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Interstellar Conundrum: Is Stross Right?

Although people have been recommending that I read Charles Stross’ novel Accelerando for some time now, I haven’t found the time and now wish that I had. I recently read a fascinating speech that Stross gave at a Munich tech conference discussing, among many other things, how advances in computer storage will change our lives. And now his essay The High Frontier, Redux is exciting controversy, asking whether many of our ideas about spaceflight need to be reassessed in light of the enormity of the challenges we face.

Much of what Stross has to say is true, and I hope that those who haven’t read the essay will give it a look. The reason why we don’t want to minimize the magnitude of the problems we face in interstellar flight is that a clear-eyed view is needed to begin to conceive the radical technologies that may one day solve the problem. And I know too many people who learn how far away the stars really are, even the closest of them, and then throw the whole concept out as wishful thinking.

But I don’t think Stross is doing this. Have another look at the essay and you’ll note what he’s up to. He wants to “…highlight the problems I face in trying to write believable science fiction about space colonization.” Fair enough! And what exercises him as a writer is that interstellar travel requires a) outrageous amounts of energy; or b) highly efficient robot probes; or c) a magic wand. Stross doesn’t find option A easy to work with, and B isn’t as interesting for many a writer, since putting humans into interstellar space is prime science fiction material. That leaves C, and the problem there is that the day of the deus ex machina is long past. No good science fiction writer wants anything to do with springing absurd contraptions out of closets to save the day.

Now I would venture that anyone reading Centauri Dreams already has a pretty good idea of how far the stars are. Stross reduces an astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the Sun — to a centimeter and describes the scary result even for nearby stars. On that scale, Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is fully 2.6 kilometers away (Stross says 2.3 — one of us has the math slightly wrong, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were me).

But I like British astronomer William Herschel’s far more homely (and much less accurate) way of reading the distance to Centauri A and B. Herschel (1792–1871) was the first to make a serious attempt to measure this value, and he put it in terms his contemporaries could understand: “…to drop a pea at the end of every mile of a voyage on a limitless ocean to the nearest fixed star, would require a fleet of 10,000 ships of 600 tons burthen, each starting with a full cargo of peas.”

Yep, better have plenty of peas for that Centauri trip. As Stross says, the distances are mind-numbing. But I’ll differ slightly on his take on Proxima, which he describes as “…a poor choice, if we’re looking for habitable real estate. While exoplanets are apparently common as muck, terrestrial planets are harder to find.” He may well be right, but we do have planet hunter Greg Laughlin (UC Santa Cruz), who just the other day said this in his systemic blog in the context of a proposed HARPS search for Proxima planets:

“Proxima is effortlessly old, adequately quiet, and metal-rich. If our understanding of planet formation is first-order correct, it has several significant terrestrial-mass planets.”

Now let’s be careful here. Laughlin is talking about planets of terrestrial mass, rocky worlds that may or may not be in the habitable zone. The odds for any given star are that such planets are not in that zone. On the other hand, we can’t completely rule the possibility out, nor can we rule out the even more interesting scenario around the primary stars Centauri A and B, each of which may have planets within roughly 4 AU of the parent, with possibilities for the delivery of volatiles to the inner system involving Proxima itself. See this older Centauri Dreams post for more.

The energy cost is indeed staggering. But let’s assume no magic wands. When I was at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville several years ago talking to NASA solar sail researchers for my book, Greg Matloff was there doing consultant duty and participated in the interviews. Matloff, the author of the highly regarded The Starflight Handbook (about which Robert Forward had the ultimate dust jacket compliment — ‘Don’t leave the Solar System without it!’), talked about solar sail missions that don’t invoke any off-the-charts wizardry.

“When you look at technology such as Tim Knowles’ stuff [a reference to ultra-lightweight carbon-carbon sail material], you realize how close we are to being able to build a generation ship. You have to start saying, with planets being discovered all over the place, if we discover an Earth-like planet around one of the three Centauri suns, and we might well find that, is there going to be a push to do that. Because we can do it. You have to look into the weird stuff, I believe, to show it doesn’t work.”

Matloff has studied sail mission concepts using so-called Sun-diver trajectories that deploy a sail at perihelion. In a subsequent telephone interview, he added: “We’ve learned that it is quite possible to take both large ships and small probes to the nearest star within a thousand years or so. Using the sail alone. But it is very difficult to get the trip time down below 800 or 900 years.” Alan Bond and Anthony Martin would use a key Matloff paper on this subject for their own classic paper (see below for citations) discussing worldships and the two technologies they thought could power them — nuclear-pulse engines and hyper-thin solar sails.

None of which is to deny the enormous challenges that Stross talks about. But again, I catch his reference to his dilemma as a craftsman of words when he says, “…the conclusion I draw as a science fiction writer is that if interstellar colonization ever happens, it will not follow the pattern of historical colonization drives that are followed by mass emigration and trade between the colonies and the old home soil.”

Now colonization is quite another matter from robotic probes, and I can certainly believe that historical colonization drives, trading routes and the rest are not a likely analog for future star missions. Stross could be right that humans — as opposed to intelligent machinery — may not get to the stars, but even on that score I’m reminded again of Robert Forward. His vast lens in outer Solar System orbit focusing laser light from a power-rich installation near the orbit of Mercury could theoretically launch a crewed Epsilon Eridani mission with return capability, with travel time within a single human lifetime.

An engineering nightmare? To be sure, the magnitude of building installations that require lenses hundreds of kilometers across to focus a laser pushing a vast sail are almost beyond comprehension. But even today, we see the nano-technology revolution proceeding apace, and have to speculate about what effects it may have on the building of large structures in space. Give up on the notion of thousands of human workers in spacesuits welding joints into place and you’re left with the possibility of ‘growing’ a Fresnel lens inside the orbit of Uranus that could serve the purpose.

Far-fetched? You bet. But I think the future usually is far-fetched. If I were a practicing science fiction writer like Stross, I too would see how difficult it must be to craft a believable future within technology that is explicable to a broad readership. The man has a good point! But I believe that if we can come up with even faintly plausible scenarios that don’t drift far from understood physics today, then we can certainly assume better scenarios as some of today’s computing and nano-tech trends continue to develop.

We can also assume that the innate human impulse to do seemingly impossible things will keep theorists focused on this quest. Leave magic wands out of the equation and ask yourself whether, if we could build the infrastructure to launch a Forward-style lightsail with human crew, we would have volunteers to fly the mission. Ponder as well the energy resources that will have to be realized for this kind of journey and ask whether we really are gradually evolving into a Kardashev Type 1 civilization. Because if we are, and if we keep imagining and planning and doing, we may yet make this wildest of improbable dreams happen.

And if it takes a thousand years to build the tools needed to launch such a mission? Ten thousand? Then some of our descendants may just see the Centauri stars up close. What matters is not when but whether we go. I wouldn’t advise betting against a long-term optimism that may, by its own drive and pluck, find a way to push to Centauri and beyond. As for Charles Stross, I still plan to read Accelerando. This guy knows his stuff, and articles like his help to frame and focus the terms of the debate.

