April 5, 2012

Oh, yeah, well NASA agrees with me: Rapidly initiating space civilization

In light of my Dyson Sphere article getting attention in Forbes (here and here) and PopSci, I was contacted by Philip T. Metzger, project lead at the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Laboratory at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre. But unlike the skeptical Forbes and PopSci, Metzger agreed with my conclusion that "...we could conceivably get going on the project in about 25 to 50 years, with completion of the first phase requiring only a few decades." In his letter to me, he writes:
I have attached a preprint of an article that was just accepted by the Journal of Aerospace Engineering. It explains in a little more detail than prior work how to initiate this sort of space industry affordably and very fast. I agree that it would take only 20 years to startup an industry that will then grow, within only a few more decades, to millions or billions of times the industrial capacity of the US. We modeled it to understand some of the key parameters and to test whether the concept is very robust, and we found that it is indeed very feasible and very affordable. There is no reason why we can’t start right now.
Amazing, eh? Now unfortunately, the paper, which is titled "Affordable, rapid bootstrapping of space industry and solar system civilization", has yet to be published in print, so I cannot share it with you, but here's a taste of the abstract:
Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost. Simple modeling was developed to identify the main parameters of successful bootstrapping. This indicates that bootstrapping can be achieved with as little as 12 metric tons (MT) landed on the Moon during a period of about 20 years. The equipment will be teleoperated and then transitioned to full autonomy so the industry can spread to the asteroid belt and beyond. The strategy begins with a sub-replicating system and evolves it toward full self-sustainability (full closure) via an in situ technology spiral. The industry grows exponentially due to the free real estate, energy, and material resources of space. The mass of industrial assets at the end of bootstrapping will be 156 MT with 60 humanoid robots, or as high as 40,000 MT with as many as 100,000 humanoid robots if faster manufacturing is supported by launching a total of 41 MT to the Moon. Within another few decades with no further investment, it can have millions of times the industrial capacity of the United States. Modeling over wide parameter ranges indicates this is reasonable, but further analysis is needed. This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition.
This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition. Yeah, no kidding.


Sean the Sorcerer said...

The thing is dude, people have been making grandiose predictions about technology revolutionizing the human condition for a long time now, and so many of them are so wrong (see Minsky on A.I., Drexler on nanotech, etc.) that it's difficult to take any of it seriously. Look around: outside info tech, we seem to be going backwards. The space program is a joke. Jets aren't going any faster. No one is living on or under the ocean. Engineering projects that used to take a year now take a decade. My car does not fly. I have no robot servant. My computer is still as dumb as a brick. In the world of matter and energy especially, where are all the revolutionary developments futurists are always promising?

Face it, your techno-futurism is like a religion that has stopped delivering miracles. You guys have a serious credibility problem and need to stop making ridiculous promises no one can keep!

Nebris said...

I'd say a Culture sized Orbital would be a rather more practical project.

Unknown said...

Blaming futurists for the collective failures of the ruling class, i.e. the world billionaire population is silly at best.

America doesn't do the big Apollo-scale projects anymore because the people who make decisions generally expect returns in 90 day quarterly timeframes and have no more interest in a better long-term future for the world than you do.

They have no reason to, they already live in the future they want to see. They may change their minds about the big projects to expand access to resources when their own lifestyles are impacted by impending resource exhaustion in several different areas.

As for the lack of a flying car, you can put down a $100K deposit and pre-order one right now, that'll be out in the next year.

Robot servant? Is google your friend? That's work in progress by a whole lot of people and companies. If you think you can do better, robot components are off the shelf from dozens of different places.

The future you don't see yet is a work in progress by very smart people doing very difficult things. Anyone in high tech knows about schedules slipping.

The future you can buy at Best Buy? A world of computing appliance was undreamed of 20 years ago. Go buy an iPad and play with it.

Unknown said...

Congratulations George - this is fantastic!

Kelly said...

Nicely done George. To the naysayer posters here I say…

@Sean: Biological evolution saw very little change for billions of years, but there was progress. Then suddenly in a geologic blink, biology exploded into multicellular organisms. That was because progress had reached a point that it permitted a new paradigm that created an endless continuation of exponential growth. To any individual organism, the world hardly seemed to change at all; it looks flat as far as progress is concerned. You make comments like, your computer is still as dumb as a brick, but it is billions of times smarter than computers were just 20 years ago. If you study technology, the technologies set to emerge on our markets in the next 20 years would blow you away. We are nearing another major point in history that enables a new paradigm shift, as multi-cellular life did long ago.

I know, people have been over exaggerating robots for decades, I was one of them with an article I wrote in Home Computer Magazine back in the mid 80’s. However, I truly believe that this time it is different. For example, MIT has just launched a project using additive technology (3D printers) to permit the creation of personal robots with a 48-hour turn around.
All of the enabling technologies are lining up like they never have before to permit a real renaissance.

If you perceive engineering projects taking longer, it is probably either a local phenomenon to your situation, or the fact that the low hanging fruit has been picked already. Most of the remaining problems are big ones. If you follow scientific news sites like http://phys.org/ you cannot help but feel optimistic as the number of radical breakthroughs are accelerating; building on each other.
@Unkown: I agree with you that America does not do big Apollo programs any more. That is because our current socio-economic system is ill equipped for the changes coming, and is already feeling a great deal of stress. The very definition of work, of human labor, and earning a living is on the line as automation is poised to completely replace human labor in the coming decades. I have also studied economics enough to know that our current model of Capitalism is not compatible with a world of material abundance and complete automation of work. A new model is required if we want to survive as a species, but I believe we are up for the task, we have to be.


qraal said...

Rather than gutting the planets to make computronium, why not spread out through the cosmos to learn more? Makes no sense to stick our heads up our cybernetic backsides after achieving the keys to the Universe.

Jim Bowery said...

Should have been done long ago:

O'Neill, Gerard K.; Driggers, G.; and O'Leary, B.: New Routes to Manufacturing in Space. Astronautics and Aeronautics, vol. 18, October 1980, pp. 46-51.Several scenarios for the buildup of industry in space are described. One scenario involves a manufacturing facility, manned by a crew of three, entirely on the lunar surface. Another scenario involves a fully automated manufacturing facility, remotely supervised from the earth, with provision for occasional visits by repair crews. A third case involves a manned facility on the Moon for operating a mass-driver launcher to transport lunar materials to a collection point in space and for replicating mass-drivers.