Suicide Missions

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

YES, YOU HAVE HEARD this story before: we face a serious problem, which is likely to become much worse if we do not take serious measures to stop it now. But the immediate measures we need to take are pretty painful — not as painful as what sufferers in the future will experience, but they are not necessarily us. They may be people we care about, our children or grandchildren, but, even so, their future distress feels less real than actual, albeit lesser, distress happening right now to us (especially to me). Why sacrifice our well-being for their better-being? Economists call this “having a steep discount rate,” the sinister twin of compound interest: we value things in the future less the further out they are. The economists’ language has the clinical asepsis of much of their lexicon and does not quite convey how inevitable, even fated, the intrinsic reaction is.

If you are reading this in the summer of 2020, you do not have to reach far for an example: social distancing. It is inconvenient on a personal level and ruinous on the scale of the economy, but if one adheres to the restrictions then the coronavirus could be controllable: fewer deaths, a functioning health-care infrastructure, time bought to develop plans to restore economic activity without devastating public health. All that good stuff only happens to future people — in this case, to future us in six months — if we grit our teeth and forgo haircuts now. You can evaluate for yourself how well that’s been going.

These sorts of problems yoke the present with the future. However, they also necessarily tie the present to the past, since the past sets the conditions of our present, propelling the trajectory we now have to alter. The complex interactions of the three time frames conflate two distinct issues: how we know what we know about what has been, is, and will be happening; and how we act to solve the problem — a question of knowledge and a question of practice. Each “how” is in turn linked with a “who”: these sorts of challenges can only be tackled with massive coordination, so specific individuals must either take the responsibility of leadership or assume the responsibility of its abdication.

The commonness of these problems does not make them any less frustrating. Debates over the second issue of what to do — which is typically where one starts in an emergency — devolve more or less rapidly to the question of knowledge, because that seems easier to get a handle on. It also does not require anyone to assume present pain. Meanwhile the present turns into the future, and the usurious loan we unwittingly took out will eventually come due.

. . . .

It has been over 50 years since a human first walked on the surface of the Moon. Although there are some noises about returning — and many more about going to Mars — nobody, except possibly China, is seriously contemplating it. A feat that required tremendous ingenuity and courage, it also, of course, required oodles of money. And so we no longer go because of the cash. NASA consumed a mind-blowing 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966; in 2019, it was below half a percent.

In his engagingly readable Spacefarers, science writer Christopher Wanjek briefly relates what happened after the Moon landing: once his name was safely embossed on a lunar plaque, President Nixon promptly cancelled the Apollo program. It was time to economize. Enter the Space Shuttle.

. . . .

[Wanjek] wants humans to be out there, and there does not stop at the ISS, about 250 miles up. Indeed, he thinks the returns on investment in the ISS are meager. There have been no exciting indications that terrestrial industrial processes would be better performed in orbit, and much of the science is trivial. From decades of ISS work (and Russian research on the Mir space station beforehand), the most important thing we have learned about microgravity — either in deep space or in free fall — “is to get out of microgravity as quickly as possible.”

Some of the most compelling passages in this book designed to get you excited about space are about how unpleasant space is. All sorts of bad stuff happens to your circulation, your bones, your muscles, and your eyeballs. The radiation is sure to kill you once you get beyond Earth’s magnetic field unless you have lots of shielding. Solar weather is a big deal.

Wanjek is most thorough about the challenges of Mars, but most plausible when it comes to the Moon and asteroids. He has a knack for explaining the practical details of how one might possibly overcome them: how to mine water from the Moon’s regolith and then split it to release oxygen; how to 3-D print radiation shielding from Moon dust; how to manage the temperature extremes; how to treat toxic chemicals that would otherwise frustrate Martian agriculture; and so on. He also works through how to simulate gravity through rotating segments of a spacecraft — without it, the months to Mars will render the passengers so weak they won’t be able to stand even on the 38 percent of Earth’s gravity on the red planet. He devotes a great deal of attention to the “tyranny of the rocket equation”: how to transport material out of the Earth’s gravity well, and how a stable infrastructure could make it less ruinously expensive.

. . . .

Wanjek posits two reasons why we go to space: “war and profits.” During the Cold War, competition between the Soviets and the Americans kept space rockets flying in lieu of nuclear ones. If we want to send crewed missions farther afield than the ISS, then — absent a reprise “Sputnik moment” such as a Chinese Moon landing — it has to be about making money. He discusses space tourism, mining asteroids, and even colonization, though he is cautious about the last until we know whether human physiology can fertilize an embryo, birth a baby, and raise a child to adulthood under conditions of .38 (Mars) or .166 (Moon) of Earth’s gravity. (It’ll never happen in microgravity.) State leadership across the globe has been weak on this front, so the mantle is being seized by private corporations. It will be the anticipation of astronomical profits — the pun fits with Wanjek’s charming proclivity for dad jokes — that will get us to space for good.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

9 thoughts on “Suicide Missions”

  1. War and profits?
    Profits first.
    The war will follow once the power of Starship + Biaglow is understood.
    (I fear 2025 at the outside. After that tge US conventional forces will be back to pre-Obama levels and up to their proper deterrence level.)

