Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Adventures Beyond the Plausible Midfuture

A Far Future City
What exactly is the 'plausible midfuture,' a term I have used here from early days without ever quite defining it?

It lies beyond the near future of technologies already on the drawing board, though some of today's tech may remain in use, just as some DC-3s are still flying. I think of the midfuture as beginning perhaps around midcentury, give or take a couple of decades. The world should still be largely familiar. Streetscapes of today do not differ obviously from those of the 1970s (at least in the US; China is a different matter). Car styles and clothing styles have changed, but the first 'new' thing a time traveller might notice are those people using cellphones and talking about stuff they found on the Internet.

The far end of the midfuture, when it shades into the far future, is naturally hazier, perhaps 200 years, give or take a couple of generations. A few DC-3s may still be flying, but by then only as exercises in historic preservation, and with multiple rebuildings like the Ship of Theseus. Travellers from 2010 would at once sense that they were in a different era. But much should still be recognizable, as our military institutions and uniforms have continuity with those of 1810 (but only in traces with those of 1610).

If there is anything like a Singularity, of course, all bets are off, which brings us to the 'plausible' half of my formulation. Prediction is difficult, said Yogi Berra, especially about the future. In the popular culture the future is passé; thus Disney relaunched Tomorrowland as a retro-future.

What rates as Plausible [TM] space tech, so far as human travel and habitation are concerned, has not changed much in the half century of space travel. The tech revolution of the recent and current era, cybernetics, has profoundly transformed robotic space travel - no one in the 1950s expected robotic Mars rovers, or Titan landings controlled from Pasadena. The anticipated hardware has not much changed (apart from the rather iffy prospects of elevators) just as cars and jetliners have changed less than anyone in the 50s expected.

And beyond the midfuture? Will technical progress, taken in all, continue at more or less the rate of the last 200 years? Or will it settle down into maturity and gradual refinement, as guns and sailing ships did from the 16th century until the 19th? But the far future is a long time. A few posts back I considered the era of 40,000 years from now, still a dip of the toe in the sea of far futurity.

What we want in our hearts - at least for purposes of Romance - is space opera: FTL starships, worlds by the dozen, the Galactic Empire or at least the Terran Empire. None of this is very plausible, which is a long ways from saying impossible. General Relativity is far above my math and physics pay grade. But to judge from discussion here, including commenters for whom it is not above their pay grade, GR does not actually rule out FTL. It merely imposes constraints, which can be largely tucked into the deep background mechanics, invisible to the story.

An alternative option is simply not to worry about Albert Einstein (an early scholar who followed Newton in refining Aristotle's speculations). Most fantasy writers do not belabor the pseudo-physics of dragons or magic, and are no worse off for it, and space opera is fundamentally 'science fantasy,' whether or not anyone uses a vorpal sword. The geek police never arrested Asimov or Bujold, and they have no greater authority over you.

That said, if you are regular reader of this blog you probably like and appreciate the trappings of hard SF, the crisp glitter of a Realistic [TM] spaceship against the velvet vastness of space. This too is justified. Again our sister genre, fantasy, points the way. Even though a fantasy world has magic, we still expect its swords to be sharp and its sailing ships to have a practical, seamanlike rig. (Not in all fantasy worlds, especially the dreamlike ones, but more often than not.)

So the leap into space opera does not compel us to abandon every standard and uncritically embrace our inner Hollywood. We are free to embrace it critically. What remains is the obligation to be consistent with our vision. (If you want real, Heinleinian torch drives, don't rate them in gigawatts.) Or, if you want the equivalent of gas turbine ships fighting with smoothbore cannon, gin up a background history that justifies it. The Old Race invented the drive, but they were peaceful, which is why they got wiped out, yada yada.

For that matter, truth to be told, if the story is good enough no one will really care.

Related posts: I recently discussed adventures in the plausible midfuture, and back in early days I looked at some retro-futures.

The image is swiped from a blog aptly named The Speculist.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Weighty Matter

Via Sky & Telescope, news of the heaviest known star, a 'hypergiant' estimated to be about 265 times the mass of the Sun and nine million times as luminous. Stars that massive weren't even supposed to form, blowing themselves apart before they could even coalesce. (It is possible that this star is an unresolved binary, but most indicators point to a single massive star.)

It goes by a colorful name typical of stars discovered in modern times: R136a1. Remember the days when colony planets orbited Betelgeuse or Canopus? Its broader surroundings do have a more vivid name: It is located in the Tarantula Nebula, on the outskirts of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Needless to say, no one expects planets around this star. They would have had no time to form, since it is only a million years old, the merest stellar infant. And in another million years it will go the way of all mortal things, with an appropriately spectacular demise. That a star which barely holds itself together at all will go out in a supernova is pretty much a given, but with the bonus thrill of antimatter (specifically positron-electron 'pair instability') blowing it apart so completely as to leave no remnant at all, not even a black hole.

How's that for finality?

The image, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, shows 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Running on Rails

Space Train
In spite of the title this post is about spaceships, not trains. It is inspired by commenter Ferrell's remark, in discussion of the aesthetics of space travel, that 'cycler stations' seem more like railroads than ships. To expand on my own response there, this is largely true of spacecraft in general, at least those without magitech drives.

Trains, it has been observed, differ from other common terrestrial vehicles in that they have no steering wheel. Once they leave the station platform they go not where 'the governor [helmsman] listeth,' but where the tracks take them. Spaceships may have a joystick for attitude control, but once they light up their main drive they go where the laws of physics take them. As I noted last year in Space Warfare IV: Mobility, the way they actually get around resembles

... self-propelled artillery shells. Once they fire themselves into a particular orbit they can change that orbit only by another burst of power, expending more propellant in the process.
Regular readers here are probably geeky enough that you already know this, and in particular you likely appreciate the tactical military implications - what space wargamers call vector movement, AKA why spaceships don't maneuver the way Hollywood usually portrays. So why am I beating you over the head with it? Because it is so easy to forget that this applies not only to tactical maneuvers but to strategic or 'operational' movements, and to commercial traffic.

If a spaceship in Earth orbit is fueled up and ready to go to Mars, once you punch the 'go' button you are on your way to Mars. Yes, in the early stages of your departure burn you can abort back to Earth orbit (or, very occasionally, to lunar orbit). But once past that initial abort window any subsequent change of orbit will, in nearly all cases, take you only on a long, slow trip to nowhere.

This applies most rigidly to economical Hohmann (or near-Hohmann) transfer orbits, but it applies with nearly as much force even to fast ships taking steep orbits. Unless provided for in your mission plan, the chances that your fuel allowance permits you to change orbit to one that will get you somewhere else is slim to none.

Military missions may - and certainly should, if possible - provide an abort option that will get you to some friendly base before life support runs out. Commercial missions, probably not: These trips will be costly enough without carrying along extra fuel and life support for a change of destination. And for most space emergencies such an abort would be useless anyway - whatever keeps you from safely reaching Mars would make it even harder to reach anywhere else.

Thus space operations will 'run on rails,' with the route and destination fixed not just by the space line's policy but by constraints of time, motion, and propellant supply.

All of which has some interesting secondary implications, ranging from space rescue to command structure. Rescue is plausible between ships on similar orbits, as in Heinlein's Rolling Stones, where Dr. Stone transfers to a nearby liner, black bag in hand, to fight a disease outbreak on board. But if two ships are passing on different orbits, don't expect one to be able to assist the other. Similarly, 'lifeboats' are pretty much useless in deep space - if you take to the boats you're still on the same orbit as the stricken ship, and unless the lifeboats have delta v and life support comparable to the ship itself they won't help. (Two hab structures with independent life support are a much better bet.)

The constraints of space motion also raise a question about who should be in command. In the movie Casablanca, Rick Blaine suggests to Ilsa that they get married on a train. "The captain of a ship can perform marriages; why not the engineer on a train?" But the 'captain' of a train is not the engineer; it is the conductor. (In British railway usage, not the driver but the guard.)

At sea and in the air a pilot/navigator traditionally has command, because they are the most skilled at handling the vehicle under abnormal conditions, to change course and reach sheltered waters or a safe landing. But in space, especially deep space, brilliant shiphandling is probably not an option. Survival, if possible, will generally depend on the crew's ability to function as a social unit, and on the life support system holding out. In human dramatic terms a spaceship is more like an isolated outpost than any terrestrial vehicle.

Finally, a way that spaceships differ even from trains is that nearly all travel is nonstop, from point of origin to final destination. Terrestrial vehicles can and often do make intermediate stops along the way, each time letting off some passengers and cargo, and taking on others. This trip pattern lends itself well to RPGs, picaresque scenarios in general, and especially episodic television, with each waypoint an Adventure Town.

This is practical because ships and trains (or caravans, etc.) lose little time and expend insignificant fuel in making intermediate stops. Planes need extra fuel to climb back to cruise altitude, but they can top off their tanks, and by not carrying fuel for a nonstop trip they can usually carry more payload.

