Sunday, October 17, 2010

Temperate and Indecisive Contests


Edward Gibbon contributed much to science fiction; without him there could be no fall of the Galactic Empire. In chapter XXXVIII of The Decline and Fall, summing up his theme, he speculates on a historical what-if that has never been followed up on in SF, so far as I know, and probably won't be: What if there were another wave of barbarian invasions?

Post-apocalyptic fiction has plenty of goth/biker barbarians (and post-Gibbon history has shown that 'civilized' people can be plenty barbaric), but old style barbarian conquest of civilized lands has been relegated to the sword & sorcery shelves.

Gibbon agrees that barbarian conquest has had its day, and gives several reasons. The first and most basic is the Russians, who by Gibbon's time had pretty much solved the problem of the Eurasian steppe nomads at the source: The plough, the loom, and the forge are introduced on the banks of the Volga, the Oby, and the Lena; and the fiercest of the Tartar hordes have been taught to tremble and obey.

But a bit later in his list Gibbon provides the text of this post. In war, he says, the European forces are exercised by temperate and indecisive contests.

This is of interest to us because, bloodthirsty lot that we are, we want to write about blowing stuff up, especially but by no means limited to spaceships. Temperate! Indecisive! does not sound like the way to sell a war saga. But if the war is intemperate and decisive you won't have much of a saga, because it will end with Chapter Two:

There was a brilliant flash of light.

In fiction this only works once, and probably with real civilizations as well.


The wars of the 18th century were temperate and indecisive, or seemed to be, for fairly basic reasons of technology and economics. Serious warfare, as the 18th century knew it, was expensive stuff: paid regulars and keeping them paid and supplied; artillery; massive fortifications and ships of the line.

And the advantage lay heavily with the defense, tactically and strategically. Enough dirt and stone, or even half a meter of oak, would stop cannon balls. As for the strategic level, experience in the 17th and 18th 16th and 17th century showed what happened to armies that pushed beyond their supply lines: They devastated a province or two, then came down with dysentery and crapped themselves to death.

Thus 18th century war looked at the time like a cohesive system, inherent to an advanced proto industrial society, but this line of Gibbon is usually quoted for its irony value, because along came the French Revolution and Napoleon and all of that.

The modern view through the 20/20 hindsight rangefinder is that the French Revolution raised the stakes of warfare by harnessing the power of national mass mobilization. You could put far more troops in the field than the pre-1789 world had imagined, but only by arousing the mass passions of your population - at which point you were no longer really in control.

But there were a couple of military preconditions to all this. First (or so I gather), the French Revolution showed that a militia rabble could indeed defeat 18th century regulars, if they outnumbered the regulars massively enough and were fired up enough, and second, that with good sergeants you could turn that rabble into a decent army pretty quickly.

I vaguely recall something about an artillery officer from Corsica in this mix, too, and strategic mobility coming back into play, but my ignorance is profound here. Suffice it to say that the 18th century model of temperate and indecisive contests did not hold up.

Now let us imagine midfuture settings. The means of making war in a serious, great-power way are presumably still expensive. The means of simply nuking your enemy back to the stone age are available, and cheaper, but not the means to keep your enemy from nuking you back to the stone age.

Since nuking each other back to the stone age is against the general interest of all parties, could they avoid it by tacitly accepting temperate and indecisive contests, and scaling their objectives to suit?

Doing so by overt treaty, and making war by formalized rules, sounds vaguely tinselly and implausible to us. But the stakes of 18th century war had been implicitly limited by the same Treaty of Westphalia that has given the name 'Westphalian' to the whole concept of a state system and balance of power. Religion, which had made 16th and early 16th 17th century warfare so implacable, was more or less taken off the table as a reason for European states to go to war.

This agreement was possible because bitter experience had taught everyone that neither Protestantism nor Catholicism were going to go away, so there was no point fighting over them.

No such formal agreement might be needed in a future era, only a tacit understanding reinforced by the very powerful motives of elites toward self preservation. The fact that World War II happened does not negate this tendency; in 1939 not only was the atomic bomb still (literally) science fiction, but most of the offensive weapons and tactics of the war were still quasi-experimental and more or less untried. Now elites know what will happen to them, and it tends to concentrate minds.

Some classic SF scenarios lend themselves to temperate and indecisive contests, for example deep space trade wars. Trade warriors may be constrained on the one hand by the risk of burning their profit margin on military spending, and on the other hand by the disadvantages of vaporizing prospective customers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Starship Troopers logic of racial wars of extermination pretty much points toward, well, wars of extermination. Pick your scenario and take your chances.



The image is a scene from the Battle of Minden, 1759.

236 comments:

1 – 200 of 236   Newer›   Newest»
Anonymous said...

In Dan Simmons' original Hyperion book, he postulated something very similar to the temperate and indecisive contest for the Hegemony of Man in the story.

This was a sort of honor-code adopted by the military that spanned all the diverse human worlds, labeled a New Bushido. Battles were arranged in advance, by gentleman's agreement, away from civilian centers and other high-dollar property, in order to avoid the uncivilized chaos of true total war.

An interesting idea, but of course it falls apart as soon as you add your flavor of anarchist, guerilla, alien or other barbarian that doesn't care about the rules.

Byron said...

I personally think that space warfare also tends to the same conclusion. It's far too easy for everyone to die by kinetics in any sort of passing engagement. Ships will tend to have low closing velocities to limit damage.
It is possible that war will be mostly confined to the outer system ("No Peace Past Luna") or settled under more formal rules than today. However, there is the issue of the fact that it can't be too decisive simply because the loser will bring in the nukes. For interplanetary warfare, that can also be said to be the case. I've shown (hopefully to everyone's satisfaction this time) that we can't move enough troops over interplanetary distances to be able to take a planet on the ground. If that's the case, and you can't force a planet to surrender from space, warfare among rough equals (same order of magnitude) becomes indecisive. You show up, blast some factories, blockade for a while, and leave.

Byron said...

The problem with any sort of "agreement of war" is that it falls apart when someone decides to break it. And in war, there usually isn't a way to make sure people obey the rules. There's no police to punish rulebreakers. If there is, it becomes a lot more plausible. But who keeps the police honest and settles their disputes? Plus, the consequences of momentary disobedience can be deadly (nukes).

Milo said...

Rick:

"a historical what-if that has never been followed up on in SF, so far as I know, and probably won't be: What if there were another wave of barbarian invasions?"

Isn't that how half the stories on alien contact play out?

If you want to be invaded by human barbarians, then, well, you need somewhere for those humans to be coming from. Present-day Earth is notoriously lacking in militarily powerful barbarians. However, I could see a situation like this arising if humanity spreads to the the stars using slow forms of travel that make the colonies unable to stay in contact across the full sphere of human settlement - meaning that when they finally meet each other again, they'll be distinct cultures. These would be "barbarians" in a relative sense - lower technology than the more advanced civilizations they encounter, but still possessing stuff we would consider impressive. Their starships aren't quite as fast (only a few lightyears per day!), their lasers not quite as big, their automatisation technology is behind so they need more human crew members (but it's okay since they don't mind sending many warriors to die gloriously), etc.

Or you could play up terrorist organizations...

Anonymous said...

The human-barbarian situation is described in a short story by Cyril M. Kornbluth, quoted on the Future History page of Atomic Rockets. As Earth is under attack by rebel colonists, a historian describes how every wealthy, settled civilization produces adventurous people who can never be content there and have to leave to settle inhospitable lands. In doing so, they become stronger and more ruthless, and eventually their descendants return to conquer the parent civilization. Eventually the cycle repeats itself, and the now-civilized conquerors are themselves conquered by a new wave of 'barbarians'.
It occurs to me that if both FTL/fast STL travel and permanently occupied mobile space habitats were feasible, you could have a Mongol-like space-based civilization, moving between asteroid/comet 'grazing grounds' and demanding tribute and submission from planet-based civilizations under pain of orbital bombardment. Something similar to this did occur in the Hyperion series, where the space-adapted Ousters attacked the Hegemony of Man with no regard for the New Bushido, and were perfectly willing to target population centres.

R.C.

Will said...

It's been a long time, but didn't the original Foundation series have address the collapse of the center and waves of barbarians (maybe the Mule?). Also, Poul Anderson's Terran Empire/Long Night series definitely had aspects of this.

With regard to rules of war/honor code, etc., both Jerry Pournelle and David Drake used this extensively. In both cases, however, the rules of war were imposed by some external/supra-national authority (CoDominion and Bonding Authority respectively) that limited the technology/levels of force available to combatents and imposed significant penalties on violators. In both situations, however, the rules break down,with significant negative effects for the civilizations involved.

Byron said...

I don't see the classical "barbarian" idea as practical anymore. This is not because of Russia, it's because of the very nature of modern civilization and industry. The Mongols flourished in the last age before gunpowder. After gunpowder became ruler of the battlefield, the barbarians stopped. This was because they couldn't support the industrial base to be able to build gunpowder weapons in the masses required. The same will apply to any "space barbarians" They won't be nomads, as they won't have the factories required to be able to build enough weapons to threaten an industrialized world. A cycler might have the factories, but not the resources. I've gone into this elsewhere, but I'm at a loss as to where.

Tony said...

I think Gibbon displayed a curiously -- but perhaps understandably -- parochial point of view. The limited dynastic squabbles that defined warfare in Germany and the Low Countries during most of the 18th Century were not the only wars going on. During Gibbon's lifetime warfare was adequately decisive in North America and India. And Tartary was not subdued by the introduction of industry. Tartary was subdued and then industry introduced.

But, as I alluded above, Gibbon's viewpoint is understandable. He didn't have the conceptual foundation to understand that European indecisiveness was a combination of highly symmetrical armies and a force-to-space ratio that limited even the most sweeping tactical decisions (e.g a Rossbach or a Leuthen) strategically minor.

Byron said...

And then why haven't we seen any barbarians since the introduction of gunpowder on a wide scale? Maybe industry was the wrong term to use, although it argues against them today. Gunpowder weapons, which are easier to learn than their predecessors, allowed Europe to bring to bear a large portion of it's population against invaders. The Mongols, at least, were like the Marines. "Every Mongol is a horse archer." The same can't be said of Europe. I haven't found too many sources on the strength of the Mongols, but nothing higher than 30,000 for the invasion of Europe. Their opponents were of similar numbers. However, the total population of Europe was much larger than the Mongols. Later, gunpowder arrived, and it was possible to raise larger armies. For example, during the period between 1550 and 1700, the armies that the King of France could field went from 20,000 to 500,000. The Mongols would have been heavily outnumbered even if they could have used gunpowder, and quality only goes so far. Remember Lancaster.

KraKon said...

Referring to the ground warfare thread (don't have much time left):

Ships are extremely expensive, and extensive campaigns ruinous to the economy. Laser PDS and rocket trucks are the supreme defences, troop landings, needed to win wars, are the ineffective attacks...

18th century blockades?

Cambias said...

Haven't we had "Temperate and Indecisive Contests" pretty much exclusively since 1945? In Korea both sides pulled back to basically the status quo ante rather than escalate. In Indochina one side made it too expensive for the other side to keep up the fight. Even in the wars of Israel against her neighbors both sides seem willing to stop and fight another day rather than go to the knife.

My suspicion is that wars will get more mannered and mannerly, aimed more and more about influencing public opinion or the media...

...until some new Napoleon changes all the rules.

Tony said...

Byron:

"And then why haven't we seen any barbarians since the introduction of gunpowder on a wide scale?"

If you're referring to the comment I made about industry and Tartary, I was responding striclty within the context of Gibbon's assertion about the expansion of industry into Siberia. Industry came to the Asian domains of the Tsar after they had been made safe (well, relatively safe) for capital investment. That says nothing about what industry had already done in European Russia to make the subjugation of Tartary simply a matter of time.

Tony said...

Cambias:

"Haven't we had "Temperate and Indecisive Contests" pretty much exclusively since 1945?"

That has way more to do with nuclear armed states desiring status quo than it does with some new or resurgent moral imperative towards more general politeness. Just as surely as I can't even begin to conceive of how that regime will break down, that regime will break down, somehow. They always do.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a better model for future conflicts than that of the 'barbarian invasion' would be that of the 20th/early 21st century developing country. Most wars since 1945 have involved one or more of these countries fighting each other, fighting a developed country, suppressing rebellion within their borders, or a combination of the above. One factor in this is probably that these countries are prosperous enough to manufacture/import at least basic modern weaponry, or strategically valuable enough to developed countries to motivate them to give them such weaponry, but still weak enough to allow their enemies to believe they have a good chance of victory.
Colonies in the solar system or beyond will probably be classed as developing regions for decades if not centuries after their founding, by the standards of their time if not by ours. Such a situation might lend itself to 'temperate and indecisive' wars involving developed nations using the colonies as proxies in their own struggles.

R.C.

Anonymous said...

16th and 17th century European armies were constrained by their structure of combat, philosophy of war, and system of logistics, all of them being (as Tony said) symetrical relitive to each other. This resulted in their"temperate and indecisive" battles. Today, it is the threat of thermonuclear destruction that constrains the Great Powers...the most savage and destructive wars of the last century (the 20th), were between lesser powers that did not involve either of the two sides of the Cold War. Future wars will find their own system of constraints; whether that is the inability of shipping large numbers of troops off-world, the threat of nuclear destruction, the prohibitive cost of combat spacecraft, or some other reason.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

There should be a distinction between nomads and barbarians.

Nomads like the Mongol hordes do not have the ability to menace modern capitalist societies, since they do not have the capital or resource base to do so. On the other hand, the example of the Somali pirates demonstrates people with limited resources can be a threat around the margins.

Barbarians do not have to be nomadic, and indeed they can easily hijack the workings of a modern industreal state and become a menace, or even an existential threat. National Socialism infected Germany and triggered a major European conflict, and State Shinto created a similar series of wars in Asia and the Pacific, with both societies engaging in barbaric behaviour towards others. The war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was essentially a contest between barbarian societies armed with state of the art weapons. In today's world, barbarian societies still exist and many are working on getting the means to become existential threats to their neighbours (as a minimum).

Temperate and indecisive conflicts will still occur, although nowadays they will mostly be around the margins, since as pointed out the cost/benefit ratio of conflict is pretty skewed away from war, so long as the conflict is containable and major powers do not feel threatened.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

I would draw an important distinction, for this purpose, between 'barbarian' as a state of society and 'barbaric' as a moral judgment. Nazism was a perversion of 'civilized' society, Hitler a Commodus rather than an Arminius.

(On this subject it is hard not to try imitating Gibbon's style.)

Put another way, I'm defining 'barbarian' much as Byron does, though I'd include semi-nomadic peoples.

From a different perspective, though, I would include classical barbarians as 'marginal' peoples in the sense I've been using it lately - people in contact with urban civilization, but not part of it.

An interesting question is whether today's marginal populations are transitional, and whether in, say, 2100 there will still be entire underdeveloped and marginal regions, or only marginal groups, the global equivalent of slum dwellers and demimondaines.

Which can come back around to that blurred distinction between 'crime' and 'warfare.'

But for our purpose we usually want a clear distinction, because we want 'grand' war.

And note, by the way, that the very idea of a military profession, with military enemies in some sense regarding each other as fellow professionals, is an outgrowth of temperate and indecisive contests, since the 18th century is really when militaries as we know them took form.

Byron said...

Rick pretty much made the point I was planning to make about barbarians. Those without a permanent industrial base can't gain the power to threaten modern society. Those were the "barbarians" who overthrew Rome.
I see the undeveloped parts of the world slowly catching up. The gap will close, though not vanish. In Rocketverse, this is somewhat reflected. Everyone has space travel, but some areas are better than others. It is possible that the last areas to begin to develop will remain in a state of partial development, as we need people to make our cheap T-shirts. Or we might have machines to do it even cheaper. In all reality, the West will probably remain at the forefront of economic development, because, even though China is growing, it's GDP per capita, a good sign of development, is still rather low.

Teleros said...

"Since nuking each other back to the stone age is against the general interest of all parties, could they avoid it by tacitly accepting temperate and indecisive contests, and scaling their objectives to suit?"

It depends on how desperate you are to achieve your objectives. A "do or die" scenario will tend towards more extreme options - unlike say the USA & USSR's wars during the Cold War era. If the whole of Korea was conquered by communists for example, it wouldn't be the end of the world for the Western world. If it happened to the USA however... then things become more interesting...

Thucydides said...

I would draw an important distinction, for this purpose, between 'barbarian' as a state of society and 'barbaric' as a moral judgment. Nazism was a perversion of 'civilized' society, Hitler a Commodus rather than an Arminius.

Being labeled a "Barbarian" has always been something of a moral judgment; the Classical Greeks applied the label pretty liberally to all the non Greek speakers regardless of how civilized or uncivilized they were. I would suggest that by the definitions we are accepting here, "civilization" includes such amenities as ownership of property, individual liberties and the Rule of Law.

Peoples who are in contact with civilization, but not part of it, I would think includes people who do not accept one or all of the three major constructs of civilized society [which includes rejectionists who live inside our societies]. Once again, we have classical examples, the Roman Imperium had a policy of settling "barbarians" on the frontiers to slow down the invaders from beyond the Empire, as well as introducing large numbers of "barbarians" into the Empire itself as labourers and military auxiliary troops.

You only have to look at the experience of "guest workers" in Europe or the flood of people from Mexico into the United States to see some similar effects, these peoples have not assimilated or fully integrated with the host society, creating frictions between the two groups; frictions which expand into increasing lawlessness or exploitation by demagogues from either side for political gain. This is currently the realm of alarmist politicians and pampleteers, but there is no reason to suppose this is not possible, and the growing slums and megacities around the world are certainly breeding grounds for mass armies of discontent (read Robert Kaplan's "The Ends of the Earth" for a perspective of this).

Regardless of how it comes about, peoples who do not accept ownership of property, individual liberty and the Rule of Law and are prepared to take them from civilized people by force are barbarians in every important sense.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"National Socialism...State Shinto"

Were not in any way, shape, or form barbaric. They were in many ways civilization ad absurdum. They made barbarism a matter of pure philosophy.

I know this slaughters several carefully husbanded sacred cows, but we have to remember that civilization is not about goodness and light. It's about living in cities, which was (and in some ways still is) first and foremost about resisting barbarians in the most effective and efficient way possible. What the German and Japanese fascists did was arrogate unto themselves the authority to define "barbarian" and to deal with those so defined as they -- and nobody else -- saw fit.

Fernando said...

Wow, there seems to be quite a dispute over the definition of "barbarian"...
For the proposes of this discussion, I'll assume barbarians to be people with relatively low technology that can disturb "civilized" societies, even make them collapse. By this definition, I don't think there will be barbarians in space. Most people (in the first centuries of colonizing, at least) will be highly educated, and probably having no monetary problems. The equipment that is needed to support life on space is expensive and you will need years of training to master them, no matter how automatized they are. So, you can't simply steal a rocket and go pirating; it's not like grabbing a AK-47, you need training, you need someone to support and repair your rocket, and you need somewhere to sell your loot and take refuge (remember, no stealth in space; no where to hide from the police)
Basically, you need a state.
So I doubt that there will be space pirates and space barbarians, at least anytime soon. There probably will be "rouge states" that will threaten other more peaceful nations, and maybe well trained, organized terrorists (think hackers with mass drivers instead of Bin Laden or the SS), but no a rabble of barbarians trying to conquer land from the civilized nations (Remember, in space you have to BUILD your land)

f said...

Thucydides:

by your definiton, a SF society like Banks' Culture would be barbarians (no personal property, no law), while the Genghis Kahn ordes would have been not barbarians (personal property, free religion, the Yassa).

Tony said...

f:

"by your definiton, a SF society like Banks' Culture would be barbarians (no personal property, no law), while the Genghis Kahn ordes would have been not barbarians (personal property, free religion, the Yassa)."

Ohhh...what fun we could have with those two examples. YMMV:

The civilized Culture was the AIs. Biologicals, even highly sentient ones, were pets of the AIs. Think about it, there was no real physical want, but only because the AIs set things up that way. There was no formalization of personal property, but if any pet biological became strongly attached to a woobie -- either physical or philosophical -- the AIs would do what was within reason (by the AIs' definition) to see that the woobie was protected from appropriation or destruction. Likewise, there was none, or very little, formalization of law because the AIs were constantly supervising. If the AIs wanted to distance themselves from enforcement of the rules, they'd get a Special Circumstances sheep dog to do the dirty work -- always under the direct supervision of an AI, of course. Sounds inescapably like masters and pets to me.

(Not that I think Banks cosciously set out to make the obvious point about machines becoming bigger than their creators -- though maybe he did -- but the Culture certainly seems that way to this observer.)

The Mongols were barbaric in the sense that they were not sedentary, only concentrate population ocassionally and temporarily, and at least partially reliant on trade with surrounding civilizations for technological artifacts that they can't make themselves. Even their supposed organizational innovations can be found in previous barbarian societies.

Byron said...

On what a barbarian is:
We can define this in several ways. First is someone who doesn't live up to civilized norms, and behaves in a barbaric manner. That's what Thucydides seems to think.
Rick and I prefer the "uncivilized nomad" sense of the term. The various groups that overthrew Rome were barbarians. They were less civilized and less settled. Nazi Germany wasn't. They were civilized and settled. They were morally barbaric, but not physically barbaric.

Tony said...

Byron:

"...someone who doesn't live up to civilized norms, and behaves in a barbaric manner..."

Subjectivity becomes an issue real quickly if you adhere to this interpretation. Who's the bigger "barbarian" -- the man who sacks a city, or the man who nukes the sacker?

Of course, it certainly does serve the sophist if words like "barbarian", "barbarism", and "barbarous" are fairly available as epithets without any real, objective meaning...

Byron said...

There are two different definitions of barbarian at work here, moral and physical. A physical barbarian is someone who comes from outside civilization. A moral barbarian acts like it. They aren't the same, and are not linked.

Tony said...

Byron:

"A moral barbarian acts like it."

As stated earlier, this is too prone to subjectivity. Also as stated earlier, this subjectivity renders "barbarian" and its cognates meaningless.

Raymond said...

Frankly, the Culture meets pretty well all our criteria for being barbarians. They're nomadic, preferring their GSVs and their Orbitals to planets. They're what we would consider lawless. They're always showing up and destabilizing other, differently-ordered societies, pushing their own peculiar brand of anarchism.

But I don't think we should include "nomadic" or "lawless", because the former is disappearing and the latter is far too subjective. "Civilized" smacks of all kinds of Eurocentrism. I think our best bet is what Rick labels "the Margins", as in "that only happens in the margins, really". Somalia is far from lawless - there are multiple, overlapping layers of religious and tribal law which hold sway - but it doesn't fit our idea of a functioning state. Western concepts of nation and government were spread (one way or another) just about everywhere; I think we tend to define our barbarians in practice by how deeply they took root.

Raymond said...

As for contests temperate and indecisive: we already see that in the maneuvering of today's great powers. Bits and pieces and proxies. Internal revolts and irregular militias. Guerrilla wars and gas pipelines. We can, of course, lay this at the feet of the almighty nuke.

But are we so sure a laserstar capable of burning down a swarm of incoming kinetics couldn't do the same to nuclear-tipped missiles in sufficient numbers to allow one side to attempt something more decisive without fear of nuclear retaliation?

Offworld, I expect war to more closely resemble the French-Indian wars or the border skirmishes between the Soviet Union and China. Back and forth, a base here, a garrison there. Not exactly indecisive, just drawn-out and messy, and seeming temperate only because of the distance.

Thucydides said...

Like everything else, there is a spectrum of behaviour at work here.

The Culture as described (and I haven't read enough to be sure) doesn't seem to be a culture in the normal sense of the word. The beings in this Culture seem to be "pets" rather than independent people the way you or I recognize. If the machines that run this Culture have some sort of legal system, recognition of property and "personal" rights (as AI's) seems to be an open question at best. You exist at the whim of the Machines, and without rights (or an effective way to protect yourself), the Machines can extinguish you.

Moving farther down the scale, recognition of personal rights, property rights (as the practical expression of individual rights) and a neutral system of arbitration (Rule of Law) seems to be an important part of civilization, these allow people to interact with each other and have non violent recourse to settle disputes. The closer to these ideals a civilization or culture reach, the more "civilized" they are. When these rules break down (for example the decline of the Rule of Law near the end of the Res Publica Roma), then we get into trouble (the Roman civil wars).

Non recognition of individual rights essentially allows you to regulate others to "non person" status, and negating property rights removes the ability of people to make investments in themselves and their future (why would you if some government agent or random band of thugs can steal what you have built or created?).

In this regard, using the examples uppost, the Mongol Hord is a more civilized group, and their behaviour towards others is a very extreme form of warfare (intemperate, if you will). The Nazis, Bolsheviks, and their modern successors were quick to destroy their own citizens as well as real and imagined enemies outside their borders. The fact they had and have access to modern technology and state of the art weaponry to turn against their citizens and outsiders is disturbing, to say the least.

Byron said...

Yes, my second statement is subjective. The first one isn't, and it's the meaning I've been using. While we may define barbarians as being un-western, like it or not, the West will most likely dominate any sort of space colonization in the Plausible Midfuture. Again, ICBMs aren't the only way to deliver nukes. At the moment, they're the fastest and most reliable, as they can't really be shot down. When that changes, I assume we'll find other methods. And while some people may act in a barbaric manner who are from civilization, most who will act that way aren't. Those like Hitler would probably be that way in any society. However, in less-developed areas such ideas are far more widespread, and tend to exist on a personal level, not just in the leadership. Those who don't get it among the population are criminals.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would say that being a nomadic hunter or pastoralist in itself does not make one a barbarian(using the term in Byron's physical sense). Barbarians would be those nomads who are politically independent of any sedentary city-building state and/or habitually launch organized raids upon such states. Therefore the Huns and medieval Mongols could be described as barbarians, but modern nomadic hunters and pastoralists living within modern nation-states, including Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Sami, and indigenous Siberians could not be.

