Sean McMullen's

Skirting the Frontier

This talk was first broadcast on Occam's Razor over Radio National, 19 December 1991

1992 has been designated International Space Year to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, yet it marks another important anniversary as well. As a small boy I remember people saying that Sputnik 1's launch was the beginning of the Space Age, yet even then I was sceptical. After all, I had seen newsreels at the cinema and I knew that dozens of rockets had been into space many years before Sputnik.

If Sputnik was old stuff, when did the Space Age begin? NASA confers astronaut status on anyone flying above 50 miles, so on that criterion a rhesus monkey named Albert 2 was the first higher animal into space back in 1949, courtesy of a German rocket and American scientists. The flight was, however, marred by what was referred to as a "disappointingly hard" landing - the parachute failed - so Albert 2 did not survive to enjoy his triumph. To add insult to injury, he was technically not even first. Two years earlier those scientists had flown a container of fruit flies 107 miles above the earth, and recovered them alive and well.

So, flies were first into space, but did they begin the Space Age? Well, no. The German V2 rocket had the dubious distinction of becoming the world's first space weapon back in 1944, so it had obviously been into space before the flies. By NASA's definition the first human artefact entered space on October 3, 1942, when an experimental German A4 rocket reached a height of 53 miles.

Thus next October, nine days before the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first landfall in the New World, we shall reach the 50th anniversary of entering space. Space exploration has been around for a long time; the technology is well developed - even a little old fashioned - and literally hundreds of humans have been up there. Had Hitler not been intent on randomly killing London's civilians with the new rocket, Germany might have launched an artificial satellite as early as 1943, and sent an astronaut on a sub-orbital flight by 1945. The A4 was powerful enough to do all that. If a space race had developed, there could have been astronauts on the moon by 1953, and a Mars landing in the late '60s. Instead, space research continued to hitch a ride with military programmes. It was not until Apollo 7 in 1968 that astronauts flew on a rocket not specifically developed to kill people. Space exploration moves surprisingly slowly without international rivalry to push it along.

Belatedly or not, the moon was reached in 1969 - but the last astronauts to tread its surface were Cernan and Evans in 1972. Twenty years later, our astronauts do not venture beyond low earth orbit. If we suddenly had some urgent reason to reach the moon within a few months - to save the Earth, for example - we would have to take American landers out of museums and launch them on mothballed Russian rockets. Oddly enough, however, this scenario is not an exercise in science fiction: We do need to explore the moon to save the earth.

My job is strategic planning. I pay the mortgage by taking the long-term view on computing issues, and I wrote this talk with one of my planning colleagues, John de la Lande. If we take a strategic overview of the prospects for life on earth over the next hundred years it is probably no surprise that the picture is somewhat gloomy, but what are the real dangers? Global nuclear war is losing its place at the top of the list after four decades or so, and while greenhouse warming is undoubtedly a serious problem, it does develop slowly. There is probably time to adapt in the short term, and to reverse it over a longer time scale. A far more insidious problem is that of pollution, and this is best illustrated by the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer. A relatively small amount of these supposedly trustworthy chemicals turned out to be dangerous in a way that nobody could have predicted, and serious damage was done to the ozone layer with hardly any warning at all.

Over the next century the chlorofluorocarbons story is sure to be repeated dozens of times over with other pollutants. What are the prospects for the biosphere surviving the accumulated damage of such a series of massive body blows? Not good, we can be certain of that. The trouble is that technology and industry are becoming far more powerful and potentially toxic than the biosphere can cope with. Worse, the design and engineering of the machines is done by fallible humans, so that we must expect accidents. The more powerful the technology, the more devastating are the results when something - inevitably - goes wrong. Try to imagine the Bhopal disaster magnified a hundred times over, or some new industrial by-product that allows blue-green toxic algae to thrive in cold, fast-flowing water, and you have the idea.

Five decades of space research have revealed several important facts. One is that human beings are designed for the earth's biosphere, even though they are capable of doing constructive work in space for limited periods. Another is that the earth has the only known biosphere and, even if others do exit, they must be at least four light years distant. However well established space technology and rocketry might be after fifty years, they are definitely not able to cope with that sort of distance in any useful time frame. Thus we had better think carefully before indulging in high risk behaviour that might damage humanity's one and only habitat.

