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The Billion Year Plan

At the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houson, I sent out a large number of tweets as @centauri_dreams. That Twitter account is still live, but be aware that my son Miles, who is now working actively with us, has set up a new account solely for the Tau Zero Foundation. You can access @TZFoundation to pick up interesting links and news of the interstellar community. I suspect, for example, that when Miles runs across articles like the one I’m going to be discussing today, they’ll appear on Twitter, but he’s bound to find a lot of good material that I miss.

Yesterday we were looking at distance issues as Larry Klaes discussed the extension of Ithaca, NY’s Sagan Planet Walk all the way to Hawaii, where a new ‘station’ represents Alpha Centauri. Matters of scale are important to convey to the public because getting across the distances involved in interstellar flight is tricky, and various ways of modeling them can provide the needed perspective. Peter Garretson thinks about scale as well, but in What Our Civilization Needs Is a Billion Year Plan, a new piece on the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence blog, he attacks the issue in terms of time. And actually he ranges a good deal beyond the billion years mentioned in the title.

Lt. Col. Garretson has been thinking about futuristic issues for a long time. He’s a space advocate who serves as Chief of Future Science and Technology Exploration for Headquarters Air Force, a man who has written widely on issues ranging from planetary defense to space solar power, and in a number of white papers he has discussed investment strategies for high risk/high return technologies and lunar development. In the Kurzweil piece, he picks up on a presentation originally made at the International Space Development Conference last year.

Image: An imagined far future as a Kardashev Type II civilization exploits its system to enclose its star in a Dyson sphere. Credit: Adam Burn.

Usually when I talk about a ‘long-term’ strategy, I’m looking centuries and conceivably a millennium ahead, but Garretson takes us to the death of the Sun and beyond. And in the interim, he’s suggesting that we should be planning for a future in space that begins with O’Neill-style space colonies constructed out of materials in the asteroid belt, ultimately enough to support between 10 and 100 trillion humans (links to the sources for these numbers are provided in the text). Key to the short-term plan, which could itself take centuries, is the need for energy. He considers fossil fuels a kind of ‘baby fat’ for the Earth to use in growing to adolescence, saying that spacefaring and new energy sources will have to be developed before we run out of this ‘easy’ energy and lose the energy capital we need to create the crucial precursor technologies.

Even so, abundant future energy doesn’t mean we can stay on Earth forever:

The case where we transcend a fossil fuel crisis is just as compelling. If we succeed in continuing our population and development growth and find new energy sources, and assuming energy use (including all sources: fossil, nuclear, fusion, etc.) grows at annual rate of 2.3% (reduced from the current 2.9% to be more realistic), we’d only be able to continue growth on Earth for another 420 years before we could not maintain the heat balance of the planet, and started boiling the oceans ourselves.

Imagine a future Earth ringed by solar power satellites maintaining a population of some 10 billion or so in relative prosperity, its needs met by 40-50 TW of total electrical energy. It could be a green and prosperous place, but the vision Garretson suggests is of a place that might quickly become something of a backwater as a spacefaring civilization grows up to 10,000 times more populous. This is a lively essay, profusely illustrated, pointing ahead to Kardashev Type 2 — where the total energy of the Sun could be exploited — and into a still more speculative future beyond.

Interstellar flight plays a major role in Garretson scenarios, and he’s generous in mentioning not only our Frontiers of Propulsion Science text (edited by Marc Millis and Eric Davis and published by the AIAA in 2009), but also the 100 Year Starship organization, the prior work of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project run by Millis at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and the Tau Zero Foundation. Icarus Interstellar should make an appearance here as well, and I suspect a future iteration of this presentation will include the ongoing re-design of the British Interplanetary Society’s Daedalus starship, now under the capable leadership of Pat Galea.

I won’t go through all the future possibilities Garretson examines — you’ll want to read the essay yourself, where you’ll find speculations going as far ahead as the ‘degenerate era’ some 1014 to 1040 years from now. But drivers for a bolder space program in our own time also make an appearance, including severe damage and even mass extinctions caused by asteroids. An asteroid mining infrastructure, which we may be seeing the first steps toward through organizations like Planetary Resources, will ultimately develop the best methods for asteroid deflection, an early priority for a civilization spreading out into the Solar System.

