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I'd hate to have his email inbox right now ...

It seems I'm not the only skeptic: Professor Tom Murphy at UCSD also figures that near term visions of space colonization are implausible:

I want to caution against harboring illusions of space as the answer to our collision course of growth on a finite planet. We live at a special time. We have enjoyed spending our inheritance of fossil fuels, and are feeling rather heady about our technological prowess. For many generations now, we have ridden an exponential growth track, conditioning ourselves to believe that our upward trajectory is an eternal constant of our existence. We'll see. When we cross to the down-slope of fossil fuel availability--beginning with oil--we'll see how timeless the growth phase seems to be, and whether we can afford a continued presence in space. We should be mature enough to admit that we have no context in which to evaluate how successfully the human race will navigate this unprecedented transition.
There's a lot more in his essay beside that — regular readers of this blog will find most of his arguments familiar from various blog posts of mine over the past 2-3 years — but it looks as if we've independently reached similar conclusions. And now he's been slashdotted, so his email inbox is probably full of stuff that is semantically indistinguishable from "WHY YOU SAY SANTA NOT EXIST?!?? YOU LIAR!! DO YOU WANT TO MAKE BABY JESUS CRY?!!11!!ELEVENTY!!"

(Evidence: read the comment thread here.)

What is it about the whole space colonization meme that causes its followers to personally identify with it so vehemently, despite the lack of scope for near-term actualization? (NB: this is a question about the cultural and sociological attachment aspects of space colonization as an idea, not about the idea itself.)

338 Comments

1:

I think it's just an escapist thing. As the planet gets more crowded, people need to think that there's a frontier out there they could retreat to - and in the past, that's pretty much always been the case.

Now it's not (well, there's the sea bottom, I guess, but it's pretty dark down there) - but we've been spreading out over the next hill since we learned to talk 50,000 years ago. Maybe H. sapiens can't do without a frontier, at least an imaginary one. How would we know?

2:

Maybe people just want something to believe in?

3:

I don't think that there's anything especially mysterious about it. A lot of us grew up with the dream of space colonization and the hope that either we, or our children, would participate in it.

I've become a space skeptic, too, but I also grew up with the grand vision of O'Neil cylinders and Lunar colonies. It was in the fiction I read, it was in the shows I watched, and a lot of the boosters for this vision were people that I respect, like Isaac Asimov.

Taking a hard, dispassionate look at that vision and realizing that not only are we nowhere near to fulfilling it, but also realize that there are compelling reasons that it won't be happening for a long, long time, if ever, is a bitter pill to swallow.

It not only hits me on a visceral level, but it also runs contrary to the technological optimism that Science Fiction has been feeding me since I was a kid. The notion that all those grand stories are *just* stories really is a bit like being told that Santa Claus isn't real.

To be clear, I do accept the arguments, but I don't like them and I fully understand why so many people are reacting so badly to the idea.

4:

I diagnose American-centric bias on your part; some of us live in places that haven't had an open frontier in multiple millennia!

(Indeed, the North American frontier was only open because of a convenient smallpox epidemic in the 1490s that wiped out most of the previous inhabitants ... but that's another story.)

5:

Maybe people just want something to believe in?

Sure, but that's begging the question. Why this belief?

6:

Let me add: I, too, grew up with the whole space: the final frontier meme. I'm just old enough to remember watching the first Apollo 11 moon walk on live broadcast TV; I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut for years.

But I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?

7:

"Sure, but that's begging the question. Why this belief?"

Too much Star Trek/Star Wars as a kid? I am as guilty as anyone in this regard.

8:

"Sure, but that's begging the question. Why this belief?"

Surely there's a self-selection bias going on. The people who are most passionate about space colonization are going to be the ones who are most vocal about protesting objections to it.

As to why anyone is passionate about it, see my previous post. A great many of us were fed a grand dream by you and your colleagues.

It's a writer's job to sell dreams, of course, but, in this case, the sale was made extra compelling by the fact that, for a while, it seemed like it was going to come true.

Any way you slice it, that's a hard thing to let go of. Believe me, there's a big part of me that wants to join in the cat-calling when people come out and say that it's not feasible, even though I agree with the underlying arguments.

9:

Ugh. Some of those comments ... I don't know what to say.

To take one as an example: the idea that there would be this incredible bounty out there if only we could terraform Mars. Basically, just think what we could do if we could take a planet with nothing at all that contributes to human life and change it so that everything does. Gosh, how great would that be?

The questions of why we would bother to do that on another planet, or of how we would even manage to do that on another planet when we can't do it here, are not answered. If we could take an inhospitable place and make it sustain life without permanently messing up everything around it, wouldn't it make more sense to do that here on Earth, now, when there are quite a few people who could use improvements in their environment?

It's somewhat like a 30-year-old daydreaming about a day when he'll have a huge house and an awesome car, living the good life; the fact that he's barely making ends meet living in a small, one-bedroom apartment and cycling to work because he can't afford a car and has no money saved up toward one, now, that's not important.

10:

It gives self-proclaimed atheists a religious faith without the religion? That's the vibe that I've always gotten from the the more fanatic of the Mars colonisation proponents.

I get that same blankness and obstructionism when I try to argue logically with space colonisation proponents as I do when debating Christian conservatives.

11:

It's just so fucking cool.

Really, I think that's all there is to it. Same reason people wish they could stop time and/or fly and/or be invisible. It'd just be really ridiculously cool. And at least with living in space there's no a priori reason it's physically impossible.

I, for one, side with the skeptics, though.

Sigh.

12:

Space occupies for some the same mental real estate as Heaven does for Christians.

13:

It is viewed as the end of freedom.
There's nowhere to go any more.
The doors of the prison finally shut with a loud booming sound.

14:

I don't know whether this is the opinion of a majority, but my first thought after reading this post was "Because I want off this damn rock, that's why." Note that this is the non-nuanced, non-logical, totally emotion-based gut response. Yes, the actual implementation of running an outpost somewhere outside of our orbit is exceedingly difficult/implausible, but it's a dream, right? I want to win the lottery too...

Combine the idea of space exploration with the "rugged individual" (USian here) meme and there's a lot of people who find the idea of somehow being able to literally get away from it all very attractive. Think of all that limitless, empty, space to fill with one's stuff, projects, ideas others don't like, etc.

We may be social animals at heart, but some of us want just a bit more truly private space than the insides of our own heads. Suburbia is attractive for the same reason, and has some of the same (albeit on a much smaller scale) problems with sustainability.

There's also the nationalist angle (USA! USA! Nuke the moon because we CAN! We'll be up above you and you'll be at our mercy! We have the ultimate power!) stuff.

15:

Not sure if that is an American bias. Looking from Norway, America was until a generation ago our open frontier (A small millennia before that Scotland and England was our open frontier...)

We have expanded outwards since we came out of Africa, just look at the Polynesians relentless exploration of the pacific.

I do think humans probably have a biological bias toward expansion. You see it also in our attitude to economic growth, why do we need economic growth

16:

I'd argue the UK had, and still has, a frontier in the shape of emigration to places that still do have a frontier or at least are still relatively easy to emigrate to. As a recently minted UK -> US ex-pat, I frequent a forum for British ex-pats to the US and every week someone pops up asking for advice on how to get to the US because the UK-is-going-to-the-dogs/it's-always-been-their-dream-to-live-in-America/someone-sold-them-a-condo-in-Florida/etc.

Usually the regulars have to break the news to them that unless they happen to be romantically involved with an American (which happens to be the way I did it), have super-mad skillz or have a bucketload of money for an investment visa, then the US doesn't want to know. However, Canada, oz and NZ, with their points-based immigration systems are much better bets for anyone with a reasonable amount of education, skills and experience.

So the demand for the frontier is still there in the UK, and is to a degree met, even if the UK doesn't have one anymore.

17:

I don't know, I happen to think there are several benefits to space travel the professor misses.

The first has nothing to do with the realities of space travel, but the realities of industry. The US has a gigantic military industrial complex. I'm sure some of you have noticed. If we'd like anything like world peace, we need to find something for them to do while they're dismantled.

Space is one of the few things they're capable of that involves delivering something in addition to explosives. It also has benefits in basic science research and a surprising number of practical problems.

Any sane analysis of the next twenty to fifty years is going to have to take into account the enormous number of people who currently consume very little who will soon be able to consume on par with the developed world. Large portions of China, India, Africa, etc, will be experiencing their highest population overshoots during that time. Providing power and resources for them is going to be a major problem. Space provides an alternative source for these. PGandE in California is planning on buying microwave power beamed down in 2016.

Focusing on scale and travel time is another mistake. Space travel, for the next fifty years, probably forever, is robot work. Fine. But cislunar space is fair game. Hell, there's water on the moon.

We're in a lull period for space. Less exploration and flag-dropping, more actual exploitation. Tourism, earth orbit and snagging transient asteroids, that kind of thing. Missions to mars are transparently stupid, but that's not the only kind of thing you can do with space.

18:

In the 1970s, industrial-age sci-fi got a lotta guys through rough grade school times. Second, the artists who did all those 1960s-1970s commercial art-grade paintings of giant tubular space colonies have a lot to answer for--all suburban sprawl and lawns obviously mown by space-robots. Also, too, space was full of Earth-like planets populated by hot babes, like green Batgirl (even though she got killed).

How could anybody in their right mind not want to go?

I was sort of hoping for a space station like a giant disco/hotel, like the "So Beautiful and So Dangerous" segment of the Heavy Metal movie. (Plutonian Nyborg...)

Don't kill my dream, Charlie!

Seriously, we kind of need to sort our selves out a bit before going to space in any serious numbers. Keep the lights burning in the old space effort, but clean up our act before taking it on the road.

(Disclosure: I used to be in the L-5, later National Space Society in the 1980s, and probably read more right-wing sci-fi than was healthy. Ah, well...)

19:

After meeting a couple of Space Cadets in Tucson (there's a large base of engineers there for Raytheon) and having reasonable conversations suddenly blow up into a squall out of nowhere, I think it's to do with lack of previous relatable experience coupled with the scale of the project.

If you asked one of them about defining the problems of sailing the North Atlantic with 1300's technology, they'd be able to come up with ballpark estimates for survival rates, how well the ships could work, and so on. If you pointed out that they were sailing to a land with ample resources and other people and an atmosphere, they'd also factor that in.

But, we haven't had a big space expedition go out and FAIL in a spectacular way. For all the successful earth bound colonization missions. there are plenty where the people gathered their wagons and set off into the desert, never to be seen or heard form again. I think it's the lack of spectacular, documented failures, coupled with your previous posts on the scale of the solar and system that make their 'Can we do really this?' detectors short out.

Mind you, the two space cadets I spoke to were also colossal arseholes, which is also probably salting my analysis of them....

20:
I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?
I believe it’s fairly unusual. If someone developed a way to survey for this ability, I would be very surprised if a majority of humans had learned it.
21:

"But I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?"

I don't know if it's an unusual ability - maybe anyone can if they try, as you have. But perhaps they don't want to try, they want something to cling to. (Not sure if that helps much!)

22:

Because it's cool.

Because we grew up with sci-fi of that nature.

And in my case because I grew up within a boulder's throw of Cape Canaveral. :P

23:

It's the ultimate expression of the myth of progress.

If this isn't true then what else does that mean about the future? By saying space colonisation isn't going to happen in a big way (or any time soon), you're also saying there is no brighter future for my kids and that whatever the bigger project is that we're all involved in it doesn't end up in the culturally pervasive fantasy of a techno-utopia.

As with every other form of denial, it's so much less disturbing for me to think that you are wrong than to contemplate that you might even be a little bit right - the vitriol writes itself.

Thanks for writing on topics like this and keep keeping it *real*!

24:

I think part of the reason is that expansion provides a nifty cop-out to dealing with societal problems: People who are unhappy with the current arrangement, or lose political (or other) battles, or who simply want a fresh start can always leave. In fact, societies can also use the frontier as a dumping ground for undesirables (forced colonisation of Siberia and Australia Spring to mind.

If space colonisation turns out to be implausible in the short to medium turn, it means our very much interconnected world will have to actually resolve social problems, preferably without too much bloodshed. And that's not really a comforting thought.

25:

In my experience it's staggeringly unusual. Being interested in deconstructing the outside world is rare, being interested in deconstructing your own emotional reaction to things much more so.

26:

I want to reply to two of Charlie's comments (#5 and 6) which we can't do at the moment!

Why this belief? Selection bias. It's obvious that actually most people in the US don't share it and didn't really murmur when the space shuttle programme was shut down, don't care about the ISS and so on. The fact it's one that interests us, we see articles like this and the mass protests too. We don't see the emotive reactions to "God doesn't exist" or "Genetic engineering is approved" or "Abortion extended" or "Intelligent Design to be taught in US schools" - oh, wait, we do (well many of us) and it's just as daft.

As for analysing for plausibility people in general are often bad at it, even if they're not hugely emotionally attached to it. Why do they gamble regularly? Play the Lottery? Start new businesses? Give up the day job to become singers, writers and the like? If people are strongly emotionally attached to things, let call them articles of faith - rational, detached assessment is pretty rare. Some people do it, very well, in pretty much every group, but it is a pretty small minority.

27:

I suppose it goes along with the way some transhumanists seem afraid of their own mortality. They want something to cling onto. There are plenty of people who think we've ruined the planet and will have to go 'out there'. And there are rabid environmentalists who'd say "How can you even think of going and messing up another planet!?!"

I don't believe in any Manifest Destiny hooey, but I do think that some sort of space colonization will occur, not in any of our lifetimes, but eventually. Plenty ask Why do it?, you could as easily ask Why not?(ignoring the current expense and difficulty). Just because it's not foreseeable in the near term doesn't mean it will always be impossible. At least I hope not.

28:

It will be done by the Chinese, not the USA

29:

with Spindizzies?

30:

Say you like science fiction a lot. Say you're the sort of person who doesn't just have preoccupations, but wants to have an Identity, and The Identity you'll now take is Science Fiction Fan. Now what are going to be the key notions in this identity that distinguish you? Manned space travel seems like it'd be pretty close to the top of the archetypal great big ideas list in archetypal SF. Never mind the New Wave and post-cyberpunk and Mundane SF, SF had its big heyday of unselfconscious success curiously coinciding with the space race, and that's the zeitgeist that characterizes the sort of primary SF which later SF is riffing off of. The core mythology is made of optimistic stories about uniting as a culture to successfully develop technology to launch people into space, and that's what's at the back of your mind when you think of SF.

That's also the thing that's probably going to end up driving your Identity, telling you whether folk are like you or not like you based on whether they agree. And now someone shows up with the right tribal markers, so they can't just be shrugged off as a foolish outsider, but they're disagreeing with a core tenet of the Identity, what are you going to make of that? Well, maybe the Identity isn't quite right after all, but what on earth would you do if you'd have to throw that away. Then again, maybe the other person is just confused somehow, maybe if you'll explain things very carefully to them, everything will turn out fine after all...

And that's why it's such great fun to explain to science fiction fans why manned spaceflight might not end up working out very well.

31:

With whatever it takes.
If the Chinese want to do something seriously, they will do it. I would not even rule out Orion once they are the dominant global power.

32:

" As the planet gets more crowded, people need to think that there's a frontier out there they could retreat to "

I think that's to some extent a purely American desire. For me, it's nice to know that there are isolated and empty places around to visit, twenty miles by bike from the high-speed rail station (I've just been to Dungeness, which is exactly so located), but I've not the slightest desire to live there: the ADSL will be unacceptably slow, Amazon won't deliver, and there won't be a decent-sized Tesco within cycling distance.

33:

It's at the confluence of several attractive memes that have been in the culture for a while. Since the industrial age we have this image of progress as an unstoppable train (source) that speeds ever faster, taking us to the future. New technologies look like exponentials before they look like sigmoids; transports have been this way, shrinking the world until it was this little blue ball you could go around in eighty days, and now we want to take this process further.

Much of Verne's science fiction has come to pass, and science fiction, besides being a way to see ourselves with a new perspective, has given us a lot of what we felt we could look forward to, if we tried hard enough (and if you aren't moving mountains, maybe you aren't believing hard enough). At this point writers like Kim Stanley Robinson's in his Mars trilogy have explicitly painted space travel as a way out of our zero-sum games, while still being on the "hard science" end of that trope.

Now we're at peak use of critical resources (oil per capita peaked a while ago), and the ecologist message is becoming more prevalent. But the idea of finite or renewable resources is entirely at odds with the meme of exponential progress; people either have to relearn something at odds with what they believe, or they can get tribal about it and defend their beliefs against the aggressor.

34:

In earthly endeavors, courage has much to do with success. The optimistic mob, the Optimob, feels the same way about spacey endeavors. It's not physics, it's our self-fulfilling pessimism holding us back. Some of them use that line of reasoning consciously, and others just get inexplicably mad.

Maybe we've been having arguments like this for so long that we have genes for it. I wouldn't want to encourage this theory though. I only mention it to say it shouldn't be encouraged.

One problem is that there's some truth to the "if only we'd believe in ourselves" argument. Not enough to justify the optimists' position, but enough to complicate the argument.

35:

"A new life in the off-world colonies. A chance to begin again. A golden land of opportunity and adventure" - Blade Runner.

I diagnose American-centric bias on your part; some of us live in places that haven't had an open frontier in multiple millennia!

Europeans, and especially Brits, have had new frontiers until very recently. They may have been hard and dangerous, e.g. Australia in the C18th, but they existed for those that wanted to go.

When the anti-technology, economic stagnation of the 1970's were ushered in, I well recall the "new frontier" was to be the human mind. With the optimism born of economic growth in the 1980's, we again turned outwards, rather than inwards.

36:

One issue, from my point of view, is the economics behind portable power. This is likely a major bottleneck issue in the context of using resources from nearby space (and is how I choose to generalize what Murphy is getting at, though he also talked about other important issues).

Meanwhile, in essence, we build our mental models up from things we observe. And in the context of portable power, imagery we can build our models from can come from: cars, planes, television programs, comic books, movies, science fiction books, ... And once we hit popular media, we have a lot of suggestions that power is going to be a lot cheaper than it will likely be.

Anyways, people extrapolate based on concepts from wherever.

37:

Charlie asks why the particular dream of spaceflight? I would contend that it is an extension of the dream of flight, a mode of travel that extends into new areas and offers few restrictions. In a sense, we see a similar desire in sail boat owners - the desire to pilot a boat into the ocean, away from the madding crowd, away from travel limitations of defined routes and other traffic.

Spaceflight, and the possibility of settling new places is strong human desire.

Tom Murphy offers some reasons for being pessimistic about human spaceflight, but I have to wonder if it isn't economics that is the limitation, but rather a failure of nerve on the part of the developed nations.

38:

I think that this is somewhat connected to the propensity of certain sectors to believe in outlandish economic theories. It is useful to have some form of intellectual salve for the few occasions where out conscience pricks through our fill-yer-boots normality.

For those that remember the conference scene in "the edge of darkness" back in the eighties, I had a bit of an epiphanie watching that. There are actually people who think that it doesn't matter what we do to the planet and each other as we are "heading on out of here" .

39:

Sounds like somebody has been reading too much John Gray. Just because one form of progress is unlikely doesn't mean that all progress is mythological.

40:


For what it's worth, my feeling is that space colonisation represents the logical extension of nearly every item of revolutionary technology we've had, and from this follows its 'natural' status as on object of fantasy.

Specifically, almost all game-changing technologies have, in some significant way, served to reduce the effects of spatial displacement. Writing: it allows for conversations to take place independently of spatial proximity (ditto--or more so--for the printing press and telephone). The horse/ship/automobile/aircraft: all allow for actual physical displacement to occur at an accelerated rate. The web: previously dispersed information is centralised into a single point of interaction.

Given that we generally have no intuitive grasp of the astronomical distances involved in (cosmic) space travel, it isn't surprising that our expectations lead is to think these can be negotiated too. In fact, the best SF illustration of this is Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, where the metaphysical absolutes of space and time are represented as being subordinate to the nature of the human will. Next to hubris on this scale, the small issue of mere interstellar travel nearly seems reasonable.

41:

I think the science fiction idea of friendly aliens - other intelligent life, somewhere out there, that has something to offer us - has become real for many people. If we can't fix our own problems, perhaps someone out there can help us. And if we want to meet those aliens, on equal or superior terms, we will have to go to them, rather than sitting here on earth next to the radio telescope waiting for a call.

This is admittedly a wild-ass guess, but it's a possibility.

42:

I diagnose American-centric bias on your part; some of us live in places that haven't had an open frontier in multiple millennia!

And many American's like myself grew up in rural areas that have no equivalent in Europe. Never underestimate the powerful effect on one's psyche of growing up in small town immersed in the can-do culture of the American West coupled with vast open vistas literally a 10 minute walk from your front door. When the nearest "big" town is 110 miles away and would be considered a quaint village in Europe, then obviously our perspectives are different. So much so that even after living in an urban environment for 25 years, I find it nigh-impossible to fathom the sheer depressing view that we have run out of frontiers. I know that is an emotional reaction. Call it a religious point of view, without the religion.

Oh and I disagree That Europe hasn't had recent frontiers. Those frontiers were largely America, Australia, and Africa. For impoverished Mexican's America is still a frontier, one they are willing to risk life and limb to gain access to, legally or illegally.

Most of my ancestors came over from Europe in various waves up to the early 1900s. Of course I'm also invested in the earlier occupants too via a Native American great-grandmother. People like myself are generally proud of both and look at each group with realistic, if nostalgia tinted eyes.

43:

I wonder if you realise the dichotomy in your comment?

Americans, many of them, have a wide-open frontier vista 10 minutes walk outside their front door. Even if they don't - they live in a big city say - they have that as part of their dream.

In Europe we largely haven't had that for a long, long time. A small proportion of us have sought it out, facing journeys of weeks or months to get there. A much larger proportion have been driven to it - the Irish potato famine might be the most famous example, certain in the British Isles - but quite a lot of the rest of the migrants weren't so much reaching for the new frontier as running from the crapness of the old country.

We're the descendants of the ones that stayed, more or less happily.

