Marco C Bernasconi – Astronautics : The Only Ethical Future – 2006


First published in the conference Expanding the Space, in collaboration with the
Octubre Centre de Cultura Contemporania, and IAA, Valencia, 2006

1. Introduction

Sänger (1963) listed the “nostalgia of the heavens” among the major drivers for the realization of that age-old human dream that is Astronautics. Today, it is argued that plain tourism may be the only way the dreamers will come to turn it into reality. But this sort of arguments (dreams, leisure), in a world afflicted by still so many issues, immediately raises the hecklers’ cry: “Immoral escapism!” And the demand that such wastes of resources be not only avoided, but even forbidden.

Indeed, within a generation’s time span, this planet will have to provide for the basic needs of ten billion human beings, and more than one part in ten of the global biospheric production will be needed just for basic human food. The impact on nature will be enormous, and no attempt to reform human nature can undo this physical fact. But Homo sapiens, the “technological animal,” cannot survive without the support of technical implements. This necessity begins with the effort for providing food, where the agricultural technology requires significant energy subsidies to obtain ever more produces from a roughly constant surface under cultivation. Industrial power, however, is as significant in human culture as metabolic power is for the individuals — and just as there, it must continuously be supplied afresh. The currently fashionable attempt to cope with these issues calls for “new life styles” of “sharing limited resources.” This approach, highly sung for more than a quarter of century, has failed to “solve” a single issues it is purported to address and does not offer any evidence that it will be more successful in future.

For this reason the concept of the Astronautical Humanism is being developed: only by accessing the resources of space that the anthropogenic burden on the biosphere can be lightened, and only by developing space can sufficient resources be made available to humanity, and a reasonable hope created that permanent conflicts over scarcity will be avoided. Even immaterial resources (aesthetics, hope in the future) can come to humanity only through the recognition of the astronautical imperative. Against this background, Astronautics emerges as the realization of a dream and as an ethical imperative, enabling the only future with a humane world, one in which even intolerance can be tolerated, but it’s not forced into the ruling doctrine.

The present papers summarized the status of the research. The first part sets the bases for the a rationale ethical discourse. In the second part, we outline the issues of futures studies, summarize the major current worldviews, and hint at their ethical assessments. Then, we review the basic needs of humanity-at-large for the next century against the resources of the planet: this process shows the impasse into which single-planet “solutions” would lead. We conclude with a summary of the major contributions of Astronautics to addressing those needs.

2. A Solid Ethical Discourse

2.1 Rules for Good Behaviour?

The ethical discourse typically suffers of:

˜Poor definitions. For instance, my edition of the Britannica defines ethics as (Gewirth, 1985): “… the branch of philosophy that is concerned with what is morally good or bad…; a synonym for it is moral philosophy.” This is, of course, a circular definition, leaving one to wonder what “moral” means. These confused bases lead to

˜Metaphysical wanderings, e.g., what is “good”? But metaphysics is a self-centered exercise, not a helper to creation or even to “solving problems.” In addition, lacking Occam’s razor, it easily yields complex constructs that are hardly amenable to practical use.

˜Excessive influence of religious value-systems. Whether theistic or not, these systems rely on complex axiomatic truths that tend to be contradictory among the various systems. However, because (in the mind of the faithful) they must be true, they lead to or support

˜Coercive intents. Ethical rules are seldom built to empower people, and more often to bind them to behaviour that needs to be enforced.

˜Antiscientific bias. As a philosophical undertaking, classical ethics is beside science, but to many of its contemporary practitioners it seems to be a means of choice to deny to people the use of technological option — on the basis of an opaque “consensus.”

What we really need is a core ethical set that bases on natural, “self-evident” principles. Thus, its rules (one hopes) would be amenable to general acceptance by persuasion, with retribution provided in good measure by unsatisfactory results (“failure”) — instead of being coercively inculcated and enforced by violence. If one truly believes in the significance of behaving ethically, one has to come to recognize the importance of simplicity: in other words, while the world is complex, basic rules must be as simple as possible, because reality will ensure that actual rules become sufficiently complicated!

Note that everyone is free to behave also in accordance to additional rules of his choice, as long as these are adopted voluntarily and as they remain conform to the core elements. (To add: “in their relations with other individuals” is pleonastic, since ethics always addresses such communicative behaviour.)

First of all, it is useful to define the term: in a previous paper (Bernasconi, 1994b), I have recalled and supported the separate definitions for ethics and morality given by Sturgeon (1953). Accordingly, ethics is now defined as:

“the set of rules, by which an individual lives in such a way as to help his species”

2.2 An Universal, Natural Value

In nature, the predominant imperative is the conservation of the genetic strain: towards this end do individuals endeavor to survive, but mere survival is useless without reproduction and transmission of genetic information. On a wider field, reproduction tends to ensure survival of a species — although a particularly successful strain may support differentiation and the origination of a new species.

