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The Cost of Interstellar Flight

Sten Odenwald, an astronomer at the National Institute of Aerospace, takes aim at interstellar flight in a recent essay for the Huffington Post. Dr. Odenwald’s critique makes many valid points by way of showing how difficult the interstellar challenge is. I am much in favor of articles that do this, because putting a payload past or around another star is extraordinarily difficult, and every point that Odenwald raises has to be addressed by our science.

Interstellar flight is also going to take buy-in from the public, whose economic resources will be in play to create the needed Solar System infrastructure and, eventually, the vehicles we will send on these journeys. That puts the economic issue up front, for while we can name a number of technologies that do not violate known physics — beamed sails, fusion drives, ion drives and perhaps one day, antimatter — we have to find the means of paying for their development.

Thus a key part of Dr. Odenwald’s critique, which draws on a study Andreas Hein did as part of the 2011 100 Year Starship study (citation below, and available in full text here). Let me quote this:

Andreas Hein, an engineer with the Icarus Interstellar Project, developed a rigorous method for forecasting the economics of interstellar travel, only to find that most economically plausible scenarios for a “Daedalus-type” mission would cost upwards of $174 trillion and require nearly 40 years of development and 0.4 percent of the world GDP. This would be for an unmanned, 50-year journey to Barnard’s Star using “fusion drive” technology. It consists of 50,000 tons of fuel and 500 tons of scientific equipment. Top speed: 12 percent of the speed of light.

The Project Daedalus design was created by members of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1970s and grew out of an interest in the Fermi question: ‘Where are they?’ Enrico Fermi was pointing out that a universe as evidently full of resources as the one we live in should have spawned life aplenty, and he wondered at our lack of observation of it. Could it be, some wondered, that interstellar flight is just too difficult? In response, a BIS team decided to see if it was possible to conceive of a starship even with near-term technology, and we got Daedalus.

Daedalus_Saturn_V_comparison

Image: The Daedalus starship design as compared with a Saturn V. Credit: Adrian Mann.

The behemoth starship would get us data from Barnard’s Star, though as a flyby mission, it would simply careen through any planetary system there, possibly dispatching planetary probes along the way. If we were designing a starship today just as the BIS team did in the 1970s (as indeed Icarus Interstellar is doing right now) we wouldn’t create the same design, but take advantage of numerous technological advances in the interim, not the least of which are things like miniaturization of components. We’re still facing huge propulsion challenges, of course, because the fusion engine of Daedalus is still a long way from our grasp.

But on the matter of economics, I think we have to take a broader picture. My thought is that the public will accept funding for an interstellar mission when such a mission takes up about the same percentage of GDP as other space efforts have, averaged across the years. In other words, we can design something today and figure out what it would cost, but over the decades economic growth and technological change would make that cost a smaller proportion of our total economy.

Hein worked out a useful strategy for weighing these matters in his paper. With regard to the fraction of GDP that is spent on spaceflight, he draws on a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and notes this in his paper:

It is reasonable to take the value of the G7 here, due to their relatively high commitment to spacelight in comparison to other countries. For the US, the GDP fraction spent on spacelight is 0.295% and for the G7, an average of 0.084% was estimated in 2005.

The space scenarios in Hein’s paper are created with these GDP figures in mind, with the additional caveat that not all of the space budget is devoted to exploration. In the US, for example, we have to factor in the percentage of the space budget used by the Department of Defense, not to mention other areas that are not related to exploration. We may, then, find the percentage of the space budget allocated for exploration to vary somewhere between 0.01% of global GDP and, in the most optimistic, Apollo-class situation, up to 0.4%. Interstellar probe costs then have to be weighed against these numbers.

Andreas is a friend and, as Centauri Dreams readers know, a contributor to these pages, so I thought I would ask him for a response to Dr. Odenwald’s article. He responded that he thought Odenwald had missed the point of his original paper:

The whole point of the paper was to estimate when interstellar missions are going to become feasible between the 21st and 24th century from an economic point of view, given very rough estimates for their cost and a range of economic scenarios. The reason why this is interesting is that the world economy grows. This means that the world gets wealthier over time. At some point things get affordable that were thought too expensive before. It turns out that a Daedalus-type mission only gets feasible in some optimistic scenarios where the world economy grows significantly. Other, “cheaper” missions get feasible even for pessimistic economic scenarios. The amount of funding for an interstellar mission is simply derived from the fraction of current spending on space exploration. I think this is reasonable.