R.C.

Clay said...

The term barbarian is always a relative term governed more by ethnocentrism than anything else. It basically only exists when you say, I am of the one true people, and you are an outsider and act in ways that I will deem rude, and perhaps primitive.

We could easily resurrect this term today to describe others; just as they could use it to describe us and our behavior.

Two other points:
First: I think the limited use of nuclear weapons is as much about keeping the home front happy as it is about keeping our enemies from nuking us back. The US probably could have used nukes in Vietnam or the two gulf wars. I doubt a nuclear power would have chosen to go to nuclear war with us when they weren't directly threatened, but even so, we didn't. Not even tactical nuclear weapons. Why? I suspect because, politically, it would be ruinous, and historically, no one wants to get their name put next to Truman's for authorizing the use of nukes.

To that end, our restraint supports the view of limited and indecisive war.

Second: Space barbarians and limited wars would be entirely possible, and in fact, I think probable. We have to ask what the justification for any war in space would be. On a large scale, planetary governments don't gain much from plundering other planets that are 10s to 100s of light-years away. It's a lot cheaper to make it at home. But politically, disrupting another planet might make sense in much the way that nations meddle with other nations today.

In other words, it would serve a political end, even if militarily or economically, it didn't make much sense. Thus the limited war.

In contrast, small raiders, pirates, etc... might choose to plunder weak planets to take over, to seize resources, and simply because its easier to steal from the weak. This has always been the raider/viking way. Not every planet is going to be a superpower, anymore than every country is. Many will be weak for one reason or another, and thus prey to raiders, who will appear to be barbarians to the people they threaten.

Rick said...

'Barbarian,' as I should have known, is a very loaded term. But there is no other general, familiar term for the sorts of tribal, nomadic or semi nomadic people who caused such a ruckus in the urban agrarian age world of Eurasia between about 1800 BC and AD 1400.

'Barbaric' has become a purely moral and judgmental term, but there remains a heroic side to barbarians in the popular culture - none of us grew up reading about Conan the Civilized.


Space barbarians, in the strict sense, seem nearly impossible. I can imagine some colony planet reverting to conditions where the population, or part of it, took up herding in a big way and became something not unlike classical barbarians.

But how do they get hold of spaceships? And if they do, doesn't the complexity of spacecraft operation force them to become spacers - an urban, 'civilized' trade - and no longer shepherds?

Historical parallel, for what it is worth: While 'barbarians' swept through the premodern world like periodic storms, the only ones who stuck around did so by adapting urban ways. Example, the Ottomans.

But they retained some interesting concepts from their nomadic background. At least according to Toynbee they called their subject population a 'human flock,' and developed the Janissary system on the analogy of sheepdogs.

Clay said...

Again, the problem with calling them barbarians is that you assume that means no technology. Barbarians had very sophisticated technologies from a non-ethnocentric point of view. Our problem is that we grade "technology" on farming technology, building huge monuments, and developing computers. Domesticated horses are one hell of a sophisticated technology for people compared to stone age technology. How many here could live in a terrain where you can't farm the land? Not many, but they did because they had sophisticated methods for doing so. We just don't give them credit for it. That's a flaw and the reason this term is problematic.

There is no reason why "barbarians" of the future can't build their own spaceships. Barbarians are allowed to maintain the technology they need to operate just as "barbarians" of the past did. The only difference is perspective. If they are nomadic and bent on destruction, they count as barbarians.

Byron said...

Yes. They can have advanced knowledge. They can do really cool stuff. But you can't draw a comparison between the Mongols and people capable of maintaining a spacefaring civilization. Horses move on their own. They eat grass. They don't require spare parts. Survival skills can be learned on the move.
Now tell me, how many moving factories do you know of? Rockets require lots of care. The knowledge of how to build them is not usually found among nomads. And there's a reason nomads don't rule the Earth. Compared with settled farmers, herders, hunters, and gatherers are not terribly productive. They can't support lots of people who don't farm. They can't have factories that produce lots of stuff more cheaply than making it by hand. Nomads aren't a threat any longer because of those reasons. How hard would it be to design a rocket while you have to carry everything with you? And then you have to build it. The only nomads that can travel in space will be those who took the ships. And I don't give much for their chances of reaching the end of their journey.
So yes, my point of view might be ethnocentric. But please don't confuse knowledge with technology, and western-style technology is the only way to travel in space, short of magic.

Jim Baerg said...

I think it's worth noting that in space there won't be a distinction between 'nomadic' & 'settled'.

If space habitats are practical then you can move your habitat next to an asteroid with useful materials & when it is mined out move your habitat to another asteroid. The moving on would likely be after building one or more duplicate habitats from the asteroidal material so the 'tribe' could split if desired. BTW if free space habitats aren't practical, domed cities on the moon or mars won't be either.

Raymond said...

Byron, I think you're taking the "nomad" part a wee bit...literally? Narrowly? Something along those lines. Who says Plausible Midfuture nomads (asteroid-dwellers, for example) wouldn't have access to rocket factories? Maybe they couldn't churn out laserstars by the dozen, but it's been shown in a bunch of threads here that cheap, relatively primitive kinetics can take them on. You seem to be assuming the technological level of the horse peoples of old, talking of making things by hand, incapable of either buying or producing the kind of spacefaring technology their existence would require by definition.

Such a society may very well have sufficiently little in common with our current idea of a nation-state to seem like barbarians to urban planet-dwellers, but don't think that means such a massive discrepancy in techlevel as you seem to be asserting.

As for the barbarians of the 18th and 19th century (well into the gunpowder era), that term was frequently used to pigeonhole First Nations in North America - especially plains tribes, with their (semi-)nomadic horse cultures. They didn't have much of a problem acquiring firearms, whether buying them or being supplied by one great power or another (usually to fight against said power's rivals). Modern populations in The Margins have a similar ease in acquiring (or even sometimes manufacturing) assault rifles and RPGs. No, they don't have cruise missiles. They do, however, have cellphones.

TL;DR: why are we assuming space barbarians have to resemble shepherds and horsemen?

Byron said...

The problem is that none of the "marginal" cultures have been a threat since the rise of gunpowder. A modern technological base requires a certain amount of settlement. Yes, they can build AK-47s in a workshop, but they can't design them. Nor can they build heavier weapons. What makes you think the above will not be true of rockets? Your example of the Native Americans is actually perfect. They weren't able to make rifles themselves. They had to buy them from industrial nations. However, anyone can operate an AK, and it doesn't take a lot of maintainence. How many people on the planet right now could operate a spaceship, even in a rough way? How many are in "marginal" areas. On the margins, people just don't have the leisure time to pursue things like that. And that's leaving aside how they got into orbit in the first place. The closest I see to this being possible is something on the Viking model. The asteroid's tapped out, so the young men will go raid someone will the oldtimers look for another.
On the subject of all space colonies being nomadic, that is true, but they won't be moving across wide areas. With horses, you have to keep moving. However, if I'm mining asteroids (and not just redirecting them to a processing center), I'm going to go for the one with the lowest delta-V that's feasible.

Milo said...

I'd just like to point out that when discussing space civilizations, the question of whether they live in cities or fields is entirely meaningless when they're on a different planet from their enemies. Even if they move from place to place on their planet, they're still essentially sedentary as viewed on a galactic map. And survival skills learned on the steppes won't help them in a closed life support system.

The only kind of "nomadism" that has any meaning in this context is moving from celestial object to celestial object, as with asteroid grazing or planet looting.

If you're not up for that, then you're going to need to find some definition of "barbarian" that doesn't involve nomadism.

KraKon said...

Any way to contact SCIFI master Rick directly? By e-mail?

Raymond said...

Vikings IN SPAAACE!

Yeah, Northlanders were pretty much what I pictured. Demonized as barbarians, sophisticated at shipbuilding, used to living on rocks. As for their Midfuture equivalents' migration patterns, remember that a) the asteroid belt is wide and scattered, and b) delta-v != travel time.

In regards to the Natives, despite their lack of rifle manufacturing capability, the US Army considered them quite the worthy opponent. Gunpowder didn't win those wars - disease and railroads did.

I'm not quite sure why you're so insistent on barbarian being an objective term, nor why you're so convinced of the fundamental, permanent technological advantage of the West as presently constituted. I mean, maybe if you count China, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and Indonesia as paid-up members of the West, but that broad a definition starts losing value due to vagueness.

Raymond said...

To clarify, that last section was @Byron.

Geoffrey S H said...

@Krakon

"Any way to contact SCIFI master Rick directly? By e-mail?"

Yes, on the main page there is his e-mail address.

Byron said...

I was trying to define barbarian as it was used during the days of the Roman Empire.
Raymond:
Yes. The Native Americans were considered worthy opponents. But they were never an existential threat to the United States as a whole. They fought a guerrilla war, and fought it well. But guerrillas can't overthrow a society they have no support in.
I said western-style technology, for the most part. There is no way you can travel in space without advanced math, and proper engineering. These things were invented in the West. Other may use them, but they originated here. Maybe I didn't make myself clear. However, for the next few decades, the West does indeed have an advantage. Beyond that, I can't say.

Raymond said...

Byron:

"The Native Americans were considered worthy opponents. But they were
never an existential threat to the United States as a whole. They fought a
guerrilla war, and fought it well. But guerrillas can't overthrow a society
they have no support in."


That's an...interesting view of the timeline, considering that the existence
of the United States as presently constituted was predicated upon their
defeat. Maybe an "existential threat" (as many here seem to want to use as
the predicate for real warfare) they were not. Perhaps "existential
limiting factor" would be more apt.

And classically speaking, isn't our definition of a strong empire to be one
which resists and survives the barbarians, and a weak empire to be one which
does not?

Byron said...

I was speaking of the period after the Civil War, which is what I thought you were referring to. Not the periods earlier, when they were an existential threat. That was before mass industrialization, though.

Tony said...

Re: Alternate but equivalent technologies.

Sorry, no such thing exists past the widespread adoption of chemical energy in the form of gunpowder, and the industrial rationalization of manufacture. Spaceships represent a very small tip of a very large technical-industrial iceberg. If you haven't ever read it, perhaps now would be a good time to read "I, Pencil". You can take or leave the political and economic arguments of the piece as you choose, but the account of the complex interactions necessary to produce one of the seemingly simplest of all technological artifacts should give even the most convicted alternate technology advocate pause.

The nomadic barbarians were quite sophisticated in doing what they knew how to do, but it all rested on a core of individually very simple skills, with the admixture of a few crafts whose practitioners could take their shows on the road -- bowyers, fletchers, metalsmiths, etc.

Even the Vikings were relatively sophisticated in this regard. Their shipwrights, metalsmiths, and agricultural base stayed at home. When they actually moved in on a place and took over, they colonized, they didn't transport whole societies. Take a look at the history of Russia for an example of how this could ultimately work out in the long run.

There won't be any spaceship-flying nomads, nor will there be nomadic space habitats. None could possibly possess the technological and industrial critical mass to make the things they would need to survive.

Tony said...

Re: American Indians being worthy opponents.

I don't think that's historically very accurate. They were actually thought of by the people who wanted to put them out of the way as vermin. Yes, the soldiers and settlers that fought them came to respect their fighting skills in some instances, but they were still regarded as less than men.

Raymond said...

Byron:

Post-Civil War, westward expansion was still very much intertwined with the military defeat of the tribes in the way.

Tony:

The "worthy opponent" perspective is possibly a more modern one, I'll grant you, taken from present-day US Army literature (and naming schemes). IIRC much of the latest COIN doctrine was written with the Indian Wars in mind (I'll have to dig when I get home to find my source for that, though). In any case, isn't viewing your enemy as lesser part and parcel of fighting barbarians?

The Vikings' industrial capabilities were part of my point about the dangers of using too many assumptions of classical nomads when discussing the nature of spaceborne barbarism.

However, don't underestimate the possibilities of miniaturizing industry. 3D printers, stereolithography, even the snazzy portable automated machine shops the US military is using in Afghanistan to make spare parts in-situ (I'll try to find the link - they fit into a standard shipping container, and are supremely cool). In addition, the processes for carbon nanotubes, aerogels and other truly advanced materials work quite well at small scales. Modern chip fabs, though expensive, aren't nearly as big as you'd think. Recently a team published details of a process for using an electron microscope to layer nanoscale circuits onto, I believe, a titanium-iron-phosphate backing, and said circuits can be removed and reapplied (rewritable chips, anyone?).

Even without magical nanotech, it's increasingly likely that microindustry will be fairly common in the Midfuture. Perhaps even a prerequisite to the sorts of space-based societies we're imagining.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"The "worthy opponent" perspective is possibly a more modern one...taken from present-day US Army literature...IIRC much of the latest COIN doctrine was written with the Indian Wars in mind...In any case, isn't viewing your enemy as lesser part and parcel of fighting barbarians?"

I'm not here to provide a laundry list of what I think is wrong with present US doctrine. Let's just say I that list exists, and informs my opinions.

The "worthy opponent" trope is hardly anything new. It's rooted in some pretty basic human psychology -- the more dangerous and skillful the BGs are, the better it makes us look to defeat them.

"However, don't underestimate the possibilities of miniaturizing industry..."

Every item you mention is just another example of tip-of-the-iceberg tech. Certainly a small, portable machine shop is a neat thing, but it's reliant on a whole continent of industries to manufacture the components. It can't reproduce itself. It doesn't have a chip fab, raw materials extraction and refinement industry, the ability to cast or forge frame structures, or even half of the actual tools used to produce its own precision components.

Believe me, making screws on an engine lathe or in an NC machining center, rather than on an automatic screw machine, is the surest way invented to go broke. And going broke in space is highly lethal.

I don't want to sound pedantic or dismissive, but most people simply don't realize how technologically and industrially complex our socitey is. I'm looking at a $10 clock radio on my desk right now. If I said that all of the essential contributing industries represent $10B in capital, I'm much more likely to be making a laughable underestimation than I would be of overestimating their value. There are plastics (petroleum and chemical industries), metals (mining and refining), electronics (more mining and refining), the fabricating industries that make all of parts, the machine tools industry that makes the fabrication possible, the construction industries (and all of their allied industries) that make factories, warehouses, and roads/railroads/ships to move the parts and finished products. all of their contributing industries...

The only reason that clock radio cost an economical $10 is that all of those industries operate at massive economies of scale. A space outpost or a nomad gathering center trying to recreate all of that? Calling it magitech would be way overestimating the power of the highest, finest magic ever imagined.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Actually, that laundry list would be interesting. I'd like to read it sometime.

Mobile Parts Hospital is what it was called. Some more links here, here and here. Not to say it isn't primitive compared to what would be necessary in space, but it's a start. And no, it couldn't duplicate itself. I think it'd be a gamble to say that several iterations down the road it still couldn't.

And economies of scale do give us marvels of engineering for a pittance, but the logistics of space travel eat up those savings for breakfast. You going to try and claim that making screws on an engine lathe on Mars isn't cheaper than shipping them from the automated screw machine on Earth?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Actually, that laundry list would be interesting. I'd like to read it sometime."

I'd have to do some thinking, because it's mostly a reaction sort of thing -- somebody says or writes something, and I think, "That's another thing that bothers me." So I'm certain the list exists, but it's not formal or even conscious, most of the time. Still, if you want to, you can register on the blog linked to my name (so you can give me an email address without letting the whole world see it) and I'll get back to you.

"And no, it couldn't duplicate itself. I think it'd be a gamble to say that several iterations down the road it still couldn't."

I really can't see how that would work. Aside from my own technical education, one of my grandfathers was a tool designer for fabrication of Redeye/Stinger guidance optics. I've seen what goes into precision aerospace components (well, the parts they didn't hide at GD open houses, and what my grandad was willing to talk about). It takes industrializing processes that most people can only do in a lab. That in fact was one of my grandfather's favorite axes to grind -- Soviet technology qua technology wasn't primitive, relative to us, in his opinion. The Soviets just couldn't take stuff out of the lab and put it on the factory floor like we could. He never offered an opinion on why he thought that was, but I've come to the conclusion that it had a lot to do with the size of our economy, and its ability to sink unparalleled quantities of capital in mass-produced precision.

"And economies of scale do give us marvels of engineering for a pittance, but the logistics of space travel eat up those savings for breakfast. You going to try and claim that making screws on an engine lathe on Mars isn't cheaper than shipping them from the automated screw machine on Earth?"

The logistics of space travel aren't that daunting, really. We've actually put a lot of tonnage in orbit. (Bringing back 5/6 of it every time, in the egregious case of the Space Shuttle, but that's a different discussion.) What daunts, and what costs all of the money, is all of the engineering for reliability, because once it's up there, that's what you've got.

I think that will extend into the midfuture WRT human activities in space and on extraterrestrial planets. If you're making a screw on a lethe in a Martian job shop, it's a replacement part, not a new manufactured item. Those will all come from Earth, for several centuries at least.

Now here is an area in which alternate technologies -- that leverage work already done by nature -- might make sense. Instead of shipping out expensive and hard to replace environmental sensors, why not a few breeding pairs of small dogs? Dogs are very sensitive to changes in pressure, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric composition, as anybody who lives in Tornado Alley or out here in the monsoon-affected regions of the US Desert Southwest can tell you. With propert training, they would make excellent environmental monitors.

Food for thought...

M. D. Van Norman said...

“The problem is that none of the ‘marginal’ cultures have been a threat since the rise of gunpowder.”

Never mind a few religious leaders living in caves and some motivated international students.…

First, “barbarians” are still with us today. The walls of our cities have simply expanded to include their settlements. Now we struggle to manage them with legal rather than military solutions.

Second, the ideal conditions for advanced interstellar barbarians/raiders/vikings are at the dawn of a civilization’s spacefaring era. That’s when the target will be weak enough to defeat but possess enough infrastructure and resources to exploit. The defeated victims then get to serve as slaves.

Clay said...

It's interesting to note that there seem to be two definitions of barbarian/nomad here.

The first group labels barbarian as basically no more technologically sophisticated than they were in Roman times. The key here is technology with the focus being on "how do Mongol horsemen fly spaceships" or something close to that. Using this definition, I have to agree, they never will. They wouldn't have the first clue how.

But then there's the second group. The second group, of which I am a member, views barbarian as simply a term insiders use to describe outsiders they hate. Technology is not the deciding factor. I think the Culture series has made a great claim that humanoids in the future won't mess with living on planets; they'll take it with them.

We tend to think: whoa! That kind of mega-engineering will never happen. But in my opinion, if you can put together the technology to travel between the stars, you can do just about anything. Building life support systems good enough to support you indefinitely and asteroid mining capabilities good enough to get you your resources is a small trick by comparison.

I subscribe to the second definition. There will be groups that raid other groups, and the raiders will be looked on as "uncivilized" by those they prey on. They will manufacture star drives using their own technology, they will match or perhaps even exceed much of their prey in sophistication, but by their mode of production and lack of adherence to the "rules of civilization," they will appear like and be labelled as barbarians.

tkinias said...

Tony:

There won't be any spaceship-flying nomads, nor will there be nomadic space habitats. None could possibly possess the technological and industrial critical mass to make the things they would need to survive.

According to my understanding of steppe history, there is no such thing as nomadic pastoralism without agrarian civilization. That is, you don't have pastoral nomads unless they have agrarians to raid and/or trade with. There is a huge difference, BTW, between hunter–gatherer society and nomadic pastoralism. Hunter–gatherers can be and generally are self-sufficient; on the other hand, I know of no examples of nomadic pastoralists existing in isolation.

The plains and southwestern tribes of the Indian Wars are a particularly revealing case, because their whole way of life only came into being after horses were introduced by Europeans. They also never manufactured their own firearms or gunpowder, or even AFAIK iron tools: it was easier to trade for them.

The IN SPAAACE analog to nomads is therefore very much possible, precisely because they couldn’t exist without an industrial civilization to “parasitize”. It’s completely self-sufficient hunter–gatherer analogs that are impossible.

RocketDad said...

I noticed several comments on the idea that developing contries will still be developing in the midfuture. While this would please the industralized powers to no end, I thinks its going to end and end soon. We're at the begining of the fabricator revolution now (RepRap, Makerbot) and in a few iterations these machines will make manufacturing on demand and near resources more economical than importing. Essetially, The cost of infrastucture will be lower than the cost of transportation. If- WHEN - that occurs, the industrial nations will have nothing positive to offer the developing ones that have the bulk of the resources. Wars over conflict metals (like in the Congo) will become more pandemic as the industrialized nations become the Rust Belt nations. It could happen that WE become the barbarians sacking the resource-rich nations in Africa and South America in a desparate attempt to maintain our current standards of living.
Of course, we might also be motivated to go into space to find unclaimed resources... :)

Byron said...

Clay, your definition of barbarian is useless in this sort of discussion. "Outsiders the insiders hate" could apply to anyone, depending on your point of view. I believe the original question about barbarians was raised in the sense of the barbarians who sacked Rome. For that, we need a better definition.
On manufacturing, to Raymond:
No. All the things you describe are only used to make spare parts on demand. Why might that be? It's because it's cheaper to make one part using it than build ten on normal production lines and only use one. Plus, the size of the components produced isn't that big. I have to agree with Tony here. Plus, how do the raw materials get to the producer? They'd have to be plundered. I can see ships having machine shops, but not shops capable of building a machine at anything like the cost of a shipyard.
Space Vikings (groups that are settled, but raid their neighbors a lot) are possible. Space Mongols simply aren't.

Raymond said...

Byron:

"No. All the things you describe are only used to make spare parts on demand. Why might that be?"

Uh, because producing it in situ is better than waiting for the part from half a world or half an AU away? It's not as much an economy of scale problem as it is a logistical delay problem, at least in current usage. Economies of scale are great and all, but locality has value too. That's an equation, not a forgone conclusion.

And come on, I'm referring to prototypes and bleeding edge tech and haphazard starts along the lines of development we'll need to get off Earth in any significant numbers. I'm obviously not referring to fully realized technology. Twenty years ago we couldn't even make spare parts on demand like we can now, much less replacement components of helicopter rotors (which, for the record, the mobile parts hospital can and did make).

" Plus, how do the raw materials get to the producer? They'd have to be plundered."

Or, y'know, mined.

Why do we keep going back to the assumption that barbarians = mongols? That barbarians = horse people who have no technology base? That seems like a failure of imagination, a failure of modelling, and a failure of logical predicates. We're talking about the point in the Plausible Midfuture where we have sufficient population in space to exist independent of Earth, where we have sufficient offworld industry not to have everything built deep in the original gravity well. Self-sufficient micro- or mini-manufacturing is a prerequisite, not a luxury for the civilized.

"'Outsiders the insiders hate' could apply to anyone, depending on your point of view. I believe the original question about barbarians was raised in the sense of the barbarians who sacked Rome. For that, we need a better definition."

"Barbaros" was the term used to describe anyone who wasn't Greek (or at least didn't speak Greek). Literally, it was used to refer to outsiders, with a hefty helping of unsavory connotations. The etymology of the term (and the cultural usage by the later Europeans which adopted it) bears out the usage of, if not "outsiders we insiders hate", then "outsiders we insiders despise on some level". It is entirely subjective. The concept of civilization is subjective. Any attempt to attach objective criteria encounters serious ontological and tautological problems. Game-breaking bugs, all.

Yes, the term can be used by anybody, to refer to anybody. If another culture's idea of "civilized" is too far from your own, cultural and linguistic bias will result in them being called "barbarian" or equivalent by you and yours. Attempts to justify any particular usage as "objective" reveal merely biases and assumptions and current power imbalances, not any sort of universal truth.

Enter the Space Vikings, stage left.

Raymond said...

M. D. Van Norman:

"First, “barbarians” are still with us today. The walls of our cities have simply expanded to include their settlements. Now we struggle to manage them with legal rather than military solutions.
"


+10

Tony:

"It takes industrializing processes that most people can only do in a lab."

The most interesting trend of the early 21st century is the miniaturization of processes worked out in the lab. A nascent trend, sure, but worth giving some credit to.

Also note that the MPH uses powder deposition and laser sintering, which when combined can achieve impressive precision. One of the parts they supplied was a socket on an Apache tail rotor. We're not just talking screws, here.

"...if you want to, you can register on the blog linked to my name (so you can give me an email address without letting the whole world see it) and I'll get back to you."

Tried. Wordpress registration fail. Is registration set to manual approval?

"Now here is an area in which alternate technologies -- that leverage work already done by nature -- might make sense. Instead of shipping out expensive and hard to replace environmental sensors, why not a few breeding pairs of small dogs?"

Aside from the biomass requirement, not a bad idea. I dislike small dogs, though. Tradeoffs.

I wasn't originally espousing alternate technologies, actually. Just more accessible technologies which could be used effectively against superior opponents (like, say, cellphone-triggered IEDs).

If we're talking truly alternate technologies, then it's more a question of materials; when on Mars, make stuff out of carbon instead of metal. So much of industry is a function of material technology that a change in economically available materials could result in vastly different common solutions. Why import screws when you can grow some carbon nanotube rings at home?

Raymond said...

tkinias:

"The plains and southwestern tribes of the Indian Wars are a particularly revealing case, because their whole way of life only came into being after horses were introduced by Europeans. They also never manufactured their own firearms or gunpowder, or even AFAIK iron tools: it was easier to trade for them."

AFAIK some of the southwestern desert tribes (Navaho, Pueblo, Apache) were there before horses, carving out cave dwellings and farming maize and trading/raiding with/against their neighbors. Horses just gave them more range for all of the above. But yes, the point about guns and tools stands.

