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Thread: Another skeptical view on space colonization

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    Another skeptical view on space colonization

    Written by SF writer Charles Stross, no less.

    It basically pours cold water onto "space colonization" dream: The High Frontier, Redux.

    Warning: The responses trail is very very long.

    Another warning: If you are gung-ho about space colonization, it will upset or anger you. A lot.

    Yet another warning: If you read it carefully, you will realize that Charles Stross does not claim space colonization and interstellar travel will never happen; he just claims they will not happen without major breakthroughs such as conscious AI, mind uploading, radical genetic engineering, or completely new physics. Merely piling on mass and energy, as in anti-matter rocket, won't cut it.

    Best line in the entire dialog (and in the very first response): "If interstellar colonization does happen, it will be as an afterthought of some eccentric post-humans."

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    But try to convince the dreamy eyed youth who were born with Star Wars tapes on the tv shelf.

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    Quote Originally Posted by samkent View Post
    But try to convince the dreamy eyed youth who were born with Star Wars tapes on the tv shelf.
    Star Wars has those exotic technologies, aka, the "hyper-drive."

    We don't.

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    I partially agree. I don't think it will take conscious AI or mind uploading (at least when talking about solar system colonization), but I do agree that breakthroughs will need to be made, primarily around the technology to get us into space cheaply as well as getting around faster and cheaper than todays technology. There's also problems with living in low/zero G for long periods as well as the occasional solar outburst to deal with. I think one needs to treat solar system colonization and interstellar colonization as two different things given that we're talking travelling AU's vs. light years.

    I do think that solar system colonization is inevitable once it becomes economically viable - i.e. profit can be made exploiting the resources out there.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    Star Wars has those exotic technologies, aka, the "hyper-drive."

    We don't.

    Go read Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson.

    Atomic spaceships bigger than the Empire State Building using 1960 technology.

    Multi-generational colony ships don't necessarily need hyper-drive......

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    Yeah I own that book. Sure there were problems with the idea, but damn it all, we never even tried!
    The British Interplanetary Society had a design worked out for a next generation fusion Orion call Project Daedalus , the first practical starship design. There was also Project Longshot which I know less about, but seemed from what I understand, even more within reach.

    When did we stop wanting this? When did we stop dreaming?

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    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    Yeah I own that book. Sure there were problems with the idea, but damn it all, we never even tried!
    Hundreds, if not thousands of nucear explosions per mission? I am rather glad we didn't.

    Jon

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonClarke View Post
    Hundreds, if not thousands of nucear explosions per mission? I am rather glad we didn't.

    Jon
    Each device was about a kilotonne. Even given the inherent 'dirtiness' of smaller scaler nuclear fission, it still would be less fallout then the amount of megatonne and larger nuclear tests going on at that time. Thanks, but I would rather have the universe.

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    I think nobody else is working on this for the same reason ravens_cry isn't working on it: It's actually extremely difficult and expensive, and nobody can really see the point in sacrificing the time and effort necessary to make it so.

    Personally, I can't really see the point in complaining that somebody else should be responsible for making my dreams come true.

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    Leaving Africa before the Stone Ages was extremely difficult, but they did it. Crossing the ocean to the New World for Columbus was extremely difficult but they did it. Going to the moon was extremely difficult, but they did it. There is an entire universe out there, full of many things that our society needs if it going to continue to grow. We can't wait until we need them to survive, because by then we won't have the resources needed to do it. I am not saying we go directly from this planet to the stars, but if we are going to keep building, we are going to need to reach out to what is at hand, the solar system and all it holds.

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    Africa didn't need to deal with radiation, or drink their own urine or lack of gravity and bone density . Apples and sand. Sorry.

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    And space won't have to deal with angry natives and poisonus plants and dangerous animals, not until we get out of the solar system at least. We drink our own urine anyway on Starship Earth, its called the 'water cycle'.

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    Leaving Africa before the Stone Ages was extremely difficult, but they did it.
    Walking behind their food source doesnít sound that hard. If the animals had water to drink so did humans. The lamest animal became food for the humans. Food, water, pelts, and long haired women, what more could you want?

    Crossing the ocean to the New World for Columbus was extremely difficult but they did it.
    But Columbus didnít have to worry about the little things like breathing, eating, drinking, going poo.

    There is an entire universe out there, full of many things that our society needs if it going to continue to grow.
    Like what? What is out there that we donít have cheaper down here?

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    Cheaper now, but what about 100 years from now? Can our planet sustain us at the rate of growth we are have now? What about 200 years? With the developing countries becoming developed?

