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Understanding the Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Image via Wikimedia.

Image via Wikimedia.

In late January Iran made the startling announcement it had successfully launched a monkey into space. Claiming to have sent the monkey on a twenty minute suborbital flight, the launch was showcased as a demonstration of the Iranian regime’s technical ability. But international observers quickly noticed that the monkey recorded entering the capsule didn’t resemble the one showcased after the flight, an embarrassing inconsistency the Iranians chalked up to a botched photo release.

Deception aside, this story is a reminder that the drama of space exploration, genuine or faked, remains a powerful tool for building national prestige. At a time of enormous sanctions-imposed economic strain, Iran claims its recent test flight is a prelude to one day sending a human into space. Human spaceflight ambitions aren’t limited to political-outcast Iran. In 2003 China became the third country to send a human into space, and plans to send a taikonaut to the Moon by at least 2020. India has also articulated tentative ambitions for its own crewed space program at some point in the future.

But despite the growing number of nations expressing space ambitions today’s achievements in crewed spaceflight still fall short of the Space Race, the famed Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that saw the world’s first satellite launch, first human in space, and, climactically, the Moon landings. This modern shortfall fits the broader pattern of the post-Space Race era: after the the American Apollo lunar landing program ended in 1972 the practical ambitions of crewed space programs, in contrast to contemporary forecasts, dramatically declined.

Clearly, high-profile achievements in space remain an alluring goal for prestige-minded governments. But any framework explaining why governments chose to invest in civilian space programs must also explain why no human has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972. Did space exploration become less prestigious after the end of the Apollo program, or did the conditions that precipitated the Space Race somehow fundamentally change? How do today’s aspiring space powers like Iran fit into this framework?

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface and into history. Optimistic observers celebrated the Apollo 11 landings as the birth of a new era in human exploration. Apollo would be followed by further, far more ambitions crewed exploratory programs – Moon bases, Mars landings, and crewed flybys of Venus filled the dreams of NASA planners. But instead of heralding a new beginning, today the Apollo program is seen as the end of an era. New budgetary realities dawned, and the US and USSR restricted their crewed space programs to Earth orbit. Today, 44 years after Apollo 11, the ambitious dreams of crewed missions beyond the Moon have not materialized.

Perhaps depressingly, this dramatic shortening of ambitions isn’t puzzling, because the Space Race was never really about exploration at all. Instead, the triumphs of Sputnik, Vostok, and Apollo were driven by the cold cost-benefit analysis of hardened Cold Warriors. Crewed space programs are long-term projects that require massive, front-end investments with no guarantee of success – national governments do not invest in them for idealistic reasons. Consequently, governments that elect to pursue crewed space programs perform sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before embarking on them. These costs and benefits move together depending on a program’s goal: more ambitions programs will cost more, but can intuitively be expected to return a greater boost to national prestige and international standing.

This cost-benefit analytical framework is the key determinant of whether governments elect to fund ambitious crewed space exploration. The most obvious benefit of human spaceflight – which captures public attention in a way uncrewed exploration does not – are heightened domestic pride and international prestige; other benefits can include technical advancements and economic stimulus in strategic science and engineering sectors. Both an increased sense of nationalistic pride among domestic audiences and prestige on the world stage is a valuable good for governing regimes. However, the value policymakers assign these prestige-driven benefits is not decided in a vacuum. The practical value of marginal gains and losses of national prestige is driven by politics. Unpopular leaders facing domestic unrest will benefit more than secure ones from increased national pride among their selectorate. Similarly, international prestige is more valuable for states facing a hostile world system than an unthreatening one.

The costs of crewed space programs are obvious, but vary in nonintuitive ways. First, some objectives are more expensive to pursue than others. Secondly, some of the technologies required for crewed space exploration have military applications; particularly, rockets. These “dual-use” technologies allow policymakers to clear civilian space programs’ technological barriers with military development they would fund anyway, reducing the dedicated cost of the program.

If the decision to heavily invest in civilian space programs can be understood as a cost-benefit calculus, the uniquely dramatic achievements of the Sputnik-through-Apollo era must be explainable by a similarly unique confluence of inputs. This appears to be the case. The US-Soviet space race was the unique product of a bipolar, ideologically divided international order and transient period of technological development that allowed civilian space programs to heavily leverage military necessities. The Space Race ended when these costs and benefits diverged. After the Apollo program ended the expected investments required for further ambitious civilian human spaceflight achievements grew, while the extent these prospective achievements’ prestige would contribute to national security fell.

First, the benefit side of the equation. The Cold War divided the world along ideological lines, with the twin Soviet and US-led blocs surrounded by a periphery of nonaligned states. In this bipolar system each opposing bloc sought to favorably shift the balance of power by attracting ideological allies. This made national prestige enormously important. The US and USSR both sought to attract unaligned nations to their respective camps by demonstrating the military and technological superiority of their system, superiority that was seen as evidence of eventual victory.

John Glenn aboard 'Friendship 7', 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

John Glenn aboard ‘Friendship 7’, 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

Spaceflight was a vital arena of this competition for prestige. News of space achievements, President Kennedy argued in a 1961 speech, had a powerful impact “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” Importantly, these demonstrations were understood not only as peaceful achievements, but also as PR-friendly proxies for military prowess. Americans greeted the unexpected launch of Sputnik with something like panic, realizing if the Soviets could put a satellite in orbit, they could do the same with a nuclear warhead.

Second, the cost. Space Race-era programs were enormously expensive; at its height NASA funding consumed over four percent of American federal spending. However, the era’s crewed space programs benefited from a unique synergy between civilian and military technological development. The new technologies required to put the first men in orbit – powerful rockets, dependable guidance systems, and heat shields that allowed a spacecraft to survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere – were the same developed in the quest to construct nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Early nuclear weapons, particularly thermonuclear devices, were heavy objects that required powerful rockets to deliver to their targets. These rockets were easily adapted into civilian launch vehicles: President Eisenhower once explicitly noted that the military rocket engines required to deliver nuclear warheads were also “so necessary in distant space exploration.”

