That La Jolla Starship Conference

I didn’t attend, both for reasons explained below, and because I had a conflict with the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, but Jonathan Markley did, and has provided a report:

[Update early afternoon]

Here are two more reports from the Planetary Society.

The two day symposium at UC San Diego covered an ambitious range of topics, but it wasn’t really clear what it hoped to accomplish. The goal may have been to raise public awareness and more particularly donations (which they asked for a couple of times) but if that was the case it needed to be considerably better publicized, and to be held in a much bigger facility with a lot more people in attendance. There was talk at the beginning that this symposium was “The Moment” when everything comes together, and will be seen as a defining moment when future generations look back but it seems hard to imagine that this will be the case. Each and every presentation was interesting in its own right, and some were even profound, but the symposium as a whole struggled with coherence, I think largely because of the uncertainty of the audience it was addressing, and the complete hopelessness of talking in anything but speculative language when it comes to the very long term goals of ultimately getting to other star systems.

This was the first such event, and they will have learned a number of valuable lessons concerning the organization. A mistake was in NOT charging a registration fee. This would have raised money for a start, and it would have kept down the number of no-shows. There were a LOT of unclaimed name cards at the registration desk and far too many empty chairs in the auditorium, despite the fact that late registrants were told there was no room, and they’d have to watch it via webcast. There was a last minute request to confirm attendance, but by that stage it would have been too late to open it up to others anyway.

I’ll make some comments about each of the talks/panels that are entirely idiosyncratic, but might give some idea about what occurred.

Peter Schwartz, a futurist, began. A lot of what he said was very interesting, but the main point that stuck out was a complete rethink he’d had since his early career, concerning the role of religion in society, and how he once thought it would fade away but now sees it as playing a big role in the future, and how religious groups might well be the very ones with the will, the self discipline, and longevity of purpose to actually make interstellar travel possible. His rethink on this matter included meeting with the Vatican’s astronomer, and seeing their large ring-binder that contains the Catholic Church’s plan for what to do should intelligent aliens show up. He talked about the 4 possibilities for interstellar ships: generation ships; sleep ships; relativistic ships; download ships. (It seems to me that he (and all the other speakers) forgot the possibility that longevity research might make it possible to make crew members effectively immortal, and that would offer a 5th type of ship, whereby it could travel slowly and still arrive with the original crew.)

Freeman Dyson commands respect just by existing, and it was a privilege to listen to him speak in the flesh. The main take-away from his talk was that he sees bio-tech as the way of the future in space, to the point where genetic engineering allows us to create tree-lite plants that can grow their own vacuum-sealed habitats, with oxygen etc contained inside. This seemed to apply to both ground based colonization (including the idea of pre-seeding a place before humans arrive) and for settling places like the Oort Cloud, where he envisions them even growing their own mirrors to channel sufficient energy that far from the sun. Someone in the audience (half humorously) pointed out that his vision of sending egg-arks to pre-seed distant planets would probably be seen as biological warfare by any intelligent life on those distant planets.

Dyson also make an important if counter-intuitive point, that the current starvation of government funds for the space program may actually be a good thing. He compared the progress of ground-based astronomy (starved) vs the cold war space race (government largess), arguing that it was actually ground based astronomy that had benefited the most in the long term. Today’s drive to be cheaper will pay a huge dividend in the future.

Robert Zubrin had a very positive outlook on prospects for the human race, the economy, and the future in general. The fact that this extremely positive message was delivered in a very angry tone against those who work against this vision with zero-growth and anti-human efforts to preserve the environment turned his talk into a “preaching to the choir” effort, where he would win no converts, but would please people who already believe in his vision, which indeed he did, eliciting claps from the audience several times. The most interesting part, for me at least, was his idea that an interstellar mission would cost about $125 trillion, which sounds totally impossible, especially when you consider that that Apollo program only cost $120 billion in today’s money. For the sum of $125 trillion to represent the same fraction of the economy as Apollo did in 1968, the economy would have to grow by 1000 times but only 200 times from today’s economy. Put that way, it actually sounds like it could be affordable in the future. While I generally agreed with many of his points, there were some flaws in his logic, one of which was pointed out by David Brin in a question: the assumption that economic growth would continue at the current rate assumes that all the current trend lines can be extrapolated into the future indefinitely, without any kind of law of diminishing returns taking effect. His historical trend lines (mostly) only went back 500 years, which was when the astonishing growth of the modern world really began, but the prior 1500 years or so had been largely stagnant. I hope he’s right, but “onwards and upwards” is not the only possible future, and economic growth etc might start to plateau even as the world’s population growth is doing.

Neal Stephenson, sci-fi author led the next panel, which was interesting, but only somewhat connected to the theme of the event. Basically, he and a team of structural engineers, have been trying to figure out if it’s physically possible to build a tower 20km high, from which you could launch rockets into space. They assumed that no new materials would be invented. Given the freezing temperatures at the top, the 460mph winds, and requirement for most of the world’s steel production and the 11 miles square required for the base, I doubt it represents anything other than an interesting intellectual exercise. They didn’t mention if they were factoring in the possibility of a bunch of suicidal nutters flying jet planes into the structure.

Patti Grace Smith spoke next. As a Washingtom bureaucrat, I didn’t expect much (she even talked about “we in Washington”) but she did seem to believe in the mission of getting us into space, and did seem to believe that it was best to try to keep regulations to a minimum, and to support private enterprise getting into space. I liked her story of talking with the NASA chiefs, and hearing them talk about how much private approaches are learning from NASA, and she turned it back on them and asked “what is NASA learning from private approaches?” She is strongly advocating the Spaceship II and its launch plane White Knight should be treated as a single launch system, so that the plane half doesn’t have to be separately licensed by the FAA, which would cause massive expense and delays.

Geoffrey Landis spoke about designs for nuclear powered rockets, and came at it from a design perspective. In a sense, this probably made it one of the more useful talks, but it also missed the more general audience. I liked this guy, especially since he comes from NASA, and was very much braving the lions’ den in venturing into a forum that was largely hostile to the NASA model in general, and many aspects of NASA in particular. He bravely spoke up on a number of other occasions too. One of the points he made was entirely new to me, though probably not to most of the audience. I’d simply never considered the issue of Jupiter’s radiation belt, and the way in which this would make the surface of many of the moons lethal. He suggested that Callisto (where this is not a problem) would therefore make a more sensible target for exploration that some of the other more popular candidates like Europa.

Chris Lewicki spoke next on the Coming Interplanetary Economy. He introduced himself as President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, the company recently founded to try to prospect and mine the asteroids. Ultimately, this was the most exciting talk, because it addressed the near future, and things that people are trying to accomplish now. It also is aimed at making money, which is the main thing we want a sustained human effort in space. He had good answers to the expected questions “How can you ‘claim’ an asteroid, since you can’t own it?” This one he argued doesn’t require new law, and should be treated like commercial fishing companies who are licensed by their own national governments to take fish from international waters. It’s a nice answer, but there will be a lot of nations lining up to challenge this logic if they start to make real money out of the venture. He also talked about the current costs as well as engineering and environmental problems deep sea oil rigs face. By comparison, there’s no weather, corrosive salt water, massive undersea pressure, etc for space mining to overcome. He also spoke about the need to control costs, and to build in redundancy. They plan, for example, to send multiple small probes to study a single asteroid, each one small enough to hold with two hands. He also said that he’d be more than willing to accept a 50% failure rate on launch rockets in return for 20% of the price. We only need to fixate on preventing failures if we’re putting people on these rockets.

By the end, I was (partly) convinced that this company is real, and they might actually succeed in exploiting the wealth in the asteroids. At the start, I was thinking that Lewicki looked like he was chair of the school science club, and that this was a bunch of undergraduates getting together to play make-believe. He looks very young, and the pictures of the other guys who are involved in this gave the same impression, even with the interesting (and sometimes impressive) biographical details. A guy sitting next to me muttered “they’ve poached some really good people from JPL” which was the first inkling I had that this might be something real, but it wasn’t until he belatedly got to the bit where we was talking about the investors behind them (real MONEY) that I realized “hey, this could actually be real.” At the very end, he showed a photo of a prototype they’re working on, and their plans to put part of it into orbit for testing in the near future. If you think of me as a skeptic but also someone who really wants this to work, then you can imagine the reaction of a potentially hostile (or just neutral) audience. He’d have lost some of them in the first 10 minutes. He needs to start by packing the opening of his presentations with the “this is real, backed by real money, doing real things in the near future” component, and only then going on to the dreams of what this could all mean.

