Looking up a century ago, a vision of the future of space exploration

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A statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Moscow, Russia.

Alice Gorman, Flinders University

In the early years of the 20th century a Russian scientist – now known as the father of astronautics and rocketry – wrote a fable exploring what life in space might be like in the future.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) suggested that, by 2017, war and conflict would be eliminated by a world government. He also proposed this as the year humanity would acquire the technology to travel beyond the Earth.

That’s 60 years after this happened in reality. So now that 2017 has been and gone, just how accurate were his other predictions?

Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth

What makes Tsiolkovsky’s story – later published in English in 1960 as Outside the Earth – so intriguing is that he assembled a fictional dream team of the finest scientific minds from the 16th to 20th centuries to build a rocket capable of reaching orbit.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

The scientists included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Tsiolkovsky himself (under the pseudonym of Ivanov).

Using the voice of these legends of science, Tsiolkovsky described not only the practical aspects, but also the sensations and emotions of living in space. It’s an extraordinary feat of the imagination.

Let’s look at how Tsiolkovsky’s thought experiment shapes up against reality.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky made many drawings of his ideas throughout his life, including this idea for a spacecraft from 1883.

A rocket’s eye view

Seen from orbit, space travellers are often struck by the beauty and fragility of the Earth and experience a cognitive shift of awareness. This is known as the Overview Effect and has been reported by astronauts and cosmonauts since the 1960s.

View of the Earth from the cupola on the International Space Station.

Tsiolkovsky anticipated this. In Outside the Earth, Newton warns the rocket crew that they may find the sight of the Earth overwhelming; and indeed there are mixed reactions:

The men were stunned by the sight, some felt exhausted and moved away from the portholes […] Others, however, darted excitedly from porthole to porthole with cries of surprise and delight.

What they don’t experience, however, is another aspect of the Overview Effect: the realisation that national borders and terrestrial conflicts are ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps this is because our fictional cosmonauts are already living in a unified, peaceful world, something very far from where we are today.

In space, everyone is equal

Tsiolkovsky believed that the absence of gravity would erase social classes and promote equality.

In orbit, energy from the Sun is abundant and free. Little effort is needed to move heavy masses, so construction is cheap. Clothing is unnecessary because temperature can be easily regulated to a balmy 30 to 35 degrees Celsius. Beds and quilts are a thing of the past.

There’s no longer any difference between the resources available to rich and poor – everyone can live in a fancy microgravity palace if they want.

As appealing as this vision is, in reality space travel is still the preserve of the very wealthy, whether individuals or nations. If anything, we risk differential access to space resources increasing, rather than eroding, inequality on Earth.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: just one of several companies involved in space tourism to get people into space, at a cost.
MarsScientific.com/Virgin Galactic

The orbital diaspora

Once our fictional explorers have successfully tested their rocket, they share the technology with anyone who wants to migrate to space.

Thousands of rockets are launched into geostationary orbit – the place where most of our telecommunications satellites are today, about 35,000km above the Earth.

The colonists build orbital greenhouse habitats. Each is a cylinder 1,000×10m, housing 100 people. A soil-filled pipe runs through the centre, supporting a luxuriant ecosystem of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Without seasons, weeds or pests, there’s abundant food for our vegetarian colonists all year round.

In reality, people started living in orbit far earlier than Tsiolkovsky predicted. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in 1971.

The International Space Station has been permanently occupied in low Earth orbit for the past 17 years. But there’s no orbiting ring of habitats where people can escape the hardships of life on Earth.

The International Space Station.

We now know that microgravity has serious effects on the human body, including loss of bone density and impaired vision. Living in space also means exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. In any case, the cost of space travel is prohibitive for all but a tiny portion of the Earth’s population.

Mining the solar system

Of course, resources are needed to maintain the orbital life described by Tsiolkovsky. Newton and his rocket crew learn how to capture meteors and find that they contain an abundance of useful minerals: iron, nickel, silica, alumina, feldspar, various oxides, graphite and much more.

From these minerals, Newton says, building materials, oxygen for breathing, soil for plants and even water can be extracted.

While the orbital colonists are building their habitats, the rocket heads to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A quick survey shows:

[… ] a rich and inexhaustible source of material for establishing colonies beyond the Earth’s orbit.

Tsiolkovsky was right about the importance of off-Earth mining for future space economies. Here his prediction and real life are more aligned.

But while governments, private enterprises and researchers are pursuing the riches promised by the Moon and asteroids, there’s a long way to go before the technology is equal to the task.

The asteroid Lutetia, seen here at closest approach of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, is thought to have a high metallic content.

Leaving the cradle of Earth

A hundred years ago, Tsiolkovsky imagined that life in space would create an idyllic egalitarian society where people basked in orbiting greenhouses, drinking in the limitless energy of the Sun.

Instead, the wreckage of rockets and satellites orbits the Earth, splintering into ever smaller fragments that mirror the plastics proliferating in the oceans.

Read more:
Trash or treasure? A lot of space debris is junk, but some is precious heritage

As space-for-profit competes with space as the common heritage of humanity, it’s worth remembering that there are alternative visions of the future of human society, other worlds that we can aspire to.

In one thing we have far surpassed Tsiolkovsky’s vision. At the conclusion of Outside the Earth, his cosmonaut-scientists talk of journeying from Mercury to the Rings of Saturn.

The ConversationCould he have imagined that, by 2018, the Voyager spacecraft would not only be travelling outside the Earth, but outside the Solar System?

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky still looks to space as there’s a statue of him outside the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, in Brisbane.
Duncan Waldron, Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, Author provided

Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Blogger incarcerated after writing about conversion, criticizing Islamic judiciary.

LOS ANGELES, January 28 (Compass Direct News) – Five months after the daughter of a member of Saudi Arabia’s religious police was killed for writing online about her faith in Christ, Saudi authorities have reportedly arrested a 28-year-old Christian man for describing his conversion and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his Web site.

Saudi police arrested Hamoud Bin Saleh on Jan. 13 “because of his opinions and his testimony that he had converted from Islam to Christianity,” according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Bin Saleh, who had been detained for nine months in 2004 and again for a month last November, was reportedly being held in Riyadh’s Eleisha prison.

On his web site, which Saudi authorities have blocked, Bin Saleh wrote that his journey to Christ began after witnessing the public beheading of three Pakistanis convicted of drug charges. Shaken, he began an extensive study of Islamic history and law, as well as Saudi justice. He became disillusioned with sharia (Islamic law) and dismayed that kingdom authorities only prosecuted poor Saudis and foreigners.

“I was convinced that the wretched Pakistanis were executed in accordance with the Muhammadan laws just because they are poor and have no money or favored positions, which they had no control or power over,” he wrote in Arabic in his Dec. 22 posting, referring to “this terrible prejudice in the application of justice in Saudi Arabia.”

A 2003 graduate in English literature from Al Yarmouk University in Jordan, Bin Saleh’s research led him to an exploration of other faiths, and in his travels he gained access to a Bible.

“My mind was persistently raising questions and desperately seeking answers,” he wrote. “I went on vacations to read about comparative religion, and I got the Bible, and I used to give these books to anyone before going back to Saudi, as going back there with such books is considered an unforgivable crime which will throw its perpetrator in a dark jail.”

After reading how Jesus forgave – rather than stoned – a woman condemned for adultery, Bin Saleh eventually received Christ as savior.

“Jesus . . . took us beyond physical salvation as he offered us forgiveness that is the salvation of eternal life and compassion,” he wrote. “Just look and ask for the light of God; there might be no available books to help you make a comparative study between the teachings of Muhammad (which are in my opinion a series of political, social, economical and human disasters) and the teaching of Jesus in Saudi Arabia, but there are many resources on the Web by which you might get to the bosom/arms of the Father of salvation. Seek salvation and you will reach it; may the Lord keep you from the devil’s pitfalls.”

With the Quran and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna) as its constitution, Saudi Arabia enforces a form of sharia derived from 18th-century Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab that calls for the death penalty for “blasphemy,” or insulting Islam or its prophet, Muhammad. Likewise, conversion from Islam to another faith, “apostasy,” is punishable by death, although the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report notes that there have been no confirmed reports of executions for either blasphemy or apostasy in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the state department report.

A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C. would neither confirm the Jan. 13 arrest of Bin Saleh nor comment on the reasons for it.


Previous Arrests

Writing that both Islam and Saudi Arabia promote injustice and inequality, Bin Saleh described himself as a researcher/writer bent on obtaining full rights of the Christian minority in Saudi Arabia.

He noted on his now-banned Web site (“Masihi Saudi,” at http://christforsaudi.blogspot.com ) that he had been arrested twice, the first time in Beirut, Lebanon on Jan. 18, 2004. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office there had notified Saudi authorities that he had been accepted as a “refugee for ideological persecution reasons,” he wrote, but a few days later intelligence agents from the Saudi embassy in Beirut, “with collusion of Lebanese authorities and the government of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Al-Hariri,” turned him over to Saudi officials.

After nine months of detention in Saudi Arabia, he was released but banned from traveling, writing and appearing in media.

He was arrested a second time on Nov. 1, 2008. “I was interrogated for a month about some articles by which I condemned the Saudi regime’s violation of human rights and [rights of] converts to Christianity,” he wrote.

During a Saudi-sponsored, inter-faith dialogue conference at U.N. headquarters in New York involving representatives from 80 countries on Nov. 12-13, according to ANHRI, Saudi authorities released Bin Saleh, then promptly re-arrested him after it was over.

His November arrest came a little less than a year after political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; Al-Farhan was released in April 2008.

In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian.

Gulfnews.com reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.

She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.  

Report from Compass Direct News