Future Work for NASA
An Alternative View
This is not an official NASA document,
the opinions presented are only those of the author.
Periodically, the management of any large organization needs to take stock of future work as part of its planning process. In this effort, the organization should look at both problems and opportunities that lie ahead. The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is currently undergoing this process of looking to new directions in 2008.
The official process may be constrained by political or bureaucratic limitations and therefore unable to lay a solid foundation for its predictions or to address some of the hard questions that lie in our path. This paper has been written to aid this process with an alternative analysis that does not blink in the face of the great problems foreseen for the 21st century.
To estimate the future work of NASA and GSFC (the Goddard Space Flight Center), we must start by developing a working view of the future. For the difficult times that are likely in the 21st century, this analysis needs to look unflinchingly at both good and bad indicators. Ignoring any major trend will not be acceptable. Pretending that problems do not exist will only lead to trying to build and then live in a fantasy world.
This examination may appear to be at odds with the official view, as it must look at negative trends as well as specific projects. This paper is therefore provided as an alternative analysis of the possibilities for our work in the near and medium range future. It is an expression of the opinion of the author and therefore is not to be taken as “official” by anyone for any purpose.
Our goal is to judge the future fairly, to not see only the doom and gloom that tends to overwhelm us, but also not to accept without thought the visions of people who are promoting one savior concept or technology. In the end, we need a view of the future that can serve as the basis of sound actions. We must be optimistic to remain in action, but we must be optimistic in the face of adversity, not by ignoring it.
Also, estimating future work is a normal union effort. We simply need an independent assessment of both future problems and opportunities, if we are to effectively represent our member's interests. We must not rely solely on the management version of the future.
I have a dream
Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is one of the great speeches in American history. Before this speech the American civil rights movement was in jeopardy. After this speech the movement was widely understood as unstoppable.
The speech is remembered for the imagery of the last section, but it really has two distinct parts. The first part is a summary of the historic pain caused by segregation and can be fairly characterized by the phase “I have a nightmare”. Although this part is about half the speech, it is often dropped from quotations and Dr. King has even been criticized for giving it.
Only the second part of the speech contains the powerful positive images that define it as “I have a dream”. It is this dream that supports effective actions by many empowered people.
This paper assumes that Dr. King knew exactly what he was doing. We must first face the problems of the 21st century as squarely and as honestly as we can. We must then develop a vision of the future in which the problem is solved and only then can we move on to develop the actions that will get us to a good future.
Like Dr. King, to be successful we do not need to be precise in the details of our future predictions. What we do need is a vision of the future that has enough substance to keep people in action so that their actions will generate superior outcomes for all our futures, however complex our futures turn out to be.
The Great Problems of the 21st Century
Welcome to the 21st century!
It is a time of major change. This century is already presenting disasters and unrelenting difficulties for large numbers of people while others live like James Bond in an electronic gadget defined world. It is clear that there will continue to be big winners and big losers. We cannot just quit, so we must learn to live in this strange but real world.
The purpose of predicting the future is to discern the actions it will take to keep the American people among the winners while building a better future for all. Efforts to insulate our people from the misfortunes of others are bound to produce disastrous results for all. We want the American people to be among the winners, but in doing so we must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The developed nations have been using the lion’s share of the Earth’s non-renewable resources and continue to gravely stress the environment. This does not mean that it is now someone else's turn to swap places and do the same thing. It does mean that we need to double our efforts to use our advanced society and technologies to address the real problems. The debt we owe to our parents, must be paid to our children.
The Hockey Stick
Figure 1 shows the now famous Hockey Stick of climate change. It traces the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere over the last 10,000 years. The most striking feature is the strong upturn (shown in red) that starts with the industrial revolution. This rise is largely attributed to the build up of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere.
People and carbon dioxide
Although many factors are involved, it is now clear that the actions of human beings are a major contributor to global warming. Action at the global level will be needed to stop this trend and in turn, stabilize world climate. The real problems are the secondary effects, such as sea level rise, droughts, and severe storms, and not the few degrees rise in average temperature. The weather will often be different from what most people are accustomed to and are depending on for their livelihood and their safety.
Historically we have been a significant contributor to the climate change problem, therefore the United States needs to be a leader in its solution. This we can do. In this, failure is not an option.
Space as a political football
Space has always been a political football. The lead times for significant space efforts are almost always longer than the contemporaneous political cycles. This makes large project, long-term planning very difficult. The American people expect NASA to be a leader in the area of addressing climate change. Still, there is every reason to expect disruptions of funding to continue.
We are about to get a new national administration. A significant change of some sort is likely. Some people claim that NASA ought to be apolitical, but that is not the reality. As a part of the executive branch, NASA is subordinate to the leadership provided by the administration in power. If anything it must be “all political”, which is very different from “apolitical”. If one administration says build a satellite to monitor the Sun/Earth as a system (Triana) then we will build a useful satellite. If the next administration wants us to put the unlaunched satellite in a box, then we put it in a box.
In this we must not be is passive / aggressive. That is, we must not say we are doing what the new administration wants us to do, but then not do it. This is a common failing among subordinates and makes the superiors very angry.
The planning cycle covered by this paper must bridge the discontinuity in our path that is likely during an administration change. Now is the time to get ready for all possibilities. Most people would see this paper as having a progressive frame of reference. To the extent that this is true, it can serve as a straw man to help people learn to understand this point of view.
