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Interstellar Visioneers

What does it take to conceive a new vision of the future and drive the idea forward? Keith Cooper, editor of Astronomy Now as well as Principium, the journal of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, examines the question in the context of a new book. Grand ideas aren’t enough, for the commitment to build community and expand the audience for a breakthrough are the necessary foundation. What Gerard O’Neill and Eric Drexler can teach us about this and how their example may inform the future choices of the interstellar movement are at the heart of Keith’s review. Along the way come many questions, especially this: Is a ‘failure of nerve to play the long game’ what is holding us back as we contemplate a future among the stars?

by Keith Cooper


In 1972, a think-tank of businessmen, politicians, economists, scientists and bureaucrats going by the name ‘The Club of Rome’ (they held their first meeting in the Italian capital in 1968) painted a picture of a dystopian future where by the year 2030 rising population, increased urbanisation and industrialisation, coupled with depleted resources would all mean one thing: that the planet was nearing its limits and the only way to survive would be in strict moderation, an unchanging equilibrium of austerity (a buzzword today) and restrictions. It was a depiction of a nightmare future where progress effectively shudders to a halt, yet their report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, has been read by 12 million people.

By painting this picture of a narrow, limited future, The Club of Rome inevitably spurred a reaction from the scientific cognoscenti who knew no bounds, were not defined by limits, looked to technology to create a better future and as part of their visions aimed quite literally for the sky. To folk like Princeton physics professor Gerard O’Neill, ‘The Limits to Growth’ was something to rally against and drive the proliferation of his ideas for orbiting space colonies. Humankind, O’Neill reasoned, need not know boundaries or limits if it went into space where room and resources aplenty exist. Throughout the 1970s he galvanised the public to his ideas, inspired the grassroots to form advocacy groups such as the L5 Society to keep beating the drum on space colonies, and became a media darling thanks to his vision of the future, appearing on celebrity talk shows and magazine covers.

For science historian Professor W. Patrick McCray of the University of California, Santa Barbara, author of a new book called The Visioneers: How A Group of Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future, O’Neill was an archetypal visionary with the technical know-how to present a realistic case. For McCray, having not only an idea about the future but also having the smarts to make that technological vision a reality are the essential ingredients for a ‘visioneer’, the inspirational visionary mixed with the rigorous, comprehensive work of an engineer. However, writes McCray in his book, a visioneer must do more than produce ideas and calculations; a visioneer also forms and shapes a community of supporters to promote their ideas and is both protector and promoter of the vision and the community that builds up around it.

Optimistic visions of the future

McCray’s two chief visioneers are O’Neill and K. Eric Drexler, who as a student was a member of the 1970s pro-space movement with O’Neill before going on to popularise his vision for nanotechnology in 1986 with his best-selling book Engines of Creation. Both men had ideas way ahead of their time. To O’Neill, humankind had three choices: stagnation (the choice offered by The Club of Rome), annihilation (the threat of the Cold War was serious) or expansion into space and the settlement of orbiting colonies, built from miles and miles of rotating metal cylinders. In hindsight it seems crazily optimistic but back in the 1970s it inspired the public’s imagination in a way no human spaceflight project has done since Apollo. Similarly, Drexler’s revolutionary vision of nano-scale machines reassembling matter at the atomic level, or rushing through our bloodstream to dismantle cancerous cells, is still far from being realised.

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Given that we can’t yet go on holiday to a space settlement, or treat illnesses with a shot of medical nanobots, it is tempting to describe O’Neill and Drexler as visioneering failures. McCray sees things a little differently. O’Neill’s space colonies may not exist yet outside science fiction, but the community he built, signified by the L5 Society, helped spawn today’s pro-space movement in the hands of private initiatives such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Peter Diamandis’ Planetary Resources. Where O’Neill failed, one of these large corporations may succeed. The role of large business and billionaires is not exactly the route O’Neill envisioned, but it shows that there is more than one route to the future. Regardless, the power of a visioneer is in creating a community, inspiring people to take up the mantle further down the road if necessary. In a way it is kind of like a built-in insurance policy; ensuring ideas are passed onto the next generation so that others are sufficiently inspired to pick up the pieces should the initial visioneer fail, learn the lessons and have another go at it.

“I think the two key roles visioneers serve are to encourage the formation of communities of like-minded people to support or oppose their ideas, but also ultimately I think visioneers are best at promoting debate and discussion about what we – society – want the technological future to be like, what we hope and fear,” McCray tells me. “I see this happening more today in debates about geo-engineering, synthetic biology, drones, autonomous cars etc.”

There’s another subject to add to McCray’s list of contemporary topics: interstellar flight, an area that McCray recognises is an arena for potential visioneers. In fact it doesn’t take a huge leap to see the parallels between O’Neill’s ‘High Frontier’ and the interstellar movement and hence the possibility that we could learn something by the study of O’Neill, Drexler and other visioneers.

Courage to play the long game

In a way ‘The Limits to Growth’ provided an adversary, an alternative philosophy for the visioneers and their movements to rise up against. More specifically, it was seen by the visioneers as an attempt to reign in the great potential of human technology and progress. While today we don’t talk about ‘The Limits to Growth’ report as much – it is 41 years old after all, although The Club of Rome and its philosophies still exist – it feels like it has been reborn in different guises just as O’Neill’s pro-space movement has been reborn in the hands of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Today other fears replace the oil crises of the 1970s: the economic crash, a growing unease of how sophisticated technology is integrating itself into society, the battle to save the environment in the face of increasing climate change and the frictions the environmental debate causes, and the usual bouts of war, terrorism and international sabre-rattling. Limits were the enemy in the 1970s; today it is despondency leading to shortsightedness and a failure of nerve to play the long game, essential for a long term project such as interstellar flight.

An interstellar community already exists, as evidenced by the success of the Centauri Dreams website, the plethora of interstellar organisations and the now frequent symposia that draw hundreds of attendees to discuss the topic. It’s not quite as organised as the L5 Society, but it isn’t required to be; today the Internet and social media provide the glue that bind the community together; in the 1970s it was mailing lists, newsletters and local chapters in university physics and engineering departments.

However, once the community is in place and growing, and the ideas of the visioneer are being disseminated, those ideas become owned by the many members of the community. McCray describes in his book how O’Neill started to distance himself from his own community when people he deemed as undesirable joined, most notably LSD guru Timothy Leary who had strong ties with high-ranking members of the L5 Society and co-opted O’Neill’s space colonies for use in his own philosophy. Furthermore, O’Neill was angered by the producers of Sean Connery’s 1981 science fiction film Outland, set on a space colony reminiscent of O’Neill’s; Connery’s character was also called O’Neill.

Meanwhile, Drexler also faced a battle to hold onto his ideas for nanotechnology, a battle he ultimately lost. Despite often being cited by other scientists as their gateway into nanotechnology thanks to Engines of Creation, Drexler found himself sidelined by fellow academics who doubted the the engineering of nano-bots. Today nanotechnology bears no resemblance to his advanced technology, but rather is mostly just another avenue of mainstream chemistry.

