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by John Quiggin on December 13, 2018

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has just passed through the heliopause and into interstellar space, forty years after it was launched.

On the one hand that’s a stunning technological achievement and a reminder of the wonderful universe we live in. On the other, it’s a reminder that humans will never go out to explore this universe, or even leave Earth in significant numbers.

Although Voyager 2 has passed the heliopause it is still within the gravitational field of the sun. It would take another 30,000 years to fly beyond the Oort cloud which marks the boundary.

These facts could have been computed when Voyager was launched though at the time its mission was limited to five years. But if they had been pointed out as an argument for the impossibility of interstellar travel, the response would surely have been that the problem would be solved by technological progress. Forty years before Voyager was launched, flying across the Atlantic ocean was a major feat. Forty years or so before that, the first heavier-than-air flight was undertaken by the Wright brothers.

Extrapolating one could reasonably expect that forty years more progress would produce massive advances in space travel including human space travel. In fact, though no one knew it at the time, the heroic age of space travel (indeed, of nearly all kinds of travel) had already passed. No one has travelled to the moon since Voyager 2 was launched and, quite possibly, no one ever will. The promise of easy access to space through the space shuttle has been abandoned in favor of the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket. Meanwhile physicists have closed off just about every possible loophole that might allow us to evade Einstein’s conclusion that the speed of light is an absolute limit.

The other achievement of the Voyagers and their successors has been a comprehensive exploration of the planets and moons of the solar system. They have revealed many marvels, but nowhere remotely habitable compared to, say, Antarctica or the Atacama desert.

The biggest lesson of our decades of space exploration is that Earth is the only planet we have.

{ 116 comments }

1

Max 12.13.18 at 6:43 am

It’s not even 8am and this is surely the saddest thing I’ll read all day.

2

Bruce Baugh 12.13.18 at 7:52 am

John, I started in to raise a couple of objections, and realized as I was writing them that they were irrelevant to your point, which I agree with.

1. I’m confident enough that somewhere in the Solar System other than Earth there’s microbial life that I’d be willing stake a small bet on it. And a slightly smaller one that we’ll discover solid evidence of it in my lifetime (I’m 53, and in chronically poor health all my adult life.)

2. I think the odds are decent that there’s at least one ecosystem with multi-cellular life out there, too, most likely in one or more of the sub-surface planetary oceans found on various moons. But I don’t feel any sort of confidence about them being discovered before climate changes makes space exploration a thing of the past for a long, long time, and betting on things that can’t be verified is…at a minimum, dull. :)

The key thing is that neither changes the truth of “Earth is the only planet we have.” Between the increasingly serious consequences of low gravity, radiation, toxic environments, and all the rest, it seems pretty clear that none of those places can be a home for our species without super-science even if the political will were present to make the sacrifices required for a good try.

3

Moz of Yarramulla 12.13.18 at 10:50 am

I think most of the problem is that the difficulty goes up exponentially at each stage. Getting out of the atmosphere is hard, sure, but any supersonic aircraft can get most of the way (maybe not survivably). Add rockets and low earth orbit is possible (and again, getting back down in one piece is much harder than just getting up there). And so on.

The Kardashev Scale is a useful one for this: to get into earth orbit you don’t even need level 1 (able to use all the energy arriving on the planet), but to do anything other than research in orbit you’re going to need to be close (or have magic technology). Pretty much by definition, using all the energy from the sun requires colonising most or all of the solar system and also vice versa – colonising the solar system is going to mean using a decent chunk of the total solar output. We don’t have that technology, or even reason to think it is possible. But IMO it’s worth dying trying… beats trying to find out what heating the surface by 4 degrees in a century does.

When you think about sending even tiny machines to the stars the total solar output is a useful amount of energy. As the article says, you *can* kinda do it with less, but it takes a very long time (humans have records of about 10,000 years… Voyager will still be here in 10,000 years time).

4

Mike Huben 12.13.18 at 12:05 pm

I agree that humans will never leave earth in significant numbers.

But as biotechnology improves, it should be possible to produce (and reproduce) habitats for humans in space. A few founders could then increase in numbers astronomically. (Pun intended.)

But that’s a Heinlein-style solution, where a few people escape and the rest are still stuck with problems. Heinlein never had the stomach to really face the problems, but we will have to.

5

Hidari 12.13.18 at 12:19 pm

This is an incredibly important post and I’m amazed by how many people just don’t ‘get it’. I raised eyebrows at work (or rather, more so than usual) by opining causally that there would never be human bases on Mars. I don’t mean ‘there won’t be any in the 21st century’. I mean…there won’t be any EVER. It’s just beyond us. (cf here: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2175414-terraforming-mars-might-be-impossible-due-to-a-lack-of-carbon-dioxide/ as to why terraforming Mars is essentially impossible). The overwhelming probability is that there won’t be any bases on the moon either. Ever. For the same reason (as per the OP) that there are not currently permanent manned bases at the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or even at the North/South Poles. It’s not technologically impossible, as such (though it’s much harder than people think). It’s just that we do a cost-benefit calculation about these things and the costs at present are so much greater than any potential benefits. So it’s not going to happen.

And this is to put aside to one moment even more weighted question (and a lot of people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in this question) as to whether or not there will ever even be manned voyages to Mars. To which the answer is ‘Maybe, but it’s unlikely, and even if it does happen, it might not happen for centuries’.

As for manned journeys, a la ‘2001’ to any planet in the solar system beyond our ‘immediate vicinity’. (Mars, the Moon, Venus)..forget it, or at least forget it for the new 2 or 3 hundred years (or longer). We simply don’t have the technology, we don’t have the motive, we don’t have the money, and we don’t have the time (as climate change starts to bite in the next 4 or 5 decades, believe me, carbon fuelled rocket journeys to Saturn are going to look less and less appealing). I have reasons for all these statements but they’re too boring for a short post, although if any one queries I can provide more details.

So…the human race ain’t going nowhere. Ever. Which is unfortunate as we have almost totally fucked up the one planet we have. Ooops!

https://bostonreview.net/science-nature/troy-vettese-climate-gut-check

6

Scott P. 12.13.18 at 12:31 pm

If we had continued investing after Apollo to build a space travel infrastructure as those leading the program wanted, we would I think have made more visible progress.

That said, I feel this post (if it survives) will age about as well as Napoleon’s predictions regarding the future of steam power. We are at the threshhold of a period of major expansion of human travel into space. There are multiple programs working on improved manned space travel capabilities (at least three private I know of, NASA, the ESA and the Chinese). Not all of these will pan out, but some will, and others will join them. The last 40 years have been spent testing and refining every aspect of space travel technology. The Apollo and Soviet missions were essentially short-term, high-risk programs akin to the German rush to put jet aircraft into service in a very short time. Predictably, they were expensive, not very reliable, and full of problems. Many of those problems have now been solved.

I think that the number of humans to travel to space in the next 40 years will easily reach 4 digits, compared to the 536 that have already done it. Numbers will increase, slowly, but exponentially. The future is bright.

7

bob mcmanus 12.13.18 at 2:19 pm

Well I know Quiggin prefers optimism, so I won’t link to the Sixth Extinction articles I read yesterday. Maybe he has a fix for that. (pearshaped in years, not decades)

But what I find sad, and terrifying is that Science Fiction remains the overwhelming opiate of the intellectual rationalist class. This delusional urban escapism, lousy as metaphor or allegory, is probably worse than Christian of Islamic fundamentalism.

Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Lion King, Black Panther, Aquaman…the fantasies are even worse than that, because apparently the audiences are identifying with freaking royalty.

I said Sanders is gonna lose. They hate him, they really hate him, because their idea of redistribution means more black and women billionaires and Sanders might get in the way.

Obama said. “And by the way, American energy production — you wouldn’t always know it — but it went up every year I was president. And that whole, ‘Suddenly America is the biggest oil producer’ — that was me, people.”

Thanks, Obama.

8

Mike Furlan 12.13.18 at 2:43 pm

“The promise of easy access to space through the space shuttle has been abandoned in favor of the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket. “

Since it cost more to launch a pound into orbit with the shuttle than with an Atlas rocket the decision made sense.

9

Layman 12.13.18 at 2:49 pm

“They have revealed many marvels, but nowhere remotely habitable compared to, say, Antarctica or the Atacama desert.”

Indeed, this is what makes the billionaire dream of escape to the sanctuary of Mars (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk) so ridiculous. The idea that it would be easier to mitigate the hostility of Mars’s environment than it would to mitigate that of a climate-changed Earth is, well, nuts.

10

mpowell 12.13.18 at 3:26 pm

I don’t think it makes much sense to be speculating about what humans will be doing many thousands of years from now. Maybe society will substantially regress or humans will die off entirely after a massive nuclear war. Or maybe science and engineering will continue to progress in ways that are still unimaginable to us today. It requires a foolish over-confidence to believe that you can predict this distant future with high probability. If you want to make a bet on the limits of physically achievable rates of travel, sure. But there are a lot of possibilities out there.

On the other hand, you are absolutely correct that the tremendous improvements in transportation technology of the 19th and early 20th century came to a crashing halt sometime after the deployment of jet aircraft and the Apollo missions. Even if NASA does manage to send someone to Mars, that hardly brings us any closer to the point (now unimaginably distant) where manned activity in space makes sense for any purpose other than novelty or scientific study. It is certainly not going to be economically useful for the next several centuries. And I take it this is what you mean by leaving earth in ‘significant numbers’. And this is even more clear now that the advancement of robotics and autonomous machine control indicates that most activity that you could anticipate (energy or resource harvesting, for example), is probably best done through unmanned missions. That is now looking like a much easier technological hurdle than manned space travel.

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Jesús Couto Fandi?o 12.13.18 at 3:42 pm

It is possible that technological solutions will make interstellar travel a reality.

Thing is, it is becoming much more probable we dont survive long enough, or at least as a technologically developed civilization, to actually get to that technology level if it exist. For sure if we keep neglecting the only bubble of survivability we happen to be in.

12

Anarcissie 12.13.18 at 4:05 pm

It will become physically possible, although very expensive, to build and supply habitable structures orbiting the Earth or even further out. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and lampposts no less numerous, such refuges might become desirable enough to build and inhabit for those with the means (and their servants, of course). Earth is the only planet most of us have and will ever have, but not necessarily all.

13

Brett 12.13.18 at 4:20 pm

That’s premature, to say the least. Not everything progresses at the same technological rate as 20th century airplane development, especially when there isn’t either a major war underpinning the development costs, nor a major commercial incentive (both in the case of airplanes). The development of space technology only seems disappointing in the light of the Space Race Era developments, where everything got a massive push forward for political reasons, and then an anti-climax once that goal had been met.

I get more optimistic about space travel the farther out I look into the future. We got better rockets in development, better robots to assemble stuff in space down the line, and so forth. It might not happen this century, but the next? And the one after that? If we don’t wipe ourselves out, we will have a lot of time.

14

CJColucci 12.13.18 at 4:26 pm

Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. On the odds, I suspect we are not. But either way, unless our basic knowledge of physics is wrong, we will never — even in principle — be able to go and meet whatever neighbors we may have. I’m not sure which prospect is more sobering.

15

politicalfootball 12.13.18 at 4:38 pm

The biggest lesson of our decades of space exploration is that Earth is the only planet we have.

Certainly this is true for the foreseeable future.

But “never” is a long time, and we can’t talk about it with any real confidence. Also, I’ll remind you of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

But yeah, we’re talking about a magic-level advance in technology to achieve meaningful space colonization.

Information technology has seen enormous advances in our time. Advances in physical space, not so much. One supposes that this will continue to be the case for some time to come.

16

Charlie 12.13.18 at 4:41 pm

The question is whether humans can survive on something like the time scales that many other species on Earth have existed. If so, the travel time to other stars (even the other side of the galaxy) is small.

But if this statement is true, the focus should be on surviving.

17

Adam Hammond 12.13.18 at 5:19 pm

Surely the technological leaps that will come from building the border wall will take us to the stars!

18

Monhte Davis 12.13.18 at 5:21 pm

Agreed, with a semi-nerdy qualification to: “The promise of easy access to space through the space shuttle has been abandoned in favor of the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket.”

Realistically, the Shuttle was still very much that 1950s (or Apollo) technology: 2030 tons on the launch pad to get 15-30 tons of payload to low earth orbit or later the ISS, with an 80-ton orbiter that was reusable (1) only at a much lower flight rate than had been projected, and therefore (2) only very expensively, given the program’s sunk/fixed costs. That was not (as is often claimed) because it was a bad design, or because NASA/Nixon/OMB starved its funds, or DoD/USAF imposed too many demands — but because frequent, robust, cost-effective access to orbit was (and is) an inherently much harder engineering/economic challenge than Apollo had been: there was no way any “clean sheet,” version 1.0 design was going to deliver that on any politically realistic budget or in the 1970-1981 time frame. So we got what was really an experimental prototype… but we declared it “operational” after four (!!!) flights, and pretended it was the efficient “space truck” we’d wanted — while in fact its operations ate so much of NASA’s budget that there was never enough left over to develop a version 2.0 incorporating lessons learned.

19

Omega Centauri 12.13.18 at 6:20 pm

And yet our popular culture just seems to assume that FTL is just around the corner. Our entertainment is chock full of aliens and interstellar space travel. So the limitations of physics just don’t seem to get much respect in popular culture.

