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A Copernican Space Imperative

I’m a great admirer of Princeton astrophysicist Richard Gott, who periodically breaks into the popular press because of his quirky predictions about the human future. This is not to say that I necessarily agree with his applications of the Copernican principle, many of which have proven accurate, but rather that long-term predictions ignite both my native skepticism and my fascination with what may be coming down the road. And Dr. Gott says intriguing things indeed, such as this response to the Fermi question: ‘Where are the extraterrestrials?…a significant fraction must be sitting on their home planets.”

As you would imagine, controversy follows such thoughts, and the follow-on that we are probably a rather typical civilization with only a tiny window for getting into space that should be exploited as soon as possible. Most species go extinct — will we be any different in the face of pandemic, nuclear war or incoming asteroid? The latest Carnival of Space is now up at Alice’s Astro Info, including Wayne Hall’s description of Dr. Gott’s talk on these matters at the IdeaFestival in Louisville at the end of September. From which this:

Contrary to most science fiction, we’re likely to be one of the bigger and more successful civilizations in the universe. But if we are not alone, he says that other intelligent species may still be on their home planets or have become extinct through a random event, because they quit the effort to colonize space.

If our survival is important – we after all spend billions on defense in the United States – then getting to space permanently should be considered a defense strategy.

It would take some doing to get everyone as fired up about the space imperative as Story Musgrave, an astronaut and friend of Gott, who says he would have volunteered at any time for a one-way ticket to Mars or the Moon. But there are many who are deeply committed to a permanent human future in space, whether or not they ever go themselves. They are people whose vision may shake loose the research funding and engineering to make a successful off-world colony a reality one day. I always speak in these pages about incremental strategies for moving forward to new technologies, but reading Dr. Gott occasionally reminds me that not everyone is so sanguine about the amount of time available to us. I’ve quoted him before on this but it’s still germane: “…one of the things we should understand about time is that we have just a little.”

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  • tacitus October 4, 2008, 15:57

    I don’t know. While extinction is possible, we’ve managed to live with thousands of nuclear weapons for half a century without major mishap (though we did come close once or twice). I tend to be optimistic, except perhaps for the possibility of a lone madman unleashing a deadly pathogen.

    Even if global warming is bad as the worst predictions, it will be a set back, not an extinction. And unless we come close to that, innovation will continue.

    Problem is, we just don’t know where we are. Perhaps Gott is right, but then perhaps in 50 years time we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about. If we have space elevators (for bulk cargo) and ramjets (for passengers) in a couple of decades, then our expansion into the solar system is all but assured.

    I think that it’s the step beyond — to the stars — that’s the critical barrier. We could still be hundreds of years away from breaking that one — but at least we will have the resources of the solar system to sustain us in the meantime.

  • James M. Essig October 4, 2008, 17:49

    Hi Paul and tacitus;

    I am optimistic about our eventual travel out into the cosmos. Even if we are never able to break the speed of light barrier, we will always have ever improved methods to approach C.

    If we manage to survive the next hundred years or so, I can see medical science will have already or will start to develop methods of human life expectancy enhancement. In a Utopian kind of human civilization where mankind has learned to live in peace, and there is plenty of resources and money for all, all things become possible.

    I can see that the present physical forms of our human bodies, in an absolutely Utopian and safe civilization, could essentially last forever, at least as long as protons, neutrons, and electrons exist or can be created in supplies for human infrastructure and human edible foodstuffs.

    I like to remind myself of a grand vision and plan of hope I like to internalize for peace for humanity wherein we travel and colonize ever further outward into the universe, and hopefully meet ETI civilizations, where we humans and our ETI brothers and sisters, or what ever forms the ETI take, can grow in development for all eternity in a cosmic civilization of peace and love, journey ever further out in spacetime, ever continuing our scientific discovery and technological development, ever increasing in social, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual development with the aid of medical science, wherein we can ponder forever the wonders of creation, explore the wonders of all creation, and ponder the ultimate realities of our Higher Power, however we view the nature and existence of such. My Catholic faith gives me a strong sense of hope in such.



  • justcorbly October 4, 2008, 18:25

    Every time I hear the “Where Are They?” question, I wonder if the prohibition on FTL travel isn’t real. If it is, that’s a really good reason why aliens haven’t dropped in.

    Then I wonder why anyone would drop in, if FTL travel is possible. After all, I like San Francisco and spend good money to go there every year or so. But, no one from San Francisco has ever evoked any interest in spending time in my modest home. I.e., if FTL travel is possible, and a sufficient number of worlds exist possessed of FTL capability, wouldn’t they have reason to spend most of their time visiting each other? Maybe FTL capability is the thing aliens look for before they decide some species is clever enough to warrant their time.

