The last post got me thinking a lot about energy, especially how we use it, and as a consequence, how dependent we are upon energy. So I put together this really simple flow chart that shows four general steps used in our civilization to go from raw material to final product. This is a very broad generality, as every specific example is a variation on this. For example petroleum production combines refining and manufacturing into one step, producing products such as diesel and gasoline (among other products). For something like an automobile that uses gas or diesel fuels, it will take many refined products to manufacture a final product (the automobile), which will then consume the petroleum product (the energy) producing waste (exhaust primarily).
And therein lies a fundamental problem of going into space. Our current civilization is totally dependent upon the profligate use of energy in order to transform raw materials extracted from the Earth and transformed into items we can use. There’s even additional steps in this basic flow, logistics, which consists of transportation and the energy required to move any of this “stuff” around and storage to hold it all until it’s finally used. Whatever we do, it requires some sort of material input, mixed with energy that produces a transformation as well as waste byproducts. It’s bad enough on Earth. But in space it’s an even worse waste. Consider that the ISS uses the resupply cargo ships as garbage incinerators. After pulling the new material out of the cargo ship, all waste is put back into the emptied ship, then allowed to undock and plummet back to Earth, where it’s incinerated. All that trash literally gets dumped back to Earth, usually over a lot of heads as finely burnt ash due to re-entry.
Going into space means more than just building the ships to get us there and the habitats to live there. It means a fundamental re-think of how we live off the universe. Because the way we do it now is fundamentally unsustainable, either on Earth, and especially off.