The Spacefaring Inflection Point

21 October 2017

Saturday


Recently in The Space Age turns 60! I wrote, “We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago.” What do I mean by an inflection point, and what is (or what would be) the inflection point for spacefaring civilization?

In a curve, an inflection point (according to Wolfram Mathworld) is, “…a point on a curve at which the sign of the curvature (i.e., the concavity) changes.” In this technical sense, then, I have misused “inflection point,” but it has become commonplace to speak of the inflection point of an exponential (or sigmoid) curve as the point at which the transition occurs from the long, shallow part of the curve, only incrementally growing over time, to the exponential growth part of the curve. In this sense, the inflection point is the transition from slow (sometimes very slow), incremental development to rapid, exponential development.

We have some good examples of inflection points from human history. The industrial revolution is a nearly perfect example of an inflection point. Human beings have been developing technologies since long before civilization. Pre-human ancestors were using stone tools more than two million years ago. However, technological development began to accelerate with the industrial revolution, and continues to develop at an expanding and increasing rate. Technological growth — both in terms of technological complexity and large-scale industrial application — has been exponential since the industrial revolution. Is something like this possible with spacefaring?

In Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen and Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel I discussed one of my favorite themes, namely, that spacefaring civilization might have experienced its inflection point in the wake of the Apollo program, which latter demonstrated what was possible when significant resources are expended on a difficult goal. More recently, on The Unseen Podcast Episode We, Martians? I said that if we had gone to Mars as NASA once planned, building immediately following Apollo, it would have been a different mission than any mission to Mars undertaken at the present time. It would have been, in short, a mission much like the Apollo mission, meaning a transient presence on Mars sufficient to plant the flag of the sponsoring nation-state and to collect some samples to bring back to Earth. Paul Carr called this a “Flags and Footprints” mission, which is a good way to phrase this, and I subsequently heard this from others, so apparently it’s a thing.

These counterfactuals did not occur, so that they represent a permanently lost opportunity for human civilization. The door has closed on this particular shape for human history, but the door remains open for different shapes for human history if spacefaring technologies are eventually adopted, and when they are adopted (if they are adopted), will decisively and definitively alter the shape of human history — or the history of any intelligent species able to build spacefaring technologies. To consider this a little more carefully I am going to delineate three generic scenarios for the breakout to spacefaring civilization that might be experienced by a civilization that develops spacefaring technology. These three scenarios are as follows:

● Early Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency immediately upon the technology being available.

● Middling Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency only after it has been available for a substantial period of time, but within the longue durée in which the technology became available.

● Late Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history.

No great store need be placed on the time frames I have implied above; sufficient to our purposes is that spacefaring may become routine immediately upon, sometime after, or long after the technology is available. Each of these spacefaring inflection points can be taken separately, since each represents a different civilization as defined by the relationship between the civilizations of planetary endemism and spacefaring civilization. Moreover, we can justify the significance of the position of the spacefaring inflection point in the overall history of civilization by reference to the infinitistic possibilities available to a spacefaring civilization

Early Inflection Point

On several occasions I have written about the possibility of a spacefaring civilization emerging immediately upon the technology of the Space Race being available, specifically in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen. In this post I suggested that industrial-technological civilization as it has been known from the industrial revolution up to the advent of the Space Age might have been suddenly “preempted” by the emergence of a new kind of civilization — a spacefaring civilization — that changed the conditions of human life as radically as the industrial revolution changed the conditions of human life. This is what did, in fact, happen with the industrial revolution: as soon as the technology to drive machinery by fossil fuels became available, it was rapidly exploited, and western societies passed through a series of rapid social changes driven by industrialization.

While an early inflection point did not occur on Earth with the initial availability of spacefaring technology, we must consider the possibility that this is could occur with any civilization that passes the spacefaring technology threshold. I explored some of these possibilities in my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel. In so far as an early spacefaring breakout would encourage a focus on spacefaring technologies (the relative neglect of other technologies being an opportunity cost of this alternative focus), the developmental trajectory of such a civilization might involve continual and rapid development of spacefaring technologies even while other technologies (say, for example, computing technologies) remain relatively undeveloped. Thus the technological profile of a given civilization is going to reflect the existential opportunities it has pursued, and when it pursues them.

We may also observe that, along with early-adoption spacefaring scenarios that did not occur with human civilization, it is also the case that a variety of counterfactual existential risk scenarios also did not occur. What I mean by this is that, once nuclear weapons were invented (shortly before the advent of the Space Age), human beings immediately realized that this gave us the power to destroy our own civilization. A number of novels were written and films were made in which human beings or human civilization went extinct shortly after the technology was available for this. These scenarios did not occur, just as the scenarios of early spacefaring adoption did not occur.

