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Worlds Without End Blog

Flight Proven Posted at 3:38 PM by Rico Simpkins


One of the reasons we read science fiction is to find out what happens next. My favorite science fiction sub-genre is near future, precisely because I want someone to tell me what to expect a decade from now, a year from now, a month from now.  Half the fun is discovering the future through speculative fiction. The other half is watching it come true. That is why I started writing this series of blog posts about near future developments, starting with last year’s Greetings Carbon Based Gases.  Today’s topic:  the gravity well.

Tonight, sometime between 2227-0030 GMT (6:27-8:30 p.m. EDT), SpaceX will launch a “flight proven” rocket for the first time.  “Flight proven” is Elon Musk’s euphemism for “used.”  It was only last April when the rocket in tomorrow’s launch performed its last mission, The CRS-8:

If and when that rocket launches successfully, today, Musk will have accomplished something thought impossible not too long ago, even quite recently.  As we reported in 2012, it costs $10,000 per pound to launch something into orbit.  At least, it did back then.  Today, Musk says he charges $2,500/lb and aims to have that down to $1000/lb this year, when the Falcon Heavy comes online.  Knocking one zero off of NASA’s flight costs is a remarkable achievement, but Musk has predicted he’ll do it again ($100/lb), and some have even speculated a fantastical cost of $10/lb in about 8 years.

Even if that last prediction doesn’t pan out, the consensus seems to be that $100/lb is the point at which many of our sci fi fantasies could come true.  That’s good news for science fiction writers, who Neal Stephenson has said have been too pessimistic, as of late.  So, what can budding new sci-fi writers reasonably predict in the wake of tonight’s launch?

Ryan Faith over at Vice had one idea of how it would go (bolded emphasis added by mois):

“SpaceX wants to get prices down far enough to encourage new users because that’s how they can really start incorporating space in the economic mainstream. Such a change could allow for economies of scale, getting a meaningful slice of global capital flow, industrial synergies, and more.

Once you get to that point, you can start talking much more seriously about building big space stations — the kind of thing dreamed up by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wouldn’t be like the International Space Station, but more like a big Hilton with a fancy cocktail bar. Granted, drinks at that interstellar cocktail bar could be twice as expensive as normal because of shipping costs — but hey, the views of Earth would totally make up for it.”

In the spirit of Mr. Musk’s iterative approach, I will add more ideas as the evening wears on.  Please feel free to add more in the comments section.

As I type this, it is T-minus 2 hours to the launch window, so I’m going to hit “publish,” for now.  Check this post for post-launch updates.

UPDATE: In case you missed it, watch the day’s coverage of the launch here:

UPDATE: Success!

A Distance Too Far Posted at 9:20 AM by James Wallace Harris


In Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix propose colonizing Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and the second largest moon in the solar system. They reject constructing colonies on Mars and the Moon, claiming Titan offers the most resources for creating a permanent human settlement.

Even though I don’t buy their premise, Wohlforth and Hendrix have written a book that nicely sums up the current knowledge on human space travel. What’s damning and depressing is their long litany of obstacles we face living in space. Over the years I’ve read news reports about the various dangerous health effects of space travel, but reading them all in one place makes me wonder if science fiction is completely wrong about the future of humans in space.

Oddly enough, near the beginning of their story, Wohlforth and Hendrix report books on space colonization are never taken seriously by professionals in the space industry. Evidently, such wild ideas are a danger to the careers of real space scientists. Wohlforth and Hendrix say books about colonizing space give amateur space enthusiasts hope, but those folks lie on the fringe, closer to science fiction fans than scientists. I’m a space enthusiast and a science fiction fan, so Beyond Earth is my kind of book, but I couldn’t help taking this news as a slight.

Between what W&H report on the dangers of space travel and the politics of the space industry, it feels like they have damned their own hopes in Beyond Earth to oblivion. The upside of their story is the reporting on private space programs, like SpaceX. That news is very encouraging, if not inspirational.

However, I have a problem with colonizing Titan. It’s a distance too far. Earth’s moon is three days away, Mars is six months. Titan is seven years! Wohlforth and Hendrix do make a case for faster space travel, but even if Titan was only hours away, it’s still too far, too cold, too strange, and, too inhuman. Science fiction hasn’t prepared us for living on Titan like it has for the Moon and Mars.

For the past fifty years, I’ve heard many arguments for colonizing the Moon or Mars. The whites and the reds, you might say. We know those worlds well enough to feel they aren’t so strange. They are barren, not fit for man nor beast, but we have already psychologically imagined ourselves there nonetheless. Titan is too far in distance and conceptualization.

