Monday, June 27, 2011

Space and Heresy


Longtime readers of this blog know that I am somewhat heretical regarding the human future in space. As I first argued a couple of years ago, outer space is profoundly unlike the New World - such an evocative phrase! - that Europeans encountered five centuries ago (and proceeded to loot and colonize).

This heresy has come up in, and spilled across, a couple of recent comment threads, especially the one for the previous post. (And yes, it was nearly three weeks ago. What can I say? June sort of slipped through my fingers.) As heresies go it raises enough interesting questions to deserve a front page post.


Space is, for one thing, a great deal more difficult to reach than the New World was. Europe's worldwide maritime expansion closely followed a tech revolution, development of the full-rigged ship. But this new technology could be and was employed off-the-shelf for oceanic missions. The Santa Maria was an ordinary freighter. If we could reach Mars aboard second-hand jetliners we would already have gone there.

And once you do get there, nothing in space is remotely conducive to human habitation. The traditional driver of settlement colonization (as distinct from strictly political colonization) has been cheap land. But there is no 'land' in space at all, at any rate in the Solar System. You have to manufacture it, building a hab or a sealed dome, then providing a working ecosystem inside.

It would be many times easier to build luxury condominium developments in Antarctica, or on the continental shelf.

Now, compare all of this to the Solar System of Heinlein's juveniles, where a lot of us got our basic conception of the space future. The space technology made a couple of iffy assumptions. Nuclear thermal drive was not only technically capable of lifting ships into orbit, but socially and politically acceptable as well. Moreover, the chemfuel alternative involved some very convenient magitech, namely monatomic hydrogen, stabilized by means Heinlein never went into.

If you wonder why our real world space tech is so much less convenient, those are sufficient reasons.

But even more than this, Heinlein's Solar System made Venus a 'shirtsleeves' habitable planet, while Mars required no more - or so it seemed - than a mask type breather device. (Heinlein's juveniles do not strictly form a single future history, and details vary, but they portray a broadly consistent future.)

Heinlein's Solar System also had at least two living extraterrestrial civilizations, on Venus and Mars, the local inhabitants having different characteristics in different stories. (The blue-elf Venusians in Space Patrol are entirely unlike the dragons in Between Planets.)


I belabor all of this because Heinlein's Solar System (in particular) had such an enormous impact on what we expect out of the human future in space. In the first years of space exploration we found out that the real Solar System is a very different place, but we have tended to hold onto the old tropes as far as possible, even when reconfiguring them - as in envisioning orbital habs in place of domed surface colonies.

Much of this is for the sake of Romance, i.e. stories. But space discussion often blurs story settings with 'real' possible futures. This blog is particularly guilty of doing so, and quite deliberately so. Space is no fantasy world, a creation of pure imagination. More than 500 people have gone there, and our machines have traveled across the Solar System.

Human interplanetary missions are clearly possible, to the point where we can discuss their architecture in considerable detail. They are merely horrendously expensive, to the point where there is no particular eagerness to pony up sufficient funds. Permanent human habitation in deep space is technically much iffier, particularly with respect to self-contained ecosystems. But it is surely possible, even without such ecosystems. Again, colonizing space is merely, with foreseeable tech, horrendously expensive.

And there is no obvious reason for doing it except that living in space would be Really Cool. For which people will spend a lot of money, but sometimes cool is just not affordable.

On the other hand, the future - not just the plausible midfuture I talk about here - is a Really Long Time. For that reason, saying we will never do something is the iffiest proposition of all. Who can say what our descendants might be doing in the year 22,011, or 2,002,011?

But in the next few hundred years, absent unforeseen breakthroughs in technology, we are more constrained. We might have true space colonies by 2211, but I think it is unlikely, and also unnecessary. Much more likely we will still be exploring space, mainly with machines though sometimes sending people, and perhaps setting up outposts in a few locations.

As a setting for space opera such a future is deficient, but it is a natural way for humans, at something like our techlevel, to come to grips with space.


For more contrarian argument, see author Jeffrey F. Bell. On the technical substance I tend to agree with him, though I would be a bit less quick to throw around 'impossible'. That said, Bell seems to have a remarkably well developed sense of martyrdom. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, but space heresy is not exactly like getting on the wrong side of theological disputes during the 16th century.




Related Post: A Solar System For This Century.


The image of Archbishop Cramner being burned at the stake comes from a website about Anne Boleyn.

134 comments:

Anonymous said...

I do believe that I've said this before, but I will repeat it; I think that any in-system colonies will develop organicly from permant outposts originally set up for scientific research and exploration. While my stories tend to assume that there are periods of rapid colonization, I believe that real colonization will take centuries and that each will come about under unique circumstances. I also believe that sometime in the next couple of centuries we will move away from chemical fueled rockets as our main means of orbital access. That doesn't mean that we will ever totally chemical fuel rockets, but that they will be relagated to a minor role.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

The rub lies in identifying the space age equivalent of the square rigged ship (actually two, since the "square rigger" to LEO is different from the "square rigger" for deep space). Then there is the need to create cheap land, so we really need three tech revolutions in order to get to the Rocketverse. (even using laser "lightcraft" to orbit, then reusing the laser engine for space propulsion is 2.5 tech revolutions).

Now the interesting thing about revolutions is they often come from unexpected or at least little remarked at the time causes; the ability to create cheap and effective enclosed ecosystems might be a byproduct of "Green" zealots attempting to pack people into "low carbon footprint" enclosures to live and work or something equally strange. Inexpensive space access will probably not come as a result of space science directly, but looking for high power density energy sources to replace coal and other conventional power sources on Earth.

In terms of story telling, unless the story is about the change or social and economic disruptions caused by the change, it might be best to just hand wave a bit and make the magitech an assumed part of the background. (Most people have no idea how their iPOD, cell phone or car work, so they might as well be background magic for the here and now).

My .02 anyway

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"The rub lies in identifying the space age equivalent of the square rigged ship (actually two, since the "square rigger" to LEO is different from the "square rigger" for deep space)."

I would consider reaching LEO to be the equivalent of a ship's boat, not a full square rigger. It's just the short trip from the shoreline to a ship anchored a small way offcoast.

Of course it seems in space even our rowboats are tricky to make...

Konzept said...

Speaking of the Green Movement, I think that might be one potential factor to motivate space travel. If we become too strict about messing up the environment, then perhaps mining and manufacturing off-world will someday seem like a viable option. Nobody should care how much CO2 your machines spew into the Martian atmosphere. In fact, global warming might be desirable on Mars. Meteors and comets are huge mineral deposits with no ownership. If you can reach it, who's to say you can't take it?

Rick, why do you call tvtropes the evil website?

Citizen Joe said...

tvtropes will steal your entire day

Citizen Joe said...

I used 'Green Zealots' as a basis in my stories too. Specifically, someone made a bacteria that interacts with petroleum to cut down on CO2 emissions, unfortunately when CO2 dropped low enough (the good times) the bacteria started to react with the nitrogen which caused cyanide emissions. Suddently, you couldn't drive your internal combustion engines any more (for fear of dying). That pushed development of nuclear power for electricity, leading to fusion and eventually He3 fusion. All of that driving us to space for those resources.

Tony said...

You know, in all of history, you never read of such complex and unlikely reasons for population movements. The real world reasons are all real simple -- cheap land, expansion into conquered areas, opportunity. The fact that reasons to go to space (in more than miniscule numbers) have to be contrived suggests to me that space civilization will be a long, long time coming.

jollyreaper said...

I think what it would take is eventually progressing to the point where we have nano-seed technology, where we can directly grow what we need from raw materials without an extensive manufacturing base.

I would put this past the plausible mid-future. I don't see us getting off this planet in a serious way until then. And further out than that, we're in esoteric territory. Charlie Stross wrote a novel about trans-humans surviving a singularity. The whole solar system ended up converted into computronium (makishov brain? spelling that wrong). And through all that, only one starship was ever built, a beam-riding starwhisp the weight of a coke can carrying an entirely simulated crew.

Is all of that descending into wank territory? Well, I tend to see the difference between tech and wank as similar to the difference between drama and melodrama -- drama's when you're doing it right, melodrama's when you're doing it wrong.

I don't doubt we'll eventually get out into space but I think what "we" look like, why we're going and how we get there would all be really, really freakin' different from our assumptions.

Now we could double-down on the contrarian point of view, not just denying any fusion drive magictech but also mind-uploading and super-duper computers and nanotech. If all that's the case, then we'll never really go out into space. We may muck around in LEO as a hobby and send probes out to the stars but that's it. There might be a prestige mission if some future government gets into a genital measuring contest with an opponent, the same sort of thing that got us to the Moon. But once there we didn't start lunar colonies, we don't have lunarians now. We came home. And I think that would also be the natural result of any prestige mission. You don't see us building cities in Antarctica just because we have a research base there.

Citizen Joe said...

Where is all the cost? Is it in the lofting of stuff into space, interplanetary travel, or long duration requirements?

Martin said...

"Speaking of the Green Movement, I think that might be one potential factor to motivate space travel. If we become too strict about messing up the environment, then perhaps mining and manufacturing off-world will someday seem like a viable option. Nobody should care how much CO2 your machines spew into the Martian atmosphere. In fact, global warming might be desirable on Mars. Meteors and comets are huge mineral deposits with no ownership. If you can reach it, who's to say you can't take it?"

This is indeed an interesting topic, and as an architecture student with special interest in sustainability I would like to share my views and what I learned.

I think the Green Movement will be doing the exact opposite. The thing is that to develop a sustainable society, all the resources have to be used in another way than today. That is to not waste them.

Money spent on space research and for example fusion power research could be much better used to develop a society that can start dealing with environmental issues not in forty years but right away.

The solution for a sustainable society is quite simple, use no, or very little energy, and cut down on transports.

Heating and cooling housing is already solved, passively, and on its way of being implemented, the only problem is how the industry works, and that legislation is quite slow.

The problem with housing is that people use more and more electricity, and no one wants to change their lifestyles.

Cutting down on transporting goods is quite difficult because it means turning the global economy upside down. If I do not buy goods from china, but make them myself, and then everybody does that, bad for china and all the companies invested in such business model.

Displacement of people is quite hard to, everyone have to try to live close to public transport, and they should not go on any vacation including a airline trip.

About resources again. To develop a future sustainable society, without living to much like hippies, all energy sources have to be improved, and developed in parallel, fusion can not solve everything by its own, we need to play all our cards. And personally I think atomic energy is just insane investment in all the technology and know-how, it is easier to spend the money in other ways.

Are you seeing where this is going? Some people have the idea that with the current lifestyle, some high tech solutions can keep us going like this, but I am sorry, it is not possibly.

But, I have to congratulate you, because not many people will be interested in the model I am taught. The future will be a mix of some sustainable solutions, with interests of different industries, and politics. Since the sustainable future will turn everything upside down, the future will actually be a mix of what is and what should be. There will be space travel, but since there is no profit in space travel...

But the green movement will not probably provoke space colonies.

Tony said...

Citizen Joe:

"Where is all the cost? Is it in the lofting of stuff into space, interplanetary travel, or long duration requirements?"

As far as people are concerned, it's all of the above. Every piece of equipment is expendable and has to be made as realiable as possible.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides:

Your comment about developing closed ecosystems on Earth first reminds me of Niven and Pournelle's 'Oath of Fealty', involving an arcology called Todos Santos, located near Los Angeles. The arcology's chief engineer thinks of it as a trial run for a starship, though his emphasis is more on creating a self-contained society than a closed ecosystem.
I do suspect that the large-scale adoption of thorough recycling and energy efficiency will be necessary prerequisites for civilization to be in a fit state to spare the effort to construct habitats or interplanetary craft, so at least the designers will not be starting from scratch.

Jollyreaper:

It's called a Matrioshka brain, and takes its name from nested Matrioshka dolls, since there would be shells of computers orbiting at different distances from the sun. The innermost shell would be powered by sunlight, and each outer shell would be powered by the waste energy radiated by the next shell in, thus making maximum use of the sun's energy.

R.C.

Tony said...

WRT closed ecosystems, I think there's a little bit of an ideological imperative there that doesn't exactly reflect the real world. While it's certainly a good idea to maintain as efficient a shipboard or habitat economy as is possible, self-sufficient closed ecosystems are not necessary, nor likely even practical. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

Damien Sullivan said...

Citizen Joe: I've read much of the cost is also from space being a hostile environment even for machinery. Huge thermal changes, radiation, vacuum sucking out gases that permeated materials. And that launch itself is only like a fourth the cost of a satellite launch. Part of that might also be the cost of miniaturization, since launch is expensive you want to get the most out of it. Of course, huge thermal changes and radiation are hell on miniaturized equipment...

Damien Sullivan said...

The obvious way to get 'people' into space is to not use baseline humans. Engineering for radiation and zero-gee resistance (alternately: really good anti-cancer medicine); full-body cyborgs; AI and robots. Feasibility isn't certain but they seem more promising than progress on the baselines in space front, and you can make money along the way.

Tony said...

Always the corporate conspiracy standing in the way of Truth, huh? Maybe people just don't want to have to do everything for themselves, and maybe they don't want to be reliant on public transport, and maybe -- just maybe -- commerce is simply giving the people what they want...