Middling Inflection Point

It has become a commonplace to speak of the recent development of space industries as “NewSpace.” If the technologies of NewSpace come to maturity in the coming decades and results in the following decades in a spacefaring breakout and the establishment of a truly spacefaring civilization, this would constitute an instance of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point. Given that the Space Age is now sixty years old, a few more decades of development would mean that spacefaring technologies will have been available for a century before they come to be fully exploited for a spacefaring breakout and a spacefaring civilization. In other words, the spacefaring inflection point did not occur immediately after spacefaring technology was available, but it also did not have to wait for an entirely new epoch of human history to come to pass for the spacefaring breakout to occur. (In terms of human civilization, we might identify a period of 100-300 years from advent to breakout as a mediocre spacefaring inflection point.)

As implied above, the current nominal spacefaring capacity of our civilization today is consistent with a middling spacefaring inflection point, if spacfaring expands rapidly in the wake of the maturity of NewSpace industries and technologies. Among these technologies we may count reusable spacecraft (Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser), including the booster stages of multi-stage rockets (SpaceX and Blue Origin), hybrid rocket engines (Reaction Engines LTD), and ion and plasma rockets (Ad Astra’s VASIMR), inter alia. These are the actual technologies of spacefaring; many industries that seek to exploit space for commercial and industrial uses are focused on technologies to be employed in space, but which are not necessarily technologies of spacefaring that will result in a spacefaring breakout.

Late Inflection Point

Say that the NewSpace technologies noted above come to maturity, but they prove to be impractical, or too expensive, or simply uninteresting to the better part of humanity. If this opportunity arises and then is passed over without a spacefaring breakout, like the initial existential opportunity presented by spacefaring technologies, the middling spacefaring inflection point will pass and humanity will remain with its nominal spacefaring capacity but no spacefaring breakout and no spacefaring civilization. In this case, if there is to be an eventual spacefaring breakout for human civilization, it will be a late spacefaring inflection point, and human civilization will change considerably in the period of time that passes between the initial availability of spacefaring technology and its eventual exploitation for a spacefaring breakout.

Just as in the meantime from initial availability of spacefaring technology to the present day, computer technology exponentially improved, a late spacefaring inflection point would mean that many technologies would emerge and come to maturity and industrial exploitation even as spacefaring technologies are neglected and experience little development (perhaps as an opportunity cost of the development of alternative technologies). Thus a late-adopter spacefaring civilization may develop a variety of fusion technologies, alternative energy technologies, genetic engineering technologies, quantum computing, human-machine interface technologies (or xenomorph-machine interface, as the case may be), artificial consciousness, and so on. Once a civilization possesses something akin to technological maturity on its homeworld, its historical experience will be radically different from the historical experience of a species that pursues an early spacefaring inflection point.

I can imagine a civilization that becomes so advanced that spacefaring technologies become cheap and easily available simply because the technological infrastructure of the civilization is so advanced. Thus even if there is no large-scale social interest in spacefaring, small groups of interested individuals can have spacefaring technologies for the asking, and these individuals and small groups will leave the planet one or two at a time, a dozen at a time, and so on. The homeworld civilization would be unaffected by this small scale spacefaring diaspora, since the technological and financial investment will have become so marginal as to be negligible, but these individuals and groups will take with them an advanced technology that will allow them to survive and prosper even at this small scale.

The worlds these small groups pioneer will grow slowly, but they will grow, regardless of whether the homeworld notices. Under these conditions, an ongoing nominal spacefaring capacity could develop over longer scales of time into a spacefaring capacity that is no longer nominal, though we would never be able to say exactly when this changeover occurred; this would be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary transition. However, once these other worlds began to grow in population, eventually these populations would exceed the population of Earth, and at this point we could say with confidence that the late spacefaring inflection point had been reached, without spacefaring per se ever becoming a great civilizational-scale undertaking.

The Null Case

In addition to these three scenarios, there is also the null case, i.e., spacefaring technology is initially developed, but it is not further pursued, so that it is either forgotten or regarded with disinterest. A civilization that develops spacefaring technology and then either fails to pursue the development, or loses the capacity due to other factors (such as civilizational collapse), never achieves a spacefaring breakout and never becomes a spacefaring civilization. As I make a distinction between the nominal spacefaring capacity we now possess, and a spacefaring civilization proper, our contemporary civilization remains consistent with the null case scenario unless or until it experiences a spacefaring breakout.

The null case is the trajectory of a civilization toward permanent stagnation. Even if many technologies are developed and come to maturity and industrial exploitation, nothing essential will have changed in the human relationship to the cosmos (or the relation of any intelligent species that develops spacefaring technology but which does not exploit these technology for a spacefaring breakout). Spacefaring technologies, if exploited for a spacefaring breakout that results in a spacefaring civilization, would change the relationship of a species to the cosmos, as the species in question then has the opportunity to develop separately from its homeworld, and is therefore no longer tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld. Without a spacefaring breakout, an intelligent species remains tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld, and necessarily goes extinct when its homeworld biosphere is rendered uninhabitable.

