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Save the Planet, it’s the only one we’ve got… or is it?

May 3, 2009

On this blog, we’ve discussed how current fisheries practices are completely unsustainable, because we are simply taking too many fish from the oceans. We’ve also discussed how we can’t just stop fishing because too many humans need the food.

We’ve  discussed the energy crisis, and how the present methods our civilization uses to power our lives are destroying the planet through emissions that cause global warming. We’ve also discussed the fact that people need energy.

We’ve discussed how some current mining practices, such as top-mining, are an environmental catastrophe. However, it is undeniable that we need the minerals that come from mining.

Many more problems are facing the world today. There simply isn’t enough room for all the people we have, and there are more people every day (and less room for them because of sea level rise). Many people today simply don’t have enough fresh water to drink, and thousands die each day from this– a problem that is only getting worse as population increases. The present economic crisis, one of the worst of all time, means that in addition to millions being out of work, governments don’t have money for solutions to these problems.

Things look pretty grim…. but is there any kind of solution that can solve all of these problems at once? A universal solution, as it were (pardon the pun)?

To find it, we need to think well outside of the box. In fact, we need to look in a whole new direction.

A scene from Roswell, image courtesy

A scene from "Roswell", image courtesy

If you didn’t catch it, yes, I am suggesting that we look to outer space to solve these problems. I really hope that I have earned enough of your respect that you are still reading… or that I’ve at least made you curious enough to read on.

Here we go:

Space technology can make starvation a thing of the past, and also make overfishing unnecessary, by providing more than enough food for the entire population of humans. A NASA study from the 90’s found that an algae called Spirulina grows EXTREMELY rapidly in zero gravity, high sunlight conditions… the exact kind of conditions that you find in high orbit above Earth. This algae is ALREADY a dietary staple in parts of Southeast Asia, and with very slight genetic modification could be a stand alone food source. It could also be fed to crustaceans like crabs, who ALSO grow extremely rapidly in zero gravity conditions. We’re not even talking about advanced technology here- we’re talking about big glass spheres full of salt water. The only technology involved is getting the spheres to and from orbit, and we’ll get to that later. I’ve tried Spirulina and it’s not terribly tasty, but it sure as hell beats starving to death, and with mass production it’ll be as cheap as any other food staple.

Processed spirulina, from

Processed spirulina, from

Space technology can provide more than enough energy for everything that a growing population of people could possibly want to use energy for. There is a lot of talk today about “alternative energy”, and one of the most common methods discussed is solar power. However, Earth-based solar power has serious limitations. The sun’s energy doesn’t all make it to the surface of the planet. According to Princeton Physicist Gerard O’Neil, surface-based solar power is approximately 1% efficient, while photovoltaic cells orbiting Earth are almost 90% efficient. This energy can be transmitted as microwaves to Earth-based receivers without losing much power, and despite how scary that sounds, SCIENTISTS SAY THAT TRANSMITTING ENERGY AS DIFFUSE MICROWAVES IS COMPLETELY HARMLESS. It is not bad for the atmosphere, it is not bad for people, and it is not bad for any organisms that happens to pass through the path of the energy. The only environmental impact is placing large microwave receivers in the desert, but this is less of an impact than the solar arrays already there. Most importantly, a few large orbital solar arrays could provide far more power than all of the coal power plants on Earth.

Space based solar array, image courtest

Space based solar array, image courtest

The power associated with space technology can also provide more than enough drinking water to quench a growing population’s thirst, and make dying from dehydration or water-borne disease nothing bad a bad memory. While 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, 97% of that water is in the oceans! Desalination technology, making sea water into drinkable fresh water, is presently prohibitively expensive. However, one of the biggest associated expenses is energy, and the enormous amount of energy from space-based solar power can make the cost more than reasonable.

Resources harvested by space technology can provide enough money to get us out of this global recession, and can in fact take humanity to new levels of prosperity. According to experts such as Milennial Society founder Marshall Savage, the moon has, at present market value, over $400 trillion worth of Silicon. Much of it wouldn’t really require mining so much as scooping and sorting moon dust. The asteroid belt has, among other things, hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of titanium (again, present market value). Obviously this much of a product entering the market would change the value, but you get the point- there are a TON of extremely valuable resources there for the taking. The expanding space industry would require both of these elements(silicon and titanium) in large quantities… and by some estimates, taxing this lucrative industry 1% would generate enough revenue to provide public education (through grad school) and cradle to grave health care for every man, woman, and child in the human race. If we tax this industry a little more, we could also pay for everything else that all world governments currently pay for, thus eliminating the need to tax anything or anyone else. That’s how valuable the resources in space are.

