Published on The Doomstead Diner on May 8, 2016
Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner
Back when I was a kid in the 1960s, I was a big believer in the future of science and technology, and that we would eventually Explore the Universe. Along with the Hardy Boys series of detective stories, my other favorite series from my early reading years was the Tom Swift series. Like the Hardy Boys who were Boy Genius Detectives, Tom was a Boy Genius Inventor. The Nancy Drew series was the Girl Genius Detective version for young female readers, but far as I know there was no comparable Girl Genius Inventor to Tom Swift, which says something about gender roles in society of course.
In this period I was living in Brazil, where I saw my first Star Trek episode, dubbed into Portuguese with English Subtitles, w hich went a long way toward helping me get my Portuguese up to speed quickly. 🙂 I even remember the very first Star Trek scene I saw, it was of Spock beaming down to the Alice in Wonderland Planet where Kirk got inthe fight with Finnegan. I was enthralled!
Upon returning to the FSoA, I read through just about all the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, both considered the Fathers of the Science Fiction Genre. Both did their writing in the late 19th and early 20th Century as the Industrial Revolution was literally gathering steam, and when endless technological progress seemed on the horizon. They set about imagining what it would be like in the future, and in some areas were quite prescient. By the time I got back here, their novels were being made into movies, which further set my youthful imagination on fire.
Along with the fiction, I had my subscriptions to the (supposedly) non-fiction magazines Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, which each week had cool diagrams of projects that were usually just dreamed up by the writers and artists they employed, but sometimes had some basis in real fact. There were designs for Fusion Reactors and for Space Stations and multi generational inter-stellar Starships. Still more fuel for a budding wannabee scientist as I read both magazines cover to cover each time they showed up in the mailbox, in the pre-internet era.
Then came the real BIG ONE, the NASA Space Program, which JFK promised would put a Man on the Moon by the end of the decade. I watched every space shot of the Apollo Program as broadcast by Walter Cronkite on CBS, even at Summer Camp where they rolled a TV into the Rec Hall so we could watch Neil Armstrong take "One Small Step for a Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind". Today, I'm not fully convinced that was real, and I wrote an article about that a while back, but I am willing to concede these days that it was possible. I certainly believed it was fully real when I saw it though.
Following this, the Sci-Fi in the movies continued to become ever more visually realistic, beginning with the seminal Sci Fi film "2001: A Space Odyssey", with the huge Spinning Wheel space station and the cool interiors of the Starship run by the HAL 9000 Computer. It seemed to be coming true in real life too, as the interior of Jets started to look more like the space ships, and even the cars with brightly lit display panels seemed to look like the cockpit of a plane.
In the years since, Hollywood has continued to turn out more cool sci-fi, the Star Wars series of course, Blade Runner, Dune and many others. However, at this point the Sci-Fi began to diverge from reality, and I began to lose my fascination with it. What was occuring in reality?
In reality, both NASA and the Soviet Union space programs ran up against a few brick walls, money being one and making the technical leaps necessary to go past things like sending up sattelites into low earth orbit or small robotic craft to spurt out to photograph the other planets close up and to drop onto mars to roll around and dig up some dirt to send back telemetry about. The Great Space Station that was supposed to look like a big Wheel in the Sky with artificial gravity by 2001 turned out to be in 2010 a few RV sized modules hooked together on a clunky scaffold, manned by 2 or 3 astronauts or cosmonauts running some test or another and shooting the occasional picture of a big cyclonic storm out the window. The great Interstellar ship that was supposed to take Dave to a distant galaxy to meet up with the Monolith builders who brought Sentience, Toolmaking and War to the proto-Human Apes never materialized. In fact even a spaceship capable of getting some Homo Saps to Mars and back has never materialized, although Elon Musk promises to send another robotic craft there sometime in the next decade.
