Monday, February 9, 2015

The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end

Smart, dedicated, competent, polyglot, and more; Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have been invented for a "Star Trek" episode. She is shown here at the International Space Station, where she is staying at the moment of publication of this post. Cristoforetti may not be the last astronaut to orbit the earth, but it is possible that the end of what was once called "the space age" will not be far away in the future. (image credit: ESA/NASA)



I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia - more details.)


As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived to the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space age" is destined to come to an end in a non remote future. 

The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.

This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang").Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.




If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the  conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats - the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)

Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore. 

The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come. 


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Note added after publication: This post  generated several interesting comments. It is clear that our interest in space has not faded: we are still going to space and we still think that there is a future there. However, it is also clear that we need to cut corners in whatever we do and the "conquest of space" as it was envisioned in the 1950s and 1960s is today completely beyond our means. Surely we can send robots up there, but the conquest of space means to go there and stay there, as human beings, but for that we missed the (space) boat.

There still remains a big question mark about what what role will have space in our future. Will we decline so sharply that we'll have to abandon all space exploration? It may well be and, in this case, the curve will "look Senecan", indeed. Or, we may be able to maintain a certain level of activity, up there. And it might even expand, pick up momentum, and become something that moves by itself.

Space has some peculiar characteristics as an environment, for one thing, it can be seen as the opposite of the earth's environment in terms or relative availability of energy and resources. The earth's surface is rich in mineral resources, but relatively poor in energy sources. Space is rich in energy resources, but poor in terms of mineral resources. Decades of studies about the "self replicating lunar factory" have built up a lot of knowledge on how a self sustaining metabolic system could be built in space to harness the available energy and resources. But it is very difficult and space enthusiasts have a tendency of launching (almost literally) themselves in wild speculations which, then, leave the details unwritten. Think of the "Dyson sphere", for instance. Beautiful concept, but how do exactly dismantle Jupiter and turn it into a solid sphere that surrounds the sun.... ? Still, space is part of our world view and it will remain there for quite a while.


Then, I thought I could also mention the debate on the "Lunar Landing Hoax" which, apparently, keeps flaring up, and did so also in relation to the present post on the "doomstead diner". On this point, I am absolutely sure: even Samantha Cristoforetti is a hoax and I have solid proof of this. See the image below. She is not a real human being; she is just a cartoon character created by Walt Disney Studios! (source)








23 comments:

  1. I am a little unclear on the 'resources' whose depletion are limiting space exploration. In terms of physical resources, there's plenty of the materials required to build human-rated spacecraft."National pride" could be considered a resource that was tapped heavily in the 60's, leading to the Seneca-like peak. Government money is definitely a heavily-tapped resource. The pressures of having only one current launch platform for humans available with any regularity is definitely a throttle, especially in light of the political pressures and tensions with its "owners".
    Human-crewed spaceflight has been justified by exploration and potential commercial benefit. The exploration piece requires national commitment, at least until an off-Earth resource is identified to motivate the next version of the East India Tea Company. The commercial benefit of humans in space for manufacturing or development-fueled research has *so far* not been enough to motivate companies possessing the resources to put people in space. As commercial human-rated launchers become available, driven in part by the Russian monopoly on the one available, companies could gain the ability to put people in space under their complete control.
    I think a good way to look at the future of human spaceflight is to construct a 2x2 matrix of availability of craft and reward for the endeavor (Ugo, please forgive me the temptation to say "Endeavour"). Before ~5000BCE, most travel was overland, reward was uncertain, and availability of travel limited to the brave souls who could make the trip themselves. As governments rose, the resources to build large ships for exploration became available, the sea became a surmountable barrier, and the rewards were seen as high because the resources to be obtained were greater than the resources to mount the expedition. Travel and exploration grew until large-scale commercial ventures could be undertaken independent of government. High availability, high reward, high travel. Air travel, especially in countries with national airlines, followed similar trends. In none of these cases were robotic proxies available during growth. Crewed spaceflight is in a position of low availability and uncertain reward. Mounting an expedition is still restricted to governments. It is certainly possible to put a robotic proxy in place for all the currently-known commercial space uses, leaving the need to have humans in space as unclear. The overwhelming consensus that human space exploration to the moon, Mars, and beyond is not present. However, a commercial need for humans in space, coupled with the imminent availability of commercial methods to get them there, could lead to a rapid rise in human space flight. I don't see a physical resource limitation to human spaceflight, so 'Seneca collapse' in spaceflight would be caused by motivation. Motivation is an infinitely renewable resource.