I would recommend that anyone interested in the economics of interstellar flight read Hein’s paper, which is titled “Evaluation of Technological/Social and Political Projections for the Next 300 Years and Implications for an Interstellar Mission.” Hein uses Gross Domestic Product as a key indicator and studies funding patterns from past space programs as a way of estimating how funding might emerge for an interstellar program. He also identifies two funding distribution patterns, a ‘triangular’ shape as in Apollo (where funding rises rapidly, peaks, and declines rapidly) and a ‘rectangular’ pattern as in, for example, ISS funding, where as seen on a graph, the funding distribution takes on a sustained level and holds it until phase-out.

The upshot of all this is that given various political and economic situations, the potential dates for an interstellar mission fall from within the 21st Century to the 24th Century and beyond. We can look at a full-blown Daedalus-class mission, which he estimates would cost $100 trillion (not Odenwald’s cited $174 trillion). Hein also works out an estimated $20 trillion for a ‘budget Daedalus,’ and comes up with $65 billion for a starship design similar to Freeman Dyson’s 1968 concept, a spacecraft powered Orion-style by the explosion of nuclear devices.

Notice the range we’re talking about. There are economic scenarios in which programs for all three classes of starship could be initiated by 2300, and under which the Dyson-class spacecraft would begin program development in the relatively near future. High GDP growth could result in a full-scale Daedalus program getting underway as early as 2110. The most optimistic scenario, in which high levels of funding are sustained (the Apollo pattern rendered into the ‘rectangular’ mode), would produce earlier results but requires an unusual combination of factors, as Hein makes clear:

The rectangular Apollo scenario is the most optimistic one of all four space program scenarios considered. It is probable if some extraordinary circumstances coincide:

• Long-term consensus and sustainability of a global space program

• Stable cooperation over several decades among many nations

• High global commitment (0.4% GDP over 37 years)

Today, these assumptions might be considered unrealistic. However, over a time-span of 300 years even such low probability scenarios have to be taken into account. The degree of international cooperation today, as in the case of the ISS program, would have been impossible to imagine 200 years ago. This scenario only shows that given the right circumstances, a Daedalus-like probe can be launched in the 21st or 22nd Century.

But is this the kind of probe we really want to launch? Tomorrow I’ll look at some of Sten Odenwald’s other criticisms of interstellar flight, some of which point, in my view, toward increased public engagement with deep space exploration while not ruling out future interstellar efforts. We can’t predict the future, but Andreas Hein’s scenarios cover a range in which interstellar flight becomes a reality within the next several centuries, and some a bit sooner than that.

The paper is Hein, “Evaluation of Technological/Social and Political Projections for the Next 300 Years and Implications for an Interstellar Mission,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 330-340 (issue available through the BIS).

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David W October 22, 2014, 10:28

    I think you should ask HP for equal time. He is an astronomer not an Aerospace engineer . Well enough about him. We spent a lot on Apollo- if we went back to that spending we could do an interstellar unmanned probe of some sort in less than 20 years I bet because I think our engineers here could do it( 2% of light speed in 20 years)
    Now if we leave KB pushed austerity behind . We ask the public this one ” Do you want to go back top the economic growth rates we hade in the 1060s? Well we know how to do without a war. It will be fun It will create a bunch of great high tech jobs all over the country and it will be a blast”
    I think we need a political/economic sales job as much as an engineering breakthrough(At least for 2% light speed)

  • daniel duffy October 22, 2014, 11:13

    “economically plausible scenarios for a “Daedalus-type” mission would cost upwards of $174 trillion and require nearly 40 years of development and 0.4 percent of the world GDP.”

    What percent of world GDP is currently spent on space flight and space exploration?

    How much does world GDP have to increase so that the cost of interstellar missions like Daedelus constitute a similr percentage of GDP?

