The Futility of Cycling
"Space’s business is entropy, and it carries out its business with relentlessness and utter indifference to our best laid plans. Aspiring explorers will meet the fists of the infinite."
I never would have become a philosopher if I hadn’t first become an engineer. And a writer? No. Never if not for a purpose, or at least I felt a purpose as I began this essay weeks ago and continued to revise and continued to revise until all this is as it is now, somehow back at the beginning. Seems fitting.
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My name is Tanner Gunnison, and I’m the director of the Europa Outstation, and by director, it’s probably best to understand me as the sucker dumb enough to think the title of Director of Europa Outstation was impressive enough to coax me into a tin can spinning around one of the moons of Jupiter indefinitely with very little space, no fresh air, infrequent company, and only one real perk to speak of—a unique view in all of humanity, here at the mid-point of the solar system, but I suppose we’ll get back to that in a bit.
The food stinks. I haven’t seen a woman in seven months. The delay on correspondence makes it impossible to have a real conversation with anyone on Earth, and almost nobody has the patience to write. Did I mention that it’s lonely as hell out here?
First, I like to try to give people a bit of perspective, so you might envision where I’m writing you from. For posterity, the year now is 2112, which I think might look great as an address to a townhouse. I can picture that elegant palindrome in painted metallic numbers on the top of a wrought-iron gate, and where I am, of course I picture lots of greenery, flowers, birds chirping in the shady trees above. Maybe that’s where you are.
I, on the other hand am so far away you can’t really comprehend it—at least, I can’t anyway. Imagine you take a conventional plane ride. You settle in for takeoff and think, ‘this is going to be great; a nice flight and we’ll get to hang out with Uncle Tanner on the Outstation, eat some space food, check out some of Jupiter’s moons; awesome.’ Then the pilot comes on and says, ‘Get comfortable, our flight time will be sixteen days, seven hours, and thirteen minutes. Hope you brought a big fat book, a box of donuts, and a bottle of blood thinners. It’s going to be a long ride.’ A little over two weeks later, congratulations, you’re on the moon.
Jupiter is roughly two hundred times farther away than that, or, in our earlier terms, a nine-year plane ride. And that’s where I am now, on a space station about the size of my doctor’s office—more or less—and oddly enough, similarly lit and decorated. I’ve been stuck here now for three years, six months, and fifteen days, but who’s counting, right?
What the hell am I doing out here?
Those are complicated questions. My personal reasons come from a lot of places, some of which may become apparent, some won’t. The institutional answers, in the human sense, are that we needed an outpost between the inner and outer system that serves as a point of communication, coordination, and occasionally, a refueling and resupply stop for intra-system missions that would otherwise be untenable. I also do research and the occasional private party. Please remember to tip your waitstaff and bartenders. I’ll be here all week.
Not sure if you can tell, but I get a lot of time to think out here and not much inspiration for it. Thoughts cycle, unsurprisingly, around space exploration especially but also exploration in general. I don’t tend to follow the news back home very closely (home for me is North America), but I do follow space news, especially as it relates to the situation out here. Mission updates, tech updates, plans for the future of the settlements on the Moon, on Mars, and on Mercury—those are of particular interest to me. But lately, I have been struck by the news that very shortly, we will be testing (and I mean we in the royalest use of ‘we,’ as in us, as in humanity writ large) WE will be testing faster than light space drive technology within the year. Thus, the big thoughts for the big day. All signs point to the system being successful, so I’m writing with that assumption in mind with the big question in mind: what then?
In the literal sense, plans are for production of multiple unmanned vessels to explore star systems in our vicinity—current report was that the first run was for eighteen FTL probe ships, and obviously, itineraries are fluid at this point, but let’s take for granted that we’re going to get a good look at the neighborhood over the next decade or so.
Great! What an exciting time to be alive. Sincerely.
I do have a unique perspective on where this all might go, though. And, for what it’s worth, even though I suspect that what I write will have no bearing on what actually happens in space in the coming decades, I feel compelled to write it anyway with the hope that my thoughts reach the right individual at the right time and maybe, just maybe, save a person or two from a regrettable decision that changes their life irreversibly for the worse, for it’s not all sunshine and rainbows up here, folks. Not at all. In fact, it’s a whole lot of nothing. And I mean both of those propositions fiercely: a WHOLE LOT of NOTHING.
