Space Exploration: A Closing Window?

by Paul Gilster on May 9, 2012

Our expectations determine so much of what we see, which is one of the great lessons of Michael Michaud’s sweeping study of our attitudes toward extraterrestrial intelligence in Contact with Alien Civilizations (Springer, 2006). But extraterrestrials aside, I’ve also been musing over how our attitudes affect our perceptions in relation to something closer to home, the human space program. Recently I was reminded of Richard Gott’s views on the space program and the Copernican Principle, which suggest that just as our location in the universe is not likely to be special, neither is our location in time.

My expectation, for example, is that whether it takes one or many centuries, we will eventually have expanded far enough into the Solar System to make the technological transition to interstellar missions. But Gott (Princeton University) has been arguing since 2007 that there is simply no assurance of continued growth. In fact, his work indicates we are as likely to be experiencing the latter stages of the space program as its beginnings. The view is controversial and I like to return to it now and again because it so shrewdly questions all our assumptions.

Image: Apollo 17 Saturn V rocket on Pad 39-A at dusk. Will manned space exploration ever achieve the levels of funding that made Apollo possible again? Credit: NASA.

So ponder a different, much more Earth-bound future, one in which funding for human spaceflight may end permanently. Examples abound, from the pyramid-building phase of Egypt’s civilization to the return of Cheng Ho’s fleet to China — not every wave of technology is followed up. Thus Gott, in a short but intriguing discussion called A Goal for the Human Spaceflight Program:

Once lost, opportunities may not come again. The human spaceflight program is only 48 years old. The Copernican Principle tells us that our location is not likely to be special. If our location within the history of human space travel is not special, there is a 50% chance that we are in the last half now and that its future duration is less than 48 years (cf. Gott, 2007). If the human spaceflight program has a much longer future duration than this, then we would be lucky to be living in the first tiny bit of it. Bayesian statistics warn us against accepting hypotheses that imply our observations are lucky. It would be prudent to take the above Copernican estimate seriously since it assumes that we are not particularly lucky or unlucky in our location in time, and a wise policy should aim to protect us even against some bad luck. With such a short past track record of funding, it would be a mistake to count on much longer and better funding in the future.

This application of the Copernican Principle goes against my deepest presumptions, which is why I appreciate the intellectual gauntlet it hurls down. Because what Gott is sketching is a by no means impossible future, one in which the real question becomes how we can best use the technologies we have today and will have in the very near future to ensure species survival. Gott’s answer is that within the first half of this century or so, we will have the capability of planting a self-sustaining colony on Mars, making us a two-planet species and thus better protected against global disaster of whatever sort. We will have created an insurance policy for all humanity.

Let’s act, in other words, as if we don’t have the luxury of an unbroken line of gradual development, because an end to the space program some time in the 21st Century might mark the end of any chance we have to get into the Solar System, much less to the stars. Skip the return to the Moon, a hostile environment not conducive to colonization, and go for the one best chance for extending the species, a planet with water, reasonable gravity and the resources needed to get an underground base off to a survivable start. The real space race? The race to get a colony planted in the most likely spot before all funding for human spaceflight ends.

Gott is reminded of the library of Alexandria, a laudable effort to collect human knowledge but one that eventually burned, taking most (but thankfully not all) of Sophocles’ plays with it. Here he’s thinking of the surviving seven Sophoclean plays and weighing them against the 120 that the dramatist wrote, by way of making the case for off-world colonies as soon as possible:

We should be planting colonies off the Earth now as a life insurance policy against whatever unexpected catastrophes may await us on the Earth. Of course, we should still be doing everything possible to protect our environment and safeguard our prospects on the Earth. But chaos theory tells us that we may well be unable to predict the specific cause of our demise as a species. By definition, whatever causes us to go extinct will be something the likes of which we have not experienced so far. We simply may not be smart enough to know how best to spend our money on Earth to insure the greatest chance of survival here. Spending money planting colonies in space simply gives us more chances–like storing some of Sophocles’ plays away from the Alexandrian library.

As I said, this is bracing stuff (and thanks to Larry Klaes for the pointer). Gott is not the only one wondering whether there is a brief window that will allow us to move into the Solar System and then close, but he is becoming one of the more visible proponents of this view. The motto of the Tau Zero Foundation — ad astra incrementis — assumes a step-by-step process over what may be centuries to develop the technologies for travel to other stars. But Gott’s point is emphatic and much more urgent: For incremental development in space to occur, we should multiply the civilizations that can achieve it, spinning off colonies that back up what we have learned against future catastrophe.

