Michio Kaku starts his book The Future of Humanity with a cheery prediction: we are all going to die. We may all know that to be true individually, but he asserts it is true collectively as well.
“It is as inescapable as the laws of physics that humanity will one day confront some type of extinction-level event,” writes the professor of physics at the City University of New York. More than 99.9 per cent of life forms that have ever existed on Earth have already died out. “Extinction is the norm.”
One way or another, a nuclear winter, a devastating plague, an ecological Armageddon, a supervolcano, or a meteor strike is likely to do for us all. If, by some miracle, we survive all such catastrophes then we are certain to be exterminated when our sun explodes in some 5bn years time.
But Kaku is here to tell us that all is not entirely lost and his book provides a perky survival guide for Homo sapiens. Unlike all other life forms on Earth, we are to some extent masters of our destiny. He frames our choice in simple terms: “Either we must leave Earth or we will perish.” Or, as the science fiction writer Larry Niven expressed it, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme.”
The Future of Humanity is both a neat history of space exploration and a captivating guide to how our “greatest adventure” might develop over the coming decades. Along the way, Kaku makes some mind-bending detours into the possibilities of terraforming Mars, the likely nature of extraterrestrial life, and the potential for uploading our consciousness on to a computer and shooting ourselves off on an epic tour beyond our solar system. I look forward to the holiday brochures.
Kaku also points out some of the big business opportunities in space. One of the most intriguing is the potential to exploit asteroids — or “a flying gold mine in outer space” — rich in valuable metals and rare earths. He envisages a future in which the moon might become the Chicago of the space economy, processing valuable minerals from the asteroid belt and shipping them on to Earth.
Many of these ideas, which seem outlandish today, may yet become commonplace tomorrow. As the saying goes, technology is the process of turning the magical into the mundane.
One of my favourite detours concerns the concept of space elevators — first proposed by the great 19th-century Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky — that would transport giant payloads into outer space. When asked when such elevators might become possible, the author Arthur C Clarke replied: “Probably about 50 years after everyone stops laughing.”
No one is laughing any more. In 2013, the International Academy of Astronautics produced a 350-page report suggesting that with enough research and funding a space elevator might indeed be feasible. The report sketched out the possibility that a cable three feet wide and 30,000 miles long might transport multiple 20-tonne payloads into space by 2035, providing the infrastructure for deeper space exploration.
As well as explaining complex principles of theoretical physics and cosmology in clear prose, Kaku also illustrates his points with frequent references to works of science fiction, from Star Trek episodes to the Terminator movies to “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov.
At moments, it appears hard for the reader to distinguish the point at which scientific fact dissolves into science fiction. But, as Kaku explains, that is the nature of our times. He argues that the “fourth wave of science”, consisting of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, holds out the promise of startling advances with enormous consequences for space exploration, and much else besides. In spite of his wild enthusiasm for space travel, Kaku is as authoritative as anyone can be in trying to delineate where the borders of knowledge currently end and the realm of speculation begins.
One reason he is so excited about the dawn of a new golden era of space travel is the emergence of a fresh generation of super-rich space entrepreneurs, led by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are fuelled by cosmic missions.
Their achievements and ambitions are examined in closer, and more colourful, detail in The Space Barons, written by Christian Davenport, a veteran Washington Post reporter. His book is a study in contrasts between the two billionaire space entrepreneurs. Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is the impassioned, fast-moving, publicity-seeking hustler determined to do everything today, if not yesterday. Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, is the calculating, secretive, methodical engineer, who adopted the turtle as his company’s mascot and lives by the Navy Seal motto: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Just as the initial space race was animated by the superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, so the personal competition between Musk and Bezos is leading to a frantic new cycle of investment and innovation. Rivalry, Davenport says, is the best rocket fuel for space exploration.
At first, both entrepreneurs were seen as eccentric dilettantes by much of the US space establishment. But, as the author explains, they have won round the space professionals by notching up some remarkable achievements, particularly in developing cheaper, reusable rockets, which are revolutionising the economics of space travel.
But the two entrepreneurs are focused on very different longer term goals. For Musk, the ambition is to colonise Mars, which he admits is a bit of a “fixer-upper of a planet”. As Musk sees it, Mars would provide an alternative home for humanity if ever an asteroid hit Earth. Musk has famously said that he eventually wants to die on Mars, if not on impact.
For Bezos, the preferable plan is to preserve the Earth as humanity’s Plan A and ensure that it is habitable for thousands of years. His ultimate ambition is to make space travel routine and shift dirty industries off our planet, leaving Earth as “zoned residential and light industrial”.
In spite of their impressive accomplishments, the hubris of both Musk and Bezos will strike many readers as monumental. Space travel remains a perilous and unpredictable undertaking. The book serves as a useful reminder that popular expectations can sometimes run way ahead of reality.
In the 1960s, Pan Am tried to exploit the huge interest in the Apollo space programme by opening a waiting list to carry passengers to the moon, even though the airline admitted “the starting date of service is not yet known”. By 1971, when it stopped taking reservations, Pan Am had signed up 90,000 passengers, including Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite. The airline folded in 1992, well before it ever had a chance to blast a single passenger into space.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times 2018.