Why Not Space?

[An expanded treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 6 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

Ask a random sampling of people if they think we will have colonized space in 500 years, and I expect it will be a while before you run into someone who says it’s unlikely. Our migration from this planet is a seductive vision of the future that has been given almost tangible reality by our entertainment industry. We are attracted to the narrative that our primitive progenitors crawled out of the ocean, just as we’ll crawl off our home planet (en masse) some day.

I’m not going to claim that this vision is false: how could I know that? But I will point out a few of the unappreciated difficulties with this view. The subtext is that space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems whose denial could result in a backward slide. When driving, fixing your gaze on the gleaming horizon is likely to result in your crashing into a stopped car ahead of you, so that your car is no longer capable of reaching the promised land ahead. We have to pay attention to the stupid stuff right in front of us, as it might well stand between us and a smart future.

I was completely astonished by the prevalence of the “space” reaction to the inaugural Do the Math post on galactic-scale energy. The post illustrated that continuing growth of our physical scale (energy) is not viable on a number of fronts—not the least of which is that Earth’s surface would reach the boiling point of water in a mere 400 years, based purely on thermodynamic arguments, and independent of which energy technology is employed. Many comments on the internets chided this view as being hopelessly unrealistic in its willful ignorance of the great space migration to come.

The connotation is that we should not heed repeated warnings about our current collision course with a finite world when—by some clairvoyant means that eludes me—we know we are destined to colonize the infinite void beyond. Space is therefore seen as an escape hatch for the human endeavor and from our arguably botched track record on Earth. Escapism may be more accurate.

Survey Says…

Before we get going on practical matters, let me share the results of a survey question I have posed to college students in my classes. Let’s see how you fare, imagining yourself to be in the same age bracket of 18–22:

Approximately how far have humans traveled from the surface of the Earth in your lifetime? [e.g., since 1980 or so]

  • a) 600 km (low Earth orbit, 0.1 times the Earth radius)
  • b) 6,000 km (about the radius of the Earth)
  • c) 36,000 km (geosynchronous orbit; about 6 Earth radii)
  • d) 385,000 km (about the distance to the Moon; 60 Earth radii)
  • e) beyond the Moon

I make the question visual, which you can do as well. Start with a standard Earth globe (12 inch or 30 cm diameter). The first answer is 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) from the surface, followed by 6 inches (15 cm), then a yard (meter), then 30 feet (9 m) for the Moon. Take a minute to picture this.

Earth-Moon system to scale, with response distances indicated

Out of a total of 109 students responding (one group in 2006, another in 2010), only 11% got the right answer: low Earth orbit. 52% thought humans had been as far as the Moon since the 1980’s, and 20% thought we had been farther than the Moon. Some were indignant on learning the truth: “What do we use the space shuttle for, if not to go to the Moon?!” I can only guess that some students imagined the International Space Station as a remote outpost, certainly beyond the Moon, and likely strategically located next to a wormhole. How disappointing it must be to learn that it merely hugs the globe.

I could easily get sidetracked on this astounding result. But I’ll just point out that the idea that we are no longer able to accomplish feats we once could do (like travel to the Moon) clashes with the prevailing narrative that we march forever forward. Not only can’t we get to the Moon at present, but the U.S. no longer has a space shuttle program—originally envisioned to make space travel as routine as air travel. And for that matter, I no longer have the option to purchase a ticket to fly trans-Atlantic at supersonic speeds on the Concorde. Narratives can break. I’ll leave it at that.

A Moment of Silence

A recent article in the Economist about the end of the space age—besides generating howls of protest—noted that, short of signs of life turning up on Mars, public interest in the surviving unmanned space program will wane. I think this is especially insightful given my survey of what young folks assume we’re already doing. It would be hard to sell this upcoming generation on an expensive plan to return to the Moon when the act of announcing the plan will backfire in angst that lunar trips are not already a routine part of NASA’s activities.  Travel to Mars, carrying a multi-hundred-billion dollar price tag, is even less likely to see support.

John Michael Greer followed this piece with a delightfully well-written elegy lamenting the end of our space ambitions. Many of my sentiments are perfectly captured in this article, and I highly recommend the read.

Surely the termination of the NASA shuttle program has forced us to accept setbacks in our dreams of space. But this does not have to be a predictor of the future. After all, we could have decided to keep the shuttle program alive if economic and political winds had favored doing so, and we do not lack the know-how for going back to the Moon if it became a priority. Perhaps, then, we are looking at only a temporary bump in the road.

Down to Brass Tacks

However, there are practical realities to consider. If we extend our solar system model using the standard-size Earth globe as our reference, the Moon is 30 ft (9 m) away, and is about the size of an apple. The sun is 2.2 miles (3.6 km) away. Mars is sometimes as close as 0.8 mi (1.3 km) and sometimes as far as 6 mi (10 km). Light travels at a sprinting speed of 16 m.p.h. (26 kph) in this scale, but an energetically feasible transfer orbit to Mars would take 8.5 months, effectively traveling slower than a snail.

First, reflect on the vastly different scale in travel to the Moon vs. Mars. In our model, you could toss a rock to the Moon. But getting something to Mars is a whole different ballgame. Not even a slingshot would be up to the task. In practical terms, a three-day lunar journey becomes 260 days to Mars: almost 100 times as long. The closest star to the Sun, in this model, is about a million kilometers distant: 2.5 times farther than the actual Earth-Moon distance. On a separate model scale—compressed 17,000 times compared to our previous model scale—the density of stars in the local Milky Way (one star per 100 cubic light years) is analogous to grains of sand 50 km apart! Can you imagine this? Mostly empty, empty space, folks.

I often travel to the Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico to tend to my lunar ranging experiment. On a recent trip, I was excited to find a newly-installed solar system model consisting of planet signs positioned along highway 6563 (named by nerds after the wavelength of the hydrogen-alpha emission line of great importance in solar, stellar, and galactic astronomy). Even traveling at 15 times the speed of light, or 40 m.p.h., the scale is daunting (although, considering relativistic time dilation, a traveler would experience this pace if traveling at 0.998 times the speed of light). If you’ll forgive me, it really drives home the isolation even within the local oasis we call the solar system.

Space is no Luxury Cruise

Space is a hostile place for humans. It’s mostly empty, though not lacking in deadly ionizing radiation and cosmic rays. What few resources exist are so mind-blowingly scattered that they would seem to be utterly absent to the casual observer. Some point out that the open ocean is also hostile to human life, and conjure the image of a luxury ocean liner placidly plying the waters, oblivious to the surrounding harshness. If we can picture that, why is it such a stretch to imagine a luxury liner in space? It’s a gripping image, and would seem to counter worries about the cruelty of space. But let’s look at the oh-so-many ways the two situations cannot compare.

If the ship sinks, and you have a life raft, you stand some chance of rescue. The ocean is vast, but it’s a two-dimensional vastness teeming with human activity (compared to any realistic vision of 3-d space inhabitation even within the confines of our solar system). People have survived for months on the open ocean, subsisting on the elements around them. Running out of air is not a problem. Fresh water falls out of the sky as rain. Critters that are attracted to the cover of your life raft provide a source of food. I recommend the book 117 Days Adrift for a gripping account of a British couple who survived such an ordeal. Sometimes edible fish would actually jump into their dinghy. By contrast, a hamburger has never slammed into the side of the space shuttle in orbit, and I very much doubt that chicken nuggets are going to float up seeking the shelter of your space rescue pod!

If you fall overboard in the ocean, you can conceivably survive for a day or more depending on water temperature. I have actually met a guy who twice survived being stranded overnight treading water in the ocean—once in Indonesia and another time in Australia! In space, you’re dealing with a life expectancy of about one minute, unless you’re lucky enough to be suited up for the unexpected accident—in which case you have a perhaps a few hours to enjoy the view.

If the ship springs a leak, you can pump out water indefinitely, and that magical, life-supporting air fills in the void: it surrounds the ship, which is open to the air above. In space, a leak must be replaced with air brought on board (presumably in pressurized containers), but cannot be counted on to last indefinitely. A submarine is therefore a more apt analogy, but even then, the safety of the surface is never more than “walking distance” away.

And let’s not forget: ships take us to places that are naturally habitable. Where are the space versions of cruise-ship submarines going to take us? I, for one, would hope back to Earth!

No, the ability to picture a luxury liner in the hostile open ocean is hopelessly insufficient for me to extend the analogy to space. We’ll see our oceans teeming with people-laden vessels or inhabitation of the ocean floor before we see a population explode into space. These options are just so much easier, and carry some hope of acquiring vital resources.

Failure of a Narrative

This brings us back to the compelling narrative that our evolutionary ancestors finned their way out of the water, so it is only natural—nay, inevitable—that we will wing our way off the planet. When creatures crawled out of the water to inhabit the land, it was to reap the unbelievable vegetative bounty of the land, free of the threat of predation. No bounty of food or sense of safety tugs us into space. It’s quite the opposite on both fronts, in fact. We live on the bounty right now.

Ideas of terraforming Mars must be seen in a new light given the challenge revealed by global warming. Compared to pre-industrial levels, we have a 100 part-per-million (0.01%) CO2 problem in our atmosphere that has us completely stymied. Crudely speaking, Mars has a one-million part-per-million (100%) problem with its atmosphere. As much trouble as we are having mitigating climate change with unfettered access to all the resources on Earth, what hope would we have of turning around a place like Mars with no infrastructure to rely upon?

Likewise, attempts to create a self-contained biosphere to support human life have so far been failures—despite having the overwhelming advantage of being set up in an otherwise habitable environment with unencumbered access for construction and provisioning efforts. Making something work in the harshness of space, far from any Home Depot, would represent a challenge many orders-of-magnitude harder still.

Despite this, and the winding-down of the NASA shuttle program, the optimism of many space enthusiasts is not fazed. They look forward to future mining operations on asteroids and on the Moon. I would think we would tear up the much closer ocean floor first, given the comparative convenience and cheapness of such operations.

Insider Out!

Having said all of this, it may come as a surprise when I say that I am a proponent of the space program. As a teenager, I fell in love with the movie The Right Stuff. I cherished visits to the nearby space museum in Huntsville, Alabama, and was thrilled to see Chuck Yeager in person at the National Air and Space Museum. Inspired by the passage of Halley’s Comet, I built a telescope and through it saw all nine planets in one night—when there were nine!. I saw a quasar over 2 billion light years away, and a supernova rivaling the brightness of its host galaxy 36 million light years away in Leo. My eyes have been out there, in some sense (and I never saw any food).

Just after college, I worked on analysis of a ring-laser gyroscope camera that flew on the space shuttle, and learned in the process that I was better at identifying stars than were the astronauts. I shot lasers at satellites (with permission!). I witnessed a shuttle launch and felt the percussion on my proud chest. I was supported by NASA during part of my graduate school days to study merging galaxies. My current project uses the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts: I feel I have touched the reflectors on my own (and discovered them to be dusty). My team and I found the reflector on the lost Soviet Lunokhod 1 rover after forty years of silence. Half of my project funding comes from NASA (they won’t read this, will they?).

APOLLO in action. Credit: Dan Long

In other words, I’m an insider—and a supporter. I whole-heartedly believe that space offers tremendous scientific promise. If we decide to return to the Moon (with or without people), I am enthusiastic about placing next-generation reflectors on the lunar surface, allowing us to drill deeper into the mysteries of gravity. Radio observations from the quiet far side can peer into the “dark ages” of the universe as the very first stars were forming. I am super-excited about the LISA gravitational wave observatory that I hope someday will get the funding and the green light to launch, assuredly revolutionizing our view of the universe. And to the extent that human spaceflight inspires youngsters to pursue a career of exploration and science, I’m all for it.

