Category: <span>Space Travel</span>

Elon Musk and the Value of Localism or What We Should Do Instead of Going to Mars

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I.

Elon Musk has asserted, accurately in my opinion, that unless humanity becomes a two planet species that we are eventually doomed (absent some greater power out there which saves us, which could include either God or aliens). And he has built an entire company, SpaceX, around making sure that this happens (the two planet part, not the doomed part). As I mentioned, I think this is an accurate view of how things will eventually work out, but it’s also incredibly costly and difficult. Is it possible that in the short term we can achieve most of the benefits of a Mars colony with significantly less money and effort? Might this be yet another 80/20 situation, where 80% of the benefits can be achieved for only 20% of the resources?

In order to answer that question, it would help to get deeper into Musk’s thinking and reasoning behind his push for a self-sustaining outpost on Mars. To quote from the man himself:

I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event — I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy … just that there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multiplanet species.

While I agree with Musk that having a colony on Mars will prevent some doomsday scenarios, I’m not sure I agree with his implied assertion that it will prevent all of them, that if we choose the alternative of being a space-faring civilization, that it forever closes off the other alternative of doomsday events. To see why that might be, we need to get into a discussion of what potential doomsdays await us, or to use the more common term, what existential risks, or x-risks are we likely to face?

If you read my round up of the books I finished in May, one of my reviews covered Toby Ord’s book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity which was entirely dedicated to a discussion of this very subject. For those who don’t remember, Ord produced a chart showing what he thought the relative odds were for various potential x-risks. Which I’ll once again include.

Existential catastrophe via Chance within the next 100 years
Asteroid/comet Impact ~1 in 1,000,000
Supervolcanic eruption ~1 in 10,000
Stellar explosion ~1 in 1,000,000
Total natural risk ~1 in 10,000
Nuclear war ~1 in 1,000
Climate change ~1 in 1,000
Other environmental damage ~1 in 1,000
Naturally arising pandemics ~1 in 10,000
Engineered pandemics ~1 in 30
Unaligned artificial intelligence ~1 in 10
Unforeseen anthropogenic risks ~1 in 30
Other anthropogenic risks ~1 in 50
Total anthropogenic risks ~1 in 6
Total existential risk ~1 in 6

Reviewing this list, which x-risks are entirely avoided by having a self-sustaining colony on Mars? The one it most clearly prevents is the asteroid/comet impact, and indeed that’s the one everyone thinks of. I assume it would also be perfect for protecting humanity from a supervolcanic eruption and a naturally arising pandemic. I’m less clear on how well it would do at protecting humanity from a stellar explosion, but I’m happy to toss that in as well. But you can instantly see the problem with this list, particularly if you read my book review. These are all naturally arising risks, and as a category they’re all far less likely (at least according to Ord) to be the cause of our extinction. What we really need to be hedging against is the category of anthropogenic risks. And it’s not at all clear that a Mars colony is the cheapest or even the best way to do that. 

The risks we’re trying to prevent are often grouped into the general category of “having all of our eggs in one basket”. But just as we don’t want all of our eggs in the “basket” of Earth, I don’t think we want all of our risk mitigation to end up in the “basket” of a Mars colony. To relate it to my last post, this is very similar to my caution against a situation where we all make the same mistake. Only this time rather than a bunch of independent actors all deciding to independently take the same ultimately catastrophic action, here the consensus happens a little more formally, with massive time and effort put into one great effort. One of the reasons this effort seems safe is that it’s designed to reduce risk, but that doesn’t really matter, it could still be a mistake. A potential mistake which is aggravated by focusing on only one subset of potential x-risks, naturally occurring ones, and this one method for dealing with them, a Mars Colony. In other words in attempting to avoid making a mistake we risk making a potentially different mistake. The mistake of having too narrow a focus. Surviving the next few hundred years is a hugely complicated problem (one I hope to bring greater attention to by expanding the definition and discipline of eschatology). And the mistakes we could make are legion. But, in my opinion, focusing on a Mars Colony, as the best and first step in preventing those mistakes turns out to be a mistake itself

II.

At this point it’s only natural to ask what I would recommend instead. And as a matter of fact I do have a proposal:

Imagine that instead of going to Mars that we built a couple of large underground bunkers, something similar to NORAD. In fact we might even be able to repurpose, or piggyback on NORAD for one of them. Ideally the other one would be built at roughly the opposite spot on the globe from the first. So maybe something in Australia. Now imagine that you paid a bunch of people to live there for two years. You would of course supply them with everything they needed, entertainment, food, power, etc. In fact as far as food and power you’d want to have as robust a supply of those on hand as you could manage. But as part of it they would be completely cut off from everything for those two years, no internet connection, no traffic in our out, no inbound communication of any sort. You would of course have plenty of ways to guarantee the necessities like air, food and water. Basically you make this place as self-contained and robust as possible. 

When I say “a bunch of people”, you’d want as many as you could afford, but in essence you want to have enough people in either bunker that by themselves they could regenerate humanity if, after some unthinkable tragedy, they were all that remained. The minimum number I’ve seen is 160, with 500 seeming closer to ideal. Also if you wanted to get fancy/clever you could have 80% of the population be female, with lots of frozen sperm. Also it should go without saying that these people should be of prime child bearing age, with a fertility test before they went in.

