There is no doubt, a new Space Age is upon us. And, as much as I love the idea of space exploration and the discoveries/technology it will inevitably inspire, it bothers me. It bothers me so much it inspired my novel, City of Rust– a cli-fi story of tribalism, technology, ingenuity and… a planet-load of rubbish.
Ever since Sputnik blasted into our skies in 1957 there has been the understanding that when it comes to space, ‘what goes up doesn’t have to come down’. Which was OK when it was the odd satellite or capsule just big enough to fit a terrified dog in it – but in the 65 years since Sputnik made it into orbit, we have accumulated over 128 million pieces of space debris, from the size of a flake of paint, to ‘zombie’ satellites and a Tesla Roadster (cheers Elon), all spinning around our heads at seven times the speed of a bullet. And it’s going to get a lot worse.
It was space exploration itself that gave us the perspective of our world as vulnerable and rare -something to protect. In 1972 Apollo 17 gave us the ‘Blue Marble’, the first whole picture of the Earth in daylight. It gave momentum to burgeoning environmental movement, being coined ‘Spaceship Earth’ – our beautiful, vibrant life capsule, floating in the endless black void.
Forty-ish years later we’re letting the space around that precious life capsule become an impenetrable cosmic wasteland. And that is not cool.
Only now, when we’re beginning to see the consequences of our actions (space missions are constantly at risk from ‘debris strike’, and increasingly, so is the Earth), are we thinking that this space junk might actually be a problem. When will we learn? What will have to happen before we can see the bigger picture when it comes to our impact on the space around us? Alice Gorman sums it up perfectly in her brilliant book ‘Dr Space Junk Versus the Universe’:
‘Earth is slowly eroding into space with the materials we send into orbit and beyond. We’ve even increased the weight of the Moon, Mars and Venus by a nanofraction. But Earth is also aggrading as far huger quantities of cosmic material fall to Earth everyday – an estimated 40000 tonnes each year. This interchange of material between Earth and space is a good illustration that Spaceship Earth is more like a shoreline onto which the driftwood dusts of the cosmos wash.’
We’re treating space as we have always treated the Earth – without any care or forethought, continuing to leave the dirty trace of humanity everywhere we’ve been.
Humanity can be the absolute worst sometimes.
It’s this spiralling train of thought that inspired City of Rust – a scorched version of Earth so choked by its own rubbish that its only option was to shoot it all up into space, with disastrous consequences.
The society in City of Rust has the advanced technology and resources needed to change, but instead resort to tribalism and power grabbing, choosing make their environmental problems ‘out of sight, out of mind’ rather than solve them. Sound familiar? Is this not what we do when we ship our rubbish off to the developing world, or design space programmes with no built-in solution for their inevitable environmental impact?
In the New Space Age that environmental impact is going to be huge. USA versus Russia has turned into Branson versus Besos versus Musk, all driven by ego and intent on turning inner Earth orbit into an unregulated billionaire’s playground.
Don’t get me wrong, following the exploits of Elon and Jeff is one of my favourite things to do, and it is all fun and games (watching William Shatner get blasted into space WAS fun) until you think about the actual environmental impact of all the rocket launches and satellite deployments –
Since the start of this new, commercial Space Age, rocket launches have gone from a handful a year to over a hundred and counting. Still small fry, as far as emissions are concerned, but once their programmes are fully up and running, companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will be aiming for two launches A DAY. Each leaving a dirty comet’s tail of rocket fuel and debris in their wake.
“Combustion emissions from rocket engines affect the global atmosphere. Historically, these impacts have been seen as small and so have escaped regulatory attention. Space launch is evolving rapidly however, characterized by anticipated growth in the frequency of launches, larger rockets, and employment of a greater variety of propellants. At some future increased launch rate, the global impacts from launch emissions will collide with international imperatives to manage the global atmosphere.”
