Stross: The Interstellar Improbability

by Paul Gilster on June 18, 2007

Science fiction writer Charles Stross, always an insightful voice when it comes to the future of technology, offers up an incisive look at the problems of interstellar flight in his The High Frontier, Redux. The article is in the queue for discussion here, but since I can’t get to it until tomorrow afternoon — and since comments are already flying about what Stross has to say — I’ll set up this topic as a gathering point for those comments until the larger post goes online. Read Stross when you can, as anyone seriously interested in interstellar possibilities needs to understand the magnitude of the challenge. We’ll run through some of the issues tomorrow, and look at one Stross comment I find completely puzzling.

Brian Wang June 18, 2007 at 15:13

I have been discussing the Stross article in an email thread.

there are several problems with it

1. failure of a science fiction author to figure out a technological way forward is a flaw in the science fiction author not in the technological/sociological plans

Just because you cannot think of a good way to do it does not mean that there are no good ways. It shows that your ways would not work and that you are approaching the problems in a faulty way.

2. we could be doing a lot better with space colonization if we actually had plans for space colonization and tried to do it. We have not tried.
Three to six people on camping trips are not attempts to colonize space.

What does a real modern space colonization effort look like ?

- build out power infrastructure first
Using 25 ton LEO launch Proton M for $70 million
launch 100 megawatt solar concentration system
Use 40.7% efficient Spectrolab solar cells
Use magnetic inflation as per James Powell (NIAC 2006 study)
Use the power for electrical boosting to L2 or a higher orbit
Use the power for communication and other satellites that could use cheaper power and to remote power other LEO boost stage to high orbit.

- As you build up space infrastructure robotically and with magnetic inflation and formation flying then get the costs down so that eventually it is affordable to send people for colonization

- Increase the energy and economic capacity of human civilization. 14 Terawatts does not cut it.
Mass produce nuclear power (fission or fusion). Use high burn or reprocessing of all nuclear material. Currently 10% of nuclear material is reprocessed. High burn (not breeder) reactors were made in the 60′s and 70s. See thoriumenergy.blogspot.com

- Look at other non-chemical launch systems. Laser arrays and mirrors or magnetic launch. Launch stuff (infrastructure) first not people. So cheaper high acceleration is OK for stuff.

-Look at public relations safe external nuclear pulse propulsion. Update project Orion with a public relations safe version. With project Orion the cost is 70 cents per kilogram into space. Repeatable Z-pinch and minimag Orion or colliding beam fusion (funded by Venrock and others) could get us to public relations safe superior ground launch.

To get serious we need better technology and to use the technology that we have. We can build up our economy so besides lowering the costs we have more money/energy to spend

Adam June 18, 2007 at 16:07

Hi Brian

I agree on the nukes issue – 97% of “waste” is really unburnt fuel and current reactor fuel-cycles aren’t geared to use it efficiently. But I fail to see the basic relevance to Stross’s argument – what makes space any more attractive than any of the uninhabitable parts of Earth?

Sure there’s resources and so on, but the energy penalty for accessing it is an instant mark-up that makes earth-source resources always more competitive against space resources.

It’s definitely a puzzle.

Denis June 18, 2007 at 16:39

So,
you guys are scandalised ’cause you can’t escape mistakes forever ?
Sad, that is.

Brian Wang June 18, 2007 at 17:03

What made North America any better than uninhabited parts of Europe ?

Able to start fresh.
Different resource base to utilize.

What makes moving out better than living in your parents basement ? It is cheaper in your parents basement. You would have enough room there. Does your older brother have to remodel and live in your parents basement before you can move out ?

Strike out on your own.
Make an independent life for yourself.

We could keep densifying your parents house and people living in the house could get weapons that could easily blow up your parents house. If we spread out across the block and city then we would not kill each other as easily and we would have more room to stay out of each others way.

re: Denis. Perfecting ourselves before leaving the earth ?
Is there some standard that we should be perfect before we leave our parents house ? Do we solve all of our problems before we leave ?

In the solar system the earth gets one trillionth of the total solar energy emitted by the sun.
There are a lot more available resources in the solar system that we can utilize if we crack the cost of space nut.