Much like the ideological rivalry between the US and USSR made civilian prestige projects a determinant of the balance of power, the military rivalry between the two superpowers and emerging awareness of the primacy of ICBMs in nuclear war made these technological developments top priorities. As deployed ICBM numbers rose the technologies required to put men into space were materializing, regardless of the value policymakers assigned exploration. It is difficult to overstate the role dual-use military developments played in allowing the early achievements that opened the Space Race.

This dual-use synergy allowed US and Soviet policymakers to leverage technology already in development for their civilian space programs. But importantly, there is no inherent reason why the technological requirements of civilian space programs and the cutting edge of military development must align. Indeed, this dual-use synergy was transient, and began to break down by the late Space Race. Medium-lift liquid fuel rockets similar those powering early ICBMs are the dominant technological hurdle only in comparatively primitive civilian space programs. Once these rockets matured new hurdles less related to military requirements began to appear – for example, the heavy-lift Saturn V rocket and lunar lander vital to the Apollo program had little technological relevance to military armaments.

By the mid-1960s the preconditions that spurred the Space Race had clearly changed. Funding for crewed space exploration evaporated in both the US and USSR. In America, once it became clear that the Apollo program would be a success NASA’s budget as a percentage of federal spending fell precipitously. The final Apollo missions were cancelled, as was the Apollo Applications Program, intended to adapt existing Apollo hardware to ambitious new missions. Likewise, the Moon bases and crewed missions to Mars early space planners and science fiction authors judged just around the corner never materialized.

Why? Space achievements had not grown less prestigious. To be sure, Americans lost interest in the Apollo Moon landings as the novelty wore off, but that does not mean unprecedented achievements would not have remained a powerful tool for building national prestige. Instead, the value policymakers placed on the benefits of national prestige had changed along with the international order.

The Space Race was conceived during some of the hottest years of the Cold War – Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, five years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, the dynamics of the Cold War were changing. The Nixon-era détente between the US and USSR relaxed tensions, making it harder for policymakers to justify expensive prestige projects on balance of power grounds. But of course, détente did not last, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric made the 1980s one of the most dangerous decades of the Cold War.

Soviet 'Buran' spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

Soviet ‘Buran’ spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

But if Cold War tensions were so high, why did another civilian Space Race fail to materialize during the 1980s? Clearly, the prestige motivation had not vanished. President Reagan, eager to regain the American national prestige he perceived as lost in Vietnam and Carter-era malaise, pushed for an aggressive Space Shuttle launch schedule that contributed to the Challenger disaster. But despite heightened Cold War tensions, the political benefits of ambitious space spending were now lower. Spaceflight as a whole were no longer novel, making it arguably less impressive and high-profile. Adversaries’ achievements also became less threatening. Unlike during the opening days of the Space Race, Americans could not spin Soviet space achievements as a threatening aspect of a “missile gap” because by the 1980s ICBMs were a proven, stockpiled weapons technology.

But the cost side of the ledger was what shifted the most. First, the dual-use synergy between civilian and military space technological development largely vanished. Unlike the advances in rocketry of the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1980s the technical requirements of civilian and military space programs had diverged, making broadly dual-use technologies rare. Staged rockets that powered ICBMs were now mature technologies, and later missile development worked towards improved accuracy and increased survivability. Expanding crewed space exploration beyond the Moon would require major progress in novel propulsion technologies, life support, system reliability, and automation. All of these advancements had only tangental military relevance. Instead, the military space programs of the post-Apollo era brought research funding to technological fields unconnected with crewed spaceflight. The Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious ballistic missile defense scheme, focused research on laser and missile interception technology. None of these military projects spurned major advancements in dual-use technologies that could be leveraged for new, ambitious crewed space programs. This remains largely true today.

Secondly, the post-Apollo space establishment suffered from a lack of clear, obvious goals. This was not the case for the classic Space Race: first, put a satellite in orbit; then, a man; finally, the Moon. But after Apollo, the next goal of crewed space exploration was unclear. Mars was an obvious, high-profile choice, but a crewed mission to Mars likely would have been much more difficult than the Apollo program, and national leaders never pushed for one in a serious way. To be sure, NASA had grand preliminary plans for human exploration beyond the Moon, but funding – and likely, technical capabilities – for these ambitions missions were never available. This absence of a obvious, achievable goal hampered prospective Reagan-era and later American Cold War crewed spaceflight programs.

This cost-benefit framework offers an explanation for why the US and USSR invested heavily in crewed space programs during the 1950s and 1960s, but not during last decades of the Cold War. While the international system has changed immeasurably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this same cost-benefit logic drives today’s policymakers’ decisions to invest in crewed space programs.

Again, first the benefit side of the tradeoff. High-profile crewed space achievements remain impressive. While modern China and India may not be ideological states in a bipolar world, they still retain significant prestige-motivations for crewed space programs. This is particularly true for China, which seeks to improve its position in the world order through demonstrations of economic, military, and technological power. Much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to Chinese policymakers the civilian space program – here “civilian” is a description of goals rather than administration, as China’s crewed space program is run by its military – is intended to cement China’s great power status in the minds of international observers. But importantly, China’s prestige-driven impetus for space investments is nowhere near that facing the security-minded Cold War-era US and USSR. This lower value assigned to the benefits of space achievements is reflected in the relatively relaxed priority of China’s crewed space program: China has achieved notable successes in space, but the pace of its efforts is not comparable to the Space Race. Clearly, China – which isn’t facing a potentially existential conflict with an ideological foe – does not judge space gains to national prestige as valuable as the Cold War rivals. This, of course, makes sense. For China, prominent achievements in human spaceflight are a means of bettering its international position, not a top-priority national security issue.

Importantly, all of today’s new or aspiring space powers have only replicated the feats accomplished by the Soviets and Americans a half century ago. This, again, is practical: as today’s comparably peaceful international order lowers the value of national prestige projects, aspiring space powers accordingly set their aspirations lower. The comparatively modest scope of these practical ambitions – “been there, done that,” in the words of uncharitable American observers – also allow new space powers to benefit from the dual-use synergy between military and civilian rocket technology, allowing them to reap prestige benefits from the ICBM technology they pursue anyway. In lower capability states aspirations to extend rocket development to human spaceflight may only be a rhetorical public relations stunt. Indeed, Iran’s space program is frequently alleged to be noting more than cover for ballistic missile development.

