Smile and say "Space Debris!"
Image Credit: NASA
On July 20th, 1969 two men stepped on the surface of the moon. The landing was historic, the world was enthralled, and the team was hailed has international heroes. Twelve days prior, a popular band named Canned Heat released their fourth album titled Hallelujah with a very different perspective on the lunar landing. The song “Poor Moon” is a sorrowful dialogue between the band’s guitarist Alan Wilson and our natural satellite. Wilson was a strong conservationist, and throughout his life he championed the protection of the natural world. With landings on the moon and talk of lunar colonies, the horrifying prospect that the face of the moon would be subject to pollution terrified the young activist. Though long term human habitation in space is generally considered to be a crowning achievement for our species, there is still the fear that such plans would be corrupted by those who do not respect the peaceful ambitions of scientists.
The immediate dangers of soiling the lunar surface seem miniscule, especially considering the massive amount of resources it takes to get there. In the timeline of permanent human settlement however, there are centuries of potential sustained human presence and possibilities of pollution. Nuclear testing, garbage dumps, strip mines and piles of space junk are all fears voiced by environmentalists- and all of those fears are legitimate. As unfeasible and unimaginable these dangers may seem, the fact remains that the resources and willpower to carry out such devastating acts exist. For example, project A119 was an idea considered by the United States government in 1958 to detonate a nuclear weapon on the surface of the moon. The idea was that the flash from the explosion would be visible from Earth and become a morale booster during the Cold War. Fortunately, it was later determined that landing on the moon in the name of peace and science was a better morale booster than a military weapons test; thus launching the Apollo program.
The moon is not the only extraterrestrial location that raises concern. It is a well-known problem that debris and left over junk from various space programs is beginning to fill Earth’s orbit. Radioactive and toxic materials on board spacecraft have been widely criticized for their potential to rain devastating harm on communities should they deorbit. In the scientific community, it is often worried that bacteria carried on spacecraft will contaminate other planets, ruining our chances to examine the natural environment for indigenous life. These are only a few of the challenges that endanger the future of space flight.
However, in my personal experience, the men and women of the space community are some of the most kind and compassionate people I have ever met. The magnanimous attitude and grand hope for the future permeates the people who live, work and breathe space exploration. It is counterintuitive to imagine that the same people who so badly wish to see humanity advance would knowingly ruin the untarnished splendor of space. That’s why it is critical for we in the space industry to understand that if our species is to continue to expand the scope of space capabilities, we must emphasize ecologic responsibility. In the past, industries have had terrible accidents that have polluted biomes with devastating effects. In the space industry, such a failure could impact hemispheres or even entire worlds. It is imperative that in the coming decades and centuries the methods to prevent such catastrophes and the systems to deal with them as they arise are in place.
For us, there is nothing we wish to see more than the proud exodus of mankind from Earth. The scope of this dream forces us to tread very carefully, however our species is entirely capable of taking measures to prevent disasters. In our quest to see our dreams come to fruition, we must embrace a responsible approach. With this in mind, let us continue boldly going forth.