    At current economic growth rates how long until world GDP achieves this level?

    That will be the year we can explore the stars.

  • Mark October 22, 2014, 12:21

    I get that space is utterly empty and the odds of collision with anything in the universe are remote at best. But I still believe it is reckless to launch a 450 ton payload at 12% of c toward a star system we know little about.

    Has anyone calculated what destruction that size missile would do were it to impact an Earthlike planet? It’s been years since I’ve fired up my old HP calculator but I took a stab. Ignoring relativistic effects, I came up with a kinetic energy in the neighborhood of 2.6×10^20J. This is a small fraction of the energy produced by the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs (4.2×10^23 J). Still, 13 million megatons of TNT is an extinction level event for whatever may be living there.

    Shouldn’t we at least characterize any planets and their orbital parameters before launch, to guarantee as much as possible that we won’t wreck something?

    Such missions should include a way to slow the craft down or divert and plunge it into a star after it has achieved its science objectives.

  • Alex Tolley October 22, 2014, 13:55

    I think Odenwald has pretty much nailed it. Most of the economic projects I’ve read for affording star flight assume quite high growth rates, yet we may well fall back to glacial rates in the 21stc (see Piketty “Capital in the 21st Century). I think most people agree that we need a solar system wide economy to be able to afford big star ships, especially world ships.

    I’m not entirely convinced with the “small is economic but incommunicable” argument – I thought that FOCAL type probes could transmit back to Earth from the destination star’s focal point. [Could someone run the numbers and either confirm or deny this?]

    While I am not sure nanotech (aka as hand waving or “magic pixie dust” ) will happen, we do know that 3D printing is moving forward by leaps and bounds. A few years ago is was just plastic parts and sintered metals. Now we have high performance metals with highly heterogeneous structures. In 100 years it will likely be a very mature technology able to recreate a host of objects from basic asteroidal materials. So I see plenty of scope to reduce probe sizes so that manageable propulsion systems can be affordably used, bootstrapping themselves from local materials. My favorite being a beam that is primarily used for planetary defense but can be temporarily used for star probe propulsion.

    We’ve being having a very jolly discussion over whether minds can be uploaded , Starflight: Near-Term Prospects. If they can, then we can travel to the stars relatively cheaply. If we cannot, then machine minds will make the same trip using similar technology and embodiment at the target star. Either case should allow small, relatively affordable vehicles to travel to the stars with sentient payloads that could return information to Earth. This should be affordable long before behemoth probes or human cargo star ships ensuring that they will populate the nearby star systems long before humans 1.0 get there.

  • Rui Sousa October 22, 2014, 14:57

    These estimates are necessarilly very rough and probably on the low side of future reality. They are likely based on a single-planet economy and I assume insterstellar projects will become possible only when our civ is multiplanetary, including asteroids etc. Then the economy will be much larger by an unknown factor.

  • Alex Tolley October 22, 2014, 15:27

    @Daniel – current global GDP ~ $80 tn.
    Assume $ 174 tn development spread out over 25 years => $6.96 tn/yr
    Assume generous 0.4% of future GDP = 6.96/0.004 => $1740 tn (22x current global GDP)

    GDP growth rate% Target year to start
    1 2323
    3 2118

    So 20+ fold global GDP is not likely sustainable on Earth without a radically different economy. So space based it most likely will be. At a high 3% growth rate we might be able to start building around the turn of the 22nd century, so the Starship Century folks need to be ready with plans. At a more likely moderate 1% growth, we could start developing sometime after the 24th century, about the time Jean-Luc Picard is entering Starfleet Academy.

  • RobFlores October 22, 2014, 15:38

    In similar vein to A. Tolley, the cost of production of complex space
    hardware must go down, and it’s reliability must go up before we attempt
    to build interstellar probes. And I would add, robotic mining operations
    as well as some cousins to assemble the shells of space vehicles will be necessary to open up the solar systems beyond Venus-Earth-Mars.