Alas, it does not work that way in space. Spaceships don't burn their fuel while cruising; they burn it to speed up and slow down. So even if several planets were neatly lined up, each intermediate stop would involve major burns. Carrying passengers or cargo to Saturn, with intermediate stops at Mars and Jupiter, means accelerating and decelerating your Saturn-bound manifest three times - a much better way to reach the poorhouse than Saturn. Ships may make several passages before returning to their home base, but nearly all passengers and cargo will turn over at each port of call. (Cargo may not travel by 'ship' at all.)

There are some specialized exceptions to most or all of these rules. And, of course, with a suitable magitech drive all bets are off. But that is a topic for a different discussion.

Related post: In Space Warfare IV: Mobility, I discussed military aspects of space motion.

The image, from a newspaper blog, promoted a (terrestrial) train ride to dark skies for a night of stargazing. It evokes a fond memory:

Many years ago, when Amtrak still ran classic dome cars (only one now remains on their roster), a friend and I rode the Coast Starlight overnight to Seattle. People on the lower level, where the bar was, were having a fine old time. So were those of us up in the dome section, dry as Kansas but with an astonishing quantity and variety of 'herb' being passed around. At one point a somewhat tipsy lady came up to the dome, starlit sky above and wasted riders within. She looked around for a moment, then said 'It's like ... a starship!'

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Somewhere We've Been

Apollo 11 on the Moon
Forty-one years ago we landed on the Moon. I don't have a lot to add to the observations I made on that subject two years ago. The plan to return by 2020 looked exiguous then, and has subsequently been canceled. On the other hand we have discovered evidence of water - increasing the chances that we will go back, in due course, when the time is ripe.

For now, consider this an open discussion thread.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Corporate Worlds

'Space Merchants' Cover
A science fiction theme that cyberpunk raised to the status of a standard trope is the megacorp, a business firm that has become so big, rich, and therefore powerful that it rivals - or usurps - the powers of sovereign states, even Great Powers. Here, by popular demand, is everything you need to know about them.

As commenter Mr. Blue pointed out in the thread linked above (on rebel colonies), megacorps tend to have a somewhat ill defined business plan:

1) Do teh Evulz.
2) ???
3) Profit!
The need to be a little more explicit in Step 2 should be familiar to us, because this business plan closely resembles the standard economic model for space development:
1) Reach the Moon/Mars/Asteroids/Outer Planets/Stars.
2) ???
3) Profit!
This makes space a natural environment for megacorps. Elegant parsimony can be achieved, with one form of, well, unobtainium explaining everything, from why we reach the stars to why no saints are on the passenger list.

Indeed, in spite of its somewhat iffy reading on the plausimeter, the familiar standby of space mining works pretty well here. Resource extraction industries tend to have a bad reputation; think of the oil industry today. One reason is that vital commodities are commodities: You don't buy gas because gasoline is such cool stuff, you buy it because you need it to drive anywhere.

Yes, you also need a car, but cars can be and are sold for their intrinsic appeal. The same applies to less tangible commodities, such as broadband service - everyone loves their iPhone (except, it appears, the iPhone 4), but hates AT&T, because one company embodies the value of the technology while the other embodies its costs.

Commodities from space, orbital solar power or Helium 3, would likely fall into the same category, unloved necessities supplied by unlovable firms.

Unlovable not least because extractive industries also have a history of bad labor relations - consider here not only a basic commodity, coal, but its glittering crystalline allotrope, diamonds. Underground mining was and is difficult, dangerous work, often done in remote places where the mine is the only industry, meaning that the mine operator dominates the community. And, since so much of that community works in the mine, labor solidarity is also strong; hence mining has been legendary for its strikes.

Before you rush off to Outland, note that the oil industry has no such colorful labor history. John D. Rockefeller is said to have dynamited rivals, but he didn't often call in labor goons; the only major strike in the (US) oilfields was in 1917. The labor force is relatively small, specialized, and well paid - characteristics we might also expect of extraction industries in outer space.

On the third hand, the oil industry doesn't have much equivalent to company towns, except perhaps Houston. So while union busting management thugs may not be a given, they are certainly plausible, for any values of 'plausible' that include space colonies in the first place.

A setting dominated by megacorps would seem to be inherently a lefty wank. Corporation itself is a hiss word, and at least in the tech industry it has been duly replaced by enterprise, evoking not John D. Rockefeller but Captain Kirk. But 'Murrican science fiction has long had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with megacorps.

