Mar 9 • 35M

🚀 Faster, Please! — The Podcast #24

🌎 A replay of my conversation with political scientist Daniel Deudney on the geopolitical and existential risks of space expansionism

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James Pethokoukis
Welcome to Faster, Please! — The Podcast. Several times a month, host Jim Pethokoukis will feature a lively conversation with a fascinating and provocative guest about how to make the world a better place by accelerating scientific discovery, technological innovation, and economic growth.
Episode details

As space enthusiasts and entrepreneurs look to expand human civilization to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, few stop to examine the geopolitical risks of space colonization or the opportunity costs of not fixing problems on Earth. While most Faster, Please! guests advocate further expansion into space, Daniel Deudney offers a different perspective.

Deudney is a professor of political science, international relations, and political theory at Johns Hopkins University. He’s the author of several books, including Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, released in March of 2020.

This interview was first released in June 2021 for my AEI podcast, Political Economy, and now I’m sharing it with subscribers to Faster, Please! (Unfortunately, our chat preceded my viewing and reading of The Expanse, which does a great job suggesting Deudney’s concerns.)

In This Episode

  • Space expansionism and its dangers (1:24)

  • Space infrastructure (13:57)

  • Hedging existential risk (18:13)

  • Principles for space policy (30:40)

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Space expansionism and its dangers

James Pethokoukis: My listeners love when I read during these podcasts. I’m going to start by reading two quotes. The first quote is from Elon Musk:

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

Quote two is from the Blue Origin website:

“Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos with the vision of enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth. In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space.”

Now, I think you would probably call both those visions “space expansionist”. But that is not your vision, right? So what don’t you like about those visions?

Daniel Deudney: Well, Musk and Bezos articulate a vision of space expansionism that was first articulated early in the 20th century and has been subsequently developed. Bezos was actually a student of Gerard O’Neill, who was one of the main visionaries of space colonization in the United States during the 1970s. So they’re articulating a central set of ideas that is held by a large number of people, both in the United States and globally. And my book, Dark Skies, is really a systematic evaluation of the actual impact of space activities to date and a critical assessment of the likely impacts of many of these yet unrealized projects.

So to start with the historical record, this is not a simple task because space is just a place. And so there’s a heterogeneity of activities that have gone on there. So it’s like summing up apples, light bulbs, and grenades. But the standard narrative of space activities to date, I argue, is woefully inaccurate. It leaves out one of our major space programs — and, depending on how you count, perhaps our major space program and arguably our most consequential space program — which is the use of ballistic missiles to deliver thermonuclear weapons at global distances in very short periods of time.

The standard definition of space weapons is that they are weapons used against objects in orbit or placed in orbit. That’s completely insufficient because it leaves out the use of the frictionless environment of space as a corridor for rapid bombardment at distance. And so I say that we have this major space program that we don’t acknowledge as a space program. It’s what would be called an “unknown known.” Everyone knows that these exist, but they get misplaced or miscategorized. And if we put ballistic missiles back into the ledger sheet for an assessment of space activities to date, I have to conclude that the impact has been to increase the probability of nuclear war, which would obviously be a civilizational, perhaps existential, catastrophe for humanity. Take the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fact that these weapons move so rapidly — are so difficult to intercept — has created this unprecedented situation of vulnerability.

And this really points to a more general fallacy of this very optimistic thinking about space, which is to simply neglect the violence potential and the tendencies for this violence potential to be harnessed. It’s like they think that space is good, and if something is not good, then it can’t be involved in space. The reality is that this major space program (that we don’t acknowledge as such) has been a major negative in terms of the survival of our civilization. And so the first step for the space expansionist, I think, is really to be a bit more realistic and accurate about what they’ve actually done and the inherently enormous violence potential involved in this domain.

Is that your primary critique then? I mean, those are two very attractive visions. And is your main critique that they are just utterly ignoring how it could all go wrong? That they’re only viewing this as creating a space economy, creating space hotels, creating lunar or Mars colonies, or deflecting asteroids — but they’re ignoring how all these technologies could be used for ill?

Yeah, that’s a general summation. The first key point is the ballistic missiles and space weapons. And then, looking at the larger future set of agendas that they advocate, colonization sits really at the center of it — millions, billions, or trillions of people living in space to make humanity a multi-planetary species. And their seemingly ace-in-the-hole argument is that the Earth is fragile — it’s vulnerable, it’s subject to all sorts of disasters. And therefore, we need to get all of our eggs out of this one frail basket.

