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The Ethics of a Utopian Space City


As an undergraduate in England—decades ago—I had the opportunity to do fieldwork for my honors project on the social aspects of the Russian space program over there in Russia, visiting many Russian space centres. At the time, the first British astronaut, a chemical engineer named Helen Sharman, had just been launched up to the Mir space station.

To celebrate this, a couple of Russian and British universities set up a student exchange to share experiences of their respective space research. One of the places I visited in Russia was the Tsiolkovsky State Museum in the small town of Kaluga. The museum was built during Soviet times to commemorate, and to publicize, the work of the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (here seen is on a postal stamp)


Another Utopian Space Station

Tsiolkovsky was most famous for his diverse aerospace studies in the years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was the first to design multistage rocket boosters, the first to design spacecraft airlock systems, and the first to design various kinds of aircraft, hovercraft, and jetcraft. None of these were ever built by Tsiolkovsky, and all his grant applications to pursue research into them were rejected by the Russian state when he submitted them. However, that doesn’t stop Russians nowadays from calling him 'The Father of Cosmonautics'.

In his younger days, Tsiolkovsky marveled at the great new engineering structures of his age. In 1895, he was so inspired by the magnificence of the Eiffel Tower, then only just completed, that he designed a larger tower of similar form that would rise even higher; sixty miles no less -- all the way to the edge of space. Within it, an elevator would move up and down to transport humans and cargo into orbit and back again. As yet, no one has proceeded to build such a tower, since no engineering material is strong enough to support such a massive structure.

Anyway, as I progressed into my postgraduate studies, moving back to Australasia, I stayed interested in the space programs around the world, and I noted that many advocates of space travel justified it for environmental reasons. In Russia and in the United States, space fans said that humans need space exploration to find rare resources and to open up new territory for Earth’s growing population. Many of these space fans also felt that space technology would help humanity develop innovative 'eco-technologies'. Most of them also talked about the way space-age photographs of the Earth ushered in a cultural revolution in environmental consciousness, citing the contemporaneous rise of the American environmental movement with the US space program, especially as astronauts sent back pictures of the beautiful 'Blue Marble Earth' taken from far away in space.

Space Ship Earth

Tsiolkovsky, himself, believed that colonizing space would lead to the perfection of the human race, since we would transcend our Earthly home to spread to other planets and tap into new energies with super-advanced technologies. In Soviet Russia, the new communist state developed its own benevolent space expansion ideas via "cosmism," a mixture of communism and futurism, to encourage the working classes to adopt and befriend the magnificent machinery that could propel the proletariat toward a social paradise here on Earth and maybe later up into the rest of the solar system.

While fascinated with the Space Age and its dreams, I am not at all convinced it can have any strong claim to being 'environmental'. I interpret the environmental movement as a reaction against the industrialism and militarism associated with the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s, not as being inspired by it. I acknowledge that the photographs of the Blue Earth from space are wondrous and beautiful, but I cannot help but be sympathetic to the thoughts of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who said of them that they were like bitter-sweet good-byes to our planet, as though humanity were sighting the Earth in a rearview mirror as we sped away from it.

Modern space travelers themselves seem oblivious to this paradox. For instance, while serving onboard the International Space Station in 2013, the astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield sang the 1969 David Bowie song "Space Oddity" to an earthbound global audience of many millions.

Space Oddity and Utopia

In the lyrics of the song, a spaceman called Major Tom tells a tale of his alienation from Earth and how he has to resort to drugs in order to deal with this isolation. The song is something of a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s spectacular movie '2001: A Space Odyssey', which celebrated the monumental wonder of space travel. '2001' was released in 1968, a year before Bowie released his 'Space Oddity' song.

Space Oddity in Space

If the cultural contradictions of space travel are ignored by those who participate in it, then space travel’s relationship to the Arms Race is also glossed over. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the launch vehicles that carried astronauts and cosmonauts into orbit were co-designed to act as missiles carrying nuclear warheads or could be used as missile test vehicles. The moonshots of the 1960s came about through Cold War competition, as part of a struggle for military techno-superiority; not as a way to work for the "common good" of humanity—or the environment.

Even more scary: in the 1960s American rocket scientists made plans to use hundreds of sequential nuclear bomb explosions to propel huge spaceships out into deep space and toward other star systems.