I rather suspect it's a big difference.

44:

Eloise: We're the descendants of the ones that stayed, more or less happily.

I rather suspect it's a big difference.

Especially as the ones who went -- to America or Australia or wherever -- and survived and left descendants have bequeathed their descendants the confirmation bias you get from knowing that emigrating and heading for the frontier was the right thing to do.

(The right thing for them, but it's an implicit hereditary message.)

We're all descended from a lineage of survivors, so whatever our ancestors did by definition was "the right thing" -- although for some of us it was "sit tight and don't emigrate" rather than "light out for the territories".

45:

Depends what you mean by progress ...

The point about space colonisation is that it's presented as the destination. As long as we're heading in that direction then we're on the right road. If someone claims (proves?) that we're not going to make it, well then what else about the journey is different?

Where else are we going?

I agree, it doesn't rule out other kinds of progress, but it does directly challenge beliefs that are held more fundamentally - and which are more immediately important - than whether I get to ride in a rocket.

46:

Tom Murphy has some other good articles on his blog. I particularly like this one, which says that if we carry on increasing the amount of energy we use, the Earth will become to hot to live on regardless of which technology we use to generate the energy.

47:

The universe is so bloody stupidly humongously hugely giganormous and we're never going to get off this speck?

UNFAIR!

I understand the practicalities, but I still hold on for one or more of the magic wands we're not allowed to play with around here.

48:

"Because it's just so fucking cool."

I agree. Because it's cool and fun and interesting. Because we've all grown up with Clarke and Heinlein and Chelsey Bonestell. Because a lot of what we know about the solar system and the universe has been learned recently, in a flood of exciting information about Mars and the moons of Jupiter and exoplanets, and we can imagine what it would be like to live in those places, or at least to see them with our own eyes. The universe is full of interesting things, but most people don't care about them, and unfortunately many people don't have the luxury of caring about anything less pressing than their immediate survival. Moments lik69e the Moon landings show our species is capable of extraordinary things - for all we know, no other species in the entire universe has accomplished what took place in 1969 - and once you've seen one extraordinary thing, you would like to see more.

Of course I don't think I'll live to see any significant expansion into space. I'm not even sure such a thing will ever happen, but then I'm increasingly pessimistic about our prospects as a civilization and a species. The expansion into space - whether it's exploration, or industrialization, or colonisation to back up our civilization - is a beautiful dream of how things might have been. It doesn't break any laws of physics, so of course it's possible, and that's why it's painful that it will never happen. There are logically possible worlds in which we do terraform Mars or live on Callisto or send arks to Centauri, but this isn't one of them, alas.

But the ability "to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility" is quite rare, I think.

49:

"But the idea of finite or renewable resources is entirely at odds with the meme of exponential progress"

Not necessarily, as long as that progress does not require exponentially increasing mass. An information based economy is not a zero sum game. So while the future will not hold a couple of spare cars for everyone, or everyone having their own private 747, or yacht, it does hold vast personal computing power, nanotech, biotech, life extension tech, and more cheap entertainment than they can consume etc.

50:

Eloise: That was my point. Early cultural and environmental factors shape people's later confirmation bias. A typical American's environment and culture will shape them differently than a European or an Asian and so on. It was my oblique way of answering Charlie's "why space" question from my perspective.

I don't see what I wrote as a dichotomy, but as an illustration of the kind of environment that is fertile for a "go go space" attitude to develop. It doesn't explicitly answer the "why space" question but does illustrate why that belief/yearning would be strong in people like myself.

Throw into that mix an early memory of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon and being told for YEARS by every teacher around that SPACE IS IMPORTANT and YOU ARE SMART/GOOD AT MATH so you could BE an astronaut (or an engineer) and you get a strong irrational belief that we need to GO!

The cherry on top of all this was living in a near perfect area for flying sailplanes. Growing up in a place where clear blue skies were sometimes filled with planes silently spiraling upward on thermals and then away made a young idealist feel that flight was freedom. There wasn't much emotional distance between that and watching Skylab astronauts in zero-g.

51:

ObSF: from IMB's _Against a Dark Background_: "Poor, lonely Golter." That's us in ten thousand years time. Hell is other people.

52:

Item 1: Fossil fuel scarcity will be the reason we don't colonize space.

Hooey.

Oh, I suppose it needs more rationale than that. Let's see... 1) energy is free on planet earth 2) ... nope, I don't need a 2.

We've gotten used to the idea that energy comes to us on a platter at a certain cost. Cost in terms of dollars (or euros or space credits) is just a placeholder. The real concern is the cost in terms of two factors: the ratio of power in to power out and the maximum throughput of power out (which might be constrained by power in; see hot fusion research where power in is measured in units that start at current power generation for a city).

Power in, in turn has two main components: the startup power and the operational power. Operational power had better be something you can derive from the output, or else you have a problem, so you just discount your "profit" by as much power as you require for operations.

Startup power needs to come from another source, but being a one-time cost, it might not be a big deal. For example, if the hot fusion folks were to figure out how to sustain their reaction, needing to pump in a city worth of power for a couple seconds isn't a hurdle. Even easier, the power and labor required to generate a few thousand or million solar panels isn't a big deal if they last 10-20 years.

The problem is that all of these methods have more cost than fossil fuels right now, so there's no point in deploying them too broadly until the cheap stuff is gone.

However, once fossil fuels are gone, we don't suddenly have _less_ power, just _more expensive_ power. Well, what does expensive mean? It means exactly nothing. Power generation is so fundamental to our society that its cost is probably more of a forcer for the value of a dollar than the other way around (hence power costs more today than it did 20 years ago... as demand rises... simple economics guided by unenlightened self interest on the part of those who hold the most fossil fuels (which is basically everyone bug Western Europe, oddly enough).

So, how will we get to space after fossil fuels run out? Well, they won't run out, really. We'll continue to have oil for plastics for the foreseeable future, but we'll probably have to stop burning the stuff within 50 to 200 years. At that point, we'll probably continue to use the same rocket fuels, and our reliance on nuclear power in space will probably rise (which gets more expensive if we have to use less energetic fissionables, but that's another conversation).

Now we have to deal with building space vehicles on Earth and in space. On Earth, we can plug into the grid and use whatever our most efficient power source is. In space, I expect we'll use solar almost exclusively for heavy lifting, since it's insanely plentiful.

What's left? Nothing I can think of.

Item 2: Running out of fossil fuels is unprecedented

Not as much hooey, but hooey all the same. We've run out of our most important building material in many parts of the world (wood), and that's a pretty severe limitation. Extracting iron from the ground and turning it into a building material isn't easy. Combining that with plastics, ceramics and aggregates (like cement) is even more work. Replacing wood as a building material really sucked, and hampered our growth severely as we built out the infrastructure to support iron-based construction.

What did this do to us? It created a massive boom in industry, technology, transportation and the economy. In fact, the boom in the economy was so powerful that it lead to the biggest bust of the 20th century (the oil and steel-fueled great depression).

In fact, oil wasn't our primary source of power until wood started to run out (and by "run out" I mean that it became impractical to move enough of it from outside of the cities into the cities... though damned if we didn't try... look into the history of logging in upstate New York and how the Hudson River Valley was nearly destroyed by it). So we actually _have_ run out of our primary fuel source once before!

53:

Oh, let me follow up and just say that I'm not attached to space colonization, per se. Sure, I want to see it happen, but the fact that think the particular comment that you quoted is bunk doesn't correlate with my views on space exploration much at all. I just think it was silly is all.

54:

1. It's a religion.

2. What's the appeal of this particular religion? I think a big part of it is the promise of escaping from the rest of humanity - misanthropy and/or elitism, depending.

55:

Hmm... my followup has appeared, but not the original. I hope it wasn't lost as some of the thoughts I had on the relationship between the tipping point between wood and iron-based construction were thoughts I'd never put down before.

Anyway, one other thing: if we assume (incorrectly) that the end of fossil fuels is unprecedented, why is it that we'd then assume it would be a negative? Fossil fuels are scarce and difficult to ship. Most of our other resources are evenly distributed (more or less, with the exception of geothermal) across the globe and don't need to be transported, as generation will occur near the site of use in most cases.

I actually think that running out of fossil fuels will be a massive boon to the flexibility of growth and might even trigger the next wave of first-world development in currently third-world nations.

56:

I wonder if part of the reason why Space Cadets respond so badly to articles about the viability of space colonisation is due to the political debate surrounding funding for space exploration?

When you say "it may not be viable to colonise space with the technologies available to us in the forseeable future", they might be hearing "I think that we should cut all funding for space exploration and associated research".

Some of these guys spend a lot of time and energy defending the budget allocated to NASA's scientific work and tend to be extremely sensitive to any hint that this expenditure might not be justified.

Personally, I think that space exploration and space colonisation are two very different things - I fully support the former but question whether the latter is feasible.

Large-scale space colonisation is certainly not possible with the technologies available to us at the present time, and there is nothing on the drawing board that will permit it in the next century or so.

57:

For me, part of is the usual cultural identifier stuff, (I've been skiff-identified since I was 10 and got a copy of DUNE for my birthday) but some of it is also the grim realization that a lot of the reasons that we're probably trapped here in the gravity well are also reasons that the whole technological/enlightened civilization trip is may actually a dead end, in which case the most likely future for mankind is a reversion to brutal feudalism.

Space travel is wound up in my head with the dream of freedom for all humanity. It's difficult for me to envision one without the other. I realize that says more about me than about the actuality of space travel or freedom.

58:

I agree with Herbie, that it's the myth of Progress (with extra-big pee).

Thing is, progress goes onwards forever, to utopia, heaven, or the singularity. Some people think it's basically the Christian myth of heaven with the serial numbers filed off, put in a scientific context so that it doesn't scare achristian people.

One problem with Progress is that we live in a binary society. The opposing myth to Progress in the US right now appears to be apocalypse (also a Christian myth, whether we thump the bible or file off the serial numbers and call in the zombies, asteroids, or runaway global warming).

Since unreflective Americans tend to live in binary reality, if we don't have Progress, we have Apocalypse. Given this "catastrophic thinking," it's reasonable to attack anyone who derides Progress.

Of course, reality doesn't particularly care about our myths, but that won't stop people from attacking the naysayers, will it?

59:

[Unrelated, but this has cropped up here before]

Google+ may soften up their real-names only stance; I've sent my pseudonym (plus unicode placeholder, because there are name and surname fields) for validation, in tentative hope that it might get reactivated.

60:

@joecrow. I think that this might also say something about the society that you grew up in.

You seem to have discounted the possibility that we might be able to, as a species, surmount some of the bugs in our psychology and get that cooperation thing working a bit better for us.

This would not be without precedent. Unless you subscribe to some extreme philosophies, it is pretty evident that progress is possible. Both technologically and socially/ethically.

Having said that, by no means do I think that progress is predestined. This is why I find debates such as these important. I would prefer that peoples unrealistic beliefs of near/medium term space colonization don't fuck up our ability to deal with the real challenges of the near/medium term here on this planet.

61:

Unreflective Europeans, meanwhile, live in...?

62:

I realize that can come off as a little snarky, so I'll pre-emptively apologize and hope that it doesn't drag the whole thread off-topic. As for my thoughts on the actual question at hand, I think it's overdetermined. All the causes mentioned here--desire to defend funding politically, space being seen as the only viable alternative to economic or environmental doom, the lure of the frontier--probably have at least something to do with it.

I do wonder about the age distribution of the complainers. Are young people, who missed the golden age of both space exploration and sci-fi (Heinlein et al) less likely to yelp when someone points out that the dream is most likely impractical as all hell? I was born in 1984 and I've got very few memories of space exploration being a cultural phenomenon, apart from when the Mars Rovers landed in the late 90s.

63:

I'm guilty. I'm a believer. Still, even though I'm no longer in aerospace engineering, because the jobs I wanted weren't there (all military stuff, if you want it to pay).

Why? Because the universe is vast, and I'm sure has a ton of cool stuff in it, and I want our species to be able to experience it, as opposed to being stuck on one very small rockball. Even if it's not me, personally. Even if we're not there for thousands of years, I still view a future where we get to experience a vaster universe as a more desirable future than one confined to our planet's surface. I love it here, I love hiking and nature, but I want more.

Sorry, that derailed into the idea itself, rather than the cultural and sociological attachment aspects, but from my standpoint it's hard to tease the two apart. Hard to diagnose from the inside, y'know?

64:

Speaking as a Yank, I officially don't know. My personal guess is that binary thinking is pervasive wherever Christianity is or was dominant, but that's just a guess.

65:

US perspective. Totally.

There was the Apollo program that took up the 60s and in many ways let us not focus totally on the Viet Nam war. And we did it.

But then our government turned a really neat research and exploration program into a business. Or they tried to. We got the shuttle and the ISS. Neither of which did much research (for the $$$ spent) but did require NASA to pretend to do things on budget. Pretend is an operative word. With many revisions along the way. And no one can get hurt and no rockets ever fail in their mission or Congress will have your head if you don't deliver one yourself.

And during all of this SciFi stopped looking like comic books and just maybe like it might be real life. (Space 1999, Lost in Space, and a few others being notable exceptions.) Star Wars, Star Trek, etc... all started to look like a future we might get to. Soon. And helped in that thought was that some of it did come true. Doors that opened for you. Communicators. Medical sensors. Etc.. Hey look at Siri on an iPhone.

But what the general public wasn't told was that the biggest magic in the shows was the crazy use of energy. If you ever do the math you can't write down enough zeros to deal with the energy needed for travel they did within solar systems or above planets much less the issues of "warp" drive. Inertia? Orbital mechanics? Engineers will solve those issues. So the public kept seeing the easy stuff start to appear and no one wanted to tell plumber Joe that the hard stuff was off the charts.

Then presidents kept talking about Mars, while cutting out future moon missions. But Mars was always 10 to 20 years in the future when they would be dead or nearly so and the moon and LEO cuts were done today. But hey, we all know after a Euro chap first figured out how to use a sale from Greece to Italy it was only 50 years before the crossed the Atlantic. Wait, you mean they had to advance in steps and learn as they went? And it took about 2000 years? Boo Hiss. You're just being a spoil sport.

And of course the history of our country is all about new folks showing up and everything being great with the Lee family building Arlington 50 years after Columbus? Right? What do you mean 90% of the people who got here died for the first 200 years? (Go visit the current Plymouth colony museum and see how most of them lived in mud pits with branches over their heads to try and shed most of the rain.)

And so on. We don't like reality. We want free health care and retirements to condos in Florida. And $.50 / gallon gas. And we'll elect whoever tells us they can do it.

66:

Dan, no-one's missed the "golden age" of SF - most of the best of it is still in print and readily available (although I couldn't in good conscience recommend Heinlein to anyone).

I could write an essay about how those who seem to be most attached to the idea of space colonisation do so with the mistaken idea that people like them would be the ones privileged to enjoy it.

67:

In a historical note. I wonder what the elites in Rome thought when the had conquered most of western Europe? After all there wasn't much to do but move the borders around for over 1000 years after that.

68:

I think that our vision of space colonization has been heavily colored by the tropes and history of our Western colonial experience (the frontier, the lost continent, unexplored lands containing amazing wealth just for the taking.) What this experience consisted of is displacing the original inhabitants of various areas of the world with technologies that were far more economically productive for a given area of land.

I'd also point out that most of the settlement was done in areas where the environment was relatively palatable to Westerners. Where the climate was "beastly," economic overlordship was done with a thin layer of temporary management and the natives did most of the work.

The technology we have developed to maximize our economic output on Earth doesn't work well in space; although, by running out of the resources for our current technologies, we are developing a technology that can basically produce all the necessities of civilization from carbon, water and rock, most of it in a closed cycle.

This technology is far more suitable for utilizing extraterrestrial bodies; however, I don't see it being economically viable before the 2100s. Economics will then drive the exploitation of space resources. Because, the environment in outer-space falls into the "beastly" category, this work will done will minimal human presence.

At first this activity will be directed at supplying Earth, but eventually the extraterrestrial economy will grow by feeding on itself. However, by then Earth's population will have stabilized into a mostly comfortable middle class lifestyle, so the pressure to go off planet will be minimal. Also, I suspect that by that time some sort of A.I. far more suited than humans to living and working in space (and therefor cheaper) will be doing most off the work.

Earth will eventually colonize space, but not with humans.

69:

If you consider the European colonisation of the America's it took 20 years from Columbus for the first Spanish settlements at Darien, 40 years before the first Portugeuse settlements took place in the New World that became Brazil. Space travel isn't
yet comparable to 15th C ocean navigation.

The economics which drove the process was the subjugation of native principalities with large amassed amounts of silver and gold. This really
lit the bluetouch paper behind European expansion to the America's.

We currently do not have a real economic driver to push man into space...once there is one, we'll be there, an established orbital industrial base is a realistic requirement for major human activities
in the solar system.

Possible triggers for that industrial base that I can see are, power satelites, uploading dirty infrastructure or mineral exploitation of captured
bodies.

-- Andrew

70:

We currently do not have a real economic driver to push man into space...once there is one, we'll be there, an established orbital industrial base is a realistic requirement for major human activities

It didn't help that we spent 30 years spending a gazillion dollars per launch pretending it was cheaper than $100 million per launch.

While there were colonies soon after Columbus they didn't have to send out a fleet of 1000 ships carrying everything they would need. They brought the basics and things they could not easily make in the America's (metal tools, paper, horses, weapons, etc..) and used what they found for the rest. Including natives for a lot of the labor.

71:

Can't speak for everyone else, but for me, it's because it's different. It's analogous to how I've always thought of science fiction versus classical english literature - ie. something new and unexplored versus something done and dusted. Seriously, if after 1500 or so years of work in english, and a few thousand before that in other languages, you've only come up with 36 basic plots and everything else is a variation on those, then something else is desperately needed. Science fiction - whether through a change in setting, whether or not that change falls within the mundane movement's limits, or through a change in actors within that setting, by trying to imagine nonhuman actors as actually alien rather than all-powerful humans - feels like a monumental breath of fresh air.

Well, bar the "homages" you occasionally see, which can be funny, but generally don't have that same feeling. And it's far stronger with hard science fiction than most other genres. That's not a very academic analysis, I know, and it's deeply personal (though combine a trick memory and a reasonably voracious appetite for reading and you'd probably get a similar experience).

In the same way, I look at improving car assembly line robotics, or adding features to a database, or building a taller building or whatever, and while I know academically that these add to the sum of human knowledge and indirectly are contributing to space exploration; it just doesn't have the same feeling that I get from looking at someone using a robotic arm on the ISS or building an experimental solar sail or talking to the people who drove Pathfinder on Mars.

Then again, the idea of sampling Lake Vostok gives a similar feeling, so perhaps it's not so much "up" as it is "out" - finding new stuff to learn about, seeing what's over the next hill, whether that hill be a geographical feature or a metaphorical obstacle. That's got to be a pretty basic human drive, even if it's not shared by the entire race...

72:

Agreed. Since I recently read it, I'd add Charles Mann's 1493 gives a realistic view of the death rates involved in that first wave of European colonization. And that was with some very strong economic drivers (gold, silver, sugar, tobacco) pushing the whole enterprise.

73:

It's not about space. (Ok, it may be for some people, I didn't read all the comments, but it's certainly not for me)

The problem with this guy is he is arguing:
1. We have hit or will be hitting soon a limit of growth
2. The progress of mankind will stop
3. It's all downhill from here
4. We're doomed

He has some calculations with interesting assumptions to support his argument, and this blog article about space travel is just a way to shoot down the people who uses space as a way to counter his argument.

No one likes doomsayers...

74:

Quoting from a comment on Tom Murphy's original post:

Set aside what you know about physics and technology for a moment, and go back to when you were a child, watching someone ride a bike or car, watching a boat on the water, or watching a bird in the sky. It all seems so effortless — in fact to me that as a child, those things, in that order, appeared to require less and less effort.

PlanetES’ “wonderful life” ending theme illustrates that pretty well. And the opening credits are just packed with nostalgia. (PlanetES is an anime about debris cleaners in Earth orbit.)

_

"But the idea of finite or renewable resources is entirely at odds with the meme of exponential progress"

Not necessarily, as long as that progress does not require exponentially increasing mass. An information based economy is not a zero sum game. So while the future will not hold a couple of spare cars for everyone, or everyone having their own private 747, or yacht, it does hold vast personal computing power, nanotech, biotech, life extension tech, and more cheap entertainment than they can consume etc.

Good point. It's pretty hopeful to be reminded of these ways forward (not to bring railroad metaphors into it); for example, the internet is forming one of the largest cultural spaces we can ever have, at an energy cost that is a fraction of, say, agriculture.

75:

Star Trek. Or,as we sometimes say around here, Patrouille du Cosmos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8ZVk85C4tM

76:

Erm, speaking of doomsayers, you might want to check this thread from last month.

77:

I think that almost proves Jim R's point, which I might generalize as "There exists a quasi-ideological divide between doomsayers and non-doomsayers within the broader community of 'people who spend time thinking about the future'".

78:

And then you have to have the conversation about how screwed up the healthcare system is, how the banking is out of the arc, decent cheese costs a small fortune, the bread is inedible and DON'T get me started on bacon.

The US has many things going for it, but it's pretty far from being a utopia.

79:

Yes. See 56 above.

80:

It's the whole Faustian no-limits thing, the mindset that goes back to the age of exploration and continued for something like 400 years. That's a long, long time for a meme to get hard-wired in as if it were God's own truth. Plus, of course, nobody likes to think that Progress is going to stop - if it were to stop, among other things, our entire economy would crash! Because --

Another hard-wired meme is that prosperity depends on unlimited growth forever. We have to grow, Grow, GROW! our club, firm, economy, church, etc. Otherwise we crash.

81:

But I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?

Yes, yes it is.

I think the self-examined life is getting to be a rarity these days.

82:
But I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?

Yes, it's incredibly unusual. Even among the highly intelligent, dynamically educated, self-confident, emotionally self aware. Speculative fiction fans are no less capable of religious type fixation than anyone else.

The good doctor is as capable of making mistakes as anyone else (using a ground-based, very heavy solar panel weight and characteristics for a comparison for orbital use, etc). However, he's more amenable to collaborative correction than average.

It's healthy to have skeptics. And visionaries. Visionaries who can do math and are grounded with practical knowledge in their relevant fields are precious gems...

83:

Why?

Why do people believe in gods, play the lottery to get rich, enter the X-Factor to be famous, vote republican (or democrat, or labour, or conservative) when its never worked, go on another diet, etc.

Why don't they accept man made climate change, peak oil, that houses are overpriced, she really hasn't changed 'this time', that they really can't afford 'it'.

People are stupid and lazy.

They believe the good stories that say they can get a better life for little effort. They disbelieve the poor stories that say there is no chance of that there is no chance of them even keeping the little they have. Facts, data, don't come into it. Unless you are used to looking at a subject with empirical evidence, you go for the 'good hair', and that's what the majority of the populous does. It's the story that sells them - projecting themselves into the story presented and thinking they like the outcome.

Think about it, living under the sea would be more practical than space, but with many of the same issues. People don't desire that story, so it doesn't happen - facts be damned.

84:

Yup. Indeed there are thermodynamic limits to energy consumption on a planet. Not a particularly new idea actually. I first read about it in an early Piers Anthony novel (IIRC Macroscope, 1969). I expect we will run up against other limits first.
Absolute limits are important (as well as being interesting to speculate about).

85:

In my more cynical moments, I suspect that the idea of being "Whitey on the moon" is really the core of its appeal. When we talk about "building a new world" and "getting a fresh start," what we really mean is leaving behind everyone we don't like. Implicit in the idea of an extraterristrial paradise is the assumption that it will be inhabited only by the elect.

86:

Maybe this intense emotional attachment to the idea of space-travel could make a good basis for the religion (or moral framework) of your generation-ship-city-state?

87:
But I've learned to detach myself from ideas I'm emotionally attached to, so that I can analyse it for plausibility. (Most of the time, anyway.) Is this really so unusual an ability?

Based on observation, I feel the answer is "yes", but I do not have hard numbers.

88:

Well, I've read the whole thread, and I don't think anyone's said it yet - Space colonisation could hppen today (or thereby) but isn't because there is neither the business nor the political will to make it happen.

89:

My copy of Alex and Cory Panshin's The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence isn't at hand, but it has one passage which struck me as such an insight that I can very nearly quote it. It goes like this:

To enter the Technological Age, the Romantics had had to come to the perception that their greatest problem -- the rise of Soulless Science -- was the answer to their greatest need, the rediscovery of mystery. In the same way, Techno-age people had to realize that the vast, intimidating universe lately revealed by science was the answer to their most troubling fear, of a cyclic history which would bury their civilization as surely as Rome and tyrannosaurus rex.

I think this is a goodie and I've pondered it much. The Panshins' context here is the turn-of-the-century emergence of SF from Wells through Jack London and E.R. Burroughs to Olaf Stapledon: all very willing in their different ways to portray the fall and succession of civilizations. It was a significant theme of the day. Then the Panshins go on to tell how E.E. Smith, with Philip Nowlan and Edmond Hamilton, opened up a radically new genre of the imagination: that vast universe imagined as a human playground and a field of infinite possibility.

So that's my answer. I'd add a couple of things: first, that we love our cathedrals and pyramids well enough to build them; second, that we love our ships well enough to risk our lives on them.

90:

That's right, it's not forbidden by physics to establish permanent off-Earth outposts. But "not forbidden by known physics" is an extremely low bar for plausibility. Most arguments in favor of near-medium future Grand Space Projects like asteroid mining, a manned Mars outpost, or L5 colonies seem to come in three basic flavors:

1) Claims of huge economic opportunities based on various ludicrous assumptions.
2) Mystical talk about the human spirit's timeless yearning to inhabit a lifeless vastness far from Earth.
3) "Can't keep all of our eggs in one basket" -- conveniently ignoring that your little space outpost can't survive without Earth's help after we have a nice big thermonuclear war or comet strike down here. Come back to the idea after you have von Neumann machines that can substitute all critical Earth-based industry.

Even more interesting (a different phenomenon, or just a more extreme gradient in the same reality distortion field?): In one of Tom Murphy's previous posts about galactic scale energy, some commenters disagreed with him on the basis that we could have FTL travel in a few thousand years. This from a post where Tom already assumed for the sake of argument that you might expand out from Earth near light speed and build Dyson spheres around every star in the galaxy. Give an astronomical unit and they want a light year; they're not satisfied with any sort of constraints on their fevered imaginations. I suspect these are the same personalities who keep the flame of hope alive for zero point energy extraction schemes, not because there's any encouraging evidence but because, just like mothers, elementary school teachers, and statists, mainstream physics limits their fun with rules.

91:

Most arguments...seem to come in three basic flavors:

A fine list. You forgot:

4) All we need is sufficient willpower to make it happen. (a variant of #2). The notion of willpower overcoming any technical challenge was quite popular in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, only to fall off for some inexplicable reason...

5) We'd be mining Ceres right now if it wasn't for this damnable government monopoly suppressing private enterprise. If only NASA got out the way, we'd be basking in unlimited energy and resources! (a libertarian favorite)

92:

Space colonisation myths are about taking responsibility for ourselves - they're about 'boldy going', they're about leaving the Mother-earth behind. The myths are about growing up, and independence.

Contrast it with the far more wide-spread and popular myths of benevolent humanoid alien sky-gods who will descend and save us all from impending energy-environment catastrophe. They're about remaining childish, depending on others.

93:

3) "Can't keep all of our eggs in one basket" -- conveniently ignoring that your little space outpost can't survive without Earth's help after we have a nice big thermonuclear war or comet strike down here. Come back to the idea after you have von Neumann machines that can substitute all critical Earth-based industry.

A footnote to this, virtually never examined, is that such cornucopia machines will also be able to substitute all critical Earth-based industry right here on Earth, with consequences akin to a Magnitude 10 quake for economics insofar as we understand the dismal science.

However, cornucopia machines are not a monolithic technology but a climax efflorescence. And those with vested interests in existing not-yet-substituted industries will wield the legal/patent pruning shears with desperate strength if and when they see it coming.

(This may explain why a friend of mine -- an SF fan with a background in military aerospace -- made a decision some years ago to switch career track and become a barrister specialising in intellectual property law. And did a dissertation on the status of 3D printed objects in English IP law. It's where the interesting big legal battles of the next few decades will be fought ...)

94:

some of us live in places that haven't had an open frontier in multiple millennia

Not true of Scotland, though. Scots have had multiple open frontiers until very recently; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, America...

95:

Africa and South America still have frontiers.

96:

He says "... whether we can afford a continued presence in space".

I think this is an interesting point. That if we don't get off this rock soon (for varying values of soon) we won't be able too because it will be too expensive (eg the political will to allow some potentially large number of your voters to starve to fund off-world activities would be directly detrimental to your chances of being re-elected!).
What is the time frame? 100 years? 500 years maybe?
If people believe that at some point in time we won't be able to leave Earth then perhaps we should be trying harder now?

97:

These are not places you can walk to.

There's no unoccupied land just a couple of days' march from where you live.

(Or rather, there's plenty of unoccupied land ... except the Crown says it's owned by some rich nob who employs gamekeepers with guns to keep the poor away.)

98:

The one form of "cornucopia machine" that works in space and not on Earth is energy. The coal, oil and gas we use was created over hundreds of millions of years from solar energy and we've literally burned our way through most of the accessible supply over the past millenium or so.

If it wasn't for that pesky atmosphere, weather and the rotation and libration of the Earth in its orbit then solar power would be usable at the bottom of this particular gravity well. In space without those limitations then large-scale energy collectors can be made to work well and if there is any kind of push for space exploration/exploitation en masse then energy is going to be the driver, eventually. It's not a priority right now because the next generation or two can still burn (more expensive) oil and gas and coal while accepting the problems due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, leaving them to the following generation to fix as we are doing today.

Solar power satellites broadcasting power down to the Earth's surface are feasible but they're not the reason for a move of industry off-planet into space resulting in the building of large structures with some canned-monkey operations to faultfind and aid construction. I doubt SPS could keep the home fires burning by themselves anyway.

99:

The idea of multi-billion dollar space projects and their religious proponents intrigue me as a method of getting some very good work done that is applicable on Earth.

For instance, it's quite hard to get some groups to even acknowledge let alone agree to fund efforts to deal with climate change and other problems. However if an organisation were to be set up that was funded to investigate terraforming technologies space cadets will probably support it even though anything it produces would have a far better and more immediate use on Earth.

100:

3) "Can't keep all of our eggs in one basket" -- conveniently ignoring that your little space outpost can't survive without Earth's help after we have a nice big thermonuclear war or comet strike down here. Come back to the idea after you have von Neumann machines that can substitute all critical Earth-based industry

In some ways society is a von Neumann machine that can substitute all critical Earth-based industry.

101:

I look forward to seeing the interesting legal cases!

Right now, we're getting the dull ones. Like patent trolls with an astrology-publishing IP portfolio shutting down the volunteers who ran the Unix timezones database... Yes, that's now run into a force majeure, with ICANN taking over the tz database: but how many other dull things that you never heard of are being closed down or fenced off?

Actually, we've got the interesting cases here and now. Mobile telecommunications and the smartphone represent real progress towards a 'cornucopia machine' for information: see what you can find out about Google's legal difficulties with their commercial rivals' purchases of an aggressively-monopolistic patent portfolio.

If Apple think they're on the winning side of that, even if they drive Android off the marketplace, then they are dangerously deluded.

You can look at this in terms of vested-interest protectionism, buggy-whips and all, but there's also a view of this as 'The Enclosures', fencing off and claiming ownership of the wild frontier of technological expansion, and kicking the peasant-savants off of the intellectual commons of ideas.

If that intellectual eviction sounds ridiculoud, I would point out that English peasants (and later, Scottish crofters) ridiculed the idea that the common land was 'owned' by distant aristocrats when they, themselves, had always inhabited it freely. This 'ownership' was utterly unthinkable. But their assumptions were utterly mistaken: 'not even wrong', to use a phrase that's useless in an argument, because the people who need to know it will not hear it, and probably *cannot* know it.

This, in turn, feeds us back into the question: 'Why space?' It is a dream of people who were driven off their common land and freedoms, and fled to a new frontier. Or generations later, it is a dream of misfits, a minority who chafe against a life of fences and restrictions and of ownership, and do not really understand the barriers that they resent - nor the nature of the 'open space' they actually want.

102:

You could probably cut down the screeching responses to articles on space colonisation by at 50% if you (and Professor Murphy) prefaced such articles with

"While readers of this article may well be amongst those lucky enough participate in mankind's early colonisation efforts, you'll probably agree that it isn't a solution to (whatever they it might be a solution for) because...."

Most probably agree with you, they simply don't want their personal dreams challenged.

103:

I look forward to seeing the interesting legal cases!

Right now, we're getting the dull ones. Like patent trolls with an astrology-publishing IP portfolio shutting down the volunteers who ran the Unix timezones database... Yes, that's now run into a force majeure, with ICANN taking over the tz database: but how many other dull things that you never heard of are being closed down or fenced off?

Actually, we've got the interesting cases here and now. Mobile telecommunications and the smartphone represent real progress towards a 'cornucopia machine' for information: see what you can find out about Google's legal difficulties with their commercial rivals' purchases of an aggressively-monopolistic patent portfolio.

If Apple think they're on the winning side of that, even if they drive Android off the marketplace, then they are dangerously deluded.

You can look at this in terms of vested-interest protectionism, buggy-whips and all, but there's also a view of this as 'The Enclosures', fencing off and claiming ownership of the wild frontier of technological expansion, and kicking the peasant-savants off of the intellectual commons of ideas.

If that intellectual eviction sounds ridiculous, I would point out that English peasants (and later, Scottish crofters) ridiculed the idea that the common land was 'owned' by distant aristocrats when they, themselves, had always inhabited it freely. This 'ownership' was utterly unthinkable. But their assumptions were utterly mistaken: 'not even wrong', to use a phrase that's useless in an argument, because the people who need to know it will not hear it, and probably *cannot* know it.

This, in turn, feeds us back into the question: 'Why space?' It is a dream of people who were driven off their common land and freedoms, and fled to a new frontier. Or generations later, it is a dream of misfits, a minority who chafe against a life of fences and restrictions and of ownership, and do not really understand the barriers that they resent - nor the nature of the 'open space' they actually want.

104:

The late Tom Disch's brilliant, cranky The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of makes a lot of headway on "why do we love it so?" See also Joseph Corn's Winged Gospel for the messianic fervor around aviation in the 1920s and 1930s. Any space colonizer will recognize the rhetoric.

Charlie @43: We're all descended from a lineage of survivors

Dawkins hammers on that in River Out of Eden, rubbing our noses in the Teela-Brownness of it. What is the probability that not one of your ancestors, all the way back, perished before reproducing? Yes, tautology, anthropic, etc -- but also an insight into how sparse the lifeweb is in genespace.

105:

Isn't it more instinctual than cultural that we have a desire to expand into new habitats, even ones that are considerably less friendly that the ones we started in? Humans being a bunch of monkeys with a small range in Africa who expanded their territory, their technology and their minds. Became human in the process. Looking at an icy tundra, and thinking 'Umm, how can we live there?' is a human thing.

Space is another barrier, like the Bering Straits. Even if we can't cross that barrier, our instinct is to try. Same as the way we come together in a crisis rather than fight amongst ourselves, why 99% of us find it so hard to kill another human: it optimises survival for the human race.

Many died crossing deserts and ice-fields, and our bodies and natures have adapted to fit those challenges. Whatever version of humanity makes it to the stars may not be much like us, but they will get there for the same reason we mate, because the desire to expand the size and reach of the species is so basic to our nature as animals.

Just because we are deluding ourselves massively as to possible outcomes doesn't stop us falling in love or dreaming of the stars.

106:

Can we stop attacking people who are passionate about an issue by calling them religious? It seems little more than an ad hominem and while I'm an atheist myself I don't think it's very polite to use the term as a synonym for irrational or unreasonable, deserving as the association may sometimes be.

107:

Not particularly. Certainly some people will explore frontiers. Others will move when the alternatives are ugly. There's even brain chemistry and genetic differences associated with the two.

Why? Staying in one place means you learn that place really well. This is good in all sorts of better support networks: better human links, better knowledge of where the food sources are, better knowledge of where the good soils are (if you're a farmer), or where the good grazing is (if you're a herder) and so forth.

Moving only brings new opportunities.

The problem with space is that the only thing it has a lot of is vacuum, and I don't think we have a shortage of that on Earth. It certainly has some other things: radiation of various flavors (at the energy density of approximately one light-bulb's worth per square meter near Earth), some concentrations of elements as dust and asteroids (although planets do a better job of sorting them out), and so forth.

To put it bluntly, there's not a lot of opportunities up there, and there are a lot of problems both with getting there and living there. Building a city on Antarctica is much easier.

Early humans weren't instinct driven colonizing machines, like bipedal cane toads. Certainly, some people always want to check out what's beyond the next hill just because, but they're a minority in most populations.

108:

and DON'T get me started on bacon

I actually really like American bacon!

109:

Isn't faith without evidence, or in the face of evidence the hallmark of religion? Call a spade a spade.

110:

Going by the amorphous standard of I can just grab some wild land where I want and then ask the King or his friends for a deed afterwards, with appropriate local cultural variations on the theme (and being conservative.) For England/Scotland, one millennia max. For Ireland/Wales, maybe 600 years. Germany: around 500 years (Mirkwood, Prussia, the Baltic.) Polynesia: around 500 years? For Japan (the North), around 400 years. For European Russia/Ukraine, 300 or 400 years. US/Canada: 100 years? Australia/NZ (for whites): not sure. China (the West): not sure. Siberia/Brazil: still open. Scandinavia/Nordia: hard to define, but definitely within the last millenia. Sub-Saharan Africa: hard to define, but probably within the last two hundred years or even currently still open.

Multiple millenia: France/Low Lands/Switzerland: maybe 1800 years, but I am not clear on the Pyrenees and similar places; so this number could be a lot smaller. Spain: maybe older, maybe the same, not sure about the interior. The Mediterranean/Black Sea litoral, pretty old by some measure, but then consider that colonies are still being formed in the 4th Century BC and the northern third of Italy is still pretty wild up to the 1st Century BC. Obviously, plenty of places are extremely old and continuously settled: Athens, Anatolia, Egypt, Iraq, etc.

This is without factoring resettlements within a continuous political structure like William the Bastard's harrowing of the North (which then required resettling) or recapture of lands left fallow after the Black Death.

111:

Being an idiot, Brittany and Normandy alone shave quite a few centuries off France.

112:

As plenty of others have said, yes, very.
All rationalisation eventually boils down to assumptions. People effectively live their lives according to a collection of assumptions they've been conditioned with. It takes a great deal of effort to think about and figure out why you do and believe the things you do and most people can't be bothered, or are actually not capable of it. All of this is pure speculation with no evidence to back it up. Doesn't stop me beleiving it.

113:

"The problem with space is that the only thing it has a lot of is vacuum, and I don't think we have a shortage of that on Earth."

I'd like to buy 1 cubic kilometer of hard vacuum, preferably within California. What price can you quote me? ;)

114:

As an experiment, why not post an essay arguing that space colonisation is easy and will happen soon, as a pseudonymous guest on another blog with the same number and type of readers, and see what kind of comments it attracts?

As to the main question, there's an upper limit on everyone's ability to directly run the numbers, beyond that their understanding of some scientific principles is necessarily religious - i.e. based on received wisdom from authority figures. Also, they've shown an interest in the kind of stuff that gets you bullied in many schools.

For example, I can basically derive Newton's laws of motion from first principles using calculus, so at a certain level I "understand" that s=ut+1/2 at^2 etc, I don't just take my physics tutor's word for it.

However I've nowhere near enough maths and physics to derive E=mc^2 and so on. I can point to people who say they can, I can claim that some stuff works because of it, but I don't really know it.

I'm like a lot of SF fans who can't honestly tell the difference between some of the things that are probably impossible, and others that are cool implementations of technology. Invisibility cloaks? Who'd have thought it? Does anyone here really understand how a phase conjugate mirror works? (*). I mean fans, not writers.

Add to that the negative reactions SF fans are used to from others - any attack on a basic tenet such as living in space is received by them like the NRA debate team reacts to an arms control measure. And because many/most can't and don't fully understand the scientific challenges, all that's left are rhetorical, political arguments and those based on free ponies.


(*) Not you, Charlie, I reckon you could give it a fair stab. btw top marks for a) having pcm's in your work, and b) assuming readers would know what they were without needing a scene with Basil Exposition.

115:

Oh, don't give me that, Charlie - there have always been open frontiers in Europe. They just often have inconvenient populations of other Europeans on them, and it's really only a very recent development indeed that you've stopped killing each other for your farmland, so don't play the killing-the-natives card. My wife is Central European, and you yourself are an Englishman living in Scotland, and you know it hasn't been multiple millennia.

My point stands - in fact, I think it's strengthened; now that we're all too civilized to consider land with other people on it an open frontier, we have to go where there are no people. Which means up.

116:

"To put it bluntly, there's not a lot of opportunities up there, and there are a lot of problems both with getting there and living there."

Doesn't that apply to almost any new environment? tell an African Plains Ape circa 2 million years ago that some of his/her descendents would be living around the Arctic, or on small, isolated islands surrounded by a lot of ocean and they might express some surprise...

117:

I can do that for a nominal price, but be aware it is supplied with air as a packing material. Please send a large stamped addressed box to One Born Every Sixty Seconds, Unit 12, Thatcher Industrial Estate, Grantham.

118:

Aren't you thinking of air-whipped emulsions rather than hard vacumn? ;-)

119:

Charlie said: "(Or rather, there's plenty of unoccupied land ... except the Crown says it's owned by some rich nob who employs gamekeepers with guns to keep the poor away.)"

Deep breaths Charlie ... Deep breaths!

120:

Sure,

The price I'd quote for a cubic kilometer of medium-quality vacuum is $9,000,000,000,000.00. That is, if you don't mind getting it in the form of incandescent lightbulbs.

Shipping and tax not included in the price.

Obviously, bulk vacuum is more available up in space. Getting it down here in large quantities might cause issues. Somehow, I don't think the vacuum trade is going to cause space colonization any time soon.

121:

really?
have you tried Frazzles?

122:

yae, important war-work that

123:

vaccuum smugglers......hmmmm

124:

Robert Sneddon replied to this comment from Charlie Stross :

"The one form of "cornucopia machine" that works in space and not on Earth is energy. The coal, oil and gas we use was created over hundreds of millions of years from solar energy and we've literally burned our way through most of the accessible supply over the past millenium or so."

Which requires an amazing amount of capital to be invested in the mere ability to build SPS, let alone to make them economically efficient.

You're basically waving a magic wand named 'assume a large space industrial complex'.

125:

"Dawkins hammers on that in River Out of Eden, rubbing our noses in the Teela-Brownness of it. What is the probability that not one of your ancestors, all the way back, perished before reproducing? Yes, tautology, anthropic, etc -- but also an insight into how sparse the lifeweb is in genespace. "

100%, obviously.

126:

FWIW, I still believe in space colonization, but I never thought it was the answer to the population crisis. People who believe that can't do arithmetic. And I expect that it will be quite dangerous to start with. So civilizations that are risk averse won't be partaking of it. And it won't be libertarian. And it will require subsidies to start with. (I originally said "massive subsidies", but then I started thinking about some of the current industrial subsidies, and downgraded the relative size.)

Interstellar...yeah, that's a lot further off. But I still believe in it. It just won't be high speed. It will be an interstellar amble without a goal by groups that are perfectly happy to live in their containers, and don't want to find planets to live on, but are more interested in "unclaimed resources". This *will* require mastering at least controlled fusion and closed cycle ecology (well, nearly closed). And it's likely to be pushed by political or religious disagreements more than economic. Since they mobile colonies would make their living by scavenging free bodies (planets, asteroids, comet heads, etc.) a high velocity wouldn't be reasonable, but you want to be moving fast enough to get from one to another reasonably quickly, and slow enough to mine it when you get there (on the approach and while you leave, as quick changes in velocity just aren't in the energy budget, but you want to go from one to another because different bodies have slightly different materials available...even if what you are using is mainly CHON).