We can use our knowledge of science and the natural environment to help develop a world-wide human society that lives in harmony with its planet, Earth.
The work ahead for NASA
NASA owns a big piece of the technical work on climate change. We must perform on this problem, probably more than on any other, and in this GSFC has a particularly large part to play. Data taken in space will play a big part, and we as Americans can pull ahead in a number of areas:
- Earth Science
- Solar Science
- World wide science data networks
- Climate modeling
- Developing and using massive environmental data sets
- Support of alternate energy development and use
- Mars and Venus as surrogate Earths
Climate change study and management is likely to be a major mission for us over the next decade.
The amount of oil on Earth is basically a fixed quantity. By oil, we are talking here only about the liquid hydrocarbons you can pump from the ground and those that are recovered from gas wells. All other types of hydrocarbons are considered here to be alternatives.
In truth, oil is being created all the time through slow geological processes, but we are going through 200 million years of Earth’s production in about 200 years, so we must consider oil as a fixed resource.
Historically, the use of a fixed resource has followed a predictable economic pattern. At first, the resource was recovered slowly as the technology for extraction and the markets for its use developed. Then the economy learned to use the resource and the technology for its extraction matured so its employment grew exponentially. For a time, the cost remained low in a buyer’s market.
At some point, production of any fixed resource will reach a cross-over point. About half the recoverable resource will by then be used up but the demand for it will remain high. The market then toggles over to a seller’s market and costs surge. From that point on the resource becomes harder and harder to recover and the amount available for use falls, even at a high price.
This scenario produces the classic bell curve shown in Figure 2. On this graph, recovered oil is shown as little black triangles. This curve for oil was first worked out for the continental United States by a petroleum geologist, Dr. L. King Hubbert, back in 1958, using a punch-card computer. The curve still bears his name.
Estimates using the best available public numbers for world oil production and consumption put the date for the world Hubbert’s Peak at the end of 2005. Since there are certainly errors in the public numbers, this date is not exact, but we must confidently assume that Hubbert’s Peak will be history by 2010. Recent oil production numbers and the approaching $100/barrel price validate the accuracy and the utility of this model and date.
The end of the first half of the oil
It is very important for us to understand what Hubbert’s Peak means since the American public does not yet understand it. This peak does not mean that the fuel tank of our economy is on “E”, that we are “running out” of oil. It does mean that our fuel tank is now on “1/2” and we have used up about as much gas as we have left.
The real problem is that when our collective gas tank does approach “E”, there will be no filling station to pull into and say “Fill’er up”. Not only will we need a new tank of gas, we will need a new car, in fact, we will need a new car of a completely different technology. To make it even more challenging, the new car technology must not increase the amount of CO2 we dump into the air.
Hubbert’s Peak, reinforced by the Hockey Stick, does mean that the car culture we grew up in is as good as gone forever. We Americans love our muscle cars, SUV’s, and big vans. Our new cars will be little green wimps. We will be devastated.
The Terrible Sleeping Giant
The American people do not like to face up to large societal problems and tend to pay no attention to them for as long as they can. Sometimes one of these problems strikes them where they live and they can do nothing but wake up. Then they demand immediate action to solve the problem. Hubbert’s peak is just this type of problem. They have to face the price on the pump every week and they have to deal with it just to keep their jobs.
If we are to accept a leadership role in the 21st century, then we have to be thoroughly prepared whenever our giant wakes up.
We can develop the power systems for a vibrant world economy that can be sustained indefinitely and through this achieve national independence in energy.
The work ahead for NASA
Running an economy on alternative energy requires massive amounts of environmental knowledge. The hour-by-hour output of wind and solar plants is totally dependent on the local weather. To reliably generate massive amounts of power, power stations will have to be distributed over a large region thereby averaging out local weather variations. An accurate weather prediction for every site will be needed just to plan the power production. This requires satellites and advanced instruments. NASA can do a lot of the necessary development work in this area.
Also, power generation from biomass is basically farming in extremely marginal conditions. It is economical only if weedy crops, like switchgrass, can be grown on land without competitive uses such as growing food, and with little or no irrigation or fertilizer. Again, this requires major improvements in our ability to predict the weather.
There are also two hard space power possibilities: solar power satellites and helium-3 from the Moon.
Solar Power Satellites -- Solar power satellites would be large structures built in space that collect solar power and beam it back to Earth by microwave. They need to be in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) to provide uninterruptible power. This idea is attractive and is supported by a major new Department of Defense (DOD) study. If it could work, NASA would have a major role to play in its development.
Unfortunately, solar power satellites are a very long shot. First, they require the low-cost launch of mass to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which has not been achieved and is not expected to be developed any time soon (see Section 3.5). Second, they require large constructions in space, which our experience with the International Space Station (ISS) demonstrated is difficult and very expensive. Third, there are environmental concerns about the side effects of the microwave links needed to get the power to the ground.
Helium-3 from the Moon – Near-term progress of nuclear power generation is expected to produce another generation of safer fission reactors and then seed the move to fusion reactors. These would fuse two low-mass atoms (fusion) instead of breaking apart one high-mass atom (fission).
