The Other N-word

Nuclear.

The US public is split nearly 50/50 between those who favor nuclear power and those who don’t. Because of this, nuclear is often a dirty word in the political arena. Nobody wants to lose half their constituency over a marginal issue like nuclear power. Before 1979, the political climate was ripe for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the cancellation of most new nuclear plant projects. 30 years later, the public was just starting to warm up to the idea of nuclear as part of the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Then, in a case of incredibly poor timing, the Fukushima disaster struck.

There is a lot of weird cultural weight attached to the “N-word”, not the least due to an entire generation being psychologically scarred by the perceived overhanging threat of nuclear war. Unfortunately, this snubs one of humanity’s greatest hopes for survival.

Nuclear might not be cost-effective as geothermal, wind, or hydro power. It also isn’t as clean as solar. However, I would argue that neither cost-effectiveness nor cleanliness displaces nuclear from being the best “clean” energy source available. And not only would widespread adoption of nuclear energy entirely solve the climate crisis, it would save humanity from eventual extinction by hastening our spread through the universe.

As I see it, the only other power source that is as scalable as nuclear is solar. Solar, however, loses out on two counts. First, it is really expensive compared to, like, any other power source. Second, the energy density of solar is really, really low. We would need to cover 496,805 square kilometers of area with solar panels to satisfy the world’s projected energy consumption in 2030. While the price of solar power has really come down, that’s also in part due to subsidized research. On the other hand, nuclear has a much higher power density, and despite years of marginalization, is still competitive with current cutting-edge solar power. It is also extremely reliable, with fluctuations in power output virtually non-existent. This is something other forms of renewable energy lack.

If we started investing in nuclear research, we could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear power and satisfy a huge portion of the world’s energy demands. Cheap electricity would hasten the wide-spread use of electric cars (okay, this would probably happen anyways). With combustion cars and both natural gas and coal plants replaced, the influx of greenhouse gases into the environment would be greatly reduced. Cheap, portable reactors would allow developing countries to get on their feet in terms of manufacturing capability. Cheap energy would allow us to implement energy-intensive climate engineering schemes. Advanced nuclear technology would lead to the development of closed-core nuclear rockets, allowing safe, clean, and cheap access to space. Portable reactors would jump-start unmanned planetary exploration, interstellar exploration, human colonization, and asteroid mining.

Of course, none of this will happen. Nuclear is still a dirty word, burdened by the historical and cultural baggage it must drag around. The first step to a better, cleaner future is to get the public to accept nuclear power. As long as we are afraid to say the word, we are holding ourselves back from achieving our full potential.

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Fetishizing Apollo

America has an unhealthy obsession with historic US space missions. This obsession is even more pronounced in the space-enthusiast community; it is no surprise that there are multitudes of mods for KSP that allow users to build and fly their very own Saturn V rocket. Really, America’s fixation on the 1960s and -70s era NASA programs has achieved a pornographic level (I use this word not in the sexual meaning, but in the same sense as in the pornography of violence).

It is an understandable attraction, I suppose — many of the iconic space photographs were taken by Apollo astronauts.

earthrise astronaut fullearth

Landing people on the Moon might be considered one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and was certainly the height of glory for the US space program.

But the level at which America has turned the moon missions into a fetish is astounding. Countless books, movies, rehashed TV series, photo remasters, articles, celebrations… it’s depressing.

We should appreciate Apollo for what it was: an antenna. Celebrating Apollo is like including the antenna mast in the height measurement for a really tall building. Yes, the fact that we stuck a tall pole on top of a tall building is cool, but it’s not really the pole that you’re interested in, is it?

People like thinking about Apollo because they like the idea of humans expanding into space, and in their mind Apollo is the farthest we’ve ever gotten towards that goal. It’s an understandable misconception, considering the Moon is literally “the farthest humans have ever gone”. But Apollo was unsustainable (even if the Apollo Applications Program had gone forwards, it still would have been a step in the wrong direction!). We are now much closer to accomplishing the goal of long-term human expansion into space than we ever were.

SLS, more like SMH

Granted, it won’t be painted the same way in real life.

This is why the SLS is so disappointing, I think. Right now we have highly advanced computing and robotics technologies, excellent ground support infrastructure for space missions, incredibly advanced materials knowledge, and a huge array of novel manufacturing techniques being developed. As a civilization, we are much more ready to colonize space than we were a half-century ago. Yet the government has decided the best way to start human expansion into space is to build a cargo cult around Apollo. The US is building a rocket that looks like the Saturn V, as if some sort of high-tech idolatry will bring back the glory of Apollo. They are resurrecting an architecture that was never a good idea to begin with!

The space program paradigm is outdated. Despite my most optimistic hopes, let’s be real: the next big driver in space travel will be high-power corporations following the profits of a few innovative companies that pioneer the market. It won’t be enthusiastic supporters than become the first space colonists, but employees doing their stint in the outer solar system before returning to Earth.

Does Space Exploration have an ROI?

It’s easy to dismiss the current space program as a giant waste of money. Collectively, the world spends billions upon billions of dollars launching tiny pieces of metal into the sky. How could that possibly be better than, say, building a school in India or providing clean water to poor African countries, or even spending it domestically to improve our country? In the face of recent budget crises, this cry gains even more clout.

