This article -- ok, I admit, I read Slashdot sometimes, no one is perfect ;) -- made me wonder why the awesomeness of space conquest stopped motivating people.

I remember the tales of my parents at the time of the Apollo landing, it was indeed instilling awe and wonder in the minds of people. It was followed by people like the Olympics or the football competitions are. And nowadays, NASA about to send a nuclear-powered rover to Mars, in a very delicate mission requiring the best of human engineering and scientific skills, and not in line in most media, most people not even aware of it? How did we fall that low?

Sure there was the Cold War. It definitely played a role, in the amount of resources invested by both sides in space conquest, and in the way the media broadcasted the news.

But here in France, a country that was mostly neutral during the Cold War (slightly west-aligned, but not part of NATO for most of the Cold War), the interest of people for space was not really partisan. People who were pro-USSR were amazed and cheering for the Appolo mission, people who were pro-USA were amazed and cheering for Gagarin. My brother and I played with (USSR) Sputnik as much as with (USA) space shuttles. We praised equally Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. I don't think the lack of Cold War explains it all.

So what happened to the space conquest spirit? How did it disappear? I notice a blank spot on my map (well, not totally blank, but still very fuzzy) of reality, do some of you have clues for how to fill it?

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Space travel turned out not to be very fun. The rollicking exploration of pulp stories where you see new worlds and new creatures every week or every book was replaced by a reality of cold, dead, empty planets/moons. You need to travel weeks or months or years to get anywhere, and spaceships, instead of being comfortably elegant or adorably ramshackle with smuggling compartments are cramped, crowded, and require you to shit in a tube.

If/when space travel becomes a place for the very rich to vacation, such as on spacious air-filled moon-bases or on large space stations with artificial gravity, I think it might become exciting again.

How about large stations with artificial gravity and zero-G? We were launching 747 sized hulls 97% of the way into orbit, only to dispose of them about once or twice a year for many, many years. (Shuttle main tank.) Large trampoline-sided spaces would result in really cool new sports and forms of art.

I think this paper is relevant; on the whole, opinion polling indicated that, aside from a brief period after the moon landing, NASA was never popular, and the majorities almost always supported a smaller NASA. Meanwhile, there's still strong public support for some things- eg the Space Shuttles or a space station.

Thanks, very interesting paper which answers to my question... by showing me the question itself was wrong.

Probably due to some kind of selection bias, I always got the impression that Appolo project was widely supported (since it is considered one of the greatest achievement of humanity by most of my acquaintances), but it seems it doesn't hold in the population in general.

Sad, but at least now I'm "less wrong".

Peter A. Taylor (who seems to have occasionally read some LW/OB) has a few interesting essays on that on his home page:

I don't remember all the content of those essays, but the gist of what I remember is that we don't have a clear idea of why we want to go into space, and some of the goals (such as preparing space colonization) would be better served through other means (such as getting better at making self-sustained hermetic ecological systems, which can be done in a basement).

On an unrelated note, fans of space conquest might enjoy the song Fire in the Sky.

Thanks for the answers, and for Fire in the Sky, almost made me cry, sometimes I can get silly too ;)

One story to explain it: Space filled a psychological niche for people, which something else now fills. A logical thing for that to be would be the internet and computers. For some of us who are hard core futurists, we also have far-future aspirations like life extension and uploading to concern ourselves with. It's not that we've given up on space, but it is less captivating because it competes with other interesting things now. With less enthusiasm for the topic on display it has subsided to one of many interests, of great concern for a few interested individuals but lesser concern for the population as a whole.

Interestingly, launch prices continue to go down and the specialists continue to accomplish amazing things. It is possible that a diminishment of far-mode thinking about the topic has actually lead to better business and pragmatic decisions than would otherwise happen. Instead of expensive moon shots, perhaps we will get there faster because we have private companies making millions by launching communications satellites and developing less expensive rockets.

