An Optimistic History of the Next 40 Years

By: Marc Millis

It’s 2012, which means you’ll be hearing more than your fair share of apocalyptic and gloomy scenarios soon. To help counteract the tide of misery, Tau Zero Foundation founder Marc Millis writes an optimistic future history of the next four decades.

“If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.” — Arthur C. Clarke

In the ‘new year’ spirit of looking ahead, I offer now my personal views of a possible future. These predictions are based first on trend extrapolations, include intersections from other disciplines, and work in the wildcard possibility of breakthrough propulsion physics. Consider this a science fictional offering intended to provoke thought rather than a set of real predictions.

By 2015:

By now, Virgin Galactic will have flown dozens of tourists into space, and anticipation will be growing for the next step – Bigelow’s orbiting hotels. It should come as no surprise that many couples are already making advanced bookings with a wink toward zero-gravity sex. The Google Lunar X-Prize will have been won and a few companies vying to dominate the resulting private space probe market. Exoplanets continue to be discovered, with a few Earth-sized planets plus many more large planets in habitable zones, but as yet no confirmed Earth-like planet.

With commercial launch capabilities now obvious even to Congress, plus growing space programs in other nations, the ambivalence toward NASA is finally subsiding. Human spaceflight, beyond the recreational commercial near-Earth activities is now being pursued in the form of multinational programs and the negative stigma of nuclear space propulsion and power is waning. NASA has a large role in making that happen, along with a resumption of the research to bring the more-difficult space technologies to fruition.

By 2020:

The effect of citizen space travelers is seeping into the cultural psyche. As more people see Earth from space – the ‘Overview Effect,’ where borders are invisible and Earth’s atmosphere is but a thin fragile coating – there is now a greater sense of protecting Earth’s habitability and a growing disrespect for war. And yes, the numbers in the “200 mile high club” (“sextronauts” – wink-nudge) continue to grow despite the fact that microgravity adaptation sickness spoils many weekend getaways. At universities, it is now common to see mini space programs of their own using probes of ever-advancing capabilities – in step with continually advancing Artificial Intelligence and sensors. Asteroid prospecting has begun, and new X-Prizes are conceived to encourage the first mining operations.

The international space programs, including NASA’s participation, are struggling to develop viable technology to set up survivable human outposts beyond Earth orbit. Unfortunately, the additional mass required to provide artificial gravity structures, space radiation protection, and closed-loop life support is beyond what even their new nuclear rockets can affordably deliver. That fact, coupled with increasing concern over Earth’s eroding habitability, drives more research attention toward creating sustainable habitats instead of space transportation.

Near the end of the decade, the first Earth-like planet – with spectral evidence indicative of life (O2-CO2 cycle) – is discovered 30 light-years away. We name this planet, “Destiny.” The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing falls in the wake of this profound discovery, stimulating deep reflection about humanity’s future and our place in the universe. Furthermore, commentators wax prophetic about seeing the Apollo landing sites through the cameras of university-operated rovers, instead of astronauts.