Book excerpt: “Space Forces” (Verso, 2021) examines visions of spaceflight


Space Forces: A Critical History of Outer Space Life“(Verso, 2021). (Read an interview with Scharmen.)

In the book, Scharmen walks through seven different visions of space exploration. There’s the 19th-century Russian thinker who argued that in order to erase death, humans should extend their control deep into space. There’s the famous German-turned-American rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who believed spaceflight was worth any price, and American physicist Gerard O’Neill, who dreamed of spinning cities into orbit. And of course, there is today’s world of commercial space flights run by billionaires.

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Capabilities: an introduction

Why would we want to go and live in space? And, even if we did, where in space? Canonically, the space is large. At the time of this writing, the observable universe is a bubble approximately 93 billion light years in diameter, containing 2,000 billion galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, contains up to 400 billion stars. Technically, planet Earth is already in space, orbiting one of these stars, but that’s usually not what people mean when they say we should be going. Getting to space beyond our planet is difficult, leaving the solar system in the vast spaces beyond, even more so.

When advocates of space colonization and exploration say people should go to space, they generally mean people should explore, and eventually live, in orbit around Earth and on other planets and moons in the world. solar system. It is also a very large area. If the Sun were an eighteen inch diameter sphere, the Earth would be about the size of a small piece of gravel half a block to the south. At the same scale (1: 2.8 billion), Pluto would be about 1.5 thousand away. If we locate this model of the solar system in Baltimore where I live, then Proxima Centauri, the star closest to us, would be a shiny tennis ball located a few hundred miles from the South Pole.

No human has ever been further into space than the Moon, a grain of sand about 5.5 inches from our tiny gravel Earth. The International Space Station orbits this rock at a distance roughly equal to the thickness of a human hair.1 So even in our “neighborhood” of a 1.5 mile radius at this scale — the system solar — there are a lot of places to go, and, as we’ll see, not all of them are planets.

What do we mean by living? People have been able to live in space – outside of Earth, in its orbit – at least for a short time, since Yuri Gagarin’s 108-minute flight to Vostok 1 in 1961. Currently, the record for longest time spent in space is held by another Russian cosmonaut, Valeri Polyakov, at 437 days. But long-term, and ultimately permanent, occupation is the implicit goal. As of this writing, the International Space Station has hosted rotating crews of six humans living in continuous orbit for more than two decades, and it is expected to stay aloft until at least 2030. The Chinese space program currently has a space station in orbit as well: Tiangong-2, which was occupied for thirty days by two Chinese taikonauts in 2016. If the Chinese space program is developing as planned, in parallel with the work expected from space agencies American, Russian, Japanese and European, then the permanent, or at least very extensive, human presence in space might have already started.

But to live somewhere is not simply to participate in a parallel and temporary coexistence with others. To live is to be born, to come of age, to form relationships and partnerships, to raise children, to produce culture, food and art. To live is even to die. Despite (or perhaps because of) its dangerous reputation, the history of travel and space exploration includes only three human deaths that have actually occurred in space so far. Soyuz-11 crew Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev all died when their capsule unexpectedly depressurized before leaving orbit. They returned as the first occupants of the first human space station, Salyut-1, in 1971.

If it’s so dangerous, why would anyone want to go and live there? Nearly forty years of experience with space stations have taught scientists that the above list of activities that constitute life includes some very dangerous practices in space. Spending long periods of time in free fall leads to chronic eye problems and reduced bone density as the human body tries to adapt to the lack of gravity, and can lead to permanent damage. If a human, animal, or plant were to grow and develop in this environment, the changes it would undergo along the way are unknown and possibly irreversible. Space is full of radiation, the further you move away from Earth, and this radiation appears to cause a higher incidence of cancer in living things, another factor that is particularly dangerous for newly conceived or developing organisms. In addition, protection against cosmic rays and solar flares is cumbersome, bulky and expensive. On Earth, humans have more or less constant access to gravity, light, air and the protection offered by a thick atmosphere and a strong magnetic field that distracts from us and the planet cosmic radiation and most deadly solar cells. Why would anyone want to leave all of this behind, to rebuild it all, at great expense and effort, in a set of toxic and inhospitable environments?

Nonetheless, there are plenty of arguments about why people should move to space. Many of them are arguments against the conditions in which humans find themselves on Earth: that the Earth is too small; that there are not enough resources; that there is not enough space for garbage and pollution, and not enough space, above all, for people to live comfortably. These are based on the same principle we started with: space is big. Space has seemingly abundant resources and energy reserves in its vastness, and plenty of places to dump waste. Space has room for people to live. Space has space. Another line of argument in favor of life in space is based on the conditions that humans will discover and explore outside of Earth. The Earth, in this case, is presented less small than closed. There are no more gaps in the map to explore, and the ability of humans to invent new ways of life has diminished. New spaces and new worlds will provide opportunities for new experiences and experiences. Humans will, in this line of reasoning, find and invent new social, political and economic systems in the open unknowns of space. These two threads are based on contradictions. The first argument regarding the expansion of space and resources assumes that the current patterns of existence on Earth – those that led to a lack of resources and space in the first place – must continue unchecked indefinitely. The second argument assumes that people need new modes of existence which, for some reason, are no longer possible on Earth. Both of these erroneous reasonings beg the question: Since Earth is already in space, why would anyone need to go elsewhere for a fresh start?

Some authors argue that humans shouldn’t try to live in space long-term. Researcher and scholar Gary Westfahl, for his part, has written two books that trace the history of the space station in science fiction. In a 1997 essay for the journal Science Fiction Studies, he argues “the case against space,” arguing that space colonization is essentially unnecessary. There is nothing in space, argues Westfahl, that cannot already be obtained on Earth, for less effort and expense. Other authors have advanced moral arguments. How can the US government justify putting “Whitey on the Moon”, wonders the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron in his song of the same name, when he has failed to fight against the legacy of slavery, racism and injustice for the country’s black population? And indeed, throughout the 1960s, polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans believed the Apollo moon landing program was not worth the public price.

“Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space” is a study of the roughly 150-year history of the idea that humans could and should live in space, outside of Earth , for indefinite periods of time – perhaps functionally infinite. This is not a full account of every development and every layer of this idea, but rather a set of sample carrots from a timeline too complicated to be completely excavated or cataloged in one. place. Most of the book tells the stories of seven paradigms for living in space. Each has their own unique answers to the question of why humans should go and live there, and each has their own unique implications for life on Earth.

From “Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space” by Fred Scharmen, published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Fred Scharmen.

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