A theme going back at least to Asimov's original Foundation books is Free Traders (though TV Tropes calls them intrepid merchants). In and of themselves they are far from megacorps, but inevitably they band together in trade federations, which amount to megacorps writ big (gigacorps?), complete with fleets of space battlecruisers. Trade federations retain some of the panache of their Free Trader progenitors, and are not infrequently shown in a positive light - Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League is a notable early example.

Anderson was libertarian, and Trade Federations work well as a libertarian wank. So can more recognizable midfuture megacorps - I can't cite an example by title off of hand, but I seem to recall books that played them this way. It would be a natural fit for Baen Books.

This gives me a handy pretext for noting that actual business people have a somewhat 'complex' relationship with free market theory - eager to evoke it in order to resist unwanted government regulation, but honoring it in the breach when businesses want government regulation - say, when Disney wants copyright endlessly extended or the MPAA wants it ruthlessly enforced. And in their relations with one another major firms behave in a thoroughly political way - think of Apple, Google, and Microsoft as rival Great Powers with distinct ideologies and grand strategies.

The more a megacorp finds itself cast as a political entity, the more it will act like one. If it raises an army it will have to be concerned with the loyalty and reliability of its troops. Mercs have a poor reputation in this regard, as Nick Machiavelli famously pointed out; people fighting for a paycheck want to live to collect it, and have a marked tendency to let discretion be the better part of valor.

A subtler and more intriguing question is the relationship of a megacorp with its own stockholders. Corporations are structured as oligarchic republics, one vote per share, but usually even large shareholders have little interest in actively exercising their franchise - if the stock is going up they have no complaint with management, and if it is going down they have a simpler option, bailing out of the stock. Contested elections for a corporate board, AKA hostile takeover bids, remain an exception, though at times a spectacular one.

A hostile takeover bid on a megacorp could be even more spectacular, and more problematic - not just a matter of gathering a lot of proxies and showing up at the board meeting. Neither side can simply call in the sheriff to enforce their rights, or what they claim as rights - not when the sheriff is an employee of the megacorp.

The politics of megacorps might thus develop along a time honored line of cleavage, between the monarchical principle of CEOs and the oligarchic principle of major investors. The CEO would seem to have the upper hand, as boss-in-chief of the company, including its army. But if large investors have any class solidarity they will try to forestall this by cutting CEOs down to size, mere functionaries with limited formal authority (and probably limited tenure in office, to restrain their informal authority).

In this dispute the true coin of the realm is legitimacy, the tacit acceptance that someone has the right to give orders and have them obeyed. If a polite request and a gun are better than a polite request by itself, a polite request, a gun, and a badge are better still. Legitimacy is also the ultimate coin of the realm for the megacorp itself - the greatest force multiplier for troops is not having to call them out.

Without legitimacy, political life will be colorful, providing ample story material. It will also be nasty, brutish, and short - think Renaissance Italy, in both respects. But even Renaissance Italy had a few exceptions, notably Venice, a stable oligarchic republic that had some characteristics of a proto-megacorp. Ordinary Venetians had no direct say in their government, but for the era they had considerable civil freedom and a sense that they were, if not shareholders, at least 'stakeholders' in its fortunes.

Megacorps will be successful, in the long run, to the extent that they succeed in legitimating themselves in the eyes of their customers, their workers, and the communities in which they operate themselves.

The image at top comes (for a change) from Wikipedia, not Atomic Rockets. The Space Merchants is in some ways a precursor of cyberpunk, but was written at a time when people were particularly fascinated by the ad business - an era now evoked by the TV show Mad Men, set a decade after the book was written.

Bonus Trope Critique: History, unlike SF, does not need to be plausible.
Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Astronomical Sums ...

Rocketpunk era orbital scene
In the previous post I considered whether we could swindle our way to the stars by way of an economic bubble. In the discussion that followed, commenter Ian Wright put a set of numbers to the idea, at the early side of the midfuture, the sort of thing that might happen by midcentury. I started to play with my own numbers in a comment, then decided to do it here as a front page post.

I'll start with a comparison point. The global airline industry is about a $500 billion business, and roughly 16,000 jetliners are in service - so each jet accounts for some $30 million in tickets and airfreight annually.

Boeing's planes (which account for about 75 percent of the total, according to Boeing) range in price from $50-60 million for 737s to $235-305 million for 747s. More small and midsize jetliners are in service than big ones, so the 'average' jet probably costs about $100 million, roughly three times the revenue it is expected to earn each year. Keep that in mind as a general rule of thumb; it happily matches the guess I made in a commentary on interstellar trade at my old website.

Now, suppose that TSTO shuttles cost 10 times as much to operate as jetliners, thus $300 million per year in revenue for each shuttle in service. (Shuttle price at the factory gate would thus be roughly $1 billion.) Let each shuttle carry 25 tons to LEO, and be good for a mission each month - say, a one week mission, from rollout to the launch pad to roll-in to the service hanger, plus a week for postflight checkout, a week for pre-mission prepping and setup, and a week for Murphy. So it costs $300 million to orbit 300 tons, a nice even $1 million per ton.

This is a thoroughly conservative estimate, by space geek standards, and yields a launch cost 'just' one order of magnitude less than current practice. If passengers can go up in airline style seating the cost of a round trip to orbit could fall as low as $250,000, a mere pittance, not much more than Virgin Galactic plans to charge for a mere suborbital pop-up.

Remarkably, the commercial satellite industry, taken in all, is a $160 billion business, a third the size of the airlines. But only a small fraction of this money goes into space: about $10 billion per year to build satellites and $2-3 billion per year to launch them. (A clean apples to apples comparison is hard to come by, but these data are at least indicative.)

Sooo ... putting this together, what might we get?

Suppose that, at the peak of a boom - or bubble - the space launch industry is a fifth the size of the current world airline industry, $100 billion per year. This is an impressively big industry, considering that the airlines go to places where people already live.

It supports an operational fleet of some 300 shuttles - more or less the fleet size at which you can spread out development cost across a decent sized production run, and get some real production efficiencies going. Together they can loft 90,000 tons into orbit each year; call it an even 100,000 tons per year, for luck. In the course of a decade, a million tons, at total cost of a trillion dollars.

(Those of you with suitable keyboards can substitute the Euro symbol; at this level of approximation the exchange rate makes no matter.)

But in the satellite industry today, space launches account for less than 2 percent of revenue. If you scale our hypothetical space-boom industry accordingly, it is about a $5 trillion industry, or about 8 percent of current world GDP.

Bzzzzzz! No sale. This does not pass the smell test, short of alien invasion scenarios. We will have to goose these numbers downward.

Commercial satellites today cost about five times as much to build as they do to launch, but they are packed with very expensive electronics, while our much heavier payloads are mostly (relatively) cheaper structural fabrications, supplies, fuel, and the like. Let these cost about as much at the factory gate as launching them does, $100 billion for 100,000 tons of hardware and supplies - an average cost of $1 million per ton, close to what an airliner costs.

The direct cost of our space effort - building stuff and launching it Out There - is now $200 billion per year. The satellite industry spends about 12 dollars on earthbound goods and services - everything from surface stations to home dish installers to marketing - for every dollar it spends on space launches and hardware. Let our space industry spend only twice as much on what stays down as what goes up, thus $400 billion. Thus the total operating cost of the industry is now $600 billion, one percent of current world GDP. This makes it four times the size of the current satellite industry and rather larger than the current world airline industry.

In the course of a decade we rack up $6 trillion in expenses, money on which the investors expect a handsome return, say $400 billion per year on top of operating costs. (Which makes it a trillion dollar industry, if it expects to return a rather modest 7 percent clear return on investment.)

For this we get, over a decade, a million tons lofted into space, including structures and equipment, supplies, propellant, everything. Suppose that 20 percent of that is station or hab facilities, thus 200,000 tons. The ISS has a mass of 300 tons and a crew of six, one per 50 tons, so let us say that we have 4000 people in space.

Getting all of this ginned up and ready to go - for example, developing and testing those shuttles - might take another decade, so we're looking at 20 years, give or take, from inception to the point where we have a million tons and 4000 people in space. But we don't charge extra for this; the development cost is folded into the overall cost as given above.

Ian Wright in his comments starts with pretty similar numbers and ends up with a lot more people in space - a million - which merely shows that small differences in input assumptions can yield big differences in end results. But even 4000 people is a meaningful down payment, the germ of a space-living community.

(As another interesting reference point, Robert Heinlein back in 1949 gave $30 per pound as the Earth-Moon shipping charge, equivalent to $67,200 per ton. Allowing for inflation between 1949 and 2009 that is equivalent to a shade under $600,000 in current dollars. That's for getting to the Moon, not just LEO, but LEO is the toughest part of the trip, accounting for perhaps half of the total cost, $300,000 per ton, similar to Ian's estimate and about a third of mine.)

To get this, or something on roughly the same order, all you need to do is to persuade the world to pony up about one percent of its income for a decade or so, and build an industry comparable in size to the airline, automotive, or tech industries. Possible? Yes! Challenging? Very!

Related link: My old website post on Interstellar Trade.

The image is, naturally, swiped from Atomic Rockets, just above the Heinlein passage cited above.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Economic Bubbles in SPAAACE !!!

The 'Local Bubble'
A fundamental challenge for large scale space development, and a singularly unwelcome one, is that no one has yet managed to come up with a fully convincing economic rationale. The one that came closest was the first, Arthur C. Clarke's 1945 proposal for a space station to serve as global communications relay and weather observation platform. Everything Clarke predicted has come true, except that it is all done by unmanned satellites - a great idea come to grief because of too much technical progress.

All other prospects remain problematic at best, dubious at worst. Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic may yet make a go of suborbital tourism, but however cool in its own right (especially for those with $200,000 to spare), this falls at least an order of magnitude short of providing orbital capability, the precondition for going anywhere else.

Space based solar power faces the problem that once solar cells are competitive at all, it is probably cheaper to make more of them and install them on the ground. The classic space industry in SF, mining, is so profoundly speculative that it is a bit iffy even in the context of Romance.

But a discussion over at SFConsim-l led one poster to offer a brilliantly simple workaround: Who needs economic rationality? After all we have had recent and impressive evidence that human beings can be deeply irrational when they see a glint of profit. The amount of money poured into bad real estate investment in the years leading up to the Great Recession is surely in the trillions. You could develop some impressive space hardware with that kind of money.

(The real credit for this conceptual innovation apparently belongs to SF writer Alexis Gilliland, who developed it in his Rosinante novels.)

Speculative economic bubbles are as old as capitalism. The first classic instance was the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s; at the peak of which a single tulip bulb sold for ten times a skilled worker's annual income, in modern terms about half a million. England's South Sea Bubble, which gave this phenomenon its name, peaked in 1720, and the 'South Sea' (which meant the Pacific) is richly evocative of outer space.

Among the suckers who got taken to the South Sea cleaners were the Bank of England and Sir Isaac Newton, who ruefully observed that "I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men." The South Sea Company also spawned numerous imitators during its brief heyday, including one that offered a prospectus for the ages: A company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.

The project that launches the bubble does not need to be plausible, it merely needs to sound plausible. Helium 3, anyone? Wonder drugs from Mars or Europa? Luxury condos in orbit? The possibilities are limited only by greed, naïveté, and imagination. You as a writer need only supply the imagination; your characters, ably assisted by human nature, will provide the greed and naïveté.

Even a bubble needs something to bubble up from, which for this purpose would likely be a foundation of technical progress. From that point bubble psychology takes over. A vast space infrastructure is built built, and keeps being built so long as the promise and profits seem endless.

But eventually the market realizes (belatedly, for most investors) that the profits will not in fact be forthcoming, at least not as big or as quickly as expected. Everyone rushes for the airlocks; most will not make it. (I mean this figuratively, but a literal instance might be part of the larger drama.) The bubble pops and collapses ... and a lot of space hardware ends up on the second hand market, selling for pennies on the dollar.

And thus you get cheap spaceships. As was noted in a recent comment thread, the cost models I use all deal with overall average cost, which is by no means the same as what an individual customer pays at a given moment. A ship may have cost my standard $1 million per ton to build, or a lot more, but in the aftermath of a bubble it may sell for an awful lot less as the owner ditches it in the aforesaid rush for the airlocks.

Bubbles all have a rather similar life cycle, but they vary in their aftermath. Sunny quarter acres in Florida swamps or California deserts may never be worth much of anything, but new technology investments can end up being worth quite a lot, even if it is too late for the original investors. The Internet bubble of the late 1990s really did transform the Internet, and a space bubble really could transform the Solar System, as all those ships that sold for pennies on the dollar end up being put to useful work, profitable to their new owners.

There is in fact an argument that bubbles are intrinsic to technical progress, an argument that has been made specifically about Apollo - not an economic bubble in the classical sense, but a 'societal bubble' of cultural enthusiasm, out of proportion to any near term payoff. When technology creates entirely new possibilities, no one knows at first just how much those possibilities will be worth, and the time and effort needed to do the previously impossible can easily be underestimated.

