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Some American stories…
There is a story going on, mainly in the USA, saying something like “exploration of the Americas was first done by the governments (Isabel of Spain financing Columbus expeditions, etc…) then most of it was done by the private industry. Therefore space exploration should be done the same way, NASA and other space agencies have done their time, and now exploration of the Moon, Mars, mining of asteroids, etc… should be left to the hands of the private sector”.
Indeed, colonization of the Americas was done by the private sector. It caused the genocide of millions of people and the slavery of millions of others brought from Africa in less than humane conditions. Summing everything up, can it be called a “success story”, one of which humanity can be really proud of? Can the fortune of a few billionaires justify the misfortune of hundred of millions of people? Or can we talk about one thing while forgetting to talk completely about the other. Could have it been done otherwise? What is done is done, could have been better or worse, but then how and why is the “therefore” in the above paragraph mandatory? Could we think before letting exploration of the solar system to the hands of a few careless entrepreneurs interested only in their short term profit?
Another story we hear frequently is the citation from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky saying something like “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” And the answer is that if the conditions outside of the cradle are not made for humans, we’d better stay in the cradle in which life has been developing for billions of years, and do all possible efforts to preserve it, because this is the only one we have. Have the people who talk about permanent space colonies given any serious thoughts about the reality of life in such colonies? If Moses had gone out of its cradle, while floating on the Nile river, he would just have drowned, and we would have had maybe different religions on Earth . Damned Moses, too bad :)
So far, space exploration has mostly been done by the space agencies of the various governments which have felt necessary to launch rockets into space. The primary motivation has never been science or the progress of the society, but has been military. The truth is that the public part of the space activities has been developed like a side effect of the military space activities (said otherwise, there is one Hubble Space Telescope, while the US Air Force has launched 11 of them for spying purposes). I have participated in “space debris” meetings in the early 90s, and there are still such meetings, and nothing, absolutely nothing has been done to reduce the quantity of trash which has been sent and continues to be sent in earth orbit. The quantity of space trash keeps increasing with time (google "space debris" to see the evolution). And this is the result of the programs of (supposedly responsible) space agencies. There is already something like 250 tons of terrestrial debris on the surface on the Moon, the totality of it coming from government agencies and I could not find the value for the Mars, or how many tons of trash has been sent into “deep space”.
Then there is also “space tourism”. Also called “the most expensive vomiting you can get during your lifetime”. Or how very rich people will be able to pollute our atmosphere, just for a few moments in weightlessness, and the impression of being a space hero… Because, it makes sense (?) if you go to space, you are a hero (???). Then you will be able to say, like most of these astronomy ignorant astronauts “that you discovered how fragile our Earth is, as seen from space”. Of course, after having burned tens of tons of kerosene in the atmosphere. So much for your ecological considerations…. If life appeared on Earth and not anywhere else, it’s for a good reason: we can live here, and not elsewhere. At least if we don’t kill each other anytime soon. Buy a telescope, look at the other planets, study a little bit what they are like, and you learn very quickly that Earth, at least the 10% that can be inhabited, is a wonderful planet, no need to pollute the atmosphere to find out.
In 1973, astronomers knew 23 Earth Crossing Asteroids. When they started to study the moon, they realized there were many "young" craters on its surface, and also that there had to be many more Earth Crossing Asteroids than just 23... So they started searching, and found them. To make a long story short, today, we have observed more than 17000 Near Earth Objects and are still discovering more. Of course by Earth crossing asteroids, we are thinking very large. Only 3 of the 17000 do really cross the orbit of the Earth. The PHA (potentially hazardous asteroids) are all asteroids which orbits get closer than 7.5 millions of km of the orbit of the Earth. The big ones (dinosaur killers) were the easiest ones to find, and basically the last one was discovered in 2004. Of the 54 very large Near Earth Objects (H<15), only 4 were discovered in our century, and none was discovered after 2004, despite much better search telescopes. In the 2000s, we were basically still discovering about 100 large NEOs (H<18) per year, and today with better search telescopes, we find less than 15 per year. None represent a substantial danger, and the homeopathic probabilities of impact is just a reflection of the uncertainty with which their orbits are known. It is relatively important to continue the search programs, and make sure that no asteroid do represent a danger in the near future. It is more than likely that no big asteroid will hit the Earth in the coming century, the same way as no big asteroid has hit the Earth in the last 1000 years. Very small asteroids may hit the Earth like in Siberia in February 2013, but these objects really do not represent a danger such that we would need to discover all 20 meters asteroids out there. Said otherwise, if you read a text about Near Earth Asteroids and the writer talked about the dinosaurs or Chelyabinsk, he/she is talking bullshit. The big ones are known, and the small ones, like in Chelyabinsk, are too small and numerous, and we will never discover them all. On that day in Siberia, in that city, the people who died, died of "terrestrial causes". Some were cut by glass debris, but looking at the numbers, we may have 3 such tiny asteroids hitting the Earth per century, but since only 3% of the Earth is inhabited, such a small impact over a city on average occurs every 1000 years. Idiotic politicians do kill many more humans than tiny asteroids even those who were given the Nobel Peace Prize. The problem is that when we started to discover more and more of these asteroids, a ridiculous "side effect" occurred. We got many people, mainly from the "militaro industrial lobby" which started to think about what to do in the completely impossible case where we would detect a "dangerous" asteroid. And since these people only think in terms of enemies, they had found a new one, for which it was absolutely essential to do something "now". So there are now regular "space defense meetings" where some not too serious scientists plays at simulating an imminent impact on Earth, and some other people try to see how we could "mitigate" a dangerous asteroid. Since the next very big impact is in all probability for 10000 years, and since we don't even know if there will still be humans in 10000 years on Earth, it's indeed a very high priority to spend billiions of dollars to "mitigate" perfectly harmless asteroids.
