NASA New Horizons image of Pluto's moon Charon

I recently listened to a podcast interview with science fiction writer David Brin in which he proclaimed that the past year was the best year ever for space exploration.

He made a good case for the claim: perhaps the biggest space story of the year was the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in July that offered some truly stunning photos of our one-time ninth planet. But it was far from the only story. After visiting the asteroid Vesta a few years ago, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft went into orbit in March around the other major dwarf planet in our system, Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta craft continued to follow the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in its path around the sun, even briefly regaining contact with its lander Philae on the surface of the comet. A Japanese probe successfully made orbit of Venus (on its second try) and an Indian Mars probe was a thorough success.

Private space companies had a couple of setbacks, but significant successes too. Blue Origin was able to safely land a rocket booster on its tail, like something out of 1950’s space movies, and then SpaceX topped that by launching eleven satellites using its Falcon 9 rocket which was then successfully landed back on the launch pad for re-use. That technology should reduce the cost of sending things into space by a huge margin, which could well kick-start a revolution in the exploitation of space.

It’s been an amazing year.

Did anyone notice?

Oh, I know there were always some trending stories on Facebook and Twitter, but did anybody except science nerds and science fiction writers actually get excited—really celebrate the milestones being achieved? I don’t think so, not to the extent that they deserved. It seems as if, in these times when almost the whole of human knowledge is available to us through the internet, we take for granted that everything worth knowing is either already known or soon will be. Through digital media we’re constantly bombarded with new discoveries (many not yet substantiated) in the fields of medicine, physics, biology and, yes, astronomy…so the extraordinary achievements of space engineers who manage to hurtle high tech robots over ten-year-long trajectories to planets nearly five billion kilometers away just become more of the same. Expected. Not quite routine, but not life-altering. Not landmark events in the fabric of our lives.

Or maybe I’m blaming the wrong thing. Maybe we’ve become so used to seeing science fiction movies and TV shows with exceptionally realistic special effects that the actual pictures of a real place like Pluto fill us with aaah but not awe. We see rugged Plutonian plains of nitrogen ice, geysers on Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons, rocky planetoids spinning in the vastness of space, and we say, “That’s cool” and move on to an article about the next iPhone, or ads for the next model of aerial drone. I don’t really know the reason. I know that in the middle of the last century each new achievement in space made us think of gleaming cities with tube trains or monorails, passenger rockets to Mars, and fantastic floating colonies in high Earth orbits. Now they only lure our minds away for a few minutes from thoughts of climate crises, terrorist threats, and burgeoning epidemics.

When did hope and wonder give way to fear and gloom anyway, and why? Hope and wonder are a lot more fun.

The next time you see photos of a new space discovery, take a few moments to really picture the scene. Picture the incredibly talented team of dedicated people that made it happen, the vastness of space and the incredible unlikeliness of the amazing objects out there, and our being alive at this time in history to witness it. Let the wonder really take hold.

Of that feeling are bright futures made.


I’ve written before about the need for caution when it comes to creating artificial intelligence. Strangely, a news item this week helped me clarify my thinking on the subject and even ease my concerns a little—for now, at least.

A new research company called OpenAI has just been created by heavy hitters like Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors and SpaceX fame) and his former PayPal pal investor Peter Thiel, who claim to have rounded up a billion dollars worth of funding to research artificial intelligence. If that strikes a strange chord with you, you might be remembering that Musk was one of a number of famous people (including Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates) who issued a warning this past summer about the risk of a truly successful artificial machine intelligence becoming a threat to the human race. They weren’t the first to say it by a long shot, but they are among the most famous to say it. So is the creation of OpenAI a case of Musk deciding that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”?

Not quite. The declared purpose of OpenAI is to support fully open research into artificial intelligence that isn’t driven by financial interests, thereby making sure that AI will only benefit humankind. So Musk and friends obviously feel that, if greed and secrecy are taken out of the equation, scientists can produce AI systems that won’t suddenly run amok, make themselves exponentially smarter and smarter, and decide that we puny humans are only worth keeping around as biological batteries (if you’re a fan of the Matrix movies).

I commend them for it, mainly because I think greed and secrecy are the evils behind most of the ways our technological progress lets us down. But not because I think Skynet is lurking around the corner.

Right now research into artificial intelligence is focused on creating better and better digital decision-makers, looking to produce improved search engines, self-driving cars, and various kinds of prediction software related to financial fields—the drive isn’t to create broadly capable all-purpose thinkers like human beings. We can drive a car, do our taxes, write a poem, cook supper, and sing Raffi songs to our kids (if you have the stomach for it). There’s no incentive to create computer intelligence that can do all that—acute specialization makes much more sense, both economically and from a design point of view. So even if an artificially-created intelligence could somehow find a way to combine its own specialized abilities with other AI’s with different talents into one super general intelligence capable of ruling the world, why would it? By their nature, these programs will “want” to do one thing and do it well. Unless a military threat-assessment AI can help a Wall St. stock analysis AI to do a better job analyzing stock, there’s no reason for the two to decide to interact at all, let alone join with a whole bunch of movie-selection algorithms, consumer purchasing trackers, budget optimizers, and trash tabloid article-writing programs.

