Fred Nadis

To Infinity and Beyond

Air Date: December 14, 2020

Science writer Fred Nadis discusses his book, "Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe."

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Thanks so much for joining us today. I’m delighted to welcome Fred Nadis to our broadcast. He is author of “Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe.” Thank you so much for your time today, Fred.

 

NADIS: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

 

HEFFNER: Fred, do you think that the current political environment, which has been so tumultuous and turbulent over these past four years, has at all tempered the desire of these billionaires to change the world from the galaxy and beyond, rather than on planet earth or do you think it’s made them more excited to pursue what you call star settling? What’s the status of the star settlers right now?

 

NADIS: Well, I haven’t checked in with them in the last week or so, but it seems to me that there’s always concern when administrations change; the plans that the former administration may not be top on the list for the, you know, for the incoming administration and so that’s often a complaint in the kind of star settlement community that there’s no continuity of you know, goals and objectives. And

 

HEFFNER: Fred from your book is it that there is a consistency or continuity in what the objectives are of folks like Musk and Bezos and others, or, or can you spell out, can you give us a kind of summary of what the different objectives are since they aren’t all identical?

 

NADIS: Yeah. Well, in my book I try to cover to some extent, you know, the whole business idea of space 2.0, but I’m also looking into the ideas behind it that have animated, you know, space settlement for the last a hundred years. And I’m trying to show that in some ways there is a kind of hidden philosophy, what I call, call it, cosmic, you know, this from the Russian circle of the late 1890s, early 1900s. So, I think there’s a, I think a lot of these people did form their, their formative opinions come from science fiction. People like Musk, Bezos, were both big science fiction fans as children and adolescents. So, I think that, you know, the big vision is, you know, this grand scheme of humanity becoming godlike and extending its realm throughout the, you know, galaxy or whatnot on the, on the smaller level they’re businessmen, obviously tycoons, and they’re kind of working with bending to some extent with the, where interest is, all of a sudden it was the moon again. And so, Bezos was looking at, you know, creating moon settlements. Musk, and, both Musk and Bezos are working on satellite systems for communications. Whether we’re going to have a pivot tomorrow soon or Musk can do that on his own, you know, it’s open for debate, I’d say.

 

HEFFNER: Do you think that, you know, the billionaire’s fantasy of intergalactic discovery is less than it was, motivated by improving the quality of life here on earth? I mean, there was a time when we were, the pursuit of spatial discovery was about fundamentally improving our lives so that most people could feel the benefit of it. And it feels like that’s taken a different shape with Bezos, and Musk and some of these other folks.

 

NADIS: Well, also, I think we have to point out that the International Space Treaty of the late 1960s has pretty much been torn up and thrown aside. So, and in fact, this was signed into law by Obama allowing private corporations to go ahead and make claims to properties in outer space, whether on the moon or asteroids. So, there’s, and that’s been followed in other countries like Luxembourg. So, the grand scheme, I think in the 1970s, the big argument played out over environmentalism and idea that, oh, you know, people are talking about overpopulation on the earth and I don’t, the books were talking about the dangers of limits to resources. So, there was a big push then to say, well, you know, outer space is the place that will allow us to find new unlimited resources. So, they framed it and as an environmentally friendly approach to continuing the technological project. So,

 

HEFFNER: It was about the discovery of not just life, but minerals of substances that could cure cancer; that could improve our daily lives. And yes, there are some elements of that in Bezos and Musk, in the extension of life on earth. But when I ask you specifically about improvements to life, I was really talking about this notion, and maybe it’s an antiquated notion based on your interviews and research for the book, but this notion of discovering certain elements that would help us here at home, on earth.

 

NADIS: Okay.

HEFFNER: Is that, is that still something on, on these folks’ minds? I mean, it was at a point for the explorers of an earlier generation.

 

NADIS: I could say that certainly, I mean, these are private entrepreneurs, so they’re looking for profit, the profit motive. And so you see the idea that, oh, well, if we are mining on the moon there’s satellites that indicated there are a lot of rare earth metals, there, much greater quantities than on the earth, more than limited quantities. And this is pretty critical to a high-tech equipment, telecommunications, and even I think wind turbines, so on and so forth, so, and electric cars. So, in that sense, they are saying, you know, this is the way we can keep things rolling, potentially. It’s not exactly utopian, but it’s a utilitarian notion.