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  2. Wow, an exemplary post demonstrating the old adage, "when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail."

    This is the sort of shoddy writing that gives the Limits to Growth crowd a bad name. You can't just try to fit everything to a Hubbert curve and expect to prove a point. It's like graphing browser use vs murder rates: http://www.abc.net.au/science/indepth/img/graphics/ievmr.jpg The correlation doesn't equal causation.

    First, as you acknowledged, humans are being replaced by robots in space. This is a decision that could have been made independently of resource availability and could be more of a reflection of government priorities. The US is not racing the Soviets anymore and there hasn't been found a commercial reason for developing outside of Earth.

    A better measurement of our progress in space could come from total space miles traveled by all vehicles and satellites, total amount of rocket energy expended, total dollars in all space programs (commercial and government), etc.

    Can reduced resource availability make space exploration more difficult? Yes. Will it be impossible? No, rocket fuels can still be manufactured using non-fossil energy. Are we accomplishing less in space due to higher resource costs? It's hard to tell, because there are many factors such as economic barriers that could have existed prior to the 60s and changing government policy priorities due to non-resource factors.

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  3. In the USA there is such resignation about wasteful military spending that the subject is not even brought up on mainstream media anymore, if it ever was. Wasteful spending can't go on much longer as Chalmers Johnson pointed out nearly 10 years ago. In the meantime, it has not only drained the nation of the capital necessary to maintain space exploration The funds for many other things are also not there. Transportation infrastructure is being neglected, poverty is increasing , wealth and income inequality is skyrocketing (no pun intended) and the overall trajectory of the nation is towards economic collapse. Morris Berman, Gail Tverberg and Dmitry Orlov have all spoken of societal collapse, coming from different areas of focus. The USA always led in space exploration with occasional competition from the Soviet Union, It will be surpassed in the not too distant future.

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  4. Mr. Neiman's unexamined assumptions about the viability of space exploration are the telling of a technological optimist thinking with his heart and not his brains. Space travel isn't analagous in any real biological sense to sailing the atlantic where you could use the deck to catch wildlife and rainfall for your cisterns while underway. Physics will always dictate that space will be an implacably hostile environment for humans.

    We've probably already on borrowed time concerning the safe operation of the ISS, and there is no "now we are really building the thing" project work going on presently. Does Space X have a secret hangar where they are building the 21st century low orbit space hub (complete with skyhooks?). Do tell.

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  5. Ugo -- great post. I agree with what you've said here completely. The manned portion of the space age is winding down, as has been apparent to me for quite a number of years now. When launches go down, and the budgets are cut, and the Shuttle (1970's technology, remember) that used to exist doesn't anymore and there is no replacement for it, and the International Space Station is five years from end of life and there is also no replacement for it -- it should seem obvious that this is a venture, or adventure, that is in steady decline.

    Even more fascinating than your post is the staunch denial and rationalizations of the first two commentors above. They obviously each have some strong need to believe the space age will rise again, humans will go to the stars, populate the galaxy, and maybe even the Singularity will come on schedule (ha!). Perhaps they even think Kim Stanley Robinson's "science" fiction Mars trilogy is even remotely realistic. News flash: humans will never colonize Mars. Read The Human Experiment by Jayne Poynter, about Biosphere 2, and you will understand how ridiculous the idea is in the face of the slightest empirical evidence. Eight humans could not manage to survive, either physically or in a healthy psychological state, for two years without copious outside inputs in a 3.14 *acre* enclosure with trees growing in it and room to farm food, and people still expect us to believe they will survive two years in a tin can going to Mars (and then set up mining and rocket-building operations to manufacture the fuel and space craft needed to return)? In that case, I have a *lovely* bridge to sell...