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Of course, huge thermal changes and radiation are hell on miniaturized equipment..."

So much so that the computers used on the ISS and the recently digitized Soyuz are 386 based.

Roger M. Wilcox said...

The blog post mentions how the fully-rigged ships used for exploring other continents were essentially off-the-shelf technology. It also links to an earlier blog post about a very gradual expansion into the Solar system. These two thoughts, when combined, reminded me of something I'd heard second- or third-hand from my dad:


Shortly before Alan Shepherd's historic suborbital Mercury launch, another American space vehicle was ready to go into space: the X-15 rocket plane. The Mercury program directors insisted that the X-15 program DELAY their suborbital launch until Alan Shepherd reached space. The agency was betting the farm on the Mercury program and didn't want some upstart rocket plane to steal its thunder.

But what if the X-15 HAD gone into space first?

The Mercury launches were little more than a manned capsule on top of an automatic ICBM. Alan Shepherd didn't so much FLY into space as get THROWN into space, a piece of dead weight sitting in the nose cone. The X-15, on the other hand, was a rocket PLANE, with a real pilot controlling every aspect of the craft's trajectory from the moment it detached from the bomber's wing.

If the X-15 had gone into space first, instead of Alan Shepherd, it might very well have been the ROCKET PLANE that captured the public's imagination instead of the missile-borne astronaut. Instead of racing into Earth orbit, and then to the lunar surface, we might have stretched our legs into space as an extension of aviation. We might have gone for a 2000-mile suborbital flight, then a 3000-mile suborbital flight, subtly stetching our range with each successive generation of rocket plane, until we were going half way 'round the world in 45 minutes (as the aborted National Aerospace Plane program was intended to do). From there, it would be a short step to true Low Earth Orbit. And at EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, there would have been a pilot in the cockpit controlling every stage of the flight -- not just the re-entry procedures, the LAUNCH, the ASCENT, EVERYTHING.

Maybe manned space travel would be much more entrenched in the human experience then, and unmanned satellites more of a marginalized curiosity. Maybe the problems with horrifically high launch costs would have been ironed out as we went. Maybe getting a ride into space wouldn't be the exclusive privilege of well-connected billionaires.

And maybe, just maybe, the Concorde would still be flying. (Well, okay, even *I* have trouble swallowing THAT.)

Thucydides said...

Martin

Basic economics works against economic self sufficiency. This was pretty decisively proven by the works of David Ricardo in the early 1800's, but a quick look at a satellite picture of the DPRK at night demonstrates that autarky still does not work in the 21rst century either.

This is not to say there are not reasons to seek some self sufficiency, such as "victory gardens" in WWII, but this is generally to free resources for other purposes.

Milo

Getting from Earth to LEO is more like white water rafting down Niagara Falls, so I can't see the rowboat analogy being very useful here. Once you are in orbit you are "halfway to anywhere", so the requirements are much more relaxed. Even a hypothetical "pickup truck" spaceship capable of taking off and landing on Mars is far simpler than launching from Earth.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Mars is very much an example of cheap land. Once the commercial space stations are established, and people -- non-astronauts -- are going into orbit every day, the next logical step is to start colonizing Mars.

The Santa Maria was not the kind of ship a man builds in his garage to go fishing. At the time, it was the equivalent of building the Maersk Alabama; it takes a lot of money and resources.

--Brian

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"Once you are in orbit you are "halfway to anywhere","

I know why you're saying this (Hohmann delta-vees), but I'm disputing the notion. It's only halfway if you're willing to spend the better part of a year reaching even the nearest locations.

If you want travel at an actually reasonable speed, you're going to spend a lot more delta-vee on the interplanetary phase than the launch phase.

Sure, launching into orbit is much harder than making a rowboat, but an expedient interplanetary spaceship is much harder than a square-rigger. I think it works about about proportionally. (Launching into orbit is already possible with present technology, just horrendously expensive. Tolerably fast interplanetary travel requires at the very least the implementation of technologies that are already on the drawing board but haven't actually been built in full, and for even better performance you need fusion.)

As a counterpoint, you could argue that while regular passenger traffic won't put up with needing 9.6 months just to reach Mars, one-way colonists might. Nevermind the outer solar system, though.



Brian/neutrino78x:

"Once the commercial space stations are established, and people -- non-astronauts -- are going into orbit every day,"

When is that, exactly?

Damien Sullivan said...

Weird, I'm getting e-mail for comments I don't see here.

autarky/self-sufficiency is inefficient relative to trade; it could still be sensible not to "free up resources" but for security, e.g. not being dependent on vulnerable trade for vital things like food. Redundancy and short-term efficiency generally oppose each other. North Korea isn't a good argument against it; there's so many other things wrong with North Korea.

The problem with cheap land -- besides even getting to "people in orbit every day" -- is, who wants it? We have plenty of cheap land on Earth, which we're mostly moving out of, not into. People talked about overpopulated China sending hordes into empty Siberia; in fact Russians are trying to migrate to the booming economy of China. And Sibera is tropical paradise compared to Mars. We're not farmers any more; we want jobs and urban conveniences, not land. Unless it's cheap land near cities and jobs.

Byron said...

What shocks me the most about this is how blindly optomistic space colonization advocates are. The high point of this in my reading was O'Neil, and his "wagon trains to the asteroid belt". Slap a mass driver on a hab you built somehow and you're good to go. Admittedly "The High Frontier" was written before the truth about the shuttle came out, but it was still a wild dream.
The same applies to most plans. If some magic (reusability, SpaceX, whatever) happens we'll all go into space. I hope they're right, but I doubt it.

Byron said...

Bookmarking.

Tony said...

Milo:

"'Once the commercial space stations are established, and people -- non-astronauts -- are going into orbit every day,'

When is that, exactly?"


I'm not sure what's more curious...the implication that astronauts aren't "people"? Or the dogmatism (to borrow an expression)?

Look, Brian -- and, to make this as impersonal as possible, anybody else who harbors essentially the same beliefs -- as previously mentioned, I too used to embrace what Jeffrey Bell has labeled the "Space Cadet" vision. One has to learn real facts about astrodynamics and astronautics. One has to abandon the wild fantasies (for that is what they are, whether we like it or not) of the speculative engineers, and learn what it is that the real world engineers know and do. It's simply the cost of entry.

Rick said...

Weird, I'm getting e-mail for comments I don't see here.

Blogger's spam jailer is kind of overzealous - I'm forever bailing out innocent comments that got locked up. And one comment yesterday - from Winch of Atomic Rockets, no less - seems to have vanished entirely.


On the general course of development, I tend to agree with Ferrell. IF there is incipient colonization in the next few hundred years, it will likely be due to scientific research bases evolving in the direction of university towns.

But the bottom line is that
Space Travel Is Difficult. EXTREMELY Difficult.
It is amazing that we can do it at all. Doing it (relatively) cheaply would require a tech revolution on the order of the entire Industrial Revolution to date, like going from Indiamen to container ships.

Byron said...

I'm going to come in as a third on this one. Space travel is far harder than any other form of travel we have. People can build airplanes in their backyards, but only a handful of countries have put things in orbit.
The only thing that I can think of that would bring about a robust human colonization in the Plausible Midfuture is a religion. This religion, which I'll designate as Spaceism, states that it is humanity's destiny to colonize the solar system, and it gains enough of a following to make it stick. And I don't think this is terribly likely.

I do have a question. How would this all change if there were habitable planets within reach? What if Mars really was habitable, if a bit dry and cold? How would the answer change based on the presence of Martians?
If there were nearby habitable or nearly-habitable planets, I'm of the opinion that things would change rapidly. For one thing, going there is much easier, though getting back might be tricky. You don't have to carry air or water, and might be able to farm rather easially.
If there aren't natives and the world is reasonably earthlike, then "cheap land" might well become a motivator. Nations are competing over who has the biggest colony, and it's a rather nice place to go. A lot of stuff can be produced on-site, and thus all that has to be shipped are the people. Why is ISRU easier? Simple. You can use existing equipment and techniques, and even if the local tech is pre-digital, you can still do a lot with that.
I'm thinking about Rocketverse 2, and this has come up.

Mad Yank said...

IntraSolar Colonization is NOT for the faint-of-heart, either monetarily, scientifically, or engineering-wise; not THIS century. The main reason is because, in that well-known phrase that no-one seems to know WHERE it came from, "It's not yet time to railroad."
We CAN get to LEO; with effort, we can get into GSO. From there, it's a L-O-N-G haul to anywhere else in the Solar System - even Luna. And Luna is no gem, either. And before we can profitably (important word, there) colonize any real estate off Earth, we will need controlled molecular transmutation (read - Magitech 101) that can reliably shuffle molecules around to make any substance from any other substance.
Before we can get anywhere else in the System besides Luna, we need fusion-thrust rocketry - or better (read Magitech 102) that ca ngive us a decent travel time between planets. Hohmanns-S trajectories "ain't gonna cut it" for commercial Interplanetary Space Flight - let alone Military and Emergency uses. Can you see Galactic 911 responding to a medical disaster in 6 months? Forget it, start over with a new colony team.
There are your FIRST two technology hurdles; clear those, and you have number Three (Magitech 103) and this is the REALLY big one - Terraforming.
Go Ahead; Let's see you alibi your way out of THIS one, genius. Start talking; I'll just watch from over here on the sidelines, while I try to hold my sides and stop laughing - and I'M a Trekkie!

Jim Baerg said...

Byron:
Re: What if there were habitable planets in the solar system.

See S.M. Stirlings two novels 'The Sky People' & 'In the Courts of the Crimson Kings'. They are set in the same alternate history in which Venus & Mars are determined to be habitable in the mid 20th century.

This gives much greater motivation for the development of manned spaceflight. Stirling shows what technologies might have been pushed & been successful given such motivation.

Thucydides said...

The "Halfway to anywhere" argument is actually valid since getting there fast is a convenience, not a hard requirement. Automated probes, cargo and low priority items can easily be sent on minimum energy trajectories, since cost will be a function of delta V. We accept this on Earth, even bulk transport of people was done this way in the past (steerage class on ships).

Sending people on long duration voyages has been a common trope right up into the first half of the 20th century (how long were Alexander the Great's troops on the road? Captain Cook's voyages? Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition?). Cheap air transport and telecommunication has skewed our ideas of time and space, so perhaps a reset is in order.

Maybe we will need to think of a Rocketverse or PMF where it is common to wait 90 days for your high ISP ion tug to arrive at the Moon with the heavy cargo, and space travel in cis lunar space is done by the equivalent of the photocopy repair guy, who takes three days to a week to get to a malfunctioning teleoperated system, does the fix and then heads home. Once we stop trying to bend things to fit our assumptions (what do we need to get Island Three colonies next week!) and see what naturally flows from the physics, we will encounter a rich but strange future (and one that should still have room for the storytelling requirements of Romance as well).

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Mad Yank:

"[Magitech 101, Magitech 102]"

I'd bet on us developing fusion power and fusion rockets long before we'll develop a fully-featured replicator (I can see the former happening in what I consider the plausible midfuture, but not the latter).


"Can you see Galactic 911 responding to a medical disaster in 6 months?"

Would being able to respond in 2 weeks be that much better?

Any remote outpost needs to have its own medical facilities.



Thucydides:

"Automated probes, cargo and low priority items can easily be sent on minimum energy trajectories,"

These alone will not lead to a rocketpunk universe.


"Maybe we will need to think of a Rocketverse or PMF where it is common to wait 90 days for your high ISP ion tug to arrive at the Moon with the heavy cargo,"

Remember, the Apollo missions got there in days. Maybe the desire for cheaper equipment or heavier cargo per trip will force tradeoffs in speed, but I feel that if a future-tech spacecraft takes that much longer than stuff that's possible today, then someone in the future is doing his job wrong.

Unless, of course, you were talking about a tug travelling from Mars, since you never specified it started from Earth...

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"The "Halfway to anywhere" argument is actually valid since getting there fast is a convenience, not a hard requirement."

Even using the most efficient transfer orbits, "halfway to anywhere" is only accurate outside the orbit of Venus and inside the orbit of Mars.

neutrino78x/brian said...

Tony, if NASA can go into space, so can others. It is not "physically impossible" to launch someone into space every day, just because NASA isn't doing it.

Just because Her Majesty's Royal Navy doesn't carry civilian passengers across the Atlantic Ocean on a regular basis doesn't mean it can't be done. Cunard does it all the time. Those ships are very expensive, and a man could not build such a ship in his backyard, but it is not physically impossible. Same with rockets. Just as most ships on the High Seas are civilian, so should be space.

Once the commercial entities are going into space every day, sending average people up ever day, as I said, the next logical step is to go to Mars, either NASA or private entities. This doesn't have to be with SSTO rocketplanes; in fact, I imagine there will be many different technologies sending things into orbit. Balloon launch, maglev catapult and/or launch assist, expendable launchers, SSTO rocketplanes, etc.

I definitely agree with you and the owner of the blog that if we assume that all Human SpaceFlight shall be done by NASA, we will wait forever for this future. However, unlike in the 1960s, there are now a lot of rich people who are nerds and interested in space, and willing to spend their own money on trying to achieve the future seen in Firefly and Star Trek.

Unlike NASA, Bob Bigelow has his own fortune to fund his dreams. That's how it should be.