A hypothetical asteroid mining operation, image courtesy

A hypothetical asteroid mining operation, image courtesy

Space technology can, EVENTUALLY, provide humanity with all the living space we could ever want. This won’t happen anytime soon, but all I’m sayin’ is that it’s a big universe. We don’t need to overpopulate this planet. We can go somewhere else.

The biggest logistical problem with all of this is getting to and from space. Right now, there is no cheap way to accomplish that goal… but we’re making great progress! Several years, ago, the Ansari X Prize of $10 million was awarded to Spaceship one, the first private spacecraft to take off from Earth, reach “space” (100 km above the surface), land, return to space a few days later, and land again. Here’s the best part: one solution to this problem can be applied to all of these potential benefits! Once we have a working model, it can be used for transporting mining equipment and mined silicon as easily as it can be used for transported space-grown Spirulina.

Space Ship One, image courtest

Space Ship One, image courtesy

But who will pay for all of this? Not you! No space technology advocates are calling for a single taxpayer dollar to be spent on this. There are already plenty of people willing to invest money in these projects. If my arguments don’t convince you that this is feasible and that there is money to be made here, perhaps this list of space technology investors will: Jeff Bezos (Founder,, and billionaire), Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder, billionaire) ,Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic Airlines founder, billionaire),  John Carmack (Video game entrepreneur and creator of “Doom”, multi-millionare), Elon Musk (Paypal founder, multi-millionaire), and many more. These people know where there is a profit to be made, and they aren’t alone. The founder of a successful hotel chain is investing in low-orbit space hotels, which will theoretically be marketed for the honeymoon crowd (and I’ve heard tell that certain elite Universities would be willing to invest money in this to create a “study abroad in space” program). Dozens of aerospace and mining companies are also investing in this kind of technology, as well as thousands and thousands of smaller private investors. The money to get this going is there, and it won’t cost you a cent.

Why don’t we do it then? Space technology advocates aren’t seeking money from the government. They are seeking PERMISSION to get going. None of this is happening because of an obscure cold-war era law that limits how much non-government entities can do in space. It’s already been relaxed for communications satellites, but many restrictions are still in place.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I fervently believe that humanity’s future lies in the stars, and I am not alone! Other than the brilliant, visionary engineers and entrepreneurs I have already quoted, many others support this worthy goal. Chief among these advocates  is the smartest man on the planet, Stephen Hawking. There are also entire organizations of advocates. My favorite is the Space Frontier Foundation. The National Space Society and the Moon Society also have lots to add to the conversation.

In summary: Food provided by space technology holds the key to eliminating hunger, and to saving the oceans by eliminating the need for overfishing. Energy provided by space technology can power a growing population of human beings, and do so without harming the planet. This energy can also power desalination and save the lives of millions of people. Harvesting the resources from our solar system can bring the human race to a new levels of prosperity… and  can eventually even lead to new homes for our civilization.

Also…Longtime readers may recall that one of my first posts asked you to list some of the reasons why humans fight wars. Some of the reasons we came up with were limited resources (food, water, energy), the desire to expand territory, and the desire to take a rich neighbor’s mineral wealth. So in addition to all of the above benefits, we’ll also eliminate or reduce some of the most common reasons that people go to war.

Do any of you really believe that we are better off keeping an outdated cold-war era law on the books than we would be if we let humanity take it’s natural course and expand to the stars? We are not asking ANYONE to sacrifice ANYTHING to make these things happen. All we’re asking is that you don’t get in the way.


28 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2009 12:07 am

    Excellent post, and I’ve never heard of a lot of that. I certainly agree that the private sector is how we’ll take our first steps to space colonization, and that it’s necessary. I also agree that orbiting solar power is easily the best solution to our energy problems.

    On a more “moral” or “principled” note, I would really hate to see advertising reflected off the moon, like some company (I forget which) attempted last year.

    Spirulina, though I’ve never tried it, is a really fantastic idea. I feed my Colisa lalia (by now, I’m wishing I knew the difference between XHTML and standard HTML so I can italicize scientific names in here) a mix of what’s labeled brine shrimp and Spirulina, and it smells pretty rank. Kudos to you for trying Spirulina.

    Thanks for the post, and thanks for being a conservation/environmentalist advocate that gives alternatives instead of just telling everyone what NOT to do.

  2. May 4, 2009 7:49 am

    For all the money that goes into space exploration instead of ocean exploration, we SHOULD do something with it to help our planet. These are all GREAT ideas! (Of course my idea was to take all the people who don’t care about the environment, and ship them off to the moon).

