about the time that the entire idea, after five years gestation, finally went public.
In the year that followed, designs became firmer, more of the problems were considered and solved the justification for the project shifted from population pressure relief around 2050 to energy supply around 1995, and cylindrical colonies became spheres, toruses, and dumbbells of various sizes, proportions, and proposed construction dates. Sociologists, anthropologists, engineers, biologists, artists, and celestial mechanicians became involved and contributed often conflicting ideas. This may seem like confusion, but, to an engineer looking at a young concept, competing approaches and solutions are a strong sign of basic health and vitality.
What has emerged after yet another year of refinement, criticism, and invention is a gradual program involving 100 - 200 flights of the space shuttle to set up a system capable of getting rock off the Moon and refining it into metals. After that, power satellites would be built to supply energy to the Earth, and small colonies would be built to house the people building the power satellites. It seems likely that the cost of doing all this can be repaid, with interest, by selling the electrical energy produced at competitive prices.
A point that seems to have been missed by many critics of this porposal is that no one is saying, "Let's spend billions of dollars on space colonies!! . . . maybe we can pay it back," but rather, "Let us find out if some proposal like this can supply us with economical, environmentally safe energy and other benefits, and, if the benefits outweigh the costs and if the risks seem small enough, let's consider doing it." For anyone interested in cheaper, cleaner sources of energy than coal or nuclear power plants, the second suggestion is hard to argue with, much less become indignant over.
So, as you can see, the whole idea has finally been wrapped up in a fairly neat package. Engineering analysis has devised a system for putting people in carefully designed cylinders in space, and providing them with the means to pay for the adventure by selling power to the Earth. After a time there may be many carefully designed cylinders with many people leading carefully designed lives all over space.
Isn't that nice? No? I agree. Will it happen? No, because people are people and the world is packed solid with tricks and twistynesses yet undreamed of. Some are already dreamed of.
Here's what will really happen: work now in progress at Avco-Everett Research Laboratories, on stealing military laser technology and using it to drive rockets into space, will pan out. Anyone will be able to go into space in 1985 for $10 per pound in a vehicle the size of a Volkswagen using water in its jets. They do so. They go as corporate expeditions seeking steel in the asteroids and constructing power stations in Earth orbit. They go as political groups seeking a place to practice. They go as outlaw bands; the United Nations space treaty breaks down and is forgotten.
Here's what will really happen: we will mine the Moon, build power satellites, and small colonies to build and service them. In space, people find there are things to be done. Other industrial activities increasingly pick up, first with unique space processes then with things that are cheaper in space, and finally with things done in space simply because that is where most of the people and industry are now. In a century the Earth has large sections of continents set off as wilderness area, other sections as space-non-intercourse zones, where ancient planetary lifestyles are practiced and refined, and still others are covered with disgusting urban sprawl, complete with rats and tenements. Space, meanwhile, has settled into a typical stagnant bureaucratic state (the kind the United States is trying desperately to become). Except for one small difference: space is a little too big for fences and national rule. At the open edges, the human race escapes forever the constraints of the central state, and begins its evolutionary migrational wave across the galaxy. Ten million years later, our trans-human descendants reach the edges of the galaxy, and snicker at their new limits to growth.
Here's what will really happen: power satellites will be launched from the ground by big boosters, built by Boeing. Solar sails will be built, and used to return steel from the asteroids. First it will be used for the power satellites, then for the Earth, and finally to satisfy the demands of space workers, now grown to like space for improved housing. People stay in space, and . . .
Here's what will really happen: the Soviets continue their buildup of space armaments. The U. S., realizing the vulnerability of its domestic, foreign, and military communications satellites, builds a counter capability. Satellites become massive and armed for defense. Military space stations orbit the Earth. A by-product is decreased militarization on the ground, and cheap space transportation, developed by the Air Force. Space industry begins; the U.S. effort, at least, is kept free of military entanglements as much as possible, people stay longer in space, and . . .
Here's what will really happen: it is discovered that low gravity prolongs lifespan, and . . .
Damned if I know what will happen. I do suspect however, that most of those who express confidence in a particular future (including those who are sure space colonies won't be undertaken or will be miserable outpourings of the worst aspects of the human race, etc.) are simply venting gas.