Within some species, individuals are utterly disposable. But humans are not “insects.”

“Survival” is the operative word: As Heinlein (1973) observed:

“We have two situations, mutually exclusive: Mankind surviving, and mankind extinct. With respect to morality, the second situation is a null class. An extinct breed has no behavior, moral or otherwise.”

This connection between ethics and “mere” survival has often been (willingly?) misunderstood: we intend here much more than physical survival of an individual, as the introductory discussions of consciousness and natural imperatives already ought to have suggested: in the words of Sturgeon (1953):

“[This] ethos will give you […] a greater survival than your own […]. What it is really is a reverence for your sources and your posterity. It is a study of the main current that created you, and in which you will create still a greater thing when the time comes.”

As the humanist poet summarizes it, ethics is a search preparatory for (study) new creations, in line with all that can be learned from evolution and about the Universe. Therefore, the survival and the expansion of consciousness. Therefore, the survival of civilization, encompassing the continuation of its values and aspirations – existing and new ones. And this mention of good values and aspirations transforms our ethical theory into a recursive definition, and further emphasizes its dynamic, evolutionary nature.

A last point must concern itself with the range of objects to be taken into account in the calculations. Following Heinlein (1973), we can refer to following, multiple level of ethical consciousness:

˜own survival

˜survival of direct relatives (immediate family = genetic strain)

˜welfare of a group of too large for its members to be individually known (nation = culture, civilization)

˜survival of the whole species (humanity).

˜welfare of life forms in general.

In this list we join the biological imperatives, common to all mammalians, with the cultural imperatives founded on the human creation of persistent exosomatic, i.e. non genetic memories. As consequence of the self-awareness-induced intensification of the awareness of other forms of life, the human ethical interest extends even beyond its own species.

Most conventional ethics purveyors tend to portrait the extension in the range of ethical sensitivity as intrinsically good — particularly as one moves beyond the conservation of genetic/ cultural strains. By this behaviour, they create and entertain a tension within this hierarchy by suggesting (immoral) “selfishness” on the individual level, to be “overcome” through the elevated values of the deeper steps. In truth, however, no evidence supports such a position, and one must admit that the ranking depends on the situation!

Accordingly, there will be situations where survival of the strain justifies an individual’s self-sacrifice; other ones, in which the “welfare of the Universe” is good reason for restricting people’s rights, will also occur, albeit more rarely. But already we can recognize that no external entity can dispose of the life of individuals without their explicit accord, and claim to have acted ethically!

To sacrifice one’s life for the king is a bad choice. To offer one’s life to the King is stupid — but we must understand that: “I’ll take you on your word!” is strictly and only an educational joke. But for “the King” to assume that he can dispose of one man’s life is a crime — and it does not make any difference whether “the King” is a man named Louis or George, a “democratic state” or the “United Nations.”

2.3 Ethical Rules: General Definition

˜By ethics we shall designate both the algorithmic process to produce ethical rules, as well as the resulting set of rules of behaviour for an individual.

˜Ethical rules describe the minimal interventions necessary (MINs) for conserving or furthering the survival or the welfare of (i) self-aware consciousness, (ii) the genetic or cultural strains to which the agent belongs, (iii) the human species, or (iv) life in the Universe in general. They are obtained from (quantitative) analysis of the consequences of actions on the different potential futures

˜In addition to the quoted aims to be supported by the rules, criteria for defining the MINs are: the potential for increased and sustained creation, and the consideration of the evolution’s course.

˜”Action” includes abstention from acting.

˜Cultural, or non-somatic, objects are defined to include all their values, aspirations, and creations – existing and potential – of the object under consideration.

2.4 Modern Governance

Above, we have referred to science, as a method for attempting to make sense of the Universe, and to technology, as a coadjutor to the invention of the future. The third column of modernity concerns governance, i.e. the identification of what are generally referred to as human rights. Governance of pre- or proto-conscious people is rather straightforward: with critical awareness, the issue gets more complex, and the growing scientific progress only reinforced this trend. Critical awareness leads people to the recognition of their mastery over their future, and to the consciousness of being sovereign individuals. Thus, no less than 223 years ago, Thomas Jefferson was inspired to affirm:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal;

that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and [certain] inalienable rights;

that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness:

that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

Never since, political statements have approached these in revolutionary power, in their elegant simplicity and brevity. You may think that these principles are now obsolete, surpassed by newer declarations. The truth is quite different: I know of no country where these old “self-evident” truths are reaffirmed and guaranteed by a constitution. You have even been misled to believe that the same rights have been reaffirmed in successive declarations or treaties. In reality, the swarm of “right” that have been put on the scene during the second half of this century do not compare with Jefferson’s: those “rights” are not recognized as inherent to the individuals, but are rather conceded by some corporate entity — and most of those documents serve to spell out the circumstances under which the conceded rights may “legally” be abridged!