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    Our "almost current" technology is good enough to get humans into the solar system terraforming/colonization business and the interstellar transportation/exploration/colonization business. The sun has more than enough energy to "expel" us (or fry us if we refuse to go) out into the MW.

    http://members.aol.com/malcolmbmcnei...tionExplo.html describes a system, complete with high level system design and a list of benefits, capable of being grown into one that can get us to AC in 10 or 20 years after "launch" from geosynchronous orbit. Although the system benefits from sail force, the primary motive force is provided by ion engines powered by power receivers feeding particle accelerator ion engines, and it will take only 4 or 5 hundred years to implement (rig the solar system). Forget fission, fusion, matter/anti-matter powered systems. They require too much mass to be manageable. Wormhole, zero point energy, and space warping processes are all fantasy.

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    I look forward to space colonies and have no doubt they will happen, I would love to go on one,the human race needs to start again because the world is upside down!!

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    Quote Originally Posted by redshifter View Post
    ...I think one needs to treat solar system colonization and interstellar colonization as two different things given that we're talking travelling AU's vs. light years.

    I do think that solar system colonization is inevitable once it becomes economically viable - i.e. profit can be made exploiting the resources out there.
    I would add a third category:
    1) 'near-earth'
    2) solar system
    3) interstellar

    We are already seeing the early beginnings of space colonization in the first category.
    ISS, Bigelow's orbiting space hotels and NASA's current moon program are all part of it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    Each device was about a kilotonne. Even given the inherent 'dirtiness' of smaller scaler nuclear fission, it still would be less fallout then the amount of megatonne and larger nuclear tests going on at that time. Thanks, but I would rather have the universe.
    Doesn't matter. Firing off any nuclear devices in the above ground is not longer acceptable. That;s why we stopped doing it. If you want the universe, chose some other, less destructive, technology.

    Jon

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonClarke View Post
    Doesn't matter. Firing off any nuclear devices in the above ground is not longer acceptable. That;s why we stopped doing it. If you want the universe, chose some other, less destructive, technology.
    Jon
    The 1967 Outer Space Treaty only prohibits "stationing" nuclear weapons in space. It does not prohibit nuclear weapons transiting through space, as evidenced by nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

    Likewise the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would seem to prohibit detonation of nuclear weapons in space. However a closer reading includes the clause "at any place under its jurisdiction or control".

    This was probably added for wartime use of nuclear weapons on enemy territory -- an area not under the jurisdiction or control of the launching nation. Therefore there's a good argument that deep space is not under the jurisdiction or control of any nation, so the treaty might not apply in that case.

    Re causing radiation, being destructive, etc, space is already filled with radiation-emitting nuclear suns, pulsars, quasars, etc. A large solar flare can emit so much radiation an unshielded astronaut would be quickly killed. Pioneer 10 had radiation-hardened circuitry, yet this was damaged when it passed 80,000 miles from Jupiter.

    Re using something less destructive, energy sources capable of similar output will be potentially destructive. It's difficult to conceive of a drive system (whether fission, fusion, antimatter, ground-based laser, etc) without destructive properties.

    Also, if some new "clean" energy source was developed -- say zero point energy -- it would so totally transform life on earth that space colonization would be secondary. We could literally move mountains, desalinate oceans, make deserts blossom like gardens, solve all environmental emission problems, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by GOURDHEAD View Post
    Our "almost current" technology is good enough to get humans into the solar system terraforming/colonization business and the interstellar transportation/exploration/colonization business.
    Did you actually read the article and the subsequent discussion? Short answer -- it is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

    As I already said in a different post, I will accept that space colonization is possible only when the first baby is born in the far more accessible and far more benign environment of continental shelf.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ilya View Post
    Did you actually read the article and the subsequent discussion?
    I know it is long, and you may not like what you read, but it is very much worth reading through.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ilya View Post
    I know it is long, and you may not like what you read, but it is very much worth reading through.
    This is a strange bit of synchronicity. I independently ran across the Charlie Stross article yesterday when William Gibson mentioned in an interview I was reading; he said he's not sure whether he will write more science fiction involving space colonization anymore as a result.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    Crossing the ocean to the New World for Columbus was extremely difficult but they did it.
    Crossing the ocean to the New World was also extremely difficult for Stone Age Africans. And guess what? They didn't do it.

    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    Going to the moon was extremely difficult, but they did it.
    Going to the moon was also extremely difficult for Columbus. And guess what? He didn't do it.

    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    There is an entire universe out there, full of many things that our society needs if it going to continue to grow. We can't wait until we need them to survive, because by then we won't have the resources needed to do it. I am not saying we go directly from this planet to the stars, but if we are going to keep building, we are going to need to reach out to what is at hand, the solar system and all it holds.
    By your logic, Stone Age Africans should have crossed the Atlantic, and Columbus should have gone to the Moon, and you personally should already be exploring the universe. "Expensive and difficult" didn't stop neanderthals or Columbus or the Apollo project. Why is it stopping you?