It's coming...but if you wait for NASA to do it, you will be waiting forever. :)

--Brian

Byron said...

Mad Yank:
Fusion and replicators are completely different levels of magitech. Please don't confuse Star Trek with reality.

Jim:
I've read most of Stirling's stuff. Those actually entered my mind, but what happens later, or with no natives?

Thucydides:
Maybe we will need to think of a Rocketverse or PMF where it is common to wait 90 days for your high ISP ion tug to arrive at the Moon with the heavy cargo
I really doubt that. Luna is most efficiently reached with chemfuel-level delta-Vs. Plus, if the chemfuel is, say, Al-Lox, it's fairly cheap.

Brian:
However, unlike in the 1960s, there are now a lot of rich people who are nerds and interested in space, and willing to spend their own money on trying to achieve the future seen in Firefly and Star Trek.
Are you serious? The laws of physics haven't changed, and technology hasn't improved significantly. And we won't see either of those, much as I like Firefly. Both regularly violate the laws of physics. To be blunt, it's going to be expensive and difficult, in a way that's most comparable to supersonic flight. Only harder. There's a reason that the Concorde failed.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Once the commercial entities are going into space every day, sending average people up ever day"

You say "Once", meaning "When", we say "If". Where's the profit feeding these commercial entities?

"replicator" is a multi-valued word, ranging from ST:TNG cousins of transporters ("energize") to today's RepRaps. I'd have assumed "molecular transmutation" was fancy words for Drexlerian nanotech, atomic assembly, but substance-to-substance does sound like nuclear transmutation and much harder than fusion (think about it!) magitech.

Alexander's soldiers and Cook's sailors were a long way from home, but they got to make stops along the way. Also, sailors were often there not that voluntarily. I was reading up on Magellan's voyage; longest straight legs were 2-3 months, across oceans. Mayflower took 66 days, Columbus 5 weeks. Magellan's big timesink was exploring the straits, and other route-discovery periods.

Of course travel time looks different if you have either immortality, stasis/hibernation, or both. I still think the most plausible space future is a transhuman one, where the transhumanism is enabling the space exploitation.

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Byron:

"Plus, if the chemfuel is, say, Al-Lox, it's fairly cheap."

Huh? Cheap? I'll do some reasearch on cost figures using that propellant, but I'm already pretty certain it (along with everything else in space) won't be "cheap".

Tony said...

neutrino78x/brian:

"Tony, if NASA can go into space, so can others. It is not 'physically impossible' to launch someone into space every day, just because NASA isn't doing it."

It's not about NASA or "others" or about physics. It's about money. Governments can pay to put people in space -- and, yes, astronauts are people -- nobody else can.

"Just because Her Majesty's Royal Navy doesn't carry civilian passengers across the Atlantic Ocean on a regular basis doesn't mean it can't be done. Cunard does it all the time. Those ships are very expensive, and a man could not build such a ship in his backyard, but it is not physically impossible. Same with rockets. Just as most ships on the High Seas are civilian, so should be space."

Cunard could make money taking people across the Atlantic. Nobody has the money to pay for manned flight in space on a private basis, and nobody will any time soon, except for exceptional cases.

"Once the commercial entities are going into space every day, sending average people up ever day, as I said, the next logical step is to go to Mars, either NASA or private entities. This doesn't have to be with SSTO rocketplanes; in fact, I imagine there will be many different technologies sending things into orbit. Balloon launch, maglev catapult and/or launch assist, expendable launchers, SSTO rocketplanes, etc."

Once again, where do you think the money for all of this is coming from?

"I definitely agree with you and the owner of the blog that if we assume that all Human SpaceFlight shall be done by NASA, we will wait forever for this future. However, unlike in the 1960s, there are now a lot of rich people who are nerds and interested in space, and willing to spend their own money on trying to achieve the future seen in Firefly and Star Trek."

Firefly? Star Trek? Those shows are fantasy. One might as well try to see if one can make the Tolkien future happen.

"Unlike NASA, Bob Bigelow has his own fortune to fund his dreams. That's how it should be."

Bigelow has investors just like everyone else. And they aren't going to keep forking over the money for pie in the sky when it becomes apparent that there just aren't enough rich day trippers to pay the freight.

"It's coming...but if you wait for NASA to do it, you will be waiting forever. :)"

Nobody's waiting for anybody. NASA's doing it, the Russians are doing it, the Chinese are doing it -- all to the degree that there's money to pay fo it, which only governments can afford.

I know this is just not the future you were raised to believe in. It's not the one I'd prefer, if I had my druthers. But it's the future we're faced with.

jollyreaper said...


Firefly? Star Trek? Those shows are fantasy. One might as well try to see if one can make the Tolkien future happen.


Courtly lords and ladies in the age of chivalry was also mythologized a whole lot; what we think of as history has a whole lot of fantasy spun into it. And that didn't stop the Southern planters in the US of A from trying to replicate that sort of fantasy in their own world.

Likewise, you could really describe the world view of the Nazis as fantasy-based. Or just look at the Mormons and their great trek out west.

Someone pursuing a fantastic dream can be very realistic. You have real life stories of guys looking for the Grail or Noah's Ark. The story is only fantasy if he actually finds it!

Charlie Stross had the concept of religious believers seeking to create their own strong AI to serve as a God. In this particular setting, they already had the proof that it could be done because there's a strong AI preventing people from using causality-violation weapons and destroying the timeline. But I could EASILY see a real world cult of Kurzweilians setting a life goal of bringing about the tech singularity and pouring their fortunes into creating their AI god. And even if they never accomplish that goal, where will the journey take them?

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

Thanks for making my point for me -- no matter what your fantasy is, real life goes on. And just because you pursue your fantasy, that doesn't mean it will come true. No matter how many people pursue a fantasy, if it doesn't materialize, it's still just a fantasy.

jollyreaper said...


Thanks for making my point for me -- no matter what your fantasy is, real life goes on. And just because you pursue your fantasy, that doesn't mean it will come true. No matter how many people pursue a fantasy, if it doesn't materialize, it's still just a fantasy.


For given values of fantasy, yes. Right now, resurrecting dinosaurs seems like fantasy. But in a hundred years, maybe we'll have it licked. Human flight was a scientifically-proven impossibility. If we ever invent FTL drives, the people who do it won't be the ones who are convinced it could never happen.

By all the laws of economics, open source software shouldn't be possible. Linux could never happen. Now obviously it does exist and so people will have to adjust their expectations but there are countless examples in history of things that were seen as fantastic that would not be accepted until someone went out and did them.

There are given constraints because we are in the real world. Probably a better word would be improbability than impossibility. It would be safe to say that it's a high-grade improbability that we'll genetically engineer talking dogs in the near future. A thousand years out, who can say? I wouldn't expect it in 50 years, certainly. Resurrecting the dead? That would be safe to put as an impossibility unless we're able to prove the existence of a soul that survives the death of the body.

There are many examples of dumb things in history that should not have been done but were not impossibilities and so people did them. Caligula could march his soldiers into the sea and steal the sea shells from Neptune. What he could not do was make himself into an immortal god -- that's impossible fantasy.

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

You're talking about things that are beyond predictability, because there is no way to do them given the rules as we understand them. One simply can't apply a probability, because they are seemingly impossible now, under the current rules, but changes in the rules can't be absolutely ruled out.

Now, we live in a time where it seems like the rules are changing almost every day. But it hasn't always been that way, and it may not be that way in the future. The all-weather high road was a technologically stable item for over two thousand years. One can hope that it is not the case, but it could be that the birpopellant chemical rocket could in turn be a stable technology for that long as well. People want to believe that it won't be, but maybe we're closer to the limits of fundamental knowledge than we realize.

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Tony:

"People want to believe that it won't be, but maybe we're closer to the limits of fundamental knowledge than we realize."


Nice point Tony with the roads, but to state that we are at the limit of knowledge expansion the board over is a pretty ambitious generalisation. While I agree with you that we may take quite some time to develop better technologies (or may never with some examples), history has too many examples of people the world over constantly making a scientific advancement SOMEWHERE (unless you factor in pre-histry with its "improvement to a flint once every thousand years").

Fine, chem rockets for a thousand years. But a slowdown of technological development the world over? I hope I've misunderstood you here.

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Fine, chem rockets for a thousand years. But a slowdown of technological development the world over? I hope I've misunderstood you here."

Going back to an illustration I've used before, a turkey that has lived a thousand days could, from empirical evidence, expect tomorrow to be pretty much the same as any other day. But tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Andthe point is that yes, from past experieence we should expect to advance our knowledge tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. But knowledge does have limits. We haven't reached them yet, but someday we will. Maybe we're closer than we like to think we are. And maybe we aren't...hopefully we aren't. But we could be.

Even if we have yet a lot to learn, that doesn't mean we'll learn it tomorrow, or any time soon. Chemical rocket technology does seem to have matured. But, unlike silicon wafer transistors, there's no equivalent of the integrated circuit waiting to replace the rocekt. It may be a long time before one turns up.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"Someone pursuing a fantastic dream can be very realistic. You have real life stories of guys looking for the Grail or Noah's Ark. The story is only fantasy if he actually finds it!"

So, stories of someone wanting to build a Mars base are realistic, but stories of someone actually succeeding in building a Mars base are not?

That doesn't lead to very interesting stories.


"And even if they never accomplish that goal, where will the journey take them?"

So, even if we never make it into space, the attempt to do so may unexpectedly lead to development of new technologies that are useful down here on Earth.

Nice, but not rocketpunk, is it?

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"Right now, resurrecting dinosaurs seems like fantasy. But in a hundred years, maybe we'll have it licked."

Dinosaurs? Highly unlikely. DNA decays over tens of millions of years. It would take something extremely exotic for any dinosaur DNA to have survived into the modern day. Even the "skeletons" that we find are no longer made of the original bone material, but rather was replaced with similarly-shaped rock. Soft tissue has it even worse.

Mammoths are more likely, along with anything we can find left in permafrost from the last glacial period. Those are fairly intact.

Currently we do not have the technology to successfully clone extinct species even if we have accurate DNA, but that is something I am willing to believe we may have in a hundred years.

But obtaining DNA of extinct species we don't already have on record isn't something that can be done simply through improved technology - unless we happen to invent a time machine of some sort. Even if dinosaur DNA remains preserved somewhere, it must factually be incredibly rare, and will remain hard to find no matter how good our technology.

Other than that, sufficiently advanced genetic engineering (more difficult than extinct-species-cloning, but still vaguely plausible) might be used to produce an artificial creature that looks kind of like a popular perception of a particular dinosaur, but that cannot be guaranteed to be an accurate copy of the original, any more than an ichthyosaur is an accurate copy of a fish.


"Resurrecting the dead? That would be safe to put as an impossibility unless we're able to prove the existence of a soul that survives the death of the body."

Well, the only-recently-dead (or the well-preserved, if you have working cryogenics/whatever) would still have mostly intact brains, and so you could in principle be able to revive them with their minds largely intact. If the brain has decayed some by the time of the revification, then the revived person will have brain damage, manifesting in distortions to personality or memories. And given how much memory is crammed into a small brain, it's likely that even small amounts of decay will prove problematic. But still, it's not impossible (though, philosophically, you could just argue people aren't truly "dead" until their brain is destroyed).

Amusing fact: the Egyptians believed strongly in resurrection that requires the physical bodies to remain intact, and so developed advanced embalming and mummification techniques, which actually worked - their bodies, while somewhat ravaged by age, are nonetheless relatively intact to this day. However, the Egyptians did not understand the purpose of the brains, and so cleaned them out as part of the mummification process. Thus, they did all for naught, since even if at some point we invent advanced revification, despite the Egyptians' success at preserving their bodies, we won't be able to resurrect any of them.

Also, once again, time travel can be used to reacquire even that which has been completely destroyed. (Even just the look-into-the-past type time machine, with no ability to actually alter anything and therefore violate causality, would suffice provided you could couple it with sufficiently accurate scanning equipment.) Time travel, while a highly implausible technology even in the not-violating-causality incarnation, is highly implausible, but doesn't violate the mediocrity principle like a soul does, and so still comes over as more scientific.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Geoffrey S H:

"Fine, chem rockets for a thousand years. But a slowdown of technological development the world over? I hope I've misunderstood you here."

I suppose what Tony is suggesting is a world where we develop a lot of new technologies that lead to improved standards of life down here on Earth, in various hard-to-predict ways, but that in all that time we still haven't managed to provide those standards of life (or any standards of life) on Mars.

jollyreaper said...

Jollyreaper:

"Someone pursuing a fantastic dream can be very realistic. You have real life stories of guys looking for the Grail or Noah's Ark. The story is only fantasy if he actually finds it!"

So, stories of someone wanting to build a Mars base are realistic, but stories of someone actually succeeding in building a Mars base are not?


Depends on the assumptions you're making. That's why I deliberately invoked strong AI for my example.

As for your Mars base, you could perhaps say that it's a group setting out to terraform the planet and all they accomplished was getting biodomes built on the surface. It really depends on what you're claiming people can accomplish and what they do. A good story can convince the audience to suspend disbelief for quite a ways. But there's a difference between the probable and the possible. I'd say it's only a matter of money as to whether we could get a Mars base going. It's possible. Could it become self-sustaining and economically viable? That might never be possible and would thus require expensive support by external backers.