Patrick said...

If we're responding to Gibbon's postulation on a second barbarian invasion, we should probably be going with the more Greek and/or Roman view. That was about a cultural or linguistic other, who was looked down upon, not so much a comment on technological level. For the Greeks, even the Persians were considered barbarians.

Also, I think it's worth noting that diferences in tech levels don't have to be uniform. Classical Greece had its own barbarian invasion in the form of Philip's Macedonians. While less advanced in areas of seamanship, infantry tactics, and proper wine consuption methods, their use of cavalry was lightyears more advanced. The addition of Macedonian horsemanship was the technological breakthrough Greece had been waiting generations for to turn the tide conclusively against Persia.

Patrick said...

Another thought regarding the Romans' invasion: An old theory (possibly from Gibbon, probably refuted since) on a contributing case to the fall of Rome, was they were suffering widespread lead poisoning from their own plumming. Perhaps a mid-future culture could over eagerly adopt some new tech, with an unexpected flaw or side effect that the 'space barbarians' could exploit?

Patrick said...

One last point on the likelihood of barbarians in a plausible, forseeable, spacefaring future. The way I see it barbarians should fit 3 criteria: existing beyond the civilization in question's borders, be significantly distinct culturally and probably linguistically, and exist at a noticably different tech level (not neccesarily entirely lower).

Therefore consider this scenario: A Solar empire is established, with colonies as far as the Jupiter and Saturn lunar systems. After perhaps a generation, some crisis (political, economic, environmental) causes a dramatic contraction of said empire to the inner planets or further. Over the subsiquent centuries Earth and the outer moons, through lack of contact diverge culturally and technologically. (Perhaps the dominant culture on Earth has shifted as a result of said crisis. Eg. the colonies were established by the USA/EU, but they lose a war to the Indo-Chinese Empire who abandon the white fools out at Jupiter.) At some point Jovian scientists acheive a weapons technology breakthrough that allows them to overcome the greater shipbuilding resources of Earth. Thus: Space Barbarian Starfighters!

Clay said...

@Byron:
I wonder if you even understand what I'm talking about.

Let's make this more concrete: When European and American sailers intruded upon Japan, the Japanese labelled them Barbarians. It's hard to reconcile your definition of barbarian with Commodore Perry, and yet, to the Japanese that's exactly what he was, along with the United States and the rest of Europe.

Why was he a barbarian to them? Because Perry arrived on horseback with inferior technology?

No. The Japanese viewed Perry as a barbarian because he was an outsider from an alien culture that represented a threat to them.

I hate to break it to you, but it just might be time to saddle up your pony. You're a barbarian too.

Tony said...

RocketDad:

"We're at the begining of the fabricator revolution now (RepRap, Makerbot) and in a few iterations these machines will make manufacturing on demand and near resources more economical than importing."

Incorrect, for more reasons than I can list here. The biggest and most obvious one is that 6"x6" plastic parts are irrelevant to the petroleum and chemical industries necessary to provide the plastic to make the parts. And if it's self-replicating, it would need the precision and fidelity to print integrated circuits at the .18 micron pitch. I'm not holding my breath.

Toy 3D deposition printers are just another example of tip-of-the-iceberg technology. Their advertisement as self-replicating machines is simply good marketing, designed to play on the naive enthusiasms of the people who might buy or build one. It's no different than gun magazines that are thinly -- and sometimes not so thinly at all -- veiled marketing instruments of the gun industry, or fashion magazines where every article is written with clothes or makeup sales in mind.

Byron said...

Raymond:
Yes, but they only use it to make spares on demand. They don't use it to build new stuff. That's my point.
And how do wandering people mine stuff? Don't tell me you expect to have a mobile mining center, too. And while micromanufacturing will be used early on, it'll be phased out as soon as possible in favor of mass production. It's a more efficient form of handcrafting, that's all. The barbarians may use them to keep their ships running, but it doesn't solve the problem of getting them in the first place.

Clay:
You're confusing my usage with yours. Please stop.

Definitions:
For the last time, I am trying to define barbarian as it was used in the original post. Read it. It does not refer to outsiders. It refers to those who sacked Rome, and their descendants in methodology such as the mongols. They are generally referred to as barbarians. If it will placate you guys, I will refer to them as sackers instead. The point is the same. So please, stop attacking me on this. I was arguing that that form of nomadic raider would not exist in space, and used the term barbarian to refer to it. I believe this discussion has passed it's point of usefulness.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Tried. Wordpress registration fail. Is registration set to manual approval?"

Should have warned you about that. Yes, I'm retaining registration approval. I have anonymous comments enabled, so membership is limited to admins and possible future editors. I've got your email address, and I'll get back to you with my list, plus comments.

"Also note that the MPH uses powder deposition and laser sintering, which when combined can achieve impressive precision. One of the parts they supplied was a socket on an Apache tail rotor. We're not just talking screws, here."

I'm aware that a lot of complex parts can be made by deposition processes. But deposition can't do post fabrication heat treating or coating. Nor can it extract, refine and powder raw materials. And it's very slow compared to traditional machining.

That's why I brought up screws. They're almost iconically representative of the economics of standard parts fabrication. They can be made on general purpose macinery, but to be made economically in the quantities required, they must be made on specialized machines. To put it another way, you can make a prototype on an engine lathe, but a product has to be made on an automatic screw machine.

"Why import screws when you can grow some carbon nanotube rings at home?"

I know I'm banging the same drum more and more loudly, but the answer to the question is still that raw materials require large, expensive machinery to extract and process. And, no, I don't think you can build a civilization on carbon fibers made from CO2 extracted from the Martian atmosphere. Where are you going to get the binding resins? And, once again, the machinery necessary to process carbon into structural components (fibers/nanotubes/whatever) ain't cheap or lightweight.

"I dislike small dogs, though."

Gotta be small -- you're only interested in the nose, ears, and brain. The rest of the package is substrate. You want it to be as small as possible to minimize parasitic life support utilization.

Now that I've made the technical argument, I'll tell you that I too used to have the same attitude about small dogs. Then I had to take care of my grandmother's Yorkie when she went in the old age home. Turns out they have a lot of personality and they're tolerable, if not necessarily my fisrt choice.

Tony said...

tkinias:

"The IN SPAAACE analog to nomads is therefore very much possible, precisely because they couldn’t exist without an industrial civilization to “parasitize”. It’s completely self-sufficient hunter–gatherer analogs that are impossible."

The nomadic pastoralists of the Eurasian heartland didn't prey on civilization for their livelihood. Those that attacked civilization were the marginalized tribes that had been driven off the steppe by stronger tribes during times of population pressure. (The Mongols are a special case, in that they organizaed everybody on the steppe and made an imperial project out of their population pressures, rather than the strong ejecting the weak.) Normally, the steppe peoples lived in a trade relationship with civilization. Even though they relied on civilization for craft items and luxuries they couldn't make for themselves, the basics of their livelihood were developed from their own resources, using their own skills.

I'm just not seeing that happening in space. Resources are too sparse (in terms of time and energy) and require too much technological sophistication to utilize. You just can't base a society in space on individual or even small group skillsets, even with trade in the mix.

Raymond said...

Patrick:

Sounds like a good definition to me.

Byron:

The question "What if there were another wave of barbarian invasions?" sounds like it's talking about outsiders to me. And you're assuming any sort of nomadic culture in space would work exactly like the Mongols, have no industrial base, have no higher education, and how the hell did they get the rockets anyways, since they're so stupid...

It's a problem of logical predicates, and it starts with your definition. That's why it's so contentious. Why assume we're talking groups of a few people, scattered amongst hundreds of craft (and who knows how they got those) instead of groups of five or ten thousand, each of which is likely capable of maintaining a semblance of a high-tech civilization? Sure, we can say the latter will resemble Vikings instead of Mongols, but they still fit the role of Outside Invader.

"Yes, but they only use it to make spares on demand."

They did build some new things, actually. They created a new six-piece gun mount for a Humvee in five hours. Said gun mount became standard.

"And how do wandering people mine stuff? Don't tell me you expect to have a mobile mining center, too."

What, you expect them to use pickaxes? If we ever do get resources from asteroids (like, say platinum group metals) we'll have to come up with exactly that, a mobile mining center. Like I said: prerequisite. Although it is easier to do with kiloton spacecraft than horses, I have to admit.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"...groups of five or ten thousand, each of which is likely capable of maintaining a semblance of a high-tech civilization..."

I think you way underestimate the wide variety of knowledge and skills that goes into high tech civilization. Look at it this way -- a modern nuclear aircraft carrier plus air wing takes 5,000 servicemembers just to operate. It takes tens of thousands of persons (in just the primary industries involved) to build the ship, equip it with everything from nuclear reactors to galley steam tables, and manufacture and equip the primary weapons system (aircraft) and its weapons. Our entire high tech civilization of 300,000,000 persons can only afford to keep a dozen of them in operation, even though they represent the ultimate in national security short of strategic nuclear weapons.

Or, to focus sharply on space technology, it took the effort over ten years of an estimated 400,000 persons to put Neil and Buzz on the Moon and bring them back. One might think that well, it was all new technology; once it became standardized, things would be different.

If you think so, go down to your local Wal-mart, Target, or Canadian Tire store. Imagine your society having only one of each thing, to minimize the multiplicative effects of capitalistic competition. If that doesn't stop you, think about how many people it still takes to make all of those things -- not just the people designing and making the end product, but the people growing/extracting the raw materials, the people processing/refining those materials, and all of the people making the machinery and vehicle required to grow/extract/process/refine, and all of the vehicle to move the various intermediate materials around from step to step. Turns out the people required to put together the inventory of your local cut-price retail outlet might be as many as the people it took to put a man on the Moon and bring hims back safely to the Earth.

Byron said...

Raymond:
Yes, and all of the now-standard gun mounts were also built on these machines, too. Wait, no, the plans were given to a factory which made them. My point stands.
Also, I'm not dismissing the possibility of an outsider invasion. I'm dismissing the possibility of Mongols in Space!!!!!
Anyone doing mining is going to be fairly sedentary. It makes sense to strip an asteroid bare (which might take a while) before moving on. Or just redirect the asteroid to a central processing center. Either way, it isn't something classical nomadic barbarians will do. None of the above is. I'm attacking the troupe, not the concept of outsider invasion. Any claims to the contrary are strawmen.

Tony said...

Byron:

"I'm attacking the troupe..."

As am I. I think for some reason many people think that spaceflight is a technological toolbox that can be used to mostly reproduce itself, with a little help from trade for some high-end items. If that were the case, Mongols IN SPAAACE! would be possible.

But there's nothing that we know, or even think we know, that shows this to be the case. It appears from all evidence that spaceflight is an expression of a very large, high technology civilization, that, in the case of manned missions at any rate, can only be justified philosophically, and only be done with discretionary income. Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars that it costs over any appreciable length of time, it takes some pretty strong philosophy to justify it, too.

To be honest, this makes even space vikings a considerable stretch of the imagination. If you can get there from here, what could you possibly rob from somebody that would justify the trip?

Milo said...

Why are people talking in terms of thousand-person groups?

The "civilized" empires under discussion will consist of multiple planets. By contrast, a "barbarian" faction consisting of a bunch of squabbling tribes numbering only a few hundred million people each with only one sparsely inhabited planet to their name (woo, lots of wilderness left for the guys on ponies!), seems pretty disorganized.

Also: refer to the other thread. You know, the one about city-states.

Anonymous said...

Asimov's 'The Stars, like Dust' had an interesting variation on the idea of the space barbarian. The antagonists, the Tyranni, were analogues of the Mongol Golden Horde, while their subjects, the Nebula Kingdoms, were analogues of the Russian states under the Horde's control. The Tyranni were not nomadic, but came from an arid world, and based their tactics around small fast ships that could outmanoeuvre the larger, slower ships of the Kingdoms, allowing them to defeat their wealthier more populous enemies. The Tyranni allowed the Kingdoms to maintain their own forms of government, but exacted large amounts of tribute. They also banned scientific research and limited industrialization to prevent the Kingdoms from becoming a threat to them.
The Tyranni were not barbarians in the sense of lacking a settled civilization, or advanced technology, but it could be argued that conditions on their homeworld helped make them adaptable, tough and ruthless enough to defeat their richer, more 'civilized' enemies.
This kind of spacefaring conqueror seems at least plausible. The Empire of Japan can be seen as a 20th century example, since between 1904 and 1942, despite a lack of resources and a history of isolation, it not only annexed local states like Manchuria and Korea, but took territory from Western states, including Russia, the British and Dutch Empires, and the USA.

R.C.

Clay said...

I guess it all comes down to how miniaturized and self-sufficient you believe technology can become.

A spaceship manufactured like we make air-craft carriers probably will always require a state level society.

A spaceship grown by another spaceship using nanotechnology and powered by efficient fusion or anti-matter technologies would be essentially self-sufficient. It could grow to immense size. It could spawn other ships.

The culture novels essentially rely on this to describe post-scarcity societies where everyone has as much of everything as they want.

We live in a world where we all have supercomputers, live in houses that offer perfect microclimates, travel by car for hundreds of miles at a whim, take air travel for granted such that planes flying overhead and near the speed of sound don't even get a bored glance, and enjoy all the food, clothing, and tools that we want. Imagine what a pipe dream that must have sounded to pioneers of the American West just a hundred and fifty years ago. The tools and economies of scale that make this possible was science fiction back then.

I think we should stop judging the possible future by what we can accomplish right now. Hundreds of years of the kind of technological development we have enjoyed for the past century might see lots of these crazy dreams come to fruition.

Who needs an infrastructure when nanotech can manufacture everything you need. Who needs resources when nanotech grown space stations can mine everything you need from asteroid belts, or even grind up whole planetoids for raw materials.

It's hard to imagine a day where space elevators are so ordinary people don't even give them a second glance. But then consider that 747 flying overhead that you barely noticed and think again...

Byron said...

Nanotech is not going to be able to build starships more efficiently than conventional manufacturing. This explains why. Other than that, I agree with you, but nanotech isn't magic. Unless you choose to use it that way. If so, then the discussion is moot.
But if they have nanotech, why are the sackers raiding?

Tony said...

Byron:

"Nanotech is not going to be able to build starships more efficiently than conventional manufacturing. This explains why."

In slaughtering the concept of nanotechnological fabrication of gross artifacts, the author actually manages to make things look at least an order of magnitude better than they really are. He totally glosses over energy supply, data storage, and data processing. I surmise that he did so because he didn't want to take the enthusiastic Space Cadets at SDN and whack them right between the running lights with the "Man, are you ignorant!" stick.

To deal with just the data storage issue alone, a nanobot needs to store, at a minimum the complete plans for a complex artifact, including it's place in the artifact's construction, in relation to the place of all other nanobots', the surrounding environment, and the timeline of the overall process...and, oh yeah, the every single move and operation the bot needs to make throughout the process. But a nanobot has just enough molecules in its makeup to make a one bit memory flip-flop on a 21st Century microchip. Oops.

Clay said...

Could you use nanotechnology to build the robotically controlled manufacturing plants that then build you a starship? I think yes. Maybe it will take a thousand steps, or ten thousand, who cares? The point is, once you've got nanotechnology and robotic control, the economic constraints disappear.

As for why they would raid, I can only ask why you're assuming that raiding would only be about stealing tools.

There are plenty of cultural reasons why people raid, when the goods stolen don't seem to support the economics of the effort and risk. Prestige is always a big one. Gaining fame at home by proving yourself at war. Controlling the polities of nearby star systems by terrorizing them--which works even if they are, in one sense, much bigger than you but without your will to fight, or the ability to find you in the depths of space. Stealing things you can't make like priceless works of art, religious icons, new technologies, or maybe their leading physicists and other scientific minds. There are lots of reasons.

Historically, few wars and/or raids make sense economically. They are as much about politics as they are enrichment.

Clay said...

"To deal with just the data storage issue alone, a nanobot needs to store, at a minimum the complete plans for a complex artifact"

I disagree. Even today, most human workers on building projects don't have this kind of knowledge about what they are building. But they still get it done.

Nanotech designs based on fractals go a long way towards building big things with simple plans. Another is recognizing that it isn't a one general-purpose nanobot for all jobs, but thousands--perhaps millions--of different nanobots for these jobs.

This is how cellular construction works--it's how nanotech will work too.

Byron said...

Did you even read the article? Your argument about data is a strawman against it. Tony brought that point up, and he may not be completely right, but nanobots have no storage capacity, so it doesn't matter if they only need 1%.
Now we're back to building factories. Why is a nano-built factory better than a regular one, anyway? The economic constraints do not disappear. The material has to come from somewhere, and you seem to assume each nanobot is as smart as a full assembly robot (see above).

Raymond said...

For definitions, let's put some set theory to it:

Set MONGOL is a strict subset of set NOMADIC RAIDER.
Set NOMADIC RAIDER is a strict subset of set BARBARIAN RAIDER.
Thus set BARBARIAN RAIDER != set MONGOL.

Prerequisites to any barbarian invasion scenario:
A) Spaceflight is, while not a personal-scale endeavour, much closer to jet travel than current spaceflight in frequency and availability. This would mean, for example, that private spacecraft can be acquired, and the full technological and economic capability to design and manufacture such craft isn't necessary to acquire and maintain them.
B) Enough of the solar system has been settled, and for long enough, that cultures can and have drifted away from their Earthen origins.

Frankly, if we don't have A, we can't have B, and if we don't have B, there aren't any barbarians.

Byron:

"Also, I'm not dismissing the possibility of an outsider invasion. I'm dismissing the possibility of Mongols in Space!!!!!"

Okay, and I'm not going to argue strongly in favor of Space Mongols, either. Space Vikings, Space Goths, and maybe even Space Apache, but all of those societies had settled elements to one degree or another while still qualifying as barbarians in the sense we're talking about here.

Tony:

"If you can get there from here, what could you possibly rob from somebody that would justify the trip?"

That's a good question, to which I have no good answer, and would depend so much on the specifics of the economies in question that I'm not sure we could properly answer it here.

"Turns out the people required to put together the inventory of your local cut-price retail outlet might be as many as the people it took to put a man on the Moon and bring hims back safely to the Earth."

I suspect our answer is somewhere in there, if it's anywhere. The full range of products of a large, broad, well-capitalized economy could be a tempting target for a marginal civilization, if they could find a way to be competitive enough in war.

Which I realize is the catch, before you jump all over me.

"I think you way underestimate the wide variety of knowledge and skills that goes into high tech civilization."

No, no I don't. I was probably unclear in my previous statement, but I meant ten thousand as the average settlement size, not the size of the whole civilization. I pulled the 10,000 from Rick's previous post on colony sizes because it lined up with the projected population of the more feasible habitat designs and allowed for enough specialists to keep such a habitat maintained (assuming regular contact with the rest of the solar system). I'd wager hundreds of millions at least to be any sort of threat.

Raymond said...

Tony:

RE Materials, etc:

One of the many beauties of carbon nanotubes (as opposed to carbon fibers) is that they're their own binding agent. Some techniques require somewhat exotic liquids, but we're making progress in finding more easily acquired catalysts. The raw material is basically just graphite dust, which happens to be the byproduct of the Bosch reaction, which is our leading candidate for closed-cycle CO2 scrubbing, especially at larger scales.

For processing other elements, I give you the plasma incinerator. Which is only borderline economical at present, but due to energy costs as much as anything. Almost by definition, a spaceborne society has cheaper energy than we do at present.

So hey, there we have two building blocks for relatively efficient small-scale fabrication. Others will surely follow. No, it's not a panacea, and no, it won't magically sweep away mass production methods, but it would certainly make maintenance and upkeep of high tech a lot easier.

"Gotta be small -- you're only interested in the nose, ears, and brain. The rest of the package is substrate. You want it to be as small as possible to minimize parasitic life support utilization."

Yeah, I know, but I grew up with big dogs, and inherited by father's disdain for the cat-sized ones.

Clay:

"I think we should stop judging the possible future by what we can accomplish right now."

I like that sentiment. We're supposed to be hopeful about the possibilites, right?

Milo said...

I've noticed some arguments claiming "these societies would have no possible way of producing the resources they need to exist", and other arguments saying "these societies would have no reason to go raiding because they can already produce everything they want themselves". Surely there is some sort of middle ground?



Raymond:

"Yeah, I know, but I grew up with big dogs, and inherited by father's disdain for the cat-sized ones."

Do you have anything against cat-sized cats?


"I like that sentiment. We're supposed to be hopeful about the possibilites, right?"

I'm not sure if postulating the firey collapse of civilization under hordes of barbarian marauders counts as "hopeful".

Raymond said...

Milo:

"Do you have anything against cat-sized cats?"

Only when they hack my immune system. Or when they try their "o hai, iz a kitteh" cute-overload indoctrination bit.

"I'm not sure if postulating the firey collapse of civilization under hordes of barbarian marauders counts as "hopeful"."

Well, since we may still get the fiery collapse of civilization bit, but this way we get shiny spaceships first.

In all seriousness, though, the idea that our present state is an expression of natural equilibrium and therefore cannot be improved upon meaningfully is pretty depressing. If we assume the Plausible Midfuture will be like reality unless noted (where most of those notes are extra zeroes), I think we'll trap ourselves in the follies of the present. I can understand a certain conservatism when approaching things like magical nanotech or interstellar travel, since we can put hard numbers to their limits (and thus limit our expectations). I can't quite agree with the same conservatism applied to our political and economic constructs - if they're the best we've got for the forseeable midfuture, we're in rough shape. (Insert obligatory reference to Voltaire's "...in this, the best of all possible worlds..." bit.)

Clay said...

This conversation would be a lot easier with threaded comments.

@Raymond:
Yes I read the article, and all I can say is it takes a lot of balls to state that something is technologically impossible when the best scientists in the field still don't have a clue what is possible.

As for the strawman bit. I was responding to Tony since he's part of the conversation. That isn't a strawman argument; it's responding to someone.

Finally, I don't really see my comments as optimistic--just asking people to look forward a bit more. What will things be like 500 or a 1000 years from now? How about 10,000? Is there any reason we can't consider that?

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

And a gentle reminder not to go all barbarian on each other.

Barbarians were not even supposed to be the main subject of my post, but obviously everyone wants to talk about them!

As mentioned upthread, the ancient Greeks used 'barbaros' for anyone who wasn't Greek. The familiar sense I'm using developed, no surprise, in late Roman times, for tribal/nomadic peoples, as distinct from urban-agrarian 'civilized' people, who made themselves troublesome.

I don't think those peoples were ignorant and unsophisticated. The steppe peoples invented the chariot, the first high performance vehicle - then made it obsolete by learning to ride.

But their cultures had only limited internal specialization, though the entire culture was specialized for husbandry. As said upthread, true classical 'barbarians' lived in a complex symbiosis with sedentary societies.

They would have been just one more 'marginal' group in the tapestry of agrarian age civilization except for the fact that their basic skillset and tool kit were so readily adaptable for war.

And it gave them a huge advantage in military demographics, because pretty much every household could provide a trained warrior.

That is what I think would be very hard to get in a space analogy: a way of life that gives the community an outsized military capability.

'Space Vikings' I can just barely see, because if colony planets have lost their space capabilities, they are more or less at the mercy of anyone who comes along in a spaceship.

But what are the 'Vikings' gonna raid for, besides pretty women and red fuming brandy? Which on some primal level are pretty good things to raid for, but they don't keep your spaceships running. (Unless the women can sing in Welsh.)

But historically, successful pirates and sea rovers usually end up as merchants. Because if you can raid you can trade, and trading turns out to be more profit for less risk.

Milo said...

Rick:

"That is what I think would be very hard to get in a space analogy: a way of life that gives the community an outsized military capability."

What constitutes a "trained warrior" in a space setting, anyway? Many of us seem to gravitate to the "warrant officer" model of starship crews, technicians who understand the workings of the machinery in question. There certainly isn't much call for musclebound machos on a ship.

Of course, to be a succesful Viking, you have to be able to not only pilot your ship, but also to storm the coastal village that you chose to land near...


"But what are the 'Vikings' gonna raid for, besides pretty women and red fuming brandy? Which on some primal level are pretty good things to raid for, but they don't keep your spaceships running."

So what does keep your spaceships running?

Helium-3 -> found primarily in gas giants. Hard to get elsewhere.
Fossil fuels -> found only on Earth. Terraforming doesn't create fossils overnight!
Uranium -> less limited, but availability still varies based on local geology.
Antimatter -> who knows.
Pretty women chanting in Welsh -> you addressed this one already.

And then you might need to steal some sophisticated components that are beyond your manufacturing ability. Yes, it may be hard to imagine something so sophisticated that a spaceship-building culture doesn't have the tools to make it, but who knows what advanced magitech might be in vogue in the future? (Nanotech? Antimatter?) Despite our extreme level of present-day technology, the manufacturing capability of individuals is still limited. And globalization is ever increasing.

I'm going to repeat my old mantra: if you have something worth trading, then you have something worth stealing. The likelyhood of there being something worth trading in space has been rightfully questioned, but most settings tend to assume there is.


"But historically, successful pirates and sea rovers usually end up as merchants. Because if you can raid you can trade, and trading turns out to be more profit for less risk."

Yeah. But conversely, ussuccessful traders are wont to resort to piracy as a recourse. As long as they turned to trading as a matter of cost-effectiveness rather than moral opposition to larceny, you can rest assured they won't be leaving their cutlasses far from hand.

The wheel of fortune turns.

Thucydides said...

