In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, as part of the state-funded US Apollo space programme. The rationale for the US space effort had its roots, at least partly, in Cold War politics, but was justified publicly in terms of each generation’s need to pass on the torch of progress to those that follow. As President Kennedy put it so eloquently:
“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it.”
Since our visit to the ‘Sea of Tranquillity’, interest in space has ebbed and flowed, with an International Space Station being one of the main legacies. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets now shuttle astronauts to our outpost beyond the atmosphere. The possibility of commercial space travel seems closer than ever, with Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos recently soaring to the weightless thin air in the fuzzy boundary between atmosphere and space. Again, the endeavour is justified in terms of intergenerational ambitions. To quote Bezos:
“The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. We would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited – for all practical purposes – resources and solar power and so on. That's the world that I want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in.”
Musk, Branson and Bezos are all inspirational in showing the power of the entrepreneurial spirit to turn imagination into reality. That is to be both admired and respected. Space travel is an important metaphor for those who see us as a species that is separate from all others, able to escape our planetary boundaries, challenging the notion that we are a part of nature.
The priority right now is to ensure we tilt our technology focus and our consumption behaviour in order to pass a sustainable blue dot on to our descendants.
All metaphors have their limits, however, and that applies to the image of humanity in space also. The idea that the ingenuity of homo sapiens can overcome nature’s rhythms and scarcity flies in the face of the evidence. Space travel is still subject to the laws of energy and sustainability. To think otherwise is wooden-headed, and amounts to a march of folly, to borrow an image used in a different context by the US historian, Barbara Tuchman.
With that thought in mind, what torch should we be trying to hand on to future generations at this time? Rough estimates quoted in the Dasgupta Review suggest that our current demand for the services provided by the biosphere can only be provided on a sustainable basis by 1.6 Earths. We already know enough about space to understand that there is no planet B nearby. The primary human challenge of our era is to bring that number back to under one.
Astronauts may well soar through the heavens in future and look back to our pioneer adventurers with pride. However, the priority right now is to ensure we tilt our technology focus and our consumption behaviour in order to pass a sustainable blue dot on to our descendants. Otherwise, there may never be future Mozarts to play sonatas out there in space, as planet Earth’s life support system goes up in smoke on the launch pad.
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