Seems like a good argument.

At its surface, it does. And as they say, the reason the dinosaurs went extinct is because they didn’t have a space program.

So let’s look at what would be entailed in humanity becoming a multi-planetary species: colonization of Mars, colonization of asteroids, and so forth. This would almost certainly produce an interstate anarchy. The assumption that the advocates make, and I think it’s well-founded, is that any colony which is big enough to provide existential risk insurance will be big enough to become politically independent. And once it becomes politically independent, we have to expect the same types of dynamics that have been characteristic of Earth history and interstate anarchy.

Then we read the terrain, and we see immediately that it’s got this inherently enormous violence potential. And that’s because these objects — asteroids, even space debris — are moving so rapidly. The reason these asteroids are so destructive when they strike the Earth is not because of their mass, but because of their mass combined with their velocity. And so this is an environment that is inherently far more violent than any environment that we have dealt with on the Earth.

So I asked the question: What is going to be the likelihood that we’ll have — as we have on Earth — wars and violent rivalries in what I call the Solar Archipelago? One factor, of course, would be the issues of mutual vulnerability, which I argue would be extremely high. The ratio of destructive capacity, like on Earth with nuclear weapons, is going to greatly exceed the territorial, habited locations. So saturation of violence capacity will mark solar-orbital space. Even though, of course, there will be a recovery of distance — it won’t all be quick because Mars is tens of millions of miles away, at least.

Then you asked the question about rivalries over frontier resources. The historical record on Earth is that frontiers are very violent places. Rivalries for making claims will be very likely. So we have a war-prone argument there.

Another factor: To what degree are the units like one another? On Earth, we think that units that are like one another — particularly if they are democracies — are less war-prone towards one another, and I think that colonies in space are likely to become very different than places on Earth. The advocates all say this. It seems intuitively obvious. And the most important difference that will invariably emerge will be a very fundamental one: biological species radiation. This is to say that the human species will start branching. This will occur inevitably, slowly, through processes of Darwinian evolution. But many of the advocates insist that we will do this more quickly with genetic engineering.

And so it’s not only that we’re going to have multiple bodies in the solar system inhabited, they will be inhabited over time, almost inevitably, by intelligent species — at least as intelligent as us, with at least our levels of technology. But they will be radically different in their biological character than humans on the Earth.

Look at all of the violence which has been sparked and justified by minor cosmetic skin-color differences on Earth, and think about what would happen if we have really different species. Let your imagination go here. The biological potentials for variation are enormous. It might well be that insectoid body forms will prove more appealing in space environments.

And so we will have eventually a solar system that will be inhabited by aliens, but they will be descendants of Earthlings. And that to me is a very unappealing future. And I think that it’s almost an inevitable one once we cross over that crucial threshold to have a colony that is politically independent.

Would that be your worst-case scenario? Look, I’d like a space economy. I would like there to be some space hotels. Maybe we do some manufacturing, see what happens.


Space infrastructure

So I’m assuming that was your worst-case scenario. Do you have a positive space story? One that concerns you far less, at least?

Tourism, within the larger scheme of things, is really kind of a trivial pursuit.

In terms of space resources, we’re talking here primarily about the extraction of valuable metals from asteroids. That’s a civil technology that would require the ability to alter the orbits of masses of asteroidal material and asteroids in the solar system. Presumably, you’re going to insert these bodies into Earth orbit. So you’ll have to have highly precise capabilities to alter their orbits. And of course, we would also want to develop technologies to alter their orbits so that we can avoid them colliding with the Earth (although that’s not really a short-term problem).

And so I look at this as a civil technology and I say, “How distinctive is this from the military technology?” And the answer is, it’s almost none. It’s a question of the trajectory. Once you have the technologies to alter the trajectories of asteroid-size bodies in the solar system, you’re going to have to tap into a violence capacity that will be millions of times greater than all nuclear weapons combined. So I say that allowing private enterprise to develop asteroidal mining, as seems to be the preferred American scenario, is kind of like allowing private enterprise to develop and have hydrogen bombs. It’s just not a good idea because of the enormous destructive potential.

Many of the scenarios for near-Earth envision giant infrastructures in orbit. A favorite is collecting solar energy from orbit — we have this problem of immense importance with regard to the carbon loading of the atmosphere, and there’s lots of energy that can be collected in space and beamed down to the Earth.

But thinking about that as an economic proposition, or even an ecological proposition, is insufficient. We have to also think about it as a political and military proposition. My view is that it’s not going to be possible to develop infrastructures in near-Earth space until we have overcome interstate rivalry. Think about the Chunnel between France and Britain. It’s unthinkable in a situation of interstate rivalry.