There is an abundance of deuterium, or hydrogen-2, in Earth’s oceans that could be used for fusion fuel. The problem is that its reaction gives off large quantities of hard radiation. There is, however, a way out. The lunar regolith contains attractive quantities of helium-3 which, in theory, will fuse producing power accompanied by several orders of magnitude less radiation.
The plan to exploit helium-3 from the Moon has two long shots stacked one on top of the other. First, fusion reactors must be developed to the point of being commercially viable. This is technically very difficult and progress has been slow, despite major efforts in several countries. Second, it must be demonstrated that large commercial operations on the Moon are possible. Thousands of tons of regolith have to be processed to produce commercial amounts of helium-3.
Even with these problems, helium-3 from the Moon is the strongest commercial possibility that can be expected to come from NASA's current plan to return to the Moon.
The Population Bomb
The population of the Earth is currently about 6.6 billion people. It has been growing exponentially since the Industrial Revolution became firmly established in the early 1800’s. It cannot grow exponentially for much longer.
Figure 3 shows four possible curves for the world’s population through the 21st century. Continued exponential growth is shown in red and labeled “Impossible”. Just try to imagine a world where there are 5.5 people for every person alive today (36 billion total). If we continue the exponential growth we have demonstrated since 1950, we would reach this level by the end of this century. The world’s resources will clearly not support that level of human population. This curve was first calculated in the 1960’s and has been called “The Population Bomb”.
The other three curves are members of a large family of curves that peak, fall some amount, and then stabilize for the long-term. These curves are generated by mathematical models featuring negative feedback in complex systems and suggest that it is possible for us, first, to control our population growth and then to achieve a sustainable level. In the hypothesized futures represented by these curves, the sooner we peak the less precipitous will be the fall and the higher the sustainable level of human population.
The family is based upon a model of the Earth’s resources that considers some resources to be fixed, like oil, and some to be sustainable, like agricultural land. Any one of this family of curves is possible, though the outcomes represented by some would be much more attractive than others.
The actions we take today will affect which actual curve will unfold. This curve is a fundamental driver for all the world’s problems. High population levels are stressing the environment and are using up energy reserves. The more severely we deplete the Earth’s resources, the lower the sustainable level will eventually be. We must face the population problem if we are to effectively address any of the other great problems of the 21st century.
Figure 3.3-1 has three critical parameters: Peak Level, Peak Date, and Sustainable Level. All three are common in models of complex systems dominated by negative feedback and are interrelated. The later the peak date, the higher the peak level. The higher the peak level, the more stressed the resources needed by human beings and the lower the sustainable level of population.
Current United Nations world population estimates put the date of peak around 2050 and the peak level at about 9.2 billion people. This is almost three people for every two alive today. The UN does not even try to estimate the sustainable level.
Working assumptions about human population
As a working assumption for this paper we can take the UN figures for Peak Date of 2050, and Peak Level of 9.2 billion people. The Sustainable Level is completely dependent on our current actions and is here assumed to be somewhere between two and six billion people.
What we need to understand is that our current relationship with the natural world is unsustainable in the long term and that we are entering a completely different world from anything that has happened in all of recorded history. We are on new ground here, and it is bound to be profoundly upsetting to the great majority of people.
The end to growth
The real question is: what will stop the exponential growth of human population?
There are basically two possible paths that human populations could follow: the high path and the low path. On high path, which is being followed by most industrialized countries, human societies adjust their social mores so that the number of children born match the available resources available to see most of the children safely raised to the age need to bare the next generation. On the low path, which his being followed in too many developing regions, people have large number of babies in the face of high infant mortality in an effort to see at least a few of them safe to reproductive age.
The most important, but rarely recognized, factor interrupting this growth trend is the ability of nearly all mammals on Earth to limit their reproductive capability to match their available resources. Only a few animals, like lemmings, have boom and bust cycles. A few others, like foxes and hares, exhibit predator/prey cycles. Unfortunately, a significant number of species are now failing to achieve this stability and are moving to extinction. The vast majority of all mammal species do adjust their reproduction so that they become a sustainable part of their environment for millions of years. The high path is available to us.
Human beings are mammals, and we are at present doing what most other mammals do. Human reproductive rates are falling off in developed countries. Medical advances allow personal reproductive control. The age of new mothers is rising; women have more productive and fulfilling roles in society. Gays can achieve higher status in society. The UN numbers show that the exponential roll-off has already started even in the world wide figures.
This roll-off will undoubtedly be assisted by all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death. Pandemic diseases like AIDS and avian influenza are real or near certainties. The HIV virus alone dropped the UN peak estimate from 12 billion down to 9 billion. Starvation related to climate change crop failure is already present. Wars over resources like oil and water are likely to continue. Above all, the lead horseman, Death, will be omnipresent as we move from a peak around nine billion people to a sustainable level of population closer to half that value in less than 50 years.
World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic at the start of the 20th century demonstrated both the reality of the Four Horsemen and their unanticipated limitations. Population growth recovered amazingly quickly after this major setback. The Horsemen must not and cannot be the major players in our move to sustainability. In fact, they are not even very good at playing this role. To even think of depending on them is to fail before even trying.
