The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.

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Remembering September 12, 1962

12 09 2012

JFK at Rice University, Sept 12, 1962.

Exactly a half-century ago today, President John F. Kennedy declared in a landmark speech America’s rationale for achieving the impossible: Going to the Moon. 

And it is in this speech, which we commemmorate on the day after another anniversary marked by such tragedy, in a social climate today burdened with so much loss, strife, and economic depression, that we can draw inspiration and hope for the future. 

Unlike our opponents at the time, Kennedy’s message was a message of freedom and peace in space.  And to ensure it, he had to sell it to the American people. 

Remarkably, with as relevant as his words continue to be, he could very well have been speaking to the America of today:

“… [T]his country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.  This country was conquered by those who moved forward…”

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.  For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own.  … [S]pace can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.  There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.  Its hazards are hostile to us all.  Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.”

“We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

“The growth of science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

“…[T]he space effort itself … has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.  Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel … and this region will share greatly in its growth.”

“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”

We might look upon the International Space Station today as the realization of Kennedy’s vow for peaceful, knowledge-centered pursuits in space.  -And private companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, and Planetary Resources are today challenging the hardships of space in the pursuit of space’s rewards.

As we look to heal – economically, socially, spiritually – we might look to space as the ideal environment that Kennedy championed, which holds true today: A frontier yet-unblemished by conflicts over belief, religion, combative nationalism, or economic strife; A place from which all explorers emerge with a renewed sense of kinship with our lonely world and the inhabitants of its many diverse and unique cultures; A place where we go to forge technological solutions and harvest knowledge from the very farthest extent of our reach so that all might benefit from it; A place where we have constantly demonstrated the best qualities of humankind.

Today, fifty years after Kennedy set us on a path that many would argue changed the course of history, whether considering the issue of jobs, rights, prejudice, education, or wars, I believe we need space much more than it needs us.

And Kennedy helped light the way.  

09/12/62 – Semper Exploro








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