Every year you’d alternate which of the bunkers was emptied and refilled with new people. This ensures that neither bunker is empty at the same time and that the period where even one bunker was empty would only be a week or so.

Beyond all of the foregoing, I’m sure there are many other things one could think of to increase the robustness of these bunkers, but I think you get the idea. So now let’s turn to Ord’s list of x-risks and compare my bunker idea to Musks’ Mars plan. 

All natural risks: Mars is definitely superior, but two things to note, first, even if you combine all possible natural risks together, they only have a 1 in 10,000 chance, according to Ord, of causing human extinction in the next century. I agree that you shouldn’t build a bunker just to protect against natural x-risks, but it also seems like a weak reason to go to Mars as well. Second, don’t underestimate the value the bunker provides even if Ord is wrong and the next giant catastrophe we have to worry about is natural. There are a whole host of disasters one could imagine where having the bunker system I described would be a huge advantage. But, even if it’s not, we’re mostly worried about anthropogenic risks, and it’s when we turn to considering them that the bunker system starts to look like the superior option. 

Taking each anthropogenic risk in turn:

Nuclear war- Bunkers as a protection against nuclear weapons is an idea almost as old as the weapons themselves. Having more of them, and making sure they’re constantly occupied, could only increase their protective value. Also Ord only gives nuclear war a 1 in 1000 chance of being the cause of our extinction, mostly because it would be so hard to completely wipe humanity out. The bunker system would make that even harder. A Mars colony doesn’t seem necessarily any better as a protection against this risk, for one thing how does it end up escaping this hypothetical war? And if it doesn’t, it would seem to be very vulnerable to attack. At least as vulnerable as a hardened bunker and perhaps far more so given the precariousness of any Martian existence.

Climate Change- I don’t deny the reality of climate change, but I have a hard time picturing how it wipes out every last human. Most people when pressed on this issue say that the disruption it causes leads to Nuclear War, which just takes us back to the last item. 

Environmental Damage- Similar to climate change, also if we’re too dumb to prevent these sorts of slow moving extinction events on Earth, what makes you think we’ll do any better on Mars? 

Engineered Pandemics- The danger of the engineered pandemic is the malevolent actor behind it, preventing this x-risk means keeping this malevolent actor from infecting everyone, in such a way that we all die. Here the advantage Mars has is its great distance from Earth, meaning you’d have to figure out a way to have a simultaneous outbreak on both planets. The advantage the bunker has is that it’s whole function is to avoid x-risks. Meaning anything that might protect from this sort of threat is not only allowed but expected. The kind of equipment necessary to synthesis a disease? Not allowed in the bunker. The kind of equipment you might macgyver into equipment to synthesis a disease? Also not allowed. You want the bunker to be hermetically sealed 99% of the time? Go for it. On the other hand Mars would have to have all sorts of equipment and tools for genetic manipulation, meaning all you would need is someone who is either willing or could be tricked into synthesizing the disease there, and suddenly the Mars advantage is gone.

Unaligned artificial intelligence- This is obviously the most difficult threat of all to protect against, since the whole idea is that we’re dealing with something unimaginably clever, but here again the bunker seems superior to Mars. Our potential AI adversary will presumably operate at the speed of light, which means that the chief advantage of Mars, it’s distance, doesn’t really matter. As long as Mars is part of the wider communication network of humanity, the few extra minutes it takes the AI to interact with Mars isn’t going to matter. On the other hand, with the bunker, I’m proposing that we allow no inbound communication, that we completely cut it off from the internet. We would allow primitive outbound communication, we’d want them to be able to call for help, but we allow nothing in. We might even go so far as to attempt to scrub any mention of the bunkers from the internet as well. I agree that this would be difficult, but it’s easier than just about any other policy suggestion you could come up with for limiting AI Risk (e.g. stopping all AI research everywhere).

It would appear that the bunker system might actually be superior to a Mars colony when it comes to preventing x-risks, and we haven’t even covered the bunker system’s greatest advantage of all, it would surely be several orders of magnitude cheaper than a Mars colony. I understand that Musk thinks he can get a Mars trip down to $200,000, but first off, I think he’s smoking crack. It is never going to be that cheap. And even if by some miracle he does get it down to that price, that’s just the cost to get there. The far more important figure is not the cost to get there, but the cost to stay there. And at this point we’re still just talking about having some people live on Mars, for this colony to really be a tool for preventing doomsdays it would have to be entirely self sufficient. The requirement is that Earth could disappear and not only would humanity continue to survive, they’d have to be able to build their own rockets and colonize still further planets, otherwise we’ve just kicked the can one planet farther down the road.

III.

I spent more time laying out that idea than I had intended, but that’s okay, because it was a great exercise for illustrating the more general principle I wanted to discuss, the principal of localism. What’s localism? Well in one sense it’s the concept that sits at the very lowest scale of the ideological continuum that includes nationalism and globalism. (You might think individualism would be the lowest -ism on that continuum, but it’s its own weird thing.) In another sense, the sense I intend to use it in, it’s the exact opposite of whatever having all of your “eggs in one basket” is. It’s the idea of placing a lot of bets, of diversifying risk, of allowing experimentation, of all the things I’ve alluded to over the last several posts like Sweden foregoing a quarantine, or Minneapolis’ plan to replace the police, and more generally, ensuring we don’t all make the same mistake.

