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Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2 is perhaps the best-known example of a closed life-support system; future in=space systems can have benefits on Earth and in space. (credit: Biosphere 2)

An experiment in sustainability and spaceflight

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The growth of human civilization has put tremendous stresses on our planet’s biosphere. We need to find ways to support our way of life life within the boundaries that our planet can afford. After all, if the biosphere collapses, it takes with it all the life in the universe we currently know exists.

Merely demonstrating the technology, without building cooperation, though, will not provide the solution we need. We need the community that landing on the Moon created.

Building such a new world will require a recycling revolution. This revolution can be driven by well-designed prototypes. The test situation needs to demonstrate the technology against an Everest of a challenge.1 Thinking of the hardest pertinent test, I propose lifting six humans into space for long-duration space exploration, as a way to focus research on the fundamental extraction and consumption issues facing our planet today. I suggest the idea because of five main points of overlap between saving our planet and prolonged human space exploration:

1) To launch humans into space for an unlimited time, we will need 100% efficient water recycling systems. This is what is also needed to continue urbanization. Leaving trace elements in the water will quickly exhaust our explorers through poisoning. Likewise, this recycling system is exactly what our cities need. Any steps towards an integrated water management system will benefit Earth.

2) To feed our intrepid explorers, they will need to grow their own food in as small a space as possible. Completely self-contained nutrient cycles will have to be worked out. Soil depletion mitigated by integrated ecology could extend the mission. In short, an integrated agro-ecology will have to be provided. Coupled with water recycling, this will provide an integrated demonstration of the needed non-leaky agro-ecology our new society needs. In short, the challenges left by Biosphere 2—namely, our limited understanding of the complete ecological services provided by our wonderful planet—should and can be solved.

3) For the ships to reach to the farthest edges of our solar system, they will need the ability to fabricate their own components with limited manufacturing capability. The lives of those on board should not be held hostage by the failure of an irrigation pump far from home. To have local fabrication will require innovation in the removal of persistent industrial toxins from the onboard fabrication, which has obvious utility on Earth as well. Onboard systems will also need to be simple and robust, which on Earth can aid development of local industry.

4) A spacecraft will also need an integrated energy system to propel and power it. If fuel of some kind is to be used, its efficiency will have to be maximized, because replacing it would cost too much. Alternatively, if electricity is gathered through an onboard solar array, it will need to be as efficient and durable as possible. Both these developments would provide valuable insights into use of energy to power our world with maximum efficiency.

5) Finally, one could assume that the people who go will get along. But, in all trials of prolonged human enclosure, disagreement has proven the norm. If the initiative expanded to all spacefaring nations, though, then the cooperation and organization institutions required for our global cooperation in this one small experiment could provide a bedrock on which to build our needed cooperation to meet other global challenges. A global human spaceflight initiative would require the widest possible support.

It is this last point that motivates the choice to build these capacities in space. Humanity’s needs of the 21st century increasingly have global solutions. Climate change and water use do not have local solutions: they must be tackled through regional and global consensus, after hard fought deliberation on priorities. The commodity most lacking in these solutions is trust. In other words, countries do not believe that what is good for half-a-world away is good for themselves.

The exploration of space, by people, can thus provide that ultimate test bed for the innovations of which our shrinking planet desperately needs.

Merely demonstrating the technology, without building cooperation, though, will not provide the solution we need. We need the community that landing on the Moon created, when we were humans before nations. Many emerging nations are demonstrating their prowess by entering space; to them, space is the ultimate challenge. The international recognition on this frontier, more than any other, marks a nation as part of the global elite. This cachet, and the chance it has to stimulate cooperation to provide solutions for our global challenges through high-stakes partnerships, means we need this initiative to test our abilities as humans to live, and work together.

The world today is facing serious challenges. Our stocks of fresh water are vanishing. The pressures from unsustainable agriculture are threatening the current world order by shedding doubt on the driver that feeds it: cheap food through high inputs of nutrients and pesticides. Likewise, it is widely recognized that if the long life expectancy and access to modern transportation is to be extended to all people on earth, as E.O Wilson puts it, we’ll need four to six more Earths. We’ve never even found one more. To provide for the future, while not widening the inequalities of the people of today into multiple humanities2 , we need a fundamental shift in our use of land, water, minerals, and food.

These revolutions are partly organizational, and partially technological. All people need access to the basic necessities of life, and wealth and income inequalities should not determine health and livelihood expectations at the levels they do today. Every human deserves a good life the way they want to live it. We cannot, however, go back to a simpler life that may have never existed anyways. Cars, planes, medical advancements, and other technologies, are all here to stay.

Additionally, we simply cannot afford what has been the primary motivator of cooperation in human history. Total war is simply too costly to be suggested. To avoid it, we need to foster partnership on feasible solutions at all costs. The world needs ultimate challenges, but we no longer can use war as the great motivator of human cooperation.

The exploration of space3 , by people, can thus provide that ultimate test bed for the innovations of which our shrinking planet desperately needs. All steps towards providing the needs of a long-duration crew would provide desperately-needed increases in efficiency, and as the methods are scaled up, cost savings that will provide healthy subsystems to our global structures. As car racing drove the development of the cheap automobile, and the world wars drove the development of the UN, air travel, and the atomic age, a push for long-duration human spaceflight will provide new solutions to humanity’s most pressing needs: cooperation, energy, food, water, and land—each on the lowest cost and most efficient terms possible. As a result, sending women and men into deep space would be a big push for human-controlled low-impact ecological systems, providing examples of the system will provide case studies of how to refashion our planet to meet our internal challenges. In addition, providing these solutions together will strength our most scarce resource, trust. So let us take on these challenges and provide a vast experiment in our ability to live within our means, and in a sustainable balance with our mother earth and each other.

1 Like the Apollo program unleashed America’s capacity to aspire in the mid twentieth century, we need to unleash humanity’s capacity in the 21st, our unity as a species, and the life trajectory of the entire planet are at stake if we do not succeed.

2 As socio-economic trends continue over time to widen inequality of access to the basics of human life, the life expected by people in most parts of the world will be increasingly brutish, nasty and short, if something isn’t done.

3 The marvels of a new space age would benefit the world of today. In the 1960s, the space race brought a slew of new products to the world, from miniaturized computing, to high performance synthetics to advanced avionics and the use of satellites to monitor the environment, and the provision telecommunications revolution of the past half-century. These all result from the high profile tests that the goal of the moon and beyond provided.