Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reviving "Mission to Planet Earth"

Those of us who see unchecked climate change as a peril nearly unmatched in human history (only nuclear war would be in the same league) watch in horror as the United States continues to dither over whether to take the issue seriously, and then whether to take any action on it in this lifetime.

In that light, I've chimed in on Joe Romm's Climate Progress blog on the question of whether Bush's new push to resume human space travel and to land people on Mars is too much to bite off just now. While this is not itself an instance of my self-assigned topic of "climate change denial", I feel it fits here even so, as an implicit denial of the horrendous trade-offs it seems to impose.

The problem is that this very ambitious goal came at just the same time as NASA has been losing out on basic science (30% cut in their science budget in recent years; failure to launch the DISCOVR earth observation mission even with the device complete and ready to go, refusing offers from other nations to launch it for us.)

We simply can't afford to sacrifice earth observation (recently cut even from NASA's mission statement!) right now when there is such a pressing need for clear and accurate readings of the state of our own planet and the pace of current changes.

Here's a copy of the comment I posted on Climate Progress in response to a comment thread on whether the U.S. should be pushing for a manned mission to Mars right now:

My preference for unmanned over manned exploration predates the recent embarrassment of removing “Mission to Planet Earth” from NASA’s agenda. People may be great at improvising and observation, but we weigh a lot, require lots of extra mass for life support, and missions have to be designed to bring us home safely with low probability of failure. Weighed against the current generation of robotic observation platforms and instrumentation, we’re just not cost-effective.

Why do you say humans “have to” colonize space? It’s one thing to say we have to take every new opportunity that comes to us, due to our inventive large brain. But we don’t have a “destiny” that somehow compels us to make huge sacrifices of what we still have here on earth in a long-shot attempt to bring this new “manifest destiny” forward from an uncertain span in the future up to *right now*.

Space exploration aside for a moment, everyone here on earth needs a solution to two converging, very pressing issues: climate change, as well as our dependence on fossil feuls which will not last that much longer, and which may be at or near peak annual extraction already - we haven’t yet explained to ourselves how we can continue as technological, growth-oriented economies without increasing energy resource use.

There is enough coal and unconventional oil (e.g. tar sands) still left to create a serious risk of runaway CO2-climate feedbacks such as permafrost thawing leading to large methane releases. But both conventional oil and natural gas may be facing crises before many more years. Lots of turmoil and conflict should be foreseen arising from this.

If we need a new Apollo project, landing a man on Mars has to rank below a really serious, united effort by the whole country (and the whole world) to move promptly to renewable energy sources and far greater efficiency of energy consumption. This has to be done on a scale to replace the vast current volume of fossil fuels before we hit a new mega-energy-crisis AND before we pile too much GHG in the atmosphere to be able to avoid the worst foreseeable impacts (plus whatever unforseen ones could be far worse - what a gamble!)

To get that much change from the status quo, in so many areas of the economy, is a much bigger challenge than the Apollo moon mission, and needs bold national leadership (in every country at the same time!)

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has used this idea of a “New Apollo Project” in reference to proposed legislation to begin moving toward energy independence and sustainability.

In a few decades, we’ll know if we’ve met these twin challenges or not. In that time frame, we may be able to return to the longer-term dream of sending humans beyond the moon. That target is just not the right place to be focusing at this critical crossroads for our own planet.