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Falcon 9 landing
Innovations in spaceflight and space markets can help achieve the goals of a Green New Deal. (credit: SpaceX)

The Green New Deal for space


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As we approach yet another election in the US, a number of incredibly important issues will be decided. One is the future of American space power, the role of the government, military, and civilian sectors, and ongoing and increasing concern for the future health of the planet. There is an argument for why climate activists, political representatives, and anyone who supports radical change to mitigate global climate change needs to embrace US efforts in space now and into the near future. This argument is based on both the Green New Deal platform as well as current and near-future space capabilities. Environmentalists, politicians, and the population in general should support space exploration and access for the future of the planet and humanity.

Space is not merely an option, but essential for the future of the Green New Deal. In fact, space is already providing a number of elements that help fulfill the requirements to counter global climate change.

Historically, space exploration and access has been seen as a wasteful endeavor, fraught with high costs and wasteful expenditure of resources. However, even in the Apollo era, where rockets and access were one-use vehicles, scientific advancements were stuff of legends. Yes, the single-use rockets used massive amounts of non-reusable resources; and to this day debris and detritus litters low Earth orbit (LEO), pieces left over from the early era of space exploration. But by 1981, the Space Shuttle launched, providing a reusable platform for space missions. In all, five shuttles flew 135 missions between testing in 1981 to retirement in 2011, for a total of just over 1,322 days in space.[1]

Recycling capabilities is just one component of the proposed Green New Deal, submitted to the House of Representatives on February 7, 2019.[2] In the document, the politicians offer:

“Whereas, because the United States has historically been responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, having emitted 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through 2014, and has a high technological capacity, the United States must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation;”[3]

The admonishment is straightforward: the US is responsible for a disproportionate amount of emissions, and bears culpability for contributing to the problem. The proposed solution is two-fold: using superior American technology and economics, find ways to counter global climate change. To the detractors I would offer: even if there is not an impending global crisis (there is), the US can still lead in technology development and commit economic resources to creating a more sustainable model for the world. We have already started; the nation should support efforts in space.

The Green New Deal proposal goes on to state definite objectives in the short 14-page document. It will create lucrative jobs in high-tech industries, help with infrastructure in the US, help provide clean energy and power, and result in clean water, increased and improved agriculture, and less pollution. Finally, the Green New Deal offers solution to national security problems, at home and abroad, as the Departments of Defense and State labor to quell unrest and provide climate-related succor around the globe. At the very least, stabilizing, and preferably reversing, global climate change would go a long way towards solving a number of global issues related to weather, climate, water, and food. It may not temper historical political or religious disputes, but it might alleviate or at least lessen emerging climate-related conflicts.

To this end, space is not merely an option, but essential for the future of the Green New Deal. In fact, space is already providing a number of elements that help fulfill the requirements to counter global climate change. Thus, space, while already important, will only increase its relevance for the future of our planet and our species.

The capabilities to reach and operate in space are by definition high-tech industries. Increasing American presence and efforts into space will create a number of both civilian and government jobs, vital to the job creation portion of the Green New Deal. Previously, the U.S. government was the sole organization committed to space exploration. Notwithstanding the contractors who provided the hardware and software, historically American ‘space workers’ had to be citizens, with security clearances, to be a part of the U.S. space program. All that began to change in the 21st century, as commercial space organizations entered the contest. SpaceX emerged to “revolutionize space technology,” while Blue Origin is dedicated to “building a road to space so our children can build the future.” These and other companies have opened a new chapter in space exploration, to compete with traditional state-sponsored space programs. They have also lowered the barriers of secrecy and national citizenship requirements resulting in high-tech jobs in the industry for an increasing number of people both inside the US and abroad. There is a strong push today from the commercial sector to return to the Moon “this time to stay” by Blue Origin, and possibly even Mars with SpaceX. But that is in the future; the US is already helping to counter global climate change on this planet, today.

Beginning in 1959, the US Navy launched the first weather satellite, Vanguard 2. It was designed to measure cloud cover during the day and measure atmospheric density. In spite of its limited capabilities, and even though its mission has ended, Vanguard 2 is still on orbit. Vanguard was superseded by NASA’s Tiros-1, and later the Nimbus program. With increased sophistication and technology, the US and other nations have placed weather satellites into geostationary orbits to maintain constant view of their field of vision day and night. The American GOES series satellites (15, 16, and 17) currently relay weather data. This capability is vital for climate discussions. The satellite constellations track current and emerging weather data, to best chart and predict weather. The capabilities are so advanced that they can track hurricanes and typhoons, in ideal conditions offering warning times measured in days, to prevent loss of life. The expansion of the weather satellite constellations, by the US and others, along with increased computing power, will give better severe weather warning as well as prediction, in order to mitigate damage and death. These satellites also help build models for scientists to provide ongoing data for global climate change.

