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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.

  • jkittle January 3, 2012, 10:42

    By 2020 a new theory of the mind based on the quantum entanglements of neuronal receptors embedded in the 2 dimensional surfaces of Neurons will for the first time be able to map out the biochemical and quantum nature of human memory and thought. This biological computational “engine” will be revealed to have far more vast capacity than previously imagined, but constrained by evolution to perform within certain limits that are possible to overcome, at our pleasure profit and with some danger. By 2016 total genome sequencing will become commonplace in individual human diagnostics and by 2020 will be the basis for virtually all medical practice in the industrialized world, the united states and china will lead this effort.
    I would add that by 2030 the allure of human genetic modification begins to overcomes our instinctual barriers to meddling with our own DNA and private efforts to create ” improved ” babies begins to ramp up in some of the countries with emerging economies, this leads to great controversy and quasi religious conflicts, resolved peacefully over time. Genetic modification of crops becomes accepted and commonplace, while the growth in overall energy demands flattens out by 2025.
    Fusion energy using deuterium as the starting material and resulting in helium 4 production in a multi step fusion process that becomes economical in 2030 and common place in 2040, Biobased materials gradually replace oil as chemical feed stocks for plastics and new Smart materials containing programming read from DNA – like polymers will become common place by 2020. By 2022 such polymers become the basis for new computational information storage devices. Quantum computers supplant digital ones for AI applications, while digital computers continue to dominate raw computational tasks. This split in computing power leads to the emergence of true artificial conscientiousness when they are properly integrated in to unified devices, by 2050. We will have a Mars base by 2035, built by advanced robotic devices and inhabited by a full complement of humans, with synthetic microorganisms providing the bulk of the life support requirements and the perceived need for terraforming will be eliminated by the advances in technology for human space habitation and the adaptation of living forms to the native martian environment( by 2050).

  • Tom Baty January 3, 2012, 11:10

    Nice realistic speculation. Enjoyed your thoughts on the future coming decades. Now does “Destiny” have a road????

  • A. A. Jackson January 3, 2012, 11:47

    Future History in modern prose science fiction has a sophisticated development.
    Before John W Campbell took over Astounding it was sort of a kind of mish mash.
    It became noticeable in the 1940’s (and onwards) that all the top SF writers starting hedging their bets. Two avenues were taken the main one was to set true full colonization of the Solar System in the 22 century. Manned interstellar flight and exploration , sometime colonization in the 23rd century (note how Gene Roddenberry borrowed this).
    Early on Robert Heinlein drew up a chart and even matched stories to it, some never written (it can be found on the web). Later Heinlein , while not disowning it, felt it should have been redone, but he was not motivated to do that.
    (Asimov and Clarke often (many others) set their futures 10 of thousands of years in the future.)
    The second popular approach was to give no date at all , always thought this was clever , for me at least, since I didn’t care having a definite tag, just give me a good story.
    (George Lucas pulled a different ploy other SF authors had used, which I also thought was clever.)
    It’s always been a mystery to me why Hollywood is obsessed with tagging a SF film with a definite date, many times in the not too distant future. (I forgive 2001: A Space Odyssey just on poetic license grounds.)

    Too me the factor that has the greatest impact on predicting spaceflight is economics. Economics is so unpredictable it makes Astrology look good!
    (When one factors in socio-polotical influences the whole thing becomes a chaotic process which blows a horizon of predictability to hell!)

    One observation. I worked on the ISS with engineers from ESA, JAXA and Canada for 10 years. These engineers are still friends of mine. In the trenches I found international cooperation a delight.
    One solution to the dollar problem of going beyond Earth orbit is pooling the resources of the USA, Europe, Japan, India, Brazil (I would hope Russia), I leave out China for now.
    Alas there is some kind of diffuse xenophobia at work in the world right now that seems to block this, that passes beyond my understanding.
    I think the private commercial end of this problem will be a solution to the ‘spaceflight’ problem but economics once again throws an unpredictable wrench into that future history.

  • tesh January 3, 2012, 11:50

    Happy New Year to you all.

    Nice set of predictions.

    By the 2050s:

    However, I’m not sure about the AI part. I wonder if, instead of AI, there will be an “uplift” of another species to full sentience? A bit like the Planet of the Apes but with a better outcome – like the David Brin, Uplift, series scenario.

    I’d also like to think that that the life span of humans will be increased drastically – for good or ill. The melding of the bio-silico worlds could facilitate this.

    As far as new power sources for propulsion goes, I’m not sure if 2050 is early enough. Chemical rockets will dominate. I’m not even sure that fusion tech (prepetually 20 years ways) will have been established, let alone rockets being powered by it. Maybe we’ll have greater reusability of components.

    “Servicing”, by humans and robots, of large space based platforms may have taken hold and this will lead to increased space infrastructure for space access and habitability.

    A moon base will probably be under construction.

    A few thoughts. Not as rosy as yours but still progressive and not overly pessimistic.