And it’s not just the environmental impact to think about. Astronomers have warned that once the Earth is wrapped in a blanket of privately hosted, unregulated, satellite mega – constellations, such as SpaceX’s StarLink and OneWeb, we will struggle to see our natural stars for the brighter, closer, artificial ones. One company is even trying to launch the world’s first interstellar billboard (Ok cool Bladerunner vibes maybe but ultimately…NOPE).
It’s a bloody mess up there. But, if anyone can sort it out, it’s us.
One of the first books I remember reading at school was Stig of The Dump by Clive King. I was an enthusiastic outdoor child, always covered in mud and often found upside down on the climbing frame in the garden, so Stig and Barney’s story really stayed with me. I remember admiring Stig’s ingenuity and his freedom. To me, his cave, adapted into a home with nothing but rubbish, was nothing short of magical:
‘(Stig)… took up the air of a householder showing a visitor around his property, and began pointing out some of the things he seemed particularly proud of.
First, the plumbing. Where the water dripped through a crack in the roof of the cave, he had wedged the mud-guard of a bicycle. The water ran along this, through the tube of a vacuum cleaner, and into a big can with writing on it. By the side of this was a plastic football carefully cut in half, and Stig dipped up some water and offered it to barney.’
The protagonists of City of Rust – Railey the engineer, and Atti the drone-flying bio-robotic gecko – are versions of Stig; quick thinking and deft, skilled at turning trash into treasure. Only the dump they live in is Boxville, a vast city made entirely from old shipping containers, grown up out of the rubbish heap created by neighbouring Glass City – turned into a lively, dangerous, exciting hub of human ingenuity.
We have many ‘Boxvilles’ on Earth now, places where rubbish and recycling is a way of life, like Manshiyat Nasser, a district of Cairo where unofficial garbage collectors, or ‘Zabbaleen’, recycle 90% of the city’s waste. Or Kamikatsu, the village in Japan where recycling is a way of life, and every scrap of waste is used or reused.
It’s people and places like this that give me a bit of hope. It is our desire to explore and innovate that has gotten us into this mess, and eventually it will be those same desires that will get us out of it.
The news is pretty distracting right now, and it seems like we have bigger problems than William Shatner floating about in a Blue Origin capsule, but the problem of waste, on Earth and in space, isn’t going away. I hope, and I do have hope, that we make the changes needed to avert disaster soon. Like the people in City of Rust, we have everything we need to make a change, all we have to do is put our politics aside, just for a minute, and take action.
As the late, great Whitney Houston once said, ‘I believe the children are the future’, and if even one child (or teacher or parent) reads City of Rust, (or any of the other amazing ecological books out there), and feels inspired to fight for the planet they will inherit, to use their ingenuity to help solve the problem of waste, on Earth and around it, then my job here is done.
Find out more about City of Rust.
Gemma Fowler is a children’s author and general space enthusiast whose published titles include YA sci-fi thriller, Moondust, and MG cli-fi mystery, City of Rust. Even though she considers herself to be a complete layman, she has an infectious enthusiasm for science, which she brings to schools in talks and events based around the ecological and societal issues raised in her books. Aside from being a published author, one of her greatest achievements was featuring on Tomorrow’s World saying that she ‘liked peas’.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Jay Aspen shares an extract from Resistance, a near-future adventure romance.
The rain had stopped by the time Jac turned down the rough track approaching the farm, the air dancing with mosquitoes under the dripping trees, their tiny bodies luminous with microfilaments from the water that had birthed them. A powerful led-light outlined three flickering silhouettes of shadowy human figures, bulky in borrowed chem-suits as they sprayed the defoliant-ravaged garden with remediation bacteria. Half the area had already been treated and covered with mats of woven straw to keep the precious bacteria damp and multiplying.
Two years before that soil is clear of toxins.
Jac knew she should join the teams working in relays through the night, but with the medical needs of her new arrivals it was unlikely she would get the chance.
The Soil Science Society of America fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils.