Beyond Mars: The Distant Future of Space Exploration

By David Warmflash | December 3, 2015 12:19 pm
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An artist’s rendering of a multifunction Mars base. (Credit: NASA/Glenn Research Center)

Louis Friedman has always balanced his optimistic vision for the future of human space exploration with a dose of reality, and his tempered outlook courses through his new book, Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars, in which he charts the distant future of human space travel.

Friedman is optimistic that human space exploration will continue well into the future. However, here’s that dose of reality from Friedman: humans will never venture beyond Mars, at least not in any historically significant way. Once humans tame Mars, how will humanity continue to explore cosmic frontiers, and to what end? Space travel, according to Friedman, will be an act more focused on transporting our minds — with the help of new technologies — rather than our bodies.

Friedman is the executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society, which he co-founded with Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray in 1980. He has a knack for bringing space researchers from multiple nations together on ambitious projects. He played a role in the Mariner-Venus-Mercury project, the Voyager missions, the Venus Orbital Imaging Radar (Magellan), the Halley Comet Rendezvous, Mars exploration, and has brought the idea of solar sailing from a dream to actual testing in space. Discover contributor David Warmflash spoke with Friedman about his book, space colonies and the future of space exploration.


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Louis Friedman (Credit: Planetary Society)

Discover: What is the central message of the book?

Louis Friedman: Human space exploration will continue well into the future. It will be exciting, focused on exploration and settlement of Mars. But humans themselves will never travel beyond Mars.

Can we talk a little about why Mars should be a location for humanity’s second home? For humans, we know there’s an emotional attachment to Mars, but from a pragmatic standpoint, is there anything that makes it better than free space colonies (structures either in the Earth-moon system, or in their own orbit around the sun)? Or do you see a future in which we have Mars colonies, free space colonies, and maybe cities on the moon and other bodies?

LF: What you describe is not impossible, but to me it makes little sense. The space colonies you imagine are vast engineering projects much bigger than the enterprise of adapting ourselves to the surface of Mars. They would have to be built with material brought from Earth at much pain at much cost. On Mars, we would protect ourselves from radiation with Martian materials — the dirt of the planet. A 1-g space colony for thousands of people would be huge: impractical to build, and more impractical to supply. The space colony ideas of science-fiction are largely discredited for human’s real future now. They certainly do not appear in any space agency or private space plan.

Do you anticipate that we’ll terraform Mars?

LF: Yes. Of course I don’t know exactly how or when, but I see it as part of human evolution to eventually adapt to living on Mars and then to make it better and better. And, I must note, we are already terraforming Earth – so we know it is something we are capable of. That said, I must also emphasize that I think that will happen, I don’t know it. We have not settled underwater in the oceans, nor have we settled even in the Antarctic. They are much easier to reach and have many more resources than Mars. I am not sure of their future even here on Earth. But I am an optimist and I think Mars represents an unlimited future for human endeavor.

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Painter Rick Guidice’s mid-1970s vision of what an orbiting space colony might look like. The cylinders sport halos of agriculture pods. However, Friedman says elaborate colonies like these probably aren’t in the cards for humans. Check out more retro space colony art in this Discover gallery. (Credit: NASA/Rick Guidice)

When you say that humans will never travel beyond Mars, do you mean not to colonize other worlds, or do you mean not even for a quick visit? Wouldn’t a human mission to the outer solar system be a lot easier than sending the first astronauts to the moon was during the 1960s when we had no human space flight experience and had to create everything from scratch?

LF: Human exploration and colonization of Mars will keep us busy for hundreds, even thousands, of years. During that time, there will be advances in nanotechnology, space sailing, robotics, biomolecular engineering, and artificial intelligence. These advances are occurring even now, affecting our outlook about what it means to be human and engage in human activity. Those technologies will not merely allow us to stay home on Earth and Mars, but our minds will extend our presence throughout the universe so that we will not need or want to extend our bodies there – even if we could, which I think is doubtful.

So are you saying that sending humans, say, to an interesting moon of Saturn, like Titan or Enceladus, would be pointless, since we could get the full experience from our machines, through something like virtual reality, or even uploading data from deep space missions into our brains, so it will really seem as though we went in person?

LF: Yes, that’s right. I think we’ll be doing that before the end of this century, whereas if we had to wait for human life support on Titan, it would be many, many centuries.

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What a future manned mission to Mars might look like. (Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC)

Even so, do you think that will be enough for everybody? Wouldn’t some daredevil take a human mission to points beyond at some point, just to show that they could do it? Is it so unrealistic to think that China, India, Brazil, Russia, the United States, the United Nations, or for that matter a government that has yet to exist on Mars, could find itself in a new space race where the goal is to get people — live people — where no one has gone before, for that prestige factor?