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  6. Ugo,

    Data on rocket launches is also interesting to look at. You can find a list the total number of launches, both manned and unmanned, here: http://www.spacelaunchreport.com/logyear.html

    The distribution seems to be bimodal, with a trough in the mid-90s (a delayed response to Colombia?). Launches seem to have picked up again in recent years, probably mostly due to cheaper satellite launches.

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    1. Very interesting data; thanks, Sam. They give the total number of launches per year, while in my graph I plot the number of people sent to orbit per year. So, it seems that the peak is more evident in the latter form, but it is there. It is also true that launches seem to have picked up again during the past few years. Right now, I can't think of a specific reason for that.

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  7. Dreams like "Interstellar" movie are free, hard working not.

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  8. I seem to remember Space was about Rockets - big rockets and the ability to achieve re-entry for nuclear bombs, particularly very large H-fusion bombs. (Accuracy was not very good, so really big bombs were needed to cover a very big target area?). Having got the kit together, there was a lot of propaganda value in human missions. Our stuff is bigger and better than yours, and so on... It helped if the population was keen to pay for it. The graphs of post-war economic expansion growth rates; GDP per capita and wage rates in USA for example, in the petroleum age tell a story. Subsequent expansion and related space engineering since has been more difficult except for military surveillance and in the case of obvious returns and lower marginal costs of communications satellites riding on the back of earlier investment (legacy) in the suite of technologies and their industrial supply chains. I guess there is still room for robot technologies and national vanity projects.

    But misallocation of very large capital resources across the board - think monster large buildings everywhere for another example - does have its downside. How do these things pay for themselves if they do not secure resources for larger returns in future economic expansion?

    Which I take to be one of your points, Ugo?

    congrats & best wishes
    Phil H

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  9. There is two kinds of rockets. Manned and unmanned. Probably manned will go down next years, if not special advances come quickly, because manned flies are payed by goverments and crisis will go down the resources.

    But unmanned rockets... satelites, will go up. Because its utility are going up, and it could be funded.
    New methane-based rockets will raise on next future, and solar biomass gasification will ensure the methane source fuel.

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  10. its difficult to argue with data on a graph. the trajectory speaks for itself.

    going out into space was always a very strange thing to do for a terrestrial mammal, if you think about it.

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  11. Hi Ugo,

    I'm guessing that, were the number of persons launched plotted per a growth number (population, GDP, etc.), that Gaussian distribution would start to look Senecan?

    Dave Z

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  12. I see that this post has generated several interesting comments. It is clear that our interest in space has not faded: we are still going to space and we still think that there is a future there. However, it is also clear that we need to cut corners in whatever we do and the "conquest of space" as it was envisioned in the 1950s and 1960s is today completely beyond our means. Surely we can send robots up there, but the conquest of space means to go there and stay there, as human beings, but for that we missed the (space) boat.

    There still remain a big question mark about what what role will have space in our future. Will we decline so sharply that we'll have to abandon all space exploration? It may well be and, in this case, the curve will "look Senecan", indeed. Or, we may be able to maintain a certain level of activity, up there. And it might even expand, pick up momentum, and become something that moves by itself.

    Space has some peculiar characteristics as an environment, for one thing, it is the opposite to the earth's environment in terms or relative availability of energy and resources. The earth's surface is rich in mineral resources, but relatively poor in energy sources. Space is rich in energy resources, but poor in terms of mineral resources. Decades of studies about the "self replicating lunar factory" have built up a lot of knowledge on how a self sustaining metabolic system could be built in space. But it is very difficult and space enthusiasts have a tendency of launching (almost literally) themselves in wild speculation which, then, leave the details unwritten. Think of the "Dyson sphere", for instance. Beautiful concept, but how do exactly dismantle Jupiter and turn it into a solid sphere that surrounds the sun.... ?

    This kind of things. Space is still part of our worldwview and it will remain there for quite a while.