One story to explain it: Space filled a psychological niche for people, which something else now fills. A logical thing for that to be would be the internet and computers. For some of us who are hard core futurists, we also have far-future aspirations like life extension and uploading to concern ourselves with. It's not that we've given up on space, but it is less captivating because it competes with other interesting things now.


Once upon a time the future meant space ships. "Go farther, faster." The future was the flying car, flying farther. The Jetsons. That was before DNA, before nanotech, before life extension, before uploading, before the internet. Before the more interesting stuff we can do right here.

I think space travel has a special escapist appeal to it. There are massive intractable problems with human society on earth at the moment which lack easy solutions (poverty, aids, overpopulation, climate change, social order). Space allowed the last generation to write stories where those didn't have to be dealt with because the protagonists could leave earth behind, but now we've realised we're stuck here and have to fix things.

There are massive intractable problems with human society on earth at the moment which lack easy solutions (poverty, aids, overpopulation, climate change, social order).

Poverty - has always been with us. Many, many people are better off. AIDS - We will solve this. Overpopulation - Population will stabilize at 10 billion. See 2nd link. Climate change - see below. Social order - so long as we don't extinguish ourselves, this will work itself out.

We might be stuck in the solar system for the next century, but we're certainly not stuck on Earth.

The lack of human space exploration really doesn't help in terms of capturing the public's fickle imagination. Sending robots is just not as exciting, even to me. Additionally, NASA's failure to continue to show progress after the huge, dramatic victory of the moon missions was very bad, from a PR perspective. Many people feel that space is over, and that that chapter in humanity's history is closed. Which is very sad, because I think the moon missions were one of the best things we've ever done, as a species.

"If you watch NASA backwards, it's about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon."

We chose to develop space travel with short-term spectaculars in mind instead of long-term economics; now the long term is here, we're barely started making space economical, and we can no longer afford to make it spectacular.

I strongly agree with the point about lack of dramatic victories. It is hard for people to be excited when most of what we've done is stay in low Earth orbit. At the same time, people don't appreciate though how much progress we've made that's slow and steady. We've reduced the cost of putting things into space, and we've started getting to the point where private companies can do things in space and routinely turn profits, not just for communication satellites, but also for mapping satellites, and in some cases, possibly human space travel. It may well be that we'll return to the dramatic victories once we bring the cost down a bit more.

I agree with everything except I think sending robots is very exciting because not only does it advance space exploration but it also advances AI research.

This reminds me of an episode of The West Wing, where President Bartlett is inspired by Kennedy’s To the Moon speech, and decides that he wants to make a similar dramatic statement. In his case, it was to have a cure cancer in ten years. In my mind, curing cancer is similar, in intent at least, to universal healthcare—essentially, using medicine to help more people live longer, healthier lives. However, I think that curing a disease a disease or providing everyone with basic healthcare, while extremely beneficial to society, is not quite as inspirational as it was to send someone to the moon in the 1960s.

While I wasn’t alive then, I think it would be the equivalent of a president saying “we will be able to cure death in 10 years!” or “we will be able to send humans to another solar system in ten years!” Those are both dramatic visions that people think are either impossible or will occur in the distant future. And having the president say that they are achievable makes people believe that it is so.

Interesting that you point to that, because in my own mind, when I want to think about the most spectacular achievements of humanity, my two first candidates are : "we walked on the moon" and "we eradicated smallpox". They are on pair to me, the glorious achievements of human minds overpowering Azathoth (gladly, Azathoth isn't fighting back).

And a cure for cancer, along side with going to Mars or doing a permanent base on the Moon, would be the next step of those two achievements.

Phrase the question another way, why should we care about space?*

For our current space capability: There is nothing there we need. It is incredibly expensive to do anything there. The scientific experiments we can do there are of marginal interest.

For the longer term, it is hugely beyond our technological abilities, and the projected ones of the next hundred years assuming no singularity). Colonisation is a far off dream, whatever determines our survival as a species for the nex millennium will be decided on earth. And we are struggling with that right now.

*[Theres a phrase for this as a technique to reverse status quo bias isn't there?]

For the longer term, it is hugely beyond our technological abilities

We could start colonizing Mars using nuclear rockets in 20 years, if we wanted to. Heck, if we wanted to badly enough, we could start it in 20 years with chemical rockets.

whatever determines our survival as a species for the nex millennium will be decided on earth. And we are struggling with that right now.

Certain things will be decided in the next century. We could colonize Mars with agriculture but without terraforming well inside that. When it comes to an issue like "species survival" I think the expense and redundancy are justified. Whether or not western civilization decides to colonize Mars will be one of those deciding factors. The colonization of Mars would be a turning point in human history as significant as the european colonization of North America, with political and economic consequences as large and as far-ranging. Perhaps it would be better if western civilization did not choose to colonize Mars. I'm fairly certain Chinese civilization will do so, and having both powers vying for new territory could well result in war.

*[Theres a phrase for this as a technique to reverse status quo bias isn't there?]

"The reversal test."

what happened to the space conquest spirit ? How did it disappear ?

It disappeared from government in the world recession of the 1970s. Since then the Space Age had to live on a budget.

I can just imagine the awkward situation of some of the last century's science fiction writers who have started to die off at fairly advanced ages since the 1980's, beginning with Robert Heinlein. They had made their livings decades ago by publishing stories premised on the idea that we live in a technologically successful manned "space age," yet in the real world they lived long enough to see that the "space age" effectively ended in the early 1970's. How does it feel to the still-living septuagenarian+ science fiction writers like, say, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Ben Bova, when they realize that they have outlived the basis of their careers by a couple of generations?

I don't think accurate prediction is the basis of science fiction, though some effort at prediction is part of what drives the field.

I've been trying to figure out what the relationship is between prediction and science fiction. On one hand, I think it's wrong to use accuracy of prediction as the primary way to judge the value of a piece of science fiction, though I still think it's cool when a author gets something right.

On the other hand, it seems fundamentally wrong-headed to say that science fiction is only about the time in which it is written.

I can't think of any other human enterprise which gets so much mileage out of trying to do something which is impossible to do at all well.

Younger people may have trouble appreciating this, but I can remember when years like 2001 seemed like way-off times in "the future." I recently read The Puppet Masters, which Heinlein wrote about 1950. He set the story in that mysterious, far-future year 2007, where people use cell phones and display liberal sexual mores, so those aspects didn't challenge my suspension of disbelief. He also seems to have anticipated the security paranoia of the last decade about terrorism. But he didn't get much else right.

However, you have to hand it to the last century's science fiction writers despite their bad calls. They often showed men, mostly, who got off their asses and did stuff in the real world, like building moon colonies, exploring exoplanets, fighting wars with alien races and such. For the most part they didn't anticipate the lassitude and vulgar hedonism which characterizes American life in the real 21st Century.

I've started to wonder lately if science fiction's fondness for neo-feudal social structures, noble houses, monarchies and the like postulated for future societies will seem prescient if it turns out that the democracy bubble has started to collapse in our lifetimes.

Yeah, I can remember when I had trouble believing I was living in the nineties-- surely they were flimsy imaginary years, not years which could be part of the real world.

The Door into Summer is probably the best sf novel for predicting devices, and it's got my favorite piece of general prediction. When the main character wakes up in the future, he doesn't have any way to guess what many of the job descriptions refer to.

I don't know what you mean by vulgar hedonism. To my mind, both the toys and the food have been improving, and I'm glad of it. Low end art is pretty awful, but the world may have always been like that. There's still high end art being made, both popular and fringe. There's more permission to portray sex and violence, but less permission to engage in casual bigotry. I'm not sure this is a change for the worse. (Strange but true: sf fans, at least seem most likely to skim sex scenes, action scenes, and description).

As for golden age sf which predicts society going downhill, I recommend PK Dick, and especially Kornbluth.

I do think things are going wrong, but I don't think lassitude is a good explanation. Instead it's energetic people who've found ways to skim value without doing anything useful.

On a bit more cheerful mode, I would point to Jules Verne, who wrote in 1865 about going to the Moon, and we did it a century later, using means significantly different from the one he envisioned. We can only hope the same will happen : the space age will come, just later than predicted and using different technologies (space elevator ? launch loop ? replicating nano-bots to produce the base first, and then sending people there ?).

I don't know about Niven or Bova, but Pournelle writes/blogs prolifically online and answers emails, so one can just look:

He seems pretty unhappy at the stagnation, and hopes the X Prizes may help.

Fred Pohl is still with us at over 90 years old. His blog is worth reading, and may touch on this from time to time.

See Poul Andeson's "Murphy's Hall". Unfortunately, just mentioning it in this context is a spoiler.

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Self replicating (with remote human supervision) robotics for base on the moon is merely a very big engineering project. I'd say somewhere on the scale of modern operating system with the associated software (word processor, web browser, etc). Perhaps that plus the hardware and fab plant design, on the high estimate side.

But we have plenty of unused land and sea floor on Earth; the least hospitable place on Earth (excluding active volcanoes perhaps) is much easier to live in, than the moon.

I don't think so. Software is much easier than hardware. In fact the "self-replicating robots" problem probably contains a specialist operating system subproblem in it! One thing I learned watching collaborations between mechanical and electrical engineering PhD students, is that mechanical engineering goals are generally much more humble.

Mechanical E: build a good helirobot engine, Electrical E: build a fancy helirobot controller. (Building a new OS is also a PhD thesis in software, e.g. of roughly comparable difficulty).

Exactly. Self-Replicating robotics on Earth is a global instant victory condition. Completion of one would result in machines that could double their production exponentially, leading to practically infinite production capability within no time.

Suggesting self-replicating robotics is akin to saying we should just solve this whole not being post-scarcity problem.

Self-Replicating robotics on Earth is a global instant victory condition. Completion of one would result in machines that could double their production exponentially, leading to practically infinite production capability within no time.

This does not follow. This depends on a lot of conditions, such as how fast the robots replicate, what resources they need, and how broad the circumstances they can replicate are. If for example someone could make a self-replicating robot but the robot required boron in some critical part, its replication would be severely hampered.

Moreover, even having a self-replicating robot isn't by itself necessarily useful if you can't control it in detail or get them to then do exactly what you want. And a self-replicating robot with no control could be quite bad.

But these are essentially minor nitpicks, and I agree with your point if one adds the appropriate minor disclaimers.

I was thinking more in terms of the original claim. Self replicating robots able to replicate quickly enough and flexible/controllable enough to make a permanent colony on the moon for us.

I mean, I assume that was the original point instead of sending very large, slow Von Neumann machines to tile the moon with copies of themselves. That would be cool but probably not worth the expense, and it'd carry such an awful risk of backfiring on us.

Exactly. Self-Replicating robotics on Earth is a global instant victory condition. Completion of one would result in machines that could double their production exponentially, leading to practically infinite production capability within no time.

Per Robin Hanson, a machine shop can put out its own mass in equipment in roughly a month or two. And yet, the economy doesn't double every month, or even every year. Why not?

There seems to be a fair chance the reasons are mostly rooted in cognitive biases, cumulative coordination mistakes, economic rent-seeking, and so on -- not anything technological.

A well planned lunar or orbital mission might well be free of these issues. Space conditions are mechanically simpler in some respects, so there's a stronger case for pre-planning everything rather than requiring a market economy to make it work. Supporting structures are less needed, transit is less two dimensional, and solar energy can be harvested at scale with low costs in equipment density. There is also instant access to ultra-high vacuum conditions which are useful for refining. And in addition to the endless cheap sunlight, there's no anti-nuclear lobby which can claim it's in their back yard.

Suggesting self-replicating robotics is akin to saying we should just solve this whole not being post-scarcity problem.

