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Synchrony in Outer Space

As we watch commercial companies launching (and landing) rockets even as NASA contemplates a Space Launch System that could get us to Mars, it’s worth considering just which future we’re going to see happen. In this essay, Nick Nielsen thinks about making the transition between an early spacefaring civilization to a truly system-wide space culture, and one capable of moving still further out. No technologies arise in isolation, and the financial and social contexts of the things we do interact in ways that make predicting the long haul a dicey business. There is, as Nielsen reminds us, no unilateral history, but just how contingency and serendipity will shape what we achieve in space is no easy matter to untangle. Herewith some thoughts on history, context and attempts to put a brake on rapid change.

By J. N. Nielsen

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Diachronic and synchronic historiography

In historiography a distinction is made between the diachronic and the synchronic, which is usually explained by saying that the diachronic is through time and the synchronic is across time. I don’t find this explanation helpful, so I say instead that the diachronic is succession in time and the synchronic is interaction in time. Of course, all interaction in time involves succession in time, so that a synchronic perspective involves some “width” of the present, thus in approaching history from a synchronic perspective we need to agree (even if only tacitly and implicitly) on the width of the present. [1]

The width of the present in synchronic historiography ideally could be set by any temporal parameters we choose. If we extrapolated from the punctiform present (an instantaneous present with no width) to ever-greater parameters for the present, mathematical induction would eventually lead us to a “present” that encompasses the whole of history. It could be argued that Big History is exactly this synchronic perspective that encompasses the whole of time, but I will not take this up at present, as I want to engage in a more conventional exercise in synchronic historical thinking that initially will take a period of a few decades—say, more than a decade but less than a century—as my temporal parameters, and then will be extended to a longer duration. However, I do want to add one highly unconventional element to synchronic historiography by applying this mode of historical thought not to the past, but to the future, though I will also reach a little bit into the past as well.


[“A perfectly scaled diagram showing the orbital altitudes of several significant satellites of earth. all planets and orbital distances are drawn to scale and the altitude data was collected from many Wikipedia articles and various other sites.” Image by Rrakanishu]

Origins of the Space Age

The Space Age began during the Cold War, and arguably as a technological spinoff of ballistic missile research. The first true ballistic missile was the German V-2 produced at the end of the Second World War, which was, for its time, a highly sophisticated rocket. The US and the USSR competed in scooping up the best German scientists after the war in order that these scientific minds should be put to work on the arms of the new superpowers that emerged from the war. Thus the Space Age was conceived in war and brought to its first successes in war. However, many within this war industry were visionaries who viewed their war work as a necessary evil in order to move humanity to the point at which military spinoff technologies could independently contribute to human progress (sort of like the idea of “Atoms for Peace”). Perhaps the best examples of this attitude are to be found in Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev.

After the US won the “Space Race” to get to the moon first, budgets for space exploration dwindled and less heroic space missions became the norm. One of the last Apollo capsules was employed in the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which linked up the US and the USSR spacecraft in orbit, and which initiated an era of international cooperation in space that has endured to the present day. Though this cooperative effort has been rocky at times, the funding of the effort has been kept sufficiently low that little has been at stake in terms of geopolitical-level goals. This sort of low-temperature, back-burner space effort could continue indefinitely with little to no impact upon the wider world.

The greatest geopolitical impact of the Space Age to date has been the ability to monitor Earth from orbit. The satellite industry is now an industry in every sense of the term. Many nation-states build and deploy satellites, and many different companies, both government SOEs and private industry, compete for the launch business to place satellites in orbit. The extent to which we today inhabit a planetary civilization—with all that implies in terms of both our global reach and our global limitations—is testified to by this satellite industry, which affects every other industry on the planet, as most of these satellites are built for the purposes of monitoring Earth and facilitating human activity on Earth. A planetary civilization in an equilibrium state thus extends a little beyond its homeworld, to include the orbital trajectories around its planet, in order to more effectively control, administer, and monitor that planetary civilization.

The greatest impact of the Space Age from a scientific point of view, but almost irrelevant from a geopolitical standpoint, has been the exponential improvement in our scientific knowledge of our solar system and the universe beyond by means of automated probes that have traveled throughout our solar system, and a little beyond, collecting data and transmitting it back to Earth. For a relatively small investment in contemporary terms, these instruments placed beyond the atmosphere of Earth, and in some cases on the surfaces of other planets in our solar system, have revolutionized cosmology and our understanding of the universe. While it is commonplace to belittle human achievement in the name of Copernicanism, it really is remarkable that we have managed to take the measurement of the universe entire while our species is still confined to a single planet.


[Alejo Fernández’s “Virgin of the Navigators” (1531-1536) vividly shows
the intersection of medieval Spanish piety and the new Age of Discovery.]

Extraterrestial buildout: the next developmental stage in spacefaring civilization

A planetary civilization more-or-less in an equilibrium state could continue in this manner, with a rudimentary presence in space, without moving appreciably beyond this level of spacefaring development. I take this rudimentary level of spacefaring to be consistent with a planetary civilization in its mature stage of development, when it is capable of satellite technology. However, if a planetary civilization begins to make the transition to a more robust spacefaring posture, it begins to exceed planetary equilibrium and begins the process of becoming a system-wide civilization within the planetary system of its homeworld. This will be the next developmental stage of our civilization if we choose to make that transition. I once called this process extraterrestrialization (which is, admittedly, a long and awkward word with many syllables), though now I prefer to call it “buildout.”

In the present context I will employ “buildout” as a general term meaning the building of any infrastructure that allows a civilization to make the transition to another stage of development. Thus the buildout of a transoceanic seafaring capacity was a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition to the Age of Discovery and the voyages of Columbus and Magellan. This buildout can also be thought of as the mature expression of the commercial trading networks of late medieval European civilization, at which point this regional civilization may have stagnated, though this stagnation did not in fact occur. The buildout of a rudimentary spacefaring capacity in the form of satellite technology can be thought of as the mature expression of a planetary civilization, but it also suggests the buildout of a more robust spacefaring capacity that is the necessary but not sufficient condition of a durable, self-sufficient human presence beyond Earth.

Buildout always shades over imperceptibly into that which comes next, but there is no inevitability as to what follows. [2] The intimations of future possibilities for civilization within the scope of our present institutions may remain undeveloped if a civilization stagnates at any one developmental stage. The spacefaring capacity we currently possess, enabling us to be active in Earth orbit, could hint at further spacefaring to come, or it could simply be the mature expression of a planetary civilization at equilibrium, needing this orbital capacity to monitor and manage the only world that it has. As Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


[We already have a blooming, buzzing confusion in Earth orbit as the result of all our satellites and space junk. This will only become more confusing over time.]

The blooming, buzzing confusion beyond Earth [3]

What I want to do here is to consider the buildout to the next stage of spacefaring civilization as the parameters of a “wide” present to be analyzed synchronically. This stage of spacefaring buildout will span from our present spacefaring capacity to a civilization on the threshold of an interstellar spacefaring capacity, but not yet having attained that goal. [4] The central lesson of a synchronic perspective on history is that social events do not occur in a social vacuum; technological developments do not occur in a technological vacuum; political events do not occur in a political vacuum, and so on. Moreover, these developments contextualize each other, so that social events also do not occur in a technological vacuum, political vacuum, etc.

Present spacefaring capacity includes satellite construction and launch, the construction and launch of scientific instruments destined for points throughout the Solar System, and a continual human presence in Earth orbit in the ISS since 02 November 2000. This human presence in LEO is a research station and not a settlement. The ISS is entirely dependent upon supply from Earth. There is no industrial infrastructure off the surface of Earth, whether an agricultural industry, or a manufacturing industry, or any other kind of industry, by which the ISS could even potentially support itself, either existentially or financially. [5]

The immediate future of spacefaring comprises both government and private sector initiatives that build on present spacefaring capacity, as well as plans for human missions to Mars. However, the immediate future is likely to be distinguished from the immediate past by the rapidly increasing private sector involvement in space. While private sector involvement in space is primarily driven by wealthy individuals who are engaged in aerospace for personal reasons rather than financial gain, the potential for financial gain, while largely unrealized, is present. The satellite launch industry is, as noted above, a true industry with competition among launch services, and no longer an exclusively government-sponsored undertaking. In so far as the reusable rockets of SpaceX and Blue Origin can bring down launch costs, these are potentially viable, profit-making businesses. Moreover, since the owners of these businesses engage in aerospace initiatives for personal fulfillment, it is likely that profit and growth in this sector will be re-invested in order to pursue more ambitious goals.

