Predictions 2021: Prospective

My previous blog was on retrospective predictions. Of course there’s selection bias but I tried to make sure that I picked at least a few that I did terribly with. This blog is prospective. Future looking. As of March 5, 2021.

I crowd sourced some questions. If you have any more, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them, with the appropriate dates and commentary. In a year or so I’ll do another fresh blog and grade myself.

Nuclear fusion propulsion is probably necessary for human travel to the outer solar system or other stars. It might work a bit like inertial confinement fusion but compact enough to fit on some sort of spaceship. The advantage is relatively high thrust and very high exhaust velocity, which provides enough delta V to really go somewhere. The disadvantage is that the tech is very immature, poorly understood, underfunded, and, for the moment, unneeded. I can see routine Earth-Mars-Earth flights pushing toward fission thermal propulsion, but fusion… maybe 2050 at the earliest?

Commercial transatlantic electric flight – this might never happen. I’m increasingly convinced that synthetic fuels will have better cost and energy characteristics than batteries, for trans-oceanic flights. On current trends, electric aircraft could probably fly that distance (perhaps with a stop in Iceland) by the late 2030s, but that’s a long time away.

Driverless cars are closer than most people think. Within 5 years for sure.

Asteroid mining operation. Strongly depends on if Blue Origin gets its act together. I don’t think SpaceX is interested in non-planetary objectives, unless they’re very incidental. I’m also pretty skeptical about the value of asteroid mining. For nearly any mineral in an asteroid, there is more within a day’s walk (including vertically) in the Earth’s crust, nearly anywhere on Earth. There’s just a lot more material in just the crust than the whole asteroid belt combined.

First offworld live human birth – 2032. Offworld combat fatality – hopefully never.

2026, public private partnership between SpaceX, NASA and other commercial partners, and friendly foreign space agencies. Almost all the engineering work, on a per tonne delivered basis, will be done in Los Angeles and Texas.

Human Mars landing – I’m hoping for 2028. If not by 2032 then something has gone horribly wrong.

Lunar ISRU demonstration – shortly after permanent presence established. Will most likely be in the form of bulldozing regolith around to provide shielding. I’m reasonably sure that water importation will be cheaper than mining for a long time, let alone other minerals.

I think this is a question about crypto, but it’s worth noting that most transactions in the developed world are already digitally mediated, via credit cards or whatever. So the question might be better oriented towards the end of cash as legal tender in the US, which I don’t think will happen for a very very long time.

If this is going to happen, it had better happen soon. None of the OECD have neighbor-caused water shortage problems, and most of the traditionally dry ones (Mexico, Australia) will be the first to industrialize solar PV-powered desalination, at prices cheap enough to irrigate pasture, probably in the late 2030s.

I don’t think/hope the Olympics will be cancelled this year. I think US will be post scarcity in vaccines by the end of April 2021, and the IOC will be able to provision vaccines for all the athletes as well as any non-local spectators, plus testing and contact tracing on arrival. Compared to a year ago, the situation is greatly improved.

Electric vehicle market take over is hard to predict in terms of timing and factors that affect fleet retirement, but I’d guess 2026 for 50% of new vehicle sales being electric, and maybe 2034 for 50% of overall fleet.

Scotland split? I’m largely Welsh, Scottish and Irish in ancestry and part of me recognizes that these were the original colonies of the English empire, but I’m far from convinced that drawing more lines on a map solves any problems.

Mars base – starting 2028 with people, 2030s things should be very much underway. By 2034 all core Mars survival technologies should be localized.

SLS – will never fly humans. Cancellation date – hopefully next week.

MSR is looking like roughly 2030, it’s a multi year mission. Hopefully those tubes should be safely back here by 2032. Of course, if SpaceX’s future pans out hopefully we’ll have a lot more than that by then. Bring back 50 T of randomly selected rocks and put a big one in the entrance hall of every middle school.

ISS fate: I suspect a commercial entity will take it off NASA’s hands, at a steep discount. Like $1. Pieces of it will be cut loose and splashed. If there is going to be a bigger better space station in the 2030s, we’d better start building it soon. See my blog on space stations and their potential future utility.