Genetic studies show that modern humans went through a comparable population bottleneck about 64,000 years ago. Our numbers dropped from about ten million to around 10,000 individuals. The culprit was probably the eruption of a super volcano called Toba in what is now Sumatra combined with a sustained period of drought. What we are facing now is then a once-in-64,000-year event, one that is far rarer than anything that has ever happened in recorded history and comparable in importance at least to the industrial revolution. This time we are playing the part of the volcano ourselves.
In truth we do not know what the surviving human society will be like as we cross over the top of this curve, as we drop down the back side, or as we reach a sustainable value. Everything in society will be made quite different by this travail. Human beings will be interacting with other human beings and with their environment in ways that although probably not strictly new, are now obscure. The result could be good or it could be bad. Our problem is to identify and support a good outcome.
We will develop a world society with a human population level that can be sustained and will be clearly along this path by the end of the century.
We will, as in the American civil rights movement, keep our eyes on the prize. We will work steadfastly toward a final sustainable society throughout the entire transition period. We will use the goal we seek to build the path we must take. This is a tried and true process. Whatever happens, to face the problem of population in the 21st century is to face reality. To ignore it is to live in a fantasy land.
The work ahead for NASA
People understand the population problem viscerally even if they resist accepting it mentally. Eventually they must move toward a sustainable future and NASA can be there to provide support for them in this process.
They also appreciate that if the Earth has a population limited by sustainable resources, then the only way to expand our horizons is to eventually move off this planet. This has been our dream since NASA’s conception. Retaining this vision is critical to the mental stability of all our people through the transition period.
As our population moves toward stability, the American people will be intensely upset. One of the few sources of succor is the idea of human beings moving out into the universe. We can eventually turn that dream into reality. This long-term need plays powerfully into NASA’s current plan for a return to the Moon and on to Mars.
Figure 4 shows growth in the number of transistors in a computer chip over the last four decades. Note that the number of transistor axis is logarithmic. The growth rate is very close to doubling every 24 month. Moore’s Law is the clearest example of exponential growth we have and one that has already changed society with the growth of computers, communications, robotics, and personal electronics.
One key question is how long can this trend continue. Our current technology is based on photographic reproduction of a finely detailed mask on a silicon wafer. There are definite limits to how much smaller each element can be. The expectation in the industry is that the trend will last at least to the end of this decade.
Even if the present technology reaches its limit, there are a number of alternative technologies in the laboratory that are just waiting their chance to take off, for example, quantum computing. It is highly likely that one of these will succeed the present technology and growth will continue unabated.
Software development is running behind this hardware trend. For the user to see real improvements, new sophisticated software must use the new power of the hardware. Progress will continue for some time even after hardware development has reached its limit, as the software catches up.
Electronics as a white knight
The American people are looking to technology in general and electronics specifically to save their bacon. They are undoubtedly right to some degree. There is zero probability that we can turn this nation back into a society of gentleman farmers in accordance with Thomas Jefferson or even less into hippy communes. Pushing ahead with technology is our best hope for solving the problems of the 21st century, even if the shortsighted use of technology has caused some of these very problems.
There is every reason to expect the explosion in consumer electronics to continue. Innovations like iPhone and the GPS car navigator will be commonplace. Communications of all kinds will grow beyond anything that has happened thus far in human history. Special purpose robots will appear as if by magic. Nobody will be able to keep up with all the dizzying changes. There is no idea founded on this graph that is too outlandish to come to pass. As Arthur C. Clark noted, technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.
High technology devices, instruments, and processes will be keystones in achieving a positive sustainable future for all.
Work ahead for NASA
This boom is both a boon and a burden for NASA. The American people look to us as a leader in high technology. We are leaders, but only in certain fields. In most fields, like computers, we are consumers of high-tech. We will need to work hard just to keep up our reputation by practical uses for this ever growing power.
Cost to Low Earth Orbit
The cost of launching a kilogram of payload mass to low Earth orbit (LEO) is a critical parameter for all space operations. Figure 3.5-1 shows the cost in year 2000 dollars per kilogram delivered to LEO for a number of launch vehicles used for commercial payloads which are identified by the year of their maiden launch.
Launch to LEO was first possible at a daunting cost in the 1950’s; then the cost dropped quickly thorough the 1960’s. Much of this advance was driven by the Cold War. This development phase ended with the end of Apollo to the Moon and the design of the Space Shuttle. Since then there has been a steady, but not exponential, improvement in cost for the launch of commercial payloads like communications satellites. Also, the Russians, desperate to keep their space programs alive, have been running cut-rate launches for the last decade.
What has not happened is an exponential fall in the cost of launching a kilogram to LEO or even new technologies moving out of the lab to the launch pad that promise to do this soon. There have been commercial developments that have cut costs, but not in a dramatic fashion.
One of the strongest possibilities for cost reduction to LEO is the scramjet. This advanced type of air-breathing jet engine has been demonstrated to fly at Mach 7 and has the theoretical capability of reaching Mach 15. It might be used to power a reusable first-stage that could deploy a second-stage rocket and payload to LEO. Development of this technology would require a massive development program that includes the construction of an extremely large hyper-sonic wind tunnel. The only other possible use for such a tunnel would be the development of military aircraft, but that work could be done with a much smaller tunnel. Even with this expensive effort, an improvement in costs is possible by only a factor of two to three and that is not enough to drastically affect our future.
One strong example of this need to reduce cost to LEO is the construction of solar power satellites, which could address the real need of Hubbert’s Peak. For solar power satellites to be an attractive commercial venture, the project would require a cost to LEO below $500/kg. Currently, commercial costs are at best around $11,000/kg, and the lowest foreign launch costs are at least $3,600/kg. That means we need an improvement of 7 to 15 times in cost to LEO. This is simply not a number we can achieve by the slow improvement we are now experiencing.
In comparison, there are a number of new technologies for moving unmanned masses from LEO to the Moon and beyond. Significant cost improvements in this leg of the journey can be expected. If the same were true for the cost to LEO, then we might expect breakthrough improvements in large commercial space application. Unfortunately, we cannot.
We will continue to develop reliable and safe means of reaching low Earth orbit with costs low enough to support a wide variety of commercial, scientific, and manned missions.
Work ahead for NASA
We will develop the next generation of lunch vehicles for space exploration.
The Great Themes of the 21st Century
Centuries can have themes, just like over planned birthday parties:
The Century of Biology
This century, like the one before it, has started with a great rush of technology with one field standing out.
The 20th century began with Einstein’s miracle year of 1905 and soon produced quantum physics. Discoveries and events were then impelled by and generated critical human history: the bomb, atomic energy, and the space race. More physics was done in the first half of this one century than in all the centuries before it. The 20th century was the century of physics.
The 21st century has started with a great rush of technology, and the field of biology already stands out as the leader. The human genome has been decoded and our understanding of the functioning of the human brain massively expanded. Stem cells are the talk of the media, and the aging of the baby boomers is driving enormous research in health care. The hockey stick is driving sustained interest in the living environment. One result of wars is driving increased attention to prosthetics and biomechanical interfaces. The energy problem is driving interest in biofuels. The population bomb is driving desperate interest in preventing pandemics. Public interest, expenditures for research, and new data in a dozen fields of biology are all expanding exponentially.
One of the key areas of knowledge currently enjoying exponential growth is our understanding of the functioning of the human brain. The introduction of the functional Magnetic Resonance Imager (fMRI) has generated more progress in understanding the brain in one decade than occurred in whole centuries before it. This is an area that is generating real hope for powerful solutions to our most intractable problems.
No to anything unfriendly to life
The reverse side of this trend will also be strong. Anything seen as unfriendly to life will be resisted.
One example is the need to use nuclear power to help reduce carbon emissions. It is unlikely that wind and solar can provide all the power the United States’ needs in this century. Still, the American people have not bought into nuclear power as safe or life friendly. Our political failure to establish a safe spent-fuel depository is a clear example of the consequences of this lack of buy-in. The nuclear power option will therefore remain small, at least in this country.
A weak nuclear power industry in turn has negative repercussions for NASA's return to the Moon program. A small lunar nuclear power plant will almost certainly be needed for a substantial human settlement anywhere except at a few sites near the poles. A strong nuclear industry is also needed to support the development of fusion power technology, which will jump-start a strong market for helium-3 from the Moon.
Exact Limiting Dates
Historic time periods do not start and end on convenient dates. The 20th century started with the Wright Brother’s flight at Christmas in 1903 and ended on 9/11/2001. Similarly the century of physic has not ended on a convenient date or even with a sharp cut off. The work of a century will continue for some time by building on this great legacy, but the advancement will be a linear rather than exponential rate.
Our new understanding of life in all its aspects; life on Earth, human life, life in the universe, will be a keystone to achieving a positive future for all.
The work ahead for NASA
The century of biology is an enormous opportunity for NASA. We own a really big piece of this action:
- Is there life on Mars?
- Was there life on Mars?
- How often do planets suitable for life occur?
- Is there life elsewhere in the universe?
- How did life begin on Earth?
- Did asteroids harbor the precursors of life?
- Can human beings live off-Earth?
- Can we protect life on Earth from asteroids?
Many of these questions can now be answered with achievable space missions. Some will yield to robotic satellite investigation, like planet finding. Others are best done by manned missions.
Building on legacy
The great work of 20th century physics will continue at more sedate pace and NASA owns a good piece it. Europe has taken over this work on the ground but we will continue our sting of great observatories in space.
For example, the James Web Telescope is the replacement for the aging Hubble Telescope. It is specifically designed to look back to the very beginnings of the universe. It is very big and expensive. It is scheduled to launch about 2014 and will be placed in an orbit distant from the Earth where it cannot be serviced by astronauts. It will answer questions about how it all began.
In contrast, our manned mission to return to the Moon has little to do with life and looks too much like a repeat of Apollo instead of a logical extension of its legacy. We must find support for Moon exploration elsewhere.
The Century of Information
The leaders of society once had to act based on the most meager lines of information. Today they are awash in such a flood of information that making sense of it is the problem. There is every indication that this swelling tide will continue to increase into our future as far as we can possibly see. This is a fundamental change in the human condition, and it holds great possibility for positive actions on the problems of the 21st century.
As Moore's Law continues, our data collection systems will get better and better. The development of software to apply both the improved hardware and the data will have to race to keep up. No one can claim to clearly foresee the amount of change this will cause in society.
Right now there are more working scientists alive than any previous time in human history. This condition will probably persist through mid-century. In some sense this is a golden age that may pass only when the population drops and stabilizes.
Our historic ability to generate, understand, and utilize massive amounts of information will be a cornerstone to achieving a positive future for all.
The work ahead for NASA
NASA is one source of this great information flood, and we must be a leader in its analysis and applications. We can and must provide leadership in this area.
Century of Change
The 21st century will see change above all else. Not just simple, comprehensible changes, but changes of state, where the new sweeps away the old, and in many areas including population, energy, and the environment. With so much change in view, it is impossible to now say what kind of human society will result.
Human societies have gone through great changes before, like the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. We came out of these even stronger than we were when we went in. In working through these changes we found inspiration and leadership in a number of key areas of human society:
- Man's relationship to nature
- Science and technology
All of these areas are interconnected. All are critical to a positive outcome. All must adapt to the new situation or fade from the scene. All are likely to survive, but changed greatly from what we have known over the last century. Those institutions that adapt best will lead the way. Those that fail to change will become historic relics.
It is impossible to imagine that we will have a positive outcome without constructive change in every one of these areas. Still for the 21st century, the leader of then all is widely seen to be science and technology.
Human society will change in many ways. A great many of these changes will be those necessary to achieve a positive future for all.
NASA is a leader in the premier arena, science and technology. It takes leadership from the area of politics and it feeds resources and ideas into the area of commerce. NASA has a large part to play at the very heart of the 21st century.
Technology Winners and Losers
The most certain thing we can say about the 21st century is that there will be incredible change. The next most certain thing that we can say is that there will be winners and losers.
We can now apply the most prominent trends and most demanding problems we have discussed to the task of forecasting winners and losers. The problem is to spot the changes that will shift all of society, like the Web, and to distinguish them from the small players, like the two-wheeled vehicle Segway.
What we can say:
We can draw some clear ideas from our analysis:
- Actions today will affect the quality of the future
- What we do has consequence.
We have weathered worst than this before, we will survive – The human experience through such great times of change as the Agricultural and the Industrial revolutions show we are resilient and come out ahead after hard times.
- Trends continue
- Nearly all the powerful trends that are currently running at exponential rates will continue for some time, generating major changes to human society in the process.
- The 21st century
- the century of biology: This powerful scientific theme will continue to lead the way. Much of the information this one trend generates will be the key to solving all our problems. Our new understanding of how our own brains work will be at the forefront of problem solving.
- Great societal problems demand great solutions
- We cannot expect quick fixes, but solutions can be found when a large number of people work hard and take effective actions.
Human population will rise to a peak – Populations on all continents will slow and approach a peak by mid-century. People are alive today who will see the day when the most human beings who will ever be alive on Earth will be alive. This peaking will create worldwide stress and societal changes that are not yet anticipated or understood.
- Weather problems will be more common
- More people will be forced to deal more often with severe weather that they are not prepared for. People feel weather, not climate.
- The seas will rise
- The open question is by how much. In your lifetime, will sea level world-wide rise to your ankles or will it rise to your calves? The rise will certainly be enough to cause major problems along heavily populated coasts.
- Conservation and recycling go through the roof
- Conservation of energy and materials, along with recycling, will be so ubiquitous and socially mandated that today’s citizens would find the rules continuously annoying.
- Less travel
- Travel of all types, from commuting to international travel, will fall as fuel costs climb and computer-based substitutes are perfected. The entire airline industry will have to be reorganized. We will actually figure out how to make telecommuting work.
The winners are:
We can already see a number of clear winners in science and technology:
- Earth Science
- It fits into most of the powerful trends and themes. Its data is necessary for most of the solutions.
- Educational Outreach
- NASA will renew its efforts to support technical education for American students.
- Wind and Solar power
- Just as cellular phone towers appeared all over the country without anyone particularly noticing, wind generators will spring up by the thousands on the entire Atlantic coast and from the Great Lakes to Texas. Similarly, solar fields will spring up all over the American Southwest. The two will compete with each other to see who will be the new top dog in the energy patch. Energy will be stored as vast amounts of compressed air in underground caverns and old gas fields. A new DC power transmission backbone will span the country. Other technologies, like geothermal and tidal, will be developed, but none will match the megawatts from wind or solar.
- Flex Fuel Transportation
- Cars will become light-weight safety boxes on wheels, with many air bags, as well as cup holders, inside and out. Their wimpy hybrid electric drives will run on any mix of gas, ethanol, other biofuels, and plug-in. Their interiors will be better media centers than the best family rooms in the 20th century.
- Rechargeable Batteries
- Exponential improvement is needed for electric cars and is therefore worth an immense fortune. There are at least four new technologies, most of them nano-technologies, ready to come out of the labs right now. The wining technology will make several billionaires; the rest will be nothing but interesting also-rans. By 2010 we should see cell phones that operate for weeks and 400-mile-range (640 km) electric cars that can recharge in 10 minutes.
- Personal Electronics
- Expect one iPod-level invention after another. Anything is possible here. The only problem is telling the winners from the losers, that is, which ones will actually change society. These advances will be critical in solving our major problems, but which ones is anybody's guess.
- Electronic Entertainment
- These are exponentially becoming more real: they are the literature of the 21st century. Young people do not read much anymore, but they play their games and have their second life in cyberspace. Young people are learning new social skills through activities that did not exist a decade ago and these skills will be critical to real problem solving. The open question is, what are these new skills and how can they be applied to real problems?