Still, that's over a century into the future. More probably two or three.

I envision these colonies growing by budding off new colony vehicles when the population grows too large and they are close to a rich mineral source.

Note that this requires fancy computer management of the population and, if not nano-assemblers, something sort of like them on a slightly larger scale. Say micro-assemblers. But it doesn't make any wild claims about what they are capable of. There is a question as to how to design such things, but complex micro-scale devices are clearly practical. What's less clear is that they are practical in a vacuum...that, e.g., you won't get vacuum welding, because smooth surfaces NEED to be essentially in contact.

The question of "how many specialists does a colony need" is solved by the "sophisticated computerized social controls", which can even maintain knowledge when nobody currently present has it, and teach it to new people on an as requested basis. (And manipulate the population so that it's requested when needed.)

I don't have any trouble in believing in the computerized social controls, as we are already several steps along that path. The things that I'm a bit hesitant in this scenario are the closed cycle ecology and controlled fusion. The controlled fusion isn't, however, needed for the prototype colonies in near solar space, as they can use mirrors and steam engines or photocells. The closed cycle ecology is the place where we just haven't been doing enough work, and it's probably a lot trickier than we expect. (Or maybe we know that, and it's why we haven't been doing enough research.)

So I put the first prototype at a couple of decades out, minimum. I don't know *what* it's ostensible purpose will be, but somebody will come up with some reason. (As long as it requires a continual stream of supplies, then I'm not counting it as even a prototype.)

127:

heteromeles "The problem with space is that the only thing it has a lot of is vacuum, and I don't think we have a shortage of that on Earth."

Alex Tolley: "I'd like to buy 1 cubic kilometer of hard vacuum, preferably within California. What price can you quote me? ;)"

Hmmm.....how about the price of one US shuttle launch?

129:

I think we already colonized space. ISS is in space? Check. Human beings living in it? Check.

Done.

130:

Not that old chestnut again... why do I think I'm going regret writing this reply...

We are going to have to go into space to get the water this planet needs. It's not the fossil fuels - we can invest in renewables of various forms, but to date it has not be profitable enough to do so. Once we've cured cancer (which we are well on the way to doing), we're a step away from curing radiation sickness, so that won't be a problem in the future. And as for getting out of the Earth trap... I wouldn't like to bet which technology will win the race to become the most profitable to use at this juncture in time, but there are ways of doing it that are engineeringly feasible. Growing food on non-Earth places... we've been doing genetic modifications to plants and animals in all but name over the centuries... GM as it's called is a speeded up version.

So what other problems do you think are unsolvable?

I'd better go back to my pet hobby of being a GRUMP!

131:

Yes! The planet needs water! Sea level is dangerously low!

Wait...

132:

Er...no it doesn't mean "up". How about filling all the space we haven't yet used? Aside from all the undeveloped areas we've got all the deserts, mountainous areas, bottoms of the oceans, floating on the oceans etc. Making these places habitable and building cities there is a far easier (but still hugely challenging) task than mass transport off of Earth to build self-sufficient colonies elsewhere.

133:

Actually, I do have a good use for space:

We promise the offspring of the wealthiest 1% a chance to be absolute rulers of their own space empires, looking down at us peons.

We make the contracts, charge them, oh, 60% of their net worth (not cash on hand, net wealth), redistribute that as much as possible, and send them off, preferably in rockets that can achieve escape velocity and not have enough fuel left for them to return.

Heck, I'll even sponsor a space station for them, providing that, once we launch it, it will take them at least two years to get back to Earth on a small ship.

Whaddya think? Better than an aristocracy, in my book.

134:

Once we've cured cancer (which we are well on the way to doing), we're a step away from curing radiation sickness, so that won't be a problem in the future.

A-HAHAH-cough-HA-choke-HAHEEE-splutter ...

I would love to hear you say that you're basing this on your extensive familiarity with your field of oncology research, but I fear you may be getting your information from the comics instead. Because curing cancer and radiation sickness is not something I think we're particularly close to achieving (although I will concede that the nature and magnitude of the problems in question has become much clearer in the past decade).

We are going to have to go into space to get the water this planet needs.

What water?

If you levelled all the continents, we'd be nearly three kilometres deep in the stuff. There is no water shortage. What there is a shortage of is fresh water for irrigation, which is not the same thing. And I suspect you'll find that desalination plants (complete with a brace of platinum-plated fusion reactors to power them) work out cheaper than bringing back even one cubic kilometre of cometary water -- fifty minutes' worth of flow for the Amazon river.

135:

Nestor, I quite agree.

I read a lot of American right-wing commentary. It's very easy for me to find a blogger announcing his theme by stating that environmentalism or climate change alarmism is "a religion". Usually with an air of wide-eyed discovery -- who would have thought it, in our supposed age of rationality?

They often present themselves as rare skeptics speaking to the minority of thinkers who have kept their minds free of fads and fallacies. They usually do have some kind of skeptical argument, but the same accusation of "religion" appears in comments, with no supporting arguments at all. These commenters are happy to find themselves in the company of like minds. It soon becomes hard for an environmentalist, or whatever, to see what evidence could reestablish his credentials as a rational person, with this crowd.


136:

Replies to 128 and 131....

Even taking the effects of desalination into account, how do you think you are going to stop the population growing? They will need food as well as plain water, and I'm sure the pipelines (in whatever form) will eventually irrigate all the spare places for growing vegetables, including the sides of tall buildings. Then there's all the industrial manufacturing processes that use water and so it goes on.

As for the cancer side of things, I know the research came a long way in the few years prior to my husband's death - from cancer... so I had a personal interest in the matter. I also know there is still a long way to go... but we're on the road.

Ah well, back to my favourite hobby....

137:

Since they mobile colonies would make their living by scavenging free bodies (planets, asteroids, comet heads, etc.) a high velocity wouldn't be reasonable, but you want to be moving fast enough to get from one to another reasonably quickly, and slow enough to mine it when you get there (on the approach and while you leave,

It appears that you're talking years between mining operations. And you seem to be describing something akin to what whaling ships did in the early to middle 1800s.

Do you really think a society could hold together when you might live 10 years between harvests? Assuming you stay in the solar system. If you are talking about leaving the solar system then you're talking multiple generations who never see anything but maintenance.

138:

>>>Even taking the effects of desalination into account, how do you think you are going to stop the population growing?

The way it stopped in all the developed countries. Education and quality of life. And condoms.

139:

Reportedly, people in the Andes normally count on one good harvest in five years, due to the vicissitudes of weather in the high mountains. Or talk to actresses about good gigs. Yes, I think it's possible for people to deal with years between mining gigs. It's a time to retool, have kids, socialize, and what have you.

140:

Rosie: Even taking the effects of desalination into account, how do you think you are going to stop the population growing?

They're doing that of their own accord. The current question is whether population circa 2100 will be static -- or globally falling, as the aftermath of the demographic transition sets in.

I'm skeptical about cancer being easily curable; I have a personal interest in cancer (two family members have survived it in the past year -- although they won't receive the "all clear" for some time to come) and a background as a pharmacist, and I try to keep abreast of where things are going. Which is in the direction of discovering that there are at least six general classes of disease we call "cancer", each resulting from similar-ish failure modes in the genome (but with different genes at the root of them) and in turn affecting hosts of different tissues. And the main mechanism for keeping cancer in check -- each of us spontaneously generates and destroys 10-100 cancers every day, yet only 30-50% of us will ever have one that evades our immune system for long enough to grow -- also seems to be implicated in cellular senescence, i.e. old age. We're making major breakthroughs in treating some individual highly specific types of cancer -- but the overall problem is no more tractable than it was 20-30 years ago.

141:

I think a lot of the emotional pro-space arguments come from the same root as the "somebody on the Internet is wrong!" phenomenon. In other words, it's an easy and low-stakes argument to undertake.

Regarding the substantive issue of space colonization, the "anti" arguments boil down to:

1) Space travel is too expensive
2) There's nothing there worth bringing back

Point 1, cost, is being actively addressed by a number of companies, including but not limited to SpaceX. There is no known physical reason that orbital travel should be any more expensive than trans-Pacific air travel. Both require roughly the same amount of energy.

Point 2 is actually directly related to #1. Captain Bligh couldn't imagine that people would mine Pacific islands for bat guano. But changes in technology and transportation costs make that economically feasible.

So, I personally take the stand that we don't and can't know if space colonization is possible or not. We won't know until we try.

142:

I suspect cancer will not be defeated using clever biotech, but relatively crude nanotech eg nanoparticles loaded with toxin and tagged with an antibody to latch on and destroy cancer one cell at a time. And there is a lot of progress in that area, which is an area that did not exist 30 years ago.

143:

Um, please go read Riding Rockets for an astronaut's take on the safety of space travel.

To put it crudely, the difference between a hot water heater and a stick of dynamite is the rate the energy is released at. The costs of space travel have little to do with energy amounts, and a lot to do with energy release rates. Most of the energy used getting into space gets used in the first few minutes, which is a nice way of saying that there's not much difference between a rocket and a bomb. The expense of space travel comes not from releasing the energy, but from keeping the people alive during the process, and making sure they end up where they wanted to go.

An airline smooths out that energy use over the trip, and expends much less than a rocket climbing to altitude. That's why it's cheaper.

As for guano, it only became valuable when people understood that they needed nitrogen to feed growing populations, and shipping it only worked because there was high demand, plus cheap shipping. The cheap shipping came from a 300 year-old global transhipment infrastructure that transported things like sugar, silver, spices, silk, tobacco, slaves, and prisoners all over the planet. Remember, Bligh went to Tahiti to get breadfruit to feed slaves in the Caribbean. Guano was just another use of the same network.

With space, we're still lacking that first resource that will pay to get the infrastructure built: spices? Nope. Gold? maybe, but we don't have a golden asteroid to draw on. Tobacco? Nope. Sugar? Nope. Slaves? Nope. Helium 3? If we get fusion working, perhaps. Space solar? Nope (if we really cared about solar, it would be cheaper to put the panel on the house roof. Counting for transmission losses, that's more energy efficient, as well as cheaper).

Right now, space is good for things like telecommunications satellites and GPS. We're so far from the era of the Venus Equilateral series that it should be obvious that we don't need people in space for any of these functions.


144:

Please forgive me if this gets confusing - I'm tired and should know better than to start something this complicated when I'm on painkillers and fatigue.

I believe the original question was why are so many people vehemently and apparently unthinkingly opposed to statements saying it's impossible in the current climate/very unlikely. I'm not sure we've got all of the reasons, but we've got a lot and the inevitable rise of the people with reasons why it's possible, necessary and/or inevitable.

Although it's seemingly arbitrary, the British Army considers a company (110 men) to be a useful, self-sufficient force. I'm just wondering, if you were a (benevolent or otherwise) dictator of the world, determined to start a colony elsewhere in the solar system - how long and how much of the world's economy do you think it would take to establish a permanent base for 110 people on the Moon? Using the Army model, 6 month tours of duty works pretty well if you want to rotate them. Longer supply lines... less often would work if you need.

I'm of the opinion it is possible in terms of the world resources. I'm also of the opinion it's vanishingly unlikely. It will take a lot of time, energy and material to do. Could China decide to do it on it's own? Could Russia? The US doesn't have the will at the moment - and I'm pretty sure none of them have ever had that many bodies in space at once.

145:

The big and unspoken caveat in your reply about rocket safety is given current technology. That 747 cruises at speeds and altitudes that would tear a Wright Flyer to shreads, releasing more energy in a second than the Flyer had in total.

Regarding guano - we're actually in agreement. Given current economics, there's nothing in space worth going to get. This does not mean that there will never be something worth getting.

146:

I specifically discounted SPS as a major part of the space-based energy collector environment, at least until it was quite well-established. A lot of the energy collection and usage in space will be concerned with materials processing and it's easier to move the collectors or build them close to the material sources rather than have them cluster in LEO where keeping them in orbit is a major hassle due to atmospheric drag, light pressure etc.

The solar collector dishes and other major structures would be built in space from Lunar or asteroidal materials, not lifted from Earth although some of the precision bits such as control systems might be fabricated Down Here. This would require a lot of incremental bootstrapping before any significant level of energy collection would be in place -- the first gigawatt total is decades, possibly even centuries off assuming we actually commit to space fabrication and the necessary energy collection systems.

147:
There is no known physical reason that orbital travel should be any more expensive than trans-Pacific air travel.

In addition to Heteromeles' point about rate of energy usage, there are quite a few physical reasons why orbital travel is more expensive than trans-pacific air travel. In order to go into orbit, you need:

Oxidiser for your fuel (the jet gets oxygen from the air, for free)
Oxygen supply for your crew/passengers (the jet gets this from the air, at marginal energy cost)
Considerably stronger radiation shielding (the jet gets this for free from the atmosphere above it)
A much stronger and more advanced crew/passenger cabin (the average jet would not survive re-entry, for numerous reasons; it might not survive orbital take-off, either)
Quite a bit of extra fuel, to support lifting all that extra weight (because none of that stuff is phlogiston)

and probably a few other things I've forgotten. Getting into space is hard. And yes, SpaceX look likely to provide considerably decreased costs relative to the existing gold-plated governmental systems. But you don't see Elon Musk talking about selling tickets for the price of a ticket on an intercontinental jet; he expects to be able to bring the price of a ticket into space down to about the price of the plane making the transpacific flight. That's a big difference.

148:

how long and how much of the world's economy do you think it would take to establish a permanent base for 110 people on the Moon?

Define "permanent".

If you mean "equivalent to an Antarctic station -- viable indefinitely as long as the resupply flights arrive regularly" -- then I believe it is in principle possible for a whole bunch of world powers to build such a moon base. It would not be cheap, but I'm certain the USA could do it, or the EU. And I'd expect that a second tier power -- the UK, or Japan -- could do it as well, given a sufficient incentive (because it would cost a substantial double-digit percentage cut of the UK's defense budget on a recurring annual basis to do such a thing, and I see no incentive that could make the British government spend, conservatively, at least twice the peak cost of the Trident replacement program on a recurring annual basis -- i.e. US $10-15Bn a year, every year).

(NB: $5Bn should be enough to buy around 15-20 Falcon Heavy launches per year, i.e. around 1000-1500 tons into low earth orbit. Then add $5-10Bn for payloads. Hence the optimistic cost estimate.)

If "permanent" means autonomous or self-sufficient, then the answer is "never" -- because I don't think 110 people is enough for self-sufficiency in such a hostile environment. 110,000, now, might begin to get there -- although they'd find it difficult.

149:

3) "Can't keep all of our eggs in one basket" -- conveniently ignoring that your little space outpost can't survive without Earth's help after we have a nice big thermonuclear war or comet strike down here. Come back to the idea after you have von Neumann machines that can substitute all critical Earth-based industry.

I wonder how far away we are from von Neumann machines which can produce most of the technological goods we manufacture on Earth, though? A "von Neumann machine" needn't involve nanotechnology or come in a compact package like a living organism, it could be a sprawling automated facility on the moon with enough varieties of industrial robots to mine, manufacture and assemble a complete copy of itself over a period of months or years. This is still pretty far from what we can do today but it seems more likely to be achievable within the next century or so than more exotic ideas like nanobots or human-level AI.

It seems to me that even if this were possible, a big problem would be getting manufactured goods back to Earth once they had been created by such a facility on the moon (or an asteroid). Individual packages could maybe be sent back to Earth by something like an electromagnetic catapult which accelerates them to escape velocity along a long track, but could we deal with very large numbers of these packages coming back to Earth without a big danger that some would go off-course and hit populated areas (I suppose you could send them to the middle of the ocean or Antarctica to minimize the risk), and without them causing pollution or some other kind of disruption to the atmosphere?

150:

The frontier mentality is an overrated motive for space settlement. On my dad's home island, the frontier was settled after World War Two, by covered wagons pulled by US Army surplus jeeps. I don't see any massive wave of enthusiasm for space colonization from the good people of General Santos City, population already over half a million -- although they're enthusiastic enough about boxing, basketball, karaoke, and not getting knifed in the street.

Really, it's a secular manifestation of what in earlier times would have been a religious belief, one of the many peculiar mutations of Anglosphere Protestantism, much like similar beliefs in the Singularity or American "national greatness". You can make an intellectual case for each -- I think the strongest is for the last (not that I think the case for any is terribly strong) -- but it has nothing to do with the fervor of their adherents.

Displaced cultural energy. I suspect that as the Muslim world becomes more secular, it will see the largest growth in space colonization types.

151:
Regarding the substantive issue of space colonization, the "anti" arguments boil down to:

1) Space travel is too expensive
2) There's nothing there worth bringing back

Point 1, cost, is being actively addressed by a number of companies, including but not limited to SpaceX. There is no known physical reason that orbital travel should be any more expensive than trans-Pacific air travel. Both require roughly the same amount of energy.

Point 2 is actually directly related to #1. Captain Bligh couldn't imagine that people would mine Pacific islands for bat guano. But changes in technology and transportation costs make that economically feasible.

So, I personally take the stand that we don't and can't know if space colonization is possible or not. We won't know until we try.

The "pro" arguments that get me frothing are those that assume these ground-breaking technological changes must happen soon. Worse, arguments that colonization already makes sense and it's the fault of malign interests (including Luddites, NASA, environmentalists, bankers, Marxists, defense contractors...) that we didn't build L5 colonies and a Martian outpost starting in the 1980s.

If space vehicles could be reused as many times as a 747 and fuel was the largest recurring cost, I could see lunar travel getting in the ballpark of terrestrial commercial aviation costs. But that's a huge "if" due to the much more demanding performance of escaping Earth and carrying oxidizer plus fuel.

I don't think large scale space colonization or space resource exploitation is ever going to happen without at least a low-grade magic wand. My preferred somewhat plausible magic wand is the von Neumann self-replicating machine, robot factory that makes useful products plus copies of the robot factory, or however you want to phrase it. It's capital that reproduces itself without labor and thus represents the simultaneous climax and obsolescence of the capitalist system.

For some people this would register primarily as opening the space frontier: if private business or government won't send you to the moon, just buy some cheap land and wait a few years for your factories to produce an entire space launch infrastructure.

For the rest of us it probably registers as the most interesting of interesting times: the world economic order completely overturned or on the verge of it (pending the resolution of a War on Piracy that's been extended to atoms as well as bits), an abundance of manufactured goods available to everyone, said goods including weapons of mass destruction.

I don't think that the hopeful incremental approaches to improving space access I've seen so far will actually make space resources economically exploitable. In the foreseeable future nobody's going to let private entities build and operate nuclear thermal rockets. Even if such approval could be found, I'm doubtful that enough private capital would be found to develop commercial devices. Gradual technical improvements and efficiencies of scale might bring chemical rocket lunar travel down an order of magnitude in price, but that's still too expensive to even justify plucking pure silver bars off the lunar surface. Laser or microwave launch systems might bring down LEO access even more than an order of magnitude, but they don't help with returning resources from other heavenly bodies.

Certain space mineral resources might be exploited without major revolutions in manufacturing or propulsion technology, but it would then require a revolution in social organization. If you stick to semi-autonomous robots exploiting near-Earth objects and using very efficient orbital transfers plus electric propulsion, the incremental advances I've called insufficient above might be enough to bring back substantial quantities of material. But you'd be trading time for energy; potential funders are equally unprepared to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on game-changing propulsion technologies or to spend mere single-digit billions in expectation of payback 70 years from now. Even if you pulled off the patient robotic approach, impressive though it would be, it won't satisfy Space Enthusiasts who actually want to live there.

152:

You're a bit confused about the Wright flyer vs. 747. The flyer had ~136 lbs of thrust for a 605 lb plane, while the 747-100 has 138,200 lbs thrust for a 735,000 lb plane. If you compare the ratio of pounds of thrust per pounds of plane, that's 0.22 for the Wright flyer, 0.24 for the 747-100. The 747-100 does a lot more with what it has, but oddly enough, it's in the same power arena as the first plane, for all its advances. The numbers are in Wikipedia and associated references, so feel free to check.

That's the problem with rockets. At the end of the day, physics still governs how we get into space, and that means astronauts need to be going really, really fast. That takes a lot of energy, expended quite rapidly, whether it's a rocket or something more exotic.

Don't bother believing me. Go read Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets. A lot of people were fooled by the space shuttle into thinking space travel was like plane travel. Mullane lost friends as a result of that thinking, and he gets quite eloquent about the problems with thinking space travel was like air travel.


153:

Yes, I think it's possible for people to deal with years between mining gigs. It's a time to retool, have kids, socialize, and what have you.

Here on Earth they have option in most cases to walk away if they get fed up, bored, sick, whatever. On our mining mission there is no safety valve of being able to leave. And the ruler might turn into a jerk. Happens on earth all the time. Apparently of them just died today.

154:

Permanent is implicitly defined already. I talk about tours of duty and supply lines.

I agree that 110 isn't enough for a truly self-sufficient colony, but it's a size that if you rotate and resupply can achieve quite a bit. Enough to survey for Helium-3 mines say, or whatever grabs your fancy.

155:

And this is why the argument rages. Oxygen is cheap (LOX is under $1 / gallon) and total fuel / oxidizer costs for SpaceX are 1% of launch costs. So, there's a lot of technical details to argue.

But my bigger point is this - our "state of the art" with spaceflight is roughly equivalent to state of the art aviation circa 1905. That does not mean that we will advance as fast in spaceflight as we did in aviation (two World Wars did wonders for aviation, to start with).

What it does mean is that we don't know. To steal a phrase from my least-favorite Secretary of Defense, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns - things we don't know that we don't know. So anybody who has definitive opinions either way is talking out of their hat.

156:

He3 is moonshine -- there is no actual valid business case for mining it on the moon.

