Monday, February 13, 2012

Sirius Voyager

Sirius Voyager
The name should belong to a starship, not a merely terrestrial (more precisely maritime!) oil tanker. Cargo ships have some wonderfully cool names; there are also tankers out there named Cygnus Voyager and Orion Voyager, and - albeit less starship-esque - a freighter Aegean Falcon. Other name choices are more doubtful. A Smarty recently visited SF Bay, and Pretty Time came in today.

And I personally would think more than twice before giving an oil tanker the name Target.

Now, on to the topic of this post, interstellar trade. Obviously this lies beyond the plausible midfuture. Unless FTL turns out to be not only possible but practical, it almost certainly lies in Science Fantasyland. (Isn't it convenient how all those jump points are only a few AU from Earth, not out somewhere in the really flat space between galaxy clusters.)

Firefly's good ship Serenity was not, nominally, a starship. And it did not launch the Free Trader trope in science fiction. So far as I'm aware, that honor goes to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Later, Heinlein also had Free Traders (with a couple of interesting cultural twists) in Citizen of the Galaxy. But Poul Anderson probably had more to do with the post-Asimov development of the trope.

Much later, the Traveller game also gave it a boost - I recall people saying at the time that Firefly reminded them of a Traveller scenario.


It should go without saying here that we are not discussing the plausible midfuture. Probably not any future, save fictional ones. This is as good a place as any to link to a piece about Interstellar Trade that I wrote some years ago on my old static website. And regular readers here will recognize features of my estimates for space costs. In the old piece I am incredibly optimistic about orbital shuttles - this is one of those things you have to be incredibly optimistic about, if you want extensive and affordable space travel.

One thing I would change is my analysis of passenger traffic, which I then argued would be distinctly sparse relative to cargo traffic. On second thought, I would now say that human capital, in the form of passengers with various forms of expertise - from diplomats to musicians - would probably be a substantial fraction of interstellar trade. (Once you push the assumption sliders hard enough to get interstellar trade at all.)

But back to, specifically, Free Traders. Unlike so many space tropes this one is not a direct steal from premodern maritime history. Merchant ships in the age of sail routinely carried some armament. But the most impressively armed merchantmen, Indiamen, were operated by monopoly companies with deep ties to state patronage. (Criticism of entities like the Honourable East India Company was a major subtext of Adam Smith.)

In an earlier era the link between the (city-) state and muscular trading was even more direct. Venice owned its merchant galleys, chartering them out to operators but tightly regulating their actual voyages. The Genoese were more freewheeling, but were in due course muscled aside by the better-organized Venetians.

Having said that, for purposes of opera I am rather partial to the idea of trade networks that are only loosely tied to individual planets, based instead on chains of orbital stations. Is this plausible, even for generous interpretations of that word? If you go at your underlying assumptions with hammer and tongs, and work them over long enough, you can probably make practically anything seem plausible.

A colony planet and orbital stationers are not in a good position to exercise coercion against each other. A station that bombs its downside planet eliminates its reason for being. A planet that ASATs its orbital station cuts itself off from the rest of human space. Which leaves them at a natural impasse - which, however, can also make for a working trade arrangement.

In turn, trade federations can tussle or downright fight over stations while nearly ignoring the planets those stations orbit. For a planet, a change of control over its overhead station merely means a different set of rapacious middlemen.

You probably don't want to run this through the Plause-O-Meter with an overly sensitive setting. But if you're going for opera anyway, some variation on this scenario might work as well as anything.

Individual independent (or para-independent) ships are a somewhat different matter. To my virtual eye they look less plausible, but perhaps I am just not trying hard enough.

Discuss.




The image of Sirius Voyager was taken by photographer 'PW,' and posted on the wonderful Marine Traffic website.

108 comments:

Damien Sullivan said...

Trade in people reminds me of the Dorsai books, where the colony worlds had diverged a lot in culture if not genetics, and expertise. Lots of Planets of Hats, so trade in different Hats.

Christopher Phoenix said...

Sirius Voyager is a wonderful name for a starship!! I've got to remember to check cargo ship names when I'm stumped for a starship's name. Sirius Voyager is a very spacey name- far more spacey then something dull like "Enterprise" or "Defiant".

What exactly are interstellar traders going to be trading? Even if something like the "warp drives" or "jump points" exist, their probably isn't much that is expensive enough to warrant sending it over trillions of miles.

Rocks? Distant settlements will have their own rocks to mine. Maybe really rare elements could be traded, but it still looks doubtful.

Widgets? Why don't you just send the plans for various gadgets over the FTL radio? Maybe traders could bring expensive gadgets that the settlers can't manufacture themselves.

Energy? Faraway settlements and starbases will generate their own energy from nearby stars or hydrogen gathered from nearby planets and comets. Interstellar societies will have to have means of generating vast amounts of energy to begin with.

Weapons? Again, why not send plans for weapons instead of the weapons themselves?

Information? This can be freely shared over the FTL radio, if such a device exists. Heck, you can even use the ordinary radio if you are patient.

People? I mean passengers. Sending lonely settlers potential wives was common in the past, and some SF stories have shown futuristic versions of this scenario- does that count as a form of trade?

Perhaps exotic stuff like magnetic monopoles, antimatter, higgsinium, or so on will be useful enough and rare enough to be traded over vast distances.

The feasibility of the above depends largely on what sort of FTL transport you hand-wave into a setting. You can get almost anything you want if you bend the rules enough, but its not very "realistic". Then again, what is? H.G. Well's "heat-rays" were considered fantasy tech at the time, but now we have lasers like MIRACL and THEL that are almost precisely heat-rays, albeit far more primitive than the Martian's models!!

It looks today as though star travel will be an activity undertaken by very advanced societies with vast amounts of energy at their disposal- the so-called "Type-1" and "Type-2" societies. Very likely, voyages will take centuries or decades. A society that undertakes such voyages probably has all its other needs met, and is simply bored. Maybe interstellar trade won't occur simply because once we are capable of star travel, our technology will be able to provide for almost all our material needs.

In the nearer future of interplanetary travel and Mars bases, I imagine a small market in luxury items might spring up. Perhaps the pilot of the Earth-Jupiter transport charges everyone at Ganymede Outpost an exorbitant price for soap...

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Rick:

"And I personally would think more than twice before giving an oil tanker the name Target."

Preferable to giving a warship that name!


"One thing I would change is my analysis of passenger traffic, which I then argued would be distinctly sparse relative to cargo traffic. On second thought, I would now say that human capital, in the form of passengers with various forms of expertise - from diplomats to musicians - would probably be a substantial fraction of interstellar trade."

Well, keep in mind that manufacturing goods locally is easier than manufacturing people locally. Well, manufacturing people locally is easy in principle, but it takes several decades to complete and you can't control which people you get.

Point is, beyond a certain point it'll be easier to "transfer" goods by communicating blueprints, but that doesn't work with people. You will always need ships for anyone who wants to go somewhere.


"Having said that, for purposes of opera I am rather partial to the idea of trade networks that are only loosely tied to individual planets, based instead on chains of orbital stations."

Orbital stations are per definition near planets, and the goods they're interested in are likely to be the ones the planets want to buy or sell.

I don't see how this distinction matters as anything other than a minor implementation detail.

Thucydides said...

The only reason that stations would be important players in their own right is if they were somehow responsible for the arrival and departure of the starships.

For STL tech, this might involve giant laser batteries for a Forward lightsail or something similar, for FTL then we are talking about some sort of Stargate technology or system.

If they are simply shipping hubs then they are effectively "part" of the planet's economy, serving to gather shuttle traffic (or the terminal of a skyhook) and bulkbreak whatever traffic the starships bring.

News, information and people are probably the best guess of what would count as a valuable cargo in space, since raw materials and energy exist in abundance.

Tony said...

Wey-uhllll...

Naming surface ships after stars doesn't seem all that odd, considering mariners' long-time relationship with them, for purposes of navigation.

I'm not sure why interstellar trade, given the likely compact and low mass nature of the possible goods, needs orbital stations. Seems a little artificial to me. If you're going to have to send up lighters for cargo and pax, might as well send them directly to the ships, like has always been done.

Sean said...

Tony said: "I'm not sure why interstellar trade, given the likely compact and low mass nature of the possible goods, needs orbital stations. Seems a little artificial to me."

IF we're capable of operating a system of interstellar trade in the first place, then I can only assume that space elevators are a technological feasibility (excusing the remote possibility of a sudden breakthrough in FTL), and if so, then the counterweight of the elevator (be it a space station or asteroid) would function as the hub for the movement of cargo from orbit to surface.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...what scenario could we build so that interstellar trade would be plausable? Let's see, we could have colonies that didn't have rare, but importaint elements, like, say gallium (very useful in manufacturing electronics); Planet A dosen't have any economically mineable concentrations of the stuff, but they do have a lot of farm land; Planet B is a big rock where everyone lives in domes or underground and eats algae and yeast, but have more gallium then they could use in a thousand years; the Free Trader Planet Express gets wind of this situation and start making regular trips between the two planets. Another situation could be that your FTL is some sort of catapult that can send you someplace but you need one at the distant end to come back,(you'd either have construction ships to make new catapults, or send the components of the new catapult to the target system); in such an arrangement, you'd use conventional spacecraft to go back and forth between stars; people would ride on corporate shuttles or free-lance transports, along with whatever cargo they would be shipping to and from the colonies. Or, you could just use Authors' Fiat and state that starships have to be small because of Handy's Limit and can only carry such and such a number of people and cargo and no more. Problem solved. :)

Ferrell

Tony said...

Sean:

"IF we're capable of operating a system of interstellar trade in the first place, then I can only assume that space elevators are a technological feasibility..."

Non sequitur. If you have the energy to relatively easily travel interstellar distances, space elevators are hardly your only -- or even best -- option.

kedamono@mac.com said...

There are several assumptions being made about where you put your colonies. Most habitable worlds might have an oxygen atmosphere, but pond scum for life.

On those worlds you have to bring everything. Including stuff to make topsoil. These colonies would buy the sewage from a starship to help make more topsoil.

And if a ship arrived with 1,000 tonnes of topsoil, what's it worth to that colony?

The other assumption is that these colonies will have everything they need. Will they? Or will they have just what they can afford?

As the colony grows, will their capabilities to manufacture everything grow as well.

How much will it cost them to make widget A, that needs dozen resources, all of which has to be extracted from the planet and then refined and processed? A 100 times what it costs Earth to make widget A? And even if the total cost to make and transport widget A to the colony is 99 times what it costs on Earth, it's still cheaper than the colony's widget A.

So there are plenty of things you can ship to a colony. Now from the colony to Earth... hmm, that's a good question.

Nyrath said...

Obligatory Atomic Rockets link:
Interstellar Trade

Sean said...

Tony said: "Non sequitur. If you have the energy to relatively easily travel interstellar distances, space elevators are hardly your only -- or even best -- option."

That entirely depends on the setting's method of interstellar travel. Traversing the vast gulf between stars could be as easy as one, two, three but surface to orbit launches could still be the bi*ch that they are today.

But even if my FTL was a bi*tch itself, if I have a developing colony with no surface-to-orbit infrastructure then they're not going to be in the position to launch rockets into space to pick up the cargo, and if the starship was also now a mothership for a shuttlecraft, then the expenses for this cargo are increased because of mass penalties. Nudging an asteroid into orbit (I say that so casually...) and landing a robotic workforce onto its surface to produce the cable for a space elevator would a difficult feat but surely a long term investment for a developing extrasolar colony.

Brett said...

@Sean
That entirely depends on the setting's method of interstellar travel. Traversing the vast gulf between stars could be as easy as one, two, three but surface to orbit launches could still be the bi*ch that they are today.

I think that tends to go under-appreciated in SF. Considering that FTL is realistically impossible, you might as well do a "low-energy" trick for it as well as a high energy trick.

In fact, having the "low-energy" trick could allow you to apply a lot of "hardness" in the rest of the setting. Imagine a future where it's far cheaper (in energy and money) to send goods 25 light-years than 100 miles up a planetary gravity well. That type of thing has happened before - up to about 500 years ago (and even more recently), it was cheaper to send goods 2,000 miles by sea than 100 miles over land.

I actually did that for a SF setting I was developing. The only difference in getting to orbit was that the two-stage disposable "human lifter" rockets were mass-produced. Most people still lived planet-side, though - tele-presence and medical immortality will do that to you.

Damien Sullivan said...

It's probably still cheaper to send stuff 2000 miles by sea vs. 100 miles by land. Especially in countries that haven't made massive investments in roads. Granted, the really cheap sea shipping takes high-investment ports, but still...

Hugh said...

Free Traders were quite common historically (and maybe still today?) on land. Perhaps those East Indiamen were too expensive for a family to afford before the 20th century?

Anecdotally it's possible for wealthly families today to live on boats. Every few years there are stories about somebody trying to fund a giant floating tax shelter for the wealthy.

If you've got a future where FTL is cheap, the ships become the equivalent of a small business rather than a megacorporation. To borrow from Cherryh's Alliance/Union setting, some of these ships will be interstellar gypsies. They trade to pay for fuel and life support, rather than just for the paycheck.

Cambias said...

I've often thought that air cargo would be a better model for interstellar trade than shipborne trade. Our Free Traders are the equivalent of bush pilots -- they often operate in primitive environments, they can't be choosy about customers, but they depend on a distant high-tech civilization to keep running.

And, like your suggestion about starships, bush pilots chiefly carry passengers (when they're not smuggling drugs).

Plane travel has (relatively) low capital costs but a very high opportunity cost in pilot training. This would be a good fit for interstellar travel that depends on some ineffable piloting ability -- "psionic" drives and the like. Even a washed-up drunk psychic navigator can find work out on the Rim.

Mangaka2170 said...

An interesting little side effect I discovered when contemplating fast STL interstellar travel is the total lack of an interstellar empire, or any other rigid organization on an interstellar scale.

Think about it: interstellar war would be all but impossible to prosecute without utterly destroying whatever it is that you're fighting over, and that something is going to have to be quite valuable in order to justify the expense of shipping troops, tanks, aircraft and whatever else would be needed. If the two powers are roughly equal in wealth and tech level, then it becomes physically impossible to wage war in any conventional sense (we covered this in one of the Space Warfare discussions). As a result, any "galactic federation" would be composed of unenforceable treaties that are only pursued out of mutual self-interest.

Furthermore, it would be highly unlikely that there would be any interstellar trade guild, either. Due to lightspeed lag (we're also assuming no FTL radio), and the travel times involved, there would be no way to maintain such an organization for much the same reason as it would be all but impossible to maintain an interstellar empire.

As a result, it would not surprise me in the slightest if STL interstellar trade starships were essentially independent countries in their own rights. Starship captains would be entitled to diplomatic immunity, and trade would be conducted between the planet and the visiting starship, even if the cargo in question is intended for a third party. It's even possible that such starships would have their own militaries for when negotiations break down.

M. D. Van Norman said...

Interstellar trade would probably reduce to just two categories: information (virtually free) and very high-priority goods/services (ridiculously expensive). Fuming brandy and everything else would be incidental.

Mangaka2170 said...

Of course, supply and demand will dictate exactly what would be shipped across interstellar distances. In some cases, simple luxury items might go viral in a sense.

For example: the planet Proxima III has a plant native to its biosphere that, when processed properly, makes for a potent analgesic. Now, the Earth Federation's Office of Colonial Affairs wouldn't consider the shipping of such a product a priority, especially when the purpose of the colony is to keep the orbital radio telescope that allows contact with Earth in working order (we're going to assume that there's another industry in the Centauri system that makes interstellar travel worthwhile).

But, someone introduces this analgesic to a bored crewmember on the supply ship, and manages to sell him a couple cases of the stuff to last him until his next trip to the system. This crewmember introduces it to a few of his friends and coworkers, and they do the same to others. By the time the next ship is ready to leave for the Centauri system, there's enough demand for the stuff that an enterprising crewmember makes plans to make a little cash on the side by buying up a number of cases, and then selling them once he gets back to Earth.

Anyways, the captain finds out about this plan, learns of the demand for the drug and makes a proposal to the OCA, to consider importing it from Proxima and making the Federation a lot of money selling it. This situation would also put the colonists on Proxima III in a position to bargain for more luxury items and manufactured goods that they can't get locally. Furthermore, it's more profitable for the colonists to refuse to establish a processing facility in the Sol system, although it might cause political tensions, so a compromise might be in order.

It doesn't even have to be something that can only be produced on that planet. A startup company on a far off colony world might build a better torch engine than the ones in use. Since they wouldn't be able to make money if they sent the plans to a starship manufacturer back home (unless they also gave up the patent rights, since royalties would be a pain to work with due to a float time measured in years), it would make more sense if they produced the engines locally and periodically sold them to the back home starship manufacturer.

My point is that the cost overhead of shipping between star systems wouldn't be an issue if there is a sufficiently large profit margin to be made anyway. The expense of shipping didn't stop the East India Company; far from it, they managed to become the most powerful corporation of the age of sail. With the exception of the engineering and executive issues, there isn't much on the way of problems with interstellar shipping that weren't already solved 300 years ago during the age of sail.

Paul said...

In an STL universe, one of the easiest things (after information) to ship over interstellar distances is energy. A beam of laser light travels as fast as anything possibly can.

Michael said...

Alastair Reynolds explores the "interstellar starship as society" idea in his novels. The Ultras are effectively removed from planetary society, progressing through time at their own rate with a radically different culture than any of the planetary bound cultures.

My own idea for "interstellar empire" in a sublight universe is that the highest level of leadership is only periodically "awake", in suspended animation most of the time, or a slowed down reality. This made them sensitive to long term trends, and makes communication between leaders light years away much more like "real time" communication.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing particularly far fetched about this scenario to my eyes, save for the FTL. Imagine that orbiting space stations are built up around the construction and servicing of huge space-solar power plants, beaming microwave energy down to the planet below. As the need for more energy grows on the planet's surface, the need to fabricate new solar panels and gyrotrons grows as well. An entire sprawling city in orbit can be justified to accomplish this. Some of that power is diverted to daily surface-to-orbit space shuttles using beamed propulsion. The building material for the station and the power plant array comes from shipments from asteroid and moon-mining colonies, so they dont have to be lifted out of a deep gravity well. This means that the beam-powered-shuttle traffic to and from the planet is almost entirely human, because any tangible commodities in space would be most cheaply obtained from space. The intrigue comes from the fact that the space station personnel can charge surface-dwellers as much as they want for the electrical power provided by the station, and pay bare minimum to the freighters and mining colonies. Conflict ensues. This set up works best in a one-solar-system economy, but could just as well happen in an interstellar economy, because there's no reason to think interstellar travel negates the advantages of space-based solar power or beamed surface-to-orbit propulsion.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Paul:

"In an STL universe, one of the easiest things (after information) to ship over interstellar distances is energy. A beam of laser light travels as fast as anything possibly can."

Yeah, but how are you going to make an artificial light source that, even at a distance of tens of lightyears, is more intense than the target system's own sun?



Michael:

"My own idea for "interstellar empire" in a sublight universe is that the highest level of leadership is only periodically "awake", in suspended animation most of the time, or a slowed down reality. This made them sensitive to long term trends, and makes communication between leaders light years away much more like "real time" communication."

Leaders that can see the grand scheme of things and guide the course of civilizations, yet are too out-of-tune with normal life for most people to relate to, or to interact with what they would consider important current events? Sounds like... gods.

Jack said...

