2010: Elected to Governing Board of the National Space Society. Click here to see my candidate statement (a brief bio of my activities in space.)

New in 2009: P. Werbos, Towards a Rational Strategy for the Human Settlement of Space, Futures, Volume 41, Issue 8, October 2009 (By “rational,” I am referring to the  modern concepts of rational decision making, discussed and extended by our work on intelligent systems.)

 

For the impatient reader: before I get into the grand strategy of “why space?” and how to get there, in detail, there is one nasty fact of life that demands immediate attention. No matter what kinds of benefits we would like to get from human activities in space – the sheer cost of getting matter up to low earth orbit has become a kind of show-stopper. Realistic projections of the cost of expendable rockets generally start at $3,000/pound or higher. Previous efforts to build reusable vehicles (like the space shuttle as re-designed under Nixon’s orders, or the X-33) failed most of all because of basic problems with materials and structures – falling-off tiles, foam, and things like that. It turns out that there is a near term solution, that has survived very extensive review and checking, using off-the-shelf technology, that could get us down to $200/pound in less than a decade, if only we could get our act together and get past a growing paralysis in our politics. Here is a brief two-page summary published by Aerospace America in May 2006 of the near-term vehicle concept. (Many thanks to AIAA for emailing me permission to post this paper!) Strictly speaking, what we need most urgently to save our hopes for true large-scale human economic growth in space is a two-point program: (1) a one-year $900,000 blueprint study as proposed by Chase of ANSER; and (2) a $30 million “structural test article project,” to prevent the loss of the advanced structures we will need not only for Chase’s vehicle but for any other serious, affordable reusable launch vehicle. This is certainly not enough to bring massive benefits to humanity from space, but it is a necessary and urgent first step. The rest of this web page will discuss what else we need, and provide links to more detailed discussions of Chase’s work and how to follow up on it.

 

Humans in Space:

Goals, Strategy and Technology Options 

 

Many people I know have built very intricate global models to predict the future. Given such a model (or other foresight mechanism), we now have the tools to do a very detailed strategic evaluation of all the inputs, decisions and factors which would affect a small set of long-term goal variables. But what should that small set of goal variables be? Even if different people  have different priorities, we may still try to define a set of goal variables which are “universal” in the following sense: most of our differences can be expressed by the different weights we place on different goal variables. This approach is well-known in certain parts of engineering and social science. For example, there is a large literature on “multicriterion optimization.” There are discussions of how to achieve a constructive dialogue and a “win-win” solution (Pareto optimum) when the goal variables are reasonably clear and discussable. At any rate, it is a useful starting point.

In discussing the future of humanity, I once proposed that the three key goal variables are the same three that you see on my homepage – global sustainability on earth, the cost-effective settlement of space, and human potential. Three kinds of questions came back at first:

(1)   What if some of us disagree that the human settlement of space or human potential should be a fundamental goal or value?

(2)   Does this mean that your evaluation of the energy subgoal within sustainability is biased?

(3)   Why would you give such prominence to such a small issue, a tiny part of human history and a tiny part of government budgets, compared with the really big issue of human survival on earth?

The first question is trivial. In a multicriterion system, people can just place a weight of zero on things they think are not important.

            The second question has a simple answer – no. I would like to see humanity expand throughout the galaxy, if that turns out to be possible, but I certainly don’t want to see us all reach extinction before we are ready to do so! That kind of bias would be grossly irrational, and I try my best to avoid the most obvious and gross forms of irrationality.

            A long answer to the third question is contained in a paper I wrote for the “why space?” section of Beyond Earth, Apogee Books, edited by Bob Krone, 2006. A briefer answer –

            Goals for the future require that we think about possible futures, not just the past. Is the galaxy really so small, objectively, when compared with the earth? In fact, isn’t the rest of the solar system already larger than earth? If there is a risk that humanity can never succeed in the cost-effective settlement of space, even just in this solar system – then that tells us something about the probability of the goal, not about its value. Even survival on earth poses such risks. If we do ever really make it in space, we will look back and see, of course, that the rest of the galaxy is in fact much larger than earth.

                        But what is the strategy for making this real? What is the optimal policy for maximizing the goal variable here? These questions I discuss in my paper in the “how?” section of Beyond Earth, and in a short white paper I wrote to try to capture an emerging consensus at the Lunar Commerce Roundtable executive roundtable in Houston in 2005, held in association with the Space Resources Roundtable.  One of the most important possible sources for revenue to support human activity in space is…

 

Space Solar Power

 

For completeness, I am also posting the workshop report and the available presentations from the NSF/NASA workshop which I initiated and struggled to set up, which finally occurred in the year 2000.  My original goal was to explore how advanced learning technology could be applied somehow to reduce the costs both of space solar power and earth-based solar power – but a viable connection only showed up on the space side. After that workshop, NASA, NSF and EPRI joined together (under the leadership of myself and John Mankins) to create the last explicit US government funding of energy from space; the funding solicitation itself  gives much of the history, and provides important further information, such as the detailed year review of SPS as of 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences. But again, as of 2006, we have found new design options, with much more serious chances of beating coal and fission on cents per kwh – discussed in my new papers and in my August 2006 energy talk.

The various projects supported by our 2002 initiative each submitted their own reports, separately, as they concluded at around 2005 or 2006. There was no joint overall project report; however, with input and review from Mankins of NASA and Marzwell of JPL I constructed a very brief final summary (slightly updated) for an interagency working group.

            Several people have asked me: what is a rational strategy for getting useful energy from space as soon as possible, based on the latest technology. The most urgent task is to perform the two initial tasks proposed by Ray Chase of ANSER, to lead up to the only plausible design I have seen for really cutting the cost of access to space down to $200/pound. Cost estimation studies from SAIC show hat the cost of beaming electricity from the point of generation in space to the grid on earth, using well-known, safe established microwave technology, is about 4 cents per kwhso long as the cost of getting to low earth orbit is $200 per pound, and the cost of getting form there to high orbit is only another $200/pound. The best alternative I have seen to the Chase proposal is a new Air Force concept for $500/pound – but at $500/pound, the cost of power beaming alone rises to 10 cents per kwh, and we lose the hope of competing with fission in a fair market. Critics of SPS have sometimes said that the idea is a “lie” under present transportation costs – but in fact, so are many of the other great hopes for the use of space. What’s worse – the Chase option might be lost forever if we do not move quickly to fund both his “design study” ($900,000) and his “hot structures test article” ($30 million minimum version, $150 million much better). Other advanced concepts for access to space all require the same kind of hot structures as well; in fact, Ray’s proposal to NSF (which he has authorized me to mention, and which reviewed quite well) was basically a spinoff of prior NSF-funded research in advanced hypersonics, which alerted us to the need for these kinds of structures.

            For the moment, about $20-40 million per year is what is needed for an optimal exploration of the various options to lower the cost of power beaming, and to prove out the ultra-low cost generation option I have proposed, and other related work. After the uncertainties are reduced and the tradeoffs better understood, it would of course be important to be ready to scale up relatively quickly. It is not unreasonable to aim for gigawatts in operation in ten years. 

 

Physics in Space – Wild Card Possibilities and Caveats

 

            Since I wrote those papers, another question has come up: what happens if we start to do experiments in physics, clever enough to do things which haven’t happened already a hundred times in the atmosphere, and energetic enough that they have a real possibility (so far as we know, in our ignorance) to produce small black holes? Hawking predicts that such holes would just evaporate, and calculations from superstring theory using Hawking-like assumptions and approximation methods say the same. But some have expressed serious doubts about these assumptions and approximations. What if Einstein was right, and what if early calculations from the Einstein school hold up in a unified model of physics based on Einstein’s viewpoint? Those calculations basically predicted that small black holes would burrow into the earth, and grow for a few thousand years, and would result in a very sudden catastrophe gobbling up the whole earth with little warning, rather like the comic book scenario about the planet Krypton. There are many uncertainties here, of course – but it would be irrational to ignore such a serious risk to humanity. If we attribute even a small probability to this kind of event, there is an additional reason to want to do certain kinds of experiments in space – not on earth – and to put new energy into the kinds of theory and experiment that would give us more confidence on the issue of Einstein versus Hawking.

            Of course, black holes gobbling up the earth are a repulsive sort of possibility, and humans have a long history of trying to come up with excuses for putting their heads in the sand, and not thinking about repulsive possibilities which they don’t want to think about. Some humans even seem to feel it is their duty to try to force other people to put their heads in the sand.  This is a general tendency, and should not be read as a comment on any particular individual… though all of us should look back and see how we have all lapsed at times. Harvard magazine had a fascinating story a few years back, summarizing a longitudinal study of what happened to Harvard graduates in later life; those people who commonly used “denial” – putting the head in the sand – commonly did much worse in later life, by their own standards, than people who used healthier defense mechanisms like rational time-prioritization or trying to turn lemons into lemonade. A common example of head-in-the sand thinking is that of a teenage drunk driver who says “I didn’t myself yet, so why should I stop now?” (I was tempted to use an image of that for a talk on energy – but the one really good image I found was unfortunately too partisan, and would have blocked the constructive dialogue we need on such issues.)

            Objective reality offers us all serious risks and fears, and serious hopes and possibilities, both far beyond what we seem to see every day in the relatively calm world of American offices. Howard Raiffa has even shown, in quantitative studies, that educated elites in our world tend to drastically underestimate the probability of events outside a narrow range of “normal” expectations. Rationality demands that we use our inborn learning abilities to overcome such biases, and pay more attention both to the real hazards and to the real hopes for a far better future. The human settlement of space is partly a response to the former, and partly a great example of the latter.

June 2007: A two page paper on “Is Warp Drive Possible? If so, how?