At this point a few words may be appropriate on the question, "BUT CAN IT BE DONE?" (as opposed to "Can it be done profitably" 'or "Should it he done?"). First, however, I'd like to give some idea how I feel, in my stomach, about most ot the technical objections that have been raised in The CQ. Suppose you were in a garage, preparing a car for a trip across a desert, to move to a house in a pleasant valley. You've gone driving in other deserts before, and can make as many trips back and forth as you please, if you forget anything. When you stick your head out the garage door, the neighbors are gathered around. Some ask with concern if you have packed enough food or water for emergencies. You smile and, nod. They ask if you've packed enough games for the kids to play on the trip, and you say hey! good idea! Then someone asks if you have any tires on the car. Someone announces that only murderers and villains like Hitler would consider moving across the desert, which can't be done anyway. Someone else announces that you can't go because it would be far too expensive. "Why," you ask, annoyed. He responds that the cost of bringing the corner store, the laundromat, and the sod around your present house (all of which you have used from time to time) is more than a year's salary, and that your lifestyle proves you can't do without them, so . . . At this point you are tempted to shut the door and check the oil.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, work has been done. John Holt helpfully pointed out that the Europeans have been working on magnetic propulsion (as in the mass driver) and that they have not exceeded 12% of a gravity's acceleration, while O'Neill has been talking 25-75 gravities, 200 to 600 times more... Nonetheless, the car does have wheels:
I personally helped build a model mass driver section out of ordinary wire (the real one would be superconducting, and hence have higher performance) that reached 34 gravities about three weeks ago. Students are upgrading it to 100 gravities. O'Neill is now talking 1,000, and taking bets on a number in that range. If anyone had troubled to notice, the mass driver is not a linear induction motor (as Holt thought), but a linear synchronous motor (as virtually everything published on the subject mentions specifically). The difference is like paddlewheels and hydrofoils.
I could go on, picking away at technical objections, one by one, but it would be tedious. Rather, two common-sense observations on much-discussed subjects: "closed ecosystems in space," and "social systems in space." First, "closed ecosystem" in this case equals parks plus farms. Given some sod, saplings, jungle vines (or whatever), light, water, a soil analysis kit, and an agricultural extension agent, we should be able to make a decent park. If not, add some imagination to the mix. Given practically anything from tundra to equatorial jungle, people have always managed to farm in the past. Given light, water, minerals, and some attention, it is an observed, tested fact that corn, soybeans and, indeed, many plants will actually grow. What is more, animals and people will eat them, and a decent team of sanitary engineer and agronomist can probably figure out how to get the water, minerals, and so on back to the plants. As for crop failures, which are rare enough here, give me a designed agricultural environment any day. Ecologists: please remember this is an energy-intensive farm, not a coastal wetland!
With regard to social systems, I must point out that the earliest space colonies are like submarines or Antarctic bases, where people have done useful work (and even come back for more), except with the minor benefits of sunlight, open space, more people, more regular activity, and open communications to Earth. Taken together, later colonies are like a world; endless room, people, variety, bickering, and so on. The human race has some partially successful experience with this sort of thing. As for the "fragile, hence totalitarian colony" idea, as an engineer I see no reason why a colony should be considered more fragile than San Francisco They can certainly be made less fragile than parts of (dreadful, totalitarian) Holland.
In short, yes, we need more study. Yes, neighborly suggestions can be helpful. No, we do not need to pack the corner laundromat, and yes, the car has tires. Successful new enterprises are often difficult, but this is usually recognized ahead of time:
Others again, out of their fears, objected against it and sought to divert from it; alleging many things, and those neither unreasonable nor improbable; as that it was a great design and subject to many inconceivable perils and dangers; as, besides the casualties of the sea (which none can be freed from), the length of the voyage was such as the weak bodies of women and other persons worn out with age and travail (as many of them were) could never be able to endure. And yet if they should, the miseries of the land which they should be exposed unto, would be too hard to be home and likely, some or all of them together, to consumer and utterly ruinate them. For there they should be liable to famine and nakedness and the want, in a manner, of all things. The change of air, diet, and drinking of water would infect their bodies with sore sicknesses and grievous diseases...
The date is 1620, the writer William Bradford, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, and later a governor of the Plymouth colony.
Why go into space? Let's assume that space constructed power satellites prove economical (if not, a number of ideas will slink quietly back into corners). How about a steady, weather independent, day-night independent source of solar-electric power? That can be exported to the Third World? Whose apparently minimal environmental effects disappear when you turn it off? That doesn't gobble land like a ground solar plant must? That could serve 20 independent power systems in an average state? That is inexhaustible? Assuming the above is true, and, as always, that it pays for itself (most energy proposals miss on the latter point, by the way), most people would feel that an adequate reason has been found to go into space in a big way, probably leading to colonies. Some people, I have found, remain ideologically opposed.
At this point we come to a topic that has me irritated at my fellow inhabitants of this speck of a planet, or at least some of them. Because I would like to make very clear what attitudes and ideologies irritate me before presenting the arguments, some explanation is in order. Most of those ideologically opposed to expansion into space are oriented in what might loosely be called a limits-to-growth, alternative technologies, decentralized systems direction. Equally, many supporters of expansion into space have a similar orientation, but have seen the planetary/space enterprise in a yin/yang, complementary, co-evolutionary light. They have recognized that limits-to-growth is not a universal dogma or a universal good, that different environments may have different appropriate technologies, and that space may be the ultimate decentralizer. For them I have nothing but warm good feelings What follows is addressed to the positions (I think) of the ideological critics. Call them Theocrats.
Theocrats have many denominations, but the religion has a common belief: that the will of the gods is manifest, and humans must be made to obey. They seldom invoke gods by that name, but agree that the conflicting desires and habits of today's human race are wrong, and that major changes in human purpose must be made in accordance with universal principles, as revealed to them.
