Through An Orbital Mirror, Darkly
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Date: 02 March, 2007

Hand in light

'US citizens continue to shirk their environmental responsibilities by continuing to burn as much fossil fuel as they can get their hands on.'


Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world.

When the US government urges the UN to put gigantic mirrors into orbit around the Earth, it’s a clear sign that we’re living in the future.

When their reason for this is that, by deflecting some of the sun’s light, the satellites may slow the progress of global warming – thus allowing US citizens to shirk their environmental responsibilities by continuing to burn as much fossil fuel as they can get their hands on – it’s time to wonder exactly what kind of future we’ve reached.

My generation have always known that there would be Giant Space Mirrors during our lifetimes. The Usborne Book of the Future, my bible at the age of eight, had them orbiting above major cities and agricultural centres, providing daylight illumination throughout the night.

Of course, the same book predicted domestic robots, underwater cities and wristwatch phones (which I suppose we could have today, if we hadn’t decided they’d be naff). These visionary futures – promising moonbases and commercial spaceflight by the unimaginably remote 1990s – looked eminently plausible, after humanity had progressed in a decade from placing buckets full of transistors in low orbit, to bringing people safely back from the Moon.

Virgin Territory

Such promises have formed part of my mental furniture ever since. I’m sure I wasn’t the only otherwise sane and liberal Guardian reader to see the story about the US proposal and respond with an unguarded, profoundly eight-year-old ‘Wow, cool!’

In the abstract, space travel remains a utopian dream, perhaps the only one remaining to us on our crowded, exhaustively explored and exploited globe. It promises us a fresh start, the opportunity to found new and better societies in space habitats or planetary colonies.

At its most extravagant it teases us with the possibility of encountering aliens who’ve already discovered how to create the perfect society, thus saving us the presumably rather tedious effort.

Depressingly, the reality of modern space programmes (as well as being far less advanced than the interplanetary shuttles and orbital cities which we had every right to expect) is that of a vast expenditure of money, energy and pollutants, justified by appeals to a mixture of scientific research and nationalist propaganda at best, and corporate profit at worst.

The earthly powers currently attempting to extend their reach into space include India, China, Amazon and Virgin.

Darkness and the Light

CS Lewis’s science fiction novels contemptuously dismiss the idea ‘that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area’.

Many commentators on the US proposals have taken the similar, not unreasonable view that what the Earth’s ecosystem needs is less intervention, not more, if we are to inhabit it for a while longer.

It’s difficult to argue with the idea that our responsibility towards future generations – and, for those of us who believe in such things, our stewardship of God’s creation – is better served by husbanding the world we have than by rushing to make our mark on other spheres.

Nonetheless, part of me – and I don’t believe it’s solely the eight-year-old part – still aspires towards that shinier, cleaner world where robots fill the dangerous or minimum-wage jobs, resources are mined from asteroids and refined in orbit, and the global poor are fed with grain from farms illuminated by orbital mirrors.

Whether this ideal world would please God, I honestly don’t know. I do know, however, that using Giant Space Mirrors quite literally to spread darkness instead of light would be a betrayal of that hopeful generation of young futurists to which I belonged.

To future generations, that betrayal may seem more devastating still.

Useful Links

• Guardian article (including a PDF of the US government document)
• Indian Space Research Organisation
• China National Space Administration
• Blue Origin (spaceflight programme owned by Amazon CEO)
• Virgin Galactic

• Philip Purser-Hallard

Earlier articles
• It’s been unreal
• Santa Claus conquers the Martians
• Getting needlessly messianic

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