The problem with the classical model of Barbarians having a demographic advantage of every male of military age also being trained as a warrior due to the lifestyle was overcome through technology in two ways:

1: Agricultural societies could produce and sustain even more people, including men of military age than any sort of pastoral society. Our hordes were bigger than theirs

2. Military technology that allowed rulers to rapidly raise effective fighting forces with minimal training. The pike and the crossbow were European innovations that set the stage for the gunpowder revolution. Masses of peasants could become effective masses of troops with some professional leadership and these military tools.

The full effects could be seen by the 1500's; knights had been swept from the battlefield (even outside of the use of artillery to level the castles that had previously allowed minor lords to defy the central authority almost at will), The Battle of Lepanto marked the end of Ottoman expansion not because so many ships were lost (the Ottomans had essentially replaced the fleet within a few years) but because their Jannessarys and archers had been killed in such vast numbers (casualty figures at Lepanto were not seen again until the Great War of 1914-1918)., and it would take a generation to replace those losses.

In the here and now, we may be reaching a similar turning point. Technology has allowed even marginal people access to cheap and sophisticated tools and weapons, turning a rag tag band of Somali fishermen into a pirate force that can disrupt global trade, or give insurgents the ability to meet modern mechanized forces on nearly equal terms in a tactical engagement. The next level is the use of technology to provide "entry denial"; this includes things like locally produced IRBMs, cruise missiles, WMD and so on, making it potentially very costly to force your way into a region under dispute..

Conventional forcs are not fully prepared or equipped to deal with this, and the political will to continue in the face of costly interventions may be lacking as well.

But beyond local tactical success, or a concurrent media/political campaign, this sort of "barbarian" warfare is up against a massive logistical base with the ability to project and sustain power over global distances (even a relatively tiny military establishment like Canada's has a mechanized battlegroup with tanks and artillery halfway around the world in Kandahar province, along with a Naval task force in the Arabian sea and global transport flights to sustain them for the last five years...). When the marginal groups develop the ability to logistically support and project their forces for globally for years and carry out continued operations , then we will be in real trouble.

Byron said...

It was a strawman in that you didn't refute the points of the article. You refuted an ancillary point. Even if you're right, nanotech won't solve your problem.
The problem is that I don't know how we really can look forward. That may seem pessimistic, but science can use extrapolations and numbers. But what will people do? I'm an engineer, don't ask me.
Milo, to storm a village, just threaten to hover over it. Look at the page on takeoff and landing in my Aurek report.
The problem with stealing sophisticated components is that if you can run a starship, you should be able to reverse-engineer them, and then build them. If you can't, the people you're stealing from are very likely to be larger and more advanced. Unless those parts contain small Welsh-chanting women, and can't be duplicated. But that's pure magitech.

Thucydides, I completely agree with you on the decline of the sackers. However, the various marginal groups are only threats because we're too soft to remove them as such. We don't decimate areas that resist. This is a good thing, but it also allows resistance. The Somali pirates could be dealt with in a few years if we'd hang them and commit sufficient forces. And the very definition of a marginal force is one that can't do that, nor present an existential threat to it's opponents.
Beating a Dead Horse:
A thought occured to me. None of the great nomads were ever seafarers. Yes, they were in central Asia, but they didn't build ships. If they can't even build ships, what makes you think they can build rockets?

Lauchlan said...

How did the Space Nomads get their ships? They probably always had them(for a certain value of always).

Maybe they were the collected space forces, asteroid miners and merchant fleet of a nation that no longer exists. Maybe they were on the wrong side of a civil war, a great power on a balkanized world that just got un-balkanized by an enemy faction or their world just got gobbled up by the local chapter of the Space Romans. Perhaps the world they once inhabited was just slagged.

They are the dispossessed in a very literal sense. They might receive support from allied governments or offer refuge to exiles, pirates or rogue ships but are fundamentally alone and exist between states if that makes any sense. As a side note for that last one a mining ship whose crew have just been told that this is their last job and the ship is going to be scraped electing to form a workers cooperative like those formed in Argentina during the early 2000s.

These guys look a lot more like Space Cossacks than Space Mongols however and they probably fight that way too. Cossack occupy a kind middle ground between Mongols and Somalis. They're not an all conquering horde but can still effectively threaten great powers and often they fight alongside allies. Of course cossacks aren't nomadic which kind of undermines my point but it's an excuse to use the term Hetmanate so that's a price I'm willing to pay.

Political context is important as well. If your Space Mongols are going up against Space Romans they're probably going to lose. If they're fighting Space Holy Romans on the other hand... well now you're thinking with portals.

Sorry if this is a little disjointed,it's been written over several hours.

Thucydides said...

I find the arguments against nanotech very unconvincing, simply because we have daily examples with us.

Cells and bacteria have no difficulty in storing complex instruction sets and executing them using molecules of DNA/RNA, and of course they extract energy from the local media, either converting sunlight into energy or extracting energy via various chemical process. We have figured this out to the extent that cells and bacteria can be manipulated to produce things that we deem valuable, such as Human Growth Hormone from e coli, or spider silk from goat milk.

This is not to say that the K Eric Dexler version of diamond nanorobots is ever going to exist, (nor is this saying it is outright impossible), just that some version of nanotechnology is viable and will eventually be implemented. I would guess that the actual embodiment will be in something like a "nanotree", which extends roots into the soil to extract minerals and deploys solar collector leaves for energy generation, we harvest the "fruit", "sap" or cut the trunk for exotic fibers and materials. This is a vision probably a century or two away from fruition.

Why miniature fabs and nanotech will be important is because the energy and time costs for transporting bulk goods in space trump every other factor. It doesn't matter how efficiently screws can be made on special mass production machines on Earth when it makes no sense to export low value bulk commodities from Earth to Mars or anywhere else (except maybe LEO and the Moon). Mini fabs and effective nanotech are portable and valuable enough to be transported across the Solar System, and users will be making their own screws on the spot (if they don't switch to something more suitable for the environment. Welding and heat sealing seem to be ideal due to the availability of energy in space).

Low tech space barbarians still can't exist except in very limited situations (remember the posts about people moving into abandoned settlements and industrial facilities and cyclers once they ceased to be useful or profitable for the original owners?), we will be looking at Somali pirates rather than the Golden Horde, and any settled Power will have the ability to deal with them, if not the will.

I suspect that many processes we think are important here will be abandoned in a space civilization as being impractical; if you can't heat treat or case harden metals without importing lots of massive equipment, then you have lots of incentive to substitute a different process or mechanism which does not need to be case hardened or heat treated.

Tony said...

Clay:

"I disagree. Even today, most human workers on building projects don't have this kind of knowledge about what they are building. But they still get it done."

Okay, reduce the data storage requirement by a thousand, or even by a million. Let's extend our aircraft carrier analogy. Make it so that each nanobot stores the equivalent of a compartment drawing, directions to and from the compartment, a work schedule, and the ability to use the tools needed to install, say, a piping scheme. A conservative estimate is several megabytes of data, plus several more megabytes of software. How are you going to store that in one bit, or a thousand, or a million? And we haven't even set aside mass for sensors, processors, and effectors (the three basic building blocks of automata). Nor have we figured out where energy storage and conversion is going on.

I ain't sayin', I'm just sayin'...

"Nanotech designs based on fractals go a long way towards building big things with simple plans. Another is recognizing that it isn't a one general-purpose nanobot for all jobs, but thousands--perhaps millions--of different nanobots for these jobs.

This is how cellular construction works--it's how nanotech will work too."


I know it's rude to ask, because it goes against interwebs egalitarianism. But I can't help myself -- exactly what is it you do for a living? Does it involve any science or technology at all?

A mamal or any other multicellular organism is colonial, not fractal. To give you an idea what the complexity difference is on that, a Mandelbrot set can be calculated and stored using about 10 lines of C++ code or about 100 lines of AT&T syntax x86 assembler. (I know that for a fact -- I've done it in both.) Even when you compile it to machine code, the entire program is only 40 or 50 kilobytes, or 320 to 400 kilobits. Let's say 500 kilobits to be conservative.

The human genome is approximately 3 billion base pairs. Each base pair requires two bits of data to characterise:

1. Is it a GC or an AT pairing, and
2. Is it oriented right or left?

("right" and "left" are totally arbitrary, but they are necessary)

That means the human genome expressed as base pairs alone (you also need a considerable amount of metadata to describe gene configuration) is approximately 6 billion bits, or 6 million kilobits. That's 12,000 times the amount of data to build a mandelbrot set.

And let's not forget that the "complexity" of a Mandelbrot, or any fractal, is purely aesthetic. It's ultimately a simple, discrete two dimensionsional Cartesian grid, having an integer magnitude scalar associated with each coordinate. Even a block of crystal iron is more complaex than that.

Nanotechnology simply can't do what you claim it can.

Milo said...

Lauchlan:

"Cossack occupy a kind middle ground between Mongols and Somalis. They're not an all conquering horde but can still effectively threaten great powers and often they fight alongside allies."

Mongols weren't an all conquering horde before Genghis Khan, either.



Thucydides:

"we will be looking at Somali pirates rather than the Golden Horde, and any settled Power will have the ability to deal with them, if not the will."

Could we really deal with Somali pirates that easily, if they inhabited all of Africa rather than just Somalia?

Byron said...

Yes, but now it's a lot larger, and while a cell is complex, it isn't a spacecraft.
Your nanotree sounds a lot like a genetically engineered plant, and won't build spacecraft. There's a huge difference between nanotech and microfabs for this sort of stuff. Plus, we're going to have to ship a lot of the stuff to Mars anyway. The fab and the raw materials or a processing plant. The first is completely silly, while the second works, but it'll still be expensive and not that effective.
The cyclers don't exactly work for barbarians either. They still need rockets to go plunder stuff, and I think I've made the case that cyclers won't be totally useless even after they stop being profitable to build. If I haven't, I will do so.

Any settled power could deal with the Somali pirates right now if they had the will. Convoy ships, declare an exclusion zone around each convoy. If people come into the zone, ask them to leave. Once. Then send a helicopter to blow them up. Make the zone ten miles around each ship. That should give you plenty of time. If a boat makes a dash for a ship, don't bother asking.
Say, that doesn't even take too much will. If we really wanted a cheap way, nuke Somalia.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"I find the arguments against nanotech very unconvincing, simply because we have daily examples with us."

Biology? See my response to Clay. Biology works simply because it is that complex. And chemical assembly of structures one molecule at a time is a long-term investment. If you want to spread 55 magajoules out over 18 years to make a 75 kilogram artifact, be my guest. I'm not going to worry too much about your competition.

Raymond said...

Much as I'm on the minifab side of this argument, I find comparisons of nanotech and cellular processes ...unhelpful. Cells are microtech, not nanotech - the average human cell is what, 10 ┬Ám? Those three or four orders of magnitude over what we usually refer to as nanotech allow for corresponding increases in logic complexity, data storage, self-repair and energy processing. Three orders of mag difference in scale gives nine orders of mag just in volume, and then we have network complexity on top of that.

That's the difference between an individual's workshop and a city, by the way.

In fairness though, Tony, most semi-serious nanotech designs I've read about have external storage of instructions and/or very simple processes to create bulk materials. Not to say it'd work, but a slightly better information theory foundation. (No idea how they'd get the bandwidth, but that's a problem nobody likes to mention.)

Byron, as you're dismissing the concept of putting fabrication facilities of any sort on Mars, you're totally neglecting the locality value. Supply chain length is a cost (a very, very large one in interplanetary terms), and you've argued constantly on the ground warfare thread about how the supply chain length makes a ground invasion impractical (you actually say impossible, but it's merely very expensive). How do you think a long supply chain back to Earth for all manufactured goods looks in comparison?

More distributed forms of industry are, I'll say again, a prerequisite of colonization.

Raymond said...

Rick:

"Barbarians were not even supposed to be the main subject of my post, but obviously everyone wants to talk about them!"

Because they break stalemates. And really, they're the only wiggle room to get out of contests temperate and indecisive without creating short-lived suns.

"That is what I think would be very hard to get in a space analogy: a way of life that gives the community an outsized military capability."

I think growing up in and around spacecraft and learning astrodynamics as primary education would qualify. Upthread someone (Byron or Tony, I think) pointed out how few of us could pilot a spacecraft (automated systems notwithstanding). Imagine learning how in your early teens instead of your postgraduate.

In the Spherical War Cows threads and their offspring, it was established fairly convincingly that while kinetics made for good assault weapons, they were indiscriminate and single-use. Laserstars were complex and expensive, inherently limited in number (because of the particular mechanics of laser power and mirror size), and useful for a greater range of missions (many including a certain delicacy and precision kinetics can't match). It was also established much of the contests in question would be more strategic maneuver than all-out fights. That sounds like a recipe for Temperate and Indecisive Contests to me.

If the established, "civilized" powers are locked in that kind of restrained warfare, the "barbarians" could be considered the powers from further out in the system, with little to no ability to manufacture Big Lasers (there's that manufacturing advantage people are looking for) and are forced into tactics entirely revolving around cheap kinetics (cheap, that is, for a spacefaring civilization established for long enough).

I think that might even give rise to the sort of overwhelming assault tactics The Barbarians are known for, including the indiscriminate destruction, the nonchalance about collateral damage, the periodic sacks, and the generational waves. And no, I'm not talking about planetary landings, either - for a spaceborne civilization, why would they bother? They show up at a planet, destroy the defenses, take what they can from what's left in orbit (if there's something valuable enough to take), then Kessler the low orbits and keep the planet in question off the board (so to speak) for a decade while the debris burns up.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"In fairness though, Tony, most semi-serious nanotech designs I've read about have external storage of instructions and/or very simple processes to create bulk materials. Not to say it'd work, but a slightly better information theory foundation. (No idea how they'd get the bandwidth, but that's a problem nobody likes to mention.)"

Making nanotechnical fabrication concrete parallel computing. I get that. Here's the issue I see. If you visualize each nanobot as a processor in a massive parralel array, you still have to store a considerable amount of software and data in each one. It has to know what it's required to do and where it's required to be at each step in the process. To do that it has to have the facilities to figure out where it is at a given point in time, what it's orientation is, and where it has to go and what it has to do before the next time tick. I can think of ways to providing an environmental means of determining position and orientation. But the nanobot still has to have the sensors to detect:

own position
own orientation
raw material position
raw material orrientation
timing signal(s)

It has to have onboard the software and hardware to determine what to do with the sensor data.

It has to have the affectors and their controlling firmware (probably, maybe software).

It also has to store a program. The Minimal Nanite Program would be something like:

from(posCurrent)
move(posNext)
do(actionX)

Each nanite would be transmitted (somehow) posNext and actionX, then a Go signal would be sent. Rinse, repeat (millions or even billions of times for even the simplest artifact). It is presumed that each nanite stores posCurrent and a list of instructions for all valid values of actionX.

The programmers out there might be getting a bit curious right now about how we're going to be fault tolerant. Well, the contract is that every nanite is guaranteed to receive every instruction set and timing signal accurately, and likewise react accurately, for a value of "accurate" precisely equal to 1.

Okay, you wise guys, stop cackling and get up off the floor. I'm serious here -- there's no feedback mechanism. Everything has to work every time, or you start getting position and timing errors on component (read molecule) placement.

So maybe we need to build in a feedback mechanism. How much bigger does a nanite get and/or how much slower does the process run, so that feedback can be provided and acted upon? Electromagnetic feedback is fast, but means much larger nanites that can generate a detectable EM signal. Chemical feedback can probably be done for not much extra nanite mass, but it takes a long time for a chemical signal to be emitted and propagate to a control system sensor. And how would you construct a chemical that could reliably communicate "Unit 127004; pos 1230000095,4568499764,0000120698; error 010"? That sounds like long chain protein territory to me.

Byron said...

Raymond:
I'm not completely dismissing fabrication facilities on Mars. I'm just saying that, unless you can harvest resources locally (which is harder than it sounds), they won't be the main source of spares. Think about it. I either ship a screw, or ship a screw blank, and the stuff to turn it into a screw. Which costs more?
Microfab is more useful when you have fifteen different types of screws and statistically will need two to four total spares over a six-month period. It's cheaper and easier to make those two to four than to make 30 in masse and ship them, provided you have the microfab facility. However, if your're statistically going to need four track sections a day for your tank battalion, then it makes sense to just ship the sections.
And no, learning to pilot early really doesn't give a community outsize military ability. They still need ships, and I think that in most cases, ships will be in far shorter supply than pilots. After all, the computer will do most of the work. The Mongol's outsize capability came from the fact that everyone could fight. That would only help if everyone had a ship. For example, I taught myself astrodynamics in high school. I could probably pilot a ship, certainly with a little more training. How many does the US have? Three.
If your barbarians can't build laserstars, then what's to stop the inner planets from allying and sending the laserstars to stop them, or just kineticing them back? It doesn't make a lot of sense, as destroying the defenses will likely destroy anything they're defending, making conquest pointless.

I'm going to leave attacking nano to Tony. He seems better at it then me.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Theoretically speaking (meaning I'm totally playing Devil's Advocate here):

- own position

Don't need it on an absolute scale; just need relative position to nearest other node(s). And it doesn't need to be very precise.

- own orientation

External signal, and you can probably get the sensor down to a couple atoms.

- raw material position

You'd have to customize the nanobot in question to work with a particular material, and the sensor would have to be a very particularly selected couple of atoms.

- raw material orientation

See above - that's why I said a couple atoms.

- timing signal(s)

External signal all the way.

In general, though, I think you're thinking too many layers up. Nanobots wouldn't have programs so much as raw instruction sets, with sensors and actions as control registers. Instruction set size would resemble Brainfuck more than x86.

And we're probably going to need micrometer-sized command nodes anyways, for all the higher-level functions, macroscopic positioning, local timing signals, etc, and you'd even want the error detection and correction located there, rather than trying in vain to stuff them into the nanobots.

Raymond said...

Byron:

"I'm not completely dismissing fabrication facilities on Mars. I'm just
saying that, unless you can harvest resources locally (which is harder
than it sounds), they won't be the main source of spares. Think about
it. I either ship a screw, or ship a screw blank, and the stuff to turn
it into a screw. Which costs more?"


Man, you are talking about a period way too early to be worrying about barbarians. By the time they're a concern, Mars will have had its own full-fledged industrial capability for decades. Harvesting of local resources is, like I've said, a prerequisite for what we're talking about. So yeah, ship the screw machine instead of the screws, and over a year or ten I'll guarantee the former pays off better. The assumption of local resource exploitation has to be in place, or there aren't enough people out that far for any of this to happen.

"If your barbarians can't build laserstars, then what's to stop the
inner planets from allying and sending the laserstars to stop them, or
just kineticing them back? It doesn't make a lot of sense, as
destroying the defenses will likely destroy anything they're defending,
making conquest pointless."


That would be the proper way of repelling barbarians, yes. The Greeks did that with the Persians (whom, as pointed out by Patrick above, they considered invading barbarians). In the context of Rocketpunk, trying to create that alliance would probably be the meat of the story.

If the initial assault is successful, however, and the barbarians litter low orbits with enough debris, the victim planet will be hard-pressed to rebuild their space forces in time to pursue.

As for destroying what you're trying to conquer, that depends on what you're conquering, how easily it dies in the crossfire, and exactly how accurate the barbarians' weapons are. Too many variables to adequately extrapolate. Suffice it to say that I submit the conjecture that it is possible for some values of the above. Try not to include too many assumptions about the rationality or foresight of political entities when composing your proof that I'm wrong.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"...I'm totally playing Devil's Advocate here..."

Speaking totally as Divine Prosecutor, nothing personal whatsoever...

"- own position

Don't need it on an absolute scale; just need relative position to nearest other node(s). And it doesn't need to be very precise."


Still need to be able to detect and store own position in three dimensions relative to some reference point. And the potential hazards of positioning relative to other mobile units...well, that's left as an exercise for the student.

"- own orientation

External signal, and you can probably get the sensor down to a couple atoms."


Certainly external signal, but a couple of atoms? Maybe a couple of atomes free floating in some kind cage that they won't bond to, acting like some kind of electromagnetic gyroscope, but you have to ad in the means of detecting the sensor atoms' orientation WRT the cage, some way of quantifying that, and some way of transmitting it to the data processing module.

"- raw material position

You'd have to customize the nanobot in question to work with a particular material, and the sensor would have to be a very particularly selected couple of atoms.

- raw material orientation

See above - that's why I said a couple atoms.
"


On reflection, what I would probably do is build a custom enzyme into the nanobot that has a chemical affinity for that bot type's working material, then trust to luck that the bot will pick up working materials as required, through simple diffusion of them throughtout the work area in high enough concentration.

"In general, though, I think you're thinking too many layers up..."

Maybe.

What I'm definitely doing is thinking in terms of the level of control that would have to be exercised on the process for it to bear a reasonable quality fruit. Just a few nanobots consistently out of place close enough to each other could seed a microfracture in, say, a turbine blade. At a minimum I would need to be sure that each step in the process was proceeded by a ready_to_proceed signal from every responsible node, with any errors detected on the previous step solved before a node sent that signal. How centralized or decentralized that is, whether it's done at the assembler level or by supervisor bots or by a hierarchy of supervisory elements, I'm agnostic. But the possitive feedback has to be there and working for the goals of the molecular nanotechnologists to proceed. From what i've read, all they've managed to do is present mathematical studies regarding theoretical possibility within the structure of our modern understanding of chemistry and physics. They haven't thought through at all whether it is practically possible.

YMMV, but I don't think it is. I think billions of years of biological evolution has hown us what is possible building from the bottom up. Those that believe in engineering at macro scales from nano building blocks simply don't understand what they're talking about in terms of computational complexity and rigor.

Raymond said...

"What I'm definitely doing is thinking in terms of the level of control that would have to be exercised on the process for it to bear a reasonable quality fruit."

Yeah, that's always the kicker with nanotech. Most acolytes of the Awesome Nanotech Future don't consider the computational or bandwidth problems, the control loops, or the timescale of either. As far as magitech goes, we'd have better luck with holographic projections onto Bose-Einstein Condensates or some other such way-above-current theoretically-suspect tech.

"Just a few nanobots consistently out of place close enough to each other could seed a microfracture in, say, a turbine blade."

The one interesting thing nanotech would allow, I think, is the possibility of computationally-interesting fine structures, where error tolerance is built into the material. Instead of building a turbine blade out of (or into) a solid lattice, make it out of a number of smaller lattice structures which interlock and overlap, with error correction in the structural design to withstand a certain proportion of manufacturing errors. I have no idea if such an approach would actually yield anything worth the hassle, but the possibility is there.

" I think billions of years of biological evolution has hown us what is possible building from the bottom up."

And that's why I have more faith in microscale (cellular) than nanoscale manufacture. Better error correction, more computational power, and we already have a few function libraries written for us. Also note that construction rates can be raised compared to biological systems, if the energy storage and distribution systems aren't so tied to the ATP cycle.

Thucydides said...

Unless the space barbarians have some really outsized industrial base, I don't see them being able to overwhelm the laserstar constellations of the "civilized" planets. They might have the ability to perform entry denial against minor Powers (Titan sends a constellation to root out the Ring raiders and is soundly defeated), but will be outmatched by any major Power (the Imperial Jovian Navy sends a constellation task force and vapourizes said ring raiders).

This circles back towards which definition of Barbarian we want to use. A major Power infected with a Barbarian social or political culture could become a huge threat (even an existential one) given access to a large resource base and logistics capabilities. Fighting space pirates might not be likely, but "wolf packs" of kinetic stars will overwhelm laser constellations once the threshold of kinetic kill vehicles is crossed (go back to the various space war posts for details).

If the Uranus Space Navy is unable to deal with mass waves of kinetics launched by the Imperial Jovian Navy, then they will be defeated. This is mass warfare, and also intemperate warfare, since overwhelming laserstars and laser constellations invokes overkill, and the battle might fill vast volumes of space with KKVs, Kirklin mines and blobs of molten metal and carbon fiber from laser strikes, rendering much of that space impassable to large maned vehicles until it is dispersed.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

The kinetic kill threshold is what I was referring to. If lasers are expensive enough, and kinetics cheap enough, the barbarians could have enough to overwhelm laserstars. Especially if they do a fly-by attack, cranking up the closing velocity and accepting that a good number of their ships will take a long time to get home on a wide orbit. The particular details and thresholds will of course depend on the specific costs and the details of the economies in question, but I think it holds for some values of the above.

If we're talking of asteroid-dwellers in particular, then also note they can converge on a planet from a large number of vectors, forcing the defenders to spread themselves thin or stay near the planet. If spread out in such a manner, it also complicates any operation to clear them out - no stealth in space, so all of them would know if the Inner Planets Joint Task Force starts coming for them (and where they're starting).

Clay said...

Tony:

Without going into details about myself, the answer is I hold several degrees and my work does involve science to some extent, though only indirectly, and I'm not an engineer. As for programming, I've always assumed that nanotech would be programmed in Forth rather than C or C++ or even assembly. Have you done much programming in Forth?

I think you've pointed out valid concerns about the difficulties involving nanotech, which is why nanotech is still mostly Sci-fi now, and may--though I doubt this--remain so in the future.

I'm willing to concede that nanotech may never pan out, but at the same time, the history of science is littered with examples of preeminent scientists establishing that something is scientifically impossible, only to be embarrassed later on.

Some of my favorite examples include the geological community discounting plate tectonics, and Sir Harold Spencer Jones claiming that "Space travel is bunk" two weeks before Sputnik. If you look up Sir Jones' credentials, he was the lead astronomer for Great Britain and a leading figure in astronomy.

The problem I see with your analysis is that we're like 19th century thinkers arguing that powered flight is impossible because coal furnaces are too inefficient for flight. The sciences of computing and robotics are still in their early infancy.

If we could go back in time fifty years, I can see you arguing that the personal computer is impossible while Byron asks why anyone would want one anyway when there are already so many secretaries available.