Starship first orbital flight: 2022. First orbital reflight, late 2022.

Vulcan – not sure. Mid 2022 I’d say.

New Glenn. 2023 first orbital flight. Good chance first flight or two are a bit iffy. I hope booster recovery works out. Not sure New Glenn is big enough to be useful.

Europa Clipper/JWST are, I think, currently close to whatever the latest schedule says. I hope JWST is commissioned by mid 2022 without any drama. I predict Clipper will launch on Falcon Heavy, possibly FH’s last ever flight. I predict FH will fly at most 4 more times before retirement in favor of Starship.

US power to be majority (>50%) solar/wind/batteries: 2029. World: 2034.

First commercial flights on electric plane have already occurred. The Pipistrel Alpha Electro is an electric trainer that is fully certified.

Haha, or Venus. I think a dedicated, Cassini or Clipper-like robotic mission is pretty unlikely until the dust settles from Starship. There is a potential fly by mission to Triton which is pretty cool though.

Between 2024 and 2026. Oil drillers, pack your things.

Current trends suggest about 2040 until very few people live in poverty. This is pretty different from nearly everyone living in abundance, though, so work remains to be done.

I assume this means something like Skylon. I’m not holding my breath. I am pretty convinced that the two stage model embodied by Starship is much more effective.

I predict Mars base will have fuel plant and crap loads of solar power. Can’t do anything if basic infrastructure is scarce. I also predict that human factors will not prove to be show stoppers.

That’s it for now. I’ll take more questions!

3/6/2021 more questions from Filip (in the comments).

1. First AGI?
No idea. 2050 maybe?

2. Robots making meals at home that are just as accessible as Roomba?
No idea. More likely to see them in food processing plants with end user heating, which is basically what already happens.

3. Discovering other intelligent life out there?
No idea. I think in the next two decades we’ll be able to survey potential incoming signals more or less comprehensively, then it’s just a matter of waiting.

4. Million implanted Neuralinks.
2040. Wild guess.

5. First person living 150 and 200 years respectively.
No idea. I suspect major aging-related breakthroughs will happen in the next two decades, but it will then take a while for people to get that old.

6. First commercial E2E Starship.
2027. Not convinced it will be a wild success, though. Too noisy.

7. First commercial fusion reactor (>500MW)
Probably never. PV has won.

8. First cloned human.
Probably already alive. Aside from identical twins, of course.

9. Million people on Mars (I read your book, do you still hold the same dates?)
I think in the book I had 2040 as a very optimistic, but still possible date. Let’s keep the optimism.

10. Singularity (I know, it ties to the first one, but the question is more whether you believe in it in a Kurzweilian sense, that AGI can be replicated on silicon).
Yes, I think brains are Turing machines (or close enough). Yes, I think silicon-based hardware is capable of human level intelligence. I think the software is much more complicated but, in principle, a solvable problem. I don’t think we’ll have any insight into AGI in silicon, it will be more alien than dolphins or octopuses. I don’t really buy the Kurzweil Singularity propaganda.

37 thoughts on “Predictions 2021: Prospective

      1. No, space elevators actually touching the surface of a planet are terrible. I was thinking more like a Skyhook – Phobos would be an excellent place to put a non-rotating skyhook.

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  1. I still see the first actual settlement in space to be a spinning habitat (several starships??) parked next to a source of raw material – Deimos??

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  2. >SLS – will never fly humans. Cancellation date – hopefully next week.
    Haha oh my, aren’t we optimistic
    Hopefully, yes, realistically, no. One or two missions with humans would be my guess. Government programs tend to be like zombies, takes them a while to notice they should have been dead years ago.
    Next NASA administrator?
    What will be the main load bearing electricity generation method (>99% guaranteed availability) in a carbon free grid? Right now the consensus seems to be to have gas peakers be able to take over most of solar/wind for their bad seasons.
    First mission to the surface of Titan utilizing Starship? Landing 100t there could be game changing.
    Chances of finding remnants of life on the moon, transported there by way of asteroid or similar?

