Random Space Thoughts
Sometimes it is nice to just throw some big ideas on the table and see where they go, without having to go through the process of doing a Ph.D. for each. The goal for what is to follow is to get the conversation going and remind us of the bigger picture. Before I carry on, if you haven’t read my previous space essay, “Letter from the Earth, and why the Planet wants space exploration”, I suggest you start by reading that. It will clarify the overall theme of my opinion and my great enthusiasm for expanding our reach into the Universe. Also know that every time I write Life with a capital L, I also mean Nature with a capital N. They are one of the same.
MYCELIUM AND ROCKETS
Its shape is long and cylindrical. It rises from the ground and shoots for the sky. At the top is a triangular shape with round corners. The higher it gets, the bigger it grows. No, I am not talking about Blue Origin’s rocket New Shepherd (although this is where I am going). And I am surely not talking about another phallic meme… come on, there must be another dick joke we haven’t heard about! What I am talking about are mushrooms, fungi, mycelium, and their connection to space exploration. While I can see the easy target, it is unfortunate that as a society that can debate quantum physic and philosophize the meaning of life, we are still stuck at drawing penises on bathroom walls (Facebook in today’s terminology) I wonder if social media is not simply a more glorified version of the high school bathroom! Anyhow, I am getting away from where I want to go… mushrooms and Space… Yes!
If there is one thing for sure, nature doesn’t do anything just for the fun of it. Everything has a function and if beauty is part of it, then it is collateral, not intentional. Looking across the world of living organisms on Earth, the stalky shape topped with a bulb can be found where life needs to be seeded and spread. And for an organism that is a billion years old, you would think that mycelium would come up with a better shape to create a fruit. Thinking of it, when the mammals took over the Earth, one would hope that billions of years of evolution would bring some insight and create a new inspiring design at spreading and seeding life. But there might be more to this phallic shape that we would like to admit. There seems to be something that nature has crafted intentionally. Maybe, just maybe, the shape of New Shepherd has nothing to do with a Billionaire compensating for something, but rather it is rooted into the fundamentals of life, how it’s spread on Earth, and how it will spread into Space! Would it be a stretch if we agreed that we are simply the extension of mycelium and our rockets are the new mushroom? Is it wrong to claim we haven’t re-invented the wheel but simply elevated a billion-year-old process to a new height? If we are to go into space and expand the reach of Life, wouldn’t it make sense to do it the way that mycelium has been doing it since the dawn of time, by building giant mushrooms that rise from the ground and shoot for the stars?
PS. If you haven’t watch Fantastic Fungi on Netflix, with Paul Stamet, I totally recommend it. And if you don’t see the connection between mycelium, mushrooms, us, and our rockets, then let me write it on a bathroom wall, perhaps it will make more sense.
WE WILL LIVE LONGER & MAYBE BE BIGGER
Simply because the Universe demands it. Now I know this is too simple so let’s elaborate a bit more. What I am going to write is in no way a scientific observation. It is only one possible conclusion after observing the evolution of life on Earth and drawing a hypothesis as we venture into space.
Life started on Earth on a microscopic level. For billions of years, the only organisms found on the planet were single cells. Tiny little elementary living things. Then about 600-800 million years ago (yes, plus or minus 200 million years!), life jumped to a whole new level and multicellular organisms appeared. The cat was now out of the bag and life exploded on the evolutionary scale during the Cambrian Period (541-485 million years ago).
Single cells, with a lifespan of days to months, came together and created organisms that lived longer and got bigger. What started primitive became more complicated. If Life wanted to step up its game and evolve, it had to scale up and develop new tools. And it did. Over hundreds of millions of years, Life experimented and pushed the boundaries seeking longevity and reach. Before you tell me not every organism opted for this strategy, let me beat you to the punch and agree with you. Life plays on all levels at once: the micro to the macro, the big to the giant. There are, though, themes that we can observe and agree on in their direction. With the dinosaurs, things got big – too big. Unsustainably big when on land, but possible when in the water. It is believed that the average life expectancy for high metabolism dinosaurs was anywhere between 10 to 60 years. While some low metabolism giants like the Apatosaurus could live in the hundreds. From the perspective of evolution, a slow and long strategy might have not been the best solution. What is needed is a sweet spot: not too big and not too small. Something that lives long enough to mutate and adapt. Something that doesn’t die too quickly but also doesn’t live forever. Unless you have the capacity to force mutation yourself, evolution wants a fairly quick turnover.