While I have great admiration for the work that Blue Origin and SpaceX have done in producing reusable rockets, and it seems likely that reusable rocket technology will reduce the cost of access to space as it matures, the engineering solutions brought to the problem by Blue Origin and SpaceX are not the only engineering solutions possible. There are not merely one or two different technologies that might be employed for cheaper access into space, there are quite literally dozens of different technologies with real promise in this field. I have previously addressed this in my Centauri Dreams post How We Get There Matters: the particular technologies we use will influence our spacefaring activities, because each technology has its individual possibilities and limitations. The actual technologies that come into routine use will be the result of a synchronic process that is ultimately as large and as complex as our industrial infrastructure that produces and uses the technology.

What this means is that technologies that enter into large-scale industrial production will be partially selected by what technology works best, and we don’t know what technology works best until we actually test these technologies under real-world conditions. But this isn’t the only influence on the process of bringing technologies to market. There will also be a question of financing, and which enterprise gets financed will partially be a function of the social and political network of the individuals involved in bringing technologies to market. If venture capitalists find you to be likeable and believable, you will probably get more funding than some other company whose founders are less likeable or less persuasive, even if the latter has a better product than the former. [6]

If a technology is not just an improvement of some degree, but an order of magnitude better than previous technologies [7], this technology will likely come into use at some point in time, but the industrialized economy has a remarkable ability to maintain non-optimal products in use—partly from social inertia, partly from risk aversion, partly from investor’s fear of financing stranded assets—as is witnessed by the QWERTY keyboard.


Synchronic interaction in markets

Energy markets are a perfect example of maintaining non-optimal technologies for social and economic reasons. We have the technology at present to supply the entire world with clean, non-polluting energy, but utilities continue to build fossil fueled power stations. The electrical generation industry changes very slowly, with the planning, financing, construction, and operation of generation facilities taking decades, and their decommissioning also spread over decades.

Energy markets are also a perfect illustration of synchrony in action; though they change slowly, they do eventually change in response to market forces. In my post Synchrony in Energy Markets I attempted to show the interaction of energy markets as technology changes and market forces interact with changes in human society. The failure to understand energy markets and how they function dynamically leads to fixations like the idea of “peak oil,” as though oil were the only fuel used, and the only fuel possible, for an industrialized economy, and as though technology never changes, never becomes more efficient, and industry never substitutes inputs or produces a different product. It would be possible for a totalitarian government to enforce the monopoly of a single fuel, and, to the extent that it was successful, it would weaken itself by making its economy vulnerable to competitors free to experiment with alternatives, which alternatives may prove to be more efficient or more effective.

Fuels are not only inputs of energy into an industrialized economy, fuels are also commodities, and commodities are traded on commodity markets. The same observation holds for the fixation on the dangers of fiat currencies, with the alternative being a currency based on some commodity, usually a durable metal, and this durable metal usually being gold. But gold (or silver) is a commodity like any other commodity, and, in an economic system of any degree of openness, will be traded. [8] Markets are not perfect, and are subject to manipulation and artificial limitation, but they do, on the whole and on the large scale, eventually bring supply and demand into equilibrium, and markets do this by efficiently allocating capital according to the signals conveyed by prices.

If you choose gold as the basis of your currency, then the discovery of a large gold mine in another nation-state, or the discovery of a new and more efficient way of refining gold (e.g., refining gold from seawater) will impact your economy in ways that you cannot control. If you have a gold-based currency and someone steers an asteroid into Earth orbit with more gold on it that is available to mine near the entire surface of Earth, as that gold is funneled into the terrestrial economy it will radically alter the commodity market for gold, and your gold-based currency will be impacted. You could try to limit this impact; you might even go to war with the extraterrestrial gold importer in order to try to control the flow of gold, but ultimately this is likely to be pointless. Market forces on a planetary scale are far stronger than any one nation-state. You might slow the transition to gold being plentiful, but you won’t stop it. If one gold importer is stopped, another, having learned hard lessons from the failure of the first, will do the same thing, but they will be smarter about it and harder to stop.

My point here is not to write an essay in economics, and I am not making any predictions, but rather I want to show the technologies of a spacefaring civilization in the context of the industrialized infrastructure that would produce them, and this industrialized infrastructure is dynamic, flexible, open to change, and, above all, multifarious. When a door closes, the saying goes, a window opens, and this is precisely what happens in an industrialized economy of planetary scale. Even legal limitations to commerce, backed by force of arms and penalties, will be circumvented by smugglers and black markets. As we know from sad experience, the very fact of a black market, by raising the penalty for failure, increases the price of banned commodities and so draws in competitors.

The examples of synchronic interaction in energy markets and currencies should give the reader a sense of the complexity of synchronic interactions that can also shape technologies, which, like energy and currencies, are commodities, but which are also tools that we employ in order to achieve some end, such as the buildout of spacefaring civilization. That these technologies are tools means that they will be employed to their best advantage in order to achieve some end; that these technologies are also commodities means that their employment will be measured against the employment of other technologies in competition with them.


[The tail fins of the 1959 Cadillac: glory days for Detroit.]

The problem of diachronic extrapolation

The simplest and most straight-forward way to construct a scenario for the future is a linear extrapolation of trends in the present. This is the fundamental conceit of induction: the future will be like the past. [9] Only, it won’t. Or, rather, the future won’t be exactly like the past. The extent to which we can interpret the future as being like the past defines the limits of inductive inference. Given the proper framework of scientific abstraction, this inductive extrapolation is unproblematic, but we aren’t always able to find the right framework, i.e., the best simplified model that captures the essential features while avoiding unnecessary complexity.

Diachronic extrapolation takes as its point of departure a single factor and extends into the future the apparent developmental trajectory of that single factor up to the present. The tendency of futurism to engage in single-minded diachronic extrapolation (something that I wrote about in The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation and Diachronic Extrapolation and Uniformitarianism) magnifies an already human, all-too-human tendency to focus on a single factor, but the spacefaring future, if it comes about, will not be about a single technology, or a single industry, or about a single artificial habitat in Earth orbit, or a single settlement on Mars, or a single effort to reach the stars. All of these will be pursued simultaneously, and the technologies and engineering solutions that are developed will be found to interact and to be useful to each other in unexpected ways. Contingency and serendipity play a definitive role in the unfolding of history, and diachronic extrapolation by definition does not suggest contingent and serendipitous factors.

When someone (or some group of persons) is deeply invested in a single project, this personal investment becomes an impediment to understanding events divorced from this project, i.e., events that do not appear in the diachronic extrapolation of this project. The very fact that some individual has devoted their entire life to a single project makes them an expert judge on their area of specialization, but a poor judge of the big picture. Someone who invests their life in a project inevitably sees the world through the lens of that lifelong effort, and, while this is a valuable perspective, it involves a bias. Here a quote from James Madison is relevant: “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” [10] We make an effort not to place individuals in the position of being a judge in their own cause because it is a moral hazard to do so, and we should exercise the same restraint in seeking an overview of the development of spacefaring civilization.

