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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Space living

I've spent a lot of time over the years writing (and editing) articles about space--space science, technology, politics, history, commerce, you name it. I have been, and remain, a space enthusiast. Still, I can appreciate the skeptical and dubious tone of this thoughtful essay by Greg Klerkx: "Spaced Out" subtitled: "Living in space was meant to be the next evolutionary step. What happened to the dream of the final frontier?" What particularly resonates with me, though, is his ending, with its hints of optimism that maybe there is a future in space after all. Excerpt:
There might be arguments for living in space that resonate more fully with the concerns of our time. The explosion of a meteor over Russia this February has placed new emphasis on the early detection of stellar objects that threaten to collide with Earth: could human-tended stations or bases be part of the solution? It is unfortunate that suborbital civilian spaceflight has thus far been branded with the ‘tourism’ label, which diminishes its potential to embrace a wider audience. As it stands, civilian spaceflight is largely perceived as what wealthy individuals do when they’ve climbed Everest and want a bigger trophy. It’s understandable that companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR want to monetise their work, but they also need to demonstrate the potential for suborbital spaceflight to be meaningful, which means opening up a few seats for the hoi polloi. Transitioning human spaceflight from a military elite to a wealthy elite would hardly be progress.

There might also be resonance in applying the technological and psychological lessons of living in space to the challenges of living on an increasingly crowded Earth. The potential synergy between the design requirements of close living in space and close living on Earth could use more attention. Space Age buildings such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower  in Tokyo — built in 1972, and so retro-futuristic as to appear to be CGI — are more about form than function. Perhaps architects and urban planners should be offered berths aboard the ISS or Bigelow’s inflatable habitats.

Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs, not human fantasies. Since the days of my childhood space cruiser we have become, by and large, a more self-aware species. Maybe that’s a necessary first step towards a meaningful spacefaring future. Step two will be harder. The next Space Age will require more than humane starships and flashy technologies — more than roomier bunk beds and better rocket fuels. It will take new ideas that are compelling enough to convince us that this wonderful planet of ours isn’t the endpoint of human evolution, but just the beginning.

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