A final thought: Stross has one comment that has me baffled. As one who thinks we need to build a space-based infrastructure to help protect our planet from space debris, I found myself surprised to read this:

‘We can’t afford to keep all our eggs in one basket’ isn’t so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Stross calls such arguments about future catastrophe ‘quasi-religious,’ for reasons that escape me. If we can identify an incoming danger and mount a mission to avert possible species extinction, shouldn’t we be working on the technology needed to do the job? And if the beneficiaries are our great-grandchildren instead of ourselves, what of that? Isn’t that the sort of commitment we should be making to our descendants?

Addendum: See the comments below for Stross’ response to these questions. We’re a lot closer on this than I had realized.

And now, the promised citations: Matloff’s paper with Eugene Mallove is “Solar Sail Starships: Clipper Ships of the Galaxy,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 34 (1981), pp. 371-380, and the related “The Interstellar Solar Sail: Optimization and Further Analysis” is in JBIS 36 (1983), pp. 201-209. The worldship article is Bond and Martin, “World Ships: Concept, Cause, Cost, Construction and Colonization,” JBIS 37 (1984), pp. 243–53. Also see their “Worldships: Assessment of Engineering Feasibility,”‘ JBIS 37, pp. 254-256 (1984).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Monte Davis June 19, 2007, 15:49

    An admirably fair summary. But of course, once you say “And if it takes a thousand years? Ten thousand?” you’re just begging for the embarrassment of “Far Centaurus,” administered by your descendants who build a bigger Fresnel lens 200 years after you left.

    I suppose Stross could have done more to establish a hierarchy of “magic wands”: FTL teleportation at the top, then FTL ships, then all-but-infinite propulsion energies, and so on down the line. In that case he’d have 500+ comments arguing whether antimatter-by-the-ton will arrive before or after the impenetrable anti-cosmic-dust force shield.

    Still, I think you’ll like Accelerando… and, like me, smile in pity at those commenters who chastise him for “lacking imagination”…

  • Administrator June 19, 2007, 16:09

    Monte, you’re so right about the ‘Far Centaurus’ scenario. A great story, and a cautionary tale as we work out these long-haul technologies. But I did tweak the post slightly to resolve an ambiguity — by a thousand or ten thousand years, I was referring to the time needed to build the needed infrastructure for a mission. It wasn’t a reference to the travel time, which in Forward’s thinking could be well less than a century even for a 10.5 light year mission to Epsilon Eridani.

  • Charlie Stross June 19, 2007, 17:41


    You said, “Stross calls such arguments about future catastrophe ‘quasi-religious,’ for reasons that escape me. If we can identify an incoming danger and mount a mission to avert possible species extinction, shouldn’t we be working on the technology needed to do the job?”

    Simply put, setting up self-sufficient off-earth human colonies *doesn’t* avert disaster for those who get left at home. Arguably, any catastrophe that’s likely to hit us and that *could* be avoided by moving to an off-earth colony is also one that we can avert or mitigate by putting our energy into dealing with it — for example, if we’re worried about an impending cometary impact it seems to me to make more sense to *deal with the bloody comet* than to focus on letting a tiny lifeboat manned by a self-selected elite leave the rest of us to die.

    (NB: you’ll find that “Accelerando” contains an account of an interstellar mission, among other things … I’m not a total head-in-the-sand skeptic: I just like to keep a realistic view of what we know we *can* achieve, while we’re waiting for magic wands to show up. But from some of the flames showing up on my blog comments, you’d think I’d simultaneously declared that Santa Claus was a lie and put laxatives in the Baby Jesus’ infant formula!)

  • Administrator June 19, 2007, 18:10

    Great to have you here, Charlie, and thanks for the clarification. I had just edited that very section again — I tend to write in a lapidary way — and then saw your comment. I take your point about not leaving the rest of the species on the planet to die, when the alternative is to do something about the incoming problem, so our views on that turn out to be closer than I had thought.

    By the way, I love the way you’re making Accelerando available (http://www.accelerando.org/, for those not familiar with this). The Creative Commons license and download capability should have a positive impact on sales, I’m hoping, but few are the writers willing to go out front like this. Nice work, and I’m anxious to see how it plays out.

  • Jonathan Burns June 19, 2007, 19:40

    There’s an assumption I wouldn’t like to go unchallenged, and that’s that quasi-religion doesn’t cut the mustard. Here from 1920 is A.D. Gordon, the father of Labour Zionism, the First Aliyah and the Israeli kibbutz movement. I think it’s worth quoting at length, to see the determination and passion in it.

    The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for two thousand years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor- of labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor… for it is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people’s toil and the people’s labor.

    Now it is true that every people have many individuals who shun physical labor and try to live off the work of others… We Jews have developed an attitude of looking down on physical labor…. But labor is the only force which binds man to the soil… it is the basic energy for the creation of national culture. This is what we do not have, but we are not aware of missing it. We are a people without a country, without a national living language, without a national culture. We seem to think that if we have no labor it does not matter – let Ivan, John or Mustafa do the work, while we busy ourselves with producing a culture, with creating national values and with enthroning absolute justice in the world.

    In my dream I come to the land. And it is barren and desolate and given over to strangers; destruction darkens its face and foreigners rule in corruption. And the land of my forefathers is distant and foreign to me and I too am distant and foreign to it. And the only link that ties my soul to her the only reminder that I am her son and she is my mother is that my soul is as desolate as hers. So I shake myself and with all my strength… I throw the old life off. And I start everything from the beginning. And the first thing that opens up my heart to a life I have not known before is labor. Not labor to make a living, not work as a deed of charity, but work for life itself… it is one of the limbs of-life, one of its deepest roots. And I work….

    There is a cosmic element in nationality which is its basic ingredient. That cosmic element may be best described as the blending of the natural landscape of the Homeland with the spirit of the people inhabiting it. This is the mainspring of a people’s vitality and creativity, of its spiritual and cultural values. Any conglomeration of individuals form a society in the mechanical sense, one that moves or acts, but only the presence of the cosmic element makes for an organic national entity with creative vitality.

    I think that everyone of us ought to retreat for a moment into his innermost self, free himself from all outside influences – both from those of the gentile world and even from the influence of our own Jewish past – and then ask himself with the utmost simplicity, seriousness, and honesty: What, essentially, is the purpose of our national movement? What do we expect to find in Palestine that no other place can give us? Why should we segregate ourselves from the nations among whom we have lived our lives? Why leave the lands of our birth, which have fashioned our personalities and so largely influenced our spirits? Why should we not share full and unreservedly with those nations in their great work for the progress of mankind? In other words, why should we not completely assimilate ourselves among those nations? What stops us?

    Surely it is not religion. In our day it is quite possible to live without any religion at all…the answer is that there is a force within every one of us which is fighting for its own life – which seeks its own realization…

    Jewish life in the Diaspora lacks this cosmic element of national identity; it is sustained by the historic element alone, which keeps us alive and will not let us die, but it cannot provide us with a full national life. What we have come to find only in Palestine is the cosmic element… We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substance.

    We, the Jews, were the first in history to say: “For all the nations shall go each in the name of its God” and “Nations shall not lift up sword against nation” – and then we proceed to cease being a nation ourselves!