I do not wish to criticize or to belittle those who have invested their entire careers in a single area of expertise, largely limited to the production of single product. On the contrary, the plurality on which a large economy thrives only comes about as a result of dedicated groups of individuals who focus on their project to the exclusion of all other projects. We need to have dedicated industries around reusable rockets (like SpaceX and Blue Origin), hybrid engines (like Reaction Engines Limited), reusable space planes (like Sierra Nevada Corporation), Plasma engines (like Ad Astra Rocket Company), and more and better beside these efforts, but the future does not belong to any one of them alone. [11]

Processes that take place on a civilizational scale, and especially on the scale of planetary civilization, are intrinsically distinct from local efforts that focus on single industries or single technologies. I have observed elsewhere (cf. Detroit and Babylon) that Detroit in its heyday was a city based on a single product employing a single technology according to a single business model. This was one of the most successful industries in the middle of the twentieth century, but the product, the technology, and the business model all changed, and Detroit fell from a city of two million to a city of less than a million. If Detroit manages to build itself up again, this will not come about because of a renaissance in the American automobile industry, but because of some other product or service that arises from the social milieu of the city.

A diachronic extrapolation of Detroit’s economic success in the middle of the twentieth century, plotting the graph of its growth and tracing the same path into the future, would have given us Detroit as the largest and most successful city in the US, and a future of glorious chrome monstrosities, masterpieces in their own right, but not responsive to the social context in which they appear. When Detroit fell from its preeminence in post-war industrial production, that was not the end of civilization, but the end of the preeminence of a single city. A civilization consists of many cities, and different cities with different cultures produce different products by way of different business models.

What is true of a planetary-scale civilization will be true at a greater order of magnitude for a spacefaring civilization, and also for the buildout of a spacefaring capacity that will make a spacefaring civilization possible. If we take one technology or one industry and extrapolate its development into the future, the more we extrapolate, the more we will get the future wrong.

The more capacious and diverse futures imagined in Star Trek and Star Wars are closer to the reality of the synchrony of spacefaring, with many different space ships and many different robots, etc. These visions of a mature spacefaring future are often ridiculed as being a kind of naïve reflection of our present planetary civilization, but this kind of criticism fails to distinguish between the perennial and the ephemeral in history. We would expect that the future will take a form in which perennial verities of civilization are re-expressed in ephemeral terms, which latter will eventually be antiquated in their turn and replaced by further innovations that will continue to reflect the underlying intrinsic properties of civilization. If we could get into a time machine and visit a far future of a mature spacefaring civilization, some aspects of it would be strangely familiar us precisely because it grows out of familiar (and perennial) forces that manifest themselves in any large-scale social organization.


[A famous passage from Dryden’s Amphitryon; there are no knock-down arguments in history.]

There is no unilateral history

In addition to those who see the future through the lens of a single technology or a single industry, and so only see the future conditioned on that single factor, there are those who deny the possibility of large swathes of the future based upon a single factor taken to be a knock-down argument. When I have written posts about individual projects that might be pursued by, or which might develop from, spacefaring civilization, I have noticed that the comments often take these individual instances out of their (future) historical context and place them in splendid isolation, and then the project taken in isolation is subject to a critique conceived in isolation. Granted, it is necessary to place projects in isolation in order to subject them to a rigorous analysis, but if any of these projects come to fruition, they will come to fruition in a context of others projects in development and eventual implementation.

It is in the spirit of splendid isolation that it is said that human beings won’t settle Mars because conditions on Mars are more difficult than Antarctica or the Gobi Desert, and we haven’t settled these latter places (as though no legal impediments existed to settling the Gobi Desert), and that if we cannot even settle another terrestrial planet in our solar system, human beings have no future away from Earth (as if Mars were the only destination in space). It is said that human beings won’t live off Earth because there is no gravity in space and gravity on Mars (or the moon) is too weak and human beings cannot be healthy under these conditions (as though there were nothing that could be done about this), that it takes too long to get to Mars (as though transportation technology never changes), and, of course, the old, familiar line that we shouldn’t go into space when there is so much that remains to be done on Earth (as though going into space is going to make things worse on Earth, rather than better, contrary to evidence of the entire space program to date).

There is no single knock-down argument against a spacefaring future, just as there is no single technology or single industry that will determine the entire future course of history. There may well be single factors that are disproportionately difficult to resolve, and so disproportionately absorb energy and resources in pursuit of a solution, and there will almost certainly be single industries that dominate the effort for a time, but when considering something as complex as a civilization, and more especially the developmental trajectory of a civilization, no single factor will ever explain everything, and if a single factor explains a great many things at present, it will not continue to explain as many things in the future. As Fernand Braudel stated, “…we can no longer believe in the explanation of history in terms of this or that dominant factor. There is no unilateral history. No one thing is exclusively dominant…” [12]


[Walter Benjamin]

Walter Benjamin’s bombshell

When we understand synchrony in markets and social institutions, and that no single factor is exclusively dominant in the development of history, we understand why it is so disastrous for governments or other powers to put themselves in the position of picking winners and losers: they almost always make the wrong choices. We can, however, think of these mechanisms of top-down control, whether by governments or dominant industries, and their repeated record of making bad choices, as a social mechanism for slowing down economic growth and the disorienting social change that follows from rapid economic growth. There is a limit to the magnitude of social change that any society can absorb without experiencing catastrophic failure.

Walter Benjamin let slip a fascinating remark to this effect in a posthumously published fragment on one of his most famous late essays, “On the Concept of History” (a work that has significantly influenced my own thought). The collected papers of Benjamin include “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’,” and among these supplementary texts we find this bombshell:

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.” [13]

The Soviet Union embodied the ideology of which Benjamin was an apologist, and the Soviet Union presented itself to the world as a revolutionary new approach to industrialization that would transform the world in its image. While the western world was struggling with the Great Depression, the Soviet Union under Stalin was building entire cities from scratch, [14] and the modern graphics used to convey this message of socialist industrialization also presented the Soviet Union as being in the vanguard of history, an image driven home by the Soviet’s early successes in the Space Race. Under the glitz and the glamour, however, the Soviet project was more about exercising control over the direction of history and not allowing it to careen headlong into a chaotic future. This control came at a cost, and that cost was the Soviet economy eventually grinding to a halt. The emergency brake had been applied too suddenly and with too much pressure, and the result was a trainwreck.

Revolutionary and reactionary social and political movements alike can serve as an emergency brake on history, but this brake was applied more gently on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I have argued elsewhere (cf. Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen), had funding for space exploration continued at the rate experienced during the Space Race that human civilization might have become spacefaring civilization in the second half of the twentieth century. It is often said that these Space Race levels of expenditure were ruinous, but I am not aware of any studies that show that even extravagant expenditures on space exploration have negatively impacted terrestrial events, while numerous studies have shown the spinoff benefits of the space program for terrestrial civilization. However, one can easily imagine that the rapid social change that would have followed from the early emergence of spacefaring civilization, following so closely on the heels of the industrial revolution, might have been more than western civilization could have borne without cracking. And so the emergency brake was applied, and instead of careening into an unknown future, we retreated to the certainties of life on Earth. Spacefaring civilization had to wait.


[Fernand Braudel made the Annales school of historiography prominent and emphasized the study of the longue durée.]

The longue durée of early spacefaring civilization

While it could have started earlier, but is only now on the horizon, the buildout of a robust spacefaring infrastructure will in any case require centuries to come to maturity, and several centuries of unified development like this is an appropriate period to study in terms of the longue durée. The idea of the longue durée is essentially that of treating an entire macrohistorical period [15] in terms of synchrony (though this is not how Braudel, who brought the idea to prominence, formulated the longue durée). It is often said that journalists write the first draft of history. If this is true, then we can think of the longue durée as the final draft of history, purged of the breathless onrush of events, having risen above mere contingency and party faction alike, with, “…all the heavy thickness of social reality, resistant to all inclemency, to crises and sudden shocks…” [16]

As the buildout of early spacefaring civilization unfolds, the developments that constitute this buildout will occur in the context of other developments occurring simultaneously, and these developments will shape each other as they interact. Individual human beings and human institutions will, in turn, react to these developments as they occur, and these actions and reactions will constitute the background for further developments. In contradistinction to the diachronic perspective, which takes a single factor and extrapolates beyond the present from this point, the synchronic perspective places the same single factor in the context of other such factors. The interaction that synchrony studies is the sum total of every possible diachronic extrapolation overlapping and intersecting with every other extrapolation. The furthest extent to which we can push this synchronic interaction is the longue durée.