If you make claims that can't fall under a reasonable suspension of disbelief or require handwaves that cannot be overlooked, then it may well be fantasy. That's no slight: I love fantasy. And one man's fantasy can be another man's prescient vision of the future.

That doesn't lead to very interesting stories.

Sure it does.


"And even if they never accomplish that goal, where will the journey take them?"

So, even if we never make it into space, the attempt to do so may unexpectedly lead to development of new technologies that are useful down here on Earth.

Nice, but not rocketpunk, is it?


Depends on the tech you're talking about. I used the religious example. Let's pretend we're 50 years out and a Heaven's Gate cult becomes ridiculously successful. Hell, let's say Scientology. They decide there's an important spaceship hitching a ride on the tail of a comet. With enough backing, they could fund and fly a mission into space to explore the comet. There's nothing there. But what will come of all that invented infrastructure? Abandoned like the Apollo hardware or used by opportunists who recognize a good opportunity when they see it.

Thucydides said...

Getting to the Moon in three days needed a Saturn V the size of a skyscraper, weighing 3 million kg, generating 35 GW on liftoff all to deliver 4500kg to Trans Lunar Injection. Even less mass actually reached the Moon.

Now even if we just took the third stage stack, we still have a 100,000kg chemical stage in orbit to push 4500kg to the Moon. An ion drive would conceptually turn that on its head (even if the ratio isn't exactly a 4500kg ion drive rocket pushing 100,000kg of cargo), but you would have to accept a much longer transfer time in return.

Some ideas that seem like fantasy really are grounded in some sort of real idea; recreating dinosaurs is an idea being pursued by Hans Larsson at McGill University through studying how to manipulate genetic "switches". Embryonic chickens exhibit some of the traits of dinosaurs during their development, so switching "off" the process that causes the long tail to be absorbed would in theory recreate the dinosaur type tail. Similar "switches" for teeth, feathers and the process where arms turn into wings could, in theory, be manipulated so what comes out of the egg has ancestral dinosaur traits.

Tony said...

Milo:

"I suppose what Tony is suggesting is a world where we develop a lot of new technologies that lead to improved standards of life down here on Earth, in various hard-to-predict ways, but that in all that time we still haven't managed to provide those standards of life (or any standards of life) on Mars."

Nope. I'm saying that bipropellant chemical rocketry is a very mature technology and we pretty much know what can be done with it. And there's no obvious better replacement apparent. We have to live with that reality when thinking about our future in space.

I'm also saying that maybe we won't catch the break everybody wants. Maybe chemical rockets are the only game in town for centuries or even millenia.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"recreating dinosaurs is an idea being pursued by Hans Larsson at McGill University through studying how to manipulate genetic "switches". Embryonic chickens exhibit some of the traits of dinosaurs during their development, so switching "off" the process that causes the long tail to be absorbed would in theory recreate the dinosaur type tail."

This is the concept of "devolution", as tried with more primitive means by the Heck brothers (yes that's what they were called) trying to reproduce the extinct aurochs. Whether or not you appreciate the look of the resulting Heck cattle, they're not real aurochs. They're more closely related that ichtyosaurs and fish, and so the differences are less obvious, but really it's the same concept.


"Similar "switches" for teeth, feathers and the process where arms turn into wings could, in theory, be manipulated so what comes out of the egg has ancestral dinosaur traits."

It would not, however, be an accurate reproduction of any specific dinosaur species, just an agglomeration of generic theropod traits. Furthermore, while fragments of obsolete dinosaur code may remain in a chicken's DNA, surely many dinosaur-y genes have been mutated beyond usability in that time (since they were switched off, having those sections gain harmful mutations does not reduce the chicken's fitness).

And again, don't forget that there's more to a dinosaur than external appearance. What are you going to do with internal organs (is your neo-theropod going to still eat chicken feed or do you want it do be a fierce predator?), behavioral disposition (um... same question, really), metabolism (we're not even sure yet at what point warmbloodedness evolved, so how are we supposed to make a faithful recreation?)?

Even if you could somehow pull it off, you'd still only get theropods, and even then only ones that lie directly in the chicken's evolutionary history - no Tyrannosaurus rex, and definitely no Triceratops horridus.

Geoffrey S H said...

Which means, that our level of developement in space is the most we will go (a flag on the Moon and Mars, but little else). Our presence may even contract if satellites for some tasks are considered superfluous compared with developements on Earth.

Therefore: using a grounded in reality outlook results in no story. None at all, unless you want to document the day to day happenings of the crew of the ISS 3 in the year 2674. As we established some months ago, precious little would happen there, making it the space equivalent of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (its on wikipedia for those that don't know what I'm talking about)- and not everyone would want to constantly write in that sort of style.

This means that, for all I may agree with you Tony (or begin to agree) on the future of propellants, we simply cannot write using a realistic portrayal of the future, as much as we would want to if we want to write "realistic" space fiction. For myself I have three "future histories" lined out, and one supposes the use of chem-propellant for some time and therefore has no significant manned space travel (one fh is insurance against some unforseen mega accelerando and has million ton payloads taken to Mars monthly by the 26/27th century. The other does the same a thousand years from now- any later in time and I don't feel I could portray the developements in culture properly).

I know Tony that it may be irritating to read of yet another handwave "and then suddenly we found ourselves with colonies in space!" (tm), but otherwise we have to abandon the whole notion of man going into space until a point where realistic cultures and societies become impossible to predict. THAT's the rub.

If its any consolation guys, there's always terrestrial bound sf, with all the fantastic machines, future societies and post-human trouble that implies. Take some subs, scientific outposts on the ocean floor, and you could even (with yet more handwaving unforetunetly, that idea's just as impossible as space colonies) replicate space opera as sea opera. It may be implausible, but it wouldn't rely on magitech propellants at least.

Citizen Joe said...

If you're going to ignore all the difficulties that reality provides, then you should just do a fantasy piece or go back to some period drama taking place on Earth.

However, SOME of those difficulties are interesting. Combined, they make things impossible, but if you wipe away a couple of the major problems with the magic of the author's pen, you can explore those issues that hold your interest.

I've worked on a setting where humans never really solved the heavy lift issue from Earth. But they did work out multiple fusion techniques and even a form of FTL travel. As a result, people tended to stay in space and build things from space resources. Earth became something of a luxury and retirement goal.

Thucydides said...

Devolving or otherwise chickens to create some sort of theropod creature is really proof of principle, and I would be entirely fascinated to see what the real world result would be.

Once that proof of principle was done, you would have demonstrated the fine control of the expression of genes and genetic traits, which would have many more practical uses in day to day living besides populating Jurassic Park. Of course the fine control of genes would also let scientists essentially "cut and paste" until they got something which closely resembles their conception of a real dinosaur, so this, at least, is something which could conceivably happen in the PMF.

Getting to orbit cheaply isn't as conceptually clear cut once you move far beyond chemical propellents; I can easily see a PMF or Rocketverse where that problem is essentially never solved, so Citizen Joe's vision is a valid one. The only other way to go is to invoke some sort of Magitech, but be prepared to think through all the implications (for example manipulating the Higgs field to eliminate inertia would have pretty profound implications on Earth, and would also not be limited to just aerospace applications. Higgs field manipulation would also have lots of implications in deep space as well).

Citizen Joe said...

I actually set up Higgs research as the precursor accidental discovery of FTL travel. Unable to stabilize the Higgs field in Earth's gravity well, they invested in a space based Higgs Reactor at the Sol-Earth trailing LaGrangian point. The experiment went cataclysmically wrong. Surviving witnesses saw the station literally implode into nothingness before the radiation burst fried instruments and retina. It wasn't until decades later when Jupiter gas mining ships discovered the wreckage in a decaying orbit there.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Citizen Joe:

"Surviving witnesses saw the station literally implode into nothingness before the radiation burst fried instruments and retina."

Surviving witnesses from where? Anyone on the station (why?) would have been killed in the implosion, while anyone on Earth should only be capable of seeing what happened on a computer screen, which shouldn't cause fried retina unless your monitor is really badly calibrated.

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"I know Tony that it may be irritating to read of yet another handwave "and then suddenly we found ourselves with colonies in space!" (tm), but otherwise we have to abandon the whole notion of man going into space until a point where realistic cultures and societies become impossible to predict. THAT's the rub."

Well, if one assumes that spaceflight technology is only going to advance so far, then one can assume that for other technologies as well. The funny thing is that a decelerando, though manifestly possible, may seem less believable to a lot of people than the Star Trek future. In any case, no matter how much technology they have, no matter where they go, humans always seem to be the same. So if we just set our future a thousand years out we can have our space opera. We just won't have the "just around the corner" timeline.

Anonymous said...

@Tony:

"In any case, no matter how much technology they have, no matter where they go, humans always seem to be the same. So if we just set our future a thousand years out we can have our space opera. We just won't have the "just around the corner" timeline."

Its a pity that whatever cultural developements can be predicted, they will be all but useless by the time the setting's period comes to pass.

Geoffrey S H said...

The blogger just ate my name.... :(

Geoffrey S H said...

But I do nonetheless agree with you on the need for a long span of time before "rocketpunk" futures kick in.

Getting abit slow tonight.

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Its a pity that whatever cultural developements can be predicted, they will be all but useless by the time the setting's period comes to pass."

I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, but no, I don't believe in the moral and ethical improvement (for certain values of "improvement") of Man. And I'm not so sure that a rational person would want it if it were possible. A world without people willing to fight for their beliefs* seem to me to be a sad and worthless one.

*Which is what moral improvers seem to want to achieve.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"In any case, no matter how much technology they have, no matter where they go, humans always seem to be the same. So if we just set our future a thousand years out we can have our space opera. We just won't have the "just around the corner" timeline."

It's not the people that are the problem, but their technology. In a thousand years, people will almost certainly be taking for granted as everyday conveniences technologies that we haven't even thought of yet. Our depictions of a space future may seem as naive to them as interplanetary atomic rockets navigated with slide rules.

In fact, if affordable space travel is really so difficult that we won't figure it out for a thousand years, then we pretty much have to have some incredible technological advancements to justify how our decendants were able to pull off something that's so implausible to us. It's highly, highly unlikely for technology to stagnate for a thousand years, only for someone to then suddenly notice the brilliant trick allowing space travel that we could have done all along but no-one managed to stumble across.

Things like social developments are also relevant. Sure, a war between democratic nation-states is not unrecognizable from one between feudal monarchies, but it's still a meaningful difference. Moral views have also evolved quite a lot in the last few centuries, and there's still some things we're strenuously disagreeing on. What social norms will our decendants take for granted?

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Also, to clarify on what I mean with future technology being different from ours:

Some technologies have a remarkably long shelf life. Things like chairs and tables have changed relatively little in design since people first started being sedentary enough to be able to afford having chairs and tables. However while we are still using some technologies that were already around in the Neolithic, we are also using plenty of technologies that would be completely unrecognizable to someone from the Neolithic. I expect that this will also hold in our own distant future - some of today's technologies will still be around (and in serious use, not just in museums and historical reenactions), but some of it will have been completely replaced multiple times over. And I cannot, dare not, predict which of our current technologies will endure and which will be replaced. (Except for chairs and tables. I'm pretty sure people will still be using those.)

Jim Baerg said...

"A world without people willing to fight for their beliefs* seem to me to be a sad and worthless one."

In my more optimistic moments I think that in the future people might confine "things I believe in" to "things for which there is some actual evidence". That makes it much easier to settle disputes without killing people.

Geoffrey S H said...

@Tony:

"And I'm not so sure that a rational person would want it if it were possible. A world without people willing to fight for their beliefs* seem to me to be a sad and worthless one.

*Which is what moral improvers seem to want to achieve."


As far as I'm concerned Tony, my potential future will have (at some point) plenty of faiths to interact, and the great dome cities will eventually see cathedrals, as well as markkets and science posts.

Concerning changes in societies- therer are some differences, bearbaiting, some forms of slavery and attitudes to public violence concerning violantions of honour that are things (for the moment) of the past.

On the other hand, legal loop holes, crime, chauvanism (though not quite as pronounced sometimes), racism and the use of violence in crime and self-defence against crime that are the same. Portrayals of violence in some medias are worse, whereas some is not as bad or the same (the Auenid is just aas bad as your avergae Sharpe novel, but films in some ways, as regards Saw, worse).

Everything changes, gets worse, better, stays the same, comes full circle. Ultimately all is in a state of flux. Man's society will be different and similar in the future- getting that balance and predicting some of those changes will be difficult.

"I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, but no, I don't believe in the moral and ethical improvement (for certain values of "improvement") of Man."


Maybe I should be clearer on that, or change my position a little. Some things can be predicted, but there are some norms that will stay throughout our history. On the other hand, some things will change- could a layclerk in a 12th century monastery predict the culture in our world now? The Fundamentals? Yes. More unique aspects of our culture? Like I said, difficult. Credit systems were only just coming into fashion back then. Predicting how a future economy would work would be possible for him, but predicting all the recessions and depressions that could occur would be a harder task. Predicting the expansion of the middle class (or then known as the middling orders of society). Maybe he would have seen it as a norm to have a small section of society like that. It had always been small and will always be small. The peasants will always outnumber them greatly.

Citizen Joe said...

@Milo:

The Higgs Reactor had a great deal of monitoring satellites and auxillary support craft. It was, after all, a highly publicized experiment. Those very few that witnessed it first hand were not well protected. While they survived the initial event, they all succumbed to radiation sickness before they could be returned to Earth.

I suppose the more interesting thing would be the shockwave that occurred as space time tried to correct itself from the sudden loss of matter caused by the Higgs Field. The implications of the shockwaves did not become apparent until the investigation decades later. Simply, nobody questioned an explosion in space causing a shockwave, although we all know that doesn't happen.

Tony said...

Milo:

"It's not the people that are the problem, but their technology. In a thousand years, people will almost certainly be taking for granted as everyday conveniences technologies that we haven't even thought of yet. Our depictions of a space future may seem as naive to them as interplanetary atomic rockets navigated with slide rules."

See, this is what I don't get -- if an author's guess is as good as anybody else's, why GAS how accurate your predictions are? Just have your characters be people and throw in any technological, social, cultural, or whatever gimiicks make the story work.

"In fact, if affordable space travel is really so difficult that we won't figure it out for a thousand years, then we pretty much have to have some incredible technological advancements to justify how our decendants were able to pull off something that's so implausible to us. It's highly, highly unlikely for technology to stagnate for a thousand years, only for someone to then suddenly notice the brilliant trick allowing space travel that we could have done all along but no-one managed to stumble across."

This doesn't follow at all. It's entirely possible for a large space civilization to accrete over time, even using technology barely advanced over our own. An in-space population of 100 million in 1,000 years requires the population to double only once every 50 years, on a base of 10 people to begin with. I can see that happening without too much technological advancement.

Jim Baerg:

"In my more optimistic moments I think that in the future people might confine "things I believe in" to "things for which there is some actual evidence". That makes it much easier to settle disputes without killing people."

Two complications I see with that:

1. People don't care about facts, they care about Truth. And all Truth is, when we are honest with ourselves, is a personal opinion about the significance of the facts. Get enough people together with opposing opinions, and well...

2. People who aren't willing to fight are victims for those who are. I don't like the idea of a world full of victims.I seriously doubt I'm alone in that.

Geoffrey S H:

"Maybe I should be clearer on that, or change my position a little. Some things can be predicted, but there are some norms that will stay throughout our history. On the other hand, some things will change..."

See my comment to Milo, above. As long as you make it interesting and consistent, that's all that counts.

Citizen Joe said...

A base of 10 people is insufficient as a population seed.
http://www.xkcd.com/893/

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Tony:

...because there is a right way to predict the future. None of us will ever find it, but the closer our intricately detailed worlds are to accurately predicting that future, the happier we will be. Of course it doesn't matter how we world build. We don't care, we like the idea of predicting the future. We will be wrong, but itsd fun putting in the effort. it may force us to think about how culture, technology and other aspects of world building interact. . ;)

Tony said...

Citizen Joe:

"A base of 10 people is insufficient as a population seed.
http://www.xkcd.com/893/"


You have to have a base number on which to work a geometric expansion. That doesn't mean, when talking about populations, that all of the expansion comes directly from that base.

Geoffrey S H:

"...because there is a right way to predict the future. None of us will ever find it, but the closer our intricately detailed worlds are to accurately predicting that future, the happier we will be. Of course it doesn't matter how we world build. We don't care, we like the idea of predicting the future. We will be wrong, but itsd fun putting in the effort. it may force us to think about how culture, technology and other aspects of world building interact. . ;)"

Sorry, but to me an author who thinks that way is silly and self-absorbed. Good characters and a good story are still what matter most.

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Tony:

A desire to work hard on a world setting and to make a good plot with good characters are not mutually exclusive. I can think of settings that might have indicated that the writer is more concerned about showing off his intellect, but I can also think of good settings that interacted wonderfully with the complex, detailed characters. Sorry if I came across as the former to you, :( but I do like the idea of managing to combine both a good setting and good characters. One could strengthen the other.

Tony said...

Re: Geoffrey S H

One of the big reasons I'm turned off by almost all contemporary science fiction is the perceived necessity on the part of younger authors to work out every detail of progress and then put it on the page. Verisimilitude comes from descrbing differences only where differences count -- and then treat those differences as matter-of-fact, not an excuse for digressive expostulation. Heinlein's "the door dilated" is probably the prototypical example. The door dilates, which tells us that it's not on hinges and doesn't open in or out. SO we know we're not in Kansas anymore. But then Heinlein passes on to the rest of the scene without a look backwards to why or how the door dilated, because it's not important to the story. Somewhere, somehow, we've lost that ability amongst SF writers, and it really sucks that we have.

Rick said...

... And, as so often, the thread drifts toward a discussion of science fiction. Which is pretty much a feature, not a bug.

Did Heinlein actually have a door dilate in any of his stories? Funky doors - dilating, odd shapes, etc - strikes me as a convention of Hollywood scifi, though (at quick glance) I can't find it mentioned at the Evil Website. They do mention ginormous doors, but that is not a scifi-specific trope.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Did Heinlein actually have a door dilate in any of his stories? Funky doors - dilating, odd shapes, etc - strikes me as a convention of Hollywood scifi, though (at quick glance) I can't find it mentioned at the Evil Website. They do mention ginormous doors, but that is not a scifi-specific trope."

Truth in advertising: I mentioned the dilating door because Heinlein himself used it to make essentially the same point I'm making. He did use it (in Methusellah's Children IIRC).

Tony said...

BTW, here's your Evil Website link:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DilatingDoor

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Tony, Bigelow has investors also, but he has his own personal fortune. The two satiellites he has up there right now were funded mainly by his personal money.

Regardless, I still reject both the idea that chemical rockets are a "mature" technology, and that they are "the only game in town".

Set aside the idea that everything physically possible has already been done by NASA. SpaceX has completely disproved such notions. Look at all they have accomplished with only 2000 people. How many people does NASA need to design and launch a rocket? So, I casually wave away that notion.

Bill Gates once said that 640 KB should be enough RAM for anybody, and an IBM employee once stated that there is a world market for maybe 5 or 6 computers. Neither person was correct.

The Space Shuttle is basically ENIAC, an early computer from the 50s. It is far more complex than it has to be. The fuel tank is not even integrated into the vehicle! Until we have either SSTO, or multistage to orbit in which all stages are recovered and reused, we haven't approached chemical rockets being a "mature" technology. That doesn't even address storage of the fuel. I think it is quite plausible that nanotechnology will yield a structure which can ten or 100 times the density of hydrogen that current tanks can. Portable computers and electric cars will drive this technology; a fuel cell replacement for Li-Ion batteries in laptops is already available, using methane.

http://www.gizmag.com/go/5325/

In 1950, the idea of having a nuclear reactor that could fit in a submarine was considered by many like Tony to be "physically impossible". At the time, a nuclear reactor was the size of two or three residential homes. At the passionate insistence and strident persistence of Admiral Rickover, however, enough money and resources were devoted to make it happen. Look at this link, all the bulleted points identifying all the problems critics saw with a submarine nuclear reactor:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Admiral_Rickover#Naval_Reactors_and_the_Atomic_Energy_Commission

Yet, today, men go to sea on nuclear powered submarines every day, proving those people wrong. I used to be one of them (nuclear submariners).

In any case, when I mentioned Firefly and Star Trek, the idea was to invoke a future in which billions of people are living and working beyond the Earth, and people are going into space every day. I defy anyone to show me a LAW OF PHYSICS, as opposed to the level of technology and engineering which has currently been achieved, which somehow makes this impossible.

One could identify any number of other things which were said to be impossible and later accomplished: ships made of metal, aircraft which are heavier than air, supersonic flight, landing men on the Moon, and probably the Egyptian pyramids. I'm sure some pessimists at the time said it was impossible to build such structures with the technology they had...but they did it.

--Brian

Thucydides said...

Geoffrey S H

Humans have not changed much throughout recorded history (in fact the main reason we can understand history at all is because people haven't changed. Expressions of morality might gain or lose currency, but the underlying impulses are always there. We may not allow bear baiting or gladiatorial contests, but MMA competitions on TV come pretty close. The details might change, but I'm sure that humans in the 22nd century will still have violent impulses and seek outlets for them. (There will also be saintly people in the 22nd century, but how that will be expressed will also be different in the details. Read Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light" for one take of the idea).

Even adding post humans and/or AI to the mix won't change things in that important regard; any baseline humans who remain will be driven by the same impulses as they were 10,000 years ago; the details about what the landscape will look like or what specific events will drive people will be different, and the outcomes may well be not to our liking (what exactly would we do if AI's decided to utilize the 145 petawatts of energy captured by the Earth? What if Post humans decided things would be much better all around if the Sun were a red dwarf star?).

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Dilating Doors

It's on the 1st page of _Beyond This Horizon_. Maybe in a few other works too.

Geoffrey S H said...

The need to do less manual work, and the decrease in "life is cheap" situations in the West might show that there have been some significant changes. Furthermore, even a racing driver should not have the fear of death a gladiator might have. Of course many things will be the same, but there will still be some differences. I'm not saying we won't go to war, or have religious beliefs. That's ridiculous, we can't stop those impulses, passions, whatever. But we may have more lesiure time, as one example. In 15th century London, life was cheap on a horriffic scale for the poor, nothing like it is now.

Even when talking with my grandparents, I feel that the mindsets, attitudes and conditions of the 1940's were so utterly different that if I were somehow to go back in time, I would stick out like a sore thumb even after years of acclimatisation, and still not know the complexities and intricacies of life there. Fundamentals such as life and death might be coloured slightly by cultural differences. If I were to go back to the 18th century kingdom of Benin, or 3rd century Osaka, that difference would be even more pronounced. If I went back to 17th century London I would have a better chance- get a job in Whitehall, pick up a copy of the Spectator sometimes as one could now. As a historian I cannot stress the the difficultiers there are in truly understanding a past-culture, as well as combining those with the many, many similarities.

I am listening to all of what you are saying, and in many ways I agree. I cannot stress that enough. Its just that every culture does have differences. Gary Schroen in Afghanistan described how him and his CIA team, with all their training and disguises, stood out like a sore thumb even to children. I have to admit that the planet of hats trope really, really annoys me.

I will freely admit that my sci-fi tastes have been shaped by reading the likes of Brian Aldiss (Helliconia) and Peter F Hamilton (anything he writes!).

Anonymous said...

I would imagine that the culture that developes in the domed cities of Mars or Titan would be different than the underground colonies of Ganymeade, Luna, or Callisto; and those would be different still from those that develop on and around NEO's, orbital habs, and lesser moons. Exploring those differences and simuleraties would make an interesting story.


Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Of course cultures will be different, and trying to predict fine details like men's fashions or what sort of table manners will be en vogue in 2300 AD is foolish (or maybe just a fun mental exercise. If ties and lapels become wider or narrower on a regular basis, you should be able to predict the cut of a man's suit three centuries from now ;)). We can understand the impulses that drove the Dutch Tulip mania or the South Sea Bubble in 1720; they are the same ones which drove the dot com bubble in the 1990s or the housing bubble in the 2000's.

While we would certainly stand out from the crowd in Osaka in 1300, or even today, I think that we wouldbe able to recognize most of the critical things, observe what gives pleasure or offense and most certainly react to things which trigger various emotional responses (and discover that to a large extent, these are common with the rest of the people in Osaka as well, even in 1300).

People living in the Mars colony or an Island Three will also be subject to the same triggers and responses, even if the details would be difficult to recognize at first (people who live by the shore are attuned to weather, and if you live by the "Ring of Fire" you might also be attuned to the threat of Tsunamis. People in colonies will have similar fears and responses to threats to their artificial environments).

Geoffrey S H said...

@Thucydides:

"While we would certainly stand out from the crowd in Osaka in 1300, or even today, I think that we wouldbe able to recognize most of the critical things, observe what gives pleasure or offense and most certainly react to things which trigger various emotional responses (and discover that to a large extent, these are common with the rest of the people in Osaka as well, even in 1300)."

There might be some problems when we think one person thinks something, and then realise they mean something else. A crude example is feigning politness when the foreigners has commited an act of cultural rudeness. I agree with your point, but would nevertheless be a little wary of it (my own mistakes when abroad probably influence this thought, but still).

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Ferrell:

"I would imagine that the culture that developes in the domed cities of Mars or Titan would be different than the underground colonies of Ganymeade, Luna, or Callisto; and those would be different still from those that develop on and around NEO's, orbital habs, and lesser moons."

And of course, while some differences may be motivated by the parameters of the environment, quite a few won't and will simply be the result of cultures who evolve in extended isolation naturally drifting in different directions.

But wait, extended isolation? Even with the internet? Yeah, probably. Nearby people are still going to clump together even if they have some contact with the outside. There'll still be visible differences.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x (1):

"Tony, Bigelow has investors also, but he has his own personal fortune. The two satiellites he has up there right now were funded mainly by his personal money."

Bigelow has committed to half a billion dollars. He's already run through almost 200 million of it putting up two relatively small experimental spacecraft. He could easily use up the rest putting up an actual man-occupiable satellite. Then he better have customers lined up to satisfy his investors. Except who's going to pay his tariffs, which aren't going to be the lowball prices he's been quoting?