But I want to caution against harboring illusions of space as the answer to our collision course of growth on a finite planet. We live at a special time. We have enjoyed spending our inheritance of fossil fuels, and are feeling rather heady about our technological prowess. For many generations now, we have ridden an exponential growth track, conditioning ourselves to believe that our upward trajectory is an eternal constant of our existence. We’ll see. When we cross to the down-slope of fossil fuel availability—beginning with oil—we’ll see how timeless the growth phase seems to be, and whether we can afford a continued presence in space. We should be mature enough to admit that we have no context in which to evaluate how successfully the human race will navigate this unprecedented transition.

Some professional athletes are smart about their earnings. They know that they will long outlive their athletic prowess, spending and investing modestly and smartly in preparation for the long haul. Others live large, assuming that the future will always be bigger—as has so far been true for their whole lives. We have not yet known a modern existence without an ever greater scale of fossil fuels, and it is their availability that has catalyzed our progress. This century, we will enter a new phase, untested by humanity. Dismissing the challenge this presents by looking beyond to a future in space is one of the best ways to ensure that such a future never comes to pass. All athletes know better than to take their eye off the ball.

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155 thoughts on “Why Not Space?

  1. Very nice article!

    One thing which was not mentioned was the energy needed to remove something from the earth gravitational field. With energy costs likely to improve this will be economically invisible even if one uses space elevators. Moving huge amounts weights along roughly equi-gravitational surfaces (i.e., oceans surface) as we do with ocean liners costs needs no work whatsoever if you only do it slow enough. But building light, cheap, and comfortable luxury anything is very very difficult. Try to shave off 20% in weight of your street bike and see how much more you will pay at your cycling shop of your choice and you get an idea of what I mean. After having done that we will talk about which bike will be more comfortable. Reducing the weight of an ocean liner by 20% wont enable you to send it into space figuratively speaking …

    Unfortunately, it will be more likely that we are going to leave our exponential growth path as so many other complex systems before we will be able to extend it into space.

    • At some point, I will probably dedicate a post to the energetics of a space exodus or mining operations. Need to do the work first, though…

      • I seem to recall seeing a calculation in Robert Park’s “Voodoo Science”, demonstrating that if there were nuggets of pure gold in low Earth orbit, fetching them would cost more than their dollar value. Doubtless the economics have changed a little in the past ten years (perhaps more from gold getting dearer than spaceflight getting cheaper!), but it does inspire a certain skepticism about the concept of mining the moon (or Mars, Titan, etc.) for resources.

        • I’m not saying that you’re wrong, after all I haven’t read that article, but wouldn’t economics of scale be a factor in this? A nugget of gold would never be worth going to space, but if it’s a large enough chunk it just might. Getting things down from space to earth is a lot easier and cheaper than the reverse because you don’t actually need all that fuel going down. I’m sure there are ways to safely transport material from space to earth cheaply. Getting to space cheaply, well, that’s obviously a much much bigger challenge.

          • I’m fairly confident that you would expend a large amount of fuel and/or material on controlled re-entry. Just allowing gravity to take over would wipe out your hard-earned gains.

        • That’s the joy of having a goal, and stepping towards it, focussing resources.
          Before we had computers, some of the operations we take for granted now (data mining for example) would have given exactly the same response. The figure benefit of obtaining the data would have cost more than it’s advantage.
          So, people dedicated resource and time. Worked out how to make it commercially viable, and created newer generations of technology to fill in the encountered gaps.
          Now, we take it for granted.

    • The energy needed to take something into space is considerable. But it is easy to overlook a solution. If you take up just enough to get manufacturing going in space, then you just make what you need out there, and you don’t have to carry everything up from here. The Earth is not the only place where we can find abundant raw materials. For example, focused solar energy can melt rock and provide energy for space manufacturing on the Moon or on Mars. There is a very steep hill to climb to establish a large enough presence to get this going and it will be expensive for some time. But I would tend to think 7,000,000,000 people can get this done if we made it a priority. If we don’t do it, we risk destruction by nuclear terrorism, wars, unscrupulous science, acts of nature, or perhaps even an asteroid hit.

      • People think as if once you are in earth orbit, it’s a free ride from there. This is very far from true. To go anywhere else means a gigantic hill to climb out of the rest of the earth potential, and then much bigger still: the solar potential. LEO is a baby step, loads of energy required to go beyond this.

        • Low earth orbit is famously “halfway to anywhere” – at least, to anywhere in the solar system. It’s approximately true, measured as delta-v. It’s not clear where we might want to go, or why, but it is fairly clear that it’s not impossible to get there, at least on a small scale. Personally, I would favour Zubrin-style manned exploration of Mars, for the science.

          Extra-solar is a different kettle of fish, and basically impossible barring new physics or extreme technological advances.

          • Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is 9 to 10 km/s from earth’s surface. From LEO, Trans Mars Injection (TMI) is about 3.6 km/s

            At first glance, that looks like a 36% difference. But Tsiolkovsky’s rocket is exponential.

            To accelerate a kilogram 3 km/s, you need a kilogram of hydrogen and oxygen. Each 3 km/s added to delta V budget doubles total mass. To get 100 tonnes dry mass from LEO to Mars will take around 130 tonnes propellant.

            A life support system capable of keeping humans alive for 8 months is very challenging. Getting to Mars is a *lot* more difficult than reaching LEO.

            “LEO is halfway to anywhere” is a popular meme, but a false one, in my opinion.

  2. Nice graphs; student test is interesting, and the road signs amusing.
    And yeah, space cadets can be annoying.
    But you’ve got a few weak analogies. One very slight advantage of spaceships is that they don’t sink. They can lose air, which is bad, but the ocean isn’t out to fill them up and bring them down. Submarines face rather higher pressure differentials, and a corrosive medium.

    “As much trouble as we are having mitigating climate change with unfettered access to all the resources on Earth”

    This is messed up; climate change is itself an argument for our power to terraform! (Or de-terraform, in this case.) What’s lacking more is political agreement and will, especially in certain large countries.

    I’ve seen people wonder what happens if some country or even billionaire starts spewing aerosols or particulates as a sunlight-reflection mitigation strategy. This would supposedly be rather cheap, given the size of the effect, though far from a panacea.

    As for the unmanned space program, I don’t know what long term support would be, but activity is actually rather brisk; people have been calling it a golden age for space probes. There’s too *many* to make the news regularly. You may know this, but your readers probably won’t.

    • “spaceships don’t sink”: another take is that once they are off the life-supporting surface of the planet, they are already “sunk.” Is a submerged submarine sunk? We would say no unless it is grounded and inoperative. There’s no ground in space, but an inoperative, ruptured, or otherwise incapacitated spaceship is for all intents and purposes sunk.

      As for our CO2 contribution indicating the ability to terraform, the point remains that this 0.01% change is pathetically small compared to the 100% level changes needed for actual terraforming (and with no available infrastructure)

    • It is an interesting (overly) optimistic point to view climate change as a sign of our ability to terraform.

      First, I do not think we can argue that we have done that or doing it intentionally.

      Second, CO2 emissions happened as a side effect to our use of fossil fuels. In other words we gained energy in the process. To reverse the process we will have to commit significant amounts of energy. This is like saying, the fact that I can break an object is a sign that I can change it and conversely create such an object as well. (The observant reader notices the involvement of entropy.)

      Everybody likes optimistic people more than pessimistic ones – Maybe in this sense I can learn a lot from your comment.

      • Eh.. he said the surface temperature increase was a thermodynamic argument.

    • Space may not be corrosive, but it is ablative and instead of pressure differentials you have thermal variance. Extreme thermal variance.

  3. “No bounty of food or sense of safety tugs us into space. It’s quite the opposite on both fronts, in fact. We live on the bounty right now.”

    Such a huge point. Made me think of Alex Steffen’s post on Columbus day (http://www.alexsteffen.com/2011/10/legacy-day/), where he talks about the fantastic bounty of North America that existed before it was “discovered” and subsequently plundered (makes me nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced…)

    History (or our mythologically constructed narrative thereof) has led us to believe the next step will allow us to reap huge rewards… but no matter how badly we bork up Earth, it’ll _still_ be way closer to habitable and bountiful than the poisonous environments of Mars or deep space etc.

    Thanks for another awesome post!

    • Yet if we *could* terraform mars, or perhaps even Venus (much harder, but much bigger reward), then the bounty would be the biggest bounty imaginable; a whole new planet to live on. Yes, the challenges are gigantic, but there’s no saying that one day we wouldn’t posses these abilities. If you would tell someone just a hundred years ago that at all times there would be 5000 planes flying between Europe and the USA, each carrying more than a hundred individuals, they’d think you would be mad. If access to space becomes cheap enough, and robotics good enough, why wouldn’t we just let robots do the dirty work for a century or more?

  4. My favorite “graspable” scale model for those who use the Customary System is to equate 1 foot to 1 million miles. At that scale, the Sun is roughly the size of a basket ball, and the earth-moon system is the size of a cake plate that’s placed 93 feet from the basketball.

  5. If using “too much” energy would warm Earth up to water boiling point, I have to wonder if it would be possible to move to colder outer planets and moons. Huge energy consumption would then have a side effect of warming those new places to more “human” temperatures and would make terraforming them easier.
    Of course, we’d have to do the math – would it be possible to send appropriate amounts of energy to those planets and moon?

    • The point of the post was that space fantasies do not represent a genuine response to our Earthly limits. Rather than engage in space escapism, let’s figure out how we’re going to cope with the inevitable end of growth here on Earth.

      • Solar power satellite ideas do work though; and contrary to what you would expect, the cost of the solar panels and the cost of launching them to space are about the same (if you have a large launch program)..

        Which isn’t to say it’s cheap electricity, but it’s not stupidly expensive electricity.

        So if we get low on energy, it can help quite a bit.

  6. As a fusion scientist, these blog posts always give me such motivation. However, please don’t do one on the difficulties of fusion energy, or it may have the opposite effect 🙂

  7. [shortened by moderator]

    Neither the engineering challenges you cite nor the dangerousness of a malfunctioning space facility really refutes the argument that expanding into space could serve as a relief valve for both growth and industrial production.

    The primary problem is the energy cost, I think, as another commenter pointed out. The initial energy costs will soon become insurmountable, so if we do not make a large-scale push to utilize and settle space within a few decades, it will probably be too late. Private companies such as Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX, and Blue Origin, among others, claim that they are trying to get that push started right now, so there’s a fighting chance they could succeed. Once you have in place the capacity to expand in space without launching more raw materials from Earth (by mining asteroids/moons/planets and using solar or nuclear power), the launch costs will no longer matter too much, except for the increasing cost for each new Earthling to immigrate to space.

    If we can pass [the energy/space-infrastructure] hurdle before it is too expensive to do so, I think the economic growth rate for a space colony will exceed that of Earth, since solar energy is cheap (at least in an orbit out to around the asteroid belt, further the sun gets pretty dim), water is plentiful on many larger space bodies (the moon and many larger asteroids, as well as comets and comet remnants), and metals are also plentiful (including rare-earth metals, which help with the solar panels and batteries). Things are spread out, but with solar power and/or solar sails, the cost to cross those distances is pretty minimal, if you have patience to do it slowly.

    • Even once in space, the energy required to gather materials to build a solar panel and take it where it’s needed will likely far outweigh the lifetime energy delivered by that panel. I’d need to do the math to be sure, but my hunch is that just because we can imagine such a future does not mean that we could practically see it through. May be more of a drain than a relief valve.

      Also, the moon has “plentiful” water in much the same way that a bag of flour does. It’s there, but ridiculously diffuse.

      • You seem to be conflating several recent discoveries:

        1) Chandrayaan-1’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper discovered sparse hydroxyl ions in lunar regolith, even in the lower latitudes.
        2) Francis McCubbins found trace amounts of water in Apollo samples.
        3) 20% volatile ice including 5.5% water ice was found in the LCROSS ejecta.
        4) Chandrayaan-1’s radar detects what seem to be ice sheets at least two meters thick in some of the lunar cold traps.