(I'm indebted to a commenter whose own blog or profile linked the above - I can't give due credit, because I don't recall whose comment it was, and haven't managed to find it again in the comment threads. If it was yours, don't hesitate to comment on this post, to claim due credit.)

So, pour some champagne and raise a toast to bubbles!

The image above, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, is of course not an economic bubble, but represents our galactic corner, including the Local Bubble. This is a region of space, in which the Sun currently resides, that has been largely cleared of interstellar matter, perhaps by an ancient supernova. (Which, among other things, kind of spoils Bussard ramjets.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Revolt of the Colonies

Cover of 'Between Planets'
Of the blessings the Founding Fathers of the United States bequeathed on posterity, few could have been less foreseeable in 1776 than the birth of a science fiction trope. The American Revolution itself has all but fallen into the memory hole, except for this one day each year, but it lives on whenever and wherever a colony planet or spacehab tells old Mother Earth to stick it where Sol doesn't shine.

Robert Heinlein, naturally, was a leading proponent of this trope, which I first encountered in Between Planets - quite possibly the edition shown above, with a forward view of a classic Heinlein spherical deep space ship, along with a (flying boat!) ramjet shuttle. He had already treated the theme at least once previously, in Red Planet, and he would treat it again, at greater length, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Thus Venus, Mars, and the Moon all get their chance at a Glorious Fourth, and I seem to recall that he mentions yet another Venus rebellion in his 'official' future history.

For obvious historical reasons the Revolt of the Colonies is particularly a theme in 'Murrican SF, though it also figures in an Arthur C. Clark novel, Earthlight, which includes his most extended take on a space battle. His perspective on the rebellion is naturally more detached. Indeed, he does not go into the politics at all, beyond the amusing twist that the one named Martian rebel leader is descended from Winston Churchill.

If space colonies come into being at all, it is obviously possible that they might eventually revolt and declare their independence from their Earthside rulers. Whether it is particularly likely is another matter. For one thing, there might be no one to rebel against. Ancient Greek colonies were born independent, expected to retain ties of affection with the metropolis, but none of authority. This would almost surely be true of any STL interstellar colony; if you send people off to settle a planet decades or centuries away, sending a viceroy along is fairly pointless.

On the other hand, if the central authority retains close control of its colonies, the colonials may well accept and embrace this state of affairs. Latin American colonies remained remarkably loyal for some 300 years, even at times when Spain and Portugal were cut off by sea and in no position to exert authority. Only Napoleon's invasion of Iberia itself set off the chain of events that led to revolt and independence.

This suggests that the key to colonial rebellion may not be metropolitan domination per se, but the attempt to re-establish it. Or - as in the case of the American Revolution itself - a belated attempt to exert it in the first place. The British American colonies were founded, from Britain's point of view, in a spirit of good luck and good riddance. By the time Whitehall decided to insist (not unreasonably, on the face of it) that the colonials contribute to imperial defense, the horse had been out of the barn for generations - not to mention that the heavy lifting of knocking off French Quebec had already been done.

Another possibility is a metropolitan political struggle spilling over into the colonies, with one faction losing at home but winning in the colonies. I cannot think of a direct example, but it seems like the sort of thing that might happen.

When in the course of literary events, it becomes necessary for a space colony to kick over the traces, a way can always be found.

Related post: Three years ago today I reflected on possible 'Murrican futures.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Aesthetics of Space Travel

The deep space ship above (click on the image for full sized view) was inspired by the Travel Planner spreadsheet in the previous post, and modeled in the wonderfully simple and handy DoGA 3D modeler. The shuttle alongside is a rough approximation of the NASA shuttle, and thus a thorough anacronism in this image, but provided as a scale reference.

Of course you want some specifications of the ship. Even if you don't, you get them anyway:

Length Overall: 300 meters
Departure Mass: 10,000 tons
Propellant Load: 5000 tons (H2)
Drive Mass: 2000 tons
Keel and Tankage: 1000 tons

Gross Payload: 2000 tons
Flyway Cost: $5 billion (equivalent)

The payload includes a hab with berthing space for 50-200 passengers and crew, depending on mission duration, and a pair of detachable pods for 500 tons of express cargo, plus service bays and the like.

What this ship can do depends on its drive engine performance. If the drive puts out 2 gigawatts of thrust power - my baseline for a Realistic [TM] nuke electric drive - the ship can reach Mars in three months, give or take. (The sim gave 92 days for a 0.8 AU trip in flat space.) With a later generation drive putting out 20 gigawatts it can reach Mars in a little over a month, or Saturn in eight months.

