U.K. Daily Mail science editor Michael Hanlon and me on SF Signal

My friends at SFSignal.com invited me to interview Michael Hanlon about his new book Eternity: our next billion years. Michael is the science editor for the Daily Mail in the UK. His book goes against the current doomsday grain and looks through a future where us humans are still hanging around. It is split into three parts: near future (new few centuries), mid-future (few thousand years) and far-future (the point where the Earth will actually die, a billion years hence). The chapters are mostly science essays, but there is some sprinkling of speculative fiction in the later chaps.

Michael’s book covers a wide range of topics including how the geo-political landscape may change in the next few years, what languages we might be speaking, how drought, famine and over-population will affect the world, the singularity, things that he doesn’t think will happen, things that would change the course of history if they did happen, and others.

After the break is an excerpt:

LarryK: …speaking of a “third of a trillion”…In chapter 4, titled “futures I will not see”, you discuss space travel, genetic modifications/perfections, “borg”-like societies (aka North Korea) and humanistic robots as futures that you do not foresee as probable in the near term (correct me if I have this wrong).

MichaelH: No, that is right. All are possible, but all are, to varying degrees, unlikely. I would place the Borg at the bottom of the likeliness scale and, perhaps, space exploration as the least-unlikely. The main question with humanoid robots is, why?

LK: Being from near Houston, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the cost and complexity of space travel, and the recent/current Augustine panel over the near future of the federal space program are in the news and editorials almost daily. There are several perspectives, including (a)NASA’s run rate is relatively cheap given what the US Government is spending on other programs (Kevin Cowing of nasawatch.com cites the annual cost of America’s human flight programs at $7 billion a year, compared with $10 billion a month in Iraq); (b)commercial ventures will be more economically efficient than NASA; (c)space travel is too hard and expensive, and should be left to the sci-fi writers. Your books suggests visits to Mars by 2050s or 60s, with a more or less permanent colony somewhere in the solar system in 2100. What development (if any) do you believe would tip the balance towards a more aggressive exploration of space: national fervor again (it was capitalism vs. communism in the 60s space race, will it be us vs. the Chinese next)? Self-preservation (here comes an asteroid or any one of many reasons to get off the planet)? Or do you believe it will continue to be a money/budget issue, whether commercial or federal?

MH: Interesting question. It’s not just the cash, or lack of it. Space exploration is at an impasse primarily because the people in charge of space do not know what it is ‘for’. Are we exploring space to open up resources? For national pride? For purely scientific reasons? To boldly go and find a new home for humankind? Or what?

People often compare space travel to the great Age of Exploration in the 15th-18th Centuries. But it is quite different. Even in the 1500s, it was relatively easy to cross the Atlantic from Europe and found a colony in North America. You could breathe the air, for a start, which was a help. No new technology was required. You just needed a boat and some willing jack-tars, a good compass and a good sense of direction.

Space is unbelievably hostile (although of course there may be millions of individual planets out there that are not), extraordinarily expensive and, most importantly, rather big. Getting anywhere interesting takes not-insignificant fractions of a human lifetime.

I think there are two paths. One likely, one unlikely. The first, more likely path, is depressing. Space exploration gradually grinds to a halt in the 21st Century. Shorn of any obvious raison d’etre, we simply lose the will to send groups of people on expensive and dangerous missions to Earth’s near-environs. Less likely, but possible, is that we discover a new reason to get interested in space. My personal choice would be to throw everything we have at detecting earthlike Exoplanets and the search for alien life. I would happily scrap every cent of the manned spaceflight budget for this. Fleets of robots out to Europa and Titan. And, most importantly, a huge telescope construction project. This might – actually – save manned spaceflight as building telescopes on the Lunar farside or a fleet of super-Hubbles at L2 or wherever may require on-site human engineers to accomplish.

Then, if we find something, all bets are off. Most importantly, the Great Alien Hunt will rekindle public interest in space.

To my mind, the worst possible way of ‘doing’ space has been illustrated by NASA in the period 1972-today. The ISS and the Shuttle have been utter disasters from day one. They could have spent the cash on almost anything else and it would have been better. This is, perhaps, an argument for winding up NASA, or at least the manned spaceflight division of it (I would defend JPL to the wall). And letting someone else do the job.

LK: I would think that another “new reason to get into space” would be “self-preservation”, whether from over-population (you mention in your chapter titled “new world order” that in the year 2020 our population of 7.8 billion will be a billion larger than 2008), natural resource depletion (excellent motivation to explore the Asteroid Belt sooner rather than later) or just to simply find more room. Our only hope may be that some inventive soul create a process or commodity that makes the price come down, so that humanity’s natural push to explore can come back into being.

MH: I agree that space provides an excellent insurance policy against human extinction and civilisation collapse. Since we now live in an era when it is, or at least soon will be, possible to wreck our civilisation or even wipe ourselves out, it would be good to have some sort of backup somewhere else. My preference would be to establish a massive repository of data on the Moon and, one day, a self-sustaining colony on Mars. The Moon is actually an excellent place in many ways. Nothing happens there, which is good news if you want to put things somewhere safe. It is close and we know how to get there. It is in effect a gigantic space station that someone has been good enough to build for us!

But moving significantly large numbers of humans off-world ain’t going to happen. The numbers and costs are simply too large. Mars, the only likely home for humans in our Solar System, is 100m miles away. If we wanted to get, say, a billion people there (or to Titan or wherever) then this would probably occupy the resources of the entire planet more or less for eternity. A birth control programme would be cheaper … and rather easier.

As to resources, I agree that asteroid-mining may provide the most plausible business model for space exploration there is. Asteroids are actually easier to get to (and back from) than the Moon.

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