Why humanity has not gone to space, and why we will.

Summary: On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility and Armstrong took his giant leap for humanity. Now 45 years later we can cooly evaluate the Apollo program. What went wrong? What is the future of humanity in space?

“Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufficient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system. Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.”
Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.

Space Dreams

Contents

  1. Men and women in space: a dead end.
  2. Robert Heinlein predicts the future.
  3. Heinlein was right. We could go to space.
  4. Pournelle explains who would go to space.
  5. Why we have not gone to space.
  6. A reason for space travel, eventually.
  7. For More Information.
  8. What happened to Project Apollo.

(1)  Men and women in space: a dead end.

History consists of missed opportunities and wrong turning onto dead ends. For example, what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and on that success he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? But today let’s ask about a more recent decision: what if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research?

It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; its Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits.

Space Station from "2001"
Space Station from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

The first 53 years of men and women in space validated their forecasts. Apollo and its follow-ups produced little useful science. The technological spin-offs have been tiny (many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors).

As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn in Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) — “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”

“Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories — exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities — precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes — which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.

“In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. … The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.”

NASA, with other nations, built the $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value. Now they plan further adventures with no clear benefits to America.

(2) Robert Heinlein predicts the future.

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

"Expanded Universe" by Robert Heinlein
Available at Amazon.

“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 Heinlein 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.”

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

(3)  Heinlein was right. We could go to space.

In the 1860s a fast clipper could travel the 14,000 miles from China to London in 15 – 17 weeks at an average speed of 15 knots. 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. 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). A combination of solar sails and atomic-powered ion drives can do this (the Dawn space probe has a solar-powered ion drive).

(4) Jerry Pournelle explains who would go to space.

Life Among the Asteroids
Availabe at Amazon.

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) — both available in this book. 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.'”

Pournelle’s is right that Earth has millions of middle class people willing to travel, risking hardship for a better life for their children. But five decades later this has not happened, with no signs it will happen in the foreseeable future.

(5)  Why we have not gone to space.

The missing vital ingredient has kept us bound to Earth: 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 conquests and colonies — 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 deep space has little to offer us at our current level of technology. We can colonize space, but insufficient reason to do so.

The most commonly cited reason given in the 1970s for space travel was that scarcities would push mineral prices so high that 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

(6) A likely reason for space travel, eventually.

Rendezvous with Rama
Available at Amazon.

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

“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.”

In 1998 two films described such an event: Deep Impact and Armageddon.  This 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 the first one — prevent another one. One way or another, humanity will go to space.

(7) For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about shockwave eventsabout NASA, and especially these…

(8) What happened to Project Apollo.

"Dark Side of the Moon" by Gerald J. Degroot
Available at Amazon.

To understand why the manned space program accomplished so little, beyond the stunt of a few lunar visits (and later the almost useless space station), I recommend Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest. From the publisher…

“For a very brief moment during the 1960s, America was moonstruck. Boys dreamt of being an astronaut; girls dreamed of marrying one. Americans drank Tang, bought “space pens” that wrote upside down, wore clothes made of space age Mylar, and took imaginary rockets to the moon from theme parks scattered around the country.

“But despite the best efforts of a generation of scientists, the almost foolhardy heroics of the astronauts, and 35 billion dollars, the moon turned out to be a place of “magnificent desolation,” to use Buzz Aldrin’s words: a sterile rock of no purpose to anyone. In Dark Side of the Moon, Gerard J. DeGroot reveals how NASA cashed in on the Americans’ thirst for heroes in an age of discontent and became obsessed with putting men in space. The moon mission was sold as a race which America could not afford to lose. Landing on the moon, it was argued, would be good for the economy, for politics, and for the soul. It could even win the Cold War. The great tragedy is that so much effort and expense was devoted to a small step that did virtually nothing for mankind.

“Drawing on meticulous archival research, DeGroot cuts through the myths constructed by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations and sustained by NASA ever since. He finds a gang of cynics, demagogues, scheming politicians, and corporations who amassed enormous power and profits by exploiting the fear of what the Russians might do in space.

“Exposing the truth behind one of the most revered fictions of American history, Dark Side of the Moon explains why the American space program has been caught in a state of purposeless wandering ever since Neil Armstrong descended from Apollo 11 and stepped onto the moon. The effort devoted to the space program was indeed magnificent and its cultural impact was profound, but the purpose of the program was as desolate and dry as lunar dust.”

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12 thoughts on “Why humanity has not gone to space, and why we will.

  1. Well done, as usual, FM. There is one additional thread that you did not have time to explore. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working hard to dramatically lower the cost of access to space, if it succeeds, it will change the equation but I cannot predict how at this time.

    This is in large part because we don’t know how low he can drive costs. What is madness at $10,000 per kilogram to Low Earth Orbit is common sense at $100 per kilogram. In the very near future it looks like he’s going to drive costs down to about $1,400 per kg.

