Lure of the Void (Part 1)

The Frontier of Disillusionment

…the idea that we are no longer able to accomplish feats we once could do (like travel to the Moon) clashes with the prevailing narrative that we march forever forward. Not only can’t we get to the Moon at present, but the U.S. no longer has a space shuttle program — originally envisioned to make space travel as routine as air travel. And for that matter, I no longer have the option to purchase a ticket to fly trans-Atlantic at supersonic speeds on the Concorde. Narratives can break.
Tom Murphy(bolding in original)

Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo included an entire pavilion dedicated to urban futures. Among the exhibits was a looping video on a large screen, depicting varieties of futuristic city-types as speculative animations, light-heartedly, and with obvious orientation to youngsters. Since children are the denizens of the future, it makes sense to treat them as the target audience for a vision of tomorrow’s world, but the effect was also disconcerting, as if parenthesizing what was shown in a form of deniable, non-abrasive irony. This is what the future used to look like. Does it still? On this point, a subtle reserve concealed itself as a concession to childish credibility, or even inconsequential fantasy.

One of the four future cities on display had been constructed off-planet, in earth-orbit. It was populated by happy humans (or, at least, humanoids). No date was predicted. Untethered from firm futuristic commitment, it intersected adult perception as a fragment of cross-cultural memory.

Imagine a city in space, as a child might. Given the strategic obscurity of this statement, when encountered at a carefully-crafted international event, in a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, global, Chinese city, in 2010, it is tempting to approach it through analogy. Half a century ago, when Western children were encouraged to imagine such things, during the twilight decades of modernity (1.0), was a sincere promise being made to them that they would inherit the solar system? If so, is such a promise now being humorously referenced, or is it being re-directed, and re-made?

The 2010 Expo had a Space Pavilion, too, which only deepened the perplexity. Given the opportunity to re-activate Expo traditions of techno-industrial grandiosity, it was a spectacular miss-launch, containing almost nothing in the way of monumental hardware. The content fell into two broad categories: video-based immersive special effects (highly-appreciated by kids), and vanilla-domestic applications of space technology, on the approximate model of NASA’s lamentable “we’re the guys who brought you the non-stick frying-pan” PR campaign. Anybody hoping for soul-crushing cyclopean military-analog launch vehicles and the acrid stink of rocket fuel had clearly wandered into the wrong century. Contemporary international etiquette prevailed, and according to that, the business of blazing into orbit is far too crude – even primitive — to be vigorously publicized.

So even in China, at least in its 2010 window to the world, off-planet aspirations were stirred together indissolubly with childhood fantasy. The unmistakable insinuation, harmonized with the commanding heights of world opinion, was that such hard SF dreams had been outgrown. Rather than staring through a window into the spark-torched clangorous workshop of China’s emerging national space program, Western visitors found their gazes bounced from mirrored glass, into a ‘postmodern’ vacuum of collapsed expectations, amongst the eroded ruins of Apollo. Four decades of Occidental space failure smiled politely back. You lost it, didn’t you? (A quick trip across the Huangpu to the drearily mundane USA Pavilion sufficed for unambiguous confirmation.)

The dismissal of a human off-planet future as a childish dream has plenty to build upon. The world’s publishers and book shops have long accommodated their classification systems to the sleazy ambiguity of the ‘science fiction / fantasy genre’, in which futurism smears into oneirism, and the vestiges of hard SF programs (telecommunication satellites, moon bases, space elevators…) are scattered amongst fantastic elves-in-space mythologies (from Star Wars to Avatar). Competitive prophecies decay into polemical allegories, making statements about anything and everything except the shape of the future.

Of all the cultural ripples from the truncation of the Apollo-era space trajectory, none is more telling than the rising popularity of ‘Moon Hoax’ conspiracy theorizing. Not satisfied with the prospective evacuation of the heavens, the moon hoaxers began systematically editing space-travelers out of the past, beginning with the lunar landings. Whilst clearly maddening to space technologists, American patriots, NASA supporters, and sensible types in general, this form of ‘denialism’ is not only historically comprehensible, but even inevitable. If nobody seriously contests the fact that Columbus reached the New World, it is at least in part because what was then started kept happening. Something began, and continued. Nothing comparable can be said about the process of lunar colonization, and that, in itself, is a provocative oddity. When forecasts are remembered, abandoned outcomes can be expected to mess up memories.