During the 1950s and 1960s a bipolar international order and a fortuitous alignment between the technologies required for civilian space exploration and nuclear deterrence combined to create the conditions that motivated heavy investments in civilian space programs. This is not an exaggerated description – the only reason the Space Race occurred was that the US-Soviet rivalry happened to coincide with the period when long-range military rockets were an emerging determinant of the balance of power. Without this synchronicity between an adversarial international system, conflation of national prestige and security, and convergence of civil and military space technological requirements, the Space Race would not have materialized. Barring a massive fall in the expected costs of ambitious human exploration, this logic suggests that the aspirations of new and aspiring spacefaring nations are unlikely to surpass the Space Race unless the international system reverts to the hostility of the Cold War’s height.

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If Humans Discover Aliens, Will We Try and Convert Them?

By Taylor Marvin

Engelhardt, Zephyrin, San Juan Capistrano Mission, 1922. Via Wikimedia.

Engelhardt, Zephyrin, San Juan Capistrano Mission, 1922. Via Wikimedia.

I recently attended the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination’s Starship Century Symposium, a fun, imaginative conference dedicated to speculatively discussing humanity’s future among the stars. One talk I found particularly interesting covered “starships and the fate of humankind,” presented by Peter Schwartz During his presentation Schwartz showed a slide depicting human population projections through the next century. While I don’t remember specifically which projection Schwartz presented, it was broadly similar to one drawn from the 2003 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs “World Population in 2300” report:

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: <a href="http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/Long_range_report.pdf">United Nations, World Population in 2300</a>.

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: United Nations, World Population in 2300.

Schwartz described these three scenarios as the product of three possible stories. In the above forecast the “medium” line depicts a population growth rate similar to today’s, and by and large a continuation of the status quo: most women continue to have two children, and the global population neither grows nor shrinks. The “low” forecast predicts a future where society continues to grow richer, and families smaller. In this future women tend to have a fertility rate less than the replacement rate, and the human population shrinks, dipping below 3 billion by 2300. The final, “high” forecast is a more dramatic deviation from the status quo; the future fertility rate increases to and then holds constant at 2.35 children per woman, leading the human population to grow at an accelerating rate. In this future, barring any depopulating catastrophe, the human population tops 35 billion in the next 300 years.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 5.19.16 PM

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: United Nations, World Population in 2300.

Schwartz termed this scenario the “religious” future. Many global religions, and in particular fundamentalist interpretations, encourage high reproduction. Given that world fertility rates have dramatically fallen over the last half century, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario that would lead to a renewed increase in the fertility rate, given increasing female access to education and family planning techniques. However, a worldwide rebirth of religious fundamentalism that encourages adherents to pursue large families and grow the faith is perhaps the most plausible mechanism for a future global population growing at an accelerating rate.

There are other potential stories to explain the UN’s “high” scenario. In science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, life-extending drug therapies are perfected before increases in worldwide human capital have put global society on the “low” trend, swelling the population — if people stop dying but don’t similarly stop reproducing, the population necessarily grows. But there are plausible reasons to believe Schwartz’s religious fundamentalism hypothesis is more likely. After all, a future global society filled with the same religious beliefs as today’s seems more plausible to contemporary forecasters than the sanitized, secular future predicted in the 1960s-vintage Star Trek franchise.

Additionally, an evolutionary logic could reasonably support the plausibility of this possible future. Since children are likely to, in the aggregate, inherit the religious beliefs of their parents, an individual’s religion can be viewed as an inherited trait. If this holds, religious traditions that encourage fecundity and religious communities that reproduce at a higher rate than the rest of society will grow to be a larger and larger percent of that population. While it’s reasonable to be wary of forecasts that require a dramatic change from the status quo — as this “high” population scenario does — there are plausible reasons not to discount this future. After all, is a dramatic future increase in the global fertility rate any less plausible than the last fifty years’ dramatic decrease, which few saw coming?

As I’ve previously written, I don’t see population growth as a viable road to human interstellar expansion. First, if the human population peaks this century as most forecasts predict, there will be little need for extraterrestrial lebensraum (read into that what you will) anyway. As I wrote last year:

“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.”

Finally, and more importantly, space travel is fundamentally a luxury. This is especially true for interstellar travel. Now, I don’t mean “luxury” to convey frivolity — but whatever the merits of extraterrestrial expansion, space travel is expensive. If global civilization suffering from the overpopulation-induced shortages, resource constraints, and catastrophes that would motivate expansion beyond Earth in the first place, humanity is unlikely to have the capabilities to do so, anyway. Given the costs of even one-off interstellar missions, this logic is a major barrier to the mid-term plausibility of involuntary interstellar migrations.

But Schwartz suggested another incentive for interstellar expansion in a high population, religious fundamentalist future: bringing the word of God to the alien heathens. Of course, there are some big leaps here — not only does this scenario require that humans eventually detect intelligent life, but that it is located close enough to our solar system that it’s reasonable to travel there. Additionally, this assumes convert-minded religious missionaries judge face-to-face contact with aliens, over simply transmitting them religious messages, to be worth the fantastic cost of interstellar spaceflight. Finally, this scenario also assumes that religious leaders judge aliens — who are likely to differ widely in appearance, outlook, and social structure from humans — to be worth converting. This is by no means assured, and it’s worth remembering that it took Christian religious figures decades to unequivocally decide that obviously-human Native Americans did in fact have souls.

Despite these cavets, a race between religions to spread their faith to aliens is an interesting concept (though these religious leaders would likely be much less enthusiastic about aliens spreading their own religious beliefs to us). But I can think of another, speculative, barrier to this possibility. Recent history’s most missionary religious sects tend to be the most apocalyptic, a tendency especially evident in Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions largely due to their historical expansion. Recent polling by Public Policy Polling suggests that 11 percent of Americans believe the Rapture will occur within their lifetime, and nearly 60 percent of white evangelicals reportedly believe the Rapture is due before 2050. In a 2012 Pew study, in 9 of 23 Muslim countries more than half of those polled expressed the belief that the Mahdi will return within their lifetime.