The Europa Outstation orbits the moon every eleven hours. Europa cycles around Jupiter every three and half days. Jupiter orbits the sun once every twelve years. And the sun cycles around the center of the galaxy roughly every five hundred million years or so. Our galaxy is so big it’s unfathomable, and it’s almost entirely empty. Empty as it is, there’s still so much useful matter available to us right here in our solar system that there’s absolutely no convincing material reason to ever board an interstellar vessel.
We number roughly ten billion now, and have done for the past seventy years or so, and, yes, we’re not perfect, but we’ve gotten much better as stewards of our planet and are more or less in equilibrium with it. However, even if our population were still exploding as it was in the beginning of the last century, we could build a million space stations the size of Manhattan that could house ten times more people each and still not even need to harvest a single full percent of the mass of metal on Mercury. And with the establishment of orbital and ground-based space infrastructure already in place, we could make life aboard every one of those million space stations quite comfortable and enjoyable, with ample space to raise families, establish universities, make art, develop culture, and with free access to the materials in the inner solar system, there will be absolutely no excuse for conflict over resources or even politics, given the diversity of choices every person or family should have for their present and future. Yet, there is much talk of expeditionary missions, colonization, solar systems and worlds beyond our own.
Fine. So be it.
We do lots of things that are completely unnecessary and irrational. This would be one of them.
First, I’ll ask: what would be the benefit of it? What is the advantage of populating other solar systems with humans at this stage in our development as a species?
Given that in our solar system we have far more than enough matter and diversity of matter than we ten billion of us could ever exhaust in a million lifetimes, access to more matter (of any kind we currently know) is not a compelling reason. In short, we have everything we need here. The answer is not stuff.
So too with energy. Ten billion people can only burn so much fuel in their day-to-day, and we’ll never approach energy exhaustion at current population levels here at home. Any known modality for transporting energy from other stars will cost more than harvesting or producing it here.
The key words in the preceding paragraphs is ‘known,’ which brings us to the first possible benefit of human expansion—we don’t yet know what lies undiscovered. It is possible, however unlikely, that there may be natural forms of matter or energy outside our own solar system that may be both novel and of great value. Theoretical models can only be built on the information we have. We could discover new perspectives outside our solar system. So, discovery is a possible answer, but it’s debatable how much we would benefit from colonization versus exploratory expeditions, which may give a far clearer picture of possible benefits without committing to a lifetime of deep-space peril that will arise from setting roots in foreign systems.
The only other possible benefit I can conceive of is the ‘eggs in one basket argument.’ Should some cataclysmic cosmic event occur, like a rogue black hole or nearby supernova that annihilates human civilization here at home, the seed of human life would be rooted elsewhere. This is true; however, the odds of such an event happening in the next thousand years is almost nil, cosmically speaking. Or in other words, there’s absolutely no urgency to doing this today versus a century from now when we’ve fully established a broad, human-made technological ecosystem that spans our own solar system.
With greater human capital and people willing enough to leave Earth to develop space, we could build an incredible astro-ecosystem within our own solar system. We’re already somewhat on our way. Self-operating mining fleets are in development and should be running without human intervention within two decades. That type of metal harvesting power could supply orbital rings around the gas giants Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and even my personal favorite, Jupiter. These gas giants contain limitless amounts of useful gasses and hydrocarbons, and designs are already being modeled for self-replicating matter harvesters from the exospheres of these massive worlds. For heavier elements, we already have mass drivers, mining operations, and, in theory, sky hooks and space station infrastructure to lift and process as much metal as we could use in the next millennium. And all the while, we can send out thousands of automated interstellar probes, seeking out the most welcoming stars and systems; we can prep those far off shores with already functioning robotic mining outposts, already constructed space habitats, perhaps even Ag cylinders and solar arrays, robotics factories and space elevators. With a century more of our own expertise and experience, as well as the continued development of our robot counterparts, we could begin to make a thriving ecosystem of our own space, while sending forth probes and robots to make our first steps outward less precarious. Meanwhile, a robust ecosystem, here at home, would be a far greater asset to our species, by virtue of its proximity, than anything we can establish light years from home. So, yes, attempting to build a colony in another star system would theoretically place an egg in another basket, but what’s the rush, and what will we lose from the development of a useful ecosystem by sending off thousands of our best deep-space explorers? That loss of human capital is the harm that such expeditions will inevitably cause. Any drain of valuable spacehands from here means slower development of our species in space writ-large. In other words, we can’t afford to lose our most valuable deep-space workers to deep space; we need them at home. Expertise in such an emerging field should not be diluted at this stage in our development as a spacefaring civilization, especially when that diffusion of expertise would be leaking out into an infinite container. We need to wait. We should wait.
