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Space solar powerillustration
Increases in energy prices may mean it is time to revisit space-based solutions, such as space solar power. (credit: NASA/MSFC)

The limits to growth and the turn to the heavens

The 1970s was a period of intense concern about natural resource shortages. It is associated strongly in the popular memory with the dire predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, the 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks, and dystopian films like Z.P.G., Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

One response to those concerns was increased interest in mining the oceans—and the skies. G. Harry Stine’s book The Third Industrial Revolution argued that the next great business opportunity was out in the heavens, as miners tapped the asteroids for their metals and manufacturing moved into orbit. After all, the Earth’s solar system is abundant in solar energy and raw materials, and an orbital environment has many advantages. Pollution is not a concern, and many industrial processes not feasible in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity become viable. Of course, getting all the plant and workers into orbit would be a challenge, but the idea was that space launch costs were set for a rapid drop, to well below $1,000 a pound. (Stine predicted that by 1990 they might be in the range of $150 a pound, if you adjust his figures for inflation.)

The stubbornly high cost of space flight and the lower-than-expected cost of energy and raw materials profoundly altered the cost-benefit calculations, as did equally profound psychological changes.

None of this ever happened. Space launch costs did not go down as the space shuttle, on which Stine pinned his predictions, proved to be a massive disappointment in that regard, with its high cost, long turnaround time, and general unreliability. At the same time commodity prices started dropping. The story goes that in 1980 Julian Simon, one of Paul Ehrlich’s biggest critics, bet him that the prices of copper, chrome, tin, nickel, and tungsten would drop by 1990. Simon won the bet handily. Even more dramatically, the price of oil, which hit $40 a barrel by 1981, fell to $10 a barrel by 1998.

The stubbornly high cost of space flight and the lower-than-expected cost of energy and raw materials profoundly altered the cost-benefit calculations, as did equally profound psychological changes. The shift in attitude that began with Richard Nixon’s announcement that America would be energy-independent by 1980, and Jimmy Carter’s declaration that energy independence was the “moral equivalent of war,” gave way to the Cornucopian outlook to which neoliberal economics tends. At the same time the next industrial revolution appeared to be happening not in outer space, but the inner space of microprocessors and the genome.

Concerns about natural resources and hopes for colonizing space did not vanish by any means, but they were given rather less mainstream attention. Indeed, it became fashionable to scoff at those concerns and hopes, but now the pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction, in large part because commodity prices are rising again. Oil prices shot back up to nearly $80 last summer, but this is only the most visible and extreme example. Prices for the very same metals on which Ehrlich lost his bet are rising almost as dramatically. To give but one example, the price of high-grade copper rose from 70 cents in 2002 to over $3 a pound this year. There is, in short, ample reason to think not that the gloomier predictions of the 1970s were fundamentally wrongheaded, but that the 1980s and 1990s represented just a temporary reprieve, a position Thomas Homer-Dixon took in his recent op-ed “The End of Ingenuity”.

As a result the “limits to growth” argument is enjoying renewed popularity, and to a lesser extent, so is the interest in overcoming those limits by going into space. Both the Chinese space agency and a private Russian firm have raised the possibility of mining the moon for helium-3, a potential fuel for fusion reactors. While not explicitly linked to such objectives, the United States and Japan also have plans to establish lunar bases by the 2020s. Along with the planned expansion of civilian and military space programs around the world in general, this suggests a heightening of interest in lowering the cost of space access (an objective long espoused in US National Space Policy documents). Even without deliberate efforts in that direction developments in materials science, particularly the prospect of low-cost carbon nanotubes, may make much lighter spacecraft feasible or, perhaps, even a space elevator. At the same time robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence seem to promise automated, miniaturized operations, reducing the launch burden further still.

Nonetheless, any advances made toward a deeper exploitation of space are likely to be incremental instead of revolutionary, for a number of reasons. One is the situation of governments, which differs considerably from what it was three decades ago. There is nothing comparable to the Cold War competition to compel them to make extraordinary efforts in the area of space exploration, and even then the giant NASA budgets at the height of the Apollo program proved short-lived. At the same time their finances are much tighter, so that they have less money to put into space activity. In 1977 the average central government’s gross debt came to 40 percent of GDP in the Group of Seven major industrialized nations (the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada). By 2005, it had more than doubled to 82 percent, despite economic growth, tax hikes, and spending cutbacks in many areas, like defense.

Another is the greater skepticism toward space flight, partly as a result of previous disappointments, and partly because the most popular ideas for exploiting space in new ways do not stand up to scrutiny. The schemes to mine helium-3 are plans to supply a market that does not yet exist—if ever it will. Solar power satellites, the other major plan for resolving the world’s energy problems through space systems, are less flawed from a business perspective, but still implausible. Improvements in photovoltaics accrue equally well to Earth-based solar power production, and launch costs seem likely to remain prohibitively high for decades.

Over the long term the energy, raw materials, and space of the solar system and beyond will need to be tapped if humanity is to go on expanding. Simple math dictates this.

Ironically, a proposal not to harness the sun’s energy, but to deflect some of it, seems more plausible. While proposals like this have been around since the 1980s, Roger Angel of the University of Arizona recently raised the idea of a “sunshade” for the Earth again. (See “Exploiting the Moon and saving the Earth”, The Space Review, November 7, 2005) Specifically, he pictures using twenty electromagnetic launchers firing trillions of small free-flying satellites to the Earth-Sun L-1 point to reduce the amount of sun reaching the planet’s surface by two percent, thereby offseting the warming effects of greenhouse gases. While such a technology may seem baroque, Angel points out that spread out over twenty-five years, the cost would come to $100 billion a year—a sixth of one percent of global GDP, and immeasurably less than the cost such warming would exact.

Nonetheless, Angel notes that this is just a stopgap, even if it may be a worthwhile one. In the end, the alleviation of the planet’s climate stresses will depend on a very high development of renewable energy production—and that may be exactly the point. Over the long term the energy, raw materials, and space of the solar system and beyond will need to be tapped if humanity is to go on expanding. Simple math dictates this. A two percent annual growth rate in energy production means a roughly eightfold increase in a century’s time, century after century, and current levels of energy production are already taxing the Earth’s ecosystem beyond its limits. While better technology and new kinds of organization may restore a better balance, the problem remains in the long run: however great human ingenuity, however large the improvements in the efficiency, environmental impact and productivity of technology, a single planet can not permanently accommodate such growth. And so human beings may yet mine the skies. But long before they get to that point, they will need to have resolved today’s problems with resources closer to hand, down here on Earth.


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