But if a set of principles belong in a fundamental ethical algorithm, it is the Jefferson’s rights: The supremacy of the human beings over artificial creature, their innate sovereignty, beginning with the right to dispose of their life; freedom of thought and action; and freedom of ownership. Freedom of fraud, coercion, and violence.

3. Futures

3.1 Human Consciousness & Future

Let us consider a small mammalian. We observe a package such as AI students may successfully emulate in some far future: some 4 kg of versatile and agile locomotion system, with a very high number of DOFs, with a delicate and sensitive suite of sensors, operating in different domains and highly integrated. To people living with them, it is difficult to to escape the thought that cats are self-aware individuals with a well-established willpower. And yet, in all probability, they just react to external stimuli according to rules derived from instinct, imprinting, and to some measure, adaptive learning.

A human being is more complex: but how has his consciousness evolved? According to Jaynes (1976), up to about 3000 years ago, humans were not conscious as we understand the word today: the behaviour in this pre-conscious stage was dictated by commands, automatically generated in response to situations in the right brain, from where they were communicated via the anterior commissure to the left brain, that translated them into “voices” “telling” people what to do. In a successive stage, people became aware of automatic “stream of thoughts” going on in their heads, and triggered by different situations. Proto-conscious humans are guided by these automatic thoughts. The (truly) conscious persons are critically aware, and in particular are conscious of their consciousness: they critically monitor what they think and what they do, to produce the results they want (Table 1).

From the above summary, we can recognize that the future in an invention possible only to a conscious mind. By this we do not intend the future merely as the string of time units to come, in alternative to the string of time units already past, bur rather as a period in which situations will be different from those already experienced. A pre-conscious mind will react to tomorrow’s situations according to tomorrow’s visions. A proto-conscious being can envisage a substantial change in living conditions as the realization of those ideal images (or fears) that drive its behaviour, although in most cases those have assumed such an eschatological dimension as to be very remote from the actual life. The conscious mind, on the other hand, actively attempts to shape the responses to its behaviour and thus, within appropriate cultural frames, is able to conceive changes reaching well beyond the strictly personal sphere.

3.2 Futures: Main Worldviews

In discussing potential futures, it is important to distinguish among “dreams,” predictions, and recommendations. If the analyses to assess the MIN must cover the visionary domain, i.e. consider all possible courses, the resulting guiding model will belong to the normative domain, per definition. Of course, an very large number of scenarios for the future have been discussed: they can be regrouped, however, into three major categories of worldviews (see, e.g., Bernasconi, 1994b):

˜business-as-usual (the Cornucopians)

˜ecozism (Neoluddite worldview), and

˜technological-optimist (the Prometheans).

˜The first two still dominate the scene.

3.2.1 The Cornucopians

The Cornucopians, best represented by the late Julian L Simon, maintain that scarcity and environmental issues have been greatly exaggerated. Trend data are invoked to demonstrate that the world has never been better and keeps improving: people live longer, pollution is abating, food production continues to grow, etc. Even the growth in world population is seen as a positive factor. Accordingly, their recipe is: “Let it roll! The future will take care of itself, as the past did.” In other words, they elevate the observation of times series to natural law, “predicting” their extension into the future, in utter ignorance of the causes behind the past trends. It must be pointed out that Simon was particularly sincere about the economists’ opportunism:

“Economists don’t believe that, somehow, good things will happen by themselves. We believe that good things will happen in the future because human beings will struggle with their problems, as they always have in the past. They will produce a little bit more than they use up. They will produce new knowledge, and that new knowledge is indeed the basis of these predictions we make. Progress doesn’t fall from heaven.” (Simon, 1996)

Just as openly, he seems to have recognized that the Universe is not limited to the planet Earth:

“[…] the future quantities of a natural resource such as copper cannot be calculated even in principle […] and because of the vagueness of the boundaries within which copper may be found — including the sea, and other planets.”

“With respect to energy, it is particularly obvious that the Earth does not bound the quantity available to us, our Sun (and perhaps other suns) is our basic source of energy in the long run.” (Simon, 1980)

Most Cornucopians seem to have been economists: their opportunistic faith can therefore be assessed as a professional defense mechanism. Despairing from ever becoming able to unravel the workings of economy, they have come to attach excessive significance to mere historical data – “the evidence.” Time series are built out of these data, and lend themselves nicely to extrapolation – eventually these are palmed over as predictions.