    As we now come to re-establish our path among the ways of living nations of the earth, we must make sure that we find the right path. We must create a new people, a human people whose attitude toward other peoples is informed with the sense of human brotherhood and whose attitude toward nature and all within it is inspired by noble urges of life-loving creativity. All the forces of our history, all the pain that has accumulated in our national soul, seem to impel us in that direction… we are engaged in a creative endeavor the like of which is itself not to be found in the whole history of mankind: the rebirth and rehabilitation of a people that has been uprooted and scattered to the winds.

    (A.D. Gordon, “Our Tasks Ahead” 1920)

    Weighing down behind these words, like a billion tons of water behind a cracking dam, are the centuries of fear, alienation and dependency in which European Jewry was enmeshed. That gives them a seriousness which would be mere bombast, if we were to substitute “Space” for “Palestine”, and perhaps “science” for “labour”, and put them in the mouth of the average science fiction fan. Nevertheless! Any number of internet posts by present-day space enthusiasts resonate with the same themes.

    The alienation from an economy whose capricious goodwill one must constantly court. The need for a task worthy of one’s ideals and capabilities. The desire to found one’s sense of worth on an authentic relation of the human being to the universe. Communal self-realization as a life motivation.

    I know the idea of kiting off and leaving Earth to its fate is rubbish. And for a genuine purpose in the world, I’d recommend working toward a sustainable planetary civilization in the here and now. But it’s a bad mistake to just snark the geeks. Their motives are fundamentally sound, it’s just that they need a deeper grounding in the actualities and the real possibilities. Merely dismiss them, their errors will fester and their contributions die stillborn. Give them a hearing but explain the realities – and this happens, it grinds on endlessly from Slashdot to The Edge – and we welcome them to a developing consensus.

  • Stevo Darkly June 19, 2007, 20:58

    I read Stross’s essay and am in the process of reading through the comments. So far, I am surprisingly disappointed in his reasoning.

    Sure, the stars are far, far, far away, and it will take “ridiculous” amounts of energy to greach even the closest one. Any technology that might surmount this will be, in today’s terms, magic.

    But Stross seems to almost discount the possibility of radical technological advances at all. He sounds like a pioneer on the Oregon Trail explaining very patiently that it would be impossible to take a Conestoga wagon to the Moon.

    Extrapolating accelerating trends — especially if one is of a transhumanist bent — it also seems likely that in the future, at least some individuals will control technologies and energies comparable to what entire nations control today. That includes potentially destructive technologies, like basement bacteria-gengineering kits. It’s not that unlikely that, 500 years from now, a single individual might have the ability to — by accident or malevolent design — render large portions of the Earth uninhabitable. This possiblity will motivate some people to make or find places to live in space, just to get some space between themselves and possible disaster.

    Stross says repeatedly that grand visions for colonizing the galaxy or of “not putting all our eggs in one basket” do nothing for us right here and now nor do they do anything for those caught at home when the disaster comes. To put it bluntly, so what? That is not the point. People are constantly engaging in efforts that do them no good here and now, or that will benefit their descendents but not themselves. I put away a significant portion of my income into investments so I’ll have something to live on when I retire, decades hence — investments that Stross might argue are “wasted” if I get hit by a truck tomorrow. And my dad, already a retiree, spends a lot of time managing his savings and property in order to maximize what my brother and I will inherit. He certainly isn’t going to benefit from those efforts. And my brother and I don’t really care. Nevertheless, he acts as if powerfully motivated.

    Stross says that any such future-oriented focus must be regarded as merely “quasi-religious.” Again, so what? Humanity is not lacking in any number of religious, quasi-religious, para-religious or neo-religious impulses — indeed, such impulses may even be hardwired into us — and people act upon them all the time, often warping their entire lives to the effort.

    In the thread immediately below, commenter Brian Wang made a terrific analogy between humanity remaining on Earth and deciding to live your life in your parents’ basement. You can make an overwhelming economic (or at least financial) case for staying in your parents’ basement vs. the effort and expense of moving out and establishing your own independent household. I know — I didn’t get out of the house until I was about 30, and it saved me some money at the time. Nevertheless, I was glad to get out when I could afford it. And despite the economic trade-offs, almost everyone moves out of their parents’ house sooner or later. In part, because one of the costs of living in close quarters with other people is that you have to shape your life to accommodate them to some degree. And that can really cramp your style.

    The Gobi Desert or Antarctica may be easier to colonize than Mars. But the Gobi and the Antarctic will also be within 30 minute’s reach of every 22nd century control-freak with a nuclear arsenal — which by then could be a lot of people. Living with and accommodating an Earth full of such folks might become a bit wearing. Living with a smaller group of self-selected like-minded people on Mars, or Enceladus, or Tau Ceti III might become worth the effort. For our own sakes or those of our descendants, some of us may well decide to move out. Maybe far out. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for space.

  • Athena June 19, 2007, 22:06

    Staying in your parents basement is an apt analogy. Konstantin Tsiolkovski put it more romantically: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” Earth is indeed stunningly beautiful and we are optimized for it, because we started and evolved here. Oddly enough, we may have to leave it to preserve it. And though I’m getting on in years and have grown fatigued and cynical from the usual reverses of life, I still believe we have the Promethean spark that will keep us exploring.

  • george scaglione June 20, 2007, 9:20

    athena,just had to agree with all of the references made above!yes,we must keep exploring – it may be the very thing that keeps us alive as a species.also,on another note – which might not really be such a different note – i am currently reading and very much enjoying,the biology of star trek! took awhile to recieve my copy once it had been ordered was all ! thank you for a good read! have a very nice day,your friend, george

  • Ed Reed June 20, 2007, 9:45

    Stross’ article and your review of it are great. I sit on the “slightly more optimistic” side of the ledger.

    In a universe where we either are blind to 95% of the matter and energy (dark) that surrounds us, or in which our understanding of physics is so off base that we THINK that we’re blind to all that dark energy and matter – I hold out hope that there’s more that we don’t understand, that might just yield a “magic wand”.

    If there are, indeed, other dimensions that connect us all, then when we learn to manipulate more of the fields (gravity, dark, etc) around us as we’ve learned to manipulate magnetic fields using electricity – well, maybe we’ll find more avenues than are obvious now.

  • Christopher L. Bennett June 20, 2007, 10:17

    Mr. Stross says:
    “Simply put, setting up self-sufficient off-earth human colonies *doesn’t* avert disaster for those who get left at home. Arguably, any catastrophe that’s likely to hit us and that *could* be avoided by moving to an off-earth colony is also one that we can avert or mitigate by putting our energy into dealing with it — for example, if we’re worried about an impending cometary impact it seems to me to make more sense to *deal with the bloody comet* than to focus on letting a tiny lifeboat manned by a self-selected elite leave the rest of us to die.”

    I think there’s a false dichotomy here — that colonizing the solar system and undertaking the effort to protect Earth from cosmic threats are mutually exclusive processes. I submit that they’re one and the same thing. In order to protect a territory, which is wiser — to limit all your protective forces to the territory itself, or to build a cordon or marches around the territory? If Earth is facing an incoming danger from space, wouldn’t the people who are already out there be in a better position to deal with it?

