Friday, December 7, 2012

A Song of Fire and Ice

As you might guess from the image, this post is not about the George RR Martin fantasy - a work that ought to be right in my wheelhouse, but with which I have had only a glancing encounter.*

The subject is, instead, the planet Mercury, the latest subject of exploration news from NASA. And unlike our previous exciting episode, which - alas! - turned out to be exiguous, this finding seems more solidly grounded. Sky & Telescope, which notably avoided the 'earthshaking' Mars story**, unabashedly reported the Mercury news.

After all, there is less impulse toward hype: People have not spent the last hundred years breathlessly speculating about ice on Mercury.

In fact, for about half of that hundred years, Mars was believed to be fully tide-locked, and ice on the eternal-night side would not have been all that surprising. Even so, the whole idea of ice on Mercury evokes the proverbial snowball's chance in Hell, and all that. Even though Venus turned out to be the Solar System's real hell.

Mercury did not get much love from rocketpunk-era SF. A quick google shows that Asimov went there, disguised as 'Paul French,' in Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury. I probably read it, but do not remember it. Asimov's strengths, unlike Heinlein's, did not lend themselves to juvenile fiction.

If Clarke or Heinlein ever went there, I blinked and missed the trip. Mostly I just remember throwaway mentions of bases or outposts on Mercury.

The problem with Mercury, in SF and for actual human exploration, is not so much its surface conditions, which can fairly be called challenging, nor the fairly steep orbit required to get there. It is the problem of that Big Sun, blazing with ever-greater intensity as you drop toward Mercury's orbit.

The Messenger spacecraft uses a sunshade for protection, and human missions would certainly do the same. Deploying the sunshade is probably easier than they imagined in rocketpunk days, and shouldn't require spacewalks. This is good. But of course if deployment fails for any reason, things will get terminally unpleasant on board.

One good point about going to Mercury is that solar electric power does just fine - and in fact could have about ten times the acceleration in Mercury space that it does at 1 AU.

The combination of plentiful ice - a quantity of H2O reportedly somewhere between Lake Tahoe and Lake Erie - and very plentiful insolation invites speculation about an industrial future for Mercury. Mercury's high density also suggests that heavier elements are plentiful, perhaps even near the surface.

Of course I am going to pour cold water on that. (If in shadow it will freeze into ice; otherwise it will boil away.)

Going to Mercury will be difficult, and therefore expensive. Going there cheaply, on a large enough scale for significant industrialization, will take orders of magnitude of technical progress. And with that level of progress we might not need to mine stuff on Mercury anyway.

We may not go to Mercury at all, in person that is, at any rate not in the midfuture. It may simply be easier and a lot safer to explore robotically.

On the other hand, I do not expect that the human presence in the Solar System will develop the way people imagined in the 1950s. Mercury could turn out to have more of interest than worlds we imagined as more promising, and turn out to be a thriving center of activity in a few hundred years.

* My two off-putting grumps about that other Song of Fire and Ice:
Stark and Lannister. I have no problem with riffing off real history, but the noble houses of York and Lancaster are not, shall we say, associated with a successful politics. This of course is no bar to successful fiction - it certainly didn't stop Shakespeare. But I will stick with the equally lurid and much more effective Tudors (or even pseudo-Tudors), thank you very much.

Winter is Coming. The motto of the noble Starks translates as Darker and Edgier. Again, thanks but no thanks.

** As it turns out, Curiosity has found 'simple organic compounds.' Alas, they were probably cooked up by the SAM experiment's chemical oven.

(Planets and books are both fair game here.)

The image comes from a website called, accurately if not imaginatively,

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Great NASA Mars Tease?

A curious little story popped up on a number of geek-oriented websites a few days ago, just as all good 'Murricans were preparing to stuff ourselves with turkey.

During an interview with NPR - National Public Radio, our boutique nod to noncommercial broadcasting - John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover science team, let drop an interesting little hint. An instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) had showed results 'earthshaking' results.

SAM contains chemical sensors, and part of its job is looking for, well, signs of organic chemistry. Said Grotzinger, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Which, apparently, is all we are going to get, at least for now. The story at io9 says only that we will have to wait a few weeks for actual, checked-out results. The version at CNET says that the official findings will be released during the American Geophysical Union conference, December 3-7, here in San Francisco. (Earthshaking?)

The usual provisos apply. NASA has been known to jump the gun in the past. The Curiosity mission itself already had one false alarm, when methane was detected. Methane on Earth is largely biogenic. (The largest single source is said to be cattle farts.) Alas, the methane in question may well have been bovine, since it evidently went to Mars along with the rover itself.

Also, one news outlet that conspicuously did not carry the story was Sky & Telescope. Aimed at informed laypeople, it is my usual go-to site for allegedly Awesome Cosmic News. The given facts about Grotzinger's NPR interview are not in doubt. Whether it means what everyone thinks it could mean another matter.

Which is why I am, for now, describing the whole thing as a tease. Dropping a hint just before a national holiday, on a radio show with a small if upscale audience, is just the sort of thing you do when you think you might have dynamite, but don't want to put your neck too far out in case it doesn't pan out.

Chances are that it will come to nothing, such as instrumental error. Or that it will come to something important, in a scientific sense ... but not Life On Mars.

And even if there is, it might be colonists from Earth who got there aboard spacecraft. Just like a 1950s story, except microbes instead of people. The mission profile is a lot easier, and we probably haven't scrubbed all those probes quite as thoroughly as we might have.

Or, on the other hand ... perhaps we just hit the jackpot.


Update: "Big Oops!"

Well, at least according to Slate, it turns out that this whole story was - wait for it - a misunderstanding. According to NASA

What Grotzinger was actually trying to convey is that Curiosity’s data over her entire two-year mission will further our knowledge of Mars more than ever before, making it a historical mission.

The Slate piece goes on to say that the findings to be reported at the American Geophysical Union meeting are merely 'interesting,' not earth-shaking.

From a strictly San Francisco perspective, this is arguably good news.

Needless to say, the temptation to be conspiratorial about all this is irresistable. (I called it a tease, after all!) But it is probably another case where one should not attribute to malice that which is explainable by stupidity.

Not stupidity, exactly, but over-eagerness. Anyone who doesn't think it would be Awesome to find evidence of life on Mars has no business reporting on the Curiosity mission, much less being part of it. It would be the least of surprises if a boilerplate comment about How Cool This Mission Is took on a life of its own.

Having said that, something still could very well turn up. And how cool would that be?

The teasing image, of Titian's Mars, Venus, and Love, seems to come from an art reproduction website.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Space Election? (in lieu of 'Rix Pix 2012')

President Obama  

Since I first went online I have had a custom of writing up my forecasts for US election results as 'Rix Pix' - first as an email to friends, then as forum messages, finally as blog posts here.

Several of my predictions here were so risibly bad as to make the point of why it is much better to predict the distant future, or at least the midfuture: I won't be around to be embarrassed. When it comes to election forecasts, it is much better to predict the past. But you already know the outcome, so I won't belabor it. (Obama won.)

On the other hand, I have read claims that Kim Stanley Robinson's hard SF novel Forty Signs of Rain features a superstorm called Sandy. But I haven't read the book, and Google offers no clear yea or nay. Can anyone here confirm or refute the story?

In any case, not until after the election did I find out that the outcome might turn out to be specifically relevant to space travel. Apparently Obama's re-election was welcome news at NASA, which will now push ahead with plans for human missions to translunar space and ultimately Mars.

Some of the usual provisos are in order. To say the least, space was not a first-tier issue in the campaign. It was not even a 20th-tier issue. I voted for Obama for purely terrestrial reasons, and I have no reason to think that he is particularly clueful about space. Very few politicians / statespersons are, and truth to be told it is not currently very big in the job description. Maybe in 2312 things will be different, but not now.

But as I have suggested here before, space fits into a broader policy context. And according to the Slate piece linked above,
Mitt Romney had spoken plainly about his plans to re-evaluate the purpose of government-sponsored space missions, thereby leaving agency officials uncertain that their ambitious plans would remain feasible under a Republican-controlled executive branch.
I did not trouble to look up whatever boilerplate the Romney campaign had about space exploration, any more than I looked up the Obama campaign boilerplate. I am certainly not going to do so now. But it is not hard to read between those lines, in terms of the current-era Republican Party. If you make 'small government' an all but religious doctrine, there is not a lot of room there for ambitious things like exploring the Solar System, in person or robotically.

Libertarian militarists would no doubt make an exception for military space operations. But for reasons somewhat exhaustively beaten to death on this blog, Realistic [TM] military space operations are, for now and a long time to come, confined to Earth orbital space. Sorry, no Space Force missions to Saturn.

Space exploration is a large, costly, and difficult enterprise, without short-term profit. It is not one that private enterprise is likely to undertake, or should be expected to undertake. But it is the sort of enterprise that governments can and do undertake. We have, after all, visited every major planet in our system.

And for what it is worth, private enterprise has always been involved. Our rockets are built by contractors, not by government arsenals. No deep principle is involved here, so far as I am concerned, but the approach seems to work. SpaceX is new, while Boeing goes back to barnstorming days. Their operating environment is far from an ideal free market (what, in the real world, isn't?), but some sort of competition keeps them on their toes. Anyway, space rocketry doesn't allow very much room for error.

But all that said, space exploration remains a public enterprise, and almost certainly will primarily remains so into and through the midfuture. The distinctly libertarian-leaning space community may find this an inconvenient fact, but do not expect it to change.

And that concludes my soapbox sermon for this cycle. We will return to your regularly scheduled blog shortly.

On a much more somber note, but relevant to topics discussed on this blog, it has now been 94 years since the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

The image of President Obama was unimaginatively snagged from Flickr.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Planet of Alpha Centauri

The nearest stellar system to our own, as Sky and Telescope reports, has a planet. Which is a vindication of sorts for rocketpunk-era science fiction, which made our neighbor a favored location.

The newly discovered world's name, at least for now, is distinctly unromantic: Alpha Centauri Bb. The capital B signifies that it orbits the slightly less luminous of the main Alpha Centauri pair. (Alpha Centauri C, AKA Proxima Centauri, is a very distant companion of the AB pair, and slightly closer to good old Sol.) The lower-case b marks the first planet to be discovered in the system.

Its mass is roughly comparable to Earth's, but Bb is almost certainly not inhabited by tall blue cat people, and even less likely to ever be inhabited by us. It is a 'hot Earth,' or at any rate just plain hot, orbiting Alpha Centauri B at a distance of 0.04 AU. This fact is in no way discouraging. Our search methods heavily favor planets in furnace orbits, and where there is one planet there is a decent chance of more.

In fact, as extrasolar planets go there is nothing special about Alpha Centauri Bb except for its address. But its address - Alpha Centauri - is special indeed.

When interstellar settings first developed back in the Golden Age, the preference was for familiar named stars, as I noted in the Tough Guide entry on Nomenclature. Thus notable SF worlds circled such dubious candidate stars as Sirius or even Betelgeuse.

By around the 1950s, as the theory of stellar evolution made these locations problematic, attention turned to nearby sunlike stars. Alpha Centauri ruled this list - with some hesitancy, ironically, because of doubts whether planets in double-star systems could have stable orbits, or for that matter form in the first place.

These doubts were only laid to rest when we started actually finding planets in double-star systems.

A few things distinguish Alpha Centauri. It is the third brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius and Canopus. But it lies far in the southern sky, thus invisible to observers in most of the northern hemisphere. Hence its lack of a familiar given name. Though in fact it does have a given name, Rigilkent, known mainly to the dwindling ranks of people familiar with celestial navigation.

According to Wikipedia, Alpha Centauri A is about 1.5 times solar luminosity, while B is about half solar luminosity. Component A, with a spectral type of G2, is often described as a near-twin of Sol, though in mass and luminosity, though not spectral type, Sol is more nearly intermediate between the two. (B, the one now known to have a planet, is spectral type K1.) They orbit each other every 80 years, ranging from a little more than Saturn distance to considerably more than Neptune distance.

The third component, Proxima, is dim and distant, nearly a quarter of a light year from the bright pair (and somewhat closer to Sol). Travel between them would thus be more like a short interstellar voyage than a long interplanetary trip. The system is probably somewhat older than the Solar System - what that means for life, if it has a lifebearing planet, is anyone's guess.

Alpha Centauri is an interesting stellar (and planetary!) system, but of course by far the most interesting thing about it - to us - is its distance, 4.37 light years to the AB pair. Which invites speculation about going there, or at least sending a probe. Proxima is closer, 4.21 light years, but a mission would almost certainly be aimed at the main pair, possibly with a secondary probe to be deflected to Proxima.

So ...

Nuclear electric propulsion, of the sort I have often discussed here, should be good for on order of 300 km/s if tuned for maximum specific impulse. Since Alpha Centauri is itself approaching Sol at about 25 km/s, it will be appreciably closer by the time the mission gets there, in about 4000 years. Which is an awfully long duration for mission planning, not to mention getting it funded.

Getting there sooner requires some admixture of handwavium to the spacecraft specifications. But there is handwavium and there is handwavium. And this is probably as good a place as any to link the Engine List page at Atomic Rockets.

The short form is that, for credible mass ratios, high-end fission technologies can potentially reach on order of 0.03 c, about 10,000 km/s, for travel times on order of 100 years. Fusion can, in principle, bump you up to around 0.1 c, and you get there in not too much over 40 years. And there are other propulsion options.

Bear in mind that you will probably want to slow down, not flash through the Alpha Centauri system at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. So mission delta v must be twice the travel speed, plus a bit of margin for local exploration once you get there.

By the way, I am thinking here mainly of robotic missions. Human missions involve a whole 'nother set of complications, the first two of which are long term life support and a much heavier payload.

And even for a robotic mission there will be engineering complications. For fusion, these begin with getting it to work at all, in a form that won't vaporize the spacecraft. (We have already accelerated appreciable masses - in the kilograms - to a few thousand km/s. Unfortunately, these masses were internal components of nuclear weapons.) Probably you should expect realistic technologies to achieve around 1 percent  of theoretical propulsive performance, or at best 10 percent  - thus, a tenth to a third of ideal mission speed.

Those provisos made, no heroic/fanatical effort should be required for a mission to reach Alpha Centauri at some date within the plausible midfuture. The difficulty level is on the same order as a substantial permanent base (and incipient colony) on Mars, outposts in the outer system, and regular travel among them. Which, to be sure, is a far more demanding order than people thought at midcentury. But it is doable.


Note: Just when I was trying to get back into a more frequent posting rhythm here, all the usual excuses raised their ugly heads. But at least the World Series will end this coming week, one way or the other. (No one knows better than SF Giants fans that it really ain't over till it's over. But it will be over soon.)

The image comes from the Sky & Telescope article link at the beginning of the post.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Endeavor's Passing

Shuttle Endeavor above Golden Gate Bridge

I never got to see any of the Shuttles during their active service as spacecraft. Planned West Coast military launches from Vandenberg were scrubbed after the Challenger loss. I did hear the double sonic boom a couple of times  when Shuttles crossed the coast en route to landings at Edwards AFB.

And only by sheerest luck did I end up seeing Endeavor on its final piggyback flight last week: Paula happened to turn on local TV news half an hour or so before it overflew San Francisco en route to retirement in Southern California.

It was an impressive sight. But like the sight of USS Iowa passing under the same bridge, it was a somewhat melancholy occasion. What in my early adulthood was the spaceship of the future has become a spaceship of the past.

Will we see its like again?

The Shuttle program was star-crossed in multiple ways. Thus its experience does not provide a 'fair' test of reusable spacecraft. This is the good news.

First of all, it conflated the roles of experimental prototype and operational vehicle: a beta pushed into production. Its development costs were squeezed, compromising the design, and further compromised by demanding of it an enormous payload capacity.

Given all these fundamental shortcomings it is remarkable that it succeeded at all. It surely cost far more to operate over its service career than either a capsule atop a conventional rocket or a smaller, fully reusable spacecraft, refined from a prototype, would have cost - not to mention the greatest and most needless cost, two large crews. Spaceflight is dangerous, but the points of failure for both Challenger and Columbia were direct results of the flawed development process.

We cannot say how much a more robust Shuttle would have cost to operate, or how safe it would have been. All we can say is that it would have been cheaper and safer than the ones we actually flew.

Unfortunately, we can also say that a more robust Shuttle would have been - would still be - horrendously expensive to develop. The projected development cost of the original Shuttle design, circa 1969 - before the compromises mentioned above - was on order of $10 billion. This is equivalent to $60 billion in present-day dollars. Hear the deafening sound of wallets snapping shut.

And it gets worse. Assume a 30-year service lifetime, with monthly launches - less than hoped for, but a lot more human spaceflights than we have actually flown. The apportioned development cost - ignoring interest and such - thus comes to about $170 million per mission. Remember, this does not include any of the costs of actually flying the missions, or training the astronauts, or anything else: It is just the development cost leading up to the first operational flight.

There is also a line of argument, all too credible, that a truly viable reusable spacecraft - one that is cheaper in the long run than expendable rockets - is just not attainable at our techlevel. We know a lot about building large, lightweight structures, along with powerful engines able to drive them into the upper atmosphere or even into space. We can do significantly better at these things now than we could fifty years ago, but not dramatically better - an indication that our technology in these areas is pretty mature.

But getting into space is so intrinsically difficult that our normal technique involves large, expendable boosters or lower stages. Payloads are, at most, a few percent of launch weight. And the problem for reusable spacecraft is that they must carry heavy fittings, such as heat shields, along with wings and landing gear, that their expendable counterparts can do without.

A simple design burdened with these heavy fittings probably couldn't reach orbit at all. But a design refined to the point that it can reach orbit is liable to be so extreme in its specifications that it requires extensive  tear-down and inspection, and perhaps refurbishment, after every flight. Which defeats the whole point of being 'reusable.'

In all of this there is a glimmer of hope: We are not dealing here with 'cold equations' but with devils in the details, and the lines between not-quite-feasible and just-feasible are pretty fine. And even as the Shuttle rode off into the west, the US has begun operating another spaceplane, the X-37B.

This is in no sense a 'Shuttle replacement.' It is very much smaller, launched atop a conventional expendable rocket, and it is unmanned. It is also a classified DARPA project - even thought it began as a NASA project - meaning that not much is being said either about its performance or its missions. But it may well be more operationally robust than the Shuttle - in particular, safer during re-entry.

Incremental progress in mature technologies is glacially slow compared to the Moore's Law-style progress seen in tech revolutions. But in the course of this century we might (or might not!) gradually develop our launch capabilities to a level approaching what the Shuttle once hoped to achieve.

After which, things could get interesting.


Note: A recent, truly awesome XKCD comic has a relevant comment on space rocketry. You will have to look ... carefully ... to find it.

Another Note: Unrelated to this post, but a blog reader has done the service of converting my Planetary Climate Sim into Linux and Win32 object code.

The sim itself is designed primarily to test the effects on an Earthlike planet's climate of greater orbital eccentricity or different axial tilt. It also has some settings for different average locations within the habitable zone, greenhouse gas composition, differing proportions of ocean and land surface, and so on. But these things are far more complex, and pretty much above my pay grade.

 I don't warranty the results! And I haven't tested the Linux and Win32 versions at all - let me know how they work! I'll pass any bug reports along to the contributor.

The image of Endeavor and its 747 carrier above the Golden Gate Bridge comes, a bit paradoxically, via the Baltimore Sun.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Artificial Intelligence, Human Intelligence

Filming Jeopardy!

 The comments on a recent post about science fiction, A Literature of the Possible, included a considerable subthread about HAL, the ship's computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The discussion centered on HAL's literary role, and whether its function in the story could have been played by either a human mutineer, or something - such as a shark - not claimed or expected to have anything like 'intelligence' in the human sense of the term.

Here I will take the discussion in another direction, going boldly where many have gone before, including my own blog post on What Do AIs Want? - along with several earlier comment threads, which I am too lazy to dig out.

In that post, I discussed SF tropes regarding AI and its response to humans, starting with the ever-popular insane malevolence and ending with:
It will ignore us, but neither serenely nor with any other emotion. It is after all a machine, with all the emotion and motivation of a lawn mower.

Of all the possibilities regarding AI, this may be the one we least expected beforehand. So of course inevitably - thus far, at least - it seems to be the one that is coming true.

This was not expected because the only high-level congnitive intelligence we had to go by is our own. So we imagined artificial intelligence to be, at the least, similarly mysterious. This was the case long before computers or robotics were even imagined.

Roger Bacon was said* to have once created a brazen head, capable of speech and, implicitly, of thought. 'Time is,' said the head. A little later, 'Time was.' Still ignored (by Bacon's stupid servant, Miles), the head finally said 'Time is past!' - and shattered into pieces.

AI as a concept has been making heads explode ever since. Bacon's brazen head, as described, was not out to kill or enslave anyone. But it was enigmatic. You don't know quite what it was thinking, or feeling, any more than you knew what HAL was thinking and feeling behind that unblinking red eye.

What we took for granted is that the AI would indeed be thinking, in some way at least broadly comparable to our thinking. And it would likewise be feeling ... something.

The ability to play chess well was long taken as a touchstone of 'real' AI. At one point, HAL mentions playing chess with Dave. Even in the early 80s, the supercomputer in WarGames, after learning from its sim runs that nuclear war is unwinnable, suggests playing 'a nice game of chess.'

I even remember an explanation of why chess made such a good benchmark: Because the brute-force solution of playing out all permutations to find out which ones worked would require a million trillion zillion moves. Even an IBM computer could never run them out, certainly not fast enough for a chess match. So for a computer to play grandmaster-level chess it would have to do whatever human grandmasters do. QED!

It did not work out that way, and QE wasn't D'd. As it turned out, of course, crunching through permutations by brute force is exactly how IBM's Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in 1997.**

We still have only a hazy notion of how human grandmasters play chess. But by way of intriguing insights, I have read (possibly in a blog comment here) that while powerful chess computers can beat any 'unassisted' human player, chess masters using simple commercial chess programs can beat any computer playing on its own, without a human partner.

In any case, most AI work today is not at all about trying to emulate the still-mysterious workings of the human mind. It is about amplifying human intelligence - that of skilled programmers and subject-matter experts - by harnessing it to the brute-force power of computers.

This does not rule out the possibility that work on brain structure and psychology - perhaps amplified by expert systems - may yet unlock the mystery of human thought and lead to machines that really do think. But there is no particular reason to anticipate this in the plausible midfuture. Particularly since such work does not have the clear practical applications that expert systems do.

All of which casts doubt on some familiar SF tropes. Not all of them! An expert-system political machine (in the literal sense!) might amplify and implement its designers' scheme to conquer and enslave humanity. And if they were careless in algorithm design, it might fail to exclude them from enslavement.

But it will do so with no ambition or passion of its own - only by implementing its designers' schemes. And human freedom fighters won't defeat it by persuading it to adopt the ideas of John Locke or the Buddha. If they defeat it, they will do so by identifying limits or errors in its implementation (perhaps using their own expert systems to reverse-engineer these), and posing problems it cannot efficiently solve.

Faust lives. Frankenstein's monster, not so much.


* In a play by Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene. Greene also made a snide remark about William Shakespeare, which has the distinction of being the first notice of Will's presence in the London theatrical scene.

** Disclosure: I have an ongoing work gig on behalf of IBM. But in this case I don't have to cop to a shameless pander - Big Blue's work on AI truly is impressive.

The image of Jeopardy! comes from this Flickr page.

Monday, September 3, 2012

All In a (Future) Day's Work

Today is Labor Day in the US, a holiday we evidently borrowed from Canada, and ultimately from Australia. In the linked post I talked about working in space. Here, as you might guess from the title, we'll consider the future of work, whatever planet it is performed on, including none.

The past is prologue: For most of the last ten thousand years, extending to the origins of Labor Day in the century before last, work was largely synonymous with agricultural labor. And, all too largely, work was associated with more or less naked forms of exploitation - sharecropping, rack-rent, serfdom, and so on down to outright chattel slavery.

Agrarian Age exploitation had effects beyond the purely economic: Think of medieval villeinage (a form of serfdom) and the etymology of 'villain.'

Exploitation was often less intensive in environments where agriculture was so marginal that not much could be squeezed out of the peasants. Thus mountainous uplands and other rugged environments were often associated with both poverty (even the lords were poor) and freedom. Montani Semper Liberi, goes the motto of West Virginia: Mountaineers are always free. Much of the Western conception of freedom is rooted in this tradition. Thomas Jefferson might be a plantation slaveowner, but his ideas were built around independent small farmers.

Cities, with their more complex market-based economies, fostered a different sort of freedom. In the medieval German usage, Stadtluft macht Frei: City air makes one free. Urban freedom had much less to do with economic equality, and much more to do with a dynamic balance of power between money and labor interests.

Markets in themselves are inherently oligarchic: one florin, one vote. But an alliance of quasi-monarchical state interest and a populist interest can push back against the oligarchs. Machiavelli was the first to notice that the 'conflict of the orders,' so long as it did not get out of hand, could be a positive basis for freedom.

His ideas - with his name filed off - contributed more than Jefferson's to the theory of the US Constitution: Compare its strong federal government with the weak central institutions of the Articles of Confederacy.

In the Agrarian Age, both mountain freedom and urban freedom were special cases. Exploitation was the norm, embodied in latifundia, manor, and plantation. In the industrial age - which is essentially urban - mountain freedom is even more marginalized, but urban freedom has become widespread. Indeed it has become rather normative, even if often honored in the breach.

Well, that turned out to be a rather lengthy prologue. Now, what of work in the future?

One possibility, which has sometimes come up in comment threads here, is that technology will lead us to a post-scarcity future. Economists will say there can be no such a thing, because human desires are limitless. But we still come from the primate house, with some basic physical needs and comforts. Once we have ample food, we don't want more of it - we want instead some combination of tastier, more convenient, and more appealing to our vanity.

The higher the productivity level, the more things come down to vanity. Whether or not it is technologically feasible, we can at least imagine a world where basic physical comforts are so readily provided as to be nearly free. But in this same world there is almost no demand for productive labor, and it is not quite clear how this nearly free stuff gets distributed - let alone any high level of pleasures.

This post-scarcity economy is often imagined as hobby-driven, with people 'working' for the sake of self-satisfaction, the way I write this blog.

But the economy could equally well be a crass, somewhat creepy mix of celebrity culture and Thorstein Veblen. A world where those in a position to do so hire everyone else, at nominal wages, as personal servants - not to do any work that even cheaper robots couldn't do just as well, but for the sheer ego gratification of showing off how many servants they have. This too is primate-house behavior.

Or the post-scarcity economy could be a mix of both.

But a post-scarcity economy is, alas, scarcely a given. Technological progress tends to come in leaps, followed by longer periods of maturity with only gradual, even glacial progress. So another possibility, at least for the midfuture, is a decelerando, a technological world that stabilizes at a level somewhat higher than today's, but only somewhat.

Such a world has some rather sobering implications. It will not be a world without work, because a robot capable of doing, say, restaurant kitchen work (and doing it more cheaply than Latino immigrants) is a doubtful proposition. But it may be a world without very much high-paying 'good' work, especially if the oligarchic tendency of markets is unchecked by political 'countervailing power.'

In such conditions, the upward concentration of wealth means that investors will have plenty of money. But given a low rate of innovation, due to largely mature technology, they will struggle to find profitable places to invest it.

Their desperate search for high rates of return will fuel asset bubbles, from Impressionist artwork to real estate. And the financial shocks from successive popping of these bubbles will leave the economy sputtering, performing below even its constrained technological potential.

If this world sounds rather familiar, it should - it is arguably the world that has been emerging, at least for the already-industrialized economies, in the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We still have plenty of innovation in some industries - especially 'tech' in the sense of computer-related - but unlike mid-century tech progress it is not creating all that many jobs.

If the decelerando scenario is correct, this will become more and more the case.

All of which, in an urbanized, post-industrial future, could be fuel for a new 'conflict of the orders.' Which could take catastrophic forms. Or, channeled into political rather than violent conflict, might well take the positive, freedom-generating form outlined by Old Nick Machiavelli.


The image of Carolingian peasants comes from a blog about the history of cooking and food.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Steampunk Era

In a recent post remarking on the battleship era I noted briefly the naval period that came just before it - from 1860 to 1880, give or take. Twenty years are barely enough to qualify as an 'era.' Especially, when it comes to the world's navies, this particular twenty years, which saw the transition from wooden three-deckers to ships that are recognizable forebears of 20th century battleships.

So if you came expecting to read about steampunk in the literary sense you will be disappointed. On the other hand, this is the age of Jules Verne, when science fiction (then called Scientific Romance) was starting to emerge as a distinct genre. It is the era from which steampunk draws its inspiration.

And nothing was more steampunkish than the era's naval ships. HMS Inflexible (launched 1876), shown above, is as good an example as any. True, Admiral Popov's famous circular ships could run (or at any rate spin) weirdness circles around her. But the Popovkas were experimental oddballs even in their own day. Inflexible, by contrast, was a typical first class capital ship - or at any rate as close to such as existed at the time.

In this image she retains an auxiliary sailing rig - later reduced to pole masts for signaling and to support fighting-tops armed with light weapons. Her main armament is 4 x 16-inch muzzle-loading rifles. (Most navies had adopted breech-loaders, but the RN reverted to muzzle loading after a couple of nasty accidents.)

Her two turrets are offset to port and starboard - 'Murricans of sufficient geekitude may recognize the similar overall arrangement of USS Maine, of 1898 'remember the' fame. (Infamy, perhaps, from the Spanish perspective.) This turret arrangement was in considerable vogue at the time, in an effort to maximize all-around fire.The turrets could, in theory, fire directly ahead and astern, and even through gaps in the narrow flying deck. In practice, trying this caused considerable blast damage to the ship.

The underlying assumption was that - given the slow firing rate and doubtful accuracy of those enormous guns - a battle would likely devolve into a melee instead of an orderly line-astern engagement. This same speculation lay behind the most notorious feature of steampunk-era warships - the ram bow, which ultimately accounted for precisely two 'hostiles,' along with some half a dozen 'friendlies.'

Nevertheless the ram bow became such a defining feature of warships that it was retained into the early 20th century. Indeed, most early-generation dreadnoughts had ram-shaped bows, though no actual reinforced rams.

HMS Inflexible also carried another weapon intended for a close-range melee: a pair of underwater tubes for launching torpedoes. These, as it turned out, were to have a much bigger future than the ram bow. Even at the time they were recognized as having extraordinary implications. Inflexible's stubby 16-inch muzzle-loaders, or any comparable guns, could only be carried by a large and very costly ship. But even a fairly small boat could carry and launch a torpedo.

It soon occurred to some analysts (as we would call them now) that this weapon could revolutionize not only tactics but naval strategy. By the 1880s torpedo boats became the space fighters of the late-Victorian imagination, dashing in to strike at cumbersome death stars battleships. The British and French even experimented with torpedo-boat carriers.

Probably things would not have worked out quite so neatly as the torpedo prophets imagined, even if there had been a suitable war to test out their doctrine. The same technological progress that provided 16-inch guns and ironclads to carry them, as well as torpedoes and torpedo boats, soon produced so-called quick-firing guns, and these were mounted on the big ships. Torpedo boats could no longer attack with impunity.

Even before the heyday of torpedo boats, another creative idea for deploying torpedoes got a trial. HMS Polyphemus (launched in 1881) was a 'torpedo ram.' A fairly large ship resembling a surfaced submarine, she had an armored turtle deck for protection, the inevitable ram bow, and several torpedo tubes along with reload torpedoes.

Tech progress (specifically the quick-firing gun) rendered Polyphemus obsolescent by the time she entered service - a typical fate of steampunk-era warships. But she would end up being indirectly immortalized in science fiction.

By the time HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, in the late 1990s 1890s [Time Machine oops!], the torpedo-ram concept was already long obsolete. But HMS Thunder Child in the novel is described as a torpedo ram. The idea must have stuck in Wells' mind, some years earlier, as the epitome of advanced naval technology.


Unwelcome Commenting Administrivia: I hate Captcha. So do you. But I hate comment spam even more. And if you subscribe to this blog and get comments by email, you know that it has been inundated by comment spam for a month or two now. It shows no sign of subsiding, and the alternatives to Captcha (such as a registration requirement) are even worse.

So, reluctantly, I am going with it. Email me (see 'contact' on right of main page) if it is totally unworkable for you.

The image of HMS Inflexible, from this old-postcards website, was originally on a card from the (British) National Maritime Museum.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Literature of the Possible?

What, exactly, is science fiction? This question has - no surprise - come up more than once in this blog, notably in the outrageously long 'Last Battleship' comment thread.

Needless to say, this is no claim that science fiction stories are possible. Even setting the trivial response that they are fiction, many if not most of them are not possible. And most of the ones that are possible are desperately unlikely. (Such as, say, Mars colonists blockading Earth in the next few hundred years.)

But, by and large, science fiction does honor the concept of possibility, if only in the breach. FTL is an exemplar. Instead of simply allowing our rocket ships to get from star to star at the speed of plot, we come up with elaborate lines of jive to get around the speed of light. We grasp at the most tenuous threads of theoretical physics to justify our jive - tachyons, wormholes, the Alcubierre metric, whatever.

This blog, for the most part, works similar ground. We naturally want our spaceships (and battles between them) to be cool, but we also want them to be, in some sense, realistic. Even if the broader context in which they happen strains realism to the max.

Even alternate history deals with events that 'might have been possible' if some historical event had played out a different way, or (straining 'possible' even further) a tourist from late-1930s Chicago were somehow transported to Italy on the eve of the war between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths.

Fantasy writers generally don't do this. If you want dragons, dragons you get. Great effort may go into internal worldbuilding, but rarely into its logical relationship to our real world. Here, Middle-Earth is the exemplar. It is a triumph of worldbuilding - indeed the benchmark standard, better constructed than any science fiction I know of.

But 'possibility' is no part of that careful construction. Tolkien asserts that Middle-Earth is, in fact, our own world's distant (in historical terms) past, but he puts no effort into connecting the two. He invented the expression 'the willing suspension of disbelief,' and he is very concerned with making Middle-Earth feel believable. He is not concerned with making it seem possible.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I am persuaded that there is indeed a difference, even if it is hard to pin down. All fiction is fake: something we have to set aside to let ourselves be drawn into a story of any sort.

How fiction does this may be easier to see by looking at obsolete tropes, such as the discovered-manuscript framing device. In its day it gave readers an excuse, so to speak, to pretend to believe in the story contained therein.

As imaginative fiction developed in the past century, such wink & nod agreements between author and readers became unnecessary. A form of it remains in Lord of the Rings, easing us into the story world. A contemporary fantasy like Game of Thrones doesn't bother with such mechanisms. The reader's buy-in is (correctly) assumed.

Science fiction, broadly speaking, used possibility as its buy-in. Which is why possible, more or less marks the traditional dividing line between SF and F. This once took the form of those so-tell-me-Professor explanations of how rockets could work in a vacuum, or whatever.

As standard SF tropes took form, these mechanisms went the way of Lost (but conveniently rediscovered) Manuscripts in fantasy. Generally, these days, only hard SF bothers with any explanation of how spaceships work - and mainly, as on this blog, to push back against operatic tropes that have become standard baseline assumptions.

Indeed, a whole movement of 'Mundane SF' was proclaimed some years ago, intended to push back even harder. After all, by any purist standard I am a thorough hypocrite, writing about how to make your fundamentally operatic space battles look superficially Realistic.

But as standard SF tropes have taken hold, the link to the possible has also become a good deal more ambiguous. In the abstract, for example, a nice line can be drawn between Star Trek and Star Wars. One is set in what, at least in the 1960s, seemed like a plausible midfuture. The other is set 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away' - that is to say, effectively in the once upon a time of very traditional fantasy. And while you can criticize the corn content of Trek's money-less future, that is nothing compared to the overtly mystical Force.

The first thing to note in this comparison is that it is rooted in Hollywood. Back at the turn of the century, when I wrote the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, I distinguished 'Hollywood scifi' from real SF. But sometime in the last decade or so, this distinction has pretty well faded. A generation (or more) has come up for which Hollywood looms as large in their formative experience as anything written by Asimov, Heinlein, or whoever.

Which is a way of saying that yes, Star Wars is basically high fantasy in SF drag ... but so what? You could pretty much say the same thing about Dune. And when you get past Asimov's deeply un-Tolkienesque writing style, what about Foundation Trilogy? If Coruscant is a fantasy world, what exactly is Trantor? And how does Darth Vader stack up to the Mule?

Science fiction and fantasy have not exactly converged - they are still (usually) easily distinguished, but more by stylistic features than actual substance.

And all of this takes place alongside the decline of the future as a place for 'nonfiction' speculation. No jetpacks, no monorails, just iGadgets. When your future can't get past the Dick Tracy level, it is time to pack it in.

Or just take your Romance in straight shots.


The visually unspectacular image above was more than enough to tell JPL engineers that the Curiosity rover was successfully landed on the surface of Mars.

Expect prettier images to follow ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Space Warfare XVII: A Blockade in SPAAACE !!!

 Orbital Combat

An expeditionary force, let us say, has set forth from Mars, heading toward Earth. Its mission is to establish and enforce a blockade of Earth - or of the rest of the Solar System, depending on how you look at it. Specifically, certain persons are to be embargoed, forbidden to travel from Earth. to any other planet, moon, or other astronomical body. Travel to good old Luna may or may not be included in the embargo, depending as much on operational as policy-objective considerations. (See below!)

Violators are subject to arrest. If they resist arrest they may be fired upon.

We will not, for this discussion, trouble ourselves with who 'certain persons' are, or why someone on Mars wants to keep them from leaving Earth. For our purpose, it is sufficient that

a) The relevant Earthside authorities have zero interest, or less than zero, in helping Mars bottle these certain persons up. A polite request would reach Earth a lot faster, easier, and cheaper than an expeditionary force. But a polite request, by itself, would be ignored.

b) Somebody on Mars (or at least in Mars space) has means and motive to issue more than a polite request. Namely send the expeditionary force.

c) Whoever this somebody is, their objective is to control outbound traffic from Earth, not eliminate it - especially not permanently. Slagging Earth, its launch sites, or orbital infrastructure are not objectives, or even acceptable outcomes. Slagging individual transport-class ships is dicey, depending on the circumstances. Military craft, however, are fair game.

Human interplanetary travel uses electric propulsion, on the general lines often discussed here. Main drive acceleration is in the milligee range, and the ships have either very large radiator fins or very large solar wings. Hardening these is a nonstarter, so deep-space ships are inherently vulnerable.

On the other hand, punching a few small holes in the wings will not cripple them, so the vulnerability should not be overstated. Spaceships won't sink, or become aerodynamically unflyable.

Delta v will be a constant preoccupation of commanders. This has been discussed here before, but it is almost impossible to overstate. The Martian expeditionary force probably take a slower orbit than civil transports, because transports can refuel at their destination. The expeditionary needs to reserve propellant for a (slow!) abort orbit back to Mars.

And while milligee drives preclude 'tactical' maneuver, at least some of your deep space ships likely have a few km/s of delta v for 'operational' orbit changes in Earth space. At a rate of about 1 km/s per day. By bringing along plenty of tankers for support, a few ships might have a couple of dozen km/s for operational movement.

Chemfuel spacecraft can have pretty much as much acceleration as you want, but unless they start out as mostly propellant drop tanks they will carry only 2-3 km/s of delta v. Which means that a 1 km/s burn is huge, a sizable chunk of your entire maneuver capacity.

Nuclear thermal propulsion is intermediate, but much closer to chemfuel. And for human missions much of the advantage may be lost due to shielding mass.

Just on a practical level, all of these constraints are a good reason to seek mutual understanding through dialogue. But of course you won't.

On the flip side, the technology of deep space travel makes 'distant blockade' a surprisingly viable concept. Departing ships spiral out for a week or more, their orbital speed (relative to Earth) gradually decreasing to a couple of km/s, before they finally pass escape velocity and break loose into solar orbit.

This gives ample time for ships in high Earth orbit to intercept would-be blockade runners, the interception taking place somewhere between geosynch and lunar distance. This sort of space chase is more than a bit odd to contemplate. Both prey and pursuer are circling Earth throughout the chase, which unfolds over a period of days due to their extremely sluggish acceleration.

But the scope for evasive maneuvers is extremely limited, since the blockade runner must keep spiraling outward if it is to proceed on its journey. One possible tactic is to feign a departure, either to draw the blockader into battle with a heavily armed ship, or as sheer bluff - forcing the blockader to expend its limited propellant, then 'reverse course' and spiral back inward toward low orbit. The ship performing the bluff has also expended propellant, but it can refuel at LEO, an option not available to the blockaders.

Such peculiar chases are complicated by the possibility of chemfuel (or nuke thermal) ships - or munitions - making far more abrupt orbit changes, leading to an engagement in a matter of days.

Earth-Moon travel is, or can be, entirely different, carried out using chemfuel or nuke thermal propulsion, blasting straight out of LEO into the lunar injection orbit. The challenge of intercepting Moon-bound ships is equally different, to the point that the blockader will either have to make separate provision for it (a ship positioned at the lunar L1 point, or in lunar orbit), or else not attempt to enforce the blockade with respect to Luna.

If blockade runners were pre-parked in lunar orbit - and the Earth-based defender had months to position them, while the blockader was en route from Mars - then the blockader must extend enforcement to lunar space. Otherwise the blockade might be evaded simply by going to lunar orbit first.

So far I have said nothing about weapons. The scenario as described does make one negative presumption: that lasers (or whatever beam weapons) have an effective range less than about 50-100,000 km - whatever turns out to the the distance from Earth at which departing electric ships reach escape velocity and transition from geocentric spirals to their solar transfer orbits.

Otherwise the prime intercept zone lies within direct zapping range of lasers in low orbit - or even on the ground. In that case the expeditionary force must either engage in a direct laser battle, or blockade from a higher orbit, outside the range of 'shore guns.' Intercepting blockade runners then becomes more difficult and propellant-costly, since they are already above Earth escape velocity on outbound solar orbits.

Kinetics, or missiles generally, have no 'range.' If they are on orbits below escape velocity they will orbit Earth (or Luna) indefinitely; if above escape velocity they will head out into the void on solar orbits. More relevant for missiles is flight time, which defines the target's window for engaging the missile or evading it.

Electric ships can, potentially, outrun any chemfuel or even nuke thermal missiles by running them out of delta v. But with milligee acceleration they can only do so if the flight time is in days. The drawn-out evasive maneuver will cut fairly deeply into reserve delta v, and leave the target far from its previous orbit, therefore probably off station.

I have also said nothing about the ships involved, save that they have the broad characteristics determined by their propulsion. It is by no means a given that either side has craft that fit our image of warships, especially if lasers or other beams are not an important factor. The expeditionary force must come closer, since its deep space craft must be able to deploy weapons in some way. But the Earth-based defender might well rely entirely on missile buses pre-positioned in patrol orbits, with its ships providing purely logistic support.

Finally, bear in mind that the scenario outlined - distant blockade - is pretty much the most favorable for an expeditionary space force. The blockader is not seeking to land anywhere in force, or even contest control of Earth's inner orbital space, only interdict outbound deep space traffic. It need not come close enough to Earth to be at risk of short-warning attack by surface-launched ASATs or surface-based lasers.


Related Links: Atomic Rockets, of course - especially, but not exclusively, the pages on space warfare.

And previously in the Space Warfare series on this blog:

I: The Gravity Well
II: Stealth Reconsidered
III: 'Warships' in Space
IV: Mobility
V: Laser Weapons
VI: Kinetics, Part 1
VII: Kinetics, Part 2 - The Killer Bus
VIII: Orbital Combat
IX: Could Everything We Know Be Wrong?
X: Moving Targets
XI: La Zona Fronteriza
XII: Surface Warfare
XIII: The Human Factor
XIV: Things As They Ought To Be
XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars
XVI: Origins and Scratch Forces

Also ... Battle of the Spherical War Cows: Purple v Green
Further Battles of the Spherical War Cows

Plus Space Fighters, Not Space Fighters, Reconsidered?

And, indulging in heresy - Give Peace a Chance

The image, as so often, comes via Atomic Rockets. Note that the engagement shown is much closer to the planet than the intercept zone discussed in the post.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Last Battleship

Over the Memorial Day weekend, USS Iowa left San Francisco Bay, presumably for the last time,on its way to become a historical exhibit in, apparently, San Pedro. (She should have become a historical exhibit here, in San Francisco. That she didn't is a travesty for which the political side I generally agree with was to blame, but has roots in an episode that was not the Navy's best moment. See the Wikipedia page on the ship. But watching her leave was a rather moving experience I otherwise would not have had.)

I am not sure in what sense Iowa is the 'last battleship.' It does not seem to have been the very last in commission, but more likely was the last to be 'striken' from the navy list. This came after it rusticated for some years in the Suisun Bay mothball fleet, out of commission but at least nominally available for refurbishment and return to service. (In fact, it seems that even as a museum ship it is in some theoretical sense still available. But its next berth will almost certainly be its last.)

By exquisite coincidence Iowa passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on the day before the bridge's 75th anniversary celibration, and also happened to coincide with the commemoration of Memorial Day, the 'Murrican counterpart to Remembrance Day.

It all lends itself to any number of reflections. Swords and plowshares: After a lifetime of honorable service (70 years since launch, less a few months), Iowa is headed for a twilight afterlife as a waterfront exhibit, while the bridge remains a major regional traffic artery.

The transience of grandeur: The battleship era still conveys a powerful image, but it was remarkably brief, and Iowa's career belongs almost entirely to its epilogue. None of its class was ever seriously tested as a battleship, i.e. in action against enemy battleships.

In World War II the Iowas were used primarily as carrier escorts. During the Cold War era they were periodically recommissioned for offshore fire support. Functionally they were no longer capital ships, though size and impressiveness certainly qualified them for maintaining a presence, one of the most fundamental naval missions.

The first battleship is considerably harder to identify. The last generation of sailing 2-deckers and 3-deckers were called 'line of battle ships' in place of the older 'ships of the line.' But this usage disappeared when ironclads came along.

The first generation of ironclads had an amazing variety of armament layouts and general configurations. No one knew what the capital ship of the future would be like, which gives the era a wonderfully steampunkish flavor. Russia's Admiral Popov was a radical design even for the era, but shows how unsettled the design possibilities were.

By the 1880s the more bizarrely creative designs were set aside. A relatively standard type of capital ship emerged, exemplified by HMS Royal Sovereign, laid down 1889, and the term 'battle ship' came into use to describe them.

Today we mainly know them as pre-dreadnoughts. Let us pause to admire the meta-ness of that term. Pre-dreadnoughts ruled the waves for a generation, but for nearly all of that time absolutely no one thought of them as 'pre-dreadnoughts.' Our ideas about these ships are inevitably filtered through their successors, and for half the battleship era retrospective time flows backward.