Table 1: The bicameral model of the mind (after Mann, 1993).

But even most managers know that it is impossible to have a product without any input of energy, materials, and labor: Cornucopians fail to address quantitatively the supply issue when they rely exclusively on the economic and financial reading of their time series (many of their analyses take only monetary parameters into account), utterly ignore social factors, and cavalierly neglect physical realities (no amount of historical price data can alone justify their extrapolation). They reject not only singularities, but even the possibility of inflection in trend lines. They observe that people are more productive in large societies than in small ones; that growing communities are vigorous and prosper, while static communities lack in initiative (Simon, 1981). This position ignores that fact that, until recently, communities were growing in an open world (see, e.g., Ehricke, 1971), and that this is no longer the case. It is particularly the fact that they choose to ignore effects associated with derived parameters (e.g., feedbacks that scale with densities), eliminating from consideration the probable consequences of saturation effects, that is serious objective cause for doubting their master plan.

As a consequence of their opportunistic optimism, Cornucopians tend to advocate laissez-fair policies: accordingly, following this worldview would not automatically entail catastrophic consequences — if its predictions come to pass; otherwise, economic and social collapse, including warring conflicts and extensive misery will be the outcome of this approach.

The status of Cornucopianism in society is ambiguous (what isn’t?) — after all, business-as-usual (“normality”) is the standard operating procedure for most people (habits allow automatic behaviour, and comfort), and accordingly its message is easy to receive. In fact, the measure in which Cornucopian policies are declamatorily disliked is a reflection of the intensity of the propaganda effort at the other end of the spectrum. This is the approach of a submerged majority: most people act largely in accordance with it, lulled by habit and the easy thought that “somebody is working on it.” The world over, government policies officially ignore Cornucopianism’s pleas — although what politicians expect is indeed business-as-usual… for them!

3.2.2 The Ecozis

Ecozism has become the most pervasive ideology in the current “mainstream” thinking, although it is a totalitarian, “postmodern” doctrine that rejects humanity and raises “nature” to the supreme good. It joins the (apparent) moral fervor of the old socialist critique of the profit motive with an open hostility to high technology. It abandons any consideration of real, productive economy in favor of an utopian preference for ascetic and egalitarian poverty.

After almost thirty year of intense indoctrination, ecozist ideology has penetrated political parties of all colors and all kind of institutions, including established religions. They have been well supported by the contemporary media, in search of strong sensations, offered by potential eco-catastrophes or by the projection of sense of guilt.

Ecozis are generically opposed to high technology, seeing it as part of the problem and not as a solution tool; against energy use; against market economy, against individual freedom to choose. They favor strongly interventionist policies that, under the label of “environmental protection,” have become ends in themselves; and they wish to restrict the use of resources and to enforce behavioral rules, in an attempt to build a “sustainable society.”

As an anti-scientific doctrine, ecozism negates (by ignoring them) any quantitative assessments, and relies on disjointed acts of ideological “faith” (“sharing,” “saving,” etc.) to justify its proposed “solutions.” How many times has it been repeated, as a mantra, that “a fraction of 1/p of the world population consumes m/n part of the world’s resource R”? This statement is made to attribute guilt and to condition the addressees to accept the “ideologically correct” solution: redistribution. Yet, that statement by itself proves the unfeasibility of the solution: were perfect redistribution implemented (an impossible undertaking in an imperfect world), then all people would have access to R in a quantity of n/(p.m) times that currently available to the privileged (1/p) population fraction. For instance, let us take m=3, n=4, p=5, and thus say that 20% uses 3/4 of the energy: all that redistribution can achieve would be to force everybody to attempt to live with 26.7% of the mean power level used in the industrialized nations. The population growth will further compound the riddle, forcing the per capita level down to 16%; also – the production level having been assumed constant – any environmental problems that exist would continue unabated (actually, in the above example, anthropocentric energy use would increase by some 4%). Apparently, ecozis are unable to perform even such a simple assessment: a testament to their intellectual integrity.

To unburden themselves from the responsibility of their policies, they rely on following logical expedient:

“[…] The proponent of corrective action is […] simply warning of consequences if trends of problems are ignored: he does not need to predict. The Cornucopian, on the other hand, must predict: […] he must argue that problems will be solved.” (Grant, 1983)

This ploy has heavily biased the public debate and contributed to the success of the ecozi indoctrination. Their heavy-handed interventions do have negative impacts on society, the economy, and individuals: the ill that they are supposed to “cure” may never occur, but the damage will already have been done; alternatively, the ill may come to pass, by the “remedy” be without efficacy, doubling the damages! All this is hidden behind the apparent absence of a need to predict.

