November 13, 2008

A plausible space program for my lifetime

The space program was a lot of fun when I was a kid in the 1960s, but it turned out we were all dressed up in our spacesuits with no particular place to go. The rest of the solar system just isn't very habitable. Venus isn't like the Congo and Mars isn't like Bolivia, the way Heinlein hoped they would be back in the 1950s.

Various Presidents have enunciated various space program goals in recent decades, but not much gets done because it's hard to figure out why we want to spend vast amounts of money to go there.

So, here's a space program goal where we are currently making progress and could actually accomplish within a few decades:

Discover human-habitable planets around other stars.

I'm not at all saying that we should go to these other planets. We can leave that insanely expensive project for future centuries. But finding destinations would keep alive the grandest dream of the human race: to spread out across the galaxy. Personally, I would like to die knowing that my species' fate isn't forever tied to just one planet.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

46 comments:

Xenophon Hendrix said...

This is just ideas I learned from Jerry Pournelle's writings over the years, especially A Step Farther Out. I think there is a lot to be said for lowering the cost to orbit, harvesting materials from asteroids and the moon, and building solar power satellites.

If I'm not mistaken, once the infrastructure was set up, we could build some ENORMOUS telescopes. If Hubble has just seen extrasolar planets, what could a really big telescope do?

rightsaidfred said...

Excellent idea. People do better with a large, over arching goal to work toward. Most of the world's goal seems to be "take down the US". Lately our goal seems to be "buy spinner rims".

Jun said...

...it's hard to figure out why we want to spend vast amounts of money to go there.

Natural resources! (There's GOLD on them there planets! ;-) )

The Final Capitalist Frontier

Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy

Seriously. I think that's good enough reason to keep going to space.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I know your busy, but Nick Kristoff at the NY Times has just floated a huge softball over the plate for you ("Obama and Our Schools"). Would you mind slugging it?

D.

l. ron hoover said...

"Nick Kristoff at the NY Times has just floated a huge softball over the plate for you..."

I rarely read Kristof but I imagine he floats a lot of softballs. I dipped into a column of his last week in which he blamed blacks' support for Prop 8 on Republican anti-gay populism.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there much bigger obstacles than merely *discovering* human-habitable planets outside the solar system? Such as the fact that nobody has a clue how to travel at light speed?

SKT said...

It doesn't bother me if humans never left Earth.

Tsoldrin said...

Why planets? Seriously... The idea of finding a planet suitable for humans to live on without a monumental effort in terraforming is almost as ridiculous as finding aliens here on earth who strangely somehow look a whole lot like us, with eyes and hands and legs and above all else, bi-lateral symmetry. This is preposterous. The same math that ensures that there is other life out there somewhere ensures it is almost certainly nothing like us, or if it is (by some astronomical twist of fate), it is nowhere near here. In that same vein, we can rest assured that there is no place within reasonable reach which will be even on the outtermost of the intollerable scale of environments we can live in.

All is not lost however, and I too believe that we should by all means get our eggs out of this basket. We simply leave on ships equipped to support life indefinitely. Not all will survive, but some will and increasing the number will increase the chances. Should the lotto hit and we really do find a habitable place to colonize, we just drop off a breeding population and move on.

AJ said...

> not much gets done because it's hard to figure out why we want to spend vast amounts of money to go there.

That's easy -- glory and honour. It powered the last race, and it will power the next one, what with China (and to a lesser extent India and Russia) clamoring vertically for the exact same reasons that existed in 1957.

People discount these irrational human motives, but they are incredibly powerful. Just ask an Olympian... or a jihadist.

And if governments don't do it, private citizens will now that the cost of the technology is within reach of billionaires and (increasingly) millionaires.

Anonymous said...

"Natural resources! (There's GOLD on them there planets! ;-) )"

There's plenty of gold on the Earth. And it's a lot more accessible.

But anyway, I agree that colonizing other planets is a nice aspiration. And one of the few hopes for the survival of the white race.

Jim Bowery said...

Communications Satellite Act of 1962

* (c) Private enterprise; access; competition

In order to facilitate this development and to provide for the widest possible participation by private enterprise, United States participation in the global system shall be in the form of a private corporation, subject to appropriate governmental regulation. It is the intent of Congress that all authorized users shall have nondiscriminatory access to the system; that maximum competition be maintained in the provision of equipment and services utilized by the system; that the corporation created under this chapter be so organized and operated as to maintain and strengthen competition in the provision of communications services to the public; and that the activities of the corporation created under this chapter and of the persons or companies participating in the ownership of the corporation shall be consistent with the Federal antitrust laws.