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    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ilya
    Did you actually read the article and the subsequent discussion?
    I know it is long, and you may not like what you read, but it is very much worth reading through.
    Yes I actually read the article. Did you read the link I provided and did you think the system presented is plausible? We can and must expand our reach out into the MW and I have shown the way in the linked story. Tell me what problems you see with it. If we don't develop interstellar transportation, our species will perish!!!

    What is not good enough?

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    Quote Originally Posted by GOURDHEAD View Post
    Yes I actually read the article. Did you read the link I provided and did you think the system presented is plausible? We can and must expand our reach out into the MW and I have shown the way in the linked story. Tell me what problems you see with it. If we don't develop interstellar transportation, our species will perish!!!

    What is not good enough?
    Two things right away (I am sure I could find more if I try):

    1. Closed cycle life-support system aboard each ship. Maintaining a closed biosphere is a HARD problem -- and one usually glossed over by space cadets. We are no closer to it than to AI. Actually, that is discussed at length in Stross' page.

    2. When 10 people get to Alpha Centauri, what do you expect them to do there? To maintain a viable population you need thousands, to maintain a self-sustaining indistrial civilization, millions. First problem can be solved with genetic engineering, and second with strong AI and self-reproducing technology, but that puts you well outside "almost current" technology.

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    Maybe this should be merged with my thread on pretty much the same topic.


    Anyway, just to say "well it's expensive so we shouldn't do it" makes no sense considering that we readily spend literally trillions of dollars bombing Iraq, and tens (maybe even hundreds) of billions of dollars on pork barrel spending.

    That being said, the article does point out the need for better energy generation technology than we have right now, but it does need to be properly researched and funded/invested in. One of the gripes I have about a lot of the fusion designs is their dependance on the good old steam turbine, which seems to be an amazingly outmoded method of getting work out of heat given the advanced nature of the reactor itself. A more interesting approach is to use the plasma itself to generate electricity, although that is a little more tricky.

    Raven's claw does bring up a good point, in that we will need the resources if we want to continue and waiting until we desperately need it will be a bad idea.

    When did we stop wanting this? When did we stop dreaming?
    We stopped caring about a lot of things over the last 30 years. No one really cares about about a great many things anymore. Actually this was more of a culture shift than anything else, and the century of the self does a good job of explaining how this happened. What is the US as whole working towards? What are our goals? I have no idea, based on what I saw when I was growing up, right until a few years ago when I left, we aren't really working towards anything at all. We elected people like Bush because, for the most part, they promised to keep everything the same. We have become complacent. Too sure of ourselves we are.

    Perhaps it is this lack of national direction that might explain why so many Americans always buy into doomsday prophecies, like Y2K or more recently 2012. But, that's just my theory.

    Going to the moon was also extremely difficult for Columbus. And guess what? He didn't do it
    Strawman. The technology didn't exist 600 years ago to make it possible. But something you are forgetting is that Europe at that time was actually very poor, and financing Columbus's expedition was very expensive.

    But Columbus didn’t have to worry about the little things like breathing, eating, drinking, going poo.
    No, but the people in our great fleets of submarines do. Modern submarines can stay underwater pretty much until they run out of food because they have self-contained life support systems. This same technology has been used in our space stations for 30 years now.

    But try to convince the dreamy eyed youth who were born with Star Wars tapes on the tv shelf.
    Actually for the most part, the "dreamy eyed youth" aren't really dreaming about much of anything anymore.

    2. When 10 people get to Alpha Centauri, what do you expect them to do there? To maintain a viable population you need thousands, to maintain a self-sustaining indistrial civilization, millions. First problem can be solved with genetic engineering, and second with strong AI and self-reproducing technology, but that puts you well outside "almost current" technology.
    You are correct about Alpha Centauri, but in Sol this isn't as big of a problem since everything is much closer to home. The biggest issue at first is getting stuff into orbit, but technologies such as this are not that far off and will make a world of difference.
    Last edited by aquitaine; 2008-Jun-06 at 03:50 AM. Reason: add a new comment

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    Quote Originally Posted by aquitaine View Post
    No, but the people in our great fleets of submarines do. Modern submarines can stay underwater pretty much until they run out of food because they have self-contained life support systems. This same technology has been used in our space stations for 30 years now.
    By "self-contained" I meant recycling waste into food for indefinite period of time, i.e. a functional separate biosphere. Neither submarines nor space stations do that. Short trips throughout Solar System (what Stross calls "offshore oil rig model") do not require it either, but permanent presence outside Earth, let alone raising children, does. As does any kind of interstellar travel.

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    Two things right away (I am sure I could find more if I try):

    1. Closed cycle life-support system aboard each ship. Maintaining a closed biosphere is a HARD problem -- and one usually glossed over by space cadets. We are no closer to it than to AI. Actually, that is discussed at length in Stross' page.