Ecozis love to announce new superficial “rights”: right to clean air, right to intact nature, etc. However, they never give a thought of whether those “rights” are mutually compatible or even at all possible in a world such as they conceive it. While life forms in general, and human beings in particular, have modified the original environment to fit their need, the ecozist project is to change human nature, to adapt it to an immutable environment. And fixed would it be, their environment, since the negate the existence of the Universe (“To give industrial economy to the world’s population, we would need two or three earths.”)

3.3 Astronautical Humanism

What is Astronautics? In my opinion, it is something more than simply the “space” analogue of aeronautics: the “res astronautica” is the compendium of the knowledge, the techniques, the aspirations, and the use of extraterrestrial space for human purposes.

There are preciously little astronautical activities nowadays: the space agencies deploy modest space projects that, at their most daring, translate into simple voyages of exploration, undertaken using only silicon slices and electrons. While sometimes they like to use the astronautical terminology for PR purposes, they have no intention to deploy a program. We have thus returned to the equivalent of the pre-Sputnik years: if we want spaceflight, we’ll have to directly take care of its development. The establishment of economic outposts in orbit, on the Moon, and further outwards, have been very present from the very earliest Astronautical discussions. Oberth, Sänger, Cole (and many others) were clearly conscious that the escalation was not simply one of exploration and of acquisition of planetological knowledge, but rather one of engineering competence and of economic activities, of direct human presence and use of the resources of space. Colonies on the Moon, in orbital space, on the asteroids will then follow. This, then, has been the plan: and nothing less than this.

As Astronautics approached its first realization, it evolved from a mere travel wish to a complex of ideas, visions, and designs which we call “Astronautical Humanism.” We argue that this is an extension of scientific humanism, searching human self-realization “through the use of reason, scientific method, and space.” Astronautical Humanism is based on a scientific view of the Universe, including consideration of the evolutionary growth and expansion of life, leading to a rational, optimistic, worldview including the modern political values and a systems-oriented approach.

The human-primacy attitude is reflected in a devotion to the general welfare, aiming at human physical and intellectual survival, supporting the necessary material development, while understanding and caring for nature’s web of life forms. Therefore, Astronautical Humanism advocates the use of extraterrestrial resources to sustain and to develop human civilization: thus, it establishes a humane and rational ethical context.

4. Human Needs

4.1 The Context

The 10-billion-people world is upon us because of the sheer demographic inertia. Nor is it in any way useful to haggle about the last digit: the authentic concern of any human being enjoying a condition that allows him to think about the future (and we do indulge in a sort of business-as-usual here) ought to be directed at contributing to the resolution of the largest and unprecedented challenge with which this demographic fact confronts our species. Two elementary pointers to the fact that it is indeed a challenge: today, with roughly half the population, we already observe a growing number of crisis signals — environmental, economic, political. And today, but for a rather tiny minority, people live in miserable conditions.

If Astronautics does not figure in the world’s plans to master the future, which projects are advanced instead? It is a sort of faith in magics, that has people thinking: “We have been through that before, and we come out all right” and “Malthus has been proven wrong once, he will be proved wrong again.” But “we” have never been through a crisis like the current one, which differs from any previous one in a qualitative (in addition to quantitative) way: Never before have human problems reached so near to the planetary boundaries. Apparently, Cornucopians have been so blinded by their virtual-economy optimism to lose sight of both the true problem and the extent of the solutions it requires. Surprisingly, economists and futurists have called for technological breakthroughs. to carry human civilization into the next century: the criteria outlining the required breakthrough (see e.g., Laulan, 1978; Georgescu-Roegen, 1980; Burgess, Burgess, & Merrem, 1981) appears well satisfied by the astronautical endeavour.

Nor will the “redistribution” sacrifice be accepted (easily): therefore, ecozis and supporters strongly emphasize the role greed (for power) and stupidity (through waste) play in exacerbating the environmental menaces. While no person who has been in contact with any “leader” (industrial managers, administration bureaucrats, politicians) has any reason to doubt the large role such factors do play in the world’s destiny, their widespread occurrence in our species’ nature suggests the futility of entertaining the thought to change within a generation said nature, that developed through a few million years’ history.

Table 2: "FY 2001 space tourism information" (from Kuhrt, 1966).

Of course, many other illusions are possible, the most simple one consisting in negating the actuality of the problem and arguing that the Earth will never have to support 10 billion people since wars and famines will have greatly reduced the human numbers beforehand. Accepting the suppression of a few billions persons as an element of a “natural” process is so contemptible that it reaches the limits of absurdity. Indeed, most people cannot accept it, and the associated guilt burden actually makes them an easier prey for the ecozist argumentation. The pauperizing and liberticide aspects of the “redistribution” thesis are instinctively associated with the retribution for having potentially attempted to survive under such conditions.