If missionary impulses and apocalyptic thinking are linked, this suggests that the sects most likely to attempt to convert intelligent aliens also discount the future the most. Indeed, generations ships as a class are essentially predicated on very low discount rates, as only the distant descendants of their builders will ever benefit from their initial investment. This poses a major problem to interstellar missionary efforts. If you believe that the rapture will occur within your lifetime, launching a generation ship to convert aliens is literally pointless — the universe will likely end before the ship arrives! Indeed, if you believe that the end of the world will end in the next half century, it’s pointless even to attempt to communicate with aliens more than 50 light years away, relatively right next door!

Now, this of course doesn’t make interstellar missionaries impossible. But it’s worth remembering that religious impulses and spaceflight are likely to interact in ways difficult to predict.

Thoughts?

Oblivion and More on (Im)Plausible Alien Invasions

By Taylor Marvin

[Oblivion spoilers are marked below]

Last weekend I saw Oblivion, a new entry into the venerable Hollywood alien invasion genre. With stunning visuals and occasionally impressive acting, I found the film enjoyable, and despite its plot holes entertaining.

I’ve previously discussed how difficult it is to invent a plausible motive for an alien invasion of Earth. Unfortunately, Oblivion’s script isn’t particularly inventive in this department — the film’s writer is mostly content to recycle old tropes under a gleaming facade of modern CGI and gorgeous cinematography (seriously, Oblivion is beautiful). But since alien invasion stories in general are such an interesting topic of discussion, reflecting on the Oblivion’s plausibility is a fun exercise.

Of course, discussing alien invasions stories is inherently a discussion of aliens themselves, and speculating on any aspect of aliens’ behavior — especially the plausibility of their Hollywood invasions — is inherently dangerous. But as I wrote in a recent discussion of Cowboys and Aliens, aliens broadly similar to us — in economics if not physiology — would face enough universal limitations that informed speculation is possible:

“The only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by…. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species.”

Unfortunately, Oblivion mostly disregards these questions of plausibility. Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad movie per se, or even bad science fiction; the protestations of science fiction fans who use “hard” as a synonym for “good” aside, plausibility is overrated. But it does suggest interesting questions.

First, Oblivion’s opening minutes establish that humanity successfully defeated the invading aliens with nuclear weapons. This is a welcome departure from the frequent nukes-didn’t-work trope, but it is difficult to think of a plausible way that nuclear weapons would be particularly helpful in a contemporary conflict with aliens. While nuclear weapons are often discussed as plausible weapons in space combat (though in the vacuum of space a nuclear device has a much smaller destructive radius than in an atmosphere), in Oblivion’s scenario humans are confined to Earth, and are shown to have used nuclear weapons against alien surface targets. This implies that the aliens landed ground forces, forces vital enough to their war effort that their destruction ensured their defeat.

But why would the aliens land ground forces anyway? It is frequently noted in contemporary strategic studies that airpower cannot take or hold ground, but this limitation would not necessarily apply to the aliens. A civilization capable of routine interstellar flight is also presumably capable of arbitrarily detecting and destroying even hardened ground targets. This means that if humans are unable to threaten alien standoff weapons platforms or otherwise interfere with their bombardment and the aliens have sufficient spacecraft to cover all surface war zones, ground forces are unnecessary.

Anyway, the aliens aren’t seeking to hold ground at all; they are simply trying to kill enough humans to prevent humanity from interfering with the aliens’ plan to steal the Earth’s resources. This genocide can certainly be accomplished from space.

oblivion1

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Towards a Crowded Heavens?

By Taylor Marvin

I have a new piece up at e-International Relations briefly summarizing the resurgence of interest in civil space programs, especially those outside of the traditional space powers. As more nations technological capabilities increase with economic growth, we can expect the ranks of spacefaring nations to increase. However, because civilian space programs are primarily motivated by national prestige concerns, which are less connected to national security than during the height of the Cold War, investment in space is unlikely to return to its Space Race-era heights barring a return to a hostile, bipolar global order. The kicker:

“How realistic these rising powers’ space ambitions are remains open to debate, because their national space programs are limited by both practical and political constraints. It is also worth remembering how many space exploration goals are never met. The greatest bar to optimistic hopes for exploration are not what a nation can do but instead what it chooses to do, and this choice is inherently political.”

The word limit for the piece was short enough that I wasn’t able to explore the issue in great detail, but check it out if you are interested. This is a conceptional similar argument to my last piece for the site, which argued that the US and China are unlikely to engage in a civilian space race in the foreseeable future.

What’s a Interstellar Humanity Look Like?, Cont.

tdos_coverBy Taylor Marvin

John J. Lumpkin has released the sequel to his hard scifi novel Through Struggle, the Stars, which I reviewed last year. I greatly recommend his debut novel, and am enjoying The Desert of Stars. Lumpkin is a talented writer, and offers an original look at plausible conventional warfare in a space colonization-context.

Check it out, if you’re interested.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Lie

By Taylor Marvin

Iran’s claim to have launched a live monkey into space on a suborbital rocket is false, the Times of London reported today — the monkey shown before flight is clearly not the same creature purportedly recovered. It is unclear if Iranian officials are attempting to cover up the death of the test creature in flight, or if the proclaimed launch happened at all.

The lack of international confirmation of the launch suggest that it was not conducted at all. But despite the amateurish qualities of the deception, it is unsurprising that the Iranian government would make false claims about the country’s space program. Iranian officials have a history of heavy-handedly exaggerating their country’s purported technical exploits for propaganda purposes. When the Iranians showcased a captured American RQ-170 drone in late 2011, they insisted that they had taken control of the aircraft in flight by spoofing its GPS systems; an unlikely claim.

The rational for these false claims is clear: it’s politically important that the Iranian government present itself as a technologically capable power unhampered by international isolation and impoverishment.

Iran’s history of exaggerated or false claims about its space program is not unprecedented. National space programs are important propaganda tools unmatched as a demonstration of national pride and technical skill. Given heavy rockets’ inherent dual use nature, they’re also a demonstration of military prowess that can be positively spun to neutral audiences as unobjectionable scientific advancement. Given these high stakes, authoritarian regimes capable of restricting news of space program failures have every reason to do so.