Will we wait?
Inevitably, no. It’s just not in our nature.
I’m not sure everyone had a friend like this, but when I was in college, I did. His name was Amelio, the first-generation son of immigrants, and he was irrepressible. He was not an athlete in any formal sense of the word, but he said that he’d played some soccer in his high school days. Our third year, Amelio somehow got it in mind to do a charity bike race across the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and he was trying to recruit as many of our peers as he could coax onto a bike to raise money with him. He was unrelenting. He told everyone he would help them out, organize training sessions, teach them how to prepare for the race and pace themselves. And through all this, unbeknownst to the people he convinced, Amelio had zero experience as a cyclist, excepting the ordinary exposure nearly every suburban kid gets to riding their bike every now and again. Yet here he was telling everyone the keys to cycling as though he were an aspiring tour rider.
Amelio’s first organized training ride was a 150-mile loop across rural, remote state highways through rolling hills and gentle flats. After the first ten miles, everyone else dropped off and turned back home, but not before Amelio was cussed out as a fraud and pretender, for all the riders could see he was no more experienced than they were. At ninety-five miles, he called me to come pick him up, because determined as he was to complete the ride, his quads had seized up and he could no longer bend his legs.
Over the following weeks, Amelio suffered no end to the jibes and jokes about his cycling acumen. But what I really saw in the unending snark that went his way was a darker derision, a kind of resentment for the audacity of having the ambition to try something bold. But perhaps that was my bias, for I was the one who saw him on the ride back—a young man willing to go a full one hundred percent until his body could give no more. I recognized it as a kind of stupid determination I would never possess. It was rare. He was humbled by the experience, and he took their chiding quietly.
Two months later, Amelio raised a modest amount of money for riding the breadth of the state in three days. Five months after that, having only taken up cycling eight months prior, Amelio rode his bike from the Atlantic to the Pacific in eight weeks.
Yes, Amelio was foolish to think he could start his training by riding 150 miles. But it’s just that kind of foolishness that makes up the disposition of a person who rides a bicycle across America less than a year from taking up cycling.
The Amelios were the people who first climbed Everest, strapped them-selves onto rockets and flew into space. They broke world speed records on vehicles of every kind, swam from Cuba to Florida in shark-infested waters, and sailed around the world in leaky wooden ships. These people, no matter what you say to them, will find a way onto a spaceship and fan out into the stars. I am not writing about them. I’d be wasting my words. They’re a blessed few, and they will not be stopped.
My chief concern is with the potential emigrants, which, technically would include all departing humans, but I refer here to the people moving away from Earth rather than those moving to another planet, to a space adventure. Due to geography and anthropological development, we have an analog to this situation in our history in the European diaspora of the Americas. Numbers of emigrants from that era are, of course, not entirely accurate, but it’s fairly safe to say that during the early centuries of colonial emigration, somewhere between two and five percent of the populations of colonizing nations—Spain, England, France and Portugal—left their home nations for the Americas. Reasons for leaving Europe were various and varied over time. Both numbers and percentages increased as footholds of European settlements were increasingly more well established in the Americas.
Many people left for economic reasons, mostly hardships that came with population growth and limitations in land ownership. Thus, many of the emigrants were lower class peoples, looking for a chance at prosperity. Brave pathfinders in families would usually go forth and establish themselves, sending letters back to relations to join them when a path forward toward a sustainable lifestyle was discovered.