Along the way there is a healthy jolt of inspiration:

Many look at the significant events discussed above as “doomsday scenarios,” but to me, they are just eventualities to be planned for, and chance favors the prepared mind. It’s also a happy consequence that the farther out you look for problems, and the bigger problems you try to tackle, the more likely you are to perceive and be able to bring ambitious thinking to more proximate problems.

If we had not been building instruments in space to look far out into space, we would not even know about the threats of asteroids, comets, gamma-ray-bursts or galactic collisions. We also would not have the space-based surveillance to know about the hurricane or tsunami on its way. Lifting our eyes to the horizon pays.

Of course, there are more proximate threats, and several of our own creation. But personally, I bet on humanity, not against humanity. We are the life carriers, the intelligence, and the gametes of Gaia. It is our destiny to spread not just human life, but the entire clan of life, and intelligence, first to the Solar System, and then to the stars.

Garretson is a man of sweeping concepts, and in that sense he picks up on the same kind of optimism about space that used to infuse our culture in the period before the first moon landings, the breathtaking notions that Chesley Bonestell illustrated for Collier’s and Wernher von Braun advanced as what seemed to be a sure path to Mars. Much has changed in the days since, but we need the deeply imaginative vision to reawaken a public sense of awe over our possibilities in the cosmos. All this is a tough sell in our time, but Garretson knows it’s worth trying. Being bold can help open minds and launch careers that will matter down the line.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Schneider September 25, 2012, 10:28

    I wonder to what extent the expression “one billion years ahead” has a meaning.
    As I explain in the article “What is the future fate of time?” (in French:
    “Que va devenir le temps?”, available at http://luth7.obspm.fr/devenir-le-temps.pdf
    from the wbesite http://luth7.obspm.fr ), there are two reasons to cast a doubt about
    a very long future of the notion of time itself:
    – time is not a physical dimension of the Universe; it is a psychological notion, different from the parameter *t* in Cosmology, intimately entangled with natural language. Natutal language itself is likely to transform completely in something different, well before 1 billion year.
    – up to now, everything has profoundly evolved, why not time itself?

  • Paul Gilster September 25, 2012, 11:31

    An interesting question! It is also raised in a book I am just now finishing, Adam Frank’s About Time, about which more in an upcoming review.

  • qraal September 25, 2012, 16:03

    Interesting question Jean. What’s a more natural metric of time? As for the relevance, our post-Human descendants might have variable subjective time, but to organise understanding of events they might need a common reference standard and a measure of dilation, to account for variable subjective time.

  • Alex Tolley September 25, 2012, 17:54

    Planning for a billion years out doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Let’s put this in perspective: the oldest metazoan fossils we have are from the Burgess shales dating around a half a billion years. Humans planning for a billion years out is like one of those organisms planning for twice the evolutionary history since that time. Humans may be around in some form for a million years of so, but I wouldn’t bet on it, as technology is the new driver and we may well either evolve to new forms even more quickly, or be supplanted by our technological artifacts. We can be pretty sure human eyes won’t be around to watch the sun die (unless there is a deliberate engineering to ensure some version stability).

    What I do like in the Garretson article is the nearer term planning that does make sense. Humans should plan for avoiding potential doomsday scenarios, and greening the universe with our life on barren worlds is a grand project, at least to my contemporary senses (as long as it doesn’t smack of “manifest destiny”).

    But as even corporations have found, 5 year planning is next to impossible in changing conditions. How can we plan under the rapid technological, cultural, and eventually biological change that we are experiencing?

  • Eniac September 25, 2012, 22:40

    I think a distinction needs to be made here between “awareness” of things to come, which it makes sense to have for arbitrarily long time periods, and “planning”, which is a preordained sequence of actions and which very rarely survives for more than a year without drastic modification.

    Speaking for myself, most of my plans become defunct just a few days later….

  • lurscher September 26, 2012, 0:00

    we need to focus on developing comfortable cities around the solar system, after we secure the eggs in multiple baskets we amortize the main existencial risks and we can plan for subsequent “iterations”

  • Mephane September 26, 2012, 4:20

    “I wouldn’t bet on it, as technology is the new driver and we may well either evolve to new forms even more quickly, or be supplanted by our technological artifacts. We can be pretty sure human eyes won’t be around to watch the sun die (unless there is a deliberate engineering to ensure some version stability).”

