“Space will be colonised - although possibly not by [Americans]. If we lose our nerve, there are plenty of other people on this planet. The construction crews may speak Chinese or Russian - Swahili or Portuguese. It does not take "good old American know-how" to build a city in space. The Laws of Physics work just as well for others as they do for us.”
-- Robert A. Heinlein
The term ‘outside context problem,’ as I noted in the book of that name, refers to an encounter with a force that exists right out of one’s frame of reference. Iain M. Banks, who invented the term, suggested the example of a tribe on an isolated island – with nothing more advanced than wind-powered canoes – coming face-to-face with a massive iron ship, automatic weapons and other advanced technology. For them, the experience would be devastating.
True Outside Context Problems are actually quite rare in human history, but when they occur they can shatter a previously stable society. The Native Americans had no conception of what would happen when they first met Europeans; their primitive weapons were no match for the European weapons and tactics, nor were their immune systems prepared for the impact of smallpox and other diseases. (It wasn't the only shift; the idealised image of noble braves riding on horseback simply didn't exist until horses were introduced to the Americas by the Europeans.) Both Japan and China found it hard to come to grips with just how advanced the Westerners were when they made formal contact; Japan managed to modernize, to some extent, but China had to go through hell before she could stand up for herself.
If we did encounter aliens, it would be the ultimate Outside Context Problem for many of us. What would we do if a giant starship entered our solar system? What would happen if the aliens were friendly of hostile? Or what if they were simply uninterested in us? Even if they didn't have hostile intentions, they might do untold harm to human society simply by existing. What would happen, for example, if the aliens had conclusive proof that there was no God? Or if humans started converting to their religions?
But I’m not going to discuss the implications here (well, any more so than I have done in the text.) I have something else in mind.
I wrote the first draft of Outside Context Problem in 2006 and the second version (the one on Kindle) in 2009. In that time, the space shuttle was still a valid program and I had hopes that the Bush Administration programs would help to push the human race further into space. Now, Outside Context Problem seems dated. The space shuttles have been grounded permanently (an immensely stupid decision, when they could have been left in orbit instead) and there is no immediate replacement in sight. NASA appears more concerned with producing pretty artwork than actual hardware. Right now, getting to the moon within five years would be extremely difficult.
This is potentially disastrous.
There are several different reasons for this, three of which are vitally important.
First, we live at the bottom of a gravity well that attracts objects in space towards it. That gravity well tugs at asteroids that drift through space, luring them into trajectories that will eventually bring them close enough to Earth to hit the planet. Does this seem like the synopsis for a blockbuster movie? Consider; every year, thousands of meteors and shooting stars crash into Earth’s atmosphere, some surviving their passage through the atmosphere to hit the planet’s surface. What would happen to us if a large asteroid hit the planet?
If the asteroid hit water, it would throw millions of tons of water into the atmosphere and send tidal waves washing out in all directions. If the asteroid hit land, it would throw dust into the atmosphere instead. Every exaggerated statement ever made about nuclear winter might well be true if the asteroid was large enough. And if the asteroid was too big, the entire human race would die that day. It would be the end.
Right now, if we knew that an asteroid was plunging towards us, what could we do about it?
The standard suggestion is to launch nuclear missiles at the rock. It might work, assuming that everything went according to plan. Or it might result in thousands of tiny radioactive rocks falling on the planet instead. Ideally, we would want to deflect it so it missed Earth by a comfortable margin. Can we do it with today’s space program? I don’t think so.
It would be comforting to assume that this would never happen. I don’t believe that to be true. If an asteroid can seriously damage the dinosaurs, contributing to their extinction, why can't one do the same to us? Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the prior rulers of Earth.
But even without asteroids, there are other reasons to get into space.
As a society, we are dependent upon space technology. Satellites bind us together, provide everything from GPS to television channels and the internet; it’s hard to look at our modern society and see something that isn’t related, in one way or another, to space. Yet, at the same time, we do not seek to defend what we have – or prevent others from threatening our space facilities. This isn’t rocket science; potential enemies like China and Russia (and even Iran and North Korea) have put a lot of effort into space-based weapons. Space gives us so many advantages that they have no choice; in the event of a war over Taiwan, for example, the Chinese will certainly attempt to blind our satellites. Failing to do so would be effectively admitting defeat.
This barely scratches the surface of what is possible, given the right level of technology and political determination. The nation that controls space will control the world. Imagine, if you will, that China manages to deploy an orbital bombardment system – something akin to Project Thor. This would give them a formidable advantage over the United States, if the US failed to match their development in time. They might also deploy a Brilliant Pebbles antiballistic missile system, crippling the United States nuclear deterrent. This would give them the world.
There’s also the simple fact that our planet’s resources are limited and/or not always under our control. Space, on the other hand, offers an endless bounty of resources, ranging from asteroid mining to solar energy and HE3 from the moon or Jupiter. Whoever stakes their claims first will be in a strong position against everyone else.
And yet there is a third reason to get into space.
As a society, we have made our greatest strides forward when we were exploring, colonising and growing outwards. Americans who had a lust for adventure, to do something new, could go west; Britons could go to India or other parts of the British Empire. Now, there is nowhere left on Earth to explore - and we are tied down by endless pettifogging rules to ensure ‘safety.’ Our schools are governed by desperate attempts to avoid liability (imagine not being allowed to play on swings because someone might get hurt), our courtrooms have been stripped of common sense and politicians are not allowed to be blunt because it might hurt someone’s feelings. This is killing us, piece by piece.
Space offers us a way out, a way to expand and start growing again.
It will be costly, of course it will. But the investment is worth it ...
Because the only alternative is permanent stagnation.
And stagnation brings death – or Outside Context Problems
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kuala Lumpur, 2013