That’s a job not for the distant future but for the next 4-5 decades. Gott reckons that if we put up into low Earth orbit as much tonnage in the next 48 years as we have in the last 48 years (in Saturn V and Shuttle launches alone) we could deliver 2,304 tons to the surface of Mars. And while he talks about heavy lift vehicles like the Ares V, we also have commercial companies like SpaceX with its Falcon Heavy concept and the continuing efforts of Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society to make something like this happen even absent massive government intervention.

Will the first interstellar mission be assembled not by an Earth team but by the scientists and engineers of a colony world we have yet to populate? There is no way to tell, but a Mars colony of the kind Gott advocates would give us at least one alternative to a future Earth with no viable space program and no prospects for energizing the species through an expansive wave of exploration. One colony can plant another, multiplying the hope not only of survival but renaissance. But all of it depends upon getting through a narrow temporal window that even now may be closing.


Eniac May 18, 2012 at 0:20


You probably meant ‘higher’ life here, because even most radical Rare Earthers contend that ‘simple’ (Prokaryote or equivalent) life may be much more common.

You are conflating the Monodian view with the Rare Earth hypothesis. The two could not be more different. Monod says that life is rare because it is so very unlikely to form spontaneously. This is a respectable view and in my eyes likely correct.

Rare Earthers start by assuming groundlessly that the only way life could evolve is in the way it did here, and that all the circumstances have to be just like here for this to happen. This is patent nonsense and not worth debating.

We have had the Prokaryote vs. Eukaryote debate many times. It is disingenuous to single it out as some sort of mystical gateway fundamentally different from all of the other significant steps that life has evolved through on its fitful, but inexorable march towards increasing complexity.

Eniac May 18, 2012 at 0:27


So, again, please specify a process needed for the survival of the lunar colony that requires high-tech equipment which the colony itself couldn’t produce.

I thought this was pretty obvious. The process in question is that by which you teleoperate your machinery. How do you teleoperate something on the moon from Earth without sophisticated electronics? By pulling very long strings?

With people in spacesuits you could make an (awkward) argument, but teleoperation of industrial processes cannot be done with 50’s technology. We cannot even do it with today’s.

Rob Henry May 18, 2012 at 22:07

Here is an example of what it means to be a special or an atypical observer in this context. Suppose human civilization had been around for over 100 million years, and during that entire time we had planned to start a space program just 50 years ago. As long as that knowledge of the delay had also persisted to date, we would be special or atypical observers.

I see nothing of even remotely comparable nature here. Though it is possible that we are “slightly” special it is really really hard to make us special enough in this case.

Ken_Space May 21, 2012 at 11:59

I must take issue with Geoff (back on May 9, 2012 at 22:10 ) who said: “Mars isn’t even much of an insurance policy. Most of the plausible threats to Earth civilization as a whole (wars, epidemics, collapse of the agri-ecosystems that produce our food, etc.) could spread to a Mars colony about as easily as they could spread between countries on Earth. The notable exception would be a large asteroid impact – but that’s not a significant threat on the century timescale.”

I agree with his initial comments about blogs being multi-planetary, but
I don’t see why war on Earth would spread to Mars:
Developing nations involved (or terrorist groups) would be unlikely to have the ability to send a bomb there, & would not have the resources to divert for such things.
Western nations would have no motive to attack something in their own image, made up of largely their own nationals.
The closest analagy is Antarctica – has there ever been an attack there?

As for epidemics:
Mars is MUCH better protected than other parts of Earth. Since colonists would live in sealed domes. they’re already set up to be mutually quarantined, & even airbourne bugs won’t transmit between them. If something was spreading on Earth, any crew already on their way to Mars could be barred from visiting existing residents.

Any eco-agri- threat is confined similarly. The whole idea of a self-sustaining colony is for them to be able to survive the destruction of Earth.

As for Geoff’s last sentence:
Asteroids are not the only such threat: eg there’s a nearby supernvova, a GRB, comet, or supervolcano. All these (& new threats we haven’t discovered yet) are each very unlikely, but protecting against rare but terrible things is what insurance is all about.

Eniac May 21, 2012 at 22:37

Western nations would have no motive to attack something in their own image, made up of largely their own nationals.
The closest analagy is Antarctica – has there ever been an attack there?