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    1. NASA Admin: no idea
      Generation: 6-15x overbuild of solar PV. And lots of batteries.
      Titan Starship: I don’t see spacex doing this one for free so 2036 when the Europeans buy it?
      Moon life remnants? It’s there for sure, many impacts on Earth have sent rocks up there, but like finding a needle in a haystack. Would need a fleet of rovers with mass spectrometers to survey big chunks of the moon for Earth meteorites. Maybe Mars meteorites too.

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      1. So you don’t think NASA would be interested in a free for all send whatever instrument you want mission to Titan? That’s kind of… disappointing. That’s the first thing I’d greenlight once Starship proves out orbital refueling.

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      1. Ok. A couple more:

        1. First AGI
        2. Robots making meals at home that are just as accessible as Roomba
        3. Discovering other inteligent life out there
        4. Million implanted Neuralinks
        5. First person living 150 and 200 years respectively.
        6. First commercial E2E Starship
        7. First commercial fusion reactor (>500MW)
        8. First cloned human
        9. Million people on Mars (I read your book, do you still hold the same dates?)
        10. Singularity (I know, it ties to the first one, but the question is more whether you believe in it in a Kurzweilian sense, that AGI can be replicated on silicon)

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  3. Geothermal entirely neglected? I can’t see it as less practical than fracking, and can be done anywhere, and by people displaced from fracking.

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  4. I lack engineering/physics expertise, you are saying ‘not anytime soon’? Just looking at those pneumatic windlasses on Google they look massive or do you believe they could be miniaturized?

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  5. First date when 50 people are in space (LEO or beyond) simultaneously.

    First date when 50 people are beyond LEO simultaneously.

    Beginning of continuous human presence on Mars (i.e. the first date when the number of humans on the planet never again drops to zero).

    And two non-prediction questions:

    1. Something I’ve been trying to understand out about SpaceX / Elon Musk’s plans for Mars: as SpaceX charges ahead on Starship, who do they envision will be designing, building, and operating the payloads to support a human presence on the planet? If SpaceX is planning to do this themselves, I missed the announcement… I would think that early work would already need to be in progress, to keep up with the Starship timeline (even allowing for delays)?

    2. How can I support your blog? I really enjoy and value what you write. You Have you considered setting up Patreon?

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    1. 1) I think they would prefer someone (or lots of other entities) contribute payload. They will of course do it themselves if they have to.

      2) Share it to interested people. I don’t have financial support infrastructure set up. I occasionally sell a book on Amazon and it goes to supporting other creators on Patreon.

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  6. Very US centric, so … First Chinese mission to Mars that lands a human? First Indian? (Phrased to exclude buying seats on a Starship mission; I mean a Long March 9 launch, or a MarsLV from ISRO)

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  7. 1) First artificial womb
    2) Will fission small modular reactors make a comeback?
    3) Cancer cure/ Alzheimer’s ?
    4) first detailed images of exoplanets
    5) self replicating machines
    6) Aldrin Cycler between earth and Mars
    7) colonies in Venus’s atmosphere?

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      1. 8) When will space economic output match the US GDP
        9) when will we see the First mass production of items using microgravity in it’s manufacturing process.

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  8. Regarding prediction 7.

    Yes, photovoltaic has won. Now we are going to face another problem: real estate. This is already a problem in dense countries, where to put all the panels ? Singapore is testing floating PV, in other places you can combine PV ans farming on the same piece of land.

    Also you want to preserve or extend wilderness for biodiversity and stop the proliferation of PVs.

    So at some point we are going to run out of land for photovoltaics. My guess is soon, in 2 or 3 decades at most.

    Then fusion will come as a perfect solution.

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  9. Counter points on asteroid mining:

    1 – Industry “4.0” is increasing the quality, scale and thus decreasing price of robotic manipulators
    2 – AI vision is about to be “solved” for the drone industry and self driving cars
    3 – Earth mining is going to star using the above for mining down here ins the next 5-15 years thus developing technics and scale for mining robots
    4 – Is mining asteroids for production down here cheap enough ? No, but it´s likely far easier to find asteroid with interesting “rare earth” metals in high concentration than deploying million of robots to mine very rhin veins and then restore nature afterwards.
    5 – Any serious exploration is gonna require infrastructure that could be built with such robots sans humans (Cheaper than humans).

