Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Whose Space Futures?

Perseid meteor seen from ISS
This blog has a fairly international readership. If Google Analytics are anything to go by, nearly half of you come from outside the US, and about a quarter from outside the Anglosphere. This probably has much more to do with the virtues of the Internet than any virtue of mine.

Space itself has been an international environment, so far. Which probably has much more to do with its perceived lack of immediate economic or power-political value than with anyone's virtue. Like Antarctica it is interesting enough to establish a presence there, but not enough for the major powers to go to the mat over it.

A frequent topic on this blog has been the colonization of space - how likely it is (or isn't), and under what circumstances it might happen. I am not the only one raising the question. Charlie Stross has brought it up a couple of times, at least.

As he notes, and this is pretty much a no-brainer, the 'Murrican SF conception of the space future is highly colonization-centric. It is firmly and understandably rooted in the experience of the New World (by those populations for whom it was new), and especially the Wild West. Thus Bat Durston and Firefly.

My excessively vague impression is that, elsewhere, the conceptions of the space futures are quite different. The contrast that is most striking in my mind is between Heinlein's rip-roarin' interplanetary future and Clarke's crumpets-and-tea version. (For both writers I am thinking mainly of their earlier work. Later Heinlein annoyed me; later Clarke merely bored me.)

Of the two, Clarke's future now strikes me as far closer to a plausible midfuture than Heinlein's. For one thing - but a very important thing - his Solar System was essentially the one we actually live in, with only one habitable planet, Earth.

Heinlein's Solar System - with its habitable Venus and near-habitable Mars, not to mention native civilizations on both worlds - was wonderful but baroque, largely outdated even by the 1950s. In a lot of ways classic Heinlein reads like steampunk disguised as rocketpunk.

2001: A Space Odyssey is, no surprise, firmly in the Clarkean universe, and resembles the real world space program on 1960s steroids. There is a Moon base, or more than one (the Russians presumably have their own), and commercial space travel, but no hint of incipient Heinleinian colonization.

Having said this much, I have no real sense of how non-US perceptions of a space future have developed over the years, or how much part permanent colonization has played in these images. So I want to toss this out to non-US readers in particular: Does the whole space colonization debate even seem salient, or just a parochial 'Murrican concern?

What is the human engagement with space all about, anyway? And while we are at it, what is the relationship between actual space travel and space as a setting for fiction, Romance or otherwise?

Discuss.



The image, from APOD, seems like one that Clarke would particularly have appreciated: a Perseid meteor entering Earth's atmosphere, as seen from above.

124 comments:

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Rick:

"So I want to toss this out to non-US readers in particular: Does the whole space colonization debate even seem salient, or just a parochial 'Murrican concern?"

Well, I'm not particularly in touch with my countrymen, and these days American culture is influencing the entire world, so I can't really speak for my country.

But I'll note that while colonization may be a rather American (and Australian) thing, there are other countries that have a proud history of terraforming. Building a moonbase is way more complicated than turning a soggy swamp or barren desert into livable land, but countries with a history of doing the latter could surely find the appeal in doing the former.

For that matter, look at colonization from the other side. While generally nations with a history of imperialism are ashamed of it these days, they may still welcome space as a chance to try over with no indigenuous peoples to bother. A glorious Human Empire ruled from Earth would appeal to some of the sensibilities that fueled imperialism in the first place... just leave off the inevitable rebellion of the colonies that Americans would like to add.


"What is the human engagement with space all about, anyway?"

I have to say that for me, personally, while colonization would be cool, it's not as interesting as finding out what's already out there. The problem is just that intensive study is difficult when researchers have to commute months to work and are entirely reliant on expensive and thinly-stretched supply lines. Anyway, if we make sending people into space easier - as would be needed for human exploration of outer solar system bodies - then colonization would be made at least a little easier as a consequence, even if that wasn't the original purpose.

I would be really, really happy with just FTL communication allowing us to get into contact with an existing alien species that also have the technology, without even physically visiting them. (For a more immersive view we can tell them the details of our optical sense so they can make some human-friendly photos for us.) It may not necessarily make for as exciting a fiction story (no opportunity for shootouts!), but it would be totally awesome in real life.

That would still leave us limited to exploring worlds with existing sentient species that are interested in talking, though.

Sean said...

As a Briton it would probably make more sense for me to consider space colonization as pure romance, but growing up bombarded with American science fiction literature, television, cinema and video games (I'm not complaining, btw) - space colonization simply strikes me as the prevailing aspect of man's ultimate relationship with space. In fiction at least. Even Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama included a lot of space colonization. With settlements from Mercury to Mars. And who can forget Earthlight?

But personally I think mankind's endeavours in space will probably extend solely to scientific research and exploration efforts. After debating the subject with myself for years, I struggle to see a point to space colonization in the plausible midfuture. Even Zubrin fails to convince me with his 'Mars to Stay' idea.

Everything we'll ever need can be found here on Earth (or if not then an asteroid nudged into Earth orbit populated by automated robo-miners would do), and by the time we have the infrastructure to even support space colonization we will have sorted out our population and land space usage issues. Unless there's some offworld unobtainium that for some outrageous reason cannot be synthesized here on Earth, it must surely imbue any who consume it with magical powers or something for it justify the economic expense of its mining.

If we do go off to settle Mars or the Moon, it would be for the sheer sake of it...which admittedly can be a deceivingly powerful reason to do pretty much anything. But this scenario demands that space is either colonized solely by the super rich, or that we end up living in post scarcity society.

Damien Sullivan said...

Tangentially, I was reading 1493, and Mann made an analogy between the Ming stopping Zheng He's treasure fleets and the US stopping going to the moon, and for the same reason: there was no profit to it. Nowhere did Zheng He find a country as rich as China, or particularly worth trading with, except for raw materials, which hardly needed sailing to Africa, let alone Europe.

(And the Ming ban on private trade wasn't isolationism so much as an attempt to create a state monopoly on trade. Didn't work, and was ended after 50 years.)

longbeast said...

A Brit speaking here.

Back in ye olden days, when Britain had a space program of its own, we used to have all the same high expectations of living in space that you see elsewhere, with big glass domes springing up all over the solar system. It all fell apart a bit when we decided that submarines were our best cold war defense, and not huge rockets.

I think now we have a far more passive view of humans going into space. It's not something to fight for, it's not urgent. It's something we'll do if the option is there and it's fairly cheap. Basically just wait and see what happens. We watch what the world is doing and cheer when progress is made, but don't participate very much.

ESA seem to have a similar viewpoint. They do a lot of human spaceflight studies, and are willing to join in with other nations if they're doing something interesting, but when it comes to building hardware, the budget always goes towards pure science with none set aside for wow factor stuff like carrying people. At the moment it's too expensive, so we don't do it.

If you extend that thinking into a future where access to space becomes cheaper then I think we would start seeing permanant bases turning up all over the place, simply because the question has changed from "why?" to "why not?"

Eth said...

As a French, I tend to agree with pretty much everything Sean said.

There are some incentives to colonize. For the sheer sake of it is one. But there can be others as well. Marginal people wanting to leave the Earth, be it dissidents, people who want to cut their ties with the main globalized Earth society... People fearing a possible global catastrophe on Earth, and leaving to have more chances to survive it. Or, in the far future, when robotic exploitation of space really kicked in, people wanting to directly supervise it without the light-speed lag.

But more than colonisation, I see science and exploration as the first incentives to send people in space, for things who can't be done remotely. For everything else, particularly economic exploitation, a mostly or only robotic space exploitation feels more believable.
As for people around there, I think we are more concerned/interested by space exploration than colonization, even if we do enjoy good fictions based on it.

Methuslah said...

To be honest, though, from a writing standpoint, how interesting are space colonies anyway? The two most obvious stories are 'Revolt of the Colonies', which has really been done to death, or 'Farm-Boy Leaves Home'...well, he can do that from Earth, surely! Most other works I've read or watched featuring space colonies seem to imply a Firefly-esque 'Western in Space' setting, and with all due respects to good old Bat Durston...I don't see it.

I increasingly find it hard to believe in space colonies anyway. (Reading this blog for a while will do that to you...) All bets are off if we would find an easily-attainable planet where mankind could breathe the air and grow edible crops...but that seems somewhat unlikely. Clarke was at his dullest when writing about colonies, in Rendezvous with Rama he talked about a colonised Solar System, but you never actually saw it. 2001's base on the moon was decidedly scientific. Earthlight was OK...but not his best work.

From a British standpoint...we did the colonial 'thing'. But for most of our 'colonising' period it was as much a matter of 'civilising' native populations, rather than implanting large populations from the homeland. That might be a different story; if we found a primitive sentient race swimming under the ice of Europa, would we start to 'civilise' them in our own image, to whatever extent that was possible? An even better example might be the Portuguese Empire – which mostly consisted of trading and military outposts scattered across half the world, rather than mass colonies.

Damien Sullivan said...

UK had mass colonization of North America (US and Canada), Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Pretty much everywhere they *could* go and live without keeling over with disease, while their own plagues cleared out the natives. Also, they could farm or ranch. Portugal settled Brazil. Not so much Angola or Goa, because there were people there already, also disease.

Basically where Europeans could settle, they did; where they couldn't, they exploited, with some fuss about "civilization" and "Christianizing".

The biggest problem, after sheer cost, is that the way we live isn't so friendly to that anymore, we like expensive urban civilization and infrastructure, while free land unconnected to anything isn't so attractive. It was different when nearly everyone was a dirt farmer and getting your own dirt was a big deal.

Z said...

However the national breakdown works, the essential tension is always the same- between what I tend to think of as the Everything and Nothing crowds, neither of whom are wrong, per se. The Everything crowd correctly posits that an infinitely large fraction of everything is on places other than Earth? You want energy? There's infinite sunlight, and Martian deuterium, and Jovian helium. You want mining? There's enough metals, carbon and water in asteroids to house 10 quadrillion people or some equally inane number. You want to expand the biosphere? All it takes to turn Mars and Venus into Serengeti 2.0 is free sunlight, and free asteroids, and free robot labor, and free time. In such a view, asking whether it's profitable is a sort of divide-by-zero error- well sure, people will engage in worthwhile economic activity out there- along with unprofitable activity, and non-profit activity, and public sector activity- but the big point is that there is lots of room for *any* activity, and in this context, the question of what humans will do in absurd- why do you do anything or go anywhere? Well, there'll be some of that- economic, scientific, aesthetic, familial, political- all have a home.

The Nothing camp is in the business of correctly pointing out that everything in space royally sucks compared to Earth. There are asteroids to mine- that couldn't pay off at current launch rates if they were made of uncut cocaine and rhino horns. There's living space- that makes Antarctica and the Gobi desert look positively Edenic, thanks to the presence of, say, air, and a minimal biosphere that, unlike our experience with the canned variety, doesn't try to kill you because you used the wrong kind of dirt. Telescopes are always cheaper than rockets, probes cheaper than capsules. Marshaling the free and vast resources of the universe is fine on paper-as are feats like decarbonizing the economy, which may not happen before we roast this particular version of the biosphere and civilization.

It's not entirely clear how exactly these two perfectly valid viewpoints interact, what technologies or political impetus bridges them, or the degree to which they might oddly coexist.

Tony said...

Well, the Russians have the same kind of historical colonization imperative than we do. Siberia was their wild east a couple of centuries before our wild west.

Anonymous said...

Poland here. Though we enjoy "Murricane SF" and for long we accepted its promises as given (and used its instruments to tell a story), two important differences slowly appeared. First of all historically we had a time of couple of centuries where our country dominated the region in military, territorial, cultural and political terms. But we were always concentrated on manitaining domestic political stability and never considered colonization a worthy effort. Propably even if state wouldn't collapse in XVIII century this would not change-in mindset of people of that time there was simply no gain nor reason to go outside and colonize. The country was not densly populated and had enough unexplored potential to provide room for growth for everyone.

Secondly, our SF literature developed as a way of circumventing communist censorship. Authors wrote about politcs, freedom and so on. As a result, polish SF literature is dominated by conservative-libertarian mindset.

To sum up, our attitude is an effect of: using "murrican SF" promise of grand future as a tool to tell the story; complete indifference towards colonization itself; and for most part rejection of liberal ideas about society. Today this last thing is perhaps the biggest difference.

Notable authors, such as Lem or Dukaj in their stories concentrated on rather limited visions of colonization itself. Rather they were advocating for development of civilizaiton as a whole. In Lem stories colonies are just empty places where you have to get, consisting mostly of scientists and their machines, sometimes workers and their machines-doing some job for Earth or science. Outposts at most, with rotating crew. In Dukaj most epic space story posthuman society is still inhabiting solar system-but they are moving it around the galaxy as some kind of spaceship. So, as you can see we prefer to stick to our home. If we have to travel to stars its becuase of our job, and preferably we want to take home with us.

The philosophy is therefore more or less to be were you are and develop as fast and as good as you can. There is no colonization as such, just settlement of something what we consider our space. So no final frontier, no pioneering and stuff. No galactic empires and certainly no martian wars of independence.

jollyreaper said...

track

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Man, Rick, I see the past two blog entries have been pessimistic again!

Wish you guys would realize that you have to take the long view on this. Issac Newton knew all the laws of physics applicable to going to the Moon, but if you asked him if one day a man might walk on the Moon, he would probably say it is completely implausible. He knew that if you apply sufficient force to an object, it can in fact reach the Moon, but the notion of being able to apply such forces in a controlled manner would not have been plausible to him, because of the limitations of technology of the time.

Three hundred years later, we accomplished it. We landed on the Moon.

All that stuff spoken of in Hard SF, Star Trek, and Star Wars (ST/SW in terms of billions of people living in space and other planets orbiting other stars as their permanent home), etc., can be done, it is possible! It is inevitable, in fact. Given a long enough span of time, it is inevitable. I think we can have people living all over the solar system in 300 years or so, once the ball gets rolling.

It's like the railroad, in 1300 AD it was not plausible, but in 1850, it was expanding at a rapid rate.

I guess my point is, recognize the difference between "impossible" and "not plausible in the next 50 years". It is entirely possible to have a rocket that goes 0.99999999999999999999999 * c. As long as you are going less than 1.0 * c, it is possible under Einstein. Do I think such a rocket will be built tomorrow? No. But there is nothing in natural law to prevent it.

I once read that people tend to overestimate what can be done in the short term, and underestimate what can be done in the long term. So think about that one. :)

--Brian

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Brian:

"As long as you are going less than 1.0 * c, it is possible under Einstein. Do I think such a rocket will be built tomorrow? No. But there is nothing in natural law to prevent it."

Aside from the fact that you would need an energy source more efficient than pure antimatter.

balthazar said...

Canadian here.

For me the desire to colonize isn't just something that would be nifty to do, it is something that must be done. We know the "Big One" whatever it may be is coming, whether it be an asteroid impact, runaway global warming, a super nova going off just a little too close, a super deadly pandemic, WW3, whatever, we know that sooner or later, something is going to come along that will wipe humanity out. Not kick us back to the stone age, but render the entirety of our species on this planet extinct. Our only hope of survival as a species, rests on having humans, in significant numbers, in other places then earth. Preferably many places, as far away as possible. And we had better start sooner rather then later, while we still have the resources on earth to do it. We can't rely on some miracle technology that has yet to be invented to grant us easy access to the stars, or give us virtually unlimited energy for free. Odds are that once the easy oil runs out, everyone will be too busy trying to feed themselves and fight for whatever is left to even think of going into orbit for research purposes, let alone try and colonise another celestial body. And all the while the dice are rolling, the odds of extinction getting shorter. If we don't start laying the foundations of a serious space colonization effort now, we may never get another chance. We have to make hay while the sun shines, or risk the future of our species.

Raymond said...

"...before we roast this particular version of the biosphere and civilization..."

And that's the main reason for me. In the deep-time analysis, there's every reason to spread out wherever we can. Our planet is littered with the bones of those species who didn't (or rather couldn't). We have no such excuse.

I don't harbor any illusions about the difficulty or the cost - but neither do I wish to bet against the long-term chance of conveniently airborne high-fatality viruses, mistimed asteroids, or unfortunately-aimed supernovas.

Raymond said...

Funny that two Canadians in a row say basically the same thing...

balthazar said...

I guess we just tend to take a longer view of things then most.

Bryan said...

Lets make it 3 Kanucks; although my opinion differ from those of my countrymen (women?).

Colonization is in our species best interest; an errant asteroid in particular could mean trouble. So-called super volcanoes (if they exist) could be equally threatening. But aside from those rare events I don't think we're at a huge risk of extinction. I'm a biologist, and concerns about "super-viruses", changing environments, etc, are massively overblown; extinction from the former is a near impossibility (due to factors such as pathogen-host co-evolution, the requirement for critical population densities to maintain epidemics, and so forth), and technologically we should be able to adapt to the latter (or finally use the "great white norths" great white north for something, although with enough warming me may have to call it the great green north...).

As for supernovas; with current tech I doubt we'd be able to get out of range of anything that would threaten earth. Maybe in a hundred years it'll be different, but today there is no way.

Regardless, the technology we have today should be sufficient for a basic colonization effort; orbital habitats if nothing else. But I doubt it will happen - at least in my life time. The reason is simple - money. There is no pressing reason for those with money (govs or individuals) to push for colonization, so it will not happen.

Bryan

Thucydides said...

Although I am also Canadian, I'm not sure if my viewpoint is "national".

Like most of the world, our cultural view is heavily influenced by the United States, we read American authors, watch American TV and movies etc. etc. We may have exposure to a few more outside influences than the typical American reader (i.e. Arthur C Clarke and Stanislaw Lem), but overall, I would say that culturally I am in the "American" camp as far as things like Space colonization and other tropes go. There are very few Canadian SF authors (and I don't believe there were any active ones when I was growing up).

Perhaps the main difference between my POV and some of the others is I believe that the driving force behind colonization (or even just outward expansion in general) will be driven by cultural and ideological factors; zealots and holy warriors are going to lead the way because it is their "destiny" and they can get away from the "others" who are preventing them from achieving their economic, social or spiritual values. The green eyeshade accounting types will follow along with trade once the first (or second or third...) wave can get established.

This sort of tracks the history of North America; Lief Erickson was a wanted man at home but could make big money running a land scam (Greenland? Vineland? Maybe during the European Warm Period, but even then it was pretty marginal). The Pilgrims were looking for religious freedom rather than trade, even the Conquistadors were out for a quick buck and their missionaries for souls to save. What we look on as the "golden age" of colonization with large scale landings and the growth of trading companies like the Hudson Bay Company post dated these initial efforts by decades to centuries (Basque whalers almost certainly followed the legends of the Vikings to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 1400's, although there is no concrete evidence they made landfall).

So if there is going to be any colonization in the PMF, it could be movements started in scientific or support bases in space, with people refusing to go home or accept the dictates of the "company" or home government. Since the investment is huge and there is no practical way of getting it back (starving the people out could lead the station to be damaged or abandoned; better to get half a loaf), there may be grudging acceptance of this movement. Support still needs to be maintained, but now clever traders might see a new market that bypasses old logistical links or monopolistic supply contracts, and new recruits might be tempted to joint the "x" movement in space.

Not romantic, not very quick (the colonies will be very limited and hardly in a position to rapidly expand), but doable.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Balthazar:

"we know that sooner or later, something is going to come along that will wipe humanity out. Not kick us back to the stone age, but render the entirety of our species on this planet extinct."

Unlikely. Eventually, yes, all things come to an end. But I expect us to last for tens of thousands of years more at a minimum - that's on par with how long we've lasted already, and we're better prepared to deal with natural disasters now. I could see us surviving for millions of years, though I would not dare hazard a guess what our technology looks like by that time.

And we are pretty hard to kill off. We can lose 90% of our population and we'd still rebound back, given a few centuries. Extinction requires something really, really big and thorough.

So yes, while we will eventually die, this will be so far into the future that it's a waste of resources to worry about it now.

The most important question, really, is whether we invent FTL or feasible slowboats before the sun turns into a red giant (five billions years hence).

But I will note that even if we spread to other stars, we cannot escape the inevitable. Someday we will die. Perhaps we will last until the heat death of the universe brings about to end of all things, but still, we will die.


"Odds are that once the easy oil runs out, everyone will be too busy trying to feed themselves and fight for whatever is left to even think of going into orbit for research purposes, let alone try and colonise another celestial body."

Other celestial bodies do not have oil (it's a fossil fuel), so if we're so dependant on oil that its absence will result in the collapse of civilization, we have no business trying to live on other celestial bodies.



Bryan:

"and technologically we should be able to adapt to [changing environments]"

The problem with global warming is that it would flood many of our current coastal cities. Aside from that, however, it wouldn't actually reduce Earth's bioproductivity - merely shift where the bioproductivity takes place. We can definitely adapt - it's the transition that hurts.



Thucydides:

"even the Conquistadors were out for a quick buck and their missionaries for souls to save"

Maybe they should have focussed more on saving bodies instead ;)

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"We may have exposure to a few more outside influences than the typical American reader (i.e. Arthur C Clarke and Stanislaw Lem)..."

Uhhh...every American SF fan my age that I know has read most or all of Clarke's corpus. And I doubt very many significantly younger Canadian SF fans have read any more Clarke than American ones of the same age.

As for Lem, I think most Americans regard his work as essentially atmospheric psychowank. And Americans -- of my generation, anyway -- are pretty universally turned off by pessimistic post-WW2 British enviro-disaster SF.

I think in general what can be said about American SF readers is not that they haven't been exposed to outside influences. But they reject the attitude and premises of a lot of them.

Lentulus said...

As a Canadian, living in one of the first-settled parts of the continent, I tend to see the view that the settlement of the western part of North America is somehow "typical" of its colonization is very US-Centric. All of the hard initial landings that required what today would be looked on as government projects or perhaps public/private partnerships (New Spain, New France, New England) were long since established before any individual family could buy a wagon and head west under its own power.

We are at the 1492 stage of reading Columbus's reports and wondering if it would really be worth talking some nobleman into financing a substantial and well-equipped group to establish a base camp on that probably hostile pile of rocks he found.

As far as I can tell from the fate of Hudson and the Jamestown colony, pretty much at the outer limits of available technology as well.

By the time the "West Was Won" the base camp stage was a couple of centuries in the past and the human and natural obstacles to be faced were well understood.

Andrew George said...

It needs a push
Currently I think the Moon and Mars will eventually become like antarctica with limited research basing over a long period once the numbers (cost of transportation) are right.
I also don't see much more than a semi permanent space station happening in NEO before a viable need to move stuff out of NEO happens.
That being said, you never know where new technologies or discoveries are going to take us. new elements or viable resource mining could get things moving again.
I don't think we'll ever see colonising for the sake of colonising, I think we'll see colonising by stealth as the supporting infrastructure for other functions like mining or science becomes more and more embedded.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Let me continue on my previous line of thinking a bit. I (and others, like Eth) have suggested that the most interesting reason to go into space is research.

The catch, here, is that it is impossible (well, or hard to do interestingly, anyway) to write a piece of fiction focussed on research while also sticking to hard science. Why? Because research is about finding out something we don't know yet. If you want some tantalizing scientific mystery to engage your readers, you'd best pick something that hasn't already been answered by present-day science. If you want a story of exploration that's believably set in the future, then it has to be exploring things that are still unexplored in the present.

So if you want to go down this route, you have to make something up. You can try to be somewhat faithful to real science - building on existing knowledge (just as relativity doesn't completely invalidate classical mechanics, showing your researchers using valid scientific method (if dramatized a little for the sake of the story), deriving conclusions that are logical consequences of observed data, keeping the rules of your made-up world internally consistent, etc. - but ultimately a proper scientific mystery still depends on some made-up scientific principle that will almost certainly turn out to not be true in real life.


Of course, it is also possible to use scientific research as a backdrop without focussing on the research itself. (For example, a scientific research outpost is attacked by aliens / suffers a life support failure / whatever, and people become more interested in trying to survive than in continuing the job that they originally came for. Or, your hero is occasionally handed new toys to play with by his R&D department, without particularly caring about the details of how they got those toys working.)

Raymond said...

Five Canuckians so far. I am...heartened.

As far as the literary answer to the post question, I think a certain amount of anthropic principle is applicable: there are few spaceborne stories to be told in a universe of cold, lifeless stars. Either the author fills his universe to the brim with life (in which case the colonial narrative is usually less pronounced and/or made a function of interstellar politics), or somewhere in the universe's history, someone has to expand and colonize it. It was noted in the Macguffinite thread of old, IIRC, that stories set in space require there to be a reason to go in large numbers at one point or another - the 'Murrican colonization bias may simply be writing what one knows (and dealing with the paucity of evidence for a universe teeming with life in the meantime).

There is also, frankly, the subtle imperative in science fiction to free the author from the crushing weight of real history and the cage of current politics. A galaxy full of fresh starts is a powerful fictional tool, when used well.

Tony:

"As for Lem, I think most Americans regard his work as essentially atmospheric psychowank. And Americans -- of my generation, anyway -- are pretty universally turned off by pessimistic post-WW2 British enviro-disaster SF."

Bah. (Friendly bah, but still.) Lem was frequently funny - not so much Solaris, but certainly Cyberiad, Futurological Congress, and Star Diaries. And I quite like my Wyndham and Brunner, thankyouverymuch. (If you don't think Stand On Zanzibar was unadulterated genius, I would have to seriously dispute your taste - in fun, of course.)

Milo:

"...we are pretty hard to kill off..."

Yeah, but why wait to test those limits?

(And on a thoroughly meta note, I find it hilarious your posts still don't make it to the page proper right away, despite abandoning your account...)

Bryan:

"As for supernovas; with current tech I doubt we'd be able to get out of range of anything that would threaten earth."

It's not so much a function of range (although that would help), but a matter of being in enough places that somewhere won't be directly facing (with a vulnerable atmosphere) the rotational axis of any given supernova, with the attendant gamma-ray burst. Even enough places in the solar system, and it'd be likely that some bastion would be shielded by the bulk of a planet (or dwarf planet, or sufficiently large asteroid) to survive the initial blast.

Joe Vasicek said...

I thought the comment by the Polish reader was quite interesting, especially about Soviet era sf being more conservative/libertarian in nature than our typical 'murrican' faire. For those looking to expand their reading list, what sort of stuff would you point to that exemplifies this? Lem, certainly, but are their any other lesser-known (in the West, at least) yet influential authors that come to mind? Perhaps this has more to do with the literature than the political/scientific debate, but I'd very much like to get my hands on some good sf stories that buck the typical 'murrican' trends.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Raymond:

"Yeah, but why wait to test those limits?"

For the same reason that you shouldn't flail around while drowning.


"(And on a thoroughly meta note, I find it hilarious your posts still don't make it to the page proper right away, despite abandoning your account...)"

I never had an account. I just used the Name/URL radio button to post semi-anonymously (you could tell by the lack of link on my name).

However, they eventually downgraded the site so that doesn't work anymore. Or rather, it doesn't work without enabling JavaScript, except their JavaScript crashes my browser. (And is also completely superfluous for the purpose it's serving.)


"It's not so much a function of range (although that would help), but a matter of being in enough places that somewhere won't be directly facing (with a vulnerable atmosphere) the rotational axis of any given supernova, with the attendant gamma-ray burst."

Are gamma ray bursts so narrow that they can hit one planet in a solar system while missing the rest? Surely not?

With interstellar colonization, sure, you could escape. But that's a LONG way off.


"Even enough places in the solar system, and it'd be likely that some bastion would be shielded by the bulk of a planet (or dwarf planet, or sufficiently large asteroid) to survive the initial blast."

If that works, then shouldn't half of Earth survive no matter what? I guess that would be inconvenient if the half that got fried was the more developed half, but even then, Australia should remain to rebuild from the ashes.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



So while interstellar colonization is being brought up, here's a thought experiment.

Let's say that we somehow invent FTL. It has a speed of, oh, one lightyear per day (so reasonably snappy, but we still take weeks to reach any but the nearest stars). However, nothing else about our technology changes. Surface-to-orbit launches, life support, etc. are no easier or cheaper than they are with present-day technology.

What happens?


Getting to extraterrestrial planets is going to be no easier than getting to the moon is now, and we don't have a moonbase yet. So it seems to me even with FTL, we'll still be stuck sending robotic probes to other stars, not people. (Hope we got FTL communication too so we can keep ordering the probes around!)

Now if robotic probes find a planet with a human-breathable atmosphere (which would still be far from a fully human-livable planet, mind you), then things could get interesting. Even a lifebearing planet without a human-breathable atmosphere could be interesting enough to warrant the expense of a crewed research vessel. But it's gonna cost ya, and sending human explorers to the more-likely-to-be-lifebearing places in our solar system (Titan, Enceladus, Europa) is at present unthinkable.

Brian Mansur said...

Brian here from the US.  

First of all Rick, it is a pleasure if not an outright honor to post to your blog.  I heard about your site through Atomic Rockets and already it is proving a gold mine of ideas for my first novel, Singularity's Orphans.  God willing the book won't suck by the time I have finished writing it in a few years and I'll make sure you and the Manifesto get a grateful nod in the Dedication & Acknowledgements page.  

About this perfectly pessimistic post ... anyone see the History Channel's Doomsday Prophets about the looming peak oil problem, coming financial collapse, global water shortage, nuclear terrorism, and Technological Singularity aka Terminator that are supposed to take out civilization as we know it before some of us even hit retirement?  No?  I recommend it to anyone who wants to get depressed in a hurry. 

Exercising my optimism muscle, I would like to believe that somehow we'll pull through.  Within our lifetimes we will certainly see the pressure increase to develop useful alternative energy sources that actually replace oil along with some seriously industrial strength recycling technologies all run by AI's that (hopefully) make HAL 9000 look like a cheap desktop computer.  One can only pray that we beat the clock which is always ticking towards global economic collapse.  

Having exhausted my happy-go-lucky quotient, I doubt we'll colonize space before we have sufficiently advanced technology to solve our problems on Earth with the push of a button (NO, NOT THE RED BUTTON! ;-). 

Sorry to all you optimists, but the obstacles to space are just too massive and will require just as impressive a technological hammer to break through.  I know I am not stating anything new here.  The writing is already on the Wall (er, Internet) in sites like the Manifesto and Atomic Rockets.  The resounding message is don't get your expectations up till we lower the cost of flying from Surface to Orbit to something resembling a trip to Antarctica. 

Sent from my iPhone

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was interresting that ones national character was reflected in ones writting; viewpoints on subjects like space flight and colonization are deeply influenced by people's history and national worldview. Us Americans have a grand view of rapid colonization that is influenced by our history and optimistic national worldview; Russians, Canadians, and Chinese have different histories and national worldviews and so their SF all have a different "flavor" to them.

Ferrell

Damien Sullivan said...

Americans I know (a) haven't heard of Lem or (b) have read him and like him a lot.

I've read most of Clarke but I believe I'm unusual in that.

Anonymous said...

Hi, South African here.
All our fiction unfortunately suffers from what i think of as 'message syndrome'; where a work must always include overt social commentary. Expect our future to contain shanty towns and grinding poverty, contrasted with the opulence and apathy of the wealthy few...

Speaking purely for myself, I'm pretty convinced that we won't be the ones doing the colonising, at least not as we are now. Maybe as ova carried aboard terraforming ships. Or suitably modified for travel. But probably not as standard H. sap

jollyreaper said...

In Lumpkin's book, the whole space colonization thing is Irrationally human. Nuclear terrorist attacks on Earth and a large asteroid strike created the proper psychological environment for a massive freakout. There's also the assumption that earth-type worlds with our oxy-nitro mix are not exactly common but do occur and so terraforming is mainly about importing ecologies.

The other key here is resurgent nationalism means that every serious nation-state has a space program or a patron state they're bumming rides off of. There's a land grab mentality and everyone knows colonization will pay off eventually except nobody can prove it on paper. It looks like humanity's biggest speculative bubble.

Space exploration was a scientific pursuit up to the point colonization fever hit and a ton of orbital infrastructure was built to support it. Antimatter factories, reaction mass siphons around the gas giants, mining ops, space docks, etc.

Lots of assumptions here? Yes. Any unforgivable ones? Not really. I feel they're the fewest necessary in order to tell the story he wants to.

jollyreaper said...

One other point. The war on terror is a bonanza for the military-industrial complex, just like the cold war. So a factor driving colonization is also heavy lobbying efforts by the very companies sellin the shovels for this gold rush. It's the sort of thing that's happened before and so feels like a very human set of motives and interests.

Anonymous said...

Mother Russia reporting in.

"So I want to toss this out to non-US readers in particular: Does the whole space colonization debate even seem salient, or just a parochial 'Murrican concern?"

Space colonization was a major theme in Russian fiction since Tsiolkovsky. I believe he was the man who made writers and space ideologists view space as the "frontier of the future".

So subsequent Soviet space fiction was all about space exploration, colonization and relations with other races. Most of this fiction portrayed communism as the bright future of the human race (and a couple of alien races), that expands in all directions with colonies, science stations and occasional battlefleets. Combat was a comparatively rare occurence in fiction (there was nothing compared with Star Wars or Star Trek pewpew-fests) with main scope of the books focused on technical, social and ideological matters.

To be honest, the majority of this fiction was rather bad (mostly because of ever-present commies characters who were as "alive" as a rock).

Then came Strugatsky brothers. They've created the setting "Noon, 22nd century" that is usually thought to be the most convincing and detailed sci-fi setting in the whole Soviet space fiction. You can read it's nice summary in the wiki article.

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

Though I'm not one of their fans, I too think that it's one of the best settings in sci-fi as a whole, that outshines, say Herbert's Dune and (I feel I'm going to get some rotten tomatoes here) Star Trek.

After them I can't really recall any noteable space fiction. In Russian Federation we have some nice generic space operas (with planes in space, empires and stuff), lots of combat fiction ("they fall from the walls" of a king) and even a "Master of Orion 2" (PC game) novellisation but no huge, developed and original settings.

Colonization theme is ever present though and empires, star federations and whatnot are aplenty. Right now russian fiction is contaminated with Hollywood cliches so we too have zergs, rubberhead aliens and space planes.

+++

By the way, Stanislaw Lem is comparatively widely known, respected and often thought about as a "Russian" author (or at least as a "pure Soviet" in a "Soviet International" sense). I believe we have some of his works translated from Polish to Russian and published that weren't translated to any other language.

+++

We even have a small history of "real" colonization projects. Some old nostalgic commie authors are writing today that in a century or so USSR would have been able to independently terraform Mars and Venus using solar shields (or shades, respectively) on geostationary orbits, massive planetary bombardments with icy asteroids from the Main Belt and algae drops. I've even seen something resembling a technical feasibility report on such a project.

There even is an urban legend that Soviet Red Star symbol is a representation of Mars as a target of colonization.

It's all just a junk, of course and real Soviet politics had nothing to do with those ideas.

Nonetheless all orbital stations, all solar system satellites and all space programs in general always had a prospect of space colonization in mind. And even today they're still, theoretically, are but an intermediate steps for that stage.

Gerb

Marcel said...

Posting from Germany the following things come to my mind:

What I hear most in the public opinion on space colonisation is the "we have to expand to avoid extinction" thing along the lines of what Balthazar said or something about population pressure. (If space colonisation is discused at all) Probably the typical German Angst approach.

What IMHO those people overlook is, that nearly all possible extinction cenarios depend on denial of ecosystem services. Be it the asteroid impact, the super nova, global warming, peak oil, nuclear war or what ever. There are allways places here on earth where you could surwive the actual event, but civilisation crumbles and everyone starves in the end, because due to athmospheric changes plant growth becomes impossible (or no more oil, clean water, phosphorous or what ever). But in space none of these ecosystem services is present. There is no air, not even polluted one, there is no water, not even salt water, there are no plants, no animals, nothing.

So if we can build an independent colony which can survive in space we can survive with ease even the nastiest extinction scenarios here on earth, because some ecosystem services will allways be left. There will be water (at least saltwater), there will be air and the temperatures will be less extreme than in space.

The same thing goes for population pressure. As long as we do not stand shoulder to shoulder and have to take turns laying down to sleep here on earth :) it is much cheaper (needing less recources to sustain a person here than in space.

So my personal oppinion is, that if we are to see space colonisation this will be out of a post scarcity situation, where we expand for the sake of it.

And finally this may be not as far away as most people think. As soon as we get the hang on molecular engineering and fabrication we can "grow" nearly anything from soil, water, air and sunlight (It WILL work, nature does it since a billion years). Then probably someone somewhere will decide, that it would be cool to grow a habitat and a spaceship and launch it. And with 100% recycling efficiency and production without bulky machinery and a production chain living in space will be much less problematic than today.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x:

As always, get yourself some learnin'.

Raymond:

"If you don't think Stand On Zanzibar was unadulterated genius, I would have to seriously dispute your taste..."

I always question my taste, but it never seems to want to give me an answer.

As for SOZ itself, it was clever and iconoclastic, but it was very much a product of its times. I can't help but think that there's asense in which some of the older (and some of the younger and geekier) Occupy Xers think of themselves as engaging in Hipcrime -- and that is truly sad.

Now...

Colonization is of course and interesting trope, but I think the real life space program is perfectly entertaining as performance art.

Apropos of nothing at all, what does it say about SF and American culture in general that the most adapted SF author was an insane drug user?

fizz said...

Chiming in from Italy, where in the past we've had a strong tradition of both explorers and emigrants, if not a big one of colonizers (well, at least not since ancient Rome :p).

There's not many people that really do care about the topic, as most people consider it simply too pie-in-the-sky stuff, but those who do would strongly want to be there if it was possible at all.


Even if we've been strongly influenced by anglosphere SF tropes, generally speaking the libertarian frontier tropes are not too widespread: most people do recognize that any exploration and/or colonization will have a strongly socially organized nature, and likely be a state effort of some type (and probably grossly mismanaged and with plenty corrupt bureaucrats, as this is the typical view we have of state...:p).

Thucydides said...

Perhaps the best predictor of how SF may be viewed by people is to look at their national history. I think SF in a sort of inversion of History; we study history by asking "How did we get here", while SF is a study of "What if?"

Since American and Canadian history are about expansion and conflict, it is very easy for the tropes of colonization and space war to be popular (in the case of Canadians it is more through osmosis since there are so few "native" Canadian SF writers. Our shared history and cultures allow US tropes to resonate strongly here).

The various comments from other nations "seem" to support the view to a certain extent, the comments about how SF was used to evade Soviet era censorship and explore themes of freedom are particularly telling. The comment from South Africa was interesting as well.

I'm sure there is a lot more to this than history and culture, but they are strong predictors. I would be very interested if there are Japanese readers of this blog willing to contribute; the various themes of Japanese manga and animie (what we in the West are most exposed to) would make for very interesting discussion.

Damien Sullivan said...

I'm not Japanese, but I've been exposed to a modest amount of Japanese SF, including a line of translated novels. I won't try claiming a theme, just describing what I've seen. Spoilers!

Planetes: near future hard SF. There's a Lunar base, and at least one person has been born and raised there. Main story is about orbital garbage collectors. I think there's either Lunar mining or solar power collection going on, but I forget.

Wings of Honneamise: set on some arbitrary other planet, basically a movie their first manned mission.

Rocket Girls: set on Earth, a Japanese company trying to develop manned space travel. They resort to using teenage girls in skintight spacesuits, as lightweight and maneuverable. Originally novels, so it's not just for the visual titillation.

The Next Continent: development of a Lunar wedding resort. It's semi-openly a billionaire's gift to his granddaughter, with low chances of being profitable. They find polar water, which helps a lot, and weird alien stuff.

Stories of Ibis: mostly about the robot-dominated future. They've developed better access to orbit, though, and move into space for the congenial environment, and send interstellar probes because humans wanted to.

Usurper of the Sun: Earth pushes into space very quickly because of alien nanotech blocking out the Sun. The author apologizes for his unrealistic nuclear-electric space drives, with tens of kilometers of delta vee and decent thrust.

Cowboy Bebop: domes or covered craters all over the Solar System, connected by short-distance jump gates.

Crest of the Stars: 2000 years in the future, humanity has spread and colonized first by slowship, then by hyperspace FTL. The genetically engineered Abh live in ships and habitats, everyone else on planets. War develops.

Macross: aliens attack. We barely survive, make friends with the aliens, then go off and colonize. Total devastation makes Earth more politically unified, rather than falling into Mad Max.

Tytania: classic space opera.
Irresponsible Captain Tylor: comedic space opera

Harlock: a Randian superman and his supership defend an utterly corrupt Earth from invading plant-ladies.

Aria: pretty girls push gondolas around Neo-Venezia on a terraformed, nay fully flooded, Mars.

Voices of a Distant Star: war against mysterious alien attackers. Girl and boy stay in touch via e-mail drawn out by distance and relativity.

Scrapped Princess: location uncertain but humanity went into space then totally got ass-kicked by aliens.

Damien Sullivan said...

Themes of Japanese space SF based on that list:
* humans may not be dominant
* space may be fun yet not a good idea (the Rocket Girls company is absurd, the Next Continent has an unlikely business plan and is almost fraudulent)
* percentage of near-future hard SF seems high
* female characters and human concerns are common/prominent, not just gadget porn
* They're happy to tell stories about getting access to space, which is old hat to the US
* They're happy to acknowledge US superior experience in space, even when rivals; Rocket Girls and Next Continent don't brush the US away or portray them as incompetent fools. China has a role in Next Continent, too.

Oh, natural population decline is a moderately recurring theme too.

Anonymous said...

Marcel
The same thing goes for population pressure. As long as we do not stand shoulder to shoulder and have to take turns laying down to sleep here on earth :) it is much cheaper (needing less recources to sustain a person here than in space.
I don't want to nitpick or begin a flame war, but I guess this statement should be rephrased a bit: "It's much cheaper to kill a person here, than to send him in space". Especially if this person isn't white and white people would have had to pay to send him to orbit.
As in the "typical German Angst approach". :)

Damien Sullivan
Cowboy Bebop: domes or covered craters all over the Solar System, connected by short-distance jump gates.
I think it should be mentioned that Earth is surrounded by the asteroid rings and those stones frequently fall to the planet surface. I guess that was the main reason for the colonization in the setting.
And Ganymede is terraformed to ocean planet (or how would you call it), has major fishing industry and breathable atmosphere.

Gerb

Damien Sullivan said...

It is cheaper to either sustain a person or to kill her than to send her to space. Just about anything you can do to her is cheaper than sending her to space, including giving her enough money to retire or a lifetime of top medical care.

(The Russians are charging what, $20 million for space tourism? Lower that to $4 million and you're still in never-work-again money.)

If your strategy for avoiding extinction is to have people in self-enclosed biospheres, it is generally cheaper to build and maintain those biospheres on Earth than anywhere else, though they do lose access to 24/7 solar power and might be forced to deal with local environmental changes. Also you can offer the hope of letting the taxpayers themselves survive, rather than surviving vicariously through other members of the human race.

Rick said...

Welcome to new commenters!

I trust all my 'Murrican readers had a good T-day, as I did. Plenty of leftover stuffing, too.

This thread has presented a fascinating look at Canadian imperialism.

Colonization for extinction insurance strikes me as having the lifeboat in space problem writ big. Deep space ships have no real reason for lifeboats (other than swiping sea lifeboat tropes), because you are better off staying with the ship.

Likewise, if you have the techlevel for viable space colonies, you can probably do some pretty effective life support maintenance for Earth.

Thucydides said...

This thread has presented a fascinating look at Canadian imperialism.

Watch it bub. We've had plans to invade the US since 1921 ;)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_Scheme_No._1

Eth said...

The 'colonizing space to avoid extinction' view has still one more argument.
While it would be easier and cheaper to prepare for any cataclysm on earth than in space, the point is, some cataclysms are not predicted.
In case of a cataclysmic event, like a supervolcano or even a supernova, the (survivor) space ones won't have much of a change of environment. They already live in a place trying to kill them, and are adapted, with all necessary infrastructures.
Those on Earth are not prepared, and may have only a handful of years, if not days, to build said biospheres which would allow them to survive...

Another problem is, our globalized society is seeking efficiency, which means overspecialised to the situation. Which means, paradoxically, we may be far more resilient to a (non-extinction) cataclysm than the 1.AD mankind would have been.
We may survive a massive climate change, for example, but our whole civilization would be in ruins, maybe with dangerous technological leftovers (if no one is there to re-shield the Chernobyl core, it will end up 'free' again in a century).
With a massive enough presence in space, we may survive better, as the space-part would not be affected by such cataclysms nearly as much as us. Which means, if they are already self-sufficient, they could help us in return.

It may be more expensive to leave the Earth than fix it, but it is less devastating to have the space half-mankind helping the Earth half-mankind for the two centuries it will take to fix the Earth.

The point is, space colonisation is not efficient at all, but it can offer far more resilience.

That said, my opinion is still that we should develop space at our pace, continuing science stuff until both technology and economic surplus allow us to do it without sacrificing more important things.
Even for the cataclysm-proof colonisers, it's not as if it would happen next year, isn't it?

Eth said...

About Japanese SF.
While not Japanese myself and having a very partial vision of their SF culture (yes, mostly manga/anime), I have the impression that it's more 'another setting' for them, than anticipating the future.

For example, Cowboy Bebop could be set today.
Macross could be a heroic-fantasy or 'earth-bound' mecha story, with deep-sea ships.
Crest of the Stars could be done with Elves and Humans, with swords and bows.
Legend of Galactic Heroes is an epic tale Homer would have liked.

Even in those where sf-only elements are essential to the plot, they don't seem to really be interested by 'what mankind will do', like colonizing things or not, but 'how will humans be affected by the changes'.
In Ghost in the Shell, for example, you will only discover the extent of the changes through what happens to the characters, how they adapt to it... As they never go in space, we don't even know if they still have a manned or interplanetary space program.
Even Planetes, which is directly speaking about the first heavy steps of mankind in space, it is still about the varied characters, some of them driven by the need to go further, others simply struggling with their life.

Again, I may miss some big things, but I have the impression that they speak about people instead of speaking about mankind. They will focus on characters in a SF world, not the SF world.
So, I would be quite surprised to see much works like Red Mars out there.

Thucydides said...

Likewise, if you have the techlevel for viable space colonies, you can probably do some pretty effective life support maintenance for Earth.

If you have that level of technological sophistication, then sending people to live for extended periods into space is probably an easy extension of your capabilities.

For example, if you have the ability to reach and deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, then you automatically have the ability to reach pretty much any asteroid. If you have the life support capability to keep a crew going for months or years on a spaceship to get to the asteroid, then you can keep them going while they live and work on an asteroid. Reaching and colonizing the Moon and Mars would be almost trivial if you can reach NEO's and main belt asteroids.

Settling on these bodies for long term projects of any sort (science, looking for unobtanium, creating Utopia or the next Las Vegas, building a civilizational lifeboat) becomes technically possible, although the economic and practical arguments for doing so can still be debated.

Some types of disasters do need you to be separated from the Earth to survive (massive solar flares, nearby gamma ray bursts, incoming comets that are too fast to intercept with the available technology, massive destabilization of the ecosphere), although really cosmic disasters might not be survivable even within the Solar System (Steven Baxter's Manifold Space envisions a galaxy wide radiation burst that sterilizes the entire sentient population of the galaxy, destroys their machines and burns their ecospheres back to single cell slime mold.) Anyone with the lifeboat scenario in mind should be prepared to make a huge investment of time and energy to really "save" the Human race and the treasures of Earth....

Damien Sullivan said...

The idea wasn't to build shelters at the last minute. My idea is that you can have population-scale sealed habitats on Earth, and rotate part of the population through them 'on duty' at any time, for far less effort and far more appeal than space colonization. Can also deflect asteroids/comets for a lot less effort.

I think you mean more vulnerable than 1 AD, not more resilient.

Thing is, the natural development of space colonies isn't self-sufficiency, it's being trade-dependent extensions of Earth markets. That's how American colonies developed. The multiple baskets won't be all that multiple.


As for Japanese SF... much Western SF could be dismissed the same way. Star Wars is wuxia, other stuff is Horatio Hornblower, Star Trek and Firefly were Wagon Train. Personally I think the technology is rather more integral to Crest and Planetes than it is to Star Wars.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Milo,

Speeds comparable to what I mentioned are observed in nature.

The jets diverted from the accretion jets surrounding "supermassive" black holes are observed to travel at 0.99995 * c.

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

The speed of cosmic rays has been observed to be .999999999999 * c.

http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/qa_cr.html#crvel

from that site:

(begin quote)
The velocity of cosmic rays can go from a small fraction of the speed of light up to about .999999999999 times the speed of light. Since cosmic rays are matter (typically the bare nuclei of atoms), they CANNOT exceed the speed of light.
(end quote)

Mankind has also made devices which cause subatomic particles to travel at such speeds, without using matter/antimatter annihilation. It happens every day in particle accelerators. The Tevatron at FermiLab can accelerate particles to 0.99999954 * c.

http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/accelerator/

So, it is not impossible, the laws of physics are not violated, it can be done.

The nearest exosolar planet with a mass comparable to the Earth is 20 light-years away. If you accelerated at 1 G the whole time (after the half point, decelerate at 1 G), it would take you 6 years to get there, by the ship's clock. Of course, on Earth, 20 years would have passed.

http://www.cthreepo.com/lab/math1.shtml

(go to "long relativistic journeys" and put in 20 light-years for distance)

Also, remember that just because NASA can't do it doesn't mean it can't be done. I don't think NASA will or should create colonies (as opposed to scientific bases) on Mars, but I do think there should and will be such colonies. Private groups will do it.

So, I'm just saying, take the long view here, be optimistic!!!!! :-)

--Brian

Damien Sullivan said...

So Brian, how much fuel would the rocket need to start out with in order to accelerate at 1 G for 20 years?

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Brian/neutrino78x:

"Mankind has also made devices which cause subatomic particles to travel at such speeds, without using matter/antimatter annihilation. It happens every day in particle accelerators."

And this highlights the problem exactly. The particle accelerators (and their attendant power plants) are vastly huger than the particles they accelerate.

The same goes for natural "particle accelerators" like supernovae. A huge star goes kaboom, and maybe a tiny portion of it is accelerated relativistically?

It is still impossible for a ship to be accelerated to the speeds you're claiming using an engine that can fit on the ship, unless that engine is more efficient than antimatter.

Anonymous said...

The same goes for natural "particle accelerators" like supernovae. A huge star goes kaboom, and maybe a tiny portion of it is accelerated relativistically?
So basically you're saying that to get ourselves an interstellar travel we have to wait for the Sun to go supernova? I'm OK with this.
Ride on a shooting star, oh yeah.

Jim Baerg said...

"And this highlights the problem exactly. The particle accelerators (and their attendant power plants) are vastly huger than the particles they accelerate."

Which is why I'd use some sort of beamed propulsion for STL starships in any SF that is trying to be 'hard'. Then to decelerate into the destination solar system use a magnetic field to generate a drag force against the interstellar medium & the stellar wind.

Anonymous said...

Brian said:"The nearest exosolar planet with a mass comparable to the Earth is 20 light-years away. If you accelerated at 1 G the whole time (after the half point, decelerate at 1 G), it would take you 6 years to get there, by the ship's clock. Of course, on Earth, 20 years would have passed."

Brian, after you accelerate at 1g for a year, you reach the largest percentage of Light-speed practical; that means that you would need a two (or four) year fuel supply for any interstellar trip, no matter what the distance. Also, the trip time for a 20 lightyear journy would be more than 20 years, due to the fact that you haven't figured acceleration time into your equation. ;)

Ferrell

Tony said...

Milo:

"Let's say that we somehow invent FTL. It has a speed of, oh, one lightyear per day (so reasonably snappy, but we still take weeks to reach any but the nearest stars). However, nothing else about our technology changes. Surface-to-orbit launches, life support, etc. are no easier or cheaper than they are with present-day technology.

What happens?"


I've been thinking about this for a few days and it occurs to me that what happens is you have the perfect space drive. If you don't need to use operatic levels of energy, and supposing you don't invoke the typical authorial fiat that it doesn't work in a gravity well, then you could safely use it from the surface of a planet. Just jump out a few hundred planetary diameters ahead or behind in orbit, and you're safe for further operations.

Getting back down isn't all that tough either, because you could presumablly contive a way to jump to an altitude above the sensible atmosphere, but at a velocity only a few times the local speed of sound WRT the ground. Then you need technology no more complex or sophisticated than the SR-71 to glide down and land.

Also, you really don't need that much reaction mass once you're in orbit, because you can always use the gravity of convenient bodies to reshape your velocity WRT your destination. Just drop a few hundred miles in a certain direction, jump back, repeat as often as necessary.

Of course, militarially speaking, all tactical defense becomes point defense, while strategic defense realistically becomes deterrence.

Raymond said...

The 1 ly/day engine is also the perfect operatic drive:

- Travel times inside the Kuiper are measured in minutes (seconds, for the inner system).

- Travel times of days or weeks to nearby stars are well inside the limits of present-day space habitation (encouraging manned missions) and well outside the limits of our robotic probes' automation and command loop delays (discouraging unmanned probes).

- Fast travel within a system allows for fairly comprehensive surveys by manned missions within a single mission's duration - something else our current robots would be hard-pressed to do without crippling delays.

- Expansion for national/cultural/political reasons becomes something of a political imperative, since everything in a system is within no-warning first-strike missile range (encouraging keeping some military assets in extrasolar positions, at the very least).

- If we can take Tony's supposition of atmospheric use, then we've got cheap enough surface-to-orbit capability to get large masses up and running around.

Yeah, Milo, I'm pretty sure a 1 ly/day engine would mean a rapid expansion of every space program worth a damn, and real quick.

Raymond said...

Milo, WRT gamma-ray bursts:

Any such event dangerous enough to do substantial damage will also likely turn any atmosphere into a planet-wide firestorm (in fact, that's the main threat from such events). Being on the far side of Earth won't help much, but being on the far side of the Moon or Ceres would, as would being in Jupiter or Saturn's shadow at the time (seeing as how such events would likely have a duration measured in hours instead of days or months).

Brian/neutrino78x, WRT high-gamma rockets:

Even the tenuous theoretical possibility of artificial black holes as a power source (with an energy equivalent to matter + antimatter, with a far, far higher density) wouldn't give us enough power to get much past 0.1c in practical terms. It just ain't happening without some serious spacetime tricks, or a near-incomprehensible command of the energy of the sun.

Eth, WRT colonization to escape extinction:

Pretty much what you said, with the mention of the possibility of any post-holocaust reconstruction being severely crippled by lack of easily obtainable scarce resources (easily accessible oil, easily-accessible ores, rare elements, common-in-space-but-rare-on-Earth's-surface elements) which, frankly, we've used most of. Not to say we're necessarily running out of such things entirely, but their extraction is dependent on the infrastructure we currently possess - and which would be by definition destroyed in any near-extinction event.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Yes, I did take acceleration time into account. That was my whole point.

Let's try this again.

You are accelerating at 1 G -- 9.81 meters per second per second -- from the first instant. You start out at velocity 0, then the next second, you are going 9.81 meters per second, etc. You would feel a force on the ship that is not distinguishable from Earth gravity. (Einstein's equivalence principle.)

If you continue this way for 1 year, you will be going very close to the speed of light. Continue that way for 3 years, then flip, and start firing your rocket in the opposite direction.

So, no, 20 years would NOT have passed on the ship!!!!! I don't know where you are getting that. This is called TIME DILATION. On Earth, 20 years would have passed. On the rocket, only about 6 years would have passed.

And yes, there are known types of rockets that could go faster than 0.1c. Project Daedalus, using fusion bombs (aka hydrogen bombs) would go 12% the speed of light.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_%28nuclear_propulsion%29

There are various antimatter rockets that are predicted to be able to reach 90% the speed of light. If you can throw enough force into it, for a long enough time, you can do it, period.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstellar_travel#Proposed_methods_of_interstellar_travel

Whether you can apply said force in a controlled manner is a matter of engineering, not physics or basic science, which means that in the future, it will probably be possible to do what cannot be done today.

As far as the matter deflected from black holes, most material in the jet is moving relativistically. Hence the name, "relativistic jet". Even if only one molecule is moving relativistically, that is still an observed object that is moving close to the speed of light, thus proving my thesis.

In 1901 they would have dismissed the notion that aircraft would, one day, surpass the speed of sound. Like I said, people overestimate what can be done in the short term, but often underestimate what can be done in the long term. You guys are doing the latter. Take the long view!

--Brian

Raymond said...

Brian/neutrino78x:

Um, nobody's disputing relativity here - only the feasibility of actually building such a craft. Simmer down with the all caps.

And no, the antimatter rocket designs supposedly able to get to 0.9c aren't suited to colony kits. They involve four stages and difficult-to-nigh-impossible antimatter containment.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Raymond, I only used caps in one phrase. I feel passionately about this issue because I often see people commenting on this blog saying X or Y is "impossible" when (1) they don't even have a degree in the subject (nor do I) and (2) they are addressing engineering issues and acting as if they are fundamental science issues. I assure you that I have just as much knowledge on these things as any other layman would. Just because I come to a different conclusion doesn't mean I have less understanding, it means only that I have a different opinion.

There was no change in the basic laws of the universe between 1950 and 1973 that allowed men to land on the Moon. That was entirely an engineering issue.

Engineering issues can be solved, over time.

The feasibility issues you mention involve engineering, not basic science. That means they can eventually be solved. For example, antimatter containment is a technological issue. There is ongoing research into it; recently they have been able to contain antimatter in a magnetic bubble for 15 minutes, at CERN.

http://tinyurl.com/6ss4qyj

I suppose there will be another commenter who will say what CERN did was impossible. Well, go read the article. They did it. Not impossible. Just very difficult.

Of course, you don't need antimatter rockets to build human colonies on Mars; that can be done with existing chemical rockets.

Perhaps not by NASA of 2011 -- who needs tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars just to send someone to the ISS -- but a more competent organization, such as NASA of 1969 ("failure is not an option"), or The Mars Society of 2011, or SpaceX of 2011, could do it.

I would not expect the government to build colonies, anyway. That is not a function of government, in my opinion.

Tony said...

Brian:

"Whether you can apply said force in a controlled manner is a matter of engineering, not physics or basic science, which means that in the future, it will probably be possible to do what cannot be done today."

This is just like your argument that SSTO is simply a matter of engineering. What you don't seem to understand is that engineers can't do what physics won't allow them to do.

"As far as the matter deflected from black holes, most material in the jet is moving relativistically. Hence the name, 'relativistic jet'. Even if only one molecule is moving relativistically, that is still an observed object that is moving close to the speed of light, thus proving my thesis."

Bull. Your thesis is that manmade artifacts can be made to move at relativistic velocities. What a million solar mass black hole can do says nothing whatsoever about what man can do.

"In 1901 they would have dismissed the notion that aircraft would, one day, surpass the speed of sound. Like I said, people overestimate what can be done in the short term, but often underestimate what can be done in the long term. You guys are doing the latter. Take the long view!"

More BS. Tsiolkovsky published his most well known work on rocketry and space travel in 1903. Contained in it are discussions of rockets traveling at many times the speed of sound. What Tsiolkovsky and all of those he inspired wanted to do could be done with chemical energy known at the time he was writing. The rest was just engineering.

But when we talk about relativistic travel and, for example, antimatter rockets, we don't have foreseeable tools and processes to do those things. There's no antimatter Tsiolkovsky or relativistic Goddard. We look at these things and can't think of how they could be done.

Tony said...

Brian:

"I feel passionately about this issue because I often see people commenting on this blog saying X or Y is "impossible" when (1) they don't even have a degree in the subject (nor do I) and (2) they are addressing engineering issues and acting as if they are fundamental science issues. I assure you that I have just as much knowledge on these things as any other layman would. Just because I come to a different conclusion doesn't mean I have less understanding, it means only that I have a different opinion."

Sorry, but you're wrong there. I may not have a degree in astronautical engineering, but I do have a scientific and technical education that allows me to follow the math where you apparently can't. You do have less understanding, Brian, and you're going to have to come to terms with it.

"There was no change in the basic laws of the universe between 1950 and 1973 that allowed men to land on the Moon. That was entirely an engineering issue."

In 1950 -- in fact in 1920 -- the means of landing on the Moon was understood in outline. The engineering proceeded from there.

"Engineering issues can be solved, over time.

The feasibility issues you mention involve engineering, not basic science. That means they can eventually be solved. For example, antimatter containment is a technological issue. There is ongoing research into it; recently they have been able to contain antimatter in a magnetic bubble for 15 minutes, at CERN."


Where does the energy come from to produce enough antimatter for a useful starship? Antimatter is just an energy storage medium, fundamentally. You have to produce the necessary energy somehow. If the solution is just engineering, presumably you can give us the theory of the machine that will do it, just like Tsiolkovsky could describe the theory of rockets that would put man in space.

"I suppose there will be another commenter who will say what CERN did was impossible. Well, go read the article. They did it. Not impossible. Just very difficult."

Noti mpossible -- just irrelevant to the scale of problem you calim is "just engineering".

"Of course, you don't need antimatter rockets to build human colonies on Mars; that can be done with existing chemical rockets."

You also seem to have a very shaky understanding of the difference between physically possible and economically realistic.

"Perhaps not by NASA of 2011 -- who needs tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars just to send someone to the ISS -- but a more competent organization, such as NASA of 1969 ("failure is not an option"), or The Mars Society of 2011, or SpaceX of 2011, could do it."

The NASA of 1969 was no smaller an organization than the NASA of today. Counting all of the contractors and subcontractors, it took approximately 400,000 people to put a man on the Moon. It also took an essentially Manhattan Project type effort, just one that was conducted out in the open.

"I would not expect the government to build colonies, anyway. That is not a function of government, in my opinion."

That's a philosophical position, not an economic or technical one. Get over yourself.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Brian/neutrino78x:

"(2) they are addressing engineering issues and acting as if they are fundamental science issues"

So here's a fundamental science issue.

The kinetic energy of a body going at a given velocity is:
E = m*c^2*(1/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)-1)
The energy of a given amount of matter and antimatter annihilating against each other is:
E = m*c^2
Notice something here? If gamma>=2 (corresponding to a speed of 86.6% c) then you're already carrying as much energy as if your ship was pure antimatter. 99.9999999999% c, as you said before, is absurd.

Of course, a ship's mass changes over time. Let's try the relativistic rocket equation:
deltav = c * tanh(exhaust/c * ln(total mass / dry mass))
Since we're trying to go with a very high speed here, we'll go all the way and assume an exhaust velocity equal to the speed of light. This makes the math simpler:
deltav = c * (total mass^2 - dry mass^2) / (total mass^2 + dry mass^2) = c * (mass ratio^2 - 1) / (mass ratio^2 + 1)
So, with a mass ratio of 2, you can go 60% c (gamma 1.25). With a mass ratio of 3, you can go 80% c (gamma 1.667). Note that mass ratio of 3 means you have equal parts matter fuel, antimatter fuel, and actual ship. And your time dilation still isn't that impressive - your crew will feel over half the time that passes from an external viewpoint.

This is assuming perfect efficiency in your antimatter reactions, since you didn't want mere engineering issues getting in the way. Practical rockets are going to be worse.

Just how much time dilation do we need anyway? Refer back to Scott:
"As a flat statement, I don't think you will ever see a mission lasting longer than 3 months. Yes, the Age of Sail trips lasted longer, but they stopped every so often (usually every 4-6 weeks at the longest). The longest deployment-without-port-visit I know of is in the neighborhood of 3 months. The longest deployment-with-port-visits I know of was 13 months, and it resulted in an abysmal morale and the retirement of the officer in charge!"
At 80% c / gamma 1.667, you're reducing the trip time to Alpha Centauri - completely ignoring acceleration phases, back on that in a moment - to 39.3 months. So, still three times the aforementioned longest deployment.

Of course, once you include acceleration phases, it gets even worse. After 12 months (shiptime) of acceleration at 1 gee, you will have achieved only 77% c (gamma 1.58), and a distance of 0.56 lightyears. Not getting anywhere! And this already takes a mass ratio of about 3. Even if your crew can endure the boredom, better get started on the next stage of your multistage antimatter rocket!

Once again setting sights for Alpha Centauri, a continuous 1 gee brachistochrone route would take you 43 months, and would need a mass ratio of a tad over 40. Yes, forty. These days we have to try our hardest just to get twenty, and we're not saddled with handling kilotons of antimatter.



Tony:

"Where does the energy come from to produce enough antimatter for a useful starship? Antimatter is just an energy storage medium, fundamentally. You have to produce the necessary energy somehow."

So yeah, I didn't even think to worry about that detail above. How much energy would we need to make the amounts of antimatter described above? Well, there's no specific mass given since no specific payload mass was agreed on, but I think "kilotons" is a reasonable estimate. How much energy does it take to make a kiloton of antimatter?

Well, E = m*c^2, of course, so that takes 90 zettajoules or 21.5 teratons of TNT. For comparison, this is about the amount of sunlight that strikes Earth over a span of 6 days. (All of it. Actually being able to tap all that energy would put us on the Kardashev scale.)

Anonymous said...

Brian: obviously you missunderstood what I said; I wasn't talking about time experianced onboard the spaceship (subjective time), but time experianced by an observor on Earth (objective time), which would be longer than 20 years for a trip of 20 light-years. Since you cannot instantly accelerate to near light-speed, it will take time to accelerate to near light speed and so that time accelerating will have to be taken into account when figuring your total trip time; sorry you were confused. :)

Ferrell

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Tony, I do, however, have a relatively high IQ, higher than most people, and I'm qualified in submarines. As a Navy man you should know what that means. And your degree is not in physics, astrophysics, etc., so you are just as much a layman on the subject as me. Plus you're the one who keeps claiming things "violate the laws of physics" when they do not. For example, contrary to what you said a while back, it does not violate the laws of physics for one to have a helicopter in their suburban backyard. So we'll just leave that where it is and let you "come to terms with that".

And, if you're right about NASA having the same amount of people in 1969, that just proves my point, not yours. Why can't they accomplish what they did then with the same number of people, given the superior computer technology available today??? Because they have become a bureaucratic elephant that is why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ferrel, yes, obviously, 20 years would pass on Earth, but not on the ship. The time to accelerate to the speed of light at 1 G acceleration (about one year) is included in the calculation. Taking that into account, as I said, it would be about 6 years travel according to the clock on the ship, if you accelerated/decelerated at 1 G the whole time. Yes, I know this is beyond our technology at this time.

It does not, however, violate the laws of physics. It could be done.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

(Imagine what Gene Krantz's NASA could accomplish today given modern supercomputers, laptops, PDAs etc. Not only in terms of mission control and engine design, but also how much smaller you can make all the electronics with the advent of the microprocessor. I think they could accomplish what SpaceX would do if SpaceX had the same level of funding as NASA. SpaceX of 2011 = NASA of 1969. The times they are a-changin)

Chris Lopes said...

While NASA may have the same number of people, it doesn't (and won't ever most likely) have the same relative number of dollars. Apollo was a cold war effort, put together to demonstrate the technological superiority of our system versus the Soviet one. It also had the advantage of being a project started by a popular president who became a martyr of sorts after he was slain. That gave the project an almost mythic glow that protected it from political realities. Even with all that, once the race was won, the project became politically vulnerable.

In any case,that combination of forces does not exist today, and may never exist again. Even without the bureaucratic issues you mentioned, there is no money for an Apollo sized effort to do anything. That is just the political and financial reality.

As to giving SpaceX NASA's budget, keep in mind that they are two different organizations with different priorities and responsibilities. SpaceX is about turning access to space into a profitable enterprise. NASA is about whatever Congress wants it to be about. That includes forcing NASA into developing a heavy lift launch system it can't afford and probably won't ever see fly.

Gnaskar said...

Accelerating to the speed of light at 1G takes 353 days, 16 hours and 51 minutes. At the level of abstraction involved here, we can call that a year and save ourselves some work. Over the course of that year, the ship will have traveled half a light year (for an outside observer). It needs half a light year to slow down on the other side, too, leaving 19 light years of cruise velocity. The cruise velocity is close enough to light speed to fall through the same crack the last three days of the first year did, meaning it cruises for 19 years (again, outside observer). 1 year to accelerate, 19 years cruising, 1 year to slow down equals 21 years.

That’s still extremely fast, people. Is it really worth it to fight over that single year?

The real issue here is whether it is physically possible for a macroscopic particle weighing at least the 60kg of a human adult to take such a trip. And the answer is yes. Physically possible means “possible according to the laws of nature”. There is no law of nature that prevents an object from moving at .999999999c. There is no law of nature that prevents an object from accelerating or decelerating smoothly at one G for a year.

Heck, it can be done with today’s level of technology. Simply build a rail gun half a light year long on either end and aim really carefully. Even if the rail gun weighs a metric ton per meter of length it would only require a 1000th of the Asteroid belt’s mass to construct both rail guns. The energy requirement, while 10 times greater than humanities current production, even before we account for relativity, is less than the remaining energy stored in fossil fuels and fissionable materials on Earth.

Yes, relativity needs to be accounted for. If the goal velocity is 0.99999999999999999999999c, as in the original claim by Brian/neutrino78x, then relativity increases the final kinetic energy, and hence power requirement, by a factor of 22 million. Even given He3 fusion, you’d be hard pressed to find that much energy in the solar system (this doesn’t make it impossible, however, just more expensive, as we’d need to strip mine multiple systems to do it). A more reasonable .999999999c only increases kinetic energy by a factor of 22 thousand. 0.999c would add only a year to the perceived travel and makes the final kinetic energy of our “star ship” only 22 times as much as the first estimate.

That would allow us to launch and slow down a 2500kg package with only the remaining energy stored in fossil fuels and fissionable materials on Earth.

The Moral of the Story

The above example is impossible. There is no way humanity would ever consider engaging in such a ridiculous exercise. The math completely ignores friction. While the appropriate amount of mass exists, there is no guaranty that the required materials are available and can be refined without the energy cost using up to much of the available power. You could probably pick holes in it all day if you wanted.

But that was never the point. The point was to demonstrate the difference between things that are impossible because physics says they are, and things that are impossible because no one has found a way to do it yet.

I guess my point is, recognize the difference between "impossible" and "not plausible in the next 50 years".
- From the post that started the thread derailment.

Gnaskar said...

“While NASA may have the same number of people, it doesn't (and won't ever most likely) have the same relative number of dollars.”

On the other hand, commercially available rockets have greatly reduced the cost of escaping the gravity well, and will by most accounts continue to do so, making NASA’s job cheaper. Assuming, of course, that they take advantage of this.

Compare:
http://www.spaceandtech.com/spacedata/elvs/atlas5_specs.shtml
http://www.spacex.com/falcon9.php

One of these rockets just launched the Curiosity rover at Mars. The other costs half as much, and can launch 30% more (The MSL was launched on an Atlas V 541, IIRC). And that’s not even a unique situation. The NASA leadership is more concerned with making sure the senators’ pet companies are given jobs to do than with saving money.

=====================
"So I want to toss this out to non-US readers in particular: Does the whole space colonization debate even seem salient, or just a parochial 'Murrican concern?"

In general, Norway isn't interested in space colonization. But then, we've never been a colonial power. Our space rhetoric, where any, is firmly rooted in the scientific value of space.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x:

We've been through all this before.

1. I think Herman Wouk was only slightly exagerating when he had one of his characters say: "The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots." I've been on several different Navy ships, remember, including two years assigned to a nuclear powered one. In general the system is monkey-see, monkey-do. Sailors are only taught the minimum level of theory to understand their practical jobs.

So, you being qualified in submarines says nothing about what you may or may not know WRT engineering physics.

2. I am a former Marine, not a "Navy man". Since you've been told this numerous times before, you are either very forgetful or simply rude. I refuse to speculate which.

3. I am manifestly not just as much a layman as you are, Brian. I have an education in the relevant math and physics, even if it wasn't primary to my eventual specialization in software. Furthermore, I have made a point of acquiring and studying the appropriate technical references.

You, on the other hand, are apparently very familiar with popular treatments of the coffee table book and Space Cadet web site type. They seem to stoke your enthusiasm, but they don't teach you anything relevant, or even realistic, for that matter.

4. It may not violate the laws of physics for somebody to have a helicopter in their back yard, but it violates realistic economics for that to be the case for at least 99% of the people. Similarly, it does not violate the laws of physics to have a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehcile. It does violate realistic economics to have one using chemical bipropellants.

IOW, physically possible and economically possible are not the same thing. Please come to terms with that.

5. The level of computer technology available has nothing to do with what a rocket can do, or what it costs to build and operate. The NASA budget between 1963 and 1969 averaged $28.6B/yr in constant 2007 dollars. The highest subsequent obligation was $19.7B, in 1991. In 1966, the NASA budget was 4.4% of the Federal budget. It hasn't been above 2% since 1969, and hasn't even reached 1% since 1993. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

6. Engine design has not noticeably improved since the 1970s. The Space Launch System 1st stage will in fact use a slightly modified SSME design.

7. Hoping for SpaceX to advance the state of the art shows just how little you do understand. SpaceX is all about highly conservative designs that in no way even approach the margins of the envelope of prior art. Their entire business model is that conservative designs can compete favorably with the cutting edge, because the cutting edge is only marginally better but costs a lot more.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Gnaskar:

"Accelerating to the speed of light at 1G takes 353 days, 16 hours and 51 minutes."

Under Newtonian mechanics, accelerating to 299792458 m/s as 9.81 m/s/s would indeed take the duration you listed.

Under relativity, this would only bring you to 76.16% the speed of light. (77.5% if you accelerate at exactly 1 g for 1 year, or 76.16% again if you accelerate at 1 lightyear/year^2 for 1 year.)


"Over the course of that year, the ship will have traveled half a light year (for an outside observer)."

Again, that's Newtonian mechanics. Here, relativity somehow actually does you one better - after one year of internal ship time (taking our 1 lightyear/year^2 acceleration for convenience), you'd have advanced 0.5431 lightyears. However, in this time, 1.1752 years (1 year, 2 months, and 3 or so days) will have passed from the point of view of Earth.

After 1 year of Earth time has passed, the ship has experienced 0.88 years (10.6 months) and progressed 0.4142 lightyears.


"It needs half a light year to slow down on the other side, too, leaving 19 light years of cruise velocity. The cruise velocity is close enough to light speed to fall through the same crack the last three days of the first year did, meaning it cruises for 19 years (again, outside observer). 1 year to accelerate, 19 years cruising, 1 year to slow down equals 21 years."

Ahem, last twelve days.

Anyway, the real numbers:
Acceleration phase (0.5431 lightyears) takes 1 year shiptime and 1.1752 years Earthtime.
Coast phase (18.9138 lightyears) takes 16.0941 years shiptime and 24.8345 years Earthtime
Deceleration phase (0.5431 lightyears) takes 1 year shiptime and 1.1752 years Earthtime.

Total trip takes 18.0941 years shiptime and 27.18494 years Earthtime.

Oh, and keep in mind that this ship, if fueled by 100% efficient matter-antimatter reactions, needs a mass ratio of 7.389.

In case you want exact numbers...

Distances:
0.5431 = cosh(1)-1
18.9138 = 22-2cosh(1)

Times:
1.1752 = sinh(1)
24.8345 = (22-2cosh(1))/tanh(1)
16.0941 = (22-2cosh(1))/sinh(1)

Speeds:
76.16% = tanh(1)


"That’s still extremely fast, people. Is it really worth it to fight over that single year?"

18 years subjective time to reach some of the nearest interesting stars is extremely fast?


"There is no law of nature that prevents an object from moving at .999999999c."

Aaaaaaargh.

0.999999999 c gives you kinetic energy equal to 22359.68 times your mass energy. To reach 0.999999999 c with an antimatter torch rocket, you need a mass ratio of 44721.36. This means 22360.18 tons of antimatter for every ton of payload.

Once again, it is simple and plain impossible unless you find an energy source that is vastly more efficient than antimatter.

Just that the particular laws of nature you're looking at don't prevent what you're trying to do, doesn't mean there aren't any laws that do.

And yeah, it could be that new laws of physics discovered in the future could allow us to do something we currently consider impossible, even FTL travel. But then don't try to use current physics to support your claim.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Gnaskar:

"Heck, it can be done with today’s level of technology. Simply build a rail gun half a light year long on either end and aim really carefully."

Ahem, what.

Building structures half a lightyear long is present-day technology? Please link me to a contractor offering such services.

Where would you even find the materials for that?

Earth's volume is 1.08321*10^12 km^3. (Not all of that is iron, which you'd want for your railgun, but I can't be bothered to track down how much of it is.) If you take the entire Earth and stretch it out like silly putty across half a lightyear, you'd be left with a cross-section of 0.229 km^2. Split that across two cylindrical rails, and each would have a diameter of 191 meters. That might not sound too bad, but on the scale we're talking about it's not much (0.04 picolightyears, 636.8 lightnanoseconds), and remember we just dismantled our home.


"Even if the rail gun weighs a metric ton per meter of length it would only require a 1000th of the Asteroid belt’s mass to construct both rail guns."

Oh, okay. One ton per meter of length? If you're using iron, that makes for a cross section of around 1/8th m^2, so a per-rail diameter of 14 centimeters. You expect that to be up to resisting the mechanical stresses we'll be facing?


"0.999c"

Yeah, much more reasonable. Now we're down to a mass ratio of 44.71. So you only need 21.855 tons of antimatter per ton of ship. And your rocket is still a challenge to build even with a multistage design.


"That would allow us to launch and slow down a 2500kg package with only the remaining energy stored in fossil fuels and fissionable materials on Earth."

Oh wow. You're using the entire available energy stores of Earth, sacrificing the continued viability of human civilization, to launch a spaceship that weighs less than a single elephant? The Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module were each heavier than that (nevermind the rest of the craft), and they were cramped even for 2/3 people with life support to last for only a few days.


"The Moral of the Story

The above example is impossible. There is no way humanity would ever consider engaging in such a ridiculous exercise."


Oh, hmm. Maybe I should have read to the end of the post :)


"The math completely ignores friction."

...Friction? In space? That's the last of your worries.

I mean sure, there's some friction from the interstellar medium, but, seriously...


"But that was never the point. The point was to demonstrate the difference between things that are impossible because physics says they are, and things that are impossible because no one has found a way to do it yet."

Fusion is something that physics says is possible, but we haven't found a way to do yet. Antimatter is something that physics says is possible, but we haven't found a way to do yet. Energy sources thousands of times more efficient than antimatter are something that current physics not only has no idea how to accomplish, but actively implies should be impossible. (E=m*c^2 says that anything with that much energy in it would automatically also weigh a lot.) Now, some new physical principle that provides a workaround might someday be discovered. But it's not the same thing.

Raymond said...

Milo:

A small quibble - the difficulty of large-scale antimatter production and fusion power are matters of efficiency and containment at this point - not to say that either are particularly easy, nor necessarily within possibility given current understanding.

Thread-at-large:

I'm also emphatically NOT trivializing the engineering difficulties - I rather hate it when people do so. Engineering is not just something which "can be solved, over time". It's sorting through all applicable physical laws to solve a problem, including and especially those not initially taken into account. In fact, engineers usually have harder jobs than the theorists - what's more difficult, deriving Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation (a simple enough integration, once arranged suitably - not to trivialize his work, either, since said arrangement required understanding and creativity) or finding the near-optimal shape of a rocket engine exhaust bell for a first stage?

And Brian/neutrino78x:

"The feasibility issues [...] involve engineering, not basic science. That means they can eventually be solved."

Frankly, horseshit. Basic science doesn't preclude the existence or necessity of more advanced or specialized science. A lack of suitable materials or processes at present does not in any way there will ever be such in the future, given our limits of scale and efficiency (those limits deriving from our existence as humans and our location on this planet with its deep gravity well).

Raymond said...

[Edit:

"A lack of suitable materials or processes at present does not in any way there will ever be such in the future",

should read:

"A lack of suitable materials or processes at present for some outcome does not in any way imply there will ever be such in the future..."

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple more new commenters!

I think there is a fair amount of stumbling over different senses of 'impossible.' I don't think 'violates basic laws of physics' is the only reasonable connotation of the word, but given the discussions here, it is probably better not to use 'impossible' in the sense of merely absurdly unlikely.

And please, will a couple of commenters back off a bit. 'I'm smarter than you are,' or variations thereon, are really annoying, not to mention coming off a bit stupid.

Other than that, carry on!

Tony said...

Rick:

"And please, will a couple of commenters back off a bit. 'I'm smarter than you are,' or variations thereon, are really annoying, not to mention coming off a bit stupid."

With all respect, Rick, when somebody asserts that you don't know what you know, on no better evidence than they hope it's true, that requires a response. I did not mean to give the impression that I thought I was smarter than Brian. But I do emphatically mean to suggest that he is ignorant and needs to learn.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Raymond:

"A small quibble - the difficulty of large-scale antimatter production and fusion power are matters of efficiency and containment at this point - not to say that either are particularly easy, nor necessarily within possibility given current understanding."

Two things. First, I was not criticizing the viability of creating large quantities of antimatter (I am willing for the sake of discussion to write this off as an "engineering issue", since it at least seems to be possible by science-as-we-know-it), but rather the viability of carrying those large quantities of antimatter onboard a ship.

Second, even with 50% efficiency, there is a hard upper limit on the amount of antimatter you can create with a given input energy. Beyond that point, improved antimatter manufacture would require an overall increase in the amount of energy available to human civilization, just just a better antimatter production technique. (And yes, I said 50% efficiency, because that's the theoretical maximum. Half the energy you spend is going to be wasted on making cheap matter rather than antimatter. Though, of course, only half your rocket's fuel needs to be antimatter to begin with, for exactly the same reasons...)

While this hypothetical 50% efficient antimatter production facility would give us enough antimatter to be useful for numerous applications, it would not give us enough for interstellar travel.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Gah! "just just" -> "not just". Bah.

Raymond said...

Milo:

That's what I figured you meant, but since we're all splitting hairs with electron microscope here, I thought I'd get clarification.

Thucydides said...

Spacecraft engine design hasn't progressed much since the 1970 since:

a. there hasn't been much demand for new high performance engines, and;

b. Engine design has reached a plateau.

This is a bit like diesel engine technology, although there are lots of interesting designs like the Napier Deltic and Napier Nomad (go ahead and Google them, you'll be amazed at the convoluted designs) that have extreme performance, they are so specialized and extreme that there is no general market for these types of engines.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Spacecraft engine design hasn't progressed much since the 1970 since:

a. there hasn't been much demand for new high performance engines, and;

b. Engine design has reached a plateau.

This is a bit like diesel engine technology, although there are lots of interesting designs like the Napier Deltic and Napier Nomad (go ahead and Google them, you'll be amazed at the convoluted designs) that have extreme performance, they are so specialized and extreme that there is no general market for these types of engines."


The operating conditions of rocket-powered flight are so "extreme" that almost anything that actually improved performance would be put to use. The reason engines haven't significantly improved in either efficiency or power is because the technology pretty much matured with the SSME. Even the RD-180 that powers the very successful Atlas V is just a 1980s vintage Rd-170 split in half.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

We're probably not going to see any real efficiency or power gains until and unless we can cheaply build variable-geometry nozzles or carbon-nanotube throats.

Anonymous said...

Technology does not progress in a smooth curve, but in spurts and sprints. We could have a break-through in rocket technology next week, or the next millinium; we just don't know.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Tony

While I agree rocket engines operate in a pretty extreme flight regime, there have been lots of advances in material science, control electronics, computer modeling etc. that together could have added up to measurable performance gains. I recall reading that so called "fuzzy logic" could be applied to the SSME controls to boost power output (although I'm not exactly clear how this was supposed to work).

IMHO the reason these improvements haven't been incorporated is there is no real "market" for increased performance engines right now, and hasn't been for quite some time. The engines that do exist have long track records and their R&D costs must have been amortized decades ago. SpaceX has no need or desire to invest in expensive and risky new technology either (as you often remind us), the "stages combustion" engine they mention on their web page can fail since the Merlin engine does work and the Falcon design is pretty flexible.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

Redesigning the J-2 engine with 21st Century technology, they were only able to approximate baseline SSME performance:

Isp (vac):
SSME = 452; J-2X = 448

Thrust:Weight (vac):
SSME = 66:1; J-2X = 55:1

The dirty little secret of power technology is that it has been pretty much moribund for over twenty years. There have been a lot of marginal gains around the edges, but nothing really significant.

Ferrell:

Rapid advances in performance require new principles to which engineering development has yet to be applied. With chemical rocketry that ship sailed decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Tony, I seem to remember that a new, unforseen nitrogen compound was described just a few months ago that (while not allowing SSTO), should increase rocket performance to a significant degree; even though you vehemently deny this will be the case. :0

Just because you or I pronounce a technology is mature and cannot be improved upon, does not mean it is, or that it will not be replaced by something better. ;)

Ferrell

Jim Baerg said...

"Rapid advances in performance require new principles to which engineering development has yet to be applied. With chemical rocketry that ship sailed decades ago."

I have a quibble about that.

Sometime in the last few years Rick observed that railway speed plateaued at about 100 km/hr in the late 19th century, then in the late 20th century increased again with the Japanese Bullet trains & the French TGV to the range of 200 to 300 km/hr. This increase wasn't due to a radical new principle, but mostly just to taking the trouble to build rail lines with more gentle curves where they couldn't just make the railway completely straight.

Similarly, without any radical new technology in rocketry, maybe someone will reduce the cost to LEO with something like this proposal.
http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/rocketaday.html

jollyreaper said...

A good point there. We don't have a need to loft gigatons of cargo per year so nobody is going to build rockets to meet a need that isn't there. It typically takes something big like a government program to drive that need. Once it's there, people will take advantage of it from there.

We only loft a limited number of sats per year and the aerospace companies are doing well with that. Government decides to pay for ramping up production like this, industry will find a use for it.

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Tony, I seem to remember that a new, unforseen nitrogen compound was described just a few months ago that (while not allowing SSTO), should increase rocket performance to a significant degree; even though you vehemently deny this will be the case. :0

Just because you or I pronounce a technology is mature and cannot be improved upon, does not mean it is, or that it will not be replaced by something better. ;)"


Trinitramid? AFAICT, it's like diamond rocket nozzles -- it would be great if we could have enough of it at a reasonable price...

I'm not pronouncing chemical rocketry mature. I'm simply observing that on the available evidence it in fact is. Also, when you have John Shannon, the manager of the (supposedly reusable) Shuttle program tell a presidential commission that "reusability is a myth", in a public meeting, that's pretty final.

"I have a quibble about that.

Sometime in the last few years Rick observed that railway speed plateaued at about 100 km/hr in the late 19th century, then in the late 20th century increased again with the Japanese Bullet trains & the French TGV to the range of 200 to 300 km/hr. This increase wasn't due to a radical new principle, but mostly just to taking the trouble to build rail lines with more gentle curves where they couldn't just make the railway completely straight.

Similarly, without any radical new technology in rocketry, maybe someone will reduce the cost to LEO with something like this proposal.
http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/rocketaday.html"


Shinkansen and TGV are about more than just track alignment and grading. They require high speed brakes, high speed aerodynamics, electrical pantographs that would work at such high speed, and other things.

WRT rocket-a-day, the concept almost hilariously underestimates the difficulty of mounting even a single launch campaign. The example of the closely spaced serial Soyuz launches totally ignores that each rocket spent weeks in prep and that the closely spaced launches were carefully planned and prepared propaganda stunts undertaken within the context of quasi-wartime conditions, much like the 4-day Liberty ship.

"A good point there. We don't have a need to loft gigatons of cargo per year so nobody is going to build rockets to meet a need that isn't there. It typically takes something big like a government program to drive that need. Once it's there, people will take advantage of it from there.

We only loft a limited number of sats per year and the aerospace companies are doing well with that. Government decides to pay for ramping up production like this, industry will find a use for it."


What can you do in space that would justify such an outrageous investment? Nothing that isn't pie-in-the-sky BS.

jollyreaper said...


What can you do in space that would justify such an outrageous investment? Nothing that isn't pie-in-the-sky BS.


That's a good question at this point in time. If I had solid ideas on that I'd be writing novels.

I'm curious to see how the libertarian artificial island idea goes. In terms of expense, difficulty and political mucking about, it would still be a lot cheaper than trying to setup space colonies.

To my way of thinking, the situation we're talking about is like asking what use aviation is aside from doing barnstorming like a traveling circus and not being able to anticipate FedEx and the ability to overnight a package from one coast to the other. You need to get to airports being built and passenger jets invented before you can talk about FedEx being a viable business model.

Interestingly enough, I read another report saying that if you add up the profits and losses for air travel over the years and adjust for inflation, the major carriers have all netted out to just about zero. So to a naysayer from the early 20th century, they'd have been proven right about air travel being a poor business model but one that we went ahead and did anyway.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I'm curious to see how the libertarian artificial island idea goes. In terms of expense, difficulty and political mucking about, it would still be a lot cheaper than trying to setup space colonies."

I'm entirely uninterested. AFAIAC, libertarians live in a fantasy world.

"To my way of thinking, the situation we're talking about is like asking what use aviation is aside from doing barnstorming like a traveling circus and not being able to anticipate FedEx and the ability to overnight a package from one coast to the other. You need to get to airports being built and passenger jets invented before you can talk about FedEx being a viable business model."

I think the big problem people have is understanding that the cost of the launch is marginal to the cost of operating in space. It's 10% or less of the overall TCO of the spacecraft. Reduce the cost not just by a few percent, but by 90%, and people deciding whether or not to operate in space are left with almost the same prospective bill. Expanding and lowering the cost of launch operations is almost totally irrelevant to the demand for space capabilities.

"Interestingly enough, I read another report saying that if you add up the profits and losses for air travel over the years and adjust for inflation, the major carriers have all netted out to just about zero. So to a naysayer from the early 20th century, they'd have been proven right about air travel being a poor business model but one that we went ahead and did anyway."

Those average returns include among them significant profits. People just didn't go ahead and do it for no reason.

jollyreaper said...


I'm entirely uninterested. AFAIAC, libertarians live in a fantasy world.


I would tend to agree but political separatists are one of the space colonization scenarios trotted out. And if separatists can't make a go of it on Earth, it would be that much more impossible in space.

I think the big problem people have is understanding that the cost of the launch is marginal to the cost of operating in space. It's 10% or less of the overall TCO of the spacecraft.

How exactly are you computing that? I'm not just talking fuel cost, I mean everything. If you expend the vehicle, launch cost. If you have to expensively and exactingly rebuild most of it for the next launch, still a cost. I think every vehicle currently in operation is 100% expendable at this point.

Are you saying that for something like Curiosity, of the $2.5 billion pricetag, maybe $100 million was for the rocket to get it into space so if the launch was completely free we're still looking at $2.4 billion?

Anonymous said...

Of the two, Clarke's future now strikes me as far closer to a plausible midfuture than Heinlein's.

I find that Clarke's future is more realistic in terms of the way we know things to be (Mars and Venus aren't habitable), but that Heinlein's future is more realistic in terms of being the kind of universe in which such things could actually happen: Without another habitable world within a reasonable distance, there's simply not much realistic motivation to strike out into space.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"To my way of thinking, the situation we're talking about is like asking what use aviation is aside from doing barnstorming like a traveling circus and not being able to anticipate FedEx and the ability to overnight a package from one coast to the other. You need to get to airports being built and passenger jets invented before you can talk about FedEx being a viable business model."

The problem is, the economic viability of aerial package and passenger transport is reliant on there already being major settlements on both coasts.

Sean said...

Tony said: "I'm not pronouncing chemical rocketry mature. I'm simply observing that on the available evidence it in fact is. Also, when you have John Shannon, the manager of the (supposedly reusable) Shuttle program tell a presidential commission that "reusability is a myth", in a public meeting, that's pretty final."

There are many authorities who would argue with Shannon's words regarding spacecraft re-usability, namely the engineers of Reaction Engines Limited who so far have millions, and potentially billions, on the line in their bid to prove that a claim such as Shannon's is incorrect.

Tony said...

jollyreaper

"I would tend to agree but political separatists are one of the space colonization scenarios trotted out. And if separatists can't make a go of it on Earth, it would be that much more impossible in space."

I think there's enough evidence to suggest that separatism will not be model for human habitation in space for well into this millenia.

"How exactly are you computing that? I'm not just talking fuel cost, I mean everything. If you expend the vehicle, launch cost. If you have to expensively and exactingly rebuild most of it for the next launch, still a cost. I think every vehicle currently in operation is 100% expendable at this point."

Well, first things first. Spacecraft operators don't buy rockets. They buy launch services. The rocket, the boost protective cover, the propellants, even a lot of the flight software are single-use consumables ownedor acquired by the launch services provider and expended in the provision of the service. When somebody quotes you that x-vehicle costs so much per pound to put something in orbit, what they're saying is that the retail price tag of the launch service -- with development and costs and other overhead rolled up into it -- divided by the weight of the payload, is so many dollars.

The most expensive expendable US LV (Titan III, IIRC, but I could be wrong) was figured to cost something like $10,000 a pound, in mid-1980s dollars. A satellite itself could cost that much per pound at the low end, and go as high as $100,000 a pound. Just recently, the USAF awarded LockMart a $260M contract as a down payment on a single surveillance satellite. And that's not counting the cost of ground operations throughout the satellite's service life.

"Are you saying that for something like Curiosity, of the $2.5 billion pricetag, maybe $100 million was for the rocket to get it into space so if the launch was completely free we're still looking at $2.4 billion?"

I think $2.5B is supposed to be the total program cost. According to Encyclopedia Astronautica the launch price of an Atlas V is $138M. Even if you figure the entire launch campaign to cost twice as much, that works out to 11% of the overall program cost. Launch the thing for absolutely nothing and the program is still in the multi-billion dollar range.

See, space enthusiasts have been conditioned by their so-called "leaders" to think that the problem is launch costs. Far from it. The problem is that space is hard, and very expensive, no matter how you cut it.

Tony said...

Sean:

"There are many authorities who would argue with Shannon's words regarding spacecraft re-usability, namely the engineers of Reaction Engines Limited who so far have millions, and potentially billions, on the line in their bid to prove that a claim such as Shannon's is incorrect."

People invest millions in Kistler, and Rotary Rocket too. The SSTO industry is selling a philosophical position as if it were engineering. John Shannon is stating engineering facts, damn the philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Tony, when you were in the sevice, were you in charge of the anti-aircraft battery? 'Cuz you're really good at shooting things down...

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

Rick, blogger glitched (or my finger twitched), so could you remove the duplicate post for me? Thanks and sorry.

Ferrell

Sean said...

Tony said: "People invest millions in Kistler, and Rotary Rocket too. The SSTO industry is selling a philosophical position as if it were engineering. John Shannon is stating engineering facts, damn the philosophy."

I honestly can't imagine a multi-billion dollar company such as Lockheed Martin investing in philosophy. Obviously when they went about designing the X-33 they felt that there was a profit to made in such a vehicle.

Thucydides said...

WRT the X-33, it was a cost plus contract which was also constantly renegotiated as benchmarks moved and deadlines were missed.

I don't think LockMart was in much danger of losing money...

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Tony, when you were in the sevice, were you in charge of the anti-aircraft battery? 'Cuz you're really good at shooting things down..."

Just a grunt, specialized in machine guns. But that does have an element of properly identifying and effectively engaging the target.

And my objective is not to shoot things down for the sake of shooting things down. My objective is to inject an appreciation of the real state of the art and the real potential for change in it.

Tony said...

Sean:

"I honestly can't imagine a multi-billion dollar company such as Lockheed Martin investing in philosophy. Obviously when they went about designing the X-33 they felt that there was a profit to made in such a vehicle."

Thucydides:

"WRT the X-33, it was a cost plus contract which was also constantly renegotiated as benchmarks moved and deadlines were missed.

I don't think LockMart was in much danger of losing money..."


LockMart did put almost $400M of their own money into it. But otherwise, yes, they were guaranteed a return on the government portion of the financing.

What they found out though is that there's no magic to shortcut basic physics. The composite tankage was lighter per cubic inch, but they had to add a lot more cubic inches of it than they had originally planned, in order to make it strong enough to work. The rocket engines made the craft way tail heavy, so they had to add mass to the nose in order for it to fly at all, much les stabilly. And then there's the fundamental problem of building a machine that has to perform in two entirely different dynamic environments, with the gravity gradient enforced at entriely different angles in each one.

Now, looking at the Skylon conceptual designs, it seems like they've though all of that through, including tankage much closer to cylinders in shape, placing the engines at the apparent center of mass, and requiring the vehicle to manage the gravity gradient through only one axis. But I'm still skeptical that they'll make their crown jewel, the Sabre engine, work in practice. If they do, I'll be the first to congratulate them.

Thucydides said...

Skylon is an update of a dream proposed back in the late '40s, early 50's for an Aerospace plane. The USAF put a lot of money into a concept called LACE (Liquid Air Cycle Engine) which liquified incoming air, extracted the O2 and used that in combustion with the LH2 fuel.

The ungodly mass of tanks, plumbing and compressors would have been a huge nightmare to operate on a day to day basis, but some test engines were indeed made and bench tested. Considering that a half century has passed (OK 30 years if you count HOTOL) before any workable new hardware could be made should give you a pause.

Using Skylon type technology to cool incoming air seems to have more promise for high performance jets, USAF and the RAF might be interested in long range bombers, UCAVs and cruise missiles powered by this sort of engine. The utility for space launch would be in combining a high performance jet mother plane (using a Skylon type engine) to launch a SpaceShip Two type space vehicle.

My take anyway.

Rick said...

The X-33 is a case in point here: a test of whether a radically different approach would pay off - and it didn't.

The basic problem, as Tony notes, is that space technology is extremely expensive. And at our techlevel this cost is intrinsic. It is more like medical technology than stamping out cars - clean rooms, that sort of thing.

Throw in minimal production runs and a huge amount of development and prototyping, and you have ideal conditions for high costs.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's the model we should strive for; the automotive industry's high volume-standardized design type of business that sells vehicles instead of mission enablers.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

High volume only works if there are lots of customers...

SSTO was a way to get around this by using the same spacecraft multiple times, but we all know how that has worked so far (or is likely to work for the foreseeable future, barring unexpected developments in materials science or engine technology).

The only other practical ways to bring costs down would be to figure out how to lower the R&D and hardware costs of the actual space vehicles, rovers etc. and drastically reduce the manning needed to prepare and supervise space vehicles and missions (Jerry Pournelle once pointed out that airlines used an average of @ 100 people/airplane, and that included ticket agents...compare that to the vast standing army required for the Space Shuttle).

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Maybe that's the model we should strive for; the automotive industry's high volume-standardized design type of business that sells vehicles instead of mission enablers."

You're thinking at the wrong scale. Space launch is a transportation service. The spacecraft operator wants a spacecraft on-orbit. Getting it there is important, obviously, but the operator doesn't want to get involved in that business. So it's much more like airlines, railroads, and shipping than it is like private cars or even delivery trucks. Let the service provider worry about hardware and the details of its operation; I, as the spacecraft operator, just want to get the thing in space.

Anonymous said...

Tony said:"You're thinking at the wrong scale. Space launch is a transportation service. The spacecraft operator wants a spacecraft on-orbit. Getting it there is important, obviously, but the operator doesn't want to get involved in that business. So it's much more like airlines, railroads, and shipping than it is like private cars or even delivery trucks. Let the service provider worry about hardware and the details of its operation; I, as the spacecraft operator, just want to get the thing in space."

Hmmm...I'll have to think about that; thanks, Tony.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

Rick, please delete the duplicate post; thank you.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Done!

Anonymous said...

Rick, Thank-you!

Tony, how about this for a business model; build a very few reusable surface to orbit vehicles (that unlike the shuttle, do have a 30 day turn-around), a lean support and mission control structure, and run the business like Fedex; don't care what you're hauling, you just haul it. A regular schedule, (and with even just marginally cheaper rates), I think you might make a go of it. Like you said, think of it as a trucking or airline company, rather than a car company. Yellow Cab to orbit, instead of U-Haul.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

First you have to have the technology to do it. I'm firmly with John Shannon on this one: reusability is a myth. When it ceases to be a myth, then I would agree that that is a viable model.

WRT the reusability mythology and the real world, in the real world the Soviets/Russians, who know a lot more about this than we do -- in the same way that a chauffer knows more about cars than his boss, who only drives when he takes his roadster out on weekends -- never even considered reusability when they were launching 30+ Soyuz and 10+ proton a year. They only developed Buran as a keeping up with the Joneses project, and then only because they had a (sometimes highly unjustified) inferiority complex WRT the US. I find that significant.

Thucydides said...

Looking at the SpaceX site's blurbs on reusability, I first thought they had lost their marbles; this isn't even remotely possible with any current technology, nor are the vehicles of a form factor that would make VTOL easy (short squat cylinders would feel less stress and be less inclined to buckle under the stress).

It occurs to me there is an element of misinformation here, to flummox their competitors. The real R&D objective may simply to make their vehicles much more rugged and reliable, opening up a wider range of launch windows and payload options. My .02 anyway.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Looking at the SpaceX site's blurbs on reusability, I first thought they had lost their marbles; this isn't even remotely possible with any current technology, nor are the vehicles of a form factor that would make VTOL easy (short squat cylinders would feel less stress and be less inclined to buckle under the stress).

It occurs to me there is an element of misinformation here, to flummox their competitors. The real R&D objective may simply to make their vehicles much more rugged and reliable, opening up a wider range of launch windows and payload options. My .02 anyway."


I think it's more rationally explained as managerial fiat diverting organizational resources in unprofitable directions, kind of like You Know Who insisting that all bombers have dive bombing capabilities.

jollyreaper said...

I think it's more rationally explained as managerial fiat diverting organizational resources in unprofitable directions, kind of like You Know Who insisting that all bombers have dive bombing capabilities.

What would a dark wizard need with a bomber?

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"What would a dark wizard need with a bomber?"

Sigh. Just in case you're being serious, "You Know Who" was an oblique reference to a historical character, not to a literary one.

In any case, I'm primarily posting to note that Paul Allen topday announced a semi-realistic, partly-reusable launch vehicle. It involes a large carrier aircraft lifting an expendable two-stage LV to altitude for launch, much like Orbital Science's Pegasus. Except the Allen project will involve what appears to be a cut-down Space-X Falcon with a Dragon capsule. Go to http://stratolaunchsystems.com/ for details.

jollyreaper said...


Sigh. Just in case you're being serious, "You Know Who" was an oblique reference to a historical character, not to a literary one.


Ok. What would Saint Francis of Assisi need with a bomber?

Tony said...

D!ckhead. :-P

Thucydides said...

Very clever!

The sadder truth is the dive bombing requirement was set by the RLM (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), and applied uncritically to every bomber design including medium bombers like the JU-88 and heavy bombers like the HE-177 (which was similar in size to a B-24).

You don't need mad dictators when you can have clueless bureaucrats!

Anonymous said...

Myself, I beleive whole heartedly in the essential necessity of colonising space, or atleast being able to obtain its resources;the only reason to find out about it is to better utilize it, whether this is possible in the 'mid-future' is debatable. As an Australian however, I'm not so sure, we're well known for our over-the-top rampant mine 'n sell ways, but at the same time there seems to be a sullen lack of enthusiasm to DO anything in space. Sure, we had our time in the limelight, hosting some pretty sick telescopes and the like, with another large array being constructed in the wilderness of WA. We love space, but just don't seem to want to GO there anytime soon, or just genuinely can't be bothered.

As an expat living in Dubai however, I can say that that often underestimated motive of 'cause I can' can drive people to do some spectacular things. In the past few years of my stay here, I've seen the Burj Khalifa rise, despite ridiculous over-budget costs and a complete lack of clients, and OTT shows that no doubt cost more than they're worth. The UAE also seems to be interested in space, having only been around for a few decades, the country has invested in companies such as 'Virgin Galactic', and are busy designing their own satellites. I remember even reading somewhere about talk of a commercial 'space port' being planned for Abu Dhabi, although with the downturn I'm not so sure anymore.

Anonymous said...

Space colonization idea is still fairly popular in Russia, more or less Soviet legacy. And Soviet concept of space colony is very simple - research base grows into town when everybody drags their families there.

Rick said...

Which is actually rather plausible, at least if dragging the families along is kinda sorta affordable.

Also, welcome to the comment threads! I do encourage 'anonymous' commenters to use a name or handle, simply to avoid confusion about who said what.