Mankind is not going to the stars

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m something of a space geek. It helps to have grown up during the space race. I still find the exploration of outer space fascinating. Our knowledge of the universe is growing by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of planets have been discovered, so many that it no longer makes news to announce new ones. Many of these planets look like they might support human life, although it’s hard to say from such a fantastic distance away. Some of us are waiting expectantly for someone to discover the warp drive, so we can go visit and colonize these distant worlds. Maybe it will be just like Star Trek!

It fires my imagination too and it excites the popular press as well. It all sounds so exotic, fascinating and Buck Roger-ish. The only problem is that almost certainly none of this will happen. We might be able to put men on Mars, but colonizing the planet looks quite iffy. Even colonizing the moon, as I suggested when Newt Gingrich was promoting the idea during his last presidential campaign, is probably cost prohibitive. Which means we need to keep our dreams of visiting strange new worlds in check. It won’t be us, it won’t be our children or grandchildren and it probably won’t happen at all. To the extent we visit them it will occur virtually, using space probes.

I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but hear me out. We probably won’t colonize the moon permanently because it will be too costly to sustain it. It’s one thing to land a man on the moon, which America did rather successfully. It’s much more costly to stay there. For a sizeable group of humans, say ten thousand or so, to live self sufficiently on the moon is probably impossible. If it can be done it will take a capital investment in the trillions of dollars. My guess is that it would take tens of trillions of dollars, if not hundreds of trillions of dollars. It’s unlikely the moon has enough water that we could mine but if it does it’s likely very inefficient to process as it is wrapped up in moon dust. Otherwise water would have to be imported from earth at ruinous costs. In fact, colonists would have to import pretty much everything. Even if citizens of the moon could grow their own food and recycle their own water, manufacturing is likely to be limited. We might have a small scientific colony on the moon, like we do at the International Space Station. It probably won’t amount to more than a dozen men or women, and it’s likely to cost at least ten times as much as the international space station cost, since you have to move equipment and men a much further distance.

What about man colonizing Mars? It doesn’t seem out of reach. When the orbits are working just right, a spacecraft can transit each way in about six months. The cost of getting a pound of matter to Mars is likely ten to a hundred times the cost of getting it to the moon, which is probably cost prohibitive in itself. The journey there and back though looks chancy. It’s not just the possibility that some critical system will fail on the long journey; it’s the cosmic rays. Our astronauts are going to absorb a heap of radiation, the equivalent of 10,000 chest X-rays. It looks though that this is probably manageable. What of man living on Mars itself?

The good news is that humans could live on Mars, providing they don’t mind living underground. The atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, it is much colder on Mars than on the Earth in general and you can’t breathe the air and live. It’s true that by essentially burying our houses in Martian soil humans could be safe from much of it. Slapping on some SPF-50 sunscreen though won’t do the job. Anyone on the surface will have to wear spacesuits. So far we haven’t found a reliable source of water on Mars either. Colonizing Mars is within the realm of probability, but it is fairly low. Frankly, it’s a very remote, cold and arid place with nothing compelling to it other than a lot of empty mountains and valleys and swirling Martian dust, almost always in a pink or orange haze.

Colonizing distant moons and asteroids have similar problems: no suitable conditions for sustaining life as we know it, insufficient gravity, toxic radiation, frequently toxic chemicals and cold of the sort that most of us simply cannot comprehend it. Both Venus and Mercury are simply too hot to inhabit, and Venus is probably as close to hell as you will find on a planet in our solar system.

What about colonizing planets around other solar systems? Here’s where we need to fire up the warp drive of our imaginations because as much as physicists try to find exceptions around Einstein’s theories of relativity, they can’t. The closer you get to the speed of light the more energy it takes. It’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain. To get a spacecraft with people in it to even 10% of the speed of light looks impossible with any technology we have or can reasonably infer. The closest star is three light years away, so even if this speed could be achieved it would take thirty years to get to the closest star. But it can’t be achieved. In fact, we’d be lucky to get to 1% of the speed of light, which would make a journey to Proxima Centauri a voyage of 300 years. Moreover, if some generations could make the journey, it is likely that our closest star is not inhabitable.

