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Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight

Posted by: Optimistic Brian - Tue Aug 19, 2014 9:18 pm
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Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight 
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Post Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight   Posted on: Tue Aug 19, 2014 9:18 pm
Human spaceflight has spent the last 45 years in limbo due to a number of factors we all know about - politicized contracting, cost-plus contract models, short-sightedness and Wall Street-driven degeneracy in Big Aerospace, etc. etc. - but thankfully we seem to be finally cresting that hill from a number of angles and can see the (quite literally) New World(s) as we approach the turning point.

But we've probably all talked about that at length, read about it at length, we know that once we make the leap from Earth's surface to LEO affordable and safe, Big Things start to happen. So I'm going to leap ahead and think about the next time we may face a period of stagnation, because there are likely to be many of them.

The era where we can get to LEO cheaply and safely is merely the beginning, and still leaves the vast majority of the solar system closed to practical human development. So I'll articulate a few broad eras of what I think future history will look like, and discuss the transitional periods between them that could produce stagnant times where people like us again look in longing and frustration out at the Far Frontier that people aren't reaching.

1. Terracentric Era (Moon, Mars, Venus, NEOs)

This is the era we're currently emerging into, that companies like SpaceX, Bigelow, and Planetary Resources are building toward. It will probably last several centuries, and is characterized by a growing economic spiderweb centered on Earth and extending into the nearest region of the solar system.

We can expect that humans would swarm the Moon and Mars - the former because its proximity to Earth would make it eventually viable no matter how bleak its in-situ resource profile is; the latter because from an astronomical perspective, Mars practically is Earth, with just a few things that need tweaking.

But the Moon and Mars are where the first round of colonization fun stops - everything else would be out of our reach beyond exploratory missions, or even at all.

There can be human missions to flyby Venus, orbit it, and maybe eventually have floating sky stations in the upper atmosphere where conditions are relatively nice, but people would definitely not be swarming these places - there would not be the kind of goal-oriented, quasi-messianic impulse driving people to go there like with Mars. Don't get me wrong, Venus can be terraformed, but such a project would be way more long-term than Mars. So Venus would be a desert boonies.

In terms of raw resources, we would build up the infrastructure to mine NEOs and utilize their material to build things in space, but probably we would only encroach into the Asteroid Belt proper with scientific missions - both robotic and manned - to easier-to-reach objects. But the economics for human development would be too marginal at this point, so here is where we come into our next stagnant period.

1b. Snow Line Transition

The main limiting factor of a Moon-Mars-Venus-NEOs civilization is energy. We live near the Sun, so energy is cheap and abundant here and as far outward as the inner Asteroid Belt. But while solar energy is still marginally practicable for unmanned probes as far as Jupiter, it's simply out of the question to support manned activities much beyond Mars - and even that would probably have to be supplemented.

While you can fuel human activities with fissiles from Earth, that's not remotely a sustainable basis for settlement, so during the late Terracentric Era you might have manned research stations on Jovian moons with a few people in them. But I suspect there could be frustration among people like us that nothing more grows from them. In fact, a number might be attempted and abandoned if the economics are found to be too demanding.

Over the long term you could perhaps tap Jupiter's magnetic field for power, but that could involve very large-scale engineering projects that couldn't be justified for such small installations, leading to the same kind of chicken and egg problem we experienced during the post-Apollo stagnation.

In other words, the shockwave of human expansion during the Terracentric Era would hit an economic wall at the Asteroid Belt - also known as the Snow Line, where rocky planets give way to gas giants. A number of groups might try to colonize beyond that line in small numbers, but their survival would be harshly Darwinian, and their experiences unlikely to contribute much to future progress beyond as cautionary tales. I.e., more likely to end up as the story of Vikings in North America rather than the Spanish and English.

Even if humankind already has fusion energy at this point, that doesn't necessarily mean the Snow Line Transition wouldn't involve stagnation. After all, you still have the economic chicken-and-egg, particularly if fusion power still involves very large and expensive infrastructure that hasn't been successfully miniaturized.

So there would have to be a period of sustained investment with little tangible progress toward either making fusion viable to sustain small-scale colonies, or else toward large-scale projects like profitably tapping Jupiter's magnetic field. But reality being what it is, you could bet it would be slow going either way.

Even if we imagine something like the Cold War happening again, between whoever the powers are (Earth-based or not), driving another Space Race, the results would probably be the same - lots of exploration with little sustainable progress toward human settlement.