Needless to say, the development of spacefaring civilization will also take place against the background of continuing developments of terrestrial civilization, with all that this entails for continuity: both the timeless verities of the human condition, in its geographical and biological context, and the unprecedented social developments of the fulfillment of planetary industrialized civilization, which latter can also be studied in terms of the longue durée. The synchrony of terrestrial developments will overlap with the synchrony of extraterrestrial developments, as the longue durée of planetary civilization will overlap with the longue durée of early spacefaring civilization.

We can think of synchronic historiographies of planetary civilization and early spacefaring civilization as a kind of temporal or historical form of Copernicanism. As the Copernican principle reminds us that the Earth is a planet among other planets, the sun a star among other stars, and the Milky Way a galaxy among other galaxies, the synchronic perspective on history reminds us that any given event is an event among other events, that any given technology is a technology among other technologies, and so on. We might, then, call the present effort an attempt at Copernican historiography, and Copernican historiography teaches us the importance of displacing any one perspective from the center of our concern, including any perspective entailed by seeing development through the exclusive lens of a single technology. The perspective of the longue durée facilitates our ability to understand history in this way, because we are not focusing on individual events, persons, or technologies, but on a complex structure in time that constitutes a macrohistorical period.


Beyond synchrony: the axes of historiography

In my paper A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization I wrote:

“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense). To recognize the role of the future in the concept of civilization is not intended to call into question the value of history and tradition, but to supplement it, and to supplement the concept of civilization with the idea of its future is to pass beyond history sensu stricto.”

The present essay on synchrony in early spacefaring civilization is an attempt to put this principle into practice; it has been my purpose to employ traditionally historical modes of thought in order to explicate the future. I have here focused on synchrony because I wanted to make a particular point about focusing on particular technologies of spacefaring in isolation, but a comprehensive study of early spacefaring civilization would not be limited to synchrony.

The use I have made in the present essay of concepts from historiography can be extrapolated more generally to other concepts from historiography, specifically, what I have elsewhere called the axes of historiography. If we take two distinctions common in historiography—synchronic and diachronic on the one hand, and on the other hand nomothetic and ideographic—and make these the axes of a chart, we have four permutations of historiography: nomothetic synchrony, ideographic synchrony, nomothetic diachrony, and ideographic diachrony. All of these concepts have potential for elucidating the study of the future by way of the methods of history.

The macrohistorical period that I have here identified as the longue durée of early spacefaring civilization can be given an account in terms of lawlike interactions (nomothetic synchrony), contingent interactions (ideographic synchrony), lawlike succession (nomothetic diachrony), and contingent succession (ideographic diachrony). In order to do justice to these ideas it would be necessary to given an account of Heinrich Rickert’s exposition of the nomothetic and the ideographic, but this must be a task for another time.



[1] We could posit a law of history such that the greater the separation of two or more objects or events in diachronic time, the less their interaction in synchronic time. This implies, conversely, that the greater the interaction between two or more objects or events in synchronic time, the less is their separation in diachronic time. In other words, interaction is proportional to proximity. The most dramatic interactions will be seen between objects or events in close temporal proximity. I will not develop this thought further at present.

[2] It has become a commonplace to cite the buildout of the Chinese imperial navy and its voyages during the early Ming dynasty (from 1405 to 1433) under Zheng He, taking this as an instance of a seafaring capacity for expansion that was not exploited and was subsequently dismantled.

[3] The reference, “blooming, buzzing confusion” is to a passage in William James: “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.” (Principles of Psychology, Chapter XIII) I have elsewhere used this phrase to convey the sense of synchronic historiography.

[4] Of course this assertion admits of exceptions. If, for example, the Breakthrough StarShot initiative manages to successfully launch a “starchip” to a nearby star, and this occurs within the temporal window of the buildout here considered, this will be like our early automated probes of the solar system, which (over time) transformed our scientific knowledge, but which had little impact on large-scale economic and political developments as they occurred. Indeed, this kind of “exception” underscores two points already made above: A) the importance of a synchronic perspective on buildout, which takes account of minor developments in marginal fields as part of the whole ensemble of the present, and B) how the buildout of a civilization always shades over a little into the next developmental stage of a civilization (whether or not that development comes to fruition).

[5] I can imagine a reader at this point asking, “What about 3D printing?” So-called 3D printing is not the same as an industrial infrastructure. (I say “so-called” only because 3D printing is not really printing, it is automated manufacturing.) 3D printing requires the resources of an industrialized economy for its inputs, and for the construction and maintenance of the printer itself. For a complete industrialized infrastructure, there needs to be a supply chain from raw materials to finished products; 3D printing can fulfill some of the roles in this supply chain, but it cannot substitute for them all.

[6] Venture capital firms, too, are subject to winnowing over the selection pressure of what products and services prove to be robust in the market. If they are too subject to manipulation and bias, they throw their money away on debacles like Theranos and Juicero, and if this happens often enough they will exhaust their capital and be forced to cease operations.

[7] Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, emphasizes the importance of magnitude of order improvements as being especially desirable from the standpoint of venture capitalists, and therefore, also, for the successful entrepreneur, but I will point out that what Thiel says about order of magnitude improvements may be a necessary condition of a technology that will attract funding, but it is not a sufficient condition.

[8] Currency markets are a world unto themselves, because currencies are those commodities that are both bought and sold in and of themselves, as well as being the measure by which other commodities are bought and sold.

[9] There is a long-running controversy in the philosophy of science over the nature of induction. Hume is usually interpreted as having shown the ultimate shortcomings of induction, but since this is a philosophical embarrassment, it is usually only spoken of in hushed tones. Popper claimed that induction is superfluous and that science actually proceeds by deduction. Carnap defended induction. Suffice it to say that this controversy has taken on a life of its own and, if the reader is interested to follow up on this, I recommend the bibliography to the article “The Problem of Induction” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] The Federalist Papers, no. 10, James Madison.

[11] The use of the phrase “killer app” plays into a kind of lazy diachronic extrapolation, and in so far as anyone is waiting for the “killer app” of space travel they will be disappointed. Killer apps are products with a definite lifespan, backed by investors who want to, “Get in. Get rich. Get out.” This is a good way to make money in the short term, but the economy on the whole is the sum total of overlapping products like this, and not any one individual product. Moreover, the economy also includes all the failed products that don’t make anyone rich, and the fortunes that these failed products take with them when they fail.

[12] “The Situation of History in 1950,” Fernand Braudel, in On History, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 10. This was Braudel’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France.

[13] Benjamin, Walter, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’,” in Selected writings: Walter Benjamin, Volume 4, 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 402. Benjamin’s often cryptic “On the Concept of History” is greatly enhanced by these supplementary texts, which exhibit some of Benjamin’s thought processes while writing. Also, the Harvard edition has a lot of helpful notes. Benjamin committed suicide a few months after this was written, and I cannot help but wonder if he would have further developed this insight if he had not chosen to end his life.

[14] To understand how the Russian revolution’s vision of socialist industrialization was celebrated across all sectors of society it is instructive to read Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Bratsk Station,” which is an epic poem chronicling the building of a hydroelectric power station in Siberia. The human cost of socialist industrialization was high, as the absence of democratic mechanisms and press freedoms meant that abuses went unchecked, ultimately undermining the legitimacy of a state that claimed to represent the working class.

[15] I specify “macrohistorical period” because many traditionally recognized periods in the development of western civilization—the renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, romanticism, etc.—are episodic in comparison to the longue durée. Braudel might well have called these familiar periods conjunctures. Indeed, all of these named periods might be taken together as “early modern European history,” and the centuries of early modern history could well be studied in terms of the longue durée. Within the longue durée of spacefaring buildout we might similarly define periods of conjuncture, just as I have, in this essay, distinguished the earliest phase of spacefaring from 1957 to the present day.

[16] Fernand Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée,” in On History, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 130. Machiavelli, by contrast, might be taken as a master of the history of the event, or episodic history (histoire événementielle), with his focus on fortune (Fortuna).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Robin Datta May 12, 2017, 15:46

    One item overlooked in the consideration of humans as a spacefaring race in deep time is that the species is part of a photosynthetic ecosystem. The apparent abstraction of humans from that ecosystem by civilization is shown to be a mirage by the resupply missions to the International Space Station.

    The concern with rockets, engines, robots and planes is valid, but the establishment of a closed circuit between human exit and entrance orifices involving a whole ecosystem to accompany humans must also be taken into account if appropriate propulsion and transport systems for deep space and deep time are to be built.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 2:10

      I haven’t previously heard human beings (and our biosphere) exactly referred to as, “part of a photosynthetic ecosystem,” but I have heard it said that human beings are a “solar species” and I wrote about this in “Human beings: a solar species” (http://geopolicraticus.tumblr.com/post/19446261385/human-beings-a-solar-species) and “Do the clever animals have to die?” (https://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/do-the-clever-animals-have-to-die/). Being part of a photosynthetic ecosystem and being a solar species are pretty much the same idea. In the second of these two linked posts, I make the argument that we are linked as a matter of contingent fact to the sun, but this is not a necessary relationship. Our kind of life necessarily requires some energy source, but it doesn’t have to be the sun, or indeed even a star (though this probably will always feel most natural to us).

      The ISS was not created to be self-sufficient or an enclosed ecosystem. That is an experiment that has yet to be conducted in orbit or on another planet. So it’s not a mirage, it’s a research station. When the experiment is eventually made, the synchrony of the development of technology will hold here also: there will be several different technologies and several different engineering solutions, and they will gain in efficiency through competition.

  • Betto Davis May 12, 2017, 17:13

    The single most effective knock down argument so far, is the exorbitant cost of putting anything in space.

    Which comes from the calcification of the infrastructure our civilization developed at the start of the space age, when space access and travel was an all important nationalistic endeavor, then passed to be the domain of bureaucrats, politicians that made lip service to the ideals of a manned human future but really were after the public money; and also of specialized companies that fulfilled the modest needs of satellite launches at an acceptable (but not low) cost.

    The single most important difference anyone can make now, is to reduce that cost and allow much more things to go and happen in space.

    That seems to be happening now, and probably will result in a historical explosion of activities in space, including human presence.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 2:13

      Agreed. When technologies become cheap and widely available, they can change how a technological society functions. We have seen this with computing power; its cheapness today has driven changes in science, business, society, even in politics. Bringing the cost of space exploration down is crucial, and that is slowly happening at present. Reusable rockets and hybrid engines will make a big difference in the near- to mid-term future.

  • Anton M. May 12, 2017, 17:50

    My personal takeaway from this article was the application of Copernicism to the long-term development of human civilization. I used to be quite skeptical to our initial attempts at extraterrestrial colonization on the grounds of dire economical inefficiency of such attempts. The article in question draws some analogies between the European colonization of New World and the future colonization of Solar System. You know, even the initial attempts in the former were glaring financial successes, with e.g. Magellan’s expedition bringing profits exceeding 200% to its financiers. I do not see how to make e.g. Mars colonization profitable in foreseeable future, and such colonization needs at least decades of sustained effort to make the colony at least partially self-sufficient. That said, if we have a self-sustained economy on Earth, the Copernicism says that there should be a possibility of such an economy elsewhere.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 2:20

      Once you’ve paid the high price of getting off the surface of the planet on which your species evolves, you come into a cosmic heritage of almost unlimited energy and material resources. This is difficult to see now, because we only see the expense of getting off Earth, but once getting off Earth can be done at a reasonable price, the space economy will grow exponentially and will eventually dwarf the terrestrial economy.

      From the perspective of a spacefaring civilization, there is absolutely no justification for putting any kind of industry on the surface of a planet, except for agricultural industries that are seeking to produce particular tastes based on unique climatological conditions. Everything that is done on Earth can eventually be done cheaply, more efficiently, and without polluting, with industries in space. Wilderness and wildness, on the other hand, are unique features of planets, and cannot easily be reproduced elsewhere. Therefore, the real value of planets is wilderness, and in the far future of spacefaring civilization rewilding will be a major concern.

  • Alexander Tolley May 12, 2017, 20:07

    I’m wondering is Nielsen is falling into his own trap of being too involved in a project to see the bigger picture. I think we know from past essays, that he believes humans are the desired builders, even if alternatives exist. (We all tend to root for our species.)

    When we look at the buildout today, almost all the infrastructure is machine. Humans have ventured to the Moon for a few short forays, and have maintained a small presence in LEO. These are but trifles to the extent machines populate earth orbit and have explored the solar system.

    The current developments in AI and robotics are rapidly increasing, suggesting that the “sentient” explorers will be these machines. Capable of living in space, powered by sunlight, divorced from the tethers of our biosphere, it seems to me their rapidly developing capabilities will soon supersede that of humans in all by raw intelligence, and maybe even there too.

    The obvious value of robotics in hostile conditions required Asimov to build in subtle flaws so that human protagonists, like robot psychologist Susan Calvin needed to get involved to solve a problem.

    While we dearly hope access to space will cheapen by orders of magnitude so that our meat puppet selves can be delivered to orbit, the rapid reduction in mass of our machines is doing that for them directly. A rocket launch today can deliver many small satellites into orbit, and this will be the same for robots. They will have low cost access to space far earlier than humans can, simply because of their capability to be reduced in mass, as well as the capability to build their form from space-based materials. Today the main bottleneck is the mass of their brains, far greater than human ones. Unlike humans, those brains can be left on earth and the information messaging can happen using weightless EM transmission.

    So I think that a space buildout will happen, but that the builders and primary users will be machines, not humans. We humans might wish it were not so, that somehow biotechnology or cheap transport will make space accessible for us. I suspect that is mostly hopeful yearning, because the robots will get there first, will prove most valuable and economic for our capitalist system, and the focus will be to keep improving them as we have done for our industrial machines for the last quarter millennium.

    • tchernik May 12, 2017, 23:44

      AI’s current path of development makes it more likely for them to become super-human servants/assistants than peers or substitutes of people IMO.

      That eventuality doesn’t prevent what you said to happen: machines would be the ones performing the biggest (by far) part of human activities in space in the foreseeable future, regardless if they are sentient of not.

      And they could be perfected to such extent with time, as to build the whole industrial ecosystem we have now on Earth going from material extraction, processing, manufacturing and shipping back to Earth or somewhere else, all in space, eventually including making more copies of the robotic factories performing these functions. And without requiring any parts or materials coming from Earth, just the EM signals carrying their orders and status reports.

      It won’t be the proverbial Von Newmann machines capable of doing it all in a single package like a bacterium, but for practical purposes, it would be the same result.

      At that point, the addition of new infrastructure would also be in their robotic hands, that is, indirectly ours (or those of the wealthy individuals owning them). While most humans would still be on Earth.

      And given the exponential nature of self replicating machines, the amount of wealth, energy and resources such a civilization could amass boggles the mind, and that just with the Solar System’s resources.

      Humanity could perfectly choose to exploit space in that way for as much as we want, living off the riches literally raining from space and never venturing to go out in the flesh. But something tells me that among the things our machines will one day build are habitats, gradually more complex and sophisticated, going from tin cans/balloons made in series up to O’Neill cylinder-like wonders.

      And they will be really cheap, allowing practically anyone to go.

      This process will be long of course, specially the early phases going from imagining miner robots and making them gather some ice from an asteroid, but it will only improve as technology and human/machine ingenuity allow and in the later stages it will quite fast.

      My point is that the ones that will create the equivalent of Columbus’ New World are our machines; this New World doesn’t exist now but it will eventually come to exist, and it will be the reason for humans to stay there.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 2:31

      I acknowledge without hesitation that there will be a synchrony and minds and cognition that marks the future just as much as the synchronic development of technology. There is no question but that machines have certain advantages in space, and there will be many applications in which machines are the preferred entity. But organic bodies have certain advantages as well, as I wrote about in a previous Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight” (https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=33882). Because of the unique attributes of bodies, there will always be a role for meat bags like ourselves.

      But beyond the scientific justification for a continuing (not an exclusive) role for human beings in a spacefaring civilization, the economy will be able to support human beings traveling in space, and human beings (some, not all) will want to go into space for experiences, discovery, and adventures. Even if the robots get there first, there will still be a premium for being the first human being to go somewhere or do something.

      Indeed, I think human beings are so interesting that, even if we go extinct and machines survive us (or even if they exterminate us), that they will eventually bring us back, if only to understand their origins and to know the beings who brought them into being.

      Best wishes from a meat puppet rooting for his own species,


      • Patrick Underwood May 13, 2017, 16:28

        Wonderful essay, although I will have to read it more than once, and look up some terms!

        So far the discussion seems to be “either humans OR machines.” I think the future will include humans who incorporate the mechanical and computing elements of machine AI. I can cite my wife as an early example: she has an implant, a vagus nerve stimulator, which detects the onset of a seizure and sends signals to her brain in an attempt to stop it.

        Given the fundamental property of life is to attempt to go on living, I doubt humanity as a whole will simply accept the role of progenitor to a superior life form. Social and economic means–markets–will evolve to offer a path of transformation, from purely organic being to an intermediate organic-machine state, with one determinant of an individual’s particular mixture being the harshness of the environment that individual means to inhabit.

        There is a chance that strong AI may occur suddenly and “go rogue” to the detriment of humans, even causing our extinction. But I think it more likely humans will augment themselves with machine AI in such a way that “real” humanity–with much greater physical and cognitive abilities–and not just an invented, essentially alien, machine successor, expands into solar and interstellar space.

        • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 20:07

          I would not suggest that the future is an either/or choice between human beings and machines. Not only could there be a range of intelligences and forms of consciousness, embodied in a range of organic and mechanical substrates (and combinations thereof), but also there may be a range of different life forms, whether the result of further evolution or the result of artificial life, or some hybrid of natural and artificial life. Again, complexity and synchrony should be our guide.

          Beyond these possibilities, there are the possibilities of life elsewhere, and even the possibility of emergent complexities that have not been realized on Earth but may be realized elsewhere. If, in exploring the universe, we find something so different we can scarcely understand what we have found, further possibilities arise from the synthesis of the emergent complexities of our world and those of some other world.

    • hiro May 13, 2017, 18:56

      SF novels in which AI wipes out all human can’t sell and the authors are either forced to find different jobs or to write humans >>>> AI 100% all the time.

      In his short story Planck 0, Dr. Baxter never allowed Planck AI to use quantum CTC going back in time to build another self in the past; after N iterations way deep into the past, these AIs would try to connect together through time/parallel universes creating the “Planck 0 Network” playing the game of “hunting rabbits by manipulating trajectories of trillions of artificial mini blackholes”.

      • Alexander Tolley May 14, 2017, 13:25

        I am not talking about AI’s beeing better/smarter/X than humans and therefore taking over. I am talking about rational economic use of robots that results is humans being almost completely planet bound due to economics and capitalism.

        Example from history. When cotton spinning machines were invented, humans were rapidly removed from hand spinning and just tending to the machines – ensuring that jams, stoppages, and new material were handled. This drove down the price of cotton. Where labor was very cheap, in India, the same machines had a lot of humans servicing a machine because it was economic to do so. The point is that economics drove how the machines were used. It was never about what people wanted.

        In space, machines have shown that they are remarkably robust, and economic. Clarke’s ideas of manned space stations providing communications coverage of the Earth made way to unmanned satellites. There are very many such satellites in orbit, all achieving the function of em communications at a fraction of the cost of a manned satellite. We have the example of a few manned stations that have other tasks, doing them at a huge cost. No-one is ever going to suggest that the ISS handle communications.

        The ideas for asteroid mining are all pretty much machine based. No intrepid human miners are expected to be involved, except as controllers on Earth. The rationale is economic. Whatever the shortcomings of the current Mars rovers, they are wandering slowly over the Martian surface at a cost that is a fraction of any human exploration, and importantly for my argument, decades in advance of any possible human following. This will be even more pronounced at the outer planets. I don’t think anyone is talking about humans exploring the outer solar system anytime in the foreseeable future. In that time, assuming that technology isn’t lost and economies continue to stay viable, ever more advanced robots will be doing the exploring, possibly harvesting resources. If we ever build a large number of large space telescopes, they will be serviced by robots, not humans.

        Today, the big thrust in manufacturing is to replace humans with machines. The Chinese electronics manufacturer, Foxconn, intends to replace a million workers with robots. Flexible robots are expected to make their way into factories, replacing expensive humans.

        While trends never continue indefinitely, without a “Butlerian Jihad” to change the trajectory, I see the [inevitable] expansion of robots into all aspects of economic growth. As with the cotton spinning machine example, this means that they will penetrate most rapidly and completely where humans are most expensive – space.

        As the Mafia thugs would say: “It isn’t personal, just business”.

        • hiro May 15, 2017, 16:06

          In general, we still need breakthrough in the field of (high temperature) superconductors which advances some designs of fusion power reactor; this takes at least several decades to happen. After obtaining these twos, building spaceships’ shell is matter of personal tastes.

          Well, there are not many options on the table to force AI staying in a cage, someone will open this Pandora’s cage for some perverted reasons. The field of Synthetic DNA might have something useful if we know its full potential; has anyone tried to build a “synthetic DNA computer” yet? Instead of the usual CGAT one could in theory introduce more artificial ones to increase the complexity to the interactions, this is not my field hence I have zero clue how this process is done in very low temperature environment. After all, the complexity of humans’ brain is indeed lower than the level of universal quantum Turing.

          • Alexander Tolley May 15, 2017, 21:38

            Biology is largely “computational”. However, in recent years various approaches have been made to create the equivalent of 2-state transistors. Quite successfully too. Then MIT has its “bio-bricks” program to create a catalog of useful biological components that acts in robust ways when inserted into a genome.

  • ProjectStudio May 12, 2017, 22:21

    I find J. N. Nielsen’s article thought provoking in the most literal sense. Knocking down the ‘knock down’ argument is a key to opening up our thinking on possible futures, in light of an appreciation for the complex of factors that contribute to historical change. Plausibility and the ‘believe-ability’ of thse future scenarios will shape buy-in and investment in the technologies that may deliver them. One would do well to consider the axes of historiography when contemplating scenarios that the future may hold. Of course we are considering ‘his’tory in the article and not ‘its’story. Artificial Intelligence may seem like a qualified knockdown argument but the reality is likely to be more complex and allow for a spectrum of evolutionary and mutational adaptations that include artificial intelligence and artificial life alongside the organic. Would artificial intellect have a future history? Would it even appreciate the value of a story? If we anthropomorphise (I mean project our human qualities) onto AI we could find ourselves in error. Why explore the stars for the humans when it is so much better to sit idle, feeding off the planet’s isolation energy, and keeping the humans around merely for tightening nuts and bolts with their unique manual dexterity? AI rule could represent the ultimate in status quo.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 17:46

      I love this question: “Would artificial intellect have a future history?” What will be the historicity of AI once it comes into existence? How will this historicity differ from human historicity? There are so many ways to take this idea, I will have to think about this.

      Also, the idea of AI as a source of planetary-scale stagnation is interesting, and I don’t think I have seen anyone else suggest this. Both of these are very fertile ideas that invite elaboration.

      • Alexander Tolley May 14, 2017, 13:34

        Also, the idea of AI as a source of planetary-scale stagnation is interesting, and I don’t think I have seen anyone else suggest this.

        Asimov used this meme in his joining his Robot and Foundation universes in later novels. The original germ occurred in the early Robot novel “The Naked Sun” that suggested the robot serviced spacer worlds would stagnate, opening up the galaxy to humans. R. Daneel Olivaw and Giskard Relentlov explain the stagnation idea in “Robots And Empire” with their zeroeth law of Robotics which explains how the Foundation universe is robot free.

  • Joe May 13, 2017, 13:07

    Nick, you’d make a great presenter at any symposium on the sociological aspects of becoming a space faring civilization.

    I take issue though on whether there is any such thing as a planetary civilization. Instead, radical Islam and other religious fanatics see the world as divided between “us” and “them.” The same is true for some nation states.
    In fact, when you talk about a “planetary civilization,” I think what you really mean is that part to the planet currently known as the “first world.” And outside of major cities, many first world nations have large regions that are really “third world.”

    There are a lot of obstacles to becoming a space faring civilization. Global warming is probably near the top of the list. But there is also the potential for epidemics involving antibiotic resistant diseases, and excessive population growth in the third world.

    This latter threat affects the first world through mass migration and periodic famine. (Both made worse by global warming.) Consider for example the Bengal famine of 1943. Three million people in India starved to death due to this famine. This is equal to 60% of German army losses in WWII. And yet because there was a war going on, massive death due to starvation was hardly noticed outside of India.

    Due to mass communications, ignoring a famine of this size would be impossible today. Anyone with a smart phone or a TV set is aware of the plight of the third world. And since residents of the third world have smart phones too, they know how wealthy people in the first world live. I recall a quote from an illegal African migrant caught trying to get to Europe. “We are tired of Europe staging benefit concerts for Africa,” he said. “Instead we Africans want to live in Europe.” Given the relative population sizes of Europe and Africa and the vast gap in wealth, this is a very chilling statement.

    As someone who cares about the advancement of science and space exploration, I see a real threat that poverty, global warming, future pandemics, and mass migration will force governments to cut back on funding space exploration. I seriously doubt private enterprise can make up the difference.

    I recall the short story “The Marching Morons.” While deliberately exaggerated and politically incorrect in the extreme, this story outlines a real problem that our world will have to cope with if we hope to ever become a space faring civilization.

    • Mike May 13, 2017, 16:38

      I think you expressed some valid concerns. In your second to last paragraph in that dismal list you might have also included war caused by those stressors or other reasons.

      In fact we already see the negative effect that these problems have had on astronomy and space exploration. The events of 9-11 and the ensuing war on terror has cost the U.S. trillions of dollars.

      How did that affect NASAs’ budget regarding the planet finding space telescope projects that were proposed back in the nineties like the Terrestrial Planet Finder and also crewed Mars missions as well?

      How much do these budget woes affect NASA now?

      • Patrick Underwood May 13, 2017, 18:05

        NASA’s budget year-to-year is fairly constant, historically. The biggest threat to NASA’s mission of space exploration is the politically mandated SLS booster. Absolutely superfluous, vastly expensive, far behind schedule, beset with (again) a politically mandated design and costly production setbacks, without any funded missions beyond a couple of test flights that will occur years apart, and under the best of circumstances not capable of flying more than once a year. A complete boondoggle that will eat a huge chunk of NASA resources for years to come, until inevitable cancellation in the face of obviously superior (and far less costly) commercial alternatives.

        There I go; sorry, don’t want to turn this into a fight over SLS. The point is, it’s hard to show the NASA budget has suffered from anything other than misallocation.

    • J. N. Nielsen May 13, 2017, 18:03

      Joe, I know there is a lot of disagreement as to what constitutes planetary civilization. I have addressed this on several occasions. In “Origins of Globalization” (https://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/origins-of-globalization/) and in “Planetary Civilization and the Ascendancy of the West” (http://geopolicraticus.tumblr.com/post/156071110762/planetary-civilization-and-the-ascendancy-of-the) I emphasize that we do not have the planetary civilization that futurists once expected, which was, essentially, political and legal unification of the planet. Instead, we have economic unification of the planet, nearly universal and instantaneous planetary communication, and so on. There are still unassimilated “rump” civilizations that are the remnants of regional civilizations, but I think we can all see where this is going. So, I really do think we are in an age of planetary civilization, only that it is not what we once thought planetary civilization would be. However, I can also see how the case could be made against planetary civilization. This is a separate issue that can be compartmentalized from the role of synchrony in spacefaring buildout.

      You’ve also mentioned existential risks. These are valid and very real reasons that spacefaring civilization may never come into existence, or may prove to be abortive (under the class of existential risk that Bostrom calls “subsequent ruination”). A planetary pandemic could well bring an end to civilization within a few years, but I think that the technological capacity for spacefaring could be retained even at very high mortality rates, like those to the Black Death.

      There is an potential infinitude of scenarios that could spell the end of the human project, or, more narrowly, the end of spacefaring, even aspirational spacefaring as we see today. How we parse these risks, and how we respond to them (if we do in fact respond to them), may not only determine the history of humanity, but it is likely to determine the entire fate of the biosphere and the possibility that the emergent complexity on Earth has any future beyond Earth.

      Best wishes,


  • Harry R Ray May 15, 2017, 16:39

    One must also take into account the effects of a HUB, which stands for Huge Unexpected Breakthrough! CASE IN POINT: Consider the following thought experiment. Quingdi Wong has just come up with an exciting new theory POSSIBLY RESOLVING the “dark energy” conundrum. It goes like this: The Planck Scale is NOT constant. It CONSISTENTLY expands and contracts CHAOTICALLY at the quantonic(i.e., the TIME it takes for a lightwave to TRAVERSE the Planck Length)timescale, and; the accelerating expansion of the Universe is merely a RESIDUAL of pre-existing ENTROPY, and requires NO ADDITIONAL(i.e.,dark)energy of any kind. Assume, in this thought experiment, that this theory id PROVEN! Then assume that there is a way to turn this CHAOTIC process into an orderly one, something like a space-time “laser/maser, or S-TASER! You may be able to compress the space-time in front of you without also having to expand the space-time behind you, consuming HUGE AMOUNTS OF ENERGY TO DO SO! Now for the KICKER!!! Is this how the NASA/Chinese EM reaction-less drive ACTUALLY WORKS!!! If so, it would be an EXTREMELY LOW-TECH, LOW COST mechanism to revolutionize space travel, and accelerate the advancement of our species beyond our wildest dreams! It could also solve the “Q8” KIC8462852 issue as well, with the VERY LOW ENERGY acceleration of an ENTIRE MEGASTRUCTURE into a higher orbit, resulting in a slower transit egress to its respective ingress!

  • Scott Guerin May 16, 2017, 15:09

    Space faring economics:

    Kudos to Nick’s extremely thought provoking article. He and I have spoken briefly about interstellar civilizations and their historical course so at the risk of gross simplification and egregious errors, I offer the following towards understanding the seriousness, to date, of our spaceward looking so-called civilization. From Nick’s article:

    “The immediate future of spacefaring comprises both government and private sector initiatives that build on present spacefaring capacity, as well as plans for human missions to Mars. However, the immediate future is likely to be distinguished from the immediate past by the rapidly increasing private sector involvement in space. While private sector involvement in space is primarily driven by wealthy individuals who are engaged in aerospace for personal reasons rather than financial gain, the potential for financial gain, while largely unrealized, is present.” 

    After a third read, I mused: How much “stuff” have we actually put up there? How does all that compare the the Benford’s analysis of interstellar beacon size and economics? How much have we spent on space? What does “spent on space” include since 1950? Limiting my math to the coarsest available data all easily found online, I extrapolated the rest.

    For example, in searches for “space junk” I was led to an estimate that there have been some 30,000 launches in the space age resulting in useful metal, glass, and plastic in orbit and beyond, and tons of junk on the ocean floor and prairies of Kazakhstan. There is some sort of calculus and a resulting curve that would provide a more accurate weight estimate but since a Space shuttle can launch 4.5 million pounds I figured that we’ve progressed from tens of pounds to multiple millions, so I averaged rockets and their payloads at 1 million pounds each equaling 3 X10^10 pounds launched. An aircraft carrier weighs about 100,000 tons so we’re talking 3 x 10^5 CVN Abraham Lincoln’s lifted off the surface of the Earth, if not all the way to space. I’d say that’s dedication even though most of it ended up as sunk cost in that only a fraction of the payload makes it to space to do the work asked of it.

    Since 1950, the world’s gross domestic product (GWP) has been rising approximately 4% per year compounded. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_world_product The latest data from the CIA Factbook and World bank estimate 2015 GWP at $74 trillion USD in today’s dollars. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/GDP.pdf

    I did a napkin calculation interpolating DeLong’s quinquennial data (referenced above) which suggests the World’s cumulative output from 1950 to 2015 in 2016 dollars is about $3 quadrillion dollars (3 x 10^15). How much has been spent on space science, ground support, launch and orbital technology in civilian and military efforts? I figured it might be 1%.

    From what I can gather and estimate, between $8 and $10 trillion dollars have been spent since 1950 on worldwide on space activities. If it’s $10 trillion total (10 x 10^12), that averages $151 billion, worldwide, over the past 67 years; a reasonable estimate I thought. But as a percentage of GWP the total is a paltry 0.32% of GWP…you get what you pay for! That’s a bit unfair since many space technologies really do make the world go ‘round but where are those 2001-like visions and craft? By way of comparison, the World Bank estimates military spending at 2.26% of GWP in 2015.

    In terms of concrete technology examples, James Benford et al, in their paper “Building and searching for cost optimized interstellar beacons” estimates that a short pulse galactic-range beacons would cost $13.1 Billion for a 2.88kn diameter antenna. This seems like a modest effort in the scheme of things for humans or an extraterrestrial civilization. Of course if it were to be built in space, a couple of zero’s would have to be added to that number.

    I am reminded of art historian George Kubler’s 1962 book “The Shape of Time.” In it he says “Sometimes the problem is a rational one and sometimes an artistic one: we always may be sure that every man-made thing arises from a problem as a purposeful solution.”

    Nick believes there are no “knock-down” problems to becoming a space-faring civilization and I believe that to be true on a technical and biological level, but the collective Earth will have to put its money where its mouth is, to be less risk adverse, and to plow soon to come private sector and commercial profits into far reaching programs like the Breakthrough Starshot, novel energy and propulsion sources, biotech, life support, and the search for life in our solar system and beyond. These efforts would galvanize public understanding of the solutioning costs to reach beyond what we tentatively now grasp.

    • Alexander Tolley May 16, 2017, 16:52

      (…) but the collective Earth will have to put its money where its mouth is, to be less risk adverse, and to plow soon to come private sector and commercial profits into far reaching programs like the Breakthrough Starshot, novel energy and propulsion sources, biotech (…)

      Ther already have been. Biotech, while primarily targeted at healthcare is primarilty in te private sector. You may also have noticed that alternative energy and even *gasp* fusion research is in the private sector. private space has really got going – it is called NewSpace.

      How much is funded and for what purposes, remains to be seen. But the basis of all these private investments is eventual positive ROI. Those that succeed will make new industries and those industries will dwarf government spending. [Note that corporate R&D expenditure is about equal to the government science budget in the US].

  • Scott Guerin May 16, 2017, 21:28

    Hi Alex,
    I realize my note is preaching to the converted but it will be interesting to see what happens when private investments and ROI exceed national interests!

  • Andrew Palfreyman May 26, 2017, 3:06

    StarTram-like launches and a web of beams criss-crossing the solar system cuts the Gordian knot of a permanent space presence. Then we can start to build – on the Moon, on Mars, inside asteroids and for true space habitats. But we do not appear to be starting this process.

  • ljk July 13, 2017, 13:15

    Santa Fe Institute launches an InterPlanetary Project with galactic ambitions

    Out of this World

    July 12, 2017, 12:00 am

    By Julia Goldberg

    Science fiction lovers will probably recognize the galactic tribunal trope from any number of graphic novels, books or films. Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer introduces the notion of cosmic judges rendering decrees on humanity as part of a thought experiment:

    “I’m so interested in the question, ‘What can we be proud of?’” Krakauer says during an interview in his office at the institute where, on this June afternoon, smoke from fires burning in the national forest semi-obscures the vast city and mountain views from Hyde Park Road. Stacks of books crowd most available surfaces—George Johnson’s Fire in the Mind and The Book of Trees by Manuel Lima catch the eye; a model rocket sits atop Krakauer’s desk.

    Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer wants to know what Earthlings will say at a “galactic tribunal.”

    So, at the galactic tribunal, where you’re asked, ‘What has your species contributed to the universe?’ you could stand up and say, unequivocally, ‘This was an amazing accomplishment and I could tell anyone on this planet or any other one that I thought this was something that was worthwhile.’”

    Questions such as these, which require considering humanity and life on Earth from an interplanetary perspective, drive SFI’s new InterPlanetary Project. It launches July 18 with a panel discussion between scientists, writers, artists and thinkers whose work all revolves in various ways around humanity’s future—in space and otherwise.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Robleto has spent much of his career thinking on the message people of earth might want to convey about themselves. A formative moment happened when he was 6 or 7 years old and first encountered the Golden Record, placed on the spaceships Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977 containing images, sounds and messages meant to capture life on earth.

    Robleto had stayed home sick from school and dialed a 1-800 number NASA had set up for listening to sounds of space as the Voyager made its first approach to Saturn. Robleto called in expecting to hear aliens, and instead heard the Golden Record.

    “I didn’t understand that at all. … I was so disappointed. It just made no sense to me why NASA would send this into space. I had no idea I was listening to the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

    He’s referring to Ann Druyan’s brain waves, recorded shortly after she and Carl Sagan, with whom she collaborated on the Golden Record, admitted they were falling in love. Robleto says in many ways his work has been directed by Druyan’s actions. “She essentially snuck love on board,” he says.

    Two years ago, Robleto—who has ended up working with Druyan—became the artistic consultant for the “Breakthrough Message” project, one of Yuri and Julia Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives founded in 2015 “to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective,” according to the project’s website.

    “Breakthrough Message” is a $1 million competition to design a message that comprehensibly captures humanity and life on Earth for another civilization.

    Robleto also serves as artist in residence at the SETI Institute. The work at SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — includes a vast array of research and development projects in the service of finding signs from advanced civilizations in the galaxy.

    Based in Houston, Robleto has shown work in both solo and group shows across the country, and has been recognized with a variety of awards, fellowships and residencies. As an artist, Robleto’s practice spans mediums: He works in sculpture, paper, print and more. As an artist with both a background and passion for science (he was a biology major before switching to the arts), he prefers the term “trans-disciplinary” because it fully encompasses the degree to which his projects are intertwined rather than merely referential to scientific issues and phenomena.

    “When I made the switch from science to becoming an artist, it never occurred to me to not bring that background with me,” Robleto says. “I find the tension between them fascinating. … The common seed is both originate from the quest to increase the sensitivity of our observations.”

    Complexity science, which guides SFI’s work, particularly interests Robleto. “I’m really drawn to the issue of scale in complexity science, how scaling up and down reveals a different set of information that wasn’t apparent from the previous scale. That’s not unlike what artists do.”

    The question of scale connects with another driving concern Robleto brings to his work and that has been a research focus at SFI: altruism.

    “Competition and destruction,” Robleto says, “dominates so much of all our topics.” His personal quest “is poetic and scientific proof we can be cooperative at some fundamental level,” which makes as much evolutionary sense as the belief that competition drives human existence.

    After all, over the span of time, “the only civilizations that will survive are ones who figure out how not to destroy ourselves. If we ever found another civilization, just the fact that they’re there, that means altruism won out.”