All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2012:

Exploring Fermi’s question / New novel The Moonstormers (Dec.)

Growing into an Interstellar Civilisation / Launch of the Institute for Interstellar Studies (Oct.)

Starships and Future Scenarios / Alan Bond speaks at Farnborough / Rand Simberg on Neil Armstrong (Sept.)

On Certainty and the Limits to Scientific Knowledge: The Doomsday argument versus the human future (July)

SpaceX: what their successful Dragon flight means, and why the critics are wrong! (June) (Comments)

Report on lecture by Alan Bond, 8 May 2012 (May)

Let’s colonise Venus! / Progress at Reaction Engines / The anti-human ideology: Bob Zubrin fights back (May)

Reaching for the stars: liftoff for the Shard! (April)

Manned spaceflight: growth on hold in 2011 / Why we must consolidate LEO before venturing further (March)

Growth Options (1) (Feb.)

In search of a unified worldview: Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Clarke’s Childhood’s End (Jan.) (Comments)

New in 2020:

Download science fiction stories here

AE posts:

2022: What’s to do on Mars?…

2021: New space company Planetopolis…

2020: Cruising in Space…

2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…

2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…

2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 83, 1 June 2012 – 43rd Apollo Anniversary Year


=============== AE ===============

From Franz-Peter Spaunhorst, 1 June 2012:

Dear Stephen,

It is – as usual – with highest interest and pleasure that I am reading this new article of yours. I certainly share your views concerning the core messages. However, and frankly, what I am missing here is your vision on the future of a most possibly misguided commercial space flight business. Don’t you think that the “science fig leaf” of institutional endeavors that you mention could soon be replaced by a “public space tourism fig leaf” that is just to cover up the fact that commercial companies will – contracted by governments that want to keep their vests clean – in reality not only make the real money with exploitations of natural resources on asteroids and on the moon, but mainly with military applications that – once in the hands of privates who count in six-week-profit reports – will lead to unstable situations. Situations, that I think can be compared to the drug-war in Mexico, but then that just on a global scale.

Bruce Willis is certainly a hero, because he has a conscience. That’s why people love Armageddon. But those who will follow don’t have anything, I am afraid.

What do you think?

Best regards, Franz

From Stephen Ashworth, 5 June 2012:

Hi, Franz. Thanks very much for your feedback!

Why am I referring to science as a “fig leaf”? Because I do not accept that it is the main motivation behind manned spaceflight. The several billion dollars spent per year on ISS and (until recently) Shuttle operations were not spent because Congress said: we have one or more crucial scientific problems to solve, they can only be solved in orbit, therefore we are paying for a Shuttle and Station to solve those problems! Quite the opposite: the history of Shuttle/Station has been that they are activities carried out for more mundane reasons – jobs and national prestige – and that science alone is not the main driver, but an attempt to justify these programmes after it had already been decided that the programmes were desirable.

This was even clearer in the case of Apollo, of course, and equally so for proposed returns to Apollo-style exploration, such as Constellation.

I would not refer to space tourism in the same way, because the object of commercial operations is to make a profit, and, providing that space tourism really can be run at a profit (as argued by David Ashford and Patrick Collins, for example), then it will be its own perfectly legitimate motivation in the same sense as terrestrial tourism. In fact, the whole point of space tourism is to extend the model of terrestrial tourism, particularly tourism based on large cruise liners, into space.

Once any sort of space economy gets established, then of course mining asteroidal, lunar and planetary resources, and manufacturing products from them, should also become profitable. These activities have to become the basis of the future space economy, otherwise expansion of our civilisation into the Solar System in any meaningful sense would be impossible!

I see space tourism as a preliminary step to a space economy. It is an activity which has already started with pioneering flights by the self-financed adventurers who have flown with Space Adventures, and it can grow. Once it reaches the scale of a mass market, then it creates economically viable markets in space for asteroid-derived propellants and life-support materials, and the whole system can grow further to reach the Moon and planets, establishing permanent extraterrestrial colonies.

You are concerned about military applications. Two points. Obviously, wherever there is human activity, then there are conflicts and the need for power centres to protect their power through military force, or the threat of force. But on the bright side, I am very aware of the progress made over the past century: in brief, my grandfather fought in the trenches in France, my father fought (luckily for him) in India (where the expected Japanese invasion did not materialise), and I grew up (in the 1960s) with civil defence classes at school, data sheets on the blast and fallout from nuclear bombs of various sizes, and the expectation that I would shortly see Soviet tanks driving around Britain!

But times have changed. The global economy has grown in such a way that countries are more interlinked (through international trade, tourism, finance and media) and more vulnerable to disruption, and the results have been that World War III has not happened, wars between great powers have ceased, and warfare is moving in the direction of becoming a series of small-scale local policing operations (though still carried out with similar levels of blundering incompetence and perverse results as always).

In my view, human progress on technological and economic fronts is strongly correlated with progress towards a more peaceful world, and worlds. I would suggest that economic growth in space is likely to continue this process; obviously, one can sketch more pessimistic scenarios, and I can only plead in my defence the concrete evidence of the progressive marginalisation of war over my own lifetime, and its clear links to economic and technological growth over the same period!

In my “vision of the future” space and peace go together; but our failure to embark on large-scale space development would lead eventually to the decline of civilisation on Earth and a return to the kind of massively destructive great power conflicts that litter history, from Greece/Persia and Rome/Carthage to Britain/Germany, Germany/Russia and America/Japan in the past century.

Best wishes from Oxford, Stephen

From Franz-Peter Spaunhorst, 7 June 2012:

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for your comprehensive answer. I must admit I kind of envy you for your optimistic view on the nature of the basic instincts that rule mankind. “Space and peace go together”, you postulate. Well, I sincerely hope you are right and I am wrong when I cannot detect the inevitability of parallel technological and humanitarian development tracks of civilization that you obviously have no problem to discover as a kind of motor behind history. I think it could go possibly, but not inevitably the way you describe. Without forceful guidance and control exercised by legitimately “enthroned” governments of space faring nations – the presupposition of which naturally being that the governments are out there first to establish structures – I rather believe that a purely commercially motivated quest for space ends up in a fight for power among a few (and finally even over legitimately established governments) going besides themselves: A new frontier, yes, but just to reproduce the wild west of yesterday, which still lurks beneath the surface everywhere on earth, just look at the speed at which bankers became banksters the minute they could feel free of and beyond any rules that the sheep of society follow, while the wolves play their own game.

Anyhow, be that as it may, we will not change the world’s ways. What remains is a yearning for new horizons, and space certainly is the one to go for, I fully agree with you on that.

With best regards, Franz

From Stephen Ashworth, 8 June 2012:

Franz, thanks. A couple of clarifications!

It’s not “the basic instincts that rule mankind” that I’m optimistic about! The way I see it, by developing culture (including sciences, arts, politics and technology) we create an artificial environment for ourselves which modifies our originally purely instinctive behaviour. Not that we are perfect, but that we can progress through interaction with our own cultural inventions, from fire and agriculture, through religion and philosophy and systems of law, and now in a growing symbiosis with our computers and communications and media systems. It seems to me that it is the unplanned interaction between ourselves and our cultural artefacts which allows us to progress towards a more enlightened state of mind.

But I’m certainly not proposing that progress is inevitable! Every space advocate is sharply aware of the quote from Larry Niven: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” Certain dinosaur species (of ostrich-like Troodonts, Ornithomimids or Dromaeosaurs) could have evolved intelligence 100 million years before us, but because circumstances were not propelling them in that direction they did not do so. Homo erectus could have evolved civilisation before our own branch of humanity became a distinct species, but (so far as we know) they did not do so.

So a direction of progress of life is defined, but any particular species is free to advance towards greater things or retreat from them, depending upon what local environmental, biological and cultural pressures are most influential on it.

Thus direct military conflict between great powers has stopped: advancing technology has made weapons too powerful, and advancing economic growth has made countries too vulnerable. It is now against the interests of great powers to fight each other as they did up until 1945: peace has been enforced by our own cultural inventions, and we have progressed towards a more enlightened state, not because of our virtue, but rather in spite of ourselves. Of course we could always slide back: the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a reminder of this, or indeed the descent of Germany into barbarism in the 1930s. But overall and in the longer term view we have progressed despite these setbacks.

(People today complain about the Iraq and Afghan wars, or about terrorist attacks, but it only takes a moment to realise that there’s no comparison between these and the Second World War, let alone the nuclear holocaust which we feared in the 1960s. Cities in the Second World War – London, Coventry, Hamburg, Berlin, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Tokyo, ... – were experiencing “9/11” scale attacks every day for months or years on end.)

Another clarification: you mention “a purely commercially motivated quest for space”. In an essay in The Space Review I argued the case for government and commercial partnership in space: “If human activities in space are ever to be genuinely affordable and sustainable, then government pioneers, who consume wealth, must be quickly followed by private entrepreneurs, who consolidate our presence in space by creating new sources of wealth. The government agency and the private company must travel in tandem at each step of the cosmic staircase.”

Perhaps there will be a “wild west” stage in the development of space, too. But then surely the lawyers and politicians will step in and regularise affairs, as they must if large-scale extraterrestrial civilisations are to arise?

So surely you must share at least some of my optimism that our expansion into space, our reaching for those new horizons, will play its part and contribute towards a general broad improvement in the quality of our civilisation?

Otherwise, what would be the point?


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