This excluded NASA from competing with Howard Hughes in satellite communications.

Look what happened.

Imagine what would have happened if, instead of the Apollo Program, JFK's "new frontier" had similarly called on private interests to provide launch services.

ben tillman said...

Personally, I would like to die knowing that my species' fate isn't forever tied to just one planet.

I could not agree more, and of course this is why anti-Whitism ultimately dooms the human race, and why our attackers qualify as misanthropes. We are the technologists, the pioneers, on whom humanity's future depends.

Anonymous said...

What about colonies on Mars? I think it's a good goal to at least send a man there to suss it out.

Anonymous said...

Natural resources! (There's GOLD on them there planets! ;-) )

Cost of entry, very high, timeline for return on investment, very long. Don't see today's greedy, short-sighted investors signing on to that project... they want a payoff next quarter at the latest.

Mr. Anon said...

"Xenophon Hendrix said...

I think there is a lot to be said for lowering the cost to orbit, harvesting materials from asteroids and the moon, and building solar power satellites."

A lot has been said about. Very little, if anything, will ever be done. It's just too hard. There's nearly nothing that can be found in space that isn't a lot cheaper to harvest here on Earth.

Lucius Vorenus said...

D: I know your busy, but Nick Kristoff at the NY Times has just floated a huge softball over the plate for you ("Obama and Our Schools"). Would you mind slugging it?

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF: President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration. He ranked it fifth among his priorities, and if it is being downplayed, that’s a mistake...

Suzanne Fields: ...The Obamas are real-life models of black achievement, but they may remind poor blacks of how different their lives are from the lives of the well-off. President-elect Obama's staff is talking about which expensive private school (the favorites with tuition as high as $30,000 a year) their daughters will attend. Washington public schools, among the worst in the country, are probably out...

ed said...

I agree that the goal should be to find another habitable planet, to serve as a replacement for Earth once we've finished trashing it. However, terraforming Mars is likely to be more doable than finding another planet orbiting a distant star.

Because nothing can go faster than the speed of light, once you try getting to someplace more than ten light years away, you are looking at either inventing time travel, somehow freezing people or reanminating them, or building a spacecraft where people can live on for several generations. If we can figure out how to do any of that, we won't need to migrate to another planet.

Scott said...

According to Ray Kurzweil, people are going to live forever once the "singularity" happens. This singularity happens once machines are smarter than humans and create increasingly intelligent machines/computers in an exponential manner.

He thinks this will happen in his lifetime (he is 60).

Anonymous said...

Seriously. I think that's good enough reason to keep going to space.

All joking aside, I think the worsening demographic situation in the West and the increasing likelihood of global nuclear conflict are good enough reasons to keep going to space.

kurt9 said...

The problem with space is NASA. NASA is a huge government bureaucracy whose purpose is to employ 20,000 civil servants until retirement. Being a government bureaucracy, there is no incentive to develop low-cost space transportation. Its like having a single, government-owned airline or shipping line. It simply does not work.

There is no point in even talking about space until we have low cost space transportation. This will not happen until NASA gets out of the space transportation business.

Alex said...

Steve, so you don't believe in the afterlife? Wouldn't you rather go to Heaven than Fomalhaut b?

Gavin said...

See recent Discover magazine article.
http://discovermagazine.com/2008/nov/10-how-long-until-we-find-a-second-earth

C. Van Carter said...

We should put most of our space-focus on detecting space-rocks with the potential to crash into us as well as figuring out how to deflect them, ideally on to our enemies.

testing99 said...

c van carter, big enough space rocks, it doesn't matter much where it hits, pretty much most life is dead.

Mars is a great stepping stone, but assuming we can and do find ways around space-time limitations, traveling to other star systems and finding an Earth-like planet would be great news.

Real Estate. It's what drove Columbus to the pioneers.

Caledonian said...

If you really wanted to establish a long-term foothold in space, you'd be advocating for telepresence robots on the Moon.

Looking for 'habitable' planets is silly.

Svigor said...

Waste of time. We should spend the dollars developing rapid terraforming technology.

Svigor said...

And yes, tsoldrin is right, we should plan on discovering neither habitable planets, or the technology to make them.

Really, what's the diff? Build a big enough ship and it'll be indistinguishable from a planet (if that's what the designers want).

