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The Infrastructure Problem [1]

Nick Nielsen today tackles an issue we’ve often discussed in these pages, the space-based infrastructure many of us assume necessary for deep space exploration. But infrastructures grow in complexity in relation to the demands placed upon them, and a starship would, as Nick notes, be the most complex machine ever constructed by human hands. Are there infrastructure options, including building such vehicles on Earth, and what sort of societies would the choice among them eventually produce? You’ll find more of Nielsen’s writing in his blogs Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon and Grand Strategy Annex. In addition to his continuing work for the space community, Nick is a contributing analyst with strategic consulting firm Wikistrat.

by J. N. Nielsen


Although we have spacecraft in orbit around Earth, as well as on the moon and other planets and their moons, and even spacecraft now in interstellar space, so that the products of human industry are to be found throughout our solar system and beyond, we have as yet no industrial infrastructure off the surface of the Earth, and this is important. I will try to explain how and why this is important, and why it will remain important, potentially shaping the structure of our civilization.

Made on Earth

All our spacecraft to date have been built on Earth where we possess an industrial infrastructure that makes this possible. The International Space Station, of course, was assembled in orbit from components built on the surface of the Earth and boosted into space on rockets. It has long been assumed, if we were to build a very large spacecraft (say, for a journey to Mars or beyond), that it would be constructed in much the same way: the components would be engineered on Earth and assembled in space. There is an obvious terrestrial analogy for this: we build our ships on land, where it is convenient to do the work, and then launch them only when the hull is seaworthy. Once the hull is in the water it is fitted out, and then come sea trials, but it would not be worth the trouble to try to build the hull of a ship in the water.

The analogy, however, seems misleading when applied to space. In space, we could build very large spacecraft in microgravity environments that would considerably ease the task of manipulating awkwardly large and heavy components. Also, large spacecraft never intended to enter into planetary atmospheres could be built in the vacuum of space with no concern for the aerodynamics that are crucial for a craft operating in a planetary atmosphere. The stresses of transiting a planetary atmosphere would be an unnecessary requirement for most deep-space vehicles. But what would it take to really build a spacecraft in space, in contradistinction to the assembly of completed modules in orbit?


Image: One take on building starships in space. This view of the Project Icarus orbital construction ring prototype design shows resupply from the Skylon single stage to orbit spacecraft now under development by Reaction Engines. Credit: Adrian Mann.

Even a “basic machine shop” in orbit would not come close to providing the kind of industrial infrastructure we have been building on the surface of the Earth for more than two hundred years now. Production processes ripple outward until they involve much of the planet’s industrial production capacity, a lesson that can be illustrated by Adam Smith’s famous example of the day-laborer’s woolen coat or by what Austrian economist Eugen Böhm von Bawerk called round-about production processes. [2] I suspect that many will argue that the advent of 3D printing is going to change everything, and that all you need to do is to boost a 3D printer into orbit and then you can produce anything that you might need in orbit. Well, not quite.

The Growth of Infrastructure

As civilization grows more complex, infrastructure becomes more complex, and more precursors are necessary to achieving the basic functionality assumed by the institutions of society. We see this in the increasing complexity of our cities. There was a time when cutting edge technology meant bringing water into a city with aqueducts and having underground sewers to carry away the waste. To the infrastructure of water supplies we have added fossil fuel supplies, electricity supplies, telecommunications lines, and now fiber optic cables for high speed internet access. (On the growing infrastructure of civilization cf. my post The Computational Infrastructure of Civilization.) All of these infrastructure requirements have been continually updated since their initial installation, so that, for example, the electricity grid is significantly more advanced today than when introduced.

For the lifeway of nomadic foragers, no infrastructure is necessary except for a knowledge of edible plants and available game. Since the geographical expansion of nomadic foragers is slow, change in requisite knowledge is also slow, as a moving band of foragers only very gradually sees the diminution of traditional dietary staples and only very gradually sees the emergence of unfamiliar plants and animals. Much greater infrastructure characterizes agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and much greater still industrial-technological civilization. The extraterrestrialization of industrial-technological civilization (yielding extraterrestrial-technological civilization) requires an order of magnitude of increase in infrastructure for the necessary maintenance of human life.

How to Build a Starship

The spacecraft requisite to the achievement of extraterrestrialization are today, and are likely to remain, the most complex and sophisticated machines ever built by human beings. To produce not only their components, but the machines required to produce the components, requires the entire advanced infrastructure that we now possess in our most developed centers of manufacturing. A useful analogy for understanding the industrial requirements for the production of spacecraft is to think of building the spacecraft of the future as we think today of building a nuclear-powered submarine. Like a nuclear submarine, an SSTO (single stage to orbit) spacecraft will be one of the most technically difficult and demanding engineering tasks ever attempted; it will involve parts suppliers from all over the world; it will involve millions of individual parts that each have to fitted in place by a human hand, and the assembly itself is likely to require many years of painstaking construction.

There is another sense in which spacecraft probably will be like nuclear submarines: a spacecraft is going to have significant power demands, and the most compact way to address this with our current technology is what we now do with your biggest submarines: nuclear power. The compact reactors on submarines (and aircraft carriers, which typically have two reactors for redundancy) have proved themselves to be safe and serviceable, and they can keep generating power for 25-30 years without refueling – possibly a sufficient period of time to make an interstellar journey. We can, of course, readily make use of solar power in space, though this is not compact and would not be suitable for a starship, which would be operating for extended periods of time far from the light of the sun or any other star.

I think it is clear that once we attain the ability to produce technologies commensurate to the challenge of a practicable starship, we are likely going to want to employ more than one propulsion technology, so that the drive system is highly hybridized. By “hybridized” I mean two or more forms of propulsion on a single spacecraft, and if these multiple forms of propulsion can share structures of the propulsion system, the more they do so the more truly “hybrid” the propulsion design. We may want to have one drive system for use in planetary atmospheres, another for orbital maneuvering, a third for interplanetary travel, and lastly a drive for interstellar travel. Later that list may need to be lengthened for a drive for intergalactic travel.

Hybrid propulsion systems are already in development, and these innovations could greatly improve the efficiency of chemical rockets. I have written many times about the Skylon spaceplane with its “combined cycle” SABRE engines that operate as conventional jet engines in the atmosphere, and which are able to transition to rocket propulsion for exoatmospheric operation. (Cf., e.g., Skylon spaceplane engine concept achieves key milestone, Key Tests for Skylon Spaceplane Project, Move to Open Sky for Skylon Spaceplace, and Addendum on Jet Propulsion Technology) This is a truly hybrid propulsion system, as the jet engine and chemical rocket share structures of the propulsion system, though it remains within the parameters of chemical rockets.

For faster travel to farther destinations, we will need hybrid propulsion systems of exotic technologies that do not exist today except in theory. A spacecraft with an Alcubierre drive and some basic form of chemical or nuclear or ion thrusters might be able to do the job, and this might well be the first step in building a starship that give us access to the galaxy in the way that we now have access to the surface of Earth. However, a spacecraft with an Alcubierre drive and a fusion or antimatter drive, or with Q-thrusters, would be much better. If, for example, you traveled to our closest cosmic neighbor, Alpha Centauri, you might want to travel the greater part of the distance with the Alcubierre drive, but once you get there you would probably want to make your passage between Proxima Centauri, Alpha Centauri A, and Alpha Centauri B with your fusion or antimatter drive, and you would definitely want to explore the planets of these stars with this “slower” drive. (And you probably wouldn’t want to use something like a Bussard ramjet for transit within a solar system.)