    If you are willing to use brute force and a goal is to send colonists we
    might look to decelerate a wondering large ice ball, parking one at 135 AU, and hollowing parts of the interior. You could initiate your trip with Nuclear pulses and then switch to a more efficient drive, to creep up to speeds higher
    than 5% C, You have an ice ball with raw materials converted to spaceship, that you did not have to construct from scratch or provide fuel mass for.

  • steven rappolee October 22, 2014, 16:17

    I love these economics articles!

    my formula below is that a $250 billion per year carbon tax is invested in the world capital markets, a fleet of nuclear power plants and a world circling fleet of space based solar powersats

    my honors English instructor told me to leave out all of the science “fictionay”stuff
    as soon as class was out I added that back in.With 4% growth this would be $ 88 Trillion 70 years from now.Then it pays everyone over 67 years of age $1,200 in addition to their regular social security check,in 87 years no one would be anywhere near the poverty level so no more government expenditures for elderly poverty programs.government expenditures became a major distraction in the late 1960’s that led to the demise of the Apollo program
    This fund would need to earn income and grow so it could not directly pay for starship project, but the SBSP project would take $ 5 trillion to build and generate cash flows and sending humans into space to harvest/mine and construct the system
    this economy could grow the GNP of the space economy that could build starships sooner and reduce CO2 emmissions

    http://yellowdragonblog.com/2014/01/28/a-carbon-tax-fueled-social-security-sovereign-wealth-fund/

  • Andrew Palfreyman October 22, 2014, 16:40

    It would be nice to have infrastructure in place before an interstellar mission is utterly affordable. I take a leaf out of Zubrin’s book to point out that, if there were trillions of humans cooperatively inhabiting this solar system, and thus possessed of a monumental aggregate GDP, we could afford a lot of missions that are currently inconceivable.

    But we don’t have a single ground base off-Earth, and we have no experience in autonomously building them using local materials. And we don’t have a web of beamers to get around this system cheaply and easily either. I submit that both of these are prerequisites to doing sustained interstellar activity.

  • steven rappolee October 22, 2014, 16:53

    This started out as a community college paper( the above URL) but now that I am at the University of Michigan I have discovered my economics professors can not answer the following questions
    World GNP has been growing at 3 to 4 % over the last century and is now at $70 Trillion so a $88 Trillion sovereign wealth fund would be a (A) large part of the worlds GNP? or (B) would grow the world GNP faster then 4% so as to reduce the percentage of the sovereign wealth funds ownership of the world?
    I think a bit of both?
    would you count lunar mining colony’s and SBPS in any special ways? is it all a part of the american GNP?
    carbon taxes make nuclear power and space based power competitive and during economic crises the fund could do massive arbitrage after all I have the federal reserve board and the social security board as governors.i would have a federal power corporation(TVA) and a federal powersat corporation but with a view to privatization in whole and in part in future years
    A federal fuel depot corporation and mining but contract it out to the spacex folks of our world
    anyone have a economics background here?
    take a stab at my question regarding GNP?

  • Malcolm Davis October 22, 2014, 19:31

    Re Alex’s comment about the ‘Jolly Discussion’ (I like that term), I think this goes back to an original post I had on that discussion a few weeks back. You have to get the economics in place, and that means you have to have broad-based political support for such a project. I don’t see private industry alone shelling out these sorts of funds, so its only going to be done either at the nation-state level, or the global level, and more likely a combination of states and commercial actors. That means that any concept for a mission has to appeal to political leaders and corporate leaders, and that means it has to deliver measurable outcomes within a reasonably short space of time. A previous article talked about 500 year transit times to a nearby star system, and in my opinion that won’t work for political or corporate leaders who control the economic means to make it happen.

    Therefore, if we are talking about getting there ‘fast’ (as in approx. 30 years to the nearest star system – at a speed of roughly 15% the speed of light) that drives up technological challenge, engineering challenge and cost quite considerably for building starships capable of accelerating to that percentage of the speed of light. I don’t think such a feat is impossible, particuarly if we are talking a 2100 – 2300 timeframe, but it certainly will be exceedingly difficult.

