When I was a kid, smart adults still believed that humans would be visiting other planets sooner rather than later. That was mostly a carry over from the previous generations, who managed to get from zero to the moon in roughly a decade. If you were into this stuff in 1968, it was hard not to think that the next stop for man was Mars and then from there the rest of the solar system. By the time I was becoming aware of the world, this was fading, but there were plenty of optimists and romantics, with regards to space travel.
It really was a generational thing. By the time my generation was noticing things the space program had stalled and there didn’t seem to be a point to it. The competition with the Russians had decayed into a fight over the mundane and pointless. My guess is beating the Russians in hockey counted for more to most Americans than the space shuttle managing to take off, go to space and come back in one piece. Subsequent generations are simply too self-absorbed and self-indulgent to care much about space travel.
Of course, a big part of it is the self-inflicted wounds from previous generations that continue to tax us to this day. If Boomers and their parents had not decided to violate the rules of human nature in the 60’s and 70’s with a laundry list of social programs, things may have been different. The money spent on “fixing race relations” could have financed several trips to the stars. Our ruler’s endless fights with observable reality is like a leash keeping us from doing much more than squabbling over our own destruction.
Putting aside the Spenglerian interpretation of the recent past, there is another way to understand the technological stall. This post the other day by Steve Sailer had some interesting stuff in it, but the space travel stuff is what got my attention. Freeman Dyson is of that generation that thought we would be much further along in exploring the universe than we are today. He still assumes it will happen, despite the obvious decline in overall human capital due to changes in demographics and social mobility.
What occurred to me reading it is humanity probably needs to go through a different period of technological advance, before we can make the great leap to exploring the stars. If you look at the generation of geniuses who took us from propeller planes to rocket ships, peaking with the moon landing, it all happened in about one generation. It really was a remarkable run. In the 1930’s, the concepts of rocketry were being worked out and 30 years later a rocket was hurling men to the moon. That’s a great career.
That’s what it really is, one career. The sorts of people who work on these types of projects are not starting as teenagers. They go through years of education and apprenticeship, before they get on the big project. A career making project is going to be one that happens within the normal span of a human career, which is about 30 years for a cutting edge scientist. A guy like David Reich, who is doing groundbreaking work in ancient genetics, is never going to do much of anything else. This is his peak.
Well, if you are an ambitious guy looking to do space work and be part of a great project, you’re not picking one that will take 50 years to finish. Some people may be fine toiling away at some small aspect of the 50 year project, but most people, especially the people funding it, are not going to find it appealing. If Elon Musk is going to bankroll a trip to Mars, he wants it to happen in the next decade, so he can take credit for it. The same is true of the scientist he would recruit. They want to get it done before they retire or die.
What this means is that space travel, beyond orbiting the earth or maybe revisiting the Moon, is going to first require extending the human life span. A mission to land people on Mars and return them to earth is probably 30 years away. Getting propulsion technology to traverse the solar system is a fifty or sixty year project. Figuring out how to survive longer periods in space is an even longer project. Before humans figure any of this out, it is going to mean living much longer lives so that a person can have a 50 or 60 year working life.
Think about it. If a person could reasonably assume a working career that started in the mid-20’s and goes strong to 100, with a slight decline at the end, that’s roughly a 60 year prime working life. With twice the time, you take more risks and you take on different career objectives. Suddenly a twenty year project to put men on Mars is not that big of a deal to the financiers or the scientists. Stretch the lifetime out further and the much more daunting projects can be chipped away at by a team expecting to finish in their lifetime.
Logically, it means the same would hold for some alien species that eventually comes to visit us on earth. Those aliens we have stored in Area 51 are probably very old, as their species had to unriddle problems that would take hundreds of years to solve, not to mention the fact that it was an extremely long trip from their home planet. The nearest habitable planet outside out solar system is roughly four light years from earth, which means it was a very long trip for our alien visitors. They must have been extremely old.
The other aspect of this is a longer life would mean more experience. Our IQ may be fixed, but we have an infinite capacity for screwing up. The longer the life, the more trial and error a person would endure. Someone living 500 earth years is not going to be any better at math, but they would be much more prudent. That would mean at the upper limits, the species would become less rash and less prone to error. Those dead aliens in New Mexico are an outlier, because their kind rarely misses its intended target.