        The fourth development is dramatically different than the other 3.

      • “I’d need to do the math to be sure”
        — I agree, maths are needed, but I disagree with your hunch. I’ve got some _very_ rough calculations which tend to suggest positive EROI for solar-thermal from metallic asteroids, but there’s a whole slew of assumptions in there I’m still working on.
        I wouldn’t put much hope in orbital PV; the materials processing and manufacturing is too involved to do up there, sans an immense infrastructure investment, and radiation poisons the cells too fast.

        I don’t see much point in the moon, either, but do you know that some carbonaceous meteorites (associated with C-type asteroids, we think) can be over 20% water, by weight? Plus, you know, comets, but those are rather hard to wrangle in a delta-V sense.
        The only thing that turns me off the O’Niell settlement model is the difficulty in building a biosphere from scratch– it’s also the source of my environmentalism. If you can’t fix it, don’t mess with it.

  8. We have the technical ability to solve our climate problem. We’re just scared of the solutions. We could replace our coal plants with advanced nuclear reactors, and a pace similar to that achieved by France would do it quickly. We could absorb a lot of CO2 with a variety of techniques, such as biochar. To buy time we could use albedo-enhancing geoengineering approaches, which are notorious for having a large effect at minimal cost. It’s just that our political and economic systems are incapable of dealing with long-timeframe global-scale problems that require a scientific education to understand.

    Space is not a short-term fix, and is pretty dead in the water right now, but SpaceX is progressing quickly at building new launch capabilities, including human-capable rockets, at a much cheaper price than the Shuttle. More inventive launch solutions could eventually drop the price a lot more.

    The resources of the solar system are millions of times greater than available on Earth. If technological advancement continues, I think we’ll go get them eventually, regardless of difficulties, even if we have to use robots for it all.

    The Earth is the bounty, if you want an ecosystem. If you want mineral resources or solar power, space is far better. And that’s a good thing, because extracting those things on Earth interferes with ecosystems. Let both realms do what they’re best at, and we’ll be a lot better off.

    • Regardless of the reasons for our failure to deal with climate change, we are not showing ourselves to be capable of organizing planetary-scale efforts to push is in a favorable direction even at a baby level.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that the solar system has millions times more resources than Earth. Maybe you mean minerals. The total mass in asteroids is far less than the mass of Earth, and even if you add up all the mineral content of the solar system (excluding the sun), you may get a few times Earth, but not millions. Maybe you mean hydrocarbons (e.g., Jupiter). Look at energy return on energy invested to collect the stuff to learn why this is a non-starter as a source of energy. Maybe you mean the awesome solar potential if we captured more than what hits the Earth. We still have serious thermodynamic problems if we try to use that energy on Earth, and I’m not sure why we would be using it in space if there are no other incentives for us to go (see post).

      My imagination is creative enough to build a picture of all this, but practically it feels like a dead end. And worse, assumptions of a space future may prevent us from adopting reductionist solutions that may be the only way to avoid a crash. A crash would make the space future even less likely. It’s a self-denying prophecy.

      • Not entirely fair to compare the asteroids or other planets to the whole Earth; we can’t get at most of the Earth. Disassembling Mercury would be a big physical and minor political problem; disassembling Earth would be a terminal political problem. And while geological processes may have given Earth favorable ores in some things, like gold or uranium, platinum group metals are probably more common in the right asteroid, given that most of our mining of nickel and platinum is from large meteorites…

        Mind you, one argument against space mining at the moment is whether flying to the moon and picking up lumps of pure platinum off the surface would actually pay for itself. 🙂

        • While it may be true that picking up a chunk of platinum or some other piece of rare precious metal or mineral may pay for itself, that can only go so far. Adding TOO much platinum or gold or silver or insertmineralhere would bottom out the market for those metals, thereby making it at best a onetime profit – at least in the near term.

          The problem is that many corporations only seem to look at near term profits and ignore long-term investments that might not see fruition for years, decades or even centuries (Terraforming another planet, for example.) I may be wrong in this because I can’t see the internal workings of corporations, but based on all the anecdotal evidence available, I don’t think I am.

          Right now we, as a society, seem to be incapable of working towards large (enormous) goals that span centuries. Part of the problem with that thinking is that developing our technology to the point where we can do this cost effectively and in an energy efficient manner WILL create short term gains – potentially world changing ones. Setting a goal like building an enormous L5 or other la-grange point station doesn’t mean much to people right now because they’ll never see it.

          Presently, it won’t happen because of the enormous risk it would pose to any company that failed to deliver. And they ultimately would fail to deliver in the short term on the goal they set. But a big enough group of companies working together could collectively set the goal but develop small pieces at a time – each of which has real world applications.

          • Also, let’s not assume that we go to the first asteroid from the left and bring back large amounts of precious metals.
            Most probably we’d have to visit a lot of asteroids and would stumble upon worthy materials quite seldom. So, the cost of “geological expeditions” would most probably be much much higher than the cost of single trip and thus would be less probably able to be paid for by materials gathered.

          • Just how would you even expect corporations to build multi-century development plans? The can’t even get past the red tape of five years or so. Not to mention they exist at the pleasure of the public markets — you think any company can simply decide they’re going to exist for 500 years and invest valuable resources in a long term goal accordingly? What makes you think corporations are beyond the “laws of gravity” as it were? Except for a very few companies, corporations are a legal entity that exists for a brief time, under the cover of stable laws in stable countries, but even a centuries-long project will encounter wars, recessions, market changes, and things that sometimes just flat out fail.

            So again, what do corporations have to do with any of this? Make your own 500 year plan if you want. No one’s stopping you.

          • PGMs are enormously more concentrated in metallic asteroids, thought to be the cores of destroyed planetoids. Most of Earth’s supply of heavy metals is in the core, too. The only reason we have nice things like iron and platinum in the crust and upper mantle is a meteoritic “late veneer” after the planet had mostly formed… which is not terribly relevant to mineral prospecting, but kind of interesting, none the less.

            Nope, spectrography should have you pretty well covered, there.

        • We most certainly do not get most of our nickel and platinum from meteorites. Pretty much all of of the platinum in the world comes from giant, ancient magma chambers that are luckily reachable with enough digging. Most nickel comes from deposits formed in more complicated, but entirely terrestrial ways.

          Most ores are made by long and gradual processes happening over tens of millions of years, almost always with liquid water involved. Most of these processes never happened on the moon or most asteroids, or if they did, not for very long. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s worth it to go to the moon and pick up meteoric platinum, because there isn’t any there to get. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting ore deposits on Mars, but getting them back to Earth will likely never be profitable. And to our best knowledge, the only things that are easy to get from asteroids are iron, nickel, sulfur, and Plain Ol’ Rock, and Earth has plenty of all of these things.

          To summarize… mining in space only makes sense if you’re building things in space. If you want to build things on Earth, mine on Earth.

          • I was thinking of the Sudbury Basin, said to be of meteoric origin. On closer reading, it seems like the ores might be mostly magmatic, released by the impact. OTOH, platinum is more present on the Moon and in meteorites than in Earth’s crust.

            My point about picking up pure platinum was that AFAIK *even that* wouldn’t pay for itself, and that would be the easiest and most profitable mining scenario imaginable.

      • We did manage to stop destroying the ozone layer with CFCs. That was considered a very difficult and expensive problem, but countries agreed on some baby steps, had some successes, and gradually passed stricter measures.

        • We have not fixed the problem. We keep setting new records on the largest size yet. We slowed the problem for a while, but I’m not impressed.

      • “My imagination is creative enough to build a picture of all this, but practically it feels like a dead end. And worse, assumptions of a space future may prevent us from adopting reductionist solutions that may be the only way to avoid a crash. A crash would make the space future even less likely. It’s a self-denying prophecy.”

        I have lived and worked in developing countries for the last ten years, and have traveled to 20 others. In my opinion, the Earth is almost beyond hope. The population in most parts of the Earth is simply growing out of control and nothing is going to stop it. We recently hit seven billion humans and are on track to surpass nine billion in a few short years. We may avoid the plagues and mass starvation, but the natural environment that we have enjoyed for the past ten thousand years of civilization is irreparably altered.

        The dense rainforests of the world are almost completely wiped out, fresh water sources are either severely depleted or polluted, and the oceans themselves are being emptied of life and poisoned. Space represents new sources of untapped energy and resources. We will go there out of necessity, and necessity is the mother of invention.

        • If I may repurpose your argument: We will bring down our population to a sustainable level out of necessity, and necessity is the mother of invention. Actually it won’t require invention; an uncontrolled downsizing will happen accidentally, judging by the way we manage resources like water and arable land.

    • The problem with climate change is that its a symptom, not the root cause. The root cause is overpopulation. You do not solve a problem by sticking bandaids over a bloody stump while continuing to juggle the chainsaw. This month we made the fastest billion people in history. It took us 12 years. By 2050 the UN median estimate (from their 2004 evaluation of global population) is for an additional 2 billion. You don’t want to know what their high case looks like. That’s a 50% increase in 50 years. In the face of that, even if those people were the rudest of subsistance farmers there is NOTHING you can do which will mitigate the resultant increase in resource use and energy consumption. We have already significantly reduced the carrying capacity of this planet just to get to where we are now, and are presently reducing it at a faster rate than at any time in history. We need to stop wasting our energy and resources flailing at the symptom: carbon emissions and start working on the cause: population growth. You can start by getting the vatican to repeal their criminally insane stance on contraception which keeps the poor in poverty in addition to resulting in millions of needless agonising deaths from diseases such as HIV. In this respect, Susan Sarandon was right.

      • The problem is not over population – the problem is people wanting to live at a living standard similar to those in the US (including the relative poor in the US).

  9. I am a huge space exploration fan and colonization advocate, but I definitely agree that space is not going to solve the problems of the human economy and Earth’s finiteness except maybe in the very long term. Space colonization will definitely take decades of effort to get even started, and at least centuries to get anything economically productive done, I think.

    A couple counter-points.

    About the inhospitality of space: there is at least one thing that is potentially more hospitable in space than on Earth: the lack of humans. A human’s worst enemy is another human – especially when a human community faces resource limits, I think. In space, there are few other humans that you need to deal with. And of course, the manned space programs do have proven in practice that humans can in fact live in space if they can get the necessary resources, be it from the Earth or from somewhere else.

    About the affordability of space exploration: my understanding is that, in fact, the resources spent on space exploration are very small when compared to the whole economies that fund the programs. I think you talked about psychology regarding this point, and I do think that this is a psychological, cultural and political question rather than any kind of physical impossibility. By the way, even though I think that the space shuttles were awesome, I also think that it’s perfectly OK to retire them: they did not make space travel as cheap as air travel and they can’t go beyond low Earth orbit, so now that the International Space Station is built and can be maintained without the shuttles, it’s a nice time to direct those resources into going farther from Earth. But they were a great experiment and will be remembered for a thousand years, I think.

    • No one has yet lived for years in space, and not for lack of opportunity.

      It’s certainly true that space has been a tiny fraction of total economies (about 0.1% for the U.S.). But for that still rather substantial investment, we have not derived mineral or energy resources in the bargain. So there is little incentive for expanding the practice. There is effectively no lure other than our thirst for exploration (which I commend).

      • >No one has yet lived for years in space,

        Manned Mars missions would, among other things, perform that experiment quite nicely, I think. Even manned moon missions of sufficient length, even just maintaining and doing basic research in a moon base, would be a good step forward in that regard.

        >and not for lack of opportunity.

        This is hard to believe. And opportunities are not everything anyway: incentives matter too.

        >It’s certainly true that space has been a tiny fraction of total economies (about 0.1% for the U.S.). But for that still rather substantial investment, we have not derived mineral or energy resources in the bargain.