The Fantasy in 1968 for 2001…
…and the reality of what we got in 2016
Back when Jules Verne & H.G. Wells were writing in the 19th century, it really did seem like technology could open up new Frontiers endlessly. The Rocket Ships of the day were the Railroads, and they were opening up the vast Frontier of the "New World", which to them really was like Outer Space. The Aliens of the Era were the First Nations people, generally considered to be Savages like Klingons and Romulans in need of elimination by the Phasers and Photon Torpedoes of the day, Rifles and Cannon.
So it didn't seem like a real big jump that someday we would send Rockets into Space and explore and conquer the Final Frontier, as the intro to Star Trek described it. Courtesy of German Scientists like Werner Von Braun who scaled up the fireworks rockets made by the Chinese so they could deliver Death From Above on London during WWII, we DID get Rocket Ships capable of lifting up a few tons of material into low earth orbit. There is a problem here in going past that though, which is that while you have energy enough to lift a few tons (at least for now), a Space Station like the Big Wheel in the Sky of 2001 would be 100s of 1000s of tons. Figure something like that is on the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge, which weighs in @ 887,000 Tons. The largest rockets ever built, the Saturn V, could only lift about 15.5 payload Tons per trip, and those were expendable rockets, you need to build a new one for every trip. So to get all the stuff up there to build your Space Station, you need about 57,000 Saturn V Rockets, plus all the fuel expended for each trip up! This obviously is not going to happen to begin with, but you're going to need the big Space Station up there as a platform from which to build your Starship..
Your next step in building your Interstellar Multi-Generational Starship gets even worse though. Besides putting up all the hardware to build it, it's also going to need a propulsion system that is NOT fossil fuel based and also a power pant to keep the inside nice and toasty warm while travelling through the near Absolute Zero temeratures of Interstellar Space.
Some plausible schemes for deploying "sails" for propulsion which catch the "solar wind" to accelerate the craft gradually once it is far enough away from the gravitational pull of the SUN☼ have been offered up, going back as far as the Popular Science era. The Solar Wind is composed of particles ejected by the SUN☼ travelling at near light speed, so if enough of them hit these sails and they are big enough, in theory this will then drive the Starship by good old action-reaction. Issue here of course is the size of these sails have to be orders of magnitude larger than the craft itself, and how are you going to get them up into low earth orbit? Maybe you could manufacture them on the Space Station, but then it has to have a lot more equipment on it as well. This is at least as unlikely as sending up 57,000 Saturn V Rockets to get all the necessary materials into low earth orbit.
It gets worse though. Once out in interstellar space, the craft needs its own power supply. You can't use Solar Cells anymore, because you get too far from the SUN☼ and the light is too dim, it looks like just another speck like all the other stars. Try generating any power from Starlight and see how much voltage you get off your Chinese manufactured Solar Panel. lol.
You also can't use fossil fuels even if you could store enough, because you need oxygen to burn them with, and you also need oxygen to breath. You can't possibly carry enough oxygen even in liquified form to be able to burn your fuel for the whole trip to stay warm since the trip is going to take a few years MINIMUM at sub-light speeds to the nearest star. Even if the craft can reach say 1/2 Light Speed utilizing the Solar Wind, it has a long acceleration time to get up to that speed, and then as you approach your Destination Star further time in the deceleration phase. So you're definitely out there for minimum 20 years or so before you might even reach the closest neighboring stars, which probably don't have any habitable planets around them anyway, but forget that problem for the moment.
This leaves us with NUCLEAR power as our energy source while travelling for decades through interstellar space. Of course Fusion Power would be nice, but so far we can't pull that stunt off even down here on earth, so for the forseeable future such a power plant would have to be fission. That means along with 887,000 Tons of steel and aluminum you need to hoist into orbit to build the Starship to begin with, you will also need to hoist up a few thousand tons of Uranium or Plutonium or Thorium to use as power source for staying warm, providing lighting for your Hydroponically grown food, etc. You will also need all the hardware for a full scale Nuke Plant capable of running a small city, along with Radiation Shielding from said plant. This adds quite a few more tons to hoist up into low earth orbit for the building phase.