Ronald June 18, 2007 at 18:16

The main reason to colonize the galaxy is NOT to drag resources back to earth, which would indeed (@Adam) almost never be worthwhile (except in the case of Helium-3, for nuclear fusion, once we learn to master that).

The main reason to colonize the galaxy is to spread our life and hence our chances. In other words, not to take something to earth but to bring something from earth.

Dennis June 18, 2007 at 21:56

There is always a reason to go “out there”. Especially, giving that “there” is billion times larger than “here”, and completely unknown. This daring make us humans.

Chris Wren June 18, 2007 at 23:37

I found the Stross article just incredibly depressing – not for the list of daunting challenges he cites – those are well known to anyone with an interest in astronomy and space exploration and the post actually contained no new information that hasn’t been covered better elsewhere. What I found depressing was the condescending tone Stross chose to take, and his establishment of ideological parameters which reduce anyone who disagrees with him to an irrational sentimentalist or an ignorant yahoo. This tone, and Charles’ impatience with the percieved stupidity of his audience really came through in the comment thread following his piece. I found it ludicrous and offensive for example, that he would regard any concern for the future of humanity as deriving from quasi-religious sentiment. To me that’s just Stross being a cranky contrarian for the sake of it.

Of course, Stross resides in the fashionable Transhumanist camp these days, so its doubtful that he sees much use or future for human beings on Earth, let alone in space. It’s strange to me that someone who accepts the Singularity – the ultimate in magic wands – as an inevitability would choose to adopt such a hostile posture towards those who strive to maintain a hopeful vision of humanity’s capacity for invention and problem solving.

Jonathan Burns June 19, 2007 at 1:05

The debate is prone to allowing single arguments to apply to everything from cheap access to near-Earth space at one extreme, to interstellar migration at the other. Both Charles Stross and (some of) the enthusiast community he’s debunking exhibit the fault. If your space prospects concept takes things step by step, you’ll have a better understanding of how hard those things are, and how long they’re likely to take.

I mean, I didn’t have my blanket dampened by Stross’s arguments at all. That’s because I think of interstellar expeditions as a project for a mature interplanetary civilization; and I think of interplanetary colonization as a project for a near-Earth civilization that has implemented solar power and NEO mining on an O’Neill/Criswellian scale; and I think of that as a project for our next couple of generations, once they have relatively cheap access and a mature space robotics architecture. Allow me to describe one step, and I’ll present a plausible case for the next.

I think Stross is right when he claims that space colonists will find themselves in situations very different from the pioneers of the American West. I’d go further: they would likely be subject to companies managing their immense capital debts, and to international safety and security regulations governing the potentially destructive practice of spaceflight. I don’t see why that should stop them, though.

ljk June 19, 2007 at 8:42

This is clearly the Age of the Pessimist. Stross represents the
inward-looking think only of the immediate future attitude so
prevalent today – and he’s a science fiction writer, ironically
enough.

The same holds for extraterrestrial life. The 1960s and 1970s
saw a lot of optimism after years of ridicule about the concept,
and now because ET isn’t landing on the White House lawn
(probably not a safe thing to do these days anyway) or has
bothered to send a signal after our sporadic few decades of
limited searching, we assume there is no one out there.

There is an agenda going on, and it is not in humanity’s
best interest to grow, develop, and change. It’s about
keeping the human race under control right here on Earth.

Adam June 19, 2007 at 9:31

Hi Larry

Whose agenda is it?

Or is the real reason is that the “dream of space” is crashing down because the Universe is not what we expect?

F**k it we’re human beings! We can remake the Universe! And ourselves if we have to.

ljk June 19, 2007 at 10:25

Just because the Universe isn’t what we expect only means
we should make even stronger efforts to explore it and find
out what the heck is going on out there.

Monte Davis June 19, 2007 at 10:36

Jonathan: Your ‘step’ scenario sounds about right. The resolution is all in the time scale of our expectations: at a 100-to-1000-year scale or longer, of course there are going to be basic-science breakthroughs (and sheer economic growth) that will blow away almost any constraint that seems insuperable now.

But on a 10-to-50-year scale, space enthusiasts have typically been far too optimistic, many of them taking the anomalous 1957-1972 sprint (when a relatively modest public desire for space was turbocharged by ICBM technologies and Cold War anxieties) as “the way it ought to be.”