If he sticks with Russian launch vehicles, I can see his investors not being so hot to trot. Too many uncertainties exist doing business in Russia. I doubt he'll get a ride lined up on Soyuz for less than $25 million. (If he's lucky -- not going to ISS is going to cause a lot of extra expense for the Russians.) Then the cost of habitat launch and operations, and profit have to be added.

And we can't forget that although Bigelow has gotten the farthest in the private space exploitation game, it's only been by licensing technology already almost fully developed by NASA and relying on cheap launch services subsidized by the Russian government (using converted ICBMs which are essentially zero cost). IOW, as a proof of concept, it's pretty much all smoke and mirrors.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x (2):

"Regardless, I still reject both the idea that chemical rockets are a 'mature' technology, and that they are 'the only game in town'."

Of course. I guess we'll have to proceed with fisking:

"Set aside the idea that everything physically possible has already been done by NASA."

NASA does a lot of its own development management, but is ultimately a customer for commercial equipment and services. Whatever is physiacally possible, NASA, in going to the Moon and operating the Shuttle, has purchased and operated systems that have pushed the outside of the chemical rocket performance envelope.

"SpaceX has completely disproved such notions. Look at all they have accomplished with only 2000 people."

SpaceX is all about minimizing the costs associated with operating a traditional, two stage, LOX/Kerosene medium lifter. They're not even close to the boundaries of the physically possible.

WRT the number of people they're using, Boeing and LockMart have similar numbers of people working in their factories that make the same general kind of rockets. It's nothing to make a point of.

"How many people does NASA need to design and launch a rocket?"

A proven technology medium lifter like Falcon 9? NASA never got involved in developing one. They wouldn't now. It's off the shelf technology, no matter who makes it. Maybe SpaceX will manage to keep costs down. Maybe they won't. But the most they'll do is hold costs down on expendable launchers.

"So, I casually wave away that notion."

Funny how uninformed and casual seem to go so eaily together.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x (3):

"Bill Gates once said that 640 KB should be enough RAM for anybody,"

What Gates actually said (from Wikiquote):

"I have to say that in 1981, making those decisions, I felt like I was providing enough freedom for 10 years. That is, a move from 64k to 640k felt like something that would last a great deal of time. Well, it didn't - it took about only 6 years before people started to see that as a real problem."

Also:

"I laid out memory so the bottom 640K was general purpose RAM and the upper 384 I reserved for video and ROM, and things like that. That is why they talk about the 640K limit. It is actually a limit, not of the software, in any way, shape, or form, it is the limit of the microprocessor. That thing generates addresses, 20-bits addresses, that only can address a megabyte of memory. And, therefore, all the applications are tied to that limit. It was ten times what we had before. But to my surprise, we ran out of that address base for applications within—oh five or six years people were complaining."

IOW, he thought that 640 k of address space was adequate for personal computers for the 1980s, not forever. Looking back on what we were doing with PCs back then, it was hardly a ridiculous assessment.

"and an IBM employee once stated that there is a world market for maybe 5 or 6 computers. Neither person was correct."

No such thing ever happened. It was an IBM internal estimate of the market for a single early computer model.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x (4):

"The Space Shuttle is basically ENIAC, an early computer from the 50s."

ENIAC was a practical machine that could do practical jobs. The Shuttle is the result of philosophical and political imperatives that have nothing to do with rocketry.

"It is far more complex than it has to be."

It is as complex as it needs to be, given its engineering requirements.

"The fuel tank is not even integrated into the vehicle!"

It couldn't be. Even when operating LOX/LH2 engines at near their maximum theoretical efficiency, making a recoverable vehicle large enough to contain the necessary propellant tankage is simply not possible with real world materials technology -- not in the 1970s, not now, and not with any type of materials forseeable.

"Until we have either SSTO, or multistage to orbit in which all stages are recovered and reused, we haven't approached chemical rockets being a "mature" technology."

A technology is mature when it can only be improved marginally over the rest of its useful lifetime. It is not mature or immature by the fiat of the uninformed. For the last forty or so years chemical rocket performance has only been improved very marginally. So marginally in fact that people point to concepts from the late Sixties and early Seventies when they talk about the feasibility of SSTO.

But nobody has actually turned that technology into SSTO in all these years. What's the reason? Incompetence? Unwillingness? Eeevul conspiracy? LGMs wiping our memories and making us forget that we did it every time we did?

"That doesn't even address storage of the fuel. I think it is quite plausible that nanotechnology will yield a structure which can ten or 100 times the density of hydrogen that current tanks can."

Nanotechnology of the type you're invoking is magitech of the most speculative nature. Also, the king of densities you're talking about would give you solid hydrogen. That's going to be interesting in a liquid fueled rocket...

"Portable computers and electric cars will drive this technology; a fuel cell replacement for Li-Ion batteries in laptops is already available, using methane."

Fuel cell technology is totally irrelevant to rockets. And any that fuel cell with fuel compressed to thousands of bar -- I assume that's where you're going, though you never manage to make the connection -- is a lethal device that would never be safe enough for the average (or even exceptional) user.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x (5):

"In 1950, the idea of having a nuclear reactor that could fit in a submarine was considered by many like Tony to be 'physically impossible'."

I only ever said that SSTO with chemical rockets was physically impossible. Just like the last time you misquoted me, I'll stand by the statement that I actually made.

"At the time, a nuclear reactor was the size of two or three residential homes. At the passionate insistence and strident persistence of Admiral Rickover, however, enough money and resources were devoted to make it happen."

Aside from the irrelevant hero worship, at the time people were predicting the use of nuclear power for rockets, which is much more difficult an application than naval nuclear power.

"Look at this link, all the bulleted points identifying all the problems critics saw with a submarine nuclear reactor:"

The bullet points enumerate engineering challenges that were met and overcome. That's not the same thing as having physics tell you that your rocket has to be 90% propellant, and that current or foreseeable materials technology is not up to giving you a workable reusable vehicle with a payload.

"Yet, today, men go to sea on nuclear powered submarines every day, proving those people wrong. I used to be one of them (nuclear submariners)."

And I went to sae on a vessel that was powered by 1st generation nuclear reactors. BFD.

"In any case, when I mentioned Firefly and Star Trek, the idea was to invoke a future in which billions of people are living and working beyond the Earth, and people are going into space every day."

You were invoking fantasy. Don't try to run away from it by saying I meant this, not that.

"I defy anyone to show me a LAW OF PHYSICS, as opposed to the level of technology and engineering which has currently been achieved, which somehow makes this impossible."

It may be possible that a human population of billions will someday exist off the surface of the Earth. I just don't see it happening for thousands of years. You, on the other hand, invoke numerous hadwaves to make it happen in the next few hundred years.

"One could identify any number of other things which were said to be impossible and later accomplished: ships made of metal, aircraft which are heavier than air, supersonic flight, landing men on the Moon, and probably the Egyptian pyramids. I'm sure some pessimists at the time said it was impossible to build such structures with the technology they had...but they did it."

For the last time, I was very specific about what I thought was impossible. You only enhance your appearance of intellectual dishonesty by continuing to invoke that statement out of context.

Anonymous said...

Tony:

"It's entirely possible for a large space civilization to accrete over time, even using technology barely advanced over our own. An in-space population of 100 million in 1,000 years requires the population to double only once every 50 years, on a base of 10 people to begin with. I can see that happening without too much technological advancement."

We are not going to have exponential growth unless either (A) it is feasibly cheap to add new domes and farmland to the colony so that people can breed like rabbits, and those domes are completely self-sufficient needing no supplies from Earth or (B) technology keeps improving such that we can keep sending larger and larger amounts of people at a time (or sending them more and more frequently).

Since we are supposing no significant technological advancements for this discussion, we can rule out (B). In fact, note that if (B) is the case, then in the last 50 years you are sending just as many people as in the entire time before then, which means that by 950 years into the future you must have the ability to pretty much fill an entire colony from scratch in a few decades. This leaves (A), which means that we need to at least have the capability to send a large enough seed population to be genetically sustainable and have a sufficient spread of skills, and to allow those people to build a self-sufficient dome. Until self-sufficient colonies exist, growth cannot be exponential.

The question: when at the soonest will we be able to found a self-sufficient colony? Until then, extensive extraterrestrial population is impossible. After then, it will grow on its own regardless of the sorry state of Earth's space program.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=

(Oh yeah, the above was me.)



And on the other conversation topic:


I guess, what it comes down to, is that to be a successful science fiction author, it's still more important for you to be a good fiction author than a good scientist. Since, judging from the kinds of things that tend to get discussed here, most of us are more scientists than authors, this feels like a rather harsh truth we'd rather go into denial about.

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Tony:

""In any case, when I mentioned Firefly and Star Trek, the idea was to invoke a future in which billions of people are living and working beyond the Earth, and people are going into space every day."

You were invoking fantasy. Don't try to run away from it by saying I meant this, not that."

Invoking fantasy and using that fantasy as a soft scifi example of what he wants to see in space. Surely those two posts can be accomodated into the same view? Eh?

@ Ferrell:

Intruiging- what sort of differences between space colony types might you suggest?

Thucydides said...

The meta difference between planetary colonies and free space colonies would be access to energy.

Free space structures would have virtually unlimited solar energy (even a colony structure orbiting Uranus could simply increase the size of the mirrors to suit), and in locations like Jupiter space, could tap the magnetosphere as well. Deep space colonies could also mine 3He, assuming fusion energy as an economical energy source is possible.

Planetary colonies would have access to physical resources. but be at the bottom of gravity wells and deficient in energy supplies compared to their space going cousins. Asteroidal resources would be easier for space colonies to access, but it is unclear what sort of resource distribution is actually out there; camping next to a nickle iron asteroid does not help if you need volatiles or rare earth elements...

One other aspect that would be hard to define is the fact that space structures could be quite Earth like (selecting size and rotation to mimic Earth gravity, for example), while a planetary colony wold be stuck with the local environment. How this would affect culture could be interesting to explore (perhaps ground based colonies would be considered hardscrabble mining towns, while Island Threes would be the cosmopolitan metropoles of the future).

Tony said...

Milo:

"The question: when at the soonest will we be able to found a self-sufficient colony? Until then, extensive extraterrestrial population is impossible. After then, it will grow on its own regardless of the sorry state of Earth's space program."

Here's a task: figure a population growth of just 1.8% annually for 1,000 years and see what you get. Also, remember that we're talking about an average growth, not a steady one. I wouldn't expect it to really start taking off for a couple of centuries. Finally, the minimum population base argument is a straw man. Outside people would be added every year -- maybe only a few hundred at the most in any one year, but certainly enough to generate genetic diversity long before the added population is so outnumbered by the existing one that it becomes insignificant.

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Invoking fantasy and using that fantasy as a soft scifi example of what he wants to see in space. Surely those two posts can be accomodated into the same view? Eh?"

If Star Trek or Firefly is what he wants to see in the future, then he might as well wish for flying lizard men with bat wings from the Moon.

I know it's a harsh assessment, but at some point serious space advocates have to give up their childhood understandings of the future and embrace what is really possible. Otherwise, saying that sci fi on TV is a good recruiting tool just means that space advocacy, which is hard enough, is hanging the weight of unrealizable fantasy around its neck.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Free space structures would have virtually unlimited solar energy (even a colony structure orbiting Uranus could simply increase the size of the mirrors to suit), and in locations like Jupiter space, could tap the magnetosphere as well."

So it is often said, but it's incorrect. The availability of any kind of energy is limited by the amount of resources that can be invested to secure it. Depending on where those resources can be sourced and how much they cost to convert to energy, one might not realize much more energy in space than somebody could on the ground.

Thucydides said...

In the case of solar mirrors, space based mirrors are much cheaper than the equivalent area of mirrors on the ground (since the space mirrors have much simpler structures not needing to support the reflecting surface against wind or gravity, nor track the sun rapidly across the sky), and are exposed to sunlight virtually all the time rather than having limited exposure due to the Earth's rotation and weather effects.

The same factors apply on virtually any planetary body or moon (with a few local exceptions like the Lunar poles). Just having constant exposure to the sun will make the payoff much faster even if the mirrors and machinery cost the same amount in space as on Earth.

Anonymous said...

Geoffery S H said:"Intruiging- what sort of differences between space colony types might you suggest?"

Well, people living in stations/habs/orbitals might be insular, arrogant towards outsiders, and repressive (due to the need to limit population and riots could wind up killing them all, as two examples), and cling to a fantasy of self-sufficency; planetary domes could be more like a big city, distainful of outsiders, yet more then willing to engage in trade with their neighbors, and more open to physical expansion of their city-state. While both would have traits in common, (like being deathly aread of air leaks or not being comfortable when causually dressed), there would be some real differences as well. Orbital dwellers would be very wrapped up in status and what your 'station' in life is (literally; if you don't know where your emergency station is, it will affect many others negatively), even clothing would tend toward uniform-like styles. Dome dwellers would be less likely to be so completely caught up in "service to the State" type mentality, (but 'ordinary people' would still have a great deal of disaster-responce training), low-key-low-impact activities would be popular for most, but thrill-seeker types would find activities "beyond the dome" a way to vent social pressure; moreover, (at least to my mind), there would be more room for religion in the domes than in the orbitals.