Today, I see a similar development in our society. Even the language used by those in the bottom strata of our societies echoes the past. They’re looking for economic breathing room, freedom from regulations and constraints, personal and religious liberties. And, in an ideal world, they should have it. There’s no denying that some, if not most, of the regulations in the past two centuries have prevented a good measure of ecological devastation that would surely have befallen the Earth by unrestrained economic development of our natural resources. Those constraints have benefited the Earth in the long run. But as technology has been erected around these constraints, they have become increasingly rigid, inflexible, and ever-tightening, squeezing out the prospects of the least fortunate, as it ever has been in human history.
In space, the same constraints have followed us, mostly by force of habit. This is folly. Where the Earth is a finite and delicate ecosystem. Our solar system is so vast it might as well be infinite. It is also lifeless. We will not do the least harm to Io or Mars or the rocks of the asteroid belt by developing and populating them. Yet the constraints on who can harvest, who can fly a vessel, who can establish a base or build a habitat—these regulations prevent access to the potential pilgrim class, and these are the very people we should be encouraging to develop our solar system. Instead, we are recreating the political and economic conditions of the early colonial era.
We cycle around again to the same season in history. One need look no further than the writings of John Locke and John Stuart Mill to find almost identical verbiage to today’s proponents of exploration, many of whom are not of that lower socioeconomic stratum—names like Mercum, Devers, even Hartsock. Their words may as well be echoes of the early liberal thinkers beholding a vast new continent and seeing the opportunity for liberty as well as prosperity. And why not? We are set before a vast new inexhaustible landscape of limitless resources and opportunities.
Except there’s one major difference in this analogy. The Americas were an environment compatible with human life. Space isn’t. Not yet. Pilgrims in ships in days past, had a harsh environment awaiting them once they survived the deadly voyage, yes. But that environment had potable water, breathable atmosphere, animals they could hunt and fish, edible fruits and vegetables, and even established native tribes that could help them navigate the new landscape when they fell into privation. Any new environment will need to provide these exigencies of life. These barriers are significant, difficult to overcome, and highly dangerous perils for any expedition, and they have yet to be fully reckoned with at scale.
Out here on Europa, with Earth supplying the outstation, I—one man—require food, vitamins, spare equipment, 3D printers and materials stock, replacement cartridges for CO₂ scrubbers, and a host of other specialized concerns that cannot be found or manufactured in this environment. Luckily, with the entirety of the human economy close enough at hand, I can get those needs met. This would not be the case if I took my operation to a moon orbiting a planet eight, eighty, or eight hundred thousand light years away.
If we continue to tightly regulate our solar system’s commerce and exploration, as we are currently doing, the pilgrims will eventually see those foreign shores as a better option than relegation to a permanent economic and social underclass with no chance of upward mobility. That hasn’t changed, and neither have we. We should. We must. Or someone like Amelio will come along and convince millions of people to take a deadly ride into the infinite, lacking the training, knowledge, equipment, expertise, and preparation to survive the ordeal. I can see it looming in the darkness inevitably.
The alternative is to encourage dysregulation of our system. Loosen constraints on lending for space ventures. One shouldn’t need ten billion dollars in collateral to get a loan for a mining operation that will generate ten-times that revenue in ten months once it becomes operational. Dysregulation of capital will encourage upward economic migration rather than physical migration to an unregulated environment.
People left Europe in droves for the Americas because it was the wild west, a place they could make their fortunes, make a name for themselves, raise families that would have a legacy to pass down to children and grandchildren. If we don’t make Europa and Neptune and Mars attractive in the same way, people will see Alpha Centauri, Altair, and Ross 154 as their only options into the decision-making class, where many of these pilgrims aspire to be. We need to make our solar system the wild west. Otherwise, I predict tens of millions of unprepared, unsuspecting people will rush headlong into the abyss.
The colonial era is littered with accounts of shipwrecks. Many of the souls on those ships and the ships themselves simply vanished—down to the sea in ships. This is the inevitable cost of exploration. You can find monuments to the lost in harbor cities to this day. There are many fascinating written accounts of such events, some fictional—Robinson Crusoe, comes to mind—and many more biographical accounts of survivors. This is my point—that there were many survivors. On the sea, we could wash ashore, find a water supply and fish, build a signal fire and wait for a passing ship to happen by. There will be no such luck in interstellar space travel. No such luck.