You all know Vernor Vinge's depiction of a private interstellar trading culture using STL (1/3 C) travel in A Deepness in the Sky. Ramscoop ships, hibernation, plus long lived humans and longer lived trading dynasties of the Cheng Ho. Destinations selected and prepared for visits by prior communication through radiotelescope. Seemed as plausible a far future as you could reasonably contemplate. The off-on star wasn't, but that was peripheral to the trading. Plausible enough to support the story line. Any opinions?

Eth said...

Vernor Vinge's traders are somehow closer to the East India Company than free-traders, with dynasties and posts in the most advanced worlds, with their own shipyards and other installations.
Alastair Reynolds, on the other hand, has 'true' free-traders with completely independent starships, each one being indeed its own country.

Both have different takes on it, but both feel quite believable, and the differences between the settings are interesting.

Reynolds' ships are self-sufficient, able to repair themselves to an impressive extent and can finance their own repairs if needed in the most advanced systems.
Vinge's ships seem to be built for at most a few travels, and need to be refit or replaced often. Also, they need fuel, probably refined hydrogen, while Reynolds' ships have a magical fuel-less main drive.

On the other hand, Reynolds' ships are far more expensive. In fact, there is only one faction who built them, and they suddenly decided to stop. And human space is only a few dozens of light-years wide, so one ship has a big importance.
Vinge's ships are far more common, with most advanced world being able to build them, so there are also some traders bound to a world, or colony ships. And human space is a thousand of light-years wide, so individual ships are more common and less individually significant.

So in one case, one ship is a massive and self-sufficent investment, and the time difference with planets bring them to be independent, effectively their own nations.
But in the other case merchents need planetary basis, as ships are expendable. But time differences are still separating them from planetary organizations, so it's logical that they end up company-like, seeing their planetary basis like posts instead of homeworld.
Note that they are also a case of interstellar organization tied by self-interested treaties Mangaka2170 evoked. In this setting, planetary civilizations are too short-lived to develop much interstellar partnerships, but thanks to cryogenic sleep, merchants tend to outlive those, and move a lot. So they end up not as a trade federation, but as a solidary community, mostly exchanging informations on encrypted transmissions. As technology is their main trade, IIRC, exchanging information is the best thing they can do to help each-other.

Rick said...

Welcome to several new commenters!

I encourage 'Anon' commenters to sign a name or handle, to make the conversation a bit easier to disentangle.

For merchant ship names, I meant to link to Marine Traffic, a wonderful website, especially if you live near a seaport.


As a general rule, if you have extensive colonization you probably also have affordable (if not necessarily 'cheap') interstellar travel. Otherwise how did the colonists get there in the first place?

It is not too hard to come up with exceptions (e.g., colonization motivated by religion or equivalent), but for general purposes of opera the formulation probably works.

Getting to orbit and deep space travel (interstellar or otherwise) are different enough that progress in one might not help that much with the other. And I'd argue that if you have the materials tech for an elevator, you have much better prospect of building viable shuttles.

Stations. I think of them as mainly maintenance and servicing facilities for the ships - assuming you need massive support such as cageworks. You can probably have them or do without them, according to taste, so long as your assumption slider settings are consistent.

In general, as the examples given show, a wide range of assumptions are viable!

H said...

Hello.
Quite an interesting topic.

An idea I think may be worth exploring is trade in technology and knowledge. In a setting where contact between worlds is scarce (especially if we are avoiding using FTL) or if there exist multiple intelligent civilized species, technology may not spread very fast.
Yes, you can just send the blueprints by radio, but who guarantees you that you will be paid in return? Or that the information you are receiving is not intentionally wrong?

In such a setting traders and merchants would be the middlemen who are able to actually see what is being sold to them and offer their customers the possibility to inspect their products. Given sufficiently advanced manufacturing capability prototypes may be build in the customer world just to test the feasibility of the blueprint.

Mix intellectual property rights into the setting and you can have a justification for politics diplomacy and warfare. Traders buy or sell rights to use a particular technology, and patent infringement is considered a good enough reason for warfare.
(Of course you will have to search a way where interstellar warfare is possible even if contact between worlds is uncommon. Alien civilizations may offer a good excuse for this.)

Just my humble though.

Anonymous said...

For the world I've been playing around with (though I'm yet to commit it to paper), there is a Terran Empire/Commonwealth (well, it has an Emperor, who's appointed by the High Lords of Terra - which includes the Governor of the Bank of Terra) that extends to 2-3 lightyears around Sol (heavy usage of brown dwarfs and rogue superjovians). The Empire is composed of these "stars", plus the solar system, whilst the space inbetween is filled with comet based empires which use torchships (a typical small empire will stretch to around 500AU across).

To make interstellar colonisation and trade viable with STL travel and communications, I've set the cost of getting to 0.6c (controlled by an Imperial corporation, of course; free traders aren't trusted with WMD's) - and decelerating (magnetic sails, beamed power etc) - at a mere #10k (where # is a currency sign placeholder; think dollars or euros if it helps), using Ram-augmented rockets (Lithium-Hydrogen fusion, augmented by interstellar hydrogen) with high mass ratio's (Lithium is stored as fuel rods, so no storage tanks are required, and is biomined from comets and asteroids). At this price, there's still lots that can be traded, especially to the early colonies, before they can produce everything for themselves, and people still need to be imported.

Though, expect a heavy reliance on luxury goods. There's no point shipping grain, but it's perfectly possible for a very high quality wine to retail for #2k, especially if the local rich guy wants to demonstrate that he can afford to throw a banquet with food that's been imported from other systems. Transport costs for people come in at less than #10M, which is low enough for a strong current of emigration from the solar system...

- Terraformer

Teleros said...

OP: "A colony planet and orbital stationers are not in a good position to exercise coercion against each other. A station that bombs its downside planet eliminates its reason for being. A planet that ASATs its orbital station cuts itself off from the rest of human space. Which leaves them at a natural impasse - which, however, can also make for a working trade arrangement."

Just a quick point: this depends on assumptions about the colony's industry & the station's self-sufficiency. If the station needs food from the planet to survive, but the colony can get a new temporary station up in a month or two (whilst they build a proper new one)... well, someone's going to have been dealt a better hand.

Second, for orbital stations to be important, might it not also require somewhat expensive means of getting out of the gravity well? If ships can afford to land directly on the planet with minimal cost, then that might be preferable to hanging around the station above. Perhaps higher surface-to-orbit costs for starships (but not elevators etc?) would discourage this?

Anonymous said...

Teleros said:"Second, for orbital stations to be important, might it not also require somewhat expensive means of getting out of the gravity well? If ships can afford to land directly on the planet with minimal cost, then that might be preferable to hanging around the station above. Perhaps higher surface-to-orbit costs for starships (but not elevators etc?) would discourage this?"

Even if the cost of surface to orbit is low, the cost penalty of a starship carrying a shuttle may mean that having a station to refuel at and facilitate transfers of cargo and passengers might also make sense; a station could also act as a traffic control and quarrinte station. You might like their stuff, but not so much them...

Ferrell

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple more new commenters!

All too true that my remarks on ships and stations are filled with hidden assumptions. Even in (inherently operatic!) interstellar settings I tend to picture ships as souped up versions of plausible-midfuture nuke electric ships - fusion drive and FTL gizmo, but the same general configuration - and thus completely unsuited to planetary landings.

Valid points also about the relationship between planets and their orbital stations.

It is all about where you set the assumption sliders.

Eth said...

Also, as interstellar ships could probably ruin a planet by crashing on it (accidentally or not) or shooting at it, it would probably make sense to have stations, or at least parking orbits, to prevent ships to close too much from the planet.
Those stations/parking zones could even not be orbiting the planet, but the star in the outer system, if there are interstellar ships. Then, a second station/parking zone/space elevator would probably orbit the planet itself for the interplanetary shuttles.

In the setting I'm currently playing with, STL interstellar ships (there is no FTL ships or radio) are forbidden to close any inhabited planet, said planet will shoot any ship breaking this rule down. There are not always stations, as interplanetary shuttles (be it the ship's or the planet's) often transfer cargo directly with the ships.
There are also some interstellar organizations. As medical progress made humans mostly immune to age, the immense time lags between planets are less of a barrier.
The two biggest means to enforce the main empire are facilitated exchanges of technologies and other knowledges, and military force. As any interstellar war can end up with the conflicting planets slagged, a semi-autonomous interstellar warfleet ready to attack any uprising system is quite a deterrent.
Both can take years and decades to happen, but as they are living for millennia, decades are often not perceived as a long time.

Anonymous said...

Another way to have viable interstellar empires and federations without messing around with FTL is to set your stories in actual interstellar space... http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=21719

It's not much of a leap to imagine empires that are composed of dwarf planets and artifical worlds, linked by torchships. They don't even need to be relativistic, and can fit easily with the sort of stuff we can build today. Why use boring planets when you can have your heroes going through Bernal Spheres, Ringworlds, Spirals, terraformed Rogue Planets, Virga's...? Most of the time, people expect to see the stars, not have the glare of the sun overpower the small light of them. As was noted in the Centauri Dreams comments, supplies of Thorium would make a viable trade good if there's no nuclear fusion.

- Terraformer

Ray said...

We've seen massive changes over the last few hundred years as it became quicker, cheaper, and easier to communicate via electricity, radio, fiber-optics than by traveling to talk to someone face-to-face. FTL travel flips that. Sure you can send information via radio, but at the speed of light it'll be 25 years outdated by the time it reaches that colony, whereas a courier ship can carry a lot of data with no attenuation and get there in a few weeks. And our use of communications channels expands to fill the available bandwidth, so there'll be plenty of business. Unless you have a magic ansible, which kind of ruins things.

But while you can easily leech a band's entire discography from the courier, that in no way diminishes the desire to see their incredible live performance. And while anyone can read a book about how to deal with business problems, when an organization has real problems, they want an expert consultant on the spot. So celebrities and high-value personnel would be another likely cargo - much more profitable than masses of people vacationing. Unless you have superb AI and VR, which kind of ruins things.