But weather satellites only observe and predict. Other capabilities are actively countering emissions and pollution. In the early 1990s, the US began launching the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites intended for precision navigation and timing (PNT). In order to get away from paper maps and compasses, the military pushed for a common operating system that could be used by all to navigate featureless seas as well as coordinate land and air maneuvers. First employed by the US military for Operation Allied Force, GPS gave the US Air Force and Navy planes the ability to drop bombs with precision, with the addition of GPS “kits” on the tail fins of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) bombs. Instead of “dumb” gravity bombs without guidance, or laser-guided bombs, which need a designator to “laze” a target, the JDAM targeted on GPS coordinates from the GPS constellation.[4] By 2003, GPS receiver units had improved, as had the constellation, and guided military movements across the featureless wastelands of the Iraqi southern deserts. The Navy was (and is) also a big user, employing GPS for open water operations, for both positioning and timing.

In the near future, GPS, combined with increasing computer technology in the form of autonomous vehicles, may have an even greater outcome on global emissions.

But GPS is more than just a destructive enabler. Today, GPS allows the everyday driver to navigate safely and quickly to their destination, without getting lost, cutting emissions. GPS signals carry time codes, allowing banks to move massive amounts of money around the globe with precision and accuracy. In a recent study, GPS has been instrumental in increasing crop yields in agriculture, while at the same time reducing emissions.[5] From planting to maintaining to harvesting, GPS has reduced emissions and increased productivity in agriculture. Today, the US government, and specifically the Department of Defense, maintains the GPS constellation, under the watchful eye of the US Air Force 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2SOPS) at Schreiver AFB, Colorado. The GPS constellation is in its fifth generation of satellites, and constantly upgrading, with additional units under construction and awaiting launch. At least 24 of the 31 satellites on station are sending signals, ensuring constant global coverage, for no cost to the consumer.

Other countries appreciate the convenience, but because of distrust, or for improved technological reasons, are launching their own systems. The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the initial satellites for the Galileo constellation in 2016; the Russians have their own Glonass constellation, and the Chinese continue improvements on their BeiDou system.[6] Ideally, all of these systems would help to counter emissions by helping drivers take more efficient routes, cutting emissions on the ground, at sea, and in the air, but even GPS has a long way to go to significantly alter emissions patterns globally. In the near future, GPS, combined with increasing computer technology in the form of autonomous vehicles, may have an even greater outcome on global emissions.[7] With autonomous vehicles, efficiency would increase even if personal travel is still commonplace. With better infrastructure and mass transit, automotive emissions could be reduced even further. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from transportation; cutting that would be a good start.

Space is also a growth market for communications. As we have all seen with the recent (unfortunately ongoing) global pandemic, people have remained at home, communicating at a distance with friends, family, colleagues, and, in my case, students. Space-based satellite communications is a vital and growing industry. Instead of driving or flying (to say nothing of cruise ships) to distant locations, people have leveraged Internet, cellular, and satellite communications bandwidth for gossip, business, and education. The increase in bandwidth consumption since the start of the year has been unprecedented. In the first quarter of 2020, Lightwave estimates that American consumers increased bandwidth consumption by 47 percent. Figures are still not in for the second quarter, but estimates are a 70 percent increase. And that will only increase. Businesses have been working remotely or teleworking (a throwback phrase to an earlier time), and as schools go back into session, the reliance on bandwidth will increase, with both students and educators online, but also all the administrative meetings in the virtual realm.

Satellite communications constellations are handling some of this bandwidth. Although the bulk of Internet traffic can be handled locally by fiber optic cables, cellular data and international communications depends on satellite communications technologies and capabilities. Data, voice, and even television signals rely on space for transmission. Although satellite communications are not the only way to transmit data, they are an integral part of the communications network, and an important redundancy for global communications. And if (and it is a big if), more businesses, schools, and informal networks transition to the online virtual environment, satellite communications will be an increasingly important component in future society.

Near future space technology will also support the spirit of the Green New Deal, and should be embraced and pursued with vigor.

Today, Elon Musk wants to give (for an undisclosed cost) everyone in the world satellite-based Internet capabilities. It is enough to say that satellite technology and capability will be an integral component of the global communications network, and increasingly important for the foreseeable future. And considering all of the work, education, entertainment, and information that transits that system, it is important for the future of high-tech employment and infrastructure in the US as well as the rest of the world for jobs in the technology itself—satellites and launch— as well as the myriad of technologies that rely on the capability. This does not even include the low-emissions opportunities that strengthened communications networks provides; my experience was a full immersion into the virtual realm at the start of the pandemic, and millions shared my experience. Average commuters did so little driving that car insurance companies gave rebates on insurance rates; people were staying home. By consequence, major US cities saw some of the best air quality in years. A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued that NO2 and particulate levels decreased, albeit temporarily, by as much as 60%. If more people worked remotely in our new information society, the positive effects of space-based communications and bandwidth may have a secondary effect of reducing the overall amount of pollutants in the atmosphere simply because people will drive less. In California (one of the most polluted states because of commute times and population), Google has directed most of its employees work from home through next summer.

Near future space technology will also support the spirit of the Green New Deal, and should be embraced and pursued with vigor. To get the US and the world off its reliance on fossil fuel energy, a number of countries have adopted massive programs to replace coal, gas, and oil with sustainable energy. Amazing strides have already occurred with wind, solar, and tidal energy; Iceland, with its geothermal resources, boasts almost 100% sustainable energy. The US, the world’s leading consumer, could reduce emissions by as much as 80% by focusing on wind and solar energy, according to a study published in the journal Nature. But there are plans in place to expand that idea into space, with space-based solar energy collectors. Solar-based collectors, and the transmission of the energy to the earth as either microwaves or lasers to the ground, could provide unlimited energy for the planet. Space-based energy, combined initially with wind and traditional Earth-based solar collectors, could completely replace fossil fuel based energy in the near term, once again halting (and hopefully reducing) the damage that has already been done by oil and gas. Revisiting an earlier pie chart, US emissions come from transportation (28%), electricity (27%), industry (22%), commercial and residential (12%), and agriculture (10%). If the US government and commercial sector decided to fund and commit to space-based solar energy, all of those percentages could be reduced to zero, fulfilling the Green New Deal’s efforts towards new jobs, infrastructure, and emissions control.

Using the resources of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids also shows promise. The Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology has developed the idea that lunar mining could not only fuel a settlement there, but also produce energy. China has plans to establish a base on the Moon and has shown an interest in mining. Lunar resources could support stations there, and ultimately serve the Earth as well. Mars may be further away, temporally as well as physically, but Elon Musk and SpaceX have plans in the works to venture to the Red Planet with the hopes of colonization and resource mining.

And although commercial asteroid mining is currently at a standstill—because of a lack of funding, not a lack of interest—it is an additional avenue for space exploration and resources. From high-grade precious metals to low-tech but extremely useful water, asteroid mining could be profitable as well as beneficial for jobs, resources, and the earth environment. The first glass of billion-year-old space water will be prohibitively expensive and rare, but with the right funding and effort will become commonplace for future generations.

Humanity needs the ability to sustain its existence here on Earth, but also needs to reach for the stars, explore, and expand outwards into the cosmos.

Interestingly, SpaceX is on the cusp of decreasing the costs of space access through recycling; another Green New Deal line of effort. Earlier launch systems were single-use and wasteful. Many remain in orbit as debris to this day. Space Shuttle boosters returned to Earth, to be recycled and reused if they were not too damaged by the violence of liftoff. SpaceX boosters like the Falcon 9 are designed to lift satellites into orbit and return to Earth, landing under their own power. Ideally, the Falcon 9 first stage boosts the payload into orbit and returns within a few minutes, landing safely. On August 18, SpaceX launched the same Falcon 9 booster for the sixth time, reusing the same platform after only a few days, hindered only by the launch schedule. The booster sent 58 new Starlink satellites into orbit in support of its global satellite broadband system. The booster returned to Earth, landed safely, and will likely be used for a seventh launch soon. The traditional cost of sending material into space has averaged around $10,000 per pound; SpaceX promises to reduce lift costs substantially through recycle and reuse capabilities. In addition, SpaceX recently started to launch humans into space, with the Crew Dragon module; the first commercial company to launch people into orbit, and the first such launch from US soil since the suttle retired. Commercial space lift and sustainment is a growth market that will continue and improve.

Finally, according to the late Stephen Hawking, one of the most widely respected cosmologists and theoretical physicists: “If humanity is to survive long-term, it must find a way to get off planet Earth — and fast.” Building space capabilities not only fulfills the platform of the Green New Deal, but may be a way for humanity to survive. Humanity needs the ability to sustain its existence here on Earth, but also needs to reach for the stars, explore, and expand outwards into the cosmos. With proper funding and effort, space capabilities may yet save this planet and fulfill the mission of the Green New Deal. We, as a society and a species, should embrace space exploration for the benefit of the Green New Deal on our way to the stars.

Endnotes

  1. Malik, Tariq (July 21, 2011). “NASA’s Space Shuttle By the Numbers: 30 Years of a Spaceflight Icon”. Space.com.
  2. A. Ocasio-Cortez, H.Res. 109, 7 Feb, 2019. Accessed 19 Aug 2020.
  3. ibid, p. 3.
  4. Rip, Michael Russell and James M. Hasik, The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002).
  5. See GPS.gov: Agricultural Applications, accessed 18 Aug 2020; as well as GPS increases farming efficiency and Advantages of GPS: Benefits in the Agricultural Field, all accessed 18 Aug 2020.
  6. See: Galileo begins serving the globe; THE GLOBAL NAVIGATION SATELLITE SYSTEM GLONASS: DEVELOPMENT AND USAGE IN THE 21ST CENTURY; and China's Beidou GPS-substitute opens to public in Asia; all accessed 18 Aug 2020.
  7. See specifically the papers from the Automated Vehicles Symposium annual conference published as Meyer, Green and Sven Beiker (eds.), Road Vehicle Automation, Volume I, (New York, NY: Springer International Publishing, 2014), and subsequent volumes annually, through 2019.

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