To be clear, Musk’s push for a Mars Colony is an example of localism, despite how strange that phrase sounds. It keeps humanity from all making the same unrecoverable mistake of being on a single planet should that planet ever be destroyed. But what I hoped to illustrate with the bunker system is that the localism of a Mars Colony is all concentrated in one area, distance. And that it comes not by design, but as a byproduct. Mars is its own locality because it’s impossible for it to be otherwise. 

However, imagine that we figured out a way to make the trip at 1% the speed of light. In that case it would only take 12 hours to get from Earth to Mars, and while it would still offer great protection against all of humanity being taken out by an asteroid or comet, it would offer less protection against pandemics than what is currently enforced by the distance between New York and China. In such a case would we forego using this technology in favor of maintaining the greater protection we get from a longer trip? No,the idea of not using this technology would be inconceivable. All of which is to say that if you’re truly worried about catastrophes and you think localism would help, then that should be your priority. We shouldn’t rely on whatever localism we get as byproducts from other cool ideas. We should take actions whose sole goal is the creation of localism, actions which ensure our eggs have been distributed to different baskets. This intentionality is the biggest difference of all between the bunker system and a Mars Colony (Though, obviously the best idea of all would be a bunker on Mars!)

In a larger sense one of the major problems of the modern world is not merely a lack of intentional localism, but that we actually seem to be zealously pursuing the exact opposite course. Those in power mostly seem committed to making things as similar and as global as possible. It’s not enough that Minneapolis engage in radical police reform, your city is evil if it doesn’t immediately follow suit. On the other hand the idea that Sweden would choose a different course with the quarantine was at a minimum controversial and for many, downright horrifying

I’m sure that I am not the first to propose a system of bunkers as a superior alternative to a Mars colony if we’re genuinely serious about x-risks, and yet the latter still gets far more attention than the former. But to a certain extent, despite the space I’ve spent on the topic, I’m actually less worried about disparities of attention at this scale. When it comes to the topic of extreme risks and their mitigation, there are a lot of smart people working on the problem and I assume that there’s a very good chance they’ll recognize the weaknesses of a Mars colony, and our eventual plans will proceed from this recognition. It’s at lower scales that I worry, because the blindness around less ambitious localism seems even more pervasive, with far fewer people, smart or otherwise, paying any sort of attention. Not only are the dangers of unifying around a single solution harder to recognize, but there’s also lots of inertia towards that unity, with most people being of the opinion that it’s unquestionably a good thing.

IV.

In closing I have a theory for why this might be. Perhaps by putting it out there I might help some people recognize what’s happening, why it’s a mistake, and maybe even encourage them towards more localism, specifically at lower scales.

You would think that the dangers of “putting all of your eggs in one basket” would be obvious. That perhaps the problem is not that people are unaware of the danger, but that they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. And while I definitely think that’s part of it, I think there is something else going on as well. 

In 1885, Andrew Carnegie in a speech to some students, repudiated that advice. In a quote you may have heard, he flipped things around and advised instead that we should, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” This isn’t horrible advice, particularly in certain areas. Most people, myself very much included, would advise that you only have one husband/wife/significant other. Which is essentially having all of your eggs in one basket and then putting a lot of effort into ensuring the health of that basket. Of course this course of action generally assumes that your choice of significant other was a good one. That in general with sufficient patience any relationship can be made to work, and that both parties accept that not everything is going to be perfect. 

If we take these principles and expand on them, we could imagine, as long as we’re making a good choice up front, and taking actions with some margin for error, that we should default towards all making the same good decision. Of having all of our eggs in one basket, but being especially vigilant about that basket. So far so reasonable, but how do we ensure the decision we’ve all decided to take is a good one? For most people the answer is simple, “Isn’t that the whole point of science and progress? Figuring out what the best decisions are and then taking them?”

Indeed it is, and I’m thankful that these tools exist, but it’s entirely possible that we’re asking more from them than they’re capable of providing. My contention is that, culturally, we’ve absorbed the idea that we should always be making the best choice. And, further because of our modern understanding of science and morality this should be easy to do. That lately we have begun to operate under the assumption that we do know what the best choice is, and accordingly we don’t need to spread out our eggs because science and moral progress has allowed us to identify the best basket and then put all of our eggs in that one. But I think this is a mistake. A mistake based on the delusion that the conclusions of science and progress are both ironclad, and easy to arrive at, when in fact neither of those things is true. 

I think it’s easy enough to see this delusion in action in the examples already given. You hardly hear any discussion of giving the police more money, because everyone has decided the best course of action is giving them less money. And already here we can see the failure of this methodology in action. The only conceivable reason for putting all of your eggs in one basket is that you’re sure it’s the best basket, or at least a good one, and yet if anything the science on what sort of funding best minimizes violent crime points towards spending more money as the better option, and even if you disagree with that, you’d have a hard time making the opposite case that the science is unambiguous about lower funding leading to better outcomes.