        Mineral or energy resources are not nearly the only things, nor nearly the first things, that humanity needs (or can get economically rational amounts of back to Earth) from space – even though humans have harvested quite a bit of energy in space already with solar panels. The most important things have to do with information: scientific knowledge, technological know-how, cultural evolution etc. Or think about how a space program can cultivate human capital by challenging people and the society. How much more, for example, does humanity spend on sports compared to space exploration, I wonder? I think it is a lot more. And it doesn’t produce mineral or energy resources…

        >So there is little incentive for expanding the practice. There is effectively no lure other than our thirst for exploration (which I commend).

        There are, in fact, other benefits than just the hedonistic fun of exploration, as I tried to outline above. But the hedonistic fun part is also very important to me personally, I have to admit. As for incentives for individuals who actually do the work and are not just fans like me, the incentive of a rare, prestigious, interesting, challenging and well-paid job goes a long way, I think.

      • >No one has yet lived for years in space, and not for lack of opportunity.

        3 Russians (Valeri Polyakov, Sergei Avdeyev and Vladimir Titov ) have spent more than a year in space at a time
        Sergei Krikalev has spent over 2 years in total

        I’m not sure how many people have been offered a multi-year stint in space. So I’m not sure about the abundance of opportunity 🙂

  10. While I truly would like to believe that we will / could colonize away from Earth, I do not see it happening in the near future (next century or two).

    I do think we have the technology to probably put something the size of the ISS on the moon or maybe even possibly on Mars in a few decades, but at such a huge cost with little payback besides possible knowledge. And who knows if we would even gain much more knowledge doing so than what we currently gain with rovers and space probes.

    It is truly daunting just how large and spread out space really is. I remember reading every astronomy book I could find as a kid, only to be surprised and let down later when I realized just how large of a distance the other planets and stars are.

    I think you could almost substitute energy in for Homer’s quote on alcohol: “alcohol the cause and solution to all of life’s problems” –> energy use the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.

  11. Where is the maths? Seriously I want to see mathematically why we can’t inhabit space.

  12. I was under the impression that Mars not having a spinning molten core, and thus no magnetic field, couldn’t sustain an atmosphere anyway, even if we could make one. It would just blow away in the unshielded solar wind. If that’s the case, it pretty much puts the nail in the coffin for terraforming regardless of our financial and technological backing.

    • That would probably depend on how fast Mars loses its atmosphere compared to how fast it could be added. If it takes 100 million years to lose what can be made in 1000 years, the loss rate doesn’t seem like a problem to me.

      But terraforming Mars by artificial climate change would require huge infrastructure anyway… and having huge industrial infrastructure on Mars is a long way away, at the very least hundreds of years and probably thousands or more.

      Terraforming Mars is a great goal for humanity though, in my opinion!

    • We can’t solve this problem now and it is a very large problem, but it is subject to the rules of science that we do know. And the atmosphere on Mars will last a very very long time. So I think we have some time to work out a solution with technology we cannot even imagine in 1000 years or beyond.

      In the meantime, we can build domes on Mars or underground shelters which will get the job done.

      Just think – we have come a long way from living in caves and it is not inconceivable that we could solve these problems given enough time and determination to survive.

    • Yes, there are better places for colonization such as the Jovian or Saturnian moons. Some of them have magnetic fields or atmospheres. The nice thing about those moons is that you could feasibly colonize one of them then mine some of the others for volatiles or other compounds. On Mars, at best we could make a permanent science or industrial base. It would be a ridiculously expensive endeavor to terraform it, and I am not sure there is enough of anything worthwhile on it to exploit.

    • just read it; thought it was very well done and “grounded” in reality, if you’ll pardon the expression

  13. Great article! It touches on what I’ve been thinking about for a little while now.
    Here’s how I visualize the underlying psychological problem:

    1. Set aside what you know about physics and technology for a moment, and go back to when you were a child, watching someone ride a bike or car, watching a boat on the water, or watching a bird in the sky. It all seems so effortless — in fact to me that as a child, those things, in that order, appeared to require less and less effort.
    2. Now think about cars, then ships, then airplanes — think not only of the complexity of those machines, but of the support structures necessary to allow those machines to run effectively — as well as the relative ability to survive a failure of one of those machines.
    3. Now extrapolate those curves from 1 and 2 into space travel.

    I’m still an unabashed fan of space exploration as well. But I’ve grown out of the idea of common people regularly working even in LEO within my lifetime.

    One major problem I see (only to a tiny degree in this post, but to much greater degree in other fora) is the depiction of this as an either/or question. The fact is that many of the issues we need to solve in order to be able to travel in space effectively are the same or analogous to issues we are seeing regarding quality of life on this planet (sustainability, energy efficiency, maintaining water and atmospheric quality, etc.) Research into these issues has benefits for for both near-term survival and long-term expansion — and that matches both your driving and sports analogies. Because if you only focus on the car in front of you, you’re going to miss your exit. And an athlete who’s too focused on winning this game is much more likely to get an injury that puts him out for the rest of the season.

  14. Given the vast scale of the universe, sometime I wonder if our only hopes of actually making it off of this planet in any meaningful sense will be as an artificial intelligence. It seems like the life span of most organic matter is not suited to the time scales of our galaxy, let alone the universe.

    Now if only we were neutrinos, maybe we could travel faster than light and get around the universe in a jiffy!

    • exactly what i was thinking as i read this.

      unless we figure out a portable interstellar energy source AND faster than light travel, ‘we’ (ie. humans) are never going to make it. it seems far more likely that will figure out a way to transfer our consciousness (or create new forms of consciousness) before either of these problems are met.

  15. I totally agree that space is not the answer to the ongoing global crisis. It requires more ingenuity that we have right now. It needs significant resources (energy). It takes time, for example, to live in Mars might need to introduce primitive life to it, guides its evolution until it forms ecosystem like Earth, which may takes hundreds of years (I’m not expert in astronomy nor ecology. This is just for illustration). So in order to have a chance to live in outer space in the future, we need to solve the ongoing global crisis first, and solve it in the way that our valuable institutions (democracy, education), accumulated scientific knowledge, resources (energy) will still be there for us to progress afterwards.

    So my vision of living in outer space is not space escapism. On the contrary, it asked us to solve the current poor management for us to have a chance to manage an even larger system. The demand for much more ingenuity requires us to greatly improve our average quality (by universal education and ‘rich pay poor for not to give birth’). The resources requirement request us to improve the distribution allocation (by ‘rich pay poor for not to give birth’).

    As we can see from the comments, living in outer space is a strong vision – easy to imagine and measure, easy to be shared globally. This is useful to motivate people to act to change. Admittedly, there is a risk that people may misunderstand it as space escapism for continual growth. Therefore it is important to clarify it when we share vision.

    Share vision, get committed, improve ourselves.

  16. Reading these comments it is very VERY interesting to see, that even an audience for a more or less scientific blog can be delusional 🙂
    Comments on other tmurphy articles were spot on, they generally agreed with main – pessimistic/realistic – points. But enter space travel — and everyone is dreaming instead of thinking.
    Highly curious 🙂

    • So it’s not just me noticing this! It’s a dream that runs deep. And I’ve suppressed some of the more delusional comments, because they’re just too nutty for me to bear.

      • All the calculations show it can’t work. There’s only one thing to do: make it work.

        — Pierre Georges Latécoère, early French aviation entrepreneur.

  17. First off, what a sad response, to your quiz, from science students that “got” into college. This was not “man on the street”, but college students in a science class.

    The realities are true, once in space where do we go, what do we do? The moon, Mars, and asteroids are the only practical destinations given current propulsion and even next-gen theoretical systems (VASIMIR, ion-prop).

    Say that NASA tomorrow got guaranteed $30B a year funding and no more congressional meddling. Say they got off the bigger rocket bandwagon and made a true intra-solarsystem craft. Built in modules and connected together in space. Parked this at the ISS and used Falcon/Dragon to launch astronauts to it. Say they helped to get the VASIMIR onto this craft as the propulsion and used some kind of cutting edge nuclear reactor to power the whole thing. Did all this in five years.

    Then what?

    We go to the moon, do more research (hopefully into artificial gravity so the trip to mars does not kill all onboard), just fly around the lagrange points? Then what?

    The creation and use of a single, reusable space craft that stays in space is the best use of money for the purpose of exploring near out planet. There is good science to be had, but there are many good things that could be done here on Earth too.

    Granted, we could close all foreign bases, move all of our troops back to US soil, recall our Navy to our shores and get back to Defense-ing our country and let the rest of the world stand on their own for once. This would save so much money that nobody would care what we spent on NASA.

    • >what a sad response, to your quiz, from science students that “got” into college. This was not “man on the street”, but college students in a science class.

      Yeah, I agree!

      >once in space where do we go, what do we do?

      I guess you’ll have to come up with something yourself, if you end up living in space and have no mission of any kind assigned to you. I don’t know who exactly you mean by “we” though, because over 99% of humans will never go to space, I think, because leaving Earth’s gravity is so costly. But if someone goes to space, they will have probably thought about what they want to do there beforehand. Build a utopian space society maybe? Or just practice hermitry for a while, or forever? Who knows.

      >There is good science to be had, but there are many good things that could be done here on Earth too.

      Things like “freedom” or “security” or “social justice” for which there will never be enough resources anyway, as people always want more? I’d rather have slightly less of those and space colonization, if I could choose.

      >we could close all foreign bases, move all of our troops back to US soil, recall our Navy to our shores and get back to Defense-ing our country and let the rest of the world stand on their own for once. This would save so much money that nobody would care what we spent on NASA.

      This is one aspect of what I meant when I said above that “the resources spent on space exploration are very small when compared to the whole economies that fund the programs”.

  18. The comments on the Economist’s piece were some of the most delusional I have ever read. The Economist was simply pointing out the reality that long-distance, manned space exploration is unaffordable. We are too poor to do it, even if we wanted to. The reaction from the space cadets was one of fury…

    I think that space exploration was only possible because of cheap fossil fuels, and that cheap fossil fuels will end before we get a chance to be able to afford space again. So we will never, never, never get humans beyond what the USA did in the 1960s and 1970s. Five hundred years from now, five thousand years from now, we will still be on Earth and nowhere else, and no human footsteps will have been added to the Moon’s surface. We have to make the best of Earth.

    Still, getting a few people to walk on a moon for a few days is an achievement, one that will stand for millennia, and will never be surpassed.

    • Never is a LONG time.

      Surely you mean “won’t be surpassed for the foreseeable future”. 20 years or thereabouts.

      The laws of physics do not preclude humans from engaging in long-distance space travel. If we really want to do it, we can.

      • The premise of the last statement was no more or less true in the stone age, too. Careful about irrational exuberance (yes, the 20 year comment gave it away).

    • Elon Musk says the fuel cost of a Dragon9 launch is only $200K. That’s less than half a percent of the total cost ($50M) of a Dragon9. That’s one of the reasons he aims to make the rocket reusable.

      Moreover, saying that the end of cheap fossil fuels means the end of space exploration is like saying the colonization of the new world should have petered out after we finished stealing all the gold and silver from the Aztecs and Incas. All that loot helped get us over here, but wasn’t necessary for us to stay.

      • Energy is far more important than a commodity. Gold did not fill the sails of the ships. If running out of gold meant no travel, then the story would have been much different.

  19. [shortened by moderator]

    Let’s wave a magic wand and say we’ve solved all the technological problems — and I do mean all. We now have the means to terraform Mars and Venus and to build huge transport ships and an energy source plentiful enough to power it all.

    So what?

    We’ve still got billions of people on Earth. Are we going to have them abandon their homes? Colonization has never worked that way in the past — it’s always been a small number of the adventurous going to the far-off lands to settle to put down new roots, with the overwhelming majority staying put right where they are. Humans just don’t migrate.

