Shortly after my “Made in Space” post, I discovered that a company called Made in Space exists. I followed them on Twitter last year as they installed a 3D printer on the International Space Station. Newsweek says:

Their first offering, launched to the ISS in the fall of 2014, is fairly simple: a 3-D printer that prints plastic parts. In itself, this will bring on a manufacturing revolution of sorts. “The first 3-D printers on the ISS will be able to build objects that could never be manufactured on Earth,” says Kemmer. “Imagine, for example, building a structure that couldn’t withstand its own weight.”

Made in Space’s next iteration will be able to print with multiple materials, including both plastics and metals, which means that sometime in the next five years, 60 percent of the parts in use on the ISS will be printable. And just behind this version is the real game changer: a 3-D printer capable of printing electronics.

…[Says Dunn,] “It’s hard to say for sure, but around 2025 we should be able to print electronics aboard the ISS. This means we’ll be able to email hardware into space for free, rather than paying to have it launched there.”

So there you go. Glad to see people working on this problem.

“I believe the pioneering efforts of early astronauts like Buzz [Aldrin] need to be taken to the next level. I am convinced that one day humans will have to colonize other planets in order to survive. Space travel will become an everyday necessity.”

Stephen Hawking

Presented at Ignite YxYY on July 13, 2014.

Talk track for the deck

You’ve heard of startups needing an “exit strategy” when they take venture capital. Like these guys from WhatsApp, who sold their company to Facebook for $19 billion.

But humanity needs an exit strategy too. Ultimately, we have to get off this planet.

Why?

5 billion years from now, the sun will be way huge and probably engulf Earth.

That’s a long time from now, but other stuff will happen in the nearer future:

  • Like an ice age in 100,000 years.
  • Or a massive volcanic explosion, which is also likely within 100,000 years.
  • It’s highly likely that within 500,000 years, a meteor at least 1 km wide will hit. Which would be devastating to life on Earth.
  • If you want to freak yourself out, consider that within 800 million years, there will no longer be enough carbon dioxide to support photosynthesis. That means no kale.
  • And even if we only have McDonald’s by then, all water will evaporate from earth about a billion years from now, because it’ll be too dang hot. An average temperature of 47°C means no more oceans.
So if we want to carry on breathing, we need a place to go that will support our life functions. Stuff like:
  1. Air to breathe and water to drink
  2. Agriculture for renewable food
  3. Mining and manufacturing (we need to put China in space)
I think the key to this is getting more business going in space, so more people are drawn to work on the problems of relocating part of the human race. So far we’ve got entrepreneurs working hard on rocketry, asteroid mining (kinda), and a Mars colony [edit: this was before SpaceX announced their Mars plans, but I was confident]. And I want to help however I can. Hit me up on Twitter if you’d like to talk about it.

 

Notes

“Yesyes.js” refers to a tech talk I hosted at the event featuring three JavaScript developers.

The “nametags” were temporary tattoos to make poolside introductions easier. (No shirt? No problem.)

One of the slides is repeated because I needed more time during that portion of the talk.

Ever heard of The Great Filter?

It’s a story that potentially explains why Earth hasn’t yet been contacted by alien life. There might be a very difficult obstacle every intelligent life form eventually faces, an obstacle greater than all the ones before it, that almost no species surmounts. This obstacle permanently extinguishes (filters) almost all life forms. If the Great Filter exists, it’s an evolutionary challenge humans could face with extremely low probability of success.

There’s an excellent article discussing The Great Filter (and other responses to Fermi’s Paradox) on the blog Wait But Why. And the authors note that, if the Great Filter exists, we don’t know whether we’ve already encountered it or not. WBW writes:

Therefore, say Group 1 explanations, it must be that there are no super-advanced civilizations. And since the math suggests that there are thousands of them just in our own galaxy, something else must be going on.

This something else is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond. That stage is The Great Filter.

For example, regardless of what one thinks of the possibility of anthropogenic climate change in the short term (the next 200 years), the fact is that Earth’s climate WILL change in the long term (in the next 200,000 years). Drastically. You could imagine how dramatic and geologically quick swings in climate could challenge a species. There are multiple phyla on earth whose species span extreme climates, like cyanobacteria and tardigrades.

How does this relate to moving off-world?

Finding ways to adapt to different living conditions is a useful step toward passing the Great Filter. Let’s diversify our real estate strategy. Hedge our bets.

An important initial step in securing an off-world future is starting and scaling manufacturing in space.

Several companies are already working on the problem of mining in space, to capture the rich deposits of gold and other metals embedded in asteroids. But most likely those metals will be brought back to Earth to be worked. We’ll still need to figure out how to process raw materials and build things without the benefit of gravity and, eventually, without bright starlight. Otherwise, any vessel we permanently eject from Earth, no matter how well provisioned, will ultimately break down and kill its inhabitants.

But how to get started? I think we start simply. Do something that draws attention and gets people thinking about doing business from space. Take a straightforward, known manufacturing process, and reproduce it in space.

Like T-shirts. Truck all the fabric, thread, tags, and equipment into orbit, assemble a batch of shirts there, and cart it back down. Label it “Made in Space” and charge hundreds of dollars for it.

Would you buy a shirt simply because it was made in space? I would.

“Catastrophic climate change forces humanity to send astronauts through a wormhole to find new, unfucked agricultural resources for Earthlings.” That’s the premise for Christopher Nolan’s (Memento, Batman Begins) 2014 film Interstellar. It’s exciting to imagine movie audiences seriously starting to think about the potential for exploring cosmic opportunities outside of Earth.

Only problem is…we ain’t found no wormhole yet. And space is big. So big that just getting to our Sun’s nearest star, as fast as humans can make spacecraft go, would take 50,000 years. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so elegantly put it, “The distances of space are incommensurate with the longevity of our biological form.” This probably means we’ll need an interim strategy before colonizing a brand new star system.

Wormhole or no, it’d be nice to start working on an exit strategy before we’re staring extinction directly in the face.

“Interstellar” premieres in November.

One reason to plan on colonizing elsewhere before our 5 billion years are up: asteroid collisions.

Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed the threat of asteroid impact on StarTalk Radio (emphasis ours):

We know the size of an asteroid that would do very bad things. It’s about a kilometer across, little more than half a mile across. That size asteroid would disrupt civilization. It wouldn’t leave us extinct, but it would disrupt the food chain, transportation channels, things that we rely on for modern living.

…And then at a ten-kilometer size, you’ve got about an extinction level asteroid.

…In the old days, we thought it would just leave a crater, and [you’d be affected only] if you were unlucky enough to be where the crater hit…but we learned that the stuff it thrusts into the atmosphere blocks the sun, cloaks the earth, knocks out the base of the food chain — because photosynthesis can’t unfold — and a wave of extinction percolates across the tree of life.

Check out NASA’s map of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids or dig into more data at the Near Earth Object program. You may have previously heard NdGT describe the impact risk from Apophis, a 0.325 kilometer-sized object, whose risk of impact was of concern in 2013 but later downgraded.