Can going to space really save us from destroying the planet?

Posted on November 27, 2017

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CO2 is the proverbial bad boy of Earth. We demonize or deify it. At this point, if you’re lucid, you have to concede to both. You demonize it for its role in heating the planet. You deify it because without it we’d still be in the dark ages. It’s like Taylor Swift-

“Ugh, she’s so annoying. How many guys can she sing about?”

[Blank Space comes on]

“Damnnn, this song is my jam.”

[finds out Swifty sings it]

“I mean, she annoys me, but I can’t deny this song gets me moving.”

Like many bad boys though, CO2 rolls with friends. That friend is absolute energy production. No matter the source of energy, generating power generates heat. CO2 may be the contemporary lead singer, but we’ve been neglecting to criticize the rest of the band. If we continue the way we have been, hell, even if we continue at a lesser rate, producing more energy will continue to make the planet warmer. CO2 byproduct or not.

Image credit: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

For the solar lovers, continuing to produce more energy means continuing to need more land for panels:

Image credit: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

When it comes to money we love compound interest. When it comes to energy usage, we don’t. In 275 years, ALL THE LAND OF EARTH would have to be used for solar panels. If we consider we already need half Earth’s land for farming, meaning at best, assuming ZERO population growth, we’d have half that land for solar panels, we can surmise 275 years is much less.

You think the fight over CO2 is nasty? Imagine fighting over land again, with modern weaponry.

Predicting this is impossible. How much the population grows (or doesn’t, certain countries have negative birth rates), efficiency of agriculture, whether lab grown meat will work, we can’t know what will happen. But it makes sense to be proactive in this situation.

If we’re talking ~200 years, that’s two above average human lifespans. Not much time. Particularly considering making energy transitions takes between ugh and holy-hell-this-is-forever years. Solar cells have been around since the late 1800s! And CO2 is a byproduct of much more than just energy production. Concrete and steel production being two big ones, where the act of making the product means releasing CO2 (again, irregardless whether panels are used), and where there is no large scale, non-CO2 alternative in sight. Meaning while we’re making the transition we’re still going to be, for a long time, putting more CO2 in the air. Increasing the rate of heating…the above charts don’t even account for the greenhouse effect…

 

Space

This is an enormously under appreciated aspect of going to and inhabiting space. We’re simply running out of room on Earth. Those who rag on space as being a backup plan are missing the bigger picture.

“HOW ‘BOUT WE TAKE CARE OF EARTH FIRST??!?!”

Space is no more a backup plan than going to California was. All of modern America couldn’t live in the northeast.

More people means greater likelihood of human survival. If you’re in favor of humanity, denouncing population growth doesn’t make sense. If we want more people, we need more space. Plus, the more spread out we are, the better. To the stars we go.

However, some are so infatuated with space, technology, innovation, progress, they act like we can do whatever we want on Earth in the mean time. As if we’re on the verge of sending half the population off the planet.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, prince to Walmart’s king of CO2, also has a space company. One reason he’s pushing for humans into space is because of the above. In fact, he’ll recount the solar panel – land use argument in interviews. Yet he’ll also tell you he’s not for constraining energy usage on earth. That leads to stasis, and in his view, “stasis is not compatible with freedom.”

Bezos is one of the smartest business leaders, but this wreaks of “any impediment to freedom is satanic” type thinking. It’s hard not to be cynical here and say Jeff runs a company 100% dependent on increasing energy usage, so he in no way wants to deter that.

Is avoiding stasis / energy constraints through space feasible though? At least in the next 200 years?

How quickly can “one small step” be “millions of small steps”?

I think the easiest way to view this is how quickly can we get people off the planet? 536 people have been to space. That’s over the course of 55 years effort. Using the past as a predictor of the future is precarious. Cars, television, desktop computers, smartphones, there are plenty of examples of technology which nobody had, then everybody had.

That said, even at their most costly, none of the above were anywhere near as expensive as space travel. Right now, best case scenario, SpaceX is predicting a price of ~$200,000 per person to get to Mars.

