A thought-provoking exhibition called Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration is currently at the American Museum of Natural History (it runs through August 12; it’s possibly worth noting that Scientific American has participated in some of the publicity associated with Beyond Planet Earth, having hosted a Tweetup at the museum on January 18). The show hopes to capitalize on the public’s fascination with the final frontier, and, indeed, it seems to be pretty popular, with visitors assigned a specific entrance time when they buy a ticket.

Beyond Planet Earth displays what its curators believe are some of the most likely, or most interesting, possibilities for humanity’s future in space. In keeping with current trends in the space industry, the exhibit imagines a future where government space programs and scientific missions become less significant, and commercial exploitation of space resources become the most important priority. It’s true, in many respects: the US, Russia, and Europe have cut back significantly on their space programs, and while India and China are growing theirs, the biggest buzz undoubtedly surrounds private space ventures. Nascent non-profit organizations and bloggers promote space tourism, and companies have been started to provide that service – Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is hoping to take flight later this year with private citizens paying $200,000 each for a brief zero-G experience. The X Prize Foundation, together with Google, is sponsoring a competition that will award $20 million to the first private group to land a rover on the Moon, drive it 500 meters, and send back video by the end of 2015.

Most of the Google Lunar X Prize competitors see the race as a mere stepping stone toward larger endeavors. Moon Express, for example, wants to mine the Moon for rare earths, platinum, and especially helium-3 (3He). This light isotope is theoretically a clean (i.e., non-radioactive) and powerful fuel for fusion power generation. Helium-3 does not exist in significant quantities here on Earth, but samples of lunar rock from the Apollo missions revealed some 3He on the Moon’s surface, deposited there by the solar wind. The Beyond Planet Earth exhibit shows lunar bases of the kind Moon Express and others want to build for mining operations. If they can bring helium back to Earth, we could wean ourselves off dirty fossil fuels and nuclear power.

This goal certainly seems admirable, but Moon Express neglects to mention major obstacles that exist. First, although there might be more 3He on the Moon than here, it’s still not exactly abundant. A 2007 study surmised that in a relatively small area of the Moon, about the 1% of the total surface area, it may exist on the lunar surface in concentrations of up to fifteen parts per billion. That’s 0.0000015%. On the rest of the surface, 3He is much more widely dispersed. Eighty-seven percent of the 3He on the Moon is distributed in concentrations of about three parts per billion. So at maximum efficiency, it would take a minimum of almost 67 metric tons of lunar rock (and more likely closer to 330 tons) to yield just one gram of 3He – never mind the costs associated with processing it, containing it, and shipping it back to Earth. Second, the 3He fusion method has never been demonstrated in any significant fashion, due to problems with creating and containing the enormous amount of heat required for the necessary reactions. Finally, 3He fusion hardly meets the standard of sustainability in energy production. In fact, developing an expensive infrastructure for 3He fusion power is almost as short-sighted as developing one for fossil fuels: it has taken four billion years for the accumulation of even the small amount of helium that now exists on the Moon, and what’s there would likely only last us a few hundred years (again, assuming that we actually succeed in making the process practical). Where do we turn after all of the Moon’s helium is gone?

Rather than taking significant steps to control global energy use, and reduce the problem posed by resource scarcity, these companies seem to suggest that we can continue to kick that proverbial can down the road by technologizing our way to abundant energy. We’ve seen this kind of get-rich-quick fever before, in oil rushes, natural gas rushes, and more – and it has left environments around Earth barren and polluted.

Which brings up another question: what is the Moon going to look like after we’re done strip-mining it? The vast majority of 3He is believed to be on the side of the Moon that always faces Earth. Mining, drilling, fracking, and other resource extraction techniques are normally hidden away from most consumers, in rural or otherwise out-of-the-way locales where it’s easy to ignore them, but the excavation of large swaths of the Moon’s surface will be visible to all of us on a regular basis. Since we don’t fully understand the lunar environment – its geology, or its climate (the Moon’s surface isn’t precisely a vacuum; it actually has a "micro-atmosphere") – it’s difficult to say what the effects of any human intervention on the Moon might be. But the human ability to transform a planetary environment on a large scale has been amply proven, whether the effects of our actions are intended or unintended. It’s also clear that short-term profit is often privileged over the cost of long-term consequences that are left for future generations (or the currently disadvantaged) to deal with.