Two Responses to the Infrastructure Problem

A spacecraft mounting the kind of hybridized propulsion systems outlined above would represent an order of magnitude complexity even beyond the example of assembling a nuclear submarine. For the next few decades at least, and perhaps for longer, there will be no machine tools and no industrial plant in space. All the facilities we need to build a large and complex engineering project that is likely to occupy many years of painstaking effort, are earth-bound. Moreover, such technical assembly work would probably need to be performed by skilled craftsmen in a familiar environment conducive to careful and patient work. While there are significant advantages to constructing spacecraft in orbit, as noted above, the world’s most advanced industrial plant and best construction teams are on the earth and will be for some time, so that there remain compelling reasons for continuing to construct spacecraft on Earth, despite being at the bottom of a gravity well. This, in a nutshell, is the infrastructure problem.

There are two obvious responses to the infrastructure problem: (1) we accept the limitations of our industrial plant at face value and organize all space construction efforts around the assumption that spacecraft will be built on Earth, or (2) we begin the long task of constructing an industrial infrastructure off the surface of Earth. This latter approach may take as long as or longer than the building of our industrial infrastructure on Earth. While we have the advantage of higher technology and knowing what it is we want to produce, we also face the disadvantage of the harsh environment of space, and the need to initially boost from the surface of Earth everything not only required for industry, but also everything required for human life.

Almost certainly any human future in space will consist of some compromise between these two approaches, with the compromise tending either toward Earth-based industry or space-based industry. The model of extraterrestrialization that eventually prevails will not only be a matter of socioeconomic choice, but also a function of what is technological possible and what is technologically practicable. This latter requirement is insufficiently appreciated.

The Role of Contingency

The large-scale structure of human civilization, once it expands into space (provided we do not languish in permanent stagnation) will depend upon technological innovations that have not yet happened, and therefore the parameters of which are not yet known. That is to say, humanity as a spacefaring civilization is not indifferent to how we are able to travel in space, and how we are able to travel in space will be a result of the sciences we develop, the technologies that emerge from this science, and which among these technologies prove to be something that can be engineered into a practical vehicle, in terms of extraterrestrial transportation.

Just as we as a species are subject to contingencies related to the climatological conditions that shaped our evolution, the geography that has shaped our civilization, the gravity well of the Earth as a function of its mass that constrained our initial entry into space, and eventually the layout of our solar system as it will shape the initial spacefaring civilization that we can build in the vicinity of our own star, so too we are subject to contingencies that will arise out of our own actions (and inactions). These latter contingencies include the sciences we pursue, the technologies we develop, and the engineering of which we are capable. The human contingencies that determine the structure of our civilization in the future also include unknowns such as exactly which science, technology, and engineering projects get funding (cf. my recent post Why the Future Doesn’t Get Funded).

If it turns out that the science behind the Alcubierre drive concept is sound, and that this science can be the basis of a technology, and this technology can be engineered into a practicable starship, we may never construct an industrial infrastructure in space. It may prove to be easier to construct starships not as massive works slowly assembled in Earth orbit, but rather as relatively compact spacecraft constructed in the convenience of a hangar, which, once finished, can be rolled out onto the tarmac, fired up, and blasted into space, thence to activate its Alcubierre drive once in orbit in order to fly off to other worlds. If, in addition, habitable planets (or planets that can be made habitable) are not too rare in the Milky Way, and human beings prefer to spend their time planetside, the industrialization of space may never occur. In this scenario, space-based industry always remains marginal, even as we become a spacefaring civilization.

As it is, we already today seeing the beginnings of the gradual transition of our industrial infrastructure into something cleaner than the smoke-belching chimneys of the early industrial revolution. As this process continues, and we continue to improve the efficiency of solar cells, there may be little or no economic benefit for moving industry into space. We may pass a threshold, beyond which Earth-based industry can be made entirely benign, therefore obviating the need to move industry into space. But all of this hinges on unknowns of an eminently practical sort, and which we cannot predict until we have actual experience operating the technologies in question.

Space-Based Infrastructure and Planetary-Based Infrastructure

If the Alcubierre drive turns out to be impracticable, or even not practicable at technological levels of development obtainable in the next few hundred years, then the need to construct different kinds of spacecraft will be more pressing. The idea of building a sleek spacecraft in a hangar and blasting off to other worlds directly from Earth’s surface may be impossible. In this case, becoming a spacefaring species, and especially becoming a starfaring species, will likely mean the construction of enormous industrial works off the surface of the Earth, initially assembling large spacecraft in Earth orbit or beyond, but gradually providing more and more goods and services in space without having to boost them all from the ground, which means the industrialization of space.

The industrialization of space, in turn, would mean a very different kind of large-scale spacefaring civilization than a spacefaring civilization that had no need of the industrialization of space, as described in the examples above. A spacefaring civilization of primarily space-based industry would be distinct from a spacefaring civilization of primarily planetary-based industry. Distinct social, political, and economic institutions and imperatives would emerge from these distinct industrial infrastructures.

If, as Marx claimed, ideological superstructures follow from the economic infrastructure that the former emerge to justify, [3] then it is to be expected that space-based economic infrastructure will produce an ideological superstructure distinct from planetary-based economic infrastructure. In the distant future, when we have occasion to survey many different spacefaring civilizations, this may prove to be a fundamental distinction that divides them.


[1] At the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress last year, a member of the audience asked a question of Kelvin Long in which the questioner used the phrase, “the infrastructure problem,” which strikes me as the perfect formulation for the topics I am covering today.

[2] On Adam Smith’s example of the day-laborer’s woolen coat cf. Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the final paragraph of Book I, chapter 1; on round-about production processes in the work of Eugen Böhm von Bawerk, cf. Thesis 22 of my book Political Economy of Globalization.

[3] The locus classicus for this Marxian view is to be found in Marx’s A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12: “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” Note that Marx usually refers to the “economic base” of a society rather than to its “economic infrastructure.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley April 25, 2014, 10:25

    A better analogy is stick-built vs pre-fab housing. Pre-fab produces more accurate construction, but at the cost of needing to transport the finished house in parts to the site. Building an Antarctic base or ocean oil or gas rig are probably the nearest analogs.

    I don’t see such a major dichotomy in construction forms as Nick suggests. For a variety of reasons, a large hull may be assembled in space, possibly even built from local materials, while the fittings are shipped up from Earth.

    More problematic is that you don’t build teh technological and industrial infrastructure in space because you want to build spacecraft. Such infrastructure develops for other reasons and then can be utilized for spacecraft. For example, if humans decide to settle Mars, then we can expect industrialization to follow. There would be little reason to industrialize Mars before human settlement. Space settlement will be like the colonial period, with manufactures being imported to the settlements. This will likely continue for centuries, with high mass (expensive to ship) objects being the first to be created via ISRU (you don’t ship bricks or lumber to Mars).

    We see the illogic of space construction in movie fiction. The early Star Trek movies showed the Enterprise in space dock. Very impressive effects for the time and it echoed the shipbuilding tradition. But in a civilization that has transporter tech, why not build the Enterprise on the ground and beam it to orbit? The only reasons to construct it in space would be because it would be hazardous to build on Earth, or that some aspect of construction needed micro-g that could not be created on Earth.

  • William Blight April 25, 2014, 10:54

    “If it turns out that the science behind the Alcubierre drive concept is sound, and that this science can be the basis of a technology, and this technology can be engineered into a practicable starship…” A lot of ifs in this author’s presentation. Large scale industrialization of the moon for power and materials using automation and robotics for rapid bootstrapping is probably the best method for developing a powerful space infrastructure. Colonizing Mars will accelerate the development of propulsion systems. I don’t see how speculation in regard Alcubierre drives has real connection to the development of near-term, space-based industry.