The asteroid and minor moon underground colonies would produce a lot of people with violent cases of agoraphobia, little or no problem with expansion, and a much more exsuberant range of personalities; more individuality, but with just as or even more isolationist tendencies then the orbital or surface dome dwellers. These people would probably feel even more self-sufficent than the orbital-ites, but with it being more grounded in fact, (most likely it is still going to be overblown to a large extent), even their clothes will be less 'formal' or regimated, to the extent that is practical.

Well, that's how I see different colonies developing over the course of the coming millinium. As you can see, most of them will think that they are special and that some aspects of their society that most outsiders think of as silly are actually centeral to their wellbeing.

Ferrell

Citizen Joe said...

I had made the suggestion that helium might be used as a buffer gas instead of nitrogen (assuming 'easy' access to gas giants) but only in no gravity environments. In spin habs, it would stratify out too quickly. So, you end up getting the hard core danger nuts doing the dives into gas giants for specific gasses, and dealing with like a hundred atmospheres of pressure. Those guys would always be on heliox mixtures and thus sound like Mickey Mouse. Meanwhile, the gruff sounding guy would most likely be the one with lung cancer and is actually the feeble one.

Paul said...

Citizen Joe: helium will not "stratify out" if there is even a little bit of stirring of the atmosphere in the space habitat. Helium doesn't stratify in Earth's atmosphere below the homopause (the altitude at which the mean free path becomes long enough that diffusion can proceed faster than mixing.)

Paul said...

In the case of solar mirrors, space based mirrors are much cheaper than the equivalent area of mirrors on the ground

Are you assuming labor in space costs the same as labor on the ground? If space mirrors are a bit less complex than ground mirrors, but space labor is far more expensive, the space mirrors could end up being more expensive.

I'll add that space makes the other end of energy conversion, heat dissipation, much more difficult, since you don't have convenient fluids (air, water) to transfer heat to an entire planet that can act as a radiator. Instead, you have to build your own radiator.

Citizen Joe said...

I thought that helium, being lighter than air, would rise up. That would leave a low oxygen environment at head level and an explosive environment at your feet (given the 70/30 volumetric mixture). Yes, you could mechanically agitate the air, but let's assume that system breaks down in a compartment. Plus, plants need the nitrogen. So the larger spin habs with the hydroponics bays would use the heavier nitrogen mixture. Ships without artificial gravity might then opt for the lighter helium mixtures. I use that for magnetic gravity simulation as well. I even did a mixed warship with spin habs around a mag-grav axle. The mag-grav was also essentially free since it was a component for the massive linear accelerator needed for the D-He3 fusion plant.

Tony said...

Paul:

"I'll add that space makes the other end of energy conversion, heat dissipation, much more difficult, since you don't have convenient fluids (air, water) to transfer heat to an entire planet that can act as a radiator. Instead, you have to build your own radiator."

Thucydides is also ignoring that the purpose of using mirrors is to focus energy for the use of some type of heat engine. This engine will be a complex technolgical artifact. As such, the supply of heat engines will be a major limiting factor.

And I'm not exactly sure what Thucydides's fascination with mirrors and boilers is. If you have an industrial base sophisticated enough to make steam turbines, you could probably also set up a photovoltaic cell fab. On a planet I'd probably rather use that than a complex and expensive solar boiler setup.

Jim Baerg said...

Citizen Joe:
Alcohol is lighter than water but if a bottle of wine is left sitting the alcohol doesn't separate & rise to the top. Why should you expect helium & oxygen to behave like oil & water rather than like alcohol & water?

Tony, re: mirrors & boilers for solar energy.
Photovoltaic cells are doing very well to get 20% efficiency, while heat engines routinely get 30 to 50 % efficiency. The difficulty of dumping heat in space *may* negate that, but it also may turn out that heat engines are better for manned space facilities where there is someone available to replace a worn bearing.

Even if photovoltaics are better, aluminized plastic will be far cheaper per m^2 than photocells with any technology I find plausible. So to minimize the cost per watt you use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on the photocells to just below the point of heat damage to the photocells.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

On cultural differences among space colonies, my guess, worth what you paid: Where they are located will be an indirect driver, but the immediate driver will be the range of activities they support, and particularly secondary and tertiary activities.

I argued last year in Transport Nexus that transfer stations, as an analog of seaports, would be the most likely points of interest.

But this may be limited by the characteristics of space travel, which generally do not lend themselves to hub and spoke travel arrangements.

Rick said...

Oh, also, given the time scale and geometric growth discussion in this thread, a post from 2009 on The Time Scale of Space.

Tony said...

Jim Baerg:

"Even if photovoltaics are better, aluminized plastic will be far cheaper per m^2 than photocells with any technology I find plausible. So to minimize the cost per watt you use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on the photocells to just below the point of heat damage to the photocells."

The utility of a technology has a lot to do with local conditions. Sitting on the surface of Mars, I might find static photovoltaics on tilted racks to be the best solution. Or maybe single axis solar trackers, if stepping motors, bearing systems, and controller logic can be made cheap and reliable enough at the point of application.

Also, while energy flux may be higher in space and, maybe, it can be harvested in an efficient manner, one runs into the question of how much energy does one really need? Remember, in space you have to make everything, from the very deckplates you stand on. to sophisticated heat rejection systems. That all takes energy. On planet and satellite surfaces, not so much. Yes, habitats on Mars or Ceres have to be a lot more sophisticated than stick-built houses on Earth, but hey need not be anywhere near as sophisticated, or cost as much (in terms of energy) to build as free space habitats.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Oh, also, given the time scale and geometric growth discussion in this thread, a post from 2009 on The Time Scale of Space."

We live in an odd historical epoch, in which we think we can imagine the shape of a distant future, based on what we know now. It's as if the inhabitants of Golden Age Baghdad could imagine steamships, airliners, and skyscrapers. This says we are on either on the verge of a decelerando or we don't know jack about what the future will hold. If it is the decelerando, we are accurately imagining the shape of a slowly developing space future that will take a millenia to become what many hope will come in the next few centuries. If we don't have the tools for even semi-accurate speculation, then whatever happens, good or bad, will happen, and the future will look back on us pretty much as we look back on the middle ages.

Byron said...

I'm of largely the same opinion as Tony with respect to the most likely space future. We won't see huge colonies within the forseeable future.
However, I'm also of the opinion that the current space future is highly metastable. The highly refers to the stable, not the meta. If we were to double our space-launch budget in the long term, we would get significantly more then twice the current on-orbit mass. However, that's going to require (insert muguffinite here).
We won't significantly improve the performance of chemfuel, but we can reduce the cost by economies of scale and improved engineering. If we go even farther, we might see other things become practical, as well.
Incidentally, the debate about chemfuel reminds me of a discussion in Space Warfare XII between me and Tony, in which the same thing happened.
Other than that, I don't have much to say right now.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Ferrell:

"Well, people living in stations/habs/orbitals might be insular, arrogant towards outsiders, and repressive"

Haha. Yeah right.

Space stations are going to be entirely dependant on trade for their livelihood. Also one of their few claims to advantage is that they're easier for spaceships to arrive at and leave from than planetary surfaces. These are going to be the most cosmopolitan settlements, not the least.


"and cling to a fantasy of self-sufficency"

Again, it's only the planetary domes that can even dream of being self-sufficient. Planetary colonies might suffer economically if they don't take advantage of trade that's available to them, but they could still survive. Civilization on a space station would immediately collapse if they tried it.


"both would have traits in common, (like being deathly aread of air leaks or not being comfortable when causually dressed)"

I doubt anyone would be comfortable wearing a spacesuit as everyday wear. If people aren't confident enough in their dome's safety to feel comfortable walking around in casual dress, then they're just never going to be comfortable, period.


"Orbital dwellers would be very wrapped up in status and what your 'station' in life is (literally; if you don't know where your emergency station is, it will affect many others negatively), even clothing would tend toward uniform-like styles."

How large are these habitats? While an Antarctice-research-base-like or oil-rig-like station could indeed be like that, any port city that has even a few thousand people in it is simply going to be too large for everyone to be working directly for the government. Especially if you want civilization to not immediately collapse from totalitarian oppression.


"but thrill-seeker types would find activities "beyond the dome" a way to vent social pressure"

Going for a spacesuited walk outside the dome need not be any more exotic than going scuba diving. While not everyone will do it, I'm sure (we're in agreement this time?) that there would be many people who do so without actually needing to for their job.


"moreover, (at least to my mind), there would be more room for religion in the domes than in the orbitals."

I don't see why. People are probably going to bring religion with them wherever they go.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Citizen Joe:

"I thought that helium, being lighter than air, would rise up."

Helium isn't lighter than air, because you don't have air yet! On Earth, air has roughly the same density as nitrogen, because air mostly is nitrogen. The other gasses in it, which in their pure forms would have different densities, still mix in.

If you make your air with helium instead of nitrogen, then it's going to have roughly the density of helium instead.

I just have to wonder, though, whether breathing mainly helium for extended time periods (rather than the occasional party trick) is going to cause some unexpected health problems. While helium is of course chemically inert, we evolved to breathe air in a specific density and pressure... though the example of people living at high altitudes shows that we have leeway here.


"Plus, plants need the nitrogen."

Plants need nitrogen in chemically bound forms drawn from the soil, rather. "Fixing" nitrogen gas from air into more useful stuff like ammonia is quite difficult, and done by bacteria (symbiotic or otherwise), not plants. As long as we keep the artificial fertilizer in good supply, plants won't notice the lack of gaseous nitrogen in the air (except, again, maybe due to the different density of the air).



Jim Baerg:

"Even if photovoltaics are better, aluminized plastic will be far cheaper per m^2 than photocells with any technology I find plausible."

Cheaper where? In space, raw materials are going to be much more expensive relative to high-tech manufacturing capacity, compared to the same relation on planets. This would encourage people to use the more complicated but lighter-weight technologies, when they can.

Also note that plastic is going to be rather expensive in space, due to the lack of carbon, and the desire to use what you have for life support.



Tony:

"If it is the decelerando, we are accurately imagining the shape of a slowly developing space future that will take a millenia to become what many hope will come in the next few centuries."

Millenia vs centuries? Aside from storytelling purposes (which is easier when set in the nearer future), the only time periods that really matter here in real life are "in my lifetime" and "not in my lifetime". And the former is highly unlikely.

Tony said...

WRT chemfuel rocketry costs and economies of scale, I think the savings are only going to be marginal, because 30 or 40 launches a year rather than fifteen or so still puts rockets in the specialty item category. We have to remember that a Delta IV or Falcon 9 rocket is not a serial production item, but a design to from which individual examples are built for specific missions. doubling or even trippling the launch rate is not very likely to change that.

Byron said...

I said that we're doubling the launch budget, not the launch rate. At some point, real mass production will occur. What if it's cheaper to make 60 mass-produced lanchers then 30 current designs?
Maybe it would take tripling instead of doubling, but at some point, the cost would fall dramatically.

Tony said...

Byron:

"I said that we're doubling the launch budget, not the launch rate. At some point, real mass production will occur. What if it's cheaper to make 60 mass-produced lanchers then 30 current designs?"

I understood what you said. But twice the budjet is only going to buy maybe a little bit better than twice the launch rate. In any launch campaign, the cost is in organizational work, not in hardware. Yes, a higher launch rate would allow for some sharing of resources, but not as much as people think. Most rocket models have to have dedicated pads/assembly-buildings/launch-ontrol-centers, and those pads/assembly-buildings/launch-ontrol-centers are often run at near maximum capacity by their operators. More rockets = more pads/assembly-buildings/launch-ontrol-centers = more pads/assembly-buildings/launch-ontrol-centers personnel.

"Maybe it would take tripling instead of doubling, but at some point, the cost would fall dramatically."

Let's look at a real high launch rate rocket, the R-7. In the last 54 years, 1740 R-7s have been flown, at an average rate of a little bit more than 32 per year. Most of those launches were under the command economy conditions of the Cold War Soviet Union. Yet today, with the development costs completely absorbed, and hardware coming at true unit prices, the commercial market only buys about 12 per year. (And it's important to remember that NASA is transitioning to a commercial customer model for LEO operations.) The last big post-Soviet year was all the way back in 1992, with 32 launches, almost all ordered and paid for by the Soviet government and flown out of sheer inertia while the post-Soviet government was concerned with other things.

In any case, a customer -- even the Russian government -- has to order an R-7 two years prior to the scheduled launch date. They just don't make and stockpile launchers, and wouldn't even at more than twice the launch rate, because R-7 components are made in the same old factories they always were. And those factories once easily supported more than twice the current launch rate.

In the US, the proportion of the rocket industrial base dedicated to NASA launches is maybe 15-20%. If we upped the NASA launch rate of medium lifters to twice or three times the current rate, we would have to proportionally expand the industrial base by expanding current rocket factories or build new ones, training work forces, and making the facility expansions at the Cape that have already been discussed. It might cost more than twice the money to increase the NASA launch rate by two.

As far as heavy lifters are concerned, the industrial base can easily support four Shuttle stack-sized launches in a year, and has in the past supported up to eight. So, given a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter (which seems to be the direction things are headed) it would seem that mo money = mo launches. But wiat just a minute...that heavy lifter hasn't been developed yet, so mo money actually doesn't mean much with heavy lift until we actually have a flight-qualified rocket.

