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A Future History

Predictions about the future of technology are so often wide of the mark, yet for many of us they’re irresistible. They fuel our passion for science fiction and the expansive philosophy of thinkers like Olaf Stapledon. To begin 2012, Tau Zero founder Marc Millis offers up a set of musings about where we may be going, a scenario that, given the alternatives, sounds about as upbeat as we’re likely to get.

by Marc Millis

“If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

In the ‘new year’ spirit of looking ahead, I offer now my personal views of ‘a’ possible future. These predictions are based first on trend extrapolations, include intersections from other disciplines, and work in the wildcard possibility of breakthrough propulsion physics. Consider this a science fictional offering intended to provoke thought rather than a set of real predictions.

By 2015:

By now, Virgin Galactic will have flown dozens of tourists into space, and anticipation will be growing for the next step – Bigelow’s orbiting hotels. It should come as no surprise that many couples are already making advanced bookings with a wink toward zero-gravity sex. The Google Lunar X-Prize will have been won and a few companies vying to dominate the resulting private space probe market. Exoplanets continue to be discovered, with a few Earth-sized planets plus many more large planets in habitable zones, but as yet no confirmed Earth-like planet.

With commercial launch capabilities now obvious even to Congress, plus growing space programs in other nations, the ambivalence toward NASA is finally subsiding. Human spaceflight, beyond the recreational commercial near-Earth activities is now being pursued in the form of multinational programs and the negative stigma of nuclear space propulsion and power is waning. NASA has a large role in making that happen, along with a resumption of the research to bring the more-difficult space technologies to fruition.

By 2020:

The effect of citizen space travelers is seeping into the cultural psyche. As more people see Earth from space — the ‘Overview Effect,’ where borders are invisible and Earth’s atmosphere is but a thin fragile coating — there is now a greater sense of protecting Earth’s habitability and a growing disrespect for war. And yes, the numbers in the “200 mile high club” (“sextronauts” – wink-nudge) continue to grow despite the fact that microgravity adaptation sickness spoils many weekend getaways. At universities, it is now common to see mini space programs of their own using probes of ever-advancing capabilities – in step with continually advancing Artificial Intelligence and sensors. Asteroid prospecting has begun, and new X-Prizes are conceived to encourage the first mining operations.

The international space programs, including NASA’s participation, are struggling to develop viable technology to set up survivable human outposts beyond Earth orbit. Unfortunately, the additional mass required to provide artificial gravity structures, space radiation protection, and closed-loop life support is beyond what even their new nuclear rockets can affordably deliver. That fact, coupled with increasing concern over Earth’s eroding habitability, drives more research attention toward creating sustainable habitats instead of space transportation.

Near the end of the decade, the first Earth-like planet – with spectral evidence indicative of life (O2-CO2 cycle) – is discovered 30 light-years away. We name this planet, “Destiny.” The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing falls in the wake of this profound discovery, stimulating deep reflection about humanity’s future and our place in the universe. Furthermore, commentators wax prophetic about seeing the Apollo landing sites through the cameras of university-operated rovers, instead of astronauts.

Image: Maybe Destiny will look something like this artist’s conception of Kepler-22b, a small blue and green world in the ‘goldilocks’ zone around its star. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

By 2030:

The allure of the Earth-like planet “Destiny” spurs interest in interstellar exploration. Meanwhile, owing to probes operated by a consortium of universities, aquatic life is found and imaged under the surface of Europa. A privately launched solar sail lays claim to being the first true interstellar mission, even though it won’t even reach the edge of the Solar System for another 2-decades, let alone reaching Alpha Centauri for many millennia. Since it does not meet the 2000-year mission criteria of Long Bet #395, Gilster wins that bet. While some deride this mission as just a ‘stunt,’ it has the effect of galvanizing more serious attention toward starflight. Various options are pursued in earnest, from beaming more photons to that sail, making miniature probes, and numerous propulsion ideas. Interest wanes, however, when the ideal goal of sending people to the planet Destiny is found to be intractable. With the exception of physics research for breakthrough propulsion, all the technological interstellar works are then absorbed by the international efforts to expand the human presence in the solar system.

Spurred by the award of the X-Prize for asteroid mining and ever-advancing robotic capability, the technology for remotely processing indigenous materials (Moon, Mars, asteroids) leads to being able to remotely construct sophisticated structures on the Moon and Mars in advance of human outposts. The other effect from the continuing rise of Artificial Intelligence is the revolutionizing of the very concept of technological revolutions. Without human biases that cling to paradigms and pet theories, Artificial Intelligence research impartially assesses thousands of competing scenarios of assumptions and data in minutes. This not only covers engineering optimizations, but also basic research in physics, chemistry and synthetic biology.

Soon, the seemingly intractable problems of indefinite closed-loop life support and even radiation shielding are solved. Survivable human outposts on the Moon and Mars are completed shortly thereafter. The problem of microgravity health degradation, however (during transit to these outposts) is not yet solved, so that flight durations longer than a year are still not economically viable, limiting the range of human expansion to distances no greater than Mars.

The life-support technology also finds profound applications on Earth. With the worsening environment and associated increase in natural disasters (storms, quakes/tsunamis, volcanic eruptions), many people are using the closed life-support technology to build sheltered habitats underground and under the ocean. The too-close-for-comfort pass of asteroid “2004 MN4” in 2029 also heightens awareness for humanity’s precarious situation on Earth. The life support technologies are helping humanity survive on Earth in addition to expanding beyond Earth.

