Earth Now!

The first direction I want to explore is one focused on Earth, rather than on outer space. You see, there is a small but determined community that believes the best way to improve our exploration of space is to do less of it. The strange thing is, they aren’t completely crazy.

The movement dates back to the 1960s, when anything seemed possible. Orbiting stations? Please. Men living on the Moon? No problem. A Mars colony by 1980? Piece of cake. But it wasn’t just outer space that we wanted to explore; “inner space” (aka, the oceans) was also popular. There were plans for (and tests of) manned undersea laboratories [1], harvesting the ocean’s resources [2], large-scale aquaculture [3], scores of floating laboratories (including some that floated beneath the sea), and floating colonies of new “island nations” [4]. So why didn’t they happen?

For the same reason that we didn’t get the manned lunar base or the outposts on Mars: politics, coupled with cost. One of the primary reasons for pushing the space race was because it demonstrated very clearly that we could launch heavy things (read: “whopping huge bombs“) and send them exactly where we wanted them to go (read: the Kremlin, if necessary). By putting a spacecraft that weighed a total of nearly 100,000 pounds into orbit around a target some 240,000 miles away, we were telling the Russians in no uncertain terms that we could hit them any time, any where, with any thing we wanted to [5].

But putting men on the bottom of the ocean for two months doesn’t have quite the political punch that putting three men into orbit around the Moon does. And, though exploration of inner space is at least an order of magnitude less expensive than exploring outer space, the 1970s were a time of severe budget constraints. As a result, the dreams were put on the back burner while the nation tried to pay for a long-running, unpopular, and expensive war without increasing taxes or cutting social spending [6].

But that was then and this is now. Today, there is a growing movement to restart the exploration of inner space. And their primary argument is fairly simple: It will help secure our national resources, it will help prepare us for more space exploration, and it is less expensive than current space exploration. Let’s examine that rationale, starting with the third statement: we should do this because it is less expensive.

During the Space Shuttle program, we put a total of 819 people into space in 135 flights that cost a total of $209,000,000,000; that works out to be $255 million per astronaut [7]. Today, we can launch an astronaut on a Soyuz for $60 million, and SpaceX promises to bring that cost down to $40 million per seat. Let’s compare that to the SEALAB program, which ran for five years, hosted about 80 divers (who they called “aquanauts’), and cost a total (including development and incremental costs) of $20 million. So for the price of one discounted astronaut seat, we can have 160 aquanauts. Similarly, it costs $3 million to run Aquarius (a modern sea habitat) for a year during which it can host as many as 156 aquanauts; it is currently begging for funding. When other programs, such as the Floating Laboratory Instrument Platform or the International Ocean Drilling Program, are considered, the same sort of scale applies; it is always at least a factor of one hundred less expensive to do things here. So it is obvious that exploring Earth’s inner space is less expensive.

What about the second statement, that exploring inner space will help us prepare for exploring space? How could that be true? It turns out that many of the problems faced by astronauts are exactly the same sort of problems faced by aquanauts [8]. They need to be able to survive on canned air and canned food that is delivered at irregular intervals while being surrounded by a hostile environment that will kill you the instant you quit paying attention. Indeed, the parallels between the two are so strong that NASA frequently uses subsea habitats as training aids for astronauts; for example, the former Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station [9] and the recently cancelled (and resurrected) Aquarius habitat were both funded either entirely or largely by NASA and were used to test out various life support modules. So, by working on problems such as air regeneration and water recycling and trash disposal, undersea habitats and other extreme environment outposts can truly help us prepare for exploring space.

That just leaves the first statement, that exploring the oceans will secure our national natural resources. How does that happen? It happens because Howard Hughes wasn’t entirely crazy; there are lots of untapped resources in the oceans [10], ranging from the fish to the mineral resources to the energy. For example, many countries are starting to allow off-shore wind farms that take advantage of the natural diurnal wind pattern in order to generate electricity. If you like your electricity a bit more exotic, then there are the plans for ocean thermal energy conversion plants that use the temperature difference between shallow, warm water and deep, cold and nutrient-rich water to generate electricity while stimulating local growth of fish stocks. There are also plans to harvest the energy of wave action and even underwater currents. Placing these energy stations in the ocean would be easier and maintenance would be more reliable if it were done by floating platforms similar to FLIP or by nearby undersea habitats.

And then there are the fish stocks. Currently, we know that we are overfishing many different stocks from sharks to cod to tuna. And part of the reason for that is because we don’t know much about the lives of the fish. How often do they span? How many young do they have? How long does it take for them to grow to maturity? What are their habitats and migration patterns? Because we don’t know these things, fish could be protected in one area but harvested accidently as by-catch in another (for an example of this, remember why we have “dolphin-safe tuna”). As a result, an industry that makes $400 billion per year could collapse at any time, simply because we don’t know enough to keep it going. But replacing the current system with ocean-based aquaculture and strongly enforced limits could keep that from happening. Fish farms in the Exclusive Economic Zone [11] could replace the wild caught fish in many cases, allowing for stocks to be managed efficiently and sustainably. Again, floating or subsea habitats would make this much easier; they could even be modified to drift with the current, following the fishes’ natural migration paths.