One sect, having been told that resources are finite, seized the principle that growth is bad. When dragged outside on a starry night and asked to point to the limits to growth, hardcore members will explain that material limits were never the issue (read Forrester's more recent papers), but social limits are. This is backed up with no sociology, and with a disregard of the deep human desires of the Third World for a decent life. It is by no means proven that world poverty, even equitable distributed world poverty will ennoble the human race and lead to peace. Experience seems to show the opposite, and redistribution of limited wealth in a world armed with hydrogen bombs may prove interesting.
Another sect, having learned that energy has value, seized the principle that energy defines value. Wasting energy is therefore a sin, and the government must enforce morality (as always, in theocracies) by forcing people to conserve, switch to solar power (whatever the cost), and so on. As yet there has been no suggestion from this sect that the government take action against the biggest energy waster of all: the sun (which wastes power 66,000,000,000,000 times as fast as the human race). Perhaps people are what is of value rather than energy? And perhaps direct human concerns are more important than energy ideologies?
Another sect, realizing that the Earth, where the human race evolved, is a complex and delicate thing, seized the principle that the proper future for the human race is careful stewardship of our planet. The image that comes through this sect's writings is of the Earth as an evolved organism, and of the human race as a temporarily cancerous part of that organism. This I do not object to; it is a useful image, merely incomplete. I object, however, when the lure of the vision of an attractive, decentralized world is supplemented by blinders: "Do not offer people a future containing technology and economic growth lest they be seduced away from the paradise we have planned!" Somehow can't shake the conviction that a paradise should be able to stand on its own merits before the public. When I voice this conviction to sectarians, and find it rejected, I begin to suspect something a little dark. This rejection of freedom, the freedom of the people of the world to hear of and choose between options for the future springs from the same black, authoritarian place in human nature as does the controlled press and suppression of rights in Russia, Chile, Korea, China....
These same people sometimes say that to plan expansion into space is to play god. Is it playing god to permit yet another of a long chain of expanding, evolutionary steps of this planet's life? Or is it perhaps playing god to stop that flow, to close a cage on the Earth, to cry, "Stop! Our true goal is in sight and lies here!"?
Yet another sect says that the answer lies within, rather than without. This is fine, but many in this sect are convinced that reaching their paradise of the mind demands denying people all hope of a materially satisfying life in the future, apparently because people are too stupid to make the correct choice, or to synthesize the best of both worlds. See the remarks above regarding authoritarianism.
In the long run, many people accept the thesis "one world or none." Space holds out the hope (culturally, politically, etc.) of many worlds. It has room for the sects, as long as they practice their theocracy on the willing and persuade by example. Those who feel threatened by freedom should perhaps examine their motives.
Those who are convinced that the human race should be refined and improved (by cooking in a sardinecan Earth) before a move to space should consider the chances of a pleasant outcome to the refining. On this planet there are a multitude of dangers to the survival of attractive societies and to the survival of civilization itself. Space may not save us, but it seems to offer a greater hope. Realities:
This planet is filled with ambitious powers armed with nuclear weapons. Russia, for one. would like to rule the world and shows little sympathy lor the values of most of those reading this. As long as independent nations exist, as long as advanced armaments exist, military activity, industry, centralization. government, and so on will have to be maintained to ensure national survival. The possibility will remain, In spite of this, that nuclear war will destroy the world as we know it.
The obvious solution to a wonderful, terrestrially confined future is to work for world government and the dissolution of present national structures. Great. One powerful world government, unopposed by outside powers. Will it be like the U.S. government today? Like the U.S. government may be if it continues to run more and more of the country? Like the Soviet government? Or perhaps like Uganda's government? How do you plan to make sure? And make your plans stick for the next 200 years. Even de-centralised, agrarian societies have supported despotism in the past.
Other realities: "One World" can make one decision, as a society. Possible long range decisions include many dead-ends: police states made stable by technology, genetically engineered ant-heap societies, drug-controlled societies, wire-in-the-pleasure-center societies, etc., etc. I am not sure that having the whole human race pursuing one of these courses would properly fulfill human destiny. "Many Worlds" permits many decisions. "Many Worlds" permits mistakes.
A question for those who hold the idea of Earth as a stable mother, to be trusted indefinitely: did you know that 90% of the last two million years has seen the Earth in the grips of ice ages? That our civilized world sprang up soon after the ice sheets last retreated from today's temperate zone. That they are due back in a time short compared to recorded history and will stay for 90,000 years? Has anyone ever tried to write an environmental impact statement for an ice age?
Space waits for us, barren rock and sunlight like the barren rock and sunlight of Earth's continents a billion years ago. If there is a purpose to evolution that purpose says go! Gather sunlight and barren rock and make life! Take the abilities of a thousand species, the minds of those who wish, and go! And stay! And scatter to the winds!
And, through the crusty turning of the wheels of government, through engineering, through economic analysis, through crass motives, bold vision, international agreement and conflict, public opinion, and perhaps the life force itself. . . it just might happen. .
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