    2. When 10 people get to Alpha Centauri, what do you expect them to do there? To maintain a viable population you need thousands, to maintain a self-sustaining indistrial civilization, millions. First problem can be solved with genetic engineering, and second with strong AI and self-reproducing technology, but that puts you well outside "almost current" technology.
    1. The bits and pieces of the required technological artifacts are well known and a working, highly reliable, system could be completed within a few decades. The IV will include a gravity simulator (centrifuge) and sufficient energy to drive the processes required for food production, oxygen and water purification/recycling. Remember it will take 3 or 4 hundred years to get the solar system portions of the system in place and operational and this gives "current technology" time to mature.

    2. Think of it as "at least 10". Over the next 300 years we will "learn" whether 10 is optimal. Very likely we shall have learned how to grow an embryo/fetus of one mammalian species in the uterus of another or in an artificial one--a specified feasibility study. If so, we take several hundred frozen human zygotes and a few of those of as many food mammals as we wish. Note that only one "fuselage" (habitable capsule) has been specified. If a larger number of humans is determined to be necessary, a dozen or more fuselages could be added around the circumference of the power receiver and each could be made longer and of larger radius at the expense of longer duration trips but still of approximately 5 lightyears. I was not kidding about it needing benefit from lessons to be learned from its evaluation and implementation.

    Thanks for the critique. Keep them coming. I have sent the concept to several NASA facilities, and judging from the response form letters (emails) the idea never got beyond the first line of "your ideas are important to us" (but send this one somewhere else). ESA didn't respond at all--I haven't tried the Chinese yet--they may be my best bet. In 2003 I presented this concept at a Joint Propulsion Conference where AIAA was one of the sponsors. The response was cooly polite and did not elicit enough fire in the question and answer session to indicate that I had presented it well enough in the alloted half an hour for its fundamental grasping. I still labor under the illusion that it is by far the only feasible concept for accomplishing robust interstellar transportation.

    Did you review the "benefits" section. Note how much is provided in terms of solving Earth's more pressing problems (fresh water management and distribution, asteroid/comet collision protection, energy supply for Earth surface operations, pollution management). We shall have advanced far along the path to panacea.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ilya View Post
    By "self-contained" I meant recycling waste into food for indefinite period of time, i.e. a functional separate biosphere. Neither submarines nor space stations do that. Short trips throughout Solar System (what Stross calls "offshore oil rig model") do not require it either, but permanent presence outside Earth, let alone raising children, does. As does any kind of interstellar travel.

    I don't disagree that true interstellar FTL-ish travel is out of our reach at the moment and will require further research and breakthroughs in physics to make it possible, but what I was referring to was for intra-system ships. It would not be necessary for them since (I'm thinking fission/fusion powered) they just make runs back and forth between various locations in the solar system in a relatively short period of time. They would just eat slightly modified MRE's.

    As for growing food on a place like the moon or mars, it is not impossible at all, provided we supply an atmosphere. You can either grow them in the actual planetary soil (this has been successfully tested with crushed moon rocks, and I have no doubt the technique can be adopted for martial soil as well) or you could grow it hydroponicly, which is more expensive but gives you much better crop yields. Where we get into trouble is with trying to create a full ecosystem. We don't necessarily need with the exception of pollinators such bees.

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    While all analogies fail at some point, here's an interesting one that examines space colonization using the historical Mormon migration to Utah as an example.

    The Big picture
    Basically when you look at where we are today relative to space settlement, we’re nowhere even close to settling the solar system (not even the moon) as the Saints were to colonizing Utah when they were camped at Sugar Creek, across the river from Nauvoo in the bitter winter of 1846. Our civilization as a whole has never even flown 100 people to orbit in a year, let alone 1000, 3000, or 5000.

    Just to give a sense of the scale we're talking about, here are some rough numbers to think about. Suppose it takes at least 6000-7500lb per person (which is probably a very optimistic bare minimum) to settle and survive off-planet. If those numbers are accurate, then in order to settle 15,000 people in space, even just in LEO, you’re talking somewhere around 45,000 tons of material needing to be lifted. Doing that over a 3-5 year period like the first wave of the Mormon Exodus would require 9-15 thousand tons to be lifted to orbit every year. That’s over 100 Ares-V equivalents per year, and several orders of magnitude higher than what has ever been done before. And that’s assuming that they all stop in LEO! Going to the moon would require something like 6-10 times that mass in LEO in order to do that, and Mars or Venus would likely require even more. That gets you to 90-150 thousand tons per year!

    At least right now, if some group of 15,000 people were given a similar ultimatum to what the Saints got in 1845, they'd probably be screwed.

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