Finally, there are the mineral resources. Though there had been people drilling for offshore oil ever since the 1890s, it wasn’t until 1947 that a well was drilled out of sight of land (Kerr-McGee’s Ship Shoal 32 #1); after that, the trend has always been for deeper water and bigger wells. Though there have been some notable accidents [12], there have been many more successes. And hydrocarbons are the least of the treasures hidden in the ocean depths [13]. In addition to the famous manganese nodules, there are other rich mineral reserves, including gold, copper, and silver, concentrated near black smokers and hydrothermal ridges. And there are probably many more resources that have yet to be located simply because we have better maps of the Moon than we have of the ocean floor and fewer people have been to the deepest part of the ocean (3) than have landed on the Moon (12).

OK, so we can make a case for exploring space better by not exploring space right now without sounding entirely crazy. But how does this option do on our four questions? Let’s see:

What do we learn?
This is one of the strengths of exploring Earth right now. The amount of information that we’d be able to gather by increasing the number of FLIPs and subsea habitats is enormous and covers a much wider range that the amount of information that we gain from NASA.

What can we do next?
This is one of the weaknesses of this idea. By concentrating on the ocean and putting a hiatus on space exploration, we’d effectively be killing any large space programs for at least a generation, perhaps more. At best, this would delay any missions to the Moon, asteroids, or Mars. At worst, it would exile us to this one planet until the end of the Solar System.

What does it prove?
As was true in the 1960s, concentrating on exploring inner space doesn’t actually do as much for our national prestige as exploring outer space does even though it is arguably at least as important to our national security. That’s because people take the ocean and anything that happens on or under it for granted. By demonstrating the ability to exploit our EEZ, we’d do a lot for the economy (not a bad thing) but not much for our standing as technological leaders.

What does it cost?
This is perhaps the strongest point of exploring Earth instead of outer space: it is just darn cheap compared to space travel. For what it costs to run the ISS for one year ($3 billion), we could run every subsea habitat for ten years and include the construction and deployment of ten new FLIPs.

So that’s the case for staying here one Earth. Tomorrow, I’ll explore the idea of building that Moonbase we were promised.

John

[1] Here’s a short list of the manned underwater laboratories built in the 1960s and early 1970s: Conshelf 1 – 3, SEALAB 1 – 3, Tektite 1 – 3 [i], La Chalupa. There were plenty of others, but these are the ones that got the big press.

[2] There’s a reason that the CIA could get away with using a cover story as wild as Howard Hughes mining the ocean for manganese – it was really possible (if not really profitable).

[3] Which have partially come true.

[4] Which are still with us today,

[5] Some have suggested that the unspoken by obvious message of the Apollo program was responsible for helping to prevent the nuclear war that everyone knew was just around the corner. MAD is a lot more believable when you know that the other guy has really good aim and a big rifle.

[1] Here’s a short list of the manned underwater laboratories built in the 1960s and early 1970s: Conshelf 1 – 3, SEALAB 1 – 3, Tektite 1 – 3 [i], La Chalupa. There were plenty of others, but these are the ones that got the big press.

[2] There’s a reason that the CIA could get away with using a cover story as wild as Howard Hughes mining the ocean for manganese - it was really possible (if not really profitable).

[3] Which have partially come true.

[4] Which are still with us today,

[5] Some have suggested that the unspoken by obvious message of the Apollo program was responsible for helping to prevent the nuclear war that everyone knew was just around the corner. MAD is a lot more believable when you know that the other guy has really good aim and a big rifle.

[6] Sound familiar?

[7] There is going to be a bit of legerdemain here with respect to the costs. Costs for government programs will include development costs as well as incremental costs; thus, while it only cost an additional $250 million or so to launch each shuttle (bringing the per seat cost to a far more reasonable sounding $40 million [ii]), the true cost to the country was the total of $290,000 million. But costs for private programs such as the Soyuz and SpaceX ventures will only count the per seat cost because that’s the money that we taxpayers have to shell out. Though the private ventures do have development costs, the assumption is that they are charging enough to cover their development and still eventually make a profit.

[8] And, to a lesser extent, by those who man the various Antarctica research stations.

[9] Named for an astronaut who was also a dedicated aquanaut and who set the endurance record for SEALAB II (thirty days).

[10] There are probably even more in Antarctica, but that continent has been ruled out of bounds.

[11] A region that extends from the nation’s coastlines to 200 miles out; the maritime laws of that country must be obeyed in that region and that country has “first dibs” on any minerals, fish, or other resources to be found in the EEZ.

[12] E.g., Pemex’ Ixtoc in 1979, BP’s Macondo in 2010.

[13] Though it has been estimated that there is twice as much energy hidden in frozen ice and methane deposits known as clathrates as has been found in all of the oil wells drilled in the Gulf thus far.

[i] As you might guess from the name, this one was partially sponsored by NASA and used as an astronaut training tool.

[ii] And if $40 million sounds reasonable to you, then you’ve been spending too much time in Washington, DC!

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