In the same delirium, nowadays we hear more and more rumors about various companies who, despite all international agreements (mainly https://history.nasa.gov/1967treaty.html ), want to do asteroid mining and the type of enterprises based on the idea that it’s easier and less expensive to extract metals at 500 million of km from the Earth in near weightlessness and bring them back to us than to recycle the resources we have already here at home. Mining will be very likely either a robotic or adult astronauts adventure. Can we count on the private companies destroying asteroids to clean their mess after they are done? Private companies are only interested in profit and usually a short term one, and if we look at how government agencies have been able to transform earth surroundings into a gigantic trash without doing anything about it, we can only imagine what will happen when it will be done by private companies. I would of course prefer to say “if it’s going to be left to the private sector”.
Colonies on the Moon and Mars:
And if going just 100 km in our atmosphere is not enough, pretty soon, we will have colonies on the Moon and on Mars. Tadaaa….:) We know perfectly that life on the Moon or Mars will mean people will have to live underground, almost never seeing the light of the sun, except during very brief intervals of lower solar activity, in order to repair the robots which will do the work on the surface. The failure of Biosphere 2, which was not even remotely close to real martian conditions should be reason enough to think twice about space colonies. Since it’s quite easy to do the experiment, I would indeed recommend to select some idiots, sorry, I meant volunteers, and ask them to stay in some cave for years on, and try to have kids, and raise them, before we do the experiment on Mars, which will have much more difficult conditions. Let’s allow them go back to normal life only once every two years, and let them die if they miss something in the meantime, like if they were on Mars.
Personally, I felt bad to have to raise my children in a city, when I was lucky to spend a lot of time on the country side when I was a kid. During the warm period of the year, I went very often fishing with my father on the Moselle river, he would wake me up at 4am, and we would go with a small fishing boat try to catch some pikes (and we did !). In the spring, we would go collect daffodils in the Vosges mountains, or going in the nearby woods in early May to collect May Lilies, which have such a nice perfume. Mushroom hunting was also something special in the autumn months. I would go and play with the kids of the neighborhood afternoons after afternoons, swimming in the Moselle (but not after 3PM, because before it was prohibited). I can say I had a happy childhood. Later I lived in a city and unfortunately, my kids were not as lucky as I have been. We would, on Sundays, go to a nearby “park” where there were a few thousands other persons, and would go back home in the traffic. It was not really fun. But then, that’s way much better than having to raise your kids in a space more or less the size of a commercial airplane, with the same permanent noise, only artificial lights, etc... I am trying to imagine all kind of scenarios about these extraterrestrial colonies and don’t find any which would be enviable compared to regular, healthy, terrestrial life.
Dreaming of changing Mars in a second Earth, while transforming the Earth in a second Venus :
The development of science and technology has led to two contradictory consequences: the exponential growth of human population, and, at the same time, with the machine, less need for people, who are being replaced by machines. The coming of age of AI (Artificial Intelligence) will only increase this trend. More people, more pollution. While we need less people, but more educated, the trend is to have more people and less educated. If there is one urgent thing to do on Earth, it’s to take care of this problem. Not the terraforming of Mars or other ridiculous idea, which must have come from quite perturbed minds. We need more education, less people. There are only two ways to reduce the world population, which are to increase mortality, or decrease natality. If we don’t do anything, and if we leave the “defense” lobbies control the politics, the first option will be chosen. By “defense” lobby, I mean of course all the businesses which also profit of the general idea of “space exploration”, and of course human "space exploration". War, today is by far the more expensive option. To give a concrete example, the second, illegal, Bush war in Irak did cost 3 billions of dollars. It killed (to make a round number) 300000 Iraqis. Said otherwise, each Iraqi killed did cost 10 millions of dollars to the American taxpayer, it would have been much less costly to pay for the education of the whole country, increase their wealth level, they would have reduced their natality in the following generation, etc… One can of course argue that the US population being 326.5 millions today, each Iraqi killed did cost only 3 cents to each American, still American with brains (there are still a substantial number of them) should be relatively unhappy and not particularly proud of their country predatory behavior. Global warming is only one side effect of the overpopulation of Earth, and you nevertheless find idiots who pretend that it’s not related to human activity, some of them are even elected to very important political positions. We keep deforesting the Earth, polluting the oceans, we go slowly but surely toward the “venus-isation” of the Earth. If we continue the current trends, we will have exhausted all the fossil fuel in another century, the atmosphere will be polluted, global warming will be a really serious problem. Are they serious?
Thinking about all this, I can only regret that human intelligence is not used where it should be, meaning improving the quality of life of humans here on Earth instead of destroying nature, both here on Earth and in our solar system too. In France, there was a well known dialogist, Michel Audiard, who said an interesting phrase, through a conversation in a movie (un taxi pour Tobrouk), which translates in english as "a walking asshole will always go further than a sitting intellectual". So indeed if some enterprise goes to Mars, and actually is able to let people survive there, why not. But it's maybe time for humanity to have some thinking before acting. I believe the solar system should be protected from our activities.
If you ask me (and in case you have not understood yet) I much prefer billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates who invest their money in the well-being of people to persons like Elon Musk who finds it cool to pollute the solar system with his Tesla car. Humanity needs education, needs freedom from religions which maintain a vast proportion of people in a state of mind which was adapted to the antiquity but not to the modern world. The Earth should be our priority, it’s our only habitat. And the Solar System should be protected like Antarctica is and not be left to the hands of the private sector. We still should explore it with a few robotic spacecrafts, but the priority is really to save humanity of self destruction, not playing at Star Trek.
Alain Maury - January 2018
Added February 15th : Interesting conference by Neil de Grasse Tyson, a little bit on the same themes. Here