Crossing the Threshold: Paul Weiland Talks about Space & Sustainability @ Arcosanti

Paul Weiland came by Arcosanti on his way to Washington DC. He was discussing his new book and the work that revolves around it. ( The book is called “Crossing the Threshold: Advancing into Space to benefit the Earth.”

Paul Wieland is a professional engineer (P.E.) who earned degrees in botany and mechanical engineering from the University of Louisville (Kentucky). From 1983 to 2005, he was a NASA civil servant at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, working primarily on developing the environmental control and life support systems for the International Space Station and other space missions. In 1991 he was a founding member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Life Support.

The Apollo Program and Kennedy’s Dream

Some people question whether JFK was a good president or not. There is but one reality though, while he was in office even though it was only for a few years, Kennedy had a major impact on many significant aspects of American life. The Apollo space program grew because of Kennedy’s strong support and vision. The conflicting realities of the 60s, only added to the complexity of life then. Weiland grew up in this context – in the 50s and 60s: space race; civil rights; and rising environmental and planetary awareness.

Earlier in the 50s, after Sputnick, there were concerns in America about the Soviets doing things we couldn’t in space and how this related to their winning the Cold War. In my conversation with him at the Arcosani Cafe, he recalled a recent movie that was done to honor a colleague that he worked with at NASA. October Sky was by a book Homer Hickam recently made into a movie that starred Laura Dern. It was about a boy who designs a rocket that goes up into the sky at a science fair early in the space race (50s).

Weiland says now that he believes that the Apollo Program was the alternative to direct war. It also showed people that America could again do great things in a relatively short period of time. Of course the climax of this program and its impact on Americans was when we walked the moon.

The Space Program Brought People together Towards a Global Consciousness

What Weiland sees as the major benefit was not that we beat the Soviets, but that we were able to on some level work together and see our humanity. While we may have conflicts on the ground, we can promote peaceful coexistence in space.

Another key aspect was the ability to go into space and see the earth from a wholly new perspective. Awareness of the planet (seeing our reflection of ourselves as a planetary whole) led to a change in human consciousness.

The Gaia Hypothesis

A “whole earth” theory called called the Gaia Hypothesis emerged directly from the Space Program. James Lovelock then a NASA scientist was reviewing pictures of planet earth, when he had a realization of how the planet’s systems are interconnected. A novelist who also happened to be his neighbor William Golding, referred him to the Greek Goddess of the Earth Gaia and suggested that he use that name because it implies a holistic link between the systems of the planet and a consciousness that emerges from that interconnectedness. The controversial realization is that are all part of the same thing – earth – that all life on earth is interconnected.  Once you realize this, there is no denying this or getting away from the reality that we are accountable to each other on this planet. Also related this was the realization that a nuclear war could not be really contained on the planet and that it would affect all of humanity as well as the natural systems that sustain life on earth.

What Makes a Vision Real: Learning from the Space Program’s Successes of the 60s and 70s

The Apollo program was important in that it showed how our technology was superior to the Russians as we landed on the moon. Weiland identifies three key elements of this success:

  1. Vision
  2. Motivation
  3. Means

These three need to occur in sequence of else an achievement from that vision will not occur. Yet after we through the space program accomplishment much of our goals, the program drifted and seemed to lose its way. A long term vision of space program missing today so people are not inspired to invest in space.

Advocates of space development have been relegated to the fringes since the downward momentum of the space movement. One of the challenges they face is the pitching the vision and potentials of the space program to increasingly skeptical intelligencia and general public. Author Clarke once said that the space elevator will be built ten years after people stop seeing it as goofy idea. The development of the Internet and other DARPA projects show the potential for much greater accomplishments in terms of moving towards a inspiring vision of the future. Space based solar power is another solution but getting it to earth is still a challenge.

Bucky Fuller was a visionary that much operated in a way similar to Paolo Soleri At the Montreal Expo, Fuller did a sphere that included a monorail. He also come up with the idea Cloud Nines. Cloud Nines are floating cities that Fuller envisioned that would have air pressure slightly lower than the outside which would allow them to float in the air much like a hot air balloon. One issue with Fuller was that he was more of an engineer than a designer and many of his systems were not only cumbersome but aesthetically unattractive to the eye.

While Weiland made mention to Soleri several times nothing in my sticks in relation to specific links to his plan and Arcology. Obviously, there is the similarity to Fuller in terms of a grandiose, pie in the sky vision. Another link is the idea of space colonization and the role of a Arcology design in relation to creating a space based settlement. I would say that in terms of strategy, developing a network of global centers for research and development of sustainable technology within Arcology like habitats could be a way to focus on technologies that could have applications both on earth  and also in space. So possibly the Arcology approach could be a way to bridge the space-sustainability gap and create programs and efforts that melt both together. A practical example of this could be our work at Arcosanti right now to construct the Energy Apron Greenhouse.

How to Make the Space Program Relevant Again

Weiland feels the next ten years are critical not only in regards to revitalizing the space program, but also in relation to humanity over all and the challenges we face to become more sustainable on this planet. In terms of addressing World Urgent Issues, he firmly believes that space is part of the solution.

We seem to have come to a general realization that predicting the future is a risky thing, but having said that, Weiland believes that a vision can develop in a way that addresses trends that are more likely to be realized. So it gives us a more flexible set of scenarios for the future but overlapping and interlocking trends.

Space and Sustainable Development

A question I posed to Weiland related to the cost of space development and that it was questionable to me that we should proceed on huge space projects, when so much needs to be done on earth to bring humanity into a ecologically sustainable reality. His response was that while costly space based projects could provide important results relevant to sustainability. Space development provides several potential benefits such as:

  1. Mining of asteroids and the moon
  2. Energy production
  3. Space allows us to make things that cannot be made on earth.
  4. A key component to such successful ventures would be international relations. That no one nation can do it on its own. This could have potential benefits as well.

Another concern I expressed was that space based systems rely on not only large budgets, but also relatively top down systems of management and so that is a continuing concern for many of us. In relation to that I suggested that we may have to become more pragmatic in terms of balancing more grassroots appropriate technologies with the reality of needing some large scale replacement to reliance on oil, coal gas and nuclear such as space based solar systems.

Weiland says that what is lacking is a powerful vision to promote sustainability and the development of space program also as part of a comprehensive approach. The space program moved away from being something was personal and relevant to us. For something to work as part of a collective effort it needs to be about us, but also connect to the world and have some practical link with how things really happen.

One thing that interested me in relation to his ideas and perspective was when he explained that survival does not go to the strongest but the most adaptable. If we want to survive then we must adapt. Part of survival is having new ideas to address the challenges we face. For a vision to be more than fantasy there must be a way to make it practical in our lives. A real way to get to it.

What’s new at least from my perspective about what Weiland is saying is how he attempts to link sustainability with the space program – as part of a large term strategy designed to promote sustainable development.

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