20

CJColucci 12.13.18 at 6:23 pm

I suspect that, on the odds, we aren’t alone in the universe, but unless our basic understanding of physics is radically wrong, neither we nor our possible neighbors will ever be able to visit and probably won’t be able to communicate. Either we’re alone in the universe or, if we aren’t, we’ll never know, or be able to make any use of the knowledge if, somehow, we find out. I’m not sure which possibility is more depressing.

21

Brian 12.13.18 at 6:29 pm

This is contradicted by many publications, and current developments in space access some of which have been summarized in “The Case for Mars”. We already have the science and technology to colonize Mars. It’s just a matter of doing it. We also have the science and technology to build starships, albeit not starships of the Star Trek faster than light variety. The jury is out on the Albucierre drive that warps space-time, but its size and power requirements have been reworked to the point it should be buildable.

To build a working starship that does not warp space-time requires nuclear energy, or fusion. Many “atomic rocket” designs exist. A few are:
– Simplest. Atom or hydrogen bombs set off behind the rocket, with an arrangement of shock absorbers and a blast plate. (Large.)
– Flashover rocket. Using plutonium or U-234/235 or some other fissionable isotope in granule form, focus electronic neutron generators of the kind used to set off all nuclear weapons on the granule to cause it to go critical. There may have been later designs for super-criticality, but this is much harder to achieve. This design was based on what happens if a critical mass is quickly created. There is a burst of gamma rays, x-rays, visible light and heat that lasts a fraction of a second. A design for this was produced in 1960-61. However, it was not used because it could have generated a fissionables energy economy and proliferation was a paramount concern. According to the report I had, the whole launch and land vehicle was the size of about 2 railcars, and could take off, land on the moon, return, and land using retro-rocket, and still have enough fuel to take off, fly to the moon and land there again.
(Modern nuclear weapons do not contain enough fissile material to go supercritical without a boost. This trigger was invented to increase safety.)
– NERVA type nuclear rocket. This uses an atomic pile (core of a nuclear reactor) to heat some material that circulates through it. These have been tested to death.

– Fusion rocket. These are pretty recent designs. They are based on the problems with Tokamak reactors. That reactor design sort of works, but it inevitably leaks because the magnetic field cannot be made uniform enough and strong enough. So, this design simply makes the toroid linear, and makes a weak point at one end. In simulations, some of these can be net positive, at least if they are run in space.

All of these nuclear rockets should be fine for use in space travel.

The radiation, low gravity, and toxic environments are all solvable. I can’t post a radiation chart here, but it’s quite enlightening. I can post pubpeer critiques of two recent papers on radiation in space that got into Nature. Both of these committed an unforgiveable error. They used Gray as the unit, which is energy, when Sievert is the correct one to measure biological effect. Both of these involve Mr. Delp, who is trying to peddle his patented mTor inhibitors to NASA for astronauts.

https://pubpeer.com/publications/121B6724F1A7697B16B2164421DBD8 – Cosmic radiation exposure and persistent cognitive dysfunction.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/28976568184E8C7FF4FB248F6B488C – Apollo Lunar Astronauts Show Higher Cardiovascular Disease Mortality: Possible Deep Space Radiation Effects on the Vascular Endothelium.

The gene targets to create humans that are super-tolerant of radiation (1000 Sv/day) or even make humans that harvest energy from gamma rays and use it (5000 Sv/day and up) are known. The gene targets for magnesium issues in microgravity are known. So are gene targets for bone strength and muscularity and mitochondrial fitness. As a side effect, all of these will result in longer life span. How much longer we will have to see, but if mouse results carry over, it should create normal life spans on the order of 150-160 years, with menopause past 100 years.

The only technological hurdle we don’t yet have the proven answer to is faster than light travel. Everything else we can do, right now.

The primary problem with Mars colonization (and by extension other planets, planetoids and moons) is an economic model. It is similar to the problem of the New World settlement from Europe, in kind.

My view is that we have no choice but to go into space if we are to save this planet. We can engineer environments off-planet, that’s just an economic/banking model problem. Think of it as “Earthpark”. A civilization that is strong off-planet can manage this one as a park for the benefit of all. I think we owe it to our planet to do that.

22

Aardvark Cheeselog 12.13.18 at 6:43 pm

Charlie Stross has written several times about the unlikelyhood that canned monkeys will ever go far off Earth. Here for example.

@Anarcissie, there is no good reason to be optimistic about orbital habitats either. Running a closed ecology turns out to be a hard problem, as the Biosphere people discovered when they tried it.

23

Donald 12.13.18 at 6:47 pm

“The gene targets to create humans that are super-tolerant of radiation (1000 Sv/day) or even make humans that harvest energy from gamma rays and use it (5000 Sv/day and up) are known.”

What? Also–

” albeit not starships of the Star Trek faster than light variety. The jury is out on the Albucierre drive that warps space-time, but its size and power requirements have been reworked to the point it should be buildable.”

Isn’t the Albucierre drive supposed to be a faster than light drive?

I won’t complain about the rest, not that I am endorsing all of it (or have heard of all of it), but yes, we could be zipping around the solar system if we wanted to build Project Orion or engage in some other form of nuclear rocketeering. Spaceships powered by nuclear bombs would raise some political issues. And I doubt we are going to spend the money to do anything really ambitious. Personally I wouldn’t support it. We need to be worrying about the planet we are on, not currently indulging in space colonization dreams, much as I might want to see that happen someday.

I think John Q might be wrong in the long run. But manned space flight or even colonies that I used to think we would be seeing now (when I was a child) is probably not going to happen for generations (if ever). Maybe another 50-100 years, if we manage to overcome all the environmental threats we are creating for ourselves and the planet.

24

bob mcmanus 12.13.18 at 7:29 pm

This may get interesting as this crowd protects the pathological fantasies of technocrats. All this careful extrapolation looks sane but what our celluloid dreams look like are Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek and Star Wars, Firefly (and God help us, superheroes in personal unassisted spaceflight).

Looks kinda like the small private schooner of 150 years ago setting off in unrestricted freedom to make a fortune from the “backward” natives of Polynesia or East Africa. Or maybe the corporate capitalism of Alien:”We want bigger shares!”

And that is what is going on, a celebration of individualism, unrestricted capitalism (plenty of room to pollute out there) and usually Imperialism. It’s the bad conscience of liberal capitalists. It’s killing us.

25

Mr Spoon 12.13.18 at 7:50 pm

I think it will be the Fifth Men in 40-50 million years time who make it to Venus and terraform it just faster than it tries to kill them. The survivors will become the Sixth Men.

26

Monte Davis 12.13.18 at 7:52 pm

Brett @10: Bingo! on the mistake of viewing the Space Race years as a norm that should have continued. It’s worth remembering that in 1953-1960 the US spent more than twice as much on ICBM development (and the associated tracking, avionics, and re-entry technologies) as it did on NASA from its foundation through Apollo 17. Add in what was learned from bleeding-edge aviation in the 1950s, and it’s clear that a lot of the R&D heavy lifting we associate with space had actually been done on DoD’s dime.

Since the early 1970s, actual DoD spending (as distinct from SDI techno-fantasy and eager colonels’ PowerPoints about “rods from God”) has reflected what an expert mil-tech panel told Eisenhower soon after Sputnik: that space is great for surveillance, communications, and navigation… but a really expensive, vulnerable place to put actual weapon (or anti-weapon) platforms. That “invisible subsidy” for civilian space tech stopped.

So when space enthusiasts lament that we Lost the Vision after Apollo, I reply that what we’ve seen since then reflects the actual, modest level of public and political support for space, rather than that of an anomalous decade when (1) we’d already invested a lot in big rockets, and (2) we desperately wanted, with JFK and then his martyred specter, to prove that he American Way of Project Management was superior to that of the Commies.

27

TF79 12.13.18 at 8:02 pm

“Information technology has seen enormous advances in our time. Advances in physical space, not so much”

I had a similar thought. If one were to run JQ’s “40 years before…” idea with communication and information, it would look very stagnant compared to physical space. At the time of V2, long-distance communication required someone talking into a can at a fixed point in space, which was then transmitted across wires to another point in space, where someone else heard it. 40 years before that, it was more or less the same thing. 40 years before that, they essentially banged on the can and someone on the other end of the wire decoded the banging. And yet, 40 years progress in communication and information from V2 DID in fact produce sci-fi esque advances – something like 2.5 billion people have incredibly powerful computer and communication devices in their pockets (not far off from a tricorder).

But that’s just more of an interesting observation and doesn’t diminish the basic “pale blue dot “point.

28

otpup 12.13.18 at 8:10 pm

Colonizing Mars seems really impractical and wasteful before establishing an industrial base in orbit and on the moon. Asteroid mining (a natural complement to lunar industrialization) would/should probably precede Mars colonization. And it may turn out the economics of megastructures (space stations, modified asteroids) may make economic sense as an industrial base expands.
As for leaving Earth, launch loop technology could reduce costs by orders of magnitude though I think it will take decades of progress in materials science before being even remotely feasible.

29

steven t johnson 12.13.18 at 8:50 pm

bob mcmanus@4 pushed my SF fan button, with tragic results.

“But what I find sad, and terrifying is that Science Fiction remains the overwhelming opiate of the intellectual rationalist class. This delusional urban escapism, lousy as metaphor or allegory, is probably worse than Christian of Islamic fundamentalism.”

The intellectual rationalist class is a novel category in historical materialism. Are they fifteen year olds? I also am puzzled as to why anyone thinks urban escapism is in play when the near universal image of space is…the West. I think of space habitats as the ultimate company towns, where the bad guys would simply have turned off Sean Connery’s air one night. I’m also not quite sure why one thinks rationalism has much to do with anything in modern SF, which is dominated by people who are convinced SF and fantasy are the same thing. It’s been a long, long time since Trantor and the caves of steel. I don’t think there’s much urban escapism at all, it’s all fake rural, or small town. Urban scenes in SF typically are dystopian hellholes. And generally, rationalism in SF? Who besides me reads Greg Egan?

“Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Lion King, Black Panther, Aquaman…the fantasies are even worse than that, because apparently the audiences are identifying with freaking royalty.”

It’s like Trumpery, I think. Is it really the case the filthy rabble are the consumer sovereigns extorting their tawdry wet dreams from the noble producers? Or is it that these are the safe and acceptable stories that pass the smell test for the first audience, the producers and executives? Then the massive amounts of money and publicity they put out finally yields rewards, sometimes.

But then I’m so out of it I don’t know what king is in Captain Marvel.

30

Douglas Muir 12.13.18 at 9:22 pm

“On the other, it’s a reminder that humans will never go out to explore this universe, or even leave Earth in significant numbers.”

[citation needed]

” In fact, though no one knew it at the time, the heroic age of space travel (indeed, of nearly all kinds of travel) had already passed. “

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this sentence. Presumably you’re talking about manned space travel? Because if you mean “space travel” including unmanned probes and satellites, that statement is obviously and ridiculously wrong. Since 1970 we’ve put around 2,000 satellites in orbit around Earth and another 60 or 70 spacecraft have left Earth orbit for various destinations around the Solar System. I mean, we’ve landed a probe on a comet, and we have an atomic-powered SUV driving around Mars vaporizing rocks with its laser beam. We’ve flown a robot through the plume of a geyser from one of Saturn’s moons, and another one through the deadly radiation belts of Jupiter, and another one skimmed the clouds of Venus, and oh yeah we’ve got one right now dive-bombing the Sun. We’re in the middle of a glorious Magellanic age of space exploration and have been for a while now. So you must be talking about something else.

Okay then, you mean no more *manned* space flight. Ah right, that’s certainly dead and done.

…except you must somehow be excluding those regular flights to the International Space Station, which has been hanging up there for almost 20 years now, and has involved about 10 times as many people leaving Earth as the Apollo Program ever did, and for much longer periods, and doing much more complicated stuff. But I guess that’s… not “heroic”? Because nobody ever made a cool movie with Tom Hanks about the ISS?

Honestly. You can make the “only one Earth” point without seguing into a whine about how space travel has been dead since 1973. It hasn’t. Space travel is doing fine. We didn’t find Barsoom, but we’re doing lots of super interesting stuff regardless.

Doug M.

31

PM 12.13.18 at 9:36 pm

“It is similar to the problem of the New World settlement from Europe, in kind.”

No, it isn’t. It isn’t even similar to the problem of New World settlement across the Bering ice bridge. These are so incomparable that it means that you are not even close to thinking clearly about what it means to leave an ecosystem.

32

Douglas Muir 12.13.18 at 10:54 pm

“the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket”

I’ll take annoying half-true generalizations for $400, Alex.

Modern launch vehicles are 1950s tech in the sense that modern automobiles are: yes, they’re the same sort of vehicle as the ones of 60 years ago, and run on the same principles. But they’re much safer and a lot more efficient and a 1950s mechanic who looked under the hood would be recognize the general outline but be utterly baffled by the details. This is especially true for missions leaving beyond low Earth orbit, because we can do tricks with orbital mechanics that weren’t remotely possible in the days of Apollo. We can get unmanned payload to mass ratios to Lunar orbit double or triple what Apollo-era tech could do. No, it’s not Warp Drive, but it lets us do stuff like send truck-sized orbiters to Mercury and hang giant space telescopes in Lissajous orbits around the Earth-Sun Trojan point.