    That’s where Alex’s argument about uploaded human minds in robot or synthetic bodies going in place of humans is made. At the moment ‘uploading’ is merely science fiction. We don’t know how to do it, how successful it will be, and we can only guess at the challenges and risks associated with it. Nor can we yet make robots of sufficient complexity to be anything but crude machines and we can’t make synthetic humans, so even if we could upload minds, the uploaded minds have nowhere to go. And to get to a nearby star system, the uploaded human minds in robot bodies still need a transportation mechanism to get to where they are going. Even if the human minds are stored in computer for the journey, and thus the ship is smaller and can somehow be accelerated faster, how are the human minds then ‘downloaded’ into the synthetic bodies – maybe nanotechnology or 4D printing, or some other advance in biotech that grows synthetic bodies? But what of the humans back home? What role do they play in this grand adventure?

    This is where I personally feel the post-human vision falls down because it ignores or dismisses basic human nature. In returning to the economics and thus political questions posed by the economics, there must be broad-based support from the human 1.0 population, who must see some value to them – be they a political leader, a corporate titan, or the man or woman in the street – if they are to drive political leaders to fund interstellar travel. I do suggest that broad based political and popular support that would energise economic means for star travel would be forthcoming if the pathway is for develop a means so that anyone can go – fast starships. I don’t see that support happening if the pathway is only for a small select group of elite post-humans, who are then completely separate from the rest of humanity. The seven billion of us – or by 2100 – the eleven billion of us here on Earth have to be part of the grand adventure, or it won’t happen.

    I accept that the post-human vision of uploading a consciousness may happen one day and I don’t dismiss the importance of the post-human vision or its significance for human affairs. However I think it would be sensible to work on both pathways – fast starships, and the post-human uploading idea – and see which one is the most practical, safe, and viable, not just from an engineering or scientitic perspective, but also from a political and economic context, as well as which best addresses basic human needs and the rights of humans. People – ‘humans 1.0’ – need to go too. That’s human nature that cannot be ignored, denied, or dismissed. We all dream of spaceflight, from the days of Apollo onwards, and we will be dreaming the same dreams centuries hence as we aim for the stars. People will be asking – can we go? Any plan or concept that denies them that right, does not work.

  • Alex Tolley October 22, 2014, 20:44

    @ Malcolm – I agree with you that there is a fundamental disconnect between long voyages and the current political system. A dynastic system might go for it, as would a long lived religious organization, e.g. Roman Catholic church. But neither of these is likely to command more than a tiny fraction of solar system GDP, which suggests that we are talking even further out in time for their resources to be sufficient for a flight. But even a fast flight is going to come up against the usual argument of spending resources “at home” rather than for “elitist projects”. So this flight would still need to be “sold” to the citizens of the solar system to pay for it.

  • Alex Tolley October 22, 2014, 20:48

    @steven – I like your thinking. However I am skeptical that we can sustain 3-4% growth for a few more centuries. Almost certainly we cannot do that on Earth. But without low cost access to space, I see that we might have difficulty expanding off-planet, which suggests that Earth bound GDP growth is likely to falter and return to pre-industrial growth rates.

    Thoughts on how to “break out”?

  • Alex Tolley October 22, 2014, 20:52

    @Rob Flores – Have you given some thought to what happens if the ice ball ends up cruising at 0.05c and hits a planet due to some unforeseen loss of control (crew is all dead, or computers fail)? Can we make it fail safe so that we don’t ruin some planetary neighbor’s “back yard”?

  • Eniac October 22, 2014, 22:26

    Malcolm Davis: I do not quite share your pessimism about the possibility of funding endeavors that will not be of direct benefit to the person(s) doing the funding. I’ll give a few reasons:

    There are many historical examples over the ages (pyramids, great cathedrals, voyages of discovery) where huge amounts of assets and effort were invested without any concrete return in the short run.

    There are many “corporate titans” today who are in pursuit of goals which do not directly benefit them, but rather humanity in general, in the long run only. The cure for cancer, the elimination of tropical diseases, or rockets to bring colonists to Mars are all goals that have money invested in them, right now. Some with no expectation of financial return, others with long-range expectations that are highly uncertain.

    Similarly for governments: There are many expensive efforts where the only expected return is knowledge with no near term applications, such as space probes and particle accelerators.