Byron said...

On the other hand, for every scientist who was proven wrong, there were a lot proven right. Take the Dean Drive. Most scientists said it was a hoax. And it was.
Plus, none of us claim it's impossible, just impractical for what you are proposing.
And nanobots will almost certainly be programed in some language built specifically for the task.

Anonymous said...

I think we can forgive Sir Harold his statement, given that he was Astronomer Royal, not a rocket engineer, and that it took years of development following the launch of Sputnik to even allow a one-man vehicle to make a single orbit of the Earth.
On the subject of nanotech, I suspect that nanoscale fixed assembly lines will be more likely than mobile nanobots.
On the subject of manufacturing, I think that true colonization beyond Earth orbit requires the ability to manufacture basic equipment like screws on-site. However, I have my doubts about miniature factories being able to manufacture the most complex and specialized components/materials of themselves or other machinery, so such items will probably be a major import from Earth. In James Cameron's Avatar, despite the presence on Pandora of an advanced stereolithography plant capable of manufacturing objects as large as an aircraft airframe, certain complex electronics and high-tolerance objects like turbines had to be shipped from Earth.

R.C.

Milo said...

Byron:

"On the other hand, for every scientist who was proven wrong, there were a lot proven right. Take the Dean Drive. Most scientists said it was a hoax. And it was."

You can't simply measure successful predictions against unsuccessful predictions and count them. You could easily inflate those numbers by making ridiculously easy predictions ("I predict that we will not be visited by aliens by next Tuesday!"). The Dean Drive is one of those.

Of course, being completely confident that "nanotech is inevitable and can be implicitly assumed to exist in any story set more than a few years in the future" is at least as stupid as "nanotech is utterly impossible and will never have any widespread uses whatsoever".

Anyway, there are other speculative technologies besides nanobots which could theoretically lead to easier miniaturized manufacturing of complex products.



R.C.:

"I think we can forgive Sir Harold his statement, given that he was Astronomer Royal, not a rocket engineer, and that it took years of development following the launch of Sputnik to even allow a one-man vehicle to make a single orbit of the Earth."

Years? Years is nothing on the timescales we're discussing here. We're talking about what might happen centuries, or even millenia into the future. On that scale, we can expect to be at least as wrong as Harold was.


"However, I have my doubts about miniature factories being able to manufacture the most complex and specialized components/materials of themselves or other machinery, so such items will probably be a major import from Earth."

The question is whether your do-it-yourself factory is sufficiently good to be able to manufacture the components for a more accurate factory. And if you have the time and resources to do so.

Thucydides said...

A very interesting article here on the speed at which development occurs:
http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2009/07/was_moores_law.php

The opening example is a USAF study done in 1953 which predicted orbital flight in just four years and manned spaceflight fairly soon thereafter.

The thrust of the article is what we understand as Moore's law seems to apply to many different situations and that this may be an effect of market economics. So our predictions are not tied to any particular branch of science or technology, but rather the actions of hundreds or more parties competing in the marketplace(s) of ideas, economics, science etc. to bring their visions and ambitions to fruition.

It will be interesting to find the proper parameters to begin measuring micro, molecular and nano technology and see when they will appear on the market as fully realized technologies and products.

This is difficut since many of the parameters are either subjective right now, or poorly defined. Perhaps we need to develop entirely new diciplines (since micro, molecular and nanomachines will need to operate in close cooperative networks, the study of "industrial ecology" might be needed before we even have the parameters of the starting points.

Tony said...

Clay:

"Without going into details about myself, the answer is I hold several degrees and my work does involve science to some extent, though only indirectly, and I'm not an engineer."

Since I wasn't issuing the opening challenge in a professional competence weenie-wave, I'll respectfully leave it here. Anyway, the form and tone of your answer is suitable confirmation.

"As for programming, I've always assumed that nanotech would be programmed in Forth rather than C or C++ or even assembly. Have you done much programming in Forth?"

I'm not making any presumptions about what the implementation language or even data processing architecture of nanotech would or could be. By your invocation of Forth, of all things, I think you would be well advised not to do so yourself.

"The sciences of computing and robotics are still in their early infancy."

On the contrary, I would argue...no, assert that they are in fact pretty mature technologies. We're still using data structures and algorithms first developed in the Sixties. Oh, yes, we make them bigger and run them faster than we used to, but "hash", "tree", and "list" still mean the same thing in a CompSci discussion that they meant in 1970. "For" and "while", "if" and "else" still do the same things in Java, C#, and PHP that they did in K&R C or FORTRAN.

People used to earn PhDs for algorithm and data structure advances that every programmer would eventually have a use for. Do you know what they're getting PhDs for today? Implementing some obscure 3D shape in code, or demonstrating some special case of a general principle. They then take those PhDs and go work for one of the two or three companies that actually have a use for that knowledge. Which is not to say that the advanced degrees aren't being handed out for good work. It's to make the point that far from being in its infancy, computer science is old, and the Heroic Age has already passed us by.

"If we could go back in time fifty years, I can see you arguing that the personal computer is impossible while Byron asks why anyone would want one anyway when there are already so many secretaries available."

I'm not sure what I would have said in 1960 about the possibility of personal computers. I think it would have depended greatly on the context. If, for example, I had argued that, taking PCs as a given, they wouldn't eliminate secretaries, just change their work, I would have been much more right than wrong. But, to play in your ballpark for a moment, had I said that, by your conduct in this discussion, I could have expected you to dismiss me as old and stuck-in-the-mud, because it's perfectly obvious that PCs would mean everything secretaries do, managers could now take care of in their spare time.

Having actually lived and worked through the period when people actually believed that PCs were eliminating secretarial work -- or had already eliminated it -- I don't know whether to laugh or to cry that somebody is today making like assertions about nanotech, vis-a-vis grosser, shall we say, industrial processes.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"The opening example is a USAF study done in 1953 which predicted orbital flight in just four years and manned spaceflight fairly soon thereafter.

The thrust of the article is what we understand as Moore's law seems to apply to many different situations and that this may be an effect of market economics. So our predictions are not tied to any particular branch of science or technology, but rather the actions of hundreds or more parties competing in the marketplace(s) of ideas, economics, science etc. to bring their visions and ambitions to fruition."


I think the real problem here is a total lack of appreciation of technological maturity. At some point, every technology reaches a point of diminishing returns. The US still uses the M16 chasis (heavily modified in some cases) for its service rifle. Semyorka ("number seven"), the R-7 launch vehicle chasis, still puts cosmonauts in space, 49 years after it first carried Comrade Gagarin into orbit. The cylindrical fuselage on a modern airliner? They figured that one out in the 1950s.

As the linked article points out, what is really driving Moore's Law type innovation cycles are series of rapidly maturing technologies, not one overal technology that never matures. In the physics of the large -- rifles, rockets, and aircraft -- the best technology for a given expenditure of energy comes to the fore and matures quickly. In the physics of the small -- transistors, fiber optics, etc. -- a new technology is found to replace old ones that are mature.

But that can't go on forever. Eventually a molecule is going to be a big thing (literally), and that, as they say, will be that. And it will probably be long before Kurzweil's Singularity appears, or the wildest nanotech fantasies are realized.

Moore's Law for transistors is scheduled to run out variously (depending on who you believe) between 2015 and 2025. Let's take the median and say 2020, which means we get five or six more doubles in density before we hit the wall. That's 32-64 times as much transistor density as we have today. That means your 2020 cell phone will have the raw volatile memory of your current PC. Your 2020 PC will have the memory of a couple of racks of commercial servers today. A couple of racks of 2020 commercial servers will be a medium sized data center.

Now, do you think a PC in your hand, a couple of racks of servers on your desk, or even a whole data center stuffed in a closet will usher in the Singularity?

Clay said...

I'm curious, why not Forth? It's simple, designed for extremely low memory situations, and extremely powerful.

Tony said...

Clay:

"I'm curious, why not Forth? It's simple, designed for extremely low memory situations, and extremely powerful."

Any high level language could be any or all of those things. It's all in how you write the compiler, which is the component that actually writes the bytes that tell the machine what to do. Nominating Forth, simply because it has a reputation as an embedded systems language at current architectural scales...well, it doesn't help a person's reputation for knowledge of the engineering or physics involved.

Nonbots, in the abstract, are going to be single or very limited purpose machines. I know I've been talking about software, but they're not really going to have that. What they will have, as far as onboard control systems are concerned, is hardware containing all possible programs and enough RAM to hold runtime data. They'll be much more like the Apollo Guidance Computer, or maybe even like WWII electromechanical fire control computers, than they would be anything like what comes to mind when somebody says "computer" today. Talking bout what high level language that would be programmed in isn't only naive -- in the purely technical sense of the term, nothing whatsoever personal -- it's just not even relevant.

Having said all of that, I do think it's possible that the supervisor routines that in theory might give the nanobots their instructions would be some kind of fairly sophisticated computing environment, operating on scales we are used to. But taking that as a given, why think about small embedded systems languages at all, instead of fully developed industrial strength system and application programming languages?

Clay said...

Tony:

Have you ever programmed in Forth?

In theory, any language can be efficient and powerful, etc... In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.

Very few languages are programmable by the programming language itself at a level as fundamental as Forth. Nor do they start out that efficient.

The fact that in theory a magic compiler could be written to accomplish those goals is a world apart from actually having that efficiency become a reality. I think stack based languages suggest an interesting way to program nanotech.

If that suggests ignorance, well, it's an ignorance that has proven itself already in low-memory situations. NASA uses Forth now for those problems.

Raymond said...

Clay:

"The fact that in theory a magic compiler could be written to accomplish those goals is a world apart from actually having that efficiency become a reality."

Compilers have come a very long way, even in the last few years. You should see the neat tricks they use in LLVM or shader languages, or hell, even in Javascript engines.

"I think stack based languages suggest an interesting way to program nanotech."

Oy. Given the concurrency requirements for nanotech (or microtech, for that matter) a traditional stack-based language is the absolute worst way to go. Individual bots will be programmed in assembler (there's a pun in there somewhere, I swear). Higher-level code will more likely be in a language resembling a cross between Erlang and Verilog (a hardware description language for FPGAs). And bear in mind that the level we're "programming" would be the construction of a material. Building the larger object would be done with a CAD program which outputs a descriptive language, like XML (but dear god, please let us have gotten rid of those damn angle brackets by the nanotech age).

Tony:

"At some point, every technology reaches a point of diminishing returns. The US still uses the M16 chasis (heavily modified in some cases) for its service rifle. Semyorka ("number seven"), the R-7 launch vehicle chasis, still puts cosmonauts in space, 49 years after it first carried Comrade Gagarin into orbit. The cylindrical fuselage on a modern airliner? They figured that one out in the 1950s."

Yeah, up until another branch of research invalidates the assumptions, or the usage pattern changes sufficiently to move to a new equilibrium. The rise of NIJ level IV armor is going to change the assumptions of the modern assault rifle sooner or later. Flying wing designs for airliners are common in the N+2 generation. And since we're talking rocketpunk here, the R-7 and its disposable ilk have little place in a world of reusable SSTO (or even reusable 2STO) lift vehicles.

"Moore's Law for transistors is scheduled to run out variously (depending on who you believe) between 2015 and 2025. Let's take the median and say 2020, which means we get five or six more doubles in density before we hit the wall. That's 32-64 times as much transistor density as we have today."

That's only Moore's Law for silicon transistors. We're still at the early stages of development with nanowires, memristors and molecular electronics. A lot of it won't pan out, of course, and a dominant paradigm will probably emerge from that stew fairly quickly, but the computational limits we've worked out are a very long way off.

"But that can't go on forever. Eventually a molecule is going to be a big thing (literally), and that, as they say, will be that. And it will probably be long before Kurzweil's Singularity appears, or the wildest nanotech fantasies are realized."

True. And I'm not about to wave the magical nanotech flag. But it's also not like we've hit our final stable equilibrium yet.

"On the contrary, I would argue...no, assert that they are in fact pretty mature technologies."

For the case of procedural language, pretty much yes. We've got a relatively robust theory of computability. We're still grappling with large-scale concurrency and its implications (hell, with its specifications), and we haven't done much at all with neuromorphic computation (if only because our understanding of our own computing processes is sparse at best).

Metaphorically speaking, we've got Newtonian and Keplerian mechanics down pat, but we're still working out the math which would even allow relativity to be expressed.

Clay said...

Raymond

That's interesting. In my imaginings of nanotech, there's hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, and perhaps even more, different types of nanobots making up a nanoarcology (did I just invent that?).

Anyway, all that special purpose programming--sometimes on the fly--I would think would preclude assembly. Forth, to me at least, strikes that blend of extremely expressive while also extremely efficient. It isn't that Assembly wouldn't work--I just wonder if programmers can be productive enough at such low-level coding to make programming nanotech practical.

Can you elaborate on what you think the concurrency needs are for the nanobot itself.

I agree with you that at the higher level, control programming probably will require massive parallelism, though how that will work out I have no clue.

I don't know Erlang, so I can't comment there, but I would be interested in your take on Erlang for concurrency, as opposed to say Haskell or some of the other functional languages.

Tony said...

Clay:

"Have you ever programmed in Forth?"

No. Have you ever programmed in a CNC machine tool programming language that I can't even remember the name of, but I know I wrote several programs in 28 years ago?

"In theory, any language can be efficient and powerful, etc... In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.

Very few languages are programmable by the programming language itself at a level as fundamental as Forth. Nor do they start out that efficient.

The fact that in theory a magic compiler could be written to accomplish those goals is a world apart from actually having that efficiency become a reality. I think stack based languages suggest an interesting way to program nanotech.

If that suggests ignorance, well, it's an ignorance that has proven itself already in low-memory situations. NASA uses Forth now for those problems."


I really hate crapping in a kind and generous host's garden. So I'll limit myself to a short technical discourse, which the reader can use to judge your qualifications to comment on the subject.

1. Any computer program is precisely as efficient as it wants to be. No matter what high level language is used to define the machine level execution instructions, those instructions themselves are the same in structure, regardless of the program. They tell the CPU what to do, where to get the data to do it, where the next instruction can be found, and that's all.

2. The instruction set used to execute machine code programs is defined by the CPU architecture, not any languages used to address that architecture.

3. Some compilers for higher level languages do tend to be less absolutely efficient at organizing the machine code than languages "closer to the iron". That doesn't mean they necessarily have to be. It's a conscious tradeoff on the part of the compiler writers with other capabilities that high level languages are designed to give the prgrammer, like access to I/O devices. But if somebody wanted to write an ultra-efficient, limited capability C++ compiler, he or she absolutely could.

4. This is because all modern programming languages have "stack based" functionality for local variable storage. That's all a stack is, in the context of runtime data storage: an address range set aside in the program address space to store scalar variables in, well, a stack. And all languages either do it as part of their normal schtick, or can do it as required. If one wants to write in C++, but limit oneself to the local variable stack for reasons of execution efficiency and memory compactness, one could quite straightforwardly construct a C++ compiler that could do it.

5. In fact, in college Computer Organization classes these days, they often have the kiddies write exercise programs in a very limited dialect of a high level language, targetted at JVM (Java Virtual Machine). They then inspect and analyze the compiler-generated assembler and assembler-generated machine code, precisely to make the point that compilers decouple high level languages from the machine level operating instructions.

6. Even Forth. There is a Forth dialect (myForth) targetted at the JVM.

7. Beyond that, a nanoassembler isn't likely to be programmed with a compiled machine code file or even a plug-in program RAM, like some ultra-miniature Nintendo game. It would carry its instruction sets as immutable solid-state components. It might not even fetch instruction in sequence but walk the program from step to step with a tracer/reader. Or something else entirely. At that level our current assumptions are unlikely to make much sense. "Programming" in that context is as likely to be a solid design exercise as would be a data organization task.

Raymond said...

Clay:

When I say "programmed in assembler" with regards to the nanobots, I mean something closer to "fed instructions to". Where Tony says "It would carry its instruction sets as immutable solid-state components," that's exactly what I'm thinking of.

Tony:

When we're talking about stacks, are we referring to the stack used as the basis for nested procedure calls, or the difference between stack- and register-based virtual machines? (I was speaking of the latter when responding to Clay.)

Thucydides said...

Tony, I think there is a deeper point to the article, which is that innovation cycles are not just driven by technology, but also by economic, social and cultural forces (the market economy).

The sheer scale and power of computing technology is advancing at an amazing pace, but the more interesting thing is the ever increasing scale and scope of programming and application power available to individual people and small groups. Social Media and Web 2.0 are the most obvious first order effects, but the blogosphere and disintermediation are powerful second order effects, which seem to be leading to revolutions in may areas from industrial design (you can prototype items over the internet, sending CAD files to a shop which will then make and FedEX the item to you) to politics (the TEA party movement seems driven by internet communications technologies).

Going back to 1953, rocket technology was pretty crude, yet the speed of advancement was as predicted. We can still use R-7 or TITAN rocket technology as launchers, but much of the technology used to make the machines, or the computers that run the rockets during launch and the payloads are orders of magnitude beyond anything dreamed of in 1953. (Don't forget the Rocketpunk era was predicted on the idea that only a live human could control the machines in flight).

Tony said...

Raymond:

"When we're talking about stacks, are we referring to the stack used as the basis for nested procedure calls, or the difference between stack- and register-based virtual machines? (I was speaking of the latter when responding to Clay.)"

Well, I was thinking of the latter myself. But if you read the wiki article on Forth, apparently it uses one stack for data and one for procedure calls. It sounds like the language views functions as data objects. (Which is hardly novel for those of us used to anonymous functions in a lot of languages.) In any case, what seems to be going on is the promotion of RPN to a fundamental operational feature at every level. Okay, cute, as far as it goes. But you could write a compiler for any language that would do the same thing under the hood, no matter what the above-surface shape of the programming environment looked like.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Tony, I think there is a deeper point to the article, which is that innovation cycles are not just driven by technology, but also by economic, social and cultural forces (the market economy)."

I got that. And it is an interesting point to make that expectations can drive performance. But there is still a real world of physics and engineering underlying all of this. We haven't adopted a new service rifle here in the US in over forty years simply because no new one has come along that compels the M16's replacement.

"The sheer scale and power of computing technology is advancing at an amazing pace, but the more interesting thing is the ever increasing scale and scope of programming and application power available to individual people and small groups. Social Media and Web 2.0 are the most obvious first order effects, but the blogosphere and disintermediation are powerful second order effects, which seem to be leading to revolutions in may areas from industrial design (you can prototype items over the internet, sending CAD files to a shop which will then make and FedEX the item to you) to politics (the TEA party movement seems driven by internet communications technologies)."

I see things in a slightly different light. What we've done is introduce a whole new range of tools to the average person, agreed. But we haven't increased appreciably the penetration of programming into every day life. What we've done is caused people who would have been office procedures experts to become software craftsmen. Instead of teaching people about workflows and organization directly, they teach them through software. I look at programmers as sort of a new guild of scribes. We enable communication, but most people who use our tools really don't get what we're doing.

In my personal case, for example, I work for a small consortium of entrepreneurs who make their money on the Internet. But they don't have a clue what I'm doing for the most part, though they can use the tools I build for them.

"Going back to 1953, rocket technology was pretty crude, yet the speed of advancement was as predicted. We can still use R-7 or TITAN rocket technology as launchers, but much of the technology used to make the machines, or the computers that run the rockets during launch and the payloads are orders of magnitude beyond anything dreamed of in 1953. (Don't forget the Rocketpunk era was predicted on the idea that only a live human could control the machines in flight)."

I could make the same argument about the house I live in, and the one you likely live in (or one you have lived in). Carpenters may use electric drill motors and pneumatic nail guns, but they still put the sticks together with nails and screws. We may cover the frames with sheet rock instead of plaster, but we still build interior walls out of cheap, easily manipulated mineral compounds. And on and on.

Tony said...

Raymond:

" And since we're talking rocketpunk here, the R-7 and its disposable ilk have little place in a world of reusable SSTO (or even reusable 2STO) lift vehicles."

In a world of chemical rockets, I don't believe in SSTO or reusability for fundamental physical reasons.

In a world of nuclear thermal rockets, I don't believe in SSTO or reusability for political reasons.

In a world of fusion or antimatter power, I could be convinced SSTO and reusability could be technically practical. I wonder if they would be economically practical, however. (Fusion power appearing likely to be the most fantastically expensive thing ever invented, and antimatter being so fundamentally expensive in terms of energy.)

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Tony:

If I may:

http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/

Tony said...

Geoffrey S. H.:

"http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/"

Vaporware.

Geoffrey S H said...

"Vaporware."

They have not stated an exact date when it would come into production, have some work ongoing on the basic perinciples of the STRICT and STERN engines and have papers outlining the principles of the craft mentioned. It doesn't look like the most conveniant form of travel, and will probably be cancelled if it even manages to get funding, but the fact that it has got this far seems to show at least SOMEONE has some faith in this.

I'm just saying that it doesn't look like a ridiculously fantastical idea. In some ways (to crudely mash two concept together) it makes me think alittle of the SPACESHIP 1 concept- planes flies up, rocket flies further up... only it has a vastly more power ful engine and larger payload (and thus might get more stuff into a proper orbit unlike Virgin Galatic's craft).

It would be nice to see a project and not instantly dismiss it as impossible... Sorry if I was venting...

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"...but the fact that it has got this far seems to show at least SOMEONE has some faith in this."

The significant term in that sentence is "faith". People have faith in reusability. The problem is that reusability in launch vehicles has always been about values dissonance. It grates against many people's values that launch vehicles are expended after one use. But every technological artifact is expendable at some point. The question is how many repetitions of a designed function one gets before a machine is exepended. Here's where the values dissonance comes in. To an engineer, if the most economical use of a machine is to get a single repetition out of it, then his values say that reusability is simply not a feature of the system, no matter that other people's values say that it should be.

Faith in SSTO is just that -- faith. It has nothing to do with engineering or economics.

"Sorry if I was venting..."

Venting is okay. It's a necessary function. Just make sure the exhaust is pointed in a safe direction.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"To an engineer, if the most economical use of a machine is to get a single repetition out of it, then his values say that reusability is simply not a feature of the system, no matter that other people's values say that it should be."

And once the prevailing economic conditions change, reusability becomes an economic benefit. Assuming space traffic remains at approximately the same level it's at now, sure, single-shot all the way. Expand space traffic ten- or a hundred-fold, you get different answers to those equations. The greater expense of reusable rocket engines, more costly heat shield materials, lower payload fractions - all these tradeoffs start paying off at higher volumes.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"And once the prevailing economic conditions change, reusability becomes an economic benefit. Assuming space traffic remains at approximately the same level it's at now, sure, single-shot all the way. Expand space traffic ten- or a hundred-fold, you get different answers to those equations. The greater expense of reusable rocket engines, more costly heat shield materials, lower payload fractions - all these tradeoffs start paying off at higher volumes."

As I'm sure you know by now, I'm agnostic about anything that has a real world justification. I just don't accept doing one thing rather than the other on the basis of purely philosophical imperatives.

Let's look at the Space Shuttle. What is its single engineering justification? Return the Shuttle Main Engines (SME) to the Earth after launch. That's it. Everything else the Shuttle does could be done with expendable launch vehicles. (Yes, even the Hubble repairs.) Where does the requirement for returning the SMEs to Earth come from? A perceived imperative towards reusability. That means we have an engineering requirement based on a philosophical one.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The engineering requirements of sports venues and amusement parks are based on the philosophy and aesthetics of entertainment. But those requirements are economically valid within their own contexts.

I don't think we can make that argument with the Space Shuttle. It's reusable because somebody said it had to be, but at the current state of the art, putting 1200 tons in space, just to bring 100 of it back is not technically or economically justifiable. If you have a launch system that can put 100 tons (some amount of the orbiter mass, if converted into expendable systems, would not be payload.) of useful mass in space, then do that. Period. Then maybe there might someday in the future be enough demand for reusable ground to orbit transportation.

Tony said...

My previous post meant to say "120 tons", not "1200 tons".

Rick said...

I think it is a matter of launch volume. IF we were launching thousands of tons into orbit every year, reusable vehicles might provide economies that justified their development and operation.

Even then it is not a given. The mass penalties of reusability are so heavy, excuse the pun, that it may be uneconomical on any scale. Launch hardware is a rather mature tech, and still requires extreme designs to reach orbit at all, let alone come back.

But even if reusability is viable in principle, it only works on a traffic scale that calls for regular turnaround, and we are nowhere near that scale.

Byron said...

As much as anything, it depends on what you're reusing. The space shuttle is a terrible design for launching cargo. However, if all you want to do is launch cargo, just make the engine section reusable, and have it reenter separately. Now all you need is a little heat shield, and you get the valuable stuff back (engines, electronics, etc). If you need to launch people, make the part coming back down as small as reasonable. Don't bring back the cargo bay, too.
The above remove the big engineering problems with the shuttle, and might actually work.

Raymond said...

I admitted up front it was a matter of launch volume. I believe, though, that once we're sending up enough strictly refuel/resupply missions (to support regular or semi-regular interplanetary missions and/or a much-increased low-orbit presence), reusable launch vehicles will be more economically viable. After all, when the launch vehicle costs an order of magnitude more than the supplies and propellant it's lifting, wouldn't some amortization be in order?

Also, let's not take too many of the wrong lessons from the Shuttle. The SSME proved to be far less reusable than expected, requiring near-complete teardowns and rebuilds after every launch, and the heatshield material is fragile, requiring inspection after each landing. The Orbiter itself was a product of a mishmash of design objectives crammed together into a single spacecraft. And I think you're oversimplifying the design goals of the Shuttle, Tony; it was supposed to carry its own equipment for every mission under the sun, and persist for weeks with a large crew. Of course it's too heavy.

