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Enabling Space Development

Molecular Manufacturing and The High Frontier

There are many challenges facing humanity as we take tentative steps towards the beginning of the nanotechnology revolution. One of the most obvious is the fact that Earth has limited resources. Nanotechnology in general and molecular manufacturing in particular will make it possible to substantially raise the standard of living for everyone on this planet with little environmental impact, even with large population increases. However, there are still definite limits to the physical resources of this planet. In addition, technological progress does not solve the problems of war, ignorance, or injustice, and doesn't reduce human greed, hate, fear, or lust for power.

It is clear that humanity needs to expand outward into Space. Currently, with the financial and technological limits on transportation to Low Earth Orbit, humanity has no physical frontier. This results in several serious problems for the future of the human race:

  • Humanity is vulnerable to natural global catastrophes, although it is only recently that we have become aware of some of these threats.
  • We are vulnerable to other global threats of our own making.
  • All habitable land on Earth is owned, so opportunities are reduced.
  • Because there are many people who don't own property, it is more difficult for an individual to work for him or herself; the worth of an individual's labor is reduced, thereby accentuating the differences between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Strong governments are prevalent, so it is very difficult to experiment with new political systems. The American experiment in regulated free enterprise and in representative democracy was made possible by a power vacuum that can most easily exist in a new frontier.

The solution is to expand out from Earth and into Space. Unfortunately, other planets are barely habitable, or are not habitable at all. In addition, they are difficult and expensive to travel to, much less to establish viable living environments. Large, free-floating, rotating habitats (O'Neill colonies), which provide Earth-like ecosystems for thousands or millions of people, are independent of planets, but are extremely expensive to build.

Nanotechnology can make significant contributions to the expansion into Space. First, bottom-up nanoscale technology (i.e. advanced chemistry and materials science) will make possible better materials for advanced transportation to low Earth orbit, not only with improved rocket motors and SSTO spacecraft, but also with rotating and stationary tethers. These advances will increase payload, lower cost, and increase safety. Other advances in materials science will improve the quality of support systems, from computers to water filters. Currently, much of the National Nanotechnology Initiative is geared towards nanoscale scientific and engineering advances that will enable these types of applications.

Second, molecular manufacturing will extend bottom-up methods into top-down ones, multiplying our technological capabilities substantially. Molecular manufacturing is the branch of nanotechnology concerned with developing nanoscale machines that can coordinate to build atomically precise but large products. The nanoscale machines do not self-replicate (in fact, nanoscale self-replication is a very difficult engineering problem). Instead, desktop nanofactory appliances would coordinate many nanoscale machines to precisely fabricate molecular systems and assemble them into identical or improved copies of the appliances themselves, making possible controlled exponential growth in manufacturing capability. Terraforming planets would be one impressive application of this technology. For example, automated systems could cover Mars with solar cells to provide energy to release oxygen from the regolith to create an atmosphere; alternatively they could cover the planet with billions of large greenhouses. Other large projects, such as O'Neill colonies or one-AU-aperture telescope arrays, would also become affordable to small groups of average investors. In addition, a space-faring civilization would protect humanity from asteroidal impacts like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Third, molecular manufacturing will enable new scientific discoveries; the ones with the most impact on humanity will be in the medical field. While it is speculative to predict how this knowledge will enhance human capabilities in space, it is probable that it will make a huge difference. Simple applications may include repairing human tissue damage from cosmic rays or from extended time in zero gravity. More advanced applications may include life extension and frozen hibernation for long-distance voyages.

Molecular manufacturing will multiply the power of human whim, desire, and knowledge that controls the destiny of our species. The darker episodes of human history should therefore caution us in the use of this great power. Banning nanotechnology is not an option because the potential benefits in health and electronics are so great, and the incremental payoffs so irresistible. Attempts at prohibiting it will push it underground where it cannot be regulated.

As Walter Kelly's comic strip character Pogo prosaically put it, "There is no problem so big and so complicated that it can't be run away from." His caveat is also appropriate: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." In other words, can't run away from ourselves, even if we leave Earth.

However, the historian Jackson Turner captured the essence of American and Ancient Greek culture when he pointed out how frontiers make it possible for our Western Civilization's values of humanism, reason, and science to flourish. Molecular manufacturing will have major social impacts; whether those social impacts occur in the context of a hopeful society with open frontiers, or a closed society without them, will make a huge difference in our survival as free and prosperous people.

So humanity must continue to push towards the settlement of Space, where the limits to growth can be transcended in ways impossible here on Earth, and where opportunity will abound for individuals and for new organizational experiments in governance. Molecular manufacturing will make that possible for a large percentage of people. We will no longer be trapped on one planet, but will spread throughout the cosmos.

For more information, see:
NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology
Glenn Reynolds, "Space, Nanotechnology, and Techno-Worries"
Steve Poffley, Nanotechnology and Space Exploration
Space-Development Advocates Support Nanotechnology"
Tihamer T. Toth-Fejel and Tom McKendree, "NSS Position Paper on Space and Molecular Nanotechnology"

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