Lure of the Void (Part 3a)

There are two related questions posed by human exploration. First, is there anything economically useful to do out there, that pays your way? And second, can you live off the land, and use local resources to survive, or will we always be tied to support from earth? If the answer to both is yes, then you get space colonies, self-sustainable life off-planet. If the answer to both is no, then space is like Mt. Everest. Tourists might go to Mt. Everest, sherpas might make a living off of it, but no one really lives there.
If the answer is that you can live off the land, but it’s not economically useful, it’s like Antarctica. It was 40 years between the last time we were there, when Shackleton reached Antarctica, and when the U.S. Navy went back in 1912. There’s a similar lapse between going to the Moon the first time and, hopefully, when we’ll return. In that case, you can form an outpost and live there, but you’re sustained by constant funding, since engineering doesn’t pay for itself. If the answer is that there are economically useful things to do, such as mining Helium-3 on the Moon, but we’re always reliant on Earth for basic necessities, then space becomes a North Sea oil platform. You can make money there, but it will always be a hostile environment.
These are four very radically different human futures. And they’re all part of a larger question: Is there a human future beyond Earth? It’s a question ranks up there with whether there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. We can search for life with probes and telescopes, but to determine the living range of humanity, we’re going to have to send humans into space.
Scott Pace

What should the payload be? It does not matter. That is the point. This is not about getting a useful payload into space: That is almost irrelevant. It is about guaranteeing a market for companies offering launch services to get things going. I mean this totally. If we could think of nothing better to launch, concrete blocks would be fine. My philosophy is:
Launching anything is good.  Paul Almond

The material base for a space-faring future is not only stranded in space, but also stranded in time. Not only are the gravitationally-unlocked resources from which it would assemble itself strewn across intimidating immensities of vacant distance, but the threshold where it all begins to come together – in an autocatalytic extraterrestrial economy – is separated from the world of present, practical incentives by dread gulfs of incalculable loss. In a variant of the old joke, if getting off-planet is the goal, a planet is the absolutely worst place to set out from. “I can tell you how to get there,” the local helpfully remarked. “But you shouldn’t start from here.”

Being out there could quickly start to make sense, as long as we were already there. Experimenting with this perspective-switch makes the animating impulse clearer. Most tellingly, it exposes how deeply planets suck, so that merely not being on one is worth almost anything. That’s the end game, the final strategy, ultimately arranging everything, with anti-gravity as the key.

Once gravity is perceived as the natural archetype of imprisonment, keeping you somewhere, whether you want to be there or not, the terrestrial-economic motivations for off-planet expansion are revealed in their fundamental spuriousness. The reason to be in space is to be in space, freed from planetary suckitude, and any benefits to Earth-dwellers that accrue on the way are mere stepping stones. Off-planet resources diverted to the surface of the Earth are, in the ultimate spacer scheme, wasted, or at least strategically sacrificed (since such wastage is almost certainly required in the interim). In the final analysis, the value of anything whatsoever is degraded in direct proportion to the gravitational influences brought to bear upon it, and descent from the heavens is a fall.

A wider cosmo-developmental view sharpens resolution (although this requires that Smart’s invaluable insights are strictly set aside, and black holes avoided with maximum prejudice). Smear into fast-forward until the process of extraterrestrial escape has been substantially accomplished, then freeze the screens. Fleeing gravity can now be seen as no more than the first step in a more thorough, antagonistic contestation with gravity and its works. Asteroids and comets are being pulverized, quarried, or bored into sponges, leaving moons, planets, and the sun itself as the local problems of interest. Such bodies are ‘problems’ because they deform space with gravity wells, which trap resources, but their status as development obstacles can be abstracted further. These worlds, at least partially isolated from the emerging deep-space commercium by their own mass, have been shaped by gravity into approximate spheres, which is to say – from the developmental perspective – into the very worst shapes that are mathematically possible, since they minimize the ratio of (reactive) surface to volume, and thus restrict resource accessibility to the greatest conceivable extent. Way out there, in deep space and the deep future, the gathering developmental impulse is to go full Vogon, and demolish them completely.