The next thing was a panel consisting of Freeman Dyson, Neal Stephenson, Allen Steele, and Geoffrey Landis. My notes don’t tell me much about what happened here, and I can’t recall much of it beyond that. Overall, it was a bit disappointing, and the only thing I got from it was a list of five organizations dedicated to space, and the depressing thought that the British Interplanetary Society might have been founded in 1933 and is still a going concern, but you seldom if ever hear about them in connection the real world efforts to get into space. Does this apply to all the others as well? One thing did occur in this panel that was very annoying, and it was the way the chair and one of the panelists made partisan digs at one political party. One was a general insult to that party, and the other a personal attack on one particular Senator. It was gratuitous, irrelevant to anything else they talked about, and seemed to be nothing more than a “shout out” to fellow travelers, and a nasty smear against people who disagree with their politics. It was ungracious, uncalled for, and frankly rather stupid when addressing an audience guaranteed to have supporters of both sides. With regards to Allen Steele, it seemed particularly silly, since his income comes from people buying his books, and all I could think was “that’s a great way to alienate your fan base.” During another session, sci-fi author David Brin demonstrated how it could be done far more tactfully, when he talked about a specific problem with BOTH parties, and made the comment that he personally thinks that one side is worse than the other, even though they’re both guilty … yet he refrained from saying which side that is. I’m sure Democrats who were listening were sure he was attacking Republicans, and vice versa. That’s just smart.

Adam Crowl from Australia, talked about Starship Concepts, basically summarizing the various designs that have been proposed for getting to another star system, without having to invent new physics.

James Benford started by saying “I come not to bury rockets but to praise them” but actually his talk was about the promising solar sail he’s working on, with a prototype to be launched into earth orbit next year for testing. With a laser beam to drive it (so it isn’t just relying on solar wind) he claimed some impressive sustained acceleration would be possible, and that it might be possible to use the interstellar medium to decelerate on a mission to another star.

John Crammer spoke about Exotic Paths to the Stars, which mostly focused on the possibility of worm holes. The model he was working with suggests that it’s either impossible, or if it is possible, you couldn’t have worm holes coming close to each other. It didn’t sound very promising!

Ian Crawford spoke about potential Starship Destinations. He had a lot of interesting details, but for me the main takeaway was a) we don’t know much, b) hopefully we’ll know more soon, and c) even if there was an earth-like planet around the nearby stars, currently technology wouldn’t be able to spot it anyway. For example, current sensitivity means that we wouldn’t see anything smaller than three times the size of Earth in the critical Goldilocks Zone around Proxima Centauri. This is potentially good news I guess, since it means that we might find something earth like very close to us some time in the future?

Paul Davies spoke about Can We Survive Alien Biospheres. Davies was impressive, most especially because of the way he brought his critical mind to bear on the problem, and his strongly realistic approach to what we know, what we could know, and what we have no way of knowing. For example, the Drake equation to try to calculate the probability of life in the universe is nonsense, because the variables are unknowable at this point. He talked about the problem of even knowing how life first emerged on this planet, and I was excited to learn that there’s a new postdoc at ASU working on the problem of the origins of life, with the proposition that non-life to life represents a phase shift from information flow from bottom-up to top-down. It’ll be interesting to see if this produces any worthwhile results. He asked if it was not possible that there are in fact other forms of life on earth already. What if it had evolved twice, on a different basis? Would be even find it? How tests for bacterial life are designed to find life as we know it. For example, if you ask micro-biologists if they ever find microbes that don’t respond to their tests, they say “yes all the time” and flush them down the toilet. He’s been asking them to keep an eye out for anything strange, and to consider that there could actually be something else here already.

Jon Lomberg’s talk was a surprise. I really wondered what was the point in having an artist speak, but he gave a fascinating talk that helped me visualize our galaxy in ways I’d never been able to do so before. He’s planted a garden in Hawaii in the shape of our galaxy, with 1 inch representing 83 light years. You can see where Earth belongs, and in one photo holds a three foot plastic pole that represents everything that the Kepler Mission has scanned. It gives a sense of scale and proportion like nothing I’d ever seen before, and when he used Google Earth images to zoom out, you got a sense of the size of our Galaxy in the context of the whole Universe as we know it, with the most distant quasars resting on the North American Pacific Coast.

The final two panels didn’t leave any deep impression on me, but there were a few nice takeaway quotes. Geoffrey Landis: we could see starship construction as akin to cathedral building, and religious institutions have the patience, longevity and self-discipline to do big projects. Crowl: not all voyagers who set out make it. Maybe we should be looking for the corpses of starships. Joe Haldeman, “entropy is very patient”. David Brin told us to look out for the up and coming Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. Larry Niven: “Civilization is saved by the bright ones.” David Brin: civilization thrives when it invests in the creative minority (and it was in this context that he criticized both political parties for attacking this minority). David Brin, warning about sending out SETI shout outs: “we’re effectively toddlers in a jungle that is TOO quiet.”

In summary: a lot of very interesting talks, but it’s hard to see that this meeting represented any kind of “moment” that will have a great impact on future events. If they have another one, I’ll go … and I hope I don’t get lynched for having written this!

It does sound interesting, but only in an academic sense. I would have liked to meet Neil Stephenson, though.

10 thoughts on “That La Jolla Starship Conference”

  1. Jonathan Markley has an excellent reporting style. I wish more were so straight forward.

    I’m all for “interesting intellectual exercises” but he’s absolutely right about charging a fee at the door rather than asking for donations for pie in the sky. I would have paid to hear these speakers but would not have donated money to something that is so much futurism.

    People can’t believe we can live on mars but going to another star they believe?

    Planetary Resources would have been the talk to hear.

  2. Just being silly, but “The La Jolla Starship Conference” would be a great name for an obscure indie band.

  3. Interesting note: The building that houses the nearby HQ of General Atomics is modeled after the 1950’s Spaceship Project Orion that Freeman Dyson worked on.

  4. I really am going to get lynched. I should have read it another time, and made a number of the comments more tactful… but the kids were waking up from their naps and I had to wrap it up. I didn’t even have time to proof read and fix up the far too numerous grammatical errors. Oh well. For anyone feeling offended, please keep in mind that I LOVED this event, and I really want the dreams to become reality. Criticisms, even the harsh ones, are meant to help people avoid mistakes in future.

  5. One more story from the event, but it was a private encounter, not a general one, so doesn’t belong in the main body. On the first morning before thing started, I sat down at a random table containing numerous people I didn’t know. It was outside, and really rather chilly, and the idea of global cooling was mentioned. I said something like “yeah, kind of like that book by Jerry Pournelle … umm … something Angels.” This old guy said “it’s ‘Fallen Angels'” and I replied, “that’s right! Fallen Angels by Jerry Pournelle.” Later as I got coffee, someone else from the table leaned over and said “you do realize that was Larry Niven don’t you?” Revelation dawned. “Hang on a minute. He co-authored Fallen Angels didn’t he????” My new friend said “yup.” So I hurried back to find Larry Niven and apologize… Niven was very gracious, and said he actually found it amusing, but then also said, “but tell people to look for it under ‘N’ not ‘P’ in the bookstores.”
    I’m sorry Mr Niven. I hang my head in shame.

  6. Personally, I found Cramer’s presentation the most intriguing. Since Woodward showed a path to creation of stable wormholes in his recent book, which Cramer mentioned, there is a hope that if you had stable (but tiny) wormholes you could distribute them to target systems with technology that is foreseeable.

  7. It was a great event and I just got finished reviewing the proceedings copy I bought there, Starship Century, that has the papers that went with the presentations. It was well worth the money, especially after I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Dyson sign his paper in it. I hope it will be an annual event as its refreshing to see some true long range visions.

  8. Dr. Zubrin’s presentation and paper was a classic example of the Pigs/Pig Iron fallacy, arguing that the larger the population is the wealthier humanity is. His conclusion that humanity was humanity will have the necessary wealth to build a starship when the human population reached 36 billion is the funniest statistical analysis I have heard in years.

    Its not the size of the population that creates wealth, it is its creativity and productivity. That is why western Europe and not China has dominated the world since the 1500’s.

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