Sustainability and space exploration

A picture of our backyard oak tree, the sun shining between its branches. Credit: Edgar Zapata,

Oddly, one of the first books given to me when I arrived at NASA was for acronyms. Not what systems did or how they worked. Not flowrates. That would come later. First, acronyms. NASA had so many new things needing new words that it had turned grouping words together into an art. Somehow using only first letters sounded fluid. I now had a spell book gathering up all the incantations. “Confundo!”

There is a particularly important word a while now, “sustainability.” My first recollection of the word becoming fashionable was around 2006. Every program suddenly wore the phrase. It actually took a while before anyone asked what sustainable meant. About then, NASA began its short-lived Constellation program (soon canceled as unsustainable).

Definitions of sustainable came and went. Some definitions nearly said a project with a strong stakeholder was the picture of sustainable. An ease to survive had become an ease to sustain. An inevitable budget meant easily sustained. Unfortunately, this confuses demand with supply and can even reward the confusion.

The United Nations defines sustainable as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a much better definition than just some ability to go on, as it sets a bound on how to go on. This connects actions now to effects decades out. However, a good turn of a phrase may not do it. Sometimes it takes a good story, like “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. This wonderful book will leave anyone wondering if we understand the idea of what’s “sustainable” at all. It’s a story where trees are as central as people. You will never look at that tree in your yard the same way.

Unsaid in all this, what do we measure when asking what’s sustainable. Do you look at the health of the forest or only check the orders for paper? Checking for a programs budget persisting is a lot like checking the orders for paper. We may see more orders, for a lunar rover here, a probe there, but we should be just as concerned with what capability is real and growing.

Even accepting this reorientation is necessary, it may not be sufficient.

There’s an insight in “The Overstory” for our aerospace world. A sustainable space exploration program not only grows for future generations, it’s healthy, diverse, and vibrant – an economic and technical ecosystem full of possibility. Repeating missions can be a lot like repeating trees, not improving the health of the forest. We can re-grow forests, copy of tree after tree, managed and curated, or as a character in Power’s book reminds us, “You can also arrange Beethoven’s ninth for solo kazoo.”

Which leads to some thoughts on our space sector, first, the obvious, that being sustainable is not just about demand, and it’s not just the next step either, curating some supply. It’s more, about having a growing and complex system. Under every felled log, we should find a next level of connections, fine-tuned yet adaptable balances of competition, not only what’s planned and predictable. In a space exploration economic ecosystem, we should too, or something is not quite right or sustainable.

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