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Climate Change and Spaceflight: Is There A Connection?

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I was struck by the relationship between climate change and spaceflight while rereading lately Jared Diamond’s fascinating 2004 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The broad premise of Diamond’s book is that societies have collapsed many times in the past and that we may understand how and why this occurred. He contends that these disasters in human history are the result of a confluence of five major elements: (1) environmental damage resulting in resource depletion; (2) climate change; (3) hostile neighbors; (4) loss of trade partners; and (5) a society’s responses to its challenges (p. 15).

Diamond applies this analytic model to several past civilizations, including Easter Island (this society collapsed due mostly to environmental damage), the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island (environmental damage and loss of trading partners), the Anasazi of the Southwestern United States (environmental damage and climate change), the Maya of Central America (environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors), and the Greenland Norse (who collapsed because of all five factors). He also includes a few success stories from history as well—especially in Tikopia, New Guinea, and Japan—before moving on to more recent societies.

This is a sweeping analysis; one with much to offer those interested in effecting public policy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Diamond contends that environmental damage, resource depletion, and climate change all portend disastrous consequences for the future. On the other hand, he has confidence that humanity can respond to these challenges but that the time for action has arrived.

This book received considerable attention when first published in 2004, but no one has applied these ideas to space policy. Jared Diamond’s concern with environmental damage and resource depletion lends credence to an element of the pro-space community who believe that humanity has a finite period of time to colonize other worlds before the resources on Earth are unable to sustain human migration.

Some space advocates have asserted that resource depletion—and perhaps environmental degradation and climate change as well—will ensure that resources on Earth necessary for interplanetary travel will become more precious in future years. Because of this in 1970 some members of this community formed the Committee for the Future (CFF) with the central purpose, as stated in its charter: “To survive and realize the common aspiration of all people for a future of unlimited opportunity, this generation must begin now to find the means of converting the planets into life support systems for the race of Men.”

The CFF has evolved over the years and eventually ceased to exist but its central ideas have remained. In 1988 some inheritors of it legacy formed the Space Frontier Foundation “To advocate expansion of human presence to other parts of the solar system as a counter to “the image held by many young people that the future will be worse than the present, and [to] reject the idea that the world’s greatest moments are in its past.” This sense of impending societal decline—Diamond would call it collapse—is certainly present in the spaceflight community and escape is the option most often advocated. The elements of Diamond’s arguments serve as useful points of discussion of this aspect of spaceflight history and advocacy.

Roger Launius is a curator the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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