With the rise of mammals, sizes and longevity in general stabilized. Fast forward to the Paleolithic Era when humans were expected to live for around 30 years. With the rise of technology and the complexity of our species, our lifespan slowly increased, although it didn’t move much. Up to the 1950s, the world’s average was 46 to 48 years of age. As we started to control diseases, famines and fought less, age expectancy shot up to the average of 73 years today. If you are looking for a great read, I suggest Homo Deus from Yuval Noah Harari.
Now if we were limited to the Earth, our environment would counter force this adaptation and mutation. The capacity to living longer and healthier would actually become too much of a burden on the resources. Scarcity in space and food would perhaps force a reduction in size and longevity. But if the increase in numbers and technologies does the opposite effect and creates the incentives and tools to look beyond the Earth, then we are embarking on a whole new evolutionary journey.
The scale of the Universe is simply too big for our current biology and technologies. But all that will change. Back in the 1840s, if one wanted to travel from New York to San Francisco, there were only 3 very costly choices: overland via the Oregon Trail which took more than 6 months; sail south around the Cape Horn, a 200-day perilous journey; or via the shortest route, sailing down to Panama and portage across, then sailing back up. In 1852, Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant opted for the Panama portage. While he made the trip in 6 weeks, from his regiment of 700 people, only 450 made it to San Francisco due to cholera outbreaks. Today, you can fly across the world for little (comparatively) money, almost zero risks, and in a very short time. Your cost in time and energy is almost nothing, while 170 years ago, it was excessively high and often mortal.
Right now, it takes 3 days to go to the Moon. That is without counting all the preparations and training needed. If you want to go to Mars, better be ready to invest 7 months of travel and many more to simply get ready. A round trip will most likely commit you for 2 years. And if you want to travel further, to let’s say, the closest terrestrial exoplanet candidate, Proxima Centauri b, it will take you 4 years to get there. That is if you can move at the speed of the light. Once there, and after missing the Earth you decide to come back and embark on another 4 years at light speed, you would arrive on Earth with most of your friends and family much older or dead, because of Time Dilation. Time-wise, it simply doesn’t make sense. Just like swimming across an ocean is ludicrous. And that is only the challenges of travel and time. On the biology side, the obstacles are monumental; for now.
But just like what was impossible 200 years ago and now is taken for granted, we will adapt and mutate so that we can expand the reaches of Life into space. Life will scale up to the Universe in the same way that it scaled up to the Earth. Within our lifetime, we will see small gradual changes and yes, breakthrough technologies, but the big evolutionary mutations and adaptations will take thousands of years when we get live for 500 years and more. Will we be bigger? For that, I really don’t know. Perhaps a bit, perhaps not. There again evolution will have to find a sweet spot. Being too big increases all the energy costs and that might not be the most sustainable solution when traveling long distances.
We are a product of our environment. Since the beginning of our species, we have been playing in a sandbox. But now, as we look up to the sky and plan our next space move, our sandbox is about to become the size of the Sahara. If you are an ant that lives for several months, getting across that box is no small feat but totally feasible. But in the Sahara, you wouldn’t live to see the end of the first day. Our initial space travel will be hard, deadly, and complicated, but as we find ways to mutate and adapt, both with technology and through evolutionary biology, space exploration will become as common as traveling from New York to San Francisco on a jet.
PS. Yes, life expectancy will increase, there is no doubt about it. That said, immortality will never be achieved. Death is a constant of Nature and a necessity for Life.