  • Alex Tolley April 25, 2014, 14:32

    @William – I agree with your comment about the Alcubierre Drive. This is just dressing up any [currently] fantastic space drive. He could have said warp/hyperspace/inertialess drive, etc, etc to make his point that a terrestrial scale interplanetary or star ship could be the technology path.

    The technology path dichotomy is false. It may well be that space industrialization will primarily be power and raw materials based, to reduce the impact of a increasing power requirements and ecological damage of an expanding economy. Star ships may play no part in this picture at all.

  • Michael April 25, 2014, 14:43

    The physical infrastructure is by far the largest hurdle because on earth we can still dream and think about designing for space travel but we will one day need to build them and for that we need infrastructures. We will also need to remove the orbital debris that is getting more and more. Perhaps we should move not only towards space tourism but also to cleaning up the mess or using it, we are creating, which if it gets bad enough could seriously hamper us getting into space.

    As for 3D printing look a this,


    In the zero gravity environment we can grow super strong crystal fibres as well, no gravity, oxygen and noise disturbances to prevent their growth.
    I have mentioned this before, perhaps we could build an aerogel glider that is super light that could be assembled and built in space (no size restrictions) and send it to titan fully deployed to enter its atmosphere. Perhaps we also need an intellectual and knowledge infrastructure, maybe a concentrated website where arm chair space dreamers, artist and visionaries, like here, can communicate, if someone out there can help in even in a small way we will be one step closer to our goals.

    We are in this together, all of us in one way or another.

  • Nick Nielsen April 25, 2014, 15:49

    @ William Blight

    Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” in the above, because if we are going to honestly write about the future, we need to acknowledge our ignorance. There are countless bifurcations that lie before us, and in terms of industrial-technological civilization, many of the bifurcations that would drive alternative paths for our future are due to technologies — which will work, and which will not work. This is something we do not know now, but will discover as we attempt to put technologies into practice.

    As you note, robotics may play a significant role. Most of our space vehicles today are robots. The role of robots, and how sophisticated they can be made, is unknown at this time. The use of robots, however, I think will play into an emphasis on terrestrial-based infrastructure, since we are likely to build robots on Earth and launch them into space, as we do with probes today. If this becomes sufficiently sophisticated, there will be no need to develop space-based infrastructure.

    It is likely that the Alcubierre drive and its variants is not likely to play a role in near-term space-based infrastructure, but this too is unknown. Sometimes technologies are developed that cause a rapid disruption of existing institutions (like the steam engine) and other times technologies are developed but find no applications (as with Hero’s steam turbine). There are people today who are working on the Alcubierre concept in the laboratory, as there are many exotic drive concepts under development. All of this work, significantly, is taking place on Earth.

    Best wishes,


  • Nick Nielsen April 25, 2014, 16:02

    @ Alex Tolley

    “For a variety of reasons, a large hull may be assembled in space, possibly even built from local materials, while the fittings are shipped up from Earth.”

    As I noted above, spacecraft construction in the future is likely to involve a mixture of space-based infrastructure and Earth-based infrastructure; this isn’t a black or white, all or nothing proposition. In a sense, we have the beginnings of space-based infrastructure with the International Space Station, yet the vast majority of space construction happens on Earth. Thus the future will see a mixture of space-based and Earth-based infrastructure, so the question is what the mixture of these two will be like.

    We have it within our technological competence today to have a large space-based industrial infrastructure, but we don’t in fact have such an infrastructure for several reasons, among them the expense of access to orbit, lack of interest on the part of the public, lack of leadership among those in positions of responsibility, and many other factors.

    I completely agree that if Mars colonization were initiated at our current technological levels, we would have to build considerable space-based infrastructure to make this happen. I would welcome this development. However, we don’t see it happening. The space industry today is based on Earth. And historical developments are almost always unintended, so that if a space-based infrastructure emerges one would expect that it would be an unintended consequence of pursuing some other aim (such as Mars settlement).

    This vision of space-based infrastructure emergent from Martian settlement is one that I welcome, and which would be personally satisfying for me, but, again, we don’t see it happening. What we do see happening are increasingly sophisticated spacecraft built on Earth and launched into space. A diachronic extrapolation of this trend yields a spacefaring future in which there is very little space-based infrastructure, but I will be the first to admit the weakness of diachronic extrapolation for predicting the future.

    Best wishes,


  • ljk April 25, 2014, 16:49

    The slightly major stumbling block I have seen in Alcubierre’s warp drive concept – and which has not changed as far as I know since 1994 – is the amount of negative matter needed to make it happen. Or just negative matter, period.

    Going from memory, it was about the size of Jupiter at first, but later calculations have reduced it to about the size of a Voyager space probe.

    Either way, the sticking point is the negative matter. Does anyone know exactly where it is and how to find some? And then utilize in a spaceship that has never been built or even fully designed yet?

    People can say whatever they want about the Orion concept, but at least it was and is doable with the technology we have now. I get the feeling everyone is sitting around waiting for some smart person to come up with a working warp drive, or that it is already available hidden in some military laboratory. I would rather we make an effort with what there is now, even if it does not look like the USS Enterprise.

  • Brett Bellmore April 25, 2014, 17:13

    This seems silly, in as much as we’re virtually certain to not build any interstellar craft until after we’ve become a space dwelling species. It’s rather like discussing the need to bring ocean liners to the coast on giant rollers, when you haven’t colonized the coast yet, and only live inland.

    If we’re asking about the infrastructure requirements of building the first interstellar ship, I think the bigger issue is the ratio of infrastructure to population: We would have to be enormously more wealthy in order to afford any form of interstellar travel not based on highly speculative physics. Exponentially wealthier.

    I think we’re going to have to master the creation of self-reproducing technology, the Von Neumann machine, to build up enough infrastructure to afford star ships. That logically predates interstellar exploration, and should be our first goal.

  • Geoffrey Hillend April 25, 2014, 17:16

    The Star Trek type transporter may always remain science fiction because we have to turn matter into energy and back again. We are disintegrating something transporting or transmitting it and re-assembling it. I think it will always remain possible only in the imagination. Atomic fission and fusion are the only means since we have to over come the electric and nuclear forces in the atoms which release a lot of energy during that process like in atomic and hydrogen bombs and fusion in stars.

    The warp drive is a potential reality since it is supported by general relativity. Going to Mars is not that difficult. We already have the technology to go there quickly, It’s VASIMR which only needs a small nuclear reactor to increase its power to be fast enough to go to Mars in thirty nine days. Only the problem of interstellar travel is challenging enough for the need for the innovation of new propulsion technology such as the warp drive.

  • Norman Wells April 25, 2014, 18:13

    By all means give thought to future needs and the practicability of their realisation but in my view we need to reach a condition on our Planet where there is greater stability and willingness to cooperate before these far out ventures can be seriously entertained , equally there is still an enormous amount of research and development to be undertaken before the level of technology required is reached .In addition we must toughen up the frail bodies of humans before manned voyages of the type being considered ,can be seriously contemplated

  • Christopher Phoenix April 25, 2014, 21:22

    If it turns out that the science behind the Alcubierre drive concept is sound, and that this science can be the basis of a technology, and this technology can be engineered into a practicable starship…

    Yes, if we had some ham, we could make some ham and eggs… if we had some eggs. Honestly, some of the speculation in this article- fun as it is- seems more applicable to a concept artist designing spacecraft for the next space adventure movie than to real engineering. I understand that these meant to be purely speculative arguments, but I think that we must be careful how we present speculative ideas like the Alcubierre drive to the public. Sometimes I get the impression some people think that we already know how to build a warp drive.

