"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Sunday 19 February 2012

Space Migration: The Heavenly Ascent

Space Migration: The Heavenly Ascent
Mother Earth has come to term. It's time to leave home

Space Colony Extraterrestrial Migration

The moon rocks that the Apollo missions brought back revealed the moon to be a perfectly stocked construction supply depot. The lunar surface is rich in industrial metals, including iron, aluminum, titanium, and magnesium. But the most abundant element, accounting for 40 percent of the moon's surface by mass, is oxygen. The moon is an amalgam of rusted metals. 

After oxygen, the most abundant element is the ever-useful silicon. Oxygen, silicon, and a lode of metals: It would have been a challenge to custom order a stockpile of materials better suited for creating an industrial boomtown in Earth-orbital space, and ultimately beyond. Intelligent Design strikes again? We could soon have homes, electronics, vehicles, and even garden furniture made from lunar materials—in space.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to develop space as residential and commercial real estate poses obvious technical and political challenges. But ultimately humankind will have to face these challenges. Each generation will see the idea as less fanciful and more commonsensical than the previous and will feel a stronger urgency as Earth becomes increasingly crowded, polluted, and inhospitable to democratic ideals.

A new order of urban life is possible in space. Solar collectors the size of football fields (already being developed in Japan), manufactured from lunar materials and driving an economy of abundance—this is the vision of the future shamefully absent from political debates about space policy. But it might be the most promising alternative to a centralized technocratic banking/military elite running the show. Democratic utopia will find little room to grow in a world that rations resources to its energy-poor, planetbound population. 

Even the ambitious space objectives announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004 lack purposeful vision. A mining operation on the moon could have broad practical value, but burning resources to plant a human footprint on Mars is cold-war thinking. Nonetheless, the Bush plan at least helped refocus NASA’s energies on a human presence in space, though the plan did not go nearly far enough. A visionary plan would reject the assumption that living beyond the Earth necessarily means moving to another planetary, or a lunar, body.

Claiming economic necessity, President Obama unplugged the Bush plan. In January 2010, he defunded it and directed NASA to underwrite private development of space taxis, which the agency then will rent back from the private developers. As the "public" and "private" sectors of the economy continue to merge, history will see who becomes the greatest beneficiary of Obama's redirection.

A more uplifting prospect was envisioned early in the twentieth century. Some thinkers looked at the sky and imagined free-floating cities in orbit around the Earth. Powered directly by the sun, they might operate independently of Earthly control.

But not until the 1970s was this vision translated into a plan. In 1969 Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill convened a freshman seminar to address the inspired question, as he later phrased it, "Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" The class researched the relevant facts and projections and calculated the answer to be a resounding NO. The research revealed crippling expenses associated with any form of big geology. Planets per se turn out to be uneconomical real estate for long-term development. O’Neill estimated, for example, that one-fourth of the energy consumed in the United States for transportation goes to fighting gravity and atmospheric drag. 

"A mass program of inner-voyaging will certainly shrivel into Ganges mysticism unless the visions can be precisely expressed in outer-space migration."

— Timothy Leary
Changing My Mind,
Among Others


In 1977 O’Neill published The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space an exposition that laid out the technical and cultural dimensions of space colonization. O’Neill went on to become chief spokesman for the merits of expanding humankind’s ecological range to include the orbital space around Earth. He imagined and developed detailed plans for autonomous encapsulated ecosystems, each a mile or so in diameter and housing communities of from one thousand to up to fifty thousand inhabitants. The space colonization movement that coalesced under O’Neill’s tutelage attracted unlikely cohorts, including conservative U. S. Senator Barry Goldwater and counterculture impresario Timothy Leary.

Despite the cheering of a handful of high-profile advocates, however, within a decade O'Neill’s vision came and went as a popular cause. Nonetheless, the central premise of The High Frontier remains cogent. It is the premise that the surface of a planet is not the most suitable real estate for a sprawling industrial civilization, let alone several of them. So far, few people of influence in the political arena or in the scientific community have been willing to pick up the torch and advance O'Neill's vision. But few endeavors could be more critical or timely. The bridge to space will have to be crossed, and better sooner than later.

Beyond the technical and political challenges lie others, including the need to come to terms with the biological effects of weightlessness. This seeming bugaboo turns out to be the environmental trigger for an evolutionary mutation that turns humans into angels. As long as weightlessness is seen as a problem to be mitigated, and normal Earth gravity a norm to be preserved, then space will always seem like a place in which humans are not supposed to be. Heaven beckons, but Mother Earth pulls back. 


