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Of Starships and Myth

Back in 1999, with NASA’s Interstellar Probe Science and Technology Definition Team investigating the possibility of reaching another star, then administrator Dan Goldin exhorted the agency to push its limits. “We have to set goals so tough it hurts — that it drives technology — in semiconductors, materials, simulation, propulsion,” he told reporters, and later that year he described a new kind of space vehicle, one that taps advances in genetic algorithms, neural nets and nanotechnology. Those were breathtaking days, if short-lived. We were in a new intellectual space, a long way from Apollo.

Reconfiguring the Metaphor

Is a reconfigurable probe the size of a Coke can, one that taps local materials to adapt to a remote star system, what we might call a ‘starship’? Charles Stross asks this question in a recent essay, noting that the Pioneers, Voyagers and New Horizons we’ve sent on missions that will reach interstellar space are starships, but not in the popular sense. The star ‘ship’ metaphor calls up vessels the size of the Queen Mary, populated with Star Trek-like crews. And as Stross notes, the new kind of interstellar thinking isn’t remotely like that. Hence his title, ‘The Myth of the Starship.’

We have a long tradition of nautical baggage. Seafaring ships of the great age of exploration were largely wooden, and — with the aid of their human crew — self-repairing; subject to the availability of raw materials, there wasn’t much aboard a 16th or 17th century sailing ship that couldn’t be made on board. Aside from carpentry, the inhabitants of even a relatively small port could make the necessities to keep a ship at sea on a voyage of years — a smithy, a pottery, a glass-blower, weavers of sailcloth and makers of hardtack. Shipbuilding was by no means easy (it was an economic activity born on the backs of the large numbers of peasant farmers and fisherfolk it took to provide the surplus to feed the workers in the shipyards) but it wasn’t anything like the Apollo project, which sucked up the labour of a third of a million skilled engineers and technicians for a decade.

We don’t, then, call the Apollo spacecraft ‘Moon-ships’ because the word isn’t applicable to their mission. Nor is the sense of destination the same. Our first space colonists, no matter where they go, will have to build and sustain their own biosphere or, if they’re robotic, their own ‘mechanosphere’ (in Stross’ terms) to sustain themselves. The basic infrastructure has to be packaged to go along with the space travelers, and in interstellar terms, that’s quite a demand. One way to proceed is through nanotechnology coupled with highly advanced artificial intelligence, leaving the humans at home.

Not Your Grandfather’s Starship

But build a craft along these lines and you don’t wind up with anything remotely resembling the Enterprise. Instead, it’s going to look like a minimalist ‘DVD balanced on a microwave beam, or a can of beans hanging below a light sail energized by lasers.’ Nanotech assemblers will build the necessary remote station upon arrival at another star system to transmit information back to Earth. Such probes will probably be very small, possibly quite numerous (Stross doesn’t mention them, but Robert Freitas’ ‘needle’ probes, scattered into space in the millions, come to mind) and they will build their remote scientific bases out of the materials at hand.

This isn’t a ship, surely:

If anything, it’s going to resemble a seed pod for a different kind of life, and on arrival it’s going to hatch and grow into a tree, or a forest, or a manufacturing-industrial complex. Finally, long after arrival, it might have sufficient resources to divert from homeostasis and growth to construct a biosphere, open communications with home, and prepare to download digitized colonists — if the whole uploading concept doesn’t prove to be chimerical, and if there’s something to be done with the serialized primate core-dumps at the other end.

Although Stross keeps referring to ‘starwisp’ as the operating mode here, Geoffrey Landis has done a thorough job demonstrating that the Robert Forward Starwisp probe wouldn’t work — in fact, the moment the microwave beam Forward envisioned as powering this spider web-thin structure illuminated it, Starwisp would vaporize. Forward himself acknowledged this and was deep into other concepts when he died. But the general formula of a sail-like craft riding a beam of some kind is what Stross sees, correctly I think, as the most likely technology for our first probes to other stars.

Generations Among the Stars

As to ‘generation ships,’ in which people are born and live out their lives without ever reaching the destination, Stross points to the huge problems of biology, environmental engineering and sociology that these invoke. There goes that word ‘ship’ again, which Stross prefers to replace with the term ‘interstellar transportation system.’

Such a system needs to provide not only a mechanism for sending a self-replicating technosphere across interstellar distances; it needs to be able to produce a habitable space at the destination, and provide a return option (for data, if nothing else).

But a different kind of generation-spanning technology may eventually emerge. Create stable space habitats in which life is minimally acceptable for colonists and the refinement of these technologies will eventually produce generations that spend their lives off a planetary surface, even if they’re still located in the Solar System. It’s not at all beyond the imagination to suggest that such an environment might, at least in a few cases, be populated with people who saw no particular reason to stay within the system’s boundaries.

But I wouldn’t call that a ship either. It’s an enclosed approximation of a planet, one on which almost every environmental variable has been regulated to produce as close to a planet-like experience as possible. “The whole reference frame we instinctively assume when we hear the word “ship” is just so wrong it’s beyond wrong-ness: it’s on a par with Baron Munchausen’s lunar exploits as seen in light of the Apollo Program,” says Stross, who argues that the ship metaphor is doomed.

Survival of the Myth

I doubt it. I like the metaphor and think of ‘starship’ as the logical statement of what we’d like to achieve. The fact that the term does not describe our current technological capabilities doesn’t concern me. If we never develop interstellar craft with human crews, so be it, we’ll call them something else, just as no one actually calls New Horizons a ‘starship.’ On the other hand, there is an aspirational value in our choice of words, one that the word ‘starship’ picks up on quite nicely.

If it’s reminiscent of the great sailing vessels that once took colonists from one side of the world to another on largely one-way voyages that built new lives, so much the better. Given our choice of imaginings, this is how we, adapted to our planetary surface, would like to reach new star systems if all things were possible. And can we be sure that the aspiration built into the word ‘starship’ won’t trigger some far future breakthrough that really does make the metaphor into reality? No one can know, but what seems impossible is almost always worth attempting if only to understand our limits.

No, I doubt we’ll lose the term ‘starship’ even if its only actual appearance is in fiction. We string words together to create concepts that defy the limitations that surround us, and have been doing so since the days of the Gilgamesh epic and Homer’s enchanted tales. Charles Stross, one of science fiction’s brightest lights, is no stranger to the magic of word-weaving, and surely knows that the human experience is a potent mix of hard realism with an inescapable counterpart, a ‘what if’ that challenges all our assumptions. Resonant mythic echoes alone will keep ‘starship’ a viable term, an object of dreaming that encapsulates what we would do if the universe will let it be possible.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Athena Andreadis December 1, 2009, 14:10

    As I briefly described in Making Aliens, there is no question that the biological/ecological/sociological problems in arcships may dwarf those of propulsion. But Stross’ paradigm rests solidly on European precursors; it doesn’t apply to the Polynesian migration, a closer analog to what might happen if/when we take to space.

    And you’re completely correct about the mythic and symbolic potency of the term “starship”, Paul. Perhaps my story, Planetfall, appeared just in time as a counterbalance!

  • george scaglione December 1, 2009, 14:26

    hello all,imho it just might be a “problem” that i have and i am positive that there are people here that can point out where i am wrong if indeed i am. i have always since i was a boy reading sf books seen starships as indeed something like the enterprise.you see i am a person and it probably makes me highly prejudiced in favor of “my own kind” which easily trans lates as I want to go along with these “starships” does not mean that i cannot see as perfectly well founded,other ideas.ranging from generational ships to the smaller just basically swarms of electronic devices that might be sent! and yes i think i have heard apollo missions refered to as moon ships and yes i CAN see refereing to new horizons as a starship.be happy to see everyones opinion on any or all of this – except for the fact that i would like to go along ,i think that you will find that i am not all that hard to please.as always,respectfully to one and all your friend george scaglione

  • Duncan Ivry December 1, 2009, 15:38

    If we — mankind — really want to have interplanetary and interstellar exploration not too far in the future, then we should apply micro- and nanotechnology consequently.

    When I read about the construction of spaceships on the Centauri Dreams forum and on other websites, I ask: Are you serious?! With these big, fat behemoths?! Something like project “Icarus”? Forget it! Requires too much money, material, energy, is inefficient.

    You still haven’t realized, that there is an economic crisis, have you? That we will reach the bottom in 2010? Er … if all goes well. That the wealth of the world will reach a level comparable to that before the crisis several years later? Again, if all goes well. (By the way, according to economists, mankind lost between 20 and 30 percent of its wealth in this economic crisis. Travelling to mars for several zillion bucks, anybody?)

    Now, in 2009, we don’t have enough resources. In five or ten years from now, a lot of resources will be allocated in a way we space enthusiasts won’t like. Mankind has a lot, really a lot, of other things to do.

    Micro- and nanotechnology is the way to go, because it doesn’t need so much material and energy, and it is much more efficient.

  • Administrator December 1, 2009, 16:04

    Duncan Ivry writes:

    You still haven’t realized, that there is an economic crisis, have you?

    A basic premise since the inception of this site has been that interstellar flight, if it is possible, may not be realized for centuries. Sooner is preferable, of course, but the current economic crisis doesn’t rule out continuing speculation and research toward a long-term goal.

  • T_U_T December 1, 2009, 17:26

    The problem with small things is, that an energy source does not fit in.
    You will need at least critical mass of a fissile element to get going. And that is a few kilogram at least. Plus neutron reflector plus shielding. Plus converter to electricity.
    You say, you don’t need a power source, because a powerful laser or whatever will push you at the start ? But what about braking ? To colonize another stellar system you simply have to stop there. There is no way around that.
    So you will need either a powerful nuclear drive to stop, or a reactor that powers superconducting coils that produce a magnetic bubble huge enough ( I mean REALLY huge, like 100 km ) to actually stop before you just crash into the other sun.
    You will also need either massive shielding, or you will have to constantly repair damage from both particles and dust grains. The first option adds a lot of mass, the other will make you to have the power constantly “on”, and also, if the regeneration will work at the microscopic levels, you will have to deal with the consequences of unpredictable mutations of the cells/nanobots/whatever you will use. So you have either to make the replication of the machines extremely accurate and robust at the cost of making it extremely slow and inefficient, or you have to add an immune system to deal with misbehaving replicators. Otherwise your probe will be eaten from inside by robotic cancer, or simply ceases working.
    Most probably, you will have to make a trade off, and add some shielding, spend the most of the journey in hibernation, and periodically wake up for repairs and error checking.
    At this point your tiny ship is already heavy truck sized, and uses several kilowatt of power to just keep going. Also, at this size, repairs at microscopic level cease to be efficient. Too much time till a new multi kilogram coolant pump grows instead of the one which got a sand grain at relativistic speeds. It is more efficient to replace it manually, so you will need something like at least semi autonomous robot, most probably several of them to do the repairs. And a good artificial intelligence to plan the repairs. You also will want the robots to be chemically powered so that they can survive long periods without power supply in the case something gets really south out of there, and have at least parts of the A.I. right inside them, to be capable to restart/repair the mainframe.
    At that point you can scrap the concept of unmanned probe, because it has no advantages over a manned colonyship full of genetically modified humans.

  • James M. Essig December 1, 2009, 17:51

    Hi Paul and George;

    I could not agree with you more.

    We should not rule out the existence of future transports or fiats, to use an old fashioned term, to travel into qualitatively different types of dimensions.

    We are very familiar with the notion of higher numbers of spatial dimensions, hyperspace concepts of arbitrary dimensionality and parallel spatial temporal dimensions as such and these extended entities need to be considered as a possible final frontier as well.