    Kudos to referencing Roswell- I used to love that show!

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 4, 2009 10:43 am

      My roomie has me watching Roswell, and I definitely admit I’m hooked.

      • May 4, 2009 9:44 pm

        On DVD???

      • whysharksmatter permalink*
        May 4, 2009 9:45 pm


    • May 5, 2009 6:22 am

      Allie, I am glad to see that you see merit in space colonisation. We at Space Renaissance Initative believe that, while the planet per se is NOT in danger, human(e) civilisation most certainly is – both from current and looming woes, and the solutions to them currently on offer from the “Establishment” . Sending those who do not care about the environment to the Moon, if I may say so without offending you, somewhat misses the point.

      One reason we should send people, assets and industries to the Moon and elsewhere is precisely in order to benefit our planet- but, not only that, to preserve and develop human(e) civilisation itself. There are many planets (360 and counting) but, so far as we know, only one Mindful civilisation extant at present in our Galaxy. We therefore are almost infintely precious, and so have a responsibility to play a “long” game.

      The other, more positive one, is that the evolution of Mind, in the shape of H. Sapiens, has only just begun, and requires Time and Space for its fruition. Earth , simply, does not offer them. Even the most correct “Green” civilisation on Earth is unsustainable in a Darwinian sense- there are any number of ways Mother Nature can snuff us out by sheer caprice- and, if we fail to spread outwards, we will, I feel, have definitively failed some kind of Cosmic Imperative, and deserve to perish. Nature abhors a fool more than she does a vacuum.
      Being a grandfather myself , I reject such a fate unreservedly.

      Human nature being what it is, if we do not have an open future on a new frontier, our future will be written by Thomas Malthus, ably assisted by George Orwell. While Humanity might, technically, survive life in a closed world, the game will not be worth the candle!!

      If you are not repelled altogether by my musings, you might type into Google
      “Can Space Save the Planet?” and/or “Space Renaissance Initiative” where, among other things you would find a more comprehensive answer.

      My ideas are strange today but will I suspect be common sense to our grand children- should any reach the Age of Reason…

      “Earth is the Cradle of Mind- but one does not live in the Cradle forever!” – K. Tsiolkovsky.

      “Man belongs wherever a keen eye, quick wits, and a strong right arm can take him!” my own “quote”.
      Yours sincerely,
      Dr Michael Martin-Smith, physician, writer, astronomer, and adventurer

  3. May 4, 2009 10:00 am

    You totally missed the Japanese proposal to build a space elevator using nanocarbon cables.

    I now demand an apology, retraction, and recognition of my superior intellect.

  4. May 4, 2009 11:22 pm

    What astounds me is that so few people in the general population are aware that the private sector is in a space race that will out do any such endeavors of the past. What astounds me even more is that too many teachers are stuck teaching the past rather than embracing technology and the future of this planet through education.
    What say thee?

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 5, 2009 10:58 am

      Astronaut teacher, I too am shocked at how few people realize this is going on. That’s what I was hoping to change, little by little, with this post. I hope that you will tell your friends at the spaceport academy- I would like lots of people to join in this discussion.

      As far as teachers… most of the ones “teaching the past” are history teachers. It’s kind of their job description to teach the past. Sadly, most school curricula lack current events. I personally think that most students would benefit from a “here’s a bunch of stuff going on in the world today” class, but lots of them never get the chance to take such a class.

  5. May 4, 2009 11:32 pm

    As a political consultant, I agree that we need to think well outside of the box.

    One topic in two focus groups with older “non-space persons I moderated was Ray Kurzweil’s singularity (or something similar). The oldsters got it – do you? – that things in future space will not be how we see them today. How much of our research – and your thinking – takes into account that space programs hundreds of years off won’t be about humans in space suits or capsules that we work on today?

    Engineering obstacles to space endeavors will be overcome. They will be delayed, however, by political and economic realities on Earth. For example, SPSP (space-based solar power) could provide all the energy we’d need but public interest now turns to shorter-term earth-based energy alternatives. Similar shorter-term political-economic patterns occur regarding agricultural and other needs.

    Our space program and space industry are business-modeled on what they can do tomorrow to justify investing in them today. These efforts are needed but often don’t provide a long view. Hey, work for these programs but if you really want futuristic space endeavors, think realistically beyond them!

    We must reach broader audiences with substantial space education to make the case for the advantages of space to be achieved sooner. Additionally, until we reprogram our thinking about space, much of the engineering will become obsolete before it can be used. We must commit to a future paradigm to make the big difference in the exciting lives in space our descendants can have.