- The search for extraterrestrial life
- This scientific effort is aligned with the most powerful trends and will continue. A definitive proof is possible, but not certain.
- US goes metric
- To participate fully in international trade, the US will finally go metric and be drug kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
On the Bubble
Some projects are very important to NASA but do not easily find support in the arguments developed in this paper. Some of these deserve special consideration.
Our Return to the Moon is at risk
NASA's current plan is to return people to the Moon and establish a science base there by 2020. This base will probably be near the lunar south pole. This base will support scientific study of both the Moon and the Earth, and to develop human capabilities in space.
NASA’s current plan to return to the Moon is in serious danger of meeting the same fate as our 1989 attempt, the end of funding. It simply does not address the hottest short-term problems of the 21st century even if it does support long-term solutions.
Our return to the moon will meet our long-term needs in at least three ways:
- Witness to Earth's early history
- The Moon is a witness plate and lasting archive of what the solar system was like in its earliest days especially while life was first evolving on Earth.
- Helium-3 from the lunar regolith may provide a lasting solution to Earth's energy problem.
- Just having version of the human race leaving its birth planet and moving out into space is a key to the survival of human society.
Losing this project now will cost us our uninterrupted experience of manned space exploration. If that happened, then when we do need manned space technology again we will have to reinvent the entire technology from the ground up. Action is needed now to save this mission.
The frame of the ISS
The International Space Station is one of the greatest engineering projects ever build by man. We are going to complete it at a basic level but its use after that is in question. It has already served several useful purposes, especially with respect to the end of the Soviet Union, but these successes are not widely known and need to be studied and documented.
Above all we have lost the frame of reference for the ISS. We do not know what to do with it now. We cannot go forward with any new large space project, like a lunar base, until we learn hard lessons from the construction of the ISS and reframe that effort in a manner relative to the problems and needs of the 21st century.
What we cannot say:
There are a number of ideas that, although commonly expressed or implied, simply cannot be claimed:
- More of the same
- We must not say, or even imply, that things will continue be about the way they are at this moment. This is an all too common failure when a speaker assumes everything is the same except for the one change that is being discussed at the moment. Things are clearly not going to be the same, many changes will be going on simultaneously, and we must deal with them all in parallel. When we catch ourselves in this mistake, we must stop and rethink the very foundations of our arguments.
- Techno-savior to the fore
- We cannot boast that technology will effortlessly save the day for everybody. Yes, it will for some people; no, it will not for everybody. Still, technology is the best chance we have, even if poorly used technology has been the cause of some of our problems. Technology is our best candidate to be a white knight.
- I can see all the way to 2050
- Predicting even 30 years ahead is to stand on the sands of Kitty Hawk in 1903 and accurately predict the existence and performance of a Spitfire designed in 1932. Even if that was possible, change in the 21st century has started out running at about five times the rate of the average for the 20th century. Anything postulated out past 2020 can only be described in the most general of terms, and oft-promoted pie-in-the-sky daydreams for 2050 are just that – daydreams.
The losers are:
There are a number of plausible, and often popular, ideas that we can simply rule out for the 21st century:
Science fiction icons
We do not live in the Star Trek universe. Many standard science fiction icons are simply not going to happen in the 21st century and are not needed:
- No faster than light drives
- The energy levels needed to meet what theoretical physicists postulate even in the best of circumstances are likely to remain unobtainable for the foreseeable future.
- No beam me up, Scotty
- With only a minimal theoretical basis and no possibility of application, the idea of teleportation is only wishful thinking.
- No Commander Data robots
- In an overpopulated world, why would we need to build robotic men? Even thought this is a holy grail of the roboticists, it will remain little more than a practice exercise. There will certainly be robots that look like all manner of machines and in abundance; it is just that they will not look like men.
- No ray guns, no light sabers
- Conventional firearms and explosives work quite well in space and are extremely dangerous. The Chinese demonstrated this by shooting down a GEO satellite in January 2007. A major shootout in orbit would generate so much orbital debris that LEO would be a no-man's-land for generations.
- No space helmets with lights that shine directly in your eyes
- This device has made the hero’s face easer to see in many a film, but it also clearly makes him blunder into monsters.
- No rocket belts
- After 40 years of development, the best ones now run about 90 seconds. With luck they may reach 120 seconds by 2020.
- No flying cars
- These darlings of SciFi movies can be built; it is just that they are flying in the face of several major trends. Flying cars are prohibitively inefficient and are not green. They are at best rich men’s toys, an eight-track tape in our transportation future.
- No space elevator
- Problems with materials, problems with crossing radiation belts, problems with safety, all doom this idea.
- No sky cities
- Small outposts in space, yes, but large settlements, no: not in Earth orbit, not on the Moon, and not on Mars. The physics and economics simply do not work. Maybe some time after 2050 several may be built, but not before that, and by the time they are built our society will be so different that we can now hardly imagine the choices that will then be open. Even then, no significant fraction of Earth’s population will ever physically move off this planet. No direct relief from the population bomb is to be found in settling space.
- Friendly aliens will not arrive
- ET’s eminent arrival is just wishful thinking. No sheriff’s posse is going to come riding over the ridge to solve all our problems. We must solve them ourselves.
- Unfriendly aliens will not arrive
- In the movies, opposing them would unite the people of the Earth and we then all work together to solve all our problems. Why do we think we would win? If they could get here at all, it would be no contest! Why don’t we just unite on the solving the problems in the first place?
