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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The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017


Sixty years ago today, on 04 October 1957, Sputnik 1 (Спутник-1) became the first object of human manufacture to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race, driven by Cold War competition, but transcending that Cold War competition and being transformed into a triumph of the human spirit (not to mention being a triumph of human engineering, but here engineering expresses the human spirit).

A few years ago, on 12 April 2011, I wrote A Half Century of Human Spaceflight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in orbit around the Earth; in just a few years, 2021, we will be able to celebrate sixty years of human spaceflight. The anniversaries of all the important dates for the technologies that have shaped the world today remind us how rapidly the world was transformed from thousands of years of settled agriculturalism, preceded by tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer nomadism, into the technological civilization of today. Progress has been dizzying, and the very institutions of civilization that brought us to this point have not yet caught up with the changes wrought by them; even now they labor under the strain of this forced social change.

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. In the earliest years of the Space Age (and the Space Race, since the two coincided at least until 1969, when the Space Race as “won”) it became commonplace to speak of the “conquest of space,” as though our first tentative, exploratory foray beyond the atmosphere of our homeworld were a triumphant affirmation of human power. Carl Sagan was nearer to the truth when he wrote in Cosmos that our first few decades of space exploration have been only an incremental step in an endless journey:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

It is likely that we will continue on in the shallow end of the space exploration curve for some time yet. Perched as we are on the edge of the cosmos, able to see far more than we can explore, like Stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien, it is something akin to madness for those of us who wish to explore, but whose lives will remain Earthbound. We must learn patience, even if that is the least of our virtues. I may not live to see the inflection point, but I know that it is out there, and that the task for us is to keep civilization moving in that direction so that the inflection point will be reached, and that we do not fail before we have reached it. To take heart during this sometimes demoralizing struggle, we have the vision before us of what civilization can become when it is liberated from planetary endemism. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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Nietzsche’s Big History

One of the most succinct formulations of Big History of which I am aware is a brief paragraph from Nietzsche:

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche, Fragment, 1873: from the Nachlass. Translated by Walter Kaufmann

…and in the original German:

In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der “Weltgeschichte”: aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben.

Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873, aus dem Nachlaß

This passage has been translated several times, so, for purposes of comparison, here is another translation:

“In some remote corner of the universe that is poured out in countless flickering solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and the most untruthful moment in ‘world history’ — yet indeed only a moment. After nature had taken a few breaths, the star froze over and the clever animals had to die.”

ON TRUTH AND LYING IN AN EXTRA-MORAL SENSE (1873), Edited and Translated with a Critical Introduction by Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, and David J. Parent, New York and Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1989

Bertrand Russell, who rarely passed over an opportunity to criticize Nietzsche in the harshest terms, expressed a tragic interpretation of human endeavor that is quite similar to Nietzsche’s capsule big history:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

Even closer to Nietzsche, in both style and spirit, is the passage that immediately precedes this in the same essay by Russell, told, as with Nietzsche, in the form of a parable:

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Here Russell, unlike Nietzsche, gives theological meaning to the spectacle, however heterodox that meaning may be; I can easily imagine someone preferring Russell’s theological version to Nietzsche’s secular version, though both highlight the meaninglessness of human endeavor in a thermodynamic universe.

Our sun — a star among stars — will be a relatively early casualty in the heat death of the universe. While the life of the sun is orders of magnitude beyond the life of the individual human being, as soon as we understood that the sun’s life will pass through predictable stages of stellar evolution, we understood that the sun, like any human being, was born, will shine for a time, and then will die, and, when the sun dies, everything that is dependent upon the light of the sun for life will die also. It is only if we can make ourselves independent of the sun that we will not inevitably share the fate of the sun.

The idea that the sun is a star among stars, and that any star will do in terms of supporting human life, is embodied in a quote attributed to Wernher von Braun by Tom Wolfe and reported in Bob Ward’s book about von Braun:

“The importance of the space program is not surpassing the Soviets in space. The importance is to build a bridge to the stars, so that when the Sun dies, humanity will not die. The Sun is a star that’s burning up, and when it finally burns up, there will be no Earthno Marsno Jupiter.”

quoted in Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Bob Ward, Chapter 22, p. 218, with a footnote giving as the source, “Transcript, NBC’s Today program, New York, November 11, 1998”

Wernher von Braun had seized upon the essential insight of existential risk mitigation, as had many involved in the space program from its inception. As soon as one adopts a naturalistic understand of the place of humanity in the universe, and when technology develops to a point at which its extrapolation offers human beings options and alternatives within the universe, anyone will draw the same conclusion. Another quote from von Braun makes the same point in another way:

“…man’s newly acquired capability to travel through outer space provides us with a way out of our evolutionary dead alley.”

Bob Ward, Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, Annapolis, US: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

I have previously written about the idea that humanity is a solar species, but the fact that humanity and the biosphere from which we derive has been utterly dependent upon solar insolation has been an accident of history. Any sun will do. We can, accordingly, re-conceive humanity as a stellar species, the kind of species that requires a star and its planetary system to make a home for ourselves. In this sense, all species of planetary endemism are stellar species.

Even this idea of immigration to another star, and of any other star being as good as the sun, is ultimately too narrow. Our sun, or any star, can be the source of energy that powers our civilization, but it can easily be seen that substitute forms of energy could equally well power the future of our civilization, and that it has merely been an historical contingency — a matter of our planetary endemism — that we have been dependent upon a single star, or upon any star, for our energy needs.

This more radical and farther-reaching vision is embodied in a quote attributed to Ray Bradbury by Oriana Fallaci:

“Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die. Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them within us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us. So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not be long of this Earth! And if we really fear the darkness, if we really fight against it, then, for the good of all, let us take our rockets, let us get well used to the great cold and heat, the no water, the no oxygen, let us become Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and when Mars and Venus die, let us go to the other solar systems, to Alpha Centauri, to wherever we manage to go, and let us forget the Earth. Let us forget our solar system and our body, the form it used to have, let us become no matter what, lichens, insects, balls of fire, no matter what, all that matters is that somehow life should continue, and the knowledge of what we were and what we did and learned: the knowledge of Homer and Michelangelo, of Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, of Einstein! And the gift of life will continue.”

Oriana Fallaci, If the Sun Dies, New York: Atheneum, 1966, pp. 14-15

Fallaci refers to this as a “prayer,” and indeed we might see this as a prayer or a catechism of the Space Age — not a belief, not merely belief, but an imperative ever-present in the hearts and minds of those who have fully imbibed the spirit of the age and who seek to carry that spirit forward with evangelical fervor, proselytizing to the masses and bringing them to the True Faith through purity of will and vision — another way of saying naïveté.

Do the clever animals have to die? No, not yet. Not if they are clever enough to move on to another planet, another star, another galaxy. Not if they are clever enough to change themselves so that, when the changed conditions of the universe in which they exist no longer allow the lives of clever animals to continue, what the clever animals have achieved can be preserved in some other way, and they themselves can be preserved in another form.

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