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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The Epistemic Overview Effect

14 September 2013



OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Overview Effect

The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.

One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.

Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:

For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!

We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:

When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.

Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White

In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:

“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.


The Spatial Overview

There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.

To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.

I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.

Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.

temporal overview

The Temporal Overview

There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.

The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.

I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.

It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.

Knowledge Tree

The Epistemic Overview

I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.

Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.

Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.

Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.

This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.

An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A human future in space that didn’t happen — or hasn’t happened yet.

Last year when I was writing out my reactions to the 100YSS symposium for 2011 I discussed how a couple of presentations made me realize a distinction must be sedulously observed between what I have called the political conception of history, which makes human agency central to history, and other conceptions of history in which human agency plays less of a role. This was particularly the case in regard to the 2011 presentation by Katherine Denning, in which professor Denning emphasized the accuracy of predictions and in so saying suggested that futurism can be a more-or-less exact science.

Apparently, this kind of thinking is well represented among 100YSS organizers and participants since the epigraph employed at 100YSS for the 2012 symposium was a quote from Will Durant, “The future never just happened, it was created.”

This is something with which I cannot agree when stated in this way, i.e., unconditionally. This claim embodies as perfectly as any one line could the political conception of history, and it is true, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough. Some of our history is under our control and can be consciously shaped by human agency; some other parts of our history, however, are not at all under our control and, try as we might, human agency cannot shape them to human ends.

When Hamlet says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,” or when a religious person says that the Lord works in mysterious ways, these are explicit admissions that there are clear limits to human agency in shaping history, although these expressions of a destiny beyond human agency are strong enough to embody a distinct conception of history, what I have called the eschatological conception of history, which recognizes the agency of non-human powers in the world. It is also possible to recognize the lack of human agency in shaping history (which I call the cataclysmic conception of history).

The reason that I mention these conceptions of history in relation to predicting the human future in space, or the attempt to employ human agency in making a human future in space happen, is that space programs have been the bread-and-butter of both futurism and science fiction throughout the twentieth century and up to the present. We need to be able to place this science fiction futurism in relation to our overall conception of history if we are to understand whether it is a driving vision of a future we are going to create, or a mere distraction from an entirely different future that is already upon us but remains unrecognized for what it is.

One cannot overemphasize the fact that past futurism has been and continues to be a source of camp humor; the very sincerity of the predictions that have been made lend the extra irony that transforms merely humorous mis-prediction into camp humor that is really a form of ridicule, thinly disguised — or not disguised at all.

The account of preternaturally accurate futurist predictions usually focuses on minutae and neglects the big picture. Prediction often gets technological details right even while the human element is laughably wrong. Getting the human element of the future wrong can be as simple as not realizing that people won’t want to give up their convivial dinners for a single pill supplying all necessary nutrition, or it can be as subtle and sophisticated as trying to understanding the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, and what this means for the relationship between artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

I have written several posts critical of Ray Kurzweil’s conception of a technological singularity (for example, The Singularity Has No Clothes). Recently I watched a Kurzweil lecture to staff of the SETI institute that is available on Youtube. I realized when I watched this that a great many of Kurzweil’s narrowly technological predictions are likely to be true, even while he gets the human context of his predictions all wrong. The human element that Kurzweil gets wrong is human consciousness.

Kurzweil (one of today’s must successful futurists) shows the extent to which he embodies the contemporary scientific attitude by simply pretending that philosophical problems don’t exist (something I described in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy). He announces poetic metaphors — plainly asserting the identity of mind and software — without even bothering to offer a suggestion about how his position avoids the problem of Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment. No one calls him on his metaphors, and certainly none of his followers ask him to give an account of his philosophical ellipses.

We are, more often than not, blindsided by history. Historian Pauline Maier says this at the beginning of the PBS television series Liberty: The American Revolution (Episode 1):

“The future would bring freedom, it would bring prosperity, because it would be British. The tyrannical French and Spanish had been removed from the continent. How surprising this is to us; we don’t think of this as the great division. Their view of the future seems naive, so different than what we knew their future would have been. Which tells us something: what came was not expected, and it was certainly not desired. They were British, they wanted to be British, they were proud of being British; that they would thirteen years later be declaring their independence is enormously paradoxical. It did not have to be, it should not have been, from their perspective; that it happened is a great mystery that needs to be explained.”

Here is an historical perspective that I can fully endorse, although of course such things vary according to circumstances. In some cases the future is no mystery at all, and requires no explanation, but in other cases the future that did in fact come about is a mystery for which historians can offer no answer. The answer to the mysteries of history transcends history.

A few days ago in From Moon Shot to Milk Run I talked about the different conceptions of civilization involved in conceptualizing a space program as a heroic one-off endeavor like the Apollo moon shot (which exemplifies the heroic conception of civilization) or in conceptualizing a space program as a routine, work-a-day affair (which exemplifies the iterative conception of civilization).

It strikes me now that an heroic conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a political conception of history, since such great endeavors are generally top-down, exhaustively planned missions, while an iterative conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a naturalistic conception of history, that sees the human expansion into space as part of the ordinary business of life rather than a great heroic undertaking.

One of the questions that came up repeatedly at 100YSS both in 2011 and 2012 was public outreach and the relative lack or interest or lack of participation (however you care to interpret it) by the public in the space program. I think that at least part of this attitude — whether originally coming from the space program itself or coming from the public — is the heroic character of the undertaking and its lack of contact with the lives of ordinary people. Most people could understand an iterative space program, since it would have a structure much like their own lives, and would likely involve people that they know. An heroic space program, consisting of a series of “moon shots” is unquestionably an inspiration from a distance, but how long can an inspiration from a distance play a role in the iterated details of ordinary life?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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From Moon Shot to Milk Run

20 September 2012


A Boeing 1969 Study for an ‘Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft’ needing only Saturn V and Saturn IB to lift the sections into orbit. Such an interplanetary craft would require no industrial infrastructure in space. Theoretically, the same approach could be taken with an interstellar spacecraft. In practice, an interstellar spacecraft would be so enormous that lifting it off the surface of the Earth in pieces would probably be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.

In previous posts on the 100YSS 2012 symposium I discussed some of the unspoken but underlying themes of the conference, namely, the Fermi Paradox and its associated question — “Are we alone?” — and the vaguely paternalistic character of many of the presentations which seemed to assume that the builders of a generational starship could reach out from the earth to retain control over an enterprise unreachably distant both in space and time. It is striking to note that the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera he wrote based on a story of Ursula Le Guin, Paradises Lost, avoided this latter pitfall and therefore revealed itself as one of the more profound contributions of the whole symposium.

This proposed Mars mission spacecraft could be assembled on earth and lifted into orbit section by section, but it would be a lot more efficient to manufacture the biggest pieces in space and just bring up the technically difficult pieces from Earth.

I am not yet finished with the lessons I learned from this year’s 100YSS symposium, but instead of offering an exposition of implicit themes, I would now like to offer an exposition of a of an implicit tension that ran through both the 2011 and 2012 100YSS presentations, and this is the dichotomy in approach between those who assume that further human exploration of space is likely to be Earth-based, so that future spacecraft will continue to be manufactured on the Earth and then launched into space, with additional assembly in orbit required for larger missions, and those who assume that steady and gradual human spacesteading will eventually result in an industrial infrastructure in space so that large spacecraft for ambitious future missions of exploration will inevitably be manufactured in space, off the surface of the earth, by those who already live in space.

The tension between these two points of view is important because it points to very different conceptions of the nature of civilization, and indeed what civilization will become in the course of the coming century. I think that for many people, even people who dream of starships, that the idea of a human civilization of any significant size off the surface of the earth is just too close to science fiction to take seriously. People who take this view can imagine ambitious plans of human exploration of the solar system and beyond, but they imagine it all as the result of earth-based industry.

Last year in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 1 I wrote this:

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

This distinction between heroic and iterative civilization is useful in this context. (I recently revisited the idea of heroic civilization in Apollo and Everest.) The heroic conception of civilization understands space exploration as an heroic undertaking based on civilization pretty much as we know it today; the iterative conception of civilization sees civilization is incrementally but relentlessly expanding its scope, and if space exploration is part of this conception of civilization, then that exploration will grow organically out of a civilization that is in space anyway. It is entirely possible to understand either conception of civilization as including or excluding human space exploration.

