Do we have a 50-year window to establish a space faring civilization?
I read an AIAA paper this week supporting the thesis that mankind only has a 50=year window to establish a space faring civilization and then the window will close for any of a myriad number of reasons. The reference is: A. Scott Howe, “50-year Window to Establish a Space Faring Civilization” AIAA Space 2015 Conference and Exposition, Pasadena, CA. This falls right in line with my previous blogs on the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation so I couldn’t pass it up.
Dr Howe’s primary argument is that developing a spacefaring civilization takes time, about 26 years from first launch on his NASA-developed timeline, and money, roughly $75B from start to settlements on Mars, using his example. Dr Howe is a NASA employee working at JPL and he is using primarily NASA-generated data. My main problem with what he showed was that he is assuming that colonization of Mars is a NASA-run program. If you have read my book you know that is not what I believe. NASA does exploration. It is deep in their DNA. They don’t support commercial ventures or space colonies.
Hence, my CON-OPS (concept of operations) for commercial space development is totally different from Dr Howes. I believe a space faring civilization starts in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with commercial space business parks and gradually spreads outward to High Earth Orbit Solar Power Stations, Lunar Surface Mining, Asteroid Mining, and finally to Martian Colonies. My version is driven by commercial profit opportunities and is initialized by $/pound to orbit. Some of us have been calling for a reusable launch system since the Space Shuttle (which wasn’t reusable, but rebuildable) failed its primary goal of delivering launch costs less than $100/pound to LEO. Without cost to orbit less than $500/pound you can’t support commercial human endeavors. This was proven in the Commercial Space Transportation Study back in 1993 done by the New Business Organizations of all six major Aerospace Companies. Despite forty years of trying we still don’t have a Fully Feusable Launch System (FRLS). That appears to be changing in that Space-X is working towards a 2021 launch of their Starship FRLS, and Blue Origin may not be too far behind.
If a low-cost FRLS is available, then the data from my three Space Design Classes at the University of Washington support the CON-OPS described above, and it takes only five years to achieve the first step, the Space Business Parks in LEO. Once Space Business Parks populate LEO it only takes five years to design and build the infrastructure for a fully reusable system to land mining equipment on the moon. The primary products from lunar mining would be platinum Group Metals (PGMs), Rare Earth Elements (REEs), and Helium 3. All are vital to a successful green revolution.
We estimated that after twenty years mining the moon, we will have proven the vacuum mining technologies and generated enough profits to fund the next step, asteroid mining. Asteroid mining requires a whole new transportation system, Reusable Nuclear-Electric Tugs (ReNETs) which are launched as modules and assembled at a LEO Space Operations Center (SOC). Each ReNET can transport about 200 Metric tons of cargo out to a high orbit SOC at Lagrange Point 5 (L5) which serves as a transfer station or about 150 metric tons directly to a Near-Earth Asteroid. The 150 metric ton payload is the Carbonaceous Asteroid Miner and Processor (CAMPr) which mines both metallic and carbonaceous ores and separates out the critical metals and organics for further processing into Platinum Group Metals (PGMs), water, and other products for use as propellant and for use back on Earth. The overall schematic as drawn by the U of W Class of 2013 is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 Asteroid Mining Architectural Schematic
Asteroid mining builds and maintains the infrastructure necessary to affordably colonize Mars. The extra water from asteroid mining is propellant to carry supplies and colonist to Mars and the asteroid mining processes can be used for excavation and building on Mars. This minimizes the very high costs of colonizing Mars from scratch. This depends on water being a working propellant for electric thrusters. The Electrodynamic Lorentz Force (ELF) Thruster meets this criterion and was the thruster assumed in the 2013 Asteroid Mining exercise. Read the book for details.
Putting a 50-year window on our ability to develop space travel is somewhat controversial but not out of line with some of the possibilities discussed in the Fermi Paradox. Our capability to move into space could fail because of: 1) a worldwide pandemic causing widespread death and economic reversal, 2) an economic depression equivalent or worse than the 1930s, 3) an ecological collapse caused by overpopulation and/or global warming, or 4) a political collapse caused increasing militancy of our political parties or the rise of a dictator. I will try and characterize each of these failure modes.
A worldwide pandemic is currently pretty easy to explain given current circumstances. But suppose the next virus is twice as contagious and ten times deadlier than COVID-19. Our infrastructure would unravel very quickly, and it would be every family for itself. I’m not sure we could complete a vaccine in time to prevent an almost total collapse of the economy and it would take many years to recover to where we could support a space program again.
Economic depressions can be caused by putting enough people out of work and the world is currently flirting with those conditions. Simultaneously locking down your population while printing trillions in fiat currency could result in massive loan failures and job layoffs. That’s what happened during the 1930s and we’ll see if history repeats.
Ecological collapse has been predicted for 50 years now (I remember Limits to Growth in 1971). So far, technology advancements have saved us. I, myself, believe it can save us again, but only if politicians allow the right technological developments to be funded. Lately our politicians fund only those technologies that align with their bias and this could cause trouble in the future.
Until recently the thought of a political collapse in the United States would have been a joke,
but if you have been to a gun store recently it is not so funny. I live in Seattle and recently we are averaging more than one murder a day. The local politicians have totally lost any respect from the general population for coddling the rioters and looters, and guns are flying off the shelves. There is no respect between electoral candidates at the state and national levels and both sides are preparing to contest the election results. It wouldn’t take much for this situation to spiral out of hand.
In summary, I am still optimistic that we can become a space-faring civilization in less than 50-years and do it despite the serious threats I outlined above. The nice thing about making these predictions at my age (76) is that I won’t be around to have to admit I was wrong.
Thanks for your attention.