Perhaps we could freeze ourselves and wake up millions of years later at our destination. Maybe that would work. Obviously, we don’t have technology to do anything like this now. And given the laws of entropy, it’s hard to imagine any spacecraft that could survive a voyage of that duration intact.

What we need is a warp drive and a starship. But what we will really need is an escape clause from the theories of relativity and the technology that will allow humans to utilize it: a spacecraft that can slip through a wormhole or something. It’s not that this is impossible, but with what we know it looks impossible for us and will always be impossible. In any event there doesn’t appear to be any wormholes conveniently near Earth.

In short, we are stuck to the planet Earth. We’d best enjoy what we have and stop squandering the planet on which all human life depends. So far we are doing a terrible job of it.

Speaker Moon Colony

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you missed the news, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich jumped the shark last week. While pandering for votes near Cape Canaveral, Gingrich said that by the end of his second term the United States would have established a colony on the moon. Even better for potential colonists, when the colony reaches 13,000 people they can apply for statehood!

It’s all part of Gingrich’s wanting to distinguish himself as a different, big picture kind of candidate. While the unemployed aerospace workers near the space center were enthusiastic, the other remaining candidates quickly realized that his proposal was ridiculous. Mitt Romney was quick to capitalize on it by criticizing his proposal at the next debate. Perhaps as a result, Mitt Romney now appears to be outpolling likely Republican voters in Florida, who vote Tuesday in the state’s primary.

Gingrich’s proposal is technically feasible. We obviously know how to get to the moon, as we have done it many times before. One thing we have learned since the days of Apollo, and has been reinforced through decades of space shuttle flights, is that while we know how to get man into space, we have failed to figure out a way to do it cost efficiently. The space shuttle was originally envisioned as a means for getting cargo into space for as low as $118 a pound (in 1972 dollars). It seemed sort of plausible when it was first launched. Subsequently we discovered it cost a lot more than that. In 2010 dollars, each shuttle mission cost about $1.5 billion dollars, if you divide the cost of the program in constant dollars by the number of flights. The last space shuttle flight was estimated to have cost about $40,000 per pound of payload.

That’s $40,000 to get one pound of payload into a low earth orbit. The moon of course is much further away. To really build permanent colonies on the moon all sorts of heavy equipment would need to be transported there, requiring spacecraft with relatively large cargo bays, something we don’t yet possess. While there is some hope that water can be harvested from the moon, it would certainly be neither easy nor cheap to acquire. For the foreseeable future, water would have to be imported from Earth. A gallon of water weighs about 8.35 pounds. Assuming we find some very efficient way of transporting cargo to the moon, say at a cost of $10,000 a pound, it would cost about $100,000 to move just a gallon of water from the earth to the moon. A hundred gallons would cost a million dollars to transport. Bear in mind that my cost is artificially low and it would likely cost much more like $100,000 a pound. It doesn’t take much back of the envelope calculating to discover that creating a colony on the moon, at least with current technology, would be ruinously expensive.

But when you are a big picture guy like Newt Gingrich, apparently these minor problems can be ignored. It’s unclear how such a major endeavor would be funded. Gingrich after all is a candidate famous for wanting to reduce taxes, not raise them. Based on his proposals, don’t expect a Gingrich administration to touch defense spending, except to increase it. From his belligerent talk it sounds like we might be fighting dual wars with Iran and North Korea too if he were elected president. But even if the money could be found, is it even technically possible in just eight years to have a sustained human colony on the moon? It seems unlikely, as we do not possess at the moment the launch vehicles needed to do the job, as the Saturn V rocket has long been retired. So not only is the proposal cost prohibitive, it appears technically impossible to accomplish as well, at least within eight short years.

Perhaps it could happen if Gingrich were to rescope the mission. Perhaps the goal should be to colonize the moon with a self-sustaining colony of gerbils instead of humans. We could probably do that for $100 billion or so, and chances are the gerbils would do a much better job adapting to the moon that we would. In any event, his proposal should be greeted with derision. Once the costs are understood this by itself should make him unqualified for president.

Governor Jerry Brown in his first term as California governor was famously called “Governor Moonbeam” for the sin of being New Agey. If I were Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, I would be attaching a “Speaker Moon Colony” label to Gingrich then let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.