Many of these ideas appear in the media simply because they are cheap to film. Yet, many people enter space related careers because of their early love for these productions. They then tend to keep these ideas in their minds. We must not be trapped by wishful thinking from cheap theatrical productions that have no possibility of utility in the near future.
Losers NASA cares about
Some ideas that would greatly help NASA achieve its goals but are simply not supported by the analysis in this paper:
Cheap mass to Low Earth Orbit
This is a really hard one to accept. If even a times-four improvement were likely by 2025, then many more great space missions would become possible. But there is simply no basis for this optimism. NASA has tried twice to achieve this goal (the Space Shuttle, and the X-33 Plane), but we have had two major failures.
This puts in serious doubt any program, such as solar power satellites, that depend on low cost to LEO. One problem for NASA is that we will be blamed for this failure, and the blame will not be placed on the inherent technical difficulty of the problem where it belongs.
Just for fun
Some predictions we can make just for the fun of it even if they have little to do with NASA.
- The First Rule of Global Warming
- The first rule of global warming will turn out to be: “Be friendly to your neighbor to the north.” There will be major population shifts in the northerly direction and away from the coasts toward the heartland. Fortunately NASA has a good, long-standing working relationship with Canada.
- Everybody is wired
- In all but the poorest areas, nearly every person will be carrying an electronic device that serves as communicator, computer interface, camera, navigator, personal safety guarantor, health monitor, passport, music player, and anything else anybody could possibly want. This small device will be worn in special pockets in our clothes and in a variety of accessories from shoulder holsters to fanny packs. The choice of its features will be a major personal statement. This device will define cool.
- Say goodbye to the keyboard
- The computer keyboard will soon go the way of the slide rule. They were intentionally designed to be slow and young people simply do not wish to be bothered to learn to use them properly. The keyboard will be replaced by a combination of voice, touch screens, and game controllers. This move has started and could be largely complete by as early as 2010.
- The Semantic Web gets smart
- The Web is going to get a whole lot smarter. When you ask a question you will actually get back an answer you can use. It will feel more and more like there is another human being on the other side of that flat screen. Soon the Web will pass the Turing Test.
- Virtual people are your operating system
- The window icons on your screen will be replaced by Second Life-style virtual people who act as your agents in cyberspace. Some will look like dinosaurs, mythical monsters, robots, or media stars. They will have at least enough artificial intelligence not to be annoying. “You” will come to mean “your team” which will be made up of you in the real world and your people in imaginary worlds.
- The Internet challenges government
- In this country, representative democracy (the notion of a Democratic Republic) was developed as a means of allowing all the people to have a voice when no other means was possible. The Internet provides a means for all people to have a voice as we are already seeing in the great blogosphere and how it transcends political borders. A democratization of information and ideas is underway far greater than that which followed the invention of mass market printing. We have only to sit back and watch where it takes us, perhaps to a future of election free markets.
Not so much fun
And some ideas will require us to put out a lot of work just to avoid them:
- A genome in every garage
- The equipment and knowledge needed to splice genes will be so cheap and so widely available that a Dot Com style boom will develop. This will be a very high risk exercise that will probably solve some of our otherwise intractable problems, but these answers will come at a level of risk we will not understand until much later. One example would be a super bug that brakes down cellulose. Such an engineered bacterial could help address our transpiration energy problem but if a viable colony got loose it could change the entire biology of Earth.
The Big Picture
The big picture of our future is one of many great changes, but these changes include the solution to great problems. We can commit to this vision of greater good for all simply by committing to the hard work that is needed to achieve that future.
Conclusion for NASA
What then does this say about future work for NASA and GSFC?
As we discussed, each of the graphs and trends above has its own specific effects on our prospects for work. More generally, we can say that great difficulties lie ahead and that the actions we now take will affect all our futures and our children’s futures. In this paper, we have now looked at a number of world-class problems and century long themes, envision great futures, and then found useful directions for our actions.
The only way human beings have ever solved great problems, and we have solved many of them, is to get a large number of people working together in effective action. Different groups of people have done this many times, and NASA has demonstrated that we can do exactly this exceptionally well. We can provide this expertise because we live it to our very cores.
To solve a particularly difficult problem, we must first overcome blocking fears and face the problems so that we can be in effective action on the other side of this barrier. This is a process that we have successfully completed many times. We have proven time and again that we can both envision powerful futures and then work successfully in the face of adversity. We at NASA can provide steady leadership in the difficult times that lie ahead.
There is every reason to believe that the human race will come through the 21st century vibrantly alive. The open questions are in the difficulty of this passage and quality of life for our descendants. Actions we take in our current critical time will affect both the difficulty of the passage and the eventual outcome.
We in NASA can, should, and will make a critical contribution to the positive human story of the 21st Century. This is a time in history for technical people to do great deeds and be heroes.
(End of the body of the paper)
==Appendix A, Contact Information==:
John Thomas Riley (Tom) Home: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been studying technical future analysis since 1966.
Appendix B, Future Work for NASA Readings:
Appendix C, Technical Aspects of Future Predictions :
- This is a favored and repeated opinion of user Jriley but it is not universally accepted as shown in the Eddy Current Brake to Orbit article.