Wanting to do these things just seems to be part of human nature, we always produce people who want to visit new places, even if there’s no logical reason, don’t you agree? Do you think artificial intelligence and other technologies will change something about us, so that nobody will ever take a distant, dangerous space voyage that has no practical value?

LF:   You have raised several questions here.   You are right about the possibility that if we can do something, someone might just want to. We have all kinds of extreme sports here on Earth. I don’t rule out some daredevils or tourist extremists from our Earth-Mars home trying a daring mission to the asteroid belt or Ganymede. But it won’t be very relevant or even as much a part of our Society as those extreme trips to Mt. Everest.

Somebody jumped out of a balloon from the edge of space a year or so again, interesting, but not relevant to human development. Humans will already feel present on Ganymede (and lots of other places) and the development of human life support to engage in those extreme efforts will be expensive and pointless – if even possible…I think NASA has it right now. Their Journey to Mars puts into context why we have human spaceflight. In my opinion, there is no other purpose to human spaceflight.

human_spaceflightYou know how some insightful people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have warned that we should be careful about artificial intelligence, about how we develop it and how we let it evolve. In researching and writing the book, did you develop any concerns along these lines? Do you think that eventually, machines might replace humans entirely?

LF: I don’t go that far; perhaps I just don’t have their insight or enough imagination. I think their warnings are right on – the technology might be dangerous and misused. We should be careful, but it would be impossible to ban it. Similarly, I don’t subscribe to Ray Kurzweil’s singularity theory — that humans will evolve into their electronics. It is Mars that will save us from that gloomy idea. It is a world for unlimited human development and evolution. You might ask what about in 10,000 years; won’t we have to confront our limits there? My vision isn’t so great – ask me in 5,000 years and I’ll give you a better answer.  Look where we were on Earth 10,000 years ago and imagine a discussion of inhabitants then predicting their evolution.

You describe yourself as wanting to make space exploration missions happen. What missions are you trying to make happen now?

LF: There are two I am working on now – both addressed in the book.   The first, of highest priority is the Asteroid Redirect Mission – a very clever and innovative idea to grab a large piece of an asteroid and move it to a place where our astronauts can reach. It will restore science and adventure to the human space program and be the first milestone for human space flight beyond the moon on the way to Mars. NASA is preparing to do this within the decade and to make it a literal stepping stone on the journey to Mars. The second is at the other end of the scale: a small robotic mission to go deep into the interstellar medium to the focal line caused by the sun’s bending of light from an extra-solar planet. In theory, the solar gravity lens focus can magnify the planet by a billion times – making a 10-centimeter telescope there equivalent to an 80-kilometer telescope here. It may be the only way to obtain high-resolution images of a potentially habitable world in our lifetime. These two missions illustrate the point of my book nicely: human space flight nearby, robotic spacecraft far away, extending the human presence together.

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  • oatwillie

    Something to think about: mining offers the most immediate return on off- world exploration. Asteroids could be a fantastic source of rare metals and the moon the same.

    • lump1

      Mining in space will make sense only once we’ve committed to building *something else* in space. The greatest value-add to space-mined resources is that they’re out of the gravity well already. But that only matters if we actually need them for some project that’s also not in the gravity well. I think the first such project should be a gigantic (1000m+) telescope, whose mirror is spun and cut in space, from space-mined materials. That would profoundly change our understanding of nature.

    • DutchS

      Mineral resources on earth all depend on water for their formation apart from a few magmatic ores. Don’t expect to find banded iron formations or Chile-type copper deposits. On the plus side, we could use big solar mirrors to melt asteroids in place, smelt the material (in the process, stripping off oxygen, which we can use), and possibly even fabricate parts for ships and space stations in space. Because sending it to Earth is not an option. Think many Chelyabinsk events a day.

    • The History Man

      Vast numbers of earth based mining operations have closed because they have become uneconomic due to the difficulties and costs of extraction, transportation and processing. It is hard to see any situation where it would be economic to go to the unimaginable expense of mining asteroids when developing alternative sustainable earth bound technologies will always make more sense.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Optimum Hohmann transfer ellipse one way travel to Mars is 0.70873 years or about 259 days. Real world thrust and timing suggest more than 400 days on average. Either way, it’s 90 rem/year of hard radiation in space and 30 rem/year on Mars’ surface. That is blinding by radiation cataracts (re ISS FUBAR, 90% incidence), and other Chernobyl joys. One cannot launch pseudophakic asstronaughts, for their IOLS will shake loose. Including an ophthalmologist for IOL installation after landing is doubtful.

    • SayWhat?

      There are people working on this problem right now. In fact, in the UK someone has invented an ion shield or “mini-magnetosphere” that provides nearly 100% protection against solar radiation/flares. This and many more plausible ideas are in the works. Most in the field agree that within 3 years the problem will be solved. Outward not doubtward!