There are dozens if not hundreds of other examples, everything from the CDC’s recommendation on masks to policies on allowing transgender athletes to compete (would it that terrible to leave this up to the states, people can move), but this post is already running a little long, so I’ll wrap it up here. I acknowledge that I’m not sure there’s as much of a through line from a colony on Mars to defunding the police as I would like, but I’ll close by modifying the saying one further time.

Only put all of your eggs in one basket if you really have no other choice, and if you do, you should not only watch that basket, but make extra sure it’s the best basket available.


My own reservations about the Mars Colony aside, I would still totally want to visit Mars if I had the money. You can assist in that goal by donating, I know that doesn’t seem like it would help very much, but just you wait, if Elon Musk has his way eventually that trip will be all but free!


Leaving the Earth: 50 Years After Apollo

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Knowing that the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing was this month, I felt a strong compulsion to say something about it, but what exactly? There is definitely no shortage of commentary related to the occasion. Obviously the most interesting part of the anniversary is the fact that we haven’t been back since the end of the Apollo Program, nearly 47 years ago. Perhaps I should wait and say something when the 50th anniversary of the last man on the moon rolls around. (Does anyone think we’ll make it back before then?) But I’m definitely not the only one to have noticed this distressing fact, most of the commentary surrounding the anniversary mentions the fact that we haven’t been back. What can I say on this occasion that would be unique?

I do think there’s something interesting to be said about the connection between space travel and human salvation, but I’ve already covered that connection and however unique that observation is, I don’t want to just rehash what I’ve said previously. So what can I bring to the table that isn’t being served in dozens of different locations by hundreds of other commenters? Well, as I survey the commentary I think there’s a definite dearth of extrapolations. Sure, humans will probably make it back to the moon. (I assume that if no one else gets around to it China will, at least, if only for reasons of national prestige.) But if we extrapolate things out and look at the trends, when are we likely to be there permanently, and what about Mars? And, perhaps most important of all, if current trends continue when would humans actually leave the solar system? Obviously this exercise will produce only the crudest of numbers, but I expect that whatever comes out will be pretty depressing even if I end up off by a factor of 2 or more.

To start, though, for those who never read or can’t recall my post on the connection between space travel and salvation, and who don’t have the time or inclination to go back and read it, I should briefly explain my point, which is: If you want to ensure that humanity continues for as long as possible, and you don’t believe there’s any external force capable of helping with that (religion, aliens, vaguer forms of spirituality, etc.) then, ultimately, this is going to require getting off the planet in a sustainable and ongoing fashion. In that post, I further pointed out that most of the large scale goals we’re pursuing at any given moment have very little to do with this endeavor and in fact work against achieving it, if for no other reason than opportunity cost. 

It’s upon considering this last point that branching off into an extrapolation of trends starts to look like an important next step. Yes, occasionally when a technology becomes available, things can change dramatically, and trends before this change become meaningless, a great example of this is the internet. But in the case of space travel we’ve had all the relevant technology for at least 50 years (and yes, I’m aware of the EMDrive) but yet so far there’s been no dramatic upward spike in space travel, particularly if we view the Apollo Program as an outlier (as I am inclined to do, see my post about S-Curves). Accordingly if our salvation depends on getting off the planet, and we have 50 or more years of data on the rate at which that’s actually happening, and every expectation that this rate is unlikely to change very much, then, it would definitely appear to be worthwhile to extrapolate out these rates and see where they get us. 

None of this is to say that the rate of space exploration and colonization isn’t increasing in an exponential fashion. In fact, for all of my trend extrapolation, I’m going to assume that there’s some underlying law along the lines of Moore’s Law, where a given quantity doubles every X years. Meaning that we merely have to decide what a reasonable rate of doubling would be, using the last 50 years worth of data. I’m not actually saying that there is a parallel to Moore’s Law when talking about space, I’m more saying that there had better be, because the distances from one destination to the next are already exponential. Meaning that we’d better hope things are growing exponentially because otherwise space colonization is definitely doomed. Also something that doubles every two years is going to already assume significant ongoing technological advancements. Meaning that if you do think something like fusion or the EMDrive is going to come along and drastically change things, those advances are probably already built in to the model

For our first example, let’s start off by making the hugely optimistic assumption that the current trend is for the distance humans are capable of travelling to and returning from to double every 10 years. And if we then take 1970 and travelling to the Moon as our starting point, we wouldn’t make it to Mars until sometime in the 2040s, Jupiter would be about 2075, Neptune around 2100 and Alpha Centauri would not be reached until the year 2230. And If we, instead, made the more reasonable, but still fairly optimistic assumption that the distance only doubled every 15 years, then we’d get to Mars around 2075, Jupiter would slot in at  2120, Neptune would be 2180 and Alpha Centauri wouldn’t be until sometime around the year 2360…

That last one may not seem especially optimistic, but recall if we’ve decided that space travel is important for our long term salvation it’s not enough to get there once. Surely some nation can massively divert resources for a single moonshot, which is what the word came to mean, and possibly put people on Mars a half dozen times and bring them back, but in order for it to assist with our salvation we have to be able to do it on an ongoing, perpetual basis. And, of course, not only is all of the above optimistic, but based on a single data point: putting a man on the Moon. Not only have we not gotten any farther than that, we haven’t even been able to do it on the ongoing and perpetual basis I’m talking about. But before we leave this example, let’s conduct the exercise one more time, and assume that, as he has predicted, Elon Musk manages to put someone on Mars in 2024 (and by the way here we would appear to be in the realm of the insanely optimistic). This would finally give us a second data point and putting that into the crude model I’m using it would mean a doubling approximately every 7.5 years. Which gets us to Jupiter in 2045, Neptune in 2075 and Alpha Centauri in the year 2165. Not bad, but still a lot slower than most people imagined 50 years ago, and here we touch on one of the problems.

