Sunday, July 10, 2011

Are Humans Finished in Space?

The Space Shuttle is in orbit right now, on its last flight. The United States has no plan to replace it or build upon it, and isn't even talking about what's next. The Apollo program seems like ancient history. Other nations aren't making much progress either, despite their talk.

Is this the end of our space-faring days?

Every time I wonder this I think about a quirky 1993 paper by J.Richard Gott III of Princeton. Titled "Implications of the Copernican Principle for Our Future Prospects," it draws sweeping conclusions from seemingly nothing. In particular he predicted then that, to within 95%, the lifetime of the human spaceflight program (then 32 years old) was greater than 10 months but less than 1248 years. In 2006 he updated his prediction, stating that there is a 50% chance that the human spaceflight program will not last another 45 years.

Gott might be right. He's been right on some other interesting predictions.

All Gott did was apply the Temporal Copernican Principle -- there is nothing special about the time we live in -- and the obvious fact that there is a 95% chance that a random number in [0,1] lies between 0.025 and 0.975. That's it.

This method predicts, with 95% certainty, that humans have a future longevity of 5,100 - 7.8 million years. In 1993 he predicted that Canada would last between 3 and 4,914 years. (You update that using the latest figures -- that is, only that Canada still exists -- to predict, with 95% certainty, that Canada will  last another 4 to 5,616 years.)  He predicted the closure of many Broadway plays and musicals. Etc.

In 2006 he wrote:
If we fail to establish a self-supporting colony on Mars in the next 45 years while we have the chance, it would be a tragedy. The dimensions of that tragedy may not be apparent to us until such a time, perhaps many thousands of years from now, when we find ourselves trapped on earth with no space program and our extinction as a species looms near. If we spend on the human spaceflight program over the next 45 years as much money in real terms (and send as much weight into low earth orbit) as in the last 45 years and still fail to establish a self-supporting Mars colony, it would be a double tragedy. I do not say this would be easy, but it is what we should be doing. No project we could attempt in the next 45 years would be likely to be as challenging or as important for the future history and survival prospects of our species. Because the human spaceflight program is not very old relative to our species and because our species is not very old relative to the universe, and because our habitat is tiny relative to the universe, we should be colonizing off the earth as soon as possible, while we still can.
I can never figure out if Gott says these with tongue-in-cheek or if he's serious. Or both. Or something entirely else. In any case, he's quite interesting.

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