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How Far a Frontier?

When is a space mission too expensive to fly? It’s a question much in the mind of proponents of robotic exploration, who can point to lower cost as one excellent reason to leave human crews out of our deep space missions. But robotic missions can suffer the same fate as human ones, with technology advances like miniaturization exploited not to pack more instruments on board but to reduce costs. Faster, cheaper, better, but bureaucratic inefficiencies can trump the savings.

Giancarlo Genta (Politecnico di Torino) offers up an interesting perspective on the cost question. In a keynote he delivered last year at the Fourth IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-Term Advanced Scientific Space Missions in Aosta, Italy, Genta compared the cost of space missions to other public enterprises like the construction of motorways or infrastructure projects like Alpine tunnels. In that light, the notion that space missions are unbearably costly is simply false. And he goes on to say this:

The same if we compare the cost of a major mission with what any big corporation spends each year in advertising, with what the people of a medium sized country spends each year to celebrate the New Year’s Day, not to speak of the annual budget of a large crime organization.

And here’s the crux:

At a lecture on space exploration given a short time after the burst of a large scandal of improper use of money for reconstruction following an earthquake, one of the listeners asked whether a manned mission to Mars could be organized with the money stolen. A quick check showed that not only a landing on Mars could be made with those funds, but a small colony could be started.

What is lacking, then, is not so much money as will, and here the problem is acute. Genta points to politicial spending practices that focus on the short-term, with the real benefits of long-term space projects simply outside the time horizon of the political and corporate process. But because historical explorations were driven largely by economic reasons and funded by private business, he sees hope in the commercial development of space, starting with ventures to low-Earth orbit.

He also points to an unsettling parallel raised by Ben Finney about the ocean explorations of the Chinese emperors. Between 1405 and 1433 the Ming Dynasty emperors sent out seven fleets to southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Africa, one of them so vast that it comprised 62 major ships and more than 27,000 officers and men. But these remarkable voyages ceased abruptly, and by 1500 it had become a capital offense to build a long-range seagoing vessel. The fact that an entire civilization can turn in on itself makes predictions about when we will reach particular destinations in the outer Solar System or beyond problematic, no matter how good we get at predicting the evolution of our technologies.

Genta’s address is available as “The Challenge of Very Deep Space Exploration: How Far Will the Frontier Be?” in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 59, No. 2 (February 2006). The paper is wide-ranging, with thoughts on the early space age, particularly Orion, and insights into robotic exploration as it pertains to life detection:

True that we cannot be sure that even human intelligence can perform this task, but certainly a machine not able to perform following the standards of strong AI has only a limited possibility. Recent experiments done with a robotic rover in Atacama Desert in Chile confirmed that this task is very difficult for a machine. And in this case it was terrestrial life, and the programmers knew well what to look for. The difficulties even for a human being of performing this task is demonstrated by the endless debate over the alleged discovery of Martian fossils in the ALH84001 meteorite, which could not be settled by the best biologists in the better equipped laboratories.

The Finney paper cited above is “The Prince and the Eunuch,” in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 196-207. As to the Aosta conference, JBIS reprinted papers from the meeting in two 2006 issues; we’ll be talking about several more of these in coming weeks.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • george scaglione October 2, 2006, 10:44

    cost is quite naturally a valid consideration but what bothers me is the “lack of will” part. the exploration of space is to my mind quite important if we do not want our species to athrophy in the cradle of earth! still i worry that human starflight or unmanned starflight are both quite a way off as important as they are.having said that,i do favor crewed flight,heck,i’ll freely admit that i’d like to be one of them! one more point if i may – if a star is say 1500 light years away,would not the transmission of the data back just take too loooong! the thing virtually screams for the cration of some kind of sub space radio tranmission ! also,lol, in favor of crewed flight,would it not make better sense to have a “scotty” along to fix problems in mid flight!? other wise we might loose the whole mission after many otherwise productive years. thank you very much george

  • Administrator October 2, 2006, 14:26

    Having a crew onboard is certainly optimum, but in any case, if we have to go the robotic route, it will involve intelligent computer systems that can handle many of the same chores and evolve to meet emerging demands. As you say, though, either kind of starflight is probably a long way off, though the idea of getting a robotic probe to, say, Barnard’s Star is maybe a little less far-fetched than it would have seemed fifty years ago. I’m convinced such probes will be launched, but we may be centuries away from their liftoff.

  • Ankur October 2, 2006, 15:30

    Imagine Columbus staring out at the seas, thinking of finding India, if only he could get someone to finance his idea of sailing across the Atlantic. Half a millenia later we know what that quest led to. Now if only we had a story to tell Queen Isabella we could find new worlds all over again.

  • Mark Wakely October 2, 2006, 15:52

    For unmanned interstellar missions designed to last centuries, changes in society are much more worrisome than overcoming any of the technical challenges. If a future society is unable and/or unwilling to receive and decode data being sent back by probes launched generations earlier, what was the point of launching them? Multiple probes with redundant or self-healing electrical and mechanical systems can help assure that some (if not all) of an interstellar mission’s goals are achieved at the target, but that’s only the half of it. If no one’s listening when the data’s beamed back, the mission is a failure. A partial solution would be to create an autonomous receiving station that could operate the expected length of the mission, ensuring that- at the very least- the priceless incoming signals are recorded. If society happens to be in slow or sudden decline when the probes report home, at least the data could be safely stored until society is ready once again to make sense of the results.

    The design and location of such an autonomous receiving station raises other questions, of course. Should it be in orbit? On a mountaintop? Hardened against attack? What kind of attack? How is it powered? How does it make itself known or accessible when mankind’s ready for the data it contains? And how could it share its information with a future society that might not yet have the scientific sophistication of the society that built it?

    Even if we should learn the trick to faster than light travel, not all of these worries disappear. It would all depend how much faster than light we can travel, since even ten or a hundred times faster would still require missions of extreme duration once we’re ready to move beyond our immediate stellar neighborhood.

  • george scaglione October 3, 2006, 9:24

    hello all good comments as usual i enjoyed reading them.but you know its strange i was just talking to one of my friends on line and saying that all of this will take alot longer than many space enthusiasts including me would like but it is in my opinion inevitable. the technical problems alone! we just need to keep working.thats all,it will take the time that it will take but it can and will be done. also…thank you…somebody said that due to the large amounts of time involved the societies themselves that launch such missions may change. respectfully,my thought is this – just means we need to take less time,which means we need to bone up even more on science and engineering to take less time. one reason i like worm hole technology, i see it as a way to do that very thing.if i’m getting a little over enthusiastic i’m sorry. but i am always open to everybodies interesting and perhaps better coments! as always,i’ll be watching! all the best,your friend george

  • pfdietz October 3, 2006, 9:30

    “Lack of will” is just an ad hominem argument. ‘You disagree with me. because you are defective, lacking will.’ Maybe the vast majority that is not enthralled by extremely expensive and limited space activities know in their hearts that that is not a subject on which to spend much of the finite time they’ve been given?

  • Anthony Kendall October 3, 2006, 23:25

    The analogy between our current society’s space exploration and the ocean exploration of the 15th century Chinese is a very interesting one that I haven’t heard before. Those of us in the space-thinking business tend to think that our species’ expansion beyond this planet is inevitable, for good reason. But at least I tend to forget that the expansion of enlightenment beyond the Greco-Roman societies faltered for over 1000 years.

    What was true in both of those cases of massive failures of progress (at least I view it as progress) was the lack of democratization of access. Only the richest and most highly educated had access to writings and learnings of philosphers, which was most certainly a factor in the onset of the Dark Ages. In the case of Chinese exploration, the ocean-going vessels were expensive enough to prohibit their construction by entreprenurial businessmen. If we are to get our society off of the ground this century, we absolutely need open space for regular folks with good ideas.

    Thanks for spurring an interesting line of thought, Paul. It really puts the importance of the “Space Race 2” into perspective.

  • Adam October 4, 2006, 8:51

    Hi All

    An interesting point raised is the lifespan of the civilisation that sends the probes, and its likely non-existence by the time meaningful results are returned. Ursula Le Guin wrote of a far future humanity with deliberately low-impact technology and a near static society. They’re occasionally visited by autonomous artificial intelligences to tell them of the wider Universe – is this an inevitable result of a divergence between human and machine cultures? Poul Anderson also wrote of a similar divergence, with Solar System humanity kept docile by the “Teramind” – the collective ‘CyberCosm’ which had become the de facto masters of humanity. The machines, and voluntarily mechanised humans, saw this as a natural state of affairs because natural humans were supposedly too short-sighted and unsuited to the demands of space-flight.

    Are we too short-sighted for interstellar travel? A Queensland Aboriginal friend once told me of how his people, the traditional owners of Stradbroke Island in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, had put forward to the White Fella government a 500-year management plan for the Island. The bureaucrats couldn’t get their heads around such a time-frame. 5 years is a long time in State politics and 50 years and eternity. My friend’s people have been running my country reasonably sustainably for about 40,000 years, many of the fire-adapted plant species coming to dominance due to millennia of the Aboriginal ‘agriculture’. Yet in less than 200 years of White dominance we’re coming up against water restrictions and distinct limitations on our style of agriculture because we haven’t invested enough in adapting to the long term.

    While the necessity of world-wide adaptation to sustainable living mean the rise of a static culture? Or more long-term thinking? Any thinking person can immediately see the absurdity of ‘growth economics’ extrapolated into the indefinite future – like the old computation on how long until the Earth is glowing red hot from waste heat. But the means of production continually change too, becoming more efficient by necessity. What is a meaningful long-term outcome of that process? And what will it mean for spaceflight and interstellar travel?

    Frank Tipler has argued that it means in a couple of hundred years just about anyone will be able to launch interstellar probes…


  • Administrator October 4, 2006, 9:23

    Adam, your conversation with your Aboriginal friend is one of the best examples of long-term thinking and its consequences that I’ve run across in some time. Many thanks for sharing that, and the Tipler thought as well.

  • Administrator October 4, 2006, 9:29

    Re Anthony Kendall’s comment: “Those of us in the space-thinking business tend to think that our species’ expansion beyond this planet is inevitable, for good reason. But at least I tend to forget that the expansion of enlightenment beyond the Greco-Roman societies faltered for over 1000 years.”

    Yes, that’s understandable because we’re so far from that kind of cultural calamity — our scenarios have a quite particular view of progress. This is where my medievalist training kicks in :-) And it seems to me that the fallback into a kind of stasis scenario is as plausible as some expansion theories, which is why that long-term thinking Adam talks about is so critical.

  • george scaglione October 4, 2006, 9:56

    anthony, very well stated progress over the centuries can be very uneven! thank you for reminding us of that. george

  • shredders October 14, 2006, 2:46

    I’m convinced such probes will be launched, but we may be centuries away from their liftoff.

  • george scaglione October 14, 2006, 10:04

    shredders,you may be perfectly correct in your assessment of how long it may take to launch these probes. however i for one hope for late in the 21st or relatively early in the 22nd centuries. sooner than that!? well i’d like it,but guess that marks me not just as a space enthusiast but also as a dreamer! heck buddy,when i was in college,i hoped to see ships like kirks enterprise in my lifetime! there is no enthusiasm like that of a young person!!!! all the best to you – george scaglione