Also, once you’re off Earth a bunch of other propulsion options open up. Ion drives were science fiction in the 1960s. Today they’re commonplace. Commercial satellites use them for orbital adjustments every day, and NASA’s Dawn probe used an ion drive to travel a billion miles through the asteroid belt. Meanwhile the Japanese floated the first solar sail back in 2010, and half a dozen solar sail missions are scheduled to launch over the next decade. They’re going to zip around the Solar System without rockets or exhaust or a reaction drive of any sort, sailing along on pure light. That’s fucking magic, man.

Oh, and last week we discovered water on an asteroid. I mean that happened literally this past Tuesday.

Really, this is the old “where’s my flying car” whinge. No, you didn’t get the Jetsons future you were expecting back in 1969 or whenever. You got something different instead, something subtler and stranger. Try to appreciate it instead of whining that it’s somehow not “heroic” enough.

Doug M.

33

Brian 12.13.18 at 11:23 pm

@PM – Yes, the economic development issue of colonizing Mars is similar in kind to that of settlement of North America from Europe. And it will probably have mass death as in the Jamestown colony. It is, obviously, not the same, but the economic issues are similar. I understand the ecosystem issues better than you do. I taught evolution and ecology at UC Davis when I was in grad school.

@OTPUP – Colonizing Mars is much more practical than colonizing the Moon. This has been studied to death. People who think otherwise don’t understand Delta-V, nor the relative resources available at each location. Read, “The Case for Mars” before you go any further. https://www.amazon.com/Case-Mars-Plan-Settle-Planet/dp/145160811X

@Donald – Yes, those gene targets are known. I have worked on that. I am not going to list them all here. Some of them are relatively easy. Others are relatively difficult. All can be done, although not all can be done as a treatment for a living adult.

@Donald – Yes, the Albucierre drive is one of several concepts for FTL travel that have been funded since the earl 1990’s. It’s the one that looks like it might possibly work.

@Aardvark Cheeslog – The Biosphere project figured out their problem. The problem was that the building materials combined with oxygen and that wasn’t known. On Mars, the oxygen will be manufactured by cracking CO2 or H2O. So even if that problem happens, it would be straightforward to increase the level of oxygen or lower the amount of CO2 in human habitats. The Biosphere project was too purist, and so it didn’t actually reproduce what a real colony would have access to. Some of the other Biosphere issues were bigger, but probably related to the high CO2, low oxygen and high dinitrogen oxide. Insects are quite sensitive to oxygen levels because they don’t have lungs nor do they have a closed circulatory system. The limit on insect size in the modern world is due to the lower O2 levels than in prehistoric times.

34

J-D 12.13.18 at 11:49 pm

Mr Spoon

My father gave me a copy of that book.

Also a biography of the author, which also made interesting reading.

I’d rather quote the last line of the novel: ‘For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.’

35

arcseconds 12.14.18 at 12:48 am

Doug, re: “where’s my flying car”

No flying cars (other than the odd prototype), but we do have communication devices that exceed what was envisaged in Star Trek, and rival what Iain M. Banks in the 70s (IIRC) thought the most advanced society he could think of might have.

Of course, now we’ve had them for a few years, the breathlessness has worn off, and we take them for granted, and even find them kind of annoying. Bloomin’ millenials tapping away on their bloomin’ devices.

And of course they are annoying when compared to sci fi tech: they are unreliable, are security risks, the software has defects, and the corporate side of our society wants to bug you at every turn to sign up, buy, download, and engage in the continual upgrade treadmill etc… this never happens in Star Trek.

I conclude from this that if we did have flying cars, we wouldn’t find them exciting either, we’d just complain about the traffic and weather conditions and other drivers. If and when we have matter transportation, we will be complaining about that too, and maybe even liking it when the system is offline for a couple of days for an upgrade, so we can get some peace and quiet.

Also, I’m afraid everyone (apart from a few enthusiasts) lost interest in space flight once it stopped being an imperialist project, just as they did global exploration. The Blue Nile was first navigated in 2004 — if an Englishman had done this in 1904, it would have been front-page news, and whomever would be a household name, I reckon.

36

arcseconds 12.14.18 at 1:34 am

bob mcmanus @ 4, 21

It seems obvious that settings in which you can write a nice exciting story are not the same ones in which most people would want to live, and I think most adults realise this… right?

So I don’t think you can just read off e.g. someone’s socio-political preferences from what films they like.

(If you can, there would seem to be an awful lot of people who would prefer to be living in an agrarian feudal society… or in a world populated by flesh-eating zombies, or hideously unthinkable creatures from dimension X, or a society with Nazis in charge)

So presumably you’ve found an amusing strategy for advancing a curmudgeonly act when you suggest that the popularity of superhero movies means that there are legions of royalist genetic supremacists, but I just thought I’d point this out in case you’re serious…

37

John Quiggin 12.14.18 at 5:26 am

Several commentators have noted the contrast between the stunning development of ICT (including in astronomy) and the near-stagnation of physical transport technology. I don’t think anyone in the 1970s imagined that 40 years later we would be discovering extrasolar planets on a more or less daily basis, long before humans have even reached Mars.

38

JimV 12.14.18 at 5:26 am

“Yes, the Albucierre [sic] drive is one of several concepts for FTL travel that have been funded since the early 1990’s. It’s the one that looks like it might possibly work.”

I have never seen the Alcubierre Drive considered remotely plausible outside of S-F, and I read a lot of science articles. So I checked Wikipedia, which says (surrounded by …’s):

In general relativity, one often first specifies a plausible distribution of matter and energy, and then finds the geometry of the spacetime associated with it; but it is also possible to run the Einstein field equations in the other direction, first specifying a metric and then finding the energy–momentum tensor associated with it, and this is what Alcubierre did in building his metric. This practice means that the solution can violate various energy conditions and require exotic matter [negative mass]. The need for exotic matter raises questions about whether one can distribute the matter in an initial spacetime that lacks a warp bubble in such a way that the bubble is created at a later time, although some physicists have proposed models of dynamical warp-drive spacetimes in which a warp bubble is formed in a previously flat space.[10] Moreover, according to Serguei Krasnikov,[11] generating a bubble in a previously flat space for a one-way FTL trip requires forcing the exotic matter to move at local faster-than-light speeds, something that would require the existence of tachyons, although Krasnikov also notes that when the spacetime is not flat from the outset, a similar result could be achieved without tachyons by placing in advance some devices along the travel path and programming them to come into operation at preassigned moments and to operate in a preassigned manner. Some suggested methods avoid the problem of tachyonic motion, but would probably generate a naked singularity at the front of the bubble.[12][13] Allen Everett and Thomas Roman comment on Krasnikov’s finding:

“[The finding] does not mean that Alcubierre bubbles, if it were possible to create them [by generating negative mass or the equivalent over a large region of space], could not be used as a means of superluminal travel. It only means that the actions required to change the metric and create the bubble must be taken beforehand by some observer whose forward light cone contains the entire trajectory of the bubble.”[14]

For example, if one wanted to travel to Deneb (2,600 light years away) and arrive less than 2,600 years in the future according to external clocks, it would be required that someone had already begun work on warping the space from Earth to Deneb at least 2,600 years ago.

—end excerpt—

Based on engineering experience, I must add that even small changes to complex working technology rarely work as envisioned the first time. E.g., last night my Windows Update installed another six critical updates to Windows 7 (which itself was the update to the unworkable Vista). I am well past 200 such updates since I first installed W7. So “we have the technology” means little to me until said technology is demonstrated to work reliably at scale and at reasonable costs. Everybody has a plan until reality punches you in the face from an unexpected direction.

I’m afraid my problem is that I have lived through too many disappointments to think that suddenly human society will get its act together and produce the kind of future it could already have produced if it wanted to. I once asked my friend and fellow engineer Mario didn’t he care what kind of world his grandchildren will live in, and be willing to make some sacrifices for it? “Nope,” he answered. (So he voted for Reagan to get about $100 taken off his yearly taxes.) Younger people are probably still optimistic that their generations will fix things. I hope they are right.

39

bad Jim 12.14.18 at 8:16 am

I’m an engineer, and as fond of science fiction as anyone here. I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that we’ll establish a colony on Mars or travel to the stars.

We’re observing a slow motion catastrophe on Earth, the garden of Eden, perfectly situated for creatures of our kind, by relentlessly pillaging the byproducts of our earliest ancestors (oil, gas) that gave us an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the more recent residue of a planetary collapse (coal) and yet imagine that we could build a civilization on a distant desert planet bereft of nearly all resources.

As for the stars: the nearest ones we can observe are not all that inviting, and the energy involved in reaching even them with more than a trivial payload over the course of generations is beyond our reach.

If we can’t make it here, we probably can’t make it anywhere.

40

Douglas Muir 12.14.18 at 8:20 am

” the stunning development of ICT… I don’t think anyone in the 1970s imagined that 40 years later we would be discovering extrasolar planets on a more or less daily basis”

this was predicted around 1995, give or take. No, nobody guessed it in the 1970s but it’s not some woooo huge recent surprise either.

Also, it’s not really an ICT thing. Most of the exoplanet discoveries have happened because of bigger / better / more specialized telescopes + better techniques for using them.

Doug M.

41

Douglas Muir 12.14.18 at 8:25 am

“Read, “The Case for Mars” before you go any further.”

dude that’s Robert Zubrin. Not taking science lessons from a climate change denialist.

Doug M.

42

MFB 12.14.18 at 8:53 am

The point is surely not that we can’t get off-planet, for we can, and if we spend enough money on it, we can do so relatively cheaply. Nor is the point that we can’t colonise the moon; we can, if we spend enough money on it, and with solar power aplenty, we can create an enclosed ecosystem there much as we do in Antarctica. It might be sensible to do so if we want to build an industrial infrastructure in orbit (material from the Moon is easier to get to Earth orbit than material from the asteroid belt).

The question, surely, is why we should want to do these things when we face the gigantic current problem of the destruction of the planetary ecosystem as a by-product of our cultural and economic practices. After all, a moon base could not survive without support from the home planet, and if our civilisation collapses, let alone if our species becomes extinct, the moon base would collapse or become extinct with it.

We should have decided on the future of our civilisation, or our species, within the next century. After that we will have time enough to decide whether we want to go into space in any serious way. It’s a bit pointless, however, planning for a glorious future when the planetary ecosystem is in danger — like designing a new wallpaper for the lounge when the house is on fire.

43

Hidari 12.14.18 at 9:15 am

‘Colonizing Mars is much more practical than colonizing the Moon.’

Anyone who can write this with a straight face, is not being serious, or is not serious.

Needless to say, actually colonising the moon (let alone colonising Mars) either will not happen, or will not happen for hundreds and hundreds of years, for the good reason that, with current technology (and even with plausible developments of current technology) it is simply not possible (the New Scientist link which I posted, which no one has picked up on, has proved that. But there are numerous other reasons as well).

I might add that as of 2018 it is not even possible to go to Mars, for a manned journey, with current technology, and while this will obviously change, it will not change for about 30 to 40 years. ((https://www.quora.com/Why-can%E2%80%99t-we-go-to-Mars))

Whether in 2070 or 2080 we will want to go to Mars given space flight’s horrendous effect on the environment is, to put it mildly, moot.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/26/space-tourists-speed-global-warming

@30 ‘Presumably you’re talking about manned space travel? Because if you mean “space travel” including unmanned probes and satellites, that statement is obviously and ridiculously wrong’.

The OP was self-evidently talking about manned space travel. But you are making the point for him.

Unmanned space travel has improved because manned space travel has proven to be so difficult.’

This is not a ‘we all win’ scenario. We had a ‘test’. Which is best, to explore space? To improve scientific understanding of the Solar System? Manned space travel or ‘unmanned’?

Ladies and Gentlemen and non-binary: the data is in. Unmanned space travel is fundamentally and unarguably superior, in all kinds of ways. And, as robotics and artificial intelligence improve, this ‘gap’ will become wider and wider.

The more AI and robotics improves, the less and less reason there will be for manned space travel of any sort.

‘except you must somehow be excluding those regular flights to the International Space Station, which has been hanging up there for almost 20 years now, and has involved about 10 times as many people leaving Earth as the Apollo Program ever did, and for much longer periods, and doing much more complicated stuff. ‘

You forgot the key word there: ‘pointless.’ The truth is that the space station, which will take until at least 2006 to complete at a cost of over $100 billion, is a monumental waste of time and money….What of the station’s scientific merits? The truth is that very few scientists—other than those whose livelihoods depend on it—have a kind word to say about the project. One of the supposed benefits of the space station is that research which would be difficult or impossible on earth can be performed in its microgravity environment. But no useful experiment has been proposed that could not be performed on an unmanned satellite, except those that assess the effects of living in orbit—a circular argument for the station’s existence.'(https://www.economist.com/unknown/2000/11/02/nasas-pointless-space-station)

It might also be pointed out that the evidence that the ISS has discovered about the effects of space travel on human beings has almost all been bad news: prolonged periods of zero gravity has proven to be much much worse for human beings than was suspected.