Antarctica was never an independent colony. The analogy you are looking for is the New World, and it was precisely the Western nations that drew the colonies into two devastating wars. Plus, there was a good number of pretty bad wars among the colonies themselves.

Ken_Space May 22, 2012 at 11:57

In response to Eniac above, the New World is not an analogy *I* was looking for!, as I wouldn’t want that (which includied those fleeing from criminal charges & civil liabilities) to be the model for who gets to go to Mars. I would hope it would based on groups of the scientific elite, like Antarctica.

ljk May 22, 2012 at 15:52

Ken_Space said on May 22, 2012 at 11:57:

“In response to Eniac above, the New World is not an analogy *I* was looking for!, as I wouldn’t want that (which includied those fleeing from criminal charges & civil liabilities) to be the model for who gets to go to Mars. I would hope it would based on groups of the scientific elite, like Antarctica.”

LJK replies:

Political correctness concerns aside, the chances are more than good that the first people who really start colonizing the Sol system and beyond will not be like the astronauts and cosmonauts inhabiting the ISS right now, or like most of the kind that have been sent into space since 1961 – the Noble Astronaut.

If private space enterprises take off (pun intended) and open up the local Universe to humanity (SpaceX just did one small step in that direction today), expect things to be more like the society depicted in the Red Mars series. So long as humans remain human, expect our natures to follow us even into the Final Frontier, especially with those individuals and groups which are not part of a scientific expedition or on business.

I expect the following kinds of people to populate the Sol system and galaxy, in no strict chronological order (space business corporate officers and their employees are a given): Political and religious refugees, cults feeling “destined” to found an order or expand one among the stars (especially with any alien brethren), libertarians, criminals both forced and choosing to escape prosecution, and “regular folk” who feel confined on Earth, which will have nine billion humans by 2050 and probably be even more invasive or our privacy and rights than even now thanks to technologies even Orwell did not foresee. Many of these types would already be out there if we had followed our original plans for space decades ago.

The idea of colonizing the galaxy with unsavory humans may not appeal to you and others, but as with the New World, they are the people and the motivations which got us where we are and will probably be how we get out there, too. How many purely science expeditions would have been funded by the royalty of those eras – or now?

ljk May 22, 2012 at 15:55

And now that I think about it again, Ken, your words: “I would hope it would based on groups of the scientific elite, like Antarctica” really rather rankle me.

So only the rich and powerful get to have the rest of the Universe along with Earth? I don’t think so. And once space is open for business, thankfully that is not what is going to happen. You won’t be able to confine billions of humans if they want off Earth – and that is a good thing.

Ronald May 23, 2012 at 6:27

@ljk: though I fully agree with you, I would rather expect space business (such as SpaceEx and Planetary Resources) to be by far the first, foremost and leading in space exploration for a long time to come.

ljk May 23, 2012 at 17:17

I agree, Ronald. Just look at NASA and Russia’s track record with plans for manned missions to Mars as just one example.

Way back we were promised the first landings would happen in the 1980s. Then they got pushed into first the 1990s and then what was then the distant 21st Century. Then this century actually happened and it was Uh Oh time. I have seen dates from both space powers in the last few decades that range from 2015 to the 2040s. Which translates into “Let the next Administration/Regime foot the bill.”

This recent Space Review article sums things up quite nicely:

Eniac May 24, 2012 at 0:07

I would rather expect space business (such as SpaceEx and Planetary Resources) to be by far the first, foremost and leading in space exploration for a long time to come.

True, at first. But, if there really are treasures to be found in space, how long can it really be until there’s pirates? (Ahrrrr) And then, once some colony truly becomes independent, how long until there is diplomatic trouble with the motherland? A tea-party, perhaps?

ljk May 24, 2012 at 12:30
Ronald May 24, 2012 at 13:02

Eniac, Ljk: could one argue then that, perhaps, it is (nearly) always private initiative and business prospects that initiate exploration, and that it becomes political when it grows big and important enough? After all, pirates are a kind of private business initiative as well. And in a kind of frontier environment the distinction between legal (companies) and illegal (pirates) may be rather vague and arbitrary.

Rachelle Russell September 14, 2012 at 15:46

The Government may not have the funding for any exploration activities now, and programs may be at a halt at the moment. It does not mean that this is the finality of all American exploration initiatives. I wait expectantly for further progress and once we reach a point of economic recovery future research and development progress will continue.

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