    Also, defining it in terms of a single forlorn lifeboat a la WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is a bit of a straw man. Obviously that wouldn’t be enough, but it’s not what we’re talking about. It’s more about establishing a permanent human presence and infrastructure in the Solar System. Building colonies in space will drive the development and refinement of technologies that will help protect Earth. Mining the asteroids for resources for such colonies will help us develop the same kinds of tools and skills that would also be useful for deflecting asteroids. It’s a win-win situation — the colonists in cislunar space can save humanity from a near-Earth asteroid on a collision course by redirecting it into an L5 orbit so they can mine it for resources.

    As for more Earthbound disasters, an active human presence in space would improve our technologies in ways that could protect against them — say, building solar-power satellites to provide non-polluting energy, moving heavy industry into orbit to reduce pollution, erecting sunshields against global warming, that sort of thing. Even just allowing the population to migrate outward in order to reduce population growth on Earth would be a great boon.

    If worse came to worst, then if we already had well-established commerce and travel between Earth and space — say, a high-volume space elevator or skyhook “freeway” system — that would enable evacuating a whole lot more people from Earth. And of course having plenty of colonies would mean those people would have someplace to go.

  • Brian Swiderski June 20, 2007, 11:15

    Magic wands aren’t so magic. In fact, they aren’t even dubious. They are as quotidian and mundane as breathing. This very website and the machines we’re using to access and comment on it are sheer absurdities, made possible by countless other absurdities in physics and engineering. If every single cent invested in information technology since the invention of the transistor were now put into propulsion, would anyone want to bet their life we wouldn’t come up with some hocus pocus? I think the failure of space tech to live up to the dreams of the 1950s has unduly jaundiced some people’s perspective, leading them to miss just how rapidly bizarre things can become. If you had told IBM in 1955 that a single computer would juggle gigabits of information, they would say “but you would need the electricity of an entire city to power it!”

    To think we have a pretty good bead on the way the universe works after a few centuries of science is almost too preposterous to imagine, so I’m not merely optimistic that the galaxy can and will be colonized–I think it frankly impossible that anything short of civilizational collapse could prevent it. We are going to discover that things are totally different than we imagined, and then we’ll discover it again, and again, and again, because reality is just that weird and we are not even yet infants as a species. The most fanatical advocate of Manifest Destiny wasn’t quite so ambitious as to imagine their grandchildren would live to see swarms of aircraft darken the skies, let alone Americans walking on the Moon. In light of the overwhelming record of science and technology, I think Charlie Stross’ reservations are therefore misplaced, and that even “grossly unrealistic” depictions in SF will be dwarfed by reality. Assuming we survive, it is highly unlikely the biggest future shocks are behind us.

  • Monte Davis June 20, 2007, 13:05

    Brian: If you had told IBM in 1955 that…

    I agree with your broader point about the open-ended future (and I imagine Stross would, too, as long as the time scale is open-ended). But I really wish space fans would stop making this ritual — and almost meaningless — comparison to information technology.

    IT is unique in that it deals with patterns independent of the physical substrate: you can do exactly the same computing “work” with abacus beads, gear teeth, relays, vacuum tubes, transistors, and no doubt eventually quantum states. In fact, you can do it faster and with less waste energy as the embodiment gets smaller. That’s most of what underlies Moore’s Law, and it does not apply to technology whose function requires moving around macroscopic amounts of matter and energy. If Intel could fabricate 10,000 little kero-LOX boosters on a wafer, it wouldn’t make getting payloads to orbit one bit easier, because what a rocket needs to do doesn’t scale at all like what a chip needs to do.

    The other pillar of Moore’s Law is that we found a way to print circuitry (which has no moving parts other than electrons) with photolithography and chemical etching. It takes big bucks to build a fab plant and design the masks, but from then on the marginal cost of the thousandth or millionth chip drops like a rock. That describes ink-on-paper printing, too, as an earlier from of “IT” — but again, applies to almost no other technology, or to any product with moving parts that need to be assembled on multiple axes. You can get some economies of scale in building more spacecraft, but nothing like the unique economies of microelectronics.

    There are weaknesses in analogies of space technology to aircraft, ships, trains, etc — but those are rock-solid compared to the IT analogy. Face it: IT is an intrinsically unique technology, and nothing else — not the technology of wheelbarrows, or water heaters, or elevators, or steamshovels, or any mode of transportation ever — is likely to match its exponential curve.

    So let’s recast your words above to be much more appropriate to our situation w/r/t space: “If you had told Boeing in 1955 that the predominant airliner technology of 2007 would be ~500mph turbojets” — essentially very much like the 707 they were testing at that time — you’d be exactly right.”

    “If you had told Boeing in 1955 that the predominant space transportation technology of 2007 would burn turbopumped chemicals to get at best a few percent of the pad weight to LEO at enormous cost — essentially very much like the ICBMs they were building at that time — you’d be exactly right.”

    Most of the responses to Stross’s essay are responding to the statement “space colonization will never happen” — which is not what he says. Read it again. He says it will be a long slog no matter what… that if it happens it will require unforeseeable breakthroughs (the “magic wands”)… and that if all we have is a scaling up of current methods, it’s hard to see how colonization (as distinct from exploration) could be considered worthwhile. Like it or not, that’s the inconvenient truth.

  • Brian Wang June 20, 2007, 13:13

    > like me, smile in pity at those commenters who chastise him for “lacking imagination”…

    I have read Accelerando. Imagining what might happen when an assumed technology is already here (picking some magic wands) is different then creatively figuring out how to combine and develop what we need to make and do to make “magic wands” real.

    Many magic wands are just figuring out the flaws that are holding back otherwise workable technology and approaches.

    Also, progress is project by project. Projects that by themselves have decent returns or affordable losses. Picking niches and more cost effective approaches. Building up industries and volumes.

    Launch a 100MW solar concentrator and sell power to communication and other satellites. Builds infrastructure that is both profitable and can provide the ability to make more steps more cheaply. Move onto providing peak power replacement.

    Suborbital appears on its way to a viable business. Displacing some of the Everest climbing with better vomit comet thrill rides.
    Then the orbital inflated Bigelow space hotels. People paying to get into the 400 mile high club.
    Increase the volume of activity and bring down the costs.
    High volume rockets with efficient ground operations can get us to $500/lb.

    More private industry and competition. Get to a healthier space industry with multiple income streams. Develop tether skyhooks or other methods to boost from LEO to GSO or from mach 10 up to orbital. Lowers the cost.
    Spaceplanes up to Mach 8-15 that rendevous with skyhooks or other efficient assist (magbeam) can bring costs to the $100-500/lb especially with volume.

    Space race between USA, China, India, Russia, Europe, Japan could also provide some motivation and more investment.

    Hypersonic package delivery. Multi-billion business.

    Better materials are happening now. Nanograin metals that are 4 times stronger and not as brittle. Carbon nanotube reinforcement of polymers.

    Industry, infrastructure, enabling technology and then people.

    On sending out lifeboats or fixing the problems.
    Sometimes you need both.

    Plague stomps on Europe, then it was good that they sent some people out to America. They can send aid back.
    War sweeps europe. Good to have America, Australia and Canada etc … there to help out militarily.