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Grow plants and mice in an MRI tunnel, a tesla of magnetic field. Photosynthesis and metabolism are spin alignment sensitive for making and breaking chemical bonds. Before you send out people in a “magnetic shield,” you might observe whether a year’s continuous immersion within it is a cumulative bad thing.

        1) Never run beyond 90% nameplate. Management cuts corners; it will break.
        2) Never buy a low serial number. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Entropy.
        3) “We almost have the solution!” You don’t have the solution.

        • SayWhat?

          Yes, yes Uncle Al, they are smart too.
          ““The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.””

          • Emkay

            my favorite is:
            ” The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits ”
            -Albert Einstein-

        • Erik Bosma

          Hey Al, we could send these guys. Hahahaha… I’d love to see the look on their faces after they “Open the hatch, Scotty!” Hahahaha… too funny.

    • Emkay

      Recently, Alpins et al. described a vector analysis algorithm, which they call CorT, to quantify corneal topographic astigmatism. The authors compared CorT with manual keratometry, SimK, corneal wavefront, and paraxial curvature matching. CorT proved to be significantly more reliable (less variable with smaller standard deviation) than the other approaches. The magnitude of ocular residual astigmatism (ORA) using CorT was the least and its magnitude was closest to refractive cylinder than all other parameters examined.[5]
      The corneal topographic astigmatism (CorT) is closer in magnitude and orientation to the manifest refractive cylinder (R) than is simulated keratometry (Sim K), the latter of which has been the standard for 25 years.

      CorT can provide a reliable meridian (and magnitude) for the alignment (and power) of a toric IOL. The current standard practice amounts to estimating the meridian from multiple differing inputs (e.g., SimK, manual keratometry, IOL master keratometry, and Lenstar), which often differ in the meridian identified as “steepest.” CorT provides the most reliable orientation of the steep meridian and the most effective magnitude of the corneal astigmatism.[6]

      The variability of SimK values has been a point of frustration in the field in regard to the alignment of toric IOLs. Alpins expects that CorT will replace the SimK value, which has been the standard measure since the inception of Placido ring topography technology.[5][6][7][8] This is described in greater detail in the corneal topography section…just a worthless reply to an asstronaut..

      • Neo Anderson

        Lol!

    • BOBinBrooklyn

      Is “FUBAR” what I think it is?
      What does “pseudophakic” mean?
      Should “asstronaughts” be spelled “astronaut”?
      What’s an “IOLS”?

  • torchie4269

    Surprised there’s no mention of settling and terraforming Venus. Floating colonies high in the atmosphere are not all that farfetched, and terraforming, while much more difficult initially, would have a much higher payoff considering the greater similarities Venus has to Earth compared to the puny, low gravity, freezing cold Mars.

    • Mike Richardson

      NASA did have a proposed mission called HAVOC, which would have started with floating observation posts in the upper atmosphere, and possibly expanded from there. The only problem would be a failure of the buoyancy system — falling from the upper atmosphere to the lower and down to the surface would be a pretty bad way to go. You’d have to wonder which would kill you first: high concentrations of sulfuric acid in the clouds, supercharged lightning, lead melting heat, or 90 times Earth sea level pressure. But long term, if you could successfully terraform it, and find a way to deal with the extremely long day/night cycle, you’d have world the size of Earth to colonize (though probably with more ocean surface area).

      • torchie4269

        Yeah, the HAVOC stuff was what I had in mind. Terraforming would be awesome, but it would take at least decades, maybe centuries. There’s also the option of building underground colonies at that point, which would dodge most of the day/night issues. There was a sci-fi novel about a colony on Mercury that was on a giant track and slowly circled the globe to keep itself in the twilight sweet spot all the time.

        • Small_Businessman

          I’m wondering about genetically engineering bacteria and/or to munch on the sulfuric acid and expel water and/or oxygen with sulfur as the waste product. After all, there are plants and animals which live in pretty bad conditions here on earth.
          No, it wouldn’t be easy, but the advantage would be the seeding would be self-replicating, converting more every year.

          • torchie4269

            Definitely not outside the realm of possibility. It was recently discovered that mealworms can live on styrofoam.

        • Danuis

          for Venus to be terraformed, we would need a lot of infrastructure in the belts, but I also believe it can be done and thus we might as well try – peace does not bar challenge.

        • Neo Anderson

          I remember reading that!! Dang! Can’t remember the name of it though.. Something by Ben Bova maybe?

          • Poppa San

            Colony circling Mercury on rails is brought up in the first chapter of 2312 by Kim Stanley Ribinson. I’m about 10% through it now.

        • Emkay

          ‘The Mercurient Express’..

    • Emkay

      uh, the Average temperature on Venus is 864* fahrenheit.. lead would be liquid. and you would be torchied’

      • torchie4269

        That’s what the terraforming fixes, among other things.