From all the medical studies that Wohlforth and Hendrix review, I’m not sure humans are meant to live in space at all. Maybe our science fictional dreams are flat-out impractical. No matter what hurdle Wohlforth and Hendrix report, they don’t get discouraged, always coming up with hopeful workarounds. I was discouraged. Is it time for science fiction to start speculating about futures where humans never leave Earth? When do we give up? I’m not ready yet, but I do believe we need to start contemplating the possibility.

After reading Beyond Earth I believe we should put all our manned space efforts into building bases on the Moon. We need to test humans living in low gravity for years. We’ve already discovered that living in microgravity for longer than six months causes permanent bodily damage. We’re learning that living in space will eventually cause permanent brain damage from galactic radiation. The safe time limit might be just 1-2 years, and there’s no practical shielding for spacecraft.

We should send robots to the Moon to construct an underground city safe from radiation. Those robots need to mine all the resources on the Moon that’s possible, so we fly the least weight from Earth. Robots should then fill the underground city with plants and test animals. When the robots have created a sustaining livable habitat, then send humans to stay for several years. Only then will we know what happens to our bodies living in less than 1 G. After we’ve gained knowledge from such an experiment, then we’ll know if we should travel greater distances. If we survive living on the Moon, then go to Mars or even Titan.

Wohlforth and Hendrix make a great case that we’re intentionally ignoring medical evidence. That we don’t want to believe that space is ultimately unhealthy. That our gung-ho nature makes us believe we can either use technology to overcome obstacles, or we can push our bodies further than the evidence suggests. I wonder if such optimism is just a way of fooling ourselves because we don’t want our science fictional dreams to come to an end.

I don’t know about you, but Titan is too far for me. What if Mars and the Moon are too far too? As Beyond Earth progresses it becomes more like science fiction than science fact. Anyone who writes science fiction might want to mine it for ideas. On the other hand, this book’s optimism makes me question the optimism of science fiction. Should we expect the future to give us everything we imagine?

Recommended Reading


Sticky: Greetings, Carbon Based Gases (updated) Posted at 3:34 AM by Rico Simpkins


One of the reasons we read science fiction is to find out what happens next. My favorite science fiction sub-genre is near future, precisely because I want someone to tell me what to expect a decade from now, a year from now, a month from now.  Half the fun is discovering the future through speculative fiction. The other half is watching it come true.

We may not have our bubble cities or flying cars, but one science fiction milestone, the decline of coal from the winner’s circle, may have finally arrived.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2016 is the year coal stopped being America’s leading energy source. King Coal’s replacement: Natural gas, which (as steampunk fans know) burns more cleanly and has long been predicted to be the “transition fuel” that will eventually give way to totally clean energy, like wind and solar.  As of this year, that milestone has been reached. And it didn’t take long for coal to lag far behind. April saw natural gas producing 39% more energy than coal.  No doubt that gap will fluctuate in the coming months, but coal is unlikely to regain the lead.

The next energy generation method to surpass coal?  Nuclear. But, despite how it looks on the chart, that’s probably not going to happen this summer.  Nuclear power hasn’t grown in over a decade and coal always recovers during the summer months (all that air conditioning creates demand). But at its current rate, coal could plummet into third place as soon as this fall, certainly by spring (2017).

On the other side of the spectrum, we have our newest forms of energy, wind and solar. It may not look it, but wind as been growing by leaps and bounds.  Deselect the heavy-hitters on the above chart (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) and you’ll notice that wind is close to surpassing hydroelectric power on its way to the top.  I expect that to happen by 2017 or 2018 at the latest.

And don’t be fooled by the modest squiggle representing solar energy.  Ray Kurzweil says it will be the dominant form of energy generation within a dozen years.  Make sure to work that into your short stories, budding sci-fi writers.

UPDATE: The 2016 data is in, and that means we can take a peek at the annualized data. As you can see, below, natural gas has surpassed coal as the #1 source of energy in America, on balance, year round:

It is unclear whether the Trump administration will be successful in reversing this trend, but I’m guessing not, for one very important reason: the EPA is likely to relax regulations on fracking. Even with the recent gift the administration has given to coal, the industry will have a hard time competing with even cheaper and more abundant gas reserves.

Do You Want To Go To Mars? Posted at 6:30 AM by James Wallace Harris


Back in 1964, when I first read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, I decided my goal in life was to get to Mars. I was 12. When Mariner 4 whizzed by Mars taking crude images in July 1965, showing the red planet was more like the Moon than science fiction, I was disappointed, but I still wanted to go. I grew up with Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik flew the month after I started first grade, and Apollo 11 landed the month after I finished the twelfth grade. I assumed Americans would be on Mars before 1980, and colonization would start before I was too old to go. I don’t think I was alone having this dream. It was impossible for me to imagine in 1972 that humans would never leave Earth orbit for decades.

