Jun 01 2010

Freeman Dyson on What To Do Next in Space: Laser propulsion? Terraforming? Thinking Long-Term?

Sunday night the renown and beloved physicist and space technologist Freeman Dyson spoke at ISDC 2010 here in Chicago. It is indeed a pleasure to encounter such a monumental scientific mind who also possesses a powerful vision of the human future in space.

Freeman Dyson at ISDC 2010 in Chicago on “American and Russian Space Cultures.”
Click .

So much wisdom, it’s hard to know where to begin. However, I’ll sketch his major themes and expand on them in future posts.

A Public Highway to Space
Dyson reminded us that the U.S. space program is at a turning point, considering the plans of Obama versus Bush and with the Augustine report as guidance. Although Obama does not include a PHS it does feature private firms developing manned launch systems to ISS. Dyson personally favors development of laser propulsion using water as fuel, although he recognizes that other systems might also perform efficiently.

In response to a question from the floor, Dyson said a cheap launch system should be the primary strategic goal of pro-space activist groups like the National Space Society, the organizer of ISDC 2010.

What About Terraforming?
As you might expect from a superb physicist, Dyson asserted that the primary problem one faces in human settlement of the solar system and beyond is “biological not technological”. Many space scientists approach planetary colonization with the assumption that it’s desirable to make planetary surface environments more Earth-like before large-scale space colonization can begin.

Dyson’s brief but compelling counterpoint is that it makes more sense to customize humans to their particular planetary environment rather than to attempt large-scale terraforming. He even views it as an attractive future option — eventually witnessing the emergence of several varieties of humans in response to their particular worlds.

Dyson wonders what would have happened in space “if John F. Kennedy had thought more like a Russian?” Click .

Short- Versus Long-Term Thinking About Space
Dyson’s main thrust was to contrast America’s space culture with Russia’s. He began by noting that the U.S. space program is composed of two parts: manned and unmanned. Scientists who lead unmanned space projects point to a long string of successes that literally span the solar system over the last 5-6 decades, and they develop new generations of space technologies on a decade timescale. However, regarding manned space, even “40 years after Apollo we’re still stuck in LEO!”

In Russia it’s different. “When a space launch occurs the whole town celebrates with a parade.” The Russian “trinity” of Tsiolkovsky, Korolov, and Gargarin is displayed everywhere, and the atmosphere is more like a “religious sacrament.” Dyson notes that in Russia space is regarded as a key part of “human destiny”, not just science; and the Russians see ISS as an expanded Mir (de-orbited in 2001) in which they take great national pride.

Dyson suggested that in the early 1960s if President Kennedy had thought more long-term like a Russian — instead of focusing on a short decade-long Moon program — we might now have a substantial Moon base that utilizes space resources. And it might even be self-sufficient.

The basic problem according to Dyson is that “American space culture thinks in decades.” But Russia takes a more intangible, human spirit approach that embraces “centuries” as its space timescale.

Our concept of the “fractal Maslow Window” speaks to the issues of American manned versus unmanned timescales for success. For example, technology development associated with unmanned programs is usually relatively unknown to the general public partly because of low cost (e.g., Goddard’s liquid fueled rocket, 1926; Frank Low’s low-T IR detectors, 1961; multiple gravity assists and Cassini, 1997). Thus many technology developments in a variety of programs — space and otherwise –occur continuously and can produce new generations on a decade timescale. However, manned space programs are highly visible, risky, state-of-the-art endeavors with large price tags and significant geopolitical implications. And as a result they become very political.

History shows that Apollo-style programs emerge only during brief, ebullient intervals called Maslow Windows, that — over the last 200 years — occur every 55 to 60 years. They appear to be fundamentally driven by long-term business cycles (e.g., the long wave) and are exclusively associated with major economic booms. Another way to think of Maslow Windows is in a fractal context, in which the international technology/economic/geopolitical system becomes highly interactive and reaches a critical state every 5-6 decades. This appears to be both a necessary and sufficient condition for culturally transformative programs like Apollo to occur.

This explains why no human has been to the Moon in almost 40 years. But more importantly, Dyson’s experiences suggest the Russians may be more advanced than the U.S. in their approach to planning manned space programs that can transcend Maslow Windows.

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