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Reprinted with permission from Foresight Update 20 (foresight@cup.portal.com):

The National Space Society recently announced its advocacy position for nanotechnology. The Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group within NSS has studied and advocated the development and use of nanotechnology under the leadership of MMSG president Tom McKendree and board members Margaret Jordan, Duncan Forbes, and Steve Williams. Long-time space activist Tihamer Toth-Fejel played a key role in making the NSS nanotechnology position paper happen, along with many online participants. Our thanks to them and to NSS Executive Chairman Glenn Reynolds for bringing NSS on board as a strong advocate for nanotechnology. The NSS press release and excerpts from the position paper follow:

WASHINGTON, November 14 - The National Space Society (NSS), the world's premier space development advocacy organization, and the Foresight Institute, the world's premier organization dealing with information on nanotechnology and advocacy of nanotechnology research, are pleased to announce the release of the NSS position paper on space and molecular nanotechnology.

This is the first public position paper looking at the implications of nanotechnology for a specific field of activity - the development and settlement of space. It is also the first applications paper published by an organization other than those directly involved in nanotechnology. This publication marks the advent of public interest groups looking at the implications of nanotechnology for short-term, medium-term, and long-term planning.

The report includes a set of recommendations for action regarding what to do about nanotechnology. NSS is pleased to note this because it demonstrates that NSS, of all the space development organizations, has the most comprehensive and forward-looking understanding of the impact of space on the future, and of future technologies on space. Foresight Institute welcomes this because in its opinion all organizations looking at long-term implications and long-term planning will soon need to take nanotechnology into account, even in short-term recommendations. NSS is leading the way in this endeavor.

The National Space Society believes that developing molecular nanotechnology will advance the exploration and settlement of space. Present manufacturing capability limits the performance, reliability, and affordability of space systems, but the bottom-up approach of molecular nanotechnology has the potential to produce space hardware with tremendous improvement in performance and reliability at substantially lower cost. Since the settlement of space is not a near-term endeavour, it would be a grave mistake to consider only the short-term applications of molecular nanotechnology to space, though there may be a few. For example, improved scanning probes similar to Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STM) could give researchers a powerful, general technique for characterizing the atomic structure of molecular objects. Applied to engineered materials, improved probe microscopy could be valuable in discovering and designing stronger materials, faster and smaller electronics, and exotic chemicals with unique properties. These incremental improvements would offer the possibility of small improvements in capability across the broad spectrum of space activities, ensuring mission completion, prolonging spacecraft life, and fostering the safety of human crews.

As nanosystems used in research are constructed and commercialized, they will move from gathering basic science knowledge in laboratories to collecting data in engineering applications. The first applications would be those in which the relatively high cost and limited capabilities of these first-generation devices will still provide significant improvements in overall system capability to justify the costs. Since sensors and actuators could be significantly reduced in size and mass, planetary probes and other space-based applications would probably one of the first beneficiaries of these nanosystems.

In the medium term, the nanosystem devices would be involved in the manufacturing process. Products might include bulk structures such as spacecraft components made of a diamond-titanium composite. The theoretical strength-to-density ratio of matter is about 75 times that currently achieved by aerospace aluminum alloys. The bottom-up approach promises to virtually eliminate defects, enabling the fabrication of stronger materials that could improve reliability and increase payload capacity. The overall effect would be that success rates for a wide variety of space missions would increase at lowered cost.

Since the settlement of space is a long-term enterprise, the long-term benefits of molecular nanotechnology are the most relevant, as they are considerable, especially the ability to bootstrap production via self-replicating universal assemblers. This capability would probably lower manufacturing costs by many magnitudes, down to the order of US$1 per kilogram. It would become possible to build tapered tethers from geosynchronous orbit to the ground, and to build human-rated SSTO vehicles with a dry mass around 60 kilograms. Such capabilities should make possible inexpensive access to space. Mature nanosystems might make possible affordable and robust closed environment life-support systems that could take advantage of in-situ resources, such as asteroidal metals and cometary organics. Such a capability would potentially enable many people to affordably live in space. Tiny computers, sensors and actuators, trivially cheap on a per-unit basis, may allow things like smart walls to automatically repair micrometeorite damage, unobtrusive space suits, and terraforming tools. By providing instrumentation that allows the development of medical knowledge at the molecular level, advanced nanosystems might enable in vivo repair of cellular damage, mitigating the dangers of ionizing cosmic radiation.

There is a fear that spending money on molecular nanotechnology will reduce the amount of money spent on space development, since research funding is sometimes perceived as a zero-sum game.

First, decision theory and experience show that achieving large projects of significant technological complexity (e.g., the settlement of space) require a diversification of effort. It is especially important to have a diversified portfolio of approaches so that unforeseen dead-ends can be circumvented without delay. In this case, space development can benefit significantly by investing a limited amount of effort in low-cost, high-payoff avenues such as molecular nanotechnology.

Second, the amount of money needed at this stage of molecular nanotechnology development is very small compared to the average NASA space project.

In conclusion, the National Space Society believes that since the settlement of space is a long-range project that will benefit the entire human race, the serious development of long-range technologies such as molecular nanotechnology must be supported.

From Foresight Update 20, a newsletter on nanotechnology published by the Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306, USA; foresight@foresight.org.