Space dog Laika, via Wikimedia.While the USSR could rightly pride its unmatched record of early Space Race achievements, Soviet leaders were highly aware of their space program’s propaganda value. The Soviets maintained for decades that Laika, a dog launched aboard the early satellite Sputnik 2, was painlessly euthanized in orbit; instead, she died in considerable distress from overheating during her first day in space. This falsehood fit into the larger purpose of the entire program. The prestige value of the Soviets’ space program had to be maintained, mandating that failures be concealed and successes trumpeted by the propaganda machine. The zero-sum soft power competition between the US and USSR left little room for transparency — the international prestige granted by space successes, after all, had considerable impact on real world power politics. Accordingly, Soviet achievements were often considerably exaggerated.

As the American space program began to ramp up, the Soviets hurriedly sought additional firsts to follow up their initial record achievements. One notable success was the 1964 Voskhod 1 mission, the first spacecraft to carry three men into orbit. But, as Greg Goebel notes in his comprehensive history of the race to the Moon, the frantic pressures of the space race meant that shortcuts had to be taken — shortcuts that could be obscured by Soviet restrictions on open information. As a larger capsule roomy enough to hold three cosmonauts in spacesuits would take too long to build, the Soviet space leadership elected to delete the spacesuits. Goebel quotes lead Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev’s deputy Vasily Mishin:

“Fitting a crew of three people, and in spacesuits, in the cabin of the Voskhod was impossible. So — down with the spacesuits! And the cosmonauts went up without them. It was also impossible to make three hatches for ejection. So — down with the ejection devices!

Was it risky? Of course it was. It was if there was, sort of, a three-seater craft and, at the same time, there wasn’t. In fact, it was a circus act, for three people couldn’t do any useful work in space. They were cramped just sitting! No to mention that it was dangerous to fly.”

While not a lie, the Soviet celebration of Voskhod 1 was certainly an exaggeration of its actual engineering merit, and evidence of a program that prized propaganda over safety.

While America’s freedom of the press made it impossible to conceal major disasters in the US space program — if the horrific Apollo 1 fire had happened in the USSR, it would not have been public knowledge — NASA officials were similarly aware of the importance of propaganda. Early American astronauts were depicted as flawless demigods in the press, while knowledge of the astronauts personal failings were suppressed. My 1960 copy of Seven into Space, an all-American celebration of the Mercury program, celebrates the astronauts as simultaneously humble and superhuman, all while ignoring both the divisions within the program and coordinated press campaign designed to depict the astronauts, and by extension America, in the most positive light possible.

While this historical press campaign was nowhere near as dishonest as Iran’s fake spacefaring monkey, it was driven by the same reasons. Like its Soviet rival, for all its talk of noble exploration the early American space program was just as motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as national prestige concerns — as the Iranian program is today. In this high stakes game there’s no room for any failure, whether technological or personal. In national space programs what governments admit to is driven less by honesty than what they think they can get away with

Brainstorming a Plausible Alien Invasion

Cowboys_&_AliensBy Taylor Marvin

Over the recent holidays I spent one evening watching Cowboys and Aliens. The movie is ridiculous — of course it means to be, and the tragedy isn’t its irreverence but the fact it isn’t that good — but it is thought-provoking. Alien invasions stories are a hugely common trope, especially in film. It’s easy to understand why they pop up so frequently. Invasion stories feature suitably dramatic survival-of-humanity stakes, and importantly don’t require inventing a future society, like other forms of science fiction. Accessible, dramatic, conflict-oriented — what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, alien invasion stories are at best usually utterly implausible. Of course, this can be irrelevant — plausibility isn’t required to tell engaging stories, and is certainly much less important than relatable characterizations, drama, and the other tenets of good fiction. But it is an interesting challenge: how can authors tell stories about alien invasions in line with reasonable assumptions about aliens’ behavior and incentives?

The core implausibility about most alien invasion stories isn’t plucky humans triumphing over aliens capable of flying across the galaxy — suspension of disbelief exists for a reason — but instead aliens’ incentives. Of course, the only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by. Civilizations appear to be universally limited to expensive, slower than light travel. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species. Even if intelligent species are common they are likely be widely separated by space and time, and a plausible depiction of a populous galaxy must square with our failure to observe evidence of alien technological civilizations.

Most alien invasion stories depict aliens invading the Earth in pursuit of its resources. In Cowboys and Aliens [mild spoiler], the resource the alien aggressors are after is gold. This is, to put it politely, very implausible. While there are rarer chemical elements in the Milky Way, gold is scarce galaxy-wide, making it a potential valuable commodity for alien species. However, this is a tricky assumption in and of itself — humans’ high valuation of gold is not only due to scarcity, but also aesthetics. There’s no reason that alien sensory systems and psychology would necessarily value the shiny luster of gold. Worse, it’s difficult to believe that a civilization capable of routine interstellar travel faces any real scarcity. Even if the aliens had completely harvested their own system’s resources, there are considerably more cost-effective means of acquiring gold than stealing it from hardscrabble Westerners. Gold is likely to be present in most stellar systems, offering potential resources at lower travel costs than the journey to Earth (again, remember the ‘space travel is expensive’ assumption). More exotically, given the high cost of interstellar travel for even advanced species, harvesting resources from black hole accretion disks is likely more cost-effective for a suitably advanced civilization.

Other films are even worse. Battle: Los Angeles depicts aliens invading for [mild spoiler] Earth’s water, when any civilization able to travel between stars could trivially harness the energy to melt any minor icy moon. Avatar gets around this by inventing “unobtainum” so valuable it’s worth flying to the next start to get it — an example of MacGuffinite if there ever was one.The truth is there really isn’t any plausible rational reason for an alien invasion of Earth. Most simply, there’s no mineral resources found on Earth that can’t likely be had in any stellar system. It’s also unlikely that aliens would invade our planet for living space, because it’s similarly unlikely that any aliens we encounter require the same narrow environmental band that we do — aliens could just as easily “invade” the to-them inviting environs of Venus, Titan, or Jupiter. Really the only thing unique about Earth is its biosphere, but even if aliens valued Earth’s life they would be unlikely to invade in pursuit of it. Nuclear weapons are a comparably basic technology, and it’s a reasonable assumption that aliens would associate Earth’s obvious radio emissions with a mastery of nuclear technology. If prospective invaders could ascertain that Earth housed nuclear weapons, they would also know that its defenders could arbitrarily destroy the very biosphere the invaders were after.

So, assuming that interstellar travel is costly, it’s reasonable to say that while colonization is rational to select species, invasions are not — as long as we define “rational” as “fulfilling a reasonable cost-benefit ratio, expressed in resource terms”. But defining strategic rationality in even a solely human context is problematic. As M.L.R. Smith writes, citing F. Lopez-Alvez:

“To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or ‘that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.’”

So while we can speculatively presume that aliens have no rational incentive to fight us for purely acquisitional rationals, this doesn’t rule out alien civilizations rationally valuing conflict. After all, strategic rationality rests on internal consistency, not a universal yardstick — the “desired end” varies. Perhaps alien civilizations are religiously driven to genocide (I’m using “genocide” in a species extinction context), or make the rational decision that the existence of any alien competitor is a potential existential risk that cannot be tolerated. As Charles Pellegrino has extensively argued, natural selection pressures would tend to select for aggressively competitive and preservation-minded civilizations. Aliens that expand far enough to encounter other species have powerful incentives to quickly destroy them.

But, importantly, there’s considerable ground between invasion and destruction; ground that doesn’t leave much room for exciting narratives. Again citing Pellegrino, a genocide-minded interstellar civilization would simply attack a potential competitor with a spacecraft accelerated to relativistic velocity. The capability to launch such an attack is a prerequisite of most plausible interstellar species, and would be nearly impossible to counter. So a plausible alien invasion story requires a delicate middle ground: aliens must not seek to destroy us completely, nor desire to capture and exploit the solar systems’ resources.

So where does that leave us? Luckily for humanity, it’s difficult to imagine a plausible alien invasion story because alien invasions themselves aren’t particularly likely. We haven’t observed evidence of technological civilizations in decades of looking, which means — among other possibilities — that they aren’t there at all and we’re alone in the galaxy (disconcerting), are deliberately preserving our ignorance (more disconcerting), or are actively hiding themselves out of fear of a dangerous universe (very disconcerting). But if we’re specifically looking for a plausible alien invasion, there are some possibilities.

A speculative example:

The conflict begins when humans detect the very bright exhaust plumes of alien spacecraft decelerating into the solar system. Even if the incoming aliens are equipped with extremely powerful antimatter reaction drives this deceleration will take decades, giving human civilization time to attempt to divine the aliens’ intentions and prepare for possible hostilities. The alien spacecraft are eventually revealed to be gigantic ships that, after decelerating, go into orbit in the outer solar system. Once they have arrived the aliens make an unexpected announcement. We are at war, but there are rules: we must fight, and we cannot use nuclear weapons.

If we violate these two rules, human civilization will be summarily destroyed by a relativistic rocket launched from outside of the solar system. However, if we follow the rules our civilization may survive.

This, of course, does not seem to make any sense. What are the aliens after? As the conflict progresses similar questions arise. The invaders seem to prefer to fight us on Earth, or in its close proximity. Fortunately for us, for a civilization capable of interstellar flight on a massive scale, the conflict seems bizarrely evenly matched: the aliens are certainly more advanced and their soldiers more formidable, but not so much that they instantly roll over Earth’s militaries. Even more fortunately, the aliens’ war strategy seems bizarrely uncoordinated. Eventually, humans deduct that the alien forces appear uncoordinated because they are — humans are facing not a unified force but competing, unaffiliated factions.

Why would the aliens behave this way? Clearly, this is not a rational way to win a military conflict. But it does make sense if they aliens aren’t seeking, in a strict sense, to win. After all, if genocide is best accomplished with a relativistic rocket and resource-motivated invasions don’t make sense, than any plausible invasion must be in pursuit of another outcome. In this speculative case, imagine a historically-martial alien species that, either by biological or social norms, selects leaders and social prestige through combat. If intelligent species are common enough to allow the practice to function, periodic limited wars would be a rational means of social organization, and an equitable way of periodically reordering the social hierarchy. Sure, this is an insanely costly means of social organization, but in strict combat and opportunity costs. But that doesn’t make it impossible, or even unreasonable for a post-scarcity species with limited individual self-preservation instincts and a fear of intra-species war.

These two rules are conductive to the limited war the aliens seek. Announcing that we must fight conveys that there will be no negotiated settlement, because, of course, the aliens aren’t interested in the outcome of the conflict, per se: they’re interested in the resulting redistribution of intra-society prestige, but not the actual military outcome. The prohibition on nuclear weapons limits the possibility that humans pose an existential risk to both the aliens, or ourselves. If nuclear weapons are allowed humans are likely to bomb ourselves into eventual radioactive extinction, regardless of the outcome of the war — something the aliens have no real interest in.

Taking this concept farther, why would the aliens have any interest in preventing inadvertent human extinction by excessive in-atmosphere nuclear weapons use? After all, they obviously place low value on human life if they don’t mind throwing us into a costly war simply to maintain their social order. One intriguing possibility is that perhaps the invaders have no qualms about destroying humanity, but fear punishment from a third-party species.

Given the vast age of the universe, the time span between the emergence of two species can measure in the millions of years — plenty of time for the elder species to gain an insurmountable advantage over its younger competitor (though this does not necessarily imply that the elder can prevent subsequent competitors from expanding as well, and complete galactic hegemony appears impossible). If this first species elects to expand, it has the enormous advantage of expanding into an empty galaxy and enjoys a later privileged position over younger civilizations in the local area.

If expansion is subject to such a massive first-mover advantage, the first long-lived first interstellar civilization to arise is in a position to force their own preferred norms on subsequent civilizations. This provides a reasonable pathway towards a local set of norms in a crowded galaxy, and avoid the collective action problem that otherwise hampers the emergence of restrictive norms. If this first-mover placed paramount value on preventing the genocide of intelligent species, this enforced preference would explain the reserved behavior of the alien invader. This prohibition is a milder version of the zoo hypothesis, expressed by William I. Newman and Carl Sagan as “imposing strict injunctions against colonization of or contact with already populated planets.” Simply fighting is permitted; completely destroying its inhabitants is not.

The presence of a local third-party hegemon would explain the invaders’ prohibition on nuclear weapons use. It would also make the aliens’ limited war practice considerably less risky. If the species they elected to target was actually a powerful civilization — aware of the local norm — for some purpose concealing its capabilities, the invaders would be presumably safe from existential retaliation.

This enforced norm means, of course, that the threat behind the invaders’ rules is a bluff — if humans refuse to fight the specter of an extinction-causing relativistic rocket strike is toothless. From the aliens’ perspective, this isn’t a problem. As long as humans are unaware of the powerful first-mover species, we’ll buy the threat. From a storytelling perspective (because, of course, that’s what alien invasion stories are about) this also gives a suitably dramatic out. Humans are suffering unbearable losses but puzzle out the nature of the galactic order, make a nail-biting, desperate decision, and call the bluff. Conflict ends, with only a minimum of the implausible deus ex machina invasion stories are prone to. Not bad, right?

Governing Space Transports

By Taylor Marvin

One of the most interesting areas of speculation about prospective spacefaring humanity is Jon Souza’s so-called Jon’s Law: “Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction. It only matters how long you want to wait for maximum damage.”

Winchell Chung ably explain the problem, using the example of an impatient science fiction author tempted to replace their fictional spaceship’s slow, boring ion drive with a more powerful — and exciting — fusion drive:

“The good news is that the ship can make it to Mars in twelve days flat. The bad news is that the ship’s exhaust is putting out enough terawatts of energy to cut another ship in two, or make the spaceport look like it was hit by a tactical nuclear weapon.”

This implication is most dangerous for relativistic rockets, whose high speed makes them nearly impossible to intercept and gives sufficient energy to destroy an entire biosphere. To some extent, this rule applies to less fantastically powerful ships possible in a reasonable mid-future setting. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent 2312_660novel 2312in this setting, set in the title year, the solar system is extensively colonized. Mars and Venus are both in the process of terraformation, and industrialization and settlement in the outer solar system is widespread. Most intra-system transports are hollowed out asteroids — one described as twenty kilometers long — and spun along their long axis to approximate Earth-normal gravity (the only difference between transports and permanently inhabited habitats is that transports move). These type of transports are extremely ambitious but are readily achievable, and not particularly expensive, for a civilization with self-replicating construction robotics — the only start-up cost is the few initial factory robots, and the asteroid itself. Depending on the propulsion scheme used, these types of transports be able to traverse the inner solar systems in months, and the outer in a few years. Given their enormous interior space, passengers — numbering in the thousands — are awake for the entire trip. Space elevators on Earth and Mars solve the launch costs problem on high gravity worlds.

These transports aren’t particularly ambitious — or fast — by science fiction standards. But even they run into Jon’s Law. If a liners was aimed at a planet, authorities would be very hard pressed to stop it, even with ample warning. Nuclear strikes would just break the transport into lethal debris, still on the same vector as the rogue ship. Other asteroid-defense systems require years of warning, and could be combated by a hostile transport’s defensive systems. If an asteroid-derived transport hurtling along at interplanetary speeds impacted a continent, it could kill millions of people. Chung points out the implications of this destructive potential:

“So one of the logical ramification is that if drives are too powerful, there won’t be any colorful tramp freighters or similar vessels. As a matter of fact, civilian spacecraft will probably by law be required to have a remote control self-destruct device that the orbital patrol can use to eliminate any ship that looks like it is behaving erratically or suspiciously.”

This notion just as applicable to slow, but exceedingly massive, transports.

Robinson avoids this problem entirely. 2312’s space transports don’t appear to be governed by any political authority with its finger safely resting on a megaton self-destruct at all; in fact, in Robinson’s libertarian future specialized liners dedicated to unconventional practices like sensory deprivation or public sex are unremarkable. While these odd-by-modern-standards varieties of transports doesn’t rule out government regulation, 2312 makes it clear that the low cost of establishing liners or stationary habitats makes them available to a bewildering variety of groups unaffiliated with any established polity.

Jon’s Law implies that these transports will be heavily regulated. However, I’m unsure that this type of regulation is even possible in a solar system governed by numerous polities. A single rogue liner represents an existential threat for, say, colonists on Titan. If the Titan government doesn’t have the ability to intensively monitor and remotely self-destruct a Mars-flagged transport subject to Martian regulations, would they ever allow any foreign transports to approach? It would be much safer to only allow transports subject to your own regulations and oversight to come within the danger zone. This threat has teeth because governments could arbitrarily and safely destroy non-hostile transports, but not those on a fast collision course. Each individual government would be better off if they collectively allowed solar system-wide regulated transport, but each also has an incentive to not be the first to make themselves vulnerable. Assuming that separate Sol system polities develop before the advent of routine intra-system transports, this collective action problem could lead to balkanized transport politics that massively restricts trade and immigration.

There are potential regulatory structures that avoid this dynamic. Transports could be operated only by a monopolistic but reliably non-partisan organization, somewhat similar to the Dune universe’s Spacing Guild. Better yet, transports could be required to be governed by AIs, rather than potentially malevolent humans, or required to carry a self-destruct device that could be triggered by any polity, at any time. If intra-system transports are weapons of mass destruction, better to have every finger on the trigger, or none at all.

Hiding in a Dangerous Universe?

By Taylor Marvin

Jason T. Wright has a fascinating series of posts discussing the energy and waste heat constraints facing extraterrestrial civilizations, and in his most recent post argues that expansionary alien civilizations are likely long lived. This has interesting implications:

“I am arguing that once a civilization gets going, it’s going to take over the whole galaxy quickly, and that L (the lifetime of a typical civilization) is actually longer than the current age of the Universe. If this means that subsequent civilizations are unlikely to arise, then N= 0 or 1 for most galaxies (0, in fact, since most galaxies don’t look like they’re full of Dyson spheres).”

This is an interesting challenge to the classically understood implications of the Fermi Paradox and explanations for the Great Silence. Even if we accept the Rare Earth argument that the conditions required for the evolution of Earth-like complex life are rare, the sheer number of rocky planets in our galaxy suggests that even intelligent civilizations based on Earth-like biology should be relatively common. This presumed frequency is typically squared with our failure to observe evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations by noting that even if these civilizations are common, they are unlikely to coincide with us in space and time. However, if the first civilization to begin expansion is likely to dominate the galaxy fairly quickly, then this explanation doesn’t hold. As Wright notes, if an intelligent expansionistic civilization had arisen in the past it would be long lived, and we would observe it today. The fact that we don’t is clear evidence that an alien civilization has never begun expanding in our galaxy — or, for that matter, in any other close enough for us to observe a lack of Dyson spheres at our observed time. If we haven’t observed an alien civilization in the local group, it’s likely because there have never been any there.

There are a few ways around this observation. Speculatively, perhaps interstellar civilizations do arise frequently, expand, but quickly evolve into a state that renders them undetectable. Science fiction plays around with this conjecture: Kardashev type III civilizations could exist, but just in some way we’re incapable of recognizing, or advanced civilizations could choose to expand in virtual reality rather than the outside universe.

Another possibility is the classic answer to the Drake Equation: perhaps intelligent civilizations are common, but they universally fail to expand beyond their home system and are short lived. This state is possible even if civilizations do not destroy themselves before expanding. As I have previously discussed, there are reasons to believe that low-birthrate, energy constrained, individually rational species (in short, a species like us) would fail to expand even if it is in their long-term interest. However, this explanation is obviously problematic. Even if a species’ innate characteristics discourage expansion, AIs derived from this particular civilization would not share the same traits: it is easy to imagine a universe where biological species fail to expand, but AI entities descended from their computers do not. Similarly, even if many species destroy themselves before they can expand beyond their home systems, or elect not to, it’s unreasonable to suppose that this tendency is universal. If Wright’s logical conclusion that expansionary civilizations’ L is long and leads to an N=1 galactic outcome, we would only have to be predated by a single expansionary civilization for us to observe alien intelligence. Given that our galaxy has likely been potentially habitable for over ten billion years, this implies that civilizations are extremely rare.

Possible reason for dangerous universe.

Possible reason for dangerous universe.

Even more speculatively, another possibility is that civilizations are common, but universally elect not to expand. Because alien civilizations’ behavior would be governed by vastly different biological and economic constraints, this decision would have to be motivated by outside influence. Specifically, alien civilizations, like us, fail to observe evidence of aliens. Civilizations then face a choice: they can either expand, and enjoy the massive first mover advantage that leads to the N=1 outcome, or not expand. Why not? One possibility is that alien civilizations do exist, but are actively hiding. Alien civilizations may reason that the absence of observable aliens is evidence that the universe is extremely dangerous, and other civilizations are either hiding or extinct. This allows for the original Drake equation’s assumption, in Wright’s words, of a “steady-state of short-lived civilizations” that never move from a Kardashev type II to III. Instead they elect not to expand, or only as much as remaining hidden allows. Importantly, it’s possible that this no first mover equilibrium exists whether or not there is actually a malevolent entity that makes the universe dangerous. Since no civilization can be sure that they’re the first intelligence in the galaxy, the possibility of frightened and hiding extraterrestrials is impossible to rule out.

If the universe is dangerous, then expansion — or being detectable, in general — is risky. Of course, not expanding is the ultimate “risky” choice — civilizations that don’t spread beyond their home star are doomed to die along with it. If humans fail to expand beyond Earth in significant numbers, our civilization will die at most a billion years from now. Given this time frame, the risk detection leads to immediate, complete destruction must be very high for civilizations to choose not to expand. For example, say that humans will be completely destroyed 42,000 years after being detected by whatever malevolent entity makes the galaxy dangerous (the Earth is 26,000 light years from the center of the galaxy; this assumes that a destructive force is dispatched at light speed as soon as evidence of humans reaches the center of the galaxy. I’m spitballing here). Given this assumption, the expected number of years human civilization survives is maximized by not expanding if the risk that the universe is dangerous is >.99996. Obviously, all alien species must be extremely risk averse to make a conscious choice not to expand out of fear, especially since the only evidence of a dangerous universe type is the absence of observable civilizations.

So not particularly convincing! But pretend this is the case, and the galaxy is relatively full of risk averse alien civilizations afraid to expand. This suggests an interesting strategic interaction. The first civilization to expand beyond their home star takes a bet that the universe is not dangerous. If they are wrong, they are exterminated. However, if they’re right their civilization enjoys the first mover advantage that leads to a N=1 galaxy, and survives essentially forever. Given the low likelihood that all civilizations in the galaxy are extremely risk averse, lack of evidence that the universe is a dangerous type, and massive first mover advantage, it is unlikely that universal hiding is a stable equilibrium.

Another problem is that colonization is not necessarily risky. As Robin Hanson has noted, “if this colonization effort could hide its origins from those who might retaliate, what would they have to lose?” For expansion to be risky, the hidden malevolent entity must be so all-powerful that it can arbitrarily destroy colonies separated by many light years and remain dangerous across deep time, but still fail to detect hidden civilizations — a narrow criteria! These requirements, and the likelihood that a galaxy full of hiding, non-expansionistic civilizations is not in stable equilibrium, suggests that the ‘aliens are hiding’ answer to the Fermi Paradox is not convincing.

Thoughts?

Previous posts on aliens and human expansion:

Through Struggle, the Stars: What’s a Interstellar Humanity Look Like?

Reconsidering “First Contact”

What Would an Expansionist Alien Species Be Like?

“Putting Your Mind” to Space Industrialization

Battle: Los Angeles, Red Dawn, and Alien Invasions

The Economics of Alien Invasion

Doubts about a New Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Continuing my debate with Daryl Morini on the prospect of a new space race between China and the US, I have a piece up at e-International Relations arguing that the US and China are unlikely to escalate their military anti-satellite rivalry into a prestige-driven exploratory space race:

“The real barrier to unconstrained competition in space is the disheartening prospect of unconstrained costs. While ASAT kinetic kill missiles are certainly difficult to engineer, they are based on proven concepts. Novel space accomplishments are much more difficult. A permanent lunar base would require significant advances in in situ resource utilization, life support design, and likely a large reduction in launch costs. A crewed mission to Mars would be much more difficult, and would come with a significant risk of a catastrophic, long-running disaster. Even given the prisoner’s dilemma dynamic behind the choice to initiate a space or arms race, the US or China are only likely to bear the enormous opportunity costs of a prestige-driven space race unless they see no other choice. Given the multipolar world the twin superpowers are likely to inhabit this century, it is unlikely that either country will ‘jump the gap’ from a limited ASAT military space race to a general exploratory one.”

Check out the whole piece at e-IR if it sparks your interest.