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    1. "This kind of things. Space is still part of our worldwview and it will remain there for quite a while."-UB

      No, I don't think so.

      Just to jack up an RV size vehicle into space takes an extraordinary amount of Fossil Fuels. There are no propulsion systems anywhere in the pipeline that can substitute for this, much less haul up enough material to create large space stations and interstellar vehicles.

      Just maintaining flight and airplanes much longer will be tough. Space Flight is out of the question.

      It's something technophiles want to believe in so badly that they will ignore the reality of the energy requirements to make this work, and they are enormous.

      RE

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    2. World view as in people's minds. Like climate denial is a part of some peoples world view or deities looking out for humanity. Our World views have rarely, if ever, been based in reality. I think many people will cling to the progress world view long after it is apparent that industrial civilization is finished. Ghost Dance like crisis cults proclaiming an industrial renaissance around the corner will be too numerous to count. You could almost say the Fracking miracle/revolution/game changer/boom was the first crisis cult.

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  13. This is a HOT topic on the Diner right now!

    Fierce arguments underway as to whether the Apollo 11 Moon Landing was FAKED.

    http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/forum/index.php/topic,4221.msg67207/topicseen.html#msg67207

    RE

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    1. Absolutely certain that it was all fake! Just show to your commenters this image

      http://www.ansa.it/webimages/foto_large/2015/2/10/976baa6419746e0fabda334c89c600bb.jpg.

      You see? Even the Italian astronaut lady is fake. It is all made by Walt Disney!

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  14. Thanks to "Energyscholar" for pointing out a small grammatical error in the text. Proofreading..... gosh.... proofreading.... will I ever learn? :-)

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  15. I totally agree with the inevitable decline in space flight. But I would suggest a variation in the graph above. Now astronauts are sent to space more seldom, but for much longer periods of time. Would it be possibile to graph the number of man-days in space, instead of just the number of mans? I would guess it would still show a bell, but with a much longer spread.

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    1. It is surely possible and I think that the resulting curve would look less "peaky". But I also think that the most expensive part of sending someone to space is the launch. Once he/she is up there, the cost of staying in orbit is not so large. So, I believe that the number of people launched (the number of people per launch has not changed so much during the cycle) is a significant parameter to understand the effort made in human space exploration

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  16. Sorry, Signore Bardi, but are You aware why the number is down? The Space Shuttle retirement explains it at all. Sure, the Russians are flying astronauts from the West to the ISS, but the numbers are limited, and way lower compared to the Shuttle (Shuttle 7 persons, Sojus 3 persons). For every American astronaut that flies, you basically need to leave one Russian cosmonaut back on earth.

    Let's also not forget, that the US is really working hard to get back into space with their own systems. They'll need a few more years, but it looks good.
    The early retirement of the shuttle is also an important reason, why space tourism was coming to near full stop. The western world wanted the seats on the sojus, and they didn't wanted them for ordinary tourists. So the price for a ticked is now at 70 million Dollar.

    And there is China. They already bringing people into an Orbit, and their next big goal is a Spacelab, which will be up in 2016 (maybe).
    What about India? In 2014 they made their first test flight of a capsule that eventually takes humans into space.
    Sure, those two nations don't get much media coverage in the western world, but we are close to have four countries that can fly people up there. At the moment we only got Russia and China.

    I don't know how far, and how persistent humanity will access space in the long term. Costs and radiation are both huge hurdles. But none really knows, so it's fair to say that we wait a bit, and if the situation doesn't change, we can think about an low profile future of human spaceflight.

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  17. Reality will always dictate that space will be an implacably hostile environment for carbon based lifeforms.
    The solar system is barren just like earths land was before life from the water evolved to be able to survive & thrive on land billions of years ago.
    But with humans rapid & radical changes to the biosphere of earth now & in the future then perhaps one day non carbon based biodiversity of life may well survive & thrive throughout the solar system.
    Genetic engineering isn't all bad ...
    Yif

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  18. Here's a quick thought...imagine how much of the Earth's surface is habitable. As humans, we have created advances to adapt to hostile environments. Space is not out of the question.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)