It is possible to elaborate on this distinction between conceptions of civilizations and their undertakings, and in fact while I was listening to some of the presentations during the 100YSS 2012 symposium I started a list dividing the properties of these respective conceptions of civilization. I begin with the paradigm of heroic spaceflight as the “moon shot,” which embodies so many of our ideas of a heroic, one-off undertaking, and I contrast this to the “milk run,” which is a mundane, routine undertaking. Here is my (admittedly imperfect) list so far:

Moon Shot Milk Run
heroic ordinary
sprint long haul
top-down bottom-up
central planning unplanned
sudden incremental
exceptional routine
narrowly-based broadly-based
hierarchical organic

The paradigmatic case of a “moon shot” style space mission is, of course, the moon shot. The entire spacecraft for the moon mission was built and assembled on earth. The Saturn V rocket was enormous, and lofted an enormous payload into orbit. As the mission made its way to the moon, parts of the spacecraft were jettisoned along the route, and by the time the three astronauts returned, they returned in the tiny Apollo capsule that was only large enough to contain the three of them. Many (if not most) of the proposed Mars missions on the drawing boards adopt this paradigm, for obvious reasons. Except for the International Space Station (ISS), there is no industrial infrastructure in space. This is the Achilles heel of the entire contemporary space program. Any large undertaking in space is limited by this absence of industrial infrastructure.

The ISS itself was built on Earth, although its parts were assembled in orbit after having been one at a time lifted off from the Earth. Any large spacecraft would minimally require assembly in orbit, and of course it would make much more sense to employ an industrial infrastructure in space to extract and process the necessary materials rather than lift then from the earth, where the materials themselves are relatively expensive and the cost to take them into orbit even more so. In theory, even an interstellar ship could be manufactured on the Earth and assembled in orbit, although this technology currently envisioned any starship would need to be far larger than anything else previously assembled by human hands.

My point here is that this is more than just a choice of technique in assembling a spacecraft, whether headed to Mars or headed to the stars. The temperamental distinction between thinking of civilization in these two fundamentally distinct ways points to the connection between temperament and civilization. Persons of the one temperament will work toward the creation of a civilization consistent with their temperament, while persons of the other temperament will work toward another kind of civilization. In a large and diverse world, there is room for both temperaments, and in What adventures are actually left? I observed that…

When our early hominid ancestors began to make their way around the earth, I imagine that they traveled from mixed motives, and that it was a little bit of exploration, a little bit of adventure, and a little bit of diaspora.

To exploration, adventure, and diaspora I should add those iterative activities that go to make up the ordinary business of life. As long as there is room for disagreement in the world, we are not forced to choose between differing conceptions of civilization.

From a standpoint of existential risk, which I briefly discussed in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II, it ought to be obvious to us that we would not want to keep all our eggs in one basket, since at present the Earth is a single point of failure for our species — and every other species on the planet.

With or without travel to the stars, a robust and sustainable off-planet civilization could be constructed within our solar system. Off the surface of the Earth, there is so much energy and so many resources that they are for practical purposes endless because we could not exhaust them. At least, we could not exhaust them until we had reached the point where travel to other stars was practicable and we could tap into new sources of energy and raw materials. This is a work-a-day vision of the future of civilization.

But it may be the case that human beings may have a tendency to settle into and settle for stagnation once industrial-technological civilization covers the entire planet and life reaches a reasonable level of comfort for almost everyone. To tear people away from amusement and entertainment and what Fukuyama called “the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” it may be necessary to pursue the inspirational, the heroic, and the spectacular, even if pursued from the surface of an increasingly comfortable earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part I I discussed the interview with Le Var Burton and the talk given my Jill Tarter, both of which events took place during the plenary sessions. Now I will consider some of the other presentations of the day when the group split up into its various tracks.

During one of the plenary sessions it was announced that a presentation that did not appear on the program would be taking place, and this sounded quite interesting to me, so I went to it, and this was “Existential Risk, Human Survival, and the Future of Life” by Heath Rezabek. Mr Rezabek identified himself as a librarian, and his concern was with archiving human civilization. To this end he explained Nick Bostrum’s categories of existential risk (which I first encountered last year at the 2011 100YSS symposium), briefly discussed the Fermi paradox (which I mentioned in my last post), and then went on to detail the possibility of setting up vast archives of human civilization based on Paolo Soleri’s arcology designs.

Based on Nick Bostrum’s conception of existential risk, Mr. Rezabek asserted that “survival is not enough,” because mere survival may play into those categories of existential risk that include permanent stagnation or flawed realization. After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I asked if the existence of a comprehensive archive didn’t hold the inherent risk of stagnation. Mr. Rezabek responded that the archive would not aim at comprehensiveness, and another guest in the audience said that the archives would create their own artifacts and therefore not fall into stagnation. However, I was unconvinced. This sounded to me much too much like a futurologist’s Byzantium which preserved the works of classical antiquity and even added to them, but not in a way that was robust or vigorous from the perspective of civilizational growth. Another lecturer had mentioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis, better known as Justinian’s digest of Roman law, I thought about going into an explanation of how knowledge tends to get embalmed under such circumstances, but I realized that it would have taken too long to try to make my case.