Vintage 1970s toroidal space colony design, cutaway view, from studies conducted at NASA Ames.
A more recent design


Bodies in Space: Biology in the Colony


A potential problem with any space colonization or long-term spaceflight proposal is the atrophying of bodily tissues. "During space flight, bone minerals (calcium and phosphorus) and their support matrix are slowly lost. . . . Muscle atrophy [also] represents a significant biomedical problem with special implications for long-term space flight," researchers caution in a NASA life-sciences bulletin. The writers concede that even regimens of vigorous exercise, "do not arrest the progressive atrophy that continues throughout expeditions into zero gravity." It seems that deterioration of load-bearing tissues is an inevitable consequence of living in space long term. From the terrestrial point of view, this weakening and loss of tissue amounts to a pathology.

"The 'mechanical age,' which to some appears as the very negation of the soul, is, on the contrary, the age of supreme psychical achievement. Science and invention are for ever annexing fresh regions of the universe and subjecting them to the free play of our mental faculties. The process of bringing material things into subjection to our will is a process of sublimation, which does not drag us down to the dust, but raises up dust into the realms of immortal spirit."

— E. E. Fournier D'Albe
Hephaestus or the Soul of the Machine 

"We have already clarified the meanings of flight and ascension in folklore, in the history of religions, and in mysticism; and we were able to show that the imagery in question was always that of transcendence and freedom."

— Mircea Eliade
Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries.

O'Neill was aware of space's atrophying effects on certain bodily tissues, and to protect against them he proposed that orbiting cities should spin. Centrifugal effects then would simulate normal Earth gravity and hold things "down." The ground under one’s feet in an O'Neill-type colony would be the inside wall of the spinning structure. As one approached the axis of rotation, the "pole" of the colony, the sensation of gravity would lessen, and at the pole it essentially would disappear. O’Neill imagined zero-gravity resorts and sports arenas at the poles. Others promoting the cause advocated spas and honeymoon hotels.

O'Neill assumed that prospective space colonists would insist on some kind of simulated gravity. For one thing, the colonists might want to return to Earth—in which case they would need their bones and muscles to work normally. What O'Neill did not seem to anticipate was that native extraterrestrials—inhabitants born in the colonies—might have little interest in the ancestral haunts. The prospect of going permanently gravityless is rarely addressed in space-habitation scenarios. Even science-fiction writers tend to assume that our extraterrestrial descendants will want somehow to simulate the effects of gravity and preserve the terrestrial human form. The minds behind neither Star Trek nor Star Wars included in their fables any suggestion that freedom from the drag of gravity and the established human form might itself attract space settlers.

Native extraterrestrials might reject the McEarth model of the space colony, discard artificial gravity as an environmental kludge, and settle into their natural state of weightlessness. Any colony population that does so will discover something amazing and profound: that growing up weightless not only shrinks load-bearing skeletal and muscle tissues, but it simultaneously expands experience-bearing brain tissue. The current understanding of neurological development suggests that brain tissue will tend to hypertrophy, or bulk up, if it spends its formative years weightless. This is because brains are sensitive to and are programmed to adapt to their environments. This adaptability, a literal plasticity of the physical connections among the cells, the synapses, ought to predispose brains to develop with unusual vigor in weightlessness. Such enrichment should occur rapidly and show itself conspicuously already in the first generation of native extraterrestrials.

Released from the tether of gravity, brains are free to move their bearers in ways more varied and complex than possible on Earth, as NASA publicity footage shows. Extraterrestrial brains will have to become proficient at orienting and conducting their bearers dynamically in three dimensions. The familiar developmental milestones of childhood—rolling over, crawling, standing up, walking—will be eclipsed by the need to develop a repertoire of acrobatic competencies. Weightlessness essentially preserves intrauterine conditions, and will force extraterrestrial brains to tap resources that are left to spoil when brains develop normally on Earth.

Space brains will have to avail themselves of as much and as complex and dynamic a network of internal circuitry as they can muster to navigate in their spatially complex environments. A well-established body of research supports this contention of the star larvae hypothesis—the contention that as brains adapt to weightlessness they will evolve increasingly dense and baroque wiring and that this neurological enrichment will shape their experience in ways fundamentally alien to that of their Earthbound relatives. The enriching effects of weightlessness on brain development, and the impoverishing effects on other tissues, marks an evolutionary break, a metamorphosis of the human phenotype and sets the stage for the development of a posthuman species.

From Star Larvae @ http://www.starlarvae.org/Space_Brains_Space_Migration.html

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