We’ve been talking a lot about the future lately.
Which makes sense. The future is kind of an “in thing” when it comes to science.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to go off on a tangent about Star Fleet or the Twelve Colonies or the Browncoats and we’ll lose all semblance of scientific practicality by the time I’m done.
Well thanks for the vote of confidence <sarcasm>, but it turns out that the possibility of a future space force isn’t as fanciful as you might think.
Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Garretson is the Division Chief for Air Force Irregular Warfare Strategy, Plans and Policy. That title doesn’t exactly scream “space expert”, but once upon a time (meaning previously), he was the Chief of Future Science and Technology Exploration for Air Force Strategic Planning.
Yeah, how’s that for applicable practicality, hmm?
Anyway, one of Lt. Col. Garretson’s jobs when he was the Chief of Future Science and Technology was to write papers about various things that should be considered when thinking about the future of the force. Especially when space is involved.
This, by the way, sounds like a really cool job to have for a number of reasons. It also sounds like the man might know a thing or two about our hypothetical and potential space future.
So I asked him the important questions. You know, what kind of technology are we working toward? How far ahead are we looking? Why don’t we have spaceships yet? I mean seriously, what’s the holdup?
Turns out that’s a good question.
“When people talk about spaceships that people can fly on, we’re actually not at a place where we’re that technologically limited. We could [have] built a fully reusable spacecraft for the last four decades.”
I…ergh…WHAT?! Really? Then why aren’t we doing that?
“There has not been a focus that was understandable that made it worthwhile,” Lt. Col. Garretson explains. “Part of that is that we’re having the wrong debate about space.”
What he means, Lt. Col. Garretson explains, is that when we started thinking about space we did so in the context of the cold war and our strategic competition. That was an intelligence and military based competition. We have not structured our space program in a way that is consciously equipping it as a strategic industry.
Not in the same way that we equipped the aviation industry, for example.
“If you talk to most people, the most ambitious thing that they can conceive of for a U.S. space program is that we would be able to send perhaps as many as five people to Mars for a short stay. To me that is just a very unambitious goal.”
His reason, Lt. Col. Garretson goes on to explain, is because in the same time period we could have a fully reusable spacecraft that would allow a much broader segment of the citizenry to come and go to space. We could enable a much more robust infrastructure on obit with propellant depots and in-space servicing.
We could also be well on our way to constructing a brand new kind of global utility that could power the entire planet several times over with 24 hour green energy. That could allow the entire world to have sustainable developments and get rid of our energy security problem. It could even roll back concerns about climate change.
Space-based solar power is a very real and very probable concept, and it’s only a little part of the big picture.
Lt. Col. Garretson says he likes to begin with the end in mind.
“Thinking of the technological needs of being a space industrial power drives you to a very different set of decisions about the types of technologies [you will have], the order of technologies, and the reasons why you pursue them.”
So what do you do when you want to think about the space-filled possibilities of the military? You come up with a plan of course. Lucky for us, Lt. Col. Garretson already conceived one that looks pretty far out into the future.
A billion years, to be exact.
“The goal of that essay was to stimulate people to really think long term and really start thinking about inter-generational goals.” Long term.
That’s putting it mildly.
“If we as a civilization, as a species, and as right now is the only known place in the universe where life exists, if we hold those things precious and want to see them perpetuated, then it’s important to look far out.”
We’re often accused as Americans as being too short term, he says. We’ll talk about other civilizations that think on the hundred year level, but Lt. Col. Garretson wanted to take that concept and let it out a little. A lot. Hundreds of thousands of years beyond it, really.
“I just wanted to put the stake a little farther out there than anyone had been and say, you know, ‘we can think really long term’, and we ought to.”
Take that, rest of world.
And it all starts (for the intents of this blog post) with Atlantis.
Lt. Col. Garretson says that airmen – and service members in general – need to prepare for a post-Atlantis world. And no, I don’t mean the fictitious water city that is the source of many a conspiracy theory. I mean the space shuttle. So why is that?
“There was a time when the military and government were the only game for many technologies, especially in space,” LTC Garretson explains. “We initiated the technology and we were its only users. That’s just no longer the case.”
It’s not hard pressed to say that our nation has always benefited from vision and purpose. Our national identity, our national narratives, they resonate strongly with a frontier mentality. With grand visions of exceeding past accomplishments. Of being a city on a hill.
“I think it’s inspiring to think about our nation pursuing grand public goods, like the long term survival of humanity, and spreading life and intelligence through the cosmos,” Lt. Col. Garretson says.
Enabling a new energy regime, he goes on to explain, is something that could enable new development, unlock the human spirit and protect the planet.
And speaking of the planet…
Another suggestion we discussed for the future of humanity in space is mining. Specifically asteroids.
So why asteroids?
“A fact that most people don’t appreciate is that all of our rare Earth metals come from asteroid strikes.”
Yep, that’s right. Those big mines where they discover platinum group metals and other rare Earth metals are actually the result of asteroid strikes from ages ago. Otherwise all of those heavy metals would have basically sunk to the center of the Earth. We have asteroids to thank for those ever-so-sought after resources.
Talk about things people don’t appreciate.
“Lots of people think of the Earth in the way of a closed system,” he says, “but that’s actually not true. Everything else is out there and there is so much in the way of strategic metals that exist externally.”
One could lament that that there isn’t a broader aperture to think about what could be possible in the world of science.
Except that there is.
I’ve spent almost my whole life imagining a science fiction-based reality. I’ve watched with glee as shows, books and movies portrayed humans exploring the stars. I delighted at the concept of people who live with the cosmos as a reality of their existence. Science fiction is the aperture for science future.
And I think Lt. Col. Garretson agrees with me.
“Science fiction is underappreciated in what it really is, which is one specific way to do scenario planning.”
It has proved to have an uncanny ability to predict reality. Think about it. A lot of the things that are commonplace today – submarines, cars, aircraft, satellites, spacecraft, geostationary satellites, the internet, cell phones, the iPad – all these things have been predicted within science fiction.
“Science fiction allows us to examine technological choices, and the conundrums and difficulties that are raised, and gives us the time and the option to make choices to shape different futures in advance.”
For the military in particular, figures like Giulio Douhet would remind us that “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after they occur.”
It’s fair to think of space when we think of the strategic future of the force. As a matter of fact, I think it might be a detriment not to, but proceed with caution. In a world of infinite possibilities, it’s easy to get caught up in the grand hypothetical. However, with some strategic planning, some clever foresight and an open mind, I think we’ll find that the military has a place in the stars.
Quite a fitting one at that.
“Space is a very different domain and frontier than we have encountered in the past. As far as we know, there are no natives to encounter on the other side of those vast oceans,” Lt. Col. Garretson says. “For the most part, it is a frontier of our own making.”
Boldly go, humanity. Boldly go.
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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