By Frank White
We choose to go to the Moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard.President John F. Kennedy, Rice University Speech, 1962 (1)
Recently, Rhonda Stevenson, President and CEO of Orbital Assembly Corporation, suggested that I talk with Andre Bormanis and Dan Hawk as part of this blogging series. What a delightful conversation it was! Andre is a member of OAC’s Board of Advisors and is a science consultant for the Star Trek inspired show, The Orville. Dan was featured in a previous blog that I wrote, called “A Seat at the Table.” He is a member of the Oneida Nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, and founder of the United First Nations Planetary Defense.
Our conversation ranged widely over a number of topics, but focused largely on two issues: how do we ensure that human evolution into the solar ecosystem is sustainable, inclusive, and ethical; and how can we answer the objections of those who are convinced that this is not possible?
These two questions are clearly tied together, and tightly at that. After all, if it were crystal clear that the spread of human civilization into the solar ecosystem would go well, benefit life on Earth, and would leave the Moon and Mars in a relatively pristine state, wouldn’t support for the initiative be strong?
Here is a summary of our conversation:
The Message and the Messenger
Frank: I think that Jeff Bezos has the right message, but he is the wrong messenger. He insists that “Earth is the best planet,” and he is not interested in a “Plan B,” in case things don’t work out here. He presents the Gerard K. O’Neill vision of large numbers of people living and working in the solar ecosystem, residing in communities made of asteroid material, with the positive result of a very light footprint on places like the Moon and Mars. The message is a good one, but a lot of people don’t like the messenger because he is a billionaire and they don’t approve of his labor practices. After his spaceflight on Blue Origin, he returned saying the right things about the Overview Effect and the need to protect planet Earth. However, it didn’t seem to alter public opinion about him.
And then, as my colleague at the Human Space Program Jared Angaza points out, there is Matthew McConaghey, an actor who is extremely likable, appears in a Super Bowl ad that is essentially opposed to space migration, and he gets applause. To my mind, his message is wrong, but he is an excellent messenger.
Dan: We have to do the right things for the right reasons, and we need to take a holistic approach to whatever we do on Earth or in space. Think about the move toward electric vehicles as an example. It will mean “a lot of mining” for the materials needed to have an all-electric transportation system. So, remediation of the mines needs to be built in as forethought, not as an afterthought.
In addition, we learn a lot by leaving our planet, and we have to embrace opportunities for new technology that can be useful to the Earthbound population, like space-based solar power.
Andre: Yes, we wouldn’t even understand our situation with respect to ecology and global warming if it hadn’t been for all of the Earth-monitoring satellites we’ve been launching for the last 60 years.
Frank: When people say they are against space exploration, they aren’t really opposed to all forms of space exploration. They’re not opposed to astronomy for the most part, and that’s space exploration. They aren’t really opposed to satellites although some people are upset about Starlink because it’s creating a problem for astronomy. But what people are really against is commercial space. They’re really worried about the behavior of people like Bezos and Musk because they have an inherent distrust of wealthy people, and it’s not totally unfounded. Wealthy people have a lot of power, they tend to do what they want, and they’re used to getting what they want. So, it really is an understandable suspicion. That is one of the reasons I co-founded a nonprofit called The Human Space Program. Our goal is sustainable, ethical, and inclusive expansion into the solar ecosystem. We don’t promote commercial space, but we think it’s part of the picture. As Dan is saying, it’s on the table, but we want to do it right.
At the Human Space Program and with other people, we have been talking about getting funding to create a counter-narrative to the negative narrative that is out there because left unchecked the negative narrative will have a big impact. I don’t think people involved in space exploration, development, and migration are taking this seriously enough. I recently edited a book on decarbonization of China and I learned something that was really interesting. Even in China, which is an authoritarian country, the biggest reason they don’t have a lot of nuclear power is fear and opposition to it by the public. And I think the nuclear power industry is a real example of an industry that cannot expand because of public opposition.
Andre: It’s been almost 50 years now since Three Mile Island, but overcoming that level of fear is a huge problem and I get it.
Nuclear still has a serious downside, mostly with the disposal of waste. But you have to look at it in the context of everything else that we’re doing and is it really a greater risk or danger than continuing to pump billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year? I think Dan’s point about the nature of these extractive industries, as we’ve been doing for several hundred years, is a serious problem.
I don’t know that we’re going to see in our lifetimes a solution that involves taking apart an asteroid like Psyche, which presumably has a lot of rare Earth elements and would be very useful in making batteries, photovoltaic cells, and other great things. The fact is that the people who design space systems have to rigorously look at making them as efficient as possible and saving every gram of mass. Mass is money when you’re launching something off of the surface of the Earth to Low Earth Orbit or anywhere else. I think that conveying and refining that mindset through the creation of orbital platforms and eventually space settlements and rotating platforms is the kind of thinking that’s going to ultimately solve our problems here with respect to maintaining this environment in a way that isn’t going to cause catastrophic changes for hundreds of millions of people as the climate becomes unsustainable.
Overview or Overshoot?
Frank: Well, here’s an interesting sequel to the story. The Club of Rome was a group of people that commissioned a series of computer simulations of the planet’s future based on population, land use, pollution, and a number of variables. Using a discipline called systems dynamics, they produced a number of future possibilities. One of the more negative ones was “overshoot,” which said that we would overshoot the carrying capacity of the planet and civilization would collapse. I’ve always wanted to extend that model into the solar ecosystem. And believe it or not, I found two people who worked on The Club of Rome computer model, and they are in Massachusetts.
They have a company called Ventana Systems that does this kind of modeling. The other piece of the puzzle is Jeff Greenblatt, who is a vice president at Orbital Assembly. He has been doing a lot of work on the Gerard K. O’Neill model: if we were to build space communities out of asteroid material, could we do it with a minimum amount of that material? Would it work? We now have an official project of the Human Space Program, to create a new model. We’ll expand “limits to growth” to the solar ecosystem and start to examine different options. What if we stopped raising all these cattle for food? What if we had artificial ways of creating meat? What if we use 20 percent of the asteroid belt to build communities in orbit? Once you’ve got the model, you can run scenario after scenario. And what I like so much about Ventana is they have a way of building the model that engages different parties.
For example, we have corporations interested in this project. We could have tribal people and we could have the Sierra Club. We could have people from the entertainment community who are constantly thinking about the future. If people get together to build a model, then they have more engagement with it. The next step is you run the simulations with people playing different parts, like a game.
Andre: I think it’s a great idea because it could engage the public. Once they’re engaged, there will be skeptics and naysayers, but you have the opportunity to then challenge them in a friendly way to say, “Hey, let’s look at your assumptions. Let’s test it. Here’s a model. Let’s tweak some of the parameters and see what happens.”
Because I think that when reasonably intelligent people are engaged in these kinds of discussions, they realize that if we are approaching some kind of a limit on the carrying capacity of this planet and we have the technologies available to use the resources of the solar ecosystem, asteroid materials, the Moon, Mars, whatever it might be, to expand our presence, maybe that’s ultimately a good thing. And maybe in 100 years there will be a reduction in the Earth’s population and there won’t be that significant an increase in the space population.
At least it’s an option and something that we can talk about and explore. But clearly the way we’re living now is not sustainable for the population we have here. If we can at least get a foothold in something off Earth, I think that would be very helpful for making it clear that we need to change what’s happening here on the ground if we want to keep this planet in good working order for the foreseeable future.
Dan: How we live on Earth is the problem. The Earth, as far as I’m concerned, has the carrying capacity to deal with our population and more, and in years and years to come. It’s the fact that, like Andre said, it’s our political will. We’re at war. We live in single-family homes. A long time ago in the 1970s, I was riding in the truck next to my uncle and he turned to me he said, “Dan, someday we’re going to regret not living like gophers.” And I had no idea what he was talking about, but I do today. Where I’m coming from is that we have the ability to live sustainably. It’s just that we are not politically aligned around the world to do things that are environmentally protective of us in order to have that carrying capacity.
It’s our political system that’s driving us to go into space. We wouldn’t have to go into space if we had the ability to take care of our environment and everybody was fed and there was no disease. But the point is that, I think our political system is actually driving us to go into space because we can’t work together on Earth. In other words, we are not doing the right things for the right reasons. We’re doing just the opposite of that. And we can see that with the Ukraine/Russian war right now. That’s how I feel about it.
Frank: David Peterson is one of the people I mentioned who was involved with Limits to Growth at MIT, and he talks about that too, Dan. Once we build a model, we can simulate anything, including the possibility that we’d figure it out without leaving the planet. He really wants to take a holistic approach to it.
Two or three weeks ago, at the Overview Round Table, we did a simulation without a computer model where we asked people to be part of an immigration bureau for Mars, for the Earth, and so on. The whole idea was starting to think about this: Would we begin to have laws and regulations where you’d have to apply to be able to leave the Earth? What about the terrestrial immigration bureau saying, “No, no, no. Andre, you can’t go. You have a critical job, you can’t go to Mars.” And then what about Mars? What if you’re the immigration bureau on Mars saying, “No, Dan, you can’t go. You’ve got white hair. We’re not taking old people on Mars.”
Or “Frank, I’m sorry, but you have got to stay on Earth. You had a heart attack in 2015. We don’t want you.” We started getting into that as a simulation where people actually began to imagine themselves being faced with these choices. It was a very effective teaching tool. And we realized that right now there are people deciding who gets to go. It’s NASA and it’s Roscosmos. And it’s Space for Humanity.
Space For Humanity has a contest. You can enter the contest and you may get to go, but there will be people who are going to decide. And eventually just like on Earth, we have people deciding, do you get to come into our country or not? Or even, do you get to leave? I think immigration is going to become a major issue as the technology expands.
The other thing I really want to say is this: Andre, when I talk with people about what kind of future they want, do you know what they say?
Andre: “Star Trek.”
Frank: Yes, they say, “I want Star Trek.” What do you think of that? Isn’t that incredible?