    Tom Diffenbach

    • May 5, 2009 6:40 am

      Sadly, while we have great technical skills, we have less moral sense than the builders of the Great Pyramids of Egypt! Starting with Imhotep and Zozer, through Sneferu, Khufu , Khafra and Menkaure a magical relationship between man and the stars was forged from 31 million tons of stone, for ends which were well in the future of most of its builders, without regard for short term gain or profit.

      Contrary to Herodotus, we now know that the workers were not slaves, but a well motivated and well fed elite, and were, moreover, Egyptian to a man ( not martian) These works were an act of Faith, providing, in magical terms, a launchpad for the deceased Pharaoh to the Land of the Gods, where he could win wisdom, and aid , for his subjects from the gods, of whom he would be a member.

      Our task is to send people to the stars and celestial regions, for knowledge and the ultimate good and development of all Humankind in an evolving Cosmos. What Old Egypt did by magic, we must do by science and technology. We of today however need to ally faith to construction and profit. It is time for Faith not only to move mountains, but to build them.

      This is a goal Imhotep would have understood clearly, however much our means and jargon would have baffled him!

      He would however, find our lack of moral strength sufficient to build for a distant future somewhat disappointing, and our devotion to shortterm profit debilitating…as do some of us.

      • whysharksmatter permalink*
        May 5, 2009 11:05 am

        “find our lack of moral strength sufficient to build for a distant future somewhat disappointing, and our devotion to shortterm profit debilitating…as do some of us.”

        I don’t really care why people are initially motivated to invest in space technology. Regardless of why they do it, the benefits will reach us all soon enough.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 5, 2009 11:02 am

      I agree with the general principle you’re saying, Tom, but I do think that we can get started on investing in space technology before we completely reinvent our society’s moral code. Humans living on other planets, which won’t happen for quite some time, requires such a societal reinvention. I don’t think that solar energy or mining do.

      • May 5, 2009 11:41 am

        We agree. I didn’t say space projects must wait. I also didn’t say that we must first reinvent a moral code.

        We do need more out-of-the-box, visionary, and realistic thinking. Many space advocates are stuck in decades-old achievements.

        Thanks for commenting and keep up the good work.

      • whysharksmatter permalink*
        May 5, 2009 11:43 am

        Sorry if I misinterpreted your words.

  6. May 5, 2009 11:36 am

    genetically modified space algae gives me the creeps… I love the microwave idea but I still think that we are not consuming because we need (west) we are consuming because we want. This poses a mental an spiritual problem, not necesarrily a question of physical needs. We waste so much more than we consume… how much food did you throw out of your fridge this week?

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 5, 2009 11:44 am

      Sure, we’re using TONS more energy than we need.

      I don’t really expect that to change anytime soon, though, so we might as well generate energy in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet.

  7. journowl permalink
    May 6, 2009 10:18 pm

    Here we have problem solving at its best! This is exactly the type of thinking needed for societal progression, but I just can’t get the human condition for greed out of my mind. Since the morality topic has been breached, I do hope that space cultivation will eventually spark `togetherness’ but I fear our species will continue the status quo. Perhaps it is simply my frame of reference (dwindling fisheries, whaling, poaching, pushing species to extinction, etc.) that is bringing out my inner pessimist. But, as David pointed out, “…the benefits will reach us all soon enough” and that is exactly why concerned individuals must continue to advocate change.

    To end on a space, or shall I say, universal note, we should embrace the wisdom of Spock:

    “The good of the many outweigh the good of the few.”


  8. May 6, 2009 11:08 pm

    We are actually doing it. Take a look at OpenLuna. We are working to build a lunar outpost using OpenSource techniques (Read Anyone who is inclined can help – there will be moderation – and all of the resultant data and technology will be openly and freely available.) and private funding.

    We will create cheap access to space, provide technology and equipment that anyone can use, and hopefully inspire some young Scientists and Engineers. It would be nice to let them know there is a life beyond the Auto industry and video games.

    In any case, We are going, We are doing it an order of magnitude cheaper than anyone else, and we both need your help, and will help you.

    Paul Graham
    Project Manager,
    OpenLuna Foundation.
    “Because we’ve waited long enough!”

    Your Moon, Your Mission, Get involved!

  9. Craig Nazor permalink
    May 11, 2009 1:59 am

    I am a firm believer in science and technology, but more often than not, humans commit themselves to technology before they have thought through the consequences. I know that sometimes life calls for bold decisions, but there also is a place for caution.

