The film 2001: A Space Odyssey had it all wrong. The 1960s-era movie featured HAL, a mainframe supercomputer that bears no resemblance to the distributed networks of smaller computers that actually run things in the cloud today. And the space program that it projected was dominated by big governments that still had everybody and everything under control.
That 1960s space program can be seen as the first era of humans moving into outer space. Getting outside of planet Earth is hard to do. It took some breakthroughs in technology, and initially a huge amount of pooled resources that only superpower governments could do at that time.
Today we’re entering the second era of humans in space, what David Brin, the inventor/scientist/science fiction writer who will lead this session, calls the “Barnstorming Era.” This new era recalls the barnstorming era of air flight in the early 20th century where all kinds of tinkerers and entrepreneurs in the private sector tried all kinds of approaches to flying – often at great risk to their money and their lives. We’re now seeing a similar phenomenon happening in the newly privatized space sector with entrepreneurial initiatives often backed by tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen.
In this new era, the role of government needs to change from the only game into town to something different. In the early 20th century, government postal contracts for air mail stimulated the private sector for the development of airplanes. Today governments can make comparable cargo contracts and strategic investments that align with this very different strategic vision. But there’s room for much more reinvention too.
This promises to be a really fun yet important Reinventors Roundtable as we fundamentally rethink what was known as “the space program” to fit the new realities of this Barnstorming era that’s just opening up. We expect a diverse and innovative roundtable crew who will talk about the new priorities in the decades going forward such as: How could we practically exploit the potential of asteroids to provide what are now called “rare materials” on earth? Or how should we refine our Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence – perhaps listen more and do less shouting in a universe where we’re clearly the newbies.
And what about the longer term future? Visiting Mars? Colonizing the red planet? Exploring the ice-roofed seas of Europa and Titan? Vast orbiting colonies? Might even visions of interstellar travel be worth considering right now? Full Post →
It’s been roughly 50 years since President John Kennedy opened up the 1960s with a call to land a man on the moon. Those 50 years could be considered the first era of space, characterized by big government programs that pooled America’s resources and scientific know-how to create the technologies to get humans into space.
The next 50 years promise to be a very different “Barnstorming Era,” one characterized by many more private sector initiatives and a profusion of entrepreneurial energy. The role of government needs to change from the only game in town to a versatile and strategic partner working with many other players.
That’s a pretty fundamental reinvention in America’s approach to space and so we turned to David Brin to lead this roundtable because he is a master of near-term science fiction that looks out roughly 50 years, like in his latest novel “Existence.”
David led an amazing roundtable of people working both inside and outside NASA, including space entrepreneurs, as they roughed out some of the ambitious new goals that could animate this next era in space, ranging from mining asteroids, to setting up solar energy stations in orbit, to exploring for life in the roofed water worlds of our solar system. We also talked about the critical next steps would be needed to lay the groundwork for this next era – like dropping the cost of getting payloads into space by an order of magnitude, or finding a way to manufacture rocket fuel outside earth.
Are the best years of space ahead or behind us?
Ariel Waldman, the founder of Spacehack.org and probably the youngest of those on the roundtable, bemoaned the Boomer nostalgia for the good old days of space, when we had the nation behind the Apollo program to get to the moon. She said finding many more exoplanets or figuring out what is dark matter is just as exciting. Brin bemoaned both those on the right and left of the political spectrum who have nostalgia for times even farther back before the space program, and who want to undermine our endeavors in space altogether and keep our focus and resources on Earth.
For those on this roundtable, the best days in space are clearly ahead of us, and we’re still in the very early days, just getting started. So what’s the next agenda for this next era in space? There were plenty of ideas, among them:
- Geoffrey Landis, from the NASA John Glen Research Center, said dropping the cost by an order of magnitude of getting people and payloads off earth would be the single-most important thing we could do to open up space.
- Jim Keravala had one big idea to do that. He laid out his company’s ambitious goal to create the fuel for rockets outside our atmosphere, starting by mining the frozen water ice on the moon to create liquid oxygen and hydrogen. He said more than 70 percent of the payloads we push into space is just to get fuel out of orbit and that’s what makes space flight so costly.
- Brin talked about breakthroughs in graphite and carbon nanotubes that might make the idea of a space elevator realizable. That way we could cheaply and easily move the people and cargo to the point where they were outside orbit and could take off from there.
- Asteroids could also play a big part in providing the raw materials for fuel, or the incentives to get private capital mobilized for mining. Brin gave the example of how one relatively small 1 kilometer asteroid could provide enough iron to supply the entire world’s steel supply for a year, all our gold needs for a century, and all our platinum needs for 1000 years.
- Rusty Schweickart, a well-known astronaut from the Apollo 9 mission, was part of the audience and asked a question about whether we need to focus much more attention on diverting asteroids that could hit Earth.
- Chris McKay, a planetary scientist from NASA Ames, applauded the efforts to ward off asteroids, but also welcomed the many space missions that would be needed to get an early warning system in place, and eventually go out to divert asteroids. Scientists like him could have payloads of experiments piggy-backing on those private missions – greatly expanding the numbers from today.
- Keravala thought we should start thinking about getting solar energy stations capturing the energy of the sun outside our atmosphere and beaming it down because the energy needs of what might be 11 billion people in this century could be catastrophic if we continue to burn carbon fuels.
- McKay also thought a worthy big goal would be seeking out signs of life in the water worlds that we have recently discovered in other parts of the solar system. For example, it’s possible that life exists under the ice of Europa, the 6th moon of Jupiter, which probably has liquid water protected under the surface. Brin talked about the possibility that as many as 8 of these “roofed worlds” of liquid water may exist in our solar system.
- Brin also brought up a fun possibility that the dream of Star Trek fans to someday see an actual transporter is not so far-fetched. With 3-D printers getting better by the day, you could see beaming digital instructions to 3-D printers on space stations and creating material objects from scratch – though certainly no humans.
To reach these and other goals talked about in the roundtable would take a series of big next steps in this reinvented space program.
- The role of government has to shift to setting high standards and goals, pushing the front edge of long-term research, filling the gaps where no private incentives exist, and supporting private efforts by buying payload capacity. As McKay said, government has to shift to being a customer for these private enterprises, but he welcomed it because it will only increase the number of space missions.
- Nicholas Skytland, Manager for NASA’s Open Innovation program, pointed out that collaboration between government and the private sector is the only way forward. Even if the entire Federal budget was dedicated to space, it would not be enough to reach even some of the goals outlined above.
- Andrew Hoppin, an entrepreneur and cofounder of the NASA Colab program, thought keeping the intellectual property of space as open as possible would help ensure smaller startups could compete with the big corporations with the resources to play the current patent game. He pointed out the lessons learned in the tech sector and the open source movement could help guide similar explosive innovation in the space sector in the years ahead.
Brin ended the session with a plea that America needs to reengage space if only for the fact that confident, forward-thinking civilizations simply need to go there. If we are to take on the 21st century, then we need to take on space. Full Post →