week 8 \ the (apparently?) universal panacea of space \ ben marafino

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the (apparently) universal panacea of space

It’s quite strange how space seems to get proposed as a universal panacea to all of Earth’s ills. We’re growing short on precious metals? Let’s mine asteroids? Too many people on Earth? Let’s move them up there, either to the Moon or even other planets! … and so on. The reality of the situation is that many of these proposals are impractical to begin with, yet we continue to indulge our fantasies of space while losing sight of more realistic solutions right here on Earth. However, it would in all likelihood be quite unfair to assert that space itself is not worth exploring or exploiting - it turns out that humanity - and the Earth itself, perhaps - just isn’t ready for the big leap yet.

Let’s take one example of a commonly proposed project - the space ‘elevator.’ Its supporters assert that it’ll supplant expensive rocket launches as a more convenient system for delivery of materials (let’s say satellites, spaceships, space station components, construction materials, etc…) to space. I don’t necessarily dispute that, but let’s take a step back and think about the sheer scale of such a proposal. It’ll require a 35,000-kilometer-long cable (that’s nearly 22,000 miles, for those of you who find yourselves metric-challenged) that won’t snap when subjected to centrifugal and gravitational forces as the Earth rotates. Others have proposed 100,000-kilometer (62,000 mi) long cables, to be constructed from similarly panacea-like materials, like carbon nanotubes - turns out the longest carbon nanotube we’ve managed to make so far is only 18 millimeters long. That’s about as wide as one of your fingers.

Again, perhaps we’ve got too much faith in our inventiveness. Yes, humanity is indeed a creative and cunning race, but we must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. To trust too much in what we deem possible only serves to inflate even further our technological hubris - which might prove dangerous when the right circumstances come along. In addition, we must look to the Earth before space for solutions - after all, if we do manage to relocate even a fraction of our planet’s population, what about all the people left behind? Much would have been wasted for so little gain, and indeed this is a worrying theme that we encounter far too often in our daily lives. Witness the out-of-control prices of medical treatment in the US, largely the result of reliance on the latest and greatest breakthroughs in medical technology, which are inherently expensive to discover and to bring to the patient. They are not necessarily undesirable advances in themselves, but their use - to the near-total exclusion or sequestration of other, older, yet just as effective methods - should not be monopolised. Likewise with space - have we even gotten to the point where such solutions are practical enough to discuss seriously in the public sphere, or are they destined to remain the stuff of science fiction? The future will reveal the answer - whenever that may be.

Learn some more about space elevators here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3401/02.html

(Sorry for submitting this a little late, Alberto, but I’ve been bogged down by midterms and finals, among other things!)

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