When seen from outside, planets are burial sites, where precious minerals are interred. By digging through the earth’s mantle, for instance, all the way down to its interior end, 3,000km beneath the surface, one reaches a high-pressure iron-nickel deposit over 6,500km in diameter – a planet-vaulted metal globe roughly 160,000,000,000 cubic kilometers in size, doped by enough gold and platinum to coat the entire surface of the earth to a depth of half a meter. To a moderately advanced off-world civilization, pondering the practicalities of its first planet-scale demolition, leaving this buried resource trove in place has a robotic-industrial opportunity cost that can be conservatively estimated in the region of 1.6 x 10^23 human-level intelligences, a mineral stockpile sufficient to manufacture a trillion sentient self-replicating probes for every star in the galaxy. (Even ardent conservationists have to recognize how tasty this morsel will look.)

Lift-off, then, is merely a precursor to the first serious plateau of anti-gravity technology, which is oriented towards the more profoundly productive task of pulling things apart, in order to convert comparatively inert mass-spheres into volatile clouds of cultural substance. Assuming a fusion-phase energy infrastructure, this initial stage of off-world development culminates in the dismantling of the sun, terminating the absurdly wasteful main-sequence nuclear process, salvaging its fuel reserves, and thus making the awakened solar-system’s contribution to the techno-industrial darkening of the galaxy. (Quit squandering hydrogen, and the lights dim.)

Focus for a few seconds on the economic irritability that arises at the sight of an oil-well flaring off natural gas, through sheer mindless incompetence, then glance at the sun. ‘Unsustainable’ doesn’t begin to capture it. Clearly, this energy machinery is utterly demented, amounting to an Azathothic orgy of spilled photons. The entire apparatus needs to be taken apart, through extreme solar surgery. Since this project has yet to receive sustained consideration, however, the specific engineering details can be safely bracketed for now.

The inexorable logic of techno-industrial efficiency, on its anti-gravity vector, means that the only consistent motivation for leaving the earth is to dismantle the sun (along with the rest of the solar-system), but that doesn’t play well in Peoria. Unsurprisingly, therefore, those sensitized to political realities, media perceptions, and public relations are inclined to emphasize other things, depicting the earth as a destination for cosmic bounty or — even more immediately — for juicy tax-funded pork, rather than as a tricky but highly-rewarding demolition problem.

Conspicuously missing from the public space debate, therefore, is any frank admission that, “(let’s face it folks) — planets are misallocations of matter which don’t really work. No one wants to tell you that, but it’s true. You know that we deeply respect the green movement, but when we get out there onto the main highway of solar-system redevelopment, and certain very rigid, very extreme environmentalist attitudes – Gaian survivalism, terrestrial holism, planetary preservationism, that sort of thing — are blocking the way forward, well, let me be very clear about this, that means jobs not being created, businesses not being built, factories closing down in the asteroid belt, growth foregone. Keeping the earth together means dollars down the drain – a lot of dollars, your dollars. There are people, sincere people, good people, who strongly oppose our plans to deliberately disintegrate the earth. I understand that, really I do, you know – honestly – I used to feel that way myself, not so long ago. I, too, wanted to believe that it was possible to leave this world in one piece, just as it has been for four billion years now. I, too, thought the old ways were probably best, that this planet was the place we belonged, that we should – and could — still find some alternative to pulling it apart. I remember those dreams, really I do, and I still hold them close to my heart. But, people, they were just dreams, old and noble dreams, but dreams, and today I’m here to tell you that we have to wake up. Planets aren’t our friends. They’re speed-bumps on the road to the future, and we simply can’t afford them anymore. Let’s back them up digitally, with respect, yes, even with love, and then let’s get to work…” [Thunderous applause]