    Presumably, we’re going through this exercise because the Earth isn’t enough. But that means we’re on an exponential growth curve, and just adding another doubling or three doesn’t buy us much at all. If we use up the Earth in the next century of so, it’ll probably take less than a century to use up Mars, and less than three centuries to use up the rest of the planets.

    Incidentally, this would also seem to be the resolution to the Fermi Paradox. Only through exponential growth could a civilization develop the energy resources needed for interstellar travel. Not only is such grown unsustainable, it’s bounded by as much of a practical resource barrier (making the jump from overflowing an entire solar system to crossing the mind-bending distance to another one) as we face ourselves (making the jump from overflowing an entire planet to crossing the mind-bending distance to another one).

    Even then, exponential growth is a killer. If there had been another civilization a mere half-billion years older than us — less than 5% of the age of the universe, well within the realm of plausibility — the entire universe would by now be overrun.

    As entertaining as space opera is, it has no more bearing on reality than Harry Potter.


    • I agree with the Fermi Paradox possibility. I look at the long view of fossil fuel use (see post on sustainability) and see this time as a very special age, with absolutely no guarantee that we manage a transition to a high-tech existence beyond the fossil fuel age. We like to attribute our progress to our cunning selves, but maybe it’s really all about the fossil fuels.

      Other planets elsewhere giving rise to intelligent life likely also have allocations of fossil fuels. Evolution is incremental: we may well develop the smarts to poke a stick in the ground and have it come up dripping with oil, but why would we skip evolutionary steps to the point that we immediately realize that the goop in the ground is a precious one-time resource not to be squandered. We’ve got smarts, but not much wisdom. This could be a common theme in the Universe. The fact that we are not overrun with aliens is perhaps a great indicator of where we are not going.

    • You are right. The reason of spreading out of the Earth should not be to escape collapse due to exponential growth and overshoot, for we run the risk of larger collapse if our speed of finding, reaching and terraforming failed to keep up with the power of exponential growth.

      And it is not migration of all human/life. The Earth is still the most habitable place for us. Why all need to migrate? It is our best interest to sustain it as long as possible.

      Therefore the only reason of spreading out of the Earth is to diversify, so that we (life) will still here although universe keeps changing (e.g. Sun will die one day). See http://think4sustain.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/global-vision

      It is likely that we need to manage well the Earth first and so learned to design institutions to auto-regulate population and consumption within a planet’s carrying capacity, before we can spread out of the Earth. Then when we open up a new planet, we can achieve S-Shaped growth and then smoothly stabilize with that planet’s carrying capacity (small fluctuations around the carrying capacity), instead of recurring spectacular overshoots and collapses. This will slow down our speed of spreading, affected our race with the changes of the universe (e.g. death of the sun).

      • This may be easier than you think when taking into account that the carrying capacity of Mars, Venus, the Moon, etc. stands at zero. Hey, we’re already done!

  20. Obligatory xkcd:
    http://xkcd.com/893/ (don’t forget to check the rollover)
    Being someone who watched the televised original lunar landing, I really want to see humanity get back into space. To anyone who thinks we shouldn’t or cannot, then that type of short-term thinking means that humanity is doomed – whether in the near-term of centuries due to its own efforts, to maybe a few billion when sol runs out of juice.
    Saying that, maybe we need to go through a period of discovering how to live within the resources of the planet that we now have. That knowledge could be seen as a requirement anyway to be able to colonise anywhere else within or outside the solar system.

  21. [shortened by moderator]

    Why not space indeed, like many here I used to think humanity had, if not a bright future amoung the stars, we at least had a chance. Im not so sure anymore.

    Of course, our love affair with inefficent primitve fossil-fueled cars on earth doesnt apply only to earth. Our chemical rockets are in many ways, a like an analogue to gas-poweed cars. Noisy, polluting, expensive, complex, failure-prone, and hugely inefficent when it comes to fuel. Thats why it still costs $10,000 dollars to put a kg into LEO. Nor do we really have any idea besides some basic scientific research, about what wed want to do in a sustained way in space. Mine it? Build condos on the moon so Richard Branson can sell tickets?

    I think its not entirely impossible we could make a go of it into space, even in the future. But what that would entail, is diverting energy away from the entire population, towards the space program. I call this, the Dune Option. Most people on earth, would have little or no access to energy, or high-tech goods. It would all go to the space programs, so tiny minorty could colonzie the solar system, while most of us read books by oil-lamps again. Think how likely that scenario is and you see the problem.I cant think of any scenario where the people of earth would make such a sacrifice. Space programs were floundering even with energy and money relatively plentiful. Heck, even our science fiction movies are starting to cost as much(or more) than some space program, and they never leave a blue-screen room!

  22. I don’t see colonization of space as any kind of realistic goal. Maybe, maybe, there could be space stations in orbit around Earth with a lot of people living in them, but that is a long ways out if at all.

    What I see as possible is exploitation of space resources. Within a century we might possibly capture a nearby asteroid, drag it into geosync orbit, and connect a space elevator to it. If we’re going to pick lofty goals for the space program, that should be it. There’s no economic value in a trip to Mars. There is immense theoretical value to mining asteroids.

  23. One other major point is that fish didn’t leave the ocean in significant numbers.

    Any marine problems remained problems for marine species. A tiny few of those creatures had descendants adapted to terrestrial conditions, and there ended up being quite a few offspring of those, but the expansion into terrestrial niches did nothing to help those still under water.

    In fact, from pliosaurs to penguins to pinnipeds, terrestrial niches have repeatedly offered powerful pre-adaptation for life as an elite marine predator. By that analogy, I’d expect any truly space-faring civilization to try its hand, every few centuries, at establishing empires on Earth via kinetic energy weapons and the occasional landing of espatiers.

  24. Great article on a topic I’ve pondered a lot. I love the idea of space exploration and colonization, but I keep coming back to one fairly simple sticking point: there is very likely no place within 1000 light years as hospitable to human life as Earth. We don’t seem to be able to make it work sustainably here. Under what logic would we do better elsewhere?

    Of course, such depressing thoughts can’t dampen the enthusiasm of a true believer, but it’s sort of killed it for me.

  25. Short of near magical Star-Trek like technologies being developed we are not going anywhere.

  26. At a commercial level, space is going to happen piece by piece, as the business model proves itself. Research missions are obviously not sustainable. I think the move to space is going to happen, but it may take a while – as did every other major colonization effort in the history of living things. I think if we look back from a hundred years from now, the period from ’73 until now will look like a small blip.

    Putting people into orbit reliably and *cheaply* is phase 1. We’re not quite there yet, and space tourism by itself won’t cut it. Manned commercial supply trips to the ISS might be a good start. The technology is pretty much in place though, and its really just a matter of figuring out who the customers are.

    Phase 2 is getting around in LEO. The business model for a dedicated space to space taxi is starting to come together – governments have expressed willingness to pay for garbage collection, for example, in order to protect valuable orbits. That has a high likelihood of happening in the next decade or so. A whole lot of other human activity can bootstrap on that.

    Moving back and forth to the moon and Lagrange points is phase 3. As you point out, it isn’t clear yet what the business model for this will be. The US and – maybe – China will fork out large chunks of money for research/political missions, but without a business model people won’t wind up staying there. I still think there’s a case for optimism here though – although it may take decades before we see commercial activity on the moon.

    And then there’s the interesting stuff – asteroids, Mars etc. Might take 50 or 100 years before there’s a permanent colony on Mars, and regular asteroid mining activity, but there’s so much value there. The key is that it isn’t one big trillion dollar effort – its actually a large number of billion dollar efforts, spread out over decades – with a huge potential payoff. Sounds a lot like the aviation industry and computing to me. Ultimately though, the economic driver for humanity’s move to space is going to be things like general stores and restaurants. If the US puts a base on the moon, I’d like to be the guy running the only pizza place in half a million klicks.

    • Consider that NASA competes for funding in the Federal budget, and that they have all the incentive in the world for paying their own way (and more) by extracting valuable resources from space. Yet nothing of intrinsic commercial value has ever been recouped from space—aside from the value of moon rocks, etc. as rare items that are incredibly hard to get. If economic drivers favored doing so, NASA had the means to chase after space resources. It’s a valuable datapoint, worth much more than speculation about the commercialization of space.

  27. I agree on all points. I’d like to add that, despite our societal disavowal of evolution, we as a species still follow the principle that species are driven by expansion to areas of increased resources or lower competition (or both). Space as you have pointed out is very very low on usable resources (especially the kind you need to live), but it is low on competition from fellow humans.

    A major problem with space exploration is the energy required. Humans are currently powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, which can be viewed as a giant battery fueled over several million years. Nearly all of our expansion has been fueled by the depletion of this battery. If we drain that battery before we have used that energy to create a sustainable energy production method for the planet, we will not only stop growing but rapidly shrink. From your previous post it is clear that non-exponential growth is also a requirement. For space to be truly attractive, we must first reach a phase where energy can be produced far in excess of our needs (again only feasible with non-exponential population and energy use). Since, as you and many posters have pointed out, most of the space based activities envisioned will take far more energy input than their lifetime output could yield.

    All of this requires us first to create an Earth that is stable in terms of both energy use and population. A thriving planet based on something other than exponential growth seems farfetched. But ecologically and thermodynamically it is the only option. If earth reaches this state it seems unlikely that a massive growth into space (energetically or population) would be a priority. Given that exponential growth is the motivation in the first place.

  28. You may be right, I may be crazy. However it just might be a lunatic your looking for. Take a step back. Look at the industrial and energy consumption of planet Earth as it is now. Where is it going? A vast portion of the pie, approaching 50% in some societies, goes to the military. If that remains the same I can assure it it will not be waste heat laying ruin to the environment in 400 years. My point being even using todays technology we could start utilizing the industrial capability dedicated to weaponry to build a space based solar energy infrastructure. Once you do that, you’ve opened up space, and increased the efficiency of the Earth’s energy system many fold. Never mind that the nature of our creation drives us to war. If you asked me will humanity keep pumping 1.5 thousand billion dollars a year, call that 100 times NASA’s mid 1990’s budget when we launched on the order of 600 tons worth of space shuttle a year. For the same money, and changing nothing else launch a theoretical 60,000 tones to LEO every year. That’s an aircraft carrier worth of mass, or 5 missile destroyers, or approx 7 10 GWe solar power satellites in the 1970’s Glasser class. In 50 years you’d cover Americas energy consumption. In other words, if we did space instead of the Cold War. We’d be living by the electricity captured in geo sync orbit. A radically different world.

    But we’re not that species. We are far too warlike. It can be done. Planet Earth is not so massive that it closes space to a petrochemical society. The question is can we overcome the drives that make us allocate time on industrial tooling from one task to another. I don’t think it’s a question of economics right now, it’s a question of how we decide to allocate our wealth.

    • You are wrong that a vast amount of our spending goes to the military, you must be American or North Korean. Only North Korea spends such crazy %’s on its economy on the military. The global average of spending on the military is between 2 – 4% much less then spending on tourism, and military spending has fallen by half from what it was at the end of the cold war.

      There is less and less money to carve out of military budgets, but that doesnt mean publicly subsidized solar industry couldnt be supported; as the 99% remind us, there is a lot of tax revenue that can be raised in our rich, rich socities.


  29. Unless your survey was very specific about the fact that you were asking only about people-inside-a-spacecraft travel, it’s not at all surprising that some might have misinterpreted the question and assumed that robotic missions were included as well.

  30. [shortened by moderator]

    “By contrast, a hamburger has never slammed into the side of the space shuttle in orbit…”

    Haha, I would rather go hungry than have a hamburger punch a hole and more in my spaceship.

    Yes, I think Space is not, can never be, the cure-all to the problems of humanity. I see it more as a sort of Holy Grail for those intelligent enough to see such a thing as a metaphor and not as some obsessive goal.