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Addendum added Wednesday 25 October 2017: Further to the above discussion of early spacefaring inflection points, I happened upon Space That Never Was is one artist’s vision of a never-ending space race: Where else might we have gone? by Andrew Liptak, which led me to the work of Mac Rebisz, Space That Never Was, who writes of his artistic vision, “Imagine a world where Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.” Rebisz’s images might be understood as illustrations of early-adopter spacefaring civilization.

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8 Responses to “The Spacefaring Inflection Point”

  1. I just read your excellent piece on the cost of suppressing nuclear energy, and came to find you here. I am going to follow you. You are addressing a critical area, how our decisions now can cause us to miss the opportunity to become a spacefaring civilization. This is the most pressing issue of our day. Our species, just like individual members of it, has a career, a mission, a responsibility; we have, submerged in the suffocation of liberalism, lost the sense of it. We have obliterated the concept of succeed, or fail.

    I also ask that you take a moment to visit my science fiction novel Run at https://malapertpress.wordpress.com I will gladly send you a free ecopy. The book links spacefaring to virtue, in a word, which is what I believe the question boils down to. We either have the virtue to pursue nuclear power without using it for war, or we do not and lose the chance, for example, in relation to your post on tumblr I just read. But it’s a great sci fi adventure, too, if I do say so myself, with reliable science and well-crafted fiction.

    If I don’t get a chance to ever say so again, thanks for your work.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for making me aware of your work. I’ll take a look at the available chapters soon.

      Nuclear technology could have been a springboard to an inflection point, but I don’t see proliferation issues changing any time soon. There will be other technologies, however, an other opportunities. As along as civilization remains intact, this cosmological future will remain available to it, even if the vision to seize this opportunity is not widely represented in the present.

      You are right to point our that technologies occur in a moral context, and our moral outlook in the world largely shapes our responses to (and our exploitation of) technologies. I could characterize risk aversion over nuclear proliferation as a social response to the moral imperative imposed upon us by existential risk.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. Oh, I see I already follow you on twitter!

  3. Hello! Darn it, you visited the website (I think it was you) but didn’t check out any chapters. I was just reading this post and there are so many ideas of yours I’ve dramatized–really, I wish you’d just read the chapters online, I’ve captured in fiction the economics that strangle us, which you write about here.

  4. I wonder about the scale of early, mediocre and late. Is a span of sixty years really enough to create such a scale? How do you define early in this case, since we have no reference? Or do we have alternative technological examples, such as computer technologies? Although I was brought up on the power rich infrastructure paradigm and it holds great appeal, might the fuel rich/solar powered architecture of in situ resources currently under development be an equivalent one, at least for the initial development phase of solar system exploration?

    • geopolicraticus said

      In this context I define “early” as being the exploitation of a technology to its fullest extent upon its initial availability. It might be entirely plausible to stretch out an early spacefaring inflection point to a hundred years (as is implied in the above), which would make the early window 1957 to 2057. As I wrote above, if NewSpace takes a few decades to crank up, then we’re looking at a spacefaring breakout about a hundred years after the technology became available, so right on the cusp of early, but not really early. In defense of this definition of early, consider the trajectory of technologies such as steam engines, electric lights, or cell phones (the latter not yet having experienced a hundred year anniversary, but the former two have).

      Certainly our sixty years of experience in spacefaring can’t yet tell us anything about mediocre and late adopter spacefaring civilizations, but it starts to point at some signs for the character of early adoption, if early adoption happens at all.

      I’m not sure that I fully understand your question, namely this: “…might the fuel rich/solar powered architecture of in situ resources currently under development be an equivalent one, at least for the initial development phase of solar system exploration?” Are you referring to current spacefaring technology that uses primarily liquid fuel and solar electric sources, or are you talking about the mix of fossil fuels and alternative fuels on our planetary surface in place of an O’Neill-style space-based solar power system? Both of these are interesting topics that I have addressed elsewhere.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  5. Hi, Nick, I see someone, probably you, did look at chapter one, so I’m happy, and I thank you. In Run I focused on the availability of solar power in space. Beaming power to Earth through a system of relay mirrors has been discussed.

    Janet

  6. xcalibur said

    Given that our efforts to colonize the final frontier have stalled during the past few decades, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve passed the early inflection point. The availability of the prerequisite technology did not lead to uninterrupted growth.

    However, our civilization doesn’t completely disregard the potential of space colonization. With the rise of other space programs (e.g. China) and private sector involvement, progress is still being made, albeit at a much slower pace than our maximum potential. Given this, I agree that we’re headed for a middling inflection point.

    The key hurdle is cheap access to orbit — once the massive cost wall comes down, I predict an exponential increase of human activity in space. What we need is something like a launch loop or startram to bypass chemical rockets and create an economy of scale. Of course, that would require massive upfront investment, which is something we could do, but don’t.

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