4.2 Lost Time

During the 1960s, economic activities in space, including tourism were a firm component of future-oriented thinking. The rationale, the strategy, and the rewards of a human astronautical program have best been expressed by Krafft Ehricke, as shown in , that illustrates the scope of what could have had such a program: for instance, an orbital hospital and the utilization of lunar resources were projected for the mid-1980s, roughly paralleling exploratory missions to Venus and Mars. It may be worth reminding that in those years Ehricke was heavily involved in developing methodologies for space programs planning. also shows how humanity has wasted a quarter of century, freezing astronautical developments to their early-1970s potential. Not a single factual step has been taken towards the utilization of planetary resources.

It would be somehow comforting if such lack of progress could be ascribed to the availability of superior choices elsewhere or to the technical impossibility of the objectives traced so long ago. Unfortunately, neither is true. And Ehricke (1977) went beyond the simple analysis of technical strategies, studying the consequences of not acquiring the capabilities of the extraterrestrial imperative, and showing how the choice to corral humanity within a single planet would lead to a “mortality-aided” adaptation of the population to available resources.

4.3 Finite Planet vs. Open World

The Earth intercepts around 100,000 TW of solar power and, by photosynthesis, all the plants of the biosphere yield a biomass production equivalent to some 100 TW, while the overall energy use by humanity is of the order of 10 TW and its mere metabolic requirements will soon surpass 1 TW. These relationships are essentially ignored in the energy discussions and they are seldom invoked in the technical analyses: when they are, it is most often to “show” how abundant the resource is and to negate the need for novel technological approaches. Under the best conditions (Czihak, Langer, & Ziegler, 1976), authors still fail to discriminate metabolic from industrial energy needs, and among the methods to comply with them.

In reality, the gross relationships between the anthropogenically-controlled and the total solar power flows, on the one hand, and between the biosphere’s primary production and the human metabolic needs are as irrelevant as they appear to be insignificant. However, this does not mean that the anthropogenic effects are negligible just as does not mean that the biosphere can provide abundant energy to satisfy our needs.

Our analysis has attempted to quantify the basic material needs of humanity at-large in the 21st Century: water, food, fibers, power, raw materials (Bernasconi, 1994a; Bernasconi, 1997a & b; Bernasconi & Bernasconi, 1997; Bernasconi, 1998). We found that, independently from any financial analysis, these needs are so large that they cannot be satisfied by an exclusively Earth-based economy without major risks of environmental degradation and conflicts within and between societies, risks that, because of the lack of “maneuvering space” intrinsic in the single-planet choice would endanger not only billions of human lives and possible all Earth life, are morally unsupportable.

Figure 1: "Overview of the evolution of space flight to FY 2001" (from Ehricke, 1966). Table 3: Energetic Equivalent of Human Nutritional Needs

4.3.1 Water

Water needs are estimated at around 5 m3/person/d. For 10 billion people, the yearly consumption is accordingly of the order of 18.25 1012 m3, or 18,250 km3. Over the Earth’s land surface, this is equivalent to 122.5 mm water/a (0.34 mm/d). Rain precipitations being an order of magnitude larger, one could conclude that there will be no problems. It is however known that problems are already occurring, and that in certain areas freshwater is being “mined” through net extraction from aquifers. Indeed, the most intense precipitations occur over the oceans and the tropics: most of the continental areas receive less than 2 mm/d; also, rainfall is not distributed uniformly in time, leading to a mismatch between water use and availability. This associated with the evaporation loss: precipitation returns to the atmosphere as vapor some 40 times per year, on the average.

By far the greatest water quantities are used in connection with food production and power generation: correctly innovative approaches to those issue will reduce the need for the associated water resources.

4.3.2 Food

Food is the other basic resource mandatorily needed by all human beings. The FAO energetic recommendations have been used to assess the equivalent power need of the human population for metabolic purposes. On average, a person requires 0.13 kW, of which about 80% vegetable origin. Table 3 compares these needs with the biosphere’s production levels.

Under the assumption that, for the human-raised plants and animals, the alimentary usable fraction amounts to 50% of the gross production, it results that more than 10% of the output of the Primary Producers from the overall biosphere will soon have to be diverted just to feed the human population. If only the land ecosystem is considered, the proportion increases by a factor 1.5. The prudently conclusion was (Bernasconi, 1997a) that “space food production will not yet be a necessity in the 21st century,” meaning only that it will be physically possible to feed ten billion humans off this planet. This does not mean that it will be probable or easy or safe. The fractions above are indeed optimistic particularly since no losses, wastes, spoilages, etc. have been assumed in the calculation. Furthermore, the provision of a healthy diet is a more delicate balance act than obtaining the necessary power, with an almost endless list of possibilities for hygienic, social, economic, industrial, and political troubles.

