OUR FUTURE IN THE COSMOS – SPACE

October 20, 2009 at 10:27 am | Posted in Isaac talks about, Speeches | Leave a comment
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A speech given by Isaac Asimov at Rutgers University

Throughout the history of humanity, we have been extending our range until it is now planet-wide, covering all parts of Earth’s surface and reaching to the bottom of the ocean, to the top of the atmosphere, and beyond it to the Moon. We will flourish only as long as we continue to extend that range, and although the potential range is not infinite, it is incredibly vast even by present standards. We will eventually extend our range to cover the whole of the solar system, and then we will head outward to the stars.

It frequently happened in my business as a writer, especially in my younger days when I knew some pretty overwhelming editors, that an editor would say to me, I have a great idea for a story. He’d slap me on the back and say, Now go home and write it. I would always think how easy it was for him to give me an idea for a story, but it was I, not the editor, who had to sit down and look at the most terrifying of all things: a blank page. In the same way, it’s fun to be introduced and have someone tell a lot of exaggerations about me; however, then he sits down and I’m the one who has to face the audience. I must say that it helps a great deal to face an obviously friendly and intelligent audience. I have brought almost the entire Mensa organization of this region to this presentation, and, naturally, they take it personally when I talk about intelligence. I am the international president of that organization, not because of anything I have done but because of a whim of the organization.

I want to discuss our future in the cosmos. One of the things I think will mean the most to us and will make the future different from the past is the coming of a space-centered society. We are going to expand into space, and I think it is fitting and right that we should do so. All through the 50,000 years of Homo sapiens, to say nothing of their hominoid precursors, humanity has been expanding its range of habitation. We don’t know exactly where the first Homo sapiens made their appearance, but they have been expanding until they now inhabit the entire face of the Earth. For the first time in human history, we are faced with a situation in which we literally have no place on Earth to expand. We have crossed all the mountains; we have penetrated all the oceans. We have plumbed the atmosphere to its height and the oceans to their depths. Unless we are willing to settle down into a world that is our prison, we must be ready to move beyond Earth, and I think we are ready. We have the technological capacity to do so; all that we need is the will. I think it is quite possible, starting now, to build settlements in space, to build worlds miniature in comparison to the Earth but large in comparison to anything we have done so far. These worlds, in orbit around the Earth, would be capable of holding tens of thousands of human beings.

This idea of space settlement seems odd to people; it doesn’t seem inviting. When I suggested such an idea in an article I wrote a few years ago, I received a number of letters arguing against the possibility of space settlements. The arguments weren’t based on economics; the main argument was that nobody would want to live in space. Nobody would want to leave his comfortable home on Earth. As nearly as I could tell from their addresses, all the people who wrote to me were Americans, and I presume that they knew American history. Americans should understand exactly what it means to leave their comfortable homes and to go to a completely strange world. This country was a wilderness at the beginning, and even after it was settled, it was a foreign land for most people. We in the United States are the descendants (unless any of you happen to be American Indians) of people who came here from other continents in search of something. Our forefathers, who came, at first, under harsh conditions, knew it would take them weeks to cross the ocean. They knew that if they met a serious storm, they would probably not survive. They also knew that when they landed, they would find a wilderness and possibly hostile natives. Yet, they still came. Between 1607 and 1617, 11,000 Englishmen came to the new colony of Virginia. In 1617, the population of Virginia was 1,000. How was it possible for 11,000 people to come and yet to have only a population of 1,000? The answer is easy; 10,000 died. Yet people continued to come. Why? They came because life in Europe, for many, was intolerable and because they wanted to come to a new land to start a new life. Whatever the risks, whatever the chances, if they succeeded it would be something new. It is this same desire that will drive people into space and cause them to populate as many space settlements as they can build. The chances of survival in space will probably be greater than those of the first immigrants to the colony of Virginia.