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  10. We currently produce electricity from natural gas/methane. But will the reverse ever happen on Earth? I.e. will electricity become so cheap that it makes the production of methane using electricity profitable? Perhaps through some combination of electrolysis, CO2 capture, and the Sabatier process? And if so, when?

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  11. “Nuclear fusion propulsion is probably necessary for human travel to the outer solar system or other stars.”

    My guess is that ISRU and reuse of reaction mass are adequate for human travel to the outer solar system.

    A rocket throws material out the back as fast as possible, never to be retrieved. I imagine throwing a much larger amount of material at a much lower relative speed, with an electromagnetic mass driver, but aiming it on a trajectory where someone else can capture it and throw it again.

    As for other stars, I imagine it with many-thousand-year time scales, and of course, with reuse of reaction mass. I don’t think of the things people will live on as generation ships, created with the goal of taking people to another star system over a long time period. I think of them as artificial worlds, created with the goal of letting people live there indefinitely in interplanetary space — repurposed to take them to the relative safety of interstellar space, indefinitely. So propulsion won’t be the point, but they will need an energy source that can sustain them indefinitely. I don’t know whether that can be fission, or whether it has to be fusion.

    I assume that the main threat to humans will continue to be other humans (or at least, that the main threat to post-humans will be other post-humans). Conflict will happen, sooner or later. Doomsday weapons will be devised, eventually. And the solution to surviving a doomsday weapon will be, as always, to not be there when it goes off. I assume that some people (human or post-human) will anticipate this, and act on it by getting out of the solar system long before the threat develops, along with everyone else in the artificial world they live in.

    Of course, the resources of an artificial world are finite (unless we learn to use vacuum energy or something). People fleeing a distant future conflict won’t want to doom their posterity (or themselves, if they’re extremely long-lived) to an eventual extinction by exhaustion of resources. So they’ll pick a trajectory that eventually reaches another star system. But not for a long time, because fast is difficult and because they want to arrive on a capture trajectory or nearly so.

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  12. “For nearly any mineral in an asteroid, there is more within a day’s walk (including vertically)”

    A day’s walk, vertically? Isn’t that a distance of zero, to a couple of decimal places?

    Anyway, what’s available on Earth is irrelevant. The main thing to mine from asteroids is rocket fuel. The next is other materials for use in cis-lunar or interplanetary space. When rocket fuel is about as cheap in the main belt as it is on the surface of Earth, then the Belters can think about including bulk minerals among the exports to the Earthworms.

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  13. I’ve read several places that batteries are still 10x as expensive as they need to be to really be cost-effective for grid storage, and systems like using a crane and weights to store energy are far more cost-effective. And that’s before we get into the environmental mess that lithium-ion batteries are. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to get a ton of lithium; some regions which mine for lithium or other rare earths are having basically all their water diverted to its production. Not to mention, it’s happening in very non-environmentally-conscious and non-safety-conscious locales like the Congo and China. Also, apparently only 50% of the contents of a lithium-ion battery are recyclable.

    As to all the future progress, it may happen, or may all be disrupted massively by either a cold or hot war (with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea the way they are, all signs point to having at least an intellectual war soon–you should look up how many manufacturers are owned by or dependent on China), or something like a CME from the sun destroying electronics. (How much of a setback a CME would be is an interesting question: probably temporarily horrible but long-term not likely to slow things down much?)

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  14. Can you explain your reasoning for expecting driverless cars within 5 years? I remember hearing this in about 2012 as well, but it seems like the venture capital ten year hype cycle hasn’t come out with enough results to justify continuing to shovel money at the problem (though they at least produced more than the asteroid mining VC bubble that died a few years ago)

    I thought that the last 10% or so of the problem was so difficult that lots of driverless car companies were pivoting to other areas, one in particular being caravans of semi tucks where only the first is manned and the other just follow in its wake – basically just reinventing trains without having to pay for the rails.

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