Thursday, February 4, 2010

Farewell to the moon

It is a strange moment when you see an once cutting edge technology die. Of course, the common wisdom of our age – the so-called myth of progress – claims it cannot happen. Technologies may be made obsolete, they can turn out to be dead ends, but it is unthinkable for a whole avenue of progress to simply close down. That is exactly what has happened, however, when President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, and that tells a lot about the fate of technology in a energy poor future.

It took only nine years to the United States to land a man on the Moon, yet its technology was rudimentary by today's standards. Computers were slow and bulky and the Apollo spacecraft itself was launched by primitive rockets using a kind of kerosene as fuel. At the time, what has come to be considered as a mere prestige project was widely seen as a stepping stone. During my teen years – some twenty years ago – it was still widely expected that by the beginning of the twenty first century we would have some kind of moon base and that Mars would soon follow.

Science-Fiction, which never intended to predict the future but is a good indicator of a society's expectations, was more or less on the same line. All movies or TV series of the time, from the genial 2001 to the abysmally bad Space 1999 expected moon bases to be fully established and maned expeditions to be launched toward the outer solar system.

Needless to say, we are a far cry from it. The satellite market is thriving, but space exploration and colonization is at standstill, if not declining. Space shuttles – a technology nearly thirty years old – are no longer being replaced and their Russian and European counterparts have long been canceled. The International Space Station, supplied today by Russian rockets, has disappeared from the news and aside from a few specialists and enthusiasts most people don't even know it exists.

There is little doubt than both the shuttles and the ISS won't be replaced when they will go out of service. The expertise which made them possible will be lost as skilled personnel retires and dies, and the Moon will forever drift out of reach, no matter what space cadets dream of and politician say.

This is not the first technology to fall out of use. During the late sixties, supersonic planes were the wave of the future and the British and French governments cooperated to design and build a cutting edge airliner called Concorde. The project disastrously collided with the first oil shock and never recovered. Few planes were build. Lines were progressively discontinued until only one remained, between London, Paris and New York. The Paris 2000 crash put an end to it, and while commercial operations resumed a year later, they were quickly and quietly discontinued.

This pattern is likely to repeat itself as the decline in net energy available to our society makes keeping an advanced technology more and more difficult. There won't be any technological cliff, no abrupt return to the Middle-Age. Technologies will just loose momentum as the resources needed to advance them become scarcer and scarcer. They will become more and more restricted socially and geographically even as they become more and more advanced until they are reserved to a tiny elite. They then will fade out of public perception. Manufacturing will cease, for lack of a market, even though the technology itself will continue to be used, as it is the case today for the shuttle.

It is only when the lasts computers or the last cars are scrapped that the technology will have been truly abandoned, but that will happen long after the closure of the last factory and the death of the last engineer. We can be pretty sure, for instance, that the warlords of the late twenty first century will use armored vehicles, even though they will be thoroughly unable to build them. Such heirlooms may even prove very valuable strategic assets.

Of course the process will vary for every individual technology. Some, such as the car or the plane, may be 'phased out' in favor of 'greener', more 'advanced' alternatives, which will just happen to be available only to the wealthy. Others will continue to improve, but these improvement will be restricted to narrower and narrower sections of the population while the rest of us do in increasingly large numbers with older models. In the end the result will be the same : stagnation, end of manufacturing, then slow and quiet abandonment.

The cancellation of the Constellation Program is only another step on the way to the abandonment of an unsustainable technology. It shows, however,the way our whole technological civilization will go as the resource needed to maintain our industrial and social infrastructure grow short. A slow slide into stagnation followed by a long descent into irrelevance.


  1. Hiya Damien, calling from Ireland. Came across your blog from the archdruid site. Not sure I agree about impending doom but times are changing in so many ways. You present some compelling insights and arguments, and so I hope to read some more in the future.

    I was particularly interested in how little discussion about the abandonment of space exploration has taken place publically. The official line is that money must be spent wisely on scientific research that results in specific economic gains. We, therefore, rely on the scientific community to discover/invent the elixir of modern life - unlimted fuels sources. Who knows, it may come.

    As for discourse, not only have we Irish lost our heads over real estate, we've lost our ability to talk. A typical conversation employs a few chosen sound-bites gleaned from the media when discussing anything other than gossip. Serious discussion, usually taken with good humour, died when our govt decided old people needed to be removed from sight.

    C'est la vie

  2. Dia Dhuit, tgmac. Bruno Etienne, who happened to be one of my teachers used to say real game-changing events are rarely noticed by contemporaries. That means they are also rarely discussed. Indeed, the party line is that scientists will somewhat come up with some new energy source which will somewhat solve all our problems. That's magical thinking. Real science needs time and resources and it is subject to the decreasing returns. The fact it is more and more focused on narrower and narrower fields is a symptom of those decreasing returns.

    Ireland certainly have had a wild affair with laissez-faire capitalism, and that was certainly a bad idea, but I am not so sure it is atypical as to the lack of meaningful debate. In all societies debates take place within fairly limited bounds. Questioning growth and progress is still outside those bounds - the Green's intellectual contortions are quite telling in that matter.

    It is changing, but unfortunately it will take time, probably too much