After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I stayed on for Gabriel Rothblatt’s “Spacesteading — Settling the High Frontier.” Mr. Rothblatt, who identified himself as a politician, visited a question that was discussed much in last year’s 100YSS symposium, which was the problematic nature of referring to the “colonization of space,” because of its associations with the odious history of colonization. It probably would be better to stop speaking in terms of “space colonization” and instead to speak of “spacesteading,” though I don’t think that the contemporary conception of space colonization is deeply indebted to the tradition of colonialism, and if we focus too much on words and how they offend people rather than on ideas and actions there is a danger that we will never emerge again into the light of day. I wrote down Mr. Rothblatt’s e-mail address and sent him a question by e-mail (to which he has not yet responded; if he does respond I will include it in an attachment) as I didn’t have an opportunity to ask this question after his presentation:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

After this, I went to another room to catch another presentation, and found that the schedule had been scrambled a bit, though I was fortunate as I managed to catch the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera that he wrote based on a work of noted science fiction writer and Portland resident Ursula LeGuin. I had spoken to Mr. Taylor the previous day and so had hoped to see his work, and his presentation included a couple of clips of a production of his opera. I had asked him if he wrote the libretto, and he said that it was taken from LeGuin’s text; like many of LeGuin’s stories, the idea behind the opera was both compelling and inventive, involved with the emergence of a new religion on a generational starship.

I found myself very intellectually engaged in the final afternoon session of the “Becoming and Interstellar Civilization” track, as I enjoyed all the presentations. Steven Brant of Trimtab Management Systems spoke on “Humanity must see itself as one human family before it can go to the star.” I had spoken with Mr. Brant at lunch prior to his presentation, and mentioned that I had tried to see his talk earlier but thought I had missed it because of the changed schedule. He told me he was next up, so I hadn’t missed it after all. Mr. Brant was particularly concerned that human beings overcome their destructive tribalism, which overcoming he termed “the necessary transition.” Mr Brant also gave a quick thumbnail sketch of James Burke’s views on how societies can become transformed by adopting a new perspective on matters. He particularly cited Burke’s 1985 PBS television series The Day the Universe Changed, which I had watched in rapt attention during its first PBS run, and had even videotaped in order to watch again later.

Steven Brant’s presentation during the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track.

A careful viewing of Burke’s television series, especially in contrast from his earlier television series called Connections, reveals the profound change of perspective in Burke’s own views as he studied the history of science and civilization. Burke’s Connections was very much in the established tradition of scientific realism, but apparently there came a day when James Burke’s universe changed, since in The Day the Universe Changed he adopted a strong perspectivalist position. Mr. Brant adopted Burke’s perspectivalism and gave an informal exposition of the theory-dependence of observations, though without going into all the implications that this has for Kuhnian incommensurability. This then set up a tension in the later part of his talk, as he went into Amory Lovins’ emphasis on the need for political decisions based upon facts and being able to root out misinformation and what is untrue while giving everyone the idea that it is OK to make mistakes. The problem here is that if observations are theory dependent as in a strong perspectivalist position, then there are not facts to get right or wrong, and no facts on which to base political decisions.

All of this may sound rather arcane, but it cashes out in important ways. The idea of humanity as one human family is a construction of Enlightenment universalism. For better or for worse, Enlightenment universalism has proved to be less durable than ethnic identity. The great mass of human beings take their identity (again, for better or worse) from their ethnic background, and if this ethnic identity is attacked or dismissed as illusory or unimportant, you immediately encounter resistance, because no one wants to be deprived of their identity. There is a fact of the matter on both sides of this question: both the reality of a single hominid species and the reality of ethnically distinct enclaves of the human family that identify more with each other than with outsiders. However, I will allow that Mr. Brant’s exposition of Burkean perspectivalism does constitute a proof of concept that profound changes in our perception of our relationship to the world can in fact come about.

The problematic nature of ethnic identity and human unity was, in fact, cashed out in the very next presentation, when Bob Hawkins spoke about the perception of human spaceflight in Turkey, which is a developing country with almost no space industry but with a popular interest in space travel. Mr. Hawkins discussed how the Turk’s own ethnic identity plays into the interest in space travel, since the Turks self-identify as nomads for whom space is simply the next frontier for a nomadic existence in the future. After his presentation I asked Mr. Hawkins if he was aware of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since this book has quite a bit of futuristic speculation on a Turkish space program. He didn’t know the book, but once I mentioned it another member of the audience identified himself as part of Strategic Forecasting (which is Friedman’s consulting company) and who supplied Mr. Hawkin’s with some documentation on the details of my reference so he could look it up later.

