The marks of human progress

So what if astronauts can glimpse signs of man’s impact on Earth?

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

Two cheers for NASA on the return of its space shuttle Discovery to Earth, mostly intact and with its crew alive and well.

One cheer is deducted, partly because – as has been argued elsewhere on spiked – the mission was a glorified ‘grocery-delivery trip to the International Space Station’ (see Retreating from the final frontier, by Henry Joy McCracken), and the narrow focus upon the mission’s safety ‘reflects a limited view of human potential’ (see Dragging Discovery down to Earth, by Alex Gourevitch). But there was another downside to the Discovery mission.

On 4 August, an exchange took place between shuttle commander Eileen Collins (on board the International Space Station) and Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (in Tokyo). Collins claimed that astronauts could see evidence of widespread environmental damage on Earth: ‘Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It’s very widespread in some parts of the world.’ She also claimed that ‘the atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell on an egg, it’s so very thin’, and that ‘we know that we don’t have much air, we need to protect what we have’ (1).

One might wonder whether Collins really observed ‘destruction’ or had simply placed her own interpretations on what she could see of our blue and green planet from space. Yet her exchange with Koizumi was reported with headlines such as ‘Mother Earth shows her scars from outer space’. One commentator went so far as to wonder ‘if NASA’s mission is no longer space exploration, but Earth’s environmental watchdog’ (2). But at which point in its development does Collins think the Earth was at its best? Was it four billion years ago, when it first acquired a stable crust? Was it 600million years ago, when multicellular lifeforms first developed? Was it 65million years ago, when an asteroid or comet is thought to have struck – with an impact far more devastating than the most powerful nuclear weapon yet developed – covering Earth’s surface with firestorms, filling its atmosphere with dust and noxious vapour, and wiping out the dinosaurs?

Perhaps Collins thinks our planet was at its finest five million years ago, when the human lineage is thought to have diverged from that of apes, but humans hadn’t yet had a chance to screw up the planet. Maybe it was 10,000 years ago, when agriculture began in earnest? Two hundred years ago, when steam engines were first put to concerted industrial use? Fifty years ago, when the first manmade object was sent into orbit? Twenty years ago, when the shuttle Discovery made its first mission?

Many of these developments had significant consequences for the Earth’s environment. But the difference between natural developments and developments brought about by human society is that the former are unconscious and purposeless, and the latter are increasingly conscious and purposeful. Purposeless natural events with cataclysmic environmental consequences are still with us. Since we have yet to master tectonic plates or the weather – although there is no reason to assume that we never will – we still experience the natural joys of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Collins’ comments prompted inevitable articles with titles such as ‘Is the shuttle green?’, asking whether the technology that put her into space is responsible for the environmental damage she observed. Certain heavily polluting launch sites in and around Russia notwithstanding, the conclusion seemed to be that the current environmental impact of space exploration is fairly negligible (3). But that’s not the point. We wouldn’t be in a position to even contemplate sending craft into space if we hadn’t gone through successive phases of economic and technological development, which had a significant impact upon our surroundings.

If we want to continue forging ahead in space – not to mention forging ahead on Earth – then we must be prepared to make an even greater impact upon our environment. At the very least, we must be prepared to invest in technologies that involve significant environmental risks. For certain missions, for example, nuclear reactions would be more efficient than chemical reactions at propelling spacecraft faster and further into space.

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which convert heat generated by radioactive decay into electricity, are already used to power spacecraft exploring the outer solar system, but even this technology has met with considerable resistance. The prospect of actually propelling spacecraft by means of nuclear fission (or, looking further ahead, fusion) is extremely controversial (4).

Is there some invisible perimeter out in space, beyond which we dare not go because the risks are too great? If so, this perimeter is entirely of our own making. The cosmos does not care whether we venture into it or not.

If we are not prepared to take bold, calculated risks, this brings hazards of its own. For example, the detachment of a lump of insulation foam that imperilled Discovery‘s latest mission has been connected to the fact that NASA has changed its foam formula, in order to comply with environmental guidelines. Under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA reduced the use of the refrigerant freon because of its role in ozone depletion – even though the replacement foam formula is known to be less effective at adhering to fuel tanks. Of the four large pieces of foam shed by Discovery, at least two were applied using the new formula (5).

It would be wrong to blame the new foam formula entirely. The large piece of detached insulation foam that struck the left wing of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, leading to its disintegration upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, had been applied using the old freon formula. Nonetheless, the need to decide between having more reliable foam or trying to protect the ozone layer illustrates the fact that it is sometimes necessary to make environmentally unfriendly decisions, in order to pursue scientific and exploratory endeavours.

Another example that illustrates this is the increased risk of ‘whiskering’ – the growth of filiform hairs upon metal – when lead is replaced with more environmentally friendly alloys, in electrical components (6). Whiskers can cause malfunctions in electrical equipment, and whiskering on lead substitute alloys has been connected with increased failure rates in computers, pacemakers and aerospace equipment. Since 1998, whiskering on lead substitute alloys has led to the complete loss of control of at least three commercial satellites, and the partial loss of control of at least four commercial satellites (7).

Eileen Collins’ remarks appeal to the idea of the ‘ecological footprint’ – a term that conveys the impact that human populations have upon the environment (8). Implicit in the use of this term is the assumption that making an impact upon the environment is a necessarily bad thing.

If this attitude had prevailed earlier in history, then not only would we be the poorer for it, but Collins would never have had the privilege of gazing back upon her home planet from an altitude of 360 kilometres. It would be nice to think, as was commonly thought a mere four decades ago, that more of us will one day have that privilege, and that we will be able to look back on Earth from a little further out – the Moon, say, at 384,000 kilometres. Dare one even suggest Mars?

Evidence from space of humanity’s mark upon the world is cause for celebration. These are not Mother Earth’s scars, but the legacy of human progress.

Human progress is being impeded by the deluded belief that the Earth’s environment has some mysterious intrinsic value, and that we have a moral obligation to protect it. In truth, the only value in nature is the value that we derive from it. And the only authority that can decide the future direction of human progress is our authority. To rein ourselves in, to conform to the imagined needs of a mindless aggregate of flora and fauna, is a tragic waste of potential.

Our forays into space demonstrate our separation from nature. Given our ability to transform the environment we inhabit, we now have less in common with the Earth’s environment than the Earth’s environment has with outer space. The Earth’s environment and outer space together constitute nature – not in the vague sense of ‘all biological life’, but in the sense of ‘all that is not human’.

Outer space is the true face of nature – utterly indifferent to us, and ripe to be explored and exploited.

(1) Shuttle commander sees wide environmental damage, Jeff Franks, Reuters, 4 August 2005

(2) Mother Earth shows her scars from outer space, Jeff Franks, Courier Mail, 6 August 2005; Shuttle justification: environmental watchdog, Jeremy Weidenhof, Lone Star Times, 4 August 2005

(3) See Is the Shuttle green? , Zoe Smeaton, BBC News, 8 August 2005

(4) See Space cadets, by Joe Kaplinsky

(5) See NASA looks at variables on fuel tank – new foam formula used for Discovery, John Kelly and Todd Halvorson, Florida Today, 3 August 2005

(6) See Serious doubts among engineers on tin whisker testing, Rob Spiegel, Design News, 5 August 2005

(7) See Whisker failures, on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Centre website

(8) See Making our mark, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Science & Tech


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