To get something done, you need to set standards, not just goals. If Project Persephone is the right thing to do, the questions are just beginning. Doing the right things gets you nowhere if you're not also doing things right. The risks, expense and difficulty of space travel makes figuring out any "right way" very hard.
While one Project goal is to make space fun for lots of people, there are always enjoyable things that people shouldn't do, and the things that people should do aren't always enjoyable. How do you steer a middle course? Where is the balance to be found? Project Persephone calls this "meeting the SPEC" - reaching goals Seriously, Peacefully, Equitably, and Cleanly. At times, there will be unpleasant trade-offs. Even the minimum of necessary conflict might sometimes amount to a lot of strife. The Project's goals are particularly challenging in view of the trends toward a possible long-term decline in launch demand for commercial payloads, the problem of space-based and space-enabled arms proliferation, and a threat to all near-Earth uses of space from anthropogenic orbital debris.
Facing Inescapable Realities
We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, by our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good
- Carl Sagan
If the long-run future of humanity depends on good use of the infinite resources (and the infinite waste-sink) of space, 50 years of progress toward that future still leaves much to be desired. It's not hard to see the core problem: getting to space, to make good things happen there, is still far too expensive. If we could get a lot of things into space, more cheaply and more reliably, many more possibilities open up. Space solar power, to reduce the environmental burden of power production on Earth. Moon and asteroid mining, leaving most of the pollution in space. Diverting near-earth objects, which could otherwise set life on Earth back a million years. Space tourism even for people who aren't very rich. Sending high-level radioactive waste into the sun or to the far side of the Moon. And plenty more ideas that haven't happened yet. There's no shortage.
What will it take to make it cheaper to get things, at the very least, into space? It looks like it will take several, if not all, of the following:
- finding a new activity that can cover its own launch costs
- getting lots of people deeply involved involved in that - and making them the better for it
- fostering (but not immediately requiring) human space travel
- being environmentally sustainable.
In more detail:
Higher launch rates are key to the economies of scale needed to spur more investment in lower-cost, higher-volume space launch infrastructure. And only some new, growing market will increase launch rates dramatically. When we look at what's relatively new, it's not necessarily enough. Orbital space tourism
remains a recreation for the few: those who are motivated enough go through astronaut training, brave enough to take the trip, and rich enough to afford it. It has been hosted so far only via governmental space programs (Russian manned launch, ISS
.) The market for suborbital space tourism?
looks promising, but remains speculative. If successful, it may whet appetites for orbital tourism. Unfortunately, the technologies involved for suborbital flight do not go very far toward solving the much more difficult problem of low-cost orbital
space access. Something new is needed. And it has to be popular.
- lots of people deeply involved
A few people each paying a lot - that's how orbital tourism works, and it's probably how it will work for the foreseeable future. So far, it's not really increasing launch rates very much. A lot of people paying a little - that's how satellite TV works. So far, it hasn't really increased launch rates very much either. (And watching TV about things happening on Earth isn't creating a world worth talking about
in space, nor is it necessarily very improving.) How can you involve a lot of people who can only pay a little - perhaps only with their own volunteer labor? Enthusiasm is understandably rather limited when only a very few can feel the rewards. Doing a lot more in space means getting and keeping the enthusiasm of lots of individuals, teams and organizations. They will have limited budgets, limited time and energy, limited skills and qualifications. What's needed is some (mostly) enjoyable thing to do, one that allows people on Earth to make things happen in space, in ways that make them feel like they are becoming better people - more skilled, more educated, more connected, more respected. Whatever it is, it should help build the capacity to do yet more, including more manned space travel in the long run. It should also be social, so that people enjoy talking about what they've gotten done, about what they are doing as they are doing it
, and about what they want to do next. And when it comes to what should come next: the effort should never get completely disconnected from the distant promise of a chance to go into space.
- Eyes on the prize - even if not everybody wins it
Launching people into orbit and getting them back safely is an expensive adventure, and right now it's hard to see how to make it much cheaper. Nevertheless, public and private investment in this adventure isn't slackening much. Whether the space travelers are "billionauts" or cosmonauts, those of us left behind on Earth still find space travel exciting. It's important to find something to do for the rest of us, something that can help make space travel more comfortable and enjoyable for more people in the long run - and more of an adventure for those willing to take greater risks. Adventurous manned space programs (both privately funded and governmental) should be not be derided as a "waste of money" -- not while these programs can motivate people to make progress. Still, to keep any new efforts affordable, it's better to avoid doing things that require sending people, especially since others are already willing to pay that cost. In the meantime, new efforts should look closely at how they might be "externalizing" some environmental costs on others, and minimize those costs.
- Be environmentally sustainable
Space will never be the ultimate global-environmental-disaster escape hatch. Space activist rhetoric aimed at selling space development that way is not only hard to take seriously. It's also unnecessarily alarmist, and sometimes transparently elitist, since any "lifeboats" would necessarily take only the very few. 99.9999%+ of us will be stuck here on Earth even if some "lifeboat" effort succeeds. Whatever Project Persephone
does, it should be as "green" as possible, and should emphasize long-term (even multi-century) improvements in global living standards. Regardless of whether it ever meets its longer-term goals, it should improve the living standards and
ecosystems wherever it acts, especially in developing nations. Looking farther ahead, the goal of sustainability includes minimizing orbital debris
, debris that could endanger satellites that contribute to sustainability. Project Persephone
must also avoid "information pollution" - spreading abusable knowledge of how to weaponize space - for as long as people on Earth have reason to fear arms proliferation
Adding it all up, we get the goal of Meeting the SPEC: ideally, Project Persephone pursues its agenda
- Seriously - educating people in the process - since after all, education might be its only legacy, given how ambitious its goals are
- Peacefully - avoiding (ideally even countering) arms proliferation
- Equitably - improving developing-world prosperity
- Cleanly - not degrading (and ideally promoting) environmental sustainability