Is the current hype about space travel justified, and what of the human and environmental cost? Noel Wauchope reports.
ENTHUSIASM for space travel has been mounting since Australia hosted the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held in Adelaide in September.
Then there was the announcement that Australia is getting a space agency!
“ ... more than 3000 of the world’s top space experts wildly cheered [and] all aspects of Australian society were united on the need for a national agency.”
In November, the very brilliant and appealing space travel and nuclear power enthusiast, Professor Brian Cox is to tour Australia! Champion astronaut Scott Kelly has just published his exciting book, Endurance: a Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.
Dare anyone throw cold water on all this joy?
Intriguingly, the Australian Government, while proudly hyping up this initiative, has not yet come up with a title for the new agency. However, someone else has and they have set up an elegant and professional-looking website for it: Australian Research and Space Exploration (ARSE).
Let’s start with that most important consideration — money
Although everyone says that space exploration is going to be an economic bonanza, I can’t see how it’s actually going to bring in money. There are some vague suggestions about finding mineral resources on other planets. Even NASA seems hard-put to find any real commercial benefits.
They discuss a few useful scientific and medical technologies — for example, water purification techniques and advanced eye surgery. These are side benefits of space research but surely could have been developed more cheaply with research on Earth directly intended for the purpose. I am reminded of the “benefits” of man walking on the moon in 1966 – we got Teflon – and even that didn’t turn out so well.
What about the costs of space exploration, space travel and sending a man to Mars? It is very hard to locate actual figures. Even three years ago, NASA's space travel research cost taxpayers US$17.6 billion (AU$22.9 billion) — and costs have surely risen by now. A huge part of the cost is in fitting and fuelling the space rockets’ thermoelectric generators with the production of the plutonium fuel being the most costly part of the expense.
Plutonium 238 fuelled Voyager 1, which is expected to keep going until 2025, the New Horizons trip to Pluto and Cassini, which recently crashed into Saturn. NASA is sanguine about risks of a space exploration accident, claiming that it’s a low probability.
Karl Grossman has described a previous accident, dispersing plutonium widely and the risks involved in the Cassini project thus:
' ... the Plutonium-238 used in space devices is 280 times more radioactive than the Plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons.'
A very small amount of Plutonium-238, that cannot be seen, felt, or measured with a Geiger counter is enough to kill you. One nanoparticle inhaled and lodged in the lungs is enough to give anyone lung cancer. In experiments with dogs, there was no dose low enough to NOT cause the death of these animals. Just one nanoparticle the size of dust (1 microgram) that could not even be seen, was enough to kill every dog tested.
There is a long list of space travel accidents, including 19 rocket explosions causing fatalities, as well as nine other crashes/accidents causing fatalities. There seems to be no published research on rockets and space debris that have ended up in the oceans. We can assume that such ocean debris does exist, including the long-lasting radioactive particles of plutonium, to be carried thousands of miles by ocean currents.
Ocean crashes are sometimes reported, but the public is generally unaware of the space junk and the plutonium that goes into the oceans. NASA is very coy about publicly stating that the rocket’s rockets’ thermoelectric generators are, in fact, fuelled by plutonium.
NASA continues research on solar-powered space flights, but that idea seems out of fashion at the moment.
The human toll of space travel
The human toll of space travel is not emphasised. However, Scott Kelly, who holds the U.S. record for time spent in space, has been quite frank about this in his new book. As an identical twin, Scott is an especially useful person for studying the effects of space on the body.
He became, in fact, a laboratory research animal — a sacrificial lamb, perhaps, in the cause of space research:
'I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained and shrank the walls of my heart. More troubling, I experienced problems with my vision, as many other astronauts had. I had been exposed to more than 30 times the radiation of a person on Earth, equivalent to about ten chest X-rays every day. This exposure would increase my risk of a fatal cancer for the rest of my life.'
Despite Scott’s extraordinary health problems, which linger to this day, he is optimistic and keen about human travel to Mars.
Which brings us to the biggest consideration: the ethics of all this.
I am fascinated that it is stated in Wikipedia, in assessing the cost of sending humans to Mars (over US$500 billion or AU$651 billion), that:
'The largest limiting factor for sending humans to Mars is funding.'
I think that the human cost should be a bigger “limiting factor". There’s still the problem of lethal radiation on the trip and on Mars. Plus it's a one-way trip. Scott Kelly has detailed, especially, the mental distress of being stuck in a spacecraft for months, isolated from human society and from loved ones, as well as the physical problems. Despite all this, Scott is keen on space travel and humans going to Mars. He is carried along, it seems, by a love of adventure, of risk, of achievement and fame.
Comfortable old white men in suits are planning the Mars trip; Younger, enthusiastic young men and women, like Scott Kelly, are mesmerised by the adventure and perceived "glory". Should we be encouraging them on this suicide mission?
We are constantly being told of the benefits to come, in space travel. What benefits? Are they greater than the huge environmental and personal risks? And the financial costs – the US$500 billion (AU $651 billion), paid for by the tax-payer? That money could go to meet real human needs. There's something wrong with our priorities when we mindlessly accept enthusiasm for technology, innovation, and so on, as better than healing the health of this planet and its populations.
And there is one other issue — nuclear power. The space hype coincides with the current drastic downturn in the fortunes of the nuclear industry. To continue with space research/travel, plutonium is needed. And the only way to get it is from nuclear reactors. Space science could be a lifeline for the failing nuclear industry.
It's no coincidence that the International Astronautical Congress was held in Adelaide — Australia's hub of nuclear ambition. It's no coincidence that Professor Brian Cox is visiting, hot from his recent pep talks to the nuclear industry in Wales.
The uncritical hype about space travel ties in well with the pro-nuclear hype, especially in South Australia.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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