    Options to help deal with imperfect solutions and unavoidable events.

    Lifeboats less interesting and useful than cities and nations in orbit and other places. The utility is less useful for maybe the first few decades. But Wright Brothers to flying millions each year can happen in 60-80 years.

  • Brian Swiderski June 20, 2007, 21:57

    Monte: >IT is unique in that it deals with patterns independent of the physical substrate: you can do exactly the same computing “work” with abacus beads, gear teeth, relays, vacuum tubes, transistors, and no doubt eventually quantum states.If you had told Boeing in 1955 that the predominant airliner technology of 2007 would be ~500mph turbojets” — essentially very much like the 707 they were testing at that time — you’d be exactly right.He says it will be a long slog no matter what… that if it happens it will require unforeseeable breakthroughs (the “magic wands”)… and that if all we have is a scaling up of current methods, it’s hard to see how colonization (as distinct from exploration) could be considered worthwhile. Like it or not, that’s the inconvenient truth.

  • Brian Swiderski June 20, 2007, 21:58

    The analogy isn’t as flawed as you think. Travel is path-independent, meaning the only relevant information is origin and destination. Consider: The ancient Greeks clearly had the equestrian skills and resources to reach Asia and Italy by land, but instead they developed another medium and became superior mariners. Now, a boat as such wouldn’t be practical on land–friction would require that a very large team of horses or slaves would have to draw it, expending enormous energy in the process. But a boat allows them to exploit a separate travel substrate, water, which permits a shorter path than land requires, and allows speedier progress over that path.
    Unfortunately, boats are limited by the depth and continuity of water, so ancient mariners often had to carry their boats over land or follow the coastline back to the open sea. Only millennia later would a new substrate, air, be used to overcome these limitations.

    However, these media–land, water, air–have been known to us forever, and our DNA is encoded with basic awareness of them; i.e., the equivalent of performing IT operations with your fingers and toes, abacuses, or other obvious mechanical substrates. The ultimate intuitive substrate, 3D empty space, offers yet another medium we can cut across: Rather than flying a great circle between New York and Paris, simply cut a perfectly straight vacuum tube through the crust and mantle between them. But from this point onward, things begin to get abstract. Space is not really empty or formless, so there are gravitational contours based on mass distribution–the “landforms” of spacetime. Following these contours, though they look circuitous, is actually quicker than trying to travel in a straight line. Now, these relativistic concepts are not really part of human experience, and are analogous to the esoteric IT substrates like electrons and qubits; i.e., we understand the concept of travel as obviously as computation, but the media upon which they take place have suddenly become counterintuitive. While I don’t mean to overstretch a metaphor, if we can currently follow the “land” of space as dictated by gravity, what of the “seas” and the “air”? Although this may involve some kind of magic wand, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve any special technology at all–the airplane is, after all, just a form of boat.

    >If you had told Boeing in 1955 that the predominant airliner technology of 2007 would be ~500mph turbojets” — essentially very much like the 707 they were testing at that time — you’d be exactly right.He says it will be a long slog no matter what… that if it happens it will require unforeseeable breakthroughs (the “magic wands”)… and that if all we have is a scaling up of current methods, it’s hard to see how colonization (as distinct from exploration) could be considered worthwhile. Like it or not, that’s the inconvenient truth.

  • Brian Swiderski June 20, 2007, 21:59

    And if you had told a carriage maker in 1800 that people would be riding in essentially the same technology in 1900, you’d be exactly right. But you’d be rather cruel not to add that internal combustion engines would totally displace them within a generation afterward, and that thousands of people would be flying thousands of feet in the air at hundreds of miles per hour not much later. If you told Henry Ford that people in 1969 were still driving wheeled, gasoline-powered automobiles substantially like his Model T, you would be exactly right, but might be remiss in failing to mention the Moon landing. If you told RCA in 1930 that people today would still be listening to radio, you would be exactly right, but should not forget to include the part about artificial satellites, cable television, cellphones, the internet, and an infinite supply of unedited, uninterrupted, free pirated music and films on demand. Subtleties, Monte. You wouldn’t think much has changed just looking at a picture of today, but the IT advances have been building explosive potential, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that led to some rather shocking surges in other technology fields. In fact, if you read the science & tech mags, there’s a steadily increasing trickle of eyebrow-raising stories indicating as much.

    >He says it will be a long slog no matter what… that if it happens it will require unforeseeable breakthroughs (the “magic wands”)… and that if all we have is a scaling up of current methods, it’s hard to see how colonization (as distinct from exploration) could be considered worthwhile. Like it or not, that’s the inconvenient truth.

  • Brian Swiderski June 20, 2007, 22:00

    But how does the need for “magic wands” — i.e., normal scientific progress — translate into “long slog”? And why would anyone remotely believe that we’ll just be scaling up current methods? You can say that a computer is a glorified abacus, even though the former operates on quantum mechanics, and when we have FTL it’ll probably be equally analogous to some basic technology interpreted through abstruse theory. Have a little faith in science and engineering–it’s what got us to this point in the first place.

  • Adam June 21, 2007, 5:19

    Hi All

    Stross has good points, but the bit that got me was questioning the benefit of preserving the species and Frontier-oriented memes like “liberty” and “individuality”. I understand his direct relevance thing, though – if “space” is to become a new frontier for the huddled masses then it needs something more immediate than promises of distant colonies someday.

    And the current options, at the top of a gravity well and months away, aren’t very nice even for a visit. Admittedly the 50 km cloud level of Venus isn’t too bad – pressure, gravity and even the temperature are about right – but the planet’s a bit lacking for water. Mars has abundant water and carbon dioxide – if you want to work at gathering them – but the gravity is a touch light and the peroxide dust is a hazard. As for the Moon – all of the disadvantages of the asteroids and none of the advantages.

    This is not to say I wouldn’t want to go anywhere at all in space, but I’m not sure I’d be hardy enough for a diet of algae from the food-recycler.

  • Christopher L. Bennett June 21, 2007, 8:56

    Why limit yourself to planets and moons? We have the technology to build whole artificial worlds, if the will were there to invest the necessary money and effort. And those colonies would pay for themselves soon enough. This concept goes back to the 1970s and the book THE HIGH FRONTIER (could someone please tell me which codes to use to do italics and stuff here?). So I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known today.

  • Administrator June 21, 2007, 13:35

    Adam and Christopher, yes, maybe the best thing to do if choosing off-Earth real estate in our own Solar System is to wait for a real L-5 colony, one of sufficient dimension to make livability standards high!

  • Administrator June 21, 2007, 13:46

    Brian wrote: “You wouldn’t think much has changed just looking at a picture of today, but the IT advances have been building explosive potential, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that led to some rather shocking surges in other technology fields.”

    Good point, and a reminder that given the pace of digital tech change, we’re in poor position to be real futurists any more. The futurist of the year 1800 could count on a lot of trends continuing in a variety of interesting ways, but didn’t have to cope with artificial intelligence possibilities taking part of the future-building process out of our hands. Maybe we get a ‘singularity’ and maybe we don’t, but I think Brian is right that some of the IT breakthroughs will doubtless spill into other areas, many of them doubtless beyond our current reckoning.

  • James Nicoll June 21, 2007, 14:34

    ” […] craft a believable future within technology that is explicable to a broad readership. ”

    There was an SF mystery from the 1950s whose author set out to tell the story without explaining anything that the characters wouldn’t explaining, in much the same way LAW AND ORDER doesn’t pause to explain internal combustion engines. I think it was set about a thousand years from now and it was pretty close to incomprehensible.

    Can’t recall the author or the title, unfortunately.

  • Athena June 21, 2007, 17:59

    James made a great point applicable to all SF: It may be that SF is limited in readership because many of its authors think they have to explain how something works in excruciating detail. In the fifties/sixties it used to be the curvaceous blonde that asked the muscular captain to “explain” how the ship’s FTL worked.

    Such infodumps seriously impede the narrative flow. Worse yet, they date the work very fast, because naturally the description is limited by the technology of that particular era (and the inventiveness of the writer). In a well-crafted story, you rarely explain how something specific works past one or two sentences. There was a great spoof of this, describing two passengers taking a flight from Boston to LA, explaining everything that happened throughout the trip. Of course, the other side is that many SF authors don’t want to be considered “soft”, hence the infodumps.

  • Kurt9 June 21, 2007, 19:39

    I think you guys are taking Stross’s comments completely out of context.

    Charles Stross, judging from his novels as well as from his website, is clearly a singulatarian. His novel, “Accelerando” is essentially a novelized version of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity as described in the book, “The Singularity is Near”. The singulatarians believe that we will all be uploading into “computronium” sometime this century. The information processing and density of this computronium will continue to improve at a Moore’s Law rate until reaching the ultimate limits (if current physics is correct) around 2080. This computronium will allow us to live as uploads in a virtual reality that will have orders of magnitude more “openess” and “diversity” than the entire galaxy.

    Space colonization would be quite limited and wasteful compared to this scenario. I believe that Stross’s comments about space colonization were made within the context of his singulatarian world-view.

    His comments were used as part of another “space is unnecessary” article on another singulatarian website, called Worldchanging.

  • Athena June 21, 2007, 20:04

    “This computronium will allow us to live as uploads in a virtual reality that will have orders of magnitude more “openess” and “diversity” than the entire galaxy.”

    I, for one, cannot conceive of a more depressing fate. Worse than the Matrix, in which people were forced or fooled into it. As for the uploading part, it won’t happen any time soon and certainly not by 2080.

  • Administrator June 21, 2007, 20:21

    Like Athena, I’ll take a pass on computronium, whether or not uploading ever comes to pass. I grant the possibility that large numbers of people may choose this route, in which case we’re looking at a major divide between different conceptions of reality and, indeed, of human values. But if that divide becomes reality, I’ll be looking from the other side of it when the uploads begin.

    Now as far as enormously capable AI going out into the galaxy, that bothers me not at all. They may indeed prove far more adaptable to space than we ever could. It would be fascinating to follow their explorations and work in tandem with them, whether or not we humans ever manage to travel so wide and so far.

  • Kurt9 June 21, 2007, 20:50

    Athena and the administrator,

    I’m with you guys on the uploading bit. I don’t believe in it at all. I’m not a singulatarian. Thats why I’m interested in space colonization. I like openess and freedom, just like you guys do.

    I was just putting Stross’s comments into their proper perspective.

  • Administrator June 21, 2007, 22:02

    Kurt9, it was a helpful perspective, too, and that’s what I thought you were doing. Not having read Stross’ novels, I’m at a disadvantage in knowing the other themes he works with. I need to get with it on Accelerando!

  • Athena June 21, 2007, 22:43

    Kurt9, I also knew you were explaining a point that is important in placing the Stross essay in proper perspective.

    To George: I’m glad you like the book!

  • Adam June 22, 2007, 2:44

    Hi All

    “Discover” magazine has a piece on the existence (or otherwise) of the soul and some interesting accounts of a Tibetan monk in 1988 doing his own “upload” into a “Rainbow Body”, which I’ve also read about in a book from 1970 so it’s an interesting possibility – are we limiting ourselves if we “upload” into computronium? Could the ultimate upload be available to us if we follow a certain spiritual path?

    I think, regardless of the medium, we have to be embodied – I don’t think “disembodied intelligence” is a coherent concept, at least for an originally human consciousness. So if I had the option of “uploading” into android form I reckon I’d take it – once the slings and arrows of mortal flesh became too much to bare. It’d have to be a damned good android body, mind you…

    As for Stross’s essay, and our various reactions, I think the idea of freespace colonies is even more fantastic than colonies on the Moon or the planets. There’s no resources in empty space – you at least need an asteroid. Then what happens when it’s used up? Residential space colonies may well be built, but they’re not happening for a long time for all the reasons Stross has put forth. Ultra-cheap access to space may well make “retirement communities for the Life-Extended” a viable option – but not until then, and certainly not as a driver for making the big move into solar space. I’d like to be contradicted, but plenty of people other than Stross have made the same point.

  • george scaglione June 22, 2007, 10:37

    athena, roflol – yes i recall that plot device,”yes dr smigagy,can you explain how this hyper drive really works!?” i’m sure alot of us recall that one! thank you. george

  • Charlie Stross June 22, 2007, 13:46

    Actually, I consider myself singularity-agnostic (and upload-agnostic; in fact, the current space opera I’m working on postulates no uploading or singularity, and tries to eschew magic wands, too …).

    The only thing I think any of us in this field can say for certain is that the future will not be like the past. The key fundamental difference between space colonization and, say, exploration of unmapped terrestrial continents in days of yore is that those continents at least supported a biosphere that we could survive in; being biological organisms immersed in a biosphere at all times, we tend to overlook the importance of this supporting environment, and we tend to discount and downplay it (and underestimate its complexity). It might well prove easier to modify ourselves for partial independence from this environment than to create habitable biospheres elsewhere.

    And in the course of wading through 650-odd comments on my own blog, I’ve become rather less tolerant of space settler enthusiasts who assume that if we can just fire a few thousand tons of construction materials into orbit, the messy biological details will be taken care of by the janitor or somebody. Environmental science is the key to space colonization (if we don’t end up doing the upload/AI/posthuman thing), not just an afterthought or minor detail to worry about once we’ve sorted out the space elevator and lunar mines.

  • Administrator June 22, 2007, 14:02

    Charlie, agreed re your statement “Environmental science is the key to space colonization,” in so many ways, and especially if we’re serious about a continuing presence rather than a series of one-shot spectaculars.

  • Athena June 22, 2007, 14:07

    Charlie Stross said: “…being biological organisms immersed in a biosphere at all times, we tend to overlook the importance of this supporting environment, and we tend to discount and downplay it (and underestimate its complexity). It might well prove easier to modify ourselves for partial independence from this environment than to create habitable biospheres elsewhere.”

    Exactly! I could not agree more.

  • rileyfactor June 22, 2007, 14:53

    Charlie, most space “enthusiasts” are geeks who really do live
    in their parents’ basement or in a one-room apt. over a bowling
    alley who have never kissed a girl, so of course they aren’t going
    to have a clue about the human element in space development.

