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Has Humanity Already Shot Their (Space) Bolt

no flycars, no moon bases, no Men on Mars
by Mark Mortimer
Ottawa - Jun 30, 2003
The 1960's was an euphoric decade for space enthusiasts. Starting from almost nothing a program to carry members of humanity to Earth's Moon was designed and built. After this great step, the subsequent decade saw not only the end of human travel to outer-space but another less glamorous but more telling event.

This event was the peak in conventional oil production for the United States. Activities in space require an inordinate amount of direct energy (i.e. launches) and indirect energy (i.e. launch technicians commuting to work).

Without allocating another significant amount of the earth's resources and especially energy to space endeavours there will be no settlements in space nor precious little for space enthusiasts to be happy about.

What does a peak in conventional oil production have to do with human space settlement? First, let's consider the value of oil. In a nutshell, oil enables more and more people on Earth to expect and get more and more resources for their daily living whether watching plasma televisions, commuting to work in SUV's or flying to business meetings.

The production, distribution and operation of the devices used in these activities rely predominantly on energy derived from oil. Oil and other nonrenewable resources have been consumed at an exponential rate since the start of the industrial age. The most significant per capita consumption occurs in North America and Europe.

Yet, for example, the United States since 1970 has had a decreasing oil production. They are not an isolated case. Nonrenewable resources are being depleted all across the globe. Educated estimates for the occurrence of global peak production is somewhere between the years 2005 to 2010. At some moment during this time the amount of oil being produced worldwide will begin inexorably to shrink.

What exasperates this scenario further is that the 'cheap' energy sources are already almost completely used. Just look at the oil industry in Texas. At one time this oil was near the surface and close to market. Now, it is all but consumed.

The estimated profit factor for extracting oil during the 1940's was about 100 (i.e. It takes one unit of energy to extract 100 units of energy of oil). The factor for oil discovered today is at or less than 10.

A tiny fraction of energy comes from renewable resources yet these have a profit factor of 3 or less except for a few instances from geothermal and hydroelectric sources. With more and more energy being used just to extract energy there is relatively less and less available for use in people's daily lives.

Even though the production of oil has peaked in the United States and is nearing a peak world wide, the usage of oil/energy has not peaked. In the United States, both the per capita energy consumption and the population continues to increase.

This trend is repeated for almost all countries except for a few that have diminishing populations. None have a decrease in energy usage. The net result of this increasing consumption of oil/energy coupled with a peak in the production of nonrenewable resources is an increased allocation of energy resources to maintain people's standard of living and a decrease of energy resources for research or infrastructure especially on the scale of a space settlement.

A somewhat overly-optimistic estimate of 10 to 25 years is needed to en place a colony on the moon. Upon completion this lunar base would facilitate further expansion into space. Commensurate with its completion would be a considerable addition to humanity's knowledge base.

However, this space settlement would not improve people's standard of living nor provide an appreciable source of energy. Rather, depleting the earth's dwindling energy resources to the tune of $100B US to $500B US would have an immediate detrimental effect on people's standard of living.

Even more challenging is that this base or any space settlement would be constructed either when oil peak production occurs or more likely after it occurs. People's standard of living will be decreasing due to the decrease in nonrenewable resources, I expect they will be loath to give up more of their standard of living for the minimal short term benefit of a lunar colony or any other space settlement.

I would like to think that humanity's future is brighter than the dim picture portrayed above. Maybe people will devise an energy source that would permit the continual increase of the standard of living of an every increasing population. Even better, this new energy source would have a surplus to allow for continual research and infrastructure development including space settlements.

However, without this new source I think people will be putting more and more effort into maintaining their existing standard of living and less and less on building for the future. The bolt that was the Apollo program may have been humanity's one and only opportunity to shoot out to space.

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NASA Must Adopt An Economic Development Mindset
San Clemente - Jun 25, 2003
We have sacrificed seven brave explorers and billions in taxpayers' dollars on our un-focused and vacillating "on again - off again" space effort. NASA and its cartel of large aerospace companies that dominate the American space "market" are trapped. They have traded leadership and accomplishment for institutional survival and the extraction of a paltry annuity from aged technology. Are they still capable of leading us to the high frontier?



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