Sunday, December 15, 2013

Space Station Logic Applied to Spaceship Earth

The International Space Station, orbiting above earth, has a problem. One of its cooling systems has failed. The astronauts responded in a refreshingly rational way. According to the AP report, they "dimmed the lights, turned off unnecessary equipment", and will take action over the next couple weeks to repair the cooling system. Even in space, where the outside temperature is -454 degrees F, cooling is a big deal. Extremetech reported that "Fortunately, there is a redundant cooling system, otherwise the six-person crew would be quickly bailing out and heading back to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule before being cooked alive."

It's important to have a safe place in the universe to return to if the space station were to fail. Unfortunately, the earth has its own cooling problem. To keep its overall temperature steady, it needs to dissipate as much energy as continuously pours in from the sun. But the cooling mechanism has begun to malfunction, because we've altered the atmosphere with all the extra molecules we're pumping up into it from underground. Our neighboring planet, Venus, is 900 degrees F not so much because it's closer to the sun but because the atmosphere is so dense with heat trapping molecules--the same ones we're adding. That the molecules are invisible is part of their power. They seem harmless, but it is in their nature to let sunlight in while trapping heat headed out--the massive increase in their numbers is catching more and more of the earth's heat before it can dissipate out into space.

The heat buildup is not causing us to be baked alive, but it's enough to cause a gradual breakdown in the planet's critical systems. Unlike the cooling malfunction on the spaceship, which can be fixed by switching out some components, the earth's predicament has a momentum that builds with each passing day. Procrastination is the enemy; a last minute fix will be impossible. In addition, even if everyone on earth could jump in a billion Soyuz space capsules and abandon the planet, there's nowhere to go.

Space station logic dictates the obvious solution for earth--take immediate action to power down as much as possible so the problem doesn't get worse, all the while powering up with energy sources that won't harm the planet.

But earth logic doesn't work that way. If earth logic were applied onboard the space station, the astronauts would debate whether the warning signal on the dashboard was politically motivated. Or they might not talk about it at all because it's too depressing. They'd bridle at the inconvenience of reducing their power use, even temporarily. Instead of fixing the cooling mechanism, they might think the breakdown is too daunting to fix, or is God's will, and invest instead in dubious plans for somehow surviving the calamity when the other cooling mechanism also fails.

The space station has been controversial. Because it's so hard to keep people alive in the hostile environment of space, manned missions are far more expensive than using robots. The station's scientific value has been questioned, and it tends to transform astronauts from heroic adventurers into plumbers or, in this case, AC repairmen.

There is, however, one very important service the space station could provide humanity, as a demonstration of how to live within our means. While we on earth have seemingly unlimited supplies of energy and water streaming into our homes through wires and pipes, the astronauts must live within a strict energy and water budget. The station literally harvests today's energy--produced by the sun only eight minutes prior--to run its machines. Without the star-crossed option of raiding the earth's long buried stores of fossil carbon energy, the astronauts must make do with the 75-90 kilowatts of energy their one acre solar array captures. Rather than depending on nature to continually supply more water, most of which goes down the drain unused, the station is designed to use most of its water over and over again.

The astronauts, then, are directly responsible for harvesting the energy they use, and face immediate consequences if they misuse the energy and water available. We tend to think that the astronauts are living the fantasy life up in space, but they live in a world of responsibility and consequence that is far more reality-based that ours.

About the malfunctioning cooling system, a space station spokesman said, "the problem may eventually be serious, but is not an emergency at the moment." Out in space, a problem that "is not an emergency" gets immediate attention nonetheless. Worst case scenarios are taken seriously. The stakes are too high to procrastinate or hope for the best. We, too, live on a spaceship--the best ever fashioned. If we learn from the astronauts' example and adopt space logic in our own lives and policies, then what began as a fantasy of space travel will have paid unexpected dividends, by speeding our journey back to reality here on spaceship earth.

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