An interview of A.C. Clarke reminded me of a topic I wanted to write about for a long time: why do we need to gain the ability to go into deep space?
50 years in space
During the first 50 years of space exploration, we have sent many satellites and, more importantly, developed a whole economy around space flight. Recently, private companies have entered the fray. Sir Clarke mentions the Google Lunar X-Prize foundation as one of our hopes to get back to the moon.
The current state of our space technology is largely due to many historical accidents, including World War II and the following competition between the Soviets and the Americans for the best long-range ballistic missiles. In the interview, Sir Clarke recalls Bainbridge’s observation that we were not necessarily due for space travel yet:
As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Moon—like the South Pole—was reached half a century ahead of time.
Despite what may have been an early start, or maybe because of it, we only explored the immediate neighborhood of Earth. The initial rate of progress (and, in retrospect, pretty wild risk taking) led many science-fiction writers to confidently predict the colonization of the solar system by 2100. The chances of this actually happening now seem a bit more remote than in the 1970s. While we went to the Moon and back, we did not establish any permanent base there.
Scarcity of resources? Not in the solar system
The first step beyond that is to do for the solar system what happened for Earth orbit, which is developing some kind of successful economic model of space. One requirement for this to happen is to lower the cost of space launches, and our best bet for that so far is some kind of space elevator.
Such a technology would also lower the cost of satellite launches, but to me, that’s not the main point, and it is also not all-good thing knowing how much space junk there already is. I do not entirely share Stephan Scherer’s optimism:
50 years after Sputnik, Space below the geostationary orbit has become quite crowded. Fortunately, it is still wide enough
The main point of solar system exploration, as far as humanity is concerned, is really to find useful stuff there, like hydrogen, water, and who knows what else would become useful. Resources that are scarce or, at least, limited on Earth may be available in vast quantities out there, that much is certain. What is not certain is that we could ever lower the cost of exploiting this bounty to a point where it would make sense at all.
But even the solar system is only the beginning…
Deep space vs. Local space
Given our track record in the past 50 years, it may seem premature to talk or think about deep space exploration. First of all, let me explain that by “deep space”, I am referring to space beyond the solar system, warp drives and this kind of far-fetched stuff.
Why do we need that? Well, it’s simply a matter of not taking chances with the survival of our species. On a cosmic scale, there are just many events that could wipe out the entire human race. And, unlike a few, I do not consider this a good thing.
Many of these so-called extinction-level events (ELE) could impact the whole planet. The most well-known type of ELE is an asteroid impact, something so widely known that it even received the Hollywood treatment.
The problem is that it’s not just the whole planet. Some large cosmic events could easily impact the whole solar system. Many cataclysmic scenarios have been imagined, like a gamma ray burst a little bit too close, and in some cases the Earth’s magnetosphere might be insufficient to protect us, while the rest of the solar system would become even more hostile than it currently is.
Are we alone?
Another reason that is always behind everybody’s mind when we talk about space travel is: are we alone in the universe? In that respect, I find Sir Clarke’s comment in the interview highly illogical:
I have always believed in life elsewhere in the universe (though I don’t agree that some are visiting us secretively in flying saucers).
To me, it is quite illogical to believe in something while at the same time dismissing the only “evidence” there is about it, irrespective of how weak that evidence is. There is simply no better reason to believe in intelligent life out there than witness reports that seem hard to explain otherwise.
Sir Clarke’s position is about as logical as believing that one can win the Lottery, but that any testimony of alleged winners must be a big fraud.
Standards of skepticism are too low
Don’t get me wrong: it is possible, even likely, that the majority of this evidence is crap, and one cannot even rule out that all of it is fabricated. But in reality, most “debunking” sites are not more convincing than the believer’s sites, and don’t hold themselves to any stricter standard of analysis. It’s belief against belief, generally with a strong dose of the other guy is stupid ad-hominem rhetoric.
The real reason most scientists don’t believe in UFOs of extra-solar origin is that we have no science that would allow it. Einstein proved that there is an absolute speed limit in the universe, the speed of light, and we don’t know how to go over that speed limit. As far as we know, it’s impossible for any material object to even reach the speed of light. If Einstein is right, then there can be no extraterrestrials from other solar systems in our backyard, it’s really that simple. Interstellar travel based on what we know will never allow a human voyage to a remote star. And for that same reason, it also precludes the visit of biologically similar organisms.
How to cross the light barrier?
What if Einstein was wrong? It is not a stupid question. A few serious scientists have given it a try. It takes some humility to admit that there are still a few things we don’t know about the universe. Lord Kelvin’s famous quote is a mistake not to be repeated again:
There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
This does not mean we can accept anything. Einstein cannot be too wrong. His theory has been verified over and over again. So the solution is not to be searched by trying to add more fuel to rockets so that they break the light barrier. That simply won’t work. Clearly, we need some kind of breakthrough, something more subtle than brute force.
Maybe a new understanding of the structure of space-time would help, but based on my personal experience, even that may not be sufficient. As far as I can tell, my own “demolition” of space-time only made Einstein’s limit more solid, instead of weakening it. One does not need space-time if all the properties we attribute to this “background” can instead be shown to be properties of electromagnetic interactions. No space-time, great! Properties of electromagnetic interactions, not so great: the speed of light limit comes back with a vengeance. How can you ever hope to go faster than light if time, space, and the relations between them are actually defined by light itself? (For the most curious minds, it’s spelled out in section 3.2 of the article).
On the other hand, looking for a breakthrough does not mean that current space research is useless, on the contrary. Even if today’s automobiles rely on a propulsion system that would have seemed very “improbable” to the average middle-age horsecar driver, a lot of the technology developed back then remained useful, including: the wheel, the seat, roads, maps, and so on. It is very likely that even if we invent some new and fancy way to cross interstellar distances, we will still need space suits or protection against radiation.
Can it be done at all?
The only real question is whether the quest is futile or not. Can interstellar propulsion be done at all? And here, I take exactly the opposite point of view compared to Sir Clarke.
Based on whatever little evidence we have, I would give it a pretty good chances, precisely because in-depth analysis of the UFO phenomenon cannot really explain some cases other than using some hypothetical intelligence driving some apparently mechanical object with a behavior that, as Sir Clarke would say, is so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.
Let’s now assume that there is a good chance we can do it. The question in that case is: how? And I regret to say that my own hobby research did not bring me any closer to answering that question.