 

HEFFNER: Fred do we know what the space force has done since it was inaugurated by Donald Trump?

NADIS: I can’t say, I think they finally, might’ve designed a uniform. I’m not even sure about that. I would say one thing, I think they’re trying to use it as a recruiting technique for getting teenagers excited about the possibility of joining the, you know, the military. I don’t think anything new has come about they, they kind of grouped together different units from the Navy and whatnot, Air Force to create this, this new Space Force, and whether it will remain or not, I’m not going to predict.

HEFFNER: When you think of the scientific, the intellectual and the financial incentives of star settling, you know, what are some of the experiences recounted in the book that live on with you in how we’re kind of thinking about and navigating a space today?

 

NADIS: Again, I feel like Elon Musk is kind of a critical figure because he’s obviously a very savvy businessperson, but he also has this giant dream of colonizing Mars with this underlying notion that that’s kind of what we have to do. You know, this idea of creating a backup planet, this idea that somehow well, it’s a humanities backup. So, there’s still this kind of large theoretical utopian components to his thought. Whereas obviously he’s very involved in getting government contracts and satellite contracts and trying to figure out all the angles for continuing. And you know.

 

HEFFNER: What about, what about Bezos? What is Bezos up to right now?

 

NADIS: The only thing I’ve heard for sure is that he’s, you know, his big scheme was this idea of space colonies. They came from the 1970s Gerard O’Neill at Princeton where he had been a student really got people, especially young people excited about the idea of creating giant space colonies. Some of them could have been 75 miles long cylinders and 20 miles diameter, you know, spinning slowly with a surface area, as big as Vermont, you know, and foresting them, rivers, you know, this just grand idea. But I mean, this is, I don’t know if he just put that out for public relations purposes. But I think in some ways he’s really captivated by that vision, but obviously he’s, he’s working since the pivot of government and NASA to the moon he started, he’s been working on ideas of creating lunar colonies and hotels, from what I’ve heard and so they’re, they’re very much subject to, you know, what they can work on at the moment, I think.

 

HEFFNER: With respect to some of the less high-profile investigators of space, like who are some of the people that we should know about on this subject that, that are not the leaders of Amazon or Tesla, but others who are involved in this pursuit right now?

 

NADIS: Well, I spent a lot of time talking about a group of scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who are pushing for this star chip or microchip space probe, maybe one-gram probe that they think they can accelerate with lasers, a giant array of millions of lasers, set up say, in the desert in the earth. And, that are brought together in phase to to launch a fleet of these tiny microchips, to say, Alpha Centauri and their time schedule, whether it’s realistic is within the next 20 years, make this happen. And then if another 20 years you would, these ships would be approaching the nearest star systems. And, you know, eventually you’d get the radio signals back and they’re not, you know, total pipe dreamers. This is on some level considered feasible at least, or presumably feasible. So that’s an interesting group. And Yuri Milner is also backing that idea, another one of the billionaires that I mentioned in the book. I also look at, for me, I don’t know, as a writer, I liked the idea of these motivating ideas and the more peculiar or the grassroots kind of people that don’t have necessarily the power to make their ideas real. But one of them was a guy named Peter Koch who lived in Milwaukee. He had been a divinity student and he started writing a science fiction novel about the moon, and he kept researching it. And, you know, for the next 20 years, he put out a monthly or ten, it was 10 issues a year, the Moon Miners Manifesto, just full of ideas for how we’d make the moon a livable, not just a sort of outposts, but a new, a new home for humanity. And, and he just really tried to think it out in terms of the cultural level, social level, new rites and rituals, the music, you know, so there was a group called The Moon, I forget the name of that group, The Moon Society I think it was called, you know, there’s only had a few thousand people in them, but they were just such enthusiastic, I love these sort of subcultures that cohere you know, under these bigger umbrellas.

 

HEFFNER: One of those big umbrellas is Mars. You allude to it. What did you find of the star settlers in their remaining interest in Mars specifically? I know that for some who were most enthusiastic about that, their attention is turned elsewhere. And maybe you can tell us where else that attention is. But first update us on Mars specifically and these folks’ interest in, in Mars.