We also don't need it anymore (assuming we ever did). The ISS now has enough of its own equipment (ie Canadarm2) that we don't require the Shuttle for its upkeep. And as our low-orbit presence expands, I suspect the kind of general-purpose spacecraft role the Shuttle filled out of necessity will be better handled by craft designed to be left in orbit (and preferably reused there).

As for how to tweak the designs we already have, I think Byron's on the right track. I'll add that I don't think it'd be as horrifically expensive as some here have said. If we were to give the engineers a requirement for a reusable cargo-only craft, I think we could get some decent designs pretty quickly.

Milo said...

Byron:

"Don't bring back the cargo bay, too."

Wait... the cargo bay constitutes a significant mass penalty relative to the cargo inside it and the engines and crew compartments it's associated with? I'd think a simple box wouldn't be that big of a deal.



Raymond:

"Also, let's not take too many of the wrong lessons from the Shuttle. The SSME proved to be far less reusable than expected, requiring near-complete teardowns and rebuilds after every launch, and the heatshield material is fragile, requiring inspection after each landing."

So essentially, the problem with the shuttle is that it has all of the disadvantages of a reusable launch vehicle, but none of the advantages.

Raymond said...

Milo:

"So essentially, the problem with the shuttle is that it has all of the disadvantages of a reusable launch vehicle, but none of the advantages."

Pretty much, yeah.

"Wait... the cargo bay constitutes a significant mass penalty relative to the cargo inside it and the engines and crew compartments it's associated with? I'd think a simple box wouldn't be that big of a deal."

Well, when said cargo bay is three or four times larger than the crew section, it forces you to make a full airframe instead of a compact heatshielded crew module. So yes, it's a big deal.

Geoffrey S H said...

Blogger ate my last post and so this is out of date... but Im fed up of fighting it, so here it is... make use of it as best you can...

Tony: "My previous post meant to say "120 tons", not "1200 tons"."

Yeah... that perked my ears up abit...

"Venting is okay. It's a necessary function. Just make sure the exhaust is pointed in a safe direction."

Of course!

Tony:

"To an engineer, if the most economical use of a machine is to get a single repetition out of it, then his values say that reusability is simply not a feature of the system, no matter that other people's values say that it should be."

Essentially, if I understand you correctly, MSTO's are essentially fire and forget missiles with a satellite attached. The rate of rocket launches, and the small payloads carried however and the massive preparation sites and launch pads don't seem to be the best set-up for a rocket-punk style setting of large tonnage craft going between earth and mars.If you think otherwise, then out of interest, how much do you see rockets increasing in size and launch frequency to bring this about?

Oh, one other little nit-picker that just hit me...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but rockets from the ground seem to be very ineefficient in the use of local resources, they expend masses of propellant trying to escape earth, ignoring all the while the medium of air a jet-engined SSTO would make use of to get high enough whre only a rocket would do. Just a thought.

Raymond:

"And once the prevailing economic conditions change, reusability becomes an economic benefit. Assuming space traffic remains at approximately the same level it's at now, sure, single-shot all the way. Expand space traffic ten- or a hundred-fold, you get different answers to those equations. The greater expense of reusable rocket engines, more costly heat shield materials, lower payload fractions - all these tradeoffs start paying off at higher volumes."


The point about SKYLON is that (and these are probably exagerated figures) its meant to be used several times in a 24 hr cycle, and needs no speciaised takeoff centre other than a runway. The shuttle needed launch windows, perfect weather and so on, due to it being a very complex machine that could only take off very rrely (and they somehow manufactered so few as to send the cost rocketing, but after the Columbia disaster this seems rather understandable) and which needed a very specialised launch centre.

SKYLON in many ways has the reusablity almost as an afterthought, the key part is the fact that with the correct technitians on hands and well-equipped hangers, normal (or cheaply extended) runways could be used. The capabiiity to send up large numbers over a period of a week could allow the powers that be to contemplate sending up more stuff.

The reusability merely means that its used more times than normal, and effectually allows you 2 or 3 single shot rockets for the price of one.

Vapourware or no... it would be a nice thing to see coming about.
Of course, as you said Tony, with what we are doing up there, SSTO's a waste, as is the shuttle- An SSTO might simply increase our activity up there... we certainly don't lack the manufacturing capability to make more satellites or stations.

I think I've responded as best I can, hope that's useful/constructive.

Byron said...

Milo, it's big. And that doesn't help reusability. Plus, I'm proposing an unmanned launcher.

Geoffrey:
The problem with jets is that they simply don't have the power to make much of a difference. How high will one get you? Maybe 20% of the way? Oh, and you need something like 7 km/s sideways, and getting to 100 km would take about 1.2 km/s. Scramjets are the only thing that would really help.

Reusability is nice, but mass-production has it's benefits, too. This article has some good points on that. Of course, space won't really be open until we get a launch loop or a space elevator or something.

Thucydides said...

The Space Shuttle is probably the greatest example of politics driving design ever presented.

The use of expendable rockets in the early part of the Space Age mostly reflected the need for speed in upstaging those dastardly Russians/perfidious Americans. Rocket artillery was a well understood, if imperfectly developed means of getting into space, and there were no other technologies in the short or medium term horizon that could do the job. (This is an issue even today. Most schemes that do not involve rocket technology like skyhooks or JP Aerospace and their ultra high altitude balloons make some very dubious assumptions, and even rocket technology like SSTO or beamed propulsion are on the very edge of state of the art).

The Space Shuttle was meant to be reusable mostly because that seemed the next logical step in the late 1960's, especially since this would support manned space stations, building fleets of ships to explore Mars and lots of other space activity. The movie "2001" was largely extrapolated from then current plans for space, and if the entire space program hadn't been essentially abandoned, Clavius base and a space Hilton serviced by daily Pan Am space clippers might be a reality today.

The shuttle is/was essentially a huge porkulous program, designed to employ a standing army of something on the order of 20,000 employees spread across many Congressional districts at the least cost they can get away with. If you find that statement odd; consider that for about one billion dollars more, Rockwell could have built an assembly line and produced something like 10 Space Shuttles (I'm pretty sure I got this number from Jerry Pournelle), and extending the Shuttle family could have been done for a relatively modest price on top of that.

Some of the solutions proposed here, like flying back the engines in a pod were real proposals, along with unmanned cargo shuttles and empty payload fairings (Shuttle C and Z) to lift outsized cargos into orbit. A single maned shuttle could have served as a work platform while a Shuttle Z lofted the ISS backbone truss and several Shuttle C flights brought up the (much larger) hab modules and other hardware.

Temperate and intemperate conflict is the name of this post, and a lot of military hardware is also built along the same lines as the Space Shuttle. Even relatively mundane items like armoured vehicles are essentially built by hand in small numbers, escalating the costs and reducing the numbers available to users. Watching the Canadian Air Force twist in the wind over the F-35 is pretty frightening, especially given that in the Second World War, new generations of fighting vehicles embodying new technologies (laminar flow airfoils, jet engines, stabilizers, among others) were designed using pen and paper and brought into operation in only a few years. You'd think that we could be churning these things out like paper airplanes by now.

Conflicts might be "temperate and indecisive" simply because the fighting powers don't actually have enough fighting equipment on hand (and will probably husband a fair portion of it as a strategic reserve). The first Power to open the 21rst century "Willow Run" plant and crank out the smart bombs, tanks and jet fighters in mass quantities will have a huge advantage.

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Essentially, if I understand you correctly, MSTO's are essentially fire and forget missiles with a satellite attached. The rate of rocket launches, and the small payloads carried however and the massive preparation sites and launch pads don't seem to be the best set-up for a rocket-punk style setting of large tonnage craft going between earth and mars.If you think otherwise, then out of interest, how much do you see rockets increasing in size and launch frequency to bring this about?"

Well, not exactly "forget", considering all of the guidance and engineering telemetry sent and recorded during powered ascent.

As for the "missile" characterization, well, yes. How could it not be, considering the variety of ICBM based LVs -- Atlas, Titan, R-7...

Now payload sizes of both the medium and heavy lift launchers are an interesting discussion, because they arose out of a synergy between what rockets were initially available and the resulting miniaturization of payload components. As it became possible to launch bigger payloads, bigger payloads no longer drove launch vehicle design criteria because smaller early launch vehicles drove payload isze down.

About the only real reason to have 100+ ton LVs is to meet human spaceflight requirements, and then only for lunar landing and interplanetary travel. So, as long as manned interplanetary travel is a public project, without commercial funding, really large rockets are going to be rare and expensive. But there's no real imperative for private funding of human spaceflight, beyond junketting multibillionaires. And those can be serviced by current, small orbital systems like Soyuz. So I don't see commercial heavy-heavy launch anytime in the next couple of centuries.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but rockets from the ground seem to be very ineefficient in the use of local resources, they expend masses of propellant trying to escape earth, ignoring all the while the medium of air a jet-engined SSTO would make use of to get high enough whre only a rocket would do. Just a thought."

It's a thought. But I'm not seeing a real market. Rockets from the ground are still likely to be the cheaper option, simply because they're so simple and reliable.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"The use of expendable rockets in the early part of the Space Age mostly reflected the need for speed in upstaging those dastardly Russians/perfidious Americans. Rocket artillery was a well understood, if imperfectly developed means of getting into space, and there were no other technologies in the short or medium term horizon that could do the job."

That's a very popular conceit among those who are philosophically committed to resuability, because it implies that "we could have done better". But we couldn't have done better, because physics says so, not just passing fashion or strategic competition issues.

Multiple stages were understood very early on to be a reality of space flight. Witness the Bonestell paintings and Disney animated shorts from the mid Fifties (produced years before the post-Sputnik panic) that assumed rockets were going to be multistage. Let's not forget that these artistic efforts were fed technical advice by von Braun personally, in order to get the public used to the scale of the endeavor.

Reusability as a NASA imperative came out of two things:

1. Max Faget wanted to gain bureaucratic ascendancy. Von Braun had the Moon and, had he ever been funded, Mars. Faget could have a space station and a space shuttle, if he could justify them. His justification was plaussible-sounding and fiscally attractive lies about reusability.

2. Nixon didn't want to pay for Mars. The Space Shuttle was offered to him as the perfect filibuster -- a low-risk means of maintaining manned space flight that came with a ready-made set of fiscal and ideological enticements. He went along with it for that reason.

That's all reusability was and all it ever has been. When Shannon, during his presentation to the Augustine commission, called reusability a "myth", he meant it literally.

Byron said...

I wouldn't say reusability is a complete myth. The way the shuttle meant the term, yes. However, we could reuse parts of the rocket without too much difficulty. Look at the SRBs on the shuttle. And I think the Falcon's first stages are reusable, too. It depends on how much priority you put on that. It's not that hard to recover the parts. A spaceplane is different, though.

Tony said...

Byron:

"I wouldn't say reusability is a complete myth. The way the shuttle meant the term, yes. However, we could reuse parts of the rocket without too much difficulty. Look at the SRBs on the shuttle. And I think the Falcon's first stages are reusable, too. It depends on how much priority you put on that. It's not that hard to recover the parts. A spaceplane is different, though."

Mass dedicated to recovery/reuse is mass taken straight out of payload. And it's not just parachutes and associated systems. It's making the structure viable under multiple-axis stress, making the structure more durable overall, making the component systems more durable...

A single use rocket has to be able to handle compression along a single axis, in a single direction, some (relatively) light twisting and bending moments, vibration, and laying on its side unloaded and fully supported. It only has to fly once. It doesn't have to land in one piece in any orientation. That maximizes payload fraction for any given payload mass, thus making the whole thing smaller, requiring less energy to move around (on the ground and in flight), and likely (though not always) structurally simpler. It also relaxes requirements for hard to handle propellants, because you're less likely to goof around with LH2 if you don't need so much propulsive force. And the technical complexity and care associated with LOX and RP (kerosene), both essentially standard industrial chemicals, are way less hassle than LOX/LH2 combinations.

For all of these reasons, I'm still in the "myth" camp.

Byron said...

I understand the technical problems behind reusability. I'm just saying that there might be cases in which it's cheaper to lose a little payload and recover the rocket than it is to not make it recoverable. And it's likely to happen a lot sooner than a spaceplane.

Tony said...

Byron:

"I understand the technical problems behind reusability. I'm just saying that there might be cases in which it's cheaper to lose a little payload and recover the rocket than it is to not make it recoverable. And it's likely to happen a lot sooner than a spaceplane."

I appreciate that as a possibility in the abstract. But rockets are concrete tools built to do a specific job. They're sized to the payload requirements, and made no more bigger or powerful than they absolutely have to be. Once a rocket series is qualified to fly, there's no motivation to trade off payload for reusability. When the customer comes along, if you've got more payload capacity than he needs, you either find another customer to piggyback, or the customer resizes his spacecraft to take advantage of the extra mass budget space.

Remember, the business model is buy-the-vehicle (like a car sale), not buy-the-ride (like on an airliner). The (sole or primary) customer specifies a launch vehicle configuration and an airframe is either assigned (typical in Atlas and Titan, where missiles produced for the USAF were recycled into space launch vehicles) or built custom for that customer's launch. If solid boosters or speical LV mods are required, those items are ordered too. (Nota bene: now that all of the ICBM airframes have been used up, a launch vehicle series is in reality a collection of engineering concepts that are used to build special purpose machines from time to time, on order; it is not a production run that turns into an inventory.) At this point, the customer doesn't give a crap about the LV's future use (because he doesn't have one). He just wants the vehcile to be ready to go on time, and to fly well with his payload.

In order to motivate reusability, one would basically need a customer that operated at high enough launch volumes to care enough about it to make it worth doing. I'm not sure who that customer would be, or how big his launch inventory would have to be per year to justify it. But it's got to be way more than anything we're doing now, because even constellations like Iridium haven't justified it.

Tony said...

Speaking of Iridium, I guess not a lot of people think about it anymore, but to original 12 month, 15 vehicle, 72 satellite launch campaign was a Rocketpunky Thing of Beauty. They flew 3 Protons, 9 Deltas, and 3 Long Marches. Every launch vehicle performed. Every satellite was put in its proper orbit. It was so wildly out of the ordinary that after a while even the evening network news was carrying video reports of Iridium launches in the first segment. (ISTR that the last launch actually led on CNN in prime time.)

Though their management and finance had wildly overestimated demand for their services, the Iridium engineers and their partners in the space launch industry, for that one incredible year, were certifiable Made of Win.

Anonymous said...

"For all of these reasons, I'm still in the "myth" camp."

You're a myth? (Sorry, I couldn't resist...)

Moving right along, Tony, Byron, you might have to reconsider your assumptions. As science advances, as economies shift, things that once were taken for granted, can no longer be counted on. Take for example Graphene, the newly-discovered form of carbon; able to be formed into sheets of 1 atom thick and 100 times stronger than steel. I realize that if this stuff pans out, it will still be years or decades befor it can be used on an industreal scale. Still, if someting like this can become avalible, it will drasticly change the dynamics of building rockets. On the economic side, as the number of people in orbit increases from a handfull at a time to hundreds at a time, commercial demand for resusible people lifters will increase (from zero to some number greater than one...). In the 1960s, no one would have dreamed that a company that routed phone calls anywhere in the world would buy a rocket to place their satillites in orbit. 20 or 30 years from now, there may be companies that ship people and/or supplies to Lunar outposts or space stations; there may be companies that operate a space-based business that we haven't conceived of yet. The point is, while we can argue about the engineering and economies of the now projected into the future, most of what we state as being assured decades from now usually isn't. The problem is that while we know that not everything we predicte will come to pass, we don't know what prediction will come true and which will be deemed 'quaint'.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

I'm not sure that graphine will make the sort of difference you ae suggesting. Graphine will become a structural material which makes a given rocket much lighter and stronger, allowing for a bigger payload fraction or a smaller rocket for every mission.

Moving in a different direction, small aerospace companies which are fighting against Boeing or LM for the launch market might go for even simpler and cheaper designs made out of mundane composites or aluminum (like the Aquarius launch vehicle, which trades reliability for cost (only a guaranteed 66% success rate?). Tony's arguments against reusability would point in that direction.

Possibly the only reusable aerospace craft that could be justified in the here and now would be aerospaceplanes or other military vehicles. Unfortunatly, there are very few military missions that demand a manned presence (the whole Rocketpunk thing died as computers became more powerful and miniaturized, eliminating the need for a human pilot or crew to run the spaceship. RoBo space bombers became Minuteman III ICBMs, and MOL morphed into KH-11 recon birds. Even unmanned space warcraft seem to be better off on the ground; a CAV (Common Aero Vehicle) stored in a silo is secure and readily available for maintenance checks or reloading with the latest munitions, while one in orbit is inaccessible.

To my way of thinking, the only path that leads to reusability is SUSTAIN, morphed to a form of "glider Infantry" based on space platforms. The space platforms would have to be space ships in fact, if only to change the orbital parameters and avoid ASAT weapons. The drop ships would only be good for two uses; once up to the platform (probably as cargo), and once down on a mission. Think of a bomb with extendable wings as the troop carrier and you get the picture.

Once again, a high value, limited resource which would be good for raids against very high value targets where speed and surprise are essential, a temperate resource.

Milo said...

Tony:

"Remember, the business model is buy-the-vehicle (like a car sale), not buy-the-ride (like on an airliner)."

This works because we have very few rides, so we can afford to make vehicles from scratch for each one. If space travel and particularly human space travel would become widespread, then this model is no longer efficient.

Car sales are not a good example, because cars, once bought, are not used once and then driven into a wall. You either keep the car for many trips, or it's a rental and you give it back to whoever owns it.

Imagine if someone at the beginning of the industrial revolution said "Factories are useless, since building a factory is so much more difficult than just making the product by hand in a workshop.".

Tony said...

Milo:

"This works because we have very few rides, so we can afford to make vehicles from scratch for each one. If space travel and particularly human space travel would become widespread, then this model is no longer efficient."

I can imagine a very high traffic rate that still wouldn't justify reusability. That's because if you gave an engineering team the assignment to improve space launch bottom line, they'd look at everything, not just hardware use cycles. And they'd pretty quickly realize that the biggest problem in a lot of ways is dispatch frequency and reliability. Without a philosophical mandate to solve that problem through reusability, they'd start picking low hanging fruit in the existing model: LV reliability, LV availability, LV (and general system) weather tolerance, ground processing, range management, etc. Pretty soon they double or tripple the rate of launches while at the same time significantly lowering the cost of each launch. I'm sure at some point they might hit a point where LV standardization and building most rockets out of an inventory of standard components would make sense, but I can't imagine a sufficient motivation for reusability for many multiples of the current traffic rate (figured in tonnange on-orbit).

"Car sales are not a good example, because cars, once bought, are not used once and then driven into a wall. You either keep the car for many trips, or it's a rental and you give it back to whoever owns it."

You're missing the point. Rockets, just like cars, are sold to the customer because the customer has a future use for them, while the manufacturers and distributors don't. Even rental agencies and finance companies that own lease vehicles are customers in this sense. If it were economical to throw the vehicle away after one use, then that's what people would do with them. Of course, in that case you would only find end users in the market, no leasers or renters. Oh wait, that's exactly how the LV industry works...

"Imagine if someone at the beginning of the industrial revolution said 'Factories are useless, since building a factory is so much more difficult than just making the product by hand in a workshop.'."

But they didn't, because factories were useful. And launch vehicles are built in factories. They just work at a very low production rate, with design and schedule room for high degrees of product specialization. As explained above, if there was an economic motivation for it, they might go to higher rates and greater standardization, but they'd still be making and selling single use rockets, not something else.

This point to one of the bigger misunderstandings people have about technological progress. Improvements in technology don't change ehat we do, just how we do it. If the economics for spaceflight support a single use for LVs, then we'll make and use single-use LVs. We might get more efficient at doing that over time, but we'll still be making single-use rockets.

We need to get our brains off of thinking of reusability as an absolute good, because it isn't, not with space launch. We need to realize that reusability will be implemented when it makes sense to the market, and not before.

Raymond said...

Tony:

That aprticular economic logic only works when the cost of the cargo is larger than the cost of the launcher. When we're at the point of high(ish) volumes of bulk materials (water, food, propellant, super carbon nano stuff) single-use LVs become comparatively more expensive.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"That aprticular economic logic only works when the cost of the cargo is larger than the cost of the launcher. When we're at the point of high(ish) volumes of bulk materials (water, food, propellant, super carbon nano stuff) single-use LVs become comparatively more expensive."

That's why I said "when it makes sense to the market". But I would add this caution: The value of the payload isn't FOB the launch pad. The value of the payload is calculated as delivered on-orbit.

A tank of water on-orbit is worth one whole heck of a lot more than that same water sitting in a tank on the ground. A tank of water on-orbit is a very rare commodity. If it costs $10,000/kg to put there, and there's a customer willing to pay, that's a market, as outlandishly inflated a one as it may seem.

If the market says, no, it's gotta be cheaper, well, somebody will find a way to make it cheaper. But reusable LVs will only be used if that's what makes things cheaper. Maybe accepting a relatively high failure rate on an adequate throughput of single use LVs is cheaper than reusability. If so, that's the way the market will go.

In fact, given the cost tradeoffs on each extra sigma of reliability, it wouldn't surprise me at all if commodity payloads became expendable. If it costs $2,000/kg to fly a 50% reliable LV, and $10,000/kg to fly a 98% reliable one, that means that the less reliable rocket costs $4,000/kg on average to deliver water on-orbit, while the more reliable rocket costs $10,200/kg on average for the same water in the same orbit.

And the market in this example hasn't yet thought about reusability. In fact, where commoditiy payloads are concerned, until the combined ground value of the delivered + lost payload becomes worth more than 10-15% (I'm guessing -- more? less?) of the combined values of the rockets used, reusability is a stupid and unjustified expense.

Tony said...

Addendum:

The cost of a commodity on the ground isn't just the market cost plus delivery to the launch pad. It's also the cost of the payload container for that commodity, for the space environment. A new 5,000 gallon tank trailer for use on the highways can run you $40-50k. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars a space-qualified water tank is going to cost?

Raymond said...

You're right in that reusability isn't an absolute good in spaceflight. It is, however, quite a valuable one when the time horizon is long.

Look at water shipments another way. When calculating the TCO of a manned space station over five years, the on-orbit value of water is exactly equal to launch cost plus storage cost, since it's for end use instead of resale. With reusable vehicles, if the amortized launch vehicle cost (limited either by the TCO time horizon or expected vehicle life, whichever is less) is less than the cost for the equivalent number of expendable LVs, then it becomes a more economical proposition.

And that expensive water tank? With expendable vehicles, you'd need to make it reentry-capable or pay for a tank per launch. With reusable vehicles, you only need two (one in use in orbit, one to fill on the ground; swap them in orbit and return with the empty).

It may very well be that the market isn't yet ready for even a basic reusable cargo vehicle. Alternatively, if such a vehicle were available, it could enable longer-term projects currently deemed too expensive to support. I tend towards the latter; I realize that it's the kind of tech the market probably won't come up with itself until much later, but I think it's the kind of enabling technology that should be constructed if possible.

Giving a bunch of engineers a set of philosophical design goals without worrying about the immediate market value is classic blue-sky research when done properly (and I realize the Shuttle wasn't).

Tony said...

Raymond:

"You're right in that reusability isn't an absolute good in spaceflight. It is, however, quite a valuable one when the time horizon is long."

With 100% of every single last bit of due respect...I'm simply not convinced that that's even a hypothetically valid, much less a proven, principle. Maybe my attitude is just soured by True Believers that take reusability as a matter of faith, but that's essentially how I see reusability: a matter of faith. And, As I have been saying all along, I'm an agnostic, technolgically, economically, spiritually, any-ally.

"Look at water shipments another way. When calculating the TCO of a manned space station over five years, the on-orbit value of water is exactly equal to launch cost plus storage cost, since it's for end use instead of resale."

That's the cost of water, or any commodity. It's value is what you are willing to pay. It could be roughly equal to the cost, it could be a little more, it could be a lot more.

Just because you assign it a dollar value basedon expected cost in your TCO exercise, that doesn't mean you won't pay more for it if you have to. TCO is a sales tool, not an analysis of value.

"With reusable vehicles, if the amortized launch vehicle cost (limited either by the TCO time horizon or expected vehicle life, whichever is less) is less than the cost for the equivalent number of expendable LVs, then it becomes a more economical proposition."

Sure it does, because you stay in business by paying as little as you can for supplies. But that's not the same thing as saying that a particular supply channel is necessarily less expensive, simply because it does things in a certain way. Right now, and into the foreseeable future, each reuse costs at least as much as a new vehicle, when you roll all the costs up. What remains to be seen is if someone can figure out a reuse model that scales with volume such that a refurbished vehicle is as reliable as a new one, yet costs less per flight. If it happens, it happens, but I'm simply not willing to take it as a given.

"And that expensive water tank? With expendable vehicles, you'd need to make it reentry-capable or pay for a tank per launch. With reusable vehicles, you only need two (one in use in orbit, one to fill on the ground; swap them in orbit and return with the empty)."

The one assumption I'm making, that underpins all of the logic I'm following, is that except for people mass on-orbit has more value than could possibly be realized by returning it to Earth. So of course you expend the tank when you expend the LV -- just like you effective expend a satellite, a piece of the ISS, or whatever. It's a cost of doing business.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"It may very well be that the market isn't yet ready for even a basic reusable cargo vehicle. Alternatively, if such a vehicle were available, it could enable longer-term projects currently deemed too expensive to support. I tend towards the latter; I realize that it's the kind of tech the market probably won't come up with itself until much later, but I think it's the kind of enabling technology that should be constructed if possible.