-> This is where the inevitable Moore’s law lover will chime in. “Computers have gotten so much cheaper!” Say Alan Turing in college is the conception of modern computing. It took ~70 years for computers to become priced where most could buy them. Modern rocketry, Werner Von Braun, started at the same point. They ain’t ubiquitously priced!

In the near term, for humans to launch with SpaceX, the cheapest provider, NASA is predicting 58 million per seat. That’s one thousand times more than median household income. The most recent cost of a completed flight? 75 million per seat. Early computers weren’t THAT expensive.

One way we could look at this is for the planet to stay at maintenance, however many people we increase the population by each day, births – deaths, is how many people we need to launch each day…

there are 360,000 people born per day – 151,000 deaths = 208,800 people increase per day.

SpaceX is working on a rocket which would be the biggest ever made. Best case scenario it’s ~10 years away. It’ll be able to hold 100 people at a time. That’ll be the limit for the foreseeable future. (Like Musk will probably be dead by the time they’re doing more than that.)

That means we would need 2,088 flights of 100 people. Every day.

It’ll be more than that. We’re not going to command these people have to stay off the planet, right? (That would constrain freedom…) If half come back, an enormously optimistic percentage -astronauts are ecstatic to come back to Earth- then we need forty two hundred flights, every day.

Feasibility- comparisons

Our current travel habits

In 2015 59 million people flew from the United States to Europe. 159,000 per day. Who thinks we’re going to be sending over four hundred thousand people to space every day while we send 159,000 from the U.S. to Europe? Is that happening any time soon? Space is awesome, but have you been to Italy?

75 million visited the United States in 2016. 205,000 per day. (Only two other countries are close to this number of tourists.) So we’re talking, every day, 100% more people going to space than visiting the United States. 100% more people going to space than visiting any country!

It took a hundred years for us to be able to do that with airplanes, after proving they could work. Space is wayyyyy harder, and full reusability has yet to be proven. The Wright Brothers figured out flight in their spare time, with one helper, after their daily bike mechanic work, with $25,000 (in today’s money).

With the Space Shuttle, with a budget of about 17 billion a year, NASA worked on lowering the cost of space travel for 40 years, and failed. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (AND Richard Branson (and many others)), two of the most heralded contemporary entrepreneurs, have been at this more than 15 years. They each have thousands of employees, billions of dollars -they each spend at least billion a year on space- and have access to infinite more computing power than the Wright Brothers. They still haven’t launched a single human. (I’m not ragging on them. I believe they both will, and I’m happy about that. But it’s important to understand how hard this is.)

At this point, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars on space.

-> Moore’s law lovers: Apple didn’t need a billy a year to make a dent in computing. They needed $1 million in today’s money.

Cost

With 417,600 people per day, we’re at 152 million people in a year. Over six hundred million people in four years. Are there even that many people in the world who can afford a $200,000 purchase??? As of now, this is a cash purchase. Not a loan!

(If not clear, no, there aren’t that many rich people. There are only 400 million in the world with a net worth above $100,000.)

-> One reason I’m big on customers lowering the cost of transportation themselves, through losing weight.

My history is weak, but if memory serves me correctly, many of those who e.g. took part in the westward expansion of the United States did so for economic opportunity. Not because they were already well off. That throws a wrench in the mix. Those who can most afford to leave the planet may be those least likely to do so, due to already having a great life.

Think of space like extreme camping. It’s cool, then after a few days it’s just a pain in the ass. Add huge increase in likelihood of death, and you have space.

Visiting Mars would be like extreme camping in Antartica, which ain’t high on TravelZoo’s most visited places.

Available land

Are there even that many potential launch sites? You need a lot of room to launch rockets. The coasts are preferred. If something goes wrong, you dump the rocket in the ocean. Furthermore, rockets make sonic booms. The U.S. has never had a plane like the Concorde because we didn’t want to deal with sonic booms going over the country.