4.3.3 Fibers, Timber, & More

Fiber, timber, resin & beverages requirements were also examined and found to be lower than the alimentary needs, but not insignificant ( Table 4). This is acceptable, because of the priority and of the uniqueness of this requirement. On the other hand, any fashion that tries to increase the amount of terrestrial natural raw materials for other uses (e.g. plastic production, fuel) must – in the medium-term – be viewed as a perversion of priorities: the rationale objective of any “planetary management” must be to unburden the biosphere from the tasks of directly supplying technical items that can be obtained otherwise.

4.3.4 Energy

Energy. The picture changes when (industrial) power needs are considered. Energy use directed to the benefits of the user (i.e. in an entropy-decreasing fashion) is the most intimate characteristic of life. For this reason, it is more than baffling that a sort of holy war is waged to reduce human energy usage. The survival of the billions of persons now abroad on this planet is strictly dependent from exosomatic implements that today are collectively referred to as “technology.” While these implements are not themselves alive, their function is largely entropy-decreasing and they serve a life-related function for which the require energy.

In fact, energy is so central among the needs of humanity that it may appear at times to receive excessive attention, both in general discussions and within space resources’ research: but energy can only be substituted by another form of energy and it cannot be recycled — while materials may be replaced, substituted, or recycled.

Ten billion people need 70 – 140 TW of thermal power or equivalent, i.e. around 0.1% of the total incoming solar radiation, a flux level that on a local scale seems to be enough to trigger major weather phenomena.

The net power used could be reduced through electrification — but this can only mean something if the power station is located outside the biosphere! Were this the case, we would need to import only 25 – 35 TW of electricity, requiring rectenna surfaces in the range of 0.025-0.07% of the Earth surface. Under those transparent rectennae, between 2.8-7.8% of the vegetable foods could be grown, a fact showing that (while being far from negligible) land requirements are but a small fraction of those surfaces that are under human control anyway.

Table 4: Biospheric Burden & Economic Basics for Hosting the 21st Century Human Population

4.3.5 Habitat space

Shelter requirements have also been estimated, starting from the need to add a 5-billion individual capacity over 30 years; given that the actual need is greater in absolute and that renewals and substitutions are continuously necessary, this value is at the lower end of the scale. That this estimate must be a lower bound is also due to it including only residential housing (no consumption for infrastructure, economy building, public and government usage, etc.). The modesty of the approach is checked by a look at the average population density that results from the associated land use estimate, value that is comparable with that for Hong Kong. Then, the recreational space value must be seen as a (much too) low bound as well (the equivalent population density amply exceeds those for the Agency’s Member States – though it is surpassed by India’s).

4.3.6 Non-Fuel Matter

Discussion of materials is based on Criswell’s (1981) demandite model; the widest discrepancy was observed between the time-series model and an independent modeling for the non-fuel materials. Table 4 projects the production requirements for a few elements for a globally industrialized, post-2030 society. Specific needs have been estimated from current US usage, an approach justified by specific values’ relative stability: over the 29-year span between 1968 (for which data were reported by Caulkins, 1977) and 1997, the widest shifts are 59% (increase, for copper usage) and 55.9% (decrease, for molybdenum). One notes that the aggregate value of the yearly production of these fourteen elements alone is of the order of a trillion US dollar:2 Goeller & Zucker (1984) estimated the investments for complying with a similar demand volume at some $5 trillion.

Table 5: Production Requirements and Value of Selected Non-Fuel Elements

2 All monetary values in this article have been translated into 1997US$, using the Stat-USA GNP deflator.

4.3.7 Climate

Although the discussion of greenhouse warming increasingly seems dominated by the ecozist political agenda, it has outlined the importance of rather constant climate conditions over at least a few decades. It is in fact irrelevant whether Earth’s life escaped unscathed to exposure to higher average temperatures in the past, when the associated sea-level raise, weather patterns, etc. may today affect large human populations with phenomena up to and including destruction of their habitat or life. Any attempt to control climate or weather through means acting within the biosphere would be well-nigh impossible and/ or extremely risky.

4.3.8 Asteroid & Comet Avoidance

The scientific debate around the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, with the survey of impact craters like at Chikxulub, and growth in the minor planets’ data store, with the Jupiter’s impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levi 9, have shown that (i) minor planetary bodies continue to impact on planets, (ii) on our overpopulated planets, even small fragments would cause damages comparable to a minor nuclear war, and (for the lovers of cycling history) (iii) the next “dinosaur killer” is about due. For a planet-bound civilization, the mitigation options for anything but the smallest meteorites are next to inexistent.

