The flap about space travel

October 17, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

(Spoiler alert!)

Why is the movie Gravity so scary to some people, and why are people in both sciences and the humanities discussing the movie in a focused fashion, picking at its details? I would argue that the movie Gravity serves as a metaphor for a shift in world views about what is possible and sustainable in terms of our high-tech society. The discussion here of space travel allows me to continue my fall theme of illustrating emergy principles using science-fiction blockbuster movies. The movie also provides an opportunity to illustrate the emergy basis of space travel, and to suggest a metaphor between the failures of technology in the movie and the unsustainability of our modern civilization. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Gravity yet, there are spoilers ahead.

The astronomical emergy basis of space travel

Many people from different disciplines are discussing the issue of space travel and the movie. The flap about space travel started even before the release of the movie Gravity, with a reference by Kevin Carson to Buckminster Fuller’s optimism about the future of space travel. One point that Carson highlighted was the potential benefit of satellite technology in a sustainable future, as a much more efficient and effective means of communication than transoceanic cables:

“The classic example, from Buckminster Fuller, is replacing a transoceanic cable system embodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each” (Carson, 2013).

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Low Earth Orbit Space Junk, via ESOC

Our earlier assumptions about how energy flows through society and what the real energy basis of an object or process is can create blind spots. What is the real emergy basis of a network of satellites? The network is supported by the research and advanced tech wisdom of an advanced country that can put satellites in orbit. A country’s satellites are supported by intensive research, a highly educated work force, a advanced system of manufacture, a wealthy government with surplus energy (proxied as funds) to direct to exploration, along with the sheer volume of waste heat coming out of the tails of these rockets, and the continuing surplus energy to support these systems. Contrast that with a boat laying cable, and one begins to see the difference in complexity and energy hierarchy between the two. The former is not sustainable without sustained energy inputs at the previous level, in addition to increasing maintenance, cleanup demands, and energy inputs, which become an extra burden as time goes on, since pollution increases over time. Who absorbs the other costs of high-tech pollution over time as overshoot creates more and more pollution? What we see with Fukushima, space waste and elsewhere is that eventually a failing government without resources to deal with it is left holding the bag. Or we muck things up even further in the case of climate change and our “solution” of geoengineering. Eventually Mother Nature is left to clean up the problem over a long period. A model run below from Limits to Growth (1972) illustrates the problem of pollution when we try to rely on intensive technology as the solution to our energy woes. The frame on the right below illustrates what happens to society when we attempt to solve problems through extensive use of technology.

Image Removed A. Perez-Carmona from Meadows et al., 1972 LTG

Intensive technology requires the intensive use of energy. In descent, the energy inputs to space travel become too costly relative to other more basic needs in other parts of the system. In the United States, what’s NASA’s budget like these days–how much longer can our bankrupt country afford space exploration? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and embodied energy is more than just the weight of metal. It is a common blind spot. If we don’t see the true energy basis of things, we can believe that tech is free–our minds play leapfrog over steps in the energy hierarchy and don’t see the energy memory or emergy basis. Until recently, many people viewed space travel as the future of civilization. Because of this energy-blind hope for future space travel, Odum took the time to calculate the emergy basis of space travel, and to compare it to a simulated closed system, Biosphere 2, to suggest what is necessary for colonization of space.

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Human Emergy Support (Adapted from Odum, 2007, p. 211)

In the table above, standards of living are estimated from the annual emergy use per person. The Empower density in the second column is the total annual empower in flow of solar emcalories per year divided by the land area. The empower share in the third column is the annual empower in solar emcalories per year divided by the human population. This measure serves as an index of real wealth. Rural people who have low density but who are supported by diverse ecosystems may have empower share that is as high as those people in enriched economic centers. People living in crowded areas without resources have little real wealth. Because of high-quality fossil fuel support, people in the United States experience much higher empower flows. The Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona was a closed system similar to a space capsule, except the support systems were close by on earth.

“The emergy of support required per person in a space capsule is many times higher than that on Earth and much more than can be obtained from solar energy captured by a space ship. Emergy required for support in the NASA Skylab was 94,000 times larger than required for a US citizen on Earth . . . The emergy required to operate the rainforest life support area in Biosphere 2 was 2,300 times larger than that used by the natural rainforest from which many trees were seeded. . . Without energy reserves societies are limited by the dilute nature of solar energy, which has to be concentrated many times to support high-transformity humans . . . The emergy required for astronauts in space is too large for self-sufficient space colonization” (Odum, 2007, p. 215).

