18 March 2010

Book Review: The Next 100 Years

Posted by Ryan Anderson

You would think that since I’m working at Johnson Space Center right now, I would have exciting tales from inside NASA to share with you, but I’m afraid it has been pretty uneventful. I have however managed to read a couple of books, one of which was The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman.

This was a really fascinating book about using history and geopolitical patterns to predict the near, and somewhat more distant future. It was refreshing to hear someone discuss world events on a longer timescale than the 24-hour news cycle which dominates most of our knowledge of the world. An apt analogy comes to mind: this book is to daily world news what climate is to weather.

Friedman does a good job of laying the groundwork for the book by demonstrating what the major geopolitical forces of the 20th century were and how they led to events in our recent history. He then forges ahead with a similar analysis, predicting the future in decade-long chunks. Some of the predictions were pretty surprising to me, but Friedman makes a pretty good case, particularly for the nearer future ones. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but since these are printed on the book jacket I don’t think I’m giving too much away:

  • 2020: China fragments.
  • 2050: Global war between the US, Turkey, Poland and Japan – the new great powers.
  • 2080: Space-based energy powers the Earth.
  • 2100: Mexico challenges the US.

Provocative eh? Rather than pick at each of these, most of which I have no expertise with which to base my comments, I’d like to focus on Friedman’s discussion of space. If you don’t want some later parts of the book “spoiled” then stop reading here.

In the description of the global war that he predicts circa 2050, Friedman departs from the pattern set earlier in the book and gets into the details of one possible scenario. He gives many caveats making it clear that it’s impossible to predict events so accurately, but then he goes ahead and tries.

One of the major factors in the war, Friedman says, is going to be space-based surveillance and weapons. He foresees larger and more complex spy satellites developed by the US. Of course, our rivals will want to be able to disable these assets, so Friedman describes a strange sort of arms race in satellites that culminates in huge, crewed space stations that act as the hub for the US command and control network. Sort of like orbiting combinations of air traffic control towers and spy satellites. He cites the vulnerability of a ground-based control center, and the seconds of delay time between the acquisition of an image in space and its receipt at a ground-based control center on the surface of the other side of the earth. These “battle stars” would be armed and armored so that they are nearly impervious to attack by enemies. He also describes a fleet of smaller satellites controlled by the battlestars which can “stop and loiter for extended periods of time” over targets of interest.

If that sounds like science fiction, just wait until you hear about his description of how the Japanese will eventually take the Battle Stars out in a 21st century Pearl Harbor style attack. Friedman describes a covert Japanese base on the far side of the moon, which uses rocket-propelled moon rocks, sent into unusual orbits so that they look like ordinary asteroids. Then, when they are within striking distance of the Battle Stars, their rockets fire at the last minute, destroy the Battle Stars and blind the US for the start of the war.

Ok. Let’s think about this. I find it extremely unlikely that the benefits of having command and control located in space will outweigh the significant cost of constructing the “battle stars”. For the same price, the US could build a whole network of smaller satellites and numerous redundant receiving stations and control centers on the surface. And  as for satellites that can stop in their orbit over a target of interest: don’t hold your breath. Barring some revolutionary discovery in physics and propulsion, I can’t see how a spacecraft would accomplish that sort of task.  Satellites orbit fast, and that means it would take a lot of force to stop one in its orbit, and to get it back up to speed afterward.

The whole “moon rock weapons” idea might work, I guess, but if you take away the idea of hugely centralized assets in orbit, then that sort of strike doesn’t make much sense.

This space-based solar power concept uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on photovoltaic cells, which convert the light to electricity, which powers a microwave transmitter. The microwaves a received on the surface and converted back to electricity.

Ok, but what about this space-based solar power idea? I think that is actually significantly more likely. Friedman is correct when he says that research is already being done into using huge orbiting solar arrays that would beam power down to earth in the form of microwaves. And I think he’s probably right that the military will pioneer large scale use of the technology. The ability to provide power to forces on the ground no matter where they are would be a huge asset to the military. Don’t believe me? Check out this 2007 report from the National Security Space Office.

It’s possible that space-based solar power will become feasible on its own merits, but having the military pioneer it would be an effective way to deal with the up-front costs of the first large-scale versions. I think if space solar power ever does become a major source of our energy, it will have a huge influence on the world. It would be a nearly limitless source of energy, and as Friedman mentions, it would change the balance of power in energy economics. Countries that have historically relied on profits from oil would no longer be able to do so if the biggest consumers in the world could launch their own power satellites and harvest their own energy.

Despite some weirdness in the predictions of space-based military assets, most of The Next 100 Years is a really interesting read. It is also a very easy and quick read. In fact, my last criticism is that Friedman tries a little too hard to explain things. Many themes and statements are repeated throughout the book, and there were even times when I was reading a paragraph and stopped to be sure I had read it correctly because it was repeating something that was mentioned earlier on the page.

As a side effect of reading about the future, I feel like I have a much better understanding of current geopolitics. It will be interesting in the coming years and decades to see how the predictions in the book stand up to the test of time, but if nothing else it’s a fascinating look at one possible version of the future.