  • Ole Burde January 3, 2012, 12:03

    This is indeed an extremely optimistic SF- compatible version of the future.
    The only exception to this general optimism , is to consider rotaitional “gravity” to be too difficult for tomorrows spacecraft . Even the existing spacestation could have had two rotating modules conected to each other with cables . These ” recreational modules ” would only be acsesible wearing a spacesuit , but if this design had been chosen , some very important questions could have been answered : How much “gravity-time” is necesary to prevent microgravity health degradation ? Whats the minimum rotation period ( and the resulting cable length ) that humans can adabt to ? How difficult will it be to spinn-up or spinn-down the two rotating cylinders ? Would it be worthwile to have a simler spacesuit specificly designed for this transfer- purpose only ?
    All these and many more questions could have been anwered by now . The fact they were not , is just another bit of evidence pointing in the gerneral direction of a real future VERY diferent from the optimistic Walt Disney scenario laid out here …

  • David C. Mueller January 3, 2012, 13:10

    What a wonderful and compelling vision for the 21st century! I look forward to seeing at least some of these predictions come true during my lifetime.

  • Stefan January 3, 2012, 13:24

    I enjoyed this future history – thanks for a good read and seasons greetings to all other Tau aspirants – better late than never.

  • Dirk Bruere January 3, 2012, 15:09

    What I would like to know is what happened to two interesting technologies. The first is of all the reported pseudogravitaional effects of rotating superconductors. The other is gamma energy release from Hafnium 178 by a form of stimulated emission.

  • James D. Stilwell January 3, 2012, 15:54

    Regarding Marc Millis:
    God willing, he’ll live long enough to ask the Singularity why in the past 500 years the Galactic Empire hasn’t yet found us earthlings, sent an ambassador to reside in an embassy, say, built next to the 20,000 ton ITER assembling in France, learn some French, and hand us the solutions to interstellar travel so that we humans might become an interstellar race.
    This continued absence of an advanced race mingling with humanity is more intriguing than all the other questions put together. Where is everybody?
    God willing, we’ll live to see the stars come to us, as Clarke once suggested.
    Otherwise, we’re pawns in the Creator’s game of Destiny. James D. Stilwell

  • Mike January 3, 2012, 16:01

    Well, all things considered, you might as well be optimistic.

  • Thomas W. Hair January 3, 2012, 17:26

    “With the worsening environment and associated increase in natural disasters (storms, quakes/tsunamis, volcanic eruptions), many people are using the closed life-support technology…”

    Is the author suggesting that mankind’s hypothesized impact upon the biosphere also be associated with a rise in tectonic activity and volcanic eruptions? Human induced tidal waves? C’mon

  • Greg January 3, 2012, 18:30

    I believe the one thing that prevents us from achieving what Mark has laid out is Government and it’s regulations and lack of commitment, if it wasn’t for them we could be well on our way to expanding into the solar system. I don’t think this will change any time soon.
    Now putting aside the pessimism, the one thing I can certainly see is a breakthrough in antimatter production with a few decades. There are a few possibilities right now being investigated that if proven, could allow us to produce larger quantities of antimatter, giving us the keys to solar system and beyond.

  • Joy January 3, 2012, 18:37

    I enjoyed the speculations as escapist entertainment, perhaps from a parallel world which made different choices about 50 years ago. Similarly, I am hoping for more Neil Asher books in my future.

    In my real world, I am seeing soaring rates of mental illness, drug addiction, unemployment, bankruptcy, and suicide. Not to mention the return of rheumatic fever and measles. I also understand the US empire passed a law (NDAA) 31 Dec 11 allowing indefinite detention and torture of anyone, anywhere, anytime at government whim without any due process. Nice. Meanwhile, techonoslaves are making ipads in locked prison factories in China, with suicide nets below the windows so they can’t even escape into death. I see many people hoping for a 2012 apocalypse, as that would be more desirable than having to continue with their miserable lives. I doubt that seeing stories on TV about the elite enjoying zero G sex will make them any happier.

    So, while I well understand that many technologies could (and probably will)be pushed much farther in some stable enclaves, I wonder. How many people will still be living at the various future dates Marc has mentioned? And how will they be ruled? Finally, will the Virgin Galactic space tourists have to get the full TSA blue glove grope and terahertz radiation scans? (somehow, I think not)

  • Fred Willett January 3, 2012, 19:41

    By 2015 the big development will, I think, be the extablishment of the first spaceline. (hopefully called Spaceways, or Triplanetary Space Lines or something like that). Initially this company will be just a simple affair pushing a module of tourists on a loop around the moon.
    But with fuel depots a simple spaceship capable of 6km/s can reach anywhere in the Earth-Moon-Mars system.
    I’m not saying you’ll be able to book a ticket to Mars by 2015, just that the process will have begun. The spaceline will be forming. The way ahead wioll have begun to take shape.
    By 2020…

  • Omar Ontiveros January 3, 2012, 19:58

    I loved the idea however I would move some of these dates much further into the future– ITER and related fusion tech won’t be ready for commercial usage until the last quarter of the century. As for AI, computers with the sophistication of IBMs Watson will take another generation before they become commonplace and possible another generation still before they can be considered sapient. If I were to gamble I would say true AI will be available late in the second half of this century. I do agree once true AI will form that catalyst for many ground-breaking discoveries in Physics and Mathematics which will eventually allow engineers to build propulsion systems capable of reaching the stars. I don’t expect anything to actually be built until sometime between the 22nd and 23rd century.

    Reaching the stars will happen and the work of TZF will contribute to that eventuality. We are living in interesting times. Keep an eye on the East. It is their turn to lead the next great push into space travel.

  • Attila January 3, 2012, 20:33

    The solution to muscle atrophy in long term spaceflight is already quite advanced in being solved by gene silencing technology.


  • Rob Henry January 3, 2012, 20:47

    This article is a great way to stimulate discussion. There are two points in it that I feel miss the mark, and I feel that one omission might significantly alter things.

    To me, the first probable mistake is to assume that war is illogical and entirely a product of our worst instincts. To illustrate the error I ask that you note that groups of humans seem to naturally coordinate in two entirely different fashions. The first is where most all individuals within work ceaselessly to increase their standing wealth and resources at the expense of all others. The second comes when all suddenly pull together, and understandably this results in lower stress levels. This can be due to natural disaster, but more typically it is due to war, and during these periods innovation seems to go into hyperdrive. The real decrease in warfare (as per “The Better Angels of our Nature”) should be credited to HUMAN factors. What AI’s could add is an outside perspective on how to keep us in that cooperative phase without need of external conflict as a driver!

    Secondly we already have a seemingly significant (if contested) diurnal cycling signal in the Viking biological tests, yet we have not raced out there to recheck them in a massive and popular international effort. Whatever awakens from our lethargy, I can’t see it being an identical type of phenomenon in a place where any follow-up is orders of magnitude harder.

    And finally that omission: peak oil. I think it most probable that the problem will have some sort of impact in slowing the world’s economic growth, and giving it a more insular perspective over the next couple of decades. Thus in my timeline, interesting developments on the extraterrestrial front would only start in earnest around 2030, and after the period in which the changeover from oil is ostensibly complete.

  • tesh January 4, 2012, 10:02

    @Rob Henry, I’m not sure I fully understand your point. If you are stating that war is necessary for progress, then I disagree.

    There was once an episode of South Park where Cartman gets AIDS and then vindictively infects Kyle (or Stan, cannot remember). Anyway, they travel high and low to find a cure and come across Magic Johnson (a famous basketball player, I think) who has lived with the disease for a very long time. They look for the secret for his apparent immunity and are stumped. By chance they pass his bedroom and come across the fact that Magic sleep with cash, loads of it. As is the way with South Park, they link loads of money with surviving with AIDS. They then go on to distil the money down to make a serum that can beat AIDS.

    The point I’m trying to make, badly I think, is that a war or a natural disaster is not required for great advances – just loads of cash. The Chinese aren’t at war with anyone in particular but their progress in moving forward in space tech, bio tech, engineering and so on is undeniable. In fact most wars and disasters have actually led to societies going backwards. Great advances require stability and investsent, i.e. cash. The greatest advances, during the Greek, Roman, Arab, Renaissance or the Industrialisation of western Europe, came about due to the large investments (i.e. you got it, cash) made by governments, rulers and philanthropists. War or disasters did not.

    It is quite simple, move forward as a whole or fall apart in bits. Education in my opinion is the best answer.

  • Michael Simmons January 4, 2012, 11:33

    At some point “we” will have total control over the engineering of life.
    This means we will be able to create much more intelligent beings than ourselves. So “singularity” might be either biological or silicon based or a combination of both.

  • James Fincannon January 4, 2012, 13:13

    Assuming the Singularity does happen in our civilization, it obviates the work needed for interstellar flight before it happens. Reason: It is sort of like pre-civilizational proto-humans banging rocks and sticks together and more or less messing around in the muck trying to figure out _anything_ compared to us Ipad toting wiz kids just looking it up on Google. Trying to figure out interstellar flight by chipping away at the problem before the Singularity occurs using our, at most (for 98% of the population), 130 IQ brains seems hopeless when you have the potential of AI brains that are some multiple of that PLUS being faster and mass producible. Can we even understand what it means to have 260 IQ? What can such an intelligence conceive of? Its not just adding two numbers fast, an idiot savant can do that. Its visualizing a problem in some “space” the rest of us can’t see and solving it. I am ignoring the idea of programming ethics or morality or even self awareness. All I am considering is problem solving. All this implies we should not even be considering working on interstellar travel, but rather on how to speed up the Singularity (electronics, computer science, nanotech, etc). If the Singularity is bunk then of course we cannot rely on it and should proceed our chipping away at far off things like interstellar travel.

    And, of course, given the possibility of many other worlds (as the Kepler spacecraft and other methods are showing) and assuming some of these worlds have life and assuming some of these might have civilizations that have sprung up before us, another poster stated correctly that the Singularity concept implies the AI superminds should have dreamt up interstellar travel devices (well, they could have simply slogged along by chipping away at the interstellar problem until it got solved). In either event, the questions is where are they? Did they visit us a million years ago? Or sooner? Would we even recognize them? Or do they just decide its just better to stay in place and make the best of things (and given they are potentially much more intelligent than we are, who are we to argue with their rationale)?

  • Abelard Lindsey January 4, 2012, 13:31

    Probable technological developments that I would add would be fusion (both polywell IEC as well as LENR, which looks increasingly real). LENR would allow for nuclear thermal SSTO, because there is no radiation issue. Plasma fusion like polywell IEC would be used for deep space transportation, because of the very high ISPs.

    Other technologies include additive manufacturing and synthetic biology. The first would make space manufacturing a lot easier and the second is necessary for biopheres used in space habitats (orbital or Mars surface).

  • V Gupta January 4, 2012, 15:13

    I think one major hurdle needs to be surpassed before the next age of major scientific revolution can come forth: the abolishment of money.

    Constant-growth economies have our people focusing on monetary hoarding at the expense of inequality, the environment and sustainable progress. Only by focusing on zero-growth and stability can we point the energies of humanity towards solving the “big” questions.

    Money was the essential tool of inequality that man has created to deal with the scarce world of centuries past. Until we abolish it, embrace standardization of goods and drop the ownership paradigm, mankind will continue to struggle with its own immaturity. It’s like Troi said in the Star Trek episode when Samuel Clemens asks for a hand-rolled cigar: “Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago and a lot of other things disappeared with it — hopelessness, despair, cruelty…”.

    What she fails to mention is that a number of things filled the void — equality, wisdom, discovery, transcendence…

  • jkittle January 4, 2012, 15:50

    Great comments and hope we can update this periodically. This could be part of the mission of TZ, since all of these technologies interact both as engineering components, economically and philosophically. I do not know of any ongoing, sustained, curated, moderated discussion of this particular collection of topics.
    The importance of the biological components of space travel, particularly genetic engineering of support systems and even humans themselves is undeniable. Of all the speculations, the advance of biological capabilities is expanding at the most rapid pace ( cost/ capacity improvements in genome sequencing of a million fold in ten years) . Leavign even ten yeas longer PRODUCTIVE lives would have an impact on making us both more long range in our planning but also a bit more cautious, perhaps.
    By the way Re: the comment on peak oil I have moved to Ohio where the new development of the Utica shale as a source of natural gas and liquids promises to supply energy to the US for the next fifty years . This resource ( including the Marcellus shale) covers much of Ohio , Pennsylvania and parts of New York and south into Kentucky and Tennessee. For better or worse Fracking and horizontal drilling makes this resource CHEAP to exploit.
    The economic benefits and dangers for this underdeveloped part of the country are enormous and not well understood. We now have as much extractable gas as Texas ever had oil. It will have huge effects on our ( that is, the USA) ability to continue progress as a leader in science and space exploration.

  • philw1776 January 4, 2012, 15:56

    Interesting speculation as always. Sadly were we to take the Wayback Machine to the 70s, 80, or 90s we’d see similar optimistic scenarios, ones that did not happen.

    I’ll focus on Economics, the Dismal Science, and how it will continue to impact space exploration. At the very pinnacle of the Apollo program political leaders railed against the expense and wanted the moneys diverted to social programs. That pretty much happened, NASA became a congressional district jobs program with its notable successes confined to great observatories and robotic planetary exploration. The tens of billions diverted to social programs became hundreds and now approach the trillion mark.

    The bright hope for manned spaceflight is private enterprise unfettered by burdensome government regulations. Perhaps this will continue. Perhaps the first accident will quash such efforts with multi-billion dollar litigation against the funding billionaires. Or perhaps congress will FAA burden the costs to make it unaffordable.

    We’ve also seen the impact of the huge burden of political entitlement deficit spending on NASA’s science efforts. There is no TPF or similar capability program funded so the fantasy that a Destiny, a known habitable world, will be discovered by 2020 is highly unlikely.

  • Rob Henry January 4, 2012, 16:20

    Tesh, I also thought that the way I conveyed my objection to possibility that AI’s would mitigate war looked nebulous, but that is because I could not think of a concise way to put it. I think that our history has indicated that in many settings war is a sufficient condition to predict progress, but seldom (hopefully never) a necessary condition. In contrast to me you made your point well, such that I feel obliged to criticise given that I don’t believe it.

    “Throwing money at a problem” certainly works but I suggest that the resulting progress rate can never match that experienced in periods marked by war or heightened drive for hegemony. I further suggest that in China we are seeing the planets most populous nation with almost the highest IQ rebound from absurd lows, and that it is actually currently undergoing a period of hegemony.

  • Rob Henry January 4, 2012, 17:03

    James Fincannon, this whole singularity business is a possibility that we should keep in mind, but I have issue with one of the assumptions on which it is founded. Ever since ELISA in 1966 people have believed that we were just a decade or so off machines of human intelligence. If hardware was the problem we should have well exceeded that level by now unless we add exotic hypothesises, such as we need massive amounts of parallel processing or quantum computing. I put it to you that software is the real problem, and in that case we can only expect linear rates of progress, not exponential ones.

    Sometimes Godel’s incompleteness theorem has be misused in application to the problem, yet I believe that this part of it will eventually prove true. Since no individual can fully understand its own intelligence, it will prove to take an extraordinary length of time applied over a large team of AI’s with differing orientations on the problem to produce another that is slightly more intelligent than the average member of that team. To me at least, this is what the human experience indicates, and even then I don’t think that we would go down that path for the following reason.

    Up till now humans have programmed objectives (or motives) into software. If we then use several generations of AI’s to generate fresh motives, they are highly likely become discordant to our own.

  • Greg January 4, 2012, 17:49

    @tesh, China isn’t really the best example, they’ve pretty much stolen most of the high tech knowledge they have. They are still behind the U.S in space capabilities by a good 20-30 years even with the stolen technology. And ultimately the biggest set back for them is, innovation rarely happens in a repressive regime such as China’s.

  • Rob Henry January 4, 2012, 17:55

    Joy, it is a normal human trait for our individual subjective analysis to be markedly more optimistic or pessimistic than the data would allow. Your gloomy view of the future might eventually prove to be spot on, but your interpretation of the present is wrong – possibly due to the medias increasing efficiency at finding the evermore isolated episodes of human catastrophe.

    We may be wise to heed your anecdotes of misery as a warning of what might occur if we become lax in our compliancy, but for a more analytic view of our current wellbeing, I suggest “The better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker.

  • Lawrence Bohler January 4, 2012, 20:22

    This is the first comment I have submitted, although I have been reading your blog (with fascination) for over a year. Your imaginary predictions are absorbing and lend reality to our dreams of interstellar flight.

    I worked in aerospace during the Apollo program, and, although going on to other pursuits Facility management), mainly for ultimate financial security, I have always retained a fascination with our space program and follow it closely.

    One minor point – I believe the figure labeled as “Europa astrobiology lander at work” is actually a picture of a Viking mars lander. I know because I worked on the program in the early 1970’s (I designed the temperature protection system for the Viking cameras).

    Keep up the good work – I enjoy reading your blog every day.

    Lawrence Bohler

  • Paul Gilster January 4, 2012, 20:35

    Lawrence Bohler writes:

    One minor point – I believe the figure labeled as “Europa astrobiology lander at work” is actually a picture of a Viking mars lander. I know because I worked on the program in the early 1970′s (I designed the temperature protection system for the Viking cameras).

    Interesting! The figure I have here is clearly labeled as a sketch for a Europa lander, but maybe it was misidentified somewhere along the line. Thanks for the note about this, and great to have you with us, Lawrence.

  • Steven Rappolee January 4, 2012, 22:30

    Some of you above have posted about money, many in the past and today argue the merits of space exploration as detracting from problem solving problems “at home”
    in till we solve problems of government spending on poverty space colonization may never get off the ground, I have a solution! :)
    Invest a carbon tax in all newborn children in a social security sovereign wealth fund. At $200 Billion a year at 7% interest 60 years from now this would amount to $199 trillion ! a truly staggering amount. this would represent a large portion of the world GDP in that future era and everyone older then 50 years of age would be 300 % above the poverty level thus ending government expenditures in this age group.
    3% of the fund would be enough to build a vast array of space based solar powersats, lunar mining colony’s and a vast fuel depot constellation.

    see my plan here at TEDtalks,


    In the near future the government will transfer the Tennessee valley authority and the pacific north west hydroelectric corporations to the SSI/medicare sovereign wealth funds as cash flow assets but to also build a fleet of heavy water reactors to burn spent nuclear fuel.it will take a century to build the 50 reactors at $10 billion each and for them to burn all of the spent fuel from the LWR’s. I call this de facto on site interim storage.over a century electrical power sales pays for the reactors and grows the sovereign wealth fund.This fleet of reactors is also the part of the space based solar powersats system.

    so my plan does many things,
    carbon tax to stabilize and reduce carbon emissions
    bring about an end to poverty in the over 40 generation in 60 to 100 years with an invested sovereign wealth fund
    as the carbon tax dwindles the sovereign wealth fund is designed to be self perpetuating.
    retirees from this fund start to inject unprecedented amounts of income taxes into to the government and end government spending on this population in 50 to 60 years.
    the fund is so large there are not enough capital markets to absorb so much money, even over 60 years, space industrialization starts!
    since this fund is invested in capital markets all over the world, development accelerates and world birth rates plummet and poverty rates plummet.


    after the sovereign wealth fund new born children become workers they must pay social security taxes to the old social security system in order to pay for those of us alive today
    my plan works best if immortality occurres after “we” are all dead shortly after the fund becomes self sufficient from the carbon tax :)


    Immortal or not the Robot or combined human and robot must belong to these funds and pay taxes.why?/ they displace or add to productive labor. And if the human cant own the robot that has displaced it, the the taxes will keep the system solvent.IE if you want a singularity you want a smooth transition to it,
    see post scarcity,
    and comments about “voyage to yesterday” and “the culture”
    70 years from now the fund would double to $400 trillion and most everyone alive would be or soon would be worth $ 5 to $10 million each, if you add in technology to produce everything for free then at this point the money does become with out meaning…………..
    a singularity with a transition…………

  • Rob Henry January 4, 2012, 22:44

    Jkittle, you are spot on about the potential for fracking to alleviate the potential for peak oil, however there is a cost and delay involved with the change from an oil based to a gas based economy. I believe that that has not been sufficiently anticipated as yet, so the readjustment will still have significant impact, even if it is just confined to the next couple of decades. Also some other areas of the world may be harder hit.

  • Eniac January 4, 2012, 22:49

    @Greg: A century or two earlier, Americans were the ones “stealing” technology from the then dominating European nations. Let’s face it, technology, like all knowledge, spreads nearly unimpeded, as it should. Labeling this process “stealing” is a profound display of small-mindedness.

  • Eniac January 4, 2012, 22:58

    @Rob: 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. Unexpected things always happen, and that dooms doomsday scenarios just as much as utopias. My favorite is the prediction of cities drowning in horse excrement if traffic kept increasing the way it was…

    Neither of them having the slightest chance of coming true, I’ll take the optimistic fantasy over the doomsday scenario any day. Thanks, Marc, for that one.

  • Istvan January 5, 2012, 0:19

    And here I thought my own hopes and dreams for the near-future were FAR too optimistic to really describe publicly given the modern fiscal and social environment….

    That dose of hope and optimism was both refreshing and quite nicely assembled. Thank you for sharing it. And Happy New Year.

  • Claudia Marinelli January 5, 2012, 0:24

    I loved the part about IA and singularity, the most probable future, up to me is that artificial intelligence will “melt” with biologic intelligence. Already there are studies to use microchip for repairing memory, what if we start using these devices to improve the brain’s performanves? I think it’s a short leap and has unpredictable consequences on human race.
    I loved the article! But think it’s very optimistic.

  • JohnHunt January 5, 2012, 1:15

    I always appreciate people posting their predictions. It’s gutsy and serves as a good basis for discussion. If done well (though very difficult to do accurately) imagining the future could serve as a guideline to avoid expending resources down dead end alleys. What could be helpful is if we could compare predictions made by those who have a good track record of making successful predictions.

    I would agree with Brian Wang’s assessment that the impact of SpaceX needs to factor in. In particular, I think it likely that the Falcon Heavy will be successful because it is just three core stages essentially the same as their twice successfully launched Falcon 9. I personally think that a successful Falcon Heavy launch is going to make if very difficult to sustain the argument for continuing the expensive and commercially useless Space Launch System. If the US goes with launching and mating Falcon Heavy payloads then this will greatly increase how many large launches NASA could afford each year. This will free up money for orbital depots, lunar landers, telerobotics, etc. From the interstellar perspective, it could be the beginning of in-space (e.g. lunar surface) infrastructure upon which beamed propulsion could be built.

    Something not mentioned in Millis’ predictions, but should be considered, are the negative impacts of future technology. With bioengineering could come frightenly effective bioweapons. Nanotechnology could not only result in super light-weight sails but nanoweapons as well. A desktop nanomanufacturing device like Nanorex illustrates on YouTube could also be accidentally used to make a self-replicating chemical ecophage. Seed AI could result in an accelerating intelligence which would view humans as matter of use in advancing its utility function. Hopefully none of these pessemistic scenarios would come to pass but still, I think it prudent that the securing humanity’s survival should be a goal for our plans for manned missions either in our solar system or beyond.

  • Nick January 5, 2012, 1:19

    Always fun to think about the future. But there are radically different, and far more probable, futures in store than this kind of consensus science fiction.

    MM: “aquatic life is found and imaged under the surface of Europa.”

    For reasons demonstrated in earlier threads, this is astronomically improbable unless related to earth life via panspermia. OTOH, MM is too pessimistic about the difficulty of finding earth-sized planets in habitable zones. It also will be easy by 2030 to conduct spectroscopic surveys of them to look for e.g. chlorophyll. The result: we will by 2050 discover thousands of earth-sized planets in habitable zones, many of them covered by water oceans, and no signs of life on any of them (except for the usual abiotic chemicals astrobiology fans like to mistake for signs of life, e.g. methane). This won’t stop the astrobiologists from postulating all sorts of cryptobiology, and won’t stop the SETI fans from positing ETI that come ever more to resemble the elusive habits of elves and hobbits.

    We’ll also have ever more detailed spectroscopic surveys of other galaxies, and be able to rule out the widespread use across a galaxy of technologies that would be straightforward for a technological species millions of years older than ours to use on a large scale (e.g. efficient quantum illumination technologies, near-perfect radiators, etc.) Possibly we’ll discover one or two such civilizations in a trillion galaxies — showing that such large-scale transformation of galactic surfaces is indeed quite possible (not that anything but a good understanding of earth history and technology is needed to deduce that), but further demonstrating that the probability of finding ETI in our own galaxy is practically zero.

  • Nick January 5, 2012, 1:31

    MM: “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.”

    Some of this will happen, but the vast majority of the mass involved will be processed into forms quite the opposite of sophisticated. It will processed as crudely, and basically as little, as possible. What’s missing here (and from futurism generally) is a more economically sound account of industrializing space. In our mining, chemical, and manufacturing industries we take for granted an extremely fine-grained division of labor involving billions of machines and hundreds of millions of people. If any readers are not familiar with the writings of Adam Smith and Leonard Read on the division of labor, stop reading this now and start reading immediately

    Leonard Reed’s pencil: http://www.fee.org/library/books/i-pencil-2

    or Adam Smith’s coat: http://www.stanford.edu/~johntayl/Adam%20Smith%20on%20the%20woolen%20coat.pdf

    The chances that we will somehow replicate earthside industrial, mining, or architectural technology in anything resembling its current form (trillions of tonnes of equipment) in space are zero. The chances of some magical AI robotics or “singularity” coming along to solve that problem are also zero. Again because of the basic economics of technology observed by Adam Smith: specialized machines and processes greatly outperform generalized ones, so no “general AI” of any such substantial utility is in the cards. We already have very advanced specialized machines and improvements in them will continue apace.

    Nevertheless, we can substitute native (in situ) materials for very large fractions of the mass we currently launch from earth — propellant and tankage alone making up over 80% of those. This enables a Moore’s law of interplanetary transportation, by using native propellants to transport native materials to earth orbit and mining equipment from earth orbit, with the caveat that anything made in space is going to be very crude, far more pioneer technology (think of a very scaled up village blacksmith) than the high tech made possible by the fine-grained division of labor on earth. See for example the account of comet mining and ice rockets at http://szabo.best.vwh.net/comet.mining.html. The result is crude mass in earth orbit or anywhere else in orbit around planets and moons will cost pennies per tonne. But to process that mass into anything but crude form (e.g. into propellants suitable for ion engines rather than for crude solar-thermal engines) will get very expensive very quickly as it will require a much higher proportion of equipment launched from earth.

    The result is that certain of the problems highlighted will be relatively easy to solve (e.g. radiation shielding, artificial gravity) with very cheap large structures and very cheap propellants to move these structures around the solar system. But other problems (e.g. achieving a space colony that resembles in most ways a very low-tech poverty, like the ancient Polynesian islands, or a preposterously expensive government program, hopelessly dependent on grossly uneconomical imports from earth) will take many centuries to solve.

    The upshot of this economic analysis for interstellar travel: crude thermal propellants will be extremely cheap, as will crude structure and radiation shielding, but propellant in the sophisticated forms usually postulated by starship designers (e.g. for ion engines, fusion engines, etc.) will have to be launched from earth for many centuries to come. For any parts or materials to be any cheaper than those expensively launched from earth, the starship designer for the next two centuries at least will have to design based on technology that will much more resemble the pioneer village than it does earthside ultra-sophisticated technologies based on very fine grained divisions of labor. Food for novel thoughts!

  • tesh January 5, 2012, 4:32

    Rob Henry, I don’t disagree that war is a good indicator of progress – at least from a historical perspective /in hindsight. Maybe, the historical perspective fails to bring across that the the perceived progress achieved, due to conflict, is actually a distillation of knowledge and progress gained in the the years/decades of peace that preceded the conflict. I would just add that it is not necessary to have the “war” part for the progress, maybe just a bit more patience and focus on motivations. How to motivate is another issue and brings me to the “throwing the cash” scenario…

    The “cash” I keep mentioning is only because we lack a (for wont of a better word) cheaper alternative. Money/capitalism is the cheapest option for holding order over humanity at present.

    Better education, not just in sums, may open the door for a better alternative.

  • tesh January 5, 2012, 4:55

    @Greg, about the Chinese tech being stolen. This is irrelevant. They have acquired it. I would suggest that there are very few genuine genesis moments for advancements.

    There was a great article in one of the British broad sheets a while back that described the spread of how to make the bomb. Once it was conceived, knowledge of how to make it, spread very quickly. In <50 years it went from one country to about 10 countries. There were no multiple points of genesis, it happened once. Now most countries, it they put their minds to it can gain it one way or another. Back to the conception of the bomb, it was a multi-national effort and it had been festering in the minds (in rudimentary form) of various scientists from many different countries for probably 20-30 years prior to it being used.

    p.s. The chinese have been using chemical rockets, albeit for fireworks, for more than 4 millennia. Do we now say that all space tech was stolen from the Chinese? Kidding.

  • Doug M. January 5, 2012, 8:18

    Okay, just a couple of points.

    — Virgin Galactic has firmly refused to publish a schedule for their flights — which is good, because they’re already years behind schedule. They might have their first commercial sub-orbital flight this year; then again, probably not. It’s quite certain that they will not have a commercial orbital flight before 2020.

    — Bigelow Aerospace laid off half their workforce in October of 2011. So it’s looking like the odds of anyone ever checking in at a Bigelow space hotel are pretty slim.

    — Asteroid prospecting by 2020: barring the development of magic antigravity in the next couple of years, this is pretty much a physical impossibility.

    Doug M.

  • ljk January 5, 2012, 9:58

    No, that is someone’s model of a Europa lander, which I have seen before.

    Here it is in an article on the Jovian moon from 2007:


    However, the design seems to lack imagination, as it is pretty much a Mars Viking lander, but with the RTGs exposed and in the center of the machine rather than on the sides, so I don’t know what those domed objects are covering.

    Here is what the real Vikings looked like, for comparison:


    Would a modified Viking lander work on the Galilean moon? We would need lots of radiation protection unless it could burrow under the ice, which seems unlikely with such a design.