    If I were Elon Musk I would get an Iron Man suit and a bunch of bodyguards.
    Because Starship is going to make him public enemy number one in China, Russia, and the EU.

    Just one disruption to come:

    Starship can put payloads into Orbit at less than 10 a pound. That makes a kinetic missile cheaper than a Tomahawk, hypersonic, and undetectable.

    His talk of Mars may be his endgame but it deflects attention from his near term impact.

    These are interesting times.
    Asimov called them a Seldon Crisis.
    Hopefully we’ll survive them.

      • The alternative is Xi trying for a “short victorious war” with India. They’re massing for *something* on the border.

        On the space side, SPACEX has all the enabling technologies to do ridiculous things.
        The Raptor engine is powerful cheap to fuel and should be at least as reliable as its precursor Merlins. The control systems effective and precise as demonstrated with their perfectly synchonized Falcon Heavy landings.

        And the recently completely Crew Dragon mission proves they know how to buiod human rated vehicles that fan fly themselves.

        What remains to be done in south Texas is figure out how to build the ships *fast* and cheap enough and prove the rentry system can work as theory says it should. Big ifs but smaller than what they’ve already achieved.

        If we accept they can really get launch costs down to some small multiple of $10 a pound for 100 ton payloads by 2024 that changes everything in space.
        The original space race was between governments and driven by politics.
        The new one is ongoing and profit driven.

        Amusingly, Robert A. Heinlein posed this *exact* scenario almost 70 years in THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON, with the technologies developed and proven, all the way to the moon, and then abandoned out of disinterest, only to be used decades later in pursuit of profit.

        At this point I think any near future story will have to factor in private space stations. Space manufacturing. Lunar telescopes. Moon bases. Ice mining on the moon, probably by robots. And by mid century, asteroid mining. All part of 50’s SF. Very little projection needed. The technologies exist, are known, and have been demonstrated It’s the 21st century out there and there’s money to be made.

        Historically, where there is money to be made there is conflict.

        So the linkage rings true. Profit and war, on Earth and in space. Soon.

  2. but if one adheres to the restrictions then the coronavirus could be controllable: fewer deaths, a functioning health-care infrastructure, time bought to develop plans to restore economic activity without devastating public health.

    I knew it was easy. So, where has that worked?

    • Therein lies the problem. It hasn’t worked. Otherwise, Sweden’s death toll per 100,000 would be much, much higher.

      But few people advocating social distancing (which doesn’t work), mandatory masking (also doesn’t work), and lockdowns (ditto) let a little thing like reality get in the way of their hysteria.

      • Just curious: how does it *not* work: as a personal defense or as a national strategy?

        Individually or collectively?

        My own read is that for *individuals* following all three primary tactics, it works.
        Where it doesn’t work is where random individuals break discipline and let it spread through those that one follow just one or two of the defenses. Defense in depth is required.

        I see it as a case where strong individualism, discipline, and personal responsibility is a survival mechanism. The disease isn’t as deadly as the hyping media makes it out to be; it not the plague. Still it is a Darwinian moment. The extremists holing for a “great culling” are getting a very watered-down sample. And not liking it one bit. As some idiot is known to say, “So sad.”

        So, collectively, as a society it will be the vacines now under stage III testing that will end the spread of the disease (though not the virus) not just kasks or just distancing or just gloves or disinfection.

        • Bear in mind that from a collective point of view the individual defense tactics are only meant to *slow* the spread of the virus among the population so the inevitable breaks in discipline and subsequent infections won’t overwhelm the medical systems at any single point in time.

          Expecting strict compliance of personal responsibility in statist societies where vast numbers of inhabitants expect to act as they please and have the governmental nanny take care of them later is a hopeless task.

          Actually *stopping* it cold would require an authoritarian regime such as China or North Korea but even tbose have failed.

          The big takeaway of the current crisis is that as Schiller said, “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” Ditto for governments.

          Protect yourself, protect yours, don’t count on anybody else.

          • Thing is, this is a relatively mild disease, which would have been handled by normal prophylactic measures – washing hands, cleaning surfaces, not visiting the elderly relatives, keeping normal American distance from others (we are one of the most socially “distant” cultures on the planet).

            We might have reached the toll from the ’68 flu, had the culture still hewed to the “old ways,” before everyone began to rely on the vaccines to protect them (which do work, mostly – when there is one). Although I doubt it without the enormous death tolls in nursing homes.

        • but if one adheres to the restrictions then the coronavirus could be controllable: fewer deaths, a functioning health-care infrastructure, time bought to develop plans to restore economic activity without devastating public health.

          So, where has it worked?

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