        • Emkay

          terraforming typically involves land masses and possible changes to plant/animal/water issues… please tell us how terraforming will fix the 864 degree average temperature, since the planet is so much closer to the sun, terraforming does not involve moving the planet’s orbit. and how would you terraform the atmosphere? which is pure clouds of sulphuric acid…Venus would not be a pleasant place for people to live in the solar system. The planet’s active volcanoes and runaway greenhouse effect would make it a difficult place to survive. Between its desiccated, red-orange landscape and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead, Venus is our solar system’s analog to hell.

          • torchie4269

            No idea why you decided insulting me was somehow necessary or useful in advancing what has been an interesting discussion up to this point, nor why you think terraforming somehow excludes modifying the atmosphere. If that were true, terraforming Mars, or any other other place in the solar system for that matter, would also be impossible, since they don’t have a breathable atmospheres.

          • Akai Koru

            Emkay is the same one that posted the racist nonsense above.

          • SayWhat?

            A simplistic answer: massively reducing greenhouse gases reduces temperature. Venus’ temperature is not solely the product of it’s distance to the sun. The more difficult problem is the need to remove a lot of the atmosphere so as to lower the atmospheric pressure. But that too is not impossible.

          • Erik Bosma

            Aw c’mon.. I was enjoying these “scientists” having their intelligent conversations cuz they seen it in a SciFi comic book. Hahaha… leave ’em alone for awhile. As if putting a city on a track to put it in sync with the rotational period of Venus would really work. As if the atmosphere of Venus would suddenly cool to exactly room temp and we could all go out and frolic and play in the molten lead. hahaha…

    • BOBinBrooklyn

      On April 25, 2015, the German Auto maker Audi and a company called Sunfire, announced that they had successfully recycled the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the air. Audi used Solar Power to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen. We have known how to do that for some time.

      But then Audi extracted the CO2 from the air and split it into Carbon and Oxygen. by then combining the Hydrogen from the water and the Carbon from the CO2, Audi created a Hydrocarbon it calls “Blue Diesel”. Of course, when the Blue Diesel is burned the Carbon goes back into the air, but at least it offers the promise of stabilizing the CO2 level. (Audi said it has the VC money to scale this up!)

      Relating this to Venus:
      Since we can extract CO2 from Earth’s air, we should be able to do the same on Venus, whose atmosphere is 96% CO2. We could then split the CO2 into Carbon and Oxygen. We could either sequester the Carbon, or make something like Carbon Nanotubes out of it. We could put the Oxygen back in the Venusian air and thus make it possible one day, for Venus to be like the Earth.

      “And I saw a New heaven and a New Earth” —Revelation 21:1

  • http://cosmic.lifeform.org/ Thomas Lee Elifritz

    Emeritus nutjob running a lobbying organization.

    Here is my response to his claim human space colonization beyond Mars is impossible, a claim that is ludicrous even without commenting.

    lifeform dot net slash tsiolkovsky slash Ceres_Mission dot pdf

  • Brandon Kelton

    I disagree. It may be a long long long time off, but eventually the Sun will die and/or become difficult to live by. I would imagine we’d want to relocate either to the outer planets or to another system entirely… who knows though… maybe we’ll have some awesome technology then that will save our planet from the expansion and implosion of our Sun and we’ll live here indefinitely. I imagine a giant spacecraft that we’ve built from mining asteroids… so big an entire ecosystem could thrive in it, moving steadily faster and faster through the interstellar medium, exploring the universe as it goes.

    • Mike Richardson

      Exactly. Thousands of years from now, there may be more humans living in large self-contained colonies than on the surface of this planet. And if there are suitable planets for colonization, in the more distant future, there will be people willing to take the risk of trying to settle them. There’s no shortage of people wanting to try colonizing Mars, and it would be far more challenging than the surface of an earthlike world. The only things limiting such endeavors at the present are the knowledge to maintain a self-contained ecology for long durations, and an adequate propulsion system for interstellar journeys.

    • Small_Businessman

      The sun expanding is a couple of billion years off, and I don’t think I’ll live that long – so I’m not going to worry about it :)
      But you bring up a very valid point. Don’t sell human ingenuity short. Right now we don’t have the technology to even reach Mars. But 125 years ago, we didn’t have the technology to fly at all. Who’s to say 125 years from now we won’t have fusion-powered rockets which gather fuel via a magnetic field, similar to how a ramjet works?
      And don’t forget – we don’t know all about the universe. Physicists are learning more every day. Even now there are theories that we could produce a “warp bubble” ala Star Trek, which could effectively allow faster than light travel.
      Science Fiction? Today, yes. But so were airplanes 125 years ago.

    • BOBinBrooklyn

      I am not a Scientist, but I’m sorry, Brandon, about one Billion years from now, when the Sun expands, there would be no way to continue to live on the Earth. But NASA is doing some cutting edge research on creating a Warp Drive that would get us to Alpha Centuri in two weeks!