The true scientific wonder story of the last forty years has been the unmanned Hubble Space Telescope, and its successors. The other great scientific achievements have been the unmanned probes to Mars, to Venus, to the outer planets. The ISS has discovered little that could not have been found out far cheaper by robots, or by brief ‘one off’ trips to space by humans (and if anyone doubts that, compare the discoveries of the Hubble space telescope, and the discoveries of the various unmanned probes, with the ‘discoveries’ of the ISS. In fact, what are the epoch shattering scientific discoveries made aboard the ISS?

Insofar as science actually needs a permanent sub-orbital or orbital space station (and you could argue that it doesn’t, really), it doesn’t need to be manned. The successor to the ISS will either be ‘manned’ by robots and AI, with occasional human visits, or it will not be orientated towards ‘permanent’ inhabitation by humans (in other words, its existence will be strictly time limited).

I might also point out that the techno-dweebs who will argue against me will tend to be the kind of people who also see the future of computing and AI as being one of uninterrupted progress (they are probably wrong about that too, but that’s another story).

But you can’t have it both ways. If AI and robotics continue to improve, by definition, this means there will be less and less incentive for manned space flight.

@37 This is correct and another reason why manned space flight (outside, so to speak, the ‘Earth-moon system’) is a dead end. As ICT technology continues to improve there will be less and less reason to develop manned technologies which will increasingly simply be superfluous.

44

Alex SL 12.14.18 at 9:38 am

The touching faith in the idea that engineers or scientists will come up with something that would be nice, in this case interstellar travel, is reminiscent of a similar stance regarding climate change. “They will come up with a solution when things get really bad.” Problem is, yes, science did come up with a solution in circa the 1980s: have less children, consume less, and switch to 100% regenerative right now. Few people liked that answer, and they are still waiting for scientists to come up with a solution that somehow makes resource limits and, well, physics go away.

And similarly, few people like the conclusion of astrophysical research: what we have here is the 0.000000000000000000000…000001% of the known universe that is habitable. All the rest will kill us immediately. Forget about colonising Mars; it has hardly any atmosphere, it is inhospitably cold, and that is already the second best there is after Earth.

45

John Quiggin 12.14.18 at 10:04 am

“this was predicted around 1995, give or take”

Agreed. For me, at least, the Hubble telescope was the clincher. After that, I was convinced that robots and telescopes would be able to do anything humans could do in space, better and more cheaply.

Of course, the Shuttle mission to fix the optics was critical, so we weren’t quite at that point then. But the way of the future was obvious.

46

Salem 12.14.18 at 12:19 pm

@Hidari:

I agree with you generally, but this is not true:

“If AI and robotics continue to improve, by definition, this means there will be less and less incentive for manned space flight.”

That doesn’t follow from any definition. Instead, it depends on a suppressed premise that AI/robotics and humans are rival, at least within this scope. But this is not obvious. It could instead be that, in terms of space exploration, people, AI and robotics are complementary, with improved AI and robotics making humans more useful, not less. It will depend on the future path of robotics and AI, the nature of future activity in space, and other major unknowns that make it foolhardy to make a confident prediction.

47

bob mcmanus 12.14.18 at 12:23 pm

Johnson, 29: The intellectual rationalist class is a novel category in historical materialism.

1) I don’t think so, but I subscribe to the three-class model, following Veblen or Dumenil and Levy. Owners-Managers/Engineers/technocrats-workers/farmers.

2) Historicizing SF, the American Western is a little related, but I see the origins as contemporaneous with the rise of the techno class, which not coincidentally happens at much the same time as the peak of Empire. Key writers are first Haggard and Verne.

The themes are engineering and exoticism in service of Empire.

Following H & V, we are soon in the age of Burroughs and Rohmer and the race for Africa/Empires early in the 20th. National Geographic, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics magazines are critical to the ideology and all around 1900.

The rise of the US following WWI corresponds with the collapse of classic Imperialism, and the 1920s are key: EE Smith, Hamilton, Williamson when the Imperialistic Imaginary was transferred to technocrats in space. This solidified between the wars and achieved a 2nd peak with Campbell and Astounding Stories. Heinlein and Asimov and a literature of problem and puzzle solving. Krugman and Hari Seldon. We have been there ever since.

But this was largely a Populist (also contemporaneous, see Bellamy or George) phenomenon, not a controlling ideology imposed by Daddy Warbucks. The heroes of these generations were engineers, scientists, economists etc not the rightful benevolent Prince.

The recent manifestations of Royalty in SF (Princess Leia) also coincide with the collapse of unions, decline of the working class, and the rise of neoliberalism and the stratification of society. After this year of a Royal Wedding celebrated by a genuflecting New Rich ex-President, a week of encomiums to a scion of the Old Elite (Bush) and the constant admiration of celebrity billionaires, be it Trump or Beyonce or Musk;

The preferences of the technocratic class scarcely need to be revealed.

(SF is huge, and I know I am eliding the SF strain of Wells, Stapledon, Huxley, Orwell, Lessing, Atwood and the softer or surrealist strains etc who are of course very influential. But the space opera with rayguns overwhelms them in importance.)

48

Lee A. Arnold 12.14.18 at 1:04 pm

We could launch space telescopes to stabilize at opposite ends of earth’s orbit for optical interferometry to image the surfaces of exoplanets. And much else. There’s a lot of things to be done in the local neighborhood while we figure out how to warp past Einstein’s speed limit.

49

soru 12.14.18 at 2:26 pm

Most of this stuff comes down to the analysis in Four Future

Communism, socialism, rentism and exterminism neatly delimit the logical possibilities.

1. There are no relevant resource constraints; everyone is effectively rich
2. Limited resources are shared; either fairly, or unfairly
3. Population is adjusted downwards to match resource constraints.

2 and 3 are clearly politically impossible; there is never going to be a multi-generational agreement on what is fair and unfair sufficient to prevent wars that are just an indirect route to case 3.

Once you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however unlikely, must be the truth. Maintaining an acceptable lifestyle for everyone undoubtedly requires multiple planets. Consequently, it is fortunate that they exist. There are no known physical impossibilities involved in making the resources of those planets available to the inhabitants of this one; the difficulties are mere engineering.

The trick is to avoid space colonisation; you can have the equivalent of oil rigs, if the automation isn’t good enough. But you can’t have the typical sci-fi scenario of Mars becoming USA 2.0. An exponentially increasing population will always eventually leave the domain where case 1 applies.

50

Bill Benzon 12.14.18 at 2:57 pm

I don’t know what I think about this. The launching of Sputnik in 1957 is the first event that was both important to me personally (I was 10 years old) and important in world history. By the time we actually and put humans on the moon I was in a rather anti-establishment frame of mind and so was indifferent to the event (as far as I can recall, which isn’t very far). Then, years later around 1998 or 99, I was working a trade show in Orlando, Florida, and decided to go over to Kennedy Space Center. I took a tour and stood somewhere near the launch pad where Apollo 11 was launched. And I saw a full-sized Saturn V hanging from the ceiling of an enormous shed.

I felt that I was on sacred ground. It was from THIS earth here, this patch of land, that humans actually traveled to the moon, got out, and walked around. I’m pretty sure that if I went back there, I’d feel the same way.

So where does that leave me on the question of human space travel? Faster-than-light travel sounds nuts. Returning to the moon, going to Mars…. If we want to expend the resources, yes, we can do that. Should we? That’s a different question. As for permanent colonies, only if the great bulk of materials we need can be mined and transformed on site. And for all I know that may be possible. How comfortable will it be? Well, how comfortable are they in Antarctic? I’d assume they spend most of their time indoors and I figure that’s how it would have to be on the moon or Mars, though quite possibly we’d build enormous structures so the people might be able to walk comfortable for a kilometer or three in a straight line. But outside those enclosures, not so comfortable as outdoors in Antarctica.

Maybe permanent habitation doesn’t make sense. But, as several have pointed out, we have robots and they’re surely going to get better. Just how good, I don’t know. Good enough to mine asteroids and ship the stuff earthward? Maybe. Who knows?

Perhaps every ten years we send a party of humans out and back, more or less as a ritual gesture. Too superstitious you say? Do you really think we’ll EVER be free of ritual gestures, of the need for ritual gestures?

Need I point out that MAGA and Brexit are, among other things, ritual gestures? Politics is rife with ritual, and ineradicably so. The proper response to each is not ‘simply’ to face up to ‘reality’, but to offer more compelling ‘ritual’ gestures that encompass a wider range to facts.

If I were a science fiction writer….

51

Jonathan 12.14.18 at 2:58 pm

Brian,

The New World was a source of massive wealth for the Old World. Gold, silver, sugar cane, and arable land were all available. What on Mars is worth anything on Earth? What does Mars have? Rusty rocks and the opportunity to live in a tunnel for the rest of your life?

52

oldster 12.14.18 at 3:13 pm

But John, you’re forgetting the power of the free market…and blockchain!

53

otpup 12.14.18 at 3:32 pm

@33 Brian, Zubrin is clearly wrong about energy generation and may be about water and oxygen (given enough energy those are procurable). I concluded this before I knew he was a climate change denier.

54

Donald 12.14.18 at 4:46 pm

Brian, I want to come back to this–

“The gene targets to create humans that are super-tolerant of radiation (1000 Sv/day) or even make humans that harvest energy from gamma rays and use it (5000 Sv/day and up) are known.”

I still think in rems and rads when I think about ionizing radiation at all, but the lethal dose for humans and most mammals is around 5 SV. I think insects can be ten to 100 times tougher and there are some organisms (water bears? definitely some bacteria) that are maybe 1000 times tougher than us.

I don’t need gene targets. I’m not a biologist and wouldn’t know what you meant anyway. But what evidence is there that mammals can be made to use 5000 SV a day of gamma rays (photosynthesis except with gamma rays?) with just a little bit of genetic engineering? Do you have a link for that?

55

Brian 12.14.18 at 5:37 pm

@JimV – Yes, the Albucierre drive has physicists saying various things. It may well never work. However, that is just one of a set of methods, and the other rockets definitely do work and can be significantly less expensive to operate in terms of materials. The materials are not particularly exotic.

@Most – I find it curious the satisfaction various people take here in declaring in the face of current evidence to the contrary that “it will never happen”. I am rather sure that you would have said that no rocket would launch and then land the first stage back on the launch pad, or on some other pad in our lifetimes. Similarly, that there would never be a private space company that really cut costs – obviously it’s ridiculous. But that is just repackaged lack of vision tied up with a bow.

Yes, I am aware of naysayers about Mars settlement. Meh. Having been over the issues in great detail, no. You are flat wrong. Difficult is not the same as impossible. And yes, it makes much more sense.

I will repeat. The only viable way that humanity can save this planet in a condition recognizable by us is to move off of it. Earthpark is the way forward.

56

Aardvark Cheeselog 12.14.18 at 5:38 pm

Reading through this thread I’m reminded of why I so seldom look at threads here.

I am a bit surprised to note that nobody has raised the point that going to the Moon, or Mars, or the asteroid belt, is not like the 16th century voyages of discovery and won’t be, because there’s nothing at the destinations to steal, and nobody to rob and enslave.

57

Ray Vinmad 12.14.18 at 5:50 pm

We need a science fiction story about a future where they think they will get into space, and so they wreck their planet, and then it turns out to be impossible to go to space.

Maybe a whole series about that. (There probably is one!)

58

Brett 12.14.18 at 5:54 pm

Monte Davis @26: Exactly this.

Even when the Space Race was on-going, at least some of the key figures realized that this was not a sustainable level of public support* for space exploration, and was being done primarily for Cold War reasons. Kennedy said it outright in one of the documented conversations he had with then-NASA Administrator James Webb.

* Not least in part because the public in the 1960s was tepid in support for the Space Race. Polls from that era show a majority of people didn’t think it was worth spending that much on the Moonshot right up until the month when Apollo 11 was carried out.

MFB @42

You posit it like it’s an “either or choice”. But the amount we spend on space is pretty small in comparison. This is not something we have to put by the wayside because it will bankrupt us while trying to deal with climate change.

Hildari @43

That’s more or less true. If you want to do it purely on cost-benefit analysis, there’s very little reason to send people into space right now – robotic space exploration is a vastly better use of space funding.

But those same technologies – especially better robotics in space – mean it will also get easier to have humans in space over time. The robots can do all the prep work for people who want to live in space because they want to.

As for Mars, the radiation risk is relatively unknown. The cancer risk from the expected dosage is higher than the ISS’s lifetime allowance, but not that much higher – think 5% higher chance of fatal cancer versus NASA’s current 3% chance. The real unknown is the other effects of radiation on prolonged human stays outside Earth’s magnetosphere, but we won’t know that until we do some testing.

John Quiggin @45

The joke is that for the price of those Shuttle repair missions, we could have built multiple Hubbles and simply launched the next one once the prior one was no longer usable. But since those flights were already going to happen whether or not Hubble had issues, it was cost-effective.

59

Randy F McDonald 12.14.18 at 6:05 pm

“Extrapolating one could reasonably expect that forty years more progress would produce massive advances in space travel including human space travel.”

That did come about. It just so happened that the progress came in different areas that we expected, and at different rhythms. Expecting to be launching interstellar missions by now, in retrospect, was ridiculous.

