Archives for posts with tag: space travel

Courtesy ESA

Last week, the White House announced that humans would aim to set foot on Mars by 2033, just sixteen years from now. As a longtime space lover, I found this news momentarily exciting, but then I paused. Is sixteen years in any way realistic? I think not.

Taking people to Mars – and back again – is a massive engineering problem, on a scale we have never before encountered. I believe it’s possible to do it, but if we try to rush it, it will end in calamity. It breaks down to a number of key problems:


Without sufficient protection, astronauts will be subjected to intense radiation from the sun and from cosmic rays for the entirely of their journey. It goes without saying that space is a hostile environment, but, given the absence of a strong magnetic field, so too is Mars. We have very little experience of the effects of long term radiation exposure on humans outside of Earth, so a huge effort is required to gain more knowledge before we go. Frequent trips to or around the Moon would help, but given the absence of any such journeys in the last 40 years, we are starting practically from zero.


A crew of people will need to be sheltered, protected, fed, oxygenated, medicated and kept warm for up to three years from start to finish. They will need to have all the equipment they need to do their jobs, plus replacements, if something goes wrong. This implies a support structure to be in place – around Mars, on the way to Mars, on the way back from Mars and on the surface of Mars itself – before the astronauts begin their journey. That’s a lot of work – much greater than anything encountered by the lunar astronauts. Of course a very large craft might be able to bring people and supplies along in one go, but getting all this out of Earth’s gravity well and into the International Space Station will be a challenge in its own right, not to mention landing so much of it on Mars.

Getting off the surface of Mars

Apart from the Moon, we have never attempted lifting equipment – not to mention people – from the surface of another planet. The Moon, with its weak gravity, is much more trivial a problem than Mars would be. Consider the problems here on Earth. We have yet to conquer routine space launches. They require months of preparation and testing with teams of engineers to execute. Costs per launch are still in the millions of dollars. And even then, things can go wrong: launches fail regularly or are scrubbed in the last few seconds. Now imagine having to do this on Mars, where a failure, no matter how small, might mean you are left on the planet for good. We need a lot of practice at this, on Mars, before we attempt to bring people along.

Leaving them there

Sure, we could forego return craft and find volunteers to go to Mars for good, but without any prior experience of living on Mars, my guess is that they would not survive there for long. We on Earth would be treated to a real-time Truman Show of suffering, sickness and eventual death. This would quickly wipe the shine off mankind’s’ great achievement.


Right now, we still don’t know if life exists on Mars. Even though it’s unlikely, given the harshness of the Martian environment, it cannot be completely ruled out. Small traces of methane have been detected that deserve proper investigation. If we put humans on Mars – or god forbid, leave human corpses there – we lose our chance to find alien life there forever. We will have contaminated Mars with our own DNA, making any subsequent reports of life there highly suspect. We have the opportunity to make a truly extraordinary discovery on Mars. We owe it to ourselves to search hard for Martian life before we put boots there.

Let’s take our time

I get the feeling that this sixteen year trip to Mars is a kind of prestige project for Trump, as opposed to a genuine mission of science and discovery. I would love for us to visit Mars one day, but I think sixteen years is far too soon. We have a lot of learning to do and a lot of infrastructure to build before we can proceed with a manned mission that has a reasonable likelihood of success. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I think that the first successful landing is less likely to be sixteen years from now, and more likely to be sixty.

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.


Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.


So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)


Evidence has come to light over the past few decades that the ancestors of modern man spent, not a few years, but hundreds of millennia fashioning very primitive tools out of stone in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Throughout that time almost no change in style took place. Sons and daughers simply learned the craft from their parents without, it seems, adding or enhancing the technology. Technological development had reached a plateau.

Now let’s move the clock forward to 200,000 years ago, to the beginning of anatomically modern humans. The tools had changed and social organisation had advanced to the point that humans were able to spread around the world, dominating and sometimes defeating those species that stood in our way. But nevertheless, the technologies throughout this time remained relatively primitive. For much of the last 200,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, surviving from day to day. No great works. No monuments. Despite our slow spread around the globe, change was severely limited by the scarcity of important resources such as food.

Then, only 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we discovered agriculture. Towns, cities, kings and queens came into existence. Professions and trades were born. Laws and religions developed. Writing was discovered and men went to war in large numbers. Great monuments grew out of the deserts and the jungles. But nevertheless, there was a lot we did not understand. We didn’t have the tools or technology to allow us to fly, or understand the universe, or even to cure the simplest of diseases. It was as if again we had reached a limit in terms of our understanding of the world.

Then along came Science. In the last 400 years, human beings have begun to systematically understand ourselves and our surroundings, to put aside our magical fantasies and to discover what really works. We learned how to put things together to make better things; how to take the properties of the physical realm to beam pictures and ideas around the world; how to put people into outer space; how to cure and prevent the worst afflictions such as Typhoid and Smallpox and how to lay waste an entire nation at the press of a button.  

Even during this decade this progress has continued unabated. We have put probes on Mars, unravelled the human genome and spotted planets revolving around distant stars. You can store the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a few small boxes beside your desk. You can search for and find the information you need, from anywhere in the world, in mere seconds. Faster and faster and faster and faster. As if this progress were approaching an asymptote, a singularity.

It makes you wonder, where will all this progress lead to?

Will we reach a point where this seemingly exponential rise in technology will continue unabated, or will things level off as we reach the limits of our abilities, as yet undefined? Are we living through a short transition point between an early agricultural and an advanced technological civilisation? Will we reach a new plateau, and what might that plateau look like?

A few scenarios come to light, some bad, some good.

The gloomiest and yet more probable of scenarios suggests that our recent advances will end in tears, with humanity blowing itself apart or enacting such a huge price from the environment that the planet seeks revenge, taking us and a large section of our fellow travelling species into oblivion.

A less gloomy scenario suggests that, while not destroying our species, humanity is reset back to the dark ages, or into hunter gathering mode, perhaps to rise again in a few millennia, only to meet a similar eventual fate in due course. A periodic rise/ collapse cycle fluctuating in tune with future Ice Ages perhaps.

Or perhaps we will find some way to live sustainably, in concert with the planet, while not sacrificing our technological knowledge in the process. Could it be that we will look at technology in the same way as we look at door-knobs, napkins and salt-cellars nowadays: where there is little scope for development apart from the vagaries of modern fashions? In this scenario, generations will pass and fads will change, but the overall technology framework will remain roughly constant, just like those humanoids in the Olduvai Gorge so many years ago. 

Maybe indeed all this talk of technological progress is a mirage. Instead, the big events in human society: war, disease, over-population, ideology and catastrophe, drive technology over the longer term as opposed to the prevailing view that technology is in the driving seat.  Perhaps we are simply too close to events to note how technology will adapt to the human story over a span of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We think we are driven by technology, but perhaps it is only a blip in a much bigger picture in the development of our species.

In an alternative rendition of our future, we are on a course for unending techological advance. Perhaps our curiousity and propensity to keep innovating will know no bounds? Perhaps we will keep on bending, breaking and redefining the limits of the possible? Maybe, as some suggest, we will pass on our propensity for innovation into robots, nano-machines and newly created biological forms, thus maintaining the acceleration indefinitely? 

Is it not too wild to suggest that the end game in all this is a journey to the stars? It may be that we are on course to developing the capabilities needed to cross the multi-trillion kilometer gulfs between our Sun and its neighbours? So in this case, as we board the ships to the sky, the acceleration might come to a sudden halt, to be replaced thousands of years hence by a new burst of activity, followed by further intense cycles of innovation as future generations disperse, ever so steadily, across the galaxy.

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