It’s true that one doesn’t often actually call the first installment of something “1” unless they’re planning a series, but if previous Analog editorial and AV columnists are anyone to go by, there’s a good chance I’ll wind up revisiting this format in the future: after all, not every science-fictional thought rattling around in my head has enough substance to fill an entire editorial, so why not put a few of them together? There’s no pattern here as far as I can tell, though I may look back at the collected shape of things and see something larger, or a perceptive reader might notice a preoccupation I didn’t even know I had, but we’ll find that out together, I suppose. It’s also possible that one or more of the “editorialettes” here may stick in my craw for so long that it grows into a full-fledged editorial later on, but we’ll
burn cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s begin.
* * *
Unlikely, but Potentially Catastrophic
I was watching outtakes from one of the many “Comedian Hosts a Talk Show About Politics” programs that exist on any number of channels and streaming services now, and when I watch them, it’s generally for entertainment, not political insight (which is their ultimate purpose, although a succinct summary or clever turn of phrase does have its value). But in this particular case, I was notably disappointed.
An audience member asked the young host: “How much do you care about space tourism? Why should we go/not go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond?” The host asked the questioner their own opinion of the subject, to which they replied, “Uh, no. I don’t see the point,” and the host concurred. “I agree. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t get it. All these billionaires have all this money. Save Earth.” A round of applause.
This magazine has spent decades arguing for space travel, manned or unmanned, to the Moon or Mars or elsewhere, via myriad methods and technologies, with various missions and motivations: exploration, colonization, and more. So you’re likely already familiar with the counter arguments; you already see the flaws in that way of thinking.
It is true that you don’t see the billionaires who are investing in private space travel also swooping in and, say, making sure that Flint, MI has clean water. But that’s just a good argument for why we shouldn’t depend on the largesse of the wealthy for public benefit—charity is no substitute for at least some level of a social safety net. And space tourism isn’t exactly what I would consider the highest goal of space travel, either.
But it’s also not an either/or question. I’ve seen arguments that we should “solve climate change first,” but while the odds of being killed by an asteroid impact are minuscule, the number of people who would be killed by a large impact is likely to be very great, and it’s worth considering just how wise it truly is for us to have all our eggs in one basket as a species, in the event of an extinction-level event. Even barring that, a large enough impact would also have major repercussions on our environment, potentially undoing any climate progress overnight: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs caused global temperatures to rise by 5 degrees C for 100,000 years.1, 2
So I have to wonder how many of the same people saying, “Save Earth first” also think that we need to clear our plates of all the problems we may have today before we get around to dealing with climate change, or that we should solve the problems in the U.S. before worrying about helping the rest of the world in any fashion. Perhaps in a better world, “pffing” about the value of space travel would carry the same stigma that climate denial currently does.
Because in the end, being able to multi-task as a species is very likely going to be a make-or-break trait for us; it doesn’t matter much to the frog whether you boil it or simply hit it with a hammer: the outcome for the frog is bad either way.
And now, somewhat contrariwise:
* * *
On March 13, 2018, President Trump announced the creation of a “Space Force,” a sixth branch of the armed forces, dedicated to combat in space. (The House Armed Services Committee voted to create a similar “Space Corps” the year prior.) He then followed up with a directive in February of this year formally authorizing its creation, albeit under the Air Force (pending Congressional approval).
Then, on July 13, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a French national Space Force. No doubt others will follow in time—many countries are rightly concerned to value the security of their satellites. (Unspoken: they also value the ability to disable each other’s satellites).
It’s a prudent enough idea at face value (contrary to the sub-title, I don’t actually think it’s a farce; I just can’t resist a pun). Satellites are vital to our infrastructure even outside of military purposes. And you may expect this publication’s editorial position to be “pro-space,” which it is (see the prior sub-section) . . . but even the best intentions are no substitute for critical thinking. There are a number of factors that make this less than the obvious move it might seem to be. For example:
The initial expenditure is only (“only”) 72 million dollars for personnel for the first year, but Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson put the five-year cost at $13 billion.3 Former Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed the creation of a new branch, “at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions.”4 In other words: it’s not exactly the sort of thing one would want if they were concerned about “small government.” It means more bureaucracy, more taxes.
