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If NASA has a program to build off-Terra settlements and an economics and trade system to support them and their growth, then where is their research and engineering to do this? Space is hard. Where are they making ready for it?
We can't go out to space to learn how to live in space. The space environment is too hard to reach and too demanding once we're there, for us to hop out there and play around. To learn something about the human meaning of the space environment that fills most of our universe, link over to http://www.geoffreylandis.com/vacuum.html. (Note interesting and useful further links there.)
As you're reading Landis, notice especially that if you find yourself suddenly in a space environment, you have some 5-10 seconds of useful consciousness to do something to save yourself; but if someone else comes along and brings you back into a lifespace within about a minute, you probably survive. You can see that off Terra, you're not going to dash out in your shirtsleeves, run over to your neighbors place, knock on the (airlock) door, and enter once it opens. There is also the matter of local and cosmic radiations.
And this is better than living on Terra? It's a good topic for anyone to work on who thinks about space. For many modern Americans, no, it's not better than living on Terra. Today's American culture does not promote its citizens developing intellectual strength and reality-based knowhow in science and engineering. Yet even today, some Americans are pioneer people who can get along just fine without a soft and easy life, if America today seems largely dedicated to suppressing divergence from its ...norm. And, anything out there off-Terra could be a whole lot better than Terra becomes, after some local or astronomical event as I've mentioned elsewhere in Adra .
So coming generations really could live and work out there? Yes: there is no reality of science nor supernatural dictum that, "You can't do that." Yes: provided a few of us make that happen. Which begins with a detail we take for granted here on Terra: lifespaces. Off Terra, nobody goes anywhere without a lifespace. Maybe a tiny one, like a spacesuit; maybe as large a lifespace as a generation ship (someday).
But, you may reasonably say, how do we build lifespaces? Seeing as llifespaces Out There are a new idea and nobody ever did that before?
In fact, our technologies today offer a nearly complete starting point of resources and practical experience we need. We use the history and knowhow that we have. We do new thinking, research and engineering. We recall our extensive related experience: aircraft, submarines, diving and high-altitude suits. We do everything from simple lab work to complete studies in effigy. By building and operating analog settlements, here and now on Terra, to establish realistic ranges for a host of parameters and practical details. Such research and engineering can look like a game and in fact, serious gaming can be a part of that work.
Analog settlements are how we learn to live in space while we are still here on Terra. To the casual eye, such work looks like playing around. In fact, it's on the critical path to getting out there: whoever is not doing analog settlements, isn't going out to space. Serious work on this topic has been done already -- Biosphere 2 and Robert Zubrin's analog Mars missions come to mind. But much remains to be done and anyone working at space settlements, wants to attend to who is doing what.
I suggest that for best return from the following, you want to break off and go now to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2. Read it and visit two or three of the links provided there. Then come back here, having just acquired a birds-eye view of how large analog settlements projects can be hard to do.
I think this over-view shows why such work is not much in the news: it's difficult, it's slow, it's not exciting, a good outcome is not guaranteed; and it eats up time and money. As people live for months or years in a limited environment (like a prison, in fact), it hardly generates the excitement and conflict the news media want. Except if something goes very wrong, of course. Yet whatever the work or nuisance to do these analog settlements projects, it's clear that whoever would go out to space must do them. First. We must do our research and engineering first and do it here; and then do our space settlements asap next.
Nobody is above these basics I've just pointed out. Thus we can look at what NASA is doing, and we see something central missing from their program. A gaping hole there. Where is the analog settlements work? When NASA started their Great New Program to repeat Apollo (with improvements, the PR says), I asked, where is this getting us? I'm still asking that. Because, this Great New Program seems to carry, behind its fanfare, some serious issues.