Not only do we not know how to build a fusion reactor that would run on the stuff -- it'd have to run at temperatures an order of magnitude higher than ITER or other current fusion reactor designs -- but if you can build a reactor that can run on He3, you can get the same benefit (aneutronic fusion) by fusing Boron-8, which is Not In Short Supply here on Earth.

So we could go to the moon to mine fuel for a type of reactor we don't know how to build that, if we could build it, could run on much cheaper fuel that's available here on Earth.

157:

Sorry, said I was tired. Not a serious use case, just an illustration that 110 men (with a supply chain to supper them) is a pretty useful size to have for lots of things.

158:

I think that one of the psychological factors behind some people's attachment to the idea of near-future space colonization is that once you admit that space colonization is utterly impractical at present (and for the foreseeable future) then you have to accept that we're going to be living here on Earth for a long time, and that means that we're going to have to find a way to live here sustainably, and that means that our lifestyles, and the lifestyles of our children and grandchildren, are going to have to change radically. And that's scary.

159:

I think there are a bunch of different answers to your question, Charlie.

1) "Final Frontierism" is symptomatic of secular humanism. One may believe in the human spirit, and its unquenchable desire to continue reaching forward even into the depths of space. Believing in the human spirit allows one to believe that humans are special. Their dreams and achievements are evidence of that specialness. Without it, humans are animals.

2) The frontier also symbolizes redemption. Tabula rasa. We've already ruined one world, so naturally we should start another rather than fixing this one. Might as well burn Earth and collect the insurance money.

3) There's a whole culture of Final Frontierism to contend with. Before we had a space station, and before we watched the Challenger disaster, there was a popular vision of what life in space would be like. And it looked nothing like the reality of what life in space is actually like. It was not life in a tin can. It was not life with early-onset osteoporosis. It was not life where every baby needed a Caesarean delivery. It was not life where the average requirements for space travel are two doctorates and the ability to pilot a jet aircraft. This vision persists, despite our knowing better. And it looks easy, so we like it.

..I should add that I'm a believer in doing things because they are hard. That's a distinguishing factor of genuine achievement. But the zeitgeist for space exploration is not strong enough to overcome the difficulty of the obstacles involved, and that's as it should be. We have enough problems, here. We have rising seas and dying species and systemic abuses within our oldest institutions. We have diseases that were supposed to be taken care of years ago, and energy policies that privilege finite resources. We should be doing something about those things. That's where real innovation for the largest number of people will happen. That is progress for justice.

By contrast, moving to space now is like moving to a bigger house and taking on a bigger mortgage because you think your house has "shrunk." It hasn't. It's that you've accumulated too much clutter. The house would be a perfect size if you were willing to clean it up, get rid of some things, and organize the remainder in a user-friendly manner. But no. Your closet just doesn't look right unless the doors can't close.

160:

I would think that people care about space colonisation because of two things. The first is a lot of faith in people, especially given the degree of change found in societies when much of the space travel centric sf was published. The second is that space travel is your new, bright future made real, so real you can go up and shake their hand.

161:

It has already been mentioned, but one relatively prosaic reason is the ubiquity of the "YAY SPACE COLONIZATION" meme in the media IMO. Whether this ubiquity is caused by escapism I can't tell, but the usually early infection with it quite certainly instills a certain optimism and desire to live in a Space Opera world, however infeasible this state of things might be.

Another often mentioned factor is the Frontier Fallacy and Fulfilment In Perpetual Expansion paradigm dominant in the U.S. and many sufficiently "Americanized" nations.

I believe this illustrates the point quite nicely (sorta, kinda NSFW):

http://www.quantumvibe.com/strip?page=191

Expansion = good, no expansion = you inevitably wither and die.

So the best course of action is to expand endlessly if you want to live a pleasant, wealthy life and don't want to vegetate among ruins. Such existential threats are a big incentive for Hurray-Astrocolonialism.

162:

People want want what the want. They don't want to heard "its not in the stand the art." The death of most sea life from too much co2 and then land matters more than the last of the oil. And is coming sooner.
It will be great when we have what we need, that will not be anytime soon.

164:

As Cris Gerrib notes, the cost of the fuel and oxidizer is almost trivial. The issue is not energy, but cost reduction through rapid reuse of the vehicle. Commercial aircraft tickets are cheap because the aircraft are earning revenue almost continuously. If they flew as infrequently as the shuttle, ticket prices would be unaffordable except to the super wealthy.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner - development cost - $32bn
10 units (2x shuttle fleet)
Service life, say 50 years.
Unit flight frequency - 4x/year.
passenger load - 250

Ticket Cost of aircraft/trip
= $(3.2/(200.250))bn = $64k

About the same order as a commercial suborbital flight.

Same aircraft, production line unit cost $200m.
Say 2 flights/day (x-Atlantic), 20 year service life (250 days/yr):

= $200E6/(20.2.250.250) = $80
(800 fold cost reduction)

165:

"Another often mentioned factor is the Frontier Fallacy and Fulfilment In Perpetual Expansion paradigm dominant in the U.S. and many sufficiently "Americanized" nations."

So just how "Americanized" were those Polynesians as they colonized the Pacific?

166:

I think the Polynesian (really Lapita) policy was that the chief's eldest son got the land, the second son got the ship. The archeological evidence says they spread across the islands faster than crowding would have driven them.

It's not so different than the old Celtic expansion model, for that matter.

167:

Apparently I come off as too much of a space cadet, so let me try this again:

Space is going to help the developing world.

I think the thing that space boosters (the people, not rockets) have in common with the Occupy folks is there's a pretty big range of beliefs hidden under a single banner. Myself, I think the biggest problem is expectation vs. reality.

I think that reality supports a modest but real investment in space, for practical purposes directly benefiting terrestrial life. Things like power generation through solar energy are orders of magnitude more efficient outside the atmosphere. As I said before, there are concrete ways humans in space are beneficial to everyone; focusing on the spiritual or existential misses the point.

99% of the research or science missions are going to be cheaper rootically. But those robotic missions are going to be a lot cheaper if there's a machine shop in orbit, especially if there's someone to run it. It's that kind of value added stuff that a persistent LEO presence could add to real science missions, even ignoring the sort of mechanic in space stuff that people can do.

168:

An infantry company, in numbers, is a size that pops up in anthropology. There's some fuzziness, but the size-pattern is similar enough to make me wonder.

Extended family: Roughly the same size as an infantry platoon, or a troop of baboons.

Clan(?): About the same size as an infantry company, and see Dunbar's Number.

Dialectal Tribe (obsolete term): The sort of group size seen in annual meetings, small enough not to overload the local environment, large enough that young adults have a choice of marriage partners. This has a wide size range, but isn't so different from an infantry battalion.

I'm trying to remember where I picked this stuff up. Maybe it's twenty-year-old books about early man, which might explain why some of the labels could be laughed at, today.

What I've seen of SF conventions, some of the same pattern is there, and it could explain why my abiding memory of the one Worldcon I attended was that it was too damn big.

And that feeling is why humans had to invent politics.

169:

The reason for this belief has many factors. First of all when we look at this belief's origin we can see that it is rooted in Cold War and its paranoia of mutually assured destruction. At that time, the collective subconscious carried a surety that we, as a species, will be destroyed by nuclear missiles. But weirdly enough, possibly the effect of the space programme, we had a hope of colonizing and/or building galactic empires of immense scale, the science fiction of that era mainly concerned with this. Take Asimov or Heinlein and you will see this. The earth is a radioactive husk and we the orphans of Terra had multiplied across the universe.


In addition to that space colonization is a Lacanian Objet Petit a, a perfect ideal utopia which we will never reach or realize. The concept can be explained with a simple example, objet petit a is the "beautiful woman" (or "handsome man") but this is an abstraction and carry different connotations for you or me and the person we are sharing our life is the most fitting real object. But not a total fit! Lacan suggests this very aspect gives this concept a duality, it gives us pleasure because we have some part of our objet petit a, but also pains us because deep down we know she is not it. But our psyche conveniently forgets that it, the concept, wasn't real in the first place.

Sorry for the long description but the space colonization is the objet petit a for us. For some it signifies "the final frontier", the final sphere of freedom where we will hunt and get rich. For others it is the paradise lost. Another chance where we'll try to not repeat the mistakes we have done in this planet. But even if we can colonize other planet or planets these will not happen. Sure, whoever or whatever company colonizes it will use these in its commercials but those ideas are just ideas and has no connection to reality. Remember, 10-20 years ago Internet was the "final frontier" or "the wild west" for some...

Also "the final frontier" aspect of space colonization tickles the most basic instincts of the human psyche. Treasure hunting, mapping the unknown, also it is rooted from the great battle given by our ancestors against thunder, or darkness, or anything that affects the nature but we have no reasonable explanation why.

That is my grain of salt as a philosopher and a sociologist who is also a dropout of Astronomy. English is not my native language so I apologize for any mistakes I've done and do expect your comments.


170:

Reply to 140:

I have yet to find a population of any kind that does to grow to just beyond the limits of its necessary supplies. The prediction of population stabilisation about 2100 sounds like extrapolation of known data, without taking into account any unusual events. The question must be asked what is the limiting factor for this? I would expect that the ingenuity of humans will find a way around this in due course, and continue to grow in numbers.

Cancer is a nasty disease and I hope your relatives do get the all clear in due course. Even in your blog you allude to the better understanding we have gained of the disease in recent times. At the moment, and because we have no other option, we are concentrating on dealing with symptoms and persuading people to avoid known factors that increase the likelihood of the disease occurring. What we are not yet doing is dealing with the cause or causes. Once we know them, we will find a way of dealing with them. And we are gaining a better understanding as time goes on.

I personally do not think that pharmaceuticals will be the final solution on the grounds there are always various inaccessible pockets in the body to the chemicals. Yes you can set up protective barriers with them, which the nasty cancerous cells are not allowed to cross, and this will help. But it is not the answer. At least one other message in this sequence has suggested a radically different solution.

171:

#122 - Does not compute; I was referencing the work that a certain grocer's daughter from Grantham, Lincs did before she entered politics.

#134 et seq - Some cancers are getting more preventable and/or curable, but the "more preventable" bit doesn't actually help anyone who's past their teens AIUI. Other cancers still seem to be at the agressive surgery and/or chemotherapy and then hope stage. Is that fair Charlie?

172:

I think the flip side of the coin to the sudden access to cash metal resources for Spain (and Portugal) is the strategic situation that Spain found itself in in 1492. It had just completed the Reconquesta and had a peace dividend to spend. It also had Portugal strategically outflanking it for trade routes to the Indies. So Spain took a low cost, high risk, high payoff gamble on which accidentally paid off massively more than they expected.

Worth remembering that the Spanish expeditions to the Americas were done with no new technology (the boats were even second hand and I think the King and Queen lent on the owners to do a deal). There was already a need for ships that could navigate Oceanic waters for a few months at a time and had been for a while.

173:

Where else is there to go?

If we can’t go to space then it’s the end of history. If we can’t go to space we either have an minor or major apocalype (not great) or we solve our various problems without an apolcalyse and live a happy (but oh so very, very dull) life for ever.

174:

Standard treatments for cancer do not just deal with the symptoms. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy approaches both target the cancer directly. The problem is they are not good enough and have too man side effects. Better technologies that are under development seek to increase targeting of various treatments e.g photo-dynamic therapy (PDT) that introduces a drug bound to a carrier into the body. The treatment does not do anything however until it is hit by a laser which separates the drug and carrier to kill the surrounding cells. For certain types of cancer such as skin and colon this novel therapy looks to be promising.

The problem is that there are many different types of cancer. Part of the problem is this difference yet there are not that many treatments that can exploit this. Herceptin is one example of a drug that does but it only works on 1/3 of breast cancers because of the prevalence of the gene for the receptor it targets. In future I would hope to see a big improvement in the ability to target cancer cells through the development of a plethora of better carriers (e.g liposomes, dendrimirs etc) as well as a huge improvement in cancer genotyping allowing for far more effective and personalised cancer treatments.

175:

It's always been easier to run away than deal with your real problems. The human race is on an unlimited population growth trajectory. The planet obviously has finite resources. The two are contradictory. You could deal with the real problem, and some people are. Or you can try to run away from the problem. The root of most of our problems really is population growth. You can fix the root cause or you can run away. The way humanity is going the future looks more like "Soylent Green" than "Star Trek."

176:

Classic SF didn't offer us just a future with "Men! In! Space!", but many other things, from cities under the sea to monorails, jet packs and robots, and none of those things that didn't happen seem to have engendered their own space cadets.

Take robots, for example. It would be easy to write about how complex would to build 'Asimovian' robots, how expensive the empress would be, how pointless would be to use such a marvel of Science and Technique to cook, sweep the floor, walk the dog and call us 'master', and how if they existed they would be used first and foremost by armies to fight wars, dictators to crush protests, corporations to drive all us to unemployment, and by call centers to make us raving mad, and how in the end we would be probably the ones sweeping the floors - if lucky - while the robots occupied the thinking jobs. But I'm completely sure that essay wouldn't cause such an emotionally charged backlash. Rather the opposite, it would probably go unnoticed.

And the only explanation I can think of is, we bald apes are wired this way, not only are we territorial but we need to feel we can expand, because when we walked the land in small bands looking for small animals, roots and berries, having filled all available space and having nowhere to go meant a famine in the near future...

177:

Other cancers still seem to be at the agressive surgery and/or chemotherapy and then hope stage. Is that fair Charlie?

Pretty much. And there are still a few where they're at the "do an MRI, do another MRI to confirm the diagnosis, then call in the Macmillan nurse and send the patient home to die because all chemo or radiation will do is inflict needless pain without significantly deferring the inevitable". (Various diffuse gliomas or astrocytomas fall into this category.)

178:

Dr. Murphy's point is that we shouldn't be harboring magical ideas about what going into space may accomplish. At the same time, there is one need that will eventually drive us out into space and that is deflecting big high-velocity things that could fall on our heads.

179:

The basic problem is that it takes exponential energy to gain a linear increase in speed, and getting to orbit is *just* on the edge of do-ability using chemical energy.

IMHO the last hope of cheap spaceflight for millions of people is if something like Dense Plasma Focus Fusion can be made to work. That would be a ready made rocket and electricity generator in one.

180:

The basic problem is that it takes exponential energy to gain a linear increase in speed

Let's be very careful about statements like this. It assumes the rocket equation, which in turn assumes that the bulk of the vehicle mass is made up of consumable fuel [and oxidant].

For a vehicle with an external power source (e.g. beamed microwaves) and [at least a partial] ability to use external working fluids (e.e. air) the exponential energy demand does not apply (except for the frictional effects).

181:

I don't see "why space" is any different in principle from "why emigrate" or "why found a utopian colony".

All the arguments mustered against space can be equally applied to the latter examples. [And probably were to the specific cases].

There is a certain "olive tree" mentality (c.f. Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree") at play here. Some folks are "stay at home" types, and others have the wanderlust. Space travel may be very hard to achieve, and Charlie is certainly correct about the initial issue of there being "no there, there", but hard realities don't a priori negatively impact the psychology.

But I'm also drawn to that line in Lawrence of Arabia, when the Bedouin asks Lawrence why the English are so drawn to the desert. I don't know the full answer, but I think it is because it represents a tabula rasa to shape, unencumbered by the stamp of millenia of civilization.

182:

When you consider that Banks' Against a Dark Background is an optimistic case for a society without realistic hope of a "frontier," then maybe you see why we cannot stop dreaming of them. (And I assume you would be even more dumbfounded by an aspiration to colonize other dimensions or spiritual vistas or the like. Banks, I think, gave the optimistic case on virtual life after death as well in Surface Detail, among other works.)

183:

The end of history if we don't expand? Sorry, that doesn't work on a lot of levels.

First off, space is more dangerous than Earth, and we're certainly more poorly adapted to it than we are to living on Earth. In almost any given disaster (collapse of civilization, asteroid strike, etc), as a species, we're safer here on Earth. Yes, most people will die, but not everyone.

As for real history, it tends to be much better documented in places like China where people are sedentary, rather than in places where people are moving around a lot, and trying to make their fortunes in new places (often by destroying and rebuilding what's already there). It's much more proper to say that, with the end of colonialism and the problems it caused, we're more likely to have better history than to see the end of it.

Still, you're right, the "we're all going to die if we don't keep moving" is one of the standard arguments for going into space. Perhaps we should call it the fugitive argument?

184:

By the end of history I’m refering to Francis Fukuyama and the view that once we achieve a certain social and political system there will be no change.

Living on Earth with no prospect of change and no prospect of adventure might be considered dull by some.

So, given a choice between apocalypse and a dull life in the suburbs many people are attracted to the idea of the bounty and adventure of space.

185:

Thanks for the clarification about "end of history."

Given the way the EU and the USA are having so much trouble dealing with solvable problems via the democratic process, I don't think we've yet discovered a best form of government. Note that I'm NOT saying that any of the other power blocs (China, India, various Islamic countries individually or together, etc) have a better answer. The point is that there's enough political imperfection out there to keep the historians writing for centuries to come.

186:

My personal strong reaction to attempted "debunking" of space colonization is a matter of what I see as a risk/reward imbalance. What we could potentially gain by succeeding in developing the technology needed for space colonization is everything in the Universe besides Earth. If, as some have suggested, the desire for space colonization seems to have a religious quality, perhaps it is because of the "Pascal's wager"-like effects of that kind of potential reward on the resulting expectation value.

In addition to this, I suspect that the single most commonly depicted technological development in SF is routine space travel. This is true both in popular/media SF as well as in literary SF of folks considering themselves true aficionados of the genre. I might add that this also includes several novels written by our esteemed host, who is wondering aloud why folks get upset when someone poo-poos space travel/colonization.

The upshot of all this imagining is an expectation that humanity's future lies in the stars. Given this expectation which has so successfully been inculcated within us, is it *really* so surprising that the reaction to space colonization naysayers is so visceral?

187:

Yes - we'll be kept busy for a while yet but eventually we end up against the finite economic limits imposed by living on Earth and with a persistently fair way of distributing the wealth and then what?

We just sit here for, well, until the Sun dies and takes us with it in a few billion years.

I'm not saying that's not a good outcome for the billions and billions and billions of people who will live rich, rewarding, safe lives but it's a bit dull if you've been brought up on tales of exploration and adventure.

188:

99% of the research or science missions are going to be cheaper rootically. But those robotic missions are going to be a lot cheaper if there's a machine shop in orbit, especially if there's someone to run it.

Wouldn't it be cheaper just to run it via telerobotics? That way you don't need life support, and if the machine shop is in orbit around Earth there won't be any significant light delay.

189:

[i]but if you can build a reactor that can run on He3, you can get the same benefit (aneutronic fusion) by fusing Boron-8, which is Not In Short Supply here[/i]

Boron-11, which is the most common isotope of Boron.

Boron-8 is somewhat less common, in large part due to its halflife of 770 milliseconds.

190:

danieldwilliam @ 173: If we can’t go to space then it’s the end of history...

Only if your premise is that the essence of history is people moving into unpeopled territory. That's been one strand, yes, but hardly the Main Event for most people most of the time. As others have noted, "people taking territory from other people" has been a better description for most such developments during actual recorded, y'know, history.

For ~450 of the last ~500 years (10% of history to first order), the northwest corner of Eurasia enjoyed a great run of military/economic/administrative expansion. Because such expansion is (1) hard work and (2) sometimes just a bit ethically whiffy, it made a nice motivating/justifying meme for the children that History Is All About the Endless Frontier. Anglo-North Americans may have articulated theirs most often, but the Slavo-Orthodox version served well from the Urals to the Pacific, as had Islam's "Let's make Umma=World" in its own 500-year heyday.

To extrapolate those vignettes to the solar system (and beyoooond!) is kind of steep. Believe it or not, the stay-at-homes in London and St. Petersburg and Damascus continued to produce and consume lots of history even as the Endless Frontiersmen did their thing. I'm sure homo sapiens can manage the same trick, whether or not homo astronavigans pans out.

191:

Sorry, I lost an introductory paragraph in my last post somehow. The point I was intending (but, in the absence of context, completely failing) to make was that even if all other things were equal the fact that the energy requirement per kilogram is about the same doesn't tell you anything about the energy requirement per passenger. So even if you could make a "spaceplane" that could be reused like a 747, it would still be much more expensive to run (despite being orders of magnitude cheaper than current launch systems).

Of course, I'd want a reusable spaceplane to have a rather more thorough checkover between flights than a 747, due to the rather higher (physical and thermal, mostly) stresses applied to the components. There's a reason why military jets spend so much time in hangers, and it isn't just that flying them costs a lot of money.

Separately, to Chris Gerrib: you've managed to make a reply (slightly irrelevantly, but I didn't provide the context above, so I think that was my fault rather than yours) to one minor point (out of four) in my comment, and to propose that magic new technologies will make cheap spaceflight possible in response to everything else. You're not going to convince anyone like that.

192:

Sorry, danieldwilliam, hadn't read your follow-ups -- but now that I have I'm no wiser.

Fukuyama's Hegel-and-water is even more parochial than the Endless Frontier: "The recent uptick in liberal democracy, against the eternal cosmic background of earlier-20th-century great powers, nationalisms, and their ideologies, has exhausted all the possibilities I can think of, even though I work at RAND."

Do you really, truly believe that history is so low-dimensional that expansion in plain-vanilla x, y, and z is the only way to keep the dynamics interesting?

193:

We just sit here for, well, until the Sun dies and takes us with it in a few billion years.

Who is this "we" you speak of, mammal-thing?

The Earth has been around for roughly 4500 million years (My) or 4.5Gy.

It has had an oxygenated atmosphere for roughly 2.4Gy. (That's not when photosynthesis started; it's when photosynthesis by unicellular organisms finished oxidizing all the available crustal elements and free O2 began building up in the hydrosphere and atmosphere.)

Land animals go back roughly 550My.

Birds split from dinosaurs roughly 120My ago. True mammals go back roughly 200My; primates go back 65-85My, and hominids (our kind of primate) go back 6-8My.

