Healing Our World Commentary: The International Space Station

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

The Migration Begins: The International Space Station

Don't plant seed too soon,
Consult the Moon.

-- The English herbalist Culpepper

On October 30, 2000, an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts will be launched from the space complex in Kazahkstan, Russia to the International Space Station, under construction in orbit, 220 miles above the surface of the Earth.

This four month mission will begin the first long term human presence in space. What will this mean for our culture, our environment and our bodies as the migration into space begins?


Artist's rendition of the completed International Space Station (Photos courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA))
When the station is complete in 2005, after 44 launches of astronauts and materials and 160 spacewalks to put it together, as many as seven astronauts and scientists at a time will live and work in an area roughly equivalent to the passenger cabin volume of two 747 jetliners.

Nearly an acre of solar panels will provide the 110-kilowatts needed to power the station and its experiments.

Over 16 countries are participating in its construction, which began in November 1998. The Russians are major contributors and partners, since they have vast experience in long duration space flight. This project is the single largest international aerospace endeavor ever attempted by humankind.

The flight later this year will begin the planned permanent occupancy of the station, which is estimated to have a 10 year lifetime.

NASA tells us that the International Space Station will provide low gravity environments for medical research and will help us learn the effects that long term exposure to reduced gravity have on humans and animals. They say it will teach is how materials behave in space, give opportunities for the long term observation of the Earth, and provide opportunities for businesses to produce new products and services. It will eventually be the launching pad for missions to other planets.

Designing and building the station will cost between $22 and $24 billion. The total program cost, assuming a 10 year lifetime for the station, is about $37 billion. About $10 billion of the costs will come from the international partners.

But what other costs must we consider?


Artist's rendition of a lunar strip mine from "NASA, The First 25 Years...A Resource for Teachers," NASA publication EP-182, 1983
Humans have been affecting the environment of space since the launch of the first spacecraft Sputnik by the Russians in 1957. Thousands of pounds of metal and other waste have been either left in orbit around the earth, deposited on the Moon and Mars, or allowed to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

In the space station era, waste disposal and resource use are still tricky problems. The plans are to recycle as much as possible, but non-recyclable items will be put on a Russian return vehicle, which will totally disintegrate reentering Earth's atmosphere, or on one of the U.S. space shuttles, which will bring it back to Earth for disposal.

Our perception of ourselves as humans and our purpose on this Earth have been affected by gaining access to outer space. No longer is Earth believed by everyone to be our only home.

In fact, some people use the space program and the beginning of our migration into space as justification for continued abuse of the Earth.

If you believe most science fiction movies, the Earth becomes uninhabitable in the future and humanity lives in space or on other worlds. This belief holds that technology will come to the rescue by providing us other worlds to inhabit.

This is a classic misperception of the current pace of space exploration and technology. Current space suit design, life support systems, emergency crew return technology and medical responses to space induced problems are all in their infancy.


Artist's rendition of mining on Phobos, a moon of Mars by Robert McCall from "Pioneering the Space Frontier," a report of the U.S. National Commission on Space, May 1986."
How will be we care for the space environment? Artist's conceptions from the last 20 years are not too encouraging and usually show a strip mine on the moon or the destruction of an asteroid for its mineral resources.

Rather than scour space and the other planets for more resources for our hungry industries and use it as a limitless landfill, we should be re-examining our needs and wants, eliminating the extreme excess and waste in our world.

In his essay "The Preservation of Natural Value in the Solar System," Holmes Rolston, III reminds us, that "in a typical handful of humus, which may have ten billion organisms in it, there is a richness of structure, a volume of information ... enormously advanced over anything elsewhere in the solar system, or even, so far as we know, in myriads of galaxies."

Rolston provides us with six rules toward developing a space exploration ethic. They are not perfect, but they give us good food for thought.

Rule 1: Respect any natural place spontaneously worthy of a proper name. He says that places that have enough "site integrity" to create the impulse to name them suggests that they should be protected. While every crater on the moon may not evoke such a response, many do and have been named.

Rule 2: Respect exotic extremes in natural projects. We should not only look for places that have functional utility in the solar system, but for places that are extraordinary and unbounded by earthly constraints. An ocean made of liquid methane could be such an exotic extreme worthy of protection.

Rule 3: Respect places of historical value. Some areas on Mars clearly once had vast amounts of water flowing through them. The other planets represent 4.6 billion years of collected history. This should be considered before chopping them up for their resources or using them as sites for simulated nuclear reactor meltdowns.

Rule 4: Respect places of active and potential creativity. On Earth, we are driving species to extinction, thereby changing evolutionary cycles for all time. On other worlds, processes are in motion and geologic evolution is in play.

Rule 5: Respect places of aesthetic value. There is more than science and industrial products to be had in space. Vast expanses of unexperienced beauty and mystery await us. These visions will provide us the poetry of the future. They should not be blown up for their mineral resources.

Rule 6: Respect places of transformative value. We ought to preserve those places that radically transform our perspective. In space, that which we call hot or cold, summer or winter and dark and light are bizarre and jumbled. Places that stretch the limits of our perceptions, pushing us to new thoughts and values, must be preserved.

Michael Collins, command module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, said, "The more we see of other planets, the better this one looks."


Our only home
The fact of the matter is that you can go from one end of the solar system to the other and not find a single drop of available fresh water or breathable air.

There is no bird song, no sound of wind blowing through the trees and no laughter of children. There are no bright sunny days to enjoy on your porch or gentle rain showers to romp in with your family.

Space exploration may continue and provide us many valuable benefits, but the Earth will always be our only home. Don't dream of walking on Mars in the future. Rather, dream of walking on an Earth that is free of pollution, free of hunger, and free of greed.

And work to make it so.


1. For a comprehensive look at all aspects of the International Space Station, visit http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/index.html

2. Read about Flight 2R, the first flight to occupy the space station, at http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/assembly/flights/2r/index.html

3. See the complete list of international partners and their contributions at http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/reference/partners/index.html

4. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter commissioned an $11.7 million study to explore how a factory could be set up on the moon. See the section on strip mining at http://www.islandone.org/MMSG/aasm/AASM5D.html. Read more about lunar strip mining at http://www.permanent.com/l-mining.htm

5. Holmes Rolston, III's essay can be found in the book "From Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System," published by Sierra Club Books in 1986. Look for it at Powells bookstore or other used bookstores.

6. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them what you feel the priorities of our space exploration efforts should be. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html

[Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He spent nearly 20 years working for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including a year working on the early development of the space station. He can be found hiking around the city, occasionally looking skyward, wondering if our space exploration will yield any new wisdom or will instead, perpetuate old errors. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://www.healingourworld.com]