And indeed, a lot of space programs are very wasteful, especially NASA and the Roscosmos. However, this is generally due to the fact that politicians treat space as a football — another barrel of pork for their constituents. When politics and space exploration mix, you get bloated programs like the Space Shuttle and the new SLS. It’s much better when the politicians set broad goals (AKA land on the moon), fork over the money, and let the engineers work their magic. Otherwise you get a twisted maze of bureaucracy and general management which ends with wasted money and subpar designs.

But let us not forget that NASA has produced a number of very tangible technological advancements, which is summarized here better than I could. In addition, satellites are a cornerstone of the global communications network, not to mention the Global Positioning System, which is satellites. Although communications satellites are now built and launched by commercial ventures, NASA was the first and only customer for a while, and allowed companies to get some expertise in designing and building rockets. Furthermore, the space industry employs tens of thousands of people, all possible because of initial government funding.

However, those examples involve geostationary orbit at the most. What is the practical value of going out and scanning the other bodies in our solar system. Why should we launch space telescopes and space probes? If you don’t believe in the inherent value of knowledge, here is a very down-to-earth example (so to speak): the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) watches the sun 24/7 from L1. It gives us an advance warning for solar flares, allowing satellite operators enough time to turn their expensive pieces of equipment away from the sun, shielding the most delicate electronics from the impending wave of radiation. It is estimated that SOHO has paid for itself 10 times over in this fashion.

Finally, part of space exploration is the attempt to answer some of the big questions. Deep space telescopes answer some part of “Where did we come from?”, and probes to the surfaces of other planets and moon are often trying to answer “Are we alone?”. If you think this is far too sentimental an appeal, I urge you to imagine the ramifications if a future mission to Europa found microorganisms living in the oceans under the ice, or a mission to Mars found lithophiles buried under the Martian regolith. How would world philosophies change?

Regardless, we may be spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. I submit to you the Indian space program, which designed and launched a mission to Mars for about 75 million dollars. I think the US should follow India’s example and lean towards frugality and very specific, directed goals. Accomplishing a single mission for a small amount of money is better, in my opinion, than developing several high-profile, high-cost programs simultaneously.

While my language and previous post may make it seem like I am opposed to any sort of space exploration, I am merely of the opinion that our society views space exploration in the wrong way. Space exploration should not be about sending humans to other bodies, at least not right now. It should be about trying to find out more about the rest of our solar system, so we can extrapolate and make predictions about the other systems and exoplanets we are discovering. And if all else fails, it can be a platform for many kinds of materials and electronics research.

Say “No” to Manned Spaceflight

I like the idea of people walking around on other planets as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day I can’t go away with a clear conscience without making this point. There is no reason for a manned space program, either now or in the immediate future. In fact, it would be quite irresponsible of us to go mucking around on other balls of dirt.

Much like the archaeologists of the past who used ancient scrolls to keep their fires going, any serious presence or in-situ resource utilization could be inadvertently destroying priceless research subjects. Imagine if we started harvesting ice from asteroids, and then discovered that very old ice tends can contain detailed records of proto-stellar conditions in the Solar System. Even things like rolling robots across Mars or slamming probes into the Moon are calculated risks. We’re pretty sure we won’t mess up anything important, but we aren’t sure. Paradoxically, we can’t be sure what we’re missing without taking some of these risks.

Nonetheless, sending advanced primates to do the job of fast, clean, accurate robots is as irresponsible as it is stupid. Animals are hosts to trillions of bacteria, and if even one strain gets onto the surface of Mars, say, and adapts to the not-so-inhospitable conditions, it’s all over. We rely on the hard vacuum of space to kill off any potential infection vectors on robotic spacecraft, but we can’t do the same for humans. If we’re going to be sending humans to any place remotely capable of developing life, we need to be almost 100% sure there is no life there to begin with, or that the presence of invasive species of bacteria won’t eliminate it.

Even if we make sure to within reasonable doubt that there is no longer or never was life on Mars, we might be screwing ourselves in the long run by sending humans to colonize. If a mutant strain of bacteria spreads to cover the planet like the stromatolites of ancient Earth, and starts eating up what little oxygen is left, then any terraforming efforts could be foiled before they begin. Imagine if our engineered bacteria produces oxygen as a byproduct, and a rogue strain works in the other way. We’d have created a widespread stable ecosystem that leaves us asphyxiating out in the cold.

The two arguments in favor of long-range manned spaceflight have never held much water for me, even if I wanted them to. First, the “putting our eggs in one basket”. Now, current manned spaceflight has nothing to do with the colonization of space. If we were serious about spreading a permanent, self-sustaining presence to another planet, we would have to completely reorganize the existing attitude and institutions surrounding manned spaceflight. Currently, the world’s collective manned spaceflights are a road to nowhere. The ISS is a good sandbox for learning about long-term missions, but we don’t really use it like that.

The second argument is economic. I’ve gone over this is previous posts, but the short of it is that it will be a long time before its profitable to go off-world for resources — unless, that is, there is an exterior source of funding. It’s conceivable that a mild industry might build up around mining space ice for fuel and 3D-printing components. However, at some point funding has to be provided by someone interested in scientific exploration or the intrinsic value of space exploration. A self-contained space economy with Earth as the main buyer is not viable. Perhaps there exists a chicken-egg dilemma: a permanent off-world colony needs industry to survive, and industry needs off-world colonies to thrive.

That’s the cold, hard reality of the matter. I don’t want to have this opinion, but avoiding the truth about manned space exploration isn’t doing anybody any good.

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