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov

In their letters to me, some individuals wrote that people would not be able to endure the kind of engineered environment that would exist in the space settlements and that they wouldn’t be able to bear not living close to nature as they do on Earth. Who lives close to nature here on Earth? There are millions of people on Earth who are never close to nature. I know; I live in the middle of Manhattan. I admit, I can look out the window and see Central Park from a distance, but I don’t venture into it often. I think people should remember that the space settlements will probably be engineered to accommodate the comforts of the Earth’s inhabitants. It is possible that people will be closer to nature in these settlements than in many places on the Earth today. People also wrote that the existence of space settlements would be unfair to the wretched of the Earth because the educated people would go into space and leave the less advanced people behind. That is probably precisely the reverse of what might happen. If we use the United States as an example, which classes of people came to this country? Obviously, the European ruling classes did not come; they were comfortable where they were. Why should they have left their homelands? The people who came to the United States were precisely those who hoped for something better, even if it meant a great deal of risk. Think of the passage engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I know those lines, you see, because in 1923, I was one of the wretched refuse who passed through Ellis Island. I’ve never forgotten 1923 because it was the last year in which people could enter this country without question. After that, the word went through the hallowed halls of Congress, Asimov is in… close the golden door. In 1924, the first strict quotas were placed on immigration. If I had tried to come a year later, I might not have been allowed to enter.

I imagine that when the time comes to begin emigrating to the space settlements, it will be hard work to make sure that not only the wretched of the Earth but also the educated people with usable skills are included. It’s going to be just the reverse of what people are afraid of. In fact, I have also been told in some letters that space colonization would be unfair because only those nations with a heritage of rocket travel, space flight, or of high technology would be able to take advantage of this new frontier, leaving the rest behind. Again, that idea flies in the face of historical fact. As an example, when my father decided to come to the United States, he hadn’t the slightest idea of what the ocean looked like; he had never seen it. He had no heritage of ocean travel. I don’t think he had any idea what a ship looked like unless he had seen a picture of one, and even when he was on the ship, he didn’t know what kept it afloat or how anyone on the ship could tell where they were going when they were in the middle of the ocean. I’m not sure I know, frankly. Yet he managed to get to the United States without any tradition or knowledge of seafaring because he had something else. I will tell you what people will need to get to a space settlement: it isn’t a background in rocketry, it isn’t technological know-how, it isn’t any tradition of high technology. I’ll tell you what it is if you will pay close attention because it’s rather subtle. What they will need is a ticket, because someone else is going to take them.

Of course, you might ask yourself what these settlements in space will do for us. Will we settle in space just to make Asimov happy? Is there any other purpose to it? Yes, there is, because we’re going to do a great many things in space that we can’t do on Earth. For instance, 10 years ago, there was an energy crisis that most of us, perhaps, have now forgotten. These days we hear about an oil glut instead. Well the oil glut exists only because there was a world recession; there still is a recession, as a matter of fact. If we recover economically, the demand for oil will increase, the glut will disappear overnight, and OPEC will raise its prices again. There is a limited amount of oil and coal in the Earth (a great deal more coal than oil), but we could make do with coal for centuries except that it is increasingly dangerous to use. Coal is difficult to dig out and transport, and burning it results in air pollution, produces sulfur and nitrogen oxides that dissolve in the atmosphere’s moisture to produce the acid rain that is destroying life in our ponds and lakes and is killing our forests. But quite apart from all this, if we continue to burn coal indefinitely, we will increase that fraction of the atmosphere which is made up of carbon dioxide. At the beginning of this century, approximately 0.03 percent of the air was carbon dioxide. This amount has increased almost 50 percent since then, and it will probably double within another half century. There won’t be enough carbon dioxide in the air to interfere with breathing, but it may produce what we call the greenhouse effect because it tends to be opaque to infrared radiation. Ordinary sunlight that shines on the Earth passes through the atmosphere with little absorption and hits the Earth’s surface. At night, the Earth reradiates a portion of this energy as heat (infrared radiation). If the level of carbon dioxide increases even slightly, this infrared radiation will have more difficulty getting out. It will be absorbed by the carbon dioxide, thus heating the atmosphere and raising the temperature of the Earth very slightly. It won’t take much heating to cause the polar ice caps to melt, thus changing the climate of the Earth, undoubtedly for the worse! If you think that nuclear energy has the potential to make the Earth unlivable, so has the indefinite burning of coal and oil.