Anxiety of the technophiles?

The recent comments by David Brin (author of The Postman and other science fiction) and Neil De Grasse Tyson about scientific errors in the movie are focused on close scrutiny of small details in a work of fiction, suggesting a narrowed perceptual field, perhaps, from the technophile scientists who have a vested interest in high-tech space travel. The focus on details suggests a blind spot about the big picture for space travel. According to Brin:

“Now… if only we take the hint. Stop the petty squabbling over picayune inanities that enemies of civilization want us to fight over. Resume being a forward-looking people who take seriously our duty to future generations. And who see the universe as beckoning us. Forward” (Contrary Brin, October 9, 2013).

I guess that must make me an enemy of civilization, then. I must also be excluded from the list of Very Serious People, because I consider that our duty to future generations is to leave an ecologically sound planet that future generations can exist on. All of this high-tech optimism regarding space travel flies in the face of the true emergy basis of a person in space. Other barriers to a beckoning universe besides an astronomical emergy basis include an admission this month from NASA that the danger of excessive radiation exposure during prolonged, manned space travel, even to nearby Mars, remains “the elephant in the room.”

Movie as metaphor

The movie Gravity can be viewed in many ways as a metaphor for the unsustainability of modern society.

  • The many views of earth as a small blue marble in the background heighten our understanding of the fragile nature of the biosphere–this phenomenon has been described by many astronauts (see the movie at the end of this post)
  • Along the way, the astronauts experience mortal limits to the most essential basic need that is fundamental to life–oxygen
  • There are themes of death and rebirth for Bullock’s emotionally and physically disconnected character
  • The increasing impacts of pollution are a big part of the plot—space junk sets up and continues the plot mechanisms in the movie several times, as the gift that keeps on giving
  • The astronauts are helpless and vulnerable in space—the only way to get down alive is to leapfrog a chain of failing, exploding refuges, from a failing space shuttle, to one space station, to another failing space station, ending in decaying orbital trajectories of various space stations, astronauts, and abandoned space junk burning up on reentry in a fireball of atmospheric drag. What better metaphor for our unsustainable high-tech society than this scenario? As nonrenewable energy production wanes, much of our high-tech society will either decay slowly over time, or increasingly burn in quicker conflagrations of war and other forms of destruction. Our two choices in our high-tech society are to continue to attempt to use technology to ramp up empower (the maximization of power flow) or to contract gracefully within the limits of energy descent. As the movie illustrates, the effects of the space-junk-by-products of high-tech society–its pollution–become a cascade of failing systems that endanger life
  • That even a single member of the space team survives (Bullock’s character) is fairly miraculous. The closing shots of the movie show her clutching terra firma in the glorious mud of some un-named beach. What is the eventual outcome for a society that is overly dependent on highly transformed technology in an increasingly dangerous environment?
  • The astronauts aloft are heavily dependent on digital communication with ground control for support, which is cutoff for almost the entire movie. Bullock’s character evokes helplessness and loneliness at the personal scale as a result, which is reflected at the larger global scale as our blue marble floats behind her within a vast backdrop of space. The movie mirrors the tenuous nature of our digital second life in modern society, and feeds into our anxieties about losing touch in a society that is already disconnected physically and spiritually from its environment and from each other

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Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1560s

The movie Gravity serves as a metaphor for our unsustainable society. Space travel is a symbol of the most extreme desires of our high-tech society, and the movie echoes the classic parable of the Fall of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. The movie suggests a possible direction for our high-tech society as its orbital trajectory fails during energy descent, complicated by too much pollution. In the future, we may no longer be able to view space as the last frontier, attainable through intergalactic space travel. I would like to know if any of this was going through Alfonso Cuarón’s head as he directed this movie. Does the chatter about this movie show unseen blind spots and denial of a looming cultural shift in our WEIRD world view? There seem to be a lot of elephants in the room these days.

Header Art by Ben Whitesell, and the 19-minute video below from Planetary Collective is well worth your time

Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: Emergy, EROEI, space flight