Since, during the present stage of extraterrestrial ambition, pandering to the partisans of cosmic disintegrationism cannot reasonably be conceived as a sure-fire election winner, it is only to be expected that rhetoric of this kind has been muted. Yet, in the absence of some such vision, or consistently extrapolated alignment with anti-gravity, the off-planet impulse is condemned to arbitrariness, insubstantiality, and insincerity of expression. Absent an uncompromised sense of something else, why not stick to this? The result has been, perhaps predictably, a reign of near-silence on the topic of extraterrestrial projects, even in regard to its most limited, immediate, and practically unobjectionable varieties.

If escaping the earth – and gravitational confinement in general — is not an intelligible end, but only a means, what provides the motivation? It is into this cramped, awkwardly-deformed crevice of aspiration that NewSpace must insinuate itself. To speak of ‘insincerity’ might seem unduly harsh – since there is no reason to suspect conscious deception, or even carefully-calibrated reservation, when NewSpace advocates outline their plans. An enveloping structure of implausibility nevertheless announces itself in every project that is advanced, manifested through the incommensurability between the scale of the undertaking and the rewards that supposedly incentivize it. Space tourism, asteroid mining, micro-gravity experimentation and manufacturing… really? Is it genuinely imaginable that these paltry goals finally or sufficiently motivate a prolonged struggle against the terrestrial gravity-trap, rather than serving as fragile pretexts or rationalizations for the pursuit of far more compelling, yet hazy, unarticulated, or even completely unsuspected objectives?

When this question is extended backwards, and outwards, it gathers force. Stretch it back to the moon, and out to Mars, and the inference becomes increasingly irresistible. None of these ‘missions’ made, or make, any sense whatsoever, except insofar as they abbreviate some wider, undisclosed impulse. Space activity is not the means to a targeted end, but the end to be advanced by a sequence of missions, whose specific content is therefore derivative, and devoid of intrinsic significance. Once the inarticulate outward momentum decays, leaving nothing but an arbitrary extraterrestrial destination to represent it, the naked absurdity that is exposed rapidly extinguishes the last, flickering embers of popular motivation. Four decades of explicit lunar nihilism attest abundantly to that.

Whilst the partial privatization of space activity (‘NewSpace’) creatively displaces the problem of purpose, it does not radically dispel it. To some degree, NewSpace substitutes the economic motivations of disparate private operators for the political justification of a concentrated public bureaucracy, and by doing so it relieves the pressure to maintain coherent, communicable, and consensual objectives. Space ambitions are freed to enter the fragmented, competitive terrain of idiosyncrasy, variety, experimentation, and even personally-financed frivolity. It might even be thought that seriousness becomes optional.

When examined more doggedly, however, it is clear that the basic problem persists. The terrestrial gravity-well produces a split between the surface of the earth, and ‘orbit’ (or beyond), and private capital is no less severely divided by this schism than Rocket-State ‘public’ hardware. Whilst convertible temporarily into forms of inert, stored value, capital is an essentially modern phenomenon, born in industrial revolution, and typically defined by the diversion of immediate consumption into ‘roundabout’ production, which is to say: machinery. It is reproduced, or accumulated, by circulating through machines, or apparatus, and it is upon this that the gravity-well compels a decision: is NewSpace capital to be invested, unambiguously, in space?

A serious space program is, fundamentally and irreducibly, a process or terrestrial evacuation. It requires the consistent relocation (or de-location) of enterprise, resources, and productive capabilities from the earth into space, at least until the threshold of extraterrestrial autocatalysis is reached, at which point a break has been achieved, and an autonomous off-planet economy established. Whatever the opportunities for obfuscation (which are probably considerable), the basic decision remains unaffected. The accumulation of a terrestrial fortune is not at all the same, and is in fact almost certainly economically inconsistent, with the sustained investment in an off-planet industrial infrastructure. Either stuff is being shifted into space, irrevocably, or not.

[moon cake break]