I think of all these things as I’m exercising, cycling as it turns out, on my stationary bike. I’ve set up my bike at the mid-portal window so I can look out, and depending on the time of the station’s orbit of Europa, I can ponder such things as I look out upon the cloudy bands of Jupiter. If the timing is right in Europa’s trip around the king of planets, I can watch Jupiter’s great red spot cycling around and around with my own eyes. I see this cycle so clearly. And, in my mind’s eye, I can see our future developments in space just as clearly, just as Cassandra foresaw the burning battlements of Troy, and I know that no matter how loudly I shout these things from the rooftops it will hardly make a difference, for I’m asking for the powerful to loosen their control, to have faith in people they see as their lessers. I’m suggesting they allow others to develop territories they perceive as their own to appropriate for themselves alone, however unjustly and imperiously. The powerful will not listen.
My last resort is to entreat the future pilgrims for their patience. Do not get on those ships until we’re well established in our own space first. The new world will not be as Amelio promises, for he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—what I know. We’re nowhere near mastery of this entirely foreign and lethally hostile environment. Not even close. There are no cities awaiting you. There aren’t even wild, untamed wildernesses to carve out a homestead from. At best there will be barren rocks that are oxygen-rich enough to chemically squeeze some breathable elements out of or frozen meteors with enough ice to process with great effort into potable water.
To be out here, cycling around Europa, even close to home, an organization of hundreds of highly-skilled people needs years to bring together an excellent plan that accounts for almost every potential contingency, and then we need a safety net, usually in the form of a call to Earth for help. But first, a plan. A near-perfect plan.
That word ‘plan’ reminds me of a story my father once told me about plans when I was designing a thesis project in college. I told him I had a plan, and he told me this story.
At the end of the twentieth century they still hadn’t outlawed combat sports in the West. And concussions be damned, men used to put on padded gloves and pummel each other in the face until one of them fell over unconscious or was declared a winner by the judges because the other was so befuddled by the blows he could barely stand. If you haven’t seen a video of boxing, it is quite the shocking spectacle, and no wonder such a primal event drew such prolific advertising revenue, for it is truly a captivating sight in the same brutal way Romans would have found gladiatorial combat riveting and shocking. My father told me of a champion fighter by the name Mike Tyson, who was so feared in his prime that his very name became synonymous with invincibility. Opponents, who’d spent their entire lives training to fight would walk into the ring merely hoping they could survive the first round. Most of them didn’t. Before going into the ring, interviewers would ask them how they would defeat this invincible man—the most feared man on Earth. Some of them were, like my friend Amelio, haplessly optimistic in the face of the inevitable. Most of them were pragmatic. But they and their trainers all went into the ring with a strategy for conquering the unconquerable. They all had a plan. Once, when an interviewer asked Tyson about his opponent’s plan to defeat him, he replied with the kind of curt, incisive wisdom only a fighter could possess. He said simply, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
Tyson’s business was punching people in the mouth, and he was better at it than perhaps anyone ever was. Before his hands, all plans disintegrated. Our business as human beings is getting into all kinds of trouble, much of it of our own making. Space’s business is entropy, and it carries out its business with relentlessness and utter indifference to our best laid plans. Aspiring explorers will meet the fists of the infinite. Plans will disintegrate before them.
People once spoke of the Titanic as an unsinkable ship unironically, with knowing certainty and arrogance. A short time later, after the shock of the indominable ship’s sinking wore off, the same people proclaimed with the same certainty and arrogance that they had predicted as much all along, had told their friends even, that we are all destined for a reckoning, especially when, in our hubris, we run around calling ocean-going vessels unsinkable. We had it coming. And we’ll go forth towards disaster still, thinking, ‘not me; not today; improbable,’ and we’ll be shocked when what we knew would happen happens all over again. This is me, the guy who has already been there, saying I told you so beforehand. Don’t forget it.
Probes, people. We should send probes into the deep. You, on the other hand, should stay home.
Do otherwise and go down to the sea in ships, a victim of the current iteration in the same inevitable human cycle, rounding the galaxy again and again. Probes.
Remember I said that when you realize your folly.
Tanner Gunnison told you so.
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