In many respects we’re living in a science fiction world more incredible than anything anyone imagined in 1969, and in other respects, particularly when one looks at space travel, someone reading Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov would be profoundly depressed by how little progress we’ve made. And yet the idea that any day now things will change and suddenly we will be living in that world is hard to shake. Certainly there could always be some dramatic new invention that would change whatever curve we’re currently on, but at the moment there’s good reason to think that, absent some massive space exploration/colonization inflection point in our future, the current rate of plodding along isn’t going to get us anywhere very fast. Now it may be that it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as we get there eventually, but a lot can happen between now and even 2024, to say nothing of 2040, 2075 or 2360. Recall that there’s good black swans and bad black swans, and while the former may be exactly the positive inflection point we were hoping for, there are a lot more things which could happen that would make this whole project much more difficult rather than less.

Moving on, what other trends are there that we can extrapolate? Above I talked about something being continuous, and we have had continuous human presence in low earth orbit (with occasional gaps) since 1973 when Skylab was launched and occupied. All of this has occurred at around 250 miles from the surface, but I’ll be generous and round up to 300. With this as our new starting point we can once again imagine this distance doubling every so many years, only this time it gives us the distance from Earth where humans will be able to sustain a continuous presence. If we once again start with, what I feel, is an incredibly optimistic doubling time of 10 years, we will have a continuous human presence on Mars in 2140, Jupiter (or one of its moons) in 2175 and a continuous presence at Alpha Centauri around the year 2300. If we instead assume a more realistic trend of doubling every 15 years, then Mars is 2225, Jupiter is 2280 and Alpha Centauri is not until the year 2500. 

Now I understand that certain things might get easier, for example just getting out of the gravity well of the Earth is a major hurdle, and perhaps we should take that into account, but when you’re talking about a continuous presence, I would argue that getting out of the Earth’s gravity well, is perhaps the least of your worries. Also recall that to a certain extent productivity gains are built into the model of exponential growth we’re already using. Finally, these extrapolations are not meant to be especially precise, but rather to illustrate that even using some fairly generous assumptions space colonization is going to be a lot harder than I think most people realize. Particularly given how spectacularly unimpressive our manned efforts have been since the end of Apollo. But, perhaps that’s where I’m going astray, by so far only focusing on manned efforts. 

Unmanned exploration really is the easiest way to explore space. And while unmanned probes do not directly accomplish that “salvation of humanity” I keep coming back to, they are at least a reasonable potential stepping stone along the path to that. With that in mind, what kind of Moore’s Law might we extract if we turned our focus to unmanned exploration? Here, at least, we have multiple data points, one for each celestial body, and if you graph it, it looks like a pretty nice exponential curve:

 

There are a couple of things to note about this data. First given that Uranus and Neptune were both first visited by Voyager 2, I’m not sure if Neptune should count as a separate milestone from Uranus (or perhaps it’s the other way around). Also you’ll notice that I didn’t include Pluto, if I did you’d see that nice exponential curve flatten out into something that looks a lot more like a plateau, since, at the time New Horizons visited it, Pluto wasn’t that much farther out than Neptune and we didn’t get to it until 2015. 

Mapping this to our simple model of deciding on a doubling rate is messier with actual data, but after fiddling with it a little bit it looks like seven years fits fairly well. Taking that and anchoring it around Voyager 2, I came up with an arrival time for the first probe to Alpha Centauri of around 2110. Which is almost exactly NASA’s current estimate of a 2113 arrival for the probe they plan to launch in 2069. (You’ll have to take it on faith that I came up with my number before I found the number from NASA). These estimates might be pessimistic, given that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire, is proposing to launch a probe by 2036, which might arrive as early as 2056. But when you get into the details of that proposal there’s reason to question whether it should necessarily be placed in the same category with all of the other probes. The probe proposed by Milner’s team weighs only a few grams and would enter the Alpha Centauri system at 20% the speed of light. Which means the probing part is going to end up being some infinitesimal fraction of the entire trip.

Of all these trends, the trend in unmanned probes is the only one that seems a little bit promising, and even there, it’s going to take quite a while to get anywhere we haven’t already been. 

Fifty years ago everything seemed so promising. What happened? What happened to the science fiction dreams I grew up on? Instead the best way to describe space exploration over the last 50 years, is vaguely depressing with occasional all to brief glimpses of triumph here and there. And perhaps even worse than that, there is no sign that the future is going to be any better. Instead most of our energy seems focused inward, and the Great Silence of the universe becomes less and less paradoxical.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


Space: the final frontier. These are the writings of a slightly unhinged blogger. His five-year mission: to explore strange new topics. To seek out new controversies and new weirdness. To boldly go where no man should ever go period! If you’d like to help with this mission consider donating.


