Space on Earth reviewed: a marriage made in the heavens

Space on Earth: Saving Our World by Seeking Others by Charles S. Cockell: A fascinating argument, and a book I find myself constantly thinking about. Cockell is the Chair of Microbiology at the UK's Open University, and the creator of the Earth and Space Foundation. The book argues that "the lack of communication between environmentalists and space explorers has been damaging." On a range of issues from biodiversity research to technological innovation, there are useful ties to be forged between "green" groups, and what he calls "velvet" groups, those devoted to space.

The ties between the two begin with the prosaic – understanding the Earth, especially the deep seas, deserts and polar regions, can tell us a great deal about the geology and potential biology of other planets. NASA tests equipment in the harsh terrain of deserts and the Antarctic, and life discovered at deep sea vents and deep within rocks guides the search for life on Mars and Titan.

As I know from my own work, satellite imagery and the satellite-based GPS system is increasingly vital to studies of biodiversity, ecological processes, and the movements of individually tagged animals.

On a more esoteric note, Cockell suggests that we may have the technology at hand to start using space to produce energy and other materials. Solar panels in space would operate more efficiently, and could beam energy back to stations on earth. Mining resources on the Moon or on meteorites could reduce pollution and environmental degradation on Earth.

As he points out, lessons from environmental ethics and environmental economics should inform that side of space exploration. The concept of environmental protection didn't become popular until it was too late to preserve truly pristine places. Space is still pristine, and his call for serious thought about protecting vistas and natural wonders on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system is the sort of surprising idea that sticks in the brain.

He is not a utopian. Space exploitation could well spur "one of the most serious and extraordinary challenges to the welfare of Earth and Earth-based human civilization, rather than a salvation to our many problems." The union he seeks between the greens and the velvets is a way to mediate those dangers, and to create new opportunities. Technology that recycles water in space or other planets could also be used to stop the spread of deserts. Space travel requires highly efficient equipment, and partnerships for commercializing those technologies can spur new markets.

Some of those same synergies are already arriving, courtesy of an ally more khaki than velvet.

The US military uses oil at a rate twice what it did in the first Gulf War, and quadruple the rate from World War II. They are working hard to boost efficiency, and to develop and deploy new energy sources, from hydrogen fuel cells at forward operating bases to new nuclear reactors on surface vessels. As the Army worries about running out of natural gas, the Air Force is trying to make jet fuel from coal, reducing its dependence on foreign oil supplies.

The big thinkers at the Pentagon are exploring the same space-based energy collection systems that Cockell describes, while commanders on the ground are thinking in more immediate terms. Nine months ago, General Richard Zilmer, commander of coalition forces in western Iraq, sent a Priority One request for renewable power stations, portable stations that could produce solar or wind power to sustain bases without generators that require risky convoys across the desert.

i-0b8b8b70d3c9ee4972d32053e7308140-armypowerstation.jpgAs Danger Room points out, with the cost of fuel at a forward base in Iraq running close to $400 a gallon, "Green power had become a battlefield necessity." While General Zilmer's request isn't moving very fast, a separate effort to deploy those sorts of stations is already underway. Where they've been deployed, they reduce fuel usage by up to 40%, which could help reduce the 1.3 million gallons of fuel the military imports every day into Iraq.

Portable, reliable renewable power stations (like the military version shown here) would be vital for a base on a different planet, and could be a great turnkey solution for exurban and rural developments, not to mention a key part of the distributed power grid many people think is the way of the future. Millions of those sorts of stations hooked up to homes and the power grid would provide a steady supply of green power, evening out power flow from the solar cells and turbines.

Designing units like this for domestic use ought to simplify things for the manufacturer. Rather than worrying about making a product rugged enough to sustain combat in Iraq or an orbital entry on spaceship, industrial or residential versions of these stations could be designed for cost-effectiveness and aesthetics. As the technology improves, specialized versions for military or astronautical purposes would be easier to implement.

As Cockell observes, sustainability isn't just a concern for environmentalists. Space travel requires the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) also, and as long as the military is stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, off the grid and facing the most intense attacks on its supply lines, those same lessons will sound good to them. Cockell's book will open your eyes to surprising opportunities.

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