Giving a bunch of engineers a set of philosophical design goals without worrying about the immediate market value is classic blue-sky research when done properly (and I realize the Shuttle wasn't)."


Maybe you can provide an example, but I'm not aware of a single market that bought something for what it was worth before it was ready to use it. Since I brought it up, you might cite Iridium. While it's true they're making money since they've emerged from bankruptcy, and thier NEXT constellation they will probably put up out of their own profits. But that totally ignores the multibillion dollar bath their investors took and the stealth baillout that the US taxpayer paid for through military usage fees. If you came along in 1990 and presented that as your business plan, who would have ponied up a single red cent to get started?

Even today, knowing what we know now about the utility of satphones, Iridium isn't likey to have competitors offering like service any time soon. The market learned its lesson.

So sure, you could take a flyer on a reusable system, but who's going to invest? Shuttle proved there's even less there there than Oakland.

Rick said...

I will agree with 'myth,' but in a broader sense than just the popular usage meaning BS.

Reusable shuttles weren't just a bureaucratic boondoggle. They were a standard rocketpunk trope, because the consensus understanding was that a fleet of reusable shuttles and a space station went hand in hand, and together were the keys to any extended deep space effort.

For an effort on the scale we typically imagine here, with thousands of people going into space every year, that is probably still true.

But as it turns out, you don't need that massive infrastructure to explore space. You can do that, as we are doing now, by sending out a few robotic probes each year with a combined mass around 10-20 tons.

The bigger picture here is that human spaceflight is more expensive and less necessary than assumed 50 years ago, and the space program has developed accordingly.


All of that said, there is a reason for so much resistance to expendable launchers, and it isn't just instinctive thrift. Space hardware IS expensive, and if it goes under the consumables budget, space travel remains painfully expensive.

This is what everyone hates, because so many tropes rely on space travel being at least relatively cheap. Cheap enough that lots of people can buy tickets, or have someone buy tickets for them.

Or, to quantify it, about the best that could be expected of expendables, given mass production and streamlined launch, is roughly a tenfold reduction over current launch costs, to $1000/kg or $1 million/ton.

But that is also, I would guess, about the highest launch cost regime at which you can get any significant number of people going into space. I'm not particularly interested in thrill-seeking millionaires, but if a ticket to orbit costs no more than a million, research grants and the like would also be more available.

Still this is very marginal, and people sense that it is. What people want is a shuttle ticket that costs a few times international air fare.

Rick said...

A brief further comment on the Shuttle. The enormous payload requirement was because Nixon wanted to push some of the costs off onto the Air Force. But the USAF didn't want the Shuttle at all, and would agree only if it would replace the Titan III as heavy recon satellite launcher. So the Shuttle was bloated up to carry 20 ton payloads.

But as always the underlying story is that this kind of development is hugely expensive, while political support had come off its Apollo high, was caught in 1970s funk, and was not yet fully institutionalized.

In other words, the US program might have petered out entirely, and the Shuttle was part of the process that kept it alive.

Tony said...

Rick:

"I will agree with 'myth,' but in a broader sense than just the popular usage meaning BS.

...

Still this is very marginal, and people sense that it is. What people want is a shuttle ticket that costs a few times international air fare."


Sure, that's what they want. But it may never be possible -- probably isn't possible -- using chemical rocketry. I can imagine a very Rocketpunky world at $1,000/kg to LEO, or even twice as much. But it involves reframing values from what people want to what they can have.

"In other words, the US program might have petered out entirely, and the Shuttle was part of the process that kept it alive."

You mean the manned program, right? Unmanned mission sponsors didn't even think about Shuttle as anything other than a competitor for funds that somebody was going to spend on something in space. The Soviets' manned program didn't fold the tent. According to Roald Sagdeev, they couldn't figure out what we were doing with the Shuttle, because to them it made no engineering sense whatsoever. They set themselves back at least ten years goofing around with Buran, because even though they didn't understand our motives, they had an inferiority complex that told them anything the Americans were doing, it had a purpose. Well, that's true, as far as it goes. I guess the Soviets never figured one of our big purposes would be informed by fantastical -- even mythological, to put not too fine a point on it -- thinking.

In any event, we would have kept going right along with manned flight, though given the Apollo and Titan based systems we whould have been using, it would have been interesting, to say the least, what kind of applications and missions beyond Skylab we would have come up with.

Milo said...

Rick:

"But as it turns out, you don't need that massive infrastructure to explore space."

You do need it to have a space war, though. Temperate and indecisive or otherwise. You also need massive infrastructure for colonization (duh), which would be necessary to have somewhere for barbarians to come from. And NASA's current methods aren't exactly resulting in profitable asteroid mining, either, if that's what you're interested in. Even the exploration, which having produced a lot of fun results, is pretty lacking - we'd clearly like to send a lot more than the robotic probes we have now, if it were realistic.

We're using our current low-infrastructure satellites-and-probes model because that's all we can afford with current technology. But that little space presence does not rocketpunk make. Reusable launch vehicles would help us go further... if they were actually reusable rather than needing such an extreme refurbishment between each mission.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"Maybe my attitude is just soured by True Believers that take reusability as a matter of faith, but that's essentially how I see reusability: a matter of faith."

And that's understandable. At current or near-future tech and traffic, it's not practical. Be careful, though, not to react with the same kind of faith in the other direction. There's no theoretical reason why reusability couldn't work, especially if decoupled from the idea of single-stage (which does have disadvantages even in theory).

"That's the cost of water, or any commodity. It's value is what you are willing to pay. It could be roughly equal to the cost, it could be a little more, it could be a lot more."

Impedance mismatch. I'm not talking value in the sense of a consumer good. There will of course be a point where the cost of water becomes prohibitive to the viability of the enterprise, and this is probably higher than the expected cost. I believe that's the value you're speaking of.

That's not a good definition of value for a survival good, though. Assuming you're not using water as an input of production (eg making propellant) or selling it once in orbit, the opportunity cost of launching water is high. By definition you won't pay any more than you have to for it, and barring contingencies that'll be launch cost. (In a contingency, it'll be launch cost plus markup from whatever outside supplier you're using.) Any money spent on putting water in orbit is money not spent on putting more valuable stuff up, or building more groundside infrastructure, or saving it, or whatever.

"Right now, and into the foreseeable future, each reuse costs at least as much as a new vehicle, when you roll all the costs up. What remains to be seen is if someone can figure out a reuse model that scales with volume such that a refurbished vehicle is as reliable as a new one, yet costs less per flight. If it happens, it happens, but I'm simply not willing to take it as a given."

And that's the sort of research I'm espousing. I'm reasonably sure it'll happen at some point, for some traffic level. Whether it's in my lifetime is another matter entirely. That's not exactly faith, that's just choosing a timeframe for evaluating probabilities.

"The one assumption I'm making, that underpins all of the logic I'm following, is that except for people mass on-orbit has more value than could possibly be realized by returning it to Earth."

I think that's a big assumption, especially if the marginal cost of return is lower than you're expecting. We can already reuse the shuttle's main tank and the SRBs - why would it be that hard to recover the first stage of a rocket?

"So sure, you could take a flyer on a reusable system, but who's going to invest? Shuttle proved there's even less there there than Oakland."

Ah, that only proved nobody wanted to pay five times the going rate per launch merely for reusability. Let's design a space truck that has more in common with a pickup than one of those godawful SUV limos, and then we'll talk.

Raymond said...

Rick:

I think you're right about the myth. With expendable vehicles, we can see that cost asymptote from where we're standing. Reusables give at least the hope of bringing launch cost down to the price of fuel. (Not that we're anywhere close to that with spacecraft.) But with aircraft the big operational costs are fuel and a bit of maintenance, and as you point out, our tropes about space travel mostly rely on it working much like a bigger, more expensive version of air travel.

(To ward off potential misunderstanding and nitpicking, I fully realize that launch costs also include refurbishment costs, and amortized values for research, production, profit, profiteering, politics, and other startup costs. I also realize that for reusable launchers those costs are currently more than manufacturing expendables.)

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Any money spent on putting water in orbit is money not spent on putting more valuable stuff up, or building more groundside infrastructure, or saving it, or whatever."

You're making the fixed budget assumption. That's probably correct to within a few percent, but those few percent can mean a lot. If somebody came along and told you that ISS would double in research value (it certainly doesn't have any commercial value) if you were willing to invest $100 million a year in a 5,000 gallon tank of water on-orbit, in addition to all of the other costs, wouldn't you find some extra money somewhere? Budget inflexibilit doesn't equate to absolute budget immutability.

"And that's the sort of research I'm espousing. I'm reasonably sure it'll happen at some point, for some traffic level. Whether it's in my lifetime is another matter entirely. That's not exactly faith, that's just choosing a timeframe for evaluating probabilities.

I think that's a big assumption, especially if the marginal cost of return is lower than you're expecting. We can already reuse the shuttle's main tank and the SRBs - why would it be that hard to recover the first stage of a rocket?

Ah, that only proved nobody wanted to pay five times the going rate per launch merely for reusability. Let's design a space truck that has more in common with a pickup than one of those godawful SUV limos, and then we'll talk.


Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying reusability is impossible. I'm saying that it presents so many technical issues that it's probability approaches 0, except for incredibly strong market incentives that make it as can't miss as anything in business ever has a right to be. That kind of market is far over the horizon. How far I don't know, but it's not just over the next hil, and not likely over the next two or three.

As for "space truck", I think that's a trope that obfuscates the physics. At best it was 70s sales talk used to convince the taxpayer that we were going to build an everyman spaceshit. At best. It's more honest to say that it was a hypocritical flim-flam job.

Maybe you're thinking that's way harsh. Well, I was in grade school in the early and mid 70s, when Shuttle was being sold to the public. Looking back on it now, all I can think is fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. You want to build a space truck, don't tell me if we work hard enough to make it happen, it will happen. Show me uncooked numbers based on non-developmental hardware, software techniques, and industrial processes. Like I said, the market won't see that for, like, a long, long time.

That's why I advocate doing what we can with what we have, and investing in making what we have more efficient and reliable. It's the only way we're going to grow the market in a stable, minimum risk fashion. Do that, and investment will be attracted for reusability, when reusability makes sense. Don't do that, and you're not only putting the cart before the horse, you're saying the cart can exist and will be usefull without the horse.

Tony said...

Raymond:

Your accounting is based on fixed budgets. While probably true for NASA to within a few percent, it may not be true for some future space operation, government or private. Even within the constraints of NASA, if someone came along and adequately demonstrated that the research value of ISS would, say, double if an extra 20 tons of cargo at $100 million could be put on-orbit every year, you think that money wouldn't be found? Double value for a few percent extra investment? I'm on board.

As for "space truck", you have to understand that I was in grade school in the early and mid Seventies, when that particular term was used to sell the Space Shuttle as an everyman spaceship. From the subsequent experience, I learned the practical meaning of "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." I have a very strong suspicion that I'm not the only person that has the same reaction, and a lot of us are in science and engineering, where our opinions are often heard by those who make the money decisions.

Am I, are we, bitter? You bet your ass. We have enough technical knowledge to see how much more could have been done in the last thirty years with the same dollar value of less ambitious, more practical technologies. What we want from space is to see the market grown with proven technologies, and those technologies evolved as it makes engineering and economic sense, not in response to philosophical imperatives that we don't GAS about.

You want Rocketpunk? It'll come faster and surer that way than losing momentum every 20-30 years resetting from whatever the latest pie-in-the-sky boondoggle happens ot be.

Raymond said...

I'm bitter about the Nixon administration, too, but I'm not about to clamor for the reinstatement of the gold standard.

I grew up with the Shuttle already established and operational. To me, it was (and still kind of is) The Coolest Thing Ever. I'm well aware of its many flaws, shortcomings and overengineering, but it still holds a certain mystique.

The better way to deal with failed ambition is to pick it apart, sort the good ideas from the bad (and they're never all bad) and try to determine where and how the good ones can be applied.

I'm sure it doesn't require another boondoggle's worth of money to examine the marginal cost of first stage recovery, second stage reentry, reusable heatshields and/or engines which can run for four or five launches before rebuild. And any of these things can pay off within a decade or two, even with more conventional launch vehicles.

Also, my "space truck" reference was laden with as much irony as I could muster.

Raymond said...

Also also: yes, I'm using fixed-budget accounting. Until there's a proper market in space, I think it'll continue to be the more commonly used approach.

Anonymous said...

Ok, we've gotten way off topic, but I'll give it a shot.

Consider, just as an exercise in "what if", the following launch system:
A three-and-a-half stage to orbit launch system that uses the following: Stage One; a long track (either for a rocket-sled or a maglev accelerator) that boosts the upper stages to at least Mach 1; Stage Two, would be a carrier plane that boosts the final stage to Mach 7 or above through a combination of SCRAM jets and rocket engines; Stage Three would be a reusible reentry vehicle with a large rocket engine. The third stage booster engine would either be discarded to burn up, or left in low orbit to be repurposed later, while all other parts of the system would be reusible...they would have a limited/strickly defined service life and a well developed replacement cycle for the diferent components. The initial cost would be high, and the system would be expected to be used for several years, while the individual components would only be used for a limited time. This way, better, more efficent components could be intigrated into the system as those new technologies became avalible/economicly viable/technologically mature. This system would need to have a launch volume of about once a month, to begain with, but with the ability to ramp up to once a day, or more. One of these would replace one conventional launch site and would cost the same amount to build. The long term benifits would be an ability to massively increase launch tempo and reduction (over time) of per launch costs. This is all theoretical, but (I think) worth considering.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I grew up with the Shuttle already established and operational. To me, it was (and still kind of is) The Coolest Thing Ever. I'm well aware of its many flaws, shortcomings and overengineering, but it still holds a certain mystique."

There are a lot of technologically impressive things in the world. That doesn't mean there aren't also a alot of batshit crazy ideas. And the two sets seem to insersect a great deal where aerospace is concerned.

"The better way to deal with failed ambition is to pick it apart, sort the good ideas from the bad (and they're never all bad) and try to determine where and how the good ones can be applied."

I'm not an aerospace engineer, nor do a play one on TV, but it seems pretty obvious to my general sci/tech education that there's not a lot that can be teased out of Shuttle and carried forward, except those pieces of hardware, software, and process design that might contribute to a single-use heavy lifter.

"I'm sure it doesn't require another boondoggle's worth of money to examine the marginal cost of first stage recovery, second stage reentry, reusable heatshields and/or engines which can run for four or five launches before rebuild. And any of these things can pay off within a decade or two, even with more conventional launch vehicles."

I think this is where to find the disconnect between people who think like me and the vast majority of space enthusiasts. I'm simply not willing to presume anything about reusability. Not it's utility, not its form, not its due date. I'm in the "smart people build machines when they need them and they make economic sense" faction. If reusability is ever practical, it will be brought into existence by the people who can use it. Until then, let's not worry our pretty little heads about it, when there is so much work to be done with what we already have, on projects we can already conceptualize.

Rick said...

I was mainly thinking of the manned program. But if NASA had come unglued in the 1970 era, the unmanned program might have ended up hit harder, even though it had no interest in the Shuttle per se. The US would probably have cobbled up some manned program so long as the Soviets had one, but the deep space program might have gone by the boards.

No one in the 1970 era could do 'realistic' planning, because no one knew what budget levels to assume. Future space budgets, for all anyone knew, might be anything from zero to Apollo level.

The Shuttle as initially conceived in the late 1960s was very different from the one we know. It was a fully reusable TSTO with a much smaller payload to orbit - a few astronauts plus, I believe, a small satellite/experiment bay.

We do not know how it would have performed, and that is one important 20/20 hindsight issue. Building things like reliable, reusable engines and heat shields turns out to be harder than expected. That is a fact of space life they didn't know in 1970.

Tony said...

Rick:

"I was mainly thinking of the manned program. But if NASA had come unglued in the 1970 era, the unmanned program might have ended up hit harder, even though it had no interest in the Shuttle per se. The US would probably have cobbled up some manned program so long as the Soviets had one, but the deep space program might have gone by the boards."

I don't think so. Several Mariners flew to Mars and Venus at the height of the Apollo program. Pioneers and Voyagers explored the outer planets despite numerous budget overruns and schedule slips in the Space Shuttle. Compared to manned programs, robotic exploration has always been cheap and easy. It would have been the last thing to go.

"No one in the 1970 era could do 'realistic' planning, because no one knew what budget levels to assume. Future space budgets, for all anyone knew, might be anything from zero to Apollo level."

They could have done realistic planning for concrete mission architectures. That's why Apollo was so successful. And, in their own way, the various military and civilian programs of the Soviets were always ticking along, as unnoticed as they were in the West, largely because the Soviets had a settled idea of what they were trying to accomplish, and how it could be done.

With the Shuttle, the US was buying into a whole string of allied fallacies about the value of and demand for orbital lift. If the budget was so unpredictable, why commit billions of dollars to a system that could only pay off if it flew reliably and safely at a ridiculously high rate? If you did that, you might wind up building a rocket but have no money left over to do anything with it. And what if it wasn't as reliable and safe as it needed to be?

Sound like a familiar story? It would be comforting to believe that that's all post hoc rationalization -- that no one could ever have figured out what could have gone wrong. Yeah, that would be nice...and I've met people who sincerely believe that. The truth is, however, that Greg Easterbrook told us so in 1980, a year before Shuttle first flew.

"The Shuttle as initially conceived in the late 1960s was very different from the one we know. It was a fully reusable TSTO with a much smaller payload to orbit - a few astronauts plus, I believe, a small satellite/experiment bay.

We do not know how it would have performed, and that is one important 20/20 hindsight issue. Building things like reliable, reusable engines and heat shields turns out to be harder than expected. That is a fact of space life they didn't know in 1970."


I'm very well aware of what the original concept was. But it had all of the engineering and economic shortcomings that the eventual Shuttle had, because those shortcomings are fundamental. They aren't problems of scale or configuration. They're simple facts of astronautic life.

If you want to say that some of those facts weren't known, then you're arguing that the people involved weren't just ignorant, they were misfeasant and unprofessional. In standard engineering practice, if you don't know the shape of the parameter space, much less have all of the parameter values nailed down (even on some of the parameters you are aware of) then you keep things developmental and experimental, while you continue doing business in the way you know how. So what if it's not how you perceive yourself operating in your best of all possible worlds? It's how you can operate in this world.

Raymond said...

Maybe this is specific to my generation, but having the Shuttle (plentiful warts and all) gave a sense of space access being infrastructure. Regular manned presence in space was almost a given. It may rankle those with a engineer's purity of purpose (here's looking at you, Tony) but reusable vehicles in a political context lend themselves to regular use. Yes, the approach has problems, cost overruns, and insufficient existential justification. And now that we have the ISS continually occupied, we don't need the shuttle or its proposed replacements to do that photo-op job. But for a while that was our manned presence in space, because even before the shuttle was greenlit it was deemed too expensive to venture further.

I'll also point out that part of reusability's allure is that every other mode of transportation we're familiar with works that way.

Tony:

"I'm simply not willing to presume anything about reusability. Not it's utility, not its form, not its due date."

I wasn't listing my expectations or presumptions - I was listing examples of avenues of research with reasonable potential for usable results which we should allocate a modest research budget towards pursuing. While, of course, continuing to use the perfectly functional technologies we have at our disposal.

" If reusability is ever practical, it will be brought into existence by the people who can use it. Until then, let's not worry our pretty little heads about it, when there is so much work to be done with what we already have, on projects we can already conceptualize."

I don't think it's useful to simply stamp the whole concept of reusability with "technically infeasible at present" and lock it in a drawer for a hundred years. The space market is small, expensive, and illiquid. That kind of a market is predisposed to small, incremental improvements, and resistant to large-scale disruptive technologies. I don't have much as much faith as you seem to that the market will summon it forth when required like some sort of demon. I think it's better to keep looking into it for now on a smaller scale - and if you think that's insufficiently agnostic, then I think you've actually written the entire concept off.

Raymond said...

Ferrell:

The problem with your proposal is that a) we've never built that kind of catapult, and b) scramjets are in their infancy, and we're not yet sure if they'll be able to give us much of an advantage vis-a-vis orbital launch.

Rick said...

The robotic deep space program accomplished a lot in the 60s, but like everything else it was newly cobbled together, ad hoc, and if US space interests had been narrowly defined as just not 'conceding space to the Soviets,' it could easily have gotten orphaned, because except for Venus the Soviets never did much in deep space.

Easterbrook was already writing years after the key decisions, and I don't think you can view the genesis of those decisions outside the context of Apollo and the US space program in the 1960s.

Just to be clear, I agree that we would have been well served if the decision had been made to streamline our expendable access on an 'interim' basis while developing a next generation launch capability, rather than counting on a host of experimental technologies as the basis for our operational system.

But I don't think anyone at the time considered this option, and in the atmosphere of the 1960s, no wonder. They had just skipped multiple development steps, and except for the Apollo 1 fire it all worked like a charm. It was hubris, but unsurprising hubris in the circumstances.

And, I am not sure that the Shuttle has made us worse off, for the most part. Its lack of robustness contributed to the two losses, but mainly they were operational management failures that put any launch at risk.

We ARE paying the bill now, because an expendable system would remain in service, with a host of upgrades over the years, while now we have to design and build an entire replacement architecture.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Maybe this is specific to my generation, but having the Shuttle (plentiful warts and all) gave a sense of space access being infrastructure. Regular manned presence in space was almost a given. It may rankle those with a engineer's purity of purpose (here's looking at you, Tony) but reusable vehicles in a political context lend themselves to regular use. Yes, the approach has problems, cost overruns, and insufficient existential justification. And now that we have the ISS continually occupied, we don't need the shuttle or its proposed replacements to do that photo-op job. But for a while that was our manned presence in space, because even before the shuttle was greenlit it was deemed too expensive to venture further."

To somebody who has followed Soviet/Russian space programs, especially Mir, for several decades, that comes across as triumphantly parochial. For over a decade Mir was a "regular manned pressence in space". For just a few days short of a decade, it was an uninterrupted presence. The Wikipedia article is poorly edited, but it is perhaps interesting to note that, according ot that source, the ISS only achieved a longer permanent occupation this week, or will only achieve it next week.

"I'll also point out that part of reusability's allure is that every other mode of transportation we're familiar with works that way."

Only because they can. An airplane's wings, flight control, and landing gear are all necessary for its operations. So are the wheels, brakes, and steering of a car. Recovery is built into the system's configuration for normal operation. You can't say the same thing about a rocket. Building recovery into a space launch vehicle is like building recovery onto a bullet -- you're adding something it doesn't need in order to complete its mission, at the cost of some portion of the nominal mission's scope, safety, reliability, or all three together.

"I wasn't listing my expectations or presumptions - I was listing examples of avenues of research with reasonable potential for usable results which we should allocate a modest research budget towards pursuing. While, of course, continuing to use the perfectly functional technologies we have at our disposal."

That's fine as far as it goes, but Shuttle is a perfect example of research and development that led to "usable results". Problem is, those economical went out the window in pursuit of usable. IMO we have to dig our feet in hard on that -- it's something that cannot be allowed to happen again, under any circumstances.

"I don't think it's useful to simply stamp the whole concept of reusability with "technically infeasible at present" and lock it in a drawer for a hundred years."

Let's not go putting words in people's mouths, okay? All I've ever said is that we have to take first things first, and leave the rest for when it becomes economically and technically viable. If it takes a hundred years, then it takes a hundred years. If it takes a thousand, well then, it takes a thousand. If it's twenty or thiry years down the road, then that's when it will happen.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"The space market is small, expensive, and illiquid. That kind of a market is predisposed to small, incremental improvements, and resistant to large-scale disruptive technologies. I don't have much as much faith as you seem to that the market will summon it forth when required like some sort of demon. I think it's better to keep looking into it for now on a smaller scale - and if you think that's insufficiently agnostic, then I think you've actually written the entire concept off."

Why, Raymond, you say that as if it's some sort of moral failing. Don't worry, I'm not offended. I understand.

Of course I've written reusability for its own sake off. It never deserved consideration. For the sake of getting things done more efficiently, when reuse can do that, I'll be all for it, but not a moment sooner.

And I have way more faith in the market than I do in the invocation of undefined and indescribable "disruptive technologies".

Tony said...

Rick:

"The robotic deep space program accomplished a lot in the 60s, but like everything else it was newly cobbled together, ad hoc, and if US space interests had been narrowly defined as just not 'conceding space to the Soviets,' it could easily have gotten orphaned, because except for Venus the Soviets never did much in deep space."

I appreciate that in the abstract, but it rests on the assumption that space exploration qua space exploration was solely about the Cold War. Though it had Cold War dimensions, up until the 1980s (and maybe later, considering how much of the Space Shuttle was shaped by USAF requirements) rbotic planetary exploration was the one thing NASA was doing that could have existed in pretty much the same form without the Cold War. That says to me that somebody would have justified funding it, in some way, regardless of the direction manned psaceflight took. YMMV.

"Easterbrook was already writing years after the key decisions, and I don't think you can view the genesis of those decisions outside the context of Apollo and the US space program in the 1960s.

Just to be clear...

But I don't think anyone at the time considered this option, and in the atmosphere of the 1960s, no wonder. They had just skipped multiple development steps, and except for the Apollo 1 fire it all worked like a charm. It was hubris, but unsurprising hubris in the circumstances."


Yes, but I don't think that's the whole story. Hubris could have been used to keep going in the direction that Apollo was leading. It took a whole lot of ideology and the dogged retelling of numerous Big Lies to justiy Space Shuttle rather than other things that could have been done. Easterbrook didn't base his article on things that were only known in 1980. Most of the really haunting parts of his piece -- the ones that foreshadowed both the Challenger and Columbia losses in outline, if not in detail -- could have been written in 1973, based on the conceptual design that was submitted to Congress for approval. It was simply bad engineering forcefed to the people of America through a funnel of pie-in-the-sky ideology.