How long the Snow Line Transition would last depends on a lot of factors, both economic, political, and psychological that can't be known in advance. It could be a few decades like our current stagnation, or it could be centuries. The promise of the New Frontier doesn't matter - only the conditions of the societies that would be needed to pursue it. If they still have lots of internal frontiers to pursue and abundant resources, it could be a while.

So if you're picturing the SpaceX future as humans swarming the entire solar system, it's not that simple. SpaceX, Bigelow, and Planetary Resources get us into the Terracentric Era, but a totally new set of developments would be needed to pass the Snow Line Transition.

2. Belt Era (rapid expansion of human settlement and development in the Main Asteroid Belt)

When you think of the Asteroid Belt as an island archipelago, you start to see what historical parallels may apply to human expansion there.

Once the Snow Line Transition is passed, the human population and economy in the Main Belt would likely explode, not only due to native resources and easy gravitational access to and from many objects, but also driven by the opening up of points farther out among the outer planets.

The Belt has truly massive "economic surface area" because of these factors, and could totally change the face of the society that exists at that time. Societies arising there could be highly mobile, dynamic, and enterprising, and perhaps also fractious and a bit chaotic. The old "space pirate" tropes might actually come true here. Still, on the plus side, if the inner solar system has become authoritarian in this era, as Old Worlds often do, the Belt might be a ray of hope.

While there might be societies in the Belt during the Terracentric Era, they would probably be marginal or else limited in scope and economic viability due to being at the very edge of the energy viability sphere. But the Belt Era is when they expand radically and possibly begin to dominate both the human economy and possibly culture.

While the barriers to the outer planets would have been removed by the Snow Line Transition, these settlements would still be quite far away from the bulk of humanity, and thus for a long time develop in relative isolation. Which brings us to our next stagnant period:

2b. Insular Economies Transition

During the Belt Era, there would likely be a considerable number of human settlements founded on gas giant moons throughout the solar system, but ironically their extreme relative richness compared to the inner solar system - and the gravitational dominance of the planet involved - would for some time make their economies insular. They would develop quickly, but mostly internally, rather than each step they take contributing directly to humanity as a whole.

So there would be a Jovian economy for whatever settlements are around Jupiter, one for the Saturn system, one for the moons of Uranus, and one for the Neptunian system. They would flourish and prosper within their own spheres during the Belt Era, but they would not be influential because the Belt's economic advantages would overwhelm trade. Also, richness is not necessarily an innovation advantage - it makes people complacent. So these societies could be very beautiful and culturally advanced, but the Belt would be technologically way beyond them for a long time.

I call this a Transition not because people aren't living there, but because they probably wouldn't be innovating or exploring during this period. They would be growing inward, gathering wealth, probably oblivious to further frontiers because of the richness of their own environments.

However, the populations of gas giant moons would slowly become large enough, and their economies have a critical mass to begin dominating just by sheer bulk and volume, and that's when they reach...

3. Cryocentric Era (gas giant moon civilizations dominate)

There will come a time when human civilization is dominated by civilizations on gas giant moons. The sheer abundance of resources is way beyond what the inner solar system can match, so it's pretty much inevitable. This era comes into proper focus when the various insular economies described above rise to relevance in the solar system-wide human society and begin competing with each other across planetary systems rather than only within their own pond of local moons.

It adds a radical infusion of resources beyond anything that would have existed before, energizing previously stagnant economies from earlier eras. This is probably when interstellar exploration begins in earnest, although that would only, I think, serve to illustrate the next stagnant period.

3b. Interstellar Transition

No matter how efficient your fusion power is, and no matter how good your sub-lightspeed propulsion technologies are, even traveling to Alpha Centauri on a purely exploratory mission is a huge challenge. This would likely be the longest transition of all spaceflight history (at least until it comes time to move across galaxies - it might take millennia to fully pass this gulf).

Humanity could be swarming our solar system by the quadrillions: On Mercury, in the clouds of Venus in vast floating cities, on an Earth turned into a global city extending from the top of the mantle all the way into space, on a Mars turned into a (hopefully better) version of Earth; on the Moon, on asteroids everywhere, on all the gas giant moons, in cloud cities of the gas giants themselves, on KBOs like Eris and Pluto, and on countless far-flung purely artificial stations. And still the space between stars would be so vast and galling that most people think our solar system is it for us.