Mars also gets a shot at development in Beyond Planet Earth, with a provocative interactive display called the "terraforming table". Using an HDTV touchscreen, visitors to the exhibit can alter Mars’ environment to create a second Earth. Terraforming is not a new idea; Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) takes terraforming as its subject. But what would it really take? Since Mars has water, but is too cold for that water to exist in a liquid state, terraforming requires the planet’s temperature to be raised 60 degrees C (almost 110 F). Mars’ atmosphere also has very little oxygen that could allow humans to breathe normally. Users of the table take on these challenges one at a time, first warming Mars, then adding oxygen to the atmosphere – but the available methods seem strange, if not perverse, for a scientific take on the concepts behind terraforming. In the first phase of the program, the planet is heated by means of pollution and outright destruction: bombing, spraying black dust to absorb sunlight, shining enormous mirrors to reflect sunlight from space, bombarding with asteroids, or building factories that will burn Martian resources and send greenhouse gases into the atmosphere:

The message sent by the table’s creators is that our worst behaviors here on Earth can somehow become virtues on another planet.

The second phase of the terraforming program – adding oxygen, by importing microbes, then moss, lichens, flowers, and finally trees from Earth to the red planet – doesn’t look so bad by comparison:

A glance at humanity’s previous attempts to introduce new species of microbes, plants, and animals to new environments, however, should give us pause. Once again, it’s worth recognizing just how much we are able to change environments – and how little we understand our ability to do so.

To the space industry, the Moon and Mars apparently are places immune to environmental damage, or else they are beneath consideration as existing environments. The curators of Beyond Planet Earth send much the same message: there are resources out there, so it is our right to exploit them. Or: if we don’t, someone else will. The president of Bigelow Aerospace, which manufactures inflatable modules for space stations and lunar bases, has even prophesied about future conflict between the US and China over space-based resources, thereby trumping any environmental considerations.

The approaches advocated by the commercial space industry seem to suggest that new technology for resource extraction is the only possible answer to our problems, and that ethical considerations should, at most, be made to ensure that humans are not directly harmed by progress. But this argument is clearly flawed, or at least terribly myopic. Other concerns need to be taken into account. First, as many ethicists and environmentalists have argued for some time, humans can no longer judge our plans and behaviors by a merely anthropocentric standard. As the only living things we know of in this universe with a sense of ethics and morality to direct our actions, we have a responsibility to consider how our choices affect not only ourselves, but also other living beings, and even abiotic physical processes (geologic, climatic, etc.). Of course, industries involved in resource development have historically had trouble meeting even an anthropocentric ethical standard.

Furthermore, the choices we make now will determine, for better or for worse, what choices are available for future generations of our species. If it is true, for example, that the United States has 100 years of natural gas reserves, then people alive 100 years from now will have no natural gas to use for heating their homes, cooking their food, or powering their vehicles. This is the definition of an unsustainable use of resources. If we consider sustainability to be an important part of our ethical code – if we believe that we have a responsibility to those who come after us – then we need to be much more careful about the development of remaining resources, both on Earth and in space.

Finally, there is one last set of concerns that should be taken into account: the interests and desires of that half of the world’s population whose nations are not currently active in the development of space. Space law and international treaties in place since the 1960’s are clear that whatever actions are taken in space, they should be for the benefit of all humanity, not only the countries that are technologically advanced enough and rich enough to go there. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, signed by 127 countries, including all of the major players, explicitly states that no territory can be claimed by any nation (whatever the merits of Newt Gingrich’s idea for a 51st state on the Moon). This principle is broadly accepted by the international community.

Many living creatures (perhaps even humans, though the data on that are so far negative) have a subtle, though direct, physical relationship with celestial bodies. Biological cycles in some animals, for example, are timed to coincide with the movement of the Moon around the Earth, and the Moon and other celestial bodies have been given powerful symbolic meanings – religious, cultural, historical – by human societies from the dawn of time up to and including the present. These meanings go beyond what some Westerners might (chauvinistically) dismiss as folk tradition – recall the unifying effect of Neil Armstrong’s remark about “one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the Moon.

My citation of Armstrong’s statement should be taken as a sign that I do believe we should go to space, that we should explore it and study it so that we can learn more about our place in this universe. It’s even possible that we could settle in space someday. But there can be no question that the answer to our problems of resource scarcity ought to be answered here on Earth first, rather than elsewhere, and through never-ending and increasing consumption. For now, the cosmic environment is largely pristine. We need to find new ways to learn the lessons of our past and present, and to live creatively in accordance with the real constraints of nature.

Image captions/credits:

View of Earth from the Moon, Apollo 11, 16 July 1969. (NASA)

Oil spill, 2007, Berkeley, CA. (Ingrid Taylar, used under Creative Commons commercial license)

Kudzu draped over the landscape, 2007, Louisville, TN (SoftCore Studios, used under Creative Commons commercial license; original at https://www.flickr.com/photos/kittenwants/1189715136/)

Author photo credit: Mica Landry.