    Beaming massive amounts of microwaves through the atmosphere is totally harmless? Well, maybe… but when I was a kid, well-know scientists were telling us that nuclear energy would make electricity “too cheap to meter!” They hadn’t factored in entropy.

    I am referring to the second law of thermodynamics. Even those who know a lot about this (that would not be me) will tell you that this is a really mind-boggling concept. What it says is that all closed systems tend toward randomness (which can often be equated with pollution), and the more energy that is expended (and this can be measured in the form of creating “organization”), an equal or greater amount of randomness (pollution) is always created.

    At the height of the Roman Empire, there was an energy (wood) shortage. The Romans had cut down all the trees in Italy, and wood had to be shipped in from further and further away at greater and greater expense, which helped in the collapse of that civilization. A thousand years later, humans found the uses for oil and fossil fuels (a far more powerful source of energy than burning wood), and we are now coming to the end of that form of energy because of the randomness (pollution) it has created, particularly as it becomes more energy intensive to find and extract. Nuclear energy, which is even more powerful still, creates even more randomness (pollution) in its production, and we have wisely not put all our eggs in that basket (yet).

    Our system (the earth) is basically closed because we sit at the bottom of a great big gravity well that sucks all our created randomness (pollution) about our ears, and we have to live in it.

    Technology will only help us if it is more efficient in converting the energy of the sun into useful energy, and this includes the entire process, including extracting materials, transporting materials, assembling materials, and eventually disposing of those materials in a way that creates the least randomness (pollution), as well as efficiently transporting the energy to where it is used. Nature has come closest to solving this problem through maximum efficiency – just look at the efficiency of chlorophyll, as seen in the climax rainforest, or a tropical coral reef. Everything is balanced and recycled. Such complexity, such organization, and such EFFICIENCY!

    Whatever we do, I believe we have the proper path staring us in the face in the ecosystems around us, but I’m afraid the mundane answers in plain view often run in the face of human nature’s reach for the novel and exotic. There was a time when Arthur C. Clark’s space elevator (from The Fountains of Paradise, 1979) excited my imagination, but the opportunity to create all kinds of entropy from that technology (the structural problems are not yet solved) are very great. I am now more excited by how I can personally do everything more efficiently and leave a smaller energy footprint. I actually agree more and more with Pete Seeger’s idea (I know, he’s not a scientist) that the world will be saved (if it is saved at all) by a million little things.

    Just like the rainforest or the coral reef.

    Whatever we do (direct solar, bio-fuels from algae, tidal power generation, or solar panels in outer space, to name a few), we need to look at the ENTIRE energy footprint, from start to finish, before we let the hounds of (not so) free enterprise run with it. Once the corporations get big and greedy, they will do anything to resist change, and this includes resisting efficiency.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense to anyone else, and I am certainly not trying to rain on anyone’s birthday cake, but believe there may be something to it.

  10. May 18, 2009 9:45 am

    This post has been selected as part of the Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival. See it here:

  11. peirce proctor permalink
    August 22, 2009 3:40 pm

    we can save the planet by poluting the earth not so much

  12. August 24, 2009 6:01 am

    The planet is not actually at risk- it has survived natural disasters far greater than we can inflict ourselves- the planet- and life have survived. What is at danger is human civilisation, especially one endowed with freedom of thought , and aspiration. Tyranny and dictatorship are greater and proven dangers! Planets ( 350 and counting), in any case, are far commoner than civilisations ( only one known for sure, thus far)

    A humane civilsation would NOT survive a major Ice Age, cosmic impacts, supervolcanism or a Gamma Ray Burst; only a civilisation dispersed beyond Earth would be immune from a mass extinction event. The potential wealth in energy and raw materials, and convertible habitats for a dsipersed human civilsation is almost incalculabe- not Malthusian or Orwellian scenarios required…
    A frightening prospect for some?

  13. September 5, 2009 2:58 pm

    It is marked, that as we begin to map the limits to the known universe. We have just begun to understand the limits of the planet; we rely on for the continued survival of all dependent species.

  14. Dennis permalink
    September 14, 2009 10:40 am

    What regulations? I’d be really interested in specifics. I know the FAA is slow in certifying vehicles, and the Outer Space Treaty could be a problem for asteroid miners and such…what else?

  15. January 28, 2010 4:34 pm

    Luv it. Luv it. Luv it! I need to get you a space station solar panel pic. (see link below). Well said. And thanks for being a dreamer. You’re not the only one!

  16. January 28, 2010 6:07 pm

    You might like this:

    “It’s time to drill up!”


  1. 62 Mile Club » Saving the Planet– Using Space

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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


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