I used to write for the Fanzine of a Star Trek club, and sometimes used this forum for
the discussion of High Frontier-type concepts. The following article was
written for a Star Trek audience and was published in one of the club
by Mike Combs
Copyright © 1994
Imagine two different scenarios, if you will:
Scenario one: Someone stands up and says, "We shouldn't be spending so much money on sending people into space when we could instead be spending it to solve all of our problems right here on Earth". Everyone else says, "Sit down and shut up. Let's all go into space. It'll be fun!"
The international space station Alpha is built. Research conducted in the zero gravity environment results in the creation of new metal alloys and pharmaceutical vaccines that cannot be made in a gravity environment. The demand for more space stations becomes so great that the space shuttle begins to bring it's enormous external fuel tank into space so that they can be re-outfitted for additional stations. Some stations are designed in a baton shape, and rotate for artificial gravity so the crews can begin staying up for duty shifts longer than a couple of months.
The X-33 spaceplane program comes to fruitition, resulting in a space transportation system far cheaper and more reliable than the old space shuttle. This, combined with the increasing number of stations makes possible a new multi-billion dollar space enterprise: orbital tourism.
Space station Alpha is expanded to serve as a staging post for the next step: a return to the moon. This time we go not to plant flags, but to gather resources. A small mining camp is set up. Lunar soil is scooped up, sintered in a solar furnace into spheres about the size of a base ball, and launched into space. Since the moon has no atmosphere, and since it's gravity is only a fraction of the Earth's, there is no reason why rockets would have to be used to launch the ore into space. A device called a mass-driver is built on the lunar surface. Essentially a kilometer-long solar powered electromagnetic accelerator, the mass driver launches the ore up to an ore catcher in space behind the moon. When a good-sized load is accumulated, an ore carrier transports it to a manufacturing facility in a high Earth orbit.
The manufacturing facility uses the constant solar energy available in space to smelt the ore into silicon, aluminum, titanium, nickel, iron and other pure elements. A surprising by-product of this ore refining operation is tons of oxygen. Obviously useful for breathing, it's also the heaviest part of both water and rocket fuel. Space operations become increasingly independent of Earth.
The presence of manufacturing capability and large amounts of resources already in a high orbit make possible the construction of vast engineering projects in space that would be impractical to support from the surface of the Earth. The space manufacturing facility begins using the silicon and metals to form the components of the first Solar Power Satellite (SPS). It's a gigantic array of solar cells in a geosynchronous orbit around the Earth where the constant, 24 hour a day sunlight at this altitude can generate electricity non-stop. The energy is beamed down to a receiving antenna on the surface via a microwave beam where it is converted back into electricity. This microwave beam had been studied thoroughly, and no harmful environmental effects were found. The energy is cheap, clean and plentiful.
The market for new sources of energy grows as the poorer nations of the Earth struggle to raise their standard of living to that enjoyed by the industrialized nations. As they do so, they become less interested in radical politics and regional disputes and more interested in pursuing the good life. The construction of new power satellites accelerates to meet the increased energy demand. More energy is being used, but since most of the waste heat is in space, global warming actually goes down.
As the SPS program expands, at first thousands, then tens of thousands of people associated with SPS construction begin to live for longer and longer periods in space. However, the workers soon become dissatisfied with their accommodations. Gradually, a part of the output of the manufacturing facilities is diverted to the construction of a large space habitat which creates an Earth-like environment for it's inhabitants.
The space habitat is a sphere or cylinder rotating to provide simulated gravity equal to Earth's. Sunlight is brought into the interior with mirrors. Lunar soil is landscaped and planted to produce a very natural appearance. Later, much larger habitats are built big enough to have a blue sky with cloud formations and natural weather.
As we go farther afield for space resources, the asteroid belt is opened up. The asteroids provide elements the moon lacks like hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. All dependence on Earth for supply is finally severed. With large human populations now scattered throughout the solar system, no single global catastrophe can wipe out our species.