Old-school space enthusiast Sylvia Engdahl finds the whole situation pathological, and subjects it to a kind of jerry-built psychoanalysis. With defiant optimism, she attributes “the present hiatus in space travel” to xenophobic trauma:

Much is said about the positive effect of the photos of Earth obtained by Apollo 8, which for the first time showed our planet as a globe, a fragile refuge amid barren surroundings, and thereby launched the environmental movement. The concomitant negative impact — the spread of gut-level knowledge that space is an actual place containing little that’s familiar to us and perhaps much that we’d rather not meet — is not spoken of. But it may be no less significant. Could this be one of the reasons why interest in space died so soon after the first Moon landing, resulting in the cancellation of the last few planned Apollo missions?

She elaborates:

Most people do not want to contemplate the significance of an open universe. They do not let uneasiness about it into their minds, but underneath, as the collective unconscious of humankind absorbs the knowledge, they grasp it, and react with dismay disguised as apathy. It does not occur to them that they might be disturbed by the prospect of space exploration. Rather, they believe that although in theory they want humankind to reach new worlds, it’s of low priority compared to the problems of here and now. … [T]he widespread conviction that the public no longer cares about space may also be a rationalization.

Engdahl hints at a modern variant of the Orpheus myth, and captures something of arresting significance. We were told not to look back from orbit, but of course, we did, and what we saw pulled us back down. The damnation of our extraterrestrial out-leap gave birth to a lucid environmentalist vision — the earth seen from space. That is why Tom Murphy turns to the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer, to transmute elegiac disillusionment into acceptance:

The orbiters are silent now, waiting for the last awkward journey that will take them to the museums that will warehouse the grandest of our civilization’s failed dreams. There will be no countdown, no pillar of flame to punch them through the atmosphere and send them whipping around the planet at orbital speeds. All of that is over. …In the final analysis, space travel was simply the furthest and most characteristic offshoot of industrial civilization, and depended — as all of industrial civilization depends — on vast quantities of cheap, highly concentrated, readily accessible energy. That basic condition is coming to an end around us right now.

Disillusionment is simply awakening from childish things, the druids tell us. This is a point Murphy is keen to endorse: “space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems.” Intriguingly, his initial step towards acceptance involves a rectification of false memory, through a (sane) analog of ‘Moon Hoax’ denial. Surveying his students on their understanding of recent space history (“since 1980 or so”), he discovered that no less than 52% thought humans had departed the earth as far as the moon in that time (385,000 km distant). Only 11% correctly understood that no manned expedition had escaped Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since the end of the Apollo program (600 km out). Recent human space activity, at least in the way it was imagined, had not taken place. It was predominantly a collective hallucination.

Murphy’s highly-developed style of numerate druidism represents the null hypothesis in the space settlement debate: perhaps we’re not out there because there’s no convincing reason to expect anything else. Extraterrestrial space isn’t a frontier, even a tough one, but rather an implacably hostile desolation that promises nothing except grief and waste. There’s some scientific data to be gleaned, and also (although Murphy doesn’t emphasize this) opportunities for political theatrics. Other than that, however, there’s nothing beyond LEO worth reaching for.

The neo-druidic starting point is unapologetically down to earth. It begins with energy physics, and the remorseless fact that doing just about anything heats things up. According to Murphy’s calculations, a modest 2.3% global economic growth rate suffices to bring the planetary surface to the boiling point of water within four centuries, even in the complete absence of (positive) greenhouse effects. Economic growth is essentially exponential, and that guarantees that we’re cooked, due to elementary thermodynamic principles, efficiency limits, and the geophysics of heat dissipation. Within this big picture, conventional ‘energy crisis’ concerns are no more than complicating details, although Murphy engages them thoroughly. (He provides a neat summary of his argument, with internal links, here.)

From the neo-druidic perspective, the space ‘frontier’ is a horizon of sheer escapism, attracting those who stubbornly deny the necessity of limitation (pestilential growth-addicts):

…relying on space to provide an infinite resource base into which we grow/expand forever is misguided. Not only is it much harder than many people appreciate, but it represents a distraction to the message that growth cannot continue on Earth and we should get busy planning a transition to a non-growth-based, truly sustainable existence.