Additionally, militarizing space runs the risk of incentivizing other countries to militarize as well. A February 2019 statement from Dr. Laura Grego, of the Union of Concerned Scientists (specifically their Global Security Program, and “an expert in satellites and space weapons”) said, “Space is important to militaries, that’s true, but it is only a small piece of what happens up there. Eighty percent of the nearly 2,000 satellites are civilian, providing critical communications and economic services for humanity’s well-being. We need to take care of space. If concentrating authority in a space force creates an incentive for nations to build space weapons that increase the likelihood of conflict, it would be a profoundly bad idea. There are much better ways to protect satellites.”5 Kicking off an arms race in space is unlikely to be beneficial for anyone in the long term; anyone who remembers the ’80s can likely attest to that.
Further, there just seems to be an overall lack of vision (or perhaps understanding) at the top. The Air Force’s opinion here is perhaps best summed up in an article in Air Force Magazine, which says: “By contrast [to the creation of the Air Force in 1947], however, the U.S. today possesses no weapons in space, nor does it have a defined strategy or doctrine for when or how to fight in space. America’s space assets make us more aware and more precise, but they are not the stuff of an independent armed force. Not yet.”6
So ultimately, we must ask ourselves, as an article on BreakingDefense put it: “What problem is the Space Force trying to solve?”7 With so much about the plan up in the air, the answer to that, it seems, is primarily a political one.
* * *
Thoughts and Prayers
I started writing this editorial intending to talk about the proposed telescope on Mauna Kea, but that situation seems to be headed toward a resolution (though I still may discuss it at a later point), and while I was gathering my thoughts, America had another pair of mass shootings over the weekend—one in El Paso and one in Dayton—plus a shooter on the Houston freeway and several scares and attempts at other Walmarts.
We may actually see some movement toward universal background checks this time, though that’s unlikely to be as effective as a high capacity magazine ban, on things like the 100-round drum magazine that the Dayton shooter used. As known “anti-gun crusader” William B. Ruger8 said in 1993, “No honest man needs more than ten rounds in any gun,” and they certainly don’t need to be able to fire 41 shots in less than 30 seconds, as the Dayton shooter did.
In the meantime, the usual scapegoating of media, particularly video games and movies, (discussed here before in “The Blame Game” parts I & II, July/August 2013 and September 2013) as well as mental illness9 continues.
(Most gun deaths are suicides, and the second most lethal cause of gun deaths is gang violence, not mass shootings—as others have pointed out, mass shootings are relatively rare. It’s also true that humans are bad at feeling statistics accurately, in general (see also: the discussion of asteroid impacts above). Some have compared gun violence to deaths in car accidents, but that comparison falls apart when you consider the many restrictions we put on drivers, and when you ponder what we’d likely do if pile-ups that kill 22 people in a single go were a semi-routine occurrence. After all, dying in a mass shootings are about as likely as international terrorism but then again, how much sweat, blood, and treasure have we spent trying to address that?)
It’s unlikely any real solution is in the wings, but at least I can’t see any ads for Call of Duty at Walmart when I pop in to buy an AR-15.
* * *
In Times to Come
This isn’t the real “In Times to Come”—that’s on p. 165. You can and should read it for a little more information about what I talk about here. But as many of you may know, 2020 is going to be Astounding/Analog’s 90th anniversary year, and the January/February issue is the 90th anniversary of our very first issue. Something we’ll be doing that requires a little explanation is a series of limited retrospectives over the year: each issue we’re running a reprint from one of our past decades, with an introduction (in the editorial/guest-editorial space) talking about it either as a historical artifact, an overlooked gem, or just a personal favorite—a story that an editor or knowledagable author found interesting for whatever reason but didn’t have an appropriate venue in which to chat about it.
The goal is to cover the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the thinking being that most of the material from the ’30s isn’t really reflective of the magazine’s later identity, and anything from 2000 on is too recent. We’re going to try to keep it to one story per decade, though the nature of the project (tracking down the rights to older material particularly) means that’s not entirely set in stone. Some of those decades had a lot of good stories! But we have to save some ideas for the centennial, after all.
We’ll be sure to go over this again in the next issue, so anyone who missed it here doesn’t think that reprints are going to be a regular occurrence in the future.
* * *
2 See Marianne Dyson’s “In Defense of the Planet,” in the November/December 2018 issue, for more.
8 I kid. He co-founded Sturm, Ruger & Company firearms manufacturing, of course.
9 In a statement, President Trump said, “Mental illness and hate pull the trigger.” He’s half right—there’s no correlation between mental health and violence. The best predictor of violent behavior is past violent behavior.