  • Neutrino78x October 22, 2014, 22:27

    Paul Glister, 500 tons is very heavy for a unmanned probe, wouldn’t 500 kg be better, since that is the mass of new horizons? The main purpose of the first probe would be to take pictures, right? Also personally I would want to slow the price at the destination using a light sail or magsail. :)

  • william October 23, 2014, 0:21

    Well I guess I’ll add my two cents here (as I always do when the subject is rather beguiling) and that like to say that I read the article and all the peoples who have replied, and I’m not quite sure that we will be ready for any type of long-term space travel for what I would think would be centuries.

    If I may digress for a second I have noticed recently that in the yahoo webpages there have been many a considerable number of articles appearing now and then concerning how we should as a people start considering the use of insects as perhaps sources in our everyday diet. Such articles distrust me considerably, as it seems that they are (whoever they are are) trying to condition us to the idea that perhaps someday in the near future our dietary habits might have to be forcibly changed to something that we are not quite accustomed to.

    Seemingly with the population going up and the stress on resources going up, then there seems to be the real question that the quality of life as we have understood it in the last 200 years may be going down. What does all this have to do with the topic at hand? Simply this, that the future may be quite a bit less than we have hoped it would be.

    It may in fact be a prolonged periods of stagnation, economically in which there won’t be ANY growth rather than a worldwide growth of somewhere of 3%. Given the fact that the personal wealth of many people can be locked up in any one time in the investment community say of Wall Street and with the fact that we have less than sterling individuals handling oftentimes our money and our governments money there seems to be a future way in which we are going to have very little that we can expend for life’s little extravagances, much less something is bold and long-term as interstellar travel. I hope that my pessimistic view is not the one that would come about, but I have found in my own personal life that if anything can go wrong. It definitely will go wrong.

  • tesh October 23, 2014, 3:07

    Agree with Malcolm Davis October 22, 2014 at 19:31 and have mentioned this many times previously. The process of journeying is as important as the the planning, reaching and the destination itself and it needs to be done by us as we are now – humans 1.0 (such a nice way of putting it).

  • Brett Bellmore October 23, 2014, 6:37

    The economics are why I regard Von Neumann replicators as being the key enabling technology for star fight. Lacking them, we’ll never have the economic surplus to spend on something so inherently expensive.

    We need to make our infrastructure and productive base grow much faster than our population, for a large number of doublings, to reach the point where we can afford to spend the GDP of a large nation on each ‘ticket’ to the stars.

    This is where the focus of star flight activists should be, not propulsion technology. Replicators (Of the ‘clunking” sort.) are close to being feasible, in my opinion as a tooling engineer. I’m guessing we could have one inside of a decade if we made a sustained push.

  • Michael Spencer October 23, 2014, 7:46

    So many great comments.

    Let me add that not only do we have not a single presence off-world, we can’t even move an on-orbit satellite! Once the Solar System is populated, the Universe is ours (with apologies to Zubrin and many others).

    Mr. Davis adds: “You have to get the economics in place, and that means you have to have broad-based political support for such a project. ”

    Are you not imagining the same old government-sponsored paradigm here? Certainly governments will have an initial role, but imagine the lunar market for water– and the hundreds of space jockeys risking limb and neck, bringing icy moons from Saturn down-system. Ore in stunning quantities are in the asteroids–just as soon as someone figures out how to smelt them formability in 3D printers (a term that will be held quaint, no doubt).

    Stan Robinson imagines this system quite believably. So does Ben Bova in his unique cornpone way. They all see the role of government as establishing a need, period.

    Mighty great time to be alive! Other than 500 years from now, that is.

  • swage October 23, 2014, 10:01

    I am tired of getting told this kind of project is too expensive and unaffordable when i see what is invested into military budget. At best, totally useless and potentially a global chain reaction death trap. The problem is not an economic one, it is attitude.

    The way i see it, there are two options:

    1) governmental: a military space program. Whilst not the most moral approach to begin with, its fairly certain that some kind of weapon development will be funded. The rationale is: if this happens in any case, it possible to jump the train and and steer it into the right direction. Apollo was a reaction to the Sputnik-Shock. It is questionable if it had ever surfaced without the Cold War in the first place.