    We would also need something that can drill more than a few inches into the alien ice. Look at what Viking 2 apparently missed while it was on Mars in 1976, as I discovered while searching for that Europa lander image:


    The Russians have a plan to put a lander on Europa in the 2020s based on their Phobos-Grunt design, possibly in cooperation with NASA and the ESA.

    It is too bad we never got to find out if the Phobos-Grunt design would have actually worked on another world, plus the Russians have never sent a mission past Mars before, so we shall see.


  • Greg January 5, 2012, 10:39

    @Eniac, I would hardly call stealing software and computer hardware from companies who are trying to make a living, small mindedness. I’m rather taking a back by such beliefs, Why one should not believe they should be rewarded in fairness for the products they make? I work for a large technology company, I really have seen the figures of how much technology is stolen from our company by Chinese “companies”.

  • Greg January 5, 2012, 10:52

    @tesh, it really isn’t irrelevant, a country can only go so far by stealing technology. China has one major issue like Japan, they do not innovate well. Culturally they do not reward free thought which is the key to innovating. This is also why there is no great flux of entrepreneurs and innovators to Asia. The U.S for all its capabilities is still the number one spot for innovations and will be for the coming decades.

  • jkittle January 5, 2012, 11:44

    For Nick
    Your analysis is spot on describing the character of mining and refining operations in space. – the single most important product being water!- it is easy to mine and easy to refine, and makes a terrific starting material for rocket fuel especially if you have some carbon, ( like CO2) around. Earth will continue to supply electronics and advanced materials for a while, and virtually all manufactured tools, but that is not the Heavy stuff. Consider how we make Ice hotels on earth.. ice is the concrete of the outer solar system- along with iron and nickel, which can be refined with the use of hydrogen produced from water. For zubin’s ideas on using carbon monoxide as propellant, I would point out that methane is not that hard to create if you have sufficient supplies of water and CO2 and is a much more efficient fuel, a bit easier to store.
    One IMPORTANT exception to the crude and buld nature of space manufacturing, is in the ares of genetic enginnering,. If you wish to engineer microorganisms, a mobile DNA synthesis lab can be used to modify simple bacteria every easily. 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. Modified organisms will be key to efficient chemical factories of space. Now we just have to get that Mars base set up!

  • ljk January 5, 2012, 12:07

    If you want a good idea about future predictions going back over a century on all sorts of topics, check out Paleofuture here:


    Marc’s predictions are refreshing optimistic, just as most of our future prognostications were through the 1960s. The last few decades seem to have made it “uncool” to predict anything about the future that is not at least somewhat downbeat – Soylent Green over Star Trek, as it were.

    I know these dystopian scenarios serve a double purpose to entertain more dramatically and to warn us about going down the wrong societal paths, just like most films and stories about aliens have them trying to attack us rather than making peaceful contact, but they also stem for an overabundance of mistrust when it comes to technology and even progress.

    Worrying about pollution and nuclear weapons is one thing, but the more luddite attitudes have also contaminated the better aspects of technological advancement, including such plans as colonizing the Sol system and sending vessels to other stars.

    Seeing as we as a species and society can control these features of our future, we need to better define what is and is not a threat so that we do not throw out everything and leave us in worse shape. I can tell you one thing, having 7 billion humans suddenly decide to go on an indefinite camping trip and abandon space in the process will be a disaster for all of us.

    If we want to have a future with increased employment, money pouring into our economies, new technologies that will benefit everyone, an expansion of our knowledge and ourselves into new territories, plus a renewed sense of adventure, then space is the place for all this. Seriously, do you think we can keep our current civilization going and growing on this one finite planet without serious consequences down the road?

    If all this sounds old-fashioned to those for whom I am not preaching to the choir to, then good, because it is time to stop thinking that our future is roaming some burned out wasteland populated by dangerous mutants and start focusing up and outwards.

  • johnq January 5, 2012, 14:59

    I enjoyed this future fantasy and while one must respect the complaints offered about some of the details, the article could have been easily rewritten to avoid them. It’s not a big deal. I was also thinking of adding some negative scenarios of my own, but doing so is way too easy. I mean in the not too distant past, Dick Cheney might have gotten a hold of the space shuttle and Lord knows that might have happened, but he didn’t and it didn’t so let’s just focus on the positive. There’s just so much cool stuff in Millis’s musings.

    I did want to add that the great Eric K. Drexler (the goto nanotech guy for the last quarter century, for those unfamiliary with him) is coming out with a new book this year, Radical Abundance. Even when he’s wrong, as he is on occasion when it comes to timing, anything Eric has to say is extremely interesting for future-philes. Note: I am concerned about the publisher since the focus/audience for their publications appears to be policy wonks of one dreadful sort or another, but let’s wait and see.

  • ljk January 5, 2012, 15:04

    As for the future of artificial intelligence, or AI, or Artilects (for Artificial Intellects), there is Ray Kurzweil’s vision:


    and Hugo de Garis’ vision:




    As I have stated elsewhere on Centauri Dreams, we will need very smart machines to run our interstellar vessels, even those with humans aboard such as a worldship. In the process, we need to learn if a smart machine will also become aware/conscious as a result of needing to be smart, because that possibility could have a massive effect on all such missions.