-> The speed of cars, air travel, and rockets are easy refutations to “technology keeps improving no matter what.” Exponential growth does not exist in perpetuity. Only temporarily, in S-Curves.

Credit: http://www.drcruzan.com/LogisticDifferentialEquations.html

The hangup is where are most people located? The coasts. (As safety improves we’ll get more lenient with being closer to people, but we’ll still need a lot of land.)

Let’s say a rocket is the equivalent of a single plane using a commercial, international airport. This is currently a fantasy comparison, but Southwest gets nearly 10 flights per gate, per day. At that rate, with over 4,000 rocket launches per day, we need 400 launch sites.

Launch Complex 39, where we launched the moon rockets from, is 7,000 acres.

7,000 acres * 400 launch sites = 2,800,000 acres.

That’s nearly the size of Connecticut. That’s actually doable. If sea level rise doesn’t get to Florida first, why not cover it in a Connecticut sized rocket flame? It already feels that hot there anyways.

If we assume a more realistic 10% stay-in-space rate, then to get 208,800 people who stay in space each day, we need 20,880 launches per day. 2,088 launch sites.

7,000 acres * 2,088 launch sites = 14,616,000 acres

Size of West Virginia. Still plenty of room to light up Florida.

Human support

At ~200,000 people per day, we’re servicing an entire small sized U.S. city of people every day. In space. A medium city every three days; a large city every five. How long does it take us to build infrastructure, on Earth?(!!!).

I live in a state racing to build enough housing, California, where at best it takes two years to build an apartment complex with 500 units. (Before bitching CA has regulations, think what kind of regulations space has.) New York City is pretty damn densely populated. Every 40 days we’d have a New York City amount of people in space. How in the universe are we going to build infrastructure that quickly?

Thinking beyond people

Bezos believes one day we’ll use space to do our heavy industry work. That could lessen how many people we need to transport off the planet, by lessening how much energy we produce on Earth. For instance, if we move all car manufacturing off the planet, we can trade that for humans staying.

However, let’s consider Starbucks has not figured out how to make recycling more cost effective than using new cups -by the way, they’ve tried extremely hard to do this, even giving money to MIT for help- it’s tough to imagine we’ll be e.g. producing aluminum in space cost effectively any time soon.

That is, any new step in the production process requires a cost analysis. Recycling a cup is a new step. Whether recycled or new, you have to get the materials for the cup. But with a recycled cup, you have to separate all the materials before making the new cup. (There is a plastic lining in it.) If that step is more expensive than getting and working with all the materials conventionally, there’s little business case to recycle.

With space material production, we’re talking quite a new step!

Are we really anywhere near it being cheaper to get the raw materials for and producing steel in space than through digging and producing on Earth? Actually, steel recycling makes economic sense. So with steel then, it would have to be cheaper to either produce new steel off the planet, or take Earth steel, send it off the planet, recycle it and send it back, than recycling it on Earth.

This is all under the assumption launching a rocket takes less energy than recycling on Earth. (If they both require the same amount of energy, you’re breaking even by sending the process off Earth.) You can’t 100% eliminate heavy industry on Earth, because you have to transport the results of that industry to Earth and back out, which requires energy.

-> Maybe a space tether / elevator fan would jump in here. Hey, I’m all for it, but it’s nowhere near on the docket.

Lithium is going to be an increasingly popular element. It borders on inconceivable to come up with a scenario where transporting it from space is more cost effective than transporting it from Australia, Chile, Brazil, China. (Especially if you live in China!) Barring some Earth laws (which would constrain freedom…).