      Since Alpha Centuri is 4.3 Light-Years (or 4.3 x 52 or 223.6 “Light-Weeks”) from Earth, that owul imply a speed of 223.6/2 about 112 times the Speed of Light!

      • Erik Bosma

        You’re right… you are NOT a scientist.

      • Chris D

        When you reach relativistic velocities, you get time dilation.

        For instance, a photon moving at the speed of light experiences zero change in time.

        Or a space shuttle orbiting Earth at a high rate of speed: time will pass more slowly on the shuttle than on Earth. This is the ENTIRE basis of planet of the apes…and was basically common knowledge back then. No need to be a scientist.

      • delphinus100

        To be fair, were it possible to do so in space, you could *walk* to Alpha Centauri before the Sun goes red giant.

        If any kind of interstellar travel can be done, we’ll have done it long before that matters. (and there are comfortable distances, even from a red giant. By then, if it still matters to us at all, moving Earth itself may be an option.)

  • nybsop

    He’s just another baby-boomer trying to stay relevant as the paradigm shifts. In the end, the pessimists end up on the wrong side of history.

  • Grant

    Look back on earlier predictions. They all never even come close. We cannot even make a close prediction for the next 50 years, let alone 5000. On one hand we could discover new physics, without which we will not get far past Mars;without warp drive, subspace, wormholes other stuff presently of sci-fi.
    Interstellar travel may well be impossible, in which case we will continue to foul our nest, the only one we will ever have, and civilization will continue to decline. We may be living at the best time of humanity right now. It could go either way, but prediction for the far future is just wild speculation. I wish I could be around then to find out.

  • Geoffrey Bryce Frasz

    There are some assumptions about human nature that LF needs to question in his thinking. First is that “virtual” exploration of solar system will be as good or as desired as actual exploration. This assumption (wide spread as it is) was challenged decades ago by Robert Nozick with his thought experiment of the Experience Machine. Nozick argued that we would not want to use the machine to have “virtual” experiences.

  • bullardrr

    Envisioning the migration (not travel) of our species in space presupposes our species accomplishing something that once achieved, will make the step to space migration akin to the conditions that enabled the Egyptians to build the pyramids at Giza. A unified, productive, peaceful and ecologically sound planet of humans whose multitude of wants and needs on a personal and societal level have been met should be able to build a small self-sustaining miniature Earth II in orbit around Home. Then 20 generations of Terrareans will gradually wean themselves from Home and all energy sources upon which Home depends, including the Sun, proving that their Earth II is, indeed, fitting of its namesake for their survival.

    Then they and Earth II will depart, eventually fading into a vast collection of audio-video memories for those at Home, with the most important of all being “the last contact” received many generations after sent from Earth II and likely after the dispatch of Earth III, IV, etc.

    Yes, we can, but it must be a result of our collective intellect, not in spite of our collective stupidity.

    • Emkay

      for sure! that ‘pyramid in the sky would happen if we could just get blacks and whites to stop calling each other names!

      but here’s a thought.. when the black man can forget that he is black, so will the rest of humanity….

      • BOBinBrooklyn

        Modern DNA Science shows that we all came from Africa. So at one point, ALL Home Sapiens Sapiens were BLACK. Maybe if the White man can REMEMBER that, it would change Humanity. (See: “The Journey of Man”, on PBS)

        DNA Analysis indicates that it took some 3,000 years (a relatively short time) for our Black Skin to change to White (actually “Pink”) Skin once we had left Africa for colder climates and no longer needed as much Melanin in our skin.

        BTW, I am writing this while I am being WHITE.

      • delphinus100

        I think you may have that last paragraph backwards…

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    We’re all gonna die! Some sooner than others. The human race is in a race to destroy itself through a number of ways. Therefore I predict there will be no human race anywhere in the cosmos within 200 years. We’re all gonna be dead before the human race ever has a chance to settle on any other planet!

    • Prentice

      WELL SAID!

    • Emkay

      yep…the next big one will be ‘the world -vs- Muslims’
      got ammo?

      • Don’t Even Try It!

        Yep! and lots of tools that go bang, too!

    • SayWhat?

      IMO, If you’re giving us another 200 years, then we will not perish. In the last 100 years we went from horse drawn buggies to the F-22 Raptor. As technology continues to advance exponentially, so too does the human race’s chances for survival.

      Now, if you would have said within the next 50 years – I may have agreed with you. But even so, we are but one generation away from having swarms of drones, invisibility cloaks, etc., to fight our wars, and colonizing mars.

      • Don’t Even Try It!

        I said 200 years because nobody alive today would be able to dispute my prediction. However, if we survive another 50 years, it would surprise me, I will be long gone by then, so maybe my grand or great grand children can deal with our future in a positive fashion. I hope we do get to colonize another planet before we totally wreck this one. Chears!