And speaking of high value, people are happy to pay 10 or even 100 times as much for something if it has a brand label or famous name on it. It doesn't even have to be a luxury. Unless you have an egalitarian society or something, which kind of ruins things.

If all else fails, you can fall back on another type of high-value personnel. Any poor colony can arm their kids with rifles and send 'em off to fight. But it might be a lot cheaper to hire professional strategists, experienced troops, and expensive, complex war machines on an as-needed basis, rather than maintain large standing forces that may only be used every generation or two. Other expensive but temporarily-needed things (terraforming gear, or thermal borehole excavators maybe) could also make a case for interstellar transport.

So why free traders rather than massive interstellar transit corporations? The lack of rapid interstellar communications requires each ship's crew to be pretty autonomous and operate on their own initiative rather than being tracked and monitored in real-time by a distant headquarters. It may seem a little risky to invest in sending an autonomous crew on a long voyage along a trade route when you may not hear back from them for years. On the other hand, a corporation could reduce risk by providing standardization to trade and money. There could be room for both megacorps and free traders.

AgentPalpatine said...

The traditional purpose of larger ports (see "Staple Ports") was to make it easier for the local jurisdiction to impose tariffs/taxes on the trade goods.

If a local jurisdiction (say, the Most Powerful Dominion of Io) wants to make sure they can get a cut of the trade, Io needs to control (not own) the local space trading hub.

On the other hand, if the local traders want to control the trade (and make more money), they will want the ability to export goods to Io's citizens without some pesky customs official taking a cut. Right there you have enough political intrigue to write at least one book.

A good amount of the history of the trade cities of the European middle ages boils down to the question of "Who controls the trade". England to this day keeps a woolsack in the House of Lords to symbolize that (the United Kingdom) controls the export of wool, not the traders of London or Brugues.

AgentPalpatine said...

Looking at the problem of Near-term trade goods for a space opera, I'd argue that high-end luxury goods and food items would be top of the list.

For the near-term, I'd assume that a non-unified Earth is still the biggest market in known space.

In Europe during the 1500s, the home market could'nt get enough sugar and tobacco. Sugar at one point was considered such a luxury that the upper class would personally lock the sugar up in the kitchen. As the supply increased, sugar just became another luxury good, before turning into a basic good.

Change "sugar" to "Mars Spice", and you've got your first trade good. Even if the stuff tastes awful, I'm sure some hollywood star is going to want to have it at a party.

jollyreaper said...

Just in favor of my personal bias in terminology.

Spacecraft -- small vessel lacking interplanetary range. Usually a utility craft carried by a larger vessel.
Spaceship -- any vessel capable of interplanetary range.
Starship -- any vessel capable of interplanetary travel

In terms of the practicality of trade, had a discussion on another board concerning the difference in acrimony between the Roman political system and the US of A in pretty much any era. Rome was terrifying. Proscriptions, pogroms, it was nasty business, game of thrones. You win or you die.

the USSR was like that under Stalin but, after he died, the survivors had a gentleman's agreement that whoever lost the game would get exile rather than extermination. It's rare to see humans step back from the brink like that. The usual trend seems to be that we push it and push it until disagreements become open war and we keep killing until either a) there's only one side left b) both sides are weakened to the point that a third party can step in and assume power or c) the whole society collapses and it takes hundreds or thousands of years for someone else to come along and ask what the hell happened.

If we're talking businessmen and not ideologues or crazy people, then I think sheer pragmatism will arrive at a very reasonable system of trading. But it could all turn to crap if you get a power coming along with a will to power, ideology that triumphs over all reason, etc.

Damien Sullivan said...

Well, the Roman Republic covers like 400 years. Lots of clan (gens) violence, but also dictatorships, absolute power for 6 months... and dictators would often step down before then, after their emergency task was fulfilled. Sulla was the first to run amok, for two years and lots of persecution... then retired to a villa and no one came after him. Weird.

Trade in experts in STL has a big problem: what can you pay the experts such that it's worth throwing 10+ years of their life away in travel?

Sean said...

Damien Sullivan said: "Trade in experts in STL has a big problem: what can you pay the experts such that it's worth throwing 10+ years of their life away in travel?"

Aldebaran whiskey?

Thucydides said...

Coming to a "gentleman's agreement" raises the threshold of violence and provides an incentive to compete without starting a civil war.

It was interesting to watch some factions in the United States attempting to lower the threshold by loudly suggesting that members of the Bush administration be charged with criminal offenses and imprisoned on flimsy grounds. If something like this were to happen, the incentive for the incumbents would be to win at all costs so they never have to face political or politicized kangaroo courts. (Note this is more a matter of perception, anyone who commits a real offense should face a Court of Law).

This was understood near the end of the Res Publica Roma I believe I found this quote on Jerry Pournelle's site, but I can't seem to find it, so a paraphrase:

"When you have to go into debt to win an election, and face prosecution and loss of liberty when you loose, then it is worth everything to win"

Anonymous said...

"Trade in experts in STL has a big problem: what can you pay the experts such that it's worth throwing 10+ years of their life away in travel?"
Depends whether they're throwing 10+ years of their life away. I've suggested before taking the Karl Schroeder way and using brown dwarfs to shrink the distances to 1-2 light years. Last figure I heard was that BD's are twice as common as lit stars, so that's maybe, what, 2-3ly away from us around here? With sufficiently fast travel, you're then looking at 3-5 years of travel time, which can be used constructively... hopefully. What to offer them? The usual - their own property planetside, a well paid job, and the like.

- Terraformer

Anonymous said...

I see three main commodities (besides people) for interstellar trade:

1) Food/Life . It's awful hard to grow plants and animals for human consumption on, say, an asteroid. If there's no habitable world, it will have to be hydroponics or the like, which can reasonably be made to take a little while to set up. Until then, offworld food will be required. Even when the colony is producing food, if there isn't enough room for plants to keep up with demand for CO2 converted to O2, that will have to be shipped in too. (okay, these are kind of shaky. Oh well.)

2) Advanced manufactured goods. A brand-new colony won't be able to fabricate everything the colonists need or want. There just won't be the industrial infrastructure. And once the colony sets up that infrastructure, it will be on its way to setting up colonies of its own, which continues the cycle.

3) The aforementioned "brand name" luxury items.

So it seems there will be some type of one-way mercantilism: colonies will exist as markets for the homeworld's goods. There is one reverse possibility, though: say Planet X taxes the crap out of Interstellar Widgets Inc. IW Inc. decides it would be worth the massive initial investment to get rid of those taxes, so loads workers, machinery, etc. on some cargo ships and sends them off. Then, a few years later when manufacturing is up and running, IW Inc.'s widgets will be able to undersell the widgets of all the other companies that stayed on Planet X.

Long lag times have been cited as problems with interstellar trading and empire (the two are linked, so I'll discuss them together). In fact, the British managed to keep hold of its empire for a remarkably long time considering the sheer distances separating colonies from the mother country (about 3 months from England to America, presumably much more for, say, India). Considering only moderately fast FTL or an interplanetary environment, that's not too unreasonable a travel time. And as far as enforcing Imperial rule, one could follow a British model as well. The American colonies pretty much were autonomous, as long as they sent their taxes in and remained relatively peaceful. They even could ignore the massive amount of smuggling carried out by New England traders. If the colony goes errant, however, the army went over and took control (Boston was put under martial law under the Royal Army before the Revolution). In space, it's similar: the spacefleet takes off to deal with those pesky rebels out on Io, the rebels are suppressed, and the fleet's commanders basically become the sole authority in the area (nominally in the name of the empire, but practically independent of any oversight). One could argue that this system didn't work for Britain because we broke away and they eventually lost their empire, but that is ignoring just how closely run the American Revolution was. We came very close to losing the war (and a big factor was the intervention of the French).

The more I think of it, the more a "British Empire in the Age of Sail" seems to be a feasible analogy for at least interplanetary if not interstellar political/economic interactions.

-TDA

Anonymous said...

And as far as generating planet-to-planet (and later system-to-system) travel in the first place, I think I have an idea on that front, too.

First, the MacGuffinite: the possible existence of a MacGuffinite. There will be scientists headed to the far reaches of our system to look for something interesting.

Second, some Evil Communist Dictator will realize those scientists make awfully good targets in case of war...and that they don't need to be attacked directly. Cut off contact with Earth and the outposts die. Thus their militarization of the orbitals to be able to cut off our travel. We then do the same to keep supply lines open and maybe do the same to them.

This leads to further militarization, probably the asteroid belt. Permanent military bases of both superpowers spring up out in the belt, with personnel posted for a couple of years at a time. Now, you have a market for a wide variety of goods and services. Where there is a market, someone will move in to sell the goods/services in demand. Thus traders/businessmen in the belt, which then creates even more of a demand...

Later, as interstellar travel becomes practical, repeat on a larger scale in other star systems.

-TDA

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



TDA:

"So it seems there will be some type of one-way mercantilism: colonies will exist as markets for the homeworld's goods."

And that's the problem. Trade requires both participants to have something the other wants.

If you're just sending something one way without getting anything back, then you're either subsiding a national prestige project with taxpayers' money (for capital-to-colony transport), or you're plundering the locals' stuff by force (for colony-to-capital transport, and that requires there to BE locals with a preexisting economy).

jollyreaper said...


"When you have to go into debt to win an election, and face prosecution and loss of liberty when you loose, then it is worth everything to win"


Good point. But it also seems to remove the rule of law. Nixon said "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal." And the witch hunt against Clinton was nearly like a coup d'├ętat against a sitting president. And just look at the congressional insider trading mess.

Taking a break from the 2012 campaign and the workings of the White House, Jon Stewart turned to the issue of Congressional insider trading– members of Congress privy to private information because of their committee assignments who can legally use that information for profit. As Stewart put it, it’s a system of checks and balances: “they deposit checks; it increases their balances.”

Stewart became increasingly frustrated with the language members of Congress used to describe the situation, and how each in turn evaded responsibility. It came to this: one member of Congress making the point, as if having just discovered America, that Congress should, in fact, follow the same laws that other Americans do. “Yes, Congress should follow the same laws as everybody else,” Stewart mocked, “I think that was part of the No Shit Sherlock Act of Always.”


http://www.mediaite.com/tv/jon-stewart-and-his-hilarious-lieberman-impression-blast-congress-for-insider-trading/

So is the takeaway that we have to let the political and business elites get away with crime because holding them to account might plunge the country into civil war?

The same question comes into play with malpractice suits. The people against lawsuits say "You can't threaten a man for doing his job. You sue enough doctors, nobody will want to be in the field and then where will we be?" But the counter to that is "If there are no consequences for incompetence, how will we get incompetent people out of the field? We don't want just any doctors, we want qualified doctors."

Anonymous said...

"'When you have to go into debt to win an election, and face prosecution and loss of liberty when you loose, then it is worth everything to win'

Good point. But it also seems to remove the rule of law. Nixon said "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal." And the witch hunt against Clinton was nearly like a coup d'├ętat against a sitting president. And just look at the congressional insider trading mess."


I think this was meant more in a "political" trial situation: Candidate A beats Candidate B, so A (who controls the government) trumps up charges and has B (who is speaking out against A's running of said government) convicted and discredited. B is really guilty of no real crime other than losing the election.

It isn't rejection of rule of law, its protection against tyrannical government wearing the trappings of democracy (which can and has happened, believe me).

-TDA

Thucydides said...

It isn't rejection of rule of law, its protection against tyrannical government wearing the trappings of democracy (which can and has happened, believe me).

Indeed. near the end of the Res Publica Roma the situation was so fraught with danger that the civil wars were pretty much inevitable.

Between an early form of crony capitalism, dispossessing farmers from their land and politicians using the Senate and courts to attack rivals (if they were not assassinated first), you either had to be the biggest dog to survive, or duck well below the radar to avoid being caught up in things. Of course, powerful and ambitious politicians had lots of inducements to offer willing plebs to follow them, and enough plebs were willing to snatch at the prospect of something better to keep the cycle going until things got totally out of hand.

jollyreaper said...

On a different board the example of zynga came up. They're the FarmVille guys. Every game they make is stolen from smaller developers. Another developer stole one of their designs and zynga sued them to death.

Makes me think of the opening scene of the Godfather. "I believe in America." yeah but when your daughter gets raped by wealthy frat boys, who do you have to turn to for justice?

You may get your day in court but you won't get anything out of it.

A society people don't believe in anymore isn't long for this earth.

Anonymous said...

Previously in the "expert trade" only civilian experts have been considered. In David Drake's "Hammer's Slammers" series, it was expert mercenary units, with more experience and more modern equipment than the local governments fighting all these civil wars could provide themselves. It just about bankrupted a side to hire mercenaries, but if they did the other side had to as well or they would definitely lose.

Just a thought.

-TDA

Joe Beutel said...

How about this idea (note this is for one solar system settings but I bet it'd work fine in other settings too: I use it in my FTL by gate setting, too)

Free Traders sorta exist. Its not like Mr. John Doe decides to sell his condo and then uses that money to buy an interplanetary ship and enough fuel to get his free trader company going.

Instead its more like an extremely wealthy person may have a ship or two (just like a company, although the biggest companies have many more) OR a group of middle class (even economically lower class if there are enough middle class to 'piggy back' on) can pool all of their resources to start a ship/company.

So instead of Mal Reynolds buying his ship (then again he may have been rather wealthy and Zooey bought it too) and picking up crew that he pays, its more like a collective of guys buy a ship and all are like shareholders in whatever they make off the ship.

Of course even then they are in debt, and who knows what would be the case for used ships or orbital shuttles vs. interplanetary (or stellar) ships.... it is possible that Mal could buy a old ship and be highly in debt if it was the right type and so on, but I think the above situation with the collective ownership would be more common.

Anyway, what do they trade? What could be worth the travel? Beyond some possible "real" trade between colonies on the rim where resources on any one rock may be different than the resources on the other, and they're all fighting for survival (not to mention if NASA sends all its supplies to one colony and then trusts the free market to spread it to the others, which may reduce costs for NASA while also stimulating economic growth, then you have some more trade created there). This sort of trade between, say, the moons of Jupiter is pretty much common knowledge to be a cool setting for SF Free Traders (or anything else).

But what about highly enforced patents that are used to artificially create interplanetary trade between more advanced planets? Say Mars produces Fusion Drive B. Though Mars (if its advanced enough) may be the center of interplanetary travel (easier to get from Mars to anywhere than Earth to anywhere, basically), Earth wants to have some of these drives too. But the interplanetary patent laws require that instead of sending the plans over and letting them build (which isn't a problem for a rim world thats barely getting by, but is with a developed technological world) the Martians must physically ship the drives (or ships with the drives, I suppose) to Earth. And even then the Earthers can't just start copying them and building them.... all officially transported goods are tracked and it is made sure they are not copied (at least until a certain period has passed and the patent expires). This way you have interplanetary trade for the benefit of the trade corporations and various space industries.

And you also have smuggling: What if a small free trader could get just one Fusion Drive B past security and onto Earth to secret manufacturers? If you get away with it, it could make you rich.... far richer than the regular trade!

Thucydides said...

The problem is who or what does the enforceing? International patent laws are pretty clear, but I doubt that even Apple Inc. has the ability to hire enough marshals or troops to enforce their patent rights in China (not even taking the PLA's negative view of such a course of action into account).

Mars creates Fusion Drive "B" and files an interplanetary patent. Earth (or a major Power on Earth) says "blow" and starts cranking them out like hotcakes. Mars protests, but the superior industrial base on Earth not only allows Earth to ignore the protest, but to actually build a fleet of ships using Fusion B drives to blockade Mars and take over shipping in the Solar system.

Only a an overarching superior organization could deal with that (and it would have to be demonstrably superior, otherwise it will be the Holy Roman Empire V 2.0). In any setting with peer and neer peers, the actors will be in a state of nature.

Anonymous said...

"Mars creates Fusion Drive "B" and files an interplanetary patent. Earth (or a major Power on Earth) says "blow" and starts cranking them out like hotcakes. Mars protests, but the superior industrial base on Earth not only allows Earth to ignore the protest, but to actually build a fleet of ships using Fusion B drives to blockade Mars and take over shipping in the Solar system."

Thus an interplanetary war, and your story.

The enforcement will not necessarily be an interplanetary "police force," but the ability to cause more casualties/damage than its worth in the resulting hostilities on the part of the planet contemplating technological theft. Smaller/underdeveloped colonies could form alliances for mutual protection to take advantage of this.

-TDA

Anonymous said...

TDA said:"The enforcement will not necessarily be an interplanetary "police force," but the ability to cause more casualties/damage than its worth in the resulting hostilities on the part of the planet contemplating technological theft. Smaller/underdeveloped colonies could form alliances for mutual protection to take advantage of this."

You left out the fact that there will probably be seperate nations on Earth, and not all of them friendly toward the one that 'aquires' the Martian drive; it won't be very useful to monopolize the interplanatary trade if your homeland is at war with several other nations...

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

...Thus increasing the possible damage in case of open war. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" and all that.

Thanks for pointing that out (especially since another powerful nation on Earth may be able to actually do more damage than a colony on another planet).

-TDA

Joe Beutel said...

Two points:
1) such interplanetary intrigue is good for your story.
2) There are two ways to possibly avoid Earth just dominating, however: One would be that Earth and Mars are both just planets in a much larger more powerful organization, likely some sort of trade federation, which directly benefits from making sure they can keep interplanetary trade going. Second would be if Earth is still "balkanized" (this is my assumption for in solar system settings but for interstellar settings the first "fix" is more likely) then its quite likely that given organizations on Earth would benefit from allowing Mars to keep going, and so would try to prevent the rest of Earth from screwing Mars over. Its a fragile system, but I think its viable for stories... not to mention the much less controversial "fringe" trade which is acceptable no matter what your assumptions and is more suited for free traders anyway.

Thucydides said...

Ferrell, TDA and Joe

Your points are well taken, but simply reenforce the "Nations operate in a State of Nature" meme.

If the Powers on Earth have to watch each other carefully, they may all be busy working on the Fusion B drive in secret, hoping to gain the advantage on the others. Once Mars becomes a potential threat (say they have created enough Fusion B drive ships to have the capability of moving asteroids into Earth intersecting orbits) the Powers of Earth may choose to band together against what they see as an existential threat. Mars, of course, may also see things shaking out that way and be inclined to preemptively build a huge fleet to protect itself from Earth.

Think of the great Dreadnaught race that preceded/triggered WWI, and you get the idea.

Rick said...

Welcome to new commenters!

On 'lose an election, go to jail,' I don't think there is any purely formal structure that avoids that danger. The real protection is MAD - no one wants to go nuclear, lest they become a target. If tensions are so deep that that restraint breaks down, hello caesarism.

In the case of Rome, I think the suppression of the Gracchi baked the cake that Octavian Caesar finally dined on, but it would take a Rome blog to fully air that issue!


On trade, a balkanized Earth - which, after all, is what we've got - can prevent the emergence of a Patrol that keeps a tight hold on the spaceways. In that respect, our era's assumptions are more convenient than those of the one-worldish rocketpunk era.

The question of balance of trade between Earth and potential colonies is pretty much the central problem of explaining how colonization happens in the first place.

See the post Searching For McGuffinite.

Joe Beutel said...