We are going to have to find some other sources of energy, and the only two sources of energy that will last as long as the Earth does are fusion energy and solar energy. I don’t mean that we are going to have to depend solely on one or the other; there are other sources of energy that can be developed as well. There is geothermal energy, energy from under the Earth. There is biomass energy, the energy of the plant world. There is the energy of tides, wind, waves, and running water. All these can and will be used, but they are all relatively limited and there is no likelihood that they will supply all the energy we need. So, in addition to all these sources, we will need forms of energy that we can rely on in huge quantities forever. That brings us back to fusion energy and solar energy. We don’t have fusion energy yet, although we’ve been working towards it for more than 30 years. We’re not sure exactly what difficulties might exist between demonstrating it in the laboratory and developing huge power plants that will supply the world. We do have solar energy, but it’s difficult to get in large quantities because it is spread thinly over the world. If we could get millions of photovoltaic cells (a kind of silicon cell that sets up a small electric current when exposed to light) and stretch them over half of Arizona (I only mention Arizona because there is usually a lot of sunshine there), we could perhaps supply enough energy for America’s needs. If we did that in other parts of the world as well, we could supply the entire world. There is no doubt, however, that setting up solar cells (photovoltaic cells) on the Earth’s surface is not very efficient. For one thing, there is no solar energy for the cells to absorb during the night. Even in the daytime under the best conditions (for example, in a desert area without fog, mist, or clouds), clear air absorbs a substantial portion of the sunlight, especially if the Sun is near the horizon. And of course, you also have the problem of maintaining these cells against nature’s effects and against vandalism.

For these reasons it might be more reasonable to build a solar power station in space. Under such conditions, we could make use of the entire range of solar energy 98 percent of the time, because the stations could easily be positioned so they would fall into the Earth’s shadow only 2 percent of the time, at the equinoxes. A chain of these stations around the Earth would allow most of them to be in the sunshine all the time. Optimists have calculated that in space, a given area of solar cells will provide 60 times more energy than on the Earth’s surface. We can then imagine this chain of power stations circling the Earth in the equatorial plane at a height of approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. At this distance their orbital position will just keep time with the surface of the Earth as it rotates about its axes. If you stood on a spot at the equator and looked up at the sky with a sufficiently strong telescope, you could see the solar power station apparently motionless above you. I feel a certain proprietorship toward this idea of a space station. It was advanced about 20 years ago by people at the AVCO Corporation in Massachusetts, but about 40 years ago I wrote a story called Reason in which I talked about just such a power station. Of course, I missed the important point of having it in orbit around the Earth. I described it in an orbit similar to Mercury’s around the Sun so that it could get even more energy. I ignored the fact that it would be awfully difficult to aim it at Earth from such a distance; in science fiction stories, you can dismiss such problems by saying that an advanced technology won’t find it difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, solar power stations are my idea, and I’m proud of it!

There are a great many other things we could do in space. We could set up mining stations on the Moon and have laboratories in space to perform experiments you wouldn’t want to do on Earth because of the risks involved to the population. Some years ago, people were very worried about recombinant DNA research. They feared that scientists would come up with a new strain of bacteria which would get out into the biosphere, and once it did, you would never get rid of it. It was like Pandora’s box, when she opened it, all the ills of the world flew out and have plagued humanity ever since. In this same vein, suppose that for some very good reason, from the standpoint of research, scientists developed a strain of E. coli (a common bacteria that lives in the human large intestine) which had a very interesting chemical property that they wanted to study. But at the same time, it might turn out that this strain would make people prone to diarrhea. Suppose this strain is released to the world. People always speak about the danger of developing a black death germ that would kill everybody it touches and how terrible it would be if it were released. I don’t think we have to be that extreme. An E. coli strain that would bring about diarrhea could be extremely disturbing to the entire Earth.