Is this power source perpetual though? Well, if you happen to luck out and the very first star you point at and get to in 20 years or so it may hold up OK, most Nuke Reactors only have a life span of around 40 years before they need to be decommisioned because after so many years exposed to high levels of radiation, the internal parts all start to get brittle and subject to failure. It's not like you will have an inexhaustible supply of Spare Parts out in Interstellar Space if anything breaks down either. Fortunately though, out in Interstellar Space disposal of spent fuel is not a problem, you just eject them from the Starship as you zip through interstellar space. lol.
OK, for the purposes of this thought experiment, assume you have overcome all these basically insurmountable problems. Are you now home free and finished with your challenges yet? You arrive at your destination Star before the Nuke power plant breaks down, and LO AND BEHOLD! there is a Class M planet circling that star in the Sweet Spot where the temperature is JUST RIGHT like in the Porridge Story of the Three Little Bears capable of supporting Homo Sap life! It also has plenty of Water and an Atmosphere with enough Oxygen to breathe. It is down there though, and you are up in your aging starship! How do you GET DOWN to this planet you are now in orbit around (skip the problem of trying to get into orbit in the first place just using solar sails, that would take some amazing tacking ability. lol)?
If you figure your Starship is around the size of the Starship Enterprise carrying a crew of 400 Human Souls and you don't have Transporters to Beam you to the surface, you need more conventional means of transport down. Since it has an Atmosphere, you could use Space Shuttles of the design we used for a while, which go down as a kind of Glider. However, each Space Shuttle we built only had a crew around 5 or so, figure maybe you could put 20 on each though, so your Interstellar Space Craft now needs to have aboard 20 Shuttles to get everyone aboard off the Starship and down to the surface. It is a one way trip too, once they get down there, they aren't going UP anytime too soon unless there are fossil fuels to power rockets bubbling out of the ground to get them up off the planet and back to the Starship. They'll also need to build refineries for the fuel and big Rockets to lift them back up to the Starship before they can get back there to retrieve some mor preps for life on the new planet.
Are we now FINISHED with all the obstacles here? OF COURSE NOT! I glossed over probably the biggest obstacle of all here, which is building a Self-Contained Ecosystem capable of supporting Homo Sap life for the decades it would take to do interstellar travel, barring of course those fantastic inventions like Anti-Gravity systems and Warp Drive allowing faster than light travel, which are wonderful Sci-Fi kludges to get around these issues but have zero basis in any real engineering being done. Even the theoretical ideas behind such things are pretty questionable.
We have tried to build self contained ecosystems right here on earth and been unsuccessful in making any of them work for more than a couple of years. That is with having Sunlight available as an energy source to run the system too! Beleiving that we can create a self contained, self powered ecosystem that will survive the rigours of decades of interstellar space travel and recycle all the nutrients, keep the internal atmosphere at the right percentage of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide etc for decades is a LEAP OF FAITH I cannot make. It is just a Bridge too Far to cross for me, especially not inside the relatively limited timespan we have left here with some fossil fuels still available for pulling off all these stunts.
Despite all of this, the meme persists and is BELIEVED by most people in Industrial Culture, even the top scientists and engineers like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. Stephen Hawking has been quoted as saying that if Homo Saps do not get off the earth inside the next century or so, we are DOOMED. The implicit argument Stephen is making though is that it is even POSSIBLE for Homo Sap to get off the earth inside a century, which as demonstrated above is seriously unlikely. Correlary to that argument is that we should be investing our remaining resources in the pursuit of getting off the planet, and that is where Elon Musk comes in. Stephen Hawking himself, briliant as he is has not come up with solutions to the many insoluble practical problems that interstellar space travel presents, but Elon Musk, Snake Oil Salesman par excellance sells that he CAN solve these problems! "Investors" who run the TBTF Banks apparently believe Elon also, and they shower debt money on him to the tune of $BILLIONS$ to pursue projects like "Space X", which appears to be a kind of privatized version of NASA. Is there any PROFIT in this company? Hell no, it loses even more money every month than his Tesla Motor EV Carz company does, all subsidized of course by Goobermint Debt taken out in the name of the Taxpayer!