Maybe we should solve this whole not being post-scarcity problem...

Per Robin Hanson, a machine shop can put out its own mass in equipment in roughly a month or two. And yet, the economy doesn't double every month, or even every year. Why not?

If we switch the example to an excavator which outputs its own mass in an hour or two, does the answer to your question become clearer?

A quick process like that is pretty much insignificant compared to a month or two, let alone 15 years. Unless there are tens of thousands of other steps in the chain of comparable length, it doesn't come close to explaining it.

As I see it, there are roughly four steps:

  1. Excavating.
  2. Refining.
  3. Power collecting.
  4. Manufacturing.

The ones towards the end seem to be the biggest time sinks. However, power collection should not raise it by more than a factor of two or so. I don't think it takes many months to mine enough coal to pay for the energy costs of coal mining equipment, for example.

I think you underestimate how much work did go into e.g. Microsoft Windows, or Linux (complete with drivers, graphical environment etc etc); I meant that by operating system (not PhD project sized of course. There's giant difference; you can call both 'operating systems' just as you can have mechanical engineering project of making 'a liquid fuel rocket engine' and it'll be so much smaller than Space Shuttle main engine). Also I included the design of computer hardware and fab plants on the high range.

The engineering of the self replicating factory, with the exception of engineering of few components, is mostly down to building system out of components, which is more like software engineering and less like design of a space shuttle engine (or for simpler analogy a ball bearing).

Ok -- what's your evidence? My evidence:

(a) Lots of operating systems, no self-replicating synthetic hardware in commercial use.

(b) Academics build lots of operating systems, academics build at best trivial self-replicators (see e.g.

(c) Existing natural self-replicators are very sophisticated (effectively molecular nanomachines!)

It's untouched ground, there's a minimum threshold for being a self replicator, but no minimum threshold for getting called 'operating system' (I myself can probably write an 'operating system' in a week or two, or even in a weekend, depending to how little we consider to be an operating system), and such replicator - I am speaking of supervised self replicator, i.e. largely under remote control - is economically ineffective compared to regular, staffed factory. A replicator is no magic - it is a moderately big complex of factories, with automatization of even the rare tasks that would normally be much much cheaper to perform with humans - there is literally no commercial incentive to design something like that, considering that it would cost billions to design. More, actually, because the hardware of the first original is going to be awfully expensive.

I must make clear what replicator I am speaking of. A practical one, which is to significant extent remotely controlled, and for which much of the difficult to manufacture electronic components (CPUs, memory chips) are shipped from Earth (they are lightweight). Such replicator would require multiple extremely heavy launches to get there, it would be very fragile, and it would grow considerably slower than even remotely wise investments. So you'll probably be better off simply doing something else and going to moon later.

It is not really glamorous awesomeness by any means. It would largely rely on existing CNC machines and existing robotics, it would be huge, it would be messy, and it is going to break down once in a while at first (with a bit of luck that may be resolvable with remotely controlled robot, in a manner similar to trying to solder chips onto a board by holding them with chopsticks).

edit: tl;dr; it can be done, it wouldn't be the most complex task mankind ever done, and it is going to suck.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I am calling you out -- I don't think you can write an operating system from scratch in less than a few years. (I thought tinkering in an existing toy OS for a semester in my undergrad OS class was fairly hard. I once tried writing a "real" file system from scratch -- very difficult also).

How familiar are you with software engineering or mechanical engineering? You are systematically underestimating the difficulty of engineering tasks, I think. You sound like a futurist, not an engineer.

I am not sure I understand the concrete proposal you are making, nor am I sure how much "replication" should be a part of such a proposal. A lot of people are thinking very hard about economical moon/mars colonization, any thoughts on their proposals?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Also, the practical uses of space have so far all been close to earth-- communication and weather satellites. Going to the moon-- let alone farther-- doesn't have any obvious payoffs.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

In English, unlike in French, question marks (and exclamation marks, colons, etc.) aren't preceded by a space. Also, Apollo is spelt with one P and two Ls, and Cold War is usually capitalized.

