Why we have not gone into space, & why we will.

Summary: In the 1960s many bright people, from scientists to science fiction writers, predicted that we would have a large presence in space by now. They correctly predicted we would have the technology. Why do we have nothing but a few small robot explorers? What will eventually draw us into space? This is a follow-up to Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere.

NASA image of solar sails.

Robert Heinlein predicts the future.

Robert Heinlein wrote “Where To” in 1952, giving predictions about the year 2000. He was bullish about space.

By 2000 AD we could have O’Neil colonies, self-supporting and exporting power to Earth, at both Lagrange-4 and Lagrange-5, transfer stations in orbit about Earth and around Luna, a permanent base on Luna equipped with an electric catapult — and a geriatrics retirement home.

… If you’re willing to settle today for a constant-boost on the close order of magnitude of 1/1000 G we can start the project later this afternoon, as there are several known ways of building constant-boost jobs with that tiny acceleration  — even light-sail ships.

{Total time for a constant boost roundtrip to Mars and to Pluto at two low rates of acceleration:}

  • 1/100 G………………50 days………………50 weeks
  • 1/1000 G……………150 days……………150 weeks

I prefer to talk about light-sail ship (or rather ships that sail in the “Solar wind”) because the above table shows that we have the entire Solar System available to us right now; it is not necessary to wait for the year 2000 and new breakthroughs.

Ten weeks to Mars, a round trip to Pluto in 2 years and 9 months. Ten weeks — it took the Pilgrims in the Mayflower nine weeks and 3 days to cross the Atlantic. … England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal all created worldwide empires with ships that took as long to get anywhere and back as would a 1/1000 G spaceship. … Even the tiniest constant boost turns sailing the Solar System into a money-making commercial venture.

In 1980 he updated that article, writing “By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be building.”

Acceleration of 1/1000 G is ~1 centimeter/second2; in 16 days that would carry you a million kilometers (Mars is 55 – 400 million km from Earth). It’s a slow way to travel the solar system, but withing our reach. A combination of solar sails and atomic-powered ion drives could do this using current technology (the Dawn space probe has a solar-powered ion drive).

In the 1860s a typical clipper could travel the 14,000 miles from China to London in 15 – 17 weeks at an average speed of 17 knots. A voyage from Australia to England carrying wool took 10 weeks. Modern cargo ships using fuel-efficient methods travel at similar speeds. In a generation we could travel around the inner solar system with similar travel times.

SS Botany Bay
SS Botany Bay, a DY-100 class space ship build in the late 1990s — in the Star Trek universe.

Jerry Pournelle explains who would do it, but not how they would.

Jerry Pournelle gives more detail about the potential of space in his Galaxy Science Fiction articles “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships” (May 1974) and “Life among the asteroids” (July 1974). In the latter he says:

A worldwide civilization was built around sailing ships and steamers making voyages of weeks to months. There’s no reason to believe it couldn’t happen in space.

… What kind of people would go out there? {T}hose going out there will be fleeing something. Bureaucracy, perhaps. Fleeing their spouses. Sent by a judge who wants them off Earth. Adventurers looking to make a fortune. Idealists who want to establish a “truly free society.” Fanatics for some cult or other who want to raise their children “properly.”

Five decades later none of this has happened, with no signs it will in the foreseeable future. Why?  Pournelle’s belief seems right that Earth has thousands (probably millions) of middle class people with some capital. But we’re missing the other vital ingredient: financial support. Investors financed the American colonies seeking profits from minerals, crops, and furs. The Merchant Adventurers and Massachusetts Bay Company financed the largely Puritan colonies; the London Company established the Jamestown colony. The Hudson Bay Company led the exploration and development of northern Canada as a purely commercial venture.

The European explorations — followed by colonies and conquests — were done for profit (until the last stages, going to the poles for prestige and adventure). The clipper ships carried cargoes of great value. Nothing expensive gets built without an economic foundation.

Investors, public and private, wisely declined to act on space enthusiasts’ confident forecasts about the wealth and valuable knowledge to be found in space. The voyages by unmanned craft have shown that space has little to offer us at our current level of technology. We have the ability to colonize space, but insufficient reason to do so.

The most commonly cited reason in the 1970s, when so many people believed that by now mineral scarcities would have pushed prices to levels where investors could profitably tap the vast resources of the moon or asteroids. That has not happened, and seems unlikely for many generations — perhaps centuries.

Deep Impact

A likely reason for space travel, eventually.

In Rendezvous with Rama (1973) Arthur C. Clarke described what might be the most likely reason for space travel.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens — at first in utter silence — it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones. Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries. The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the Earth; the last glories of Venice sank forever beneath the sea as the waters of the Adriatic came thundering landward after the hammer blow from space.