A warm day on Mars is what we’d call cold here on Earth, and a cold day on Mars is what we’d call hell. We’re now all afraid of getting too many X-rays, but living on Mars would cook our gonads in constant radiation. And only a geologist could admire the scenery of the fourth planet. So why do so many dream of going to Mars?

NASA just announced a series of posters advertising for jobs on Mars. There seems to be more excitement in the 2010s about Mars than anytime since the 1960s. Elon Musk has become the D. D. Harriman of Heinlein’s imagination, the man who is selling Mars. The Martian by Andy Weir and its movie version has inspired millions to daydream about adventures on Mars even though Mark Watney had one wretched experience after another. Like Dorothy in Oz, he just wanted to go home. Thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed Martian colonization scheme that involves one-way trips. What is so alluring about Mars that some people are willing to give up everything?

For those of us who dream of moving to Mars, have you ever analyzed why you want to go? Looking back to my twelve-year-old self, I have to say reading Heinlein was my first motivation, but is fiction really a good justification? And if I had known about the details of how the astronauts of Project Gemini ate and shat in space for two-weeks, I would have given up my ambition back then. If I’m honest with myself, I know I never had the Right Stuff.

I think all adolescents want to escape their situations, and mine included alcoholic parents who dragged my sister and I around the country in their own restless search for greener pastures. It’s no wonder I would have gladly gone all the way to Mars to find a life of my own. Science fiction was my escape, my positive therapy for what should have been a psychologically damaged childhood. Science fiction and rock & roll were my trip to Mars, converting an adolescence I should have suppressed to a time I nostalgically cherish.

When Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson came out in 1993, my Mars mania reignited. Then when The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin showed up a few years later, with a very practical plan for getting to Mars, I got even more excited. By then I had given up any naïve dream of going to Mars myself, but I finally had hope again that humans would go. That was twenty years ago, and we’re still doing endless 90-minute laps around the home world.

P04-Surveyors-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xI believe Elon Musk is an unrealistic optimistic about how to get to Mars, but I hope I’m wrong. I know the Mars One people are clueless, but I wish them well. There’s a practicality that comes with getting old. I’m glad the young aren’t infected. We need foolish people to do impossible things. But I’ve reached an age where I now question the value of going to Mars. I’m not sure space is suited for humans, but it is perfect for machines.

And, if we do want to adapt humans to space, I think our starting place should be the Moon, not Mars. The Moon is three days away, and a perfect place to construct the self-sufficient industrial city to launch human space exploration of the solar system and beyond. If Homo sapiens can’t adapt to living on the Moon, going to Mars will be pointless. But if we can thrive on the Moon, Mars will be easy.

There’s one very important factor about those posters from NASA – they’re promoting jobs that involve long term stays. Going to Mars, or the Moon, can’t be about planting the flag. I didn’t understand the value of work as a kid. Space travel was a thrill. Living in space really means working in space. I just wanted to hop a rocket and escape into fictional fantasies. The people who truly want to live in space need twenty years of relentless preparation, and then will work 15-hour days on the final frontier. Pioneers don’t waste much time reading science fiction, playing video games, or enjoying VR.

Of course, such gritty self-evaluation makes me wonder about why I read science fiction. It’s still escapism. It’s now nostalgia. But it’s also a kind of hoping that humans will adapt to living in space. Where does that desire come from? Why is it important that our species go to Mars? Species have habitats. Why should we create new habitats for ourselves? Especially ones so tremendously ill-suited for our biology? What if fish wanted to live on land? Wait, some did.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains Einstein’s Gravitational Waves Theory Posted at 9:17 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

I know someone else who’s bad-ass smart.

SpaceX: “The Falcon has landed” | Recap of Falcon 9 launch and landing Posted at 6:11 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Because this is still amazing.

An Authentic Space Oddity Posted at 6:15 PM by Rico Simpkins


Some of our more popular posts included videos of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield explaining how water behaves when being wrung out from a washcloth in space, or demonstrating how to drink coffee in a microgravity environment. This, by far, surpasses even those kick-ass productions. Mr. Hadfield, you are our hero.

EDIT: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013. It seems a fitting tribute to repost this, today.

Blue Origin: Historic Rocket Landing Posted at 2:12 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Wow. Just wow. I really thought SpaceX was going to be the first. This is stunning. Congrats to Blue Origin!

To Scale: The Solar System Posted at 3:48 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

To Scale: The Solar System from Wylie Overstreet on Vimeo.

Well done, Sir. Well done.

LightSail: A Revolutionary Solar Sailing Spacecraft Posted at 10:05 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Bill Nye and The Planetary Society have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a solar sail spacecraft. And if that’s not enough to get you over there to back this amazing project he’s got Neil deGrasse Tyson on board as well AND it’s going to be launched by SpaceX!  Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson and SpaceX.  Need I say more?