 

NADIS: I spent a chapter looking at The Mars Society, which is a quite bigger society than The Moon Society. I think they were in the tens of thousands around the world, with chapters around the world. And they have a yearly, they have a yearly conference. So, I attended one in 2018, which is what the last one I could have attended. And these are people, a lot of them are from the, you know, it meets usually in Southern California. There’s a lot of people from aerospace there, real Mars enthusiasts ranging in ages from their twenties to the eighties, multiracial gender neutral, I don’t know, there’s a lot of women involved; and you know, and they also have NASA scientists coming from JPL talking to them. So, they, some of them are, have a very realistic idea of all the issues involved in what would be like to actually settle and populate Mars with all the problems with radiation, medical issues, issues of child rearing, pregnancy, almost impossible in some ways, very daunting; the issues of bringing up a generation that could never return to the earth. So, I went to all these sessions where people are talking about these, but, you know, they just, they all are, you know, behind Musk pretty much and who has been a member and helped fund the society as well. But again, I spoke to a few people want a 40-year-old and a seventy-year-old, and both of them were saying, well, you know, really, I just like to see somebody, some human step on Mars before I die. So in some ways their, their vision is tempered to, you know, this is a long-term project. It may not happen in the next, Musk talked about it by 2022 you know when I first started researching the book and obviously, he’s not kind of coming too close to that.

 

HEFFNER: Are there spatial interventions that would have power of landing on the moon that the most recent thing you know, was the space station and then, you know, new images of a black hole, you know that but that was photographic that wasn’t actually a human intervention, if you will. It was a drone out there in cyberspace and in not cyberspace, in the, in the galaxy. But what about the kind of event that, that these folks are seeking is not something that would really improve the condition of life on earth, it’s something that would maybe have some kind of abiding psychological power for, you know, sort of the morale of the next generation. What are some of the things that are contemplated besides what you just said, which is saying, you know, the landmark is “before I die, I want to see a human being make it to Mars.”

 

NADIS: Well, I know, I mean there is a, there is a Mars 2020 mission it’s supposed to arrive in about a couple more months on Mars. And there part of that mission is to get a soil sample that will eventually be returned. I think it could be a at least another decade before they actually got it back to the earth, but that would be a real big thing in the circles I dropped into. You know a lot of them were like, okay, yeah, sure, let’s get a woman on the moon, that’d be great, you know. Whether it would just be a public relations stunt or if it would lead to any continued scientific outpost on the moon or not. And then I guess another issue is the ISS, the space station is reaching its period of obsolescence. It’s falling apart, I guess, they’re talking about by the end of this decade, having to junk it and create something new. And I think that’s, again where private enterprise might play a big role in, in, in helping to construct a new space station of some sort.

 

HEFFNER: I didn’t realize the space station was as you say, obsolete or in the, you know, being worn down. And that’s an interesting observation. At what point did folks recognize that it was going to need a repair or need to be you know, a new station would have to be built?

 

NADIS: Yeah, I think, you know, the NASA people are pretty savvy about this, and I think they’re surprised maybe that it’s lasted as long as it has. They’ve been talking about this for a while, as far as I, and I don’t think anyone, I think by 2030 it pretty much is going to be taken offline. So yeah, that’s all I can tell you.

 

HEFFNER: So, what about other planets? We think about, you know, Mars, but that’s been the focal point. But you know, surely star settlers are interested in some of the other planets.

 

NADIS: Yeah, I think I think Venus is pretty much off the table. It’s just, it’s got a poisonous atmosphere. It’s, it would crush you and it’s incredibly, it has a runaway greenhouse effect there, so that the atmosphere is so thick that no one could survive on the surface in three-dimensional form and it’s super hot. So, some people talk about, oh, maybe we can create these floating cities, literally sort of hanging, hovering up in the clouds there. That’s, you know, that’s a pretty long second to a Mars colony where everyone can see these pictures of it looking like Utah almost, or Arizona when you look at the

 

HEFFNER: Right.

 

NADIS: …samples, I think there’s some, you know, moons of Jupiter and even Saturn that people are interested in, Europa. I don’t know if those are for settlement as much as, again, these early sort of scientific exploration with drones and robotic missions.

 

HEFFNER: That’s what appears to be in the realm of feasibility given the atmosphere the moons or, you know, some kind of a third-party drone, as opposed to human exploration. But in terms of the incentive structure that we discussed at the outset; intellectual, you know, psychological, if you will, too, I would add, you know, what’s motivating folks to think about this, and then economic or financial. And when I was referencing the idea of minerals or elements that are not earthly to improve our existence here, there could be a very marketable and financially robust impact of that kind of space exploration. Is it clear what might exist that could, you know, beyond satellite, that could help us here on earth? You know, anything in particular, whether it’s a substance or you know, there, there still is discussion of, of unidentified objects and what, you know, living or non-living substances might be on these various planets or elsewhere in the atmosphere.

 

NADIS: As I mentioned before, I think one of the many ideas for Moon exploration is obviously just water’s a great resource to have in outer space. So, and there’s obviously water in the craters and maybe elsewhere they’ve discovered throughout the soil, to some extent, they talked about helium three, an isotope of helium that can be used in fusion reactors, if and when fusion power ever really becomes practical. It’s just, there’s an immensely more, a higher concentration on the Moon than there is on earth, that it’s hard to find here. And again, like I mentioned, these rare earth, rare earth metals that are used in high-tech products, again, that seems to be much higher concentration on the Moon than on the earth. So, there are some motivating factors to setting up mining operations on the moon.

 

HEFFNER: You call these folks crazed visionaries. Is part of their effort at this juncture to increase public support for what does seem to be crazy, especially in the midst of a pandemic, especially in the midst of the degradation of our social fabric in the United States and the rise of authoritarianism here, you know, are they engaged in this public opinion campaign as much as they are in their own billion dollar pursuits, they want to convince the American public that this is worthy of their attention, even amidst a lot of challenges here.

 

NADIS: Yeah. And I think your question goes back to debates that were held back in the sixties and seventies about what’s the point of a space program, why, you know, public opinion never really supported the Apollo program. And yet, so again, that’s why I’ve looked back at this idea of this underlying ideology that space exploration or space faring is this image of humanity somehow finally progressing, you know, this idea of an evolution of the species to become a spacefaring species. I felt like when I started writing the book that I was sensing that, you know with my antenna, that there was something different going on. And public opinion, and if you will, was turning to some extent where people more and more people were being fascinated by that idea. I see it as somewhat seductive idea because it also implies that there’s some meaning to human existence. And so, whether you can really make that part of your scientific programs or not as is debatable to me. But I think this idea that humanity has a point and that the point is to leave its cradle and increase its whatever, sphere of influence and maybe meet other extraterrestrial species or whatnot. And so I think there’s seductive element to that. And I would hazard that the population is still divided by people who could care absolutely nothing about outer space and people who are incredibly enthusiastic. These are the people who I, you know, tried to drop in and crash their party. I think I’m somewhere in-between, so maybe there’s some in-betweens too, because I really was in the “I could care less” category for a long time. But I think just seeing the Mars Rover photo landscapes, just really kind of enthralled me and made me think well the science fiction writers, maybe have something in the back of their minds, besides telling good stories,

 

HEFFNER: Maybe public support is unnecessary when these men, largely men, have billions of dollars, the budgets of countries, to do what they’d like, which makes it even the more fantastic or, you know, something that we would harken back to the sixties, when space exploration was in vogue. And you would say to someone you know, Joe Smith is going to launch this propeller, this spaceship and reach Mars, and he doesn’t have any backing from the state department, any backing from any government. And it’s not even his company. It’s his personal largess. Yes. I mean, you know, I would surmise that in 1960, no one would believe that is true. It’s not just a spatial intervention. It was actually an economic reality that’s very different. There was a different kind of capitalism then. You would not expect one human being to be able to do the work of a country or a whole universe, a whole planet. And I just wonder how you put that in perspective as a concluding question.

 

NADIS: Hmm. Let’s see. That’s a tough one.

 

HEFFNER: We’re out of time. It’s a pretty bonkers notion though, right? I mean, I don’t. Do you think anybody in 1960 would have expected one person could land on the Moon himself or herself without any support system, without any country, without any financial backing, but his own?

NADIS: Right? Yeah. No, that’s, that’s valid. I think if you even go back to the 1920s, you know, Robert Goddard, this sort of pioneering rocketry figure in America, he would never tell people, you know, why he wanted to do these things. He had this philosophy of cosmism and this idea of expanding, but he talked about, well, I just, we just want to do research into the upper atmosphere, you know?

HEFFNER: Right. Right.

NADIS: You know, so…

 

HEFFNER: Fred Nadis, I want to thank you for your insight and your vision today. Author, “Star Settlers.” Appreciate your time.

 

NADIS: Well, thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you.

 

HEFFNER: You too. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.