But there would still be dreamers and visionaries who know what's possible and yearn to see it happen. Probe missions would have undoubtedly happened for a long time, but this is when people begin to ask "Why not us?" The question would have been asked before, but the history of such missions would have been grim tales of starship-based societies degenerating into chaos over decades and finally losing contact. But maybe now the sheer size of such missions can get big enough, and rich enough, and advanced enough, that somebody makes a go of it.

Somebody gets to the nearby star of their choice relatively intact, and sets up societies like those we would know on that star's planets, moons, and asteroids. And ever so slowly, the number of those successes grows, lessons are learned, and the process repeats, though each cycle of development might last several centuries and contribute only incremental progress.

So...what do you think? Is this a plausible future history? Any stagnant eras I'm missing?


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Post Re: Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight   Posted on: Wed Aug 20, 2014 12:37 pm
Interesting thesis, however I think you are making the mistake of projecting Western/European mindset and economic/political models onto the future. The "people" of the future, esp. the far future will not have the same cultural and perspective values we do, they may not even be "human" by our definition, being machine or machine/hybrid, or genetically distinct from H. Sapien.

It is exceedingly difficult to predict technology development and its effects. Someone could come up with practical FTL propulsion that makes going straight from the near-Earth stage to interstellar where the outer solar system becomes an unutilized backwater.

Trying to pin down a future timeline into distinct hypothetical eras is a fun thought exercise and backstory for a novel/fictional setting, but is about at practical as nailing jello to a wall. It's not likely to stay put.


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Post Re: Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight   Posted on: Wed Aug 20, 2014 11:09 pm
JamesG wrote:
Interesting thesis, however I think you are making the mistake of projecting Western/European mindset and economic/political models onto the future. The "people" of the future, esp. the far future will not have the same cultural and perspective values we do, they may not even be "human" by our definition, being machine or machine/hybrid, or genetically distinct from H. Sapien.


I think you'll find in history that there have been several cases where radical advances came out of left field, but their impact averaged out over time to a pattern more or less the same as if progress had been gradual.

Think about the invention of nuclear power: We went in a generation from unfiltered coal-fired steam engines to harnessing energy from fundamental forces, and yet the unsuspected complexities and dangers of nuclear power hit us in the face and it's now being de-emphasized in favor of much simpler solutions like solar and wind.

But nuclear won't go away entirely, and will probably make some positive advances over time. In other words, we're back to a point that's as if we never had that "Aha!" moment due to the Manhattan Project, and instead have just made normal, gradual progress. Same is turning out true of human spaceflight: No one could have predicted the Space Race, but now that it's over and decades of stagnation are finally ending, our progress is starting to look more or less like it would have if the Space Race had never happened.

Or think about the electron - we were first harnessing it to do productive work more than a century ago, and yet we still power our transportation by burning things we dig out of the ground.

In other words, while you can't predict details, they tend to add up over time to reasonably predictable models approximating things you can deduce from First Principles of economics. Forget about psychology or sociology or anything else - economics alone gives you more than sufficient tools to predict the long-term future.

If we discover FTL, then it could prove to be hugely expensive and used rarely; or it could still be so slow (e.g., 1.5c or 2c) that colonizing nearby stars would still be immensely challenging; or what have you. You can with some confidence predict the shape of the future - you just can't predict the constituent events that produce it.

If we alter our genetics, then the success of the alterations we choose would be guided by the same fundamental principles as every other decision humans have ever made, and the same general patterns would still unfold.

Only two things I can think of would completely eradicate predictability: Direct, physically relevant contact (not just unintelligible signals) with a more advanced alien intelligence, or total human extinction - the first being vanishingly unlikely, the second being a trivial scenario. Anything else merely introduces wrinkles or folds between Point A and Point B.

History ultimately boils down to thermodynamics. We are physical beings acting out physical laws, and the uncertainty of a single particle doesn't change the predictable behavior of all particles together.

JamesG wrote:
It is exceedingly difficult to predict technology development and its effects. Someone could come up with practical FTL propulsion that makes going straight from the near-Earth stage to interstellar where the outer solar system becomes an unutilized backwater.


Did the development of transatlantic shipping make Europe an underutilized backwater? Hardly - it filled to the brim with economic activity, actually energized by the expanded scope of its economy. And the advent of transcontinental commercial air flight doesn't seem to have decreased the populations of the developed world, even in our densest and most expensive cities.