    If I read this correctly, J. N. Nielsen makes three points- one, the question of whether we will continue building future spaceships on Earth or build a space based infrastructure to construct starships in orbital dockyards is important; two, that this question will be partly decided by the science we discover and the technologies we develop from that science; three, that future spacecraft will likely employ multiple propulsion systems combined into a hybrid system for various phases of the flight.

    The first point is quite correct, and has been discussed for quite a while. James Strong argued for space based construction using space based materials in his book Flight to the Stars (1965), pointing out that industries in space have many advantages compared to being on the ground- microgravity makes construction easier, energy from sunlight is readily available, and materials can be mined from the Moon or asteroids. He suggested the hull might be constructed on the Moon and then towed to orbit for final construction and fitting out.

    The second point is quite interesting. Nielsen highlights the point that exactly what future human spacefaring society might look like (if we do not stagnate) will depend on what science we discover, what technology is practical, and exactly what science and engineering projects we choose to pursue- all of which we cannot know today. Often, researchers will envision a particular future path for a space program based on their favorite propulsion concept, but this misses the fact that more than one outcome is possible based on contingencies we can’t know today. However, most proposals based on real physics require a vast space based infrastructure- like Project Daedalus’s He3 mining of the outer planets, the laser lightsail’s immense laser stations and lenses the size of small worlds, etc.

    Science fiction authors love to invent imaginary futures based on what fictional science the author comes up with for his or her setting. Sometimes the results can be quite imaginative- in James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, the Spindizzy grows more efficient the more mass is being moved, so that it makes more sense to uproot entire cities with the Spindizzy drive and convert them into starships than to build a classic spaceship!!

    Hybridized propulsion systems similar to the Skylon spaceplane’s engines make quite a bit of sense for starships. It seems quite unlikely that they will incorporate a drive capable of instantaneous travel to other galaxies (but it is nice to think about), but it is quite likely that a starship would employ a different mode of propulsion to put about a star’s planetary system as it did to cross the interstellar void. Operating an interstellar engine in a solar system might be simply impractical or even dangerous.

    A photon rocket would probably pose a great risk to nearby planets, and you certainly wouldn’t want to try using a ramjet for travel in a solar system either. A simpler, less powerful engine would suffice for such maneuvers. One example of a hybrid propulsion concept might be a laser pushed lightsail that is used as a solar sail at the destination, or maybe a laser powered ramjet that converts to an internally powered mode as an ion rocket using onboard propellent in the destination solar system.

    In fiction, one sometimes sees rockets or a laser sail used to boost a ramjet up to the speeds required for ignition, another example of hybrid propulsion. And, of course, the famous starship Enterprise NCC-1701 had both a warp drive for FTL flight and impulse drives to move around at sublight speeds… guess everything old is new again? XD

  • Jer April 25, 2014, 22:52

    Two other options not highlighted:
    1) Automating the building process by sending up swarms of nano-bots and chunks of raw materials by rail gun (shot gun) or other cargo-quality launching device.
    2) piggy-backing rigs on asteroids as home, lab, raw material, and propulsion via the momentum of its current orbit – also can be modified by self-motivated, self-organizing automatons.
    – i think the idea of creating the entire shell, fit-out, and propulsion source as separate ‘engineered’ and crafted items to be assembled will be very far behind rugged modification of existing orbiting debris and complete automation of the manufacture and assembly process of low-tolerance bulk materials or tank/ space refuse cast-off re-use construction. Gleaming Enterprises are just as likely as floating cities or hovering cars to work – a luxury utterly out of context of the raw demands of the economic uses and schedules desirable.

  • Adam April 26, 2014, 7:52

    Hi All

    I concur with William Blight on this one – his mention of lunar industrialization echoes the work of Philip Metzger and his team at NASA’s Lunar Surface Lab, with their suggestion of ‘rapid bootstrapping’ of in-space industry via making teleoperated factories on the Moon. More importantly, the free-orbiting resources of space are immensely more than the relatively meagre pickings we can easily access in the skin of the Earth’s crust, or any Earth-like planet, thanks largely to the “problem of pressure” that all that crust mass represents, which is also the main reason why we won’t colonize the ocean floors easily.

    Nick Nielsen has fallen into a perceptual trap. At the beginning of any growth pattern, the growth looks linear. Yet, given the right choices, the power of exponential growth can kick in and make a linear trend-analysis look silly. So I hope. Q-Thrusters and Warp-Drives might look “easy” – though they’re not – but they’re both speculative. We have proven or nearly proven techniques that can be applied *now*, if we’d just make the leap.

    Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars are, in all probability, a small fraction of what will prove available out there and they’re all very, very far away. Yet in a fat ring around our Sun, out a bit past Neptune, there’s probably thousands of dwarf planets we could shape into new habitats for Terran life. But we need to learn how to live out in space first.

  • James D. Stilwell April 26, 2014, 10:41

    Nick: Looks like a moon colony is the answer…a little gravity helps…crater rim caves offer protection from solar and cosmic radiation…plenty of solar energy helps…a steam powered catapult helps…dome over a 3,000 foot wide crater to allow a bit of terraforming…and gardening…and a forest of dwarf trees…and flowers too for our sanity and appreciation…
    Now, where’s the water…the south pole…where…coordinates please…
    It’s why the moon is waiting for us and why it is where it is…
    Lucky humanity…

  • Astronist April 26, 2014, 13:36

    Adam touches on an important point which Nick does not mention in his essay. In order to live, we need surface area with gravity. If space colonisation is possible, i.e. construction of rotating colonies in space from asteroidal materials and small moons, then *almost all* of the room for growth in terms of surface area with gravity is in space colonies, not on planets. A society which adopts space colonisation as a way of life will therefore tend to grow vastly larger and more powerful than a planetbound one.

    My own view is that I want to see our civilisation grow into a space-based one rather than a planetary one, and starships are simply a means to an end: spreading this civilisation to other stars. I see no conflict between the goals of space colonisation and starship construction, particularly as the latter can only be carried out without the former in the event that a highly speculative drive becomes available, and a highly speculative energy source to power it.

    Stephen A.
    Oxford, UK

  • Jim Early April 26, 2014, 16:58

    In the world of non-warp drives, 90% or more of your vehicle mass will be fuel/propellant. This will be deuterium for fusion or hydrogen propellant for fission. As long as this is obtained from space industries, it will not matter much where you produce the remainder of your spacecraft.

    Laser sail or anti-matter propelled ships are still too undefined to comment on the location of their associated industries.

  • Nick Nielsen April 26, 2014, 19:16

    @ Michael
    “…we also need an intellectual and knowledge infrastructure, maybe a concentrated website where arm chair space dreamers, artist and visionaries, like here, can communicate, if someone out there can help in even in a small way we will be one step closer to our goals.”

    A space travel wiki would be great if it could draw sufficient participation, and those with ideas can learn to talk to those with experimental knowledge in a constructive manner (and vice versa). I agree with the spirit of our comment, that we’re all in this together, but we have also seen repeatedly how quickly things descend to finger-pointing and a sense of territoriality about ideas. This is one reason ideas often languish so long before they are taken up: we have to wait for their originators to die and be forgotten before the ideas can re-enter intellectual life anonymously and be used as the common intellectual currency of humanity — e.g., the idea of zero.