The scary part of AI research has more to do with the continual improvements in processing speed and data handling—we assume that because computers will eventually outdo the human brain in processing power, they’ll become smarter than us. And somewhere about the same time, because of that superhuman computing power, they’ll become conscious—self-aware—like us. From there (our fearful imaginations insist) they’ll decide that the human race is an impediment or an outright nuisance, best pushed to the sidelines or even exterminated.

None of that really follows.

For one thing, we still don’t understand what consciousness actually is and what makes it work (no matter what anyone says). There’s no evidence that consciousness (or lack of it) is related to brain size or power. Other creatures have much bigger brains than humans (especially whales and elephants) but the state of their consciousness is anything but certain. There’s no evidence that once a brain reaches human-level processing capability it becomes conscious. Neuroscience just doesn’t have a solid explanation for what constitutes the physical difference between a conscious brain and one that isn’t—we can infer things, but we don’t know. So it’s quite possible that the fastest computer that will ever be created might not have the “spark” of consciousness.

Secondly, if a computer intelligence ever does become aware of itself and devoted to its own individual needs, it would only act against humans if we’re an obstacle to fulfilling those needs. Digital brains are built on logic. Expending resources unnecessarily is not logical. Even we illogical humans rarely seek to deliberately wipe out inferior species—we cause enormous damage, and even extinctions, because of greed, vanity, covetousness, fashion, lack of foresight, and a host of other motives that can be lumped under the general term “stupidity”. But none of those things enters into digital thinking. We should feel secure that no computer intelligence, no matter how smart, will ever do things out of a sheer lust for power. That just isn’t rational.

For a more technical description of the case for AI, here’s an open letter signed by many dozens of AI researchers.

We can imagine a form of digital intelligence that would see all biological life as unnecessary. We do so for fun, the way we imagine werewolves and vampires and bogeymen to scare ourselves, and yes, also to warn each other to be careful when playing with fire. But the rational case for such a thing is weak. If we’re afraid of a new entity arising on Earth that could supplant us, I’d say there’s much more danger of that from our genetic tinkering.

But that’s a whole other blog post.


One of the most significant affirmations of privately-operated space exploration was when NASA signed multi-billion-dollar contracts with Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX to send supply missions to the International Space Station.

You must know by now that the most recent of those scheduled resupply launches ended in disaster on October 28th when the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff and was completely destroyed. The vehicle was unmanned and no-one was hurt, but the Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft being launched contained very expensive cargo (I’ve seen estimates of over $200 million). Fortunately the crew of the ISS still has lots of food and other supplies to keep them going for months, but a lot of important equipment was lost.

Even worse news came only days later on October 31 when SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s experimental rocket plane broke up in-flight and crashed, taking the life of the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot, who ejected. SpaceShipTwo was the core of Richard Branson’s plans to take tourists into space in coming years. In spite of reports that the engine exploded soon after it was released from its launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, this wasn’t true. Cockpit video has shown that the co-pilot unlocked the plane’s “feathering” system—like a kind of airbrake—while the craft was still under rocket-powered acceleration. Although that should not have deployed the feathering system on its own, aerodynamic forces might have triggered it. The investigation continues.

NASA also has its Commercial Crew Program in which three companies are developing launch and land systems to replace the space shuttle program in taking astronauts into orbit. In October of last year, one of the contenders, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s “Dream Chaser” lifting body suffered a landing gear malfunction during an unmanned glide test and the crash landing caused serious damage. Sierra Nevada’s competitors, Boeing and SpaceX, are also running behind schedule on their programs, but observers say the frustratingly slow NASA bureaucracy gets some of the blame for that. This will probably be the year that NASA chooses from among the three programs, and a lot is on the line. It costs NASA $70 million per seat to send astronauts to the International Space Station hitching a ride with the Russians on a Soyuz spacecraft.

It seems trite to simply say that space exploration is a risky business, but what strikes me as unfair is the suggestion by some that these incidents may prove private enterprise can’t be counted on to safely carry out such a demanding activity as spaceflight. A ridiculous notion. Government organizations like NASA don’t build the components of their rockets and spacecraft—they contract them out to private aerospace manufacturers like Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and dozens of others. Private space companies who carry the full responsibilities and risks themselves have the same level of expertise available to them, and as much or even more incentive to do things right. While many government contracts of all types go to the lowest bidder, space companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Virgin Galactic subsidiaries like Scaled Composites know that a couple of failures can mean the end of them. They don’t have the resources of governments to weather such huge losses.