However, at the time when people spoke and worried about recombinant DNA research and worked up all kinds of horrible nightmares in connection with it, I believed it might turn out to be important and valuable research. It occurred to me then that this research might develop strains of bacteria that could form insulin, other hormones, and certain blood fractions, things that we need in quantity and can’t get in the usual way. Recombinant DNA research might produce microorganisms that could fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and form terrific fertilizers or other microorganisms that could consume hydrocarbons under certain conditions and clean up oil spills. The research might simply give us information about the organization of living cells so that we could better understand what causes and what might cure cancer, or arthritis, or any of the other degenerative diseases that are now the major inflictions of the human race. How nice it would be to set up a space laboratory in Earth orbit in which the recombinant DNA research could be done. It wouldn’t matter how dangerous the research was. I suppose it would still be mathematically possible for bacteria to escape and infect the Earth, but the chances would be far less than if the work were actually done on Earth. We could perform many such dangerous experiments in space. We could establish fission and fusion power stations in orbit and not have to worry about Three Mile Island incidents. Naturally, people working in the stations would still be exposed to these dangers, but they would be relatively few in number. They would be volunteers and specialists, and would know the risks involved. That is a different matter than doing research surrounded by millions of innocent people who are not aware of the risks.

We can also build observatories in space. I always said that we should set up a telescope in space which could look at the universe from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and now events are finally catching up with my imaginings. Even at its best, the atmosphere obscures. It’s warm and its temperature varies so that there are always shifting columns of air. Whenever you look at the sky, it is like looking at it through frosted glass or through something that is transparent but trembling. If you have ever watched a television screen that for some reason is shaking, you realize how annoying it can be. When an astronomer looks at the heavens, the image is always shaking. That’s why stars twinkle and why you can’t see Mars’ surface from Earth any clearer with a large telescope than with a small one. The large telescope shows you a larger Mars; it also shows you larger twinkles, which obscure the surface. If we could get outside the atmosphere, we could see much more clearly. There would be no twinkles because the vacuum doesn’t interfere with viewing like the atmosphere does. We would be able to see the distant galaxies in great detail and possibly tell more about the beginning and the end of the universe. We could see all kinds of unusual stars in greater detail and learn more about stellar evolution and about some of the queer beasts in the astronomical zoo. But I always said this entirely on faith, and sometimes I wondered to myself, What if we put a telescope out there and it doesn’t find anything! Well, those are the breaks of the game, but I would have been very disappointed.

Recently the United States launched the IRAS (infrared astronomy satellite) to examine the universe in the infrared range. It saw a great deal that we can’t see from the surface because our atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation. One of the things the telescope looked at was the star Vega. It turns out, this star emits a surprising quantity of infrared radiation. However, astronomers looked more closely at this phenomenon and determined that the infrared radiation was coming not from the star itself, but from an annular region all around it. Apparently, there are colder objects circling Vega which absorb some of Vega’s light and emit it as infrared radiation. These objects are not simply a shell of dust around Vega; they are larger particles, and the implication is that they are in the process of condensing into a planetary system. This is the first time we have ever acquired observational information concerning the development of any planetary system other than our own. There are various theories concerning the formation of planetary systems, and if these theories are correct, then almost every star should have a planetary system. For obvious reasons, we have not been able to actually see the planets of the distant stars. Stars are very far away and any planet shining only by reflected light can’t reflect enough light to show up in our telescopes. Even if they did, they are so close to the star that their light would be drowned out by the much brighter light of the star. But now, as a result of IRAS, we have seen what seems to be a planetary system in the process of formation about another star, which makes us feel a little more confident about our theories of the way planetary systems should form. We now feel a little more confident about saying that stars have planets, as a general rule. Why does this star theory matter to us on Earth? There is a long chain of reasoning; there are many stars in the universe and a certain percentage of them resemble our Sun. If all the stars have planetary systems and these Sun-like stars have planetary systems, then a certain percentage of these planets ought to be Earth-like. If Earth-like planets exist, then they probably have developed life, and if there are this many life-bearing planets, one of them should develop intelligent life. Perhaps one of these has developed a technological civilization that we can detect or, perhaps, they are trying to contact us. This chain of reasoning causes some astronomers to feel certain that the universe has a great many technological civilizations, of which we are only one. However, this chain is so attenuated, so weak, and so highly theoretical that it is perfectly possible to argue, as some astronomers do, that the chain is broken at one or more points and that we may be the only technological civilization in our entire galaxy. It would be nice to know the answer. A telescope in space has already given us some reason to think that there may be other technological civilizations in space besides our own. Who knows what else such instruments may discover?

Another kind of structure in outer space is factories. There is no reason why a good proportion of our industrial factories couldn’t be placed into orbit. Space has very unusual properties that may be helpful to us. It has unlimited vacuum, zero gravity, the possibility of high and low temperatures, and hard radiation. There are a great many things we can do in space that we can do only with difficulty, if at all, on Earth. Most important of all, when we have a factory in space, any unavoidable pollution that it produces can be discharged into space.

Space is huge compared to the surface of the Earth. Some people argue that to earlier generations the ocean seemed huge and capable of absorbing any amount of pollution. But now we are in danger of poisoning the entire atmosphere. Some people argue that in the future we may be so casual about releasing pollutants into space that we may gradually poison all the space around ourselves. However, that won’t happen, for not only is space literally millions of times more voluminous than the biosphere and not occupied by trillions of living things, but it is also true that nothing we release into space is going to stay there because of something called the solar wind. The Sun emits speeding particles in every direction; it has been doing this as long as it has been in existence and will continue to do this for billions of years. This solar wind will push the pollutants out beyond the orbit of Mars, beyond the asteroids and into the outer solar system, where there is a trillion times more room than in the Earth’s neighborhood. The solar wind has a natural ventilating effect. This is important because it means that perhaps Earth can get rid of its dark satanic mills (to quote William Blake, who wrote in the first decades of the 19th century) without abandoning industrialization. People who view industrialization as a source of the Earth’s troubles, its pollution, and the desecration of its surface, can only advocate that we give it up. This is something that we can’t do; we have the tiger by the tail. We have 4.5 billion people on Earth. We can’t support that many unless we’re industrialized and technologically advanced. So, the idea is not to get rid of industrialization but to move it somewhere else. If we can move it a few thousand miles into space, we still have it, but not on Earth. Earth can then become a world of parks, farms, and wilderness without giving up the benefits of industrialization.

All this will be possible because we will have structures built in space. Who will build these space structures? It seems to me that it’s an unnecessary expense to have them built by commuters. It wouldn’t make sense to send people into space every morning and have them come back every evening or, even, to send them up every spring and have them come back every fall. We would want the people who are busy constructing the necessary structures in space, maintaining them, and improving them to be people who live in space. Why should the people of the space settlements labor to do this? They would share in the benefits to be derived from it, and, I suppose in the last analysis, they would do it for money. In other words, in exchange for their labor, they would get some things that would otherwise exist only on Earth. There would be a fine economic balance that I will allow economists to work out. The fact of the matter is that we would have a much larger, more variegated, and versatile world; it would be much richer and more advanced in knowledge so that we would look back on the present and think of it as a dark age when human beings lived only on Earth.

The space settlers, who will live on these worlds in orbit, will be the cutting edge of humanity for the future. These are the people who will move farther out into the solar system. It was difficult to reach the Moon although the flight took only 3 days. Imagine the problems for us to reach Mars when it might take months of travel or to reach the outer solar system when it might take years of travel? We are not really built for space flight; we are used to living on the outside of a huge world, not in the inside of a spaceship. We are used to a system of cycling air, food, and water that is so large that we are unaware of the actual process. We don’t know where the pure sparkling water that we drink comes from, and we don’t care. We don’t know how the plants that we eat grow or what they use for food, and we don’t care. We don’t know what processes the atmosphere uses to clean itself. But if we lived in a spaceship, we’d know. We’d know that our air was manufactured from the carbon dioxide that we exhaled and that the food and water were once part of our waste products. (That’s also true on Earth, of course, but we’re not aware of it.) We would also be subjected to gravitational systems that would not be like those on Earth; they would vary. For all these reasons, space flight seems unnatural to us. But to the space settlers, who would arrive by space flight and live and work in larger versions of a spaceship, these conditions would seem natural. They might run mines on the Moon, and they would travel in a spaceship that would be very much like the space stations in which they would live (maybe a little smaller but that’s all). They would be living inside a world with tight cycling and varying gravitational forces. They would be the natural pioneers. They, not we, would be the Vikings, the Phoenicians, the Polynesians of the future. They would make the long trips to Mars and the asteroids and learn how to mine the asteroids. They could travel out into the solar system and make plans to reach the stars someday. All we can do here on Earth, maybe, is reach the Moon. From worlds in orbit around the Earth, we can reach all the rest.

