Empty Space

Yesterday I talked at an "International Space Development Conference" on interstellar colonization, alongside Air Force futurist Peter Garretson and polymath, L5 cofounder, and Scientology-thorn Keith Henson.  Both Keith and Peter described solar power satellites as our last hope against a peak-oil disaster, where world population would fall in proportion to oil production.  In the exhibit hall, a space elevator guy said they are feasible now and would cost only five billion dollars to let us put many tons a day into orbit for a few dollars a pound. 

On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio about what if any economic value we get out of NASA.  I said the benefits were mostly like the pyramids – national prestige and being part of history.  I was not told I would be debating a NASA fan, who said gave the tang/teflon argument that all research is good, and also said we don’t want to be like the Chinese who pulled their advanced ships back just before the Europeans took over the world.  There was not time to respond.

Sigh.  The US government spends more on space research than on NIH and NSF combined, which most scientists consider far out of proportion to its science value.  Most any ambitious tech project, like floating cities, 3DTV, or robot mules, gives similar indirect tech spinoffs per dollar spent, and surely we can find other projects with larger direct payoffs.  Sure the Chinese might have colonized the Americas, but we can see now there are no similarly lush gardens accessible in space – we’ll colonize Antarctica and the Earth oceans long before, as these are far less harsh environments with plenty of the sunlight and materials which are mainly what space has to offer.  Yes someday we’ll run out of stuff here on Earth, but that day is far off.  We’ll probably use kite power before solar satellites, world population is not proportional to oil production, and hopes for more than a tiny space tourism market anytime soon are pure fantasy. 

What we have is a strong and growing demand for satellites, especially by the military.  But that demand curve slopes down a lot, leading me to doubt if there is enough demand to cover the (large) fixed cost of a (militarily vulnerable) space elevator soon.  I could imagine the Chinese building one mainly to get the respect they crave, but like the US public they would probably not want to publicly admit that was their main motivation.

Added 31May: The demand for protecting Earth from asteroids is much smaller than for satellites, and deep mine colonies would better protect humanity from extinction.

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  • Dave

    Oh, you’ve thought you were being controversial before, but I bet you’re going to be surprised at how many comments you’ll get on this one.

    The funny thing is, when it comes down to it, you and the commenters disagreements are probably nothing more than two orders of magnitude of discount rate. Myself, I comfortably rest an order of magnitude from each of you, and thus able to argue both sides.

  • Doug S.

    The argument I keep hearing for space exploration is that we need to get off Earth in case something horrible happens – that space exploration reduces existential risk in a way nothing else can. (Then again, is government spending on NASA more useless than, say, art museums or archaeology?)

  • michael

    What’s so bad about building the pyramids?

  • Re: “The US government spends more on space research than on NIH and NSF


    NIH funding in 2007: $28 billion
    NSF funding in 2007: $6.02 billion
    NASA funding in 2007: $16.143 billion

  • Re: “The argument I keep hearing for space exploration is that we need to get off Earth in case something horrible happens”
    We also need to be able to protect the Earth against big rocks – and put sensors and transmitters into orbit.

  • Seed the added to post.

    Dave, what discount rate?

    Tim, you have to add in non-NASA government space research.

  • Grant

    I’d bet most advances in space travel will come from advances in supporting technology (just like most advances in every other industry).

  • This sounds like something I’ve been saying for a while. I first understood it from a gentleman on rec.arts.sf.science (Frank Palmer, I believe)

    When I first read it, my first impulse for one shameful instant was to contradict him with some notion of The High Frontier / O’Neill / Colonies in Space, but a moment’s reflection convinced me it was absolutely true.
    The desert, the oceans, the polar regions are all hospitable compared to space. They have air, and more reasonable temperatures, and no real radiation hazard, and you can get to them far more easily. Both the desert and space lack water, but getting water to the desert is a lot easier than getting it to space.

    Perhaps the appeal of space colonization is that, because space colonization is mostly fictional, we (science fiction buffs at least) associate it with a lot of appealing things that don’t logically follow.

    The solar power satellite idea, however, doesn’t seem crazy to me.
    Two things space has going for it is a bright, steady solar energy supply and a lot of room. Won’t work if it needs much human maintenance, though.

    Not so the idea of saving humanity from asteroid death by moving a part of earth’s population into space. For the foreseeable future, there is exactly zero chance of being able to save humanity in this manner. We’re able to put a few people in space, but they need to be constantly resupplied from earth. If an asteroid wipes us out, they’d die too, just a few weeks later. Those who give this as a reason for manned space exploration need to explain how they think orbiting the ISS right now (or another moon mission, or the mars mission) has any positive effect on our far-future ability to do this. (And the explanation can’t be just a series of steps and saying “Now we’re at step one”)

    One more thing: If anything, the case for manned space exploration has gotten weaker as computers and robots have improved. When we sent men to the moon 1970-ish, we really had to send people in order to collect interesting samples and do other things we wanted. The Surveyors sent back pictures, did some experiments that didn’t need any set-up, and that was about the best one could hope for from a machine.

    Now that’s no longer so, and Moore’s law makes it less so all the time.

  • I just want to back Tim up – NASA’s budget is tiny, not just compared to the NIH or the NSF. Consider that the total 2007 budget is about $1.7T, so all three together are still less than 3%! If you want to complain about government expenditures, look at the debt interest, or at the military. Playing around with the pennies at NASA is silly.

    Also, you should remove the bias in your URL filter – a .ca domain is not “invalid”. Overcome your .com bias!

  • Robin Hanson to Technophiles: Get Real

    I’ve often heard Robin Hanson called a “space cadet” or even a “replicant.” So it’s pretty dramatic to see him…

  • I just want to voice strong support for BOTH deep mine colonies on Earth and on nearby planets/moons. It seems to me to be a very reasonable hedge against disaster, and I think we can afford the efficiency costs of doing so. Ballparking it, I think our goal should be 10% of the productive population living in sealed mine shafts throughout Earth, and 5% of the productive population living in similar environments on Mars and elsewhere. Realistically for Mars this would involve mostly transporting embryos rather than adult humans. It’s a silly luxury for nearly all of us to be living on the Earth’s surface.

    I have similar concerns about monoculture. I’d like to see time capsuled human population (wouldn’t have to be mine shafted) with no outside contact with the rest of us, and scheduled for release after various amount of time of isolation (from 1 generation to 1,000+ years), to keep fresh encounters with differently developed human cultures as part of our experience and opportunities for epiphanies.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    Just out of curiosity… how much now to send data (eg. genomes + culture) out of reach of hungry goo and dying suns, and preserved for 10^10 years for tardy alien discovery? How about cryopreserved brains, after nanotech but before singularity?

  • Unknown

    HA, would you prefer yourself to live here, or in a deep mine colony on earth, or on Mars?

    Also, why do you care about the survival of the human race? I thought you just cared about yourself.

  • Unknown,
    I’d prefer to live here, on the surface, until deep mine colonies have been around for a while (maybe a few hundred years?) on Earth and Mars. Then, I’d probably want to live in the most secure one here on Earth. I do give priority to my personal survival. I care about the survival of the human race to the the degree that it maximizes my personal survival odds. If the rest of you were to blip out of existence tomorrow, it seems to me that my persistence odds would be fatally compromised.

  • I am inclined to agree – I don’t believe space travel will be an effective way to minimize our existential risk in the next century, and frankly that’s my only serious concern.

    The one exception that might apply to that rule is global warming mitigation via a space-based shield (eg Roger Angel’s proposal).

    The space elevator is a non-starter; look at other launch megastructures.

  • Joe

    “deep mine colonies would better protect humanity from extinction”

    This is probably true—in the short run. But it is unclear how long people can survive in deep mines. They need energy and resources, and if the surface of the planet is contaminated and cloudy through environmental, nuclear, and biological disaster, it may prove infeasible for people to survive very long in deep mines. Those lucky enough to survive a nuclear holocaust, for example, might just starve off after 50 years.

    In the long term, going into space may be the only way to ensure human survival. Right now, at least, we have the economies of scale needed to make such a thing practical, and so it would seem like a shame not to take advantage of the moment.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    Joe: going into space may be the only way to ensure human survival.

    It won’t. A few existential risks might still get you, and unfriendly AI will still get you.

    We must stand and fight. Running away is not an option.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    That’s fight to prevent it. I’m not suggesting we brace ourselves to battle superminds packing nanotech 🙂

  • Joe

    Hehe. Yes, there are definitely other problems to be addressed. But going into space helps with some of them. It also nicely “diversifies” the human “portfolio”.

    BTW, I highly doubt it will be possible to stop AI and nanotech from developing. Ultimately, machines or biomachines will take over. The question is how human-like those machines will be.

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  • almondguy

    Has anyone compared the difficulty of terraforming Mars versus colonizing Antarctica and the oceans? How exactly might you colonize Antarctica and the oceans? I’m looking for some analogue of Robert Zubrin’s “The Case for Mars.”