The space race of the 1960s was many things, but one adjective I would apply to it would be “premature”. The technologies of the time were barely capable of supporting one-way trips; the economies of the time, too, were barely able to afford the cost of the moon race. Regular crewed space travel never mind settlement was probably never going to happen in the 20th century, outside of geopolitics-driven competitions in which cost was a secondary factor. We will see more of that, I think, in a 21st century that–I hope–will be richer and more advanced, better able to afford the costs involved.

60

Jim Harrison 12.14.18 at 7:08 pm

Save this piece. You or your heirs will be able to post it again every 10 years or so for the duration of our species just as it could have been posted every year since the 1960s. Manned space travel is like belief in the immortality of the soul, for which in a sense it is a proxy It does’t make any sense, but that doesn’t mean we won’t go on wanting it.

61

Birdie 12.14.18 at 8:10 pm

Nobody likes to think long. Urban-industrial civilization is near or past peak capability it seems but they weren’t the first and they won’t be the last. “…never go out…” way too strong.

Also we don’t have to choose to identify with the meat people even if we are some: we can identify with the growth of perception, intention, self-awareness, self-control, the entropy-defeating thing, the mind-affected world. Did you know photons (since they travel at c) experience no time delay? When we are beings of light, we can just … step across …

62

Chetan Murthy 12.14.18 at 8:29 pm

“The Case for Mars”. What a farce. Charlie Stross put it right: if you think there’s a case for Mars, then you think there’s a case for underground inhabitation of Earth. B/c anything you can do on Mars, you can already do in tunnels under the Earth, and b/c of cosmic rays (no magnetosphere on Mars, eh) you’ll be condemned to living in tunnels there anyway. It’s ridiculous.

But there’s something else, too: so many people talk about all the progress made in the past N (=20, =50, =100) years. As if that’s proof that we’ll have even more progress, at the same rate, for the next N years. But for all intents and purposes, has anything sort of progress happened, that violated Newton’s or Maxwell’s laws? Anything? Let’s see …. miniaturization, and atomic power. That’s it. That’s it. Anything else? The former is too weak to affect our ability to travel in space. The latter is too dirty. If you think you can make atomic power safe enough for space travel, then maybe you oughta try to make it safe enough for Earth-based use, eh? B/c it’s not.

It’s all ridiculous. Albucierre drives ….. guffaw. Gene targets for radiation-resistance …. what rubbish: we can’t even manage decent gene therapies, and the complexity of gene signaling networks is daunting us day-by-day. If we really had these things in our sights, we’d have already cured cancer.

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Chetan Murthy 12.14.18 at 8:34 pm

Alex SL@44: Thank you for this: for this crystal-clear distillation:

The touching faith in the idea that engineers or scientists will come up with something that would be nice, in this case interstellar travel, is reminiscent of a similar stance regarding climate change. “They will come up with a solution when things get really bad.”

We (at least, Western) humans have this foolish idea that “necessity is the mother of invention” when the most one can really claim is that “necessity can sometimes cause inventors to strive harder”. If, like Tom Godwin’s hapless stowaway in “The Cold Equations” we found ourselves on a spaceship with limited resources and no way off, we might realize that physical laws are sometimes unalterable. But because we’re on a spaceship (planet) with seemingly (until recently) limitless resources, we’ve lulled ourselves with this fantasy that we can fix anything.

Sigh.

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Heliopause 12.14.18 at 8:38 pm

“The Voyager 2 spacecraft has just passed through the heliopause”

And boy did it hurt.

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Kiwanda 12.14.18 at 9:42 pm

Similar observations (that the future isn’t what it used to be) made a lot of old-school science fiction less interesting.

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boba 12.15.18 at 12:18 am

>@Brian – Yes, those gene targets are known. I have worked on that. I am not going to list them all here. Some of them are relatively easy. Others are relatively difficult. All can be done, although not all can be done as a treatment for a living adult. <

Umm… As a code monkey in a genetics lab (I don't do wet bench!) your blithe disregard for the difficulty (and absolute stupidity) of genome manipulation demonstrates an ignorance only found in PhD holders. Not happening in the next 100 years, or probably ever, depending on the morals and ethics of future generations. Now if a society says: hey women have plenty of eggs, and they only need to use two or three to maintain population stability, let's use the rest of them in our research, then all bets are off. If you start allowing human zygotes to be the subject of science experiments and manipulation for experimental reasons, then you may be able to perform some weirdness that allows space travel.

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Joseph Brenner 12.15.18 at 12:25 am

Yes, interstellar travel is difficult, interstellar colonies aren’t happening in the near future, and even if they did they wouldn’t solve any problems back home.

Colonies on mars are easier (comparatively), but are also unlikely to happen soon, if only because there isn’t a lot of point to them. (Musk has long since gone off into the Trump-zone… maybe it’s the effect that Twitter has on human consciousness?).

The potential for industrial activity in space really shouldn’t be shrugged off, though– the old dream of orbiting solar power satellites (possibly built with material mined from moon or asteroids) is moribund at present, and it may turn out that it always looks impractical, but it’s a big enough prize to want to work towards it.

Consider the possibilities of controlling solar insolation with structures at the L1 point.

And actually, with climate change, I don’t doubt that there’s some sort of technology that would solve or mitigate the problem, we just don’t know what it is, and no one sane wants to experiment with the ideas.

Here on the stupidest timeline, we *are* going to go there, though. Once it’s clear the coastal cities are going to drown, there’s going to be a push to Do Something, and if we don’t look ahead, it’s going to be something really quick and dirty, e.g. blowing sulfides into the upper atmosphere with nuclear weapons.

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J-D 12.15.18 at 5:56 am

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b9n10nt 12.15.18 at 5:59 am

There is no healthy space exploration without a healthy planet Earth.

I agree with bob (I think?) that our/my current fixation with science fiction is animated by unprocessed/felt yearnings and betrayals, but that’s what all fiction is.

To the extent that space exploration is inspired by a yearning for human colonization and expansion, it will sow and reap meaningless disasters one after the other. Where space exploration is independent of these sad and anxious fantasies, it will be (and already is) a beautiful realization of our potential.

…I imagine a galactic congress, a Babel of AI’s transmitting signals..the result of species who could somehow play the long comms game…That’s all there’s every gonna be, fascists, so please chill.

We can learn to grow communities like oaks, and be so slow and fulfilled in our selves that we grow and fall like leaves, never needing more than is required from our tree, reaching ever Heavens-ward.

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Faustusnotes 12.15.18 at 12:11 pm

I wrote about this years ago after another John Quiggin post. These colonization ideas are nice to imagine but will be horrid in practice, and there are major moral issues that need to be considered before we take them on. We shouldn’t be sentencing unborn generations to life on a desolate planet or a colony ship any more than we should be sentencing them to environmental collapse here on earth!

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Pramod 12.15.18 at 1:39 pm

Setting aside the question of whether we CAN explore outer space, I strongly feel that we SHOULD NOT.

We’ve trashed the one planet god gave us, the last thing we should be doing is trashing the rest of the universe.

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Peter Erwin 12.15.18 at 4:06 pm

Hidari @ 5:
… there are not currently permanent manned bases at the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or even at the North/South Poles.

There has been a permanently manned base (the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station) at the South Pole since 1956.

It’s true that the population drops for the wintertime, to about 50 people compared with the 150 or 200 during the summer season, but it’s very real.

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Peter Erwin 12.15.18 at 4:59 pm

Hmm… my previous post seems to have been lost (in space?), so I’ll combine it with another comment:

Hidari @ 5:
The overwhelming probability is that there won’t be any bases on the moon either. Ever. For the same reason (as per the OP) that there are not currently permanent manned bases at the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or even at the North/South Poles.

There has been a permanently manned base at the South Pole since 1956.

It’s true that the population goes down during the winter isolation (to about 50 people, compared with the 150 to 200 present during the summer season), but it’s very real.

John Quiggin:
No one has travelled to the moon since Voyager 2 was launched and, quite possibly, no one ever will.

Someone forgot to tell the Chinese that, since they seem fairly intent on sending people to the Moon by the early/mid 2030s, are working on a Saturn-V-scale rocket in aid of that (Long March 9), and even suggest this could be followed by an outpost.

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steven t johnson 12.15.18 at 6:17 pm

Still on the SF derail, sorry…bob mcmanus@7 ” This delusional urban escapism, lousy as metaphor or allegory, is probably worse than Christian of Islamic fundamentalism.” I questioned the urban escapism.

bob mcmanus@47 “…e rise of the techno class, which not coincidentally happens at much the same time as the peak of Empire. Key writers are first Haggard and Verne.

The themes are engineering and exoticism in service of Empire.

Following H & V, we are soon in the age of Burroughs and Rohmer and the race for Africa/Empires early in the 20th. “

First let me be so petty as to point out the Scramble for Africa began decades earlier.

As to SF, even after switching from urban escapism to engineering and exoticism in service of Empire, I have to deny engineering and exoticism are found together. Burroughs, Haggard and Rohmer are exotic and imperialist, I grant you, but they aren’t engineering. Verne is engineering but the creator of Captain Nemo the imperialist hero? That my friend is one of Alan Moore’s ideas, in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not even the much more obscure Robur is so simply imperialist. If you’re talking about technocratic fantasies, you’re talking Wells, who is, amazingly, excluded!

Again, as for urban escapism and imperialism, even Heinlein’s work includes Between Planets, Red Planet Mars and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, all of which feature revolutions against imperialist oppressors. Tunnel in the Sky, Farmer in the Sky, Time Enough for Love and others picture the frontier as escape from corrupt imperial cities. I don’t think your notions are very useful here. The drive in US SF is for a New West, not urban escapism.

In a gesture towards the topic, though, Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky does not actually end happily, though it is not nearly as upfront about it as Robinson’s Aurora.

Last and least, I will note I can’t approve any scheme which lumps together workers and farmers. Wage workers selling their labor power and land owners selling their produce do not live the same, do not have long term interests that bind them together. Indeed given the need of successful farmers for another farmer’s land, farmers tend to play a zero-sum game with each other, unlike workers.

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Hidari 12.15.18 at 7:00 pm

@46n ‘Instead, it depends on a suppressed premise that AI/robotics and humans are rival, at least within this scope. But this is not obvious. It could instead be that, in terms of space exploration, people, AI and robotics are complementary, with improved AI and robotics making humans more useful, not less. ‘

Well….possibly. But we come down to a fundamental ontological fact: we are human beings: not robots. When a robot ‘dies’ we don’t give a shit (and nor should we). When a person dies, it’s a big deal and rightly so.

Spaceflight is very very very dangerous and likely to remain so for many decades/centuries.Just the other day one poor guy died on the Virgin Galactic project.

Moreover, obviously, the more complex the mission, the more dangerous it becomes.

Many people may set out for Mars. A far smaller number will come back. ‘Is it worth it?’ Their grieving relatives will ask.

So why bother?

Also (as was argued in a YouTube video called, ‘Why we shouldn’t go to Mars’ or somesuch, which I posted and then vanished into the webosphere) it is horrendously expensive to put even one astronaut into space. Keeping them there is also super expensive (https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-rocket-cargo-price-by-weight-2016-6/international?r=UK&IR=T/#70-mice-at-least-29860-2).

So…when robots can gain as much, or almost as much scientific knowledge, at far less cost….why bother?

Robots don’t ‘die’ and are far cheaper to maintain. If they can do more or less anything ‘we’ can do (and surely, in 5o 0r 60 years time, they will be able to), why bother? Even now, with our (so to speak, comparatively primitive robots) it’s still almost always cheaper and more efficient to use machines.

And this is not even to include (as John points out) the increasing abilities of various forms of telescopes (some, perhaps, in outer space) to gain scientific knowledge. In a century or so we will be able to ‘see’ and study planets outside our solar system, perhaps in great detail, relatively cheaply and incredibly safely.

OR we could send astronauts, at extraordinary expense, to their deaths, in the knowledge that their children (perhaps) will visit what are almost certainly going to be lifeless rocks, and then return to a society that they will be unable to fit into, due to ‘future shock’.

Why bother?

Y’all are also ignoring one of the key findings of the ISS (and one of the few things that it has actually discovered…most of the ‘science’ produced by the ISS could have been achieved more cheaply by other methods) the horrendous effects of zero gravity on the human frame. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effect_of_spaceflight_on_the_human_body).

It’s not nice up in space. It’s nasty and cold and it does bad things to us. It’s nice to visit….briefly….but you absolutely would not want to live there.

@73

Huh! Well well well. I did not know that. Well that’ll teach me to act like a know it all! Fair enough.

But in a sense that proves my point. The ‘outpost’ at the South Pole is a research base, not, in any sense, a city or town. And it is only able to function because of its proximity to ‘civilisation’. True, there’s 50 people there. Or more. But it’s not the same 50 people, year after year, is it? And living at the South Pole is relatively safe. For various reasons, living on Mars, and getting to Mars, is likely to be far more expensive and dangerous, and this won’t change for centuries.

Obviously any moonbase or Mars base will not be able to function like that, and so ‘Why don’t we have a base at the bottom of the Marianas Trench’ or (Charles Stross’s point) ‘why don’t we live 2 miles down’, is more relevant. The answer is…’because we don’t want to. It’s dangerous, it’s expensive, it’s a bit shit, there’s nothing we need there, if we want to find out about it, we’ll send machines.’

