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Harry Vassallo | Sunday, 26 April 2009
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The race for space

Meeting an astronaut is a bit like meeting Paris Hilton or some other celebrity except that the groupie aspect is camouflaged under the mantle of scientific curiosity and rendered palatable for the learned and the middl-eaged. I felt a little bit of a curio collector as I arrived for Sen. Harrison Schmitt’s lecture on Thursday. Henceforth I would be able to say that I had been there, set eyes on an astronaut, listened to his speech.
My excuse for taking the time to attend the lecture was that it would deal with the exploitation of energy resources available on the Moon. If some form of response to our current problems was available, even on the Moon, I wanted to know.
Schmitt is a charmer. I guess he has had years of practice in telling the story of his adventure aboard Apollo 17 and the three days of moon exploration but there is more to it than that. He exudes the American can-do culture without the brash, boasting tone that so irritates non-Americans.
All along he rattled off facts and figures about space exploration, the Apollo Program, Moonwalking and of course lunar geology which is his speciality. However all this seemed to be an introduction to the main issue: lunar energy exploitation.
According to Schmitt, samples of Moon rock taken during the Apollo 17 and other lunar missions indicate the existence of significant deposits of volatile minerals. Of these Helium-3 offers the possibility of commercially viable lunar mining since it can be used as a fuel in a nuclear fusion reactor which, unlike other nuclear fuels and processes, produces no radioactive waste. Sounds like magic.
A year or two ago his costings might have raised eyebrows but in the wake of the fuel and financial crises, throwing billions of dollars into a scheme that looks like it could provide massive amounts of clean energy seems far more acceptable than ever before. What he seemed to demand was a tiny fraction of what is being thrown at the financial crisis without a thought to addressing the global energy/climate change challenge.
This year is a turning point in the history of humanity: if agreement on CO2 reduction is not reached among world leaders in their meeting in December, we will certainly not make the minimum targets set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We will reach possible climate change tipping points far earlier than feared and the consequences will make the current financial crisis seem like a good time we once shared.
Schmitt’s scheme for lunar mining gives another twist to the Space Race: can it be brought on line before Climate Change puts an end to all such schemes? The technofix culture has another target to focus on but it may be a lethal distraction.
Schmitt may be looking the wrong way. Setting off to the Moon to sustain our energy consumption may be acting on the wrong premise: that our present levels of energy consumption should and must be sustained. We seem to be unable to face up to the reality that our present energy demand must be radically reduced to become sustainable through renewable energy sources. No politician wants to spit that out because we don’t yet know how to reduce energy demand as drastically as necessary. Popular response would be negative and opposition response would be politically devastating.
Nuclear Helium-3 : Helium-3 fusion technology, even if fuelled from the Moon, seems like one hell of a straw to clutch at. Free of radioactive waste and with no carbon emissions, it would be miles better than the fission technology being touted around the world as a solution by people such as President Sarkozy. But it still would be an end-of-pipe technology, not a renewable one. It rests on the idea that it will take a very long time to exhaust the Moon’s resources and that meanwhile we will become smart enough to sort ourselves out somehow. Still it remains a close cousin to the rest of nuclear technology that has snatched at a new lease on life in the wake of climate change awareness disregarding the limited availability of uranium, that it is a finite resource and that the time and resources necessary to build a sufficient number of nuclear reactors is simply not available.
Science and technology will be crucial to reducing energy demand but the necessary breakthroughs will never happen without epochal policy changes. Our first challenge is political not technological. Life on this planet, not merely civilization as we know it, teeters on the brink of Apocalypse every bit as awesome as that evidenced by the largest lunar craters and no amount of gung-ho, can-do optimism can change that. Who can feel optimistic that political leaders will have the courage to agree to a regime their peoples are likely to find unacceptable in the short term?
Until that happens, there is very little point discussing possible solutions since none of them, not even the most magical, will come on-line in sufficient volume in time to avert the worst. I’m watching Obama. If he goes in the right direction and far enough at the Copenhagen Conference in December, it may be worthwhile revisiting Schmitt’s proposals. Until then this space race is on hold.

hvassallo@mediatoday.com.mt

 


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