JamesG wrote:
Trying to pin down a future timeline into distinct hypothetical eras is a fun thought exercise and backstory for a novel/fictional setting, but is about at practical as nailing jello to a wall. It's not likely to stay put.


The details are malleable, but the transition points I mention reflect real economic facts that will have some effect no matter what.

No amount of fusion power will ever be generally more efficient than just passively gathering sunlight in locations relatively close to the Sun, and no level of passive solar technology will ever be advanced enough to be efficient far from the Sun without some massive infrastructure to beam it from points closer.

Natively abundant economies grow inward, particularly when external trade is expensive due to distance or (in the future) strong gravity wells.

Every time in history when we've thought we were in the presence of a Deus ex Machina that would make our (non-dystopian) future totally unpredictable - atomic energy, the Apollo program, the internet - it quickly became apparent that rumors of history's demise were greatly exaggerated.


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Post Re: Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight   Posted on: Thu Aug 21, 2014 1:23 am
Optimistic Brian wrote:
I think you'll find in history that there have been several cases where radical advances came out of left field, but their impact averaged out over time to a pattern more or less the same as if progress had been gradual.


Terrestrial historical and contemporary examples are poor models for the completely alien to everything in human existence of outer space.

Quote:
economics alone gives you more than sufficient tools to predict the long-term future.


Who's economics? Western Capitalist? Socialist? Something not invented yet?

Quote:
Did the development of transatlantic shipping make Europe an underutilized backwater?


Poor example. And I think you missed my point. If Henry the Navigator had access to steam-ships, it is likely the exploration of the tradewinds wouldn't have happened and the pattern of colonization of Africa and the Americas would have been totally different. Many towns and cities across Europe, N. America, and elsewhere were established first as inns and resting posts a days carriage ride apart from each other. That would not have occurred if the automobile or aircraft had proceeded them.

I'm not saying your wrong, only that you are likely not right. :wink:


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Post Re: Imagining Future Periods of Stagnation in Spaceflight   Posted on: Thu Aug 21, 2014 9:42 am
JamesG wrote:
Terrestrial historical and contemporary examples are poor models for the completely alien to everything in human existence of outer space.


Human beings won't be living in "completely alien" space environments - we'll be living in reconstructed facsimiles of Earth environments that happen to reside within harsher natural contexts and in some cases lower gravity fields.

Most people wouldn't be spending their time walking around outside in spacesuits communing with the billion-year-old regolith in vacuum - how much time does the average person anywhere spend in the unconstructed wilderness? - they'll be sitting in control rooms directing robots that build new additions to their habitats, or interacting with other people, etc. They'll be foreigners, not aliens. And if they have some physical differences, they'll be a new race, not a new species.

Quote:
Who's economics? Western Capitalist? Socialist? Something not invented yet?


The most fundamental economics - thermodynamics. "The Spice Must Flow." Identify the Spice and you know the future. Frank Herbert was very clever in communicating that concept.

Quote:
If Henry the Navigator had access to steam-ships, it is likely the exploration of the tradewinds wouldn't have happened and the pattern of colonization of Africa and the Americas would have been totally different.


Would it? Someone else from the same maritime power in the same era would have done the same things; or someone from a different maritime power; or it would have happened a little later. There's a reason why so often critical advances in history happen independently in multiple places in the same time periods.

Quote:
Many towns and cities across Europe, N. America, and elsewhere were established first as inns and resting posts a days carriage ride apart from each other. That would not have occurred if the automobile or aircraft had proceeded them.


The automobile couldn't precede them - heat engines without a theoretical foundation were inefficient and broke easily, which is why the ancient world never pursued them. To achieve that theoretical foundation required a critical mass of sustained and open scientific investigation over time that was not possible before societies were both rich and stable enough to support a secular academic culture.

If you somehow went back in time to the Middle Ages, built a car out of available materials, and taught those people how to build cars, it still wouldn't change anything over the long-term - they'd practice it as a craft for a few generations without understanding why it works or having the practical ability to mass-produce, and the craft would degenerate or the people with those skills would die in some war or plague before the knowledge could take social root in a durable way.

Deux ex Machinas don't really exist in human history - they get smoothed out by time. Things average out to economically sustainable patterns. We go forward steadily. When we encounter obstacles, our energies build up invisibly until they overcome those obstacles in surprising lurches. When we're pushed forward by weird conditions too far ahead of our sustaining economies, we lose energy and stagnate for a while until they catch up.


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