I don’t find Stross pessimistic; I think he’s advancing a realistic, tough-love stance that encourages people to distinguish the unpredictable “magic wands” of the longer time scale from the gritty nuts & bolts of R&D, appropriations, and business plans over the next few decades. My own belief is that simply achieving CATS (cheap access to boring old LEO) is likely to keep us busy for most of the 21st century.

One of the roots for this perspective goes back almost 30 years. As a science writer I was well plugged into Shuttle development (and knew by 1977 how far short of 1972 hopes it was going to be in flight rate and cost). I interviewed Gerry O’Neill for OMNI. I admired him, and the persuasive power of his bootstrap scheme for lunar manufacturing -> linac -> SPsats and eventually habitats. But at the same time I was thinking that its starting point — several hundred on-beyond-Shuttle payloads to LEO, several thousand tons to the Moon — was way beyond anything that was likely to happen in a generation. let alone the decade he was aiming for.

Not because we “lost the vision,” not because NASA turned dumb or Congress cheaped out, but because CATS is genuinely hard — much harder than Apollo — and there was simply no way it was going to be solved in one great leap with STS 1.0. (Nor, today, is alt.space 1.0 going to deliver the pace of progress anticipated by its more fervent boosters.)

I’m not happy to have been right about that. But I’m even less happy (looking at the aggrieved responses to Stross) that so many space fans still reject a healthy cold-water shower when it comes to time scales.

Ronald June 19, 2007 at 14:01

Not much new, nor inspiring in Stross’s essay. The usual blabla about distances and energy requirements, etc. True, but we knew all that. I find a person like Zubrin (Entering Space, The Case for Mars) MUCH more inspiring and at the same time based on sound science and technology. (I tend to agree with Chris Wren).
@Ljk and Adam: I presume you don’t mean to say that the universe is disappointing?! How untrue that would be in the light of recent discovery: the MW galaxy contains billions of sunlike stars, planets are common, small (terrestrial) planets probably also. There are no fundamental scinetific ‘objections’ precluding the existence of life on other planets (i.e. the same kinds of matter, objects and laws are present all over).
I would rather say that, though the challenges are formidable, the cosmic invitation is increasing, not decreasing, over the years.
The paramount factor, in my opinion, on which future space exploration and colonization (and in fact our whole civilization) hinges is the availability of truly abundant energy: the mastering of nuclear fusion. This would both be a practical incentive (to get Helium-3 from the moon, Saturn, Uranus) and an enabling condition for space flight.
What we need is probably a great incentive. Sure, the above-mentioned He-3 stripmining is a practical one, but limited to our own solar system.
What I mean is a strong inspiration to go beyond, such as foremost the detection of spectral signature of biological life from extrasolar planets in the (near) future. Or even the discovery of ‘simple’ lifeforms on Mars.
I would think that the first interstellar missions (and for a long while) will be laser driven probes from the moon. Relatively small and cheap and once you have built the installation you can keep spitting them out.
A 1 (metric) ton craft at 0.1 c velocity, with 50% efficiency of energy conversion, would take 0.03 TWY of energy, which is only about 0.2 % of PRESENT global energy usage. Even at 0.5 c, it would take only 0.75 TWY, or 5% of present global energy usage. Not too much for a nuclear fusion civilization that easily possesses over 3 billion TWY of energy reserves.

ljk June 19, 2007 at 14:22

Ronald – Yikes, reread what I wrote and you will see I am
definitely not in the Universe is Disappointing category. If
anything I am constantly concerned that way too many
people do not understand or care about what goes beyond
past their nose and henceforth the problem of progress in
science, understanding, and development.

As for helium 3, while it is often jumped upon as a reason
to explore and colonize space, perhaps we should get a
practical, working fusion reactor happening first. At this
point it would be like digging for oil without the automobile
being built. And if the automobile (fusion engine) falls
through, then all that oil will be for nothing.

Athena June 19, 2007 at 14:29

I agree that the Stross essay, although correct in its estimates of current technology, contains nothing really new. Like other readers, I was irritated by the smugness. Transhumanism, regardless of the form it may take, is much further away in time and feasibility than space colonization. In terms of our needs at both the low and high end of the hierarchy spectrum, we will need to expand.