The folks at the top of the heap here,even the Smartest and the Richest absolutely cannot and will not accept the idea that there are LIMITS TO GROWTH. It is a matter of FAITH that Human Ingenuity can overcome all obstacles, even the vast physical ones of Gravity and the extraordinary distances between the stars. The TRUTH is that we cannot and will not overcome these obstacles, and wasting our remaining resources in pursuit of these goals is plain stupid. We do continue to waste them this way though, because Theoretical Physicists like Stephen Hawking make it sound theoretically plausible, and Snake Oil Salesmen like Elon Musk sell their plans to the TBTF Banks who issue out IPOs for them to get gobs of debt money to waste in pursuit of their Pie in the Sky dreams. It is total and complete bullshit.
Here on Planet Earth in the meantime, a whole generation of Financiers & Billionaires still invest in and promote the idea that Robots are going to take over all Jobs, from Self-Driving Carz to Robotic Surgeons who will operate on your Spine at a fraction of the cost for a Homo Sap Neurosurgeon who does the same task over and over every day fusing spines like mine. How BORING! It does pay the Neurosurgeon very well though! lol.
What nobody has figured out or explained here with this pie in the sky fantasy is first off where all the energy is going to come from to produce and maintain all these marvelous new robots, and then after that how this works economically, when now in addition to the Luddite Weavers who lost their livliehood to Industrial Looms, you have put out of work all the Truck, Train and Taxi drivers as well as all the Neurosurgeons, Dentists and Chiropractors? All the Homo Saps who buy the goods and services from these robots are issued Helicopter Money to buy them? What?
For a while, robotics may continue to erode the deteriorating job market in manufacturing, but that market is being eroded even faster by the fact fewer people all the time have enough credit to buy any of the products of industrial manufacturing, or to fuel them and maintain them. Whether the product is a Car or McMansion, the up front cost of buying it is only the beginning. Both need constant inputs of energy, and both have limited functional lifespans before they need to be replaced, often enough before they have even been paid off, since big ticket items like this are almost always purchased on credit.
So on both the Economic and Energetic levels, this Robotic vision of the future is as much an Epic Fail as the Jules Verne-H.G. Wells sci-fi visions of rocketing to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. It's just not going to happen, it will lock up from physical limits long before such visions come to fruition, which are the true and absolute limits to growth. What the technophile cannot accept, whether it is a theoretical physicist like Stephen Hawking, an Engineer & Snake Oil Salesman like Elon Musk, a Singularity IT Guru like Ray Kurzweil or a Bond King like Bill Gross is that there ARE limits to Human Ingenuity and Homo Saps in general, and that we won't pass those limits, because they are very real.
We're not going to get off Planet Earth, and at some point in the future likely long before the SUN☼ goes Red Giant we will be Extinct as a species, along with most of the species currently inhabiting the Planet Earth with us. What our goal needs to be is not to try to get off the planet, but to keep the planet we currently depend on for our survival to be inhabitable for as long as we can, and to develop strategies for survival on a Planet that will become increasingly uninhabitable for our species, and many others. If we marshall our resources and address the problems we face, there is a reasonable chance Homo Sap and many other creatures can continue to inhabit this planet for millenia to come. If we waste our resources chasing Pie in the Sky fantasies of technophiles, we will have significntly less time left to live than that.
Like most of the people a good deal dumber than themselves, I think people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are equally deluded and simply cannot accept the idea that Humanity is not destined for Eternal Life and Eternal Conquest of the Universe. It's an extension of the inability most folks have in accepting Death as inevitable. No matter what you do, you are destined for death, all species are destined for extinction and all planets die also. However, the imperative of life is to live as long as you can, and this will not happen by wasting resources fueling Elon Musk's rockets. We need to grow up here and let go of those fantasies from childhood and face a little reality here.