@58 ‘The robots can do all the prep work for people who want to live in space because they want to.’

Are you absolutely sure that there are enough people who ‘want to live in space’ to make a colony viable? And I mean who actually want to live in space. Not ‘who have some fantasy idea based on Star Wars as to what space travel might be like, which is almost wholly inaccurate.’

Remember: the one key message from the ISS is: once you have been up there long enough, you won’t be able to come back. Are you sure that many people really want that?

‘Someone forgot to tell the Chinese that, since they seem fairly intent on sending people to the Moon by the early/mid 2030s, are working on a Saturn-V-scale rocket in aid of that (Long March 9), and even suggest this could be followed by an outpost.’

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Chinese say a lot of things. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Ike 12.15.18 at 7:14 pm

I find it really reassuring that the guy going on about the Alcubierre drive hasn’t even once managed to spell its name correctly.

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Hidari 12.15.18 at 8:24 pm

It’s not surprising that whoever wrote ‘The Case for Mars’ is (apparently) a climate change denialist because space colonisation functions as a very effective psychological ‘get out of jail free card’….i.e. ‘climate change doesn’t exist and even if it does we’ll use technowizardry to solve it on Earth and if that doesn’t work we’ll use nuclear powered warp drives to move us all to Mars and if that doesn’t work we’ll move to one of the moons of Jupiter and if that doesn’t work….’ etc. etc. etc.

CF ‘Brian’: ‘I will repeat. The only viable way that humanity can save this planet in a condition recognizable by us is to move off of it. Earthpark is the way forward.’

It bears repeating that there is not now, either in existence or, for that matter, on the drawing board, any conceivable technology that could possibly transfer the millions of people that would be necessary to move humanity to Mars (or anywhere else) in order to ‘save human civilization’.

As the environmentalists love to point out: there is no Planet B. That is true. If the environmental situation pans out as badly as some people claim that particular battle will be fought and won (or lost) on Earth and only on Earth.

Needless to say, if things go as badly as some scientists think, in a century or so we as a society will simply have lost the ability to pursue such high cost high risk adventures as ‘the colonisation of Mars’ even if such a thing were possible (in the numbers necessary) which it almost certainly isn’t.

It’s a fantasy, and, if you’re using it as an excuse to do nothing about climate change, a dangerous fantasy.

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Hidari 12.15.18 at 10:23 pm

Sorry to post again, but I just noticed this doozy. This belief, I might note, seems to me to lie behind much of the ‘We Must Go To Mars’ rhetoric, and also explains why this idea is so popular amongst Americans.

‘Yes, the economic development issue of colonizing Mars is similar in kind to that of settlement of North America from Europe. ‘

There is not one single way in which the project of colonising Mars is in any shape or form similar to the project of colonising North (or South) America. AS @56 points out there were two key differences:

1: There were already people there to trade with and talk to (and, yes, kill and enslave) in the Americas. Which meant that, by definition there was a ‘hospitable’ environment. No terraforming necessary.

2: There was lots of stuff there that we wanted. Everyone forgets that South America was colonised first, for the very good reason that they had lots of gold that we wanted. As well as that the Americas were, and are, filled with raw materials that we need: timber, oil, gas, lots of farmland that produces huge amounts of meat, wheat, maize and the rest.

Mars has none of these things. The only thing it has to offer is ‘Lebensraum’….but as I noted above, we simply have no conceivable way of transporting the millions of people it would be necessary to transport, for it to make any difference to our planetary emergency.

So we might go there once or twice* (like we did with the moon) but the overwhelming likelihood is that no one will want to live there permanently or semi-permanently, not even scientists (a la the South Pole base)…mainly because it’s so difficult to get there and so bleak and awful when you do get there. And as for colonisation? A la North America? Absolutely not going to happen. Not a chance.

*And I think even this is much less likely than people think, because of the expense, the danger, the difficulty, and the pointlessness of it all. Who cares?

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Kiwanda 12.15.18 at 10:27 pm

Good grief, people, “manned” –> “staffed” or “human” or “crewed”.

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reason 12.15.18 at 10:49 pm

I’m a bit surprised Elon Musk hasn’t posted here. A lot of his fans seem to be visiting.

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Frederick 12.16.18 at 2:13 am

The first and very real limit on all the colonizing space fantasies are the multiple negative affects on the human body. Search the topic “the effect of space flight on the human body””
The human body evolved in, is entangled with, and is completely dependent upon many interdependent processes in the natural earth environment, many of which we are not even aware of.
Chemical, biological, energetic. Energetic includes all kinds of subtle energetic processes including the effect of sunlight on the body, especially through the eyes and the pituitary gland.

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hh 12.16.18 at 4:46 am

My guess is that people on the moon cost around 10 times LEO where the ISS flies, so if the world grows several times wealthier (or a bit motivated) we can afford to have people on the moon. That wouldn’t be a colony exactly, but “not now” and “not ever” are different.

If rocketry stays static in technology, but robotic automation makes the rockets cheap, options change. It’s been noted that the budget for a big video release is comparable to the cost of an unmanned planetary mission, and “space tourism” is getting investment.

Go to Mars, no wind on your face, no oceans, no shopping (no private homes?), no food for pleasure. No trees. No birds. No pets. Hiking I guess. Video games. Innovative engineering. Really interesting management situation! (Who has the upper hand, managers on Earth, workers on Mars?) All united, shoulders to the wheel, surely… Heinlein was there long ago.

Hard to see a prospect for economic betterment for your offspring, relative to their prospects on earth, which I imagine was the driving force for European colonization of the New World.

Substantially increased global wealth, inequality and poor social mobility, and massive environmental degradation would generate willing Mars colonists. I can’t see rockets affordably moving colonists to Mars in meaningful numbers, but my vision is weak.

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Brian 12.16.18 at 5:20 am

I have been acquainted with Bob Zubrin for 20 years, talking to him at conferences and interacting online. His engineering work on space when he was young is solid as a rock. ( https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/bitstream/handle/2014/32225/95-1567.pdf?sequence=1 ) His work on placing bases on Mars and the Moon is also solid as a rock.

In his later years, I have seen Bob charge off on into areas he isn’t versed in and come out with nonsense. There is nothing wrong with working in new areas, but it should be done in a way that ensures that one learns and interacts with others in that area.

My relationship with Bob has seriously suffered for telling him I think he’s spouting malarkey without basis. I did so publicly in writing to the National Review, because I thought what he was saying was politically quite dangerous in addition to being wrong. His thought processes do not show the sharpness they used to have.

I talked a bit with Bob’s ex-wife, a truly wonderful woman that I respect a great deal. She didn’t understand what is going with Bob either. She was quite sad about it, and honestly, so am I. I think she still loves the man she knew and wonders where he went.

Bob is getting on in years. I have no other explanation. I lean heavily toward Bob being in early decline. However, that does not negate any of the peer reviewed work Bob did when he was in his prime. Others have gone a bit bats after doing something big. Bobby Fisher, Sir Isaac Newton, Ludwig Boltzmann.

My apologies for misspelling Alcubierre drive. For those that care to understand something of it beyond Wikipedia, here is a link.
https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20110015936.pdf

Best wishes all.

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Plarry 12.16.18 at 6:27 am

It took 2000 years for from humanity’s first naval vessels, either the briremes and triremes of the Mediterranean or the Chinese ships of that time, to develop into ocean-going vessels capable of circumnavigating the globe. It seems premature to assert some fifty years into space travel that the solar system is uncolonizable or that stars can’t be visited.

I concede the point that it may be unvisitable because we’re going to screw up our habitat so badly that we won’t be able to.

85

Chetan Murthy 12.16.18 at 6:45 am

Brian@33: “Yes, the economic development issue of colonizing Mars is similar in kind to that of settlement of North America from Europe”

Others have pointed out that there were both people in the New World, and a ton of stuff we wanted and could ship back to the Old World. But there’s another difference, too: sure, Columbus and other “explorers” did their voyages. But the Basque, the Vikings, and how many others, had already made their voyages? The idea that somehow the -difficulty- of the crossing is anywhere near related — in the same ballpark — as the difficulty of even getting to the Moon, much less to Mars, is just wrong.

Frederick @ 81 is absolutely right, that we have no idea how to keep human bodies healthy in space. Hidari pointed it out, too.

And something else: sure, SF&F is great stuff: I read a ton of it. But it’s not any kind of reliable pointer to the future. Just because people dream of warp drive in Star Trek novels, doesn’t mean we can *ever* invent a warp drive here, now, in this universe.

Charlie Stross once argued that to transfer our technological civilization to Mars, we’d need to transfer 100m people — because that’s how many different skills and specialties go into making an iphone, and all its prerequisites. There’s two things that are important about that: (1) you can’t live on Mars no matter what, without a civilization *more* advanced than ours; and (2) as Hidari noted, no way you’re gonna carry that many people to Mars.

It’s a fantasy. And I love fantasies. But you don’t organize human society here-and-now based on a fantasy.

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Procoius 12.16.18 at 8:26 am

I haven’t read all the posts (yet) so maybe somebody else posted about this point. My biggest disappointment in the exploration of space is discovery of the intolerance of the human body to low/no gravity. Perhaps we can establish huge space stations at the L5 points using centrifugal force to simulate gravity, but they’ll be for the 0.01%. It does not seem possible for humans to indulge in months-long voyages for asteroid mining, much less generations-long interstellar voyages. I hope I’m wrong.

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Peter Erwin 12.16.18 at 9:22 am

John Quiggin @ 45:

For me, at least, the Hubble telescope was the clincher. After that, I was convinced that robots and telescopes would be able to do anything humans could do in space, better and more cheaply.

That’s a very strange conclusion to draw from the case of the Hubble Space Telescope, which looks like this:
1. A human-crewed spacecraft deploys a large telescope into orbit.
2. When the telescope is found to be flawed, a second spacecraft visits it, and astronauts go out and install upgraded instruments to correct for the flaw, as as replacements and upgrades for other components.
3. In a second visit by a human-crewed spacecraft, new instruments were installed by the astronauts.
4. Three more servicing missions take place, each time with astronauts installing new instruments (or repairing failed existing instruments) and replacing or upgrade old and failed components.

As a result of the work by astronauts (no robots involved) on servicing missions (including installing upgraded solar panels twice and replacing gyroscopes three times), Hubble continues to do science an astonishing 25 years after its launch, with instruments well beyond the capabilities of those it was launched with.

And from this you concluded “robots would be able to anything humans could do in space, better and more cheaply”?

It’s not that you’re necessarily wrong about that in the long term, but it’s as if you said something along the lines of, “It was Robert De Niro’s brilliant performance in Raging Bull that clinched it for me: CGI characters would totally replace human actors in movies.”

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Peter Erwin 12.16.18 at 9:40 am

Frederick @ 81:
The human body evolved in, is entangled with, and is completely dependent upon many interdependent processes in the natural earth environment, many of which we are not even aware of.

Yes, that’s why everyone who has gone into space has immediately died. It’s not as though multiple humans have lived in space for more than a year at a time or anything.

Energetic includes all kinds of subtle energetic processes including the effect of sunlight on the body, especially through the eyes and the pituitary gland.

You do realize that different kinds of lights can be used to produce different spectra, include ones that reproduce the solar spectrum? The new interior lights in the ISS can be tuned to produce a wide range of spectra, and are currently being tested to see if changing the spectrum can improve sleep rhythms.

(Also: the pituitary gland does not receive direct sunlight, no matter what “third eye” woo you may have read.)

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maidhc 12.16.18 at 10:11 am

We have the ISS and the base at the South Pole (as Peter Erwin points out, since 1956). Theoretically we could put manned space stations in orbit around the Moon and the inner planets, and even put manned stations on Mars and on the Moon. But keeping them supplied would be horrifically expensive, much more than the ISS in LEO. As we have seen in our very successful explorations of Mars, it is far more cost-effective to send robots.

For the price of one manned expedition to Mars, you could send how many robots? Fifty?

I brought up this point at a NASA presentation about 10 years ago, and he said “man must explore” or something like that. I don’t think it was a very good answer.

We’re basically stuck here, but we can do a lot of science by sending out robots. Just look at all the info we’ve been getting about Jupiter from the Juno probe. There’s lots more potential for things like that, and we already know how to do it. That kind of research could keep us busy for another 100 years at least.

Barring some kind of extraordinary breakthrough in physics, if we want to explore outside the solar system, we will have to change our timebase. Instead of having a project that happens over 20 or 30 years, we will have to start thinking about a project that happens over 10,000 years. That kind of long-range thinking is currently way out of our grasp.

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Peter Erwin 12.16.18 at 11:45 am

Hidari @75:

The ‘outpost’ at the South Pole is a research base, not, in any sense, a city or town.

Your objection was precisely to the idea that there might be “bases” (not full-blown, self-sustained colonies, just bases): “The overwhelming probability is that there won’t be any bases on the moon either. Ever. For the same reason (as per the OP) that there are not currently permanent manned bases at the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or even at the North/South Poles.”

A fair part of your — and some others’ — objections come down to variations on the Argument from Personal Incredulity. You can’t imagine wanting to do X (“you absolutely would not want to live there”; “no one will want to live there permanently or semi-permanently… because it’s so … bleak and awful when you do get there”), so obviously no one else would, either. Ever.

