why the journey to the stars starts with us
Once in a while, popular science publications will do a story about how one day, humans might just leave the world where their species began for the stars and colonize space in huge generation ships. This time, it was apparently Pop Sci’s turn to do a cover story on the future of space settlements and they did a rather, well, lackluster job. It listed some reasons to leave for space and some ideas for how we may do it one day, but at no point does the author of the piece lay out a really cogent argument for settling space, and the tidbits that he tries to offer seem to fall woefully short of outlining an actual case for the idea, especially when barking up the wrong tree by citing potential profits to be made from space exploration and mining asteroids. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about traveling to the stars, encouraging space-based businesses, and finding possible ways to lower the costs of space exploration, as long as we stay sober about the challenges. But when the day of the space faring human finally arrives, it won’t have anything to do with money. It’s going to be about an impulse to explore, expand, and diversify, and yes, doing our best to avoid a major global disaster from which we as a one planet species would never recover, a disaster like a major asteroid strike we couldn’t deflect.
We’ve talked about what might have been if we used the hundreds of billions of dollars too many people are sure we actually spend on space exploration for that exact purpose. With trillions of dollars to allocate over a typical project cycle at NASA or the ESA, there would be no reason why we wouldn’t be traveling to Mars with a new set of ion or plasma, if not positron, engines, and millions would have jobs as aerospace engineers or supporting contractors for our space agencies. But the problem is that we can’t spare that money. We have to remember that most of the world’s space faring nations are either broke or getting there. China and India are doing well financially, but they also don’t have the ability to plow enough cash for the kind of missions the we are talking about, nor do they have the expertise with the experimental technologies in question. Profits from traveling into space would have to come from space tourists and researchers doing their publicly funded and budgeted work. Go past the Moon and you’ll see your potential for a return on investment plummet. And after crunching the numbers on asteroid minding with Dr. Ian O’Neill, I can tell you that you’re going to be spending far more money on ferrying mostly silicon rocks between Earth and the asteroid belt rather than the gold and platinum most mining companies will want. This conclusion deserves a much longer explanation in a future post, but again, the point is that it’s a lot more profitable to mine stuff here than on asteroids.
When going into deep space with spacecraft intended to hold hundreds, if not thousands, of people on a one way trip out of the solar system and to the nearest stars, we have to forget about making money. Settlers of a far away alien world couldn’t send us anything valuable back, so what I would call the Pandora scenario falls apart there. Building a generation ship is something we’d have to do with the future our species in mind, but as long as we obsess about what’s affordable or what fits into a budgetary byline rather than what we should do for the greater good and how we could create new technologies in the process, we’re not going to build so much as an interplanetary space station, much less a science fiction starship. It’s just too expensive. It would take trillions of dollars, decades of testing, and enough materials to build a self-sustaining skyscraper with a private fusion reactor. A project like this would revolutionize our cities and energy grids, but far too few people would actually want to tackle it because hey, the current system works fine and there’s always another way to spend money than investing it into our far future. Politicians usually only care about what happens between now and the next election cycle and they’re the ones in charge of the public’s money. They have no tolerance for incredibly ambitious projects and their constituents all too often see any expense that doesn’t immediately and recognizably benefit them as government waste. Just try explaining to our current crop of lawmakers how projects to build the kind of world we see in sci-fi movies and space operas will benefit humanity.
Generally, all the articles about our potential future among the stars end on an upbeat note that somehow, an egalitarian human civilization with a grand vision and the means to make it happen with inevitably realize our dreams of cruising the cosmos, transforming our planet in amazing ways and colonizing other words. But the sad truth is that nowhere is this idealistic future guaranteed and we’ll need to cope with the idea that while we keep putting off the lengthy and expensive commitments to space and advanced R&D necessary to make an honest to goodness generation starship a reality, we might never actually do it. Far from being ready to leave the cradle, humanity might well stay in it forever, too obsessed with the economic rules we’ve set up for each other and humdrum, day to day problems, considering them far more important than worrying about what will become of our civilization. If we really want to go to the stars, the first step we must take is to change our own perception of space exploration and make the decision that it’s worth the expense and the effort. Otherwise, it seems like the most significant and puzzling artifacts we’ll leave behind after extinction finds us, will be failed experiments with great potential but without the funding to realize it, and cubicle farms.