Recommended read: The Next 500 years by Christopher E. Mason
MARS WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER EARTH
Will Mars ever become like Earth? No. Why? For the same reason, Kansas City will never be New York. If we want to envision the progression of our presence into space, we simply have to look at how cities have evolved on this planet. There are even studies that show how slime spreads in a similar manner. Of the 50 largest cities in the world, except for Mexico, Theran, Bogota, and Bengaluru, all are located either by the ocean or on a major river that leads to the ocean. Majors cities are built where it makes economic sense. Meaning that the costs to access and move the resources needed to live and trade are not larger than the value of those same resources and trades. The longevity of cities like Las Vegas, where it never made sense to build from the beginning, is opened for debate – only time will tell if they survive as the world changes. On paper, unfortunately, their future is almost certainly gloomy.
The Earth is a resource-super-rich planet in a Universe where Life is scarce. We believe, and logically so, that there are many other planets like ours in space. Places that are rich in resources. And between these planets and the Earth are millions of lifeless celestial bodies. Some of those places are simply dangerous and incapable of hosting Life. Some have resources we need for trade without having resources we need to live. Others have resources we need to live but the extraction of those resources is a challenge.
Like the oceans that unite the world, water will unite our space expansion. It was believed that water was almost inexistent outside of what is found on Earth but now we know that it abounds in the Universe. There is ice on the Moon and on Mars. Recently a cloud of vapor 140 trillion times the amount of water in all the seas and oceans here on Earth was discovered 12 billion light-years away.
The two biggest cities in the United States of America are New York (created in 1624) and Los Angeles (created in 1781). The former is located on the East Coast and the latter on the Pacific Coast. Los Angeles, also known as America’s Port, is the largest port in North America. Long Beach, which is located less than 30km from Los Angeles is the US’s second-largest port. Third, on the list is New York’s port. In between these two cities and ports, and scattered across the country, cities of all sizes can be found. And most are located near a river or a lake. If there are not, then they must somehow find a way to connect to a body of water. While there are 19,495 incorporated cities in the US (as of 2018), there is only one New York and one Los Angeles.
The same will happen in space. Civilizations will terraform other Earth-like planets but terraforming a planet like Mars makes no economical sense. Plus we simply wouldn’t have the time to wait for what evolution took billions of years to do. Even if we nuked a planet, it would take way too much time to create Earth-like conditions. Places like the Moon and Mars will be outposts or cities where water can be found, in a network of settlements that connect special resource-rich planets. In other words, going to space is not going to re-invent the wheel. The only thing changing is going to be the scale of that wheel.
BEST THING FOR THE EARTH
Standing in my living room, I look out the window and notice a group of chickadees moving about the branches of the maple tree in my backyard. The tree, which now stands at about 60 feet tall (20m) is one amongst a large number of trees, shrubs, and plants that live around my house. Some were there when we moved in. Others were planted over the years. In that little forest, and throughout the neighborhood, roam animals and insects. On the ground, fungi and other fascinating organisms process organic matter and nourish the soil. Nature flourishes and in the process provides me with a quality of life that makes me healthier and happier. The sounds of birds take away my stress while the wind bristling the leaves at night brings me to sleep. But as I take a deep breath and let the colors of nature relax me, I am reminded that this “natural landscape” on which my eyes are feasting on, is in fact the result of a privileged reality.
Looking around me, and mentally scanning everything that I am surrounded by, nothing “is” from here. Everything I have, and need to survive and thrive comes from somewhere else: the material used to build my house and my car, the energy that powers that house and car, the appliances and furniture that furnish the house, my clothes, even the food in my refrigerator, the wine in the basement and the water that flows to every room, everything has an origin far far away from where I am standing. Even in a reverse manner, all the excess I create whether biologically or artificially, is also taken far far away. Which leaves me with this land and the freedom to do with it what I wish. That is why I have trees, shrubs, and plants instead of a field of wheat, a garden, a farm, a mini-plant to process the sewage, a manufacturing plant, a generator, and a place to bury my garbage. My capacity to import the intake and export the outtake has given me the privilege to beautify and protect my surroundings.
Since the beginning of our species, we have harvested the planet, extracted its resources, and transformed its landscape in an effort to support our expansion. That drive we have had in redefining what was possible and what was not has led us to amazing and priceless discoveries. But also has come at tremendous ecological costs. While I am sure there are many that deplore the current state of the Planet and our relationship with it, no one in their right mind would trade all of today’s advancements for the way life was 500 years ago.