Are you absolutely sure that there are enough people who ‘want to live in space’ to make a colony viable? And I mean who actually want to live in space.

There are at present about seven and a half billion people on the planet. Current projections suggest this will climb to about eleven billion by the end of the century. There are more weird people with alternate/fringe beliefs and attitudes, who absolutely don’t share all your assumptions and desires and tastes, than you probably imagine.

(And it’s not like many of the early European colonists in the New World had some thoroughly rational and well-informed idea of what they were getting into. Look at the idiocy of the Jamestown colony: “Yeah, we’ll just go there and dig up all the gold that’s lying around and get rich! We don’t need to worry about planting crops or anything silly like that.”)

It’s just that we do a cost-benefit calculation about these things and the costs at present are so much greater than any potential benefits. So it’s not going to happen. [emphasis added]

I’m impressed that you think current cost-benefit analyses will obviously be valid for all time. I am somewhat less sanguine about this.

Many people may set out for Mars. A far smaller number will come back. ‘Is it worth it?’ Their grieving relatives will ask.

Won’t somebody think of the children?

(This, of course, is why humans have never done things like wage pointlessly wasteful wars: people do careful — and always well-informed and accurate — cost-benefit analyses, consider the potential grieving relatives, and then just don’t go to war.)

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Hidari 12.16.18 at 2:01 pm

Ah Peter you disappoint me. You are a nitpicker after all.

Yes I got it wrong about the ‘South Pole’ thing, for which, mea culpa. So perhaps my point would be better expressed thus: ‘“The overwhelming probability is that people won’t ever live permanently on the moon either. Ever. For the same reason (as per the OP) that people don’t live permanently at the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or even at the North/South Poles.”’

Please note: I’m perfectly prepared to be proved wrong about this. I think it’s highly unlikely that there will be permanent, manned, moonbases. But it might happen.

But this is a fundamentally different proposition from the idea that there will ever be permanent, manned bases on Mars. I’m much more prepared to stick my neck out here and say this will never happen, for the reasons I’ve sketched out above.

‘A fair part of your — and some others’ — objections come down to variations on the Argument from Personal Incredulity. ‘

Ipso facto, your non-objections (on the basis of, so far, no evidence, I might add), are based on the Argument from Personal Credulity. You personally can (or think you can) conceptualise the colonisation of Mars. Therefore it will happen. Colour me unconvinced. In any case, credulity about some things is also incredulity about others. If climate change really bites, and we run out of land, we will build cities underwater (or on artificial islands, or underground). These will be (not to put to fine a point on it) shit to live in but they will be fundamentally better to live in, cheaper to build, and safer than any conceivable moon or Mars bases.

Incidentally the European colonists had an entirely sane and coherent plan for the invasion of the Americas, one based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. Columbus wanted a new ‘spice route’ which would make money. He was wrong, but it was a reasonable mistake, based on the geographical evidence he had available to him. The Spanish would probably have given up their invasion of the Americas quite quickly had they not discovered gold. The invasion/colonisation was a commercial proposition, and it made money relatively quickly. Lots of money.

The colonisation of Mars will do nothing but lose money, a huge amount of money, forever. Oh and lead to large losses of human life, for goals that can be more easily achieved by robots.

The mention of wars is bizarre: we have made our choice. As someone has pointed out on this thread, the invasion and continued presence of the Americans in Afghanistan has already cost more than any possible moon mission would have cost. We had a choice and we chose to invade Afghanistan instead: in the same way we chose to invade Iraq and fight the ‘forever wars’ rather than plan a manned mission to Mars.

‘Oh it’s not as if it’s a choice!’ But yes….yes it is. There is not an unlimited amount of money in the world: you have to choose. As Bill Hicks used to point out, with all the money we spend on wars, we could explore space. But every election we make the opposite choice.

‘Oh it’s not a zero sum game!’
Yes it is.

But I suspect you are not going to be persuaded. So: as Karl Popper pointed out many years ago, a prediction that is not quantitative in nature is not falsifiable and therefore not science. Why don’t you give us a quantitative prediction (i.e. with dates) as to when you think there will be moonbases, manned missions to Mars, Martian colonies and the rest?

Then we can all meet up back in cyberspace in the relevant year and you can buy me a drink when it doesn’t happen.

92

Hidari 12.16.18 at 2:33 pm

Here’s a fun list! All the Martian projects that were meant to have happened by now.
The key: first, name of project. Second number: projected crew. Third number: mass. Fourth number, year it was announced. Final number (most interesting!) the year it was meant to have happened by.

Von Braun Mars 1952 (Das Marsprojekt) 70 37200 1952 1965
Stuhlinger Mars 1954–1957 20 660 1954 1980
Von Braun Mars 1956 (The Exploration of Mars) 12 3400 1956 1970
Martian Piloted Complex 1958–1962 6 1630 1958 1975
Stuhlinger Mars 1962 15 1800 1962 1975
Bono Mars 1960 8 800 1960 1971
NASA Lewis Mars 1960 6 614 1960 1971
TMK-1 1961 (flyby) 3 75 1961 1971
TMK-2 (TMK-E)[14] 2 1962 1971
EMPIRE Aeronutronic 1962 6 227 1962 1970
EMPIRE General Dynamics 1962 8 900 1962 1975
EMPIRE Lockheed 1962 3 100 1962 1974
Faget Mars (heavy) 1963 6 1140 1963
Faget Mars (light) 1963 6 280 1963
TRW Mars Expedition 1962 6 650 1962 1975
UMPIRE Douglas 1963 6 450 1963 1975
Project Deimos 6 3965 1964 1986
Douglas MORL Mars Flyby 1965 3 360 1965 1973
NASA JAG Manned Mars Flyby 1966 [ 4 1966 1975
NASA NERVA-Electric Mars 1966 5 1552 1966 1986
Korolev KK (TMK) 1966 3 150 1966 1980
Titus FLEM 1966[17] 3 118 1966 1985
Stuhlinger Mars 1966 [13] 2788 [13]
Boeing IMIS 1968 6 1226 1968 1985
Mars Expeditionary Complex (MEK) 1969 3 150 1969 1980
Von Braun Mars 1969 12 1455 [ 1969 1981
NASA Mars Expedition 1971 6 1900 1971 1987
Mars in 30 Days 5 2041 1972
MK-700 1972 2 1400 1972 1980
Chelomei 1974 (MK-700 flyby) 2 250 1974 1980
British Interplanetary Society Mars 1982 8 1300 1982
Planetary Society Mars Expedition 1983 4 160 1983 2003
NASA-LANL Manned Mars Flyby 1985 358 1985
NPO Energia Mars 1986 4 365 1986 2000
Case for Mars II 1986 30 1900 1986 2007
NASA Ride Report 1986 6 210 1986 2004
NASA Mars Evolution 1988 8 330 1988 2013
NASA Mars Expedition 1988 8 1628 1988 2007
NASA Phobos Expedition 1988 4 765 1988 2003
NASA 90 Day Study 1989 4 980[13] – 1300 1989 2017
NPO Energia Mars 1989 4 355 1989 2001
Mars Evolution 1989 5 1989 2007
NASA Mars Expedition 1989 3 780 1989 2004
Mars Direct (Zubrin 1991) 4 220 1991 1997
STCAEM CAB 1991 4 800 1991 2016
STCAEM NEP 1991 4 500 1991 2016
STCAEM NTR 1991 4 800 1991 2016
STCAEM SEP 1991 4 410 1991 2016
NASA Synthesis Study 1991 6 1080 1991 2014
International Space University 1991 [20] 8 1991 2016
NASA Design Reference Mission 1.0 1993 6 900 1993 2007
Kurchatov Mars 1994 5 800 1994 2010
Zubrin Athena (flyby) 2 100 1996 2001
NASA Design Reference Mission 3 1997 6 410 1997 2011
NASA Mars Combo Lander 1998 4 280 1998 2011
NASA Design Reference Mission 4 1998 6 400 1998 2011
NASA Dual Lander Mission 12 600 1999 2011
Mars Society Mission 1999 10 900 1999 2011
Marspost (Gorshkov 2000) 6 400 2000 2017

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_crewed_Mars_mission_plans)

In other words there have been roughly 60 plans to send people to Mars, a grand total of zero of which succeeded or, indeed, made any progress towards this goal of any sort whatsoever.

But perhaps the plans of the drug addled billionaire and wunderkind Elon Musk will be different!

93

JimV 12.16.18 at 3:34 pm

There is a classic experiment in biology which a professor had me replicate in college. Make some potato agar and fill some petri dishes with it, then place a small sample of an agar-eating microbe in each dish. Take a sample from each every day, put them between glass slides, examine them in a microscope, and plot the growth. (I’ll skip the details of the counting which involve characteristics of the microbe that is used.)

It follows an upward exponential curve for a longish time, then begins to flatten, forms a hump, and starts down. After losing about 20% of its peak height, it curves up again, then forms a secondary hump, lower than the first one. Then it usually heads monotonically down close to zero (sometimes there is a third or fourth lower hump). There is still plenty of agar in the dish as it does so.

I think of that when people tell me that technology growth is bound to continue because it always did in the past.

As for new technological ideas people have proposed that haven’t been tested, as with biological mutations, most of them turn out to be unhelpful. It takes a lot of time and energy to sort out the working ideas from the non-working ones (which may be no less brilliant, just not applicable to this universe). I think that effort would be better spent here on Earth, figuring out how to make our petri dish sustainable. The petri dish is getting very crowded, and once things start to go badly they are hard to reverse.

94

DaveL 12.16.18 at 5:24 pm

Judging from the post and the comments, it’s pretty clear that any extraterrestrial outposts will at least suffer from a severe shortage of left-of-center academics.

95

Chetan Murthy 12.16.18 at 6:25 pm

Peter Erwin@88: “Yes, that’s why everyone who has gone into space has immediately died. It’s not as though multiple humans have lived in space for more than a year at a time or anything.”

Yes, and when they return to Earth, they ‘re unable to walk, have brain damage, vastly weakened hearts, and other problems. And for all that, they’re still protected by a good bit of the Earth’s magnetosphere — something no Mars tourist would enjoy. Oh, and being unable to walk is going to be a good look for an explorer arriving at Mars for the first time.

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Michael 12.16.18 at 9:16 pm

The key point of the post is not whether at some point small scientific bases will be established on Mars, etc. I don’t think they will be but it’s not the world’s biggest issue. The key point is that the fantasy that “we’ll go to space” as an alternative to “we’ll try to make a go of it here” is absolutely insane.
I wrote about this fantasy once: “Maybe, like some crude maximalist political slogans, it covers up deep passivity and hopelessness about actual possibilities.” Reactions were even more vituperative than some here. See: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2011/7/8/992617/-#read-more

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Chetan Murthy 12.16.18 at 11:00 pm

Peter Erwin @ 90:

A fair part of your — and some others’ — objections come down to variations on the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

Uh, no. Everest? Antarctica? They can be effectively resupplied. The Moon? Maybe, at the limit. Mars? Not. A. Chance. You either carry enough stuff over there to set up a self-sustaining colony, or you’re just a tourist. And one-way suicidal tourists are still tourists. People bring up the New World colonists. Sure, early colonies had massive death rates. But it -was- possible to “live off the land”, and people did it and thrived. That won’t be possible on Mars: you’ll need a civilization at least as advanced as what we have here today, to just survive. I mean, it’s not hard to find out just how difficult it will be: simply googling, say, “smelting in space” will throw up discussions (e.g. here) that any reasonable reader can follow, and show just how difficult setting up an industrial base in space or a more-or-less airless planet will be. [and yes, Mars is more-or-less airless, for this purpose.]

98

Faustusnotes 12.16.18 at 11:38 pm

I think plarry ‘s timeline of the development of ocean-going vessels from biremes is very Eurocentric and ignores the achievements of pacific peoples and early Asian sailors. There is “humanity” outside of Europe.

It appears a lot of commenters’ understanding of sf stopped at heinlein, so a reminder that a lot has been written and made since then. In almost all cyberpunk and near future iterations of it, “a new life on Mars “ is a cynical joke, more akin to transportation to Australia than bold colonization. It’s also almost always a response to the collapse of earths environment.

Peter Erwin’s response to John Quiggin’s point about Hubble makes the problem very clear. When things went wrong we could send people from earth to fix it, and because no one lives in bubble we could do it at our own pace. If something goes wrong for a human base on Mars it will take months just to get them the spare part they need. If we need to send a technician what happens? We have to recruit them, train them, send them – that’s going to take a year. And if they can’t come back they simply will refuse to go. Does anyone here know of a single ob/gyn who is interested in giving up their interesting and elite work on earth to go and help the first childbirths in this colony? Does anyone know if a single ob/gyn who has committed to doing that for more than a year or two in a low income country on earth?

The reality that these colonists can’t come back is the clincher. You’re sending people to live permanently ina completely inhospitable environment far from help with no way back. This is not in any way comparable to the outpost in Antarctica, or to any mythical outpost anywhere else in our geosphere. Until we can develop a sublight drive that can carry people on decent timeframes and lift off from mars without using fuel that must be transported from earth, the mission is madness.