  • David October 4, 2008, 20:14

    Actually google news”methane Hydrates” and you will see Global warming is indeed an extinction event closer than almost anyone had imagined
    Geoengineering and space shades may be our ONlY salvation
    I guess the good news is that if we can build a space shade we could build an interstellar laser sail

  • Ronald October 5, 2008, 7:21

    I like the vision of people like Gott and am at the same time intrigued by the sense of urgency.
    I think, though, even with this urgency there is still scope for ‘incremental strategies’ and priorities, yes, even that these incremental steps will be inevitable and cannot be skipped, for example:
    – Sustainable and abundant energy, in particular nuclear fusion and solar. Both for our basic sustenance here on earth and in outer space.
    – Establishing our permanent presence on other bodies of our own solar system, in particular Mars, ultimately resulting in terraforming of that planet. Not just for risk-spreading purposes, but also as a kind of ‘target practice’: it is likely that we will find many more potentially terraformable planets than already inhabitable ones.
    – Acquiring a complete and detailed typology of all planetary systems out to xxx lightyears, with emphasis on the sunlike/terrestrial combinations.
    – Biotechnologies, such as life extension, suspended animation.
    – Propulsion technology, including certain break-through physics (anti-gravity orso, ref. Heim, Tajmar).

    Of course, some of these priorities can and will be developed simultaneously. But the essence is, that without certain fundamental prerequisites having been met, we cannot and will not reach the stars. It is like un ultimate test.

  • kurt9 October 5, 2008, 13:01

    I remember when Gott first made his comment (in the early 90’s) about the human race becoming extinct in 5,000 years and that we will probably give up on space travel in the next 50 years. All of the technogeeks and transhumanists ranted and raved about this guy and how bad he was. Unlike most people, I read a little further and found out why he was saying these things. I started telling everyone that Gott is one of the good guys in that he really does want to get us out there.

    I’m not convinced that there is any set time limit. I also think he may be pandering to NASA and other government programs. However, he is correct in the long term. The good news is that last week (buried in all of the squawking over the Wall street bailout) the first completely commercial rocket made orbit. I think a commercial space launch and, later, space development industry will emerge in the next few decades.

  • Alexander October 5, 2008, 15:26

    Although I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2058 there is a flourishing commercial presence in space, I doubt it would reach beyond the moon’s orbit. That really isn’t the sort of space travel we need to ensure our survival as a species, though—it’s still “sitting on our home planet.” The space out to the moon might be thought of as the “Mediterranean”—it would take a ideological government commitment—think of Henry the Navigator’s time, but more concerned with our survival as a species than crusading—to get us to the other planets, much less other solar systems. Given the long spans of time we’re having to wait for the next flagship missions to the outer solar system, I fear that the current attention of getting into orbit and back on the moon (which, after all, offer more immediate gratification) may crowd out longer-term goals.

  • kurt9 October 5, 2008, 16:47

    In terms of energy, access to LEO gets you half-way to anywhere in the solar system.

  • Wayne October 6, 2008, 9:34

    Just an added note: Having attended and blogged the event, I can tell you that the audience, which was by no means full of space enthusiasts, stood and gave Dr. Gott a standing ovation. Thanks for the link, Paul!

  • John Hunt October 7, 2008, 16:05

    we’ve managed to live with thousands of nuclear weapons

    There’s a big difference between nukes and nano, bio, AI, and chemtech. Nukes were never used worldwide. And nukes don’t self-replicate their own nukes. Self-replication is what makes the upcoming technology so dangerous.

    to the stars — that’s the critical barrier

    Exactly. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see any ET. The necessary step – to the stars – is generally considered to big.

    We could still be hundreds of years away from breaking that one

    I actually think that we could be just a few decades away. Within a few decades we could launch a craft with nuclear electric propulsion, near-term biotech and robotics. It would take a few hundred years to reach destination but would address the existential threats discussed here.

    Maybe FTL capability is the thing aliens look for before they decide some species is clever enough to warrant their time.

    We study primitive cultures because we find them fascinating in their own right. No, if they are alive they would have to be intentionally not wanting to get in touch with us. with very advanced technology, it’s too easy to let your presence be known.

    even with this urgency there is still scope for ‘incremental strategies’ and priorities

    Ronald. Have to respectfully disagree with you. Ray Kurzweil puts 2049 as his estimate for the technologic singularity. Other self-replicating technologies will mature around the same time. We simply don’t have time for incremental steps such as Mars colonization. Nor do we need to in order to get to the stars. If aerospace and biotech/medical engineers put their heads together they could produce a reasonable near-term interstellar mission that requires no lunar or Martian infrastructure.

  • Ronald October 8, 2008, 8:22

    @John, I can live very well with your respectfull disagreement ;-)

    BTW, I do agree with your point that, contrary to what is often stated about advanced civilizations and their disinterest for primitives like us, any advanced civilization would probably be highly interested in us. Maybe just for study or to keep track of our technological progress (and potential threat to them), or both. Anyway, intelligence and particularly techno civ. must be exceedingly rare in our galaxy, making any existing one very interesting in its own right.

    I like you optimism about our interstellar capabilities being ‘just a few decades away’. However, I think that the real bottleneck will probably not be the techno capabilities as such, but rather humankind’s inability to (timely) recognize the real threats and the willingness to face them and deal with them the proper way. Particularly, I have my doubts whether the international community would be willing to embrace (very expensive) interstellar exploration and settlement as a solution to those threats.

  • Darnell Clayton October 15, 2008, 14:00

    I like this thought.

    Contrary to most science fiction, we’re likely to be one of the bigger and more successful civilizations in the universe.

    Whether we are or not, it may be a century (or two) before our species can survive without Earth.

    Most of the worlds orbiting are Sun need to be tamed and cultivated (as they either receive too much radiation from our star or elsewhere, and the ones that are safe orbit too far away from the Sun to benefit plants).