We will never solve all our problems, and waiting to solve them won’t make the endeavor any easier. When China voluntarily stopped its explorations, it devolved into malaise and decay. Watching ourselves in Second LIfe and playing War of Warcraft will not substitute for real first-hand experience.

I also agree that a major incentive is needed to supply strong motivation for the next stage: the most irresistible lure would be a sign of life elsewhere, whether bacteria on Mars, the signature of chlorophyll in an exoplanet, an answer to SETI or an artifact in the Kuiper belt.

ad June 19, 2007 at 15:10

“What made North America any better than uninhabited parts of Europe ?”

No uninhabitable parts of Europe were habitable. Every part of Europe was near carrying capacity (given the techniques of the time), and most people could just barely survive if they devoted all their efforts to this goal.

North America was colonisted because land there was cheap, and the only way to exploit it was to go there.

North America was colonised because doing so would be profitable to investors. The ocean floor has not been colonised because doing so would not be profitable to investors. Same with the Moon, Mars etc.

This may not be inspiring, but it is the truth.

Chris Wren June 19, 2007 at 15:56

“F**k it we’re human beings! We can remake the Universe! And ourselves if we have to.”

Adam, who exactly is saying that? I think it’s a reasonably safe assumption that the hundreds of thousands of professionals working in the space development fields are at least passingly familiar with the laws of physics.

Monte Davis June 19, 2007 at 20:23

Athena: Transhumanism, regardless of the form it may take, is much further away in time and feasibility than space colonization.

Well… if you take that as a starting point, it’s not surprising that Stross’s essay would leave you cold. I don’t think he’d call himself a “transhumanist,” but he has written several provocative SF books more or less related to Vernor Vinge’s notion of a “singularity” that will depend on IT and biotechnology — changing us — rather than centering on manned spaceflight taking an essentially unchanged us to new places.

Having spent close to fifty years with thousands of stories about people roaming the galaxy (or at least the solar system) in spaceships, I have to say I find his and similar books a refreshing change: not the be-all and end-all, not the New Truth, but… interesting. What I seek from SF is “the future will surprise us” rather than “the future must deliver what Tsiolkovski and von Braun and O’Neill and Star Trek promised.”

Beyond that, you don’t have to buy into transhumanism or the Singularity to acknowledge that IT and biotechnology have been breaking new ground faster, and show every sign of having more “headroom” for further rapid growth, than any current or near-term space technology. Their cost of entry is much less, so far more people are working on them. And they deliver abundant near-term payoffs rather than the distant promise (no matter how vast) of ROI from space resources.

As I noted in a comment to Stross’s essay, I’ve been talking to Freeman Dyson about space and the future for a long time now. He’s had the urge for space since writing a sequel to Jules Verne in 1932, at age 8; he and Ted Taylor drove Project Orion in 1959-1963 because they were personally impatient to get Out There, and only nuclear-pulse propulsion would do it fast enough and on a big enough scale to suit them; he was a mentor to Gerry O’Neill and has supported the Space Studies Institute from its birth. But I think it’s telling that over the last 20-25 years his speculation has shifted towards an IT-enhanced biotechnology that would, in effect, blur the tired and much-argued difference between robotic probes and human astronauts.

Perhaps he’s foolish to put his hopes on technologies that are moving at headlong speed, paying for themselves as they go, rather than technologies that have improved rather slowly for for 50 years while remaining extremely expensive.

But I kind of doubt it.

Athena June 19, 2007 at 21:57

@Monte Davis:

I have read Vinge’s Singularity and part of Stross’ Accelerando, so I know how they envision transhumanism. In my response, I was referring to transhumanism based on smart AI and uploading. Genetic engineering is a completely different matter, as I point out in my six-part essay, which starts here:Making Aliens 1. In fact, I think that adaptation of humans to their environment, rather than the reverse, will be the way to go (as it was on earth, until our technology allowed us to do “terraforming”). But based on my knowledge as a biologist, I think these changes, which may make space exploration and colonization possible, will be based primarily on carbon, not silicon,

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