How to Save Humanity

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The other day, my sons were having a debate about Genghis Khan. The older one was saying that he was a very bad dude who killed a lot of people. Perhaps not as bad as Hitler, but a bad guy. The younger son pointed out that the Mongols had done some good things in terms of encouraging trade, uniting that part of the world, ushering in 100 years of peace (after the initial bloodiness), etc. And that just labeling them as the “bad guys” ignored the complexities of history. In an attempt to clarify the terms of the debate, I pointed out that how you felt about Genghis Khan and the Mongols depended to a certain extent on what your core values are. (You may remember this idea from my post on Steven Pinker.)

When I mentioned this, my older son was quick to point out that preventing deaths was definitely among the highest of his core values. (I didn’t point out that under that standard Genghis Khan was objectively a lot worse than Hitler.) The younger son confessed he wasn’t 100% sure what his core values were. I assume if he’d given it some thought he would have come up with some. That said, preventing death is an easy core value to arrive at, and in that respect his older brother had an advantage. But as I said in the Pinker post I mentioned, it’s possible that a reduction in preventable deaths is overly simplistic. Or that focusing just on the current state of violence is too short term. It’s certainly conceivable that what you really want your core value to be, is what’s best for the most people over the longest period of time (to borrow from utilitarianism for a moment.) And using this standard the Mongols definitely look a lot better than if you just look at their initial conquest. They’re still almost certainly weren’t a net benefit to the world, but it paints them in a better light at least. Let’s call this broader and more expansive most-people-longest-period core value “The Salvation of Humanity.”

A few months back I wrote a post specifically about why the “harvest is over”, as you may have already guessed, now it’s time to write a post about why “we are not saved”. Using the word “we” to stand in for all of humanity is fairly straightforward. The meanings of the words “are” and “not” should also be clear. It’s really the word “saved” and by extension “salvation” that require deeper definitions and that’s what I intend to dive into with this post. But in order to do so we need to define some categories

When talking about people the tendency is to divide them into two groups. That may take the form of dividing them into Republicans and Democrats, or traditionals and progressives, or liberals and conservatives, or may be just good and bad, . But this is frequently, if not always, a false dichotomy. In almost all cases there are really three kinds of people. There are the people at either end of things that make all the noise, and define the terms of the debate, but there’s also the people who don’t want to take a side, who don’t care. People who are at best disengaged and at worst entirely apathetic. These are the 44% of people who don’t vote, even for president, even when the stakes are really high. These are the vast masses of people who frankly don’t really think deeply about issues like the “Salvation of Humanity”. On the one extreme they may be people who have enough to worry about already whether because of poverty or illness or something else. On the other end it includes people who are happy and comfortable and content just to enjoy things as they are. We will call this group the Disengaged Middle, and at best they’re going to need to rely on someone or something else to save them and at worst their complacency may be actively hindering attempts at salvation. In other words if humanity is going to be saved it won’t be through the efforts of the Disengaged Middle.

This leaves the task of salvation to the two groups representing the active ends of the salvation debate. Who are the two groups that make all the noise? The first group believes that religion and God are the answer and they actively work towards some degree of divine salvation. Are they perfect? No. Are they correct? It’s hard to imagine that they could all be correct. But for this to be the path to salvation it only requires that one of them be correct. Obviously the difficulty is in figuring out which. But even one set of beliefs is correct it would mean that a viable path to salvation exists. We will call this group the Actively Religious.

The second group is comprised of those who are actively working to achieve salvation on their own. For both groups the definition of “salvation” is somewhat mercurial, but with this group you’re going to hear talk of immortality, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. But in it’s most basic form it consists of avoiding a premature end to humanity, and ultimately that requires getting off the planet in a sustainable fashion. This group generally doesn’t believe in God, but they’re passionately committed to science. We’ll call them the Radical Humanists, and the bulk of this post will be dedicated to them, and specifically getting off the planet, but now that we have defined the boundaries, it’s useful to go back and fill in more details on the Disengaged Middle.

With respect to “salvation” the Disengaged Middle is the great bulk of people (at least in the US and Western Europe) who neither attend church nor are actively involved in the sort of scientific salvation practiced by the radical humanists. They probably represent around 70 to 80% of the population (in the countries I mentioned). These are individuals who may be vaguely religious and hope that if they’re a good person it will all work out. Or on the other side of the equation they may have decided that whatever the future brings that the scientists will figure something out. Perhaps a significant majority belong to the Religion of Progress, the central tenant of which is that continual progress from this point until the end of time is ordained as some sort of immutable law of the universe. (John Michael Greer’s latest post has a great explanation of this.) But even if they do believe this, the vast majority do very little to push that progress forward. Mostly being focused more on when the next season of their favorite television show is going to be released then on any kind of effort towards an actual technological salvation.