So it could be that the creation of this apparatus — I call this Orbita — would require the pacification of interstate relations. That’s potentially good news. But the potentially bad news is that whoever controls Orbita would be able to control the Earth because these enormous quantities of energy could be readily weaponized to shoot down anything coming up from the Earth. So it’s like we have a village and we’re going to build a big castle next to it. We’re going to have to expect that the village will get dominated by the castle.


Hedging existential risk

Regarding inter-solar system conflicts, why would you be more worried about war with evolved insectoid humans than about an asteroid hitting the Earth? How do you begin to figure out which is riskier?

I’m worried about the asteroid-hitting-the-Earth scenario. I’m not sure how to figure out which of those scenarios is more likely. But I know the one has happened before, and they keep telling us that it’s only a matter of time before it’ll happen again.

That’s right, it is just a matter of time. It might be a long time before a significantly large one strikes. But you make a very good point, and you’ve asked me if I have a positive vision of space. I lay out what I call an Earth-oriented space program, which does include the development of techniques to deflect asteroids. But it should only be done by a consortium of states and should not be coupled with the development of economic exploitation.

And look, if we do have asteroidal mining, then I think it’s very unlikely that actors of magnitude on the Earth would support colonization. If this is the great bonanza of mineral resources, the last thing we would want to do is to create a rival Mars, in particular that would be in a much more proximate location to exploit these. So I think that as the prospect of Martian colonization starts to become a real possibility, these types of concerns are going to be increasingly evident to people. This is what I refer to as the second great debate about solar-orbital space: What should we do? And I think that as it becomes real, these objections will become increasingly compelling to large numbers of actors on the Earth.

What you’re ideally recommending is, I suppose, you would have us wait to go into space almost completely until we have a much different geopolitical situation here on Earth. And it seems like we’re going in just the opposite direction — it seems like we’re actually having intensive competition. So I would assume you would find that worrying.

Yeah. I think that the directions that we’re headed in are largely disaster-prone. And of course, one of the directions that we’re going in that never gets talked about is continuing to modernize, replace, and improve the nuclear weapon delivery system. That is, as I said earlier, this major space program that we don’t acknowledge as such. And the United States has, during the Trump era, declared the objective of dominating space. And this is something that has long been talked about by various military visionaries. But this was an important threshold that we have crossed.

The SpaceX Corporation, as I’m sure everyone listening to this podcast knows, has lowered significantly the cost of accessing near-Earth orbit — by a kind of order of magnitude, perhaps. And they have these plans to build even larger rockets that they make claims about even further reducing the cost of accessing near-Earth orbit. And this is widely hailed as a great advance.

I look at this, and I say, “Well, it’s going to lower the cost of doing stuff in space.” And the question then is: Which of this stuff is going to get done? And of course, immediately the military is interested. The idea that we can dominate space is going to depend upon having the capacity to put significant mass into orbital space.

So I think that we have been misperceiving the overall character of this environment. We’ve been misrepresenting the actual effects to date. And when we get rid of this “Oh it’s going to all be so wonderful” mentality and critically examine what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen, we have a very different picture.

And I want to emphasize that I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to technology generally, but humanity over the course of the 20th century has started to develop technologies that are extremely potent, double-edged swords. And the question that we have to confront is whether we have the ability to steer the use of these technologies so that we get the benefits without getting the downsides. And our record so far is not very promising.

But we haven’t used nuclear weapons. In fact, the United States reached agreements with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear weapons. And you could say we’ve even over-corrected because our fear of radiation has led us to abandon nuclear power. So hasn’t the record shown that we have been able to handle these weapons and that, if anything, we’ve been overly cautious when it comes to dealing with new technologies that could have a great benefit?

Well, that would be a long conversation. And with regard to nuclear weapons, we have a fundamental epistemological problem here: What is the probability of nuclear war?

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy said he thought it was between one-in-three and one-in-two. And knowing what we now know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was clearly more likely than that. So do we look at the Cuban Missile Crisis and say, “Hey, no problem here”? Or do we look at it and say, “We were really lucky”? There’s a fundamental disagreement about nuclear weapons that we really can’t resolve by appealing to the empirical evidence. And that fact alone should be very sobering to us.