    Any social workers and anthropologists want to get involved in
    the real colonization of space? NASA doesn’t even want to talk
    about their astronauts doing “it” let alone other social issues –
    and look what that suppression did for them – so they aren’t
    going to help.

    Maybe what you and everyone else has to realize is that humans
    are born messes in the mental and physical sense, that we make
    it through life both on blind luck and who we know, and that we’re
    going to be a mess when we go out into space so stop worrying
    about it and just make sure the people out there know how to
    wire up the electricty and keep the hatch shut.

  • Athena June 22, 2007, 15:14

    A bit along the lines of rileyfactor, out tendencies may also explain the enthusiasm for transhumanism (whether as VR or uploading). Who wouldn’t like to look like Keanu Reeves and be humanity’s thunderbolt-wielding savior (with houris thrown in, naturally). Was it McLeod who said “The Singularity is the rapture for nerds”?

    More seriously, unless biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and historians are major participants in space exploration plans, we won’t go anywhere. NASA included such (to its view) “peripherals” reluctantly, too little and too late. To give you the flavor of my own experience, I once gave a lecture on this issue at one of the Propulsion Labs. Among other things, I said that if we were serious about long-term space ventures, firing the rockets was just the first blare of the trumpets in the ouverture of the opera. Afterwards, one of my hosts remarked, “We are engineers. The rockets are pretty much everything we think about.” Certainly a gross oversimplification, but it encapsulates the prevailing attitude.

  • Kurt9 June 22, 2007, 16:59

    The issue of creating habitable biospheres is one of the fundamental problems that the original L-5 people grappled with in the late 70’s. This was actually Keith and Carolyn Henson’s contribution to the space movement at the time. This is still a major “hole” in the space colony idea and one that has been partly addressed over the years. A viable space colony requires an integrated biosphere.

    Biosphere II was one attempt to explore this issue. It failed mainly due to unnecessary complexity in the range of plants and animals they had in this facility (I took the scientific tour a few months before the 2 year trial run in the early 90’s). What Charles is calling environmental science is really a branch of bioscience and biotechnology (systems biology). Fortunately, this is now the fastest growing technical field right now, with many development yet to come.

    I do not think space colonization is possible without advanced sythetic biology. Fortunately, there is tremendous commercial competition and opportunity right now to develop these technologies for conventional market applications (medical, industrial, etc.)


    Your description of the space weenies is all too true. When we worked to get our space bill passed through congress in ’89-90, we got no help at all from the so-called space “activists”. I think the same description is accurate of the singulatarian transhumanists as well.


    Unless someone can prove to me otherwise, I am definitely not a singulatarian. I read Kurzweil’s book. It is quite good, but I think he discounts the fact that technologies tend to follow “S” progressions and peak out after a while. I also think his timetable is too optimistic as well.

    I do consider myself a transhumanist in the sense that I am into life-extension and am signed up for cryonic suspension. However, I think the uploading stuff. I am also skeptical of dry (“drexlerian”) nanotech, but think wet nanotech will accomplish many of the things that the Drexlerian nanotech is supposed to do.

  • Charlie Stross June 23, 2007, 11:22

    Kurt9: you might want to see my earlier blog posting here on some near-term non-singularity, non-space-settlement options for our future …

  • Brian Swiderski June 23, 2007, 12:09

    Summation: We need science to colonize space. Big revelation there.

  • Charlie Stross June 23, 2007, 14:40

    Brian, it’s surprising how many people think it will happen if we simply believe in Tinkerbell hard enough.

  • Kurt9 June 23, 2007, 17:00


    I read your blog posting some time ago. No doubt we will see the things you describe in it. Being more of a hard-science guy (www.metatechnica.com), I usually do not pay much attention to IT trends (I actually derided the internet as “digital CB radios” when it first became popular in 95).

    I think the technical and economic frontier for the next few decades will be biotech (including synthetic biology) and nanotech (defined anyway you want). This is where I expect the major breakthroughs. I think development will be incremental in other fields.

    Semiconductors (where I work) will continue their progression to the molecular lever (probably 2030 or so) then slow as the limits are reached.

    Solar cells will improve, but I think nuclear will return in a big way (integral fast reactor, pebble-beds, thorium, etc), lead by Asia. Making hydrocarbon fuel from genetic designer algae is an interesting idea. I think this will be the first “killer app” of synthetic biology.

    The wild cards (magic wands) are:

    1) Bussard’s polywell fusion concept or some other fusion concept
    2) Extended Heim Theory (EHT)


    The only thing I will say more about space is that it is an issue of launch costs. Here, the libertarians are correct in describing NASA as a government-owned airline. I describe it as a government bureaucracy whose purpose is to employ 20,000 civil servants untill retirement. NASA, like defense contracting and any other government-funded projects, is funded on a cost-plus basis. There is no price competition. There is no incentive for cost control. I know what I am talking about because I have worked for a defense contractor and I have good friends who have done space-related research.

    To be honest, I have no idea if space colonization is doable. I like to think it is. I am familiar with the O’neill scenario from the 70’s and they do seem reasonable from my perspective. However, any discussion about this is meaningless until we have a thriving, competitive space transportation industy. NASA (and ESA) have no more chance of creating this than if the U.S. and Europe had a single, government-owned and operated airline. I believe you are from the U.K. I think you are old enough to remember when Brittish Airways was run by the government and everyone called it “Bloody Awful”. Its service is better today (as well as being cheaper).

  • Adam June 24, 2007, 0:11

    Hi All

    *shameless self-promotion warning*

    Check out my blog entry on a recent issue of the AIAA Houston’s newsletter…


    …which discusses the work on the manipulation of inertia thanks to the work of Prof. James Woodward. Paul March describes a basic Moon Shuttle based on such a thruster, one of the interesting implications if the Mach-Lorentz Inertial effects can be replicated and enhanced. Woodward has written that negative mass density might even be achieved – thus allowing stable wormholes etc.

    So add that to the “interesting possibilities” basket, along with Bussard’s fusor and Heim Theory.

    Also John Cramer’s work on quantum mechanics might allow instantaneous communications via entangled systems. Imagine how that would change our approach to spaceflight – if we could teleoperate machinery across even light-years. Would we then bother trying to colonise the bare rocks?

    And if we found habitable planets would we be keen to homestead, knowing what we now know about the disastrous effects of biological chauvanism?

    Think of all the big, fascinating creatures we drove to extinction as we spread across Earth – is a habitable world worth destroying in order to colonise?

    Think of the giant flightless ducks of Hawaii, the Elephant birds of Australia, the Moa of New Zealand, the Megalania, and even the Erects and Hobbits we might have killed off – is that worth a New Frontier’s so-called freedoms?

    And to teleport to other systems – since probes would be needed to carry exchange particles there via sub-light – what would we have to become?