My assumption tends to be that colonization doesn't really start out for economic benefit (although space development in general can basically give industry something to do, and if you're in a situation where you want to create some skilled jobs, aerospace engineering is as good as anything else) but would probably end up creating a trade partner as well as a flow of resources that is PROBABLY actually cheaper than making it on Earth.... lets face it, we basically can't mass produce whatever materials we want right now or else space travel would be cheap, too.

And even if it doesn't end up really economically benefitting Earth, in the long run nobody cares because they're Martians and they're happy they have a nice big planet to live on (even if its not all terraformed) and plenty of resources to go around... or if you're a free trader in the Jovian system, you're just happy that your livelyhood was created by having all these different colonies on different moons that can produce different things and are dependent on traders like you.

Anonymous said...

"And even if it doesn't end up really economically benefitting Earth, in the long run nobody cares because they're Martians and they're happy they have a nice big planet to live on (even if its not all terraformed) and plenty of resources to go around... or if you're a free trader in the Jovian system, you're just happy that your livelyhood was created by having all these different colonies on different moons that can produce different things and are dependent on traders like you."

No one cares except the people who put up the money in the first place. Either the government or big business will have to sponsor space exploration/colonization, because (unfortunately) the Average Joe like me can't go out to the local Lowe's and build his very own Homemade Do-It-Yourself Spaceship (TM). And the only real incentive to put up that much money: to get more money in the long run (or at least break even).

Even in my previous scenario where colonization was sparked by scientific research and exploration, the government has to make a major investment in time, resources, and money. And what if those scientists do find the MacGuffinite? Chances are, it'll bring in some serious $$$. So even if money isn't the primary, overt motivation, it's there. If you know of another reason for people to spend that much with no prospect for return, I can't see it.

To Milo's comment, belatedly: both have something the other wants. The motherworld has high-tech manufactured goods that can't be made on the colony, and the colony has a willing market for those goods.

On second thought, the colony will eventually run out of capital, so they'll have to come up with a way to make money off of Earth. People are creative, though: they'll come up with something.

"A fool and his money are soon parted," and there are plenty of fools to go around.

-TDA

Ray said...

If you know of another reason for people to spend that much with no prospect for return, I can't see it.

1) Survival. Assuming they realize the danger early enough to spend the money in time.

2) Vanity or image/brand building. Nations or corporations do sometimes spend excessively to show off. But that can be very fickle and might not result in sustained activity. Sometimes it's enough just to plant a flag and go home.

Joe Beutel said...

Well more importantly in your own example the profit they make only comes after a long time and its not something immediately apparent as a possible result of space development to the initial explorers and colonists, it ends up coming later.

Thats basically what I'm proposing: just looking at WHY you start colonizing in the first place (beyond that, the idea that trade can't exist AFTER colonization is pretty thoroughly untrue), often there is no obvious one reason, its a mixture of factors and the possibility of getting something big out of it that causes investment.

And a lot of that initial investment can be motivated by scientific curiosity and public support, not profit motive (although, again, profit motive can be a factor, its just based on risk; you don't KNOW you'll make money in the long run, its just a chance).

Scott said...

Hey guys, been busy real-world for a while.

Have you seen this announcement? http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120223a6.html

A Japanese company is planning to build an orbital elevator just to make access to space more affordable.

Thucydides said...

The colonies will have a labour shortage for centuries, so will be a magnet for people looking for high paying jobs.

This is very much like North Dakota, Saskatchewan or Dubai today, which have large populations of transient workers coming for the resource sector jobs. Farther in the past, people came to the Americas for many of the same reasons, only the cost of transportation made this a one way trip for most. This is probably the model we will see in the PMF.

Damien Sullivan said...

"The colonies will have a labour shortage for centuries, so will be a magnet for people looking for high paying jobs."

How are they being paid?

"Thats basically what I'm proposing: just looking at WHY you start colonizing in the first place"

Anticipated profit in the short term. I mean, let's look at real world colonization. We have the autonomous model, like Iceland or Polynesia: people settle with their own means, and are immediately able to begin supporting themselves. We have the extractive model: people come to the Americas for silver, fur, tobacco, shipping it back home; this combined with an autonomous model, of people setting up farms (maybe with slave labor.)

In both cases people anticipated payback well within their lifetime, or even next year when the crops came in.

"1) Survival. Assuming they realize the danger early enough to spend the money in time."

Survival of whom, the human race in multiple baskets? People worried about survival would first spend to make sure they themselves survive. I mean, I could spend to fund a self-contained habitat on Mars to let some strangers survive a disaster... or I could build that self-contained habitat right here on Earth, for a lot less, to let *me* survive a disaster.

"And even if it doesn't end up really economically benefitting Earth, in the long run nobody cares because they're Martians"

In the short run the colony doesn't happen, because it doesn't benefit Earth, who has to put up the capital. So, no Martians.

Joe Beutel said...

Just going to address two of your points:

1) colonies have happened before without immediate economic benefit. In fact they've happened before where everyone ended up losing money. Again, you risk when you make an investment, especially when investing in colonization.
In addition, if I start setting up a Martian colony for non-economic reasons, which are by far the most likely IMO, THEN you have economic reasons to expand it. So once you start going around on Mars for exploratory reasons then you have entire industries develop around supplying those guys, who are paid by the government out of, essentially, curiosity (as well as desire for economic stimulus).

There are a lot of non-economic reasons to START the colonization, and once its there you actually do get something out of the colonies in the long run.

Lets look at some real world examples:
New England is essentially a worthless colony, but they colonized it anyway. Most of the first colonies failed drastically, and nobody made anything off of them (except the people that supplied the expeditions in the first place). When things finally got going they basically were just self sufficient, the only real export (sorry, furs) being timber. Timber which could be gotten for cheaper from other places and could even be grown in Europe.
One could also look at how much we've spent on space exploration so far and realize that
1) We actually didn't "lose" that money, and it all benefits the aerospace industry
2) There are non-economic factors that are more important anyway.


The other point:
It is accepted that, for some reason, there can't be economic benefit from going into space because "we can make it here."
Yeah, and European Alchemists could make gold. Resources are scarce and constantly getting scarcer; the idea that for some reason we'll be able to create whatever we want cheaper than we can get it elsewhere (even though all of our fuel and space craft parts can apparently be made cheap here on Earth anyway, even if we don't have the resources) is unproven and doesn't seem too likely...

Then again, of course, its not going to be stuff like iron but rarer and less abundant (ie less to carry back) commodities... and in many cases it really is just a self-feeding system-- colony to colony, not earth to colony.

So the colonies make money off of the other colonies... some investors win, the others lose a bit of money but get the PR boost of a space colony anyway, and a whole lot of people get new skilled jobs working in the space industry.

Thucydides said...

Modst of the early colonists to the Americas were "paid" in land. Getting easy access to living space and energy (which might be rather tight on Earth) could be all the incentive you need...

Damien Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damien Sullivan said...

Uh, yes many New England (or other American colonies) failed. That happens. But they were funded because backers anticipated profit. Investors are willing to take risks, but they usually don't back things that don't have even a credible promise of profit. As I said, the Americas were part extractive, part autonomous (with Indian land.) Neither applies to space at the moment.

"1) We actually didn't "lose" that money, and it all benefits the aerospace industry"

We didn't lose money, money goes round and around. What we'd waste would be materials and effort, especially the latter. Engineers working on Martian bases rather than on solar power or high speed rail, say.

"it really is just a self-feeding system-- colony to colony, not earth to colony."

It's like the dot-com bubble all over again! "You're losing money." "We'll make it up in volume." "You can't justify building one colony." "Let's build several!"


"Getting easy access to living space and energy (which might be rather tight on Earth) could be all the incentive you need..."

It could be, if you had easy access, and if they were tight. Right now it's the other way around.

Joe Beutel said...

Right, so all you need to do is have a couple of gov't colonies/stations and some advances in space tech and you've got a profit motive for the private sector to get moving...

One could say its a waste of effort, but I'd argue high speed rail is less important than development of space in the long run, and in the short run of a future where development of space is economically viable no less important either.

We've actually gone off a bit on a tangent... the initial purpose of this post was mostly to discuss trade, not the initial problems of colonization.

There are many ways of solving that initial problem, not all of them economic, and some more fantastical than others. It depends on your assumptions for tech development and how the economics of space develop over time as well (not to mention how resources are going on Earth in that time frame).

So as long as we agree that trade is, essentially, plausible, then the colony thing is basically irrelevant... either we do or we don't and both are clearly possible (even if not at all likely in the near future), and if we do then there will be trade.

Damien Sullivan said...

The plausibility of trade is open to question without strong assumptions, too.

[url]http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/appmissiontable.php#id--Erik_Max_Francis%27_Mission_Tables--Delta_V_Required_for_Travel_Using_Hohmann_Orbits--Solar_System[/url]

Low end planet to planet, orbit only no surface, delta-vees are 5.7 km/s one-way. "TNT equivalence" is 3 km/s, so your shipping energy is very roughly 4x the chemical energy of all the bonds in whatever you're shipping. Surface-surface is more 16 km/s.

Jovian Moons look slightly better, though still not good; asteroids look a lot better.

And those are cheap Hohmann orbits, takings months or years for planets and asteroids, though just days for moons.

Now, if you have some really good reason for having multiple colonies, I can see trade in elements, since you just can't make those. Or even one colony with resource extraction bases scattered around, though that's not really trade as such. And I won't say manufactured trade can't happen. But there's a very high energy 'tax' to doing anything, with correspondingly high incentive to see if you can't do it yourself.

Thucydides said...

Damien

Lots of these ideas have been covered in other posts, so we are plowing over well tilled fields here. Some of these conditions upend various assumptions we make based on Earthly experience, including such ideas as having massive "cargo ships" (due to the energy costs, we may find it cheaper to send individual ISO containers via mass driver or lightsail); or even that freight really has to be slow (lightsails with 1mm sec^2 acceleration can actually get most places in the solar system rather quickly).

