From Moon Shot to Milk Run

20 September 2012


A Boeing 1969 Study for an ‘Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft’ needing only Saturn V and Saturn IB to lift the sections into orbit. Such an interplanetary craft would require no industrial infrastructure in space. Theoretically, the same approach could be taken with an interstellar spacecraft. In practice, an interstellar spacecraft would be so enormous that lifting it off the surface of the Earth in pieces would probably be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.

In previous posts on the 100YSS 2012 symposium I discussed some of the unspoken but underlying themes of the conference, namely, the Fermi Paradox and its associated question — “Are we alone?” — and the vaguely paternalistic character of many of the presentations which seemed to assume that the builders of a generational starship could reach out from the earth to retain control over an enterprise unreachably distant both in space and time. It is striking to note that the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera he wrote based on a story of Ursula Le Guin, Paradises Lost, avoided this latter pitfall and therefore revealed itself as one of the more profound contributions of the whole symposium.

This proposed Mars mission spacecraft could be assembled on earth and lifted into orbit section by section, but it would be a lot more efficient to manufacture the biggest pieces in space and just bring up the technically difficult pieces from Earth.

I am not yet finished with the lessons I learned from this year’s 100YSS symposium, but instead of offering an exposition of implicit themes, I would now like to offer an exposition of a of an implicit tension that ran through both the 2011 and 2012 100YSS presentations, and this is the dichotomy in approach between those who assume that further human exploration of space is likely to be Earth-based, so that future spacecraft will continue to be manufactured on the Earth and then launched into space, with additional assembly in orbit required for larger missions, and those who assume that steady and gradual human spacesteading will eventually result in an industrial infrastructure in space so that large spacecraft for ambitious future missions of exploration will inevitably be manufactured in space, off the surface of the earth, by those who already live in space.

The tension between these two points of view is important because it points to very different conceptions of the nature of civilization, and indeed what civilization will become in the course of the coming century. I think that for many people, even people who dream of starships, that the idea of a human civilization of any significant size off the surface of the earth is just too close to science fiction to take seriously. People who take this view can imagine ambitious plans of human exploration of the solar system and beyond, but they imagine it all as the result of earth-based industry.

Last year in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 1 I wrote this:

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

This distinction between heroic and iterative civilization is useful in this context. (I recently revisited the idea of heroic civilization in Apollo and Everest.) The heroic conception of civilization understands space exploration as an heroic undertaking based on civilization pretty much as we know it today; the iterative conception of civilization sees civilization is incrementally but relentlessly expanding its scope, and if space exploration is part of this conception of civilization, then that exploration will grow organically out of a civilization that is in space anyway. It is entirely possible to understand either conception of civilization as including or excluding human space exploration.

It is possible to elaborate on this distinction between conceptions of civilizations and their undertakings, and in fact while I was listening to some of the presentations during the 100YSS 2012 symposium I started a list dividing the properties of these respective conceptions of civilization. I begin with the paradigm of heroic spaceflight as the “moon shot,” which embodies so many of our ideas of a heroic, one-off undertaking, and I contrast this to the “milk run,” which is a mundane, routine undertaking. Here is my (admittedly imperfect) list so far:

Moon Shot Milk Run
heroic ordinary
sprint long haul
top-down bottom-up
central planning unplanned
sudden incremental
exceptional routine
narrowly-based broadly-based
hierarchical organic

The paradigmatic case of a “moon shot” style space mission is, of course, the moon shot. The entire spacecraft for the moon mission was built and assembled on earth. The Saturn V rocket was enormous, and lofted an enormous payload into orbit. As the mission made its way to the moon, parts of the spacecraft were jettisoned along the route, and by the time the three astronauts returned, they returned in the tiny Apollo capsule that was only large enough to contain the three of them. Many (if not most) of the proposed Mars missions on the drawing boards adopt this paradigm, for obvious reasons. Except for the International Space Station (ISS), there is no industrial infrastructure in space. This is the Achilles heel of the entire contemporary space program. Any large undertaking in space is limited by this absence of industrial infrastructure.

The ISS itself was built on Earth, although its parts were assembled in orbit after having been one at a time lifted off from the Earth. Any large spacecraft would minimally require assembly in orbit, and of course it would make much more sense to employ an industrial infrastructure in space to extract and process the necessary materials rather than lift then from the earth, where the materials themselves are relatively expensive and the cost to take them into orbit even more so. In theory, even an interstellar ship could be manufactured on the Earth and assembled in orbit, although this technology currently envisioned any starship would need to be far larger than anything else previously assembled by human hands.

My point here is that this is more than just a choice of technique in assembling a spacecraft, whether headed to Mars or headed to the stars. The temperamental distinction between thinking of civilization in these two fundamentally distinct ways points to the connection between temperament and civilization. Persons of the one temperament will work toward the creation of a civilization consistent with their temperament, while persons of the other temperament will work toward another kind of civilization. In a large and diverse world, there is room for both temperaments, and in What adventures are actually left? I observed that…

When our early hominid ancestors began to make their way around the earth, I imagine that they traveled from mixed motives, and that it was a little bit of exploration, a little bit of adventure, and a little bit of diaspora.

To exploration, adventure, and diaspora I should add those iterative activities that go to make up the ordinary business of life. As long as there is room for disagreement in the world, we are not forced to choose between differing conceptions of civilization.

From a standpoint of existential risk, which I briefly discussed in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II, it ought to be obvious to us that we would not want to keep all our eggs in one basket, since at present the Earth is a single point of failure for our species — and every other species on the planet.

With or without travel to the stars, a robust and sustainable off-planet civilization could be constructed within our solar system. Off the surface of the Earth, there is so much energy and so many resources that they are for practical purposes endless because we could not exhaust them. At least, we could not exhaust them until we had reached the point where travel to other stars was practicable and we could tap into new sources of energy and raw materials. This is a work-a-day vision of the future of civilization.

But it may be the case that human beings may have a tendency to settle into and settle for stagnation once industrial-technological civilization covers the entire planet and life reaches a reasonable level of comfort for almost everyone. To tear people away from amusement and entertainment and what Fukuyama called “the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” it may be necessary to pursue the inspirational, the heroic, and the spectacular, even if pursued from the surface of an increasingly comfortable earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “From Moon Shot to Milk Run”

  1. Lauralee said

    You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

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