"And, I am not sure that the Shuttle has made us worse off, for the most part. Its lack of robustness contributed to the two losses, but mainly they were operational management failures that put any launch at risk.

A serial stack would have eliminated both failure modes that led to Shuttle losses. The "operational management failures" simply wouldn't have had fertile ground in which to germinate. We had a serial stack that could loft that much mass. It was called Saturn V.

The Russians had two potentially lethal launch vehicle failures. (The "April 5 anomally" in 1975 and Soyuz T-10-1) Both crews survived because Soviet launch vehicles and payload spacecraft (and US ones, prior to Shuttle) were designed to protect human life to the extent that they could, not just get people to space and back if nothing went wrong. Can't say that about the Shuttle.

"We ARE paying the bill now, because an expendable system would remain in service, with a host of upgrades over the years, while now we have to design and build an entire replacement architecture."

+10

Milo said...

Tony:

"Of course I've written reusability for its own sake off. It never deserved consideration. For the sake of getting things done more efficiently, when reuse can do that, I'll be all for it, but not a moment sooner."

Nobody has advocated reusability "for its own sake". People advocate reusability because they believe it will get get things done more efficiently. They might be wrong, then might even be completely delusional, but they're still advancing what they think is the most efficient long-term design, because they believe it's the most efficient long-term design.

The Space Shuttle has not delivered the advertised efficiency. This is, largely, because it isn't actually reusable in a realistic sense, because major portions of it need to be rebuilt for every launch. Maybe this means we do not currently have the technological capability to make a reusable launch vehicle work. Maybe this is just due to incompetence from its designers and we could make it work if we let someone else try at it. Either way, a reusable launch vehicle that actually works, when and if we make it, would allow serious reductions in launch costs. That's why people want one in the first place.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Nobody has advocated reusability "for its own sake". People advocate reusability because they believe it will get get things done more efficiently. They might be wrong, then might even be completely delusional, but they're still advancing what they think is the most efficient long-term design, because they believe it's the most efficient long-term design."

You're making my point for me. It's all about believing, not knowing.

Now, I know what comes next -- without belief in something, Tony, nobody ever gets anywhere. Well, that's true, as far as it goes. The problem is that people engage in mad confirmation bias whenever they trot out this trope. In fact, you almost have to. In reality, a lot of people believe in a lot of things, and most of them never get anywhere, because what they believe in isn't safe, sane, realistic, any combination of these, or all three. For every person who believed and prevailed, there are five, ten, twenty, who knows how many people who believed and failed.

"The Space Shuttle has not delivered the advertised efficiency. This is, largely, because it isn't actually reusable in a realistic sense, because major portions of it need to be rebuilt for every launch. Maybe this means we do not currently have the technological capability to make a reusable launch vehicle work. Maybe this is just due to incompetence from its designers and we could make it work if we let someone else try at it. Either way, a reusable launch vehicle that actually works, when and if we make it, would allow serious reductions in launch costs. That's why people want one in the first place."

Apologies in advance, but this is almost a textbook example of missing the point. The Shuttle "actually" does work, with a considerable amount of reuse. It just doesn't work efficiently or safely. That doesn't make it's not "realistic". It just makes reality not what many people want it to be.

Raymond said...

From the Easterbrook article:

After summarily dismissing less-expensive but less-glamorous mechanized space exploration (see "Battlestar Bureauctica" on page 42), NASA devised these possibilities: a manned landing on Mars; a manned fly-by (approach without landing) of Mars or Venus; a permanent moonbase; a permanent orbiting space station, with a shuttle vehicle to supply it; or, at last resort, the shuttle only.

The space station sparked a lot of interest, but it too was overwhelmingly expensive. Its components would be so heavy, NASA's entire budget would be required to pay for the launch rockets--to say nothing, as space proponents are wont to do, of building or servicing it. The task group members reasoned that a reusable space shuttle would be the logical first step to prepare for a space station. Only the economy of a reusable shuttle could make the space station affordable.


Speaking of "what could have been if we didn't waste our time with the Shuttle" neglects the fact that the (political) decision was made even before the design took shape. It's likely a classic case of good money after bad. Still, the idea of a manned space station built and serviced with expendable rockets seemed, at the time, like an absurdly expensive proposition.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"Hubris could have been used to keep going in the direction that Apollo was leading. It took a whole lot of ideology and the dogged retelling of numerous Big Lies to justiy Space Shuttle rather than other things that could have been done."

Post-hoc thinking. See the quote above. Perhaps correct in hindsight, but not reflective of the decision-making process immediately post-Apollo.

"To somebody who has followed Soviet/Russian space programs, especially Mir, for several decades, that comes across as triumphantly parochial. For over a decade Mir was a "regular manned pressence in space". For just a few days short of a decade, it was an uninterrupted presence. The Wikipedia article is poorly edited, but it is perhaps interesting to note that, according ot that source, the ISS only achieved a longer permanent occupation this week, or will only achieve it next week."

Note I said "gave a sense". And in "...but for a while that was our manned presence in space" the definitions of "for a while" and "our" are relative.

The Shuttle first launched in 1981. I was born in 1983. The first components of Mir were launched in 1986. Continuous habitation of Mir began in 1989. The Shuttle-Mir program began in 1994. You try explaining post-Cold-War politics in space to an eleven-year-old, even a smart one, and see how far you get. (I remember asking my father at one point after Mir launched, "But they don't have a shuttle - how do they bring people up and down with only rockets? Isn't that too expensive?" I was a kid. The vagaries of cost-benefit analysis were murky at best.)

"Let's not go putting words in people's mouths, okay? All I've ever said is that we have to take first things first, and leave the rest for when it becomes economically and technically viable. If it takes a hundred years, then it takes a hundred years. If it takes a thousand, well then, it takes a thousand. If it's twenty or thiry years down the road, then that's when it will happen."

Sorry, not trying to put words in your mouth. But I think there's something of a contradiction between that and these:

"Problem is, those economical went out the window in pursuit of usable. IMO we have to dig our feet in hard on that -- it's something that cannot be allowed to happen again, under any circumstances."

"Of course I've written reusability for its own sake off. It never deserved consideration. For the sake of getting things done more efficiently, when reuse can do that, I'll be all for it, but not a moment sooner."

As Milo points out, nobody's trying to argue for reuse for its own sake. I realize you're arguing for a more deliberate, measured approach, incorporating reusability only if and when and where it makes sense, and avoiding the kind of dead-ends the Shuttle embodies. And I agree, at least to a point. It's the approach Elon Musk seems to be going for with Falcon, and I'm okay with that.

The difference seems to be more about the desired scale of space access. For the kind of small-scale orbital missions we're currently doing, expendables work fine and will continue doing so for quite a while. For the kind of launch-a-day scale we'd like to see, I can't think of a way expendables can possibly be the most efficient method (much like you can't see a way for reusables to be efficient at current launch volumes).

The point of contention is the chicken/egg problem. Are we limited to small volumes because of the expense, and thus will volume go up if it can be brought down significantly (ie good, efficient, safe reusables), or is the expense simply a function of the fundamentally limited need for orbital access?

And on that point, I'm agnostic.

Milo said...

Imagine an axe whose blade wears down so quickly that it needs to be reforged after every tree you fell. However, the axe's handle is more durable and can be kept permanently.

Is this axe "reusable"? Not in any real economic sense, it isn't, because the handle is just a cheap piece of wood. The cost of the blade is far more important, and it needs to be constantly replaced. It's just a non-reusable axe design with a relatively unimportant reusable plugin accessory, that with some verbal sleight of hand allows you to make people think the axe is reusable.

If a woodcutter paid you to design a reusable axe and this is what you turned up, he would be within his right to accuse you of extreme incompetence.



Raymond:

"The point of contention is the chicken/egg problem. Are we limited to small volumes because of the expense, and thus will volume go up if it can be brought down significantly (ie good, efficient, safe reusables), or is the expense simply a function of the fundamentally limited need for orbital access?"

I think it's a bit of both. And this is why it's important to at least keep reusable vehicles on the drawing board, even if there's no current buyer. Otherwise you risk a Catch-22 where nobody bothers developing a technology until a market for it is found, but no-one is going to start that market until the technology exists.

Of course, we shouldn't build them until we're reasonably confident they're actually going to be properly reusable, and not like the above axe.

Tony said...

Gentlemen:

We're just talking past each other at this point.

Rick said...

In some ways yes, simply because the way this thread has developed. People make fairly offhand statements - I know I do. And then we all end up defending positions that only represent part of our views.

I will revisit the Shuttle in a front page post at some point.


About the Russians, I know in a vaguely general way what they have accomplished. but I haven't the faintest clue about their long term goals, or general Russian thinking about space.

They pretty obviously seem focused on a space station. They have been at it now for a generation, while sticking with a basic transit bus to get there. From their perspective the ISS is no doubt just Mir II with some international frills. But are they thinking of eventual human interplanetary missions? A bio research facility? A mix?

I don't know whether Russian policy is any more coherent than US policy (i.e., hardly at all), but I don't even know what the Russian space community thinks, or what its spectrum of views is.

The quoted bit from Easterbrook hints at a long running and underlying debate in US space policy, about the role of human missions. There is a school of thought that human spaceflight is pretty much a wasteful sideshow. I don't know if that was/is Easterbrook's view, but he does allude to it.

In some moods I am not unsympathetic to that view, but obviously in other moods I'm more supportive of human spaceflight ...

Thucydides said...

Just following the sidetrack a bit, but there is a school of thought that is violently opposed to the Space Shuttle, ISS and manned human spaceflight in general since it consumes so much of the space budget that many robotic space missions and space science in general have been scaled back or cancelled to "feed the beast".

The basic problem of spaceflight isnt that it is hard (the basic rocket equations are fairly simple, and dedicated hobbyists have built rockets of remarkable power), but that it isn't very scalable. Getting to orbit requires an order or two of magnitude more energy than any home built rocket to date has ever demonstrated; even Spaceship One and Two are only suborbital vehicles.

This is a bit like the situation before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Cars, tanks and airplanes had been predicted long before the 20th century, but human muscle was insufficient and steam engines could not be made small and light (and fuel efficient) enough to power any sort of practical vehicle. Rockets and spaceships today are "steam powered", and some sort of revolution needs to take place in order to develop the "IC" engine that will drop the costs of space access.

Of course in the context of this post, cheap space access will also make space warfare in orbit much more practical, along with much greater support of air, ground and naval combat. Will this "temper" future conflicts, or allow things to spiral out of control more quickly?

Tony said...

Rick:

"About the Russians, I know in a vaguely general way what they have accomplished. but I haven't the faintest clue about their long term goals, or general Russian thinking about space."

The Soviets and later the Russians, once they got beaten to the Moon, concentrated on applications that fit in with short term objectives. On the military side, they worked on manned orbital reconaissance. The resulting Almaz program was a direct reflection of our MOL program. They went further with it than we ever did, actually launching three Almaz stations under the cover of the Salyut program. But Almaz was eventually cancelled due to robotic spacecraft advancements. The Salyut program -- the part that wasn't military -- was, as far as I can tell, a combination of biomedical and technological research for long duration spaceflight.

Mir was in many ways Salyut writ large -- larger station, wider variety of technology under study, longer durations for both men and machinery. There was, however, some astrophysics research (Kvant-1 module) and some Earth sciences (Priroda module).

There is no doubt that much of what the Soviets/Russians did in space after 1970 was doing what they could with what they had. But let's not be so quick to pat oursleves on the back WRT Shuttle and ISS. The space station that finally came out of Shuttle wasn't the originally planned US-only Freedom. It was more of a tanker's stew (everybody throws what ingredients they have in an ammo can and, after it's cooked, everyone gets and equal share).

But it didn't have a real purpose initially, except to spread cost and risk. In 1999 I attended a presentation given by a Rockwell engineer who had worked on some aspect of ISS. When asked by a member of the ausience what the station was for, the presenter said that once we had it built, we'd find out. Period. They were already building the thing on-orbit, and they didn't have a clue what they were going to do with it -- at least not enough of one that the news filtered down to the engineers working on the hardware. I wish I was making this up, but I'm not.

So, whatever one believes about the Shuttle and ISS -- what they are, what they could have been, what we might have done with other technologies -- IMO one first has to understand that there is no plan, and there never was one. Whatever we've done in the US, we've done because somebody was conned out of the money to do it. Whatever was done by the Soviets/Russians was done to meet specific short term goals.

I guess that means you can make up your own mind what that says about spaceflight economics. If you ask me, it means that what you get has nothing to do with the sophistication or ideological purity of your technology, and everything to do with how directly and unassumingly you pursue attainable goals. The Soviets/Russians, as poor as they were and are, always had us beat on that, because they didn't subscribe to any ideology other than doing what could be done with what they had.

Rick said...

The Blogger gods are angry again, but I think I got rid of the dupes.


When asked by a member of the ausience what the station was for, the presenter said that once we had it built, we'd find out.

That is pretty much the story of space travel in a nutshell. The drive toward space has yielded practical byproducts: ICBMs (for some values of 'practical') and Earthsats, but the underlying attitude has always been that if we go there we'll find some reason to go back.

Look at the endless speculation, here and on pretty much every space oriented blog or forum, about some hypothetical McGuffinite that will provide an economic justification for space ventures.


To expand on Thucydides' point, in a way our problem is that our existing space technology is well past its Moore's Law stage. Immature techs have enormous scope for improvement (more performance, lower cost, or both). Look at how airliners progressed decade to decade from c. 1920 to 1960, compared to the much subtler refinements within the same overall performance framework since that time.

The technology of building rockets is pretty mature, making further order-of-magnitude improvements much harder to come by.

And the alternatives remain speculative in the extreme. Elevators? The best we can say is that they may be theoretically possible, if carbon nanofibers can be woven into large ropes.

Cheap space access may require a tech revolution that would closer to 'indistinguishable from magic' than 'plausible midfuture.'

Milo said...

Tony:

"ISS. When asked by a member of the ausience what the station was for, the presenter said that once we had it built, we'd find out. Period. They were already building the thing on-orbit, and they didn't have a clue what they were going to do with it -- at least not enough of one that the news filtered down to the engineers working on the hardware."

There is a school of thought that sees the ISS as a status symbol - saying that we've maintained a continuous human presence in space for ten years and counting (exactly - coincidentially, yesterday was the anniversary) sounds so cool, that people don't really bother to ask "what's the point?".



Rick:

"Look at the endless speculation, here and on pretty much every space oriented blog or forum, about some hypothetical McGuffinite that will provide an economic justification for space ventures."

The biggest real motive for space travel at this point is scientific research. Not that scientists have ever cared about "economic justification".

Doing random research just because you thought it'd be fun and then letting someone else notice how to make practical byproducts from your results is how pretty much all science works.

Another thing which could be useful is in-situ mining - not of MacGuffinite, but of "common" minerals - for manufacturing stuff meant to be used in space, thus skipping the costly Earth-launch step. However, this would require getting a factory into space more cheaply than you could just launch the stuff you're making with it. Most likely this would require building a moonbase colony sophisticated enough to expand under its own power.


"The technology of building rockets is pretty mature, making further order-of-magnitude improvements much harder to come by."

Personally my best bet at this point is hybrid airbreathing/rocket spaceplanes like Skylon. Ramjets and scramjets are sufficiently immature, are they not? ;)

Tony said...

Rick:

"The Blogger gods are angry again, but I think I got rid of the dupes."

At least partially my fault. I got caught up in that-didn't-appear-to-work-let's-click-it-again...and-again...and-again-itis.

"That is pretty much the story of space travel in a nutshell. The drive toward space has yielded practical byproducts: ICBMs (for some values of 'practical') and Earthsats, but the underlying attitude has always been that if we go there we'll find some reason to go back."

I don't think that's particularly accurate. Doing space has always had pretty concrete goals: weather monitoring and prediction, communications, close-up exploration of the planets, strategic reconaissance, etc. If you want to say that manned spaceflight has always been an exercise in betting the come, well...that's not really the case either. As you have pointed out yourself, all of the previously mentioned motivations had people in space attached to them before robotics and telemetry got so good.

And, BTW, ICBMs would have existed without spaceflight. They were developed without anything to do with space in mind. They were simply an extension of artillery, going all the way back to the V-2. That's why V-2 was a Heer project, while the Luftwaffe was interest in the V-1 cruise missile. Both systems fit their sponsors respective technological worldviews -- aircraft for the air force and rocketry for the army. Brought forawrd into the context of Cold War strategic delivery systems, rockets and cruise missiles were both built, but without space exploration/exploitation contributing, AFAICT, the slightest motivation. They were just existant technologies that had application.

"Look at the endless speculation, here and on pretty much every space oriented blog or forum, about some hypothetical McGuffinite that will provide an economic justification for space ventures."

It was the steady and inexorable removal of human professions from the practical objectives of spaceflight that have gotten us where we are. One pretty much needs McGuffinite to motivate humans in space. Or one needs to institutionalize the Enterprise of Humanity as a widely accepted ideal, including an inescapable imperative to expand that enterprise wherever it can be taken.

In fact, if you ask me, expanding humanity's enterprise is the only valid reason for human spaceflight.

"To expand on Thucydides' point, in a way our problem is that our existing space technology is well past its Moore's Law stage...

The technology of building rockets is pretty mature...

And the alternatives remain speculative in the extreme...

Cheap space access may require a tech revolution that would closer to 'indistinguishable from magic' than 'plausible midfuture.'
"


But none of those facts necessitate despair that useful and exciting things can't be done unless and until reusability "magic" is invoked. It just means that scope has to be narrowed to doing those things with people in space that are justified. We have to say: what do we really need people in space for, and how are we going to maximize what we get out of their pressence.

And spaceflight can be infrastructure for this, even if rockets are thrown away with every launch. You throw away a million aluminum cans, you throw away a rocket -- ultimately the same thing, except for our emotional attachment to a rocket as a precision artifact, whereas, emotionally, a million aluminum cans is just a million aluminum cans. To paraphrase Uncle Joe, a rocket is somebody's blood, sweat, and tears; a million soda cans is a statistic. Food for thought...

Tony said...

Milo:

"There is a school of thought that sees the ISS as a status symbol..."

That's beyond a school of thought -- it's pretty much consensus among people who pay close enough attention. The Augustine Commission let the cat out of the bag when they stated in their report that a major motivation, for whatever we do going forward, is to have a manned space program befitting a great nation.

"The biggest real motive for space travel at this point is scientific research. Not that scientists have ever cared about "economic justification".

Doing random research just because you thought it'd be fun and then letting someone else notice how to make practical byproducts from your results is how pretty much all science works."


Scientists care greatly about economic justification. Showing possible future application is how they get finanaced. "Pure research" is an ideal that moves the meter with some people, but it just ain't so. Every serendipitous development has some scientist with pretty specific ideas about to make money or count professional coup (which ultimately means mo' money).

"Another thing which could be useful is in-situ mining - not of MacGuffinite, but of "common" minerals - for manufacturing stuff meant to be used in space, thus skipping the costly Earth-launch step. However, this would require getting a factory into space more cheaply than you could just launch the stuff you're making with it. Most likely this would require building a moonbase colony sophisticated enough to expand under its own power."

But resource utilization is not a motivation for human space flight, it's just a possible enabling objective.

"Personally my best bet at this point is hybrid airbreathing/rocket spaceplanes like Skylon. Ramjets and scramjets are sufficiently immature, are they not? ;)"

This isn't even a YMMV issue in my mind: We have to scrub out our brain housing groups of anything that couples reusability to SSTO. It's much more likely that reusability will make sense with 2STO or 3STO, using reusable first stages and single-use upper stages. That's because the biggest part of the vehicle is the first stage, and it's the one that undergoes the fewest changed in flight environment throughout the exercise. Of course, the first stage is so hard to recover because it's so GD big to begin with. But that's where the ositive ROI is likely to be -- either the whole thing or components.

Rick said...

Yes, that is pretty much how all science works. Although scientists in pretty much every other field but high energy physics could probably say a word or two about how much money space science gets compared to them.

I think that for the truly plausible midfuture, and certainly for the near future, space travel - manned or otherwise - will mainly be about scientific research. There is really no other reason to go there, and it is good enough reason by itself.

The real problem is that a midfuture of interplanetary research stations has essentially no scope for space opera.

Really Fast airbreathers have a really basic problem, and it has nothing to do with the engines as such. If you fly much over Mach 5 in enough atmosphere for airbreathing you subject yourself to a brutal heat soak, much worse than reentry.

Jim Baerg said...

Rick: "And the alternatives remain speculative in the extreme. Elevators? The best we can say is that they may be theoretically possible, if carbon nanofibers can be woven into large ropes."

Yes, a surface to orbit elevator for earth pushes the bleeding edge of what may be doable with the strongest theoretically possible materials. Rather like a reusable SSTO pushes the bleeding edge of what may be doable with the best chemical fuels & structural materials for rockets. Ever doing either *economically* is doubtful.

However, some varieties of tether propulsion can be done using currently available materials and a rotovator or skyhook could be reached from the earths surface using a rocket with considerably less delta V than is needed to get into orbit directly. The exponential factor in both the rocket equation & the tether taper factor means that a modest reduction in delta V provided by either *greatly* reduces the difficulty of the task.

A single stage rocket to skyhook might do the trick for providing a ticket to orbit that costs only a few times more than a ticket to fly across the Pacific. Too bad about all the orbital debris waiting to cut the skyhook.

Byron said...

I'm going to push for a launch loop here. It's not as much of a stretch in terms of materials, and it doesn't have to worry about debris. Plus, no problems with the Van Allen Belts, and you can go straight to LEO.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"In fact, if you ask me, expanding humanity's enterprise is the only valid reason for human spaceflight."

+10

"We have to scrub out our brain housing groups of anything that couples reusability to SSTO. It's much more likely that reusability will make sense with 2STO or 3STO, using reusable first stages and single-use upper stages. That's because the biggest part of the vehicle is the first stage, and it's the one that undergoes the fewest changed in flight environment throughout the exercise. Of course, the first stage is so hard to recover because it's so GD big to begin with. But that's where the ositive ROI is likely to be -- either the whole thing or components."

SSTO, I'll agree, is most likely a chimera given current propulsion tech. When I think of reusable launch vehicles I think more of Von Braun's three-stage winged thing or recoverable first stages. If we were to manage metastable metallic hydrogen, though ( and progress has been made of late with various lithium hydrides), then it's a different ballgame.

Byron:

I'm with you on the launch loop over the tether-based schemes, but it's still a megascale engineering project, and I wouldn't want to be the one to propose the budget amendment for that one...

Byron said...

I'm just an engineer, not a politician. That's their problem, not mine.

Raymond said...

Rick:

"Yes, that is pretty much how all science works. Although scientists in pretty much every other field but high energy physics could probably say a word or two about how much money space science gets compared to them."

Have you looked at the money in pharmacological research or the burgeoning (and bubble-tastic) biotech industry? I think the space science people are the envious ones. Square and cube the above if we find life on Mars or Europa or Titan.

Byron:

If we can take anything from the temperate and indecisive contest over the Shuttle upthread, it's that politics is king of space.

Byron said...

Yes. Until you get there. Then the engineers are in charge. Can you imagine politicians trying to run a spacecraft? If my physics teacher, who was very smart, gets astrodynamics wrong, I doubt that your average congressman would do more than kill himself quickly.

Raymond said...

Byron:

Congresscritters are well-practiced at doing exactly what they're told while on tours of complex machinery they voted into existence. I'm halfway convinced the only reason they ever vote for the creation of complex machinery is to tour it while being called sir.

Thucydides:

"This is a bit like the situation before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Cars, tanks and airplanes had been predicted long before the 20th century, but human muscle was insufficient and steam engines could not be made small and light (and fuel efficient) enough to power any sort of practical vehicle. Rockets and spaceships today are "steam powered", and some sort of revolution needs to take place in order to develop the "IC" engine that will drop the costs of space access."

Not taking the analogy too literally, I'd say the equivalent would be metastable metallic hydrogen, which is the only non-nuclear energy storage medium I can think of with any degree of possibility or usefulness. And while we've made some progress mapping out the potential approaches, we still haven't made it in the lab (much less industrially), so it remains one of those if-we-get-it-then-it'll-help technologies, like carbon nanotube rope or graphene in industrial quantities and sizes. Not magitech, but not possible yet.

"Of course in the context of this post, cheap space access will also make space warfare in orbit much more practical, along with much greater support of air, ground and naval combat. Will this "temper" future conflicts, or allow things to spiral out of control more quickly?"

I think expensive space access has done a fair amount for warfare on the strategic level already, and the advances in intelligence and communication it's given have done more tempering than escalating. Cheaper space access, I think, would only add to that trend.

Anonymous said...

Raymond said:"The problem with your proposal is that a) we've never built that kind of catapult, and b) scramjets are in their infancy, and we're not yet sure if they'll be able to give us much of an advantage vis-a-vis orbital launch."

You do realize that you've just argued in FAVOR of my proposal as an R&D project to test what works and/or what mix of technologies work?

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

If metastable metallic hydrogen is anything like metastable helium then I think it will be a very long time indeed before it becomes acceptable for use.

Metastable Helium is predicted to be a solid, which releases its energy at a fantastic rate as it devolves back to its ground state. Should a stick of metastable helium become unstable, the entire amount spontaneously devolves in a massive energy release (AKA explosion).

Don't forget one of the other reasons IC engines took over the world besides energy density, scalability and ease of use was safety. There are no boilers to explode, and the fuel is relatively non toxic and can be handled at sensible temperatures and pressures (think about that next time you are at the self serve gas station!).

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