    I don’t see this as a contradiction. Of course the human species will – if it survives long enough – evolve into something quite different in a billion years. Regardless whether those will be beings that we would perceive as biological, technological, something in between, or something we cannot even fathom, those people will be our decendants, and thus effectively *us*.

  • Bynaus September 26, 2012, 5:33

    I like the motto in the very last sentence of the article: “Mine the sky, defend the Earth, settle the Universe” (by Lee Valentine, SSI) That catches precisly what we should aim for.

    However, I heavily doubt that things will unfold as envisioned by Garretson. Applying the copernican principle of mediocrity to our position on the timeline of all humans that will ever exist would place us somewhere in the middle part (perhaps in time, certainly in birthrank). At least from our vantage point, populations of trillions of humans are exceedingly unlikely. Civilization could nevertheless persist for perhaps millions of years on thousands of worlds, worldlets and worldships, as long as the number of new humans born / new minds created goes steadily down and stays low. Or we simply self-destruct, fade into oblivion. Or something really transformative happens. Maybe the ultimate fate of the universe is somehow tied to the near-future fate of our own civilization. The only thing to be sure of is that it won’t be 21st century humans (plus some new fancy tech) ’till the end of time.

  • ljk September 26, 2012, 9:14

    Bynaus said on September 26, 2012 at 5:33:

    “I like the motto in the very last sentence of the article: “Mine the sky, defend the Earth, settle the Universe” (by Lee Valentine, SSI) That catches precisly what we should aim for.”

    And if other intelligences out there have the same plan, it will be interesting to see what happens when we all start to cross paths out there in the galaxy.

    If you want to see how it doesn’t take a billion years for human plans for the future to go off the rails, check out Paleofuture:


    By the way, assuming that they are not found or destroyed sooner, the handful of robotic space probes which have left the Sol system since the first one was launched in 1972 (Pioneer 10-11, Voyager 1-2, and New Horizons) are estimated to last at least one billion years in deep space. They may be among the only human-made objects which survive from our era into that far distant future.

  • Alex Tolley September 26, 2012, 10:36

    Of course the human species will – if it survives long enough – evolve into something quite different in a billion years.

    Most species do not leave descendants. They simply go extinct. Be3cause we can trace our lineage back in time, we tend to see evolution progressing towards us, but that is an illusion. A Neanderthal would have perceived the same basic lineage, but of course we know it stopped there and disappeared around 30,000 years ago.

    A 10 million year run is good run for most species, and we shouldn’t expect to do better. Either we will go extinct in that time, or possibly we will use technology to artificially speciate. During that length of time, I would be surprised if we don’t create machines more suitable than us to colonize the universe.

  • ljk September 26, 2012, 12:16

    Eternal Clock Could Keep Time After Universe Dies

    Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer

    Date: 24 September 2012 Time: 04:59 PM ET

    The idea for an eternal clock that would continue to keep time even after the universe ceased to exist has intrigued physicists. However, no one has figured out how one might be built, until now.

    Researchers have now proposed an experimental design for a “space-time crystal” that would be able to keep time forever. This four-dimensional crystal would be similar to conventional 3D crystals, which are structures, like snowflakes and diamonds, whose atoms are arranged in repeating patterns. Whereas a diamond has a periodic structure in three dimensions, the space-time crystal would be periodic in time as well as space.

    The idea of a 4D space-time crystal was first proposed earlier this year by MIT physicist Frank Wilczek, though the concept was purely theoretical. Now a team of researchers led by Xiang Zhang of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has conceived of how to make one a reality.

    Full article here:


  • Schneider September 27, 2012, 9:15

    To reply to “qraal”, a linear structure of time is not mandatory to preserve its “essence”. In the paper “Self-referential structure of time” (in French, english extended abstract available at http://luth7.obspm.fr/Structure-AR-temps-abstract.pdf ) I develop a mathematically rigorous model of non linear temporality. By the way, there are models of Quantum Field Theory with a 2-dimensional time.

