Colonizing Luna: from engineering to planning

Here is an example of an item that we need to develop and test extensively: spinning habitats. Herman Potocnik suggested this system of creating false gravity through spin in 1929, and the ‘wheel-in-the-sky’ space station became a popular motif of pulp sci-fi book and magazine covers in the 1950s. But so far as I know, no space agency has ever actually implemented this idea. We know that living in microgravity conditions is seriously harmful to humans; we now have decades of research on that. We suppose that a spinning habitat will solve that problem. But a spinning habitat is also a practical problem: What is the minimum radius? Can we get most of the benefits from, say, 0.8g centripetal acceleration? How do we dock with a spinning habitat? What is the lowest-mass configuration we can design? For example, a ‘spinning bolo’ of two pods–perhaps one is the occupied capsule and the other is a service module–might be less-massive than the Apollo-era configuration for going to the moon.

My overall point, with this spin-gravity example, is that we still need to develop practical experience with a variety of systems to keep humans healthy offworld. We imagined them long ago, but all the variables of a real-world system cannot be anticipated in hypothetical designs.

Here, I am arguing that we step out from the engineering approach to the urban planner approach. Engineers (rightly) try to pre-anticipate every contingency. Therefore engineers need to work with relatively simple, bounded systems compared to the open and indeterminate complexity of a city. Urban planners think very differently about problem-solving because the complexity of cities cannot be ‘accounted for’ in any totalizing model. Emergent conditions are typical within open, complex systems such as cities–in other words, they generate their own indeterminacy. Thus, risks cannot be fully modeled and forecasted ahead of time. Riskiness and other aspects of a complex system have to be actively managed in-process, as new conditions emerge from the system itself.

If we develop larger, long-term extraterrestrial habitats where crews perform many tasks over extended periods of time, these habitats will move from the manageable complexity of singular missions to the open complexity of human communities. Therefore, the mode of thinking needed to manage the process of human expansion into space will need to move away from an engineering-paradigm and towards an urban-policy paradigm. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking aspect of this shift will be the management of risk. We will need organizational structures, expectations, and ethical understandings to cope with non-military environments that are totally artificial, and in which there will be accidents with major fatalities. Consider a remote outpost where something goes wrong with the power or life-support system and the entire crew is lost before they can be rescued. When that happens (it will), the institution must be designed so that human error is acknowledged, but the primary consequence is learning. The dying crew’s primary responsibility will be to study the failure as it is occurring, so that as David Brin argued, they can pass on the lesson about what killed them.

If Americans are to participate in this new phase of human expansion into space, we need to get over our cultural phobia about mortality. It may be that astronauts should all be grandparents who can say goodbye to their families with some comfort. In ships with lighter radiation-shielding we may contract lethal forms of cancer, but until we can get enough fuel and shielding-material available outside of Earth’s gravity-well, we should consider relying on people willing to face known hazards in order to blaze the trail.

Throughout most of human history, humans have faced these sorts of risks. I have watched Afghan families take far greater risks on a regular basis. What we need is a ethic that allows an organization to strengthen and learn under conditions of lethal risk. Since about 1950, Americans have only tolerated such risk in military service, as a part of patriotic sacrifice. Industrializing the Moon does not fit the military-heroic ethical framework. We will need to develop an ethic of risk-tolerance for human spaceflight that allows for experimentation, innovation, and deaths in the somewhat prosaic process of offworld industrial development.


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