Kathleen Toerpe’s presentation to the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track

Next was Kathleen Toerpe on “From the Moon to the Stars: tapping into share culture to create public momentum for interstellar travel.” I was very impressed with Professor Toerpe’s thoughtful and incisive presentation, which was the most coherent formulation yet of concrete proposals for public outreach, which she called a “Culture Strategy.” If I were myself putting together the 100YSS initiative, I would take the business plan vision outlined by Marsal Gifra that I had seen the previous day and use this to implement the culture strategy outlined by Professor Toerpe. With these two programs together, I really could believe that the necessary momentum to sustain human spacesteading and to avoid permanent stagnation is possible.

Next was Antoine Faddoul who gave a great presentation on how to connect people to the stars, which he sees (rightly) as a common human experience. Mr. Faddoul’s presentation was both systematic and practical in terms of relating stories of the stars to the lives of ordinary people. Lastly in the track, and followed by the question and answer period that took the session to 5:30 pm, which was a half hour beyond the official wrap up of proceedings, was Chris Radcliff of Global Spin on “Generation Zero: Fostering a Culture of Spacefarers.” Generation Zero is the generation that builds and facilitates a generational starship; generation 1 is the generation that embarks on a generational journey, and generation n is the generation that arrives. Mr. Radcliff was concerned to identify contemporary “Maker” culture with Erik Erikson’s generativity stage of human development. I would have given it a rather different exposition, since Mr. Radcliff’s “makers” seem to me to have more to do with Richard Florida’s “creative class” than with Eriksonian generativity.

Chris Radcliff’s presentation to the becoming an Interstellar civilization track

While I found myself more or less nodding in agreement that a generation zero would need to foster a culture of spacefaring, and I really liked his idea of selecting among small pre-existing colonies in the asteroid belt (presumably present by the time a starship is built) to see whom might be best positioned to enter into a generational starship with the least amount of conflict and the greatest degree of comity, but I was made a little uneasy by the many references in Mr. Radcliff’s talk about “choosing generation 1.” Why would anyone want to be “chosen” by some quasi-patriarchal entity? Who is doing the choosing? If these makers had the temperament implied by Mr. Radcliff, they would snort at being “chosen” by anyone who would presume to offer then any way of life different from that which they had chosen for themselves.

Now, I many be seriously misinterpreting Mr. Radcliff’s point, and I’m sure he would have put it in different terms if I had had a chance to ask my question of him directly, but this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Mr. Radcliff’s presentation. Like the subtle undercurrent of the Fermi paradox to which I alluded yesterday, the secondary sub-theme of the 100YSS 2012 symposium was that of a benign but patriarchal entity that would build the starship, select its crew, and send them on their great adventure as though wishing their children happiness and success in life. It is not difficult to imagine what a Freudian or a Foucauldian critique would make of this. And this is important, because if the social context of a journey for the stars is wrong, nothing will come of it. It is the lack of political and social will to sustain the space program that marginalized popular space exploration consciousness after the Apollo program. If this isn’t addressed in an effective and realistic way, it will be a very long time until we get to the stars, if we do not in fact fall prey to the existential risks of permanent stagnation or flawed realization.

With that, the 100YSS for 2012 was at an end for me, and I grabbed my bags and hopped on a taxi to the airport without so much as a backward glance at Houston.

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Note Added 21 September 2012: I noted above that I had sent a question to Mr. Gabriel Rothblatt about his presentation at the 100YSS 2012 symposium but hadn’t yet received a response as of my writing the above. Mr. Rothblatt has since responded to me, and I have copied his response in Addendum on Spacesteading.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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My second full day of participation in the 2012 100YSS symposium, and the third day of the event, left me with much to think about. (I didn’t attend any events on the first day, and I had to leave upon close of business today, so I will miss the remaining events of Day 4.)

Presentation by Jill Tarter of the SETI institute.

The great eschatological question of the 100YSS symposium was “Are we alone?” Just as Joshua Lederberg said that origins of life research is the great creation myth of science, in similar fashion the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos is becoming the great eschatological myth of science. That science has matured to the point of bookending the human condition with a creation myth and an eschatological myth demonstrates the ongoing force of science in industrial-technological civilization. As a kind of xenomorphic thorough-bass that provided the underlying counter-point of everything else that happened at 100YSS, the Fermi paradox came up repeatedly in several different formulations. This question was present in different forms in both plenary sessions of the day.

A great quote from Philip Morrison that Jill Tarter used in her presentation.

Continuing the Star Trek theme initiated by the interview with Nichelle Nichols yesterday, the day began with an interview with Le Var Burton, who was a cast member of the second Star Trek television series. Mr. Burton was very well spoken and thoughtful. In the course of his interview he also delivered himself of the view that he strongly believed not only that we are not alone in the universe, but that we are being watched, perhaps monitored, by alien intelligences who consider us too dangerous at present to join the comity of the cosmos. This is sometimes known as the “zoo hypothesis” (which also has a variant known as the “planetarium hypothesis”), and is a familiar response to the Fermi paradox, although Mr. Burton never explicitly mentioned either the zoo hypothesis or the Fermi paradox.

The second plenary session of the day was a wonderful address by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute, who has made the search for extraterrestrial intelligence her career, and is passionate about the idea and about the search. While Mr. Burton presented his version of the zoo hypothesis very explicitly as a belief, Dr. Tartar, made a point of positioning her work in classic scientific terms, explicitly saying that belief does not play a role in her work. Dr. Tarter’s implicit response to the Fermi paradox was that the cosmos is very large, and that if one considers our SETI efforts so far, these compare to the scope of the cosmos as a glass of water compares to the oceans of the earth. Dr. Tarter considered a number of other responses to the Fermi paradox — e.g., the problem of the longevity of civilizations and the possibility that we are not listening correctly — but true to her scientific training did not express a belief about these hypothesis independent of the (lack of) evidence for them.

To hammer home the theme of scientific knowledge being distinct from belief, Dr. Tarter. said, “We have outgrown asking poets, priests, and philosophers what we should believe.” (This is a quote taken from memory so I might have gotten it a little off; I don’t have a transcript of the talk as I write this.) As a philosopher and a poet I didn’t care much for this remark, but I certainly understood the scientific spirit in which it was intended. I see poetry and philosophy as parallel to science rather than mutually exclusive, but, as I wrote above, Dr. Tarter chose to couch her remarks in classic scientific terms. It is also worthwhile to point out that, given what I wrote above about science now providing both creation and eschatological myths, poets, priests, and philosophers are now rivals to this preeminent role that scientists have in our society, and while rivalry can be kept civilized, it is rarely friendly and often takes the form of disguised hostility (and sometimes undisguised hostility — cf. Fashionable Anti-Philosophy).

Another implicit theme in Dr. Tarter’s talk was a contrast between technological infancy and technological maturity. Dr. Tarter explicitly acknowledged that, due to the limitations of our current state of technological development, we may be at present simply all wrong in how we are going about SETI, but as technology advances and matures we may eventually be able to join the cosmic conversation now going on over our heads, which suggests the image of human science and technology slowly rising to meet the threshold of an alien technological metric.

The interesting contrast between the perspectives on the Fermi paradox implicitly offered by Le Var Burton and Dr. Jill Tarter during the day’s two plenary sessions demonstrated how one and the same idea can serve as as belief or as an object of intellectual inquiry and scientific knowledge. As I wrote above, Mr. Burton explicitly identified his position as a belief, and I imagine that the idea of SETI can serve as a belief for many people — and in differing capacities, as they imagine alien intelligences to be friendly or hostile, very similar to or very different from us — even while for others the idea of SETI is a matter of theoretical analysis or “part of a suite of technological explorations” as Dr. Tarter said in her talk today (this is another quote from memory).

It is perhaps this very fact of the diverse perspectives on SETI that demonstrate its true (if often tacit) centrality in contemporary life. Any one idea that can inspire both art and science has a privileged position within a civilization. SETI has this role in industrial-technological civilization. Whereas we once filled the void of existential and cosmic loneliness with religion, we are approaching a point at which a significant number of persons fill the void of cosmic loneliness with the question, “Are we alone?” The question admits of scientific inquiry, and may someday be answered with scientific precision, but the same question can also be answered with a belief. This must be identified as one of the most important intellectual developments of our time.

There was much more in the day on which I took detailed notes, but as it has been a very long day on very little sleep, I am tired and so I will continue this account in a Part II.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Apollo and Everest

30 August 2012


The recent passing of Neil Armstrong provides an opportunity to reflect once again on the moribund space program and the sorry state of human space exploration. In my Tumblr post on Neil Armstrong I mentioned the article Neil Armstrong’s death should be a wake-up call for the world by Martin Robbins writing in The Guardian, which was a forceful reflection on precisely this topic.

The collapse of ambitious human spaceflight programs (sometimes called the “Conquest of Space”), and the constant talk of a manned mission to Mars coupled with the absence of any action to begin such a project, contrasts strikingly with the “Conquest of Everest” by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, which began an ambitious mountaineering trend that has, in our own time, come close to being a mass phenomenon — sort of like playing golf, although a bit more restrictive and exclusive.

In the case of the lack of any follow-through after, or follow-up to, the Apollo program, this lack of action followed a public perception revealed in contemporary sources that all would be onward and upward after the Apollo program: that we would continue to go to the moon and not too long after that to Mars, and we would inhabit that exciting world that the futurists presented to us. Of course, we could have done so, but this didn’t happen. On the contrary, “moonshot” has now become an immediately and intuitively unambiguous metaphor that refers to a one-off heroic effort that is not followed by an encore.

In the case of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, the opposite expectation was operative. I have previously quoted Sir Edmund Hilary (in The Heroic Conception of Civilization) regarding his ascent of Everest, as follows:

…Sir Edmund Hillary… was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Yet Sir Edmund Hilary could not have been more mistaken, and he recognized this in the quote above. This effort to climb Everest, which he had himself understood as a “one-off heroic effort” that would not be followed by an encore, began a trickle that has now become a flood; the ascent of Everest has now become a “bucket list” item for the wealthy and privileged rather than a one-off “moonshot” that was impracticable to replicate.

At least part of the different perception and different consequences of Apollo and Everest must be attributed to the nearly insurmountable technical and financial obstacles to human spaceflight. To date, only large and relatively wealthy nation-states can afford the resources of putting human beings into space, and as a consequence these efforts came to be seen as intrinsically related to national prestige, whereas the work-a-day satellite launching business now has quite a number of competing enterprises both public and private represented.

As important as this is, however, it is not the whole difference. Part of it must also be credited to the shift, following the end of the Second World War and the middle of the century, from an Heroic Conception of Civilization to an Iterative Conception of Civilization. That the ascent of Everest can be iterated by anyone with sufficient resources and will makes it a Maslovian “peak experience” (if you will forgive the pun) available to a select and privileged subset of Mass Man.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In yesterday’s post on China’s Military Aviation Ambitions I discussed some of the early difficulties in jet propulsion, and how the most advanced jet engines of our time continue to be a technical and engineering challenge. China, as I mentioned, buys its most advanced jet engines from Russia and the Ukraine, who apparently possess industrial plant tooling and technical expertise superior to what the Chinese are currently capable of matching.

I expect that this technological hurdle will continue for some time, since despite the fact that jet propulsion technology is older that the technology of nuclear weapons (which I have elsewhere called a mature technology), there is still a great deal of technological and engineering work to go on jet propulsion.

In the past few decades jet propulsion technological research has focused on higher efficiencies, and this research has resulted in passenger jet service that uses significantly less fuel than the first Jet Age when, in the 1960s, passengers jets first began to routinely offer international travel. But I have also noted that the then-expected transition to supersonic jet travel didn’t happen; supersonic jets were loud and expensive and used a lot of fuel. The time saved by supersonic travel was not at that time, and has not up to this time, been enough to offset the disproportionate costs of supersonic passenger travel (although supersonic military jets are now entirely routine, with the newest fighter jets possessing supercruise ability).

But that isn’t the only thing that slowed down the advent of the age of supersonic jet travel. Supersonic jets are a difficult technology to master, and require substantial engineering and technological resources. We still have a long way to go (and therefore many opportunities yet in the future — even the near future) in terms of routine and cost-effective supersonic travel. Since supersonic jet travel has been stalled for some time, it is beginning to feel like fusion power — an engineering challenge just beyond our current reach — always another thirty years in the future.

On my other blog I wrote about tests this past spring on the essential systems of the REL SABRE engine (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine — an illustration of which is pictured above), which is of the greatest interest for future jet propulsion technologies. This is an engine that can take us into space, and is therefore the future and an important technological milestone. The SABRE engine (you can see an animation of its operation both on the REL website and at Vimeo) is designed for SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and HOTOL (HOrizontal Take Off and Landing) operation — in other words, this is the engine for the kind of spaceships that you see in the movies, that take off from the ground under their own power, like an airplane, and are able to keep accelerating all the way through the atmosphere and then into space.

Maybe I sound like a booster for REL — their website calls the SABRE engine, “a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide” — but it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this propulsion technology, not just for the business of space launch, and not just for any particular industry, but for the human species. If we stay on the earth, we are doomed; we will only propagate our civilization if we become a spacefaring civilization, and an SSTO spacecraft is an essential element in becoming a spacefaring civilization.