  • Nick Nielsen April 26, 2014, 19:25

    @ Jim Early

    “In the world of non-warp drives, 90% or more of your vehicle mass will be fuel/propellant. ”

    This would not be the case with Q-thrusters, which would need a power supply (like an ordinary fission reactor) but would not need to carry propellant.

    “Laser sail or anti-matter propelled ships are still too undefined to comment on the location of their associated industries.”

    I disagree. We can clearly see that now and for the next few decades industrial infrastructure will be concentrated on Earth. Anti-matter propulsion would require only a very small amount of propellant, much less than 90% of vehicle mass. A breakthrough in superconducting materials could lead to low cost magnetic confinement, which would be a spur both to fusion and antimatter efforts. We can make very small amounts of antimatter today, and we can do fusion today, although we can’t derive more power from the fusion reaction than we put into the reaction. These things are not speculative, they just need improved technologies and better engineering. These are likely to come out of terrestrial laboratories in the next few decades, before we have built a robust space-based industrial infrastructure.

    Best wishes,


  • Astronist April 26, 2014, 20:31

    Jim Early, I would envisage that both laser installations for light sail propulsion, and antimatter factories, would be located in orbit, probably closer to the Sun (for example, Mercury’s distance from the Sun), because of the enormous power levels required.

    To come back to my point above, I look at space infrastructure like this: if we’re going to colonise the Galaxy, then we should begin with our own Solar System. The idea of hopping from one Earth-clone planet to another and bypassing and ignoring all the rest of the available resources does not strike me as realistic.

  • Alex Tolley April 26, 2014, 23:10

    A related question is whether cheap access to space increases or decreases the likelihood of space industrialization. It is often assumed that it must increase it, but is that the case. Low cost works bot ways, making it cheap to manufacture on Earth and ship to space, rather than in situ manufacture.

    It is analogous to the period of Earth colonization – local manufacture started in the colonies where costs made it economic. But generally, manufactured goods were imported, e.g. from Britain to America. If shipping costs had declined to modern day rates, cheaper import costs to America might have delayed competitive local manufacturing.

    Drivers for space industrialization will probably include resource extraction, e.g. water. But what goods need zero-g, vacuum or high safety, as a key factor for production?

  • Michael April 27, 2014, 0:42

    @Astronist April 26, 2014 at 13:36

    ‘In order to live, we need surface area with gravity.’

    Moons and low gravity worlds can have 1g without much problems, a rotating torus can be built that also uses the gravity of the world it sits on. The ‘gravity’ will be the resultant of that worlds gravity and the centrifugal ‘force’ of the rotating torus for instance.

    ‘If space colonisation is possible, i.e. construction of rotating colonies in space from asteroidal materials and small moons, then *almost all* of the room for growth in terms of surface area with gravity is in space colonies, not on planets. A society which adopts space colonisation as a way of life will therefore tend to grow vastly larger and more powerful than a planetbound one.’

    Ultimately yes and maybe that is why we are slow to develop in that direction, they could become separatist as has happened on many occasions on Earth

    The thing about a highly speculative drive is that if it was developed later they could be used to collect any colonist that were moving out towards other stars in their world ships or the plans could be transmitted to them to build it accelerating our expansion.

  • Andrew Palfreyman April 27, 2014, 3:27

    Definitely let’s have a dialogue about infrastructure. I have one specific version of that in mind that enables cheap and speedy transport over our entire solar system – and that’s a mesh of light beams for use by lightsail craft. With the sun’s 10^26 W mostly being continually squandered, perhaps it’s time to use some of it. It all begins with statite reflective mirrors placed as close to the sun as is practical…

  • Buttonplay April 27, 2014, 6:31

    Mooncolony is the sweet spot it combines the local insitu resources with low gravity, there needs to be a ferry tugboat that continually cycles between LEO and low lunar orbit, large complex sensitive freights like humas and machines can be carried by reusable spaxex heavy launcher and for G resistant low tech material like metals and fuels i’d see a great supplemental role for the quicklaunch hydrogen gas gun which would also keep supplying the earth-lunar tugboat with fresh fuel.

  • Jer April 27, 2014, 10:57

    Further to my comment about not constructing Gleaming Enterprises until way past significant infrastructure (land ‘space yards’/ orbital ‘space yards’), significant destinations (nearest star systems’ trips long since launched), and even significant spread of living and working (bases throughout and beyond solar system), the idea of hitching (and modifying) rides on existing orbital debris including asteroids, etc., and simply installing an outpost/ lab/ city, etc by remote/ fully-autonomous rigs attached to these bodies. Even installing propulsion (subtle adjustments at first) to the these natural bits of debris so that the installed camp – more like an automated frontier town/cave – would be hurled along its natural/ slightly-modified/ greatly-modified solar-centric trajectory. Perhaps we are only able to access these camps during orbital flybys – perhaps we just use these objects to propel us tangentially off them when they reach a point within their elliptical solar orbit that benefits a probe/ craft to carry on further. I think that this article dismisses the idea of …”all you need to do is to boost a 3D printer into orbit and then you can produce anything that you might need in orbit…” because it neglects the near-AI autonomous ‘tools’ that will do nearly all part fabrication, assembly, and commissioning. I am not convinced that we need craftsmen on-site, though we will be building installations meant for human habitation and even urban growth. As well, I believe that the past’s analogies for slow infrastructure development are not necessarily relevant to tomorrow’s space construction projects – since, crucially, we do not need to live near where we are working. Societies of the past have never had tools that were almost as capable (if not smart, yet) as humans themselves, and autonomous, as those tools currently available to us. Before we are able to book a berth on a star ‘liner’, we will need only order a base or ship beyond LEO and it will be fabricated as part of the existing materials and simple multi-use mechanisms already out there ‘standing by’. We need only expect rugged living conditions as it will be part of an existing asteroid, discarded tank, or other orbiting debris – it will be the ultimate ‘living off the land’ with the benefit of a ‘multi-tool’ that will replace any number of traditional working crews. A noble first step beyond our Earth-Moon system if you ask me.

  • Jer April 27, 2014, 11:28

    Apologies for continuing to beat a dead autonomous near-AI working bot or a Gleaming Enterprise, but I envision the first generation, extra-solar-going, multi-multi-family/crew vessel to most likely resemble an ancient adobe city with crucial propulsion, living, and working units/ systems simply attached/ embedded/ burrowed within a solar system neighbour of ours. The point – so long in making, my fault – is that the infrastructure path to such a building approach focuses more on the cheaper autonomous satellite/ probe/ working system mind-set than the extending of working cities so reminiscent of oil rigs out on the North Sea and all the exceptional costs and redundancies therefore required. I fully support a grand human exodus out to the stars both for study and living, but it will be the robots that build and fit-out our ride – we need only show up at the station. And… this can all be motivated by the great movement of armies of 3-d AI printers orbiting as they wait to fabricate and assemble parts into grander projects. Finally, this will be motivated by the kind of cheap, local, and ubiquitous launching infrastructure that will hardly need government or multi-national space engineering support – but toward the hordes of space hobbyists, university facilities, and entrepreneurial start-ups bringing us our first inhabitable sun-orbiting outpost/ ship generations earlier and several orders of magnitude cheaper that traditional, highly-funded, top-down infrastructure development paths – which I surmise our author is predicting/ advocating. Though, these future epic space yards will someday be crucial to space mass-transit and bleeding-edge speed-focussed journeys rather than early exploration or settlement. An exciting time to be alive, so close to such a time.

  • Lionel April 27, 2014, 12:02

    Adam said:
    “Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars are, in all probability, a small fraction of what will prove available out there and they’re all very, very far away. Yet in a fat ring around our Sun, out a bit past Neptune, there’s probably thousands of dwarf planets we could shape into new habitats for Terran life. But we need to learn how to live out in space first.”

    Astronist said:
    “My own view is that I want to see our civilisation grow into a space-based one rather than a planetary one, and starships are simply a means to an end: spreading this civilisation to other stars…”

    I particularly like these quotes above, and am also of the opinion that we first need to become a space-based civilisation before achieving interstellar multi-planethood. Even during our expansion within own solar system we might rarely find it worthwhile to climb in and out of the gravity wells of planets and major moons, instead expanding our civilisation across the asteroids — and asteroids large enough to develop into town, city or country sized economies orbit not just within the main belt but also in the Hilda, Jupiter Trojan, Centaur and Neptune Trojan asteroid families, and I think that infrastructure spread across these asteroid families, as well colonisation of the Kuiper belt and beyond both precedes and eventually enables interstellar flight.

    Many of us currently think of the Kuiper Belt as the outer reaches of the solar system, but we already know of Sedna whose orbit goes out to 900AU and within a decade or two will likely know of several dwarf planets that live out substantially further. Is deep space between the stars really all just emptiness that we’ll want to pass through systems to finally get to another Earth-like planet around a star light years away? With breakthrough theoretical propulsion like an Alcubierre drive then yes it might be, but my guess is that deep space will be first our home and expanding frontier for a few centuries

  • Paul W April 27, 2014, 12:16

    I do agree with the writer when it comes to the Skylon.
    If anyone has not googled this thing and it’s engine tech, it’s worth the effort to read up on it. The British govt. was interested enough to put some money into it. For those concerned about what we can do “now”, I agree, and here it is!
    The last I heard about the warp drive, was that a couple of NASA dudes were exploring concepts but had found the need to acquire a geo-isolated lab, where there were no vibrations from outside. Not easy to do.
    Yes, we all loved the vision of Star Trek. But without, eventually, somehow, going MUCH FTL, there is no way to have planets colonized that are not then left totally to their own devices. The Big Bang and the Inflation Field left the galaxy/universe much too big and the speed of light way too slow. Bad combination. I don’t know if FTL is possible. But humans wouldn’t have known it was possible to fly if they hadn’t seen birds doing it. We know that the speed limit “in” space is what Mr. Einstein says it is. But the inflation event produced negative gravity that pushed space far, far, faster than that speed.

  • Andrew Palfreyman April 27, 2014, 13:18

    Space colonies based on rotation to provide artificial gravity do seem superior to permanent settlement on another planet of moon of our system, simply because we can choose any amount of gravity, any length of day and any level of insolation that we like. Roughly, Venus has surface gravity of 0.9 g and Mars 0.3 g, and there’s nothing else here that provides us close to our customary 1 g.

    If we insist on 1 g, then we can build a spinning ring of a variety of radii, varying the spin rate to suit. By angling the vector of rotation we can experience alternating natural sunlight for day and darkness at night. But if we also insist on a 24 hour day, this fixes both our radius and our spin rate, and necessitates a radius of 2 million Km (a circumference of 12 million Km). Somewhat beyond our means, is it not?

  • Michael April 27, 2014, 13:34

    @Andrew Palfreyman April 27, 2014 at 3:27

    ‘…that’s a mesh of light beams for use by lightsail craft. With the sun’s 10^26 W mostly being continually squandered, perhaps it’s time to use some of it. It all begins with statite reflective mirrors placed as close to the sun as is practical…’

    First you have get them there, you could use the suns light but how would you keep them there, if they are very light they will be blown away. There is also the issue of beam spread at the distances of the solar system.

  • Brett Bellmore April 27, 2014, 13:43

    ” It all begins with statite reflective mirrors placed as close to the sun as is practical…”

    Two problems here:

    First, classic optics, a mirror, whether flat or curved, cannot image an extended light source as a point, or resolve it into a parallel beam. Which is my clumsy way of saying, if you station a mirror close to the Sun, where the Sun subtends maybe 20 degrees of it’s sky, the best it’s going to do is produce a beam which has 20 degrees of divergence. That’s not really useful…

    Second, the statite relies upon the recoil from reflecting sunlight to support it, as it’s not in orbit. Any light it uses for any purpose but supporting itself, is unavailable for that purpose, requiring the statite to be even lighter. Whereas a satellite can use all the light impinging on it for useful purposes. So, you don’t really want to use a statite, except under specific circumstances:

    IF, and only if, you completely enclose the Sun in statites, the interior of that sphere will accumulate light to the extent it’s not absorbed by the statites. A quite plausible 8o% reflection would result in an interior illumination of FIVE solar outputs, not one. Under such circumstances, the statites could use the entire solar output for useful purposes, while having four times the normal solar output available to support them.

    This might seem like a difficult situation to reach, even if it were stable once achieved. Not so! You start with the “statites” in orbit around the solar equator, and build the array out from there as your construction capacity permits. As you get further from the equator, you have to angle them to produce a force component parallel to the Solar axis, while reducing orbital velocity.

    As the coverage starts to increase, the available light flux for support purposes begins rising, and you can reduce the orbital velocity accordingly. If you work out things right, everything comes to a halt just as the Sun is completely enclosed in a statite array tapping it’s entire output.

    Then, instead of using reflections. limited in focus by the proximity of the Sun, you use lasers powered by the Sun, which are capable of much better focus. Or maybe microwaves.

    For obvious reasons you wouldn’t want to do this outside of Earth’s orbit; Any planet inside the array ends up vaporized, due to it’s entire sky being composed of reflections of the sun. And the array can’t be anywhere near one of the planetary orbits, or it would be continually perturbed. Probably you’d want to put it between Mercury and Venus, or inside the orbit of Mercury.

    Mind, inside the orbit of Mercury, the array would have to reject heat at a fairly high temperature, and be even hotter inside to run a heat engine at decent efficiency. Sunlight at Mercury’s orbit is 7 times that at Earth, about 15kW/m2. That would require the statites to radiate at about 720 degrees Kelvin, or around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. To get decent Carnot efficiency, the interior would have to be much hotter, and that’s already pretty darned hot for anything that’s doing anything complicated.

    So, we might have to sacrifice Mercury to lower the radiator temperature…

  • Michael April 27, 2014, 13:58

    @Buttonplay April 27, 2014 at 6:31

    ‘Mooncolony is the sweet spot it combines the local insitu resources with low gravity, there needs to be a ferry tugboat that continually cycles between LEO and low lunar orbit’

    The moon is key to space infrastructure and the expansion into space.

    ‘i’d see a great supplemental role for the quicklaunch hydrogen gas gun which would also keep supplying the earth-lunar tugboat with fresh fuel.’

    Using hydrogen as the launch gas would be inefficient unless just before expulsion into space the barrel was plugged to conserve a rare moon gas. Most likely aluminium or calcium wire coil guns will be used to export materials and fuel from the moons surface, as you say, to transfer craft between the earth and moon.

  • NS April 27, 2014, 15:26

    To Alex Tolley, the early U.S. developed its own industries by imposing high tariffs on the import of industrial products (which in those days were mainly British). Many modern nations do the same. The current celebration of “free markets” as the way to prosperity ignores (deliberately) a lot of actual history.

  • Alex Tolley April 27, 2014, 16:42

    @NS – tariffs do not invalidate the economic logic of transport costs, they just impose extra costs. Tariffs to “protect” local industries have a long, and often sorry, history. If space settlers impose import tariffs on themselves to stimulate local manufacture, they will just be following historical precedents.

  • Alex Tolley April 27, 2014, 16:55

    @Andrew Palfreyman

    But if we also insist on a 24 hour day, this fixes both our radius and our spin rate, and necessitates a radius of 2 million Km (a circumference of 12 million Km). Somewhat beyond our means, is it not?

    Natural sunlight solutions have been available for a long time. Please look up the designs by O’Neill and also the Stanford Torus for examples. Alternatively, just convert the sunlight to electricity and use timed electric lighting in the wheel, just as the ISS does.

    BTW, Karl Shroeder’s “Virga” series has a nice steam punk universe with city states with revolving wheel cities for gravity.

  • Ole Burde April 27, 2014, 17:17

    If we are talking about ”infrastructure outside the Earth” , the classic Gerald O’Neal concepts from 1975 are still the only the only practical ideas .
    Mining the moon and shooting the raw materials to space by railgun is till by far the best chance of achieving an industrial capacity in space WITHOUT gigantic investments .
    Therefore time has come to take new look at O’Neals ideas , and to try and improve on them by incorporating up to date tecnology .
    The biggest improvement would be to reduce the necesary investment by launcing only a miniature version of robotic tele-operated mining equipment , which woul eventually produce enuogh raw materials to produce a much bigger copy of itself .
    Only then then production of the mass-launcher would be started .
    I am sure thousands of volunteers would be happy to tele-operate the small Lego-style mining robots and later reprogram them for production of Terminator -size robots… Asingle nuclear powered charging station could keep it all humming for decades .

  • A. A. Jackson April 27, 2014, 17:46

    Historical note.
    When von Braun assembled the technical material from his collaborators in 1948, and wrote what became The Mars Project (10 ships, 70 men to Mars), there was to be 950 flights in 8 months of a Saturn V sized ferry ship to a large space station. That’s approximately 4 Saturn V flights a day! for 8 months. There would be 46 of these ferry ships 6 of which would be in the repair shop during those 8 months, no lost ferry’s at all! Ferry operation would use 5,320,000 tons of hydrazine and nitric acid! They would carry about 35000 tons of hydrazine and nitric acid to orbit to fuel the mission. About 95% of the payload to orbit would be fuel and oxidizer!
    Orbital assembly of 10 ships would require lord only know how many pieces , large structures could not be hauled up by even these large ferry’s.
    Whew! Just having dreamed it up must have taken nerves of steel!
    (Seeing a Saturn V launched , I guess von Braun’s team did.)

  • william April 27, 2014, 20:25

    While the propulsion concepts are often those that are most responded to (at least that’s my interpretation), I see nothing with in the discussions as interesting as they are about how to go about at least starting a project like this.

    For example the question of money I’ve brought up many, many times before and it has still become, of course, major sticking point for ways to pay for this venture.

    It has surprised me that so far as I can tell no one has ever thought that the best way to go about it, in my humble opinion, is to go ahead and tax the ultrarich which even now as we speak are planning to mine the asteroidal belt and extract almost unlimited precious metals and I think rare earths. The way it seems is that if they flood the market with these items the price of platinum might be the same as a cup of coffee, but that’s a whole different matter.

    If these rare and exotic minerals are actually required in our economic infrastructure and are to play a large part in our future development, then the least we can do is to graciously tax the hell out of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and whoever else is planning to put their money (and probably far more likely and in greater amounts our tax money) on the table and become even richer. The money would then be earmarked of course for interstellar ventures by politicians. The question as to whether the politicians would actually forgo the wealth to put it toward a scientific venture is as much a fantasy but debatable as what we have been discussing here.

  • william April 27, 2014, 20:40

    I feel the need to add just a few more pieces of advice. I’m certainly for the ideas that have been put forth here at this website but I feel that there is a lack of reality here that is quite disturbing.

    These ideas that we put forth are being discussed as if the very fate of the Earth is hanging in the balance – and nothing could be further from the truth then those ideas.
    99. 9999 % of the people on earth don’t know anything about this website and furthermore they’re not necessarily to engaged in these topics.

    If they are interested, and I do feel that they can eventually come to appreciate these ideas in a general way, it has to be realized that their expectations are based upon the movies, books, TV shows and the like and they all expect to see “Star Wars” where they have a bunch of creatures sitting around having a drink and some strange looking bar. While a guy in the back name is Jabba the Hutt is going about making shady deals behind somebody’s back. I doubt that you would even find a single bar that would come into existence just by Fiat much less aliens that will be there.

    The problem is that, I believe, that you need someone who scientifically trained who can make the ‘Hartsell’ on the Ideas that are presented here and make them aware of the reality that is in every bit of way just as fascinating as what they’re seeing shown to them in their everyday lives.

  • Tom April 27, 2014, 21:22

    The most funny, yet informative quote about starship travel went like this..’Lets do World War 2 over again, but make it 10 times bigger?’

    I get really frustrated with the ‘known’ engineering of spaceflight.
    There is a reason why modern air travel isn’t done by dirigible.
    Even though we had humans being lifted into the sky since the French Revolution… it took all the marvelous unrelated science & technology to mature into aviation today.

    Mr. Gilster’s is correct that all these things become practical after we become proficient.
    We had load bearing wheels before we built the pyramids… but passenger automobiles came about 150 years into the Industrial revolution.

    Considering the scale of our solar system, much less than the Milky Way galaxy…. we have a lot of discovery and work ahead.

    We are between speculative and feasible in both our data and experience.
    The science & engineering aside… its going to be practical and imaginative people that will do these things we only dream of now.

  • NS April 28, 2014, 2:19

    I suspect that in the near term the development of space infrastructure will not involve tariffs, but almost certainly heavy government spending/subsidy. Private industry has yet to make a dollar in space that didn’t come from a government contract. With the possible exception of space tourism that probably won’t change any time soon.

    If people actually start living in space, to the point where they consider it their home, it’s not inconceivable that they would want to develop and control their own infrastructure, since they would depend on it for their very lives even more than we on Earth depend on ours. In that case tariffs and even nationalization (space-ification?) might well be logical policies.

  • Ole Burde April 28, 2014, 4:31

    I think time has come for all us space-hopefulls to realize that the apollo-era was a freak acident , a statistical anomaly which are NOT going to repeat itself,ever .
    This anomaly was caused by a combination of factors . A giant worldwar had left the US in a position of unbelivable strength and selfconidence , and then you add to this a a young charismatic president capable of playing CHICKEN with the Sovjet Empire ….an empire who had basicly crushed the third reich by pure guts …
    Nothing like this is probably going to happen again , EVER !
    Thats why we have to give up WAITING for some ”better times’ for spaceprojects .. its probably only going to get worse , and the conclution is , that things have to get done a lot CHEAPER than our best and most beloved dreams .
    In other words , forget about warp-factors and start reading up on miniaturization of Mining Tecnology .

  • Alex Tolley April 28, 2014, 10:29

    @william…. tax the ultrarich which … are planning to mine the asteroidal belt and extract almost unlimited precious metals…
    ….flood the market with these items the price of platinum might be the same as a cup of coffee.

    … tax the hell out of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and whoever else is planning to put their money…on the table and become even richer. The money would then be earmarked of course for interstellar ventures by politicians.

    There is no logical reason why the increased taxes would be used for interstellar travel, or anything space related.

    It is almost inconceivable that any company would devalue their expensively obtained commodities by flooding the market. Far more likely, if asteroid mining proved profitable, that the quantities would be small enough to keep prices high, gradually reducing prices as scale economies and experience drove down mining costs and increased production.

  • Alex Tolley April 28, 2014, 10:32

    @Ole Burde – SpaceX’s announcement that their 1st stage successfully “landed” is a step in the right direction. Even if reusable rockets were only allowed for cargo, the potential for rapid turnaround and amortized hardware costs should facilitate “cheap[er] access to space”. SpaceX seems to be achieving what government agencies have singularly failed to do for 50+ years. More power to them!

  • Alex Tolley April 28, 2014, 10:42


    I get really frustrated with the ‘known’ engineering of spaceflight. There is a reason why modern air travel isn’t done by dirigible.

    Dirigibles pretty much pioneered passenger air travel with regular transatlantic flights. Had Germany had access to helium, the Hindeburg disaster would not have happened and there would have been a lot more competition with the early passenger aircraft. The jet engine was invented in the very early C20th, so it was ‘known’ engineering then, and we see the mature results today. Modern jet airliners are quite impressive pieces of engineering. Despite envisioning rocket travel for passenger travel, it never took off (no pun intended). Had heavier than air travel been impossible, trans Atlantic passenger travel would have be confined to ships and dirigibles. Either way, there would be trans Atlantic travel. What would have been pointless would have been the speculation that matter teleports were needed before volume travel would be feasible.

  • ljk April 28, 2014, 11:49

    Well spoken, Ole. I would have more “faith” in NASA’s current touting of sending humans to explore planetoids in the next decade if I felt it would truly lead to what they are promising.

    Even more of a concern, I wonder if it will survive into the next US Presidential election: Obama had no problem killing off Constellation and Nixon eagerly ended our early chances of a manned lunar base and manned missions to Mars begun by JFK with Apollo.

    You might then say, well there is private space enterprise. I know there are individuals and certain companies that do want to fulfill our destiny in space (yes, destiny – human civilization will not sustain itself if we stay stuck on Earth and keep consuming our single planet’s surface and resources). I am in a wait-and-see mode with them.

    It is not that I doubt the integrity or knowledge of people like Elon Musk, I am just concerned that the powers-that-be could undermine all such efforts, and it could come from sheer ignorance and neglect as much as not wanting anyone else to play on their turf.

    If the pro-space advocates here and elsewhere really want to make our permanent presence in space happen, then you need to do at the following at the least:

    1. Contact your representatives in government and make your voice heard. If they get more than a few letters on this subject even they will pay attention.

    2. Educate the public on space. Show them that space exploration and utilization is more than just science fiction. Do not let Tyson and Cosmos do all the work. And for the love of Pete, show them how interesting and exciting the real Universe is! And directly connected and beneficial to their lives.

    3. Send money. A little bit goes a long way if a lot of people chip in. Money also tends to make politicians and business folks pay attention more, even the pocket change. Because it shows you are serious about this subject.

    If you have even better ideas, please share them. I just presented the ones I felt most people could do with relative speed and ease.

    If not enough people care, then it won’t matter if we have the know-how to get to the stars, because it will not happen without will and effort. Wishing and hoping that someone or something will somehow magically come along and do it for us won’t happen either, nor would we want to rely on others to determine our destiny in space.

  • ljk April 28, 2014, 12:38
  • Ole Burde April 28, 2014, 15:07

    ljk : If I have better ideas ? Lots Of Them ! Imagine the following scenario :
    A relatively cheap kind of Lego-style robot is used by volunteers to develop an extremely minituarized version of simplified mining operations .
    Each of the volunteers ( basicly you and me ! ) sit in their homes and operates their robot by remote control , using an aplication of their cellphones ( which I hope YOU will create !) the volunteers take turns in operating the robots , probably just for half an hour each . A possible sponsor could be a company creating virtual reality computer games .
    For a start this is done for producing very small quantities of Iron or aluminium from the mineral Ilmenite , which is very common on the moon in known locations .
    This is done on earth , in a convenient place like Concord , Virginia or any nuber of other places with a known Ilmenite resource .
    A number of small robots, ranging in sizes from 1 to 10 kg work together from a ”mothership” robot which is capable of longer range transport , charging the smaller units bateries and being in itself the suplier of heavier work .
    The advantage of this plan is that it could be started with VERY little money, one of the reasons being that the ”mothership robot can simulated by much cheaper equpment . Another is that mining companies might want to help , in order to improve their PR ratings , and perhabs even to invest 0.00…000% of their profits in a future Moon operation . A Canadian mining company has actually already invested a bit of their own money into miniaturization of possible mars mining processes .
    Another possible sponsor could be extreemely sucesful Lego corporation , who already does som extremely interesting work in robotics , and does it using a modular-componet formula which seems tailor made for robotic flexibility and self-repair and reconfiguration .
    It seems to me a good idea to combine ”very cheap” with ”lots of potential sponsors ” , if you want to get started DOING something !

  • Michael April 29, 2014, 3:12

    I like the concept of remotely controlled robots, it would engage with the public very strongly, may be a ‘sandpit’ play area for the kids (next engineers/scientists) and more advanced heavy machinery for the tele-engineers or you could get someone to pay for driving a moon buggy for a time. I believe there should still be a need for a human presence but not for great lengths of time.

    I see a partnership of companies as the best route forwards, no one company takes the big hit if it all goes wrong, each doing their bit. There are plenty of materials on the moon, for instance pure iron is common on the moons surface, just pick it up with a magnet! and use it for all manner of constructions.

    The internet revolution has allowed us to communicate and bring a large number of minds together to resolve a very complex and expensive task. Perhaps we need a cyber space workshop area where ideas such as these are worked on by a number of people at once and eventually we won’t just have a roadmap but spacecraft that can travel over these roads. We also need an e-library of works. The nice thing about the internet is that you don’t just have to put money in but you can also put ideas in which others can contribute to.

    ‘We are born of Star dust and are fated to return to them one day’

    Ultimately we will become,

    ‘Thinking creatures that have made their home amongst the stars’

  • Michael April 29, 2014, 8:43

    Just trying to think of a name for our space faring species…might be a bit early though.

    here goes,

    Sapien stella peregrinus

    Wise astro traveller (foreigner)

  • Alex Tolley April 29, 2014, 10:21


    1. Contact your representatives in government and make your voice heard. If they get more than a few letters on this subject even they will pay attention.

    2. Educate the public on space. Show them that space exploration and utilization is more than just science fiction. Do not let Tyson and Cosmos do all the work. And for the love of Pete, show them how interesting and exciting the real Universe is! And directly connected and beneficial to their lives.

    How soon we forget. Nasa had all the money it wanted in the 1960’s, with an “exciting” Moon landing and exploration program, and….the public lost interest. By Apollo 13 the public was complaining about tv schedule pre-emption.
    We’ve have 50+ years of space education from books (e.g. Clarke), astronomy tv (Patrick Moore’s “Sky at Night”), innumerable classes in astronomy from Elementary School upwards. The result is still a largely indifferent/incurious public. My own 2 offspring never even looked at my extensive library of books, both fact and fiction, so none of my enthusiasm rubbed off. I find the current crop of science students at a UC campus where I teach remarkably incurious about their major subjects, let alone space.

    What is it they say about insanity?

    I do like the suggestion about engaging the public with planetary robots. It isn’t new, but it has potential. However the Pathfinder on Mars simulator at the Tech Museum in San Jose was never a problem to use on any of my visits. So I am a little skeptical of the novelty value.

    I suspect the problem is a some sort of malaise. We see a tech industry focused on mostly delivering crap instead of solving big problems. If that reflects the desires of the general public too, then I do not see much support for a space program outside of a relatively small population of enthusiasts. Perhaps the space tourism industry will increase the interest, especially if many celebrities get involved.