Thursday, April 2, 2015

Settling the Solar System

This week I've been touching on last week's Twitter conversation about the Narrative of Mars Colonization, based on this episode of Star Talk Radio: The Future of Humanity with Elon Musk.

It is interesting that Dr. D.N. Lee picked up on the problems of framing the discussion with phrases like "stuck on Earth", "save humanity", and "Manifest Destiny." The Storify of her discussion is here.

When I listened to the podcast, what I picked up on was the discussion about education of women as a means to reduce population growth. As I table that topic for a later discussion, let me just drop this link describing the concept of Reproductive Justice.

Yesterday I posted links to books and other resources discussing NASA culture. This morning I updated it with a few more items.

The first 7 astronauts were selected from U.S. military test pilots. This automatically excluded women, because even though women had been serving in combat since before 1776,  been pilots since 1908 (not just white women, Bessie Coleman earned her pilots license in 1922), and flown military aircraft since 1942, including as test pilots (if not earlier, since many of the barnstorming aircraft were WWI surplus), the first woman selected for military Test Pilot School happened in 1982.

The questions I see are:

  • Do we settle other objects in the solar system? When and why?
    • Elon Musk, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson briefly discussed climate change and taking care of the Earth that we have. I put "environment" in the header of my blog, because I believe that it is important that we take care of this planet.
    • The Star Talk Radio discussion also touched on the difficulties of settling Mars, the inhospitable atmosphere. I know that there has been recent debate about the Mars One technical feasibility.  Since the MITx 16.00 class recently completed the section on Environmental Control and Life Support, I can say that I think the question is one of how tightly we can close the ECLS loop, and how we go about it.
      • Biosphere 2 attempted to use natural plants and compatible organisms to maintain the environment, just as the Earth itself does. Any attempt at settlement must consider lessons learned from Biosphere 2, because any self-sustaining settlement will require agriculture.
      • The International Space Station has had plant growth experiments, but it relies on electro-mechanical and chemical methods of maintaining oxygen, reducing carbon dioxide, and other measures. For these systems, I think the key problem will be reliability (how long do they operate without change-outs?), maintainability (how often do parts need to be changed?), and the logistics of spare parts. Are spares refurbished and reused? 3D-printed? Or resupplied from Earth?
  • Who goes? Who stays on Earth? and why?
    • As I understand Dr. Lee's discussion, part of her worry is that this is being billed as "the place to be" for rich travelers. Meaning that many/most of the settlers would be wealthy and powerful.
    • This sets up an antagonism. In the Karen James Twitter discussion, I was reminded of a t-shirt that I saw during my undergrad years: "The meek will inherit the Earth. The rest of us will escape to the stars." 
The story also depicts the richer countries monopolizing resources in space and the poorer ones falling into civil war and being invaded or needing the assistance of those richer countries, telling a story of dependency theory and the negative side of environmentalism
  • For the settlement, who has what roles? What roles are valued? What roles are undesirable?
    • We need only look at the Third Country Nationals supporting Iraq and Afghanistan, described in this New Yorker piece: The Invisible Army, or the situation with construction workers rebuilding New Orleans. Those are just two cases that have made it through to my own white privileged mind. Dr. Lee and the women of color she works with and supports could likely point to a LONG history of these situations recurring over and over again.
I hold on to hope that space exploration can help us be better humans, that we can learn to work together and create a better world. In order to do this, we need to have this conversation, honestly and thoughtfully. Yes, it challenges our assumptions, challenges our reality. Listen anyway, and think.