    Morover, we should not entirely dismiss the notion of the existence of qualitatively different types of space and/or time dimensions and the potential wonderment of discoveries that might be made should we learn how to access any such hidden dimensions.

    Then there remains the possibility of travel and/or egress from our 4-D Einsteinian space time into truely non- spatial and non-temporal dimensions that nonetheless could permit the entrance into of extended baryonic mattergy entities such as transports or fiats.

    However, long before we master travel into any such existent para-spatial or para-spatial- temporal dimensions or meta dimensions as such, we will probably have mastered the art of, at the very least, relativistic space ark or generation ship travel if not high gamma factor inertial travel through space.

    Concepts such a fission fragment drives, fusion rockets, beam sail craft, fission, fusion, and/or antimatter fuel based pellet runways, dive and fry solar sails and the like seem much to plausible to summarily sideline at the present time.

    Tau Zero and Centauri Dreams are leading the way to the eventual bold prospect of human travel to other stars.

    Whatever we ultimately call our transports to other stars, I still like the name of star ship.

    If a huge and bold funding effort to develop workable fusion rockets capable of say 0.2 C or more wherein such rockets would be launched by 2050 if not by 2040, I would happily attend the comissioning ceremony for the launch of the mission and would be honored to speak on behalf of the noble and early pioneering efforts of Tau Zero and Centauri Dreams.

    If we find truely Earth like planets, I think the prospects of undertaking such a prospect during the second half of the 21st century if not sooner will be much improved.

    We need such a bold vision to unit our civilization and I think Tau Zero and Centauri Dreams could not have been founded at a more appropriate time.

  • John Hunt December 1, 2009, 18:05

    > A basic premise since the inception of this site has been that interstellar flight, if it is possible, may not be realized for centuries.

    It seems that the same the Tau Zero Foundation holds the same premise.

    Why set that assumption from the outset? Why not be agnostic about it. If it takes centuries then so be it. But if someone can come up with a mission design that doesn’t take centuries then why be prejudiced against that?

    The problem with presuming that the first truly interstellar mission will probably take centuries before launch is that this means that we can’t reasonably know for sure what type of mission that might be because we are too far from that point. The problem is that this means that we really have no idea what intermediate steps (e.g. missions) will move us to the final mission. Should we emphasize maser technology, z-pinch, biospheres, AI…? But if we conclude that a particular truly interstellar mission launched within this century is feasible (given NASA-level funding) then we can know what mission to request the BIS & TZF to design. Right now they are focused on one particular mission which is extremely massive. Paul, you and I agree that the first true interstellar mission will probably be small. So it’s a pity that the professional resources are being focused once again on a mission which probably won’t be the first.

  • David December 1, 2009, 18:15

    Of course this could be just as mad as anything if not altogether impossible. Perhaps it has gotten treatment elsewhere I’d be curious if you knw of one.

    Imagine we find a gas cloud rich in organic compounds or any sufficient grouping of metallic elements. Using a space based tuned laser and the proper simulations/predictions perhaps we could so some sort of long distance organization of elements, kind of like a CNC.

    I realize at least one issue with this is the power needed and the focus of the laser. Also the target would drift over the years for the beam to reach it, hopefully overcome by delicate measurements and simulations. Perhaps a particle beam wouldn’t suffer the same divergence?

    Regardless it seems like something we could try on an asteroid in our own solar system. Even if we couldn’t create something as complicated as electronics or life we could get physical samples of the asteroid without making the entire trip. Kind of like an EM version of LCROSS,

  • John Hunt December 1, 2009, 18:31

    T_U_T, you make some specific points that I’d like to respond to. You are correct to raise the power issue in nanocraft. Usually the assumption in this forum is that the first craft will be a scientific probe. In this case it can do a flyby, so it only needs enough power to broadcast. I don’t subscribe to that assumption so I care about the need for deceleration.

    At about 5 AU and beyond, ambient temperatures are low enough that we already have materials that will superconduct. Coolant would not be necessary. Yes, there would be a need to power up superconducting loops. I don’t know that you need a 100 km loop/net if the craft were very small. Because of the lack of resistance you wouldn’t need to keep powering them up except if the acceleration of the interstellar medium (what gives you the drag) were to power down your superconductors. But since deceleration need occur only near the target star then, perhaps you could use its solar energy to power up the loop. Also, if you are not traveling at relativistic speeds then the deceleration needed would be less.

    If your craft contains cells (as the EGR mission would) then you could use the deinococcus radiodurans method or periodic thawing, selection of undamaged cells and culture regrowth. But I think that many people have a skewed understanding of the level of risk from interstellar dust and galactic cosmic rays. I believe that the radiation between stars is far, far less than near stars.

    I don’t think that robotic cancer is a realistic concern. You need a pretty complex system to develop cancer. One can use multiple redundancy to prevent mutations. I think that people place too much concern on the nature of the craft/astronauts going berzerk. If astronauts are frozen cells they can’t go berzerk. A craft can be designed to repair itself without having AI. It would just need to have sophisticated programming and be run through a lot of different scenarios.

    I personally don’t think that we need AI for any mission and if we wait long enough to get AI or self-replicating nano-technology then we are too close to a possible existential threat. We need a mission which can launch before then and whose purpose is for colonization.

  • Eniac December 1, 2009, 18:33

    Paul, you are so right about the star ship concept. I also love your idea that, should actual star ships not come to pass soon enough, humanity will colonize empty space eventually, and some of them may feel they do not need to stay close to the sun. Those habitats would be much like the star ships of our stories, except with no engines to speak of. Nevertheless, eventually they would reach other stars.

    Athena, I like the European vs. Polynesian colonization analogy. The above scenario is most like a third paradigm: the theory that many species have spread across oceans by surviving for a long time on driftwood.

    On thing is different, though, from anything in the past, now and in the future: We are mapping and exploring space with great accuracy, without actually going. Earlier explorers did not know anything about the places they were going until they arrived for the first time. In fact, that was the reason they were going, and why they were called explorers. Now that we have telescopes and probes to do the exploring for us, will this change the game? I am not sure.