Citizen Joe said...

I expect helium to separate out from oxygen because I've seen stories about how the thinners in contact cement will evaporate out and build up at floor level until they hit the pilot lights and then BOOM! And then there are stories about staying low to the ground in a fire because all the smoke rises. It would seem to me that a gas that is an eighth the density of oxygen would percolate out. Note that nitrogen is very close to the same density as oxygen and thus mixes well.

I'm not saying that helium must stratify out, I'm just saying that it isn't intuitive for it not to.

Thucydides said...

Although I never specified heat engines as the means of generating energy in space, in principle I think this is actually a good idea.

Consider that I have an design for an alpha Stirling engine from Make magazine which I can build with my ten year old son. It uses Coke cans as the piston/displacers, coffee cans as the cylinders and various assorted pieces of tubing, wire coat hangers and scrap wood for the rest. Anything not in my garage is easily available at Canadian Tire or Wal Mart.

There is no way that I could possibly make photovoltaic cells, optical rectenna or devices using quantum dots in my garage (although weirdly it is possible to make a Farnsworth–Hirsch Fusor in a garage with slightly above average building skills; high school students can do this).

For a space civilization limited by lift constraints, repurposing items or building relatively simple devices may be more cost effective than importing more efficient devices from Earth or attempting to build/import a fab to build integrated circuits and photovoltaic cells. Space civilization might be shiny and bright on the outside, but resemble the interior of a tramp steamer on the inside while things get organized.

Anyway, as Jim Baerg said, concentrating light on photovoltaics is also a valid course of action, and minimizes the need for expensive and imported solar cells.

Finally, the availability of energy is pretty much the equivalent of wealth. Societies with access to cheap and readily available energy are far richer than societies that have limited access to energy. I see no real reason to assume this general rule will not apply in space as well.

Brian said...

Tony, sorry to bother you again! But, you are still not reading the Star Trek and Firefly references correctly! :-O Again, the point is, "a Star Trek future" is one in which billions of people live on Mars, various moons of gas giants, Venus, and planets orbiting other stars. It doesn't mean you have warp drive or anything like that. Although, don't forget that Einstein allows your starship to travel at 0.99999999999999999 * c. Like SSTO, it may be difficult from an engineering standpoint, but it is not impossible; it does not violate the laws of physics.

Now, if we rely on NASA to somehow create that ST/SW/BSG/FF future, using government employees as the populations of the planets etc., that is never going to happen, any more than the colonists at Jamestown were all enlisted in His Majesty's Royal Navy. The people who populate planets on Star Trek are not all (or even mostly) Starfleet members either.

What NASA can do, and should do, is advise, support, and accelerate the commercial exploitation of space. Sometimes that will mean building infrastructure intended to be used by the private sector, sometimes that will mean doing research, sometimes it will mean sending probes to unexplored places, sometimes it will mean doing emergency rescue. Those are all valid functions of government (imho).

But the people who do routine functions at sea, who colonize places, etc., are in the private sector, not government employees of any kind (not NASA government service employees, not astronauts).

I don't know how we got to the point that we think everything that is done in space should be done by NASA or the government. But it didn't happen that way in the frontiers on Earth, nor should we expect it to be done that way in the Final Frontier.

I don't look to the government for a Vision for colonizing and settling space any more than I look to them for a Vision on how to transport people from New York to London on a routine basis.

If you look to the government to settle space, the most you can hope for is research stations, like we have at the South Pole. Colonization and settlement is something that private individuals and groups do! Ad Astra. :)

--Brian

Brian/neutrino78x said...

also, tony,

"current or foreseeable materials technology is not up to giving you a workable reusable vehicle with a payload."

I will concede that NASA of 2011 is probably incapable of designing and implementing an SSTO rocketplane.

The mantle of NASA in 1969 -- the awesome trailblazer who leaves everybody else in their dust -- has been taken up by SpaceX et al.

How long, and how many people, did it take for NASA to accomplish a test flight/firing of Ares I? How long, and how many people, did it take SpaceX to get their rocket all the way into orbit?

SpaceX in 2011 = NASA of 1969.

SpaceX is flying the US Flag...Falcon 9 is an American accomplishment. but the flag happens to be flown by a private sector organization. That's how it is going to be in the future.

The times they are a changin'...

--Brian

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

Energy is neither cheap or reliable if you're using Stirling engines, no matter how much sunlight you focus on them. In fact, you can't focus much sunlight on any given engine because it's got serious thermal and mechanical limitations. That's why they so quickly and easily shifted from reciprocating engines to turbines in the 20th Century.

But efficient turbines are complex, high precision machinery. You just don't ring up the corner shoppe to get delivery of however many you desire.

This, BTW, is an engineering principle that applies anywhere, anytime. The more efficient and useful a power source gets, the more complex and rare its key compnents are. TANSTAAFL.

Re: "photovoltaic" and "solar" cells, perhaps you need to read the first paragraph here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic_cell

Tony said...

Re: Brian

I'll only say that someone who believes that NASA actually makes the rockets they use is beyond reason.

Jim Baerg said...

Milo- re: photovoltaics, mirrors, & aluminized plastic.

Whether plastic will be expensive depends on what bodies you are getting your raw materials from. If they are carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, there will be plenty of raw material for making plastic.

If you are digging up rock from the moon or mercury, then plastic will be hard to get, but aluminum foil for mirrors will be cheaper than photocells per m^2.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"The more efficient and useful a power source gets, the more complex and rare its key compnents are."

I think this is not so much a physical rule as it is an economic one - if a power source is both weaker and more expensive than available alternatives, then people would never use it, and so would come to think of that technology as a curiosity rather than a power source. The only power sources that are actually in use are the ones that are optimal in some manner (anything cheaper than it is also weaker, anything stronger than it is also more expensive).

This applies to all technology, by the way, not just power sources.

Thucydides said...

Tony

I am going from the general principles here; people with relatively modest technical capabilities can build mechanical items of various sorts, including heat engines. While it is true an alpha stirling engine built out of pop cans will hardly be efficient, it is still proof of principle that even people with limited access to materials can build a working engine.

Building solid state devices is simply orders of magnitude beyond the resources and abilities of the vast majority of people. (If you do have these abilities, then you will be in very great demand indeed).

And even highly complex devices have been built by model engineers; I have seen a Napier Deltic engine done in scale, which is perhaps the most complex engine ever put into production. http://craftsmanshipmuseum.com/tomlinson.htm

So the argument isn't really what is better, but what is possible to do. Obviously the end state will be somewhere in the middle, but to find the middle we need to look at each end of the bell curve as well.

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

I agree that a balance must be struck between complexity and attainability. But within that balance is also a tradeoff between expense and efficiency. This means that energy is not automatically and necessarily cheaper in free space for any given amount of material and labor investment. Thinking that energy in space is absolutely more accessible is thinking at the level of toy problems handed out by physice professors, not at the level of real world engineering systems.

M. D. Van Norman said...

Hmm … We seem to be going in two different directions with this thread. Is it about plausible futures or fictional futures? One vision is obviously more constrained than the other.

However, in either version of a grand space future, we have to think about economic motivations. Why are people traveling about the solar system in large numbers? Even assuming many inhabited bodies, does trade in actual goods and services justify very many flights? How often will the easy and inexpensive transfer of information be the more economical choice?

Paul said...

I expect helium to separate out from oxygen because I've seen stories about how the thinners in contact cement will evaporate out and build up at floor level until they hit the pilot lights and then BOOM!

CJ, in such situtions, the flammable vapors were never mixed with the air to start with. There were macroscopic parcels of gas with different densities. You didn't have diffusive separation of gases well-mixed at the molecular level. Indeed, that situation can occur because diffusive mixing is also slow!

Consider that xenon gas is more than four times denser than air. Yet, the relative concentration of Xe in the dry air is constant below about 80 km (the homopause). The gravitational separation of gases at the molecular level is extremely slow, and the separate is entirely negated by even minimal mixing.

Thucydides said...

Thinking that energy in space is absolutely more accessible is thinking at the level of toy problems handed out by physice professors, not at the level of real world engineering systems.

In the specific instance of solar energy, the fact that it is available 24/7 in free space gives you a considerable advantage over ground based systems. Really the only true comparison would be nuclear systems that can also run 24/7.

I would be quite wiling to say that this holds true anywhere in the solar system; a solar array on the surface of Mars has to deal with weather, gravity and day/night cycles that one in Martian orbit does not have to. Farther out, free space systems can scale in ways that planet based ones do not; a mirror array orbiting Uranus can be arbitrarily large, but one on Ariel will be limited in size as well as by the local gravity and day/night cycles.

For various reasons I actually think that the "solar" economy will be limited to the orbit of Mars, while any civilization settling around Jupiter will exploit the Jovian magnetosphere and deep space civilizations will use fusion energy fueled by 3He mined from the atmosphere of Uranus, but this is more of a personal evaluation and makes for an interesting setting for speculations.

Tony said...

Re; Thucydides

With all due respect, you seem to be working overtime to miss the point. It doesn't matter how much sunlight you have, or how constant it is. If your ability to utilize it is limited by technological and economic constraints, then it is limited by those constraints. And everything one does in this life is limited by technological and economic constraints.

Thucydides said...

For the same amount of technical and economic constraints, you have 3X the amount of "input" with space based solar vs ground based solar on Earth. Anyone in orbit around any planet of body in the solar system will have a similar advantage (sometimes a huge advantage compared to small, rapidly rotating bodies), so the answer is still the same: advantage to space.

Since it will be relatively easy to scale up to arbitrary sizes in space compared to planetary bodies, the advantage is still to the space based systems.

Since the initial question was about the advantages of a space based colony vs a planetary based colony, it can be assumed that the economic and technical aspects WRT space access and high tech equipment is the same, for the amount of effort and energy needed to establish a ground based colony and build a solar array, you will have a much more efficient array in space, and better access to energy.

For the best of both worlds, a ground colony would be best served by having the power generation systems in orbit and beaming power to the ground.

Anonymous said...

I think that the purpose of the colony/outpost is the most important concideration when deciding whether to place it on the surface or in orbit; some tasks are better suited on the ground and others in space. This isn't an either/or question (from my perspective), but rather one of best usage of the locale for the purpose given.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

RE: Energy on a space colony

The initial Photovoltaic solution will probably be the lowest mass one possible, not the one most efficient area-wise. (in operation)

Since if you are one of a tiny colonial population you will have a premium on weight and an abundance of land area.

So it will probably be a thin film semiconductor deposited on a polymer that is rolled up and shipped with the colonists.

Once they arrive it will be unrolled and hooked up. There wont be any racks or glass or anything of that nature. There probably wont even be electrical shock protection.

This technology already exists - although it is of more limted use on Earth since you have to protect the thin film PV material from water by encapsulating it in even more polymers. Not a problem on most colonies in this Solar System.

------
You wont be making your own solar panels in space right away since it requires large amounts of energy - which you won't have if you need the solar panels for energy.

-----

Concentrating sunlight with mirrors might happen to an extent with PV - but conversion efficiency drops off with temperature, so that will not go beyond a certain point. Since you will "lose" much of what what you "gain"

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

I had to laugh about the reference to Rickover and the subsequent dismissal as hero worship.

My Dad worked for Rickover at Naval Reactors - and my Mom never had anything nice to say about the Admiral.

Egotistical and Elitist to the extreme was what I took from her description.

Still he and his crew put together one hell of an engineering legacy.

===============

The 386 comment made me laugh. Maybe Nasa needs a better computer budget. Although you can do a lot with a 386, you would be better off using a Power PC based system since there is far more development money poured into control systems using those.

They probably used it as an off the shelf piece which had had hardening work already done for the shuttle or something.

Tony said...

SA Phil:

"I had to laugh about the reference to Rickover and the subsequent dismissal as hero worship...

Still he and his crew put together one hell of an engineering legacy."


He had a good organization because he was an good engineer with an effective (albeit extremely abrasive and unforgiving) management approach. Beyond his technical skill as an engineer, he had a good intuitive sense of what would work and what wouldn't. Powerplant designs coming out of his organization, even when they employed innovative solutions in the details, were as conservative and simple as they could be.

"The 386 comment made me laugh. Maybe Nasa needs a better computer budget. Although you can do a lot with a 386, you would be better off using a Power PC based system since there is far more development money poured into control systems using those.

They probably used it as an off the shelf piece which had had hardening work already done for the shuttle or something.


The 386 is used because it has a low enough component density to minimixe -- though not entirely eliminate -- random and unexpected shutdowns caused by cosmic ray strikes. I wish that were a joke, but it's not.

Rick said...

... random and unexpected shutdowns caused by cosmic ray strikes. I wish that were a joke, but it's not.

+10

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

IS that a step towards the Rocketpunk idea of large computer rooms then?

Specialized large computers with low component densities and redundant tasks.

Tony said...

SA Phil:

"IS that a step towards the Rocketpunk idea of large computer rooms then?

Specialized large computers with low component densities and redundant tasks."


No, microcomputers are okay. You just can't have the high component density models of the last 20 years. Also, you have to remember to save your files on a regular basis and have multiple redundant systems for critical tasks.