Andre: It’s great, and it was a privilege to have been a part of that for a few years. I would be surprised if somebody said “Blade Runner,” unless they’re just a huge fan of noir, detective stories and that kind of thing. “Star Trek” is one of the few truly optimistic, forward-looking shows that we have had on television. And that’s one of the reasons that Seth McFarland created “The Orville,” which I worked on for all three seasons. He was tired of all the dystopia. He missed that positive vision of the future that we could have if we just got our acts together and decided that that’s the direction we want to take.
Frank: I watched Star Trek from the beginning and Gene Roddenberry just stipulated that all the problems of Earth were solved.
There’s peace, and there’s no money.
Andre: Earth is a paradise.
Frank: Everything’s great. And then he stipulated that the humans who were leaving were there to explore and not to conquer. His basic assumptions made the show work uniquely well, I think.
Andre: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan: The Prime Directive.
Andre: It gave us the opportunity to look at present-day Earth, as it was in the 1960s with all of the conflict and strife that characterized much of the world in that decade, from the perspective of people who had risen above it. That was a huge part of the appeal of that show. It wasn’t about exclusivity. It was about including everybody and treating everybody as equals. And that, in his mind, was one of the keys to the solution of how we can all live together on Earth and not be at each other’s throats constantly.
Rhonda: He implied that there was a universal living wage that was available for everyone. So, the baseline assumption was that everyone’s basic needs were already being met. And then in being met, how did that enable our civilization to go above and beyond to do the further things because everyone’s needs were being met? I wonder if that is a way to level the field; if you don’t have to earn to live or eat, then you can go on to do those other things. Maybe there’s some subconscious anchor that has people limit their vision simply because they think they have to be here to earn.
Andre: I heard about a book that came out a few years ago from my friend, Chris Black, who was a writer on Star Trek Enterprise for a few years and has gone on to be on Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and some other great shows. His neighbor, Emmanuel Saadia, is an economics professor here in town who wrote a book called Trekonomics, and it’s great. His premise is that when you have clean and essentially unlimited energy from solar or other renewables, and you have a technology similar to the replicator, that completely changes every equation in economics, because then you no longer have to work for food. You don’t have to work to have shelter. And his idea, which was based on Star Trek: The Next Generation more than in the original, was that in such an economy, reputation becomes currency.
Being the best is key, because there’s still a need to distinguish yourself. There is a need for wealth in an abstract sense. And material wealth, in his view, was that once that’s satisfied, having the latest model Ferrari does nothing for your reputation because everybody can have the latest model Ferrari, right? You tell the replicator to build it out of constituent atoms, and atoms are cheap in this imagined future. People make their reputation and achieve social standing by being the best at something. By being a great painter or an explorer who’s discovered 100 new planets or a great cook in the case of Sisko’s father on Deep Space Nine. All of these things shift, but because there is still this human need for distinguishing yourself and for having some level of wealth and respect, it shifts when material needs are no longer an issue. I think that’s a really interesting idea.
In a space settlement situation, that would probably also hold. I don’t think that you’re going to have a situation where people are forced to work to earn a living. People will work because work needs to be done to maintain the community and everyone will, in all likelihood, be pretty crucial to that. But at some point, you may achieve a scale where some people are not essential to maintaining the facility. A lot of those tasks may be automated, but if you have enough for everybody in a material sense, how do people distinguish themselves? Well, probably through reputation.
Frank: I really love that idea.
Rhonda: It’s no secret that since birth I’ve had a tremendous sense of urgency to get people the ability to depart if they want to; and all the other species, as well. It is my hope that from these conversations we nurture the culture and foster the belief systems that these things are near-term. Having been in the industry for as long as I have with all the struggles that I’ve had, by no means do I think that it’s easy, but it’s not as hard as what it has been conveyed as being.
We can all acknowledge that it’s hard and you can’t just toss somebody up there and cross your fingers. You have to go through your due diligences, but that doesn’t mean that it’s cost prohibitive or impossible. And I really want to have Orbital Assembly be, no pun intended, the vehicle that can best articulate and appeal to everyone on Earth that there is a solution. Not only are we participating in the solution but we’re also enabling everyone else to stake their own claim in the solution without being proprietary. I don’t want to steer, direct, or ask, but obviously, I was hoping that you folks would come together and have a productive conversation that leads to many others with a hope or objective that enlightenment happens.
Andre: I think that’s very well stated and a good directive. That’s our Prime Directive and endeavor.
Rhonda: Well, it’s about us as a species and a civilization deciding on what kind of life that we actually want and not accepting any other alternative and saying no to everything that isn’t that. But that’s an arrogant statement unless you back it up with capability.
(1) “NASA, Rice University Mark 60th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy Speech,” Media Advisory, M22-120, August 23, 2022, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/address-at-rice-university-on-the-nations-space-effort
(2) F. White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Multiverse Publishing, 2021, p.269.
(c) Copyright Frank White, 2022, All Rights Reserved.
Published with permission by Orbital Assembly