Persephone was a Greek goddess of the Earth. Her story is one of captivity and emergence.

What is Project Persephone?

Project Persephone is an international not-for-profit membership organization with two space development goals:

  • establish global, public access to telepresence in ecosystems sent to low Earth orbit - exovivaria
  • lay the groundwork -- infrastructural, political -- for projectile space launch from high mountain peaks near the equator

Our space goals complement each other, by design. If exovivaria succeed, they will become a new market for projectile space launch. If projectile space launch succeeds, it will make exovivaria cheaper to launch.priorities in technology development favor

What is it not?

There are advocates of space development who say their visions are likely to be key to the survival of the human race. Some envision a "backup" or "lifeboat". They want to colonize space in the face of so-called "existential risks". Others say they will solve the problem of sustainability on an ever-more-industrialized Earth, with space-based solar power, and even by moving most heavy industry off Earth.

We understand. We all want to save the world. But Project Persephone does not base its program on the idea that space, on any time scale for which people can now reasonably plan, can become a species refuge or an industrialization "escape valve". This is not to say we oppose either of those goals. In fact we are happy to work those who have those goals, wherever our goals and values align. But where goals and values diverge, we go our own way.

We hope that exovivaria can become a financially self-sustaining recreation, but the overriding priority for now is on research and education. The idea is to foster, through virtual exovivaria and terrestrial prototypes?, a sense of being on a Spaceship Earth. We're "all in the same boat", and there is no safe shore. Somebody needs to make the ship work. We want to be part of that.

Although it would also be nice if projectile space launch could be commercialized sooner than later, we stress "people first": we give priority to the needs and the future of the poorer people who live near candidate launch sites, especially where the groundwork for projectile space launch (power, fuel, roads) could address problems caused by climate change. Tropical mountain societies and ecosystems could be uniquely vulnerable to global warming. In stepping up to reach for the stars, we should not use people and nature as mere footstools.

Reason for Being

  • Why not leave this kind of thing to national space programs?
  • Why not leave this kind of thing to the private sector?

Reasons for Goals

  • Why not focus on defense against asteroid impacts?
  • Why not focus on lunar and/or asteroid mining?
  • Why not focus on lobbying for Solar Power Satellites?
  • Why not focus on lobbying for a manned Mars mission?
  • Why not focus on developing a space elevator?
  • Why not focus on space tourism?
  • Why not focus on Server Sky?
  • Why not wait for nanotechnology to make space development happen?
  • Why not focus on one of the 100-year starship initiatives?
  • If it's about poverty, why equatorial alpine regions and not Sudan or Bangladesh or Yemen or ...?
  • If it's about sustainability, why space technology and not drip irrigation, or rain forest protection, or ...?

Reason for Being

Q. Why not leave this kind of thing to national space programs?

A. National space programs are, well, national. Accomplishments in space bring national prestige, because, as JFK's famous speech put it, "they are hard."

Being "international" can still be very national in purpose. If, as von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of diplomacy by violent means, international space cooperation might be said to be the continuation of diplomacy by technological means, even if those means include capabilities that grew out of advanced weaponry. Either way, national space programs aim to advance national goals, which aren't necessarily aligned with either personal or global goals.

As a result, national space programs become very big. Their size stems from the bureaucratic growth seen in any organization that tries to provide technology of very high complexity, but with almost no economies of scale in production -- and perhaps little market discipline. Successful national space programs must grow in this way if there is little or no underlying market demand for the products that these projects require. As well, much of program complexity and cost arises out of the need to provide relatively safe transportation to orbit (and habitat there) for human beings - which is primarily a political need.

Project Persephone strains toward the opposite pole of all these dimensions. It is transnational, small-scale; a non-governmental unmanned space program. And it is not about doing the hardest possible thing -- once. It is more about what individuals on Earth, in voluntary associations, can freely, repeatedly and sustainably contribute to space development to reach both personal and global goals -- no matter how modest their ability to contribute, and regardless of their nationalities. In a national space program, everybody does their highly specialized part only in a top-down structure sponsored by a national government and paid for out of a national treasury. Individuals mostly contribute by default, simply by paying taxes. In Project Persephone, the aim is to involve a wider variety of participants, most of them less specialized, in a space program structured more like a global, democratic civil society with a market economy, both on Earth and in orbit.

However, these points of difference with national space programs do not preclude cooperation with them, wherever such cooperation serves shared interests. In any case, Project Persephone would hardly be possible without the trails blazed, for over half a century, by specialists working in national space programs. With luck, it might be able to repay some of that enormous debt, by enabling the aspirations on which such programs have based so much of their political legitimacy.

Q. Why not leave this kind of thing to the private sector?

A. Corporations are commercial ventures. Corporations plan using near time horizons -- usually less than a decade for R&D on new products and services; at most a few decades, when conducting research on future products or establishing the ROI on a large investment. Corporations, even at their most experimental (as seen in venture-capitalized startups) will seldom, if ever, engage in experiments to see if a completely new market can be brought into being. Rather, the focus in corporate ventures is mostly on serving existing markets in some better way. When corporations are seen as societies, they are clearly organized as top-down bureaucratic command economies, "democratic" only in being answerable mainly to stockholders, who tend to focus on a few figures of financial merit rather than on the corporation as a society within an ecosystem. As Peter Drucker once said, everything important to a corporation is external to it -- including governments, stockholders, markets and ecosystems. A corporation is an open system.

Project Persephone is a social venture, one in which markets, stakeholders, governments and ecosystems are significantly internal. Market mechanisms will be used in large part for their governance value, i.e., as autonomous mechanisms for stabilizing and growing the host society on Earth and the ecosystems it manages (both in experimental facilities on Earth and in real use on orbit). Formal democratic governance should exist only to the extent that markets (and other voluntary modes of organization) clearly fail the stakeholders of the society. The societies will be organized around the perceived intrinsic value of living things and their ecosystems (biophilia), and the challenge of cooperating to nurture them in the hostile environment of Earth orbit -- in a way, ecosystem survival is the point of the game, not just a source of environmental regulations to be reckoned with (as a corporation might view it.) In short, if the goal of a business as an open system is to "create a customer" under compelling social conditions, Project Persephone seeks rather to create compelling social conditions within closed systems: new, living worlds -- microcosms.

However, to say that Project Persephone microcosms are societies and not corporations (or the direct products of corporations) is not to leave corporations out of the picture. If Project Persephone is successful, otherwise-unrelated corporations might find ways to make themselves useful within the microcosms, much as corporations now often expand sales and service outside their original national boundaries when they see a chance to fill a need in some other country. It is almost inevitable that citizens of the microcosms would choose to buy the services of external corporations rather than rely on their own initiatives, if corporations can do better and if what the corporation could do is less interesting to microcosm citizens than some other activity. Citizens might also turn their microcosms (or parts thereof) to commercial uses, for corporations involved in human space travel -- e.g., by growing food surpluses for export to space hotels, by hosting brief recreational visits by space tourists, and by providing short-term "lifeboat" backup services for manned spacecraft and space hotels in distress. Governments might also buy the services of these societies, e.g., for purposes of research into closed ecological life-support systems (CELSS) on long-duration human space missions; the business of providing such services would rightly be regarded as a business, so a corporate structure would be appropriate. Finally, something like corporations might be organized among microcosm participants in the provision of goods and services to each other -- the corporation is, after all, an organizational model with proven uses in market economies. Indeed, there might be microfinance opportunities for microcosm citizens in developing nations, and some of the resulting enterprises might be viable enough to reach the scale where formal incorporation makes sense.

However, the main goal of Project Persephone is to learn about what might be made possible in space development by creating living worlds in space that are operated by a society of people on Earth, regardless of their nationalities. No corporation is likely to pursue anything so speculative, uncertain, or long-range, and especially since there's nothing clearly profitable in it.

Reasons for goals

Q. Why not focus on defense against asteroid impacts?

A. This is a good long-term goal. After all, there are credible theories that major species extinctions have been driven by severe impact events. Homo sapiens could be next. Even an impact that falls far short of what it would take to extinguish humanity could wreak havoc requiring years or decades for recovery. And there's mounting evidence that such a threat is greater than it first appeared.1

Project Persephone is supportive of efforts to address the risks, such as those of the B612 Foundation, which aims to detectably alter the path of an asteroid some time in the foreseeable future.

However, the risks from the sky are low compared to those for disasters emerging from beneath our feet. Compare the probability of a dangerous asteroid impact with that of a similarly dangerous volcanic eruption. The eruption is far more likely. The Asian Tsunami was followed not too many years later by an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands in Port au Prince, Haiti. One might even argue that the ability to alter asteroid orbits dramatically increases the risk of a catastrophic asteroid impact -- by effectively creating a new class of space weaponry, with all its temptations.

As long as the near-term risks of an asteroid impact remain negligible, and the very long term risks high, the best strategy is to look at other uses of outer space that might be so compelling as to push launch rates higher, resulting in lower costs to reach orbit. Project Persephone might help open that door, in proposing that exovivaria -- teleoperation of orbital ecosystems -- could be a compelling application leading to higher launch rates. In proposing that projectile space launch from equatorial alpine regions might be the most cost-effective way to put its own exovivaria-related equipment into orbit, it suggests a path toward launching other payloads, including those for mounting missions to deflect asteroids.

Q. Why not focus on lunar and/or asteroid mining?

A. Space might be the ultimate source of mineral resources, and the ultimate pollution sink. As Gerard O'Neill put it, the surface of a planet is not a good place for an ever-expanding industrial civilization.

However, to start mining asteroids would require massive initial investment, with very long payback times. Even if undertaken by governments, the political economy of long-range space projects works against the idea.2 Conventional return-on-investment analysis shows that even under the assumption rich ores for expensive metals (platinum-group), payback is difficult.3

Also consider that, if successful, Project Persephone might be an early customer of "exports" from asteroids and the Moon, helping to bring materials from celestial objects into the economy. Project Persephone aims to grow plants in space, and soil is a plant's natural base, but even using mere dirt is very expensive if it has to be lifted from the Earth's surface to LEO. Lunar or asteroid regolith might require little or no processing to be useful as a soil component -- it might be simply scooped up and returned to LEO from a passing Near-Earth asteroid, at a small fraction of the cost of lifting the same amount of soil from Earth. This might help "bootstrap" excavation of ores on the Moon; more efficient industrial processes to refine them, both on the Moon and in Earth orbit, might more naturally follow. As well, if LEO exovivaria provide a lot of experience with raising crops and livestock in artificial gravity as weak as the Moon's, it might pave the way to teleoperated forward bases on the Moon, making exploitation of the Moon a less expensive operation to start.

As argued elsewhere, projectile space launch, if it can become a cheap way to launch bulk materials and ruggedized equipment, also facilitates almost any other space effort imaginable -- including extraterrestrial mineral resource extraction.

Further reading

Q. Why not focus on lobbying for Solar Power Satellites?

A. SPS may yet solve humanity's long-term problem of generating the electricity required for universal material abundance in an environmentally impeccable manner. However, like most large-scale space ventures, it does require a very large and very long-term investment. Much of the cost will be in lifting enough industrial infrastructure into space to "bootstrap" the real industrial infrastructure required for ISRU-based? construction of SPS. Project Persephone seeks to address high lift costs in two ways: (1) seeking new sources of high demand for lift, and (b) promoting projectile space launch. Project Persephone's goals are complementary to those of SPS.

Q. Why not focus on lobbying for a manned Mars mission?

A. Manned space missions will continue for the foreseeable future, and most of the long-term focus for these missions seems to be on preparing, in one way or another, to send people to Mars -- eventually. The largest single manned mission currently operating -- ISS -- is in large part a prototype Mars mission, insofar as it tests concepts and techniques for long-duration human spaceflight. The Mars Society is focused on going to Mars sooner rather than "eventually, when we're sure we're completely ready."

Project Persephone, in focusing on closed ecosystems in LEO, is complementary to the goal of manned planetary exploration, including going to Mars. Among the ways in which the Project dovetails with the goal of sending humans to Mars:

  • Exovivaria will keep animals alive in closed environments, and human beings are just another kind of large animal, from a CELSS point of view, .
  • All other things equal, it's more economical to provide exovivaria with lower artificial gravity than higher. This affords opportunities to explore the biology of CELSS components under Mars-strength gravity, on a much larger scale (both in time and in species diversity) than The Mars Society's Mars Gravity Biosatellite project.
  • Real-time interaction with a closed ecosystem might help Mars mission CELSS designers understand how a food-supplying ecosystem might be managed by a crew from inside better-shielded living quarters of interplanetary spacecraft; this could reduce the total mass of radiation shielding required, by making the ecosystem a renewable part of the shielding -- even, in the event that a solar storm kills the entire ecosystem, a "rebootable" part of the shielding, through ecopoiesis.
  • Exovivaria experience should also help in determining to what extent teleoperation delays can be extended, so that, as a manned spacecraft is subject to ever-greater round-trip communication delays with Earth, Mars mission spacecraft life support systems might still be effectively managed from Earth, as necessary to manage the workload of mission crew.
  • Exovivaria experience might pave the way toward ever-more-autonomous robotic management of ever-more-self-balancing food-producing ecosystems. In one possible Mars mission scenario, exovivaria ecopoiesis packages might be sent to a Martian moon, burying themselves there for radiation shielding, and establishing a long-term self-regenerating food/air-recycling source; the Mars mission specialists and astronauts could be sent later, on a faster and/or better shielded craft with only stored food supplies. Such a scenario might benefit by a decade or more of exovivaria experience.

Further reading

Q. Why not focus on developing a space elevator?

A. This is yet another case where the goals of Project Persephone might be considered complementary. If a space elevator is possible, it will still need paying customers for its transportation services, and Earth-based teleoperation of exovivaria could be a source of payloads.

It might be objected that a space elevator makes going to space so cheap for human beings that "virtual" visitation would be pointless. After all, it's been estimated that a space elevator could eventually reduce the cost of reaching orbit to $10/pound. However, this estimate is based on the assumption that the traffic generated by the first space elevator would be profitable enough to justify building a second one (which having a space elevator in the first place would make much cheaper). Realistically, though, first there must be adequate demand at the rates charged for the first space elevator. And any commercial operation running the elevator will prefer to engage in rent-seeking on that fixed capital investment for as long as it can, and for as long as there is any uncertainty about long-term demand.

Project Persephone, in proposing projectile space launch for exovivaria as a way to reduce launch costs, also aligns with the goal of launching materials and equipment for space elevator construction as cheaply as possible. If space elevators can become viable, they would probably eventually render projectile launch (with its various limitations on payloads?) obsolete. There is some potential "cannibalization" of the market for launch, but any such calculation is (like projectile space launch itself) highly speculative. Both are thought to be in the range of hundreds of dollars per orbited pound of payload. Of the two, projectile space launch would probably happen sooner.

Q. Why not focus on space tourism?

A. In part, this is answered by Why not leave this kind of thing to the private sector?. Again, the goals are largely complementary. By teleoperatively growing food for animals in orbit, exovivaria might also grow food for (and recycle sewage from) space hotels. By providing a way to recycle CO2 into oxygen, and to shelter and nurture animals on orbit, exovivaria might also provide emergency life support for stranded space tourism passengers and crew. If exovivaria get established on a large scale before space hotels start serving anything more than the small space adventure travel market, exovivaria could actually help reduce the costs of such space hotels, by reducing their internal life support infrastructure requirements, their operating costs, and their insurance costs. Indeed, if exovivaria enjoy economies of scale, and "naturally" grow by addition of modules and replacement with ever-larger living spaces for their host ecosystems, they might grow to become the basis for the first real space hotels, and people experienced with teleoperation of exovivaria might form the overwhelming majority of the hotel's service staff -- guiding guests around around the facility, answering questions, taking food orders, preparing meals, disposing of garbage, cleaning and tidying -- and without incurring the added costs of sending such staff to orbit. (Suggesting a research project: the "telebotel".)

Q. Why not focus on Server Sky?

A. Server Sky is an excellent project focused on combining space development goals with global environmental sustainability goals in its own way: putting most of our current data center capability (and much more) into Earth orbit, where it could be solar-powered and accessible (by satellite dish) to anyone on Earth. With most of the world moving to Internet access and the ever-growing use of cloud computing, the current 3% of electricity consumption going to data centers now primarily in the developed world might soon be a requirement for billions more people. Trends like Moore's Law, the move toward concurrency-oriented computing, and improvement in thin-film photovoltaics (not to mention space technology in general) can only make the Sky Server idea more practical. Project Persephone's goal of projectile space launch is perhaps complementary to the Server Sky concept, because the dense stacks of proposed "thinsats" might be engineered to survive very high accelerations.

However, Server Sky is basically a commercial technology design project, even if conducted in an Open Innovation style. Project Persephone is a social enterprise oriented around "high surrender value" in its public impact. Resources the Project commits to science education where it's relevant to exovivaria will have value even if no exovivarium ever goes to orbit; resources committed to improving the lives of communities in equatorial alpine regions should have lasting value to the people and environment in those places, even if, in the end, projectile space launch never happens, or never happens at those locations.

Further reading

Q. Why not wait for nanotechnology?

A. Nanotechnology -- especially in the original sense of "molecular-scale self-replication" -- has been proposed as the "silver bullet" of cheaper space development, with universal abundance thrown in for good measure. Technology enthusiasts have historically embraced both radical space development and nanotechnology. Eric Drexler, probably the foremost name in nanotechnological thought, was also an early L5 activist, and wrote his M.S. thesis at MIT on solar sails.

Why not wait for nanotechnology? Well, there are a lot of things we might wait for. We might wait for a more prosperous world with fewer environmental problems, achieved (somehow) without the cornucopia of nanotech. Such a future would make space development considerably more affordable. And in a world where recreation, tourism and entertainment might account for most economic activity, to oppose radical space development as a mere frivolous pastime would only invite the question, "aren't we mainly indulging in frivolous pastimes these days anyway? So why not another one?"

There's already a "nanotechnology" that we don't need to wait for. Nature has provided us with molecular-level self-replication to produce macroscopic things of value to creatures like ourselves. This is, in fact, what an ecosystem is: a system that can grow from tiny self-replicators into a lush and active world in itself, if given only sunlight, nourishment, and a place to stand. Nature has also provided us with self-replication on another level: ideas, songs, dances, images, habits of thought and action -- all are passed from human to human, "self-replicating" through us, mutating into new forms, even as we ourselves biologically self-replicate. Why not use what we self-replicate on Earth to make worlds in which life can self-replicate in orbit? Especially if it's fun?

Nanotechnology will happen on its own schedule. Project Persephone will undoubtedly benefit as it unfolds. But life is to be lived in the here and now. We can make a world worth talking about in space without the massive transformations of terraforming. And if space development is in fact the salvation of humanity, there may be no "later" in which nanotechnology saves us. Better to start now.

Q. Why not focus on one of the 100-year starship initiatives?

The generation ship design projects called "100-Year Starship" (funded by DARPA and NASA) and "Icarus Interstellar", a non-governmental effort, both seek to design the social and technical systems required to sustain generations-long interstellar flight within a century. Project Persephone applauds both of these daring initiatives. Since Project Persephone itself investigates (in its own way) some of the global sustainability issues that both of these efforts seek to address as a kind of "spin-off", there is some overlap in goals. In particular, generation ships will require closed ecological life-support (CELSS) on a grand scale. There is much to be learned from what these projects study, and perhaps Project Persephone can even contribute to them in the near term, from work on the design of exovivaria, both in terrestrial prototypes and in virtual exovivaria.

