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Digital revolution could put us on Mars

I’ve loved science fiction since my earliest days, but I’m always a little put off by claims that science fiction foresees the future. In some senses, that’s true: We do have submarines as predicted by Jules Verne, and trips to the moon, as depicted by countless writers. But it’s chastening to remember that, with a few exceptions, science fiction missed entirely on the personal computer, which has wound up changing the world several times over.

Go back 50 years or more and the future looked to be full of flying cars, atomic-powered robots and holidays on space colonies. Even during the Apollo era, Mars seemed likely within a decade or two, with human exploration around Jupiter a cinch by 2001, or so Arthur C. Clarke implied. That sense of post-Apollo letdown many felt in the following years has tended to persist, but all the while networking technologies were transforming our lives.

Maybe what’s actually happened is that the future the mid-20th Century imagined has just been delayed rather than abandoned. Because you won’t find a more science fictional world than the one that is beginning to emerge as a result of all that digital transformation.

Take away the internet and there would have been no PayPal, the profits of which helped Elon Musk build his financial empire, and are now going toward the development not only of electric cars (Tesla) but supply missions to the International Space Station. Musk’s SpaceX is also about to start launching its Falcon Heavy rockets, which will carry 53 tons to orbit.

The huge advances in miniaturization that the digital revolution continues to deliver made possible instrument-crammed missions in small spacecraft like New Horizons, which went to Pluto. They also help Musk’s team prepare for his most outrageous plan, human missions to Mars. He’s even said he plans to die there, “though not on impact.” Exactly when a Mars colony will happen is open to speculation, but it harks back to a Robert Heinlein future.

Musk just announced that SpaceX plans to fly a human mission around the moon on the same kind of trajectory that saved the Apollo 13 astronauts, and to do it some time next year. I doubt seriously his Falcon Heavy will be ready to go by then, but even so, humans around the moon within, say, five or six years comes as a startling outcome for those accustomed to a manned space program that has spent the years since 1972 stuck in low Earth orbit.

Jeff Bezos used the internet to build an online bookselling company that has transformed itself into a global retailer whose reach continues to grow. Now his Blue Origin rocket company is talking about an Amazon-like delivery service to the moon, starting off with a rover to the south pole, where water ice can be found, in preparation for an eventual manned lunar colony that Blue Origin believes it can supply on a regular basis. Bezos’ planned New Glenn rocket, recently talked up in a new video, will be able to lift 45 tons to Earth’s orbit.

Both companies will partner with NASA in one way or another, an agency that is building its own huge Space Launch System, a rocket that may or may not be rendered redundant by these developments in commercial space. NASA is itself considering sending a manned capsule around the moon on an early SLS flight, perhaps as soon as 2019.

That future that wouldn’t arrive? Just wait. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has thrown $100 million as seed money into Breakthrough Starshot, an attempt to put a fleet of tiny robotic probes past Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and one known to have a planet in its habitable zone. Milner’s team cites the iPhone as an example of how digital miniaturization in coming years will make possible space probes minute enough to fit in your pocket. Successful concept studies would lead to a new round of funding for a mission that wouldn’t launch for 30 years.

A moon base, a Mars colony, a star probe. Maybe that future that wouldn’t arrive is starting to take shape. And don’t look now, but NASA is developing designs for its Europa lander, aiming to land instruments on a moon of Jupiter that many believe could sustain life beneath its icy crust. None of this would be happening without a digital revolution that science fiction didn’t see coming, but that very revolution is helping to make a science fictional future happen.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at