The Bear’s Lair: The need for space travel is ever-growing

This planet is becoming dangerous and unpleasant. The Covid-19 pandemic appears very likely to have been the result of biological warfare experimentation (albeit possibly released by accident.) Nuclear proliferation is becoming increasingly a threat, as too many nuclear powers come to have lunatic allies. While global warming is only a minor threat at most, the policies to combat it proposed by ever more overweening governments are existentially threatening, as are governments’ intrusions on free speech through the tech giants. Humanity needs a new home where it can hide from this world’s multifarious perils – and fast!

In 1750, the planet was plenty big enough for everybody. Human population was below 1 billion, plagues were natural, not man-made and weaponry was nowhere near powerful enough to kill more than a few thousand people in a war. Most important, the speed of communication was so slow that it took months to travel from one part of the world to another, and there was no way for messages to arrive faster. In such an environment, even the most aggressive polities could inflict only limited damage on each other (other than accidentally, through transmitting disease) and there was no danger whatever of extinction of humanity as a whole.

That has now changed. Communications are global and instantaneous, biologists have the power to design new and terrible diseases, several different types of weapons are available that could wipe out human civilization, governments are very nearly all-powerful, yet there appears no check on the insanities that can be elected or appointed into government. In such an environment, the elimination of humanity is unlikely but still altogether too possible; in another few decades it may move from the unthinkable to the probable.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Space Program was an expensive toy. It allowed President John F. Kennedy to brag about beating Russia to the Moon, and President Richard Nixon to brag about having done so. Yet it led to nothing in terms of human settlement, and for humanity as a whole over the next half century it brought nothing beyond large costs and a few non-stick frying pans. The Space Program ground to an effective halt around 1973, although as with all government bureaucracies, money in vast quantities continued to be spent on it.

Now we need to move faster. Allowing the government to dominate the process, as in the 1960s, would prove fatal; every President from time to time announces vast goals for NASA, such as putting men on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars in the 2030s, a bipartisan goal announced in 2010 that shows no sign of being achieved. The private sector consists of a few elderly billionaires competing to provide sub-orbital joy rides at exorbitant cost.

This needs to change, so that a coordinated private sector attack on space exploration can take place. The state should stay out of the effort, beyond providing a few tax incentives. In an ideal world, it would abolish the tax deduction for charitable donations and institute one for space exploration activities, whether organizing expeditions into space or designing new engines and other hardware. This is entirely justifiable; charitable deductions mostly go to dubious left-wing activities or simple tax fiddles, whereas space exploration can be Mankind’s salvation. $60 billion a year from the taxman, the value of the charitable tax deduction, should be enough to spur some genuine innovation, and the fisc would gain on balance, since there would be positive spin-off from space exploration, whereas many of the charitable activities cause further economic destruction and loss of tax revenue. As a further counterbalance, NASA should be abolished; otherwise it will impede innovation by providing taxpayer-subsidized competition to it.

The next question is what to do with the money and entrepreneurial effort so generated. The Moon is a waste of time; Mankind cannot survive on the Moon without outside support, because of the radiation and the lack of air and water. Asteroid mining is an interesting exercise if it can be made to pay and might well provide useful resources and bases for further space efforts but does not itself provide a base for Mankind to survive an Earth wipeout.

Within the solar system, Elon Musk’s expedition to Mars thus appears the best bet. Since almost everything Musk does is motivated by tax breaks of one kind or another, his Mars efforts should be redoubled by the tax deduction for space exploration, and the consequent diversion of tax-deducted funding from charities into space. Mankind can survive on Mars; there is both air and water, although there are a number of disadvantages from attempting to do so – Martian mankind would not be able to return to Earth after a few years because its muscle density would be insufficient to support its skeleton in Earth’s gravity.

Still, a station on Mars provides at least an emergency home for Mankind if something goes wrong on Earth, provided enough people and equipment have been installed on Mars before communication is cut off. With Mars’s shallower gravity well and closeness to the asteroid belt, asteroid mining from Mars should be considerably easier than from Earth, which is one advantage to it.

The real solution to Mankind’s existential dilemma, however, can only come through interstellar exploration. There are no other possible habitats for Mankind in the solar system – even if it were possible to organize a settlement in Venus’s clouds its climate would be much too much like that of Washington DC in August. However, recent advances in astronomical observation have shown there to be a number of reasonably Earth-like planets within say 200 light years. It can be hoped albeit not guaranteed that within the next couple of decades we will have determined which of these have a habitable atmosphere and ruled out any that are sending the radio signals indicative of an existing advanced civilization.

With that knowledge, we will perhaps by 2075 have identified say 5-6 Earth-like planets within 200 light years that appear to offer the potential for human habitation. We will then need to equip and send expeditions of colonizers to each of them, who are prepared not only to risk their lives in colonizing a new planet, but to take the chance that it is full of hostile species, or otherwise toxic to human life in a way undetectable from Earth, many light-years away. With 5-6 expeditions setting out, the chances are (fingers crossed!) that one or more will succeed, thus giving humanity a second secure base of operations.

To achieve this, we must develop an interstellar drive that can propel a spacecraft containing several hundred people over an interstellar distance at some significant fraction of the speed of light, accelerating it at roughly one g-force for the first half of its trip and decelerating it similarly for the second half. Since solar power will not be available in the interstellar void, that drive will almost certainly have to use nuclear fusion – nothing else can generate sufficient power for the many years needed with a low enough weight. Fortunately, we appear closer than in half a century to achieving self-sustaining fusion power; if over coming decades that power can be applied to rocketry, with the rocket itself perhaps assembled in low Earth-orbit to escape Earth’s gravity well, the goal can be achieved.

To reach the planet of a star even 50 light-years away will probably take at least 200 years, and that is assuming speeds of 50% of the speed of light can be achieved. For the travelers, the elapsed time will appear less, but not much less unless speeds close to that of light can be achieved. Hence, they will have to be frozen and thawed out, itself a process that we cannot yet perform reliably, adding to the dangers that the voyagers will face. However, if that can be achieved, they will arrive at their destination with little sense of elapsed time, with only a skeleton crew having to take charge of the spaceship for the necessary hundreds of years, passing the task down through the generations, or being sustained by anti-aging drugs if we have them by then.

Since the 5-6 destination planets will be at different distances from the Earth, the spaceships will arrive at their destinations at different times, decades or even centuries apart. In any case they will be able to communicate with each other only with a time-lapse of several years, depending on their distance from each other. Furthermore, it is quite likely that, by the time a group of colonizers successfully establishes itself on a new planet, the worst will have happened on Earth, so that the new colony will be truly alone. Nevertheless, Mankind will have established a new base, and if that new base is indeed its only habitation once it has been established, its further extinction should be many centuries off, simply because the population of the new planet will be so small and thus less likely to destroy itself.

This is science fiction, of course it is. But the chances of mutual annihilation on Earth are becoming sufficiently high that we should begin to take steps to bring it to reality.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)