While SPS construction continues to expand, habitat construction becomes a bigger and bigger part of the enterprise. In addition to providing housing for SPS and other space-related workers, markets begin to open up for all kinds of emigrants from Earth. Many want to live in space due to the superior living conditions afforded by the space habitats. Others feel the pull of a new frontier.
The improvement of economic conditions in the developing nations seems to also be accompanied by a trend towards lower birthrates. Still, the population of the Earth does continues to grow. More and more stringent (and unpopular) population control laws are instituted. Although no space transportation system can keep up with the number of children being born, at least space provides an option. One can either stay on Earth and live with the population control laws, or emigrate into space so that one can have their Walton clan. "Don't worry about living space," they'll say, "we'll make more". Now when you ask someone at a cocktail party what they do and they say they're into real estate, they may not mean sales. They might mean manufacture.
In time, there are two civilizations: Earth and Space, with the population of the latter eventually exceeding the former. The asteroid belt alone would provide the resources to build sufficient habitats to equal 3,000 times the livable surface area of the Earth. Space habitats make the entire solar system a home for humanity. With most industrial manufacturing activity taking place in space, the Earth's primary industry now becomes tourism. Interest then rises in restoring the natural environment to what it was before the industrial revolution.
Eventually some habitats begin to drift away from our star to take up residence around other favorable stars. Now not even a super-nova could kill off the human race. Then an Alpha Centarian named Zephram Cochrane invents something called a warp coil and... oh well, you know the story from this point.
Scenario two: Someone stands up and says, "We shouldn't be spending so much money on sending people into space when we could instead be spending it to solve all of our problems right here on Earth". Everyone else says, "Yeah, that sounds right. Let's do it."
All national space programs are disbanded. The money is put into social programs which expands their budgets by less than two percent. The spending is about as successful as all past social spending. None of it reduces prejudice, makes dishonest people honest nor selfish people generous.
Each year that passes by sees more and more people pursuing less and less natural and energy resources. Greater populations squeeze into the same living space resulting in increasing social tensions. Famines begin to spread.
The burning of the remaining quantities of fossil fuels creates a shortage of plastics, fertilizers and other petroleum-derived substances. Eventually, the resulting global warming raises ocean levels, inundating all coastal cities. Concern for the environment vanishes as everyone does whatever it takes to maintain their accustomed lifestyle.
The poor nations become poorer. The rich nations jealously guard their rapidly dwindling wealth. International tensions rise. Disputes intensify. Some nations, frustrated with the inequities and convinced that they have nothing left to lose, try to use nuclear blackmail to get their way. There are so many nuclear devices left over from the excesses of the Cold War that it is not difficult for anyone to get their hands on them. Some are home-made from the tons of fissionable material which resulted from the expansion of the nuclear industry when fossil fuels ran out. Entire capitals vanish instantly in blazes of atomic fire.
Some scientific experts point to the moon and the asteroids as possible sources of the materials now so desperately needed on Earth, and wonder about harnessing the sun's energy in space, but to no avail. Even the wealthiest nations can no longer afford space travel.
Social structure breaks down and resource depletion intensifies. Our technological level regresses to that prior to the industrial revolution, only we are in much worse shape for advancing than we were back then. All of the easily-retrieved resources of coal, oil, metals and timber are gone.
As starvation closes in, some folks invent little food wafers called Soylent Green. "We'll tell people that it's made out of plankton from the oceans," they say, "although really....", well, you know this story from this point too.
One of the wonderful things about science fiction is that it shows us possible futures. Some look like nice places to live. Some we should desperately try to avoid. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that the difference between a world with space travel and a world without is the difference between Star Trek and Soylent Green. However, I'm convinced that there is at least a germ of truth in this assertion.
Perhaps I'm preaching to the choir here. One presumes that anyone who is a fan of Star Trek is favorably disposed towards space travel. But maybe you could keep this article handy and pull it out the next time a friend advocates "solving all of our problems here on Earth first".