Anonymous said...

"finding aliens here on earth who strangely somehow look a whole lot like us, with eyes and hands and legs and above all else, bi-lateral symmetry"

Okay, being I get you about the eyes and hands and legs.

But what's so preposterous about bilateral symmetry?

albertosaurus said...

Don't worry, US interest and involment is inevitable.

Space is the level playing field. The earth is at the bottom of a gravity well. Anyone on the playing field can drop rocks down the well - and the solar system is full of rocks.

We know that a rock but seven miles wide killed the dinosaurs. There are plenty of asteroids that size or bigger. The optimum rock size is probably about 100 meters across - easy to steer in space yet still a city killer.

For the foreseeable future it will be in the interests of the US and any other nation that can afford it, to police up potential enemy activity in the solar system.

Anonymous said...

We should be mining the moon and Mars and asteroids. Or at least trying to. The United States has the ability to put people on the moon. Since 1975, we have not. Terrible. Shameful.

-Vanilla Thunder

Big Bill said...

Barry's girls are going to Sidwell Friends with all the other rich white folks.

No way he is going to let his daughters go to school in DC with all that ign'ant black trash.

He and Michelle did not go to school at Harvard to let their daughters get shtupped by some wannabe gangbanger.

The real issue is how they will keep them race pure and insure they don't act TOO white.

I would normally figure Michelle for Jack and Jill, but with its elitist and anti-white 'tude Michelle and Barry cannot risk it.

Born Again Democrat said...

"all dressed up in our spacesuits with no particular place to go"

Great line, Steve. It is for stuff like that that I read you.

Unfortunately, space travel to other habitable planets is vanishingly implausible, even with the theoretically best technology possible. Give it up.

Mr. Anon said...

"kurt9 said...

There is no point in even talking about space until we have low cost space transportation. This will not happen until NASA gets out of the space transportation business."

NASA certainly can't launch anything cheaply. Private enterprise can and does launch cheaper. But not cheap enough. The barriers to orbit and beyond are not primarily imposed by economics, but by physics.

"Born Again Democrat said...

Unfortunately, space travel to other habitable planets is vanishingly implausible, even with the theoretically best technology possible. Give it up."

Given the limits imposed by known physics, you are right. Even colonization of planets within our own solar system would likely be far more expensive and troublesome than it would be worth.

Space boosters should consider this: There is already a huge tract of virgin land, with abundant resources (including water), and which is far easier to get to and live on than the Moon, or Mars, or the Asteroids. Antartica. It even has air for free (unlike the Moon, or Mars, or the Asteroids). So why hasn't the great Antartic land rush started already? (And don't think it's because of the treaty governing Antartica's status. Treaties don't count for a damn when people really want something - just ask an Indian).

Anonymous said...

"Antartica. It even has air for free (unlike the Moon, or Mars, or the Asteroids). So why hasn't the great Antartic land rush started already? (And don't think it's because of the treaty governing Antartica's status. Treaties don't count for a damn when people really want something - just ask an Indian)."

I would seriously consider moving to Antarctica if there were some way to be reasonably confident that my descendants would be safe from (1) the inevitable flood of NAMs which would take place once it was a liveable, comfortable place; (2) the spite missiles one can expect from the Muslims and/or their idealogical successors.

Anonymous said...

Most issues covered here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstellar_travel

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would like to die knowing that my species' fate isn't forever tied to just one planet.

I definitely second that e-motion! ;)


JD

Anonymous said...

The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10. So why isn’t NASA trying harder to prevent catastrophe?
by Gregg Easterbrook

The Sky Is Falling
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/asteroids

Mark Presco said...

I believe the future of the human race is in space. In fact I believe our very survival depends upon this. As long as we are all huddled on this tiny rock, squabbling over what little land there is left on it we are in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs. To continue this analogy, somewhere out there, there is an asteroid with our name on it. It’s not a matter of if it will smack the earth; it’s a matter of when. If it hits before we can deal with it, or before we have colonized space, we’re history. And of course there are many other scenarios that can spell the end of humanity on the planet.

Actually, my ultimate fantasy is to move the whole human race off the planet and leave Gaia (mother Earth) to evolve even more fantastic life forms. There is a lot of room out there. We have Mars and Venus to terraform. We are builders of worlds. We have the technology now and we need to get on with it.

However, I believe that when we move into space that’s exactly what we’ll do, move into space. I believe that the next great strides in human evolution will be in zero gravity habitats. There is unlimited room to grow in space and we can once more “be fruitful and multiply in number”. This will create new human races. In zero-gravity people can essentially fly, unneeded feet can evolve into hands, and who can say what else.

The focus now should be on developing the low cost infrastructure, first a new space plane to fly to the International Space Station as cheaply and safely as a commercial airplane. The mission of the ISS can be expanded to be a space port for a second fleet of shuttles that can travel throughout the solar system. The ISS can be expanded to be a permanent habitat for the first zero-gravity pioneers.

Jonathan said...

The only possible places in the solar system where humanity could possibly live are the moon, mars and perhaps the moons in the outer solar system. But I wouldn't call it "living" exactly. All these environments are cold or broiling hot, airless and flooded with lethal radiation. Humanity would have to live permanently underground. Does that sound appealing to you?

Brett said...

"There's nearly nothing that can be found in space that isn't a lot cheaper to harvest here on Earth."

Nickel. Seriously, our Earthly sources of Nickel are old asteroid strikes, pretty much all of it that was originally part of the planet ended up in the core, inaccessible. And it's a remarkably valuable industrial metal, it's value is it's uses, not it's rarity. So it would retain a good deal of that price even with an increased supply.

Mr. Anon said...

"Brett said...

Nickel. Seriously, our Earthly sources of Nickel are old asteroid strikes, pretty much all of it that was originally part of the planet ended up in the core, inaccessible."

I agree. Nickel is great stuff. But it's still cheaper to mine it from asteroids that have already hit us (i.e., from the Earth) than to go out looking for it.

"Mark Presco said...

The focus now should be on developing the low cost infrastructure, first a new space plane to fly to the International Space Station as cheaply and safely as a commercial airplane."

Space shuttles are not low cost. When you combine a rocket with an airplane, you get both a poor rocket and a poor airplane. Launching to low earth orbit is a fundamentally different thing than a long distance airplane trip - rockets will never be as cheap or realiable as airplanes.

Anonymous said...

johnathan - thats why we need terraforming.

Jonathan said...

For the ultimate book on terraforming, read "Genesis" by Frederick Turner, an account of a 100-year effort to transform Mars into an Earth-like world. As an extra bonus, Turner wrote the entire book as an epic poem! It's really quite amazing.

Brett said...

"But it's still cheaper to mine it from asteroids that have already hit us (i.e., from the Earth) than to go out looking for it."

Using current launch technology, yes.

It all comes down to the amount of traffic, I think: There are a number of approaches to reaching space which would probably be much, much cheaper on a pounds to orbit basis, than using large fireworks. Mass drivers, laser launchers, one or another variety of skyhook. But the all involve a huge fixed cost before they'd put pound one into orbit, and so we can't justify the investment with current traffic levels. OTOH, if we had the cost to orbit that they would allow, traffic levels would probably end up high enough to make them economical.

So it's a matter of getting from the high cost, low traffic, to the low cost, high traffic, equilibrium. Traffic to orbit IS trending up, so I think we'll get there eventually.

neil craig said...

Getting to orbit for something comparable to the cost of flying to Australia is a real possibility (once you are in Earth orbit you are "half way to anywhere). Also there certainly is gold in them tam asteroids - by the hundreds of tons. There is also unlimited, reliable, power for a solar power satellite system.

However the biggest profits may come not from doing cheaper something we already do but from doing something literally impossible down here. I mean zero G manufacturing. There are many processes. Mixing light & heavy elements, metalic foams, separation of liquids by surface tension, crystals that don't have the stresses a gravity field produces etc. By definition we cannot know there value till we make them but merely multiplying the number of new processes bythe number of things we can actually do here gives an astronomical number of new materials a finite number of which are going to revolutionise the world. Fir example I would bet heavily that it will be possible to produce much longer buckytubes there than here which means space elevators will follow space manufacturing. Now is that not better than tons of gold?

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

Talk of seeding planets can come later, but let's at least lay the groundwork by doing three things now:

1) Return to the moon on a routine basis, and perhaps establish a permanent foothold there.
2) Send men to Mars.
3) Send unmanned probes to other stars.

Those three missions would further the development of technologies critical to new settlements and re-ignite interest in the space program.

The latter would definitely take a long time to accomplish, but at least we'd be laying the groundwork. What's the estimate on the % of c we can get a probe to reach, anyway?