Freeman Dyson on the Future of Space Travel, 1997

A bona fide genius explains his theory about how cheap, ubiquitous space travel will help us colonize the solar system

It has been a historic week for space travel—and a bittersweet one on, in which we've featured both the Technology channel's homage to the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight and Alan Taylor's In Focus photo essay about the dismantling of the U.S. space shuttle program. (Both, of course, are worth a read.) So it seemed fitting to add a nod to a piece from The Atlantic (November 1997) written by none other than "cosmic genius" Freeman Dyson, about as good an heir to Einstein as we've got these days.

In his essay, "Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish," Dyson offers a bold new vision for travel in space: One major problem with the shuttle program, he says, is that shuttles are too expensive and unwieldy to be practical for frequent space travel. "The shuttle is inadequate as a vehicle for human adventure," he writes. "It resembles a Greyhound bus rather than a Land Rover." So where are we headed? Toward cheap, ubiquitous space travel, he argues, which will ultimately result in our colonization of the rest of the solar system:

We are now at the beginning of a revolution in space technology, when for the first time cheapness will be mandatory. Missions that are not cheap will not fly. This is bad news for space explorers in the short run and good news in the long run. Finally cheapness has a chance. Missions to the planets have been few and far between in the past ten years because they became inordinately expensive; they were expensive because of an imbalance in funding between ground-based and space-based science. For thirty years it was easier politically to obtain ten dollars for a space-science mission than to obtain one dollar for astronomy on the ground. The unfair competition injured both parties, starving ground-based astronomy and spoiling space science. The injury to space science was greater: ground-based astronomy flourished in spite of starvation, while planetary missions almost came to a halt in spite of big budgets. The rules are now changing, in the direction of fair competition between ground and space. This means that in the future space missions will be cheap. Once the barrier of high cost is broken, missions will be more frequent and the pace of discovery will be faster.

He continues, shortly after:

No law of physics or biology forbids cheap travel and settlement all over the solar system and beyond. But it is impossible to predict how long this will take. Predictions of the dates of future achievements are notoriously fallible. My guess is that the era of cheap unmanned missions will be the next fifty years, and the era of cheap manned missions will start sometime late in the twenty-first century. The time these things will take depends on unforeseeable accidents of history and politics. My date for the beginning of cheap manned exploration and settlement is based on a historical analogy: from Columbus's first voyage across the Atlantic to the settlement of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was 128 years. So I am guessing that in 2085, 128 years after the launch of the first Sputnik, the private settlement of pilgrims all over the solar system will begin.

Read the full version of "Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish."
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