Monday, August 6, 2012

Is Space Exploration Sustainable?

When I logged into the computer this morning I was greeted by news of the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. This was the headline on the news sites, and a topic of conversation of my friends on social media sites. I wasn't even able to check the weather forecast without seeing news about the landing. With all of the attention being paid to the event, I thought I should probably weigh in with my views on the subject as it relates to simple living and sustainability.

First, a bit of background, based on my limited research. Curiosity is a Mars rover which was launched as part of the Mars Science Laboratory. The objective of the launch is to determine if Mars could have ever supported life, study the climate and geology of the planet, as well as to collect data for future human missions.

The rover was launched via the Atlas V 541 rocket, which is considered an expendable launch system. In other words, the rocket is designed to be used only once, with no intent of recovering the spent components. Think about that for a moment. We built this rocket which is taller than many lighthouses, for one single job, then it becomes trash. How much material went into the construction of this rocket that could have been put to better use? Imagine if we used this transportation model in other industries. How wasteful would it be to have a load of bananas sent from Central America to the Eastern US, just to destroy the ship after the cargo as unloaded. In addition to the wasted materials of the rocket itself, we can't forget the amount of fuel required to launch the rocket and payload into orbit. The different components of the rocket use different fuels, including kerosene, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen.

The rover itself is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator which harnesses the power from the radioactive decay of Plutonium-238. Once the mission has been completed, the rover will not be recovered. In fact, there are other rovers still on the surface of Mars from previous missions.  This means that the spent Plutonium will not be recovered and contained. I suppose this isn't considered a big deal, since no life is believed to exist on Mars, but it still seems irresponsible to me. We're already polluting the planet before ever visiting there in person. That doesn't seem like a very good start to me.

In addition to the physical resources that have been used on this project there has been a huge investment of human capital. Some of the top scientists and engineers in the world have been working on this project for months. Now that the craft has landed, there will be many more months of sifting through and analyzing the data being transmitted by the rover. While I'm sure that NASA knows the estimated man hours required for the project, I've yet to see any info on that. Regardless, I'm confident that the effort is massive. I have to wonder about the innovation we are sacrificing in other fields by focusing the attention of so many people on this single project. Couldn't the knowledge and experience be better spent working on new alternative energy technology, improving our infrastructure, developing more advanced agriculture methods, or even building more affordable housing for the less fortunate?

Perhaps all of the spent resources, millions of dollars of investment, and sacrifices will be worth it to gain the information that the rover is being sent to collect. I'm sure there are some who believe this will be the case, otherwise the project would not, at least I hope, have been undertaken. Personally, however, I can't find a justification for the project, at least not at the cost that was required. Looking back at the stated objectives of the mission, I see nothing that seems important enough to prioritize above improving conditions on our own planet. It may be that this and other, similar, projects are an attempt to lay the groundwork, not only for manned mission to Mars, but for eventual colonization of the planet. I know that this is a goal for some, and I've even heard the suggestion that such colonization may ultimately be the solution to overcoming the damage being done to our own planet.

The idea of colonizing another planet, so humans have somewhere to go if the Earth becomes inhospitable is certainly not a sustainability-minded idea. How many science fiction movies and novels have been written in which the villain is an alien race who, having used up all of the resources or otherwise destroyed their own planet, are attempting an invasion of Earth to gain its resources? Do we really want to be that species? Do we really want our history to include using up and destroying our planet, our ancestral home, then simply moving on to do the same to another planet? If we can't find a way to live in harmony with our own planet, which is uniquely suited to providing all that we need for survival, do we really think that we can do better living on another planet on which we will most likely to be forced to live in artificially generated atmosphere?

While this post has focused on the Mars rover Curiosity, the same ideas can be extended to other space exploration as well.  Is space exploration sustainable? I don't think so. I've yet to see any evidence that leads me to believe that the ends justify the means.


  1. As someone who supports space exploration and efforts to colonize, I must say I absolutely agree with you. The kinds of problems you've outlined -- particularly the wastefulness -- are exactly why I am looking forward to seeing this industry become privatized. While major corporations typically aren't any better than government, I've noticed that those getting most of the attention in this area -- like Richard Branson of Virgin -- tend to have what I think of as "progressive" personalities: they can be described as liberals, and are often involved in environmental and humanitarian causes. My hope is that they will be more responsible and more efficient in developing appropriate technologies, and that the staff and crew they hire will be similarly inclined to revere and protect this planet and others we may encounter. Generally, I have a lot of hope for future generations.

    A few months ago I read a sci-fi series by Kim Stanley Robinson about the colonization of Mars. In it, the first settlers (called the First Hundred) almost immediately become divided on their views of Mars and how it should be "used." Most of them are on board with terraforming, constructing communities, establishing industry, etc.; theirs is called the Green position, and the people are called Greens. Meanwhile, the Reds, whose views of Mars take on some spiritualist characteristics, are determined to preserve Mars as it is. They practically worship the planet and its magnificently temperamental weather patterns, and aren't above committing acts of terrorism. They mostly live in hiding, either staying mobile in large rover craft, or by hiding out in self-sufficient cave systems. I read all 3 books (collectively called the Mars Trilogy) and never did quite figure out which group I sided with. Perhaps that was the point. :)

    1. I am much more supportive of private space exploration than of government sponsored space exploration, although, as you said, that doesn't address the wastefulness of the endeavor. I also suspect that the first attempts at colonizing, or even claiming ownership, of the first planet or moon is going to cause a great deal of international disagreement, and this may be even worse if it is a private company doing the claiming rather than a government which has an existing diplomatic relationship with other countries, and the means of making agreements and compromises to, hopefully, settle such issues.