Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, July 26, 2019

The real reason why we didn't go back to the Moon: The decline of spaceflight

With the massive onslaught of fake news we are subjected to, a particularly obnoxious one is that the Moon landings never took place. It is not just a fashionable idiocy, it is a symptom that the whole Western society is rotting at the core.

In a way, the spreading of the "Moon landing was a hoax" legend was to be expected -- it was even unavoidable. The society we call "The West" inflicted itself mortal wounds during the past few decades with the those technologies that go under the name of "perception management," once known as "propadanda" but now much more refined and effective. If you start using this form of black magic, it is a slippery slope that leads you to the illusions of greatness that were voiced during the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. At that moment, someone was so intoxicated by the new power of propaganda that he uttered the well know words "now we create our own reality."

That was the ultimate hubrys and it didn't go unpunished. Reality cannot be created by mere human beings. What they can do is to create illusions that look like reality and that can hide reality so well that noone can discern the true reality anymore. Losing track with reality would be sufficient punishment in itself, but it carries even worse consequence. Once you start creating your own reality, you can't be trusted any more. And if trust is lost, everything is lost. Society becomes an Empire of Lies and it is destined to fade away and disappear.

So, who would believe the story that people landed on the Moon when it was told by the same people who, later on, invented non-existing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? For everything that happens there is a reason and there is a reason also for the disbelief in the Moon landing.

Will we ever be able to restore trust? Maybe it is too late, maybe it is not even worth trying. Yet, I was thinking that the astronauts who performed the incredible feat of the several travels to the Moon deserve better than being ridiculed, as it seems to be becoming fashionable nowadays. They deserve respect and admiration for their courage and their dedication. For this reason let me address one of the few reasonable questions that may be asked about the story: why didn't we go back to the Moon? Some people are genuinely perplexed on this point: could it be because it really was a fake?

No. There were deep structural reasons that made it impossible for the Western economic system to provide again the same surplus that was used to finance the Moon program. Here, let me reproduce a post that I published in 2015 examining the trends of human spaceflight. (you can read similar considerations in a post by Antonio Turiel). Clearly, we have peaked and we are going down. It is the way civilizations end.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end

Smart, dedicated, competent, polyglot, and more; Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have been invented for a "Star Trek" episode. She is shown here at the International Space Station, where she is staying at the moment of publication of this post. Cristoforetti may not be the last astronaut to orbit the earth, but it is possible that the end of what was once called "the space age" will not be far away in the future. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space-age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia - more details.)

As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived at the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space-age" is destined to come to an end in the future.

The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.

This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang"). Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.

If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats - the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)

Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore.

The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)