“Putting Your Mind” to Space Industrialization
By Taylor Marvin
I’m currently reading my way through the works of Welsh science fiction author Alastair Reynolds. A standout is Pushing Ice, which chronicles a human mining crew in the outer solar system encounter an alien artifact. The novel begins in 2057, a date that seems a hopelessly optimistic time frame for routine exploration of the outer solar system. Pushing Ice was published in 2005 — Reynolds is only leaving half a century for the development of fusion drives, life support systems much more complicated than today’s, and the infrastructure to manufacture large spacecraft, presumably in orbit.
Reynolds has clarified that Pushing Ice’s near future setting is less of a forecast than a narrative tool to make the characters and setting more relatable to modern day readers (for comparison, the bulk of Reynold’s Revelation Space series is set in the 2600-2700s), and acknowledges critiques that question the plausibility of his timeline as perfectly understandable. However, Reynold’s argues rapid technological advances aren’t unprecedented, noting that the moon landing followed simple wooden aircraft by only half a century:
“Which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. Even more so when you appreciate that many of the key technologies of the Apollo program were essentially mature by the start of the 1960s. The Saturn F1 main engines were part of a program that originated in 1955, a full 14 years before the Moon landings – and a mere 36 after Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy.
So you can do quite a lot in 50 years, if you put your mind to it.”
This is a valid point — technological progress can occur extremely rapidly, and often in unpredictable ways. Science fiction authors, whose plots often require them to predict or at least image the future, are often acutely aware of their predecessors’ often hilarious mistaken predictions. In retrospect these are often obvious; the routine space travel of 2001: A Space Odyssey is hilariously — or depressingly — out of place today, merely 4o years after its 1968 premiere and a decade beyond its setting. The point here isn’t that these predictions were foolish but that it’s very difficult to forecast the direction that technological advancements will go; while science fiction authors of the mid-20th century were hugely optimistic about manned spaceflight, authors writing as recently as the 1980’s completely missed the huge advancements in information technology that completely revolutionized the last two decades. This oversight is understandable. All prediction involves some form of extrapolation, and it’s easy to superficially extrapolate our own contemporary assumptions to uncredible ends. Authors writing in the 1960s had experienced two decades of wild advances in human spaceflight that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years before, and saw no reason why these advancements would suddenly come to a grinding halt at the moon. Similarly, while it was possible to predict internet and massive data aggregation technologies, few foresaw how completely they have altered the modern world.
The problem with Reynold’s example is that technological progress doesn’t follow a linear growth pattern. It isn’t a question of saying that since humanity advanced from simple aircraft to the Apollo program in half a century that routine expeditions to the outer solar system will be possible in another fifty years. First, the technological requirements of an outer solar system-capable spacecraft aren’t a linear extrapolation of the advance from a Vickers Vimy to the Saturn V; it’s much more of an exponential jump. Reynolds is right to point out that the main technological hurdles of the Apollo mission were solved in 1955, and it’s arguable that humans possessed the necessary theoretical information to produce a moon rocket in the late 1940s. However, there’s a huge leap between theoretically simple and relatively easily machined F1 engines and a pulsed fusion drive. Arguably more complex is the life support systems, material sciences, and orbital manufacturing infrastructure required to construct large spacecraft. While a Saturn V was at its core a derivative of the early 1940s-era V2 ballistic missile, these technological requirements are fay beyond anything humans have ever pursued.
More importantly, viewing space capability advancements as a purely technological problem is a mistake. There’s a common tendency to look at capability gains in an organization through hardware, rather than the more important institutional software. Contemporary discussions of the Chinese military often suffer from this fallacy — it’s easy to talk about new ships and planes, and harder to discuss the institutional culture, communication systems, and officer corp that are much more important to the quality of a military force than their equipment.
The greatest achievement of the Apollo program wasn’t its the sum of its technological parts, but creating the organizational capability to bind hundreds of discrete technologies into one of the most complex engineering projects humans have ever attempted. In the nearly half century since the end of the Apollo program humans have become much better at managing large scale technological projects. However, outer solar system-capability needs to be understood as part of a larger infrastructural framework, one that is a much greater organizational challenge than building a fusion spacecraft. Building a large inter-planetary ship requires advanced orbital construction techniques, and intensive mining of the solar system probably requires an Earth space elevator to be profitable. Even with intense private competition there isn’t reason to suspect that the costs of reaching orbit will ever become economical as long as they rely on chemical rockets, and the technological barriers to cheap LEO will likely remain in to the foreseeable future.
It’s perfectly fine that Reynold’s sets Pushing Ice in the near future — after all it is fiction, and good science fiction’s assumptions should serve the story, not the other way around. However, it’s a mistake to view human space exploration outside of its political and economic determinants. Reynolds remarks that technology can advance quickly, “if you put your mind to it.” But the real issue is whether there’s sufficient motivation for humanity to put its mind to space technology. After all, the opportunity costs of space development are enormous, and the political barriers to large-scale government space development formidable. This isn’t a question of simple will.
The Apollo program was an enormously expensive effort: costing $98 billion over 14 years at its height consuming 2.2% of the federal budget. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.
Unfortunately, once you consider space development within an political economy framework incentives for high-opportunity cost space development tend to disappear. As I’ve argued before, stabilizing world demographics makes the prospect of significant human off-world settlements unlikely. Current UN medium fertility variant-projections forecast a human population that stabilizes at roughly 10 billion mid-century. Of course, there’s uncertainty in any forecast — notably, the 2004 UN population forecast predicted a 2100 world population of 9.1 billion, a figures that less than a decade later has been revised upwards by a billion, an 11% revision. But it’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario where a significant number of humans ever live off planet. Even assuming huge technological advances dramatically reduce the cost of space transport and allow for robust off-world industrial infrastructure, costs of living away from Earth will always be unimaginably high. On Earth atmosphere and surface pressure are free; anywhere else they aren’t. If the world population peaks this century there likely won’t be any pressing demographic reason humans have to live off planet, and it is difficult to imagine any other incentive to leave that satisfies any plausible cost/benefit criteria.
Like many science fiction futures, Pushing Ice avoids this problem by imagining industrial, rather than settlement, human activity in space. This is more plausible, but it is still difficult to imagine an economic environment that would justify intensive industrial activity off world. Even if most of the R&D funding for an outer solar system commercial mining fleet comes from private industry, huge government expenditures would be necessary to lay the infrastructural groundwork. It is possible that competition for increasingly scarce and economically vital rare earth elements could motivate increased space expenditures in the near future. But extracting minerals from asteroids will always be enormously expensive, especially in the absence of economies of scale. Large-scale mining that floods the market and forces down prices would be equally unprofitable. Both are barriers to private investment in space resource extraction, recent news aside.
I’m not arguing that a human future in space is improbable. But narrative considerations aside, Pushing Ice’s regular flights to the outer solar system are not probable this century, for reasons more economic than technological. Ignoring this reality isn’t a fault — after all, science fiction more concerned with government budgets and resource economics would be dry reading compared to encounters with aliens. But it is important for futurists to remember that human institutions, not technology, are the real barrier to space industrialization.