Look into the future:

Earth is good for maybe 4.5-5Gy before the sun finishes burning hydrogen, starts on helium, and swells into a red giant. But before then, the sun will brighten; UV splitting in the upper atmosphere will deplete hydrogen from the hydrosphere, drying the planet out and ending up in a "cool Venus" greenhouse state with an atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon dioxide blanketing parched land.

However, we've probably got 200My-2Gy before the planet becomes uninhabitable.

That's conservatively as long as mammals and birds have existed; at the longer reach, it's three times as long as multicellular animals have been around.

Given that your average species seems to exist for 1-10My, it's vanishingly improbable that humans (or even some variety of hominid) will still be around at the end.

194:

Basically, yes. We all get to die eventually, both as individuals, as a species, and as a biosphere. Even if we go to the stars, some of our descendents will probably be saying, "Another planet already? Why do we have to do this again?"

Personally, I'd say that, if you're looking for a new place to colonize, Detroit's a lot easier than the moon, and you can make just as much a new life there.

195:

The original question was about the cultural and sociological attachment aspects of space colonization as an idea, not about the idea itself. I think post #3 puts it nicely without ever engaging to the impracticabilities of space colonization, at least from the POV of those young people who have grown up fashioning their future on films (or novels) in space.

On the other hand, I think people are so attached to this idea because they genuinly believe that space colonization is a viable, but not necessarily a cheap or a simple, solution to some problems. At this point the debate turns into a rather technical one as I see in here (The High Frontier, Redux). For the proponents of space colonization all the counter arguments are just technical difficulties to be overcome.

Out of 200 comments I may have missed this but, would someone care to write down shortly what sort of problems do they think space colonization could solve?

196:

Space colonization is going to happen as soon as we have cheap access beyond Earth orbit. I predict a non-rocket propulsion system will get us there. Laser propulsion and rotating tethers are promising technologies. Space is close. People around the globe stare at the moon every night and think about going there. Once a ticket to the moon sells for less than $100,000, there will be a billion dollar tourist market. This will require thousands of permanent residents living there to serve the visitors.

197:

Stolencoin: someone care to write down shortly what sort of problems do they think space colonization could solve?

See comment #90 for a fairly good initial list. And #91 for some oversights.

198:

John, I invite you to examine the cost of the base load electricity needed to provide the energy to move 1Kg of mass into LEO.

We've been here; we've done this to death. Even if you could convert electricity into momentum at 100% efficiency, didn't need reaction mass either, and can buy it at 10 cents per Kw/hour, it's not going to be that cheap.

199:

Or as Cabal says at the end of the movie version of Wells' "The Shape of Things to Come":

"It is the universe, or nothing!".

200:

#90 and #91 come from people who make fun of what they think space colonization fans would put on the table as advantages of the concept. Second-guessing other people's arguments is fun but it wouldn't give any insights to why people think in a particular way.

201:

Based on Charlie's own "AGI is magic pixie dust", we would need human outposts everywhere we need to control robots without light speed delays. Humans, for the foreseeable future, will remain smarter than machines. The cost differential may not support humans off planet, but I think that it makes a lot of sense to have humans in orbit around Mars controlling robots on the surface, rather than having them land and wander about.

Of course, should we ever be able to transmit signals effectively instantaneously, then leaving humans on earth and machines making the journeys (even to the stars) makes the most sense.

202:

But let's not forget, that much of evolution is about separation of populations and new environments driving adaptation. Sure, humans will engineer themselves, but space colonization could drive a whole new evolutionary branch[es] for humans.

203:

I'll say what I've said before about the types of people who buy into this nonsense hook line and sinker: I've noticed a strong (inverse) correlation between actual hands-on experience Making Stuff and attachment to the Dream. And when I say Making Stuff, I'm specifically excluding anything having to do with software development from that category.[1]

Iow, people who would be in over their heads if they attempted so modest a project as sewing a new liner into an old coat often to seem be the most cavalier in brushing aside any concerns about how these pioneers are going to feed themselves, or how they're going to build their homes, or the details of just what kind of jobs they'll be doing and with what sort of tools . . . the sort of people who think that after they've done the hard job of drawing up "blueprints" for the Enterprise NCC-l701 any old crew grease of monkeys ought to be able to build the thing.

This applies to any sort of futurism of course, like flying cars, domed undersea cities and so on and so forth. So why the fixation on space colonization in particular? I think this comment inadvertently nails it:

Separately, to Chris Gerrib: you've managed to make a reply (slightly irrelevantly, but I didn't provide the context above, so I think that was my fault rather than yours) to one minor point (out of four) in my comment, and to propose that magic new technologies will make cheap spaceflight possible in response to everything else.

This goes to the point seldom explicitly touched upon but there as unstated background nonetheless: futures with extensive space colonization are usually depicted as rich futures with pretty swank accommodations for the colonists. They are by no means poor, or forced to live in cramped spartan quarters - dormitories really - where 10 people share one toilet, you get one five-minute shower a week, and all your strictly personal possessions must fit in a space measuring no more than 2'x3'x5'. Nothing like the real-life experience of people actually living in space right now, iow, as Madeline Ashby @159 points out.

No, we get the deluxe version, the one where indefinitely sustainable production of large amounts of energy on cheap (and environmentally friendly as well!) is a solved problem and everybody has a good job, a good home, and excellent but cheap medical care.

In short, everyone in those types of futures is at the minimum very well off, if not outright wealthy by our standards. Or if they aren't, it's their own damn fault, or possibly the fault of a government whose incompetent functionaries can't resist meddling with the affairs of it's citizens to their detriment time and again. Sometimes, aliens. But on no account, ever, are people living in these sorts of scenarios constrained by anything so crass as the laws of physics or inevitable technological plateaus which put hard limits on their use of energy, material resources, or personal living space.

Who wouldn't plunk for that kind of future?
The prototypes for this sort of stuff would be something like Varley's Nine Worlds, or Sheffield's Proteus novels, or Niven's Belters. If anyone's got other candidates for the ur-template of this sort vision I'd be very interested in hearing them.

[1]If you suspect I'm also implying a connection between this sort of space enthusiasm and a certain kind of political/economic ideology . . . you'd be right.

204:

In short, everyone in those types of futures is at the minimum very well off, if not outright wealthy by our standards. Or if they aren't, it's their own damn fault, or possibly the fault of a government whose incompetent functionaries can't resist meddling with the affairs of it's citizens to their detriment time and again.

Hmm. No Poor Folks, in other words.

See also the classic British SF sub-genre of the cosy catastrophe -- a post-apocalyptic world safe for white middle-class folks, without any of those horrid scary Other People.

Yeah, I think you're onto something here. It's sort of like Mean Mr Moustache's dream of Lebensraum, only without the inconvenient folks who just happened to live there already.

205:

Yeah, that's exactly my point. No po' folks - at least, no po' folks in space, which is where these sorts of space boosters imagine themselves to be living. You said it better than I did ;-)

206:

It does sound like Clarke's Third Law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) is necessary for space colonization, doesn't it?

Being a lazy researcher, I checked Wikipedia on the history of that law. Clarke wrote it in 1973, but it echoes statements going back to Charles Fort in 1932 ("...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic.")

That's how they trace it. Wasn't Lovecraft covering similar ideas a few years earlier? And Lovecraft read Nietzsche, whose will to power may play here too.

So, could the space race be ultimately inspired by Fort, Lovecraft, and Nietzsche? Possibly not, but I think some of their ideas are in there. If that's uncomfortable, we can start tracing Wernher Von Braun's intellectual antecedents...

207:

Speaking of new frontiers, I'd like to see more stories about people using advanced technologies to colonize new spaces on Earth. How about a future where South America sets up a group in Antarctica and the people keep themselves warm with nuclear power (the logical choice for their long-term energy needs)? Since they're in the Downlands where experimenting with reactor designs would relatively consequence-free, politically speaking, the colonists eventually become the world's leading exporter of nuclear technology, everything from self-contained mini's for a community of a few hundred people to advanced models running on thorium.

Then the Downlanders discover all that oil hundreds of meters beneath the ice . . .

208:

I lost track of the comment up-thread, but someone used the line "another planet, how dull", and it made me think of the MANIFOLD books by Stephen Baxter. In particular the first, where he extrapolates out what it would take for humanity to survive all the way to the Heat Death, and what that future would look like.

Great book. Home of some rather sobering and depressing thoughts, though.

209:

futures with extensive space colonization are usually depicted as rich futures with pretty swank accommodations for the colonists.

You don't watch many SF movies then, do you?

You need a list with lots of poor people in them?

210:

What is necessary for the kind of future most of us want is vast quantities of cheap clean energy. Once that problem is solved the rest is relatively easy

211:

Not necessarily. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of robots replacing humans as a general purpose 'repair system' (if you will) inside of fifty years. On the missions themselves, absolutely, but once you get some manufacturing and engineering ability in orbit you may get more benefit out of having a person up there.

Note this is only the case in local space, where time to station and flight duration aren't really concerns. Near earth space doesn't require any new technology, just revisions and upgrades to Apollo era engineering. I'm pretty sure we could bring the numbers way down, costwise.

I'm not really arguing in favor of extensive manner space exploration. But there are going to be situations where people are better than robots, and those are going to be in places close to home. There's still a lot of space and plenty of stuff we can exploit in the neighborhood.

212:
It does sound like Clarke's Third Law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) is necessary for space colonization, doesn't it?

Pretty much. To put it another way, I can see some sort of space colonization happening eventually (just not in my lifetime). And when it does happen, it won't be as some sort of deliberate response to any of the big problems confounding us just now - it will be because those big problems will have been successfully dealt with.

Or as I tell these sorts of rah rah boosters, if they really want to make a contribution to get the sort of future where the average joe can blast off into space, the most constructive thing they can do is to make sure the average joe is really, really well paid :-)

213:

Okay, I do agree with you, but I'd take it slightly further.

However you envision space travel, it's hard to imagine it being anything other than expensive and exclusive. People will be incredibly privileged to be able to take part in it.

My theory is that the demographic groups that are most used to being privileged in real life are the groups that are most likely to assume that the privileged few will be "our sort of people" - why not? Hasn't that proven true so far?

In the UK at least, that means white, male and upper or middle class.

This is also the group that is most likely to have a high salary, and least likely to have a manual or menial job. If they do anything with their hands it is for recreational purposes. So, on to your correlation with underestimating both the importance and difficulty of the practical, manual side of things.

When you say they can't have space colonies, you are taking away one of their toys, and they're not used to that.

214:

I'm trying to not hijack the "why the emotion" thread into a "space for everybody" thread, so I don't want to get into the engineering issues. And yes, there are a hell of a lot of engineering issues to solve, which is exactly what an airplane designer circa 1905 would tell you.

But I do have an issue with the "no poor people in space" idea. I'm writing my second novel (the first comes out in February) featuring people living on Mars who are poor, and desperate enough to undertake piracy. Nor am I the only one writing of poor people in space - M. J. Locke's Up Against It springs to mind.

215:

No po' folks - at least, no po' folks in space, which is where these sorts of space boosters imagine themselves to be living.

I keep wondering where all the plumbers and mechanics are located in those scenarios. Who fixes the toilet when it breaks? Or the wiz bang auto opening door system? I guess robots do it. But who fixes them? And who deals with things when a design defect is discovered in the repair robots that requires someone to make a new part in the machine shop and install it getting thoroughly oily doing it?

Some of my family still lives on land settled in 1824. Some of it is still farmed. Much of it was while I was growing up. My dad kept us in nice middle class style but we knew what went on behind the scenes to keep that style intact. Cleaning out the sewage when the neighbors drain field got blocked. Doing most of our own car repairs. Plumbing and carpentry were all done "in house". Plus I got to see what went own in the farm close up at times. It is not all nice and neat getting a blue ribbon at the local 4H meet. There's a long supply chain behind that nice life style and many folks, especially the dreamy SciFi fans, have just no idea how long it is and how many lower paid people work in it. And how hard it would be to automate all of it. Especially the maintenance of the chain.

Says a long term SciFi fan. Son of a SciFi fan born in 1925. And all registered D. :)

216:

Movie version: Total Recall. Or Star Wars, for that matter. Or Serenity.

I have to confess, I liked Niven, and the comment about his Belter singleships being spacious and comfortable got me chuckling. Go back and read the Gil the ARM stories. Spacious and comfortable belongs mostly to Star Trek.

217:

You listed a litany of engineering reasons why space travel will never be cost-effective. I picked one of them as an example to point out that none of your problems appear to be unsolvable.

But here's the rub - we're just like a bunch of people sitting around a table in 1905 trying to decide if the aero-plane or Doc Zeppelin's new-fangled device (or neither) will be a viable future technology.

We simply do not know. We have make one (1) attempt at a reuseable space craft. We have flown less than 600 manned missions in the history of humanity! To categorically say "space colonization is impossible" is the height of arrogance and hubris.

Space colonization may indeed be impossible. It will undoubtedly be a hell of a lot harder than its proponents (cough, Zubrin, cough) claim. But we don't have enough data to prove anything. Since we don't have the data to prove one side or the other is right, the argument will continue.

218:

The interesting thing is, while we're bickering about 1960s notions of colonizing space, not only has our local space been colonized (primarily by satellites), not only have the local colonists become well integrated into Earth's economy, but the major powers are all busily weaponizing the high frontier. There's a huge building call SPAWAR not too far from where I live.

Perhaps the old school space cadets are missing the obvious, just a little?

219:

Perhaps the old school space cadets are missing the obvious, just a little?

Well of course. After all were very close to eliminating all conflict and any need for money. Right?

Or was that just a TV show?

220:

Today Tor.com has a post that seems appropriate to share:
Poking Fun at Britain’s Moon Men: The British Interplanetary Society
Arguing about space is nothing new.

221:
What is necessary for the kind of future most of us want is vast quantities of cheap clean energy. Once that problem is solved the rest is relatively easy

Exactly. And just the sort of scenario a certain sort would like to believe will end in lines like " . . . until Haber discovered slow meson resonance in 2037 and on the workbench in his garage built a prototype which consumed less than a deciliter of ordinary tap water to produce five MW of power for six months." As opposed to stodgy but more realistic narratives like ". . . and so after eighty years of piecemeal development our modern electrical network, relying on a variety of renewable but diffuse sources of energy distributed over a national grid, came into being."

222:

I have yet to find a population of any kind that does to grow to just beyond the limits of its necessary supplies. The prediction of population stabilisation about 2100 sounds like extrapolation of known data, without taking into account any unusual events. The question must be asked what is the limiting factor for this? I would expect that the ingenuity of humans will find a way around this in due course, and continue to grow in numbers.

The limiting factor is no big secret -- it's the fact that for the first time in history raising children became more a drain on resources than it brings back. So in a sense, you are correct -- but if you realize that "necessary supplies" means "necessary for raising successful children" instead of "necessary for bare survival", then Western societies already hit that limit, and are reacting accordingly.

223:

I might add that wealthy people ALWAYS limited their own numbers. Condoms were known as far back as ancient Egypt -- it's just that only upper classes had reasons to use them (or could afford them).

224:

Humm? Well, there's always Ted Tubbs " Dumarest of Terra " series and similar such in which the Empire of Humanity is sort of Established, and there is a reasonable excuse for a Hero to Travel from one Ghastly, and almost invariably Politically Right Wing, Far Distant Stellar communality to another and only touching upon anything remotely civilized when the Story demand it ..a LIBRARY of Arcane Lore giving the next Clue/plot coupon?! SHINY !!...but never neglecting the Need to Fight for your life, Knife in Hand, against people vaguely resembling the Gladiators that were employed by Ancient Roman Aristocrats at a comfortable remove... Great Fun really.I have all of them inc the last in the series ...

http://georgekelley.org/?p=8

All you have to do is establish -in a superficially convincing way - that the Hero can travel ... High or Low, frozen or Animate thanks to Hi Tech Drugs .. depending on funds and away you go.

Most such fantasies do depend on wish fulfilment and Power for Boys - and now, long after my day, Girls - who read books but don't spend much time in, say, a Dojo practising martial arts of whatever variety and suffering bruises and muscular strains as a consequence. Or how did the Hero have it in ... "The Matrix " .. 'I know Kung Fu ' ..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmEPXXJ4sKw


So much easier than Work ..and that is at the roots of all Fiction based Space Cadet -ishness ...


Wishing WILL Make it SO! Someone else WILL do the Work Provide the Money and Suffer the Bruises.

I WANT!!! DADDY/ MUMMY GIMMMY ..NOW! Or I will scream and scream until I'm Sick!!

225:

I don't think a scenario like that is feasible unless the Antarctic Treaty System is denounced, which will open a whole different can of worms. No colonization, nukes, minning or military presence is allowed in antarctica, only scientific expeditions which may be carried out by military personnel, but that's another issue.

The USA, Russia, China and most of Europe being signatories, some of them even with territorial claims put on hold, for any South American nation to set up a colony in Antarctica a very different world order of the present one is required.

226:

@217: Interesting that you choose aviation (which asyouknowBob did become a viable, commercially sustainable technology) for your comparison.

Any particular reason why you didn't write, e.g., "just like William Beebe and Otis Barton sitting around a table in 1932 trying to decide if the bathysphere will be a viable future technology"...?

Let's compare comparisons:

Takes you to places where there are already people living, immediately accessible resources to sustain life, business to transact, etc? Airplane/ dirigible, yes... bathysphere/ spacecraft, no.

Can be used as faster alternative to transport modes for which demand is already long proven? Airplane/ dirigible, yes... bathysphere/ spacecraft, no.

Potential for military capabilities not available from other transport modes or unmanned versions? Airplane/ dirigible, yes... bathysphere/ spacecraft, no.

No one here is saying space colonization is impossible in terms of physics or engineering: that's a strawman. I'm saying that pending (1) magitech breakthroughs or (2) a far, far wealthier world, there is an enormous disparity between the cost of doing (not handwaving) that engineering and the level of motivation for doing it.

Re: We have flown less than 600 manned missions in the history of humanity!

That's not a feature, it's a bug. And it's trying to tell you something: That only a handful of people have visited deep ocean trenches since 1930 is not an argument for the bright, transformative, unlimited future of the bathysphere.

227:

You evil person! How could you destroy my dream of hacking my genome, living forever, and colonizing the abyss. My relatives will find you, no matter where you hide. Cthulhu fhtagn!

Actually, that's not too different than having an elder sign, a peculiar whistle, and some golden elixir as a form of deep space travel, come to think of it. Perhaps you're on to something...

228:

Chris: We have make one (1) attempt at a reuseable space craft

Fact check: you missed Buran. Which flew, but as part of the package of it being a new! improved! Shuttle, the designers sensibly arranged for it to be able to fly without a crew on board (so it didn't rack up the technical win of being a manned re-usable ship -- they ran out of money for further flights first).

Dragon is allegedly reusable, although I don't know if they've used this capability already (and in any case, although it's flying hardware, it hasn't carried a human passenger yet).

The X-20 Dynasoar was to be reusable, although it was cancelled just after first airframe construction began.

There's also the proposed X-37C derivative of the X-37B (which has flown at least twice); that one would be man-rated and reusable.

So we've actually made several attempts at reusable manned spacecraft; it's just that aside from the Shuttle, the two earlier ones ran out of money (but not before one of them actually flew and returned from orbit safely), and the other two are in development/still in planning.

229:

Interesting turn of events, #212 clearly says that there is no need of a cause or incentive for space colonization, and it won't be as some sort of deliberate response to any of the big problems confounding us just now - it will be because those big problems will have been successfully dealt with. This is a strange thing to say. I get it if someone says 'we need to build extra-terrestrial colonies because there is no way to fight against the rising sea levels', but I don't get it 'now that we have solved the rising sea level problem, we can colonize space'.

And while we want to blast off Average Joe into space, we still don't know why we'd want to do that.

Maybe this is a clue to understand the mindset of people who are attached to this space colonization idea. They believe it religiously, without the need of any causality.

230:

I do wonder about the age distribution of the complainers. Are young people, who missed the golden age of both space exploration and sci-fi (Heinlein et al) less likely to yelp when someone points out that the dream is most likely impractical as all hell?

My daughters are 16 and 19. Both love science and are avid SF readers. Neither expects to fly into space, nor sees large human presence in space as either likely or particularly desirable.

Also, they do not subscribe to "expand, or wither and die" philosophy. They see nothing wrong with society of augmented humans remaining in solar system (and primarily on Earth) forever -- preferably with individuals getting to live forever.

231:
We simply do not know. We have make one (1) attempt at a reuseable space craft. We have flown less than 600 manned missions in the history of humanity! To categorically say "space colonization is impossible" is the height of arrogance and hubris.

Yet another reason why space colonization remains a cherished meme: what I call the "single-point" solution.

See, ISTM that most of the people challenging us to "dare to believe" also tend to go with the notion that there's only one single issue standing between them and the proper (capitalistic) development of space, usually physics-and-engineering based. Usually but not always it's focused on getting the costs of going from ground zero to LEO down. "If only people went with my particular pet scheme and started working in earnest on a laser-powered/rotating tether/conventionally-propelled SSTO/etc system, then They Would Come and the Golden Age would follow."

Trouble is, those single-point solutions are also almost invariably single-use solutions - and that's assuming they work as advertised. Build your laser launchers, or your Lofstrom loops or what have you; who else benefits besides the space enthusiasts? The answer seems to be in almost every case "no one". Given that even their proponents admit that their pet projects will require a lot of dollars, effort, and development, it's pretty easy to see why those dollars, effort, and development aren't coming their way.

They'd be better served to focus on a development path that doesn't just narrowly benefit their own constituency if they want people to take a serious go at implementing their ideas. Like doing their share of political scut-work to raise the average joe's salary and standard of living while cutting off pernicious elite influence on social and economic policy at the knees :-) The way things are now only the wealthy are able to afford private trips into space and I can't fathom any reason why they would prefer policies to make the situation otherwise. Quite the contrary. Of course, rather than go with this formulation, these sorts of boosters shoot themselves in the foot by seeming to think just the opposite . . . ;-)

232:

And while we want to blast off Average Joe into space, we still don't know why we'd want to do that.

Because there are bunch of wealthy people living on the moon, and the toilet is blocked... :)

233:

I chose aviation because it's a similar technology. But let's take your other points:

Takes you to places where there are already people living - No, I'll grant you that. Although, the view out the window in orbit is a heck of a lot nicer than out your bathysphere.

Can be used as faster alternative to transport modes Wouldn't there be a demand to get from Tokyo to LA in 30 minutes as opposed to 20 hours?

Potential for military capabilities GPS and spy satellites?

The lack of missions to Earth orbit is not due to lack of demand. It's due to the high cost of getting there. For the same $20 million spent for a seat on Soyuz you could have a heck of a nice deep ocean vehicle. People are paying for one but not the other.

Regarding costs - SpaceX has spent, as far as we know, the most of the alt-space companies. They are at around $200 million. That's an order of magnitude cheaper than anything NASA's done. Materials and computers that were exotic 20 years ago are off-the-shelf now.

Again, we don't know if space colonization can be done or not. We simply lack enough data to make that call.

234:

I didn't know Buran had actually made it into orbit.

235:

Interesting turn of events, #212 clearly says that there is no need of a cause or incentive for space colonization, and it won't be as some sort of deliberate response to any of the big problems confounding us just now - it will be because those big problems will have been successfully dealt with. This is a strange thing to say. I get it if someone says 'we need to build extra-terrestrial colonies because there is no way to fight against the rising sea levels', but I don't get it 'now that we have solved the rising sea level problem, we can colonize space'.

Apologies to scentofviolets if he meant something different; I understood his post as "if we ever successfully deal with big problems, we'll have resources to travel into space, if someone really wants to." This dovetails with something I posted long time ago on Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" forum when someone asked "When will be human mission to Sedna?"

My answer was:

I do not believe there will ever be a mission to Sedna -- manned or unmanned. Which does not imply humans -- or our genetically modified post-human descendants, -- will never go there. But they will only do so when the Solar System is such an easy place to get around that visiting a place no one had visited yet is more of a lark than a mission. Think of the following analogy:

There are many, many little hills, streams and valleys in American and Canadian national parks no human being had walked on yet -- although all of them had almost certainly been photographed from air and mapped. When a forest ranger or an enterprising hiker sets off for one of such hills, would you call it a "mission"? No, it is just something moderately challenging that outdoorsy types do on a lark when they have a few days or weeks free.

Some day Sedna somebody will visit Sedna, and every other KBO -- when the effort involved is no greater than hiking through more remote parts of Yellowstone is today.

Likewise, if space colonization ever happens, it will be a hobby of some eccentric post-humans.

236:
#90 and #91 come from people who make fun of what they think space colonization fans would put on the table as advantages of the concept. Second-guessing other people's arguments is fun but it wouldn't give any insights to why people think in a particular way.

I'm not second-guessing. I am summarizing, with a side order of snark, what I have learned from books like The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must and Mining the Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets plus years of observation of and argumentation with similar thinkers on Usenet, mailing lists, and (later) blogs.

Let's first take Robert Zubrin as an example. He makes a weak stab at the economic benefits argument, but he's too realistic to really embrace it. The best trade good he could imagine Mars settlers sending Earth was deuterium. I don't remember if he tries the "eggs in one basket" argument, but I do remember that he ultimately falls back on American-flavored mysticism: we need to colonize Mars not because it will bring any tangible benefits, but because we need the intangible benefits of a new, unclaimed frontier and space for new societies to organize themselves.

The space-mining line of argument up to its neck in flawed assumptions. A typical argument goes something like "Just one metal-rich asteroid might contain TRILLIONS of dollars worth of valuable minerals. Space mining is the economic opportunity of the century!" This comment box is too small to contain all the problems with such a scheme but I'll list some biggies:

0) If you look at the composition of raw materials and their constituents' value as refined products, while neglecting production costs, almost any big rock on Earth or off looks like a license to print money. Prospective asteroid miners might wish to research why nobody has yet made a fortune by exploiting the quadrillions of dollars worth of metals found in the Deccan Traps or Columbia Plateau.

1) If you really are able to bring back huge quantities of rare earths, gold, platinum group metals, or whatnot, you won't realize a gross income of (last year's unit price * number of units) unless production is limited. A huge increase in production will cause prices to collapse, so you have to produce much more cheaply than terrestrial miners have in the near past just to break even.

2) The same problem applies even more forcefully to commoner metals like nickel and iron. You have to be even more aggressive with reducing production costs to compete with terrestrials.

3) OK, fine, an asteroid or lunar mining enterprise will just gradually produce limited output over centuries to avoid tanking the product price. What's wrong with that? First, it negates the alleged payoff of huge new economic growth or natural resource supplies if you have to tightly throttle production to avoid price collapses. Second, it makes the time horizon for payoff of the up-front investment costs ridiculous. For the definitive exposition on this point, see "The Political Economy of Very Large Space Projects" by John Hickman. Unless there are some radical technological improvements, the same investment time horizon argument probably precludes commercial space based solar power beamed to Earth.

For people who realize that there's no money in space colonization and that their personal longing for the Martian life is unpersuasive, there's the "we can't keep all of our eggs in one basket" argument. It's the argument that humans are just one asteroid strike or thermonuclear war away from extinction unless we colonize other places in the solar system. Or, in the very long run, it's an argument for interstellar colonization because the sun itself will eventually destroy all life on Earth and then burn out.

I think this argument is the most persuasive of a weak bunch but it also makes no sense in the near future. Until we know how to turn industrial civilization into a smallish reproducing package suited for harsh new environments, off-Earth colonies are just dependent tendrils of terrestrial civilization. Building a space colony to avoid catastrophic threats to Earth before you know how to make it self-sufficient is like trying to survive poisoned water by drinking through a longer straw.

As for the long term, more certain threat of an expanding sun that will destroy Earth, there's no rush about it. Whether you start investing in interstellar travel research now or 2000 years from now is just as unimportant as whether or not a 21 year old buys a life insurance policy now or 5 minutes later.

237:

Oh No !You are wrong there ...condoms are SO middle class. Fecundity is Very important to an Aristocracy. Any Aristocratic family in a Traditional Top Down Wolf /Ape Pack structure will have Alpha Males who will breed like anything hence all of those wars of Succession.

At the basic, non war, level you need to have an Heir and a Spare ..look up the line of Succession to the British Aristocracy Heir to the Throne. ..


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_succession_to_the_British_throne


" The succession is ordered by male-preference (cognatic) primogeniture. A person is always immediately followed in the succession by his or her own legitimate descendants (his or her line) except for any legitimate descendants who already appear higher in the line of succession. A person's sons and their lines all come before a person's daughters and their lines. Older sons and their lines come before younger sons and their lines. Older daughters and their lines come before younger daughters and their lines.[6] "


Of course modern medicine does give a higher survival rate to Ones Heirs and so you may well need to have fewer of those Heirs to succeed you in Pack leadership but the principle remains the same .. You need an Heir and a Spare ..parked in the Military ..and so forth down through offspring planted in the Equivalent of Church /religion of the State and maybe Academia plus the capacity to marry Money.

All very straightforward don't you know? Even those Arch Rebels the American Colonials have an Hereditary Political class these days that very carefully avoids Lordship type Titles and goes through the motions of Democracy.

238:

No, there's a whole host of issues standing between humanity and space colonization. Getting to orbit (relatively) cheaply just happens to be front of mind. That's in part because you can't even work on some of the other issues, like, say, the long term effect on humans of 1/6 G gravity, until you can get to a place that has or simulates 1/6 G.

I happen to agree with the idea of making the Average Joe's life better. But, going back to the aviation model - for much of history, flying was a rich person's game. We didn't talk of "the jet set" for nothing. It's no accident that the people working on getting into space cheaper are rich, and are looking to make a lot of their money back selling rides to their rich friends. Rich friends that aren't going to want to unclog their own toilets.

239:

1) If you really are able to bring back huge quantities of rare earths, gold, platinum group metals, or whatnot, you won't realize a gross income of (last year's unit price * number of units) unless production is limited. A huge increase in production will cause prices to collapse, so you have to produce much more cheaply than terrestrial miners have in the near past just to break even.

If you have self-replicating automated factories as I discussed in post #149, there is still an enormous potential for profit even if prices do drop enormously, since you only have to land one on an asteroid or moon and then their numbers will increase exponentially without any further investment. Any discussion of space mining that ignores the possibility of self-replicating factories seems to be leaving out a fairly plausible near-future (100 years or less) technology that could change these things enormously, IMO.

240:

I agree with all the points in #236. I just wanted to hear something from people who think that space colonization is feasable. If the force behind it is as explained in #235, then it'd be no more than a vanity project for the rich (sorry average joe).

241:

On the topic of "eggs in one basket" reasoning, perhaps one of my favorite heart-tugging statements of that argument comes from BABYLON 5:

Interviewer: Is it worth it? Should we just pull back? Forget the whole thing as a bad idea, and take care of our own problems, at home.

Sinclair: No. We have to stay here. And there's a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes…[and] all of this…all of this…was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars."

I think that was the first time I had ever heard that argument in cultural terms.

It also works as an acid test for romantic thinking about space. If you hear that quote and nod, you're a spacer. If you tear-up and look wistfully at the sky, then you've got it BAD.

For the record even though I know all the arguments against, I'm in that second group. Irrationality is a wonderful and horrible thing.

242:

So what cost in $/kg would make space colonization feasible?
Since getting to orbit is the hard part, what $/kg makes orbital tourism feasible and self sustainingly profitable?
I would put the price at around $200/kg

243:

there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out.

Thank you for reminding me why I mostly hate SF on television. (The scriptwriter? Needs to be taken out and forcibly re-educated by astronomers. Because that sentence contains so many misconceptions I don't know where to start dissecting from ...)

244:

Right, von Neumann machines are my favorite somewhat plausible "magic wand"; exploitation of space resources is just one of their many capabilities. That said, if we do get self-replicating robotic factories the whole economic and political order is going to be overturned and, coming out the other side, I'm not sure if making a profit or "getting rich" in the usual sense could even happen any more. In a society where capital reproduces itself without labor and mineral resources are nothing more than inputs to manufacturing, bringing back mountains of gold from the asteroids might not be a path to high social status and power. It might be pointless, obsessive behavior like hoarding old newspapers is today.

245:

As an addendum to Alex Tolly's comment #164.
"Commercial aircraft tickets are cheap because the aircraft are earning revenue almost continuously. If they flew as infrequently as the shuttle, ticket prices would be unaffordable except to the super wealthy."

This is also why even when flights to Earth orbit are relatively cheap, flights to Mars will be very expensive.

An Earth to Orbital shuttle could make two flights a day. An Earth to Mars ship will be lucky to make two flights per year.

246:

So what cost in $/kg would make space colonization feasible?
Since getting to orbit is the hard part, what $/kg makes orbital tourism feasible and self sustainingly profitable?

Assuming current agri & bio science technology plus Charlie's rough estimate of about 100,000 people AND their complete support structure (farmland, water, energy generating facilities, etc), then a US Penny per Metric Ton is probably way too high. Maybe a penny every 1000 metric tons?

In all seriousness now. If you want the equivalent of a closed-loop self-sustaining biosphere, it is going to take a LOT of resources. You'll need to estimate what it takes to be completely self sustaining, then figure out the mass for that stuff, and then you can figure out what launch cost is affordable.

Obviously that is ridiculous and will never happen, short of magic tech or a complete disregard for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. So you have to make your "colony" smaller in terms of equipment mass and people. You will still be wholly dependent on Mother Tera, so you can scale the cost/kilo to the intersection of what you want to do and more importantly what you can afford. Make sure you factor in research for "live off the land" technologies that will help you lower your launch weight.

Please also specify where you are putting your colony. Mars is probably a better deal in terms of indigenous resources than the Moon and transit cost aren't that much higher, though you will have a longer more dangerous trip and more difficulty with resupply.

THEN you can start looking at what tech will hit your cost/kilo.

247:

Thank you for reminding me why I mostly hate SF on television.

You're welcome, Charlie. I'm sure JMS knows better.

I liked B5, but I never expected actual Science in that particular space opera. At least his ships followed Newton's Laws of Motion, for the most part.

248:

There's a separate topic that's peripherally relevant:

SF TV Rule #1: Scientific accuracy, good writing, or character development. You must pick no more than two if you want your show produced.

Relevant here only because most scriptwriters seem to be pathetically contemptuous of science, and Star Trek still sucks people on the wagon-train to the stars.

249:

You are talking apples and oranges. D. Bruere was talking about space tourism - i.e. shipping a number of people to orbit/moon, staying in a hotel and returning.

You are talking about a self-sustaining (i.e. no inputs from earth) space colony, a la O'Neill.
O'Neill thought that SPS's might prove sufficient to pay for a colony (Island 1, 10k population) even with shuttle launch costs. He understood that most of the mass would have to be shipped from the moon, and later the asteroid belt.

We really, really do not have to ship up everything from Earth.

For the space tourism business in LEO we would. Longer term lunar tourism probably partially.

250:

Or put it another way.
At $100/kg you can loft a million tonnes per year on a quarter of the US military budget (or a quarter of what is spent on illegal drugs).

251:

That's around $30,000 for an adult male, so yes, that's certainly viable.

252:

Very good point. So assume a $2000/d full cost (trans-Atlantic flight return or luxury cruise ship rate). A Mars trip, return ticket of the order of $1-2m (600 days flight time) when the infrastructure and technology is mature?

Seems attractive to me. :)

Clearly, if we have even $1000/kg launch costs, the ticket price is only increased 5-10%.

The key is not to launch all the propellant and consumables. Spend the costs on building the ship in orbit, then source bulk materials wherever is cheapest (might even be Earth) and recycle aggressively.

I've no doubt that initially all consumables would be shipped up from earth, but eventually they would be sourced from extra-terrestrial sources. Propellant would be water, with nuclear/solar power for energy.

A ship constructed with a lot of water (ice as structure) for propellant and consumption could be quite "cheap" to run if the water could be sourced cheaply. Dead comets/Ceres might be a good source if the delta-v can be achieved without too large a consumption of the water. Lots of water would provide a good radiation shield, lots of consumable water for drinking and bathing, appetizing food and could be recycled, converted to O2 and used as propellant mass.


253:

We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry swipes, but ideas, science books. That's where men like you come in. We must go to the British Museum and pick all those books through. Especially we must keep up our science--learn more. We must watch these Martians.

254:

Zubrin is wildly optimistic, but you're being wildly pessimistic. Why would I need to ship every jot and tittle of stuff needed from the Earth? Even if it cost 10X as much to extract from local resources as from Earth, it would be cheaper to get locally.

255:

That said, if we do get self-replicating robotic factories the whole economic and political order is going to be overturned and, coming out the other side, I'm not sure if making a profit or "getting rich" in the usual sense could even happen any more.

I agree, eventually this level of automation would probably lead to a post-scarcity economy or something close to it, but in the early stages, the first self-replicating factories might get sent to the moon or near-Earth asteroids with the goal of making a profit. Also, a true post-scarcity economy requires that there not be much scarcity in raw materials, so in such a society I think there'd still be plenty of mining of space resources (and manufacturing in space which would help our environment) even if it was managed by governments which had to decide how much of various metals and such could actually be put to good use each year. Probably besides just mining enough materials for everyone to own the latest consumer goods, they'd also use them for certain kinds of large-scale engineering projects that would be too expensive today, including building space colonies and rocketing colonists out to them, or building really vast banks of computers which could be put to all sorts of interesting uses for both science and entertainment (as a physics geek I also like to imagine a post-scarcity society would build a giant Earth-encircling particle accelerator, which could reach the energies where all the forces except gravity become unified).

256:

I've been trying to stay on topic, but I guess I've failed, so here's my economic case for why space colonization may happen. Mr. Stross - if this offends you, my apologies and please delete.

There is a market for space tourism. Right now, with the cost at $20 million, 2 years of your life and a commitment to learn Russian, it's a small one. But as we can see from the market for tourism to Antarctica, Mount Everest, and Las Vegas (all Las Vegas has on the Gobi Desert in terms of natural resources is proximity to Los Angeles), tourism markets are highly sensitive to cost, comfort levels and travel times, roughly in that order.

Right now the single highest cost for orbital space tourism is the ride up. If (big "if") this can be reduced to some small multiple of air freight, then comfort can be provided and the travel time is short. The same goes for Lunar tourism.

Assuming the multiple can be reduced, that leads to a plausible chain of joyride - trip to base / station - stay at nice resort station for near Earth tourism.

But once you start going to any sort of base, the same cost factors lead to developing highly-efficient life support systems. Even if you can sell $100 salads to the tourists, you don't want to ship lettuce to orbit. You want to ship paying customers, or at least something (booze?) that you can't easily produce on site.

For Lunar bases, where you have room and some more resources, the "stuff I don't want to ship" includes basic manufacturing (the habitat and its furnishings) and the staff to maintain it. Rather than cycle maids in every few months, let them live semi-permanently there.

The same technology that allows Lunar resorts (and there would be multiple resorts) would also allow long-term research stations just about anywhere else in the Solar System (Venus being most problematic). It also increases the feasibility and lowers the cost of mining. Down, especially if you're shipping metals with a high melting point, is free, and you don't have to argue with the EPA.

Now, there's a hell of a lot of engineering, and frankly a few catastrophic failures, between our current state and the end state above. Having said that, we can't even try unless we get launch costs down, and I submit that the jury is out on how low launch costs can go.

257:
So what cost in $/kg would make space colonization feasible? Since getting to orbit is the hard part, what $/kg makes orbital tourism feasible and self sustainingly profitable? I would put the price at around $200/kg

Dirk, in keeping with the premise of the thread, I'm not terribly interested in discussing the feasibility of any particular "solutions". Nor do I myself necessarily think that what's keeping us down on the farm is the high cost of space launches.

I'm merely pointing out that perhaps part of some people's attachment to this meme is that they firmly believe the only thing that keeps it from being realized is one . . . tiny . . . detail . . . Think of them as some guy shivering in the woods who has a fire all laid out and a good supply of wood to keep it going all night but no matches to light it with. If someone would come along and spare me just one tiny paper match (or so they reason), they'd have a roaring fire in no time. And the passerby would be welcome to warm himself by the blaze as well. That's a pretty good return on investment for one little match.

Well, that's what they tell themselves anyway.

258:

" We must watch these Martians. "


" ..We are the Martians .. " ..


Quatermass and the pit 1955

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rqzhCY6ovc

259:

@ David Paul, 85
"Implicit in the idea of an extraterristrial paradise is the assumption that it will be inhabited only by the elect."
Calvinists on the Moon! Interesting - someone call Ken MacLeod ...

260:

I'd like make a few additional observations about the skeptics: AFAICT, none them are happy about reaching these conclusions. They'd dearly love them to be otherwise, to have space development explode in the next few decades. Also, and again AFACT, none of the skeptics seriously dispute the idea that eventually, in some future era, there will some sort of sustained long-term human presence in space. They just don't think it's this era, certainly not in the next 20 or 50 or hundred years, and possibly not in the next 200 or even 500 years.

So. Everyone agrees some type of space colonization will eventually happen; where the disagreement lies is the time frame. So my question to all the space enthusiasts is, why are they so all-fired determined that their dream happen now?

The justifications they're currently citing will surely still apply a century hence, or three or four centuries, so I'm mystified as to their impatience. The only reason I can think of - one I'm sure is too crass to apply - is that what this is really all about is finagling at least one trip into space for themselves before they die. But I'm sure that's not the case; these people would never be so selfish or unscrupulous as to try to put their personal interests over the interests of everyone else by arguing that going along with their agenda is actually the best way to further the common welfare. You know, like how yet another tax cut for the wealthy is sold as being all about helping out the little guy in these troubled times ;-) Disaster Capitalism indeed.

And having disposed of that tawdry justification, I'd really like to know why there's this relentless and ongoing push to have humans colonizing space in the near term, rather than the medium or long term.

261:

"...is that they firmly believe the only thing that keeps it from being realized is one . . . tiny . . . detail . . "

It is - launch costs.

262:

"And having disposed of that tawdry justification, I'd really like to know why there's this relentless and ongoing push to have humans colonizing space in the near term, rather than the medium or long term."

Because there may be no medium or long term, at least for Humans in their present form

263:

Scared of the kids?

264:

By the time all this talk of Von Neumann machines etc comes to fruition Humans will be surplus to all requirements. Either that or there will be a new Dark Age from which it would be extremely hard to recover given that all the easily obtainable resources are gone.

265:

By the time all this talk of Von Neumann machines etc comes to fruition Humans will be surplus to all requirements.

Von Neumann machines don't need any more intelligence than, say, insects. Certainly we may have a singularity eventually, but the mere fact that you can build a factory that makes copies of itself doesn't mean you're in immediate danger of a robot uprising. Or are you suggesting that post-scarcity would be disastrous for humans even if our machines were perfectly obedient?

266:

You're talking about Joseph Michael Straczynski, who wrote 92 out of 105 Babylon 5 scripts save one, and heavily influenced all the others since he was in addition the creator of the series, and its co-executive producer along with Douglas Netter.

Yes, you are quite right, about his need (at the time) for being forcibly educated by astronomers, as in Alex's re-education training in Clockwork Orange. I was on the GEnie science fiction round table in the early 90s at the time when he was planning Babylon 5 and discussing his plans there. He struck me as being one of those Hollywood types who keep away from books (scientific as well as science fictional) so that their art would not be influenced. However, he did seem like a really nice fellow.

267:

So my question to all the space enthusiasts is, why are they so all-fired determined that their dream happen now?

Space enthusiast is a lot nicer than space cadet, so that's something at least. Anyway, why not now? I sound like a broken record but there's a lot of stuff down here that can be improved or enhanced by a presence up there.

Just to be clear, 'up there' means near earth, not putting people in the outer system. That's robot work and will always be better off as robot work. But the economics of space travel imply that there will be a serious premium paid for things done on site, and humans are still the best general purpose... uh...'doer' that is going to be available for a while. Especially close where you don't have to haul water and air around or keep it from freezing for too long.