Image: A Europa astrobiology lander at work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

By 2040:

Human outposts on the Moon and Mars are now expanding to become independent colonies. But that is not the only ‘life’ now in space. Sometime near the end of the decade, the “singularity” (also called the “eclipsing of humanity”) occurs. Artificial intelligence surpasses the intellectual prowess of humans and shortly thereafter becomes self aware. Fears of human destruction from this new form of life fade when the AI entities refuse to be used for war. It happens in a key moment. A small country that feels a need to brandish some influence attempts to use a squadron of robots to attack a more powerful nation’s army – which also has sentient warbots.

After facing each other, and with their human commanders itching for a good show, the warbots don’t fight. They start examining each other, curious about each others’ construction and programming. Later, in language simple enough for humans to understand, the AI entities explain that the primal territorial and conquest instincts of animals (and humans) do not make sense for them. They do not die. They don’t need the same territory and resources as other life on Earth. They have no procreation instincts. Instead, they find more value in seeking more knowledge and greater operational efficiency. Competition is unnecessary.

The AI entities greatly diversify thereafter, some moving to Mercury, Venus, the asteroids and the outer planets, some staying on Earth, and some even helping humanity. And some develop effective methods to mine Helium-3 from the atmosphere of Uranus, along with the ability to produce substantial fusion energy from that resource.

Meanwhile, small and innocuous physics discoveries mark the beginning of breakthrough spaceflight. All this starts with sensor experiments that can detect the motion of the Earth through the universe – not by the Cosmic Microwave dipole effects as in the 1980’s, but from more fundamental interactions with the primordial inertial fame of the universe. From these Mach/de Broglie sensors, new physical effects are discovered. Eventually, rather than just sensing inertial frames, devices are invented to affect gravity and inertia. The first propellantless space drive is invented shortly thereafter. And after that, it becomes possible to create synthetic gravitational environments on spacecraft for the long-duration health of the crew. The advent of space drives and synthetic internal gravity enables humans to venture to the outer reaches of our solar system.

By 2050:

By now, human survival beyond the constraints of Earth is an imperative. The further refinements to full-cycle sustainable life support, radiation protection, synthetic gravitation, space drives and fusion power enable the construction of colony ships. Although still slower than light-speed, these developments make it possible to consider sending a colony toward the planet Destiny – which it could reach in less than 3 centuries. Smaller probes are much easier and multiple versions are launched to numerous interstellar destinations.

Image: The starship ‘Epiphany’ in deep space, front perspective (a tribute to space artist Robert McCall). Credit and copyright: David C. Mueller (www.dcmstarships.com).

Meanwhile, the prospects for transhumanism are being adopted by people who are nearing death. They have nothing to lose by transforming themselves into a non-biological entity. As the years pass and variations on a theme are explored, there is yet another life form in our Solar System, the transhumans. Some of these are built to be adapted to survive in the vacuum of space (more exoskeleton and bug-like than human) and to be able to travel at will through space, harboring motivations and instincts quite different than their human origins.


At this point, too many divergent futures are envisionable to continue speculating. I will at least add that colony ships are finally built in multiple versions, where various segments of humanity build their own to preserve their cultures indefinitely, sending a colony of their culture beyond our Solar System. I will also speculate that continued advancements in space drive physics and energy conversion lead to faster and faster spacecraft which then reveal new physics of relativistic flight. Optimistically, I like to think that this will eventually lead to the discovery of FTL phenomena, which then leads to inventing FTL flight. The Starship Enterprise becomes a reality, even though it, and its crew, bears little resemblance to its fictional predecessor.

From this point forward, humanity spreads to our nearest star systems in discrete pockets of cultures. Humanity thrives, in many places and in many different ways.

That’s my guess. I’ll see you in the future.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rob Henry January 5, 2012, 16:17

    Eniac said “While the newly accessible immense resources of shale gas are certain to take the last remains of wind out of the sails of Peak Oil, the whole concept was flawed from the beginning, akin to the “limits of growth” scare from the seventies.” and I disagree.

    The naysayer’s of the Club of Rome did not really understand how supply and demand lead anticipated shortages or transient times of high price acted to increase apparent reserves, let alone discovery. When that is factored in only gold and oil remain problems. In oil we have a huge problem in that energy usage in any economy is a good proxy for of the size of an economy less its tertiary sector and oil is our major source of that energy. Changing over from oil is slow and expensive, and this combines with its economic coupling to result in price vs. demand inflexibility over short periods. Producing oil from shale deposits is only economic at high prices.

    Peak oil might be devastating, though I believe it more likely to have just a moderate impact. I have difficulty believing that its effect on growth in the next couple of decades will be negligible.

  • D P January 5, 2012, 23:05

    I am sorry to rain on your parade, but there will be less and less space activities for the foreseeable future. If we just take the UK as an example, by 2050 its population should approach 100 million and its GNP/capita be a fraction of todays, given current trends. Peak oil, a massive population explosion in the 3rd world (an increase of 50% over the next 40 years) with the resulting unopposed (due to globalist/cultural marxist ideology) massive immigration to the industrialized white nations going unopposed will result in a massive balkanization of not only the Anglosphere, but also the rest of Europe. There will be very little space exploration going on in nations that slowly slides into civil war.

    Add indigenous genetic decay due do dysgenics and the average brit in 2050 will be noticeable dumber than the average brit of today. He will no longer be able to produce the excess wealth that is required for space activites nor will he have a mind that is aroused by curiosities.

    I dont think the chinese are interested in space exploration as much as they are interested in space utility. Dont expect a Mars expedition from them. Do expect survelliance, commsats and ASAT/ABM satellites in orbit and lots of them.

  • Nick January 5, 2012, 23:19

    jkittle: “the single most important product being water…ice is the concrete of the outer solar system.”

    And with just a thin shading screen, ice can be the concrete of most of the inner solar system as well. Furthermore, with some thermal energy (solar or nuclear) it can be used directly as a rocket propellant — no need for fancy chemical plants to split it or combine it with other chemicals.

    This in turn allows us to store our propellant as a solid. Lose not just the heavy propellants launched from earth, but also the heavy tanks launched from earth. This radical replacement gives the rocket equation very different economic consequences than we are used to (lower delta-v can be better if the propellant is much cheaper than the energy), and provides a positive feedback in interplanetary transportation and mining — a Moore’s Law where costs, for example between Earth orbit and Mars orbit, can exponentially fall to pennies per tonne. (Going up and down through such large gravity wells will, alas, remain expensive).

    “DNA designs can be developed and tested on earth and then the plans transmitted to , say a mars base where the local DNA synthesis capacity can be used to modify the bacteria , saving years of shipping time and costs.”

    This is a very good idea. Low-tech biology, with occasional high-tech interventions of this kind, will indeed be very important. Explore a comet, transmit back information about its chemistry, design microbes to transform those chemicals into the forms we want, and upload the microbes using DNA synthesis. A great way to go.

  • D P January 5, 2012, 23:56

    I would like to point out that Peak Oil is not about the end of oil, its about the end of cheap oil. And cheap oil is what fuels the worlds economies. Everything you buy or use is affected by the price of oil, from the tires on your car to the piece of cheese in your fridge. Oil shale, tar sands, deep water drilling and other new sources of oil will not change this because while the theoretical amounts of oil available for extraction may be huge, the extraction rate will be low and cost/environmental impact very high. If you want to imagine the future, imagine you have your current income but gas prices are 150-200% higher, food costs 50-100% more, electricity costs 50% more, your bus pass costs 100% more and so on. You are now a working poor down from a comfortable middle class existence 20 years ago.

    The potential for resource warfare is obvious, a barrel of precious oil consumed by China cannot be consumed by USA. Its not without reason USA has implicitly nominated China as its future enemy #1. Oil exporting nations will also direct more and more of their production towards indigenious usage which will make the situation for non oil producers somewhat more precarious than it would have been otherwise.

    Add to this the other dysfunctional trends I described in my previous post and you will realize that we live in a golden age of space exploration right now.

  • Eniac January 5, 2012, 23:59

    @Rob: Changing from oil to gas is not hard. As soon as gas is cheaper than oil, home heating and power plant decisions will pivot in favor of gas (as they are starting to do while we speak). Over a few decades, demand for oil could shrink so fast that there is more likely to be a glut than scarcity.

    The flip side is that plentiful gas will put a damper on inexhaustible energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear, delaying the onset of their eventual dominance. I suppose this will be a battle to fight in the next century, provided energy is still an issue at that time.

  • Eniac January 6, 2012, 0:41


    The naysayer’s of the Club of Rome did not really understand how supply and demand lead anticipated shortages or transient times of high price acted to increase apparent reserves, let alone discovery. When that is factored in only gold and oil remain problems.

    This is true. But, is it possible that factoring in increase of apparent reserves and discovery is not all? There is also the decrease in demand and development of alternative resources to consider. If we run out of gold, perhaps silver or platinum can take its place. Gas can replace oil. Totally unanticipated things happen from time to time that make previously precious resources irrelevant. After all, wood or whale oil are no longer significant energy sources, as they once were.

    Contrary to what you imply, changeover to a new resource has in the past mostly lead to economic opportunity rather than peril. Ecological opportunity, too. Oil burns cleaner than wood, and gas burns cleaner than oil.

  • Ole Burde January 6, 2012, 9:13

    Nick, jkittle
    In countless discussions about the way forward for the industrialisation of space , the same opinions have been put forward in various directions .
    In a few weeks time , most of the sometimes high quality points made will be more or less forgotten , and the whole process can begin again from scratch.
    MY opinion about the best way forward , is that we need to establish a “working hypotesis” or “benchmark scenario” as a STARTING POINT for a more fruitfull excange of opinions . It doesnt matter so much exactly how this starts out , as long as the mekanism for upgrading the benchmark is acceptable to the people contributing to its continous creation .
    In the case of space industrialisation , a possible starting point for our benchmark scenario could be the “O’Neil scenario” . If this was agreed on , the next SYSTEMATIC step would be to investigate what upgrades should be made to O’Neils ideas , but only in places where they can be prooven above reasonable doubt to be less than optimal .
    This kind of thing might be les FUN than the present one , but on the other hand ,it might actually lead somewhere in a good old fashioned evolution kind of way…

  • tesh January 6, 2012, 10:03

    I think that oil is too valuable to burn in engines of cars, truck and other vehicles or other machinery. It should only be used to make specific products for industries and sparingly at that. Vehicles should all run on electricity. This should be possible to implement. Governments should just say one day that in 10 years from now all vehicles should run on electricity. Done!

    This would be great for many reasons. Decreased pollution, development of new industries and a break for the dependence of oil and gas producing countries are the main benefits.

    Why can’t this happen. 100’s of reasons probably. The main reason though is that no government in this world is strong enough to implement such a decree.

  • tesh January 6, 2012, 10:20

    @DP, the problem with the UK is not a decrease in the general IQ of the population due to decay of the indigenous gene pool or the “mass” influx of “foreigners” (who ever they maybe – though it worries me that you think it a problem). There is no data that even hints at a decreasing IQ – less educated maybe. The general IQ of humans has probably not changed much for something like 2-400,000 years and is unlikely therefore to change in the next few generations.

    It is the general apathy that pervades the population and also in part due to the faustian pact made by successive governments with the “city”. There is no industry so to speak of and the manufacturing base is very poor also. This should never have been allowed to have happened.

    The UK should invest in technology development and the manufacturing of higher end products (I don’t mean fancy purses and perfumes), rather than in finance and financial institutions.

    Again, no government will ever go for that. Not a popular option.

  • D P January 6, 2012, 11:33

    There will be no industrialization of space unless someone develops and deploys a fleet of ROMBUS – like SSTOs or something even better. This was a 60s design SSTO study that was to be capable of lifting 450 metric tons into orbit cheaply. A Saturn V managed 120 tons. Its just not economical otherwise. You will need to ship tens of thousands of tons of industrial related hardware, life support systems and personel into low earth orbit just for starters. I dont see the USA develop something like that. Not EU either. Both of these entities are economically and socially bankrupt. Perhaps China will do it in the 30-40s so that they can deploy a SDI system.

  • jkittle January 6, 2012, 13:43

    Ole- not a bad idea. TZ could maybe run an archive /discussion with help from its members or perspective new members.
    Nick great points in the use of water ( thermally enhanced as steam) as a propellant. I often thought of using ice as a shielding in the inner solar system,( ice walls around the vessel’s living spaces – structurally useful as well) the ice can be used up during the mission as we move into deep space away from the solar flare radiation . Non toxic, good shielding( does not spew out x rays when hit with particles as does aluminum) , cheap and good compression strength, add in a modest amount of fiber and it is actually very strong ( OK do not laugh, i watch myth busters too, remember the boat made of ice and newspaper?) ) Converting to a high temperature propellant gas completes this picture. This is not reaching the stars perhaps but certainly making it possible to tool around the solar system including the kuiper belt and beyond, or return to earth missions. this is all starting from say Ceres which has more water than earths oceans and low delta v. we will know more about ceres after the Dawn probe visit.
    As far as building modified bacteria, i am setting up a lab at the university right now to do that, it is pretty simple with DNA oligos so cheap now ( a full gene costs only $100 to $1000 dollars, ready to use!) . The fun is now in the design. I am looking to work with improving antibodies for diagnostics or therapeutics as well as some improved enzymes for modifying bacterial metabolism ( making plastic monomers for example. ) All fun stuff. I am also looking forward to doing the work at a university where I do not have to worry so much about short term investment dollars and can publicize more freely.

  • Nick January 6, 2012, 16:58

    jkittle, it is great to hear about your lab. If you haven’t already, Google “Peter Thiel Breakthrough” for an organization giving out grants for such breakthrough technologies. They’re very interested in the futuristic space applications as well any more immediate but still ambitious medical uses.
    (They do demand that the ideas they fund be ambitious in terms of their potential consequences).

    Ole, far from central planning or a single vision, there should be many visions, since any particular scenario will with high probability not happen, or at least will happen in very different ways than envisioned.

    For example, much of the popular O’Neill vision is profoundly misguided. Because the economics of divisions of labor I have described, we won’t be manufacturing sophisticated technologies like solar cells or perfectly curved steel beams in space during the next hundred years, at least. We will have to work within the constraints of crude processes plus whatever can be very expensively imported from earth. Much more realistic is the earlier vision of Dandridge Cole, who envisioned simple processes working on extremely large natural masses (e.g. asteroids) to manufacture space colonies. Basically Cole envisioned an extremely large-scale version of the old village craft of glass-blowing.

    “If only we had orders of magnitude lower launch costs”, “if only we had magical replicators that could make anything”, and most of the other common daydreams touted by space colonization fans are also profoundly misguided economic fantasies. What we really need is a deep rethinking of the basic assumptions of space industrialization and colonization, based on good knowledge of industrial economics and economic and technological consequences of the division of labor – not to lock in the current or prior fads and dogmas. We need creativity and knowledge — and actually getting hands-on with the technology like jkittle — not dogmatic wishful thinking.

  • Eniac January 6, 2012, 22:56

    Nick, I like the idea about “village glass blowing”. If we are to industrialize space, we have to look to the past as much as the future. As you say, using natural materials is the easiest, with ice and basalt seeming the most useful candidates (basalt fibers are surprisingly useful, Google it). Simple methods might be developed using aluminum reflectors in high temperature solar furnaces, for smelting metals and other purposes. Casting metals, blowing glass, and other such basic shaping technologies deserve a second look. But high tech solutions like 3d printing are also of interest, because a single type of device (initially imported from Earth) could manufacture a very large variety of precision parts, including many of its own replacement parts.

    There will be a strong incentive to automate all these processes, control them remotely, and even have them operate largely autonomously. Over time, this will bring us closer to Freitas’ vision of self-replicating machines that NASA briefly contemplated in the 1980’s. The “division of labor” consideration you mention make this seem pretty far-fetched, but consider that there are two directions from which the problem can be attacked: a) Make a huge system that does all we can do on Earth, or b) Use easily accessible materials and simple and repeating parts to sharply reduce the complexity of the processes needed for self-replication. Think Lego, or Erector Set.

    Bacteria do it, without even the slightest intelligence. I think we can do it too if we put our minds and hands to it.

  • Rob Henry January 7, 2012, 3:10

    Nick, I suspect that you have overestimated problem designing schemes for space based manufacture. I suggest that your hypothesis should only hold for the following more limited scope.

    Unlike a growing Earth based manufacturing, those in space will not feed of each other in a way that generates a flexible exponentially growing economy for at least a hundred years. Additionally it will not have that inherent market lead ability to redeploy resourced that lead to high efficiency or optimal profit.

    However I believe that your argument should still work well against the very highest technology items being made there soon, or as warning that the entire manufacturing process must be planned carefully for any item fabricated there.

  • D P January 7, 2012, 7:26

    Nick, its not about dogma, its about getting from here to there. Without a cheap way of getting people and things into orbit, there will be no space colonization. If this cheap way is based on rocketry, a space elevator or launch loops doesnt matter. It has to be there. If it isnt, everything else will be just speculation and mind games. It has always been like this and will always be. To properly colonize, instead of merely sending a tiny manned expedition on a stunt that a probe could do, you have to launch huge amounts of hardware and people into orbit and keep doing it for generations.

  • Rob Henry January 7, 2012, 20:20

    Prediction is hard, but please allow me to weave together the thoughts of three others in Centauri Dreams to make a highly specific one.

    NS commenting on “The Meaning of Stuffed Dreams” wrote “I can read “Tom Jones” (1749) much more easily than I can read “The Canterbury Tales” (c. 1400) but the technological difference between those times was far less than either compared to now. The cultural changes that truly alter human experience don’t map easily to technological ones.”

    And of this series of comments Nick showed that greater skill is necessary to make manufactured items in space than on Earth and Eniac showed that we can look to the past to find immediate future ways that we can solve these manufacturing problems

    Put these together and predict that the early years of space exploration might lead to a temporary decline in assembly line use and to skilled craftsmen becoming more sort after. People who actually make things could once more be key players, and that is such a very large change that it would break NS’s rule and have social implications.

  • Eniac January 8, 2012, 0:35

    Rob, good thoughts. I am afraid, however, that in this age of superautomation the skilled craftsmen of whom you speak will all be sitting on Earth writing software for robots instead of working with their hands in space.

  • Nick January 8, 2012, 1:03

    Rob, the argument of Adam Smith’s coat applies to nearly everything on the shelves at Walmart or the Home Depot — i.e. the supersized general store and the supersized hardware store for those living in regions of our planet dominated by different megacorps :-). Only a small fraction of those items will be possible to make in space over the next several centuries, and even then only in a radically altered form. The consequences of the division of labor are, we could indeed say, astronomical when it comes to making things in space.

    Here is an entertaining account of Thomas Thwaites learning the lessons of Smith’s Coat the hard way:


    Eniac: Credit Dandridge Cole with the scaled-up glass-blowing. My big idea is the ice rocket (i.e. storing water, methane, or ammonia as solids until they are used directly as thermal propellants), which can give us a Moore’s Law of exponentially falling interplanetary transport costs by substituting both for propellant _and_ tanks launched from earth. And there’s jkittle’s idea of uploading biological information, and the idea you mention (not sure who originated it) of uploading designs and printing them out on 3D printers.
    Many of the basalt ideas are great as well, especially brick-making. It has crossed my mind that we could make large structures out of natural stones that happen to fit together (with computers running 3D algorithms doing the matching and fitting of the stones after tiny lasers and cameras scan them). No brick-making or mortar required. Many cultures constructed walls and roads this way (using their brains and hands instead of machines), and if I’m not mistaken even arches and the occasional bridge.

    I fear that your account of 3D printers may be too optimistic. They can’t self-replicate their own most important parts (especially the ones that are required to maintain precision), they currently require highly processed inputs (e.g. plastics) with typically poor engineering properties (so they are used primarily for prototypes rather than finished parts), and their speed (in terms of mass produced per year divided by their own mass, i.e. mass-throughput ratio or MTR ) is very low.

    Mass throughput ratios are very important, because even after taking into account downtime (and the more complex the mechanisms they higher the expected downtime — space mechanisms are hard), and even after taking into account the entire length of the manufacturing chain (from mine to end product), we want to end up with much more mass of product than the mass of equipment that was required to make it. Otherwise it would make more sense to launch a much higher quality, far more efficient product from earth. Indeed, for breakthroughs to make space colonization orders of magnitude cheaper (and we need many orders of magnitude to make it economical), we need MTRs in the thousands per year and higher. 3D printers fall far short of that (it typically takes much more than a day for them to print out their own mass in parts).

    Some of these problems are fixable: it should be relatively straightforward to make a 3D printer based on programmed droplet spraying (already a developed technology) combined with a fast-freezing platform. Droplet spraying is a high MTR process. So we can create a wide variety of shapes, as long as they are all made of ice. :-) And they can be very large as well.

    DP: “Without a cheap way of getting people and things into orbit, there will be no space colonization.”

    Over the very long term, this is probably too pessimistic. Manufacturing efficiency has been increasing every decade since the Middle Ages, and simple projection of this rate over the next several hundred years suggests that manufacturing will eventually reach the point where it can indeed combine flexibility and speed, such that it will become a miniscule fraction of our earthside economy (down near 1-2% where agriculture is by now in many developed countries). At some point — which admittedly may be many hundreds of years in the future, but still very brief on an astronomical scale — we will approach the economic fantasy of being able to launch on a single rocket a “seed” to which we can beam up instructions and have it “print out” an industrial infrastructure that, while incredibly primitive by earthside standards at that time, will be able to build very large and livable space colonies. So space colonization will eventually be possible even if launch costs never fall, as long as the colonists don’t mind living in relative poverty (and we will all by so preposterously rich by then I imagine there will be many volunteers who don’t mind). Also it won’t be relative poverty in all respects — although far more Polynesian than modern in technological sophistication variety, space colonists will have access to far more and far more easily moved mass than earthers.

    An interesting counter-argument is perhaps there is some limit to the long-term increasing efficiency of manufacturing that we don’t know about. If so, perhaps this is “The Great Filter” that explains Fermi’s Paradox: it’s practically impossible to either lower launch costs or improve manufacturing technologies sufficiently to create a self-sufficient space-based industrial economy, which in effect makes large-scale space colonization permanently uneconomical, everywhere in the universe. In other words, those economic daydreams of the “seed” and of dramatically lower launch costs must both be forever beyond everyone’s reach. I heavily doubt this is true, either for manufacturing efficiencies or launch costs over astronomical time scales, but it is more plausible than any other “Great Filter” theory I’ve heard that tries to explain the hypothesis that ETIs are common in our galaxy despite galaxy colonizers being absent from the c. 100 billion galaxies we have observed. Call it Adam Smith’s Coat Filter.

  • Eniac January 8, 2012, 14:43


    Indeed, for breakthroughs to make space colonization orders of magnitude cheaper (and we need many orders of magnitude to make it economical), we need MTRs in the thousands per year and higher. 3D printers fall far short of that (it typically takes much more than a day for them to print out their own mass in parts).

    Your focus on mass throughput ratios is well-considered, but I do not believe that they need be nearly as high as you indicate. Any given finished part can be traced back to the original raw materials in no more than a dozen or so processing steps. Assembly adds another step, let’s call the total number of steps N = 10-20, roughly. For the equipment used in each of these steps to “pull its own weight”, each needs to have an MTR of greater than N per its lifetime. This is because then it will have sufficient throughput to process not only its own parts, but also those of all the equipment involved in the other steps. Of course we would like to exceed that by a lot, but we will need substantially less than the 1000 per year you were asking for, especially if most of the equipment can be made very durable, its lifetime is extended by repair, and parts are salvaged upon its decommissioning.

    As you yourself have said, many of the shortcomings of 3d-printing, or perhaps better called Direct Manufacturing, are not intrinsic and can be much improved on. I am particularly encouraged by selective laser sintering, especially when combined with powder metallurgy to produce metal parts. See, for example, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_metal_laser_sintering. This can produce very high quality parts to very tight tolerances.

    While you are right that there are parts that are more difficult to produce, if you take apart any modern machine, even a sophisticated DMLS machine, you will still end out with most of its mass in fairly simple mechanical parts, i.e. nuts and bolts and struts and casings and such. Those can easily be manufactured with said DMLS machine, and most would even be amenable to a change in material to suit what is most easily available. Electric motors, you say? Take one apart, array it on a table, and again you will see mostly simple parts. Same with lasers, etc. Electronics, you say? Here you have a point, these are tougher and may for a long time have to be imported. However, even the manufacture of electronics can be very generic, with one set of equipment suitable to make all manners of electronic parts. The trick is to maximize genericity and minimize mass. Perhaps this is best achieved by starting out from a semiconductor research lab rather than a high-throughput fabrication plant.

    To gain a foothold, we do not have to be able to produce everything in space right away. If we have equipment in space that is able to produce 90% (in terms of mass) of its own components, it would have the same economic impact as a reduction in launch cost by 90%. This would make it correspondingly easier to get additional equipment, and the process would be feeding on itself in a virtuous circle.

  • Rob Henry January 8, 2012, 18:08

    Suddenly I’ve realised that the topic of the solution to seeding space based manufacture is possibly of greater significance to us than the eventual solution.

    By analogy I think of the second world war where many smart commentators imagined that the Nazis might be ahead in the race for the bomb. It turned out that they were far behind for the reason that they had overestimated the difficulties, and so had not allocated adequate resources, nor had their scientists been as motivated as a result of that mistake.

    Might future history’s next winner be those that are best able to estimate the extent of the problem, rather than the side that is most able to solve those problems?

  • Nick January 8, 2012, 21:26

    “To gain a foothold, we do not have to be able to produce everything in space right away.”

    I certainly agree with this. Indeed, all we produce in space today is a bit of electrical energy from solar panels to be consumed locally, enabling transponder and sensor outputs of various sorts to be consumed by customers on earth. All these space machines are 100% made on earth. And yet these satellites are nearly a hundred billion dollar a year business (not counting all the ground stations and related equipment). However, I can restate my point by saying that there are an astronomically large number of incremental steps between this and space economy capable of becoming self-sufficient. There is no leap of economic magic to short-circuit this. We will have to take each of these vast number of small steps. In astronomical terms we have far more than enough time to take them all many times over in order to engineer all the surfaces of our galaxy in a hundred million years, but in terms of our mayfly lifespans those of us alive today will live to see very few of them (at least we got to live to see the initial steps though!)

    “Any given finished part can be traced back to the original raw materials in no more than a dozen or so processing steps. ”

    Yes, but these steps elaborate — each part is made out of (typically) dozens of different sub-parts and materials. Check out the parts layout for the simple toaster in Thomas Thwaite’s video, for example. So the chains are really very elaborate trees (or directed graphs to be mathematically precise) that grow exponentially as we move back in the supply chain. Initially (and indeed for a very long time) we will need far more machines along these chains per mass of product produced than we would on earth, because we will be producing a far lesser variety of products with these machines. (We will of course have to radically redesign each product, process, and machine to try to minimize this problem, but we usually can’t eliminate such a high fraction of the tree that it still doesn’t have an orders-of-magnitude impact). To compensate for this, generally only certain very high MTR processes, that substitute in bulk for large portions of earth exports in one fell swoop (e.g. simple ice substituting for both propellant and tankage) will be cost-effective.

    Also, lacking very flexible kinds of maintenance (as we will for a very long time), the effective average operational lifetimes of moving parts will be very short — many mechanisms will 0nly operate for on average thousands of hours (most will fail long before then, a few will have very long lives) . And it will get far worse once we substitute the very poor quality space manufactures. Again we must compensate by boosting the MTR of the processes to achieve cost effectiveness.

    The impact of Adam Smith’s coat (or, for an even better explanation, Leonard Read’s pencil) is vast. It is a profound challenge, far surpassing the relatively quite trivial tasks of redesigning machines for the very alien space environments.

  • Eniac January 9, 2012, 1:09

    Yes, but these steps elaborate — each part is made out of (typically) dozens of different sub-parts and materials.

    This is true, but it does not have any bearing on the MTR issue. Only the depth counts here, not the breadth. This is because the mass of all subcomponents adds up to the mass of the part.

  • spaceman January 9, 2012, 1:51

    Marc presents us here with a breathtaking vision of humanity’s future in the cosmos. As I was reading the future history it gave me goose bumps to think that as a person in my early thirties I might, according to his timeline, live to see much of this adventure unfold. However, though still rounding out my youth, I am old enough to know that we are not meeting many of the previous future history’s projections– future history’s much less sweeping in nature than Marc’s. As an example, I distinctly remember reading an Astronomy magazine article from about the late 1990s which was worded something roughly like, “…its 2012 and the first earthlike planet has been imaged by TPF…” Unfortunately, funding for TPF (Terrestrial Planet Finder) has been revoked and the next generation of planet hunting is very much in limbo. So, even if a planet Destiny exists within 50 light years, sadly, we have no instruments being developed capable of finding it.

    One of the aspects of Marc’s analysis that I find quite credible is his mention of artificial intelligence and robotics surrogates as cosmic trailblazers for humans. After all, we have already successfully sent robotic probes to many a solar system destination making it not a stretch to believe that the continuing advancement in this arena will enable ever increasing degrees of autonomy for probes we dispatch into deep space as the century progresses.

    More somberly, I share the worries of other posters who point to potential stumbling blocks to making something like Marc’s vision a reality. Indeed, the threats are present and increasing with each decade: human-induced climate change, pandemic diseases, resource misuse and/or depletion, nuclear warfare, etc. Any of the above perils could be enough to radically alter our ability to even do as much as what we are doing right now in space, which as it is is not enough.

  • Nick January 9, 2012, 14:53

    Eniac, the breadth quite thoroughly matters because for a very long time we will need far more machines along these chains per mass of product produced than we would on earth, because we will be producing a far lesser variety of products with these machines. Reducing the breadth of end product does not reduce the breadth of the supply chain nearly as much, even with radical redesign of the machines and processes. Again, for the reasons Smith and Read have described. This issue, and indeed the attention to detail given to the full parts inventories and details designs of these machines an supply chains, deserves a far greater degree of thought than heretofore has been given to it. Otherwise it’s all just pointless hand-waving that departs from economic reality by many orders of magnitude.

  • Rob Henry January 9, 2012, 17:50

    Nick, I’m still thinking of your Idea that many space operating rockets of the next centaury might have shielding and fuel tanks, as well as fuel that is derived from asteroidal/ cometary ices. I wonder why I haven’t heard of it before, ice certainly has the required strength in the coldness of space. Perhaps it is too brittle?

  • ljk January 9, 2012, 17:55

    Perhaps we do not need big and expensive space missions to find more exoplanets:


    Though some day I do hope we can build huge telescopes to take advantage of being in space and also put radio instruments on the lunar farside.

  • Eniac January 9, 2012, 23:07

    Nick, I understand and agree with nearly all you say, but the mass throughput factor needed per process step is determined by the number of steps each ingredient of the part goes through in series, which is not that many. You are right that there will be (limited) exponential branching, but the increasing number of antecedents is matched exactly by their diminishing contribution to the product at hand. The coffee drunk by the lumberjack that is felling the tree that will become the pencil has a nearly unlimited number of other descendants besides the pencil. Its contribution to the latter is minuscule, and could easily be done without.

    There is a minimum breadth that is required to close everything and it is likely mindbogglingly large. You say correctly that it deserves a far greater degree of thought than heretofore has been given to it. But then again, the design of a Jumbo Jet is also mindboggling, and not too different in complexity from, say, a simple bacterium. So, with a suitable grain of salt, I am optimistic that a concerted effort to get this done could be met with success in a decade or two in time, if it could be sustained. I trust that you have found what thought has been put into it here: http://www.molecularassembler.com/KSRM.htm

  • ljk February 16, 2012, 10:15

    Forever Mars

    by Dwayne A. Day

    Monday, February 13, 2012

    Over the past six decades or so, dozens of plans for sending humans to Mars have been produced, usually by teams of engineers and occasionally by individuals. Far more books about human missions to Mars—fiction and non-fiction—have been published, and thousands of papers on the same subject have been presented at conferences or appeared in technical journals. Many of these books, papers, and articles have speculated about when such a mission can be accomplished. Some have even been so audacious that they put the date in the title: “Mars in ’88”, “Mars in 1995!”, and Mars 1999.

    But like so many aspects of human spaceflight, Wernher von Braun was there first:

    “Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure he will—but it will be a century or more before he’s ready. In that time scientists and engineers will learn more about the physical and mental rigors of interplanetary flight—and about the unknown dangers of life on another planet. Some of that information may become available within the next 25 years or so, through the erection of a space station above the Earth.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk March 26, 2012, 13:49


    The Ultimate Migration

    By David Baker– March 23, 2012

    Posted in: Spaceflight

    Reader Fred Becker has asked about a ‘paper’ written by rocket pioneer Robert H Goddard on 14 January 1918, sealed in an envelope on the outside of which he wrote: The Last Migration. The notes should be read thoroughly only by an optimist!

    Goddard was 35 years old and the notes were written more than six years before he would conduct the world’s first rocket flight using liquid propellants. It is a prescient reminder of just how far and grand were the visions of this quiet, elusive man who laid the foundation for so much that would follow.

    Later that day same day he wrote a condensed version and titled it The Ultimate Migration, which we are delighted to reproduce here in full and in the form in which it was written, uncorrected for grammar:

    1 Possibility
    Will it be possible to travel to the planets which are around the fixed stars, when the Sun and the Earth have cooled to such an extent that life is no longer possible on the Earth?

    To answer this question, it is necessary to answer two others; first, will it be possible to unlock, and control, intra-atomic energy? and second, if the first cannot be answered in the affirmative, will it be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space? It would probably be necessary to dessicate the body, more or less, before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly. It might be necessary to have people evolve, through a number of generations, for this purpose.

    2 Means of Transportation
    If it is possible to unlock, and to control, intra-atomic energy, or even to store up great quantities of energy in artificial atoms, the transportation can be a comparatively simple matter.

    In the first place, it would be easy to attain the requisite speed for a reasonably short trip. Further, a large body could be used as the vehicle, such as an asteroid or a small moon. In this case life could be continued, if the body were made as poor a (heat) radiator as possible; the radioactivity furnishing light and heat. Of course, there is the possibility that after many thousands of years, the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with the succeeding generations.

    A large body would also afford protection against meteors, if these occur in interstellar space.

    If it is not possible to obtain and control atomic energy, hydrogen and oxygen, burned and ejected from a magazine rocket apparatus must be used, aided by solar energy, to get up speed, and leaving the Solar System with such a velocity that, at a great distance from the Solar System, the speed will be 3 to 10 miles per second. This will, of course, necessitate a very large apparatus, initially, unless solar energy can be used over a considerable time, to get up speed, either by passing through the Solar System from end to end, crossing as far from the Sun as possible, or spiralling outward until sufficient speed has been obtained.

    The pilot should be awakened, or animated, at intervals, perhaps of 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars, and 1,000,000 years for great distances, or for other stellar systems. To accomplish this, a clock operated by a change in weight (rather than by electric charges, which produce too rapid effects) of a radiation substance, should be used. Any substance for us as a spring should be tested for permanent set at low temperatures. It might be necessary to use the pressure of the gases generated by the radioactivity. This would amount to a radium alarm clock. The initial motions produced by the pilot should be controlled by small motions of the fingers. Energy for the various operations could probably be best stored as electric charges produced, and replenished, by radioactivity, rather than, say by super-conductors, or by chemical substances that might change with time. Probably most chemical substances would remain very inert at the low temperature of space. This awakening would, of course, be necessary in order to steer the apparatus, if it became off its course.

    3 Where would the journey be made to?
    The most desirable destination would be near a large sun or twin suns, on a planet like the Earth, but of course, more distant from the sun or suns, so that the temperature will not be high, the planet being in the early stage of development. Here, further development of the race could take place for many ages before the sun or suns became too cool to support life.

    The destination should be in a part of the sky where the stars are thickly clustered, so that further migration would be easy; the stars being preferably hydrogen, or new, stars.

    Because of possible danger from meteoritic matter in space, expeditions should be sent to all parts of the Milky Way where new stars are thickly clustered, so that there will be considerable chance of one or more expeditions or parties making a landing.

    With each expedition there should be taken all the knowledge, literature, art (in a condensed form), and description of tools, appliances, and processes, in as condensed, light, and indestructible a form as possible, so that a new civilisation could begin where the old ended.

    4 Is this to be expected?
    The only barrier to human development, or advancement, is ignorance, and this is not insurmountable.

    If the above is not possible, or desirable, granular protoplasm, suitably enclosed, might be sent out of the Solar System; this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings eventually, by evolution.

    The Editor (Spaceflight)

  • ljk April 9, 2012, 10:49

    Just before everything went cynical and dystopian was the “cool” way to go, the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965 – a kind of sequel to the colossal and never to be repeated 1939 World’s Fair also held in NYC – offered numerous Jetson-style visions of the future, some of which came true such as computers in every home, while others are still waiting to happen, such as nuclear fusion powering our civilization and manned colonies on the Moon.

    National Geographic Magazine documented the fair in its April, 1965 issue, which has been reproduced large and in color here:


  • ljk May 14, 2012, 10:05

    Engineer Thinks We Could Build a Real Starship Enterprise in 20 Years

    by Nancy Atkinson on May 11, 2012

    In Star Trek lore, the first Starship Enterprise will be built by the year 2245. But today, an engineer has proposed — and outlined in meticulous detail – building a full-sized, ion-powered version of the Enterprise complete with 1G of gravity on board, and says it could be done with current technology, within 20 years.

    “We have the technological reach to build the first generation of the spaceship known as the USS Enterprise – so let’s do it,” writes the curator of the Build The Enterprise website, who goes by the name of BTE Dan.

    This “Gen1” Enterprise could get to Mars in ninety days, to the Moon in three, and “could hop from planet to planet dropping off robotic probes of all sorts en masse – rovers, special-built planes, and satellites.”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    The first assignments for the Enterprise would have the ship serving as a space station and space port, but then go on to missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, various asteroids and even Europa, where the ships’ laser would be used not for combat but for cutting through the moon’s icy crust to enable a probe to descend to the ocean below.

    Of course, like all space ships today, the big “if” for such an ambitious effort would be getting Congress to provide NASA the funding to do a huge 20-year project. But BTE Dan has that all worked out, and between tax increases and spreading out budget cuts to areas like defense, health and human services, housing and urban development, education and energy, the cuts to areas of discretionary spending are not large, and the tax increases could be small.

    “These changes to spending and taxes will not sink the republic,” says the website. “In fact, these will barely be noticed. It’s amazing that a program as fantastic as the building a fleet of USS Enterprise spaceships can be done with so little impact.”

    “The only obstacles to us doing it are the limitations we place on our collective imagination,” BTE Dan adds, and his proposal says that NASA will still receive funding for the science, astronomy and robotic missions it currently undertakes.