The last engagement between battleships - there were never very many - was Surigao Strait in 1944, so that the battleship era lasted just 55 years. If we take Pearl Harbor as the end of battleship supremacy, 52 years. Thus the battleship epilogue, exemplified by Iowa's career, lasted considerably longer than the battleship era itself did.

In fact the battleship era was transitory, not really an 'era' at all. This may be kept in mind when thinking - and most of you are inevitably thinking - of battleships' possible future spacegoing counterparts. Relatively short periods can stand out in our minds and become nearly timeless 'eras,' when in fact they only lasted a few decades.

That said, in an an age of post-industrial technological maturity the overall configuration of capital vehicles might be as stable as it was in the age of sail.

Capital vehicles - how is that for a colorless expression? I have argued before in this blog, more than once, that the familiar and time-honored naval analogy may be misleading when it comes to space forces. Laser stars, as I have speculated about them, have only a fairly tenuous similarity to 'battleships.' If kinetics are dominant, the platforms from which they are deployed might be even more remote from the battleship image.

On the other hand, the similarities might turn out to be greater, if only because impressive weapon systems have power-political significance that extends well beyond their purely military characteristics.


Another Shameless Little Plug: My day gigs include tech blogging for IBM Midsize Insider. No registration hoops or anything like that, and your traffic helps keep this blog online. See my Twitter feed, to the right, for my latest posts there. Feel free to click on them, too!

My phone camera image of Iowa passing under the Golden Gate Bridge was too low-res to be worth posting. The Tumblr image above comes from this naval history page.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Time's Arrow

This blog has, for the most part, been confined in both space and time. In space to the Solar System, which we can reach without extraordinary difficulty (including extraordinary travel times), at least for a fairly generous definition of 'extraordinary.' In time to the Plausible Midfuture, a historical era I have not really tried to pin down.

Mainly I think of it as starting on the far side of current planning horizons, and extending to ... well, whenever is far enough into the future that our own era has faded off into the distant past. More or less, the era 2050-2300 might do well enough, though - especially at the far end - mere chronology is not really the point.

From a technological perspective, you might think of the midfuture this way: On the near edge, it is beyond what we are now specifically planning or building for. A fairly simple and robust concept, I think (so long as you don't examine it too closely).

At the far edge?If the Industrial Revolution continues at broadly the pace it has so far, 200 years takes us about as far into the future as the first successful steamboat lies in the past. The economic level will be about ten times higher than ours. If technological progress keeps chugging along past that point the world will become increasingly hard for us to understand or even recognize. It may not be transhumanist or a Singularity, but it will be strange.

On the other hand, if technology reaches the limits of the feasible, the world will become strange in a different way, deeply unlike the world we have experienced for the last two centuries. It will be a world in which not much changes, in terms of human capabilities, in the course of a generation or even a lifetime. And it will be a world in which the economic pie (though perhaps large by our standards) is no longer growing significantly. The argument about how to divide it up will therefore be much more fraught.

Such are the reasons, broadly, for confining most discussion here to the Plausible Midfuture.

But of course the future will - we hope! - not come suddenly to an end in 2250 or 2300, or any such date. Only on one occasion have I looked much further into the future, 40,000 years to be exact. (On one other patriotic occasion I glanced toward the 'Murrican future of 2700. But that is still only a slightly generous midfuture.)

The more distant future was brought to mind by (first-time!) commenter John G. He rescued last post's comment thread from a contemporary political argument (these never seem to change any minds) by bringing up a really long time scale. In five billion years or so the Sun will leave the main sequence and become a red giant, incinerating the Earth. Unless we go into space our descendents will presumably be incinerated along with it.

As an immediate argument for pushing along the space program I think this fails an urgency test. We have plenty of time! But in larger perspective ... well, it raises the question of larger perspectives.

Imagining 40,000 years of future history is a challenge. Imagining five billion years of it is staggering.

But one fundamental question emerges almost right at the beginning: What are the limits of the possible? My own general assumption has been that they are vast, and that it could take us a very long time to approach them. Science and technology have - so far - tended to advance by saltation, AKA leaps. This was the premise behind T S Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which bears the burden of having contributed 'paradigm change' to the vocabulary of business jive.

By this argument, the scientific and industrial revolutions might well peter out in another century or two, reaching equilibria at which further progress is so difficult that it more or less stalls. All the locally low-hanging fruit will have been picked. At some later date, gradually accumulated knowledge and skills could trigger another era of revolutionary advances. But we have no real way to guesstimate how many centuries or millennia the intervening period of stability may last.

This is how I would approach a future history, for the sake of keeping the spires & togas era of godlike powers safely in the remote future.

There are, however, two alternative possibilities - or maybe three. One - the most familiar - is the Singularity argument. Scientific and technical progress will not just continue, or even accelerate: It will explode, catapulting us - or our replacements - into an unimaginably remote future in the course of a few decades.

A second alternate possibility is that progress will continue at roughly the rate it has since Watt's steam engine: A tenfold increase in technical capabilities and economic level, give or take, for each 200 years. By Singularity standards this is tediously sluggish. But it means a millionfold increase by the year 3200. In cosmic perspective this is indistinguishable from a Singularity.

A third alternate possibility is that, in fact, we are reaching the limits of both knowledge and progress. Yes, the computer industry has given us smartphones and Google, but cars and airplanes have changed little in overall configuration and performance since midcentury. Once you learn how to do things, you become pretty good at them pretty quickly. And after that point it is mostly just refinement.

As a loose analogy, the Age of Exploration lasted only a few centuries, and ended when there was not much left on Earth to explore. A world map of 1500 has mostly blank space or pure guesswork. A world map of 1600 looks kinda sorta familiar, and by 1800 - when the Industrial Revolution was just taking off - the world map had been mostly filled in.

There is still plenty of universe to explore, but our instruments for doing so may be broadly limited to the sorts of technologies I've projected in the Plausible Midfuture. Getting into space against the pull of Earth's gravity may be just inherently very difficult. Once you get there, speeds of dozens or even hundreds of km/s are pretty readily attainable. Speeds reaching an appreciable fraction of c are problematic, and FTL is a tower of wishful thinking erected atop a grain of physics speculation.

Or not.


The post title is swiped from a Clarke story, though I don't really recall the story itself, and only when I googled did I learn that it is also the title of a Martin Amis novel and a Trek: TNG episode.

The image, from a poster site, shows pharaoh Rameses III hunting with a bow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Continuing Mission: Year Six

If this blog were original Trek, it would presumably be heading back to Starfleet Command at the conclusion of its five-year mission. (Well, if it were really original Trek it would have been canceled by the network two years ago.)

I am still not caught up, so will again have to a) beg your collective indulgence, and b) rely on the commenter community to bail me out of a lame post.

According to Blogger analytics, through yesterday Rocketpunk Manifesto has had precisely 271,284 visits, and just over half a million page views, from 79,641 unique visitors. I don't know if there is a statute of limitations on being unique, and if you read this blog on two different machines the analytics probably count you as two 'unique' people.

In any case, over the past couple of years traffic has been fairly steady at 2500-3000 'unique' visitors each month. Monthly visits have fallen off slightly - since I haven't been posting as frequently - but 'unique' visitors have held steady or even very gradually risen. Roughly 1700-2000 of you seem to be regulars. Thanks for hanging around!

Again according to the analytics, just over half of you are from the US - the international contingent gradually expanding toward the 50 percent mark. And in the last year or so, I am happy to note, I've picked up a regular Russian readership.

On the production side, this is the 277th published post here, including an initial test post to make sure things would actually show up. The next post, and first substantive one, defined rocketpunk. As it turns out, though, this blog's name has turned out to be a bit of a misnomer. I have talked often enough (but not primarily) about midcentury SF, and have made practically no effort to further define or create an SF subgenre around the midcentury vision, analogous to steampunk.

As it has from the beginning, this blog tends to waver between being about space travel and being about space-oriented SF, conjoined topics that it shares with Atomic Rockets. With occasional broader excursions into the great super-genre of Romance, to which SF belongs.

Expect this general pattern of digressions to continue, perhaps with a little more focus on the literary side, since there are plenty of 'nonfiction' space blogs out there. Last post's comment thread suggests no lack of interest in the meta-fiction side of things.

On the other hand, when I think of new zaps or whacks to be made on the subject of space warfare, I will make them. We should all be ashamed of ourselves, but admitting it won't stop me from doing it.

If anyone wants to suggest topics they'd like to see discussed here, I make absolutely no promises, but suggesting them is one thing the comment thread is for.

As always ... Discuss!

Yeah, I recycled the image of the Enterprise from last year. Why not?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ten Laws of Good Science Fiction?

No, I have not fallen into a hyperspatial rift, such as jollyreaper has proposed as a story setting. Presumably this is good news to readers of this blog. Minor but multiple intrusions of Real Life have merely delayed my posting a bit more than usual.

Even this post is something of a placeholder, in that I intended to discuss the topic more thoroughly. But one advantage of a great commenter community is that I can count on you to do most of the work of making this blog read-worthy.

So: I invite your attention to this item on Laws of SF that turned up in my Google+ stream a week or two ago. My first reaction is that ten laws is at least seven too many. Yes, the Abrahamic God promulgated a set of ten, but those were to govern human behavior. For world building, both Kepler and Newton got by with three. We don't provide a list of Einstein's laws at all; my distinct impression is that E=MC^2 provides all the information needed to reconstruct special and general relativity.

At least if you can do tensor calculus backwards and in your sleep.

My original intention was to provide full edification and entertainment value by discussing each of the ten laws in turn, with links to relevant previous posts. That is the part I am instead leaving to my able commenters.

Instead I will merely point to Laws #7 and #3, in particular, and ask: Where does FTL (and its pervasive use in the genre) fit in here?


(I do promise not to make quasi-posts like this one the rule here!)

The image, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, really has nothing to do with the topic. Except, perhaps that vistas like this are a big reason why SF emerged in the first place as a distinct subgenre of Romance.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Space Warfare XVI: Origins and Scratch Forces

TS Golden BearNo, the configuration shown above is not proposed for any type of spacecraft. With sufficient stretching, I suppose you might justify it in a setting where ships have a magic drive, land on water, and their sea performance is the main design consideration. (If you'll buy that, which bridge do you want to purchase? The pretty one to Marin, or the massive one to Oakland?)

The vessel is the training ship Golden Bear, originally built for the Navy as an oceanographic survey ship. Her relevance to our topic comes from her oddly hybrid appearance: She looks like a not-quite-warship.

Let us suppose, for purposes of story, that some future era has space warfare, and space warcraft to do the fighting.

For the record, this is by no means an inevitable or even likely prospect, at least through the plausible midfuture, with the exception of mostly ground-based weapons intended to engage targets in Earth orbit. Not because of human moral improvement, but for the same reason Antarctica was untouched by the world wars and cold war: lack of strategic objectives.

But let us suppose it anyway. The question then becomes how these forces are developed in the first place. If they are built by existing or future terrestrial Great Powers the origin question hardly arises. Space forces then take form already fully developed, like Athena from Zeus's headache.

We can imagine Pentagon planners, or their counterparts, drawing up specifications for the spacecraft, while the service branches slug it out politically and bureaucratically to determine whether combat constellations have admirals, generals, or Space Marshals in overall command.

But what if space forces do not develop as simple outward projections of existing military establishments? A variety of scenarios might produce this result. The original international regime in space might be demilitarized, as (apart from ASATs) it is today. And when the apple of discord gets thrown it might not be contested for by terrestrial powers.

These might have more immediate concerns, namely each other. If Brazil and Nigeria are on such bad terms as to duke it out, the theater of operations is much more likely to be the South Atlantic than the asteroid belt.

Or the Earth of 2300 or 2500 may be so balkanized as to have no global Great Powers that would even daydream of space fleets. Or, on the other hand, there may be a world state, or demi-state international regime, with a blue-helmet constabulary but no force configured for major combat. Or if all else fails, the Fall of the Terran Empire could leave a welter of rising colonies, a few centuries later, to improvise their ships and military institutions.

In these scenarios the trouble in space may well begin in space. See hints along these lines (and links to further hints) in an earlier post in this series. But even without delving too deeply into the scenarios we can speculate about zero-generation space forces.

Kinetics, rather than beams, are probably (but not inevitably) the dominant weapon. Extensive space travel is pretty much a precondition here, and space travel is all about throwing weight around, fast and accurately. If you can guide a spacecraft to a destination you have at least a fair shot at steering it on collision course into a target. The basic prerequisites of a target seeker: thrusters, sensors, and guidance package, are available from every space operations boneyard.

They won't compare to the milspec'd version, but they don't have to: Their targets are also jury-rigged.

Multimegawatt laser installations combined with observatory-grade optics are less likely to be sitting around handy. Of course, if you really want lasers you can get around this. Laser-triggered fusion, or laser-boosted cargo propulsion, could make high powered lasers readily available, to be weaponized with an array of oscillating hands. But kinetics are the car bombs of space warfare, available by default.

For much the same reason, a wide variety of civil spacecraft can be pressed into war service. If cargo operations are modular, target seekers can ride on standard cargo clamps. Transport/liner types can carry espatiers, or for that matter the service techs needed to keep all sorts of space hardware in operating conditions.

But - here, finally, is the connection to the Golden Bear - survey ships are particularly well suited to wartime conversion. They presumably have a much more extensive sensor suite than most civilian types - and in space, everyone doesn't see everything unless they have appropriate sensors. They have an onboard mission control suited to managing probes, and, in interstellar setting at least, landing shuttles suitable for planets lacking - or not making available - runways and other surface facilities.

None of this makes survey ships the equivalent of purpose-built cruiser types. They have no specifically defensive features, and while they probably have extended range/endurance they have no provision for combat maneuvers. But with semi-demi-realistic space technology both of these are extremely iffy even for purpose-built warcraft.

Human factor also work neatly. Survey ships have relatively large crews, trained and accustomed to dealing with unknowns and uncertainty. Indeed, at least in principle Trek's Enterprise was a survey ship ... exploring new worlds, new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before. In practice, to be sure, she was hardly 'zero generation,' with an armament able to engage Klingon battlecruisers on equal terms, and plenty of redshirts to boot.

The availability of survey ships for war conversion depends on whether they exist. This is by no means inevitable (even given extensive human space travel). The chancy work of exploration may still be assigned to robotic probes, with mission control and the research team staying safely in Pasadena. (Or at least San Francisco's Presidio.)

Survey ships in something like the classic sense work best in settings that - conveniently for authors, if not for the inhabitants - have FTL travel but no FTL radio. Which means that to do any serious exploring, mission control must go with the mission, not stay back on Earth.

Stepping back, other considerations come into play. If the fighting breaks out in a single planet's orbital space - rather than the classic scenario of deep space war, interplanetary or interstellar - providing armament remains much the same, but the focus is likely to be on much smaller craft and much shorter missions.

Survey ships are pretty much irrelevant to such a fight. Indeed, quite apart from the specific topic of this post, combat between local forces in orbital space has a lot of 'air force' characteristics, in contrast to the traditional maritime image of deep space.


Related Links:

Atomic Rockets, of course - especially, but not exclusively, the pages on space warfare.

And previously in the Space Warfare series:

I: The Gravity Well
II: Stealth Reconsidered
III: 'Warships' in Space
IV: Mobility
V: Laser Weapons
VI: Kinetics, Part 1
VII: Kinetics, Part 2 - The Killer Bus
VIII: Orbital Combat
IX: Could Everything We Know Be Wrong?
X: Moving Targets
XI: La Zona Fronteriza
XII: Surface Warfare
XIII: The Human Factor
XIV: Things As They Ought To Be
XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars

Also ...

Battle of the Spherical War Cows: Purple v Green
Further Battles of the Spherical War Cows


Space Fighters, Not
Space Fighters, Reconsidered?

And, indulging in heresy -

Give Peace a Chance

The image of the Golden Bear comes from its Wikipedia page.