'Down here' means earth. All of it. There's plenty of investment in space that benefits all of the planet. I'm not sure where the infeasibility of the microwave beaming solar satellite comes from, but that's one example of a tech that I know is being actively developed by for commercial use, (PGE, California, start date of 2016 for 200 MW). GPS and communication relays are a great example of another; preventing orbital cascades benefits everyone on the planet, especially the increasing numbers of people in developing or recently developed countries who rely on satellites for communications.

Climate science would be far worse supported by data if it wasn't for the space program. Ditto for the hundreds of other disciplines who have benefited from orbital imaging (like archaeology, biology, etc.). We're going to need to start managing our biosphere a lot closer; closed systems buffered by hard vacuum seems like a good place to test the first batches.

It's often said that war drives technology, and that's true. But so can a space race, with far lower fatalities. There's also some idea that all this space money would magically be 'feed the poor' money if only those damn cadets wouldn't waste it, but suggesting serious changes in the way the world spends money is about as escapist as saying we should go to Mars.

Robots and their associated control technologies are partially where they are because of money dumped on them to solve space related problems. More space money means more robots which means better automation at home.

So that's a short list of the practical reasons getting started on it is a good idea. Then there's the intangible stuff that usually gets brought up. Having an area where human beings are subjected to completely novel circumstances is a good in and of its own right. Imagine the art or games or stories that'll come from living in space. Imagine the new ways of being human that'll come about as a result.

Novelty is a necessity in a world where no one has stumbled on a sustainable way of living. Space and the constraints that come with it could teach people in a very real way what that means.

268:

@Tim T: You're welcome, Charlie. I'm sure JMS knows better.

Yes, I do know better. :)

(Yes, I know he was talking about Straczynski.)

@On topic: As for the emotional reasons why space colonization, I'd say for the same reasons I dreamed of living on a submarine as a kid, and am working towards a career in robotics.

The mythology from science fiction is a big driver by shaping my future narrative. The interest in seeing a real O'Neil cylinder or giant humanoid robot lead to the fun but ultimately discouraging amateur engineering projects. Hopefully, you learn enough to from the attempt to get another perspective on the problem. (I can't engineer a working 80 foot robot, but I can build a working scale model, put a camera inside it, and control it remotely.)

I've found that working in these areas (robotics, aerospace, marine engineering, etc) it tends to be a lot of prototype or almost prototype work even when working off of older designs, and that you frequently experience the satisfaction of solving problems that don't have common solutions yet. (Commercial design by contrast seemed to be more interested in cost optimization of existing designs. Granted, my commercial product design experience has been limited.)

As to the particulars of why explore, a large part of it is due to wanderlust and curiosity. Being able to look through a telescope or underwater viewer or even to the next hill when out hiking, and being able to imagine going further and then attempting to, whether it's building a bigger underwater viewer, or learning to snorkel, or even insisting on walking just a little bit further.

All of this does leads you to be culturally wired into an idea like space exploration, though I'd imagine it's easier to see the rust spots for us Millennials. Apollo is mythic history, and for all of my life the shuttle has had a reputation as an unsafe prototype. The shuttle almost occupies the same place in my mind as Simon Lake's submersibles. NASA has been through at least six official shuttle successor designs during the course of my life, and none of them came to fruition. A number of new space companies formed and then dried up over the same period. With that sort of knowledge, it makes a person cautious about cheerleading. (I volunteered over the summer running a robotics demonstration for the local chapter of the NSS at our county fair. What struck me was the feeling of stagnation from the whole exhibit. The space section felt trapped in the early 90s, and was trying to reject hard to reject the recent realities of the US manned space program.)

@scentofviolents: So my question to all the space enthusiasts is, why are they so all-fired determined that their dream happen now?

It's practically a tautology, but if human exploration and/or colonization does happen, it's going to happen within some batch of space enthusiasts' lifetimes. I also think it's unfair to require them to be completely altruistic in their motivations. As for why explore/colonize space now, (for a value of now stretching from the late 50s to next decade) I'd say it's because we had the excess societal resources to attempt a grand project like that. It's not clear that we will have the societal resources to attempt it a hundred or five hundred years from now. (If the Peak Oil doomers are right in their predictions, then it's unlikely that any human society would have that type of excess energy ever again.)

269:

"Why did we go into spac in the first place?"
"For abstract knowledge"

Larry Niven - I think "World of Ptavs" but I'm not sure.

All the industries and colonoisation came later......

270:

Robots and their associated control technologies are partially where they are because of money dumped on them to solve space related problems. More space money means more robots which means better automation at home.

At a European level, most of the money going into robotics research seems to be coming out of production technologies ("Factories of the Future") and out of ICT research - modelling cognition and implementing it.

Yes, ESA does fund some robotics hardware research, and yes, DLR do trickle-down to Kuka who might release something based on it.

But the big push in robotics development now isn't really that kind of work. It's the vast seething software collaboration taking place on top of ROS. And that's getting funded from all kinds of people, and it's the bit that could lead to useful general-purpose robots, not just specialist NASA designs with bolt-ons for some of General Motors production problems...

271:

Assuming current agri & bio science technology plus Charlie's rough estimate of about 100,000 people AND their complete support structure (farmland, water, energy generating facilities, etc), then a US Penny per Metric Ton is probably way too high. Maybe a penny every 1000 metric tons?

Ah, no.

An implicit assumption underlying my route to a space colony is that self-sufficiency isn't an initial goal; it's an end product. Initial development is going to have to rely on people and supplies shipped up from Earth, just like the Shuttle and ISS programs -- or the oil rigs in the North Sea, for that matter: nobody went and built a self-sufficient maritime nation just to drill new oil wells.

The self-sufficiency toolkit comes in handy if and when any off-Earth industrial operations get far enough from home that it's cheaper to make stuff locally than to ship it in -- for example, to bring up farmers and soil and machines for converting carbonaceous asteroid material into more soil, rather than bringing in all the food.

Ultimately, any generation starship is going to be built in space, by people who were born there. Which is why I think DARPA's Hundred Year Starship program is missing at least one digit ...

272:

I believe I am now allowed to say that I'm involved in exploring a possible project for the BBC. No, it hasn't been green-lit yet: but some time next year we get to write a sample script, and if they like it ...

273:

Now that sounds very interesting ...

Gonna be on tenterhooks until you can tell us more!

274:

Sounds promising. Can you say if this is a "Charles Stross BBC project" or a "BBC project Charles Stross participates in"?

275:

We?
Ah well, if you're collaborating, who with would be part of the embargo.

276:

The BBC has had a very spotty history with SF recently; you can't do worse, so I'd certainly watch it!

277:

"Von Neumann machines don't need any more intelligence than, say, insects. "

I would rate the difficulty of making a VN machine capable of replicating on (say) the moon or an asteroid on a par with AGI. In fact, I think we will have AGI before VN machines.

279:

While making a VN machine might not require much more intelligence than an insect, we've got a great deal of success at making artificial intelligent life at the level of... Oh wait. Nothing. I don't think we've even made a virus yet. (You can argue semantics about inserting bits into viral genomes, but we've not made a whole virus + capsid.)

Making a VN machine at all would be a good argument towards colonising space, agreed. There's quite a string of problems to solve there, and we might well get some answers for currently rather insoluble problems about colonising space.

See, although I don't cling to it desperately, and I certainly don't think it will happen in my lifetime, I don't think it's impossible. I'm not sure I'm as optimistic as Charlie and "DAPRA are missing a zero" I think it might be more like 2 zeroes.

280:

Personally, I'd say that, if you're looking for a new place to colonize, Detroit's a lot easier than the moon, and you can make just as much a new life there.

Funny.

There is a large amount of vacant land in D-Town. The climate isn't as punishing as the Moon, but there are natives to worry about. (Both the Political Powers That Be, and the Hoodlums of all stripes.)

Talk about projects which would attempt to use Human Willpower to overcome a challenge!

(Nota Bene: I am acquainted with people who are 'colonizing' Detroit, if by 'colonizing' we can say 'moving into an area that most people would rather move out of, and attempting to build a better community among those still present'. The status of their project is by turns both encouraging and disappointing.)

281:

I should've been more clear about it being a historical thing rather than an ongoing process. I meant that the historical arc of robot development owes a great deal to probes developed for the space race. If there was a great deal more money invested in realistic space missions that would mean more money for robot development, applications for which could be found around here.

282:

Wouldn't there be a demand to get from Tokyo to LA in 30 minutes as opposed to 20 hours?

Ahh: that must be why Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer, Oboronprom, UABC, et al have been pouring money into SSTs and hypersonics over the last four decades -- to get all that sweet, sweet ROI.

Well, no -- in fact they haven't. Nor have the world's air forces, with quite different crietria for ROI, taken supersonic bombers beyond a few testbeds (B-70 et Soviet al) and cost-ineffective hangar queens (B-58, B-1 ditto).

So neither commercial air transport nor military aviation -- both much, much larger than the space industry -- will pay for LA to Tokyo in 30 minutes. But on your planet, the Unlimited Potential of SPAAAACE justifies all that R&D and iterated design... and we'll enjoy the Orient Express as a spinoff? May I suggest you re-examine the relationship of dog, waq, and tail?

I chose aviation because it's a similar technology.
It's similar, except where it isn't. Aviation is about cruise through an ocean of free oxidizer; access to space is about acceleration, carrying oxidizer with you. Aviation is about connecting places where people and economic activity already are; manned spaceflight is about establishing a foothold where they aren't, and (maybe) veeeeery slowly bootstrapping habitation and economic activity from zero.

Your analogy between aviation and space has less to do with real similarities than with bolstering the dream: "We went from Kitty Hawk to turbojet airliners in 50 years, so 50 years after Gagarin and Glenn we should have scheduled service to Tychoville!"


283:

Good luck on that, Charlie. I hope Scottish independence comes well after they green-light the project.

284:
As for why explore/colonize space now, (for a value of now stretching from the late 50s to next decade) I'd say it's because we had the excess societal resources to attempt a grand project like that. It's not clear that we will have the societal resources to attempt it a hundred or five hundred years from now. (If the Peak Oil doomers are right in their predictions, then it's unlikely that any human society would have that type of excess energy ever again.)

If industrial civilization can't function without oil, then it makes no sense to try to colonize space at all because you'll find no oil there.

In the medium term it appears we're in for a rough time but I'd actually bet on more excess resources in a century or two. This is not because we'll necessarily have fusion or other energy breakthroughs, but because we'll have a smaller population relative to natural resources plus (at the very least) many decades of incremental technical advances in efficient production and use of energy. I don't think simple fossil fuel depletion can end industrial civilization, but I admit that if there were also a substantial nuclear war it would be much harder for the far-future descendants of survivors to start climbing the industrial complexity ladder again.

285:
If industrial civilization can't function without oil, then it makes no sense to try to colonize space at all because you'll find no oil there.

Well I've heard there's oceans of hydrocarbons in places like Titan, but I doubt it would be economical to go fetch them.

Mind you if we want to motivate the drill baby drill crowd to help fund the space program it might be something worth being a little disingenuous about :)

286:

I agree with you, especially with the long term prospects of energy production. I was trying to answer the "why now" question and at least since the 70s there has been space enthusiasts arguing for space-based solar power for the world's energy needs.

It was possible though implausible for the US or USSR to have undertaken such a project. Doing such a thing would have required horrendous input costs, but theoretically the number of launches required would have dropped launch costs, and that eventually space-based sourcing of resources (metals and silicon from the asteroids) could take over from earth sourced materials. Once you bootstrapped the infrastructure using fossil fuels, then you could construct second generation satellites that have a positive EROEI.

287:

"Things like power generation through solar energy are orders of magnitude more efficient outside the atmosphere" doesn't match the numbers that I've seen.

Solar power density at the Earth's surface is something like 1 kW/m^2. Solar power density at the top of the atmosphere is something like 1.4 kW/m^2. Depends on latitude and time of year, of course.

So yes, there's more power in orbit, but hardly orders of magnitude more. And that's even before you start thinking about retransmission losses and about the increased construction cost. Very hard for me to see a business case. Very hard to see that this removes any of the blocking issues that keep us from generating a few terawatts of electricity from solar power.

So this doesn't seem to me like an instance of someone sitting down and thinking about how the world should generate electricity according to some important metric (low cost? low CO2 emission?) and coming up with space travel as an answer; it seems to me more like starting with space travel as an answer, and then looking for a question. I think we're back to the original question: "What is it about the whole space colonization meme that causes its followers to personally identify with it so vehemently, despite the lack of scope for near-term actualization?"

288:

There are only two business cases for off-earth solar that I can see:

1. Use it to power other space applications. We're already doing this; we could do it on a larger scale.

2. Unlike ground-based solar, solar in space doesn't have 50% down-time due to being on the wrong side of a spinning lump of rock. It can be sun-synchronous, delivering power 24x7. This in turn means that with suitable attention to rectenna placing it could provide base load capability, something we currently rely on fossil and nuclear fuels for.

I'm not convinced that a 50% efficiency gain on its own is worth the huge costs of lifting stuff from Earth's surface. However, if the solar generators could be built using material that's already up there, presumably using automated factories, that'd be a different matter entirely.

First design your asteroid-eating solar-panel-shitting robot factory ...

289:

Orders of magnitude was partially hyperbole, partially misunderstanding/misrepresenting the role of atmosphere in solar power, and Charlie's sun-synch point. That is far below a power of ten, so pardon.


So this doesn't seem to me like an instance of someone sitting down and thinking about how the world should generate electricity according to some important metric (low cost? low CO2 emission?) and coming up with space travel as an answer; it seems to me more like starting with space travel as an answer, and then looking for a question.

Well, yeah. I mean, I'm on the pro space development side. And it's part of a set of proposals that would have other benefits on space development, like power and an manufacting/volatile refining base in orbit. Which would lower launch costs for everything that comes later, possibly making several other projects more economically feasible.

"What is it about the whole space colonization meme that causes its followers to personally identify with it so vehemently, despite the lack of scope for near-term actualization?"

I'd object to calling what I'm arguing 'space colonization.' Population dynamics being what they are, it's dumb to think that any large percentage of humanity living anywhere other than Earth any time soon. I think attempting to colonize other planets, especially terraforming them, is stupid. I can't really imagine a situation where human beings would travel between solar systems on a regular basis.

I'm arguing for development of space to help earth. I think there are numerous ways that can happen, and I've outlined a bunch of them here. I think I've presented a number of benefits that are unique to space and wouldn't be duplicated by spending the same money here on earth.

Space colonization is not going to go like a golden age sf book. There are a lot of people who really want it to, for reasons as trite as childishness or as profound as secular religion. That doesn't mean the whole idea of space is absurd.

This reminds me of people who hate a particular author or musician because of his fans...


290:
Solar power density at the Earth's surface is something like 1 kW/m^2.

In the deserts near the equator. In other places the day/night cycle is much worse than 50% duty cycle during the winter, when power is needed for heating, and because they're well above the point beyond which the sun is never at the zenith, the best case density is quite a bit lower then that at the equator. Now factor in clouds (where I live it's common not to see the sun for weeks at a time in the fall, winter, and spring), and the average power density can easily be less than 100 W/m2.

Whereas if you hang a powersat in equatorial sun-synchronous orbit and beam microwaves to high-latitude customers, you get that 1.4 KW/m2 almost all the time, and you can push the power through the clouds. I'd say an order of magnitude would be an economic inducement to fund at least a pilot project.

291:

Which brings us back to the other problem with space-based-solar. How are you getting all that lovely energy to the ground? Because if you're transmitting a beam of, say, microwaves with a power of a few megawatts (trivial in Western power-consumption terms), that beam will be carving an ionised path through the atmosphere that will vaporise anything that gets too close.

And if the beam should wander off track, those with relatives who lived along its path of burnt-out towns, sterilised farms, and par-boiled lakes may possibly feel you have some explaining to do. A working SPS is essentially the next generation equivalent of an ICBM; nobody wants to risk having someone else's system pointed at them, but with the added advantage that they're much harder to control access to[1]. (I suspect this may actually be a minor contributing factor in the lack of research interest in them: people in funding offices have done a first-order risk analysis and said "not on your life".)

[1] if people try to climb into your missile bunkers, there tend to be armed guards around who notice. If someone points a small dish transceiver at your satellite and spends some time trying to find out what frequencies you use to send orbital correction data, you'll probably never find out unless they succeed in reprogramming it.

292:
a power of a few megawatts

Gaaaah. I meant that to say "a few hundred megawatts"; a beam of a few megawatts is still quite enough to be dangerous, mind you, but you'd need ten or twenty thousand of those for the UK, never mind anywhere more populous or power-hungry. But a continuous 200MW beam (a mere 200 or so to supply the whole UK!) is some very serious destructive firepower indeed.

293:

Launch costs come up a lot in these discussions, but are they really so important? I mean, regardless of how much it costs to get there, actually doing anything in space is terrifically expensive, all the more so if humans are involved.

Put it this way: if launch costs were magically reduced to zero, what forms of space colonization that are currently economically infeasible would become economically feasible?

294:

I'm not even close to the physics level to actually crunch any numbers or even examine others's numbers terribly closely. But I'm pretty sure the salient number is the energy per unit of area? The plans I've read about suggest a very large collector array, more like a radio telescope than a satellite dish.

I don't think beam spreading would allow you to use these things death beam style. Additionally, I'm fairly sure more energetic particles regularly interact with the atmosphere on a regular basis, and I don't think anyone is going to try tuning the down-beams to water's resonant frequency in order to weaponize them.

There appear to have been a number of scale demonstrations on the surface (92 Miles is the number that keeps cropping up, in relation to some tests in Hawaii).

Another reason to increase out footprint in space has to do with the infrastructure we already have in orbit. We're increasingly reliant on satellites for observational data, communications, military purposes, etc., and orbital cascades (or Kessler syndrome or whatever) is a concern. The shuttle was originally envisioned as a workhorse vehicle for maintence. There's no reason why that model can't work for something that doesn't have to lift off from the ground.

Increasing satellite lifespan is a great example of how having a little more presence can improve what we already have. If you can save launch mass by modifying or repurposing stuff already in orbit, you can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the whole project for a minimal investment past the cost of lifting the presence up there in the first place.

Admittedly, that's a pretty shitty deal for whoever goes in first, which is why nation-states have traditionally done it. What we needed to do as whip up a serious asteroid threat back in 2000 instead of the war on terror.

That kind of investment (1.2 Trillion or ten times the adjusted Apollo budget, not including the UK or various DHS related expenses) would've been much better wasted on overblown fears of an asteroid impact.

295:

I'd ask again: what problem do you think you're solving when you propose solar power satellites as a solution?

Now mind you, I think there are some very real problems with the way we currently get electricity, problems that would justify major and expensive changes. Maybe you think there are real problems too, and maybe you even agree with me about what those problems are.

But I'm pretty sure that if you state what you think the problem is, and look at a whole range of solutions are, you'll find there are better solutions than solar power satellites. Much, much better solutions.

296:

For me, personally, the plausibility of space is part of the allure. We pretty much just screwed around planting flags with the majority of the money we've invested in space. With the very minor amounts that have been spent on basic science (average 22% of NASA's budget over its lifetime, according the video in the slashdot link) we've gotten an enormous amount of practical stuff. Not spin offs like astronaut ice cream, tang or any of the other stuff that wasn't actually developed for space. Things like GPS, telescopes looking out and telescopes looking in, ICBMs (a net gain; never has so much been spent on a weapon largely not used).

Cultural intangibles like the picture of earth from space. Shared social moments like (I imagine) Apollo 11. I largely agree that the space race was a failure of imagination and a huge waste of money fed into a slightly repurposed military industrial complex. Even so it's been revolutionary.

If it was done properly, as a natural extension of our tendency to move the shitty things we have to do (and will inevitably have to do for quite some time) just to keep civilization ticking over to somewhere else, it could have a much more significant effect.

We're in, or will shortly be in, a bottleneck period. Population growth is flattening and we're not going to have to deal with Malthus's ghost, but there's still a few decades of peaking population coinciding with mass industrialization, larger that the original one in terms of population effected. Space can serve a pressure release to prevent significant damage during that period that will take thousands of years to fix (strip mining, ocean acidification, toxic shock) while serving as a test bed for the types of science necessary to do the recovery projects we're already going to need.

I also believe that people adjust themselves to the places they live. Social structures evolve over time to specialize in different niches. Radical changes in environment lead to new ways of being, new modes of life. I think, and I'm willing to admit this is Timothy Leary talk, that space will give us much needed new perspective once enough of us spend enough time up there.

That's my personal justification for the meme, though I think honestly it has much more than just a general theme in common with religion. People just have a general imprinting period that shapes the weighting they give to various basic principals they end up carrying around with them for years. Coupled with poor science education and pandering in mass media, it's easy to assume things are the same as they are in movies.

I had to explain momentum to my roommate today, in the context of 'why don't bullets knock people down like they do in movies' and he was incredulous about my (admittedly cloudy) explanation. The more we self-identify with a given media, the more attacks on its credibility infringe on our self-identity, provoking defensive reactions.

297:

I'd ask again: what problem do you think you're solving when you propose solar power satellites as a solution?

The energy demands for the approximately one billion people who will soon be able to consume like Americans, Japanese and Western Europeans. Replacing the fossil fuel consumption for power. Removing petrodictatorships from the Middle East. Destroying the morally repugnant corporations responsible for oil extraction. Change foreign policy for every nation on the planet.

Now mind you, I think there are some very real problems with the way we currently get electricity, problems that would justify major and expensive changes. Maybe you think there are real problems too, and maybe you even agree with me about what those problems are.

And here we come to the heart of it. We have to change anyway you just said so yourself. Any alternate power system is going to require an enormous amount of expense. Transient or location specific power sources have the same limitations as oil in terms of being a thing to fight over. Solar has downsides for the majority of users.

Solar power satellites are a possible solution that has a built in value added proposition. You're solving the energy problem and starting a space presence in an economically and scientifically plausible manner. One that would then make the rest of the process (by which I mean the exploitation of near earth space) vastly cheaper and drive innovation