People may be induced to move for political, social or religious reasons not directly connected with economics (many early colonies were founded to allow free religious expression safe from persecution at home), needing only the ability to make the trip in the first place. Even the Vikings settled Iceland, Greenland and possibly North America during the European Warm Period for a combination of reasons (Lief Erikson was fleeing possible prosecution for murder, and many Vikings were happy to find new pastures where they could farm [it was getting crowded back home] and practice the Christian religion).

This would require both inexpensive access to LEO ("halfway to anywhere") and inexpensive and reliable deep space transportation to get to Mars, the Asteroid belt, Jovian moons, NEOs etc.

Damien Sullivan said...

"many Vikings were happy to find new pastures where they could farm [it was getting crowded back home]"

That's an economic reason. And part of what I called the autonomous model: you go, you start making a living right away.

Rick said...

Pitting space travel versus high speed rail is a bummer, since I like both! (But at this point I'd have to go for the trains - they fill a more immediate need, and I might actually be able to ride on.)

Setting that aside, my general assumption takes Joe B's argument a step further: Colonization (if it happens) will itself occur as a byproduct of other space activity - essentially, like a university town developing around a research facility.

The real underlying challenge remains the cost of space access, which probably has to fall by a factor of 100 or so, a truly difficult challenge.

Rick said...

Oh, yeah, and the other challenging thing is that space is so poorly suited to human life. Earth is basically a Tahiti surrounded by a few Death Valleys and lots of Antarcticas.

And if there is another Tahiti out there, it is really really really really REALLY difficult to reach.

Anonymous said...

"colonies have happened before without immediate economic benefit. In fact they've happened before where everyone ended up losing money. Again, you risk when you make an investment, especially when investing in colonization.
In addition, if I start setting up a Martian colony for non-economic reasons, which are by far the most likely IMO, THEN you have economic reasons to expand it. So once you start going around on Mars for exploratory reasons then you have entire industries develop around supplying those guys, who are paid by the government out of, essentially, curiosity (as well as desire for economic stimulus)."


Still profit-based. If you're exploring for something, whether it's a rare element/compound, a source of The Magical Stuff (TM) that makes 100km/s^2 accelerations possible , or whatever, there's still the motive of money somewhere. You find something industrially valuable, you sell it to the companies. You find something historically significant with no practical value whatever (not sure what could be "historical" in space, but hey, you never know), you sell it to a museum. You find something scientifically important, you use the recognition factor to get more funding for your projects or something.

Point is, space colonization will be expensive. The only ones with that kind of money are governments and businesses. Businesses won't make the investment unless there's a chance to make money. Governments may do it for political benefit, but usually that's not an end in and of itself, but a means to another end (US '70s space program to prove we were better than the stinking commies and deter a chance of nuclear war--or at least reduce the chance they might gain some advantage from space, if any, in case of such a conflict). This end may not be overtly economic, but somewhere it's related.

And besides, the companies that produce the components for space exploration are going to push for it, since they get paid before the colony goes off.

I think it was inevitable for this post to go off-topic. Trade requires others to trade with. Anyway, much as I'd like to see a Han Solo zipping around in a Millennium Falcon, I just don't see it. Again, the sheer cost of fueling the ship (realistically--more gas than ship) makes it unprofitable (and free traders are, by definition, profit-driven). Merchant ships will probably be unmanned anyway. Inglorious, I know, but there you go. Mars needs a shipment of Widgets, you load them into a container, slap a drive module on the thing, and let 'er go--the computer will make sure it gets there.

--TDA

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



TDA:

"You find something historically significant with no practical value whatever (not sure what could be "historical" in space, but hey, you never know), you sell it to a museum."

There have been past probes to the moon and Mars, some of which we've lost track of. Retrieving those might count.

Although really I think most scientists would rather you bring back more moon rocks.

Joe Beutel said...

"And besides, the companies that produce the components for space exploration are going to push for it, since they get paid before the colony goes off."

This has actually been one of my main arguments (maybe I haven't made it clear here). The economic benefit doesn't need to be for everybody... but if someone is making enough money, they're going to make sure the space industry keeps growing... and that means colonization at some point.

As to whether or not its profitable to ever trade, depends on your tech assumptions. Generally I think you'd end up with some form of trade, not necessarily in the bulk trade sort of way we think of now, however. People can be an important item to be traded, of course, which means your merchants aren't really unmanned...

Manning the ships also tends to give them a higher chance of success (historically speaking), so you've got that too. Also I'd imagine some people would just prefer the lifestyle... nomads.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Joe Beutel:

"People can be an important item to be traded, of course, which means your merchants aren't really unmanned..."

On the sea, it's relatively easy to carry a few people on a cargo ship. You need to put down a mattress somewhere (well, more accurately you'll really WANT to put down a mattress somewhere...) and stock food, but the entire cargo hold is already pressurized by default, so it isn't too difficult to put people on a ship not primarily designed for that task.

In space, the requirements for life support are much stricter, in addition to the fact that many cargo ships are likely to be very slow to save money, and mean that it is unlikely for people to be carried on any ship not primarily designed as a passenger ship rather than a cargo ship.

The passenger ship would carry the passengers' luggage and possibly some express delivery items, more like mail than trade goods, but I wouldn't classify it as a merchant ship.

Anonymous said...

"Manning the ships also tends to give them a higher chance of success (historically speaking), so you've got that too."

What are you referencing to? As far as I know, they've never tried robotic maritime traders, and the unmanned space missions have gone as well as the manned ones. I could be wrong...

"'And besides, the companies that produce the components for space exploration are going to push for it, since they get paid before the colony goes off.'

This has actually been one of my main arguments (maybe I haven't made it clear here). The economic benefit doesn't need to be for everybody... but if someone is making enough money, they're going to make sure the space industry keeps growing... and that means colonization at some point."


That comment was directed more at the people arguing for colonization based on motivations other than profit.

-TDA

Thucydides said...

A bit of a tangent here, but long duration spacecraft (like automated cargo ships or military firepower platforms will need very smart computer systems to run things; basically AI level systems. AI's won't have the same goals as the designers, though...

http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/008534.html

Rick said...

I dunno - we already have space probes going across the Solar System, without remotely AI-level computers aboard.

They do have fairly large human crews, albeit all living near Pasadena. But this could be true well into the future, and for cargo craft as well as probes.

Thucydides said...

Which is my point. We leave all the smarts here on Earth.

There is no way any current space probe could perform its mission on its own, we don't have the sorts of automated systems that are flexible and reliable enough to operate for years or decades at a time in a complex environment.

Without either a complex AI or resorting to vast swarms of dumb "fire and forget" space probes, the only other alternative is a large manned space probe. While this is desirable for a certain audience, the practical matters of cost and desirability have kept this option on the drawing board.

Geoffrey S H said...

They do have fairly large human crews, albeit all living near Pasadena. But this could be true well into the future, and for cargo craft as well as probes.

Small unrelated thought, but US UAVs have very large human crews...to maintain them. Just relaised that they are not entyirely "unmanned" after all...

Rick said...

There is *very* frequent confusion between 'robotic' and 'remote'!

(Which has obvious relevance when talking about combat spacecraft with no onboard crew.)

Anonymous said...

I always thought 'robotic' was autonomus and 'remote' was guided by someone elsewhere.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

The terminology is imprecise. It's kind of like defining destroyers, frigates, cruisers, battleships: whoever builds it gets to call it whatever he wants.

waldo: remote manipulator clearly controlled by an operator. The usual image of it is robotic arms manipulating hazardous materials visible through shielded glass in room filled with deadly radiation, poisonous gases, and grues.

Also used to describe remotely-operated units controlled via various telepresence schemes. Term goes in and out of favor.

RPV: Synonym for above. Assumed to have no autonomous capability, like a hobbyist's RC plane. Losing connection with the operator is no different from having a pilot die at the controls.

drone: unmanned vehicle. Could be autonomous or remotely operated.

UAV: latest buzzword for drones. While some are flown by a full ground crew, the trend has gone towards autonomous operation where humans can pay attention only when something interesting is going on.

robot: Generic term, implies a degree of autonomous operation. Usually the difference between robot and waldo is the waldo is operating under direct control, translating hand movements. A robot takes human instructions and then performs the actions. A great example of the difference here is with telepresence surgery. Current systems are operating as waldos, the human surgeon is doing the work. Potentially future systems will be programmed by humans but perform the work robotically, autonomously.

If you think about the mix of autonomy and phoning home for instructions, it's not really too different from the way most human organizations operate. You don't know what to do, you kick it up the chain of command. Worried about rogue robots? Well, you have the same problem with subordinates. "I told you to arrest the suspect. Why is he dead now?" "You were sent out to patrol the neighborhood, not shoot the place up." Robot screwed up and shot up friendlies because they didn't squawk IFF properly? Human pilots have made the same mistake countless times.

Anonymous said...

Rick-

Oh, yeah, and the other challenging thing is that space is so poorly suited to human life. Earth is basically a Tahiti surrounded by a few Death Valleys and lots of Antarcticas.

And if there is another Tahiti out there, it is really really really really REALLY difficult to reach.

=============
Ive thought on this quite a bit recently.

Why do we need a whole other Tahiti?

Why not construct a small Tahiti in Antarctica?

A revision of the old Dome concept. A greenhouse/terrarium.

-Dig a pit
-Make a Optically suitable roof for your pit
-Import enough plants/organic matter to make the local soil usable.
-Live
+Make a bigger one next door.

In the far future when they figure out how to terraform a planet -- such a planet might have had a history of a thousand years of people living in quite comfortable self sustaining greenhouses.

Thucydides said...

From an energy and material veiwpoint, you might have an easier time building "Tahiti" as an island 3 colony in free space.

The best part is you can start here in the Solar System using NEO's for materials.

Rick said...

The three expensive problems:

1 - getting there.