99

Omega Centauri 12.17.18 at 12:56 am

There are at least two strains of the “got to go to space” religion/meme. The strong one is that we will/may need to evacuate Earth to save the people of the time. The weaker case argues that if earth life fails, having a viable non-earth based civilization means the species, if not the bulk of the population can survive. I think most of the proponents belong to the second category.

100

otpup 12.17.18 at 2:18 am

Back to the desirability of lunar and near Earth space industrialization (which as I said is both more practical and has better incentives than Mars colonization).
1) The main reason for thinking seriously about a self-sustaining human settlement is as a fail-safe from a planet wide catastrophe (other exists besides climate change, ones with less moral baggage).
2) Another benefit of an increased space manufacturing, etc., presence (and to some extent this goal could be achieved robotically) is precisely to avert some of those extinction events. The primary one being asteroid, comet strike. A lunar presence make both monitoring and interdiction much more practical.
3) More far-fetched but something to think about is the idea that we are way past averting substantial climate change with cutting emissions (not an argument to forgo doing it) but that geo-engineering mega-projects are going to be necessary in the coming decades. In that case, perhaps a space based technique might help, given a sufficiently large enough industrial base. Would probably have something to do with decrease incidence of solar radiation. Admittedly, this is just spit ball but #1 and especially #2 are serious points, imho.

101

Brett 12.17.18 at 5:49 am

Hidari @77

There are at least a few thousand people who would go live on Mars, even if it mean mostly living in buried cylinders and domes for the rest of their lives. Whether or not that’s enough for a colony depends on their technology – it’s certainly not enough with current technology, but who knows what the future will bring?

Certainly a humble beginning, but if we don’t wipe ourselves out we have a lot of time for a colony to grow just off natural population growth if they can supply their needs on site.

102

Rapier 12.17.18 at 7:47 am

The space travel, Star Trek and Star Wars fantasy, is based on the fantasy of limitless money, limitless resources and limitless energy. If that’s not bad enough the first proposition as put forth by Kennedy and most everyone else attached to the manned space project is that “mankind” must go forth to conquer new challenges via conquering other parts of the universe is ridiculous. That is especially true because the gigantic institutional powers, government and corporations, which brought about those first small steps have been increasingly to the point of overwhelmingly opposed to anything else which suggests a collective good.

At any rate the fantasy will die in the shorter term by the lack of money. A fitting end might be Elon Musk getting people to give him a few billion dollars to fly off in a tiny prison to his end with no possible payback or payoff at all.

103

reason 12.17.18 at 9:58 am

Michael,
“The key point of the post is not whether at some point small scientific bases will be established on Mars” … they already have been – what you meant to say I’m sure is MANNED bases.

I’m sort of hoping we can convince DJT and EM to go together – they can satisfy their egos and we can be rid of them.

104

tia2 12.18.18 at 1:05 am

One of the towering figures of 2’nd half of 20’th century Physics on why sending “Major Tom” (or Dick or Harry) to Mars will be a trillion dollar (close to 2 trillion by now) mistake:

http://legacy.aura-astronomy.org/news/Archive/NY_Review_1.pdf

Incidentally, there has been some minor improvement in mindsets since above article was published and those whose minds are stuck in metaphors of 19’th and 20’th century notions (e.g. “colonization”) are at least not allowed to spew their ideas without challenge:

https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/05/25/should-humans-colonize-space

105

Oldcrank47 12.18.18 at 3:36 am

I challenge you to provide contemporary accounts backing up the idea that at the time , people thought that interstellar travel was anything but a fantasy

also, re Voyager: the technical feat isn’t that it crossed some boundary (Newton’s first ya know) but that we can communicate with it – that is the surprising bit

106

John Quiggin 12.19.18 at 2:11 am

@105 The idea was taken seriously as recently as 2011 https://www.space.com/11200-nasa-100-year-starship-interstellar-travel.html

Google doesn’t work well for the 1970s, so I’ll just appeal to the collective memory of CT readers, many of whom are old enough to remember.

107

Alan White 12.19.18 at 4:03 am

I’ve followed this thread with real interest and have to agree with the thesis of the OP–though my life is too short to see anything like its falsification through.

Many baby-boomers like me had our attitudes adjusted by the Cold-War race that led to Neil Armstrong–a powerful experience in youth that is even today hard to shed. Going from Sputnik-envy to the lunar “small step” in less than 15 years still reverbs in my memory as something approaching a nobility of exploration that at least didn’t include some necessary displacement of indigenous people (if you exclude millions of impoverished Earthers who might have been economically aided otherwise). No doubt this contributed to the enthusiasm further stoked by Star Trek and 2001, both more optimistic about the values of being intrepid than the costs.

Predating Sputnik and the military-industrial complex, however, movies like Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide made the case that when government can’t or won’t rise to the occasion, private industry will, and we do see some of this now. It’s about incentive, whether patriotic (Moon), survival (Collide), or mega-mineral rights (like the current Mars series). When we are in the era where the personal wealth of a few people rivals that of significantly sized nations, I guess I can’t discount the possibility that future billion-or-even-trillionaires might go where no one had gone before.

108

Bill Benzon 12.19.18 at 11:27 am

PDF of a 1980 NASA Study, Advanced Automation for Space Missions. Includes discussions of automated interstellar missions and a self-reproducing lunar factory.

https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19830007077.pdf

3.1.1 Automated Interstellar Space Exploration

The most extensive study of interstellar space explora-
tion to date has been Project Daedalus, an analysis con-
ducted by a team of 13 people working in their spare time
under the auspices of the British Interplanetary Society
from 1973 to 1978 (Martin, 1978). The focus was a feasi-
bility study of a simple interstellar mission using only
present technology and reasonable extrapolation of fore-
seeable near-future capabilities.

The proposed Daedalus starship structure, communica-
tions systems, and much of the payload were designed
entirely within today’s capabilities. Other components,
including the machine intelligence controller and adaptive
repair systems, require a technology which Project mem-
bers expected would become available within the next
several decades.

109

divelly 12.19.18 at 3:05 pm

Why should the species survive?
We are a disease organism whose prime directive is to destroy.
We have killed tens of millions of our own kind,
untolled billions of other species and extinguished some entierely,
obliterated entire ecosystems,
and are in the process of killing the ocean,the well spring of all life
We don’t need 2 0r 3 0r 5 more billion of us here, let alone spreading our contagion elsewhere.
We need to die back to a few hundred million and learn how to join the web of life in harmony.

110

Hidari 12.20.18 at 9:59 am

@105
Those articles were very good, especially the Weinberg one, and his article does make the case (which I have also made) that space travel is not a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ situation. In a time of finite sums of money being available, you have to choose. Weinberg gives numerous examples of situations where, given the choice, NASA has chosen to prioritise the quixotic quest for ‘manned exploration of space’ as opposed to spending the money on far cheaper (but far more effective) unmanned exploration, as a result of which scientific progress has been held back. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever proposed something that Martian astronauts could do that robots could not do (in principle) cheaper and, of course, safer. Ergo, one assumes that, purely on a cost-benefit analysis, there will be no manned spaceflight to Mars.

One last point: from the OP:

‘In fact, though no one knew it at the time, the heroic age of space travel (indeed, of nearly all kinds of travel) had already passed’.

That much maligned (mainly by right wingers) decade, the 1970s, saw not just the golden age of manned space flight, but also the golden age of the ‘plane. in the shape of Concorde. Since then no other commercial airliner has flown so fast. The more time that passes, the less likely it becomes that any commercial airliner will ever fly faster.

Again, technological progress is not a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ situation. It’s a zero sum game. As some technologies make progress, others atrophy, because they are no longer needed. CF the rise of robotics, AI, space telescopy etc….these have vitiated the need for manned spaceflight.

In the last few years we have seen huge developments in telecommunications, virtual reality, telepresence and the like. The more these technologies develop, the less need there will be for transportation to ‘distant climes’. Indeed, I have anecdotal evidence of this: people I know who work in government have told me that meetings etc. are increasingly held via Skype, as are conferences (partly for financial reasons, but also because of the environmental crisis). In the late 1990s, I worked in an academic department that desperately wanted some high flying academic. They flew him over (at their expense) from Australia to the UK for the job interview.
It’s simply inconceivable that this would happen now. Therefore, as VR and internet technologies develop, the less and less need there will be for these amazing now hypersonic planes that the Sunday Supplements are always doing unpaid advertising for. Therefore, they probably won’t ever be built.

I might also add that if our civilisation is to have a chance of survival, all countries on planet Earth have to be carbon neutral by roughly 2050 (not a very long away).

Needless to say, modern space flight technology and flight technology are not, in any sense carbon neutral. So they will have to adapt (how?): or die.

แจกเครดิตฟรี ล่าสุด111

Matt 12.21.18 at 5:51 am

In the late 1990s, I worked in an academic department that desperately wanted some high flying academic. They flew him over (at their expense) from Australia to the UK for the job interview.
It’s simply inconceivable that this would happen now.

Maybe things have changed in the last 5 or 6 years, but 6 years ago, I interviewed for an entry-level (lecturer) position at a law school in the north of England. I am, and especially then was far fro a “high flyer”, but I was flown in the Denver Colorado, and one other candidate was flown in from Singapore. (The other three were more local.) The entire interview process had less than 3 hours, total, of face-to-face interaction. (This is a lot less than people short-listed in the US have for such interviews.) So, at least in the recent past, this sort of thing was still done for entry-level positions by academic departments in the UK, though maybe it’s stopped now.

112

Hidari 12.21.18 at 2:27 pm

‘There are at least a few thousand people who would go live on Mars, even if it mean mostly living in buried cylinders and domes for the rest of their lives.’

Y’see…I don’t think there are. I think there area few thousand people who have deluded themselves that interplanetary space travel will be romantic and exciting and an adventure (it will be none of these things), and on the basis of that have convinced themselves that living in a bunker in hell for the rest of their lives will give their lives some meaning. If they really want to live on Mars, why don’t they go and live in a concrete bunker a mile down underneath the Gobi Desert? That’s the next best thing.

Another thing: let’s look at one amazing thing predicted by SF that I am absolutely sure WILL happen: a ‘holodeck’ a la Star Trek The Next Generation. I’m absolutely sure this will be built as there are clear profits to be made there (where the profits are going to come from in a Martian colony has always been something of a conundrum). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodeck)

The question (and P.K. Dick, of course, implicitly posed this question in ‘We Can Remember it for you Wholesale’ (filmed as Total Recall))….when you can have an amazing ‘trip to Mars’, filled with action and adventure and romance, which is cheap, easy and (not a trivial point) safe…why bother going through all the rigmarole of a real trip to Mars which will be none of these things?

This is what I mean about progress in some technologies reducing the need for other technologies.

113

abd 12.21.18 at 6:34 pm

@110, ending of a talk ( http://bleiersdoc.blogspot.com/2009/10/nyrb-steven-weinberg-missions-of.html ) Weinberg gave at University of Texas:

Of course, there are many worthy calls on government funds. What particularly galls many scientists is the existence of a vastly expensive NASA program that often masquerades as science. I refer, of course, to the manned space flight program. In 2004 President Bush announced a “new vision” for NASA, a return of astronauts to the moon followed by a manned mission to Mars. A few days later the NASA Office of Space Science announced cuts in its unmanned Beyond Einstein and Explorer programs, with the explanation that they did not support the President’s new vision.

Astronauts are not effective in scientific research. For the cost of taking astronauts safely to the moon or planets and bringing them back, one could send many hundreds of robots that could do far more in the way of exploration… All of the satellites like Hubble or COBE or WMAP or Planck that have made possible the recent progress in cosmology have been unmanned. No important science has been done at the manned International Space Station, and it is hard to imagine any significant future work that could not be done more cheaply on unmanned facilities.

It is often said that manned space flight is necessary for science because without it the public would not support any space programs,[7] including unmanned missions like Hubble and WMAP that do real science. I doubt this. I think that there is an intrinsic excitement to astronomy in general and cosmology in particular, quite apart from the spectator sport of manned space flight. As illustration, I will close with a verse of Claudius Ptolemy:

I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day; but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods.

114

abd 12.21.18 at 6:47 pm

A new word for 2018, “space-washing”, in comments section of a story on a Jeff Bezos pronouncement (iirc it was put out a few days after a negative story on the notoriously control-freakish Bezos). An excerpt:

Getting sick of these sociopathic Big Tech billionaires trying to “space-wash” their unfettered greed with sci-fi fantasies of “taking humanity to live in AI machines on Mars”

This fucking cunt could end world hunger with his pocket change today, but wont.

He is not the savior of the human race.

Neither is Elon Musk. Neither is Richard Branson. Neither is Mark Zuckerberg.

Learn to spot a confidence job.

https://science.slashdot.org/story/18/10/15/1919247/jeff-bezos-predicts-well-have-1-trillion-humans-in-the-solar-system-and-blue-origin-wants-to-help-get-us-there/insightful-comments#comments

115

Dr. Hilarius 12.22.18 at 3:02 am

Hidari has already mentioned one P.K. Dick work, another that seems germane to this thread is “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.” Runaway global warming and forced colonization of Mars. Dick had the imagination to see life on Mars as boring misery made tolerable by hallucinogens. And as a few posters have mentioned, any society where the air you breath is a limited commodity isn’t likely to be free, equal or pleasant.

116

Dr. Hilarius 12.22.18 at 3:03 am

oops, “Eldritch”.

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