Since plenty of irrepressible growth-mongers seriously want to get out there, Murphy trowels on the discouragement in thick, viscous layers. Most of the deterrent factors are relatively familiar, but none of them are frivolous, or easily dismissed. The principal problem is the most qualitative (and druidic): human adaptation to terrestrial conditions. This is strikingly illuminated by a consideration of terrestrial ‘frontier’ environments that remain almost entirely unexploited, despite environmental features that are overwhelmingly more benign than anything to be found off-planet. When compared to any conceivable space station, asteroid mining camp, lunar base, or Mars colony, even the most ‘difficult’ places on earth — the seabed, for instance, or the Antarctic — are characterized by extreme hospitability, with ready access to breathable air, nutrients, fuels, and other essential resources, a moderate temperature range, protection from cosmic radiation, and proximity to existing human settlements. This is to be contrasted with typical extraterrestrial conditions of hard vacuum, utter exposure, complete absence of bio-compatible chemistry, and mind-jarring distances.

Murphy touched upon these distances in his survey of student space ignorance. If earth is represented by a “standard” 30-centimeter globe, LEO is 1.5 centimeters from the surface, and the moon a full 9 meters further out. For intuitive purchase upon more expansive space visions, however, a re-calibration is required.

It makes sense to model the earth as a small apple (8.5 cm in diameter), because then an astronomical unit (AU, the mean earth-sun distance of roughly 150 million kilometers, 93 million miles, or 500 light seconds) shrinks to a kilometer, with the sun represented by a sphere a little over 10 meters in diameter. The moon now lies less than 2.7 meters out from our toy earth, but Mars is never less than 400 meters away, the nearest asteroids a kilometer away. The distance to the edge of the planetary solar system (Neptune) is at least 29 kilometers, and within this spatial volume (a sphere of roughly 113,400 AU³), less than one part in 27 billion is anything other than desolate vacuum, with almost all the rest being solar furnace. On the toy scale, the outer edge of the solar system, and the Oort cloud, lies 50,000 kilometers from the earth. The distance from our shriveled apple to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 277,600 toy kilometers (or 41.5 trillion real ones).

If space colonization is being construed as an escape from terrestrial resource constraints, then a pattern of activity needs to be knitted across these distances, producing — at a minimum — an energy surplus. In a non-frictional kinetic system, governed almost purely by (macroscopic) conservation of momentum, the basic currency of space activity is ‘delta-v’, or the transformation of velocity. Delta-v is broadly proportional to energy expenditure on “small burns”, when fuel consumption makes a negligible difference to total propelled mass, but when complete flights or “large burns” are calculated, the math becomes nonlinear, since the reduction of fuel payload becomes a critical factor in the equation (subtracting inertial resistance as it adds motive force). In practical terms, the prospective off-planet (‘space-faring’) energy economy consists of the consumption of propellant to move propellant about, with non-fuel vehicle mass contributing little more than a rounding error in the calculations.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is possible to get the rocket moving faster than the exhaust velocity once the fuel mass exceeds 63% of the total initial mass. In order to get delta-v values in the 20 km/s range when the exhaust velocity is less than 5 km/s requires almost nothing but fuel. …[T]he large delta-v’s required to get around the solar system require a lot of fuel…

This double-registry of fuel within the nonlinear equations of “rocket math” – as payload and propellant – is the key to Murphy’s deep skepticism about the viability of off-planet energy economics. The fuel resources strewn within the inner solar system – even assuming their absolute abundance – cannot be moved around usefully for less energy than they provide. Jupiter offers the most tantalizing example. This methane-rich gas giant might be superficially apprehended as an immense cosmic fuel depot, but even the most generous calculations of delta-v requirements for a Jupiter ‘tanker-run’ imply energy expenditures at least an order of magnitude higher than energy obtained – from the ‘scooping’ operation alone. The inner solar-system is abundant in “stranded resources” that cannot conceivably be extracted at a cost lower than their value. That, at least, is the coherent neo-druidic perspective.

…and yet, in the yawning void, where the space settlements were meant to have been, the stirrings have not ceased. There even seems to be, unmistakably, a quickening of pace. Chinese ‘Taikonauts’, private (American) ‘NewSpace’ businesses, and ever more advanced robots are venturing out beyond the wreckage of dead dreams. Are they heading anywhere that works, or that even makes sense?

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