14 April 2008

A Skeptical Look at Space Colonisation

Science Fiction author Charles Stross has thrown a bucket of cold water over the enthusiasm of would-be space travelers and colonisers. In his article "The High Frontier, Redux, Stross explains the incredible challenges that space colonisation presents to Earth dwellers. Stross concludes that the problems are simply too great to take the idea of space colonies seriously, at this time.

Stross's pessimism is a useful counter-point to much of the "gee-whiz futurism"--unrealistic fantasies of space and the astounding future. There is nothing easy about the idea of creating a future of abundant possibilities. It will not happen by magic. And a lot of people are going to die trying to achieve what seems to many to be unachievable and to others, simply our destiny.

The basic argument by Stross in a nutshell is that space travel is:
  1. Too hard
  2. Takes too long
  3. Takes too much energy
  4. Too Dangerous
  5. Involves distances that are too enormous
Underlying it all is the belief that human beings are just too lazy, too poor, and probably too stupid to do something that hard. And Stross is right about most of it. Most people are too lazy, too poor, and too stupid to even think about stepping up to a challenge that huge.

Most of the near-term space exploration of the solar system will have to be done by robot explorers. When humans are ready to start mining the moon, the asteroids, Mars etc., it is likely that robot miners will do most of the heavy prospecting, lifting, assaying, and processing. Humans will not become a significant presence in space until cheaper ways are devised for boosting people into space, and supporting them once there.

It is a long way from a Virgin Galactic space tourist flight--"look at me, I'm in suborbital space!" -- to a permanent Lunar, Martian, or asteroidal presence, for profitable mining, construction, and long term living.

But the very difficulty of the task is what attracts the gamblers of the world to a high stakes proposition like commercial space. Problems exist to be solved. Anyone who looks at it any differently should stick to science fiction.

H/T Gorillamask

Labels: , , ,

Bookmark and Share


Blogger kurt9 said...

Charles's has two main arguments for why space colonization is not doable in the foreseeable future:

1) Launch costs are way too high.
2) The bioengineering necessary to realized the biosphere of a space colony has had very little development.

Problem 1) can be only be overcome by the evolution of a robust competitive space launch industry. This is just starting to emerge and is something that can never be done by a government agency such as NASA.

Problem 2) has addressed in a half-arsed way by the Biosphere II project near Tucson in the early 90's. Much more work is needed here. I believe that the biotech and the newly emerging field of synthetic biology will go a long ways toward developing the kind of biosphere necessary for space colonization.

Neither of these two challenges are unsurmountable. The first problem requires a competitive space transportation industry and the second requires synthetic biology. Both of these are slowly being developed and should be available by 2030 or so.

Charles believes that human beings are too stupid and lazy to do anything like space colonization. He's right. Most people are too stupid and lazy to do any kind of real work themselves. That's why they need the kind of socialistic economy system that Charles advocates, so that they can parasitize those of us who are not too stupid and lazy to be economically and technologically productive.

You see, the real motivation behind Charles's rant is that he simply does not like the idea of people being able to leave here and go out on their own to create new societies that are independent of the collectivist system that he believes that we should all be a part of. He believes that whatever problems we may have can only be solved through zero-sum solutions (socialism is a zero-sum system).

The problem with this is that a zero-sum game allow for only one winner, which automatically sets the stage for conflict. The assumption on the part of such advocates is their expectation that they can win the zero-sum conflict. I can assure you that people like Charles (and European socialistic types in general) are the least likely to win a zero-sum conflict.

Monday, 14 April, 2008  
Blogger Will Brown said...

Leaving aside the political aspects and motivations (I personally expect such an environment to be much more of an autocratic environment then otherwise; see ship-board environments here on Earth as example), I think a casual glance at history provides a reassuring context for Mr. Stross' principle objection(s).

Ask yourself this, what percentage of a given "home country" population emigrated to any destination in the Americas in the first 100 years of that continents European exploration/development? Why wouldn't we expect a similar experience for this newest frontier? Only the most extremely motivated or extravegant of financial risk takers are going to be willing to become personally involved. Pretty much by definition, that subset of the population must be vanishingly small in number compared to the population as a whole. What we see happening is only to be expected.

Monday, 14 April, 2008  
Blogger kurt9 said...

As I said, space colonization is a function of the capital costs required to make it happen. Much of this cost is transportation (space launch) costs. If these come down, space colonization becomes feasible. If they don't, it won't be feasible.

Once the costs come down, it doesn't matter if the percentage of the population who chooses to colonize space is low (in fact, I expect it to be low no matter how cheap it becomes). The fact is that it will become an option for those who do want to do it and this is what counts. The fact that others do not want to do it is irrelevant (unless they are forced to pay for it with their tax money).

As for the political environment of a space colony, space colonies will be essentially city-states in space. I see no reason why they need be anymore autocratic than, say, Singapore or Hong Kong. Both of these city-sates are, economically speaking, a good deal more "libertarian" than the U.S. (not to mention Europe).

Monday, 14 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Besides lowering tranportation costs, to live permanently in space we need some kind of gravity to prevent body deterioration, and much better protection from cosmic rays, solar wind, and meteors.

Self-assembling worker robots can be sent to the moon or Mars ahead of us to build living/working/photovoltaic structures out of on-site materials, and to accumulate necessary water and volatiles.

Having competent robotic helpers will make all the difference. Preferably robots that are of self-repair, self-improving, and self-replicating design.

Space colonists will have to be very smart and healthy critters. Otherwise they will not survive and certainly not prosper. They will need to procreate to sustain the colony and expand mining operations to the belt, the outer system, Kuiper and eventually Oort.

The system has enough resources for trillions of people, but I suspect that it may take centuries to pass the million mark.

Monday, 14 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Nice comments, by the way. Thanks.

Monday, 14 April, 2008  
Blogger kurt9 said...

Al Fin,

I agree that there will always be many more robots than humans in space. Space is an unnatural environment for humans (temperature, vacuum, no gravity) whereas such environment is no problem for robots. Also, robots continue to improve at a "Moore's Law" rate, making people come up with all of those singularity scenarios.

None the less, technically speaking, the O'neill scenario is still a valid one for our future. Synthetic biology and robots will make it more doable, not less. Charles Stross attempted to discredit it the same way that Robert Zubrin did in the late 90's, and fell short.

The real reason why the O'neill scenario has failed to happen is because the launch costs remain high (a competitive private industry is just starting to emerge to correct this) and because of a lack of economic driver. Zero-G manufacturing turned out to be a mirage (gravity is not that significant in chemical processes) and the solar energy market never materialized (although it certainly has in the last few years).

Tuesday, 15 April, 2008  

Post a Comment

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts