Suicide Missions

By Michael D. GordinAugust 12, 2020

Suicide Missions

Spacefarers by Christopher Wanjek
Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich
The Amazon by Mark J. Plotkin
Disaster by Choice by Ilan Kelman

YES, YOU HAVE HEARD this story before: we face a serious problem, which is likely to become much worse if we do not take serious measures to stop it now. But the immediate measures we need to take are pretty painful — not as painful as what sufferers in the future will experience, but they are not necessarily us. They may be people we care about, our children or grandchildren, but, even so, their future distress feels less real than actual, albeit lesser, distress happening right now to us (especially to me). Why sacrifice our well-being for their better-being? Economists call this “having a steep discount rate,” the sinister twin of compound interest: we value things in the future less the further out they are. The economists’ language has the clinical asepsis of much of their lexicon and does not quite convey how inevitable, even fated, the intrinsic reaction is.

If you are reading this in the summer of 2020, you do not have to reach far for an example: social distancing. It is inconvenient on a personal level and ruinous on the scale of the economy, but if one adheres to the restrictions then the coronavirus could be controllable: fewer deaths, a functioning health-care infrastructure, time bought to develop plans to restore economic activity without devastating public health. All that good stuff only happens to future people — in this case, to future us in six months — if we grit our teeth and forgo haircuts now. You can evaluate for yourself how well that’s been going.

These sorts of problems yoke the present with the future. However, they also necessarily tie the present to the past, since the past sets the conditions of our present, propelling the trajectory we now have to alter. The complex interactions of the three time frames conflate two distinct issues: how we know what we know about what has been, is, and will be happening; and how we act to solve the problem — a question of knowledge and a question of practice. Each “how” is in turn linked with a “who”: these sorts of challenges can only be tackled with massive coordination, so specific individuals must either take the responsibility of leadership or assume the responsibility of its abdication.

The commonness of these problems does not make them any less frustrating. Debates over the second issue of what to do — which is typically where one starts in an emergency — devolve more or less rapidly to the question of knowledge, because that seems easier to get a handle on. It also does not require anyone to assume present pain. Meanwhile the present turns into the future, and the usurious loan we unwittingly took out will eventually come due.

The novel coronavirus is, well, novel, and so it has only recently assumed the status of a go-to example on this front. The locus classicus for the past 30 years has been climate change. (It was population growth for the three decades before that.) Three new books, Losing Earth, Disaster by Choice, and The Amazon, tackle the problem of deferred solutions — specifically, to the fossil-fuel economy, rising sea levels, and deforestation. But, in hopes of reorienting some overly familiar arguments in those texts, let us leave Earth’s worries behind for a moment, and start “off-world” with a fourth new title, Spacefarers.


It has been over 50 years since a human first walked on the surface of the Moon. Although there are some noises about returning — and many more about going to Mars — nobody, except possibly China, is seriously contemplating it. A feat that required tremendous ingenuity and courage, it also, of course, required oodles of money. And so we no longer go because of the cash. NASA consumed a mind-blowing 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966; in 2019, it was below half a percent.

In his engagingly readable Spacefarers, science writer Christopher Wanjek briefly relates what happened after the Moon landing: once his name was safely embossed on a lunar plaque, President Nixon promptly cancelled the Apollo program. It was time to economize. Enter the Space Shuttle.

Ostensibly a reusable launch vehicle that could make travel to orbit frequent and affordable, the Space Shuttle program was so hampered with conflicting specifications and technical challenges that instead of saving money it became a permanent drain on NASA’s budget. Other crewed missions were harder to fund and consistently deferred. Then came the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986 (exploding on launch), and then the destruction of the Columbia (on reentry) on February 1, 2003. On August 31, 2011, the Space Shuttle program was canceled. In order to get humans into orbit, the United States (and everyone else except China) has been entirely dependent on Russian launch vehicles, at a cost of $80 million a seat — until May 30, 2020, when SpaceX launched astronauts for the first time. China has its own space stations; everyone else who goes (SpaceX passengers included) ends up at the International Space Station (ISS). That is where crewed space travel begins and ends these days.

Wanjek is not happy about this situation. His delightful book is a frank, though optimistic, evaluation of what it would take to change it. He wants humans to be out there, and there does not stop at the ISS, about 250 miles up. Indeed, he thinks the returns on investment in the ISS are meager. There have been no exciting indications that terrestrial industrial processes would be better performed in orbit, and much of the science is trivial. From decades of ISS work (and Russian research on the Mir space station beforehand), the most important thing we have learned about microgravity — either in deep space or in free fall — “is to get out of microgravity as quickly as possible.”

Some of the most compelling passages in this book designed to get you excited about space are about how unpleasant space is. All sorts of bad stuff happens to your circulation, your bones, your muscles, and your eyeballs. The radiation is sure to kill you once you get beyond Earth’s magnetic field unless you have lots of shielding. Solar weather is a big deal.

Wanjek is most thorough about the challenges of Mars, but most plausible when it comes to the Moon and asteroids. He has a knack for explaining the practical details of how one might possibly overcome them: how to mine water from the Moon’s regolith and then split it to release oxygen; how to 3-D print radiation shielding from Moon dust; how to manage the temperature extremes; how to treat toxic chemicals that would otherwise frustrate Martian agriculture; and so on. He also works through how to simulate gravity through rotating segments of a spacecraft — without it, the months to Mars will render the passengers so weak they won’t be able to stand even on the 38 percent of Earth’s gravity on the red planet. He devotes a great deal of attention to the “tyranny of the rocket equation”: how to transport material out of the Earth’s gravity well, and how a stable infrastructure could make it less ruinously expensive.

The key word at every point is “expensive,” which gets us back to the trade-off between present and future. In principle, we have the technology to get to Mars and back sustainably, though “much still needs to be worked out to ensure this wouldn’t be a suicide mission.” What we lack is the willpower to sacrifice today’s money.

Wanjek posits two reasons why we go to space: “war and profits.” During the Cold War, competition between the Soviets and the Americans kept space rockets flying in lieu of nuclear ones. If we want to send crewed missions farther afield than the ISS, then — absent a reprise “Sputnik moment” such as a Chinese Moon landing — it has to be about making money. He discusses space tourism, mining asteroids, and even colonization, though he is cautious about the last until we know whether human physiology can fertilize an embryo, birth a baby, and raise a child to adulthood under conditions of .38 (Mars) or .166 (Moon) of Earth’s gravity. (It’ll never happen in microgravity.) State leadership across the globe has been weak on this front, so the mantle is being seized by private corporations. It will be the anticipation of astronomical profits — the pun fits with Wanjek’s charming proclivity for dad jokes — that will get us to space for good.

There is no question it would be a sacrifice. Wanjek mentions the costs and also the noise (it would take a fearsome number of ear-splitting launches to build a profitable space infrastructure) but devotes less attention to environmental concerns, such as the injection of loads of chemicals into our already chemically skewed stratosphere. On the other hand, he does speculate that we could warm Mars by injecting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), notorious from the “ozone hole,” into its atmosphere. “We know how to make worlds warmer,” writes Wanjek, “we’re doing that right now to our own. Setting up factories on Mars with the sole intent of producing greenhouse gases could slowly but dramatically warm the planet.” I’m not sold.

All the cool (admittedly at times mad-scientist cool) ideas will not help if we cannot pay for it. If we collectively tightened our belts, our descendants might expect this:

Rocket flights get cheaper by the mid-2020s, driving demand to space; the first space hotels open by 2025, with the first space-based music video and movie segments filmed shortly thereafter; spaceplanes come to fruition, with several companies offering weekly flights to space hotels by 2030 or hour-long flights to opposite ends of the globe; launch costs lower to a point that manufacturing unique commercial goods in the zero-gravity and vacuum environment of low-earth orbit can be profitable; space is a hot destination for the wealthy in the 2030s; launch and descent noise becomes an issue in the 2030s but no solution is put forward, aside from limiting spaceports to remote areas such as deep-sea ports; several large orbiting shipyards and distribution hubs are established near Earth and near the Moon by 2050; first large orbiting space resort with artificial gravity and permanent occupation built by 2050; decades in the planning and making, the first orbital ring becomes operational by the early twenty-second century; large orbiting cities are built by the mid-twenty-second century, many as retirement communities.

It won’t get us off Earth before sea levels rise, though, and if the sea levels do rise “world markets would be in such disarray that no one would be able to afford to leave Earth to start a space settlement.” Attacking climate change would take a different kind of concerted sacrifice in the present. When we had the opportunity to do so in the 1980s, we blew it.


Nathaniel Rich’s compact and forceful Losing Earth: A Recent History, which began its life as an article in The New York Times Magazine in 2018, usefully reorients common and frustrating narratives about the history of climate change. What he replaces it with is no less frustrating.

There are now hundreds of volumes documenting how we know what we know about the impact of fossil fuel consumption on Earth’s atmosphere and, consequently, on its climate. These volumes feature a crew of persistent atmospheric chemists and meteorologists noticing changes and attempting to sound the tocsin. Alongside those heroes, there are malefactors, typically the fossil-fuel corporations and Republican Party operatives. With his very first words, Rich short-circuits this history of how we know the climate is warming: “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. It was, if anything, better understood.”

It is refreshing to see this stated so clearly, bypassing the mounds of tedious obfuscation that have attempted to muddy the waters. The knowledge of what is happening is now so commonplace that it occupies an obligatory stop in much popular science — which isn’t to say that more information shouldn’t be gathered and written about. Indeed, another volume, Mark Plotkin’s The Amazon, an installment in Oxford University Press’s What Everyone Needs to Know series, uncovers in fascinating detail the links between Amazonian deforestation and the sensitivity of its biodiversity to subtle changes in average temperature and rainfall. Although the structure of that book — as answers to stated questions, many of which feel artificial if not rhetorical — is contrived, almost every page is jammed with extraordinary data we will likely want to tell our friends about.

Rich, by contrast, is so resolutely based in the maelstrom of American politics that he does not venture out into the field to gather more information. His interest is in what we did with that information once we had it. Unless you are fairly deep in the weeds on these issues, your likely answer is: Nothing. What is so astonishing in Rich’s account is that in the 1980s the United States was actually incredibly close to entering a binding treaty on limiting the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. We were almost there … and then we failed. Even more frustrating is that, despite redirecting the conversation from knowledge to action, he ends up with the same malefactors: fossil-fuel corporations and Republican Party operatives, this time in reverse order.

Rich builds his story from the perspectives of dozens of interviewees, although he relies most heavily for narrative purposes on a handful of key players. Some of them are the usual suspects: James Hansen, the NASA scientist who in the late 1980s became the public face of climate modeling and the most persistent scientific advocate of immediate political action; and Al Gore, then a US senator, who made anthropogenic climate change a central plank of his environmentalist policy making. The key figure, however, is Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist who came across reports about the doleful effects of continued emissions of CO2 and worked tirelessly to get it on the political agenda. Pomerance is a compelling protagonist, his commitment and passion infectious through Rich’s telling. Through occasional setbacks — the Reagan administration’s “thuggish assaults on environmental policy,” the Polyannaish spin on the Cassandraish Changing Climate report (1983) by its chair, William Nierenberg — we see how Pomerance’s talent for bringing the right people into conversation with each other and letting them take ownership of the ideas yielded results. The plan was an international treaty.

Why a treaty? That approach stemmed from two linked problems concerning atmospheric chemical pollution, the ozone hole and acid rain. (Rich stresses the former.) Both were heavily ameliorated by international agreements that curbed the emission of specific chemicals. The Montreal Protocol (signed 1987; effective 1989), which phased out CFCs, has not only enabled a slow regeneration of ozone in the stratosphere, thereby blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but, over 30 years later, it is the most effective international agreement to combat global warming, since CFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases.

After the Reagan administration acceded to the Montreal Protocol, significant momentum built toward an equivalent for carbon. Rich offers two explanations for its derailing, one in the final chapters of the book, and a somewhat different one in the afterword. The emphasis in the book is on the new President George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, who — for reasons Rich never fully plumbs — seemed to have a personal vendetta against the idea that burning fossil fuels could alter the environment. (He even installed a simple general-circulation climate model on his White House computer to try to poke holes in the science.) Sununu stands out as the grand villain of Losing Earth, blocking the Bush administration’s own EPA director from making any binding agreements at the treaty negotiations in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands.

But such a monocausal account resting on one person’s shoulders is not plausible, which Rich basically concedes in the afterword. There he explores the long history of “denialism”: industry-backed efforts to persuade the public that there was no significant consensus on climate change. Rich is correct about the scope and cleverness of this campaign, which has delayed significant political action down to the present. Yet he only grants it power starting in the 1990s, whereas the work of historians like Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (which he references) has demonstrated that not only were such denialist efforts active throughout the period Rich covers, but they started much earlier. While Rich does acknowledge this, he fixates on those within the American Petroleum Institute who argued for alternatives. The initial denialist strategy in fact started in the 1950s with cigarette smoking, and the same PR firms and actors have pushed it since, hopping from one anti-regulatory campaign to the next. In other words, the blocking of the treaty was not a matter of individual caprice, but rather of deep economic and political structures that had been operating for a generation. Sununu is legion.

He conceded as much to Rich. The treaty “couldn’t have happened,” Sununu said, “because the leaders in the world at that time were all looking to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.” In other words, they were not willing to bear the pain now so that humanity would reap future benefits. The inescapable trade-off question does not feature centrally in Rich’s account until the very end:

Once it becomes possible to disregard the welfare of future generations, or those now vulnerable to flooding or drought or wildfire — once it becomes possible to abandon the constraints of human empathy — any monstrosity committed in the name of self-interest is permissible.

Although this issue hovers over the words and thoughts of his actors in all the preceding pages, Rich does not raise it until he is about to conclude. This might seem odd, but once he’d committed to the blow-by-blow of political logrolling, so tantalizingly accessible from the interviews he conducted, he could hardly do otherwise. Structural causes do not usually surface in conversation. So the book lingers in the arena of high politics, where the only pain that matters is present pain. Climate action becomes thinkable at those moments when it seems that the effects are happening now. When the present economic pain was not offset by present ecological pain, the can was kicked down the road. The root problem is how our present regimes, democratic and not — the Soviet Union was also a player in Rich’s account, as is China today — frame politics.


Is there any way out of the bind? Ilan Kelman’s Disaster by Choice suggests there is. We cannot escape the conflation between time scales, but we can change where we place our attention. Climate change is a global problem, and we thus naturally look to international treaties and multilateral leadership. That is how scientists first discerned the scope of the problem, by piecing together bits of data that came from all over the world. Yet the solution to the problem of knowledge might not be the solution to the problem of action.

Kelman’s thesis comes in the first four words of his book: “Disasters are not natural.” He isn’t some kind of relativistic solipsist — he’s a professor both at University College London and the University of Agder in Norway. His point is that we commonly confuse two different things. There are violent phenomena that occur in nature: tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding, avalanches, and so on. And then there are their impacts on humans. Earthquakes happened before there were humans, and they will continue after we go. What makes a tremor a disaster is that people are harmed by it due to collapsing infrastructure (or being in the way of the tsunami generated by the earthquake). Those are the results of choices. We choose to make ourselves vulnerable to natural shocks. We could build differently, in different places, in order to prevent the disaster from happening, or to make recovery faster. (The potential of an asteroid impact does make an appearance, although it is not clear that there’s much we can do to avert the consequences of another dinosaur killer.)

Kelman’s book hops frenetically among case studies from around the world. At first, his examples show how things work out badly, as in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, trailed by a cholera epidemic sparked by some of the United Nations aid workers sent in to help. As the book goes on, however, we see more instances where sensible planning for vulnerabilities averted the disaster altogether, or minimized loss of life and property damage. The unifying characteristic of these happier cases seems to be that they were the results of local planning within communities. Here, wealth inequality matters tremendously. “As one lives poor, one dies poor,” Kelman writes, referring to Haiti, and he implies the converse when talking about Toronto’s successful planning against a recurrence of the disastrous 1954 floods in the wake of Hurricane Hazel: if one lives rich, one might continue to live that way given proper planning.

The benefits of thinking ahead to avert the worst consequences of a disaster by modifying building codes, zoning, and hardening of communications are persuasively repeated in chapter after chapter. Then, Kelman asks, “Why do we not continually use the knowledge we have to avert disasters?” Because it is hard to pay for it now on the chance that it will help people later, people we might not know or care about. Often, people deliberately increase their vulnerability. “Voting for creating disaster vulnerability is an ideological choice and voters have the right to make these choices,” he writes. “The implications are foreseeable and are known, becoming manifest when Harvey swept through in 2017 and matching the long-standing reality of disasters across the state.”

His happy endings, few as they are, suggest that when communities prepare on the local scale, they spend more and do so more consistently. If we suspect that those impacted in the future are people we already know and care about — our own neighbors and children — then it is easier to make the trade-off. Can we tackle a planetary problem like climate change neighborhood by neighborhood? Perhaps not, but we do not seem to be doing much better government by government. When national leadership fails — as it is failing in the United States today with regard to the pandemic, economic hardship, and police violence — then the only option is to find leadership where it exists. That is who will help protect the future from our present.


Michael D. Gordin is a professor in Princeton’s department of history. His latest book, Einstein in Bohemia, is out now.

LARB Contributor

Michael D. Gordin is a professor of history at Princeton. He has done research on the early development of the natural sciences in Russia in the 18th century, biological warfare in the Soviet Union, the relationship of Russian literature to the natural sciences, Lysenkoism, Immanuel Velikovsky, pseudosciences, the early history of the atomic bombs and the Cold War, Albert Einstein in Prague, the history of global scientific languages, the life of Dmitri Medeleyev, and the history of the periodic table.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!