“I think that the ways in which their ideas were co-opted was perhaps something they didn’t think about but was probably inevitable,” says McCray. “I also think that once you put your ideas out there and work to get attention for them, then you have to accept the fact that others will distort them, replicate them, modify them etc. O’Neill seemed to take this more in his stride than Drexler but then, with nanotech, I think there was more at stake, i.e. real funding.”

Should the interstellar community worry about losing ownership of our ideas? Next year director Christopher Nolan will release a new science fiction movie called Interstellar, rumoured to involve Kip Thorne’s wormhole physics just as Carl Sagan’s Contact did. Will our community bristle at Hollywood co-opting the word ‘interstellar’? Will we grimace at the likely bad presentation of physics and starflight? Probably, but the horse bolted a long time ago; spaceflight is a staple of science fiction. while there have also been many scientific proponents of interstellar flight over the years, from Les Shepherd to Robert Forward. Nobody owns the vision of interstellar flight; what is needed now is visioneers to make it happen. We should embrace its prominent exposure in science fiction rather than try and protect it from mainstream dissection by movie reviewers and audiences, and use that as a spur to present a more scientific take through the media.

However, what if someone were to come in and take over the whole shebang, bypassing the community entirely? A billionaire entrepreneur, one of the nouveau-rich that are trying their hand at commercial spaceflight, could easily do that. Visioneers within the community that have worked hard to refine their concepts and present them in an agreeable fashion could suddenly be kicked aside, yet in the process their role could become even more important.

As O’Neill’s vision fell apart, others today are now looking at potentially picking up where he left off. The analogy I like to make is that Hari Seldon seeded his secret Second Foundation as insurance should the first Foundation fail, which it did thanks to the unpredictable arrival of The Mule. The many organisations that populate the community today are vital because they help prolong the vision should others – including multi-billionaires – fail. It is essential that interstellar visioneers keep that grassroots support bubbling along, even in the lean times. As Icarus Interstellar’s Andreas Tziolas said in the comments to a recent Centauri Dreams article on interstellar organisations, the community exists because “we’re sick and tired of waiting for someone else to do it!”

Yet visioneers also need patience. “O’Neill and Drexler imagined futures that they themselves would be able to partake in,” says McCray. “I see visioneers operating in this middle group, not two to three years out, but also not 200–300 years over the horizon.” Interstellar flight is a long-term goal and it remains an open question whether any of us will still be around if and when it happens. Perhaps interstellar requires a different breed of visioneer?

Capture the moment

Ultimately, the type of visioneer says something about the times they live in. Part of that is what the visioneer is rallying against. But in the 1970s, moving into the 1980s, the arena was different from what it is today, when society seemed far more open to the possibilities of the pro-space movement, popular culture embraced all kinds of spacey things such as Star Wars, Star Trek, the futuristic sounds of Jean Michel Jarre and prog-rock concept albums and the mass market science fiction paperback and magazines such as Omni, which McCray credits as being a powerful influence on the proliferation of visioneers’ ideas. Would a book like O’Neill’s The High Frontier ever become a bestseller today? Would members of the interstellar community find themselves on the cover of Time Magazine like O’Neill did in the 1970s? Instead interstellar visioneers have to work out how best to use whatever is unique about these modern times to spread the message, rather than trying to recapture glorious past times – social media is an obvious avenue. Having 100,000 followers on Twitter is surely as good as being on the cover of a magazine with 100,000 readers?

Most importantly, visioneers have to be able to build things. Craig Venter, for example, created a biological cell with a synthetic genome in his quest to create artificial biological life. O’Neill and students at MIT – including Eric Drexler – constructed laboratory prototypes of electromagnetic catapults called ‘mass drivers’ that O’Neill envisioned as vital for launching raw materials from the Moon or asteroids into Earth orbit where they could be used for construction of space habitats. Demonstrating the ability to build technology to aid a visioneer’s idea is a key part of gaining credibility. On a grander scale it might be an efficient fusion reactor or the development of human hibernation; on a smaller scale it could just involve inventing a new magnetic nozzle that aids the generation of powerful magnetic fields in a tokamak, demonstrating microwave beaming in the laboratory or creating spacecraft concepts and blueprints like Daedalus and Icarus.

The Visioneers is one of those rare books that is equally about science and personalities, a book that explores the history of visioneers but by doing so also asks questions for visioneers of the future to ponder. For anyone interested in building a better future, in pushing the envelope of technology, in developing a scientific vision, or in creating tomorrow, The Visioneers is an essential read as McCray weaves a fascinating narrative that can easily be applied to the interstellar vision. And as the biographer of the visioneer movement, what advice does McCray have for visioneers in the interstellar community?

“It would be not to limit oneself to just talking,” he says. “Build things. Develop designs. Create a community. Show people what’s possible, if only to start a discussion about what we want the future to be like down the road.”

It will likely not take a single visioneer, but many, whether working together or in rivalry, or separated by decades, but each with their part to play. Maybe some that will succeed are already here, reading this. Perhaps no one in the current community will succeed and it will fall to a new group. Or possibly it will be someone who has not even been born yet but will be inspired by the work of the community today, to whom we are entrusting the future, because good ideas never die.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • A. A. Jackson June 21, 2013, 11:37

    Can’t help being redundant but futurists and future Visioneers were trumped light years by modern science fiction writers, starting probably with H.G. Wells.
    By the 30’s and especially the John W. Campbell era it spread like wild fire. I think every ‘visionary’ idea that gave rise to futurists was invented by modern prose SF. Heinlein’s Future History, Asimov’s Foundation and the novels of A.C Clarke. Things rocketed off in 1950 when H.L. Gold started Galaxy Magazine and writers such Fred Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Phil Dick, Theodore Sturgeon … and about 100 other writers used up every visionary idea by 1960! Especially with sociological SF, or as Brian W. Aldiss put it, “the future on a cracked plate”.

  • James D. Stilwell June 21, 2013, 11:48

    Hitler wanted a New York rocket and so he found von Braun, and so here we are with Robert Bigalow testing out his 3 man inflatable orbiting space habitat (a room). It’s not the von Braun 250 man inflatable space wheel featured in a 1950s Colliers Magazine and reprinted in 1980s Omni, but it’s a start. Jack Williamson wrote a short story about this testing interregnum called “Folded Hands” Your level of frustration depends on whether or not you tilt toward the Great Man Theory of Civilization: or in street lingo: where’s our Howard Hughes….I think he’s here already but he’s waiting for right global politician to manifest….let’s hope it’s not another Hitler….