Unless there is something inherent about space which would make production significantly cheaper, offsetting the transit cost. Something we have zero experience with, but this actually happens with food on Earth. It’s cheaper to have it produced in and shipped from other countries. One reason being cheap labor, another reason being a given food may grow better in a given area. Cheap labor, better environment than everywhere on Earth? Tough to see that happening in space any time soon. There is no doubt it will happen with certain items (some materials are so rare on Earth, it may be cost effective to get them in space), but we have to keep in mind,

1) It’s costly as hell to keep a human alive in space

2) Space labor is unlikely to be cheap

3) No, we can’t fully eliminate humans right away, relying on robots, because

4) It is going to be a monumental challenge to figure out how to make products on a celestial body with less gravity than Earth!

  • Oh, annnnnd
    • something like steel production uses oxygen, which isn’t as abundant in space, the moon or Mars
    • making metals entails furnaces at about a bajillion degrees
    • we currently use fossil fuels for these processes on Earth. Fossil fuels are dead plants and animals, is that available in space?
    • humans are still required in Earth factories / mills
    • AI currently needs labeled data to learn. How do we get labeled data without humans doing it first?
    • specialized AI is currently very expensive
    • basically name any part of the process and we have to figure it out. In the least, that takes a lot of time.

5) We’re nearly 60 years into space exploration and currently have zero products made in space. Illustrating cost is a barrier.

-> SpaceX has decreased the cost of launches by I don’t know, call it a couple hundred million dollars. About a 5x decrease. There are still NO space manufacturing projects on the horizon. To maintain the International Space Station, plausibly the size of a future space factory, costs billions per year. That doesn’t include launches to it!

Some will talk how solar energy is so plentiful in space, perhaps that can decrease the cost of some items by lessening the cost of energy. But there are always tradeoffs. We can’t forget space structures have to deal with one side of the structure being 200 degrees Celsius while the other side is -200 degrees Celsius. Or how a grain of sand in space is like a bullet on Earth. Or how orbits decay, requiring propellant to keep them properly aligned. Or how Mars is further away, meaning solar is less efficient, so you need more panels.

I’m rarely one to say never when it comes to human ingenuity. But I’m comfortable with saying at best, this is all so long away, we can’t rely on it.

Still not treating the cause

The argument has been made population growth is not even the real issue. Bolding mine,

  • “hunter-gatherers of a few million years ago used about 1 watt per kilogram
    (0.05 kilowatt per person);
  • agriculturists of several thousand years ago used roughly 10 watts per kilogram (0.5 kilowatt per person);
  • industrialists of a couple of centuries ago used about 50 watts per kilogram (2.5 kilowatts per person);
  • citizens of the world today, on average, use approximately 50 watts per kilogram (2.5 kilowatts per person); and
  • residents of the affluent United States use around 250 watts per kilogram (12.5 kilowatts per person).

    The cause of this recent rise is not population growth; these are power density values caused by the cultural evolution and technological advancement of our civilization.”

From Long-Term Global Heating From Energy Use.

(Notice the above values are in watts per kilogram. Not only is society using more energy, but each person is as well. Meaning population growth isn’t the only explanation.)

That’s a real problem then. Where it’s not only a matter of getting however many new people there are off the planet each day, you need to get a certain amount of energy off the planet each day. Remember, you need energy, on Earth, to do this! With rockets being the most energetically intensive means of transport. Further increasing how many people you need to transport.

If people are using more energy despite the population remaining stagnant, perfectly plausible considering the majority of the world does not live like Americans (yet), then we’re not getting anywhere. Or at least not where we need to get to. One can imagine a scenario where more people from the rich countries leave the planet because they can afford it. Meanwhile, the poorer countries start living more and more like the richer countries. Population remains stagnant, but population energy use does not.

Maybe we don’t want to jump to constraining energy usage yet, but we should at least jump to being a hell of lot more efficient with it. Going to space will help, is a necessity, we’re all but assured it’s going to happen, but it’s borderline impossible to consider it sufficient on any reasonable time scale.

Yeah, yeah, one may endlessly debate whether they need that new item from Amazon to tell them whether it’s time to take a dump or not, but what you can’t argue is we don’t need billions of overweight and obese people. Being at a healthy weight, not eating all you want, it may constrain freedom, but it frees up your arteries.

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