Here we are in a quandary however, because running even the most benevolent and well regulated industrial society for several billion people will inevitably involve large scale accidents. There will be more and bigger Chernobyl-type disasters, and the effluent from increasingly sophisticated industrial processes will lead to increasingly serious long-term environmental damage. If technology is fallible and heavy industry is dangerous for our one and only biosphere, then what are we to do? Human civilisation cannot and will not renounce either technology or industry.

Try to imagine an industrial fire on the moon. For a start there is not going to be any air pollution, and if the oxidants and fuels are stored some distance apart the fire itself is not going to last very long either. Returning to chlorofluorocarbons, they are not a problem to anything but the ozone layer. In fact they have a lot of uses as cheap industrial solvents. Use them on the moon and what would happen? Not a lot, there being no atmosphere to damage. Toxic waste disposal will remain a problem on earth, even with the most carefully controlled industrial processes, and over a hundred years the cumulative effects will be very serious. On the moon there is no ground water to pollute, no ocean to poison, and no biosphere to kill.

If industry requires only power and raw materials, then it must not be located in the only known place that can sustain life. If the Earth was to become a residential suburb and wilderness park powered by a solar-hydrogen economy, then the moon could be the site for heavy industry. A start must be made on exploration soon however, while there are still sufficient resources left to begin the work. Moving industry off the earth is not a matter of short term economics but of long-term survival.

If I were asked to do the strategic planning for the long-term welfare of the planet I would make the control of human population the top priority, yet number two would be getting industry away from the biosphere. Notice that I am ignoring that unhealthy combination of junkyard and shooting gallery known as near-earth orbit. Why bother with it when you can go a bit further out and have both gravity and raw materials? We cannot draw up realistic plans for making use of the moon however, until we know what its resources are, and until we develop basic engineering skills for the lunar environment. Thus I would place a high priority on lunar exploration, starting now.

We do not need a huge, dramatic, Apollo-type program with astronauts doing the basic exploration, or even the initial experiments with bulldozing, excavation, vehicle repair, and laboratory testing. Small, remotely controlled vehicles could do all that work, and these would not need the food and oxygen required by astronauts, they would be able to endure greater temperature extremes and G forces, and the occasional loss due to malfunction or accident would not involve anyone being killed.

By now many of you are probably dismissing this as the stuff of science fiction, but remember my introduction and think again: Spacecraft have been on the scene for much longer than that common household appliance, the computer, and weather and communications satellites are a part of our everyday lives. What is more, the Soviet Union was operating remotely controlled exploration vehicles on the moon twenty years ago. Apollo astronauts spent a total of twelve and a half days on the lunar surface, but Soviet scientists explored it with their two Lunakhod rovers for 14 months. The last sample of moondust did not come to earth with Apollo 17 in 1972, but with the automatic Soviet probe Luna 24 nearly four years later.

What would be the cost of doing such initial exploration? According to my calculations, each probe would be about as much as a couple of state-of-the-art jet fighters - or that of bailing out one failed entrepreneurial high-flyer, whichever you would prefer to dispense with. The technology for cheap remote lunar exploration is old and well established, and we should not have to send astronauts until well into the next century.

Another important issue is that of pollution from launch vehicles. What will the consequences of increased rocket traffic be? The Space Shuttle puts a lot of unpleasant chemicals into the atmosphere with every launch, due to the use of solid fuel boosters. This does not have to be the case however, and rockets burning liquid oxygen and hydrogen could provide the basis of a clean, sustainable launching system. Combine these propellants with a shuttle system that does not throw away any of its components with each flight and the whole thing looks viable.

Still, there is no promise of immediate economic return to drive this exercise, so will it ever take place? Remember how the sensible Dutch merchant ship captains regularly skirted the coast of Western Australia for over two centuries on their way to the profitable colonies in the East Indies, yet most of their landings were due to shipwreck, not the urge to explore. In the same way lunar exploration might also wait centuries if economic forces alone were to be relied upon. Government support will be essential in the early stages.

In the long term we have no choice other than to return to the moon and turn it into humanity's workshop. Even appropriate and sustainable technology will degrade the environment on earth if practiced over centuries, and subtle poisons will inevitably build up in the soils and oceans if we continue to use them as an industrial waste dump for billions of people. Space technology is old and tested technology, so let us celebrate International Space Year by taking the first steps to relocate industries that our unique biosphere does not have the capacity to support.

Originally appeared pp. 14-17, Eidolon 8 April 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.