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.
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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.
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[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.
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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