Six hundred thousand people died, and the total damage was more than a trillion dollars. But the loss to art, to history, to science — to the whole human race, for the rest of time — was beyond all computation. It was as if a great war had been fought and lost in a single morning; and few could draw much pleasure from the fact that, as the dust of destruction slowly settled, for months the whole world witnessed the most splendid dawns and sunsets since Krakatoa.

After the initial shock, mankind reacted with a determination and a unity that no earlier age could have shown. Such a disaster, it was realized, might not occur again for a thousand years — but it might occur tomorrow. And the next time, the consequences could be even worse. Very well; there would be no next time.

A hundred years earlier, a much poorer world, with far feebler resources, had squandered its wealth attempting to destroy weapons launched, suicidally, by mankind against itself. The effort had never been successful, but the skills acquired then had not been forgotten. Now they could be used for a far nobler purpose, and on an infinitely vaster stage. No meteorite large enough to cause catastrophe would ever again be allowed to breach the defenses of Earth.

So began Project SPACEGUARD.

Two films have described such an event: Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998).  The real thing will happen eventually.  Use the IMPACT Earth website to model Earth’s collision with the sized object of your choice — and see the resulting damage.

We’ll either decide to prevent it, or — should humanity survive — prevent another one.

For More Information

Other posts about investing in the future:

  1. Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010.
  2. Slashing R&D in favor of more important things, like wars and profits. Who cares about America’s future?
  3. The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future?
  4. Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere.

22 thoughts on “Why we have not gone into space, & why we will.”

  1. I don’t get it. Realistically speaking intercepting asteroids would be a matter of astronomical surveillance, which could be even ground based as currently it is, and dispatching some automated device to push them slighty away. No particular need for anything fancier as far as I have read.

    1. Marcello,

      “dispatching some automated device to push them slighty away”

      Most of the experts discussing this don’t believe it would be that simple. Radars on the necessary scale, they say, would be more easily based in orbit. Building a self-repairing ship, capable of handling widely varying circumstances on arrival, is beyond our current tech. Especially if we only got one shot at it.

      Time will tell the answer.

  2. With respect, this article simply misses the point and gets many technical issues wrong.

    Heinlein’s “predictions” range from accurate (“Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure”; “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision”; “All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.””) to lunatic nonsense (“Intelligent life will be found on Mars”; “Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance”; “Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear”; “It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.””).

    So, like most science fiction writers, Heinlein’s batting average was poor — an, like most science fiction writers, he shouldn’t be taken seriously. He wrote fun fantasies that told audiences reassuring fairytales about the society they were living in during the 1940s an 1950s an 1960s, not credible stories about the actual future.

    E.g., Heinlein’s 1954 novel “The Puppet Masters” reassured audiences that we could defeat the fifth column of commies lurking among us without destroying democracy. Audiences loved hearing that and bought the book by the carload. (Compare with the 2014 reality of today’s USA Patriot Act and state of perpetual war and panopticon surveillance.) Heinlein’s 1966 novel “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” retells the story of the American revolution, but set on the Moon. Audiences adored hearing how wise and wonderful they were — ordinary Americans are still capable of becoming a nation of Jeffersons and Madisons. How marvelous! So of course they bought that book by the truckload. (Compare with the 2014 reality that a majority of Americans declare the bill of rights “communist propaganda” when presented with them as a petition to sign.) The 1953 novel “Tunnel in the Sky” assures Americans that if only we could get that pesky nosy government out of the way, we’d live in a libertarian paradise free of crime and taxes. Americans really swooned over that fairytale, so they bought metric sh*t-tons of that book. (Compare with the 2014 reality of Americans mass-shooting one another in record numbers because of their libertarian gun fetish.) But Heinlein wasn’t writing about the future, he was putting lots of lipstick on the McCarthyist sexist mutual-assured-destruction balance-of-terror pig of an era he lived in. This explains why so many of his books are now unreadable.

    So the real issue isn’t Heinlein’s silly predictions, but rather the hard cold acts of space travel.

    Humans can’t survive the galactic cosmic ray bombardment they’ll get when traveling to other planets.

    Humans don’t have a practical energy source capable of getting us to other planets quickly and cheaply enough to make it worthwhile.

    Humans deteriorate with startling rapidity in microgravity. Their bones embrittle, they develop chronic diarrhea, their muscles atrophy. Microgravity mimics the worst effects of old age. If you want to feel what it’s like to be 70 years old, spend 6 months weightless. Hint: after you come back, you’ll need medical treatment for bone loss for the rest of your life.

    No other planet or moon in the solar system has anything of value to offer — no gold, no platinum, no uranium, no rare earths, no useful plants or animals, nothing worth the trip. Our solar system, except for our earth, turns out to be bleak & inhospitable, mostly airless and waterless, and either so broiling hot or so incredibly cold that merely surviving on the surface of most other planets or moons in our solar system requires a massive technological undertaking an colossal amounts of raw energy.