  • Emkay

    first powered airplane flight was 1903. first landing on the moon was 66 years later. he may want to rethink his predictions.. and always remember ‘ opinions and a$$holes! everybody has one!

    • megis ynynef

      “first landing on the moon was 66 years later” yes, and it looks like another 66 years or so to the second one. Who predicted that?
      It’s all very well making these optimistic predictions, but on current trends it’s more realistic to predict severe setbacks to our
      civilisation here on Earth rather than all this “onward and upward stuff” about Mars and such.

  • Joel Buckner

    The book Colonizing The Galaxy In Eight Easy Steps by Marcus Savage offers a different view of our future capabilities.

  • lump1

    You can make human colonies in faraway places without humans having to travel there. In 200 years, I expect that we will be able to reproduce entire ecosystems from data alone. That data “recipe” could be packed into a rather small package and transported slowly to many distant solar systems to germinate into diverse islands of life and civilization. Once this becomes possible, I really doubt that nobody is going to get around to doing it. We will need an autonomous asteroid miner, ore processor, and a primitive 3D printer to produce other, increasingly more precise and specialized machines. To do their job, all they will need is the right software, lots of ordinary rocks, and the energy of a nearby star. The system will be able to build anything that we are able to build, including viable cells with human DNA, and the technology to gestate them. With careful planning, I suspect that the starter kit will fit inside the volume of a shipping container. Since the data/software will be stored in a very stable medium, these seeds will work even if their trips to the stars are slow. But if we spam the galaxy with these little seeds, the future of humanity will eventually be pretty grand.

    • Phil LaRussa

      Except that’s not ‘Humanity’ as we know it. On a completely different world, even genetically-identical-to-us humans would develop and evolve differently over time, possibly to the point of becoming almost unrecognizable as human beings as we know them. Plus they would never know where they came from. There would be absolutely no record of previous human civilization(s), so for all they knew they were ‘created’ by some ‘God(s)’ or they may assume they simply evolved as they were on their planet. Additionally, that brings up two inevitable questions. One: Who are we to play God? Are we really so self-centered and arrogant, that we truly believe we have the ‘right’ to spam the galaxy, the Universe, with our version of life, to the exclusion of ALL possible others? And how would that be any different than people pushing their religion on you by force, like ISIS/ISIL/Daesh? And Two: Where did we TRULY come from? Are we just a result of a ‘shipping container’ life seed, or something like the intro to the movie Prometheus? Or did we evolve on this planet as WE assume we did? Your entire proposal just opens up a lot of existential cans of worms.

      • lump1

        There are many problems with this reply.

        First of all, it’s stupid to live on a planet, because we will never find another one like Earth, one with the perfect atmosphere, day length, radiation levels, gravity, light color, etc. In other solar systems, humans (and plants and animals) will live in rotating habitats which are fine-tuned to our evolutionary preferences. If assembled by AI, there is no reason for the stations to have less habitable area than a planet, and they can be made of whatever local materials are available (metals, carbon, basalt fiber).

        Second, of course they would bring copious info about where they came from. We are working on high density durable storage media, and it’s pretty realistic that in the near future, we can store all of humanity’s movies, art, books, programs and websites in something no larger than a stick of butter. Of course AI people have a lot of work to do before they come up with software that can raise and educate well-adjusted kids, but this is not even a century away. These kids will probably be more steeped in Shakespeare and Aristotle than we ever were.

        Third, your worry about values shifting puzzles me. I worry about the opposite – that we love ourselves in our present state a little too much, and we will program the AI to bring up little far-away clones of what *we* aspire to be. By the time this all goes down, it will be Earth itself that becomes unrecognizable to our present selves. Maybe it will improve and maybe not, but I would think someone as conservative as you would take solace in the idea somewhere very far away, familiar-looking kids will be kicking a soccer ball on a grassy lawn. This point deserves a footnote, because once an extra-solar colony takes root, nothing prevents them from communicating with Earth, if Earth still has someone there to do their part. That communication could provide important software updates for everything, and a thousand year back catalog of culture, science and entertainment, but may also pose dangers. I expect conservatives to argue against communication, because if Earth contracted some sort of destructive meme-virus, we don’t want spreading to the colonies.