But I think that if you looked at this without any sort of theoretical presumptions and said, “Is it really a good idea to have thousands of high-yield thermonuclear weapons prepared for nearly instant use?” That strikes me as a bad idea. And, you know, some people say, “Well, that’s what saves us.” But look at this as a case study: The only way we can deal with nuclear weapons is by building large numbers of them and have them posed for immediate use? That strikes me as a very limited adjustment.

So do you think that ultimately we’re going to have to get lucky again? There seems to be a lot more interest in space. And that interest is obviously among countries who have major disagreements and who view space as both an economic opportunity and as a military necessity. So it seems like the scenario going forward is a multipolar space race with an uncertain conclusion.

That’s right. That’s clearly where we’re headed now.

One of the important things to remember about space is the basic geography. We think that we’ve left the planet when we have gone beyond the atmosphere, but I argue that this is a geographic error — the area around the terrestrial Earth that is dominated by the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields is really part of the planet. I call that the “astrosphere.” We have the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and also the astrosphere.

We tend to think of the astrosphere as being incredibly large. And of course space generally, even solar space, is mind-bogglingly large. But the astrosphere, and particularly the lower parts of it where almost all activities have occurred, is in practical terms actually smaller than the atmosphere. And that’s because, while the volume has gone up, the velocities that are necessary to operate there have gone up by even greater amounts. And so effective distance within the astrosphere is much lower than it is within the atmosphere. So people have fundamentally misperceived this environment — it actually is small.

And then you go back into the earlier predictions about space: No one thought about space debris. No one said, “Oh yeah, this is going to become quickly polluted in ways that will be very problematic.” It’s part of this tendency to use bad analogies. People say, “Oh well, the ocean. The Europeans went out onto the ocean, centuries of expansion occurred and great wealth and prosperity and so forth resulted.” But this is a very misleading analogy.

To start with, the ships that have existed since oceanic transportation developed are not shuttling around the ocean at high velocities. Half the satellites that have been put into orbit are still there — dead, hurtling around at very high velocities, over time breaking up and colliding with things. So if you want an ocean analogy, it’s more like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, or maybe even the Aral Sea. For a frontier that has barely been opened, we already have this level of degradation that greatly exceeds what we have with the ocean. So there’s been this basic misperception of this domain.


Principles for space policy

To wrap up, what would you advise? You view this as the beginning stage of something that could prove very dangerous. Better to figure out now what we need to do and talk with other countries so we can figure this out sooner rather than later. So then what would you advise the United States to do as far as space policy?

Well, I lay out an Earth-oriented space program. And the first step would be to continue undoing the ballistic-missile-ization of the nuclear delivery system. One of the implications of that argument is that we have another space program that we don’t recognize as a space program: what we call nuclear arms control. It has never been primarily about nuclear weapons, per se. It’s been about delivery vehicles, most of which have been ballistic missiles. And as you say, at the drawdown at the end of the Cold War, we made important steps in this direction. What we call nuclear arms control is to a first approximation space weapons arms control. It’s our most successful space program in the sense of its benefit to avoid catastrophic and existential disasters. So the first step would be to continue that, to complete that revolution.

Then we should use space for Earth habitability studies. We should do space science on a larger scale in virtually every dimension. If we want to have humans in space, that’s built on our other important historical accomplishment, the International Space Station. Instead of a free-for-all for lunar resources, let’s build an international science cooperative base on the moon with the Russians and the Chinese involved as well.

And insofar as asteroids striking the Earth are a potential problem, we need to do better surveys. And if we want to have demonstrations, this should only be done on a cooperative basis. We do not want this technology to get weaponized. That’s something very important.

As for the colonization scenario, we should relinquish that. We should draw a red line. No colonies. We do not want to pursue them. And the reason is that we have got the story backward. The dinosaurs, they tell us, were wiped out because they didn’t have a space program. I say the dinosaurs lasted 200 million years because they didn’t have a space program. And you say, “Ah, the Earth — all of our eggs are in one fragile basket.” I say, if we have multiple space colonies, we’ll have dispersed eggs, which will be subject to rock smashing, which will be easy and likely.

So we’ve got to get the narrative right. We have to stop thinking about this in this sort of a wonder-struck manner. There’s this famous quote that the advocates are always using from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the great Russian visionary: “Humanity is in its cradle, and humanity cannot stay in its cradle forever.” The implication being, we have to leave the cradle of the Earth and expand into the cosmos. I look at that little quote and I say, “Well, we also recognized that the ideas that infants have in their cradle, that children have, are not good guides for adult behavior.” It’s essentially an infantile vision, and we need a much more sober vision.