    I take objection to the notion that we need nanotechnology to make small starships because large starships are “too expensive”. If you are talking about molecular manufacturing, which I think you are, it will make the production of large and small things equally inexpensive. Molecular manufacturing requires self-replication, and self-replicating systems can produce things on any scale. We could have an asteroid converted into a giant star ship in a matter of years.

    If you do not carry humans, miniaturization has its advantages, but its extent is limited by the desire to maintain communication, which requires systems of a certain size. The notion of sending off seeds that remain incommunicado for many decades until they arrive and somehow produce a communication system out of dirt seems unexciting to me. You have no idea what happened to the seeds until then, if ever. Waiting for such an event would be much like SETI without the I.

  • ignatius December 1, 2009, 18:40

    @Duncan Ivry

    > You still haven’t realized, that there is an economic crisis, have you?

    The nature of this crisis is not that there is too much to do but that there is not enough to do. Everybody wants to save and nobody (and this esp. means those with the positive checking accounts i.e. the creditors) wants to spend. That’s why the real economy is shrinking and “investors” turned to sticking ever higher price tags on the same old factories, apartments, gold bars or barrels of oil instead – with the known consequences.

    > Now, in 2009, we don’t have enough resources.

    Quite the contrary: The most important resource, human labor and creativity, is either sitting idle or is intentionally burnt off in non-productive, pointless endeavors (I’m talking to you, Wall Street)

    If there has ever been a time to start a large space exploration project for purely economical reasons, it would be now. And you would get the potential for a huge technological, scientific, cultural, civilisatoric and – yes – spirtitual advance as a bonus. And don’t tell me we should do X instead: we can do both and then some without breaking a sweat – we can talk priorities when there is full employment and 80% of the current investment bankers, real estate agents, bean counters, lawyers etc. got a real job.

  • Administrator December 1, 2009, 18:56

    John Hunt writes:

    Why set that assumption from the outset? Why not be agnostic about it. If it takes centuries then so be it. But if someone can come up with a mission design that doesn’t take centuries then why be prejudiced against that?

    I could not agree more. Re-read my sentence — the operative word is ‘may.’

  • Eniac December 1, 2009, 19:17

    T_U_T, you make good points. Our energy source will be the same as the drive, I would think, and it is hard to put size limits on that until we decide what kind it is. Fission driven by neutron chain reaction would require kilograms, as you say. Magnetically confined plasmas are limited by the ion cyclotron radius. A black hole could be quite small, but, well, we don’t have one. Sails might actually do better when small, because payload mass generally scales as the cube of dimension, but sail area only as the square.

    I do not think at all that self-repair or self-replication require AI. Self-replication can be completely deterministic and mechanical, and unanticipated destruction can be dealt with by a blanket rule of removing and recycling every part that is not in its proper place and working, and rebuilding from scratch in the resulting void. Most organisms are not intelligent, and yet they self-repair and self-replicate just fine.

    I also disagree that evolution or cancer are necessary features of self-replication and costly to avoid. Today’s living systems evolve because they could not have developed otherwise. Artificial systems do not have this constraint. Something as simple as an error correction code on the genome (or blueprint database) would make mutations impossible.

  • Charlie Stross December 1, 2009, 19:54

    I wish the IEET hadn’t picked up and reprinted my essay in full on their own website — it’s causing a lot of confusion.

    The original is here (note: large discussion thread).

    It builds on earlier postings: how habitable is the Earth? (asking: would we know a habitable planet if we saw one), how minimal can we make a sustainable biosphere (hint: think generation ships or space colonies), what are the engineering gotchas, and what kind of society could successfully operate a generation ship/space colony.

    (There will be more.)

  • ignatius December 1, 2009, 20:49

    It’s amazing how someone can seriously consider nano-probes, 100+ km support structures, hard AI and uploaded “colonists” as realistic while at the same time denouncing a modest concept which does not require any new technology like a simple slow oil-rig-sized nuclear generation ship with some good old-fashioned electromagnetic reaction drive as myth.

    Is it really just the “not in my lifetime” argument? Is it really so unthinkable that people undertake huge and audacious projects even when they do not live to see the result? The inability of considering goals beyond one’s lifespan is a rather unique and deplorable feature of the contemporary North American (and to a lesser extent general Western) civilization. Historically, such short term thinking is the exception, not the norm, as testified by countless monuments which have been erected over centuries.

    Or is it the inability to even imagine a bunch of people getting along together and work for a common goal for a long time, even if that goal involves their very own survival? The ship will be built over centuries by the same people who will eventually fly it and they will enjoy a privilege that was not uncommon in former days but seems to be even beyond comprehension in our glory individualistic times: a mission, a real, obvious, well-defined purpose – a literally tangible meaning of life.

    It cannot be technological reasons: All you would need to make it happen is medium-scale asteroid mining, some space industry and a reasonably closed cycle life-support system with a maximum leakage rate in the order of 1 kg per person per year – all of which should be relatively straightforward.

    It won’t even be excessively expensive: You need a seed space station, some mining equipment, scientific and technical support (basically a wiki with detailed procedures on how to manufacture every part of the ship, every part of equipment and all necessary tools and machinery from simpler parts), some logistic support (mostly to help getting the Uranium from asteroids and the methane-reaction mass and other volatiles from moons) and about 1000 determined people who are willing to make it happen and book a one-way ticket to the site.

    The key here is to realize that since no equipment can be expected to outlast the 10000+ years of travel time, the ship has to be effectively rebuilt several times during the journey anyway, so you might as well have it constructed by the crew itself using – and in the process refining and perfecting – the eventual in-flight maintenance and production procedures. Even if this takes 1000 years, this is still short against the travel time and you can expect that with every generation, with every lifetime invested, and with every section completed, the commitment of the crew-tribe will build up to eventually religious proportions as will the support movement down earthside.