4.4 Astronautics' Contributions

The contributions of Astronautics to humanity over the next generation’s time span will occur primarily in the power-generation field, in the supply of a select number of scarce/ energy intensive materials, and probably in a host of high-value products. In dependence of economic conditions and the rate of development, climate control measures and technologies for the defense from the impact of minor bodies will begin to appear; supply of specialty natural products (e.g., vegetable fibres) is another such intermediate possibility. Most secondary industries will still be ground based. A minimal security from other cause of extinction will be introduced by a modest permanent presence of humans in space establishments. While residential complexes may begin to appear and tourism may be a flourishing activity, this early development stage of geolunar space will not otherwise alleviate the pressure associated with human overpopulation. Water will not be delivered from space sources — nor will this be needed, with clean energy available in sufficient amounts.

For reasons such as briefly listed above, space power generation has been the object of numerous studies and proposals. Conventional space power satellites (SPS) were found even in the ERDA/NASA study to be roughly comparable economically with ground-based alternatives. But probably the most comprehensive recent studies on this general theme have been those on the Lunar Power System (LPS), led by Prof. David R Criswell. The LPS is sized to provide 20 TW of electrical power to Earth receivers, forty years after the beginning of the “ramp up” phase (Criswell and Waldron, 1991). Sold at prices of 10 ¢/kWh, the system yields yearly revenues in excess of $15 trillion over a thirty-year period (current US GNP exceeds $8 trillion). If the development and installation costs were higher than estimated by a factor of ten (i.e. grow from $18 to $182 trillion, non-discounted), the internal rate of return would still be around 12%; in fact the costs would have to increase by a factor of 50, before the IRR drops to zero over the project lifetime. Kulcinski (1997) has observed: “While such an enormous sum of money is hard to fathom, it is the order of magnitude the world will have to spend to build other electrical power producing systems” to sustain that rate of consumption — of course, only if ground-based power-generation system can deliver!

With respect to material imports to Earth, Ehricke (1972) reported of a study founding that an investment of $510 billion over 30 years would provide a lunar industrial production capacity of at least 1 million t annually of raw materials, semi-finished and finished products — comparison with data in Table 4 shows this to be a modest flow when referred to current extractive metallurgic industry. Koelle (1981) analyzed a lunar manufacturing system with a $410 billion cost over 50 years: this system was designed to provide some 5 million tons of raw materials for the construction of Space Power Stations (SPS) in geostationary orbit, and yielded a specific cost of 85 $/kg of material delivered, using conventional propellants and available technology for the transport elements. Under consideration of the amount of regolith to be processed during the installation of the LPS, one can assess that the projected world’s demand (Table 4) for silicon, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium will be covered from by-products resulting from the dedicated processing, while supply contributions of more than a tenth will be possible for iron, chromium, manganese, and nickel. Sulfur, copper, zinc, and lead may also be available but in amounts much smaller than the market needs.

There is an interesting progression from the averages of $8.2 billion/year of Koelle (1981), $17 billion/year of Ehricke (1971), to the $15 trillion/year of Criswell & Waldron (1991): the first amount is strictly comparable with the budget of state space agencies, while the last is fully adapted to the global economic levels of the coming century. They may be said to represent the beginning and the maturing of the entry of Astronautics in the human affairs. The compatibility of, as well as the need for, this new actions was evidenced by analyses such as the one by Yamagiwa and Nagatomo (1992): using the WORLD-2 software, they modeled the worst-case hypothesis of SPS units manufactured on ground. The population catastrophe present in the the classical Forrester runs (several billions death over a generation) is avoided by an SPS energy investment of 1% of the natural resources usage rate. Earth-side energy losses accounted for manufacture of the photovoltaic plants, expendable transportation vehicles and propellants, and their energy content.

5. Conclusions

As human individuals, not only we are entitled to preserve and to realize our astronautical dreams: we have to understand and to acknowledge that Astronautics sustains a wider ethical framework.

Only once space is accessed and truly made into a new arena of human activity will other aims become possible: the restoration of the global environment through the availability of (for all practical purposes) unlimited energy; a worldwide process of empowerement and economic development; providing future generations with sufficient supplies material resources. The astronautical imperative follows from the need to allow the less-fortunate societies to aspire to living standards substantially beyond their current situation – something which none of the current scenarios for the so-called “sustainable development” can provide for.

The sole alternative to the ecozist “solution” of no-growth and redistribution is given by Astronautics.

Acknowledgements – This paper presents the results of independent work done by the author, who would appreciate receiving your comments and thoughts on implementing Astronautics for an ethical future.
[Publisher’s note: the link to the comments has been removed by

1999, 2006 (c) MC Bernasconi

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© Marco C Bernasconi & Leonardo/Olats, November 2006 /republished 2023