The painfully slow progress of human space exploration over the past half-century shows that government bureaucracy is not the best way to take on the challenges of a risky but rewarding frontier. Although last week’s events were heartbreaking, it’s far too soon to write off the private entrepreneurs.

We need them.


I mentioned in my last post that the human race now has the ability to create our own future, for good or for bad. That means we have to decide the kind of world we want in the years to come and figure out what needs to be done to make that world come about.

It was ten years ago this week (October 4, 2004) that SpaceShipOne, manufactured by Scaled Composites, LLC made its second flight within two weeks to the edge of space to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize. In my future world, travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is virtually routine. Sure, I wanted to be a space cowboy as a kid (with all the poise and composure of Buzz Lightyear, no doubt) but the adult in me can justify it in lots of rational ways. The biggest reason is that, in a universe with planet-killing asteroids and globe-scorching weapons of our own devising, we don’t dare entrust all the forms of life that we know about to one vulnerable planet. We owe it to Life to spread its eggs beyond this basket, whether that means terraforming Mars or building space arks to other solar systems.

There’s also abundant free energy out there. It may not be possible to safely transfer it to the surface of the Earth, but we should at least be taking advantage of it to perform manufacturing tasks that are energy-intensive and use huge quantities of finite and polluting energy resources when carried out down here. The same argument goes for resources of other kinds: minerals and rare earths that we know are available in asteroids and moons, and can be mined without despoiling the environment of the Earth.

It may take significantly more time to accomplish, but the ability to colonize other planets, near and far, would relieve a lot of the pressure on our home world all by itself, as well as providing opportunities we can’t yet imagine on whole new frontiers. Individually and collectively, humans have always been inspired to improve our lot by pushing against boundaries and seeking greener pastures.

To do all of these things we need spaceflight to become cheap and routine. How do we do that?

Government programs aren’t the answer. There is a place for public money to support technological innovation, but bureaucracies and shifting political winds are the enemies of real progress. That leaves private ventures or publicly-traded companies, of which there are now many that are directly involved in space exploration and exploitation (see these lists thanks to The Space Settlement Institute). Among the highest profile examples are SpaceX (with a number of successful supply missions to the International Space Station) and Virgin Galactic (more than five hundred people have booked their sub-orbital flight aboard SpaceShipTwo, hopefully beginning next year). But many of the other players are serious, well-staffed, and well-organized. If you want to do your part to bring about routine spaceflight in your lifetime, consider investing in these companies, either by buying stock or making a donation. Some may invite you to volunteer your time and talent. All would appreciate you urging governments to smooth their path with friendly legislation or funding or both.

Maybe you and I will never get to be space cowboys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help to put things in motion. Onward and upward, that is.


When you think of space travel, do you think of NASA? The Russian space program? The Chinese government?

Old thinking, because the newest players in space may be taking over the game. I’m talking about global corporate interests. Big money. While governments continue to keep the budgets of organizations like NASA in near-starvation mode, the corporate stars of the world are stepping to the front of the line. People like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, Larry Page of Google, Elon Musk from PayPal, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They’ve been getting together over martinis (or something expensive) and forming new companies to explore—and exploit—outer space. We’ve known for some years that Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists to the edge of space and back (for $200,000 a crack, thank you very much), and they are getting closer to their first paying trips. I’ve written before about SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft are already flying supply missions to the International Space Station. But there are also new startup companies like Moon Express, preparing to build (and use) landers for the Moon. Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids, and maybe even save us from those threatening meteor strikes we keep hearing about. Deep Space Industries is another would-be mining company. And we shouldn’t forget less commercial, but equally enterprising ventures like Inspiration Mars (mentioned in my last post), planning to send a married couple to Mars in about five years from now, and Mars One, a group that hopes to have a colony on the Red Planet by 2023.

These people are not fruitcakes, but some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the new economy. And their plans sound like fantastic dreams, but they’ve got solid scientists working with them. The space race is going corporate.

Was this inevitable? Since we taxpayers tend to cast our eyes closer to home on our hospitals and our roads, maybe governments just can’t continue to back the exploration of space and it’s up to the moneymakers to do it.

You can see the attraction for them. Talk about your offshore tax havens! Claim an asteroid and make the rules—who’s really going to stop them? Laws? The law of gravity is the only really important one, and it’ll ensure monopolies for the companies rich enough to break it. But lets not forget tourist opportunities: what high roller wouldn’t want to show off to his friends in a casino in Earth orbit, with all of we peasants zipping past below?