    I see space as the continuation not as a physical migration that parallels the evolution of species from sea to land but as another stage in the evolution of consciousness that began when our ancestors learned to paint and write and thus achieve the sort of immortality glorified by Shakespeare in his sonnets (“So long lives this and this gives life to thee”). Space only makes sense if we can perfect some means of transferring consciousness from organic to inorganic material (mind uploading) plus the means to build autonomously (Von Neumann machines).

  31. Terraforming Mars would be much easier than you made it out to be. The mass of Mars’ atmosphere is 25 teratonnes, compared to 5148 teratonnes for the atmosphere of Earth. So 100% of Mars’ atmosphere is only 0.5% of Earth’s atmosphere. This is still 50 times larger than the 0.01% figure you quoted for global warming, but perhaps not utterly impossible.

    • I’m not moving to a place with an atmosphere less than 1% the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere, no matter what the content. Gasp. Abject lack of infrastructure still a problem.

    • But terraforming Mars would mean giving it a thicker atmosphere, closer to Earths. We could not survive in such a thin atmosphere, so not only do we have to terraform 25 teratonnes of atmosphere, we need to thicken it many times over, and then also manage to keep the atmosphere inside next to Mars. Earth has certain tricks which lets us retain such a thick and luxurious atmosphere.

  32. The answer to your question, how do we manage while staying on earth is ludicrously simple. We war, we starve, we commit genocide and we waste resources time and time again until we’re eventually stuck here, too resource poor to get off the rock until another bit of rock or some other global disaster wipes us out. Or you get consensus from all countries and have all people act responsibly. Which do you think is more probable?

      • Well I would say we were custom built for certain areas of this rock. However, everywhere else we “altered” the requirements to live in a given area by creating clothes, tools, shelter & infrastructure for people to live in many once unsurvivable areas on this rock.

  33. Might the limit to economic growth be the thermodynamic requirements of the brain, as an information processor? It’s not a future I would relish, but as reality becomes degraded, could we see ourselves retreating into some replacement for reality? If I settle down in front of the TV on a Saturday night, and watch a computer generated film, in preference to going out, am I already engaging in an energy saving retreat from reality?

  34. I don’t think the comparisons are just.

    It’s probably accurate to say that space is a pretty dangerous place, and if things go catastrophically wrong you won’t survive. However, it’s not like you have much chance in a submarine or a jet airplane, hell even a multi-story office building if the structure gives way. All you are saying about space travel is “Don’t screw up”.

    Also, I think the point about the distances is valid in the sense that most people don’t realize how big space is, but not in suggesting how difficult the challenge would be. Once you’ve traveled the first month on the way to mars, I can’t imagine many qualitatively new challenges will be involved in traveling the other 8 months.

    I do agree that we may not experience the exponential technological progression we have now for the next 500 years, but I wouldn’t be able to rule it out either. It seems much too strong to call habitation of space unlikely, especially over those time scales.

  35. I liked your first couple of posts because they were based on physics. This post is based on politics and therefore economics. But as physics restricts economic growth on earth, it will make space travel comparatively cheaper. Economic growth will continue just as scientific breakthroughs will continue.

  36. Another popular misconception is that people will be able eventually to emigrate to some pristine world, leaving the wasted old earth behind. That’s not how migrations work. Most Europeans, for example, stayed behind while a few bolder folks went to the New World. Most of us (and our progeny) are going to be Earth people, for better or worse. If you’re very optimistic, you could imagine a small population on the Moon or Mars, but even if that happens, it won’t change life here at home.

    All such comments assume that we’re not going to discover amazing new energy sources.

  37. I stumbled upon this article late at night. I was a little tired and didn’t take the time to properly read the question. (Not reading the whole questions, bad I know). Specifically I didn’t take notice it indicated “[e.g., since 1980 or so]” and I answered incorrectly by choosing D) the moon.

    I’m curious to know if this was the exact wording of the question when given to the students. I can’t help but wonder if removing “since 1980 or so” would have a significant impact on the results.

    From the given age group they might not know the specific date the last time our species walked on the moon but they would know we walked on it.

    • In fact, the 1980 bit was for the benefit of the blog readership, being of mixed age. It was left out of the question posed to the students because all of them were too young to have been alive when the moon landings happened. So yes, some may not know the history well enough to get the dates right, but much of the agitation I heard was from students who assumed we still did such things. I kid you not.

  38. 3 words for you buddy: commercial space industry.

    Space travel is an incredibly complex problem, more complex than anything humanity has ever tackled, but there is nothing preventing us from accomplishing this task.

    Think about it, humanity has barely had the automobile for 100 years, the computer for 60 years, and the internet for 30 years. The rate at which human knowledge and technology is expanding is close to exponential.

    It’s true that humanity faces great challenges in the near future, but if these can be overcome and mankind can maintain its current pace of progress, who can say what the future holds? Space travel within the time frame of 500 years is entirely within the realm of possibility.

    • FIrst, a message to all would-be posters. I usually trash comments that use a non-civil tone (like the previous one starts out). I also usually dispose of comments that are too far overboard for a physicist to stomach (enough with the AI singularity, already). And comments that are too long: get a blog. (See discussion policy).

      Many comments are indistinguishable from dreams, and often fall victim to blind extrapolation of our amazing fossil fuel joy ride. They may be right, but geez, they’re said with such certainty. It kills me. A little less hubris in predicting our future would be nice.

      For this particular comment, technology has not stood in the way of space commercialization. Trips to the moon could have been initiated 40 years ago. Why weren’t they: no commercial gain on the moon. Someone else commented on how much they would like to own a pizza joint in space, presumably imagining a customer rate something better than once every few decades. The cost of getting to the pizza place would be unimaginably greater than the cost of the food. Small airplane pilots joke about the $100 hamburger at the day-trip airstrip. Now up the ante.

      • Modern Sea travel is very safe compared with what some early explorers experienced. Life boats might keep you alive for a short time but without any other ships plying the oceans your prospects for rescue were slim at best. Some of the early Viking expeditions to North America were fraught with danger. Fall overboard, your dead in minutes (hypothermia). The ocean was indeed a very inhospitable place. Yet those explorers did succeed in spite of the odds. Space is a very big obstacle. To traverse it we will of course have to survive long enough to make it happen.

        • Some of these posts talk about the bravado of the explorers and colonizers to the “New World”, and how fraught with danger it was, and how so very few survived the trip. What, did the Native Americans show up in a limousine? Okay, so they walked. From Asia. Does that make them any less “original colonizers”?

          PS: It’s already too late. We are running out of the resources needed to sustain human life on Earth, much less exponential growth, or expansion into space. Too much chest thumping, not enough forebrain use.

  39. I really do hope you are you are dead wrong sir, but I must concur that I seriously doubt we will ever colonize other planets escaping our own. It is definitely not a solution for the future of the human race.

    I do believe we should never give up, but also agree that we need to take care of the things in front of us now before we put our full focus in space. The developments in technology may one day open a new method for space travel and colonization, but I personally cannot see that occurring in this century in my mind.

    I do wonder what your thoughts are on harvesting materials off of the moon. In your mind, would it be feasible or even worthwhile to do so?

    Web Design in Dallas

  40. I saw a convincing argument once that before we could ever inhabit another planet (or moon, etc.), we’d have to have gotten so good at living in space itself and done it for so long, that we would be unlikely to ever choose to leave it. If that is true, space, not other stellar objects, is the whole goal.

    To live permanently in space without support you need raw materials (mining/gathering), large gardening operations, energy, and the entire manufacturing ecosystem (refining, processing, machining, chip fab, etc.). Water and air have to be continually gathered or produced from what is gathered, and then recycled religiously. It all has to work perfectly, forever, in an extremely hostile environment. It is possible, but a goal for a future age. We need to focus on making it *to* that age.

    Oh, and you’ll probably want to solve terrorism before you try permanently living in a spaceship with millions of other people.

  41. Something that everyone seems to have missed with relation to the whole “fossil fuel running out” problem is that it is very unlikely that we will. Considering only oil for a moment (the fossil fuel that we are using the fastest as a percentage of the known resources), we have probably passed what most people assume is peak oil. However, this is because we have not tapped the 70% of the Earths surface that sits under 4000m of water. If you add to this the fact that we can convert coal to oil (both black and brown coal, it isn’t done at the moment as it is not economic… yet), and that there is a _lot_ more coal than oil, in addition to the large amounts of natural gas that exist, we have a lot yet to burn through. This will, of course, produce many billions of tonnes of CO2, so much so, that the few degrees of climate change they are talking about are more likely to become 10 or 20 (in addition to changing the surface of the ocean into acid). These sort of changes are likely to kill off a significant percantage (20 – 80%+) of the human population by around ~2150 or so.
    All of this assumes that we don’t start to co-ordinate action on this issue on a scale 3-4 orders of magnitude beyond our current efforts. Believe me, there are more than enough fossil fuels around for us to almost wipe ourselves out from the side effects of burning them for energy before we run out of them.
    Still, on the upside, major die back might just save the human race.

    • The geology of the ocean basins (and their history) does not lead us to believe there is oil to be found there. And the peak oil concerns do not hinge on running out, but seeing a peak in rate of production, followed by a rate decline. Lots of hydrocarbons in the ground, yes. But this does not translate into ever-increasing rate of production.

      • Perhaps, I am not a geologist, but a during a short stint in the oil industry I did hear of exploration being done off the continental shelf. Either way, the amount of fossil fuels available in known land reserves is very significant. I believe the limiting factor will not the running out of supply but the environmental implications of the using of the available supply, which is linked to exponential demand, rather than exponential production.
        This is made all the more significant by the fact that Global Warming is likely to have a significant lag on coming into effect (~50-100 years), so by the time effects occur, there will be very singificant damage built into the system, no matter how quickly we respond at that point.

        Still, thanks very much for your posts, they help put a very defined fence around the problems facing the world.

      • First part of your sentence isn’t correct. In fact most of our major oil discoveries come from deepwater basins these days and all of the best hydrocarbons are sourced inevitably from marine sediments. Sadly, the second half of your statement is spot on, but “fossil” fuels should also take into account sources such as uranium, thorium and other low hanging non-hydrocarbon fruit. Still doesn’t void your other argument of boiling water on the planet in 400 years. Keep up the great work and get people thinking!!

        • I’m thinking mid-Atlantic, for instance, where the plates are spreading apart, so all the crust is being formed from magma. You’ll find no oil there. Sure, near the continents chances improve. And the biggest finds today almost have to be in the least likely places, since the land has been scoured. Even so, a big year for us finds 10 billion barrels, while we use 30. We know how this will end…

          • When one adds up all current known sources of oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands ect, we still have a good one hundred years of supply at current rates of production. This does not account for future advances in energy efficiency.

          • 33 of the 42 major oil producing countries are in decline, the U.S. since 1970. In the case of the U.S., this is not for lack of oil in the ground, for lack of technology, lack of stability, lack of management, or lack of incentive to be independent of foreign oil. It’s the rate, not the amount that matters: oil is not in an underground lake to be slurped by a straw at an arbitrary rate. It’s viscous fluid in porous rock with finite permeability. A statement that the U.S. had over 100 billion barrels in the ground in 1970 is not relevant to the practical rate of extraction. Oil decline well before “running out” is a painful truth seen the world over.

  42. well consider this, the USA has given up. It started with the technological advantage (space program), next is the economy (well underway) after that its the military. China/europe/russia (some combination thereof) will move in on this power vacuum. They will get to space. Humans will go to space. USA Will not…

  43. We will go to space when the economics of it not longer matters.

  44. When fossil fuels run out we will be nuclear , solar and using electric vehicles. We aren’t going to go backwards.

    My main concern about colonisation of space is radiation.
    It’s one thing to take short up to 3 months trips into space, it another to live there permanently and raise families. Any colony is space is going to have to shield its population to at least the level afforded by the earth’s atmosphere. My understanding is that this pretty much means its got to be underground ~3 meters at least.
    Image if huge colonies lived in these star trek type metal space stations and their was a once every 1000 years strongish gamma ray burst etc and it wiped the whole lot out. (something which might resolved the fermi paradox …)

  45. [shortened by moderator]

    You make many good points in your article, but do not give fair coverage to the other side. Therefore, you unwittingly serve to fan the flames of those who would risk the fate of humanity as a one-planet species. Their cry is “we have enough problems down here to solve” and “space is too expensive”.

    Just because space is a very very hard problem, and a hostile territory, does not mean that we should give up the goal of putting our eggs in more than one basket. Only a hundred years ago, being stranded at sea meant near certain death. It doesn’t matter that you can live overnight in the water, or survive for months on a boat – if there is no little or no possibility of rescue. Technology has tamed the sea, and eventually it will tame space as well.


    So, yes, I agree – we will not colonize space easily, but we must put the effort of humanity and the time required into solving this problem. To do otherwise would be risking that we would be wiped out by a terrorist group, an irresponsible scientist, an act of nature, or a passing asteroid that didn’t miss. I don’t want the human race to be a lost memory – a layer of fossils in a layer of sedimentary rock – do you?

    • Mr. Murphy does a great job of putting some numbers on the vast distances involved in this humans in space fantasy. As a farmer I feel like it is hard enough to make a living on this planet where I’m the current link in a chain of life that has succeeded for millions of generations. There is something about people that stay inside buildings all day. They can dream up what ever they please but the fact is that some one has to go plant and harvest the crops if they intend to keep eating. Seems like some folks think that the purpose of eating is to create pleasant sensations in their mouths.
      We don’t just live on the Earth. We are of the Earth and sunshine is the only income we’ve got.

  46. Before you suggest that the narrative is broken I suggest you try read about “Bigelow Aerospace”(google them) who are creating the next generation of space habitats.

    Also colonizing planets is retarded – gravity wells suck (hur hur). Rather read up colonizing space itself (as in space habitats, wiki it). There are numerous advantages to space habits, I seriously suggest you read up about this idea, alot of good science was put into this idea.

    Also space based solar power is an extremely persuasive argument to return to space.

    Another persuasive argument is that some people just want to and some people have the cash to do it (IE: Richard Branson).

    On top of that new tech in space launch systems (Laser based launch systems, mass produced SpaceX rockets, space elevators, skylon) is rapidly being developed. Once space access becomes “relatively” cheap then we will see a boom in space colonies and systems.

    • As far as I can tell, these “new-generation” space habitats constitute a very minor incremental upgrade to existing space modules. Their only application seems to be more affordable space tourism, and cheaper microgravity research, which is all well and good.

      But the whole point is that these habitats will still need to be resupplied from the ground. Indefinitely.

      In order to have a true “space colony” (one that doesn’t need to be resupplied) we would need technology that recycles all the resources used by the inhabitants at near-100% efficiency. As of today, this is unfathomable.

      Space is simply the wrong habitat for our species. If we want to “colonize” it, we would need to change something fundamental about the species we send to colonize it (send intelligent machines instead of humans, or genetically engineer life forms that tolerate alien atmospheres, or indeed space itself).

  47. The solution to colonizing space is to take the ‘power of control’ of space away from NASA, this is happening right now! This is great news and will usher in a new renaissance of space endeavors over the coming decades.

    Christopher Columbus was a government sponsored program. Sure he gets the credit with the discovery of the ‘New World’, however it was private industry, private funds, and private individuals that took the greater risk to their lives and livelihoods to take the risks to make the voyage to colonize. The same will be true of colonization.

  48. I do readily concur with you that reality of space travel is daunting. I also do agree that hoping for a spacefaring human race with a complete disregard for our home planet is as foolish as it gets. If anything, being able to arrive at a state of “zero waste” as a specie might be a precursor to mastering long voyages. Finally, I do not believe any serious scientist or engineer (students and people on the street are prone to delusions) thinks space travel is something mundane. Likewise predicting the future of scientific or engineering evolution or revolutions is something best taken with a spoonful of salt. The future is not quite predictable though we might like to pretend it is so.

  49. I feel your analysis is a little inaccurate. Sure, we haven’t been to the moon in decades (and I was born in the 60’s, so when I picked D I was right!) but it’s not that we can’t go back, but that we haven’t been willing to spend the money. Hopefully that will change with cheaper space flight when virgin galactic and other private parties build the industry.

    But I have a bigger problem with your idea that there’s no food or air out there. Sure, it’s not in a ready-to-eat form, nor is it bumping up against your ship, but it’s there. Oxygen is locked up in ice all over the solar system, and potential food is locked up in asteroids that just need converting to dirt before they can grow plants.

    Sure, a space cruiser having trouble out there right now would not have anywhere to go, but with cheap space travel, enough people will be out there building islands and crossing paths that a ship in trouble won’t be entirely on it’s own to get back to Earth.

  50. Hi tmurphy,

    It’s fun to read these comments and see how hard headed the escapists are about this. I’ve worked a few projects in the umich nanosat pipeline and the amount of effort needed to support the absolute simplist missions to space is vast indeed. I’ve tried to argue against the popular belief in science fiction about space but essentially got the same response you did, but I commend you for trying.

    It’s so frustrating when people just throw it back into your face with comments like ‘lets just disassemble mercury’ as if this is something that’s doable. The launch weight of just putting one mining machine and all of its support to mercury would probably be close to everything we have ever launched into space (maybe more). So I don’t know how you are calmly answering all of these people who don’t take more than a few seconds to form an argument.

    • Yay! I found ONE sympathizer! I will admit to cringing when I hit the “Approve” button, when the “Trash” button is a better description. In part, I’ve decided that I’m not having an impact on the religious believers. But the sane folks and the ones on the fence may notice the asymmetry in “reality index,” so my responses are more for them than for the poster of the comment. So the patience ultimately comes from an optimism that some will be turned off by the lunacy.

  51. The Space Shuttle program was a 30 year long dead end waste of money. Now that it’s dead and buried, I expect we’ll see real moves towards space in the next couple of decades. Unless Congress forces NASA down another wrong road for P.R. reasons, and that, unfortunately, is exactly what their current big money project, the SLS, is. Your other points make a lot of sense, though I doubt many of your readers were under the impression that colonizing space would be easy, or even immediately world changing.

  52. Nice article and comment stream, but suffering from a slight lack of pertinant information and asymmetric emphases. Much like the weak anthropological theory, the most minute change to assumptions radically alters the scenario expectation:

    1) The last 18 years and specically the last 3 have provided high probability indications of contiguous water ice of over one billion tons in the dark traps of the polar craters of the Moon (Clementine, Prospector, LCROSS/LRO, Chandrayaan). (You are correct that regolith only contains trace hydrogen generally).
    2) The over-riding requirement of terrestrially launched material beyond LEO (Low Earth Orbit) for sustainable operations is the need for propellant.
    3) Verified business models now exist and are about to be excercised for fully industrial human operations in space utilising Lunar sourced water as propellant for sale in depots in LEO.
    4) The international satellite organisation, Intelsat, has already signed the first contracts for propellant depot demonstrators to be in place by 2015

    The drivers for going into space with human operations beyond LEO from 2012 onwards will be predominantly economic, with science and research being integral secondary motivations (even if it takes a decade to manifest). The motivations for presence in space will less likey be aesthetic for the coming decades but one of economic opportunity, driven by servicing real market needs beyond the scope of this post. Issues of safety and comparison with ocean going paradigms are useful to an extent, but quickly run their course in the face of engineering diligence and safety operations.

    With tens of millions of technically capable people alive today, there is still enough capacity to tackle terrestrial challenges and simulteneously expand beyond our closed system. Put some dollar signs in front of economic driver math and we will witness the ensuing return of the Frontier, sorely absent for the first time in human civilization after a gap of a century of economic consolidation.

  53. I continue to be amazed at the ruthless extrapolation I witness here. Many arguments follow the logic that because today is more amazing than 100 years ago, 100 years from now will be equally amazing compared to today. We’re experiencing a sugar high from the amazing fossil fuel age. That has a downside, and we have no precedent in human history to guide us: will we manage the transition? Brash confidence is actually worrisome to me: we don’t take the possibility of failure seriously enough to mitigate the possibility. A self-denying prophecy. See Sustainable means bunkty to me for more about humility in our future projections (search for word “bone”).

    Despite my cringing, I post many of these comments anyway so the sane among us can also witness the spectacle. How is it that our society has created this attitude and fervor?

  54. I respect the fact that you’re an insider for the space program. Your argument, however, seems to rest on the assumption that fossil fuels are all we have and that once they’re gone we’re basically going to have to downsize. We’re not even close to utilizing all the energy we could. Likewise in terms of a growth model hitting a finite planet. Yes of course infinite growth cannot happen. That’s not the same, however, as saying that we are at the point where we have to slow down. Your argument about how far up into space we have been can be thrown right back at you by asking how deep have we dug into the earth’s crust in search of minerals and resources. I’ll leave you to figure it out.

    • On the last point: exactly. Mining the Earth is far easier and cheaper than chasing after asteroids. So we’ll do that long before we resort to space, if we ever do.

  55. I notice a lot of your focus is on manned space exploration, or unmanned infrastructure building, but the real issue is energy production, and that doesn’t require mines on Mars or asteroid colonies, as cool as those would be. What are the drawback of orbital solar panels, in terms of cost to get them out there vs. energy produced, assuming a reasonable increase in solar cell efficiency? (This doesn’t address the planetary heat problem, but, hey, one thing at a time. Seriously, that one’s a bugger. OTOH, given the choice between burning up and contemplating humanity existing for hundreds of thousands of years in enforced stagnation…)

    Also, for those wringing their hands over 7 billion people… we’re well below the kind of growth I was told scary stories about when I was a wee lad in the early 1970s, and some people feel the issue we’re most likely to face in our lifetime is population collapse and the collapse of the various social systems predicated on constant population growth:http://www.zerohedge.com/article/human-race-doomed-deutsche-bank-one-most-important-future-turning-points-history (This is one source, there may be a bias, yadda yadda caveat yadda).

    On a slightly unrelated note… seven billion people means a lot of IQ 180+ types, more Newton/Einstein/daVinci/etc level intellects than ever before, and even one such mind can, and has, changed the world. For the first time, two of the largest populations in the world, namely, China and India, are developing the educational infrastructure so that many of those potential world-changers DON’T spend their entire lives staring at the rear end of a cow. What happens over the next few decades when we start seeing the impact of this, especially given that they’ll be coming from nations most desperately in need of solutions? Sure, no one is smart enough to change the laws of physics, and there are no miracles that can create infinite energy from nothing, but there may be solutions we have not thought to look for — by definition, I’m not smart enough to imagine them. The history of Malthusian doomsayers is pretty much identical to that of predictors of imminent Rapture, so, if the past is any basis, I have to put my money on them being wrong. And if they’re not, well, I’ll be dead long before it can affect me, and I’ve done my part for the planet and refused to breed, so I have no children to worry about.

    • Interesting that your genius examples are from the (often distant) past when population was much smaller. We should be inundated by Einsteins at present. Where are they?

      • Working for Google, or Wall Street, or insane. 🙂 Or we don’t recognize them until too late. Or maybe the point at which we can “change the world” has been reached and we’re limited to incrementalism. The distribution of intelligence is well documented and there’s no reason to believe that no matter how many people there, there’s a fixed number of super-geniuses, so, barring someone giving me a good reason otherwise, they’re out there. What they’re doing and what they’re thinking about…. I don’t know. I could see an argument that we have reached the point where the problems are so complex and inter-disciplinary that no single person, no matter how smart, will ever produce more than a piece of the puzzle and we may never see how the pieces fit. Or not. The problem with predicting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. (I don’t know the source of that quote.)

  56. There seem to be two distinct topics I have noticed over the years that bring out the techno-opitmists(polite-term) in droves.

    One, is any topic that tells people(amerikans mostly), that space just isnt going to happen, or at least not the way they expect, hope or demand it will.

    The other topic is nuclear power, its probably the same bunch, just substitute, O’ Neil colonies, nuclear pulse drive, for fast-breeder reactor, thorium reactor and fusion is just about here, and you pretty much get the same idea comeing across. People dont seem to grasp the idea, or ignore all-together a few inconvient truths. We are currently dredgeing vast areas, and planning more, to collect gooey tar sludge, and were calling it oil. In the US(the Saudi Arabia of coal dontcha know), they are blowing apart whole mountain ranges, and refering to the dirt they scoop out ‘coal’. At some point, that coal wont burn unless you throw gas on it first. How do plan to get your liquified steak sandwhiches to your moon-bases with an energy system like that?

  57. Your article is an excellent one, and logically argued, and clearly argued.

    You are correct that space is a hostile and dangerous environment for humans, and so I believe the next wave of space exploration will be done by robots, and prepare the way for humans. While a human visit to Mars is not in our medium term projections, we will undoubtedly continue to send probes and scientific instruments. I imagine that before going to Mars, or even back to the moon, we will have machines prepare our return. Visiting Mars would be a lot handier if there was a Home Depot there, for construction materials, and it is conceivable that we will have robots process and prepare the things we would need. (Far easier then bringing them all ourselves across a vast distance) I think that we will build factories controlled remotely, before human visitation. Human exploration may be what excites people, but it is not the only goal in space exploration.

    • If we could build a self-assembly manufacturing plant in Antarctica, I would be more easily persuaded. Very far from the reality I know.

  58. You’re right, and this is exactly why I chose to study Aerospace Engineering. Unfortunately I’ll graduate this coming spring and continue to work on NASA small satellite missions, which while exciting are still a pathetic sixth-best alternative to manned space exploration.

    I agree with you about the difficulties of terraforming Mars, but this is exactly the kind of research done on the behalf of space that benefits both worlds. Personally, I’m a colonizing Titan sort of guy.

  59. Okay, I am starting to decline more comments than I accept on account of redundancy. The prevailing message is that I have offended a deep religious belief in our space future. Note that I never say such a future is impossible. The responders assure us that it will happen. Don’t trust people who claim to know our future path: especially at this turning point in history when the energy inheritance that made our current lifestyle possible will begin its decline this century. How we manage that is an open question, but our presupposition that it’s in the bag may prevent our success.

    • The fact you consider the logical, thoughtful opposition to be infused with “religious belief” and prefer to use ad hominem rather than reasoned debate in response to their posts should be telling you something.

      • Fair point, and apologies for the emotional reaction. We do not necessarily all agree on which arguments should be considered “reasonable.”

  60. >Think about it, humanity has barely had the automobile for 100 years, the computer for 60 years,
    >and the internet for 30 years. The rate at which human knowledge and technology is expanding is close
    >to exponential.

    Takeshi, I do not mean to single you out, but your post is an excellent example of a particular way of thinking and a common error.

    The problem is that different technologies are not advancing at consistent rates. Automobiles from 100 year ago were capable of going virtually the same speed as cars do today, and they use the same fuel. Rocket technologies which took us to the moon in the 60’s have advanced very little in the last 50 years. The microchip/internet revolution has not fundamentally changed how much energy or physical resources it takes to get a person into space and to keep them alive. Computers are literally a million times cheaper than they were 50 years ago, but moon missions cost about the same amount.

    So I agree that in a sense human knowledge is expanding exponentially, but this metaphor considered by itself is extremely misleading. Consider this optimistic scenario—technologoy advances and astoundingly we develop an AI that is 10 times as smart as a human in the next 5 years! We ask it “How do I get to the moon?” The answer is still “First, get yourself 30,000kg of high-octane rocket fuel.”

  61. It would be so much easier to build self-sustaining habitats in the deserts of Earth – moving the raw materials there is trivial and you don’t even need to supply air, worry about radiation or the wrong gravity. But why would anyone bother to do that, when they can survive more easily in conventional ways? Desert land is cheap and has plentiful solar energy. Yet few humans are interested in being self-sufficient, we’d rather be Las Vegas, supply one thing and rely on others for most of our needs.

  62. Your pronouncement reminds me of Lord Kelvin: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

    How’s that working out?

    • This set of responses has been a real eye-opener for me. I never appreciated the almost cult-like religious fervor behind the assumption of a future in space. Even though I did not claim such a future is impossible (you’ll find no statement as final as Lord Kelvin’s in what I actually say), I have clearly deeply offended the convictions of many by pointing out the challenges involved and the flaws in over-simplified narratives. Such challenges are—via emotional reaction, presumably—interpreted as direct attacks on the articles faith. It’s an amazing phenomenon, and I am grateful for having been made aware of its power.

      I don’t know the future. How could I possibly? But read the responses. Most of these people are far more omniscient than I could ever claim to be. Scientists have to be more circumspect.

  63. [shortened by moderator]

    I think that it’s a dogma among some space enthusiasts that outer space will solve Earth’s problems, and that’s been the subject of much criticism and debate for decades. Our host here is right to call out the assertions on that front and push back.

    I think it’s also dogma among many modernists that manned space is/was a boondoggle, “flags and footprints”, and that because of the lack of relevance to solving the big long problems on earth it has no future. I think that’s equally rebuttable; Giant solar arrays in GEO orbit may be a myth, million-person O’Neill colonies a hopeless dream, asteroid mining to provide platinum to Earth may be a hopeless economic boondoggle. But there are other things we can do to explore and eventually settle space with permanent human presence which is largely self-sustaining, and eventually net positive growth of its own resources. There are good reasons to do some of these things, and some of them should be economically self-supporting.

    It’s much harder than fanboys think (as an engineer in this field…), but there’s a difference between “It’s hard” and “Give up hope”. “It’s hard” is not a reason to give up the Goal. The Goal is not purely economic nor directly relevant to solving Earth’s problems writ large, anytime soon. But it’s a possible and reasonable goal.

  64. Brilliant. Essential reading for all earth bound humans… whatever their delusions.

    Also worth reading along these lines is Angus Martin’s “The Last Generation” – he deals with the myth of space colonization in a very entertaining and informative manner.

    Thanks for a superbly written article.

  65. 1. I humbly think a few tens of thousands of people visiting your blog is hardly ‘cult-like religious fervor behind the assumption of a future in space’. Most people are too busy with cults, religion and reality TV to think about the future, let alone in space.

    2. You dismiss the singularity as an irrelevant argument in 2011. I understand why it’s not a definite future path, maybe not even a terribly likely one, but still, can you explain why is it so unlikely that you won’t discuss it?

    3. I don’t know much about nuclear physics (or physics, period), but my meager TED knowledge led me to believe we stand a reasonable chance of using fusion (hopefully cold, most probably very hot) to prolong our fossil fuel joyride within the next, say, 50 years. Do you think this is complete bullocks? Why?

    • “You dismiss the singularity”

      Tom wrote: “Many arguments follow the logic that because today is more amazing than 100 years ago, 100 years from now will be equally amazing compared to today.”

      To wit: Singularity, or The Law Of Exponential Awesomeness.

      Moore’s Law (a law of economics applicable to a specific period in the development of semiconductor manufacturing) does not apply to everything, at any time. Trends that cannot go on forever, don’t. The Rapture of the Nerds is just another version of cornucopian – ultimately “end of times” apocalyptic – thinking.

      I agree with Tom that the worst about this kind of “best case” thinking is that it promotes complacency and intellectual laziness, which will turn anything but the optimal outcome into certain disaster. We do not engineer for the best case. Every time it has been tried, people got killed.

      I think that many people (including Kurzweil) take the whole concept a lot more seriously than Vinge and his various predecessors did. If “Space” is supposed to save us by providing the exponential resources “out there”, then “Singularity” is supposed to save us by drawing on the surely infinite resources of the mind. Kunstler, for all his flaws, has a very good response to all this: Science – even technology – is not a source of concentrated energy.

  66. Wow. Great article, website, and thanks. THANKS.

    I think the false confidence in the future stems from two things: the ease at which accidental discoveries have been made in the past, and a lack of understanding of the difficulty of things we already take for granted. Together these lead to false extrapolations.

    There was an interesting TED talk by a man who tried to create a $10 toaster from scratch, collecting the raw materials and so on. Highly informative. There is no-one in the world that knows how to or is capable of making a $10 toaster; it requires an advanced functioning economy.

  67. I agree with your assessment that the idea of “a future in space” has a tremendous amount of emotion behind it. It certainly does for me. I think the core fear is that things are going to get bad enough here on earth that we hope our species can survive by leaving the planet. The emotional energy behind “the whole world might DIE!” is so strong it tends to warp rational thought.

    I must point out another distinction that seems to be getting overlooked. There is a tremendous difference between getting a few people into space in a self-sustained colony, and somehow creating a huge infrastructure which permits us to start moving people into space as a way to deal with overpopulation. A small colony could potentially be merely extremely difficult, but the energy costs of moving, say, 1 million people into orbit and keeping them alive would be astronomical. And It takes about 5 days for the earth’s population to grow by that much.

  68. I found your blog entry much in line with my own thoughts. I have been interested in the manned space program for a number of years, but have recently become increasingly disillusioned with it, in particular the quasi-cult like mentality of many of its proponents (as found on many space forums and *cough* some comments here 🙂 ). Space is incredibly hostile, and humans are utterly unsuited to living there – we are exquisitely tuned to Earth’s environment by millions of years of evolving here. The idea of humans “conquering” space seems hopelessly naive as – with our current primitive technologies – just getting up there is hugely expensive and everything is immensely far away. There is also a disturbing mentality that Earth is a disposable planet – that we can just colonize others if things go wrong here (but presumably humans would eventually trash those worlds, too).

  69. I recommend “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach – as a certified space nut that never quite lost his appreciation on how hard it is to get anything done, this book was still an eye-opener for me. The author has a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, and if there is anything unique about manned spaceflight it is that its volatile mix of heroic feats and pathetic impediments expresses the human condition better – and more constructively – than even the folly known as war.

    The only reason to go to space is to go to space. Yes, that is a tautology. It also reflects reality. We went to space because it was hard, and somebody else might have gotten there first, and ever since some of us have tried to come up with a pretext to convince the rest that we should go back. Spinning off has not worked. Honesty will not work much better – most of mankind has much more pressing problems – but at least it would be honest.

    There is absolutely no evidence that human beings can survive on the Moon, or Mars, over years or decades, or generations. Venus aside, there might well be within the solar system no extra-terrestrial habitat outside a centrifuge to match whatever plasticity the human genome has with respect to gravity, however assisted. There has not been any attempt to determine how the human body holds up in a rotating environment equivalent to Earth gravity, because we cannot even test this without moving the experiment into orbit, and without keeping people in orbit for years. Last I looked, the debate was when the ISS would have to be de-crewed due to Soyuz issues, and when the entire thing is supposed to be de-orbited.

  70. “In space, you’re dealing with a life expectancy of about one minute”

    That’s pretty optimistic isn’t it? I get the impression you would pretty much instantly freeze, boil and explode.

    • Nah. You’d just asphyxiate. Thermal mass and thermal conductivity prevent instant bulk temperature changes. A human body would take hours to freeze, much like it takes a turkey hours in the oven to come to equilibrium temperature. There would be some boil-off of exposed water, but no temperature change associated with this. No explosions. Possibly ruptured lungs, but other than air cavities we’re pretty incompressible. I’ve been in 4 atmospheres of water; 0 atm is even closer to our customary 1 atm, and is no big deal for muscle/bone. I imagine you’ll get gas bubbles in your bloodstream (the bends), which may cause some discomfort if you can even recognize this against the fact that you can’t breathe.

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