    2) public: educational advertising. Getting the majority of the public interested into space exploration once again and create as well as consolidate interest groups advocating space programs into a single, global entity.

    That being said, it seems only logical to extend our reach in the solar system and unmanned space exploration has a certain edge. Also, i am as well skeptical that small payloads being as impractical as it seems at first glance.

    I can imagine missions not required to “call back home” initially, making this an optional component in my book which can be dropped. For one nanotechnology like molecular assemblers do not seem impossible to me, because there are enough examples in nature delivering unequivocal evidence that this a feasible approach. For microorganism colonization or nano tech seed missions this would be a logical approach. Mass has a huge impact on mission feasibility and to drastically reduce it is certainly one way to overcome the present obstacles.

    It boils down to this: humanity has to ask if it wants to become an advanced space faring civilization and when it deems it appropriate to start acting like one. If we instead want to focus on fighting over resources until total depletion, without giving a thought about those which can be acquired in the solar system, well… that’s our choice then.

    The capabilities are there, but do we also have the spirit necessary to accomplish this? In majority?

  • Randy Chung October 23, 2014, 11:54

    @Brett Bellmore, we are on the same wavelength. I am trying to link up with automation engineers. I’d appreciate it if you could contact me (rmchung _at_ gmail.com) (or maybe we can connect on LinkedIn?)

  • Alex Tolley October 23, 2014, 12:24

    @Eniac

    There are many historical examples over the ages (pyramids, great cathedrals, voyages of discovery) where huge amounts of assets and effort were invested without any concrete return in the short run.

    Pharoah dynasties and the Roman Catholic church didn’t worry much about popular opinion usurping their positions. The voyages of discovery quickly returned information of immediate value, e.g. New World sources of gold.
    Current philanthropy is moving towards control by the philanthropist to ensure results are attained. I don’t see how a hundred year voyage to a star will fit that mold. Are there any projects at all that were started before WWI that are only now coming to completion? Anything Henry VIII might have started for a 500 year completion?

  • Alex Tolley October 23, 2014, 12:36

    @swage – you have a point. Global military spending is 2% of GDP, 5x even the most optimistic spending for a star ship program. If we decided to divert all (or most) military spending to space development we could conceivably launch a star ship this century. I cannot imagine that the economic benefit would be any worse, and the spinoffs could be much more useful.

    Being pragmatic I don’t see that happening any time soon. But that shouldn’t stop us leveraging military spending for space development, much like ICBM rocket technology did for the early space age. Planetary defense with big-ass lasers is one example. If the military go for solar power sats for battlefield power, that might be another. Trickles to be sure, but large trickles compared to civilian space.

  • Astronist October 23, 2014, 19:08

    Both Marc Millis and I have discussed this question at length in 2011/2012 issues of JBIS. Please see references at http://www.astronist.demon.co.uk/about/publications.html.

    Stephen A.

  • Brian October 23, 2014, 21:11

    65 billion for what I assume is a project orion style ship? that should be talked about since its more then a thousand times less then the next option and less then half of the Apollo program in todays dollars.

  • Michael October 24, 2014, 5:33

    @Alex Tolley October 22, 2014 at 13:55

    ‘I’m not entirely convinced with the “small is economic but incommunicable” argument – I thought that FOCAL type probes could transmit back to Earth from the destination star’s focal point. [Could someone run the numbers and either confirm or deny this?]’

    I get a gravity focus point of around ~90 AU for a Red dwarf, so if the probe goes through the target star system out the other side to this point comm’s could use this bending and that of our Suns ~550 AU to greatly reduce the power requirements for communications.

    .<<<<<<<<<>>>>.
    FP~ 550 AU Sun Red dwarf FP (Probe)~90 AU

  • swage October 24, 2014, 5:52

    An that is still the global, military standard: ICBMs because there is seemingly no way to defend aside of deterrence in the form of mutually assured destruction, therefore the only security lies in ensured second strike capability after an initially received preemptive strike, a role that ballistic missile submarines fulfill adequately, thus nullifying any logical rationale for beginning a conflict, practically constraining all parties into a state of forced peace.