And yes, as you may have guessed from that description, despite being on the Actively Religious side of the aisle, I have more sympathy for the Radical Humanists than the Disengaged Middle. As I have repeatedly said, I think they’re wrong. But at least we both agree on the need for salvation even if we disagree on what works best to bring it about. Thus, it is the Disengaged Middle I have the most problems with, and to return to a discussion of core values, if you want to live out as many years as you can with a minimum of stress and violence then the core value of minimizing stress and violence and death is great. But, as I intend to demonstrate, it almost certainly dooms us to a future where we’re stuck on a single planet until the sun gets too bright, or far more likely until some comet smashes into us. Perhaps that’s fine if you’re in the Disengaged Middle, but I suspect that if they really thought about it, it’s not, they just don’t think about it. But maybe I’m wrong, perhaps they do think about it but their myopia and selfishness means they just don’t care.

To restate the point I made in my earlier post when I reviewed Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, I don’t fault anyone, including my son, for embracing the values of life and peace. How could I? But it also shouldn’t be overlooked that the core value of reducing deaths in the short term is not the same as preventing the ultimate extinction of humanity in the long term. Which, if the Radical Humanists are right, only happens if humanity spreads to other planets. And means that any near term sacrifice is worth it in order to get off the planet, and to make humanity (or post-humanity) a truly interstellar race. Sacrifices which a short term focus on avoiding death and violence might prevent. In other words saving lives is not the same as saving humanity.

It should by now be obvious that the core value of reducing violence and preventable death is not even close to the same as the core value of getting off the planet, it may in fact be the opposite. To offer just one example. The reason we haven’t sent people to Mars has a lot to do with the difficulty of bringing them back, any reasonable estimate puts the cost of returning people to Earth at 10x the cost of just getting them there (at a bare minimum). This combined with our squeamishness at leaving them there to die means that our value of preventing death is directly opposed to the value of getting off the planet. Of course some people think that while it might be a one way trip that we wouldn’t be necessarily leaving them there to die, and we’ll touch on that idea more in a bit.

Of course the cost and the aversion to death are not the only reasons we don’t have men on Mars. There is also the recent idea that we shouldn’t waste resources on space exploration when we have so many problems here. This is evidence of the Disengaged Middle, who while not actively seeking salvation, frequently gets in the way of it, if only through imposing opportunity costs. In fact though it may seem that the Actively Religious would be the biggest impediments to space travel and exploration I don’t think that’s the case. People expect them to be opposed and have already dismissed them. Rather it’s the Disengaged Middle who subtly create the biggest roadblocks. And if they represent 70-80% of people, as I suspect, the Radical Humanists are dealing with significant friction before we even start talking about the technical difficulties, which are huge.

As we get into a technological discussion of space travel and colonization we have to mention Elon Musk, who is definitely the poster child for this endeavor, and by all accounts an incredibly smart individual. And at this point Elon is the person with the most concrete plan to create an extraterrestrial colony, in this case on Mars. Consequently, since any discussion of creating a colony on a planet other than Earth is going to be analyzed in relationship to his plan it’s probably just best to get it out of the way. Particularly since Elon’s plan represents something of a best case scenario.

In any endeavor cost can be used as a rough proxy for difficulty. To establish a sustainable colony on Mars (Elon speaks of getting millions of people there) it has to be a lot easier to get to Mars, which means it has to be a lot cheaper. Elon’s current estimate is that it would cost $10 billion per individual if you wanted to get to Mars under the current system. Obviously getting millions of people to Mars at that price is lunacy. Elon wants to reduce that down to $200,000 per person, which is a five million percent improvement. I won’t say that that’s impossible, but I can’t imagine that it’s something you can do overnight either.

Just as a brief survey, here are the challenges he has to overcome:

Initial money- The level of R&D, trial and error, and infrastructure required to pull this off is ridiculous. Most people agree that Elon can’t fund it all himself. Which means he has to get massive additional funding from somewhere else. A lot of people mention that NASA might help, but the amount of money we’re talking about is so huge that even NASA might only be able to make a small dent.

Habitation- Elon talks a lot about getting to Mars, but he doesn’t talk much about what to do once you’re there. It’s one thing to get someone to Mars it’s quite another to build him a house, a farm and a well. Elon has largely moved this question off to people other than himself. He wants to build a transcontinental railroad and let other people build the log cabins.

Fuel- For any kind of spaceflight, fuel is one of the single biggest problems. Particularly since any additional fuel adds weight which requires more fuel to lift the fuel just added, creating a non-linear curve that can quickly become vertical (i.e. you need infinite fuel). This is a particular problem, as I mentioned above, if you plan on returning from Mars. Musk has a plan to extract methane on Mars, but the details on that are VERY fuzzy.

A brief aside is necessary at this point, before we leave the subject of fuel. At this moment NASA is researching something called the EMDrive. And it has the potential to completely change this discussion. I don’t have the space to go into a detailed discussion of the EMDrive, but the first thing to note is that it’s a propellantless drive which makes everything I said before meaningless. The second thing to note is that it’s very controversial and we can’t say for sure at this point if it actually works. In particular it violates Newton’s third law. And similar to when the OPERA project thought they had detected faster than light neutrinos, you have to take any claims that overturn laws of physics with a many grains of salt, I mean like a whole shaker. In other words if the EMDrive actually works it could invalidate the majority of this post. Though all of the non-technical issues I already mentioned would still remain. End of aside.