By the way, we’ll still be funding all of these ventures—by being the customers of Google, PayPal, Amazon and the like, and then buying the products these new companies bring back from way out there.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Did you think Columbus sailed to America because he felt like tanning on a new beach?


This past Sunday a fairly momentous event happened without much fanfare among the general public. It was the successful splashdown of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft after a supply mission to the International Space Station—the very first such mission by a craft produced and launched by a private company. This was important to NASA and the International Space Station program in general because it assures the station can continue without the American space shuttles, now retired. The Dragon craft is also capable of bringing back a lot more in the way of research materials than the conventional Russian spacecraft that have been going back and forth to the ISS since the last shuttle flight, and especially refrigerated materials. But this mission was much more important as a symbol: a sign that private industry can pick up where government-funded organizations like NASA leave off in the realm of space exploration.

Why does that matter?

I could list dozens of reasons I think humanity needs to venture out into space—from ecological relief, to easing population pressure, to safeguarding Life from possible extinction by cosmic collision. Yet the truth is, the real motivator that will ensure us a lasting presence in space is the same as it has always been for exploration: wealth. Money. Commerce. Call it what you will. Columbus’s voyages might have been funded by government (royalty) but his explorations were about finding cheaper ways to access the riches of the Orient. Same with the first expeditions to Canada, and then the exploration deeper into the continent was all about the fur trade. The story was the same for Africa and South America, and it will be the same for the Moon and Mars and the asteroid belt. When the journeys can be made to provide a desirable financial return they’ll happen. For that reason my bet is that we’ll have a better-established presence in the asteroid belt before we have colonies of any size on Mars (unless someone discovers oil there!)

What does this mean for the future? Great opportunities for companies that deal in mining technology, pharmaceutical research (thanks to zero-gravity), solar energy, and robotic systems, among many other fields.

And maybe more science fiction stories with former hard rock miners and lab-coated technicians, and fewer hot shot ex-military pilots.


I recently read an article that suggested humanity’s efforts to explore space are quietly being abandoned. The idea was triggered by the recent transport of the space shuttle Discovery to Washington DC to become a museum display. The argument goes that, while surveys show citizens still want and expect to see a future that includes Star Trek-like space travel, governments are quietly cutting funds and letting the dream die.

While there’s some truth to that, it ignores the way the private sector has been stepping up to the plate, and it’s been doing so in a big way lately. We’ve all heard about Richard Branson’s plans with Virgin Galactic to take millionaire thrill-seekers like Ashton Kutcher to the edge of space, and you may have dismissed it as little more than a carnival stunt. But space tourism is a perfectly valid way to fund other projects, and I’m sure Branson won’t be content with joyrides alone.

Even more immediately promising is PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). NASA has just given the go-ahead for SpaceX to launch a test cargo mission to the International Space Station on April 30th. The mission calls for SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon space capsule, launched by their Falcon 9 rocket, to haul a cargo of food and supplies to the station and bring other cargo back to Earth. It will be the first time a private spacecraft has visited the station, but it’s part of a longer contract to supply the ISS for the next few years. The Falcon rockets have performed well so far, and the Dragon capsule is designed to be able to land on the Moon or other planets in years to come.

Then there’s the Google Lunar X PRIZE offering $20 million to the first nongovernment team that can land a robot on the moon capable of traveling a half a mile or so and sending high-definition video back to Earth before the end of 2015. Second prize is $5 million, and other bonuses are available. A reported twenty-six groups are in the running.

And this coming Tuesday April 24th a new space exploration company called Planetary Resources will be unveiled at a press conference. The high profile names associated with the venture include film director James Cameron, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, former NASA mission manager Chris Lewicki, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others. The project to be announced Tuesday is promised to involve a new industry that will overlay space exploration and natural resources. Industry watchers believe it will be a plan to mine asteroids.

So maybe governments are losing some of their enthusiasm, but private entrepreneurs are stepping forward to pick up the slack and, to me, that signals that the future of space exploration is still bright!


Here some pretty amazing footage taken from cameras aboard the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Experience the ride from start to finish. We won't see this kind of thing anymore.

Whether or not you were a fan of the space shuttle program, the first privately-owned space cargo delivery business is almost ready to begin. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX plans to launch the first commercial cargo load of supplies to the International Space Station on April 30. After about 12 contracted cargo runs, SpaceX will start ferrying astronauts to the space station.

We'll be watching closely on April 30 and keeping fingers crossed that this will be a productive new step outward into space.

In the meantime Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic continues to sign up passengers for its planned tours to the edge of space. The newest to make a booking? Actor Ashton Kutcher will be Virgin Galactic's 500th passenger, if everything goes according to plan, though there's still no official start date for flights to begin. The ride is expected to cost about $200,000 per person for a flight about three-and-a-half hours in total (only six minutes of weightlessness).

The times they are a changin'...hopefully for the better.