In general, the countries able to outsource their needs (most of the time at the expense of the people where those resources are) show an increase in quality of life and manage a better use of their land. By the way, this behavior is not reserved to humans. Nature is full of opportunistic and manipulative species. (Cuckoos, Frigates, Crows, Jays, Hyenas, etc) Now, while the Earth is like no other in the solar system, most of the minerals mined here can be found elsewhere, either on a moon, an asteroids, or a planet like Mars. From an environmental perspective, extracting resources in space, instead of on Earth is not even a debate worth having. Of course, we prefer harvesting from barren and foreign lands instead of over and through rich diverse ecosystems. The question is not if but when we can make that reality economically sound. And the sooner we can, the better it will be for everyone – most importantly for the Earth.
Our history is filled with episodes of when we have pushed the environment to the brink of collapse. On some of those events, people learned, adapted, and became better. On others, people failed and disappeared. And the failure of one became the success of another. Nature is built on conflict and life expands until it can’t so it would be naive to think humans fall outside of this rule. The reason why we are soon to be 8 billion and about to venture into space is not because we are a bad species but because we have a capacity to rise when we fall. That is what we do best: we push and risk, we break and innovate, we correct and fix, we learn and reevaluate, in other words, we figure out how to adapt, survive and move forward. And that is exactly how Nature works. We are the best and worst of Nature.
Our expansion into space will not solve all the problems on Earth. Like any new technology or new discovery, it will create a new reality with its own pros and cons. It will bring relief to some issues while creating new unforeseen challenges. One thing is for sure, space exploration will increase Earth’s value and lessen the extracting pressure that currently threatens its stability and longevity. From the perspective of Planet, it really can’t wait until we start sourcing elsewhere. Just like a parent that has raised a child who is now an adult, it is looking forward for that child to go get its laundry done somewhere else. It is looking forward to some well-deserved peace and tranquility. So yes! Go mine the Moon and Mars!
A BATTERY ECONOMY WON’T HAPPEN WITHOUT SPACE MINING
“…What we need in the United States if we want to transition our fleet to electric and on top if you decide to have grid storage so that we can start getting to renewable .. by 2035 and my estimates, and I could be a little bit wrong, you might be building somewhere along 20 or 30 Giga factories…” Venkat Srinivasan on Science Friday.
We all agree. An oil-based economy has run its course. Even the ones who argue about this, know that the end is near. They simply have trouble letting go of something in which they have a stake in. But if we think that moving away from fossil fuel is going to save the planet, we are in for a big surprise, and not a good one. In fact, the only way we can abandon our dependence on oil and fulfill our grand visions of tomorrow is by going to space.
It is true that the Earth has enough minerals to support a new era of energy. Just like it had enough whales to kickstart the industrial revolution, enough coal to support it, and enough crude oil to sustain the following unprecedented growth. The problem is not about what can be found or not on the planet. The problem is the scale, extraction, and refinement. Our green future will demand more than simply changing the source of energy and more about where we can get it and how we can extract it.
Batteries need as many as 20 minerals, including cobalt, lithium, and nickel as well as other rare earth metals. Most of the rare metals are found in China and more than 60% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Take a second to Google “DRC and cobalt” and you will soon find out the social and environmental realities of what it takes to get cobalt into your car and smartphone. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2030, global demand for this mineral could be 47 times more than it was in 2017. And that is only one component in a complicated production chain. As for lithium, Bolivia has more of it than China, Australia, and the United States combined. The South American country ranks 124 in the Corruption Index, just behind Pakistan, and is on par with Rwanda when it comes to poverty. While we are confident there is no lithium on the Moon, some studies estimate that Mars could have reserves that would dwarf what is found on the Earth.
We thought there was enough fish in the ocean for everyone. We thought there would be oil forever. We always think there is enough of something until there isn’t. And lithium won’t be different. Let’s be honest, it is naive to think we can develop, evolve and grow without having an impact on the planet. And now that we have the capacity to go to space, we should do everything we can and figure out how and where outside of the Earth we can extract the resources we need. The health of Earth depends on it.