As you can see Elon faces a number of non-trivial challenges in order for his plan to work. However despite all that let’s assume that he can do it, that he can get somehow get a ticket to Mars down to $200,000. Let’s even assume that’s the price for a round trip. Then the question still remains: Who would pay that money?

I can think of only two categories of people who might:

The Rich Tourist- I think everyone can imagine that there are certain very rich people who would pay $200,000 to go to Mars and come back just for the experience. But how many of them would stay? If you’re rich enough to afford a $200,000 trip Mars then you’re pretty rich. I can’t imagine anyone with a net worth of less than a million would go, and if you’re a millionaire would you rather live in a tiny 5’x5’ room, with decompressive death lurking around every corner for the rest of your life or would you rather live in Paris?

True Believers- Certainly there are some people who believe strongly enough in the same vision of the future that Elon does that they would go to Mars and stay there. But these people don’t only have to be true believers they have to have at least as much money as the first group and probably more. Recall that they don’t just have to pay the money to get there, they have to pay the money to stay there. Even using Elon’s widely optimistic numbers you’re still talking about $140,000 per ton to get stuff to Mars. Which means you need to spend an addition $140,000 just to make sure you don’t starve to death in the first year.

Both of these categories are prohibitively expensive, even if we grant Elon’s numbers. Recall that only 0.7% of the world’s population has a net worth of a million dollars or more, and that would appear to be the bare minimum for someone to go to Mars, either as a tourist or a resident.

Thus far, even granting that Elon reduces the price to $200,000, and further granting that there are actually millions of rich true believers who are willing to relocate to Mars, we still haven’t figured out how to make the colony sustainable. Dr. Scott Pace, the Director of Space Policy Institute had an admirable breakdown of the future of space exploration and colonization:

Such a question could be, “Does humanity have a future beyond the Earth?” Either a yes or a no answer would have profound implications. Addressing this question quickly leads to two sub-questions: can humans “live off the land” away from Earth, and is there any economic justification for human activities off the Earth? If the answer to both questions is yes, then there will be space settlements. If the answer to both questions is no, then space is akin to Mount Everest – a place where explorers and tourists might visit but of no greater significance. If humans can live off-planet, but there is nothing economically useful to do, then lunar and Martian outposts will, at best, be similar to those found in Antarctica. If humans cannot live off-planet, but there is some useful economic activity to perform, then those outposts become like remote oil platforms. Each of these scenarios represents a radically different human future in space and while individuals might have beliefs or hopes for one of them, it is unknown which answer will turn out to be true.

We can imagine that if Elon does manage to get the price down in the way he hopes, that in the initial flurry of excitement and optimism that we might have lots of people sign up to go to Mars, but at some point, after the initial excitement wears off, inevitably Pace’s categories would come to dominate the endeavor. And when that happens where does Mars end up? Is it Everest, Antarctica, a North Sea Drilling platform or America being discovered by the Europeans?

The fact that Pace mentions Antarctica is interesting, because it’s an instructive example. Antarctica is better for settlement than Mars by any conceivable measurement. It’s warmer than Mars. The air is breathable. There’s the same large supply of water trapped as ice. But most of all it’s 34 million miles closer! And yet Antarctica only has 5,000 temporary residents, and trust me, they are not living off the land. It’s also instructive to note that as a low estimate it costs $100,000/year to live there. The cost to spend a year on Mars has to be a least that high and it’s probably more like 10x that. If we can’t live off the land in our own backyard under much better conditions, how can we expect to live off the land on Mars? And yes I’m sure technology will improve, but you’re still faced with a situation where livability wise there’s no reason to have a million people on Mars until you have at least that many in Antarctica.

As far as whether it’s economically justified. I have seen very little that indicates that Mars has any special economic resources. When speaking of the Moon people talk about Helium-3 but apparently this doesn’t apply to Mars. There are some people who say that there might be precious metals and rare earth elements on Mars, but not only is the evidence for this currently lacking, but you still end up with Mars being the North Sea Drilling platform (presumably worked by robots) not the colony of millions which Elon envisions.

In the end it appears that there might only be one reason to go to Mars, and that’s the reason I initially mentioned, which is to make sure that we are not a one planet species. That when the Sun gets too hot or when the comet appears out of nowhere on a course for Earth that humanity can still be saved. But this requires that a large group of people pay a lot of money to go live in a miserably hostile environment for the rest of their lives. And it requires that the 70-80% of people (possibly more when you include the Actively Religious) who think it’s a dumb idea and a waste of money somehow go along with it.

If, despite everything, you still think the dreams of the Radical Humanists are enough to overcome all the challenges I have mentioned, I urge you to consider the fact that we haven’t even done everything we can here on Earth. There are plenty of catastrophes that might wipe out humanity, but be survivable by a group of 500-1000 people, living continuously deep underground, with lots of supplies. And yet nothing even close to that exists.

How am I supposed to take the dramatic plans of a Mars Colony seriously when the Radical Humanists can’t even do something simple and straightforward here on Earth to ensure the Salvation of Humanity.


Are you Actively Religious? Then consider donating to a fellow believer. Are you part of the Disengaged Middle? Then consider donating to this blog a first step in leaving behind you’re apathetic ways. Are you a Radical Humanist? If so then don’t worry about donating, you’re going to need every penny you have to afford that trip to Mars.