    Back in 1952, no one predicted any of this.

    Sci fi stories in the 1950s predicted that Venus and Mars were habitable as well as earth. (Oops. Wrong!) Sci fi stories in the 1950s predicted fabulous riches of rare metals and wonderfully useful exotic plants and animals from other worlds in our solar system. (Oops. Wrong. Most of the other planets in our solar system are made of worthless light elements like silicon and hydrogen – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, the moon, Mars. The exception is Mercury, far too hot and too distant to mine for ore.) Sci fi stories in the 1950s posited a continuation of the exponential curve of progress in energy generation that started with coal and ended with nuclear power. (Oops. Wrong. Instead, the curve turned out to be sigmoid — it ramped up, then went flat and hit a ceiling.) Sci i stories in the 1950s predicted an exponential continuing upward curve of velocity starting with the Wright Bros’ airplane and continuing through the rockets of the 1950s. (Oops. Wrong. Another sigmoid curve.) Sci i stories in the 1950s predicted no adverse human effects from prolonged space travel. (Oops. Wrong. Get exposed to galactic cosmic rays during a 6-month space journey and you’re dead from cancer before you arrive at Mars.)

    The plain brutal fact remains that even with unlimited funding, human space travel isn’t practical. And even i it were, there’s nothing out there in our solar system worth making the trip. Columbus brought back gold, silver, tomatoes, potatoes, slaves, corn, and tobacco from the New World. Astronauts brought back silicaceous rocks from the moon. You can get all the silicaceous rocks you want in the Arizona desert, and the trip is a lot shorter and cheaper.

    Money isn’t the issue. Manned space travel is a no-go because humans can’t survive the trip, an there’s nothing in our solar system worth sending humans for. gets many technical issues wrong.

    1. Thomas,

      I have stopped reading these absurdly long comments, which usually miss the point of the post.

      Second, I find it annoying that you so often say I am wrong — yet neither provide quotes or an exact statement of what you believe wrong.

      Third, we could power civilization for a day by burning all the confident statements like yours that some type of technology is impossible. They are quite daft without specifying a time period — such as saying space travel is impossible for the “next generation” — or other qualifier such as “impossible using current technology”.

    2. Something went wrong with the CMS, which duplicated Thomas More’s answer — that is why it is absurdly long.

      In the context of the previous post on space exploration, I would summarize the discussion as follows:

      1) Manned space exploration does not make any sense.
      2) Unmanned space exploration is cheap, fast, effective and makes sense from a scientific viewpoint.
      3) Manned space colonization does not make any sense; even if we can send spaceships far and fast enough, their crew will die from the crippling hardships caused by space travel or from living in unhospitable planets.
      4) Unmanned space colonization does not make any sense either, as there is nothing remotely interesting to exploit within a reasonable distance from earth.

      As for saving mankind by sending them to another planet, good luck with that. I read somewhere that the absolute minimum critical population to ensure the survival of a reasonably large species under optimal living conditions is about 1000 healthy individuals. Again: healthy individuals, under optimal living conditions.

      That dream of leaving a failed, ruined, constrained or overcrowded place to the virgin expanses of an unpopulated new world where everything can be restarted from a clean slate is a vision typically associated with a “young” America (and I mean not just the USA, but also places like Canada, Brazil, Argentina). That was in the 19th century. The intersidereal space as the new frontier is just a fantasy.

      We’ll live and succeed, or fail and die on earth.

      1. guest,

        I agree on all points. One caveat: add “with today’s technology” to all points. Change brought by the arrow to time is the fundamental constant of history. We cannot imagine what wonders the future holds, and what we’ll do with the tools we build. While I doubt star travel is possible (in any usual sense of the term) — otherwise they’d probably be here, or traces of them — adventures almost without limit lies in this system.

      2. guest,

        “Something went wrong with the CMS, which duplicated Thomas More’s answer — that is why it is absurdly long.”

        Thanks! I fixed the comment. But at 1,000 words is still absurdly long, the length of a typical post here — not a comment. Comments should be a few hundreds words, if they’re intended to be read.

  3. We went to the moon for the same reasons we climb mountains. it gives us both a sense of accomplishment and satisfies our endless curiosity to explore and learn. It makes me sad to see a humanity that has the will, manpower and resources to accomplish great things trapped by an economic system that suppresses, exploits and enslaves us. When there is full employment, we seem to produce un abundance of stuff we dont need; too much housing, too many cars; too much oil. We have plenty of manpower and resources to explore space but for now those resources are prisoners to an economic system and institution that serves itself rather than us.

    1. John,

      I understand and appreciate your sentiment, but it is not historically correct with regard to the Apollo program. Apollo was seen by America’s military and civilian leadership as strictly a Cold War project — fueled (like so many other useless projects) by contractors’ political power employed to boost their profits.

      This accounts for the otherwise baffling disinterest of everybody involved to actually accomplish something — science, commerce, or build enduring infrastructure.

      Once the Cold War pressure ended, NASA’s manned space program collapsed into an irrelevance that continues to today.

  4. If we dont go and take a close look over that what we theoretical know, then we would stand still. Every Element in and on the Soil of this Planet Earth comes from Space, so there must be more out there. We just can fix problems and learn new things if we are willed to do it.

    1. Bfsm,

      Good point.

      The manned space program was unpopular among much of the science community, those who believed (correctly, as events proved) who said it was a vast expenditure of funds for a small return in knowledge — far less than we would get from normal research (always starved for funds).

  5. Jerry Pournelle just recently suffered a stroke. He noted that he was in the same hospital where Harlan Ellison landed after his stroke in October. Harlan is selling off his mementos. They both could likely use a bit of TLC. They were among the best of an impressive generation of sci fi writers. They made my life a better place to be.

  6. We could, we could gain a lot from it. But who decides, look at the current US elite do they give a shit. Oh there is a minority that does..but the rest? Wall St, hedge funds, etc, ect ,etc..their whole focus is making money for them personally. Investment in the present for others (and the suckers), let alone the future is alien to them.

    What does a sociopath care about others and anyone elses future? Zero.

    Heck the US can’t, now, even build a reliable rocket engine (hasn’t for ages by the way). You have to buy them from Russia. How far the US, except for the ‘elites’ and their fellow travellors and ‘useful idiots’, have fallen.. If there is any future for humanity in space (which personally I do hope for) , it will have nothing whatsoever do with with the US now.

    1. Lisa,

      “the US can’t, now, even build a reliable rocket engine (hasn’t for ages by the way)”

      Absurdly false. We could build them, but choose to buy them from Russia. It’s not an essential technology. The idea of self-sufficiency in trade — autarky — has been obsolete since 1817.

  7. To make the point more simply: the Gobi desert has almost as few plants or animals or valuable resources as Mars or Jupiter or Venus or Saturn, but is significantly more habitable than those other planets. The Gobi desert has air and even tiny amounts of water, for example, and no lethal cosmic radiation.

    If manned colonization of space is such a good idea, colonization of places like the Gobi desert on earth should be an even better one. And much cheaper too, since the Gobi desert or the Mojave or the Sahara or antarctica don’t require expensive rockets to get us there.

    So why don’t we see governments lining up to colonize these earthly deserts and build huge cities there?

    1. Thomas,

      I was going to make that same point, but it got cut (this post was absurdly long).

      To make your point even stronger, consider The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. They build a penal colony on the moon, from which they export rise to Earth. If that works so well, why not colonize abandoned mines on Earth? Less transportation cost both ways, plus ample water and air. Plus some of the ore mined to expand the tunnels would have economic value (even if it wasn’t worthwhile mining otherwise).

  8. FM claims: We could build [reliable rocket engines], but choose to buy them from Russia. Engineering know-how is embodied in people, and the people who built rocket engines or the U.S. manned space program have long since retired.

    Engineering know-how like this isn’t contained entirely in books, but mostly in the hands-on experience of the American engineers. And those engineers are old and dying off.

    Lisa makes an important point here and she shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The issue she’s talking about is the same as the one in the Forbes article “Why Amazon Can’t Make A Kindle In the USA,” 2011.

    Decades of outsourcing manufacturing have left U.S. industry without the means to invent the next generation of high-tech products that are key to rebuilding its economy, as noted by Gary Pisano and Willy Shih in a classic article, “Restoring American Competitiveness.”

    Lisa is just pointing out that the same thing is happening with rocket engines as well as smartphones and laptops.

    1. Thomas,

      Total malarky. Yes, we could not build these things in America today. But we’ve built entire industries from scratch in a decade — such as aerospace and tech have done several times.

      Also, supposedly Apple retains the ability to manufacture in the US but others mysteriously cannot. Perhaps Apple keeps its people and knowledge in cans, isolated from everybody else.

      One last point — that article assumes that manufacturing is in decline in America. That’s totally false. Employment in manufacturing has declined due to automation. Manufacturing output has risen for several generations by almost every measure (and there are many metrics), as have exports.

  9. Pingback: Why we have not gone into space, & why we will. | A structure in the upper part of the main mast of a ship or a structure that is used as a lookout point.

  10. Pingback: We’ve been warned by an asteroid. The next one might hit. | Watts Up With That?

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