2 - building the thing.

3 - making the ecosystem *very* reliable.

We can certainly do the first two; we just have to do it at least 100x cheaper, a pretty demanding order.

#3 is pretty much an unknown, except that we know that building a rich, stable ecosystem can't be *easy*, or someone would have done it.

Thucydides said...

Building a reliable ecosystem is very difficult; we have had over 5000 years of practice on Earth and have a great deal of difficulty. The desertification of the Sahara in Roman times, the Aral Sea during the Soviet era and California's Central Valley today are examples of how easy it is to get things wrong, with undesirable long term consequences.

I could see early Island 3 structures being more or less "open system" designs. About 80% of the ecosystem is "closed", but the 20% that is lost due to leakage, system inefficiencies and other losses is made up via the copious energy inflows from the Sun and new materials from the captive NEO used to build the place. Some pretty powerful computer or AI systems might also be using all of their processor power monitoring and tweaking the ecosystem; everything will be wired tight with sensors to make an "Internet of things" to the nth degree.

This highly sensored environment may make concepts like "stepping outside for privacy" (or privacy of any kind) obsolete, people living there will be under a microscope and all their actions monitored and checked against some sort of ecological "acceptable uses policy" by a godlike AI with very few avenues for appeal.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

The biggest problem is probably getting a suitable amount of the right people to want to do it.

The Engineering problems don't come until after that.

Cost is probably related to the will to do it and the scale.

Rick said...

Yeah, our ecological track record to date is none too great. And ecology is intrinsically difficult in a way that physics is not. In physics, everything doesn't come around to bite you, at least not most of the time.

Anonymous said...

The ecological problem as I see it with the "mini-habitat in space" (which is how I've interpreted what we're talking about) is that it's small. Earth has natural cycles. There's a lot of inertia to work against, so to speak, and whatever we do, it will balance out in the long run (excluding something drastic like complete nuclear annihilation). A manmade habitat will be more sensitive to change. The examples Thucydides mentioned were all local; the rest of the planet carried on like nothing happened (more or less). In a small space habitat, all bets are off. The ecology crashes, and you better hope there's some way off.

If I've totally misinterpreted what we're talking about, feel free to ignore this comment and correct me.
--TDA

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



TDA:

"There's a lot of inertia to work against, so to speak, and whatever we do, it will balance out in the long run (excluding something drastic like complete nuclear annihilation)."

Really, complete nuclear annihilation will work out in the long run too. The long run might just turn out to be longer than we humans can afford to wait.

The longest it's ever took us to recover from an ecological disaster is five million years, after the Permian-Triassic extinction.

I don't expect that the complete, irreversible destruction of all life on Earth will happen for several billion years yet, no matter what we do.

Thucydides said...

I actually agree, which is why I suspect that:

a. The minimum size for a closed or semi closed ecosystem is Island 3. To get fully closed ecosystems with self sustaining feedback loops that don't require huge amounts of intervention we may have to go for Bishop ring or larger structures.

b. The amount of computational power to "manage" an ecosystem is probably higher than economically feasable, especially in L5 sized colonies. The idea of renting out all that computational horsepower to "the cloud" is a non starter, since it will all be in use 24/7 managing the ecology.

c. Managed ecologies wold be perhaps the worst possible place for human civilization; a cross between Disney world and East Germany (and incorporating the worst features of both). The acceptable use policy of such a place would be far to restrictive to allow for any spontanious human activity or interaction.

Rick said...

a cross between Disney world and East Germany (and incorporating the worst features of both).

+10

Anonymous said...

I don't expect that the complete, irreversible destruction of all life on Earth will happen for several billion years yet, no matter what we do.

It'll probably be when the sun decides to go boom. Then we'll be cooked by the expanding gases or die slowly due to lack of light for plants etc. Probably the former.

That's a reason for colonization in and of itself: someone won't be here when "here" just isn't the nice, habitable planet it used to be.

--TDA

Anonymous said...

c. Managed ecologies wold be perhaps the worst possible place for human civilization; a cross between Disney world and East Germany (and incorporating the worst features of both). The acceptable use policy of such a place would be far to restrictive to allow for any spontanious human activity or interaction

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


If the dystopians are right - we will be long accostomed to living that way by the time we make space colonies.

(SA Phil)

Thucydides said...

If dystopians are right, we won't be able to make space colonies either

Rick said...

It depends on your taste in dystopias. Post-apocalyptic settings aren't very promising when it comes to space travel, but 'futuristic' dystopias are somewhat another matter.

On the future habitability of Earth, the gradual increase in solar luminosity might boil off the oceans well before the Sun leaves the main sequence. Somewhere I once read that the timetable was a mere 100 million years or so, but I have no idea how accurate that is.

Not exactly an *urgent* consideration, however!

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Without doing the math, I am highly skeptical of any claims of planetary death in 100 million years. Geologically, 100 million years is nothing. 100 million years ago was around the middle of Cretaceous, when Earth pretty much already featured life-as-we-know-it. (Dinosaurs count as life-as-we-know-it, because what schoolboy doesn't know about dinosaurs?) Barring the occasional mass extinction event (which we SURVIVED) or ice age (which we ALSO SURVIVED) or other normal climate fluctuations (which we... yup, you guessed it), Earth's environment has stayed pretty stable in that time and remained friendly to life. 100 million years isn't even enough time to cover the biggest mass extinction (that was 250 million years ago).

I believe that if we were a mere 100 million years from death, we would already be seeing the signs of a failing ecosystem. (Ahem, failing for other reasons than anthropogenic extinctions! Which probably also won't kill us.)

Anonymous said...

I think I remember hearing that Solar heating would be a life threating situation in about 2 billion years; I think we have a while before we need to evacuate the planet...

Ferrell

Damien Sullivan said...

OTOH, if energy use increased at 2.3% a year, in about 450 years the Earth would be at the boiling point. We'd have died off before then, or else be using lots of that energy to somehow air condition the Earth.
http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



If we kill ourselves off, that seriously decreases the amount of energy we can use!

Also if you murder 1 person today, murder 2 people tomorrow, murder 4 people the day after that, murder 8 people the following day, etc., you'll have depleted the entire human population in a mere 33 days.

Why exactly are we assuming these things again?

Tony said...

Sean:

"That entirely depends on the setting's method of interstellar travel. Traversing the vast gulf between stars could be as easy as one, two, three but surface to orbit launches could still be the bi*ch that they are today."

Seems totally contrived to me. The technological history has been that more faster means more energy. The science says more faster means more energy.

"But even if my FTL was a bi*tch itself, if I have a developing colony with no surface-to-orbit infrastructure then they're not going to be in the position to launch rockets into space to pick up the cargo, and if the starship was also now a mothership for a shuttlecraft, then the expenses for this cargo are increased because of mass penalties. Nudging an asteroid into orbit (I say that so casually...) and landing a robotic workforce onto its surface to produce the cable for a space elevator would a difficult feat but surely a long term investment for a developing extrasolar colony.

You're missing my point. If FTL takes a considerable amount of energy, then just being able to do it regularly and economically makes getting up and down from habitable planets a lesser included capability.

Rick said...

I dunno - I can think of three considerations that could play the other way.

#1: Specific to FTL, is that FTL is often conceived as a 'shortcut' handwave, not a 'go faster' handwave. This may have no validity as even speculative physics, but authors hardly ever bother to make their FTL fit general relativity (and the meta issue belongs in the 'Ten Laws of Good SF' thread).

#2: Going Faster in space can be done with gentle acceleration, but that won't suffice for getting from surface to orbit. Nuke electric drive, even fusion drive, is pretty much a nonstarter for getting to orbit.

#3: Safety considerations make nuclear propulsion problematic for Earth escape, even/especially for drives like Orion that might have sufficient oompf.

Really, getting into orbit is a special problem with unique challenges, and a lot of deep space tech progress might not help much.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Really, getting into orbit is a special problem with unique challenges, and a lot of deep space tech progress might not help much."

I fully appreciate that. But FTL, even if it is a shortcut through a wormhole or hyperspace, is likely to take a lot of energy to invoke, in a more or less controlled way. It's hard to see how getting on and off planets with large masses of cargo and pax, relatively cheaply, wouldn't be a prerequisite. Even the assertion that space elevators would be the natural, default choice presumes the ability to expend ridiculously large amounts of energy in tightly controlled ways.

jollyreaper said...

I fully appreciate that. But FTL, even if it is a shortcut through a wormhole or hyperspace, is likely to take a lot of energy to invoke, in a more or less controlled way. It's hard to see how getting on and off planets with large masses of cargo and pax, relatively cheaply, wouldn't be a prerequisite. Even the assertion that space elevators would be the natural, default choice presumes the ability to expend ridiculously large amounts of energy in tightly controlled ways.

I think somebody else had a post somewhere about cheap FTL, expensive access to LEO? It's a hypothetical scenario, just like everything else.

If I have an infinite dynamo for electricity (runs on mcguffinite, power is cheap as beans), I can run ships, trains, cars, and aircraft. Even if the dynamo is too big to put in a vehicle, it can charge batteries that go inside.

In terms of plausible ways to get off the ground we've got:
1) chem rockets (vertical launch or space planes)
2) laser launch
3) orion drive
4) beanstalks

Lots of electricity might help with laser launches but I don't see how it could improve a chem rocket. How well could laser scale? Orion drives are nifty but politically and environmentally bad ideas and the beanstalk is I think beyond plausible mid-future.

I grant it seems reasonable FTL would be power-hungry but I don't see how the infinite dynamo would help with LEO access.

If your infinite dynamo is a working fusion reactor then maybe we could say the launcher is a fusion torch but I think we had plausibility problems all over the place with that.

Tony said...

To a lot of people, cheap FTL but expensive space access just isn't plausible. Both hard SF and science fantasy (Trek, SW, BSG, etc.) seem to agree. Millions of patrons can't be wrong.