  • Administrator December 1, 2009, 21:10

    Charlie Stross writes:

    I wish the IEET hadn’t picked up and reprinted my essay in full on their own website — it’s causing a lot of confusion.

    Good point, Charlie. I’ll go ahead and re-link to the original rather than the IEET.

  • kurt9 December 1, 2009, 21:11

    Stross is right. We’re not going to the stars for a long time to come. Self-sustaining habitats in our own solar system will be developed long before we travel to the stars. These habitats will require an advanced biotechnology (synthetic biology?) to create the integrated biosphere necessary for people to live comfortably in them. Dyson talks about this in vague terms with regards to his dyson trees.

    Socially, politically, and economically, space habitats are city-states, essentially the space-born versions of Hong Kong and Singapore. They will accrete starting with initial small settlements around resource locations (asteroids, comets, etc.) and will grow and develop into full-fledged city-states like any city here on Earth. Think of the settled solar system as a meta-system that consists of habitats of every kind of social organization imaginable. The seasteading people have the right concept in mind. This is not about libertarianism, per se, or even about libertarianism at all. It is simply about creating a meta-system of every social option conceivable where people can pick and choose whatever is suited for their tastes. In this, I think space colonization will occur as an outgrowth of the seasteading concept. But it will not occur for another 50 years, not only because of space transportation costs, but also the need to create the synthetic biology necessary for the biosphere. I believe this is the crucial technology necessary for any long term human habitation in space. I can see a solar system wide human society in the next 200 years. I do not see us going to the stars in this 200 years, unless we have some physics breakthrough.

    In any case, the ability to build, cheaply, large scale habitats makes it such that the solar system offers more than enough room and resources as to allow unlimited social and political diversity. The whole purpose of going into space is to allow for the diversity of expression of political and social systems. The solar system is enough for this.

  • John Hunt December 1, 2009, 22:02

    Yes, Paul. You did use the word ‘may’. But in practice it seems like the idea is actually ‘probably’. Don’t get me wrong. In lieu of an Interstellar Society, I truly appreciate any forum where all aspects of interstellar missions are discussed. I just wish that we had more focus and even collaborative work on likely first interstellar missions and less time spent discussing things unrelated to that.

  • John Hunt December 2, 2009, 3:33

    Hi Kurt, From an economic perspective you are likely right. But our going to the Moon was not a natural outgrowth of the spacesteading concept. It was a lofty goal which called for the short-term dedication of immense resources of a wealthy government. I anticipate that the first men and women on Mars will result from a similar government sponsored venture. It might also be the case for the establishment of the first colony in the outer solar system. But beyond that, any further colonization will likely be along the lines you are talking about. Probably mining will form the nidus around which the space colonies will grow. And yes, for colony space, the Solar System is quite enough for 200, perhaps 500 years.

    Now, the question is this. Will the first interstellar missions be a natural outgrowth of economically-driven colonization or will it be a large, expensive, poor RoI, go-for-the-glory government project? Given the history of the Moonshot, martian craft, fusion, etc, I’m betting on the latter.

    Yes, we will develop self-sustaining comfortable lunar and martian habitat (bubble) biospheres. But by that time (2060?) our biotechnology and probably nanotechnology will be advanced to the point where we can seriously consider sending a very small scientific probe or even humans in the form of survivable frozen cells. Add in $100 billion in R&D and we could develop systems to automatically produce a biosphere and gestate and maybe raise humans. Everything would be so small that we might be tempted to try a starshot. But we’d still have most of the Solar System left undeveloped. So there only reason we would try a starshot is for the glory or for insurance for humanity. There would be no economic incentive for another 100+ years.

  • Tobias Holbrook December 2, 2009, 6:12

    But how much does a beamed power starship have to mass? Assuming a population of 100 initially (enough, at a stretch, to avoid inbreeding effects), could we get by with as little as 100 tonnes? 200? We need a decent power supply onboard, for the farm as well as any manufacturing we need to do, but if we can get up to maybe 0.25c – 17 year flight time to Centauri – we could probably use a self contained nuclear fission reactor which lasts long enouugh, and solar at the destination. Depending on how much room the colonists want and need, we might be able to use a vehicle the size of maybe 10 ocaches or less. Of course, if we only want to send a crew of 10 genetically engineered humans just to make sure the craft works… 20 tonne, maybe, and the size of a small coach?

    I’m still holding out for Cyclers, though…

  • Ric Capucho December 2, 2009, 6:26

    Back to the article:

    Personally I *like* the “myth” of the starship, and the paradigm it represents. Let’s leave the argument of starships versus robotic probes for another day: both will have their day, I’m sure. But regarding the starship, I have to agree that the Enterprise-like starship (all clean, white and brightly lit with sliding doors that go “whish”) is likely to be far off the mark, but then again a dark, dirty, wet and *empty* Nostromo-like behemoth with a crew of 5-6 (with or without scary Alien) is also unlikely to be the first starship that gets built.

    Logically, the physics we know about leads us to envisage a starship large enough to carry the *propellant* we’ll need. It must also be sized so that it can be crewed with enough people (i.e. a gene diverse population) so that a sustained “travelling colony” can live, breed and indeed die on the way. How big would that be? Well, my guess is that the propellant and its containment will greatly outweigh (outmass?) the crew biosphere.

    We can all smirk at the starship concepts that have emerged from sci fi, what with their propellantless drives, faster-than-light, artificial gravity, slick matter converters that transform atoms into food, clothes, rayguns and whatever else. Oh and suspended animation, so no one has to get bored on the way to the Andromeda Galaxy at Warp 7…

    But sci fi going back as far as the 1950s has also given us the “generation ship”, crew quarters that spin to produce the 1g “gravity” that’ll be needed to keep the crew fit and healthy, 100% recycled waste systems and self-contained biospheres to provide the necessary food and water. To wit: the more realistic sci fi has set our expectations that the first starships will be vast, a lot slower than we’d like, and self-contained. And that the plucky crew that waves their friends and loved ones goodbye will never get to see the destination… one wonders if those low expectations would shorten the long queue of volunteers by much?

    So, the question is just *how* massive would a generation starship have to be, given our current technology/understanding of physics? Because every kilogram of that mass currently costs about USD 10,000 to get up into orbit, regardless of material, shape or colour. Or smell. Well, I’m all for “projects” like Icarus which explores such questions, and (hopefully) sizes it all up (masses it all up?) and then costs it all out. It’ll be a whopping bill, no doubt, and very likely a cost that adds up to a lot more than the current material wealth of the entire human race. But as technology progresses and physics becomes better understood, the cost will become first feasible, and then one day attainable (at a stretch) given the political will (i.e. Apollo) and then perhaps even “affordable” enough for the cost to be justifiable on its own merits (i.e. Hubble Space Telescope, CERN).

    Last point: I always imagined that this site was more attractive to people who think (ahem) on the slightly longer term than is the norm on the street. To say that we should forget concepts such as Icarus due to the economic woes of 2010 is quite frankly a little odd. The Crash of 1929 didn’t have much influence on the later Apollo Program, did it?


  • Ronald December 2, 2009, 6:42


    as I have argued before, I do not believe in the long-term viability and sustainability of small space colonies, for reasons related to island biogeography: the smaller the island the more likely to be struck by stochastic (chance) events. This increases even more so with increasing complexity, one reason why the Biosphere 2 experiment failed: small complex systems are extremely prone to extinction by chance events (bad luck, shit happens).

    However, it becomes quite a different matter when we talk about initially small but ever-growing colonies, such as while terraforming Mars.

  • David December 2, 2009, 14:37

    Ah I can only imagine the existensial crisis of being a child born to a generation starship, never having the chance to see earth or the destination, always trying to be convinced that what you are doing is important.

    Regardless could someone suggest that long distance laser CNC is either more mad or far fetched than self assembling nanobots? I apologize for the typos in my comment above and hope it wasn’t the reason mY suggestion didn’t get a response.

  • Duncan Ivry December 2, 2009, 14:41

    Ric Capucho: “The Crash of 1929 didn’t have much influence on the later Apollo Program, did it?”

    The following is speculation — or?

    Crash of 1929 … world wide depression … lot’s of unemployed, angry, young men on the streets … in German too … human material for Hitler and the Nazis … World War II … Soviet Union as second super power … Cold War … mainly because of *this* Apollo program sponsored by Kennedy administration.

    I know, history is not linear ;-)

  • David Johnston December 2, 2009, 15:51

    >Why set that assumption from the outset?

    Because the assumption that we’ll be launching serious interstellar exploration, much less colonization, in only a few centuries is the optimistic assumption. The current economic crisis is meaningless and transient. It might have a bearing on the chance we’ll go to Mars in this century. It has no bearing whatsoever on when we’ll go to Alpha Centauri or even send a probe that won’t be long forgotten by the time it reports back.

  • ignatius December 2, 2009, 16:11

    @ David

    I rather think that existential crises will be rare – much rarer in fact than in contemporary Western societies. Life really gets simple and straightforward if you have no choice and something to do. Most people in former times never got further than a few kilometers from the place they were born and had to work hard just to get along and I doubt that they were unhappier for it – probably the contrary. To the people in the ship, the Earth will be like China was to the peers of Marco Polo after his return: an exotic place which has absolutely nothing to do with your life.

  • george scaglione December 2, 2009, 16:52

    ric i agree 100% i too am sure that both will have their day. your friend george

  • Kenneth December 2, 2009, 17:40


    Perhaps we need to be somewhat more humble about the future. Here we are speculating about Interstellar Travel through very primitive early 21st Century eyes, and have no doubt our society circa 2010 is still “early primitive”. We are not even a Kardashiev Type-1 Civilization yet and the earliest we will get there is 2070, and that is the very best case if Pete Kurzweil is correct!!!

    The point of this is to indicate that despite our backwardness we may still be only one major physics breakthrough away from totally changing our perception of how hard or easy Interstellar Travel is. The fact is we simply do not know. For example, just imagine how different the speculations on these pages would be if tomorrow a working anti-gravity propulsion system of some type was developed. Yes, Interstellar Travel would still be hard, but there would be little doubt we could get there in 50-75 years if the propulsion issue was solved and we had the will to do it. The Biological piece seems workable in that time frame or we could do it through AI.

    From today’s very limited perspective and with about 1% of the data in Interstellar Travel looks very hard. Of course it does given our primitive knowledge of science and our even more primitive level of technology. The fact of the matter is that we need humility about what we currently know as well as vision, invention and out of the box thinking followed by significantly more funding. But first we need a good story, and we who are supporters of Interstellar Travel don’t have one yet.

    What we should not do at this early juncture is constrain the problem with “known physics”. Instead, we should lay out a road map for a viable Interstellar Program targeted on the next 65 years or so. First this program should survey in detail where we want to go ( a radius of ~25 light years out for starters because at least conceputally we can think of mission times of that duration that may garner some politicial interest). Second, we should combine the Interstellar Survey Program out to 25-50 Light Years with a sustained Breakthrough Propulsion and Interstellar Spacecraft design Program. Third, we need a Human/AI adaptation for Space Travel Program. Fourth, we need more “what if” justification to feed the “need vision”. Finally, we better pray that there is something of interest to visit within 50 Light Years of Earth including 55 Cancri which may be just slighly farther away.

    For now this Comprehensive and Interdisciplinary Interstellar Exploration program can be started on very limited resources by 2015 and should be targeted to reach fruition in time for the next Maslow Window for Space Exploration, following the coming near term Maslow Window for Space Exploration which is ~2015-2025/2030. This second 21st Century Maslow Window for Space Exploration and Explotation is now coincidentally timed to coincide with the next great Economic Boom cycle of 2070-2085 which should repeat the previous every ~75 year Economic Boom Cycles of the 1990’s, 1920’s and late 1840’s-middle 1850’s.

    Finally, as for todays Economic issues I could not agree more with the last E-mail post. History is not Linear and Depressions and Recession come and go and in the end they create new Economic Boom periods. Just imagine where the World was in 1932 and then just look at where it was a mere 15 years later in 1947. We went from Bi-planes to supersonic flight, Rockets, antibiotics, computers and nuclear weapons in 15 years because we had to. I strongly suspect that we will have a similar “Leap of Neccessity” between 2010-2025 that will fundamentally change our World yet again.


  • kurt9 December 2, 2009, 19:48


    From a biological and sociological perspective, there is no difference between a planetary surface colony (say, on Mars) and a space habitat. Its all a matter of location. Of course shit happens, which is why redundancy is necessary. Biological systems are, by their very nature, redundant. Biosphere 2 did not fail do to random circumstance. It failed because it was needlessly complex. I know, because I have been in the facility shortly before the first 2 year period commenced. They had way too many animals and what not in the facility and it was poorly planned from the beginning. The technical tour that I took convinced me at that time that the Biosphere 2 experiment would likely fail.

    I was actually more impressed with the small, simple biomemes that were located just outside the main entrance to the main facility. I thought they should have made next generation biomemes based on these smaller biomemes and then have gone from there. You start with simple life forms at the bottom of the food chain, then work your way up to a system that can sustain humans, one step at a time. They did not do this and they failed.

    Redundancy exists in other ways as well. As the city states develop, they will not consist of only one habitat, but as a collection of several or many habitats. This is really no different than the way cities grow on Earth. A solar system wide civilization (and space-based industrial capability) is essential for the development of any kind of star travel. Since the solar system offers enough room and resources for all kinds of social/political factions to go their own way, star travel becomes rather superfluous, at least for the near 200 years or so.

  • Duncan Ivry December 2, 2009, 21:36


    sorry to say, but what I see in your comment is the fanciful hope of the notorious “major physics breakthrough” (unregistered trademark) and basing speculation explicitely on simply not knowing. This is not good.

  • Nabukhadnezar December 3, 2009, 6:08

    Excellent article. Thanks very much.

    Indeed, language is serious factor determining social reality (inc. scientific development). Perhaps there would not be any submarines or Moon trips without Verne’s novels..

  • Ric Capucho December 3, 2009, 6:38

    Biosphere 2 failed primarily because the designers forgot to account for the CO2 that would be generated by the concetere slab that it was mounted on.

    But yes it’s about time someone put together a fully-enclosed Biosphere 3… and keep it simple, scientific, and on rather a smaller and cheaper scale that the two previous attempts (there’s a joke in there somewhere).

    I fully agree to the “shit happens” risk of small environments, by the way.


  • Athena Andreadis December 3, 2009, 10:25

    Actually, Biosphere 2 failed because it was not complex enough (root cause — the CO2 buildup was the tangible outcome). To re/create a functional ecosystem is no trivial task. There are immense and critical differences between a starship and a planet that has a biome. I briefly discussed the various kinds of problems that can arise in an arcship in my Crossed Genres interview.

  • Duncan Ivry December 3, 2009, 13:06

    > Now, in 2009, we don’t have enough resources.
    “Quite the contrary: The most important resource, human labor and creativity, is either sitting idle or is intentionally burnt off in non-productive, pointless endeavors”

    Let us assume, that enough members of the idle human resources are competent enough — they are not, but let us assume. Ideas and skills alone don’t launch something into the orbit and don’t bring a spaceship on the journey to mars or to Alpha Centauri.

    We need various kinds of research and of industrial capacities to invent and to produce the materials and the devices — especially many new ones — needed for building a spaceship as such, the fuels, the eco-system aboard etc. The infrastructure on the ground may not be so sexy, but it is a necessary precondition: buildings, laboratories, computers, communication, transportation, health care, organisation, financing, security. The space industry can only work successfully if it is embedded in a functional, sophisticated, modern industrial society and economy — including “pointless endeavors” (calling it this way is a populist prejudice).

    I hope you get the idea. These things will cost a lot of money — in a situation, when the U.S.A and the EU are not as wealthy as they have been several years ago, in a situation, when national debts are already on a level much too high. And: society and economy are *not* functional enough right now and for several years to come.

  • Kenneth December 3, 2009, 13:16

    No, my plea is more for us to have some humility about what we currently know across all Scientific disciplines. Truth be told we are still very backward. My other plea is to begin to develop a systematic program for Interstellar Exploration. A systematic and comprehensive program that if done right might yield much quicker results. Lets get everybody working together across the various Scientific Disciplines with the goal in mind of sending an exploratory ship or probe to the Alpha Centuari System by no later then 2076, if our early survey efforts indicate that there is anything there. To hell with waiting several Centuries to get this done. In order to do this we should have known physics approaches which is going to make it very hard,but not impossible to do it by 2076, and breakthrough approaches based on unknown physics which could make the problem much easier by 2076 if we ramp up the research to modest levels starting in the next decade. What we need is a plan to captalize on good luck (opportunity+preparation) if it presents itself and the publics imagination gets fired up.

    Likewise if we don’t find anything of interest in the immediate vicinity of Sol/Terra and the nearest Hab planet is 50+ Light Years away then we pretty much know that we are going to need new or breakthrough physics to get anything done. In essence, what we find in our early Survey’s in some ways constrains the problem and may potentially make the choices if not the required science and technology much easier. In essence, let the distance drive the science and the physics while surveying early.

    My going in assumption and hope is that we find something of interest around Alpha Centauri over the next few years since this will make the challenge much more “workable” in the 21st Century. The data will no doubt be inc0mplete. The two questions that will immediately arise is 1) How do we get better data to know precisely what is really there and perhaps as far as 12 Light Years out from Earth just to see if there is anything else of interest really close to us 2) If it looks good how do we get there—soon, especially given that we may be going through a new Economic Boom Time circa 2070-2085 if past cycles hold up, and at least for some period of time we may have the cash and the interest to do these things. Perhaps a version of Daedulus or Orion can be constructed by the 2070’s (we would have to start in the 2060’s which is appropriate for historical reasons). However, these would be very expensive and it is not clear if the Nano-Needle Probes will be ready yet. This leaves the other track of Breakthrough Physics which should be pursued as well, but as part of a Systematic Program to with the goal of going to the nearest star systems in ~65 years instead of 200+. I won’t be around to see it, but perhaps my Children or Grand Children will, and this is worth pursuing. What I am really advocating for is to start being proactive and create the story now so that the Politicians will listen. This is what I do for a living now so I have some understanding how “big ideas with a modest and affordable plan can lead to a more research funding.


  • george scaglione December 3, 2009, 14:45

    kenneth,you have hit upon a favorite surmise of mine.that of how primative we still are at this juncture in history!but as you point out…we do not know when that all important breakthrough will happen along! funny thing ,in that vein i once predicted the first star ship for 2075! a date you mention.but that does not mean an enterprise type vehicle.could be anything from a unmanned package of instuments “armed” with one heck of a propulsion system to a cloud of electronics pointed in the right direction to just maybe a generational ship.hope to see alot more on this topic right here on tau zero and it would be nice if you saw fit to answer me also. respectfully,your friend george

  • ignatius December 3, 2009, 18:48


    > members of the idle human resources are competent enough — they are not

    The greatest losses of the crises are not the billions of evaporated book-money when the bubble bust – the greatest loss happend during its creation by encouraging many of the best and brightest to devote their life to a zero-sum game trying to outwit each other (so as not to use a more “populist” term) instead of pursuing careers in science or industry trying to build a better future. Having those physics PhDs creating “financial innovations” instead of solving tomorrows problems is a terrible waste of a nation’s most valuable resource.

    > We need various kinds of research and of industrial capacities to invent and to produce the materials and the devices

    Exactly – and that’s the whole point of it: pump one dollar into the banks, and you get maybe 10 cents of real growth (if at all). Spend the same dollar on a space program (or any other project which requires lot of new stuff researched or created) and you get 5 or 10 dollars worth of grow for exactly the reasons you mention. While in the former case, the dollar will be used to inflate some fictitious book value, in the latter case, you buy real stuff and the dollar will have to change hands many times to eventually provided it – the more ambitious and innovative the project, the deeper the necessary supply chains, the more often it will have to. And even when everyone along the chain takes out 12% in profit, you still can get 8 times your money’s worth in grow. Space exploration fits the bill perfectly, as it’s a very long term investment and thus will not crowd out other economic activity, also requires new and innovative stuff which in turn creates new and innovative jobs.

    > society and economy are *not* functional enough right now and for several years to come.

    We are locked in a downward spiral of saving, cutting and downsizing which will eventually destroy the economy. The question is how we can break out of it. Certainly not by more bloodletting and decreasing economic activity even further; but maybe by a bold and audacious venture with the potential to inspire a whole generation, instill a sense of greatness and optimism and give people back their future.

  • Bounty December 4, 2009, 19:28

    I think we all know what a ship is. We can all probably agree to what an airship is. I don’t think we could come to a conclusion as to what an islandship is or a continentship is, so I don’t know why we would talk about them or starships. When you invent a ship that can fly through a star, then we’ll talk. :>

    For some reason I picture our first colonizing spaceship to be maybe 5-6 crew, possibly frozen and 100-200 frozen embryos in a small train that ejected about half it’s size in spent fuel. As for the economy and timeframes, we need to quickly build up our ability to see into space. Telescope arrays, gravitational lensing, better computers etc. Priority #2 is lunar/mars colony or a (20*ISS) super space station. We need more experience building and working in space. If we see something intersting at Alpha Centauri, then we can build Daedalus or whatever. The great distance to other (interesting) systems is signifigant and will determine that kind of progress.

  • Kenneth December 4, 2009, 21:06


    I could not agree more with your sentiments. The only measure of hope I can give you on this is that my sense is that it is all going to change very soon now because we have dug ourseleves such a deep hole that the only way out is to innovate big to grow our way out of our current problems. We can’t get much more from the course we are on now so we are going to be forced to change the way we do business including investing again in longer term things and being willing to take risks again. We in the U.S. have lost our ability to effectively manage risk so almost everything looks to risky these days.

    Also earlier in the discussion thread here there was some talk about commiting to TPF. We should strongly support a TPF like program, but we should also understand that what was being proposed under TPF was a very low risk program without much innovation. We should push the technology envelope on TPF starting with the Dr Webster Cash Shade techology so that we can do comprehensive surveying out to about 55 Light Years from Earth and we should go after Mars size planets and even some Habitable Moons where possible.


  • george scaglione December 5, 2009, 14:33

    what is a starship? i have seen from many of the above comments that ,it is pretty much what you see it to be or understand it to be.i certainly don’t argue with these opinions. to quote myself from farther up,i am sure most if not all of these “ships” will have their day! i’ll bet some really bright folks circa 1492 envisioned ships of the type that they where used to.only… as big as a city so as to be equiped with everything and anything they might have to have in any eventuality.to my mind that was sorta like the starship thinking of the day! anybody know if my surmise might be right? :) thank you one and all and as usual – respectfully your friend george

  • george scaglione December 7, 2009, 15:39

    going over this topic once again as i have enjoyed doing so many times this month i noticed that someone has stated above that with all the solar system has to offer star flight will be superfluous for the next 200 years! well,i can get excited about that too and thank you! imagine a solar system chock full of advanced space craft plying their routes between mercury and the kuiper belt! i love that idea also. respectfully to one and all your friend george