Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen

3 April 2016


Late Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations:


The Preemption that Didn’t Happen

Wernher von Braun's design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Wernher von Braun’s design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Generalizing the Preemption Hypothesis

In The Preemption Hypothesis I advanced the idea that civilizations are sometimes suddenly preempted and rapidly supplanted by another kind of civilization. The paradigm case of this is the industrial revolution, which preempted a gradually emerging scientific civilization — a civilization I sometimes call Modernism without Industrialism — in favor of a radically different kind of civilization that changed the basic structure of life wherever the industrial revolution arrived.

A generalization of the preemption hypothesis suggests that any civilization is vulnerable to sudden preemption and rapid supplanting, should historical circumstances happen to line up — i.e., the ground is prepared for an innovation that arrives, which in the case of the industrial revolution meant that the legal and institutional framework of a commercial society was in place when the steam engine was invented, allowing this invention to be rapidly exploited, which in turn drove rapid social change.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun's wheel space station.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun’s wheel space station.

Unfulfilled Preemptions

If the generalization of the preemption hypothesis holds good, we would expect to be able to identify unfulfilled preemptions in history, and while any such judgment is inherently open to question, past preemptions that did not occur are not unfamiliar. On several occasions I have written about how Hero’s steam turbine did not trigger an industrial revolution in classical antiquity, nor did Taqi al-Din’s turbine trigger an industrial revolution in medieval Islamic civilization (cf. The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization, Historical Disruption, and Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program).

In more recent history I would argue that an unfulfilled preemption occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. The industrial-technological civilization of the middle of the twentieth century (itself the consequence of preemption of the industrial revolution) might have been preempted by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization. The technology was present, the ideas were in circulation, and even the economic basis of such an effort was in place. Nevertheless, this did not happen.

Often in the case of unfulfilled preemptions we find that a technology was present, but it is not yet fully exploited because a comprehensive conception of its use simply did not exist. I previously pointed this out in relation to the cluster of technologies that rapidly came into use during the Second World War (cf. Counter-factual Weapons Systems), when, during a period of five years, ballistic missiles, digital encryption, digital computers, radar, nuclear weapons, and jet propulsion all became available. While these technologies were individually put into use, the full comprehensive vision of how these technologies would function in concert was lacking, and it took several subsequent decades to draw out the consequences of these discoveries.

Another historical analogy: the first heavier-than-air powered human flight took place in 1903; the First World War began a decade later. The development of aircraft technology during the less than five year period of the First World War was in some ways as rapid as the technological developments that characterized the Second World War, and, moreover, by the end of the war the idea of strategic bombing had emerged, large fleets of airplanes communicating by radio were launching coordinated attacks on targets across national borders. It is arguable, on this basis, that the technologies available during the First World War reached a greater level of integration, and achieved that integration earlier, as compared to comparable technological innovations of the Second World War.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn't get funded.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn’t get funded.

What makes the transition to spacefaring civilization so fraught?

Spacefaring, as we know, is difficult. It is also dangerous and expensive. But it is not more dangerous or expensive than any number of routine human activities — though it may well be intellectually and technically more difficult than just about anything else accomplished by human civilization. If we had experienced a spacefaring preemption in the second half of the twentieth century, it is almost certain that many lives would have been lost in the effort to establish a demographically significant human presence in space. But we must place these casualties in context. We routinely accept automobile casualties in the tens of thousands every year (in the United States alone; global figures are much higher). A major spacefaring effort would have involved an increase in the loss of life, but it is unlikely that this figure would have even approached the 40,000 or so highway fatalities experienced every year, year on year. The commercial spacefaring industry is likely to mirror the commercial aviation industry, which does experience catastrophic failures and loss of life, but is statistically far safer than travel on any highway.

Similar arguments to those above could be made regarding the expense of a major spacefaring effort: it would have been expensive, but not radically more expensive than any number of other initiatives undertaken in human history. It would be difficult to argue that funding the space program at a level that would have made a spacefaring preemption possible would have “broken” the economy of either the US or the USSR, though this is often suggested. I would suggest, on the contrary, that if significant funding had followed the Apollo Program, rather than collapsing after the “space race” was won, that the unintended and unexpected technological spin-offs of a major space program would have transformed the terrestrial economy. However, counter-factuals are difficult if not impossible to prove, so I doubt I would convince anyone who did not want to be convinced on this score.

Probably among the least likely factors to be cited regarding the difficulty of the transition to spacefaring civilization would be the intellectual forces that shape history, but I think in the case of the spacefaring preemption that did not happen that it was the intellectual infrastructure that was the decisive element that derailed this potential historical disruption. Humanity was not ready to become a spacefaring species in the second half of the twentieth century; our concerns remained overwhelmingly terrestrial concerns, and those who tried to get their fellow Earth-bound human beings (Earth-bound in mind as well as in body) to see the possibilities for humanity beyond Earth were largely ignored. It was and still is routine to dismiss large-scale spacefaring as an impossible dream, notwithstanding proven technology and numerous space exploration successes, including human spaceflight.

Gerard K. O'Neill's conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Gerard K. O’Neill’s conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Crossing the Spacefaring Chasm

The absence of a relatively rapid spacefaring preemption of industrial-technological civilization in the recent past does not mean that terrestrial civilization will never make the transition to spacefaring civilization. This transition could come about as the result of a later preemption — perhaps as the result of new newly available technology that drastically reduces the cost of transport to Earth orbit — or as the result of a gradual and incremental transition that involves no preemption incident. In the latter case, it is entirely possible that planetary industrial-technological civilization might continue for hundreds or thousands of years, and hundreds or thousands of years of gradual transition would characterize the eventual emergence of a spacefaring civilization.

In several contexts (e.g., Getting to Starships and The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment) I have emphasized that human terrestrial civilization cannot be thought of as an “early adopter” spacefaring civilization. An early adopter spacefaring civilization would be a spacefaring civilization that came about as a result of a preemption episode in the early history of space travel. In the case of spacefaring, this did not happen; we did not widely adopt spacefaring technologies as soon as they were available and employ them to begin a human diaspora in the cosmos.

If our civilization does become a spacefaring civilization (we cannot yet say if that will happen), it will do so decades or centuries after having possessed the technological capability to do this, and so must be considered a late-adopter spacefaring civilization, if it is (or will become) any kind of spacefaring civilization at all. Spacefaring civilization has experienced is symbolic firsts, but it has not experienced its horizon — at least, not for human civilization (if there are other civilizations in the cosmos, there may be a civilization or civilizations that have experienced a spacefaring preemption). The temporal distance between spaceflight symbolic firsts and a spaceflight horizon is yet to be determined.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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