Beyond all these material things that space exploration can bring us, there is something completely immaterial that counts more than anything else. One thing that can stop us from going into space, from realizing what I consider a glorious possible future for humanity, is the fact that here on Earth, most people, especially those in power, are far more concerned with the immediate threat from other countries than they are with the possible dangers to civilization as a whole. How much of any country’s mental energy, money, effort, and their emotion is directed towards saving civilization from destruction by pollution, overpopulation, or war, and how much is spent maintaining armed forces because of the danger from neighboring countries? You know the answer; the world is now spending 500 billion dollars every year for war and preparations for war. That’s half a trillion dollars every year spent on forces that we don’t dare use, or if we do use them, it is only to wreak destruction. The United States and the Soviet Union quarrel over differences that may be extremely important, but if the quarrel extends to the point of a nuclear war that destroys civilization, the differences become inconsequential.

How are we to prevent this whole thing from happening? There is one example in history that is very unusual. From 1861 to 1865, the United States fought the War Between the States, and many of its most epic battles were fought on Virginia’s soil. One side lost; one side won. For a period of years, the winners showed no mercy as far as the losers were concerned, and the losers lived under occupation forces. The South has lived with this loss ever since, and yet the bitterness passed. This is not to say that the South has forgotten the Confederacy (of course it hasn’t), but it’s not forever laying plans to reestablish it. It hasn’t maintained an attitude of unforgiveness; it doesn’t say, We will never forget. It doesn’t always try to find allies abroad to help it reestablish itself. We have reunited into a single nation. How did we manage to do that, when there are other places on Earth in which the mutual hatred has continued undiminished because of things that happened thousands of years ago, and people refuse to forget? My theory is that after the Civil War there was a period of the development in the West, in which the North and the South could take part indiscriminately. People from both sides traveled westward and established the new states, and in the positive task of developing the western half of the United States, the old quarrels were forgotten. What was needed was something new, something great, something growing into which the old problems would sink into insignificance. It was just our good fortune that we had the development of the West to occupy our minds in the half century after the Civil War.

I have a feeling that if we really expanded into space with all our might and made it a global project, this would be the equivalent of the winning of the West. It’s not just a matter of idealism or preaching brotherhood. If we can build power stations in space that will supply all the energy the world needs, then the rest of the world will want that energy too. The only way that each country will be able to get that energy will be to make sure these stations are maintained. It won’t be easy to build and maintain them; it will be quite expensive and time-consuming. But if the whole world wants energy and if the price is world cooperation, then I think people are going to do it.

We already cooperate on things that the whole world needs. International organizations monitor the world’s weather and pollution and deal with things like the oceans and with Antarctica. Perhaps if we see that it is to our advantage to cooperate, then only the real maniacs will avoid cooperating and they will be left out in the cold when the undoubted benefits come in. I think that, although we as nations will retain our suspicions and mutual hatreds, we will find it to our advantage to cooperate in developing space. In doing so, we will be able to adopt a globalist view of our situation. The internal strife between Earthlings, the little quarrels over this or that patch of the Earth, and the magnified memories of past injustices will diminish before the much greater task of developing a new, much larger world. I think that the development of space is the great positive project that will force cooperation, a new outlook that may bring peace to the Earth, and a kind of federalized world government. In such a government, each region will be concerned with those matters that concern itself alone, but the entire world would act as a unit on matters that affect the entire world. Only in such a way will we be able to survive and to avoid the kind of wars that will either gradually destroy our civilization or develop into a war that will suddenly destroy it. There are so many benefits to be derived from space exploration and exploitation; why not take what seems to me the only chance of escaping what is otherwise the sure destruction of all that humanity has struggled to achieve for 50,000 years? That is one of the reasons, by the way, that I have come from New York to Hampton despite the fact that I have a hatred of traveling and I faced 8 hours on the train with a great deal of fear and trembling. It was not only The College of William and Mary that invited me, but NASA as well, and it is difficult for me to resist NASA, knowing full well that it symbolizes what I believe in too.

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