So far, these plans have yet to materialize, but there have been a series of small atomic-powered space probes sent to explore the outer planets, such as the Voyager and New Horizons missions, and the section chiefs of the US space agency, NASA, also ponder the possibility of using nuclear rockets to go to Mars.

In space, maybe a little bit of nuclear material is not all that dangerous to humans. However, the process of getting it into space is very risky. Nowadays, space rockets have massive malfunctions about one-sixth of the time. A large proportion of this one-sixth explode high in the atmosphere, and if an exploding rocket includes a payload of nuclear material, the explosion would possibly vaporize the nuclear material and then scatter it in a huge band around the globe. Eventually, the radiation would fall to Earth as rain and snow, dousing billions of people with radioactivity. Those living in the irradiated band could possibly inhale radioactive molecules into their lungs, resulting in cancers and lung disease, maybe at the scale of millions of people.

I published my concerns about space development in academic form and sent them off to an elderly but still very collegial Arthur C. Clarke, the well-known futurist and science fiction novelist (and the guy who wrote '2001: A Space Odyssey').

He was kind enough to send me a nice reply saying how much he missed snorkeling in Australia, and he also sent me the preprints of his latest novel, marking in highlighter a paragraph about environmentalists who wanted to protect the pristine beauty of Jupiter from human interference.

Personally, I am hopeful that large-scale use of nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs in space would probably never eventuate mainly because it was just too expensive to develop such projects--and congress would halt them before they got off the ground (though in more autocratic or bombastic military states like Russia or China -- or Trump's America -- this barrier may not exist).

However, Clarke told me of an optimistic little secret buzzing around in the heads of space fans. In a few decades, he suggested, Tsiolkovsky’s vision of a space elevator might be realized, and this would rapidly bring down the cost of space travel (including the cost of getting huge nuclear-powered spaceships into orbit). So, taking the lead given to me by Arthur C. Clarke, I present Paris in the early 22nd century...

Spaceship falling on Paris

In this scenario, it is not the Americans or the Russians who work to construct a space elevator but the French. France, after the United States and the USSR, was the third nation to reach space, launching its first satellite in 1965. Today, the French still have a strong space program, being a major participant in the International Space Station while also launching satellites to Earth orbit and space probes to other worlds.

By the early twenty-second century, after decades of research and development, the French space agency builds a space base in orbit and then unreels an elevator cable from it—which comes all the way down to the surface of the Earth. The cable is eighty miles in length, made of nano-carbon, and it descends from space to make contact with the Earth at France’s space center in French Guiana, South America.

The first elevator car starts running up and down the cable in 2121, ferrying both people and machines to and from orbit. The project is reported the world over as being "an engineering marvel." As a financial enterprise, though, it is a complete failure. The cost of transporting a person or a piece of space equipment first to French Guiana and then into outer space on a nano-carbon cable ends up being even higher than the cost of using a normal rocket. The French public, who financed the whole project via their taxes, are also aggrieved that such a marvelous French invention is not even available to gaze upon in their own country. The American public has their Kennedy Space Center. The Russian people have their Vostochny Cosmodrome. But French citizens have to traverse across the Atlantic Ocean to South America before they can view the space adventures going on at their national spaceport.

So, in an effort to increase the commercial viability of the project and to appease French taxpayers, the space elevator is moved. Over the course of many months, the base station at the bottom end of the cable is loaded onto a massive boat and floated ever-so-slowly to La Havre on the French coast, then up the River Seine to Paris. When it finally gets there, the French will at last be able to rejoice in its grandeur (even though very few of them will be able to pay for a ticket to ride on it).

However, late in 2121 something goes dramatically wrong. Due to either a design fault or some accident, the entire space elevator starts to vibrate and shudder violently, before falling spectacularly down to Earth over Paris.

So the question is this: What’s this got to do with The Ecotopia Project, and its pursuit of an ecofriendly 'Green Utopia'? Well, right before the collapse of the space elevator, a sturdy security robot was scheduled to load a plutonium battery into the elevator so that it could be transported upwards to serve an orbiting spaceship. Luckily, the robot developed a glitch seconds before completing its task -- and automatically shutdown. The elevator rose without the plutonium battery, and because of this, the entire population of Paris was saved from a much larger catastrophe: being rained on by a huge cloud of radioactive fallout.



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