The general arrangement of this ship is driven by design consideration - a nuclear drive that needs to be a long way from the crew, with large radiators to shed its waste heat; tanks for bulky liquid hydrogen; and a spinning hab section. Most serious proposals for deep space craft in the last 50 years have had more or less this arrangement - the movie 2001 left off the radiator fins, because in those days the audience would have been puzzled that a deep space ship had 'wings.'

A large, long-mission military craft, such as a laser star, might not look much different overall - replace the cargo pods with a laser installation and side-mounted main mirror, and perhaps a couple of smaller mirrors on rotating 'turret' mounts. Discussions here have persuaded me that heavy armor is of little use against the most likely threats facing such a ship.

Within these broad constraints, however, spaceships offer a great deal of design freedom, more than most terrestrial vehicles. Ships, planes, and faster land vehicles are all governed by fluid dynamics, and even movable shipyard cranes must conform to a 1-g gravity field. A spaceship, unless built for aerobraking, will never encounter fluid flow, and the forces exerted by high specific impulse drives - even torch level drives - are relatively gentle.

This ship might have had two propellant tanks, or half a dozen, instead of four. And the entire industrial assemblage of tanks and girders might be concealed, partly or entirely, within a 'hull' of sheeting no thicker than foil, protecting tanks and equipment from shifting heat exposure due to sunlight and shadow. Much of the ISS keel girder has a covering of some sort - in close-ups it looks a lot like canvas - that in more distant views gives the impression of a solid structure.

In fact the visual image of the ISS is dominated by its solar wings and radiators. The hab structure is fairly inconspicuous by comparison, like the hull of a sailing ship under full sail. This would be true to an extreme of solar electric ships; a 1-gigawatt solar electric drive would need a few square kilometers of solar wings. Even nuclear drives, fission or fusion, require extensive radiators - probably more than I showed - with other ship systems needing their own radiators, at varied operating temperatures. Unless the ship has an onboard reactor it must also have solar collectors for use when the drive is shut down.

All of which may do more to catch the eye than heavier but smaller structures such as the hab or even propellant tankage. And then there is color: the gold foil of the main ISS solar wings, for example.

Hollywood knows nothing of this (though I'm surprised they haven't picked up on the gold foil). Hollywood is no more interested in what real spaceships look like than it is in how they maneuver. This is only natural, even though we hard SF geeks complain. Hollywood doesn't care because its audience has almost no clue of what spaceships look like, or act like, getting most of their impressions from Hollywood itself.

The one actual spacecraft to have iconic visual status, the Shuttle, essentially looks like an airplane. The ISS has not yet acquired iconic status, though it may, especially after the Shuttle is retired. And perhaps it looks so unlike terrestrial vehicles that our eye does not yet know quite what to make of it.

As a point of comparison, watch aviation scenes in old movies, especially from before World War II. You'll see airplanes whooshing past (sometimes in pretty unconvincing special effects shots), but you will rarely see what is now a standard shot - a plane filmed from another plane in formation, hanging 'motionless' on the screen, clouds and distant landscape rolling slowly past, until perhaps the plane banks and turns away.

It is a standard shot because it is so very effective. But older movies rarely used it, because audiences would have had no idea what they were seeing. Everyone knew that airplanes were fast, and had at least some idea that their speed is what kept them in the air. A plane apparently hanging in midair would make no sense.

What changed all this, I would guess, is World War II. A flood of newsreel footage included many formation shots, and audiences gradually absorbed a feeling for what midair footage really looks like. When a postwar Jimmy Stewart enlisted for Strategic Air Command (1955), Hollywood - and its audience - were ready to see the B-36 and B-47 showcased in all their glory, including airborne formation shots.

I know what you bloodthirsty people are thinking - one good space war, and everyone will grok the visual language of space travel. Shame on you. Given enough civil space development, and time, people will get the hang of it.

The beauty of spaceships is in the eye of the beholder. The familiar aesthetics of terrestrial vehicles are as irrelevant to them as to Gothic cathedrals (which in some broad philosophical sense are themselves spaceships of a sort). General principles of design will provide some guidance. Even in making the quick thrown-together model above I found that slight changes in proportion could make the difference between a jumble of parts and a unity.

But the real visual impact of spaceships is something we will only learn from experience, by the glint of a distant sun.

Related posts: I looked at the characteristics - and overall conceptual elegance - of solar electric drive in On Gossamer Wings.