Namely: 1) it's slow and runs over long time. This makes the Program terribly vulnerable to political meddling, adjustments, and "earmarks." 2) It speaks of revisiting Luna (About time!) and even of bases there, but it fails to address the extended future that is (if we choose it) out there. 3) Someone else could easily leapfrog and surpass such a weak and slow program; thus we may eventually arrive ...somewhere, to find a "greeting committee" standing there looking with cold eyes at those new arrivals.
And, of course, 4) just in case NASA or someone else is doing the needed settlements studies, where is this work happening? Without which, all else amounts to nothing? It's a really interesting question: remember the Lockheed Skunk Works? A secret research base? It was rumored for years. Some people like to seek out and analyze small news details to find large secret programs. They found that. But I haven't heard any of them are finding anything of this, which makes a strong case there's nothing there to find.
Well, maybe other countries are working at space settlements? Where, or in what countries are they doing serious analog settlements research and we aren't hearing about it?
One finds in the news that Washington's programs are basically "what Americans want." Assuming this for the moment, we come to interesting questions. Why do "Americans want" senseless and expensive wars? Which drain America's resources off the top and return nothing? Why are Americans opposed to spending "large" amounts of money (as much as 10% of a war cost) on space, which offers the greatest returns of any option in sight? (Imagine the year is 1500 AD and "What is America for?") But that goes off-topic here: I want to talk about settlements in space.
As I write, today, "Settlements in space" is basically a getting-off-zero problem. It's new, sort-of. (We had it almost entire, fifty years ago.) Nobody ever did that before, nor anything much like it (except Apollo). Yet if the objective is resolved into its major parts, none of those are new. They are generally the application in a different environment of basics commonly known to students in good high schools. That is, to children. It's only when you put those old basics into a space environment, that the "settlements in space" problem acquires some appearance of imposing magnitude. (Helped along by the practical challenge of getting there, which is actually a different test entirely.)
The problem is both simplified and made more difficult by the practical necessity of lifespaces. Off Terra, if you're alive, you're in a lifespace. However, for millions of years past, we've lived in the open outdoors of Terra. Across all our species evolution, nobody ever lived permanently in sealed lifespaces. Now comes change, and we'll have to adapt our lives, our culture, and eventually our physical selves, to live with this new reality of sealed lifespaces within a large and totally hostile environment. I expect this will prove to be a hard requirement to meet.
(But our fishy ancestors did it! They came up onto dry land out of Terra's primeval ocean, and they did it without our technology. Space is the same basic challenge. I think "evolution" takes on a new meaning here. Today, we can do space.)
But today, I see no NASA analog settlements program. To do space, we must learn how first. We'll have to mock it up and work it out, right here, longterm analog settlements, to learn the operational principles in appropriate context. Robert Zubrin and Mars Society have been doing analog Mars settlements. Biosphere 2 tried a large ecological system experiment. Much more is needed, and whoever talks of space settlements isn't serious about their topic until they are seen making ready for what they say they're going to do. Someone must run several analog space settlements over time: at least one of these must run five years, at a guess. Including study of culture issues and the social psychology of such closed environments. Can NASA do that?
Since as big slow projects go it's just not that large a challenge to do those analog settlements, I believe that yes, NASA can. If they will, is something else. For whatever practical reasons, NASA's feet are firmly glued to Terra's surface, and their programs seem designed to keep it that way. I foresee that someone else must do the setup work and then progress to space settlements. There is a simple program and progress clue: intent to do at least three long-term analog space settlements, to begin, because one won't be enough. And that wants to start now.
(As I prepare to post this material in 2009 May, I notice news about Washington reviewing the space program, after a few preliminary cuts already done. What, again!?)
------------------------------------------------- Notes, Resources, and Pointers:
 I touch on this centrally important topic in several places in Adra. Read around here.
 For search engines: China; George Orwell; Cory Doctorow.
 Two video DVDs: Lord of War, and Orphans of Apollo.
 Reading: The Shadow Factory by James Bamford (Random House Anchor Books, 2008). It complements The Washington Payoff by Robert Winter-Berger (Lyle Stuart Inc., 1972).
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