Reading The End of Astronauts by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees for the Times, 26 March 2002
NASA’s Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, is now sitting on the launch pad. It’s the super heavy lifting body for Artemis, NASA’s international programme to establish a settlement on the Moon. The Artemis consortium includes everyone with an interest in space, from the UK to the UAE to Ukraine, but there are a few significant exceptions: India, Russia, and China. Russia and China already run a joint project to place their own base on the Moon.
Any fool can see where this is going. The conflict, when it comes, will arise over control of the moon’s south pole, where permanently sunlit pinnacles provide ideal locations for solar collectors. These will power the extraction of ice from permanently night-filled craters nearby. And the ice? That will be used for rocket fuel.
The closer we get to putting humans in space, the more familiar the picture of our future becomes. You can get depressed about that hard-scrabble, piratical future, or exhilarated by it, but you surely can’t be surprised by it.
What makes this part of the human story different is not the exotic locations. It’s the fact that wherever we want to go, our machines will have to go there first. (In this sense, it’s the *lack* of strangeness and glamour that will distinguish our space-borne future — our lives spent inside a chain of radiation-hardened Amazon fulfilment centres.)
So why go at all? The argument for “boots on the ground” is more strategic than scientific. Consider the achievements of NASA’s still-young Perseverance lander, lowered to the surface of Mars at the end of 2018, and with it a lightweight proof-of-concept helicopter called Ingenuity. Through these machines, researchers around the world are already combing our neighbour planet for signs of past and present life.
What more can we do? Specifically, what (beyond dying, and most likely in horrible, drawn-out ways) can astronauts do that space robots cannot? And if robots do need time to develop valuable “human” skills — the ability to spot geographical anomalies, for instance (though this is a bad example, because machines are getting good at this already) — doesn’t it make sense to hold off on that human mission, and give the robots a chance to catch up?
The argument to put humans into space is as old as NASA’s missions to the moon, and to this day it is driven by many of that era’s assumptions.
One was the belief (or at any rate the hope) that we might make the whole business cheap and easy by using nuclear-powered launch vehicles within the Earth’s atmosphere. Alas, radiological studies nipped that brave scheme in the bud.
Other Apollo-era assumptions have a longer shelf-life but are, at heart, more stupid. Dumbest of all is the notion — first dreamt up by Nikolai Fyodorov, a late-nineteenth century Russian librarian — that exploring outer space is the next stage in our species’ evolution. This stirring blandishment isn’t challenged nearly as often as it ought to be, and it collapses under the most cursory anthropological or historical interrogation.
That the authors of this minatory little volume — the UK’s Astronomer Royal and an award-winning space sciences communicator —
beat Fedorov’s ideas to death with sticks is welcome, to a degree. “The desire to explore is not our destiny,” they point out, “nor in our DNA, nor innate in human cultures.”
The trouble begins when the poor disenchanted reader asks, somewhat querulously, Then why bother with outer space at all?
Their blood lust yet unslaked, our heroes take a firmer grip their cudgels. No, the moon is not “rich” in helium 3, harvesting it would be a nightmare, and the technology we’d need so we can use it for nuclear fusion remains hypothetical. No, we are never going to be able to flit from planet to planet at will. Journey times to the outer planets are always going to be measured in years. Very few asteroids are going to be worth mining, and the risks of doing so probably outweigh the benefits. And no, we are not going to terraform Mars, the strongest argument against it being “the fact that we are doing a poor job of terraforming Earth.” In all these cases it’s not the technology that’s against us, so much as the mathematics — the sheer scale.
For anyone seriously interested in space exploration, this slaughter of the impractical innocents is actually quite welcome. Actual space sciences have for years been struggling to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with hype and science fiction. The superannuated blarney spouted by Messrs Musk and Bezos (who basically just want to get into the mining business) isn’t helping.
But for the rest of us, who just want to see some cool shit — will no crumb of romantic comfort be left to us?
In the long run, our destiny may very well lie in outer space — but not until and unless our machines overtake us. Given the harshness and scale of the world beyond Earth, there is very little that humans can do there for themselves. More likely, we will one day be carried to the stars as pets by vast, sentimental machine intelligences. This was the vision behind the Culture novels of the late great Iain Banks. And there — so long as they got over the idea they were the most important things in the universe — humans did rather well for themselves.
Rees and Goldsmith, not being science fiction writers, can only tip their hat to such notions. But spacefaring futures that do not involve other powers and intelligences are beginning to look decidedly gimcrack. Take, for example, the vast rotating space colonies dreamt up by physicist Gerard O’Neill in the 1970s. They’re designed so 20th-century vintage humans can survive among the stars. And this, as the authors show, makes such environments impossibly expensive, not to mention absurdly elaborate and unstable.
The conditions of outer space are not, after all, something to be got around with technology. To survive in any numbers, for any length of time, humans will have to adapt, biologically and psychologically, beyond their current form.
The authors concede that for now, this is a truth best explored in science fiction. Here, they write about immediate realities, and the likely the role of humans in space up to about 2040.
The big problem with outer space is time. Space exploration is a species of pot-watching. Find a launch window. Plot your course. Wait. The journey to Mars is a seven-month curve covering more than ten times the distance between Mars and Earth at their closest conjunction — and the journey can only be made once every twenty-six months.
Gadding about the solar system isn’t an option, because it would require fuel your spacecraft hasn’t got. Fuel is great for hauling things and people out of Earth’s gravity well. In space, though, it becomes bulky, heavy and expensive.
This is why mission planners organise their flights so meticulously, years in advance, and rely on geometry, gravity, time and patience to see their plans fulfilled. “The energy required to send a laboratory toward Mars,” the authors explain, “is almost enough to carry it to an asteroid more than twice as far away. While the trip to the asteroid may well take more than twice as long, this hardly matters for… inanimate matter.”
This last point is the clincher. Machines are much less sensitive to time than we are. They do not age as we do. They do not need feeding and watering in the same way. And they are much more difficult to fry. Though capable of limited self-repair, humans are ill-suited to the rigours of space exploration, and perform poorly when asked to sit on their hands for years on end.
No wonder, then, that automated missions to explore the solar system have been NASA’s staple since the 1970s, while astronauts have been restricted to maintenance roles in low earth orbit. Even here they’re arguably more trouble than they’re worth. The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired and refitted by astronauts five times during its 40-year lifetime — but at a total cost that would have paid for seven replacement telescopes.
Reading The End of Astronauts is like being told by an elderly parent, again and again, not to stick your butter-knife in the toaster. You had no intention of sticking your knife in the toaster. You know perfectly well not to stick your knife in the toaster. They only have to open their mouths, though, and you’re stabbing the toaster to death.