  • Captain Slog

    Blacks, Whites, Reds, Yellows, Blues, Greens, Oranges, Browns, Golds, Greys, Pinks. Gigantic.
    Giants, Very Tall, Tall, Average, Short, Very Short, Dwarfs, Midgets, Little People, Very Little People, Tiny, People.
    People are People no matter WHAT Planet of Star System you come from. Some are Good, Some are Bad. Others absolutely EVIL. We’re just plain EMBARRASSING!
    I mean, WHO would be STUPID enough to go to Mars on a One Way Trip?
    WHO still clings to PRIMITIVE ritualistic behaviours called religion? In fact many are actually ENSLAVED to it, and yet claim to be of high intelligence?
    Who Spends THOUSANDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS Searching for Intelligent Life in the Universe, yet apparently already HAVE Aliens ENSLAVED at Area 51 working for them, to Reverse Engineer ET Technology for MILITARY USE?
    WHO is in charge of Planet Terra?
    AMERICA!. . . . Apparently.

  • Chris D

    Well, if we can’t keep ourselves alive forever…but we can integrate our brains with electronics–totally plausible now that we have wet ports and memristor chips. (need a 2 way wet port before you can start training a comp to be the seat of consciousness)…

    Then why not load ourselves into a ship as machines when we grow old, and travel to a distant system as machines…then, in constant contact with earth technology, we rebuild ourselves on the distant planet (either organic versions or machine versions).

    It is literally just two type conversions: brain to machine, machine to brain. Everything else is just details.

    This guy is just a tragic realist.

    Also, with quantum entanglement now a reality (rather than a fiction), and a quantum internet on the horizon (say, 50 years), I don’t see why you couldn’t maintain a realtime connection with Earth on the ship–you’d just have to send an increasing amount of entangled qbits every second (obviously scalability becomes an issue…and storage of old entangled states…but hey, maybe it is possible in the future.

    Regardless, brain to machine will be a reality sooner than later…and that means interstellar travel will be as simple as sending a probe with a computer.

    Then you just need some way to place the brain inside a rebuilt body, and you’ve got interstellar colonization. Easy as pie.

  • Chris D

    Also, regarding a space station:

    Sophisticated “feats of engineering” requiring “materials from Earth”…

    Nonsense: that is old school sci fi.

    All you need for a space station is a high iron content asteroid/meteor (whatever: rock in space!). First, you spin the rock with rockets attached to it on opposite sides (preferably up to a rate that will create a 1g environment on the interior surface you are going to make in a second…so you’ll have to do some math.

    Next, you melt it down with solar energy: get a f-ton of mirrors and shine the light on the rock until the iron and heavy elements all melt.

    The spin will force all the metal out to the surface, so you’ll have a molten metal balloon with all the volatiles on the inside (like an egg!).

    What happens next? Why, you crack the egg: poke a hole in the side of the asteroid before it cools, and let all the volatiles out.

    Now, you have a gigantic, 1-g, “sophisticated feat of engineering” =)

    All you have to do now is work out the orbital transfers you need to deflect this rock into an Earth orbit.

    Next: how do you feed and supply the thing?

    Why, you build a space gun…I would use the rocky mountains. You build a 50 mile long rail gun at a slight incline. Now, you can literally “shoot” all the things you need for space survival into space…which is pretty much top soil and oxygen tanks.

    What about energy?

    Why, you just pipe light from outside the asteroid onto a mirror in the center of the “space station”. It shines hot, bright happy “energy” onto the denizens of the space station.

    Boom, done.

  • Chris D

    Meh. This is defeatist, practical nonsense. Practical, and defeatist, but not realistic. We will do a whole helluva lot more in space in the near future for one very specific, very realistic, and very undeniable reason: War.

    Realistically, we don’t do anything–not even mars–until there is money in space.

    There won’t be money in space until there is real-estate in space.

    There won’t be real-estate in space until there is industry in space…

    And there won’t be industry in space until there is war in space.

    This is how it has worked throughout human history: we don’t beat the deserts until we have to beat Rommel.

    We don’t navigate the oceans until we need to raid to survive. Or take out the invading Persians…destroy the Spanish Armada, etc.

    Once armed engagement in space becomes a serious consideration–and that will happen when satellites become so significant and well defended that missiles from Earth won’t take them out–there will be a military presence in space.

    Once that happens, it will be cost effective to use an asteroid as raw material for the manufacture of rocket fuel (whoops, there is already a plan to grab an asteroid and put it in orbit around earth) instead of getting everything from Earth. That way, military drones can stay in space.

    Next, you have a few people stationed at the asteroid. That happens for us…China does it…Then Russia and the EU. Iran, Pakistan and India will probably want in–but they won’t get in (who knows what they do about that).

    Now you have a fuel generating industry in space. Next comes maintenance, manned craft, spinning four person habitats that can be lifted using 1 rocket…

    Then armed satellites, drone carriers. At this point, someone is going to do something stupid. Who knows how much more industry we get in space as a result?

    Next, you’ll need technicians…you’ll be assembling satellites in space…

    And through it all? No bloody trip to mars. It will be hilarious. We’ll be setting up anti-ballistic missile batteries in space…so we will have a surface to air defense system, and a space to surface defense system.

    Soon, that will become tapped out. Everyone will carve out their territory above earth. We will need to get the upper hand. Best way to get the upper hand?

    Manufacturing facilities on the Moon. Now you’ve got fusion power (that is on the horizon). The moon has lots of He3. If we build a reactor on the moon, we’ve got all the energy we need for a permanent base.

    Now, we are so advanced in keeping humans alive, and we have real, honest to god, general AI as smart as we are. Technological progress hits hyperdrive: not so much that we have new techniques…but the arbitrary level of optimized sophistication we can deliver means one engineer can do the work of a 100, and we can spin up ships so safe and effective people can travel to mars and back without effect…but we still don’t go there…because who cares?

    We start grabbing bigger and bigger asteroids…using them to build bases by filling them with volatiles and heating them up.

    We get really good at it…

    Blah blah blah (more habitats, more industry…economy, civilians, etc.)

    Someone has the bright idea of building the biggest habitat ever…but they’ll have to orbit it around mars, because they cant get it all the way to Earth.

    Now, you’ve got this death star orbiting mars…and you set up a tiny colony on mars to supply the space station…and that is it. That is our mars base. Terra-forming of Mars will never happen…because oxygen molecules travel at escape velocity in Mars’ gravity well at temperatures similar to Earth’s.

    As far as interstellar travel…when we are ready, we will do interstellar travel and colonization…do we convert our brains to computers and build ourselves into a robot version to survive the trip…or do we send a ship loaded with AIs and embryos? Who knows. Who cares.

    But, at that level of technology and production, all you would need would be 1 (that’s right 1) single, motivated person who wanted to see people colonize the universe. He would have the individual industrial capacity to build a ship like that, and send it on it’s way.

    Whether or not we reach a different “conception” of life at that point or not, the chances that not one out of the trillion people walking around doesn’t want to see humanity spread is idiotic…and if he wanted to see them spread, he would have the means to do so.

    But this is, say, <500 years in the future–nowhere near this unbelievably pessimistic timeline.

    • Erik Bosma

      It’s like supplying all the chimps in the world with fully loaded AK47’s and then send them on a peace mission. Hahahahaha…

  • CB1138

    The solar gravity lens idea is very intriguing. However, Mr. Friedman’s problem is that he doesn’t remember or doesn’t know that we know that 95% of the universe is composed of dark energy and dark matter, and we don’t know what that it is! And that’s what we know we don’t know. From Newton to Maxwell’s Equations was 120 years. Then Einstein and Quantum physics was in place 80 years after that. Another scientific revolution will be upon us in due course, and applying that could lead to new space travel capabilities.

  • Chetan Suri

    *&

    • megis ynynef

      where is this supposed to be?

    • Erik Bosma

      Oh cool. Let’s spend trillions to live on a desert moon circling some obviously useless planet. In Sci Fi the ‘Fi” stands for Fiction.

  • Slasher Speed

    This is just awesome!

  • The History Man

    Evolutionary history is entirely about organisms moving and adapting to as wide a range of habitats as possible. The key word is possible, and the vacuum of space or planets lacking in atmosphere are not possible, except with enormous technological inputs which cannot be easily achieved from a vast distance.

    We have yet to establish a totally self contained human environment on earth, nor have we managed to cultivate our deserts or create self sufficient communities in the cold regions of the world, most of which are relatively ‘balmy’ compared to the surface of Mars.

    Moreover, our human anatomy and metabolism is fragile and does not perform well in weightlessness, isolation and enforced inactivity. Those astronauts arriving at Mars would be physically compromised, sick and unlikely to survive the rigours of a return trip.

    It is a pipe dream to believe these things can be achieved when we cannot even successfully manage a deteriorating environment on Earth where near perfect conditions exist.

    In the same way that the future of robotics lies not with machines that look like humans, but with machines that fulfil particular functions, the future of space travel lies with self sustaining, self repairing electronics and machinery capable of surviving voyages of centuries or more in interstellar space.

  • Paul Gouin

    “The space colonies you imagine are vast engineering projects much bigger than the enterprise of adapting ourselves to the surface of Mars. They would have to be built with material brought from Earth at much pain at much cost.”
    Of course not. The material would be brought from asteroids or from the moon (where a space elevator would be much easier to build due to the lower gravity and the lack of athmosphere)
    The big advantage of space colonies is that they can be much closer to Earth.

  • Kip Keino

    Robotic-Human hybrids will be better able to handle long space flights and exploration. Google ‘Robon Take-Over’ for an articulate e-book on the topic.

  • josephPa

    Robotic exploration will take a huge hit with a competing manned Mars mission. I would rather explore oceans on the moons of Jupiter than do another version of the moon landings.

  • James Webb

    I think Louis Friedman is just interested in selling books and living off his relationship with Sagan. If the human race survives for the next 500 years we will colonize far beyond this solar system.

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