  • Ronald June 26, 2007, 6:34

    Elaborating on Brian Wang (June 20th, 13:13 ), Adam (June 22nd, 2:44), Kurt9 (June 23rd, 17:00); An important reason that progress in (deep) space exploration/colonization has been so meagre is the lack of economic/commercial incentive, the main one being the launching of satellites in near-space. As I wrote before (another post), I think that a (the?) major incentive for space exploration, at least of our own solar system, would be the mastering of nuclear fusion, both for the enormous amounts of energy that it would make available to humankind ánd the possibilities to get unlimited amounts of Helium-3 from the outer gas giants (in particular Saturn, Uranus). Helium-3 is about the only resource that I can think of worth obtaining from outer space, because of its incredibly high energy and value density. I do not believe that any other resource known would be worth getting there, contrary to all SF about asteroid mining and so, simply because the investments would always be higher than those for alternatives here on earth.

    Likewise for the above-mentioned and often quoted idea of moving people out to reduce population pressure here on earth: it is and will always be the wrong motive for an otherwise great idea, again simply because for the same investments there will always be cheaper solutions here on earth (e.g. cultivating the Sahara, Antarctica, etc., would be far easier and cheaper than terraforming Mars).

    To summarize, certain ideas will never materialize, at least not for the reasons mentioned, not because they are or will always be technically impossible, but because even with technological possibility, there are and will always be better alternatives here on earth.

    Therefore, space exploration and colonization will need the right incentives. And except maybe Helium-3 mining (and perhaps a few others?), deep space will require other motivations than commercial/economic or social ones. The only major ones that I can think of are the two related but long-term and rather ‘philosophical’ objectives of 1) spreading humankind and earthly life, and 2) the really long-term survival of the same.

    Moreover, I believe that the colonization of other planets, be it terraforming of Mars, and/or colonization of extrasolar planets, will almost entirely depend on our ability to bridge the gap quickly, i.e. to reduce time spent in space, this because of the inherent risks of being there.
    I do not believe in generation ships, hollowed-out asteroids, and the like, for the same stochastic (statistical) reasons, why biologists have discovered that small nature reserves loose species to extinction faster than big ones: shit happens. The longer the time and the smaller your sanctuary the bigger the chance that a combination of shits will be fatal. This is about as true for humans, as it is for any other lifeform and even for futuristic combinations of artificial life and computer media.

    This does not preclude the future use of some kind of suspended animation/hibernation/cryogenics, to reduce metabolic demands and psychological stress of (human) space travellers, as long as it is used in combination with minimalizing of time spent in space.

    Although the search for ‘break-through’ physics (such as Heim’s) should always continue, I think the main prerequisites for space exploration and colonization are a combination of the right motivations (energy, research, colonization), the right energy source (fusion), and the right kind of planning in realistic ‘step stones’ (moon, Mars, Titan, Alpha Centauri, …).

    Waiting for a ‘magic wand’ to solve the challenges for us some time in the future, including SF style propositions such as singularity/uploading, though sometimes compared to ‘what color TV would have been to Medieval people’, would rather be what alchemy eventually was to Medieval people: false hope for gold.

  • Ronald June 26, 2007, 6:50

    PS: the previous also holds true for the so-called O’Neill colonies in space, which are about as much a fallacy and waste of resources as the generation-ship-asteroids. See, among others, Zubrin’s ‘Entering space’ for a hopeful, but realistic perspective on future space exp./colon.

    I still bet that humankind’s first interstellar exploration will be in the form of small laser-driven (fusion-fueled) robotic probes, probably launched from the moon. OK, breaking will be a problem (maybe magnetic field/sail?).

  • Adam June 26, 2007, 9:23

    Hi Ronald

    I pretty much agree with you. If Bussard’s fusor can be built and scaled up easily then it could burn straight He3. He3+He3 gets 26.2 MeV per fusion, which is 420 TJ per kg. If the system converted straight to electricity with 95% efficiency – which Bussard says can work for a charged particle stream – then the 15 TW used by the human race could be powered by fusing 37.5 grams of He3 per second. Or about 1,200 tons per year. About 5,000 tons per year could supply every person on Earth with the same amount of energy the average North American or Australian uses.

    Uranus’s gravity-well is shallow enough for nuclear ram-jets to scoop-and-deliver He3. With a clever nanotech atomic sifter it could be pretty straightforward to collect and purify. Designs exist for all the components (bar the sifter) and no human presence is required. Thus space would remain the domain of robots and still turn a buck.

    Currently no market for the stuff – no fusors. It’s wait-and-see if Bussard’s fusor will get the money it needs yet. Of course if Bussard’s fusor can be built and use an aneutronic fuel then it would revolutionise space-travel. Building “bases” or “colonies” for scientific or utopian reasons would become practical. With sufficient ingenuity the “return to Earth” costs of shipping materials home might make space-mining of increasing “rare” metals practical – though materials advances might make things like copper redundant as a technological necessity. And fusion torches on a humungous scale might make recovering a lot of currently uneconomical ores very practical overnight.

    Like a working antigravity or propellantless drive, such technologies are utterly unpredictable in their broader effects.

  • ljk July 17, 2007, 9:51

    A Survival Imperative for Space Colonization

    New York Times July 17, 2007


    In 1993, Princeton professor of
    astrophysics J. Richard Gott III
    computed with scientific certainty
    that humanity would survive at least
    5,100 more years. Now he has issued
    a wake-up call: To ensure our
    long-term survival, we need to get a
    colony up and running on Mars within


  • ljk March 1, 2009, 1:54

    February 27, 2009

    Charlie Stross Wrong About Space Colonization and Singularity

    Charlie Stross has a 21st Century FAQ which tells people to forget about space colonization and the Singularity.

    99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There’ll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren’t going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe.

    He talks about taking 2.5 years to get out to Jupiter. He talks about concerns about radiation exposure and other medical issues for long flights at near zero gravity. He talks about the difficulty in protecting people in space in small space craft

    Orion Lets You Go Fast and Big

    The abandoned technology that can be used is nuclear powered Orion. Orion configurations can deliver 1000Gs of acceleration. So then it is a matter of dialing back the performance to what the current capabilities that are available for handling acceleration.

    Orion scales up to 8 million ton ships.

    We know we can send people into interplanetary space for several days (Apollo). We could easily make the trip to Mars in days and then onto to Jupiter in days. We could bring supplies, radiation protection in cargo that is equivalent to several great pyramids or how many loaded aircraft carriers equivalents.

    It will be too bad if we did not develop this capability until for some reason we had screwed up the Earth by not using workable technology because of irrational fears.

    All it takes if for people to awaken to the fact that Orion can be safe or to develop a near-earth (moon or orbital) deployment or construction or to develop a political correct version of nuclear rocket (IEC fusion space propulsion).

    Full article here:


  • ljk March 6, 2009, 8:38

    March 05, 2009

    Reasons From Other on Why Charles Stross is Wrong and Article on the Nuclear/Verne Cannon

    Michael Anissimov wrote up his reasoning for why Charles Stross is wrong about what will happen in the 21st century.

    Some key points:

    * no one is waiting for greater than human intelligence AGI

    * Disruptive technological impacts can already be clearly seen to be developing

    * Many other useful insights into the Singularity and AI and AI development

    J Storrs Hall has a good piece on this as well at foresight’s nanodot.

    * Examples of how the 1900’s Popular Mechanics was way off the mark for the 20th century and so the New Scientist magazine for the 2000-2010 period is not highly likely to get the 21st century right

    Full article here: