Last week I heard a conversation between a weirdly odd couple about space exploration.
At a meeting in Washington on October 2, science fiction author Neal Stephenson and NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan shared the stage to talk about their views about the human future in space.
This meeting, “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?”, was one in a series of “Future Tense” events sponsored by the New America Foundation in partnership with Arizona State University and Slate magazine. The October 2 event was organized around science fiction stories published in a new collection, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (HarperCollins, 2014). Neal Stephenson wrote the book’s preface, titled “Innovation Starvation.”
(I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe “we” are starved of innovation. I believe we’re short of the cash required to realize useful visions of change. I also believe that all too often “innovation” means “more” – more resource depletion, more profits for industry, more junk in our garbage dumps….)
The topic of the Stephenson-Stofan dialogue was “Lost in space: how should we approach our future frontier?” (I must note that on the printed agenda, the “frontier” was “final” – on the projection screen, “final” had mutated to “future.”)
“I grew up following the space program as “a heroic quest,” Stephenson began. “There’s a whole generation of bitterly disappointed people from the ‘60s” who haven’t gotten the space colonies and missions to Mars, the goals they dreamed of, he said. “I’m still stuck on the Elon-Musk-style heroic space [effort]. It’s almost an adolescent impulse.” The “inherent destiny” of humankind to expand its presence into space is all the justification I need for a bigger, better space exploration program, he declared. When moderator Patric Verrone (the very funny writer and producer of the very funny TV series “Futurama”) asked whether manifest destiny is enough to justify space exploration, Stephenson said it is.
Stofan said it’s not – “there is scientific justification” as well. Stofan disagreed with the idea that the U.S. space program is “lost in space” without a goal, offering up the James Webb Space Telescope – “unbelievably cool” – and the search for life on Mars. “At NASA we’re feeling like we have a clear goal.”
As for better methods of space propulsion – a major roadblock to more affordable space flight – Stephenson reported that after spending some time trying to come up better alternatives to chemical propulsion, he decided that “it’s almost a waste of time” because so many smart people have been working on the problem for so long, with no results. Stofan responded that NASA’s now investing a lot of effort in developing solar electric propulsion, and she also mentioned the option of nuclear thermal propulsion.
“We as a civilization do great, cool things,” Stofan observed. I can watch astronauts on the International Space Station on my phone, she said – “how cool is that?” She also noted that NASA’s “entering into a new realm,” partnering with the private sector. Someone in the audience commented that commercial interests are not the same as public interests. (Hear, hear.)
Also at this meeting, Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology, touted Elon Musk as a role model for innovation. He also touted a paper authored by NASA employees and published last year as “a phenomenally inspiring long-term vision” for the U.S. space program.
Entitled “Affordable, rapid bootstrapping of the space industry and solar system civilization,” this paper (published in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering 26(1), 2013) argues that:
“Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost. Simple modeling was developed to identify the main parameters of successful bootstrapping. This indicates that bootstrapping can be achieved with as little as 12 t landed on the Moon during a period of about 20 years…. The industry grows exponentially because of the free real estate, energy, and material resources of space. The mass of industrial assets at the end of bootstrapping will be 156 t with 60 humanoid robots or as high as 40,000 t with as many as 100,000 humanoid robots if faster manufacturing is supported by launching a total of 41 t to the Moon. Modeling over wide parameter ranges indicates this is reasonable, but further analysis is needed. This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition.”
Indeed, further analysis is needed.
Such developments certainly would “revolutionize the human condition” – but how? What legal and ethical issues must be faced in considering, let alone pursuing, such developments.
The idea that this administration is seriously considering these sorts of wild-eyed visions of exploitation is deeply disturbing.