  • Jer June 21, 2013, 12:06

    Very inspiring, obviously.
    Fascinating about the ‘Club of Rome’ – that moral can be applied to many of today’s issues, i think – climate change, etc. Facilitating on a positive attitude provides incredible returns – despite the widespread lack of positivity.
    Of course, devil is in the details – it would be disingenuous of me to say 99% inspiration to 1% perspiration — but let’s go further in today’s values. Of that 1% perspiration – we have 99 to 1 parts private funding – of 1 part of that funding, we have 99 to 1 parts successful private corporate support from many parts of society – of 1 part of that corporate support, we have 99 to 1 parts from a successful business that has a quality product, likely modern, necessary and desirable – for better or worse, capitalism at work. So a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of our whole system diverted to this enterprise – why? Marketing. Selling. By including the public by offering not just a vision but a product or way to participate in a tangible way. Orbital tourism and ‘minerals from the sky’ opportunities are exciting but future ephemeral. Small groups of enthusiasts with access to billionaires is lucky and advantageous. But the public at large? Mainstream kickstarters? Retirement ‘science’ communities and college towns around private launching areas (not too close), full-time space institutions – like the old time industry towns, soaked in the values of the prevailing corporation by proximity. Can we consolidate the industries and learning more than just online? Can we create campuses similar to silicon valley? Tourism areas like the Cape or Smithsonian? Summer camps for kids and families? Being near the experts, the enthusiasts, and activities – even if for only a short while would integrate the vision. The vision has to have a visible landmark, beacon, focus, locii. If we can’t do a themed tourism/education spot on the ground, how can we do it in space. Online likely will not fill the ‘physical’ gap.

  • ljk June 21, 2013, 12:09

    Author Keith Cooper said:

    “However, once the community is in place and growing, and the ideas of the visioneer are being disseminated, those ideas become owned by the many members of the community. McCray describes in his book how O’Neill started to distance himself from his own community when people he deemed as undesirable joined, most notably LSD guru Timothy Leary who had strong ties with high-ranking members of the L5 Society and co-opted O’Neill’s space colonies for use in his own philosophy.”

    Frank Drake once relayed how he and Carl Sagan were invited to talk with Leary in prison (on drug charges, shock!) in 1969 about building a starship and sending himself and 300 of his followers to a suitable alien planet where they could start a new life free from The Man.

    Here is some correspondence between Sagan and Leary from 1974 on various space subjects:


    Keith Cooper then said:

    “Furthermore, O’Neill was angered by the producers of Sean Connery’s 1981 science fiction film Outland, set on a space colony reminiscent of O’Neill’s; Connery’s character was also called O’Neill.”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but O’Neill’s space colonies were giant floating wheel-shaped cities at the Lagrange points around Earth, whereas the Outland mining complex was planted firmly on Jupiter’s moon Io, as depicted in several images here:


    The filmmakers picked Io because the Voyager 1 and 2 probes had just flown through the Jupiter system in their recent past and revealed that Galilean moon as a wild multicolor place with multiple active volcanoes. Perfect for a manned mining colony, right? They conveniently ignored the deadly radiation from the gas giant which loomed in the Ioian sky much larger than it does in reality, but that would be so much less cool. Plus Outland was barely science fiction, as the story was a mundane cop drama that could have easily taken place on Earth.

    The new science fiction film looming on our summer horizon, Elysium, does show what looks very much like an O’Neill space colony. My concern for those advocating space as a way to benefit humanity as that the trailers make it very clear that only the minority rich and powerful get to live in luxury up in space while everyone else has to struggle for survival down on Earth (the trailer even intones “the rest of us.”).


    I realize the producer is really getting at the growing economic disparity that engulfs our society, yet I think most people who see the trailers and then the film will go away with the idea that space is just for the rich who deliberately ignore or push away all the problems here on Earth (and will even go so far as to kill to keep their literally lofty positions in life).

    It costs tens of millions of dollars for a single trip to the ISS at the moment. If they ever go through with that jaunt around the Moon, that will cost $100 million per ticket. Even a brief suborbital joyride flight costs tens of thousand of dollars. These certainly are not helping when it comes to us trying to let the masses know that space can be for everyone and save us from stagnation, collapse, and extinction.

    Keith has made some very good points in this piece which have also been stressed in recent posts here, that if we want to go to the stars we have to make it applicable to those who do not want a life beyond Earth because they often hold the purse strings. Scientists and engineers can no longer afford to live in that vacuum called the ivory tower.

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 14:03

    To add to ljk’s comment, Connery’s character in Outland was O’Niel, no O’Neill.

    …demonstrating microwave beaming in the laboratory…

    Wait… didn’t the Benfords already do this?

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 14:22

    As I recall, the space colony concept was much discussed in Stewart Brand’s Co-evolution Quarterly. There was much push back as well support. One of the key concerns that the colonies were a way for some in first world to escape the problems of the rest of the world. Sounds rather like the premise for Elysium has roots, and I suspect much deeper than that.

    The idea was to finance to cost of the colonies by selling solar power to earth. A very laudable goal, although if the goal was to produce solar power, was it really necessary to build a colony in orbit, rather than a minimal assembly habitat, as gritty as the mining outpost on Io?

    What I find a little off about this essay is the almost triumphalist tone that “visioneers” = good, “Club of Rome” = bad, which completely ignores what was happening in the 1970’s. Neither the collapse predicted by “Limits to Growth” appears to be happening (so far), but look at what happened as a result – the green revolution, energy efficiency, environmental regulations, nor the techno-optimism of space colonies (way too expensive – even Arthur Clarke’s Congressional testimony was anti) or nano-tech (lots of SF, but almost no development except along biological lines).

    OTOH, Drexler was a proponent of solar sailing and built prototype sail material for demonstrations. That is a vision that still makes sense, and may finally be arriving after a long gestation.

  • ljk June 21, 2013, 14:59

    Another point to make: We need to get off this dystopian future that science fiction has been depicting for quite a while now. I know the Jetson version of the future is so corny and retro to today’s generation, but how is a tomorrow full of oppressed people living in squalor with few options, fewer resources, and constant monitoring by a tyrannical government somehow better, to say nothing of cooler?

    It is either Soylent Green and Big Brother or zombies and Judgement Day according to what passes for science fiction these days. Some people say these dystopianb and horror films and literature are but a reflection of our current fears about real world problems happening now. There may be some truth to that, but I also think they do much to make the masses think the future will be worse than the present.

    Funny how when the future was being shown as bright, shiny, and full of robots doing all the work and vacations to the Moon, we were also doing much better economically. See here for numerous examples from a time before overt irony:


    Interstellar travel may hold the key to bringing back that optimism about ourselves and the future. So let us work together and make sure the human species gets the message that we really can reach the stars and that tomorrow is not the end of us but a new beginning. Corny, I know.

  • Keith Cooper June 21, 2013, 15:15

    Hi ljk,

    Here’s what Patrick McCray wrote about Outland on his blog: http://www.patrickmccray.com/2013/01/02/defending-the-high-frontier/

    Outland is one of those films that I’ve just never gotten around to watching. I’ve seen bits here and there, but it didn’t really grab me.

    I am looking forward to Elysium, although the cliche of space only being for the rich dates back to Dick’s Blade Runner and its off-world colonies, and probably before then as well. But of course one of the most prominent uses of an O’Neill cylinder was in the fabulous Babylon 5 – the technical literature for the show even described it as an O’Neill class station. O’Neill died a year before B5 aired though; I wonder if he would have appreciated the depiction of his space station concept?

  • Paul Gilster June 21, 2013, 15:54

    Re Alex Tolley’s comment, yes, the Benfords have demonstrated sail effects in the lab. See this post:


    and a number of others are also available in the archive both about and by the Benfords and sail possibilities.

  • Keith Cooper June 21, 2013, 16:16

    @ Alex

    Yes, exactly, the Benfords have tested microwave beaming, and to my knowledge they are the world leaders in this field, so… bearing in mind their Starship Century work too, amongst other things… do you think they fit the criteria of visioneers?

    As for the Club of Rome, that’s the tone Patrick McCray’s book takes. Having not lived through the seventies, I can’t say what the reaction to it was like back then other than in the things I’ve read, which haven’t been positive. But things like the green revolution and energy efficiency – are they really a direct result of the Limits to Growth report? Or have they happened independently of that? A space colony would need to be green and energy efficient to a point (I guess that would depend on how much of our energy is produced by solar energy collectors or fusion reactors), so maybe there’s some crossover there with O’Neill’s space colonies and the environmental policies we have put in place. Charles Cockell wrote about this theme in his book Space on Earth.

  • ljk June 21, 2013, 16:18

    Keith Cooper said on June 21, 2013 at 15:15:

    “Here’s what Patrick McCray wrote about Outland on his blog:


    “Outland is one of those films that I’ve just never gotten around to watching. I’ve seen bits here and there, but it didn’t really grab me.”

    Thank you for this information, Keith. I did not know that about O’Neill and the Outland connection. Personally, as I found the film plot to be unremarkable and I always think of large floating space cities rather than bases on the surfaces of celestial bodies when I think of O’Neill colonies, I for one never confused Outland’s vision with O’Neill’s space future.

    As far as I was concerned then as now, Outland was just among the first to follow in the post-Star Wars world of a “realistic” and gritty space society along the lines of Alien. Though if corporations do finally get smart about making money from space exploitation, there may be some truth to those films.

    I remember when O’Neill’s ideas first came out, the newspapers were saying his colonies could be built in the 1990s. As a teenager I ate that up, only to soon realize they had even less of a chance of happening in that decade than NASA sending humans to Mars in the 1980s or a lunar base by 2000.

    However, as you said, hopefully some day if humanity has not collapsed, someone or some group will be inspired by O’Neill’s visions to make them a reality, one where all humans can benefit.

  • ljk June 21, 2013, 16:42

    For those old enough, remember the Bicentennial edition of National Geographic Magazine with its piece on O’Neill space colonies, complete with fascinating artwork depicting how we could all be living in such a place by the year 2026:


    Here is Stewart Brand’s 1977 CoEvolution book called Space Colonies:


    I recall a story about how O’Neill expressed the thought that his space colonies would be a great place to live for Native Americans who had essentially lost the New World continents to the colonizing Europeans. Their response was essentially “Oh great, first the white man kicks us off our land, now they want to kick us off the planet!”

    Brand’s book even has a frontpiece showing a Bernal sphere type colony with a word balloon of every inhabitant shouting “Goodbye Earth!” The other panel depicts two Native Americans looking at the colony ship; one says “Goodbye! Good luck!” while the other one mumbles “Good riddance!”

    An article on the space artists who brought these colonies to life from the January-February, 2013 issue of Discover magazine:


    T. A. Heppenheimer did his part to promote O’Neill’s idea with the 1977 book Colonies in Space, which courtesy of the NSS is online:


  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 18:41

    @Keith Cooper

    …the cliche of space only being for the rich dates back to Dick’s Blade Runner and its off-world colonies

    Quite the reverse. Dick’s offworld colonies were for the poor and desperate. Several of his books indicate that they were advertised falsely, being traps to lure the unwary, often with no way to return to earth.

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 18:48

    “Outland” is generally considered to be “High Noon” in space. IOW, a western with SF props.

    Its use of lights lining the faceplate of a spacesuit and illuminating the wearer’s face seems to have been endlessly copied since. Like the lens flare generating bright lights in Abram’s Star Trek, blinding the bridge crew, similarly the lights in the helmet make no sense.

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 18:58

    @Keith Cooper

    bearing in mind their [the benfords] Starship Century work too, amongst other things… do you think they fit the criteria of visioneers?

    I think I would say that Robert Forward was the visioneer. The Benfords have run with the idea, making that vision concrete. I just love the idea of carbon sails sublimating in microwaves providing high acceleration. There seems scope to combine the sail types to optimize performance, especially with sundiver trajectories.

  • coolstar June 21, 2013, 19:09

    I never took O’Neill’s ideas very seriously because they were not technically serious: solar power sats built from the GROUND up just don’t make sense economically and never will. You get an advantage of maybe 8 or so (and I think that’s generous) by being in orbit while the costs are 100-1000x higher (at least) to construct as compared to solar power on the ground. Now the habitats are a different story as the physics is straightforward, though the ecology certainly isn’t.
    As for Outland, it’s actually one of my favorite sf movies. One doesn’t have to suspend nearly as much disbelief to enjoy it as compared to J.J. Abrams’ type drivel.

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 19:20

    @Keith Cooper

    …But things like the green revolution and energy efficiency – are they really a direct result of the Limits to Growth report? Or have they happened independently of that…

    The “Limits to Growth” was published at about the same time as the Stockholm Environment Conference was held, and just before Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”. At the time, there was obvious major degradation of the environment that seemed to be getting worse with little attention concerning remediation. Starvation of populations was on people’s minds “Bangladesh”, “India” (and we didn’t even know about China). Oil prices increased dramatically as a result of OPEC after nationalization of middle eastern oil fields. People were retreating from what they saw as failure of technology to deliver economic improvements. Vietnam added fuel to that in the US.

    What the environmental movement did was get regulations in place to stop and even reverse the damage. OPEC’s actions stimulated energy conservation. Both probably stimulated the idea of abundant, clean solar energy development.

    What we do have is a legacy of cultural differences between those who think we must cut back our industrialization and live within much more constrained means which solve all our problems, and those who believe indefinite economic growth is possible and this will solve our problems.
    If you look at the degradation of our global environment, it isn’t clear that the “Limits to Growth” was fundamentally wrong at all, just that energy efficiency and substitutions delayed some of the peaks. It is also not clear to me that the economic growth we have had has improved everyone’s lives either, although it has had a huge positive impact in poorer areas of the world.

    Having lived long enough to experience these events, I have stayed fairly techno-optimistic, but I keep a wary eye on what can go wrong as well.

  • Alex Tolley June 21, 2013, 21:20

    @coolstar – we have no idea if the economics of a lunar source of material would make SPS’s economically attractive. I tend to doubt it. But there are advantages to siting the powersats in space rather than on the ground:

    1. Virtually 24/7 power delivery with no weather interrupts
    2. Land is still usable on the ground under the receiving rectennas. I recall drawings of cows grazing under them!
    3. The capture area is much larger, so more power can be delivered
    4. power can be delivered anywhere on the planet, directly.
    5. A bonus is that the power can be used in space too – which could help to bootstrap space industrialization and a space faring civilization.

    I’m sure there are other advantages, as well as disadvantages too.

  • ljk June 21, 2013, 22:20

    Alex Tolley said on June 21, 2013 at 18:48:

    “Its use of lights lining the faceplate of a spacesuit and illuminating the wearer’s face seems to have been endlessly copied since. Like the lens flare generating bright lights in Abram’s Star Trek, blinding the bridge crew, similarly the lights in the helmet make no sense.”

    Other than making sure the audience can see the very expensive actors inside the space helmets, does it really help a person to see what is going on beyond their visor with rows of little lights?

    Turn on the lights inside your car. Does that help you see the road better at night?

    Outland was not terrible, but it was hardly groundbreaking, unless you count the surface of Io being mined. Sulfur must be in high demand in the future.

  • Abelard Lindsey June 21, 2013, 23:47

    Much of the “limits to growth” ideology was pure fraud. There were some environmental problems at the time. mostly air and water pollution. Much of this was cleaned up by 1985. The rest was never an issue.

    The most serious environmental problem was one the “greenie” types never picked up on, environmental Lead. Lead was discovered to be a problem almost by happenstance when it was banned in gasoline due to its incompatibility with catalytic converters, which were mandated on cars starting in 1974. Environmental Lead causes a reduction in general intelligence, “g”, by about 10 points and is partially responsible for the violent crime wave during the 1960’s to 1990’s.

    Mercury and Arsenic are the other environmental problems we have today. Most Mercury exposure is from medicine (amalgam, vaccines, etc.).

    I used to be in L-5 when I was a teenager. I read the bicentennial national geographic issue when I was 13.

    O’Neill’s space colony idea never went anywhere because the L-5 people expected the government to pay for it all in a massive “Apollo” style program. Much of the push-back in Brand’s Co-evolutionary Quarterly was based on this issue. Wendall Berry, whom I disagree with on just about everything under the sun, was correct in his criticism of the space colony idea. He derided it as nothing more than just another massive government funded program that was unlikely to work out as intended.

    The key to any kind of space settlement is low cost space transportation. Something that can only come about through free-market competition. Space colonies and starships are impossible without low cost space access.

  • Marc June 22, 2013, 12:20

    Regarding sci-fi and visions, I wonder how “Christopher Nolan’s Secret ‘Interstellar’ [movie that uses] Dimensional Theories of Kip Thorne May Help Progress Sci-Fi”? (Turned that article title to a sentence).

    Here is the article:

    I have no other info on this, nor do I have an opinion if this is potentially good, or just another rehash. I’m just bringing it to the table.


  • Tarmen June 22, 2013, 15:03

    We could deport all murder convicts (or the Guantanamo inmates !! ) to Mars on one-way tickets. Appoint a governor with control of the air supply. Then widen the definition of the word ‘ terrorism ‘ until all of Mars , planet of war, is fully settled. Eventually they will revolt and declare Independance Day or some such holiday.
    Is that a dark or a light vision?

  • Astronist June 22, 2013, 19:20

    Great article, Keith. I think my favourite visioneer is Alan Bond, who as leader of Project Daedalus brought interstellar travel into the realm of serious engineering design, and now as MD of Reaction Engines is building the technology to put access to space onto a sustainable commercial footing.

    Oxford, UK

  • A. A. Jackson June 23, 2013, 11:22

    I too am curious about Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’, ever since Memento he has been a film maker who seemed nearer to Kubrick in his interest in science fiction.
    However …. the author of that article, Greg Brian, needs to sharpen his skills in prose history. It was Carl Sagan, when writing CONTACT, who asked Kip Thorne to try to construct an FTL method that was more tenable than any he come up with or find. (By the by there are many more first string General Relativists than Kip Thorne and Steven Hawking! ).
    The ‘metric engineering’ that Kip Throne, Mike Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever did to come up with , finding, – traversable worm holes- was quite clever. One works with the left hand side of Einstein’s equation for gravity to find out a way to stabilize the throat of a worm hole throat. (Ordinary wormhole throats are unstable , Wheeler and Fuller (1962).)
    The traversable wormhole idea was used in the novel CONTACT , but I don’t think is even mentioned in the good SF film , CONTACT, staring Jodie Foster (as an analog of Jill Tartar.)
    The equation is Field Structure = Source, usually one specifies the source term first and solves for the field. (Tho there is famous case of the rotating black hole where Roy Kerr made an intuitive guess at a solution for the left hand side , in 1963, and it turned out to be right!*)

    I have seen some lectures about the Alcubierre metric recently that fail to mention that it was Thorne and his students who invented the method that made ‘metric engineering’ possible (tho the history of it goes back Weyl (1921) and Einstein and Rosen (1935)).
    What is ‘secret’ I don’t understand, at least in terms of Thorne, he has not published anything new on Traversable Wormholes in many years. Tho he is an adviser on the movie.

    *(Anyone wanting to see the proof that the Kerr metric is the correct solution for a rotating black hole can read , or try to read, Chandrasekhar’s The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes … it will give you real brain burn! The second edition has the Chandrasekhar’s note that he proofed every page and recalculated every equation!)

  • Rob Henry June 23, 2013, 23:39

    Take it from me, we are almost certainly doomed. Proof follows…

    The Club of Rome report, and all similar ilk by naysayers has hitherto been quite ridiculous. They seem to have no idea about the fundamentals that constitute supply and demand. The only thing they got substantiatively right was investment in energy infrastructure means that there either a long time or huge expenditure in any resource change over associated with that field. This mistake may have given optimists false hope, but I put it that they have been loured to their faulty analysis by the common misperception that mother nature is munificent in her beneficence.

    In lieu of that nonsense I offer the following. We are in an exponentially growing economy, and as such are continually facing unfamiliar ground and unfamiliar barriers which history can not have presaged.
    Will our industry signal our presence to other ETI past some threshold?
    Are we going to suffer a grey goo death?
    Is a new particle produced in an accelerator going to doom us?
    Will WWIII erupt?

    The list of possible dooms is very long, but should prove finite. We SHOULD solve all those that have been foretold long ahead of their crisis point. If we additionally solve all that we didn’t see coming, we will end up colonising at least our solar system till our sun dies, if not our galaxy. How confident can we be that that is not our fate?

    Given VERY reasonable assumptions this is mathematically neigh identical to the question “what are the chances that we find ourselves living this early in the history of our civilisation.” The answer is no more than about one in a million.

  • xcalibur June 24, 2013, 3:16

    I’ve had a great deal of concern about the future. You could argue that dystopian sci-fi simply reflects current issues and fears. However, I believe the problem runs deeper than that. There is a very clear pattern of increasing urbanization, greater expenditure of natural resources, and greater social threats and pressures from globalization. If we don’t extend into space to get rare-earths and other resources, it is highly likely that we will reach a crisis point, leading to a new conflagration of wars over resources and territory. It may not happen anytime soon, but it will eventually if we remain earthbound.

    I don’t see a harmonious global utopia as a possibility. First of all, past attempts at building utopias have most often ended up with millions being slaughtered. Secondly, the resources that we need for our technology, which we’ll never give up, are too limited. Third, without challenges, growth and expansion, there is a tendency for stagnation to set in. We’ve seen plenty of that in our modern culture of excess.

    Ultimately, I want our race to survive and succeed, and space is the best answer. I’ve been reading Toynbee’s Study of History on-and-off, and he makes the point that civilizations continue through a process of challenge-and-response. Without that continuing cycle, a civilization will fall into stagnation and collapse. Space colonization will provide the ultimate stimulus of challenge and productive response, as well as insure us against existential threats.

    The key to any kind of space settlement is low cost space transportation. Something that can only come about through free-market competition. Space colonies and starships are impossible without low cost space access.

    I’ve always emphasized this.

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 9:20

    Marc said on June 22, 2013 at 12:20:

    “I have no other info on this [Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science fiction film titled Interstellar], nor do I have an opinion if this is potentially good, or just another rehash. I’m just bringing it to the table.”

    Thank you for finding that article, as any information helps at this point. As for the film being good or bad, the fact that J. J. Abrams is not involved with it (yet – he seems to be spreading through Hollywood like a virus, with similar results) cannot be anything less than a good thing.

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 10:48

    Tarmen said on June 22, 2013 at 15:03:

    “We could deport all murder convicts (or the Guantanamo inmates !! ) to Mars on one-way tickets. Appoint a governor with control of the air supply. Then widen the definition of the word ‘ terrorism ‘ until all of Mars , planet of war, is fully settled. Eventually they will revolt and declare Independance Day or some such holiday. Is that a dark or a light vision?”

    The ones who make the first serious permanent footholds in our Sol system and into the Milky Way galaxy in terms of colonization will probably be not the noble and stoic astronauts and cosmonauts of yore (and a bunch of them never were to begin with, which is both good and bad), or the altruistic scientists who live ascetic lives and seek only knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.

    Oh, they may be there, to be sure, but the real trailblazers will be the same kind of humanity that left Europe for the New World centuries ago: The businessmen seeking a major profit, the religious and politically oppressed seeking new homes away from their oppressors, and criminals, both the kind being sentenced to remote lands as punishment and those of the more organized variety who want to set up new bases of operation away from law enforcement.

    Some may see this as bad, but it is human nature and eventually these space colonies will become civilized if they do not start out that way (think of Australia). The only thing worse is for us to do nothing, to abandon our ability to spread ourselves beyond Earth. Our growing technological civilization and population numbers cannot be sustained on a single finite planet with limited resources.

    The only way human nature is going to change is if we radically adjust human beings, and then we will no longer be human. Whether that is good or bad will remain to be seen.

    As for all of our social problems, most of which we created for ourselves in the first place, throwing money at them as anti-space types are always claiming is the solution has been done for centuries, yet note how we continue to have crime, poverty, pollution, wars, and such even as agencies like NASA get less funding than most federal institutions or big corporations.
    I do not claim space will solve everything, but take away that aspect of our abilities and we will certainly be the worse for it, stuck on one world which, again, cannot sustain our current technological civilization.

    But I am preaching to the choir here, as some of the other comments in this thread surely attest. Now we need to get out there and show the rest of our species that space is not science fiction or just for nerds. You do not have to be Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Setting up a telescope and inviting people to view through it from your backyard is a positive step. Or teaching basic astronomy at a local adult education place is another. I have done both of those. Any other suggestions?

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    “Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.” – Isaac Asimov

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 11:08

    Rob Henry said on June 23, 2013 at 23:39:

    “In lieu of that nonsense I offer the following. We are in an exponentially growing economy, and as such are continually facing unfamiliar ground and unfamiliar barriers which history can not have presaged.

    “Will our industry signal our presence to other ETI past some threshold?
    Are we going to suffer a grey goo death?
    Is a new particle produced in an accelerator going to doom us?
    Will WWIII erupt?”

    LJK replies:

    As we are now a technological civilization and have been for a long while, what other course of action can we do but carry on? Of course there are alternatives, but they will result in massive amounts of dead humans and other flora and fauna, a culture pretty much reduced to the European Middle Ages if we are lucky, and a good chance that we will either never recover or go extinct.

    While one of these options includes the effects of a nuclear conflict, I am also referring to the idea that many seem to have that we should return to our earlier, simpler selves, such as the idyllic life our prehistoric ancestors must have surely lived. Where everyday life consisted of a bit of hunting and the rest of the day prancing around in Edenic bliss.

    By the way, I am quite familiar with the anthropological studies of the !Kung tribes of Africa who did indeed spend just a few hours each day hunting and foraging and the rest of the time doing pretty much whatever they wanted. It sounds nice, but ask yourself how that would work for seven billion people all over this planet. How many would willingly give up even their meager connections to technological civilization, one which does offer protection and medicines that never existed until recently.

    And for the record, more than a few !Kung quickly grabbed on to the First World riches they encountered, for there are relatively few humans who purposely endure an ascetic lifestyles if other choices are made available. It is human nature. And who are we to deny those who want the “American Dream” or its equivalent?

    So to get to my point, either we try to literally reach for the stars or we remain at home and wait for society to degenerate. Because you and others may think a really long camping trip is fun, but imagine billions of others in the same situation with nowhere else to go. Science and technology do offer solutions, but we need an educated public to realize this and soon.

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 11:39

    A. A. Jackson said on June 23, 2013 at 11:22:

    “The traversable wormhole idea was used in the novel CONTACT, but I don’t think is even mentioned in the good SF film, CONTACT, staring Jodie Foster (as an analog of Jill Tartar.).”

    The traversable cosmic wormhole was indeed in the 1997 film version of Contact, as seen here:


    One thing the film makers did not transfer from the 1985 novel to the film was the idea that there is a message in the mathematical concept of Pi from the seriously advanced alien creators of the Universe – the ultimate METI:


    Those guys must have been a Kardashev Type XXI civilization. :^)

    I wish someone had turned Contact into a multihour miniseries. That way if done right they could have included more of the far-ranging ideas Sagan had in his novel. This would include the wormhole adventure being taken by five people and not just Ellie and the whole Pi thing likely would have also made it into such a transition.


    Hollywood is big on remakes and reimagings these days, including films that were made not very long ago. Maybe someone could do an expanded version of Contact that adheres more closely to the novel? You can decide how you want to deal with the fact that the Soviet Union was still in place in 1999.

    By the way, part of creating a traversable cosmic wormhole involves keeping the opening open and stable long enough for a starship to get through (I presume you need a similar situation at the other end). One of the materials bandied about for holding open the opening is the same stuff envisioned for warp drive, “exotic” or negative matter. Whether this is workable or not depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you are about us or someone out there being able to find and/or make and utilize “exotic” matter for such purposes.

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 14:26

    NASA changes the acronym of its planetoid retrieval mission in order to avoid being captured by Congressional naysayers:


    NASA tried the same trick with its fledgling SETI program in 1992, only to watch it get defunded by senators who associated it with “little green men” less than one year later:


    Related article:


    JFK said we were going to put humans on the Moon by 1970. He set a plan and a goal. It wasn’t simple, of course, and sadly Apollo never went much beyond that, but the point is he committed NASA and the nation to a project and they stuck to it. Even with all the obstacles in Apollo’s way, including and especially the tragic spacecraft fire in 1967, astronauts did walk on the Moon in no small part due to JFK’s statement.

    I see no such strong verbage from Obama. Having his NASA Administrator saying no to future walks on the Moon is hardly helpful. Yes there were presidents in the past who made similar goals for space, but they did not give them the financial support they needed or they asked for ridiculous sums ($500 billion for Mars), which was assured to kill such ideas.

    Maybe Apollo did happen at a unique time in human history. Will China spur a new space race, or is that thinking a relic of history? Is private enterprise going to step in? As has already been said in this thread, access to space has got to get cheaper, or we can probably wait for a very long time.

  • ljk June 24, 2013, 14:29

    A very recent article on Pi and Contact-style messages in it:


  • ljk June 24, 2013, 15:49

    The Anthropocene: Humankind as a Turning Point for Earth

    Astrobiology Magazine

    June 24, 2013

    Summary: In this interview, Dr. David Grinspoon discusses the implications of the Anthropocene — a timescale defined by humanity as a geological force shaping the global landscape and evolution of our planet.

    The Anthropocene is the name of a proposed new geological time period (probably an epoch) that may soon enter the official Geologic Time Scale. The Anthropocene is defined by the human influence on Earth, where we have become a geological force shaping the global landscape and evolution of our planet.

    According to this theory, the present epoch — still known as the Holocene, which started 11,000 years ago — would have ended somewhere between the end of 18th century and the 1950s (when the Anthropocene began). The earlier time limit considers the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere that is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy to power our growing industrial technology.

    We may consider this process to have started in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine by James Watts. The present high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are probably causing the climate to change to a long warm period. The later time period takes into account the increasing background radiation from the nuclear tests by US and USSR military during the beginning of the Cold War.

    This new frontier in the geological timeline is potentially more precisely defined than any was before, due to its recent occurrence. It is also supported by increasing evidence of human influence on natural global processes, such as the sediment transport being supplanted by our construction processes; land occupation and transformation; water course deviation and water reserve appropriation; massive extinction and introduction of species into new regions; development and widespread use of previously non-existent chemical substances (eg. plastics and persistent organic pollutants); and even the creation of new elements (the last 20 in the Periodic Table).

    In this interview, Dr. David Grinspoon, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, talks about a book he is writing on the Anthropocene from an astrobiology point of view:


    To quote:

    “Hopefully the perspective and wisdom gained from exploring the planets and seeing our own planet whole, from a distance, will facilitate the changes in behavior and outlook we will need to survive this precarious transition we are experiencing – the transition to being a self-aware, technological species with the capacity to either destroy our own civilization or ensure our long term survival. I think it will be one or the other. I don’t think it will be anything in between. I don’t think we will muddle through. We are facing a choice where we will either become a new kind of entity on this Earth, or die trying.”

  • A. A. Jackson June 24, 2013, 21:32


    I have the film , but have not watched it in a long time.
    Not only are the worm holes there, but the multi-wormhole stuff too.

    The film has few technical mistakes but Jill did complain about one:
    “She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

    Still she liked the film and Jodie Foster talked with her a lot on the phone, and they were together at Arecibo Observatory for a all the shooting there , I don’t know if she was on any other production shooting.
    As far as I know there are no pictures of Foster and Tarer together.

    I thought I read that Robert Zemeckis , who made Contact, wanted a sequel, in recent interview, tho he might not direct. That could work out , or be a disaster, or never be made , which is the most likely.

  • johnq June 24, 2013, 22:28

    > Today nanotechnology bears no resemblance to his advanced technology, but rather is mostly just another avenue of mainstream chemistry.

    That’s not quite correct. I recently went through The Teaching Company’s course on nanotechnology and while about half of the 24 lectures could be considered “mainstream chemistry,” half were pure medical: cancer detection and related therapies and it is all quite impressive. I was so impressed in fact I almost made a post to the effect that the whole Go-to-Mars-get-cancer-and-die thing will be solved by the time we do go to Mars (assuming we do, of course). BTW, you owe yourself to check out these courses, they are not trivial and give a great background\refresher course for physics, mathematics, etc. All way cool stuff you may not be aware of.

    As for Drexler himself, he’s still around. His new book (“Radical Abundance”) came out in May and I’m just working my way through it. Eric remains a very good technical writer and this book does have a lot of interesting stuff. But over all, so far, it’s a bit of a slog and a disappointment and the last time I checked such appears to be the consensus of the Amazon reviews as well. I recommend acquainting yourself with Eric’s blog prior to reading the book. For example. he has returned to his radical environmentalist roots. He’s anti-nuke just like everybody else and of course he’s a warm-monger. It distresses me, but I admit such doesn’t bother everyone. Decide for yourself. I hope there is something like that great description of the nano-construction of a rocket engine that was in “Engines of Creation,” but I have a feeling there isn’t.

    Speaking of warm-mongering, the following is the best recent summary of the problems with the current model(s) I have found and it is a good read: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113533/global-warming-hiatus-where-did-heat-go#
    No shrieking or yelling (I’m looking at you Phil Plait) just solid impressive reporting. Since it’s the New Republic you can read it without worry of horrid right-wing stuff. Moreover, there is a happy ending: at the end we’re assured that the basic C02 model should prevail regardless. We’ll see.

    Finally, the mention of “metric engineering” in the comments reminded me of a book I recently read by Gregory Chaitin (btw, everything by Chaitin is unreservedly recommended), et. al. I just had to share this (Godel’s Way, pg.18-19): “A truly wild beast.
    For a long, contended period, mathematicians had believed that once you define a topology for some curved space (curved spaces are called ‘manifolds’ by mathematicians) you fix in an unique way the means of doing physics on it. . . . Mathematicians thought that these structures were enough to describe how things move over trajectories over manifolds, so that one can do physics on them. . . . Anyway it came as a surprise . . . that 4-dimensional manifolds have myriads of differentiable structures on top of a single topological structure. . . . Taubes proves that the 4-dimensional hyper-plane had in fact uncountably many differential structures, that is, uncountably many ways of defining velocity and accelerations over it.”

    That is what we call a shock.

  • NS June 25, 2013, 1:33

    The space program of the 1960s was very much a part of the big-government liberalism that gave us the New Deal, tried to give us the Great Society, and probably doomed them all by over-reaching itself in Vietnam. Living through those years (albeit as a child/teenager) the loss of optimism and sense of national purpose that occurred as the 60s went into the 70s was palpable. Little has happened since to restore it. Our current government (regardless of party) is more interested in spying on us than in doing anything to improve our lives or those of our children, much less those of humankind generally. I have little hope that this will change during the remainder of my life.

  • coolstar June 25, 2013, 16:51

    @ Alex Trolley Mining the moon doesn’t help the economic problem as you’d need to invest trillions of dollars for decades to see any return on investment. 24/7 is where the factor of 8 (generous) in efficiency comes from. Ever been to the American Southwest? 80% of my state is BLM land doing nothing other than wasting the abundant photons hitting it! ( a bit of a stretch, the desolation and ecology is interesting, but hopefully you get the point).
    It’s only AFTER you’ve developed a space-faring civilization that solar power sats become interesting economically, and by then, you don’t need them. There’s no shortage of energy hitting the earth, there is a shortage of the tech needed to gather and use that energy. that’s going (and HAS ) to change as wind can compete with natural gas now in large parts of the U.S. (and natural gas prices are LOW) and solar is perhaps a decade behind. Both are now more economically viable than nuclear plants (check out the cost per kw generated for the most recent plants built or underway and you’ll be shocked, most likely). But, as is my wont (and profession) I digress….

  • Alex Tolley June 26, 2013, 9:22

    @collstar. As I said, I doubt that SPS would be economically attractive. O’Neill wanted lunar resources as the cost to deliver them to L5 was lower than earth launch costs.

    Although you might like to pave the American Southwest in solar cells, a lot of people don’t. But more importantly, is the problem of moving that power to where it needed. Remember this problem when there was talk of siting huge windfarms in the US Midwest? Same problem with Europe trying to draw power from solar farms in the Sahara. SPS’s can direct their beams to where the power is needed, avoiding most of those transmission costs. When you have really high temperature superconductors to avoid those losses, then the industry can move power around.

    Earth surface solar power output is limited to the solar influx on one hemisphere. While that is currently many times our global energy needs, we also have to share it with farms. So just a few areas (albeit large) are suitable. SPS’s OTOH, could deliver as much power as you want, up to the limit of global warming by heat production.

    Whether you need SPS’s BEFORE or AFTER we become a space faring civilization is debatable. Abundant power might well stimulate this development, rather than be a product of it.

    Bottom line, I agree with you if you mean that economics is probably the most important factor. It has to make economic sense for widespread adoption, although it may be adopted for niches were operational capability is paramount.

  • ljk June 26, 2013, 10:20

    A. A. Jackson said on June 24, 2013 at 21:32:

    “The film has few technical mistakes but Jill did complain about one:

    “She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

    I read that they do use walkie-talkies out among the dishes, or at least they did back then. Perhaps the ban now applies to cell phones? Does anyone even use bulky walkie-talkies any more?

    “As far as I know there are no pictures of Foster and Tarer together.”

    I know Dr. Tarter was one of the big inspirations for Ellie Arroway, but the biggest model was of course Carl Sagan himself. A lot of what Ellie wanted, did, and had happen in her life mirrored Sagan’s life, thoughts, and experiences more than anyone else.

    “I thought I read that Robert Zemeckis , who made Contact, wanted a sequel, in recent interview, tho he might not direct. That could work out , or be a disaster, or never be made , which is the most likely.”

    A sequel might indeed be interesting, though I wonder who would write it. Again I would like to see a miniseries done on Contact to bring to light more of Sagan’s ideas from the novel, plus introduce characters who were merged or cut out in the 1997 film due to time constraints.

    By the way, while I very much liked Palmer Joss in the 1985 novel, I did not care for him hardly at all in the film. He seemed more like a player and a manipulator to get his way both with his agenda and women. The novel Joss was a much kinder and more thoughtful fellow. Even though he was a religious fundamentalist, he did not push his agenda and the reader could see why Ellie was falling for him by the end of the novel (they did not jump into bed, that was with der Heer, a government liason official not in the film).

    The secular/religious debate in the film was handled better in the novel (less black and white and less in your face), which is why again I think a much longer miniseries would do this important discussion justice.

    The Contact sequel probably will not happen at least with the big Hollywood studios for several reasons:

    It didn’t make enough money. Oh, it did make money and was an overall critical success, but not enough to satisfy Hollywood, where profit is the bottom, middle, and top line.

    Contact was up against Men in Black, which was much better at entertaining the masses and did not force them to think too much, especially since both films were summer releases, when a lot of people’s brains go on vacation.

    No doubt Hollywood executives also thought a sci-fi film about aliens is a sci-fi film about aliens, so what’s the difference? Even worse, Contact did not show the aliens or had them attack Earth in space battlecruisers! MIB had both in droves.

    Contact did poorly at the 1998 Oscars, which was not entirely the film’s fault, as it was up against Titanic, which steamrolled over most everyone.

    Contact had an atheist female scientist and did not shy away from or sugar coat the secular/religious debate. Bold but scary topics for a mainstream film that wasn’t aimed at the arthouse culture, in 1997 and now.

    For my full analysis on Contact written just months after the film’s premier, read here:


  • william collins July 10, 2013, 0:15

    The future for spaceflight – NEO, interplanetary, interstellar, etc.- will reside in the costs of spaceflight becoming much less costly. I do not know how that will done. Space elevators raise payloads ( humans and other cargo ) to NEO. Nuclear fusion powered spacecraft get us to Mars
    faster – in 30-60 days. And some entities – corporate/govermental makes revenue/profit by exploitation of the asteroid belt. Electronic pulse powered craft open up the outer planets and their moons to exploration.
    By then, the resources of our interplanetary civilization combined with 100-200 years of advancements in medical and other life sciences will send out longer-lived humans enhanced by adaption to space travel accompanied by very advanced computers/robots(?). Since I doubt the existence of wormholes andd I am skeptical about the probability of warp drive technology, I suspect that interstellar flight will be a one way trip unless humans become more long-lived. Our galaxy is100k light years across – 100 Billion galaxies in the universe! Or may only 100 million galaxies!