  • ljk September 27, 2012, 9:23

    Alex Tolley said on September 26, 2012 at 10:36:

    “Of course the human species will – if it survives long enough – evolve into something quite different in a billion years.”

    “Most species do not leave descendants. They simply go extinct. Be3cause we can trace our lineage back in time, we tend to see evolution progressing towards us, but that is an illusion. A Neanderthal would have perceived the same basic lineage, but of course we know it stopped there and disappeared around 30,000 years ago.”

    The difference between all those previous species and us is that we have an awareness level of the future and the capability to affect our descendants in such a way as to, if not totally ensure their indefinite survival, give them a much better chance than ever before to survive most of the usual reasons other species go extinct.

    Colonizing space is one method. Having all the eggs in one basket is always problematical. Genetics and bioengineering could allow our species to adapt to all sorts of environments. Then there is AI, where our artificial creations could exceed and succeed us. Certainly they would be better able to handle the Universe beyond our little planet. I also imagine that any ETI they encounter will be far more like themselves than us, which is yet another answer to the Fermi paradox.

  • ljk September 27, 2012, 13:13
  • Eniac September 27, 2012, 23:41

    Alex Tolley:

    A 10 million year run is good run for most species, and we shouldn’t expect to do better.

    I think you are overlooking the disruptive effect of intelligence in your analysis. The way we have explosively expanded across the entire Earth, I think that we should and can expect to do a lot better. The first cyanobacteria, or the first Eukaryotes might be a better analogy than any random species, and they have had quite a good run.

  • Astronist September 28, 2012, 18:39

    Like Alex Tolley, I think we should avoid the word “destiny”. It is a word that skeptics (such as Tom Murphy) love to beat us over the head with. And they are right: the fact is, it is not our “destiny” to colonise space, if by that is meant that it is inevitable or somehow predestined. A lot of space advocates are very well aware of opportunities missed in the past: it was not the destiny of Troodon to evolve intelligence, or of Homo neanderthalensis to civilise, or of Imperial China to create a global empire, or of Apollo to lead directly to lunar colonisation.

    Our expansion into space is a reward for good behaviour, not an entitlement that we can claim as of right!


  • Astronist September 28, 2012, 18:48

    I don’t understand the query above regarding whether 1 bn years in the future is meaningful. 1 bn years = 3.156 x 10^16 seconds. 1 second is defined (according to my 1971 Royal Society handbook) as 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom. Our descendants may not count in years any more, but their units will still be objectively convertible into years as currently defined, and Earth will continue to orbit the Sun with a definite orbital period for a period of time substantially longer than 1 bn such orbits.


  • Rob Henry September 30, 2012, 16:51

    Astronist, I am also at a loss to explain the differing definition of time in the comments section – though I understand them in extreme situations such as a few planck units from the big bang or crunch. I think that they must be covering all potential situations like Tipler’s final anthropic principle – were universes can only exist if they have observers, so suddenly we are compelled to believe that the future must have influence over the past.

  • ljk October 2, 2012, 10:55

    For the record, is there much point in arguing about whether one billion years is real or not, other than as an academic exercise? These kinds of tangents just derail the more immediate goals we need to achieve if we want to have a future with humans partaking in it at all.



    “A Place Where Science and Science Fiction Can Be of One Mind”

    by John Markoff

    September 24, 2012

    The New York Times

    As befits a meeting ground for scientists and science fiction writers, the new Center for Science and the Imagination grew out of happenstance: a chance meeting last year between the novelist Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University’s president, Michael M. Crow.

    Onstage at a technology conference in Washington, Mr. Stephenson was bemoaning the rash of dystopian visions of the future being generated by science fiction writers. (Mr. Stephenson, of course, was a founding author of the dark sci-fi genre known as cyberpunk.)

    He also complained that the ambitious science and technology endeavors of the 1960s had become a thing of the past, and argued that American society had lost the vision to make great leaps into the future.

    Afterward, Dr. Crow pushed back, saying the fault lay at least in part with the makers and fans of science fiction — for not thinking more ambitiously and optimistically about the future.

    Back at Arizona State, Dr. Crow took steps to establish the new center with funds from the president’s office. It was inaugurated on Monday in Tempe.