However, generation ships would involve several revolutionary technological developments, and even to reach the point of launching one will probably require more than a century -- assuming the political will could be mustered.4 As we're at pains to repeat, attempts at such dramatic and long-range leaps often fail -- or, in the case of so many vaulting ambitions for space development, hardly even start. "The end we work for must be closer - the labourer's wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness."5 Project Persephone attempts to keep its technological and social vision within the bounds of what's already known to work, or at least not too far beyond those frontiers. And since human beings are naturally a future discounting species, it aims to see what sorts of activities are sustainably rewarding on much shorter timescales -- anywhere from minutes in the case of MMO games played in virtual exovivaria to years in the case of aid and development work done in equatorial alpine regions to help pave the way for projectile space launch.

Q. If it's about poverty, why equatorial alpine regions and not Sudan/Bangladesh/Yemen?

Because it's not just about poverty. It's about fighting poverty while moving toward space. Or about moving toward space while fighting poverty, if that's your preferred emphasis. It's for people who'd like to do both, and in the same organization.

Project Persephone's save-the-world agenda isn't focused on the worst problems in the world. If you want to work on the worst problems, and you feel that an NGO space program is frivolous by comparison, well ... you're almost certainly right. Conditions might not be so great in the most impoverished mountain village in Ecuador, but they are probably much better than in any refugee camp in Sudan. Go do what you can, wherever you can, however you can. Ask us for free banner-ad space on our website. If we like what you're doing, we'll probably give you some. And we'll probably like what you're doing.

Q. If it's about sustainability, why space technology and not drip irrigation, or rain forest protection, or ...?

Because it's not just about sustainability. It's for people who are concerned about sustainability, but who also want to directly contribute to a space program, in the same organization.

The Project aims for as much environmental sustainability as possible in establishing infrastructure that can not only enrich the lives of people in its developing-world base communities, but also form the underpinnings for projectile space launch. But there will be environmental compromises involved in meeting the SPEC, compromises you might find unacceptable, especially given the Project goals. If it's any consolation: alpine equatorial regions are a tiny fraction of the Earth's land surface, and projectile space launch will probably, pound for pound launched to space, have a smaller environmental footprint than any other way to put things into orbit. So even the Projects biggest compromises on environmental issues would add only negligibly to the enormous problems faced now.

If Project Persephone is wildly successful, and results in thousands of exovivaria being launched over the next 30 years, which in turn pushes space launch costs down to $20/lb, it might make it possible to exploit near-Earth resources in much more sustainable ways, creating plenty for all. Most power might be generated from solar power satellites. And a lot of the power consumption and pollution of an industrial society could take place off Earth: mining and refining of metals might be done on the Moon, perhaps even some finished goods could be robotically manufactured there and sent to Earth. Projectile space launch work could yield a 100% reliable and cheaply repeatable space launch system, and that might be an excellent way to get rid Earth of high-level radioactive waste (which can cost up to $30,000/lb to store, presently.)

What are the odds of such wild success? Quite low. Abysmally low. But if it's only a 0.1% chance, it's still worth somebody's effort to try. You may not be that person. If not, go work on reducing anthropogenic GHG emissions, or preserving species diversity in the Amazon basin, or preventing overfishing of the oceans. Those are very big problems, and the chances of being wildly successful are probably much better. And don't forget to ask us for free banner-ad space on our website. If we like what you're doing, we'll give you some. And we'll probably like what you're doing.

Notes

 

1 "Killer Asteroids: A Lot More Than We Thought", NASA reprint at Parabolic Arc

2 "The Political Economy of Very Large Space Projects", John Hickman, Journal of Evolution and Technology, Volume 4, November 1999

3 "Economic Analysis Tools for Mineral Projects in Space". Richard Gertsch and Leslie Gertsch.

4 About which, see Hickman, ibid.

5 Alexander Herzen, as imagined by Tom Stoppard in his play, The Coast of Utopia


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