Communion Of Dreams

You can’t get there from here, version 2.0.

Bit over a year ago, I wrote about Charlie Stross’s pessimistic views on space colonization. Pointing out that Stross was correct in terms of the current technology curve, I said that the bigger issue was a failure to understand that forecasting breakthrough technologies is almost impossible. From my post:

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And I have pretty much the exact same reaction to this item from Wired:

Rocket Scientists Say We’ll Never Reach the Stars

Many believe that humanity’s destiny lies with the stars. Sadly for us, rocket propulsion experts now say we may never even get out of the Solar System.

At a recent conference, rocket scientists from NASA, the U.S. Air Force and academia doused humanity’s interstellar dreams in cold reality. The scientists, presenting at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, analyzed many of the designs for advanced propulsion that others have proposed for interstellar travel. The calculations show that, even using the most theoretical of technologies, reaching the nearest star in a human lifetime is nearly impossible.

Well, yeah. And if you asked medieval blacksmiths about about building a weapon that could kill a million people instantly, they’d also say it was impossible. For them, it was. For us, it’s technology which is 63 years old as of last month.

I’m sure everyone attending that conference (professionally, anyway) knows more about rocket science than I do. And probably about any exotic propulsion technologies on the horizon as well.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, even if they aren’t elderly, they’re very probably wrong.

And even they know it. From that same article in Wired, after saying this:

The major problem is that propulsion — shooting mass backwards to go forwards — requires large amounts of both time and fuel. For instance, using the best rocket engines Earth currently has to offer, it would take 50,000 years to travel the 4.3 light years to Alpha Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighbor. Even the most theoretically efficient type of propulsion, an imaginary engine powered by antimatter, would still require decades to reach Alpha Centauri, according to Robert Frisbee, group leader in the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Frisbee says this:

As for interstellar travel, even the realists are far from giving up. All it takes is one breakthrough to make the calculations work, Frisbee said.

“It’s always science fiction until someone goes out and does it,” he said.


Jim Downey

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