    Of course… the dream of any military is to render its own defense impervious to such preemptive strikes, which is also equal to being able to thwart any second strike capability, which would allow that military to operate with impunity.

    Enter anti ballistic missile shields, attack submarines and MIRV technology. I guarantee the moment the first fusion power plant becomes operational anti ballistic missile beams will join the fray.

    Speaking of fusion power plants, i found it really strange Skunkworks recently outlined a reactor design built and completed in 1986 (the Mirror Fusion Test Facility), but which was allegedly never activated once, closed down immediately after becoming operational-ready, slashing all funding in that branch of fusion research, halting all similar projects. And now it turns up Lockheed’s Skunk Works, a group associated with secret military projects asking for public funding? Of course one couldn’t just come along and introduce a technology kept secret for 28 years fully operational, i guess. You have at least to act as if you research it initially. They said they estimate 5 years for a working prototype. I think they will achieve a miraculous breakthrough before that, 2-3 years maybe to make it look somewhat authentic whilst preserving the momentum. Then, of course, i may also totally delude myself into something here, but in my defense: this is an really awkward situation to begin with.

    It may happen sooner than we think. Of course there is always plenty of “what if” scenarios around…

  • william "Rick" Collins October 25, 2014, 22:33

    I believe that the key to funding interstellar missions will be the development of an interplanetary or solar system wide economic-political-social infrastructure which will fund/launch these future missions. Having said that, I know that my three granddaughters will be grandparents -albeit , with longer lifespans and more robust healthspans – when this occurs. I am not one to believe that warp drives, FTL propulsion, or wormholes are ever likely to occur – no matter how wrong I would like to be. Maybe by then , fusion power – the power source of the future (maybe or never)- will actually be created.

  • Alex Tolley October 27, 2014, 10:25

    @”Rick” – I think most of us here would agree that a solar system sized economy will be necessary. It will also require that the economy is not subsistence level, but that per capita real GDP has also increased in line with at least long term growth, of perhaps 0.5% p.a. With advanced propulsion and technologies, it might be possible to have an Earth based economy using solar system resources to work too, although the Earth would be an extremely crowded hive. I would certainly prefer a space based economy with most people living off-planet, most probably in space habitats rather than the handful of planetary and moon surfaces.

    But even with that in place there will be people asking “why the stars, isn’t the solar system room enough?” (c.f. “Columbus was a Dope” – Robert Heinlein)

  • Eniac October 27, 2014, 21:01

    Brett Bellmore, Randy Chung: Share the sentiment exactly. If you want to start something, I’m in. Gmail awnd329.

  • william f collins October 27, 2014, 21:40

    Alex, I agree. I would amend my premise to postulate that a solar system-wide should be an economy which benefits the masses of humanity. Then space travel will get funded (private ad public bureaucracies are very old institutions -no reason to think that they will disappear in our future) Not sure how that society would look. As for most human folk living in the interplanetary medium, I see that as a far, far away thing. However,my great great-granddaughter/son who may actually live “out there” might see things very differently.

  • Eniac October 28, 2014, 11:03

    I am with Alex and swage: Absent any commercial or governmental efforts, it will be the military that will open this final frontier, like so many other frontiers, before. I even think we will not have to wait long, the process has already begun. It can’t be long until space is officially recognized as the new High Ground, and a new US Navy will proceed to try and leverage their complete dominance on Earth into space, before some cocky newcomers stake too much of a claim. Once this gathers momentum: Hold on to your hats.

  • drs November 12, 2014, 0:48

    World GDP now is $85 trillion (PPP). 0.4% of that for 40 years gives a total of $13.6 trillion, very far from $174 trillion. The quoted math is not consistent.

    Any love for Project Longshot, the fission-fusion slower but non-flyby probe proposal?

  • Harry December 8, 2014, 17:50

    Utter nonsense about costs. All technologies are improving….including industrial robots. A completely robotized economy, from raw material collection to delivery of a finished product, means the nth unit of production has a total production cost of zero.

    Try picturing the cost of building a 747 in 1899 to get an idea of what I’m saying.