    That will make satellites in general enormously more profitable and MIGHT make solar power satellites feasible. Looking further out, the cost of getting to low earth orbit is about half the cost of getting to anywhere else in the solar system. Asteroid mining makes no sense (local earth resources are too cost competitive) but selling one-way tickets to would-be colonists starts becoming feasible at about $300 per kg.

    The people who describe the moon as a terrible destination are correct but it is a great place from which to launch things to the rest of the solar system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Asteroid mining only makes sense for space-based infrastructure. It costs an ungodly sum to orbit base materials into space for purposes of building things. Much better to use materials that are already outside the gravity well. The more infrastructure to be built, the more it makes sense.

      “Mining the Sky” by John Lewis and “Entering Space” by Robert Zubrin are useful beginning texts for newcomers to these concepts.

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  2. People are poorly adapted to space. They have to be fed and watered, have an atmosphere and temperature just right, suffer from boredom, receive stiff doses of radiation, etc.

    Computers are well-adapted to space. This can be plainly seen by counting the number of computers versus the number of people in space; while there are only a handful of people up there, there are thousands of computers. No person has set foot on Mars but we have been landing computers there for decades and have been exploring Mars robotically for years.

    Reading the Apollo 11 mission transcripts (freely available online) it is striking to what degree the astronauts functioned basically as peripherals of mission control. Dozens of pages of Mission Control telling them what switches to throw and what values to enter into their computer. You don’t need people for those activities anymore.

    Also we tend to put this huge value on human life, so when one is lost while attempting to explore or visit space, everyone freaks out. Only those directly involved are upset when a launch accident destroys a satellite, or some malfunction or another renders one diminished or unusable.

    I agree with you: People will have a presence in space when there is real economic value in doing so. Satellites provide real value, and there are robust industries around building, launching, and operating them. Look at the launch manifest on spaceflightnow.com… There are about one to three satellite launches every week.

    I have read estimates that there are billions of tons of frozen water on the moon. Taking space exploration to the next level and getting people living in space and perhaps on other planets on a sustainable basis will require finding and harvesting resources that do not require them all to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well. Again it will be robotic missions to asteroids and to the moon that will assay and ultimately develop these resources.

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    1. Iconoclast,

      “will require finding and harvesting resources that do not require them all to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well.”

      What does that mean? The point of using resources from space is that they are transported into Earth’s gravity well. Not out of it.

      “Also we tend to put this huge value on human life, so when one is lost while attempting to explore or visit space, everyone freaks out.”

      That’s not remotely true. It was true of the celebrity astronauts. When space is industrialized people will care about their deaths like they care about deaths in the lumber, fishing, mining, and construction industries. That is, not at all. Especially if the space work is done by people from emerging nations (a thousand coal miners die per year in China).

      “Again it will be robotic missions to asteroids and to the moon that will assay and ultimately develop these resources.”

      That seems unlikely to me, unless space resources are not developed until the late 21st century – when robot tech has advanced to allow autonomous work of that scale and complexity.

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  3. to be contrarian (not that I believe this point, but just throwing it out for arguments’ sake cuz I find these types of questions interesting)….

    Maybe space travel is incompatible with a consumerist democracy? (not implying that Nazis or Commies would’ve been better space explorers) Space travel is essentially a long, long, long term investment whose payoffs won’t be enjoyed by today’s voters, taxpayers, lobbyists and politicans.

    So maybe the default equilibrium is that taxpayers don’t fund space travel—until future tech developed in some other field brings down costs, or unless there is a political figure(s) who decides to go into space and drags the electorate/political will with them.

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    1. Gene-Luke,

      “Maybe space travel is incompatible with a consumerist democracy?”

      There’s a missing step in that logic. What is the relationship between rate of long-term public capital investments (e.g., as per cent of GDP) and type of political regime? The consumerist democracy America had far larger and more effective rates than commie Soviet Union — whose collapse left not much behind but crumbling concrete buildings.

      “Space travel is essentially a long, long, long term investment”

      There’s another missing step in this logic. Space travel is a long long term speculative investment. There is not certainty that there is a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. The success rate of long-term economic predictions is so low as to make reliance on them more a matter of faith than evidence.

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  4. Hi Fabius,

    ““will require finding and harvesting resources that do not require them all to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well.””

    “What does that mean? The point of using resources from space is that they are transported into Earth’s gravity well. Not out of it.”

    I wasn’t talking about bringing resources to Earth. I’m saying to bootstrap people and industrial activities into space, to asteroids, the moon and other planets we’ll need to obtain many of our resources such as water, oxygen, metal, fuel, etc, from off-Earth sources due to the cost of launching things into space from here.

    “When space is industrialized people will care about their deaths like they care about deaths in the lumber, fishing, mining, and construction industries. That is, not at all. Especially if the space work is done by people from emerging nations (a thousand coal miners die per year in China).”

    I accept your point. But to get there from here we have to go from few to many and while the numbers are still small I think fatalities will continue to be a big deal for people.

    ““Again it will be robotic missions to asteroids and to the moon that will assay and ultimately develop these resources.””

    “That seems unlikely to me, unless space resources are not developed until the late 21st century – when robot tech has advanced to allow autonomous work of that scale and complexity.”

    The pace of advancement of computer technology, robotics, 3D printing, etc, is torrid. I don’t think it will take as long as you do, but who knows.

    Here is a new article on space.com about water on the moon: https://www.space.com/37596-moon-interior-could-have-water.html No estimate of the amount of water is provided but I’ve seen prior estimates from NASA of billions of tons. Finding and being able to exploit water in space in large quantities is hugely important because it is so vital and versatile. People, plants and animals need it to live, of course, but also we can take a fuel cell, feed power into it, turn water into oxygen and hydrogen. Breathe the oxygen. Use the oxygen and hydrogen to produce thrust. Feed the oxygen and hydrogen through a fuel cell and get electricity and water.

    Advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology could be real game-changers as well. (A science fiction exploration of people using biotech in space can be found in _The Helix and the Sword_ by John C. McLoughlin.)

    Like

    1. The Iconoclast,

      Thank you for your comment, and for explaining! I agree with most of your points. A few details, trivia points mostly.

      “I’m saying to bootstrap people and industrial activities into space, to asteroids, the moon and other planets we’ll need to obtain many of our resources such as water, oxygen, metal, fuel, etc, from off-Earth sources due to the cost of launching things into space from here.”

      For the early development I suspect (guess) almost everything will be from Earth: equipment and consumables (e.g., food, water, air). As you note, at fantastic expense. Which is why I doubt much will happen until either there is some big need for resources from space (imo unlikely on any foreseeable time scale), we want defense against rocks from the sky, politics (e.g., political exiles or Pilgrims), or new tech reduces the cost.

      For the middle period, I assume space-based people will use consumables from space (e.g., fuel, propellant, organics), but still get machinery and metals from earth. As you note, all of these are probably “easily” available to those with even modest ability to move and work in space.

      For the long-term term, I assume that space facilities will have at first the ability to mine, refine, and machine simple things (e.g., metals for structures) and eventually produce machine goods. That will not happen fast (again, unless tech reduces the cost of transport to orbit).

      As for robot tech, you are of course right that with the speed of evolution guessing about progress over a decade or two is hazardous!

      Like

  5. When I was younger, I used to think this way. But the big problem is hinted at by the citation of deGroot’s book: you cannot live in space. You cannot live in orbit, or the Moon, or Mars, not without a pressure suit and a tin can with an airlock.

    Do you realize the lunar day is as hot as the inside of an oven? Can you imagine living in an oven relying on a pressure suit, never able to take your helmet off? Even the open ocean on Earth is a million times more habitable than space: the temperature is right, you can breathe the air, no cosmic rays, etc.

    Face it: we are designed to live here, nowhere else. Space is fantasy.

    Like

    1. Robert,

      (1) “You cannot live in orbit, or the Moon, or Mars, not without a pressure suit and a tin can with an airlock.”

      I don’t understand your point, over any time horizon.

      (a) Even under today’s crude tech, the record stay in space is 437 days (1994-95). A ship with a rotating habitat (centripetal force providing pseudo-gravity) would allow longer durations. That would suffice for commonplace tours in space for scientific and commercial applications — and for staffing a “project spaceguard” to defend against Earth impacts.

      (b) Looking further into the future, orbital stations or planetary bases could provide conditions far better than those much of humanity has lived in. Such as the Inuit in the arctic. That would allow long-term colonization, assuming there were sufficient commercial or political reasons to do so.

      (2) “Can you imagine living in an oven relying on a pressure suit, never able to take your helmet off?”

      Conditions on the International Space Station are far better than that, using tech far cruder than possible a decade or two from today.

      (3) “face it: we are designed to live here”

      That’s the same logic explaining why we cannot fly.

      Like

  6. In your reply to an earlier comment you suggest that at first people will take everything they need with them into space, as they have so far. Then a middle period will come when we boost the equipment but begin to obtain consumables from outside of Earth. In a later period they will begin to actually manufacture equipment in space. I think you’ve gotten that exactly right.

    Here’s a link pointing to a small step in the direction of the middle period, the Mars 2020 Rover project will include an experiment that will attempt to use microbial life to take Martian soil (and I presume sunlight) as fuel to produce oxygen. https://futurism.com/nasa-were-going-to-try-and-make-oxygen-from-the-atmosphere-on-mars/amp/

    I expect it will be a very long time before we obtain raw materials from space for use on Earth. It will be cheaper and lower risk to find materials here, and new techniques can be invented and experimented with on far shorter timeframes. Once NASA’s Space Launch System is working, if it is ever working, they are only contemplating one launch every three-to-four years. Nearly unlimited numbers of earthside teams can work independently and perform vast numbers of experiments on Earth in that time, in some cases requiring little more than a map and a pickaxe.

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