Fixed, thanks.

Just wait until alien life (microbian or otherwise) is discovered, possibly on Mars or Titan, in 10 to 20 years.

I don't think the space conquest spirit was ever lost. It seems to me that science-fiction is still largely dominated by space tales. To the extent that enthusiasm has declined, it is largely a product of the stagnation in the technology. There is only so much you can do with chemical rocket engines, and anything beyond LEO (or, at best, the moon) is going to be massively expensive with little real-world payoff. The technology that could take us beyond the moon and inspire people to believe in space travel again would require nuclear engines, which are limited by a strong taboo and international and national regulations against fission devices in orbit.

You'd think the safest place for nuclear engines would be in space... But of course, "nuclear" is a boo light.

Well, I guess the concern is if the rocket blows during take-off, which does happen in a significant percentage of cases, the nuclear material will become nasty fallouts. I've no idea if that threat is serious (we would have to consider the amount of nuclear fuel required, and estimate how bad the fallout would be, and multiply that by that of in-flight explosion), but I understand it can scare some people.

I'm twenty and I feel like I missed the space conquest spirit completely. When I think about the scientific interests that appeal to my generation, I think that advances in health, computing, and sustainable energy seem far more important. I believe that we haven't really lost our need for conquest it's just moved into domain closer to home. The question now is, how can we improve life on earth? How can we extend life? How can we collect and analyze data in better ways than before?

I think that the decline of violence in the world may have something to do with this. Since there is less violence between nation states, there is less of an incentive for countries to show their dominance on an international level. This is just a guess though.

Because people get used to everything. Once antarctic expeditions attracted major interest, and now there is a base near south pole and most don't even know that it exists. That is normal way.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

The space conquest spirit disappeared along with the conquest spirit in general. Without a great power struggle like the Cold War, the motivation simply hasn't been there do anything on the scale of Apollo again. This the great irony of the human condition that I as a Sith find so amusing: strife is the source of so much of our progress, yet "progressives" always strive to make peace. As Harry Lime put it in The Third Man:

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Many of you are probably too young to understand that there has been a great cultural deconstruction over the past 50 years which has moved Western nations away from higher "imperial" visions toward more mundane ideals like equality, GDP growth, peace, technological progress and a hedonistic ethos. As Peter Thiel put it, "the hippies won," and the falling out of favor of von Braun, et al's "conquest of space" ideals was one of the first casualties of that defeat.

Old school civilization theorists usually associate the onset of liberalism with the declining or terminal phase of a nation, when it no longer has any strong ethos, vision or sense of collective destiny. Space could/should have been our collective destiny, but it seems that other ideas prevailed, and now we all may have to live in the ruins of that ideological failure. Meanwhile, in rising nations like China, the imperial spirit is returning and they are showing the kind of energy and cosmic ambition that the West had prior to our cultural deconstruction. Their space program is proceeding methodically according to a long-term vision, and there is no reason to doubt that they will own the Moon and Mars by mid-century. In my view, the West's liberalism and lack of a great enemy has been our undoing in space, and our democratic capitalism has been discredited as a system capable of sending mankind to the stars.

Since everything regarding space is so frickin' expensive (launch, engineering, software, manpower, training, materials...), the opportunity costs are simply too high for the expected short- to mid-term returns. You may ask yourself: what about the Apollo-Program? The 60`s spacerace was approved by politicians for signaling-purposes in competition with the USSR; such an external factor is currently absent.
With that said,on an optimistic note: a lot of people have held onto the dream of the final frontier and are exploring possibilities to reduce esp. the launch cost, eg. by starting rockets from flying boeings.

That explains the cuts in funding, but not why there is so much attention given to what still exist. This rover to Mars seems an impressive thing, and yet, before reading about it on Slashdot, I never got any information about it. Not a line (that I saw, at least) in mainstream newspapers or TV news, nothing.

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