    Its first projects include a collaboration with the chip maker Intel, which has created a Tomorrow Project to generate “science-based” conversations about the future. The center will collaborate with Mr. Stephenson’s online science fiction journal, Hieroglyph, also based at Arizona State, whose mission is to help foster a “moon shot” culture to promote ambitious ideas for scientific and technological projects.

    The novelist has been working with an Arizona State structural engineer, Keith Hjelmstad, on an idea that sounds like science fiction: a 12-mile tower to launch vehicles into space. Another author, Cory Doctorow, is working with Kip Hodges, the university’s director of earth and space exploration, on a story idea about sending 3-D printers to the moon to begin manufacturing things from moon dust.

    The center’s director, Ed Finn, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, says an even more eclectic group is planned. “I’m really interested in making sure that we include artists and designers and other kinds of creative thinkers as well, people who might define themselves as builders and makers,” he said.

    Next spring the center plans to sponsor Emerge, a conference bringing together engineers, scientists, writers and designers to explore the future.

    It also plans to invite the science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster to organize a series of campus dinners around sci-fi TV shows, on the theory that “Star Trek” and its ilk have had a powerful effect on the broader culture, helping to shape the way society views science and technology.

    “Something that is dismissed as mere entertainment,” Mr. Finn said, “is a frame that we end up using, intentionally or not, to think about the future.”

  • ljk October 3, 2012, 2:32

    Five Billion Years of Solitude: Lee Billings on the Science of Reaching the Stars

    By Steve Silberman

    Posted: October 2, 2012

    Like many geeks of the post-Sputnik generation, I grew up hoping that space travel would be common by the time I reached middle age. Weaned on a youthful diet of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clarke, raised on Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and thrilled by real-life hero Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the gravelly surface of the Moon when I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me that humankind’s manifest destiny in the stars would be undone by changing political winds, disasters like the Challenger explosion, and a mountain of debt to pay for misguided military adventures like the War in Iraq.

    It’s true that, in some ways, we’re living in a new golden age for space nerds. Bard Canning’s gorgeously enhanced footage of Curiosity’s descent to Mars — made instantly available by the global network we built instead of a Hilton on the Moon — certainly beats grainy snippets beamed down from Tranquility Base. A newly discovered exoplanet that “may be capable of supporting life” seems to make headlines every few months. Cassini’s ravishing closeups of Saturn regularly put the fever dreams of ILM’s animators to shame.

    But wasn’t I supposed to be “strolling on the deck of a starship” by now, as Paul Kantner’s acid-fueled hippie space epic Blows Against the Empire promised me when it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1971?

    The problem, it turns out, isn’t just a loss of political will to finance manned space flight. Rocket science turns out to be rocket science — not easy, and constrained by some very real limitations dictated by material science, the physics of acceleration, and the unwieldy economics of interstellar propulsion. Until a real-life Zefram Cochrane comes along to invent a practical warp drive, I may not be sightseeing on any Class M planets anytime soon.

    Full article here:


  • ljk October 30, 2012, 1:12

    The Transcension Hypothesis: An Intriguing Answer to the Fermi Paradox?

    Posted: Thu, October 25, 2012 | By: Owen Nicholas

    Ever since Enrico Fermi questioned back in the 1950’s, why, if a multitude of civilisations are likely to exist in the Milky Way, no sign of their existence in the form of probes or spacecraft has ever been detected, scientists and critical thinkers have struggled to resolve the problem by supplying a host of inventive arguments with mixed reception.

    To date one of the most common answers to the Great Silence was simply that life is so rare, so widely distributed, and the scale of the universe so immense, that the probability of contact or communication between any two space-faring civilisations is almost non-existent. Needless to say an outlook which seems like a very lonely, sad and pessimistic state of affairs for intelligent life to find itself in.

    However, John Smart, of the Accelerating Studies Foundation, has proposed a novel idea which suggests a rather more exciting and stranger fate for intelligence than previous conceptions.

    In the Transcension Hypothesis, he suggests that sufficiently advanced civilisations may invariably leave our universe by using and eventually relocating to black-hole-like destinations!

    Bizarre as this notion may initially sound the suggestion is backed by considerable research drawn from fields as diverse as biology, physics, computer science, information theory and sociology, with a series of falsifiable claims which will become testable in the coming decades.

    Full article here: