Sorry to Crush Your Dreams, But We’re Not Colonizing Space Anytime Soon

Mae and Ira Freeman’s 1959 children’s picture book You Will Go To the Moon promised a glorious near future of crewed spaceflight, as did later books like G. Harry Stine’s The Third Industrial Revolution and Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. Alas, almost sixty years later, it seems as if the Freeman book would have been more accurately titled You Will Die On the Earth, of Old Age If You Are Lucky, But Perhaps Of Violence Or An Easily Preventable Disease. Also, All Of Your Pets Will Die. Which would not have been half as heartening, but might have earned it a Newbery.

Why didn’t we colonize space?

Perhaps because some of the early space hype was unconvincing when regarded with any attitude other than fanboy enthusiasm. And perhaps because there weren’t any compelling reasons (political, economic, scientific) for significant human presence beyond low Earth Orbit. We don’t need to send up squishy frail humans when we can send probes and remote-controlled vehicles .

Some readers might even now be making squinchy faces, maybe even pondering which unflattering cartoon of me to post in protest. Consider the saying of the ancients: No Bucks, No Buck Rogers. Human presence in space is expensive. To quote Ogawa’s The Next Continent:

It may surprise you to learn that people whose business it is to bring an ideal world to the public can’t be dreamers themselves. In fact, they have be brutally pragmatic.

Oligarchs and politicians have many other things on which they can spend money, most of which are more immediately useful to their constituents and major donors. Flimsy, facile arguments will not pry loose the necessary funding .

Now there’s one good reason for putting people into space—one which is unfortunately circular. The only way to figure out how to keep humans alive in space is to experiment with humans in space. Simulations and animal experiments are fine, but we won’t know if they’re applicable unless we actually put people up there. This is a useful litmus test: if a nation or organization claims to want to establish a permanent human presence in space, but isn’t willing to pay for basic research, their words are probably lip-service and can safely be ignored.

Basic research is great stuff; it’s responsible for much of today’s tech. However, there’s no guarantee the people paying for it will ever see tangible benefits (although they might). When money is tight and the sums needed are large, it’s hard to justify taking chances.

What about Human Destiny? Our glorious history of hominid exploration? Good luck with that. The conversion rate of Destiny! to more tangible currencies is notoriously unpredictable. In fact, most of the success of previous Manifest Destinies was based on the premise “let’s commandeer land made vacant by disease and the occasional slaughter of its inhabitants.”

Well, there’s spinoffs. Boosters will sometimes point to products like Teflon, micro-circuits, and Velcro as useful spinoffs from space programs. Guess what? All the above-named existed BEFORE space programs. Which suggests that it might be more cost-effective to fund research into useful things rather than funding the blue sky projects and hoping for spinoffs. (Note that this is actually a reprise of the argument re: basic research. I believe in basic research, don’t get me wrong, but we need to be savvy about what kind we do.)

We’re also told that the Earth is finite and so are its resources…so we must go out there and mine those asteroids! That doesn’t work either . The Earth may be finite, but it’s also surprisingly large. One might say that it is the size of a planet. It’s also well stocked in elements heavier than hydrogen, many of which have been concentrated for ease in exploitation. Earth also boasts a large population of intelligent beings with millennia of experience exploiting such resources, supported by a large economy and existing infrastructure. None of which are available in space. If we want to exploit space resources , we would need to develop techniques we do not at present have and build infrastructure that does not currently exist in order to obtain resources that are already present in sufficient abundance at a lower cost. It’s no surprise that the progress of space industry has thus far been slow, although not quite zero.

The obvious solution, then, is to look for some resource that is scarce or depleted on Earth . Which brings us to helium three. Helium three is an isotope of helium that has been hyped by space boosters. It is a potential fusion fuel ; its reaction paths produce fewer neutrons than do deuterium and tritium. It’s rare on Earth. Lunar regolith, on the other hand, might have its helium three replenished by solar winds. Why not, therefore, strip mine the moon for the fuel needed to for the world’s fusion reactors?

Why not, indeed…

I can think of a few reasons:

A: Nowhere on this planet is there a working commercial fusion generator which would use the lunar helium three. Indeed, the probability that we will build a working commercial fusion generator in the next few decades appear dim. As dim as they have for the last few decades. Building such a fusion plant is a challenge that has not so far been met.

B: Helium three reactions are harder to start than the more conventional deuterium-tritium reactions. However far off the prospect of working D-T reactors, D+3He reactors are even further off.

C: The Moon isn’t exactly rich in 3He. One might have to process 150 million tonnes of regolith to get one tonne of 3He. We don’t currently have the necessary tools.

D: There are other fuels for that also produce fewer neutrons. Boron 11, for example. Some 80% of the boron on Earth is boron 11. As previously established, Earth abounds in clever hominids who will dig up stuff for you.

And, just in case you missed that the first time …

WE! DON’T! FUCKING! HAVE! WORKING! COMMERCIAL! FUSION! GENERATORS! YOUR! GRANDKIDS! WILL! BE! LUCKY! TO! HAVE! THEM! IT’S! POSSIBLE! COMMERCIAL! FUSION! WILL! NEVER! BE! ECONOMICALLY! VIABLE ! TOUTING! LUNAR! HELIUM! THREE! AS! SOMETHING! FOR! WHICH! THERE! WOULD! BE! IMMEDIATE! DEMAND IS NUTS!

Ahem.

Dear reader: the preceding might have depressed you. Those space stations and moon bases sure looked swell! Perhaps, if we do not manage to exterminate ourselves first, we will eventually develop the tech and the knowledge base to spread out into the solar system. There’s no real rush; species have been known to last a million years or more. Comfort yourself with the thought that, while waiting, we can enjoy our sojourn on a planet to which we are uniquely suited. Barring nuclear war, death by nanotech grey goo, or extreme End-Permian-style climate change, we can wait out millions of years in great comfort. And if we do off ourselves? We will be too extinct to mind anything. Win-win!

 


1: Robotic spaceflight has, as we all know, more than delivered on its promise. In fact, one might blame the success of robots for the slowdown in attempts at human space flight (although the human tendency to expire outside of a narrow range of conditions has to be the bigger factor). Clarke’s communications satellites do exist, but it turns out that we do not need orbiting technicians to swap fresh vacuum tubes for burned out ones. There may be military applications for space flight, but really … do we want to go there? Surely we are already capable of destroying ourselves several times over without ever leaving the planet.

2: Of course, the initial success of the Darien Scheme proves that you can attract investors by targeting rich idiots. Such schemes are most successful when they are intended to attract cash rather than deliver a shiny space colony. Just make sure to buy your ticket for a nation without extradition well in advance. And you may want hire bodyguards. Loyal bodyguards.

3: It should perhaps be noted that mining on Earth has become much more machine intensive, putting fewer humans at risk. Any mining in space is subject to the same calculus. Robots are cheaper and do not leave behind grieving families.

4: We can learn surprising, perhaps useful, things, from space exploration. Research is good. Humans not necessary.

5: Helium three has other uses. Neutron-detecting instruments use it. It is also useful, I believe, in cryogenics. Too bad that space boosters seem to focus almost exclusively on fusion. If there’s anyone ranting about the looming Bose-Einstein Condensate Gap should China commandeer the Moon’s helium reserves, I’ve overlooked them.

6: Thanks to side-reactions, a D+3He reactor will still produce some neutrons.

7: Earthside commercial fusion may never be economically viable. Exploitation of a natural fusion reactor one AU away is increasingly inexpensive, which may be an issue for commercial fusion if it actually materializes. Investors may think that sinking a billion dollars in small increments into solar panels that will go up immediately makes more sense than sinking a billion dollars into a fusion plant that will take years to come online.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

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