When I was reading about the SABRE engine I was surprised that the crucial technology was simply a cooling system. Air traveling at hypersonic speeds gets very hot, and it needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures even while continuing to flow at very high speeds. Also, the moisture has to be extracted from the air, since ice coming into a hypersonic jet could cause serious problems. These are the problems that REL has so far been tackling successfully.

The REL SABRE engine is one solution for an engine that runs as a jet through the atmosphere and then turns itself into a rocket for extra-atmospheric flight. I assume that there are other possible solutions to this technological and engineering challenge, but as far as I know, REL is the only enterprise at present engaged in this kind of research and development. Of course their are always rumors that such things are being developed for the military in “black” programs of which the public knows nothing. It seems to me that if the Skunk Works could build the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s, by now they certainly ought to be able to build an air cooler that can aspirate a jet engine to the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Certainly I hope that such research is taking place, since the future of civilization is at stake.

There would be very obvious military advantages to a SSTO fighter, which would also be the first space fighter. Because of the ascendancy of the drone industry in recent years, several military hardware commentators have ventured that the current crop of fifth generation fighters (and 5.5 generation fighters) will be the last of the manned combat jets. I think it is much more likely the the F-22, and F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA and the J-20 will be the last generation of atmospheric-only military fighter craft, as the next obvious step is a fighter that takes off from the runway on the ground and flies directly into space, there to defend space-based military assets and to attack and disable the space-based assets of rival military powers.

It is hard to imagine that such developments are not taking place far from the eyes of the public. Hopefully my friends over at Open Source GEOINT will spot something like this soon.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It has been widely reported that the China National Space Administration has released a white paper, China’s Space Activities in 2011, detailing China’s plans for space exploration in the coming years. Today’s Financial Times carried this as the front page story, complete with a color picture of a Chinese rocket blasting off. The most detailed story was on Xinhua’s English language service, China to launch Shenzhou-9, Shenzhou-10 spacecraft next year.

In section III of the paper, “Major Tasks for the Next Five Years,” there are three short paragraphs on human spaceflight:

China will push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.

It will launch the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships and achieve unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit Tiangong-1 vehicle.

China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.

China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.

It has become a commonplace of political commentary that the “Space Race” of the 1960s was primarily driven by Cold War competition between the US and the USSR — a response to a perception to maintain national prestige requirements — and was not a disinterested quest for knowledge or a visionary undertaking for the future of humanity. Bertrand Russell responded to the Space Race in precisely this way, dismissing all space exploration on this basis, and in so doing demonstrating that even great men have their blind spots.

But competition between nation-states, and the incentive and spur to action that comes from competition, can be as essential to social and political life as it is to economic life. Isolated political entities not spurred on by competition can fall into an introspective languor that becomes a malaise, and all their promise is lost as they disappear from history simply because they lacked the interest to achieve anything. The world is covered by the remains of lost civilizations that grew, flourished, and then died, mostly without any kind of robust contact with other socio-political entities.

The transportation infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization has ended the possibility of a civilization completing an entire life cycle without being in contact with other civilizations. This has placed nation-state against nation-state and civilization against civilization and made our crowded world a dangerous place. This has changed the conditions under which civilizations exist. The challenge and response mechanism that Toynbee thought accounted for the emergence of civilization is now a mechanism that accounts for the growth and perpetuation of civilization, because civilizations are in competition primarily with each other, rather than with the natural environment.

Competition means selection, and we are now on the cusp of experiencing selection on a cosmological level. What we do now in terms of space exploration truly matters for the long term future of humanity. A selection event almost always involves competition, and competition can get ugly. Also, competition apparently lacks those elevated and high-minded features that we might most admire in humanity when they make their brief appearance among the baseness and squalor or our ordinary lives. We want ourselves to be better, but we know that we are mostly no better than our worst moments — and sometimes competition brings out the worst in us.

Competition gives rise to an unpleasant milieu of, “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels…” as John Stuart Mill put it (Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, 1), and which led Mill to speak kindly of the “stationary state” in his work on political economy. Russell belongs to this tradition, and we must see this tradition in historical perspective to understand that there will be future representatives of this tradition who will urge us to be content with what we have and not to strive for more.

If some (or even most) nation-states decide that space travel is not worth the time, expense and effort, and this particular aspect of human endeavor now falls to the Chinese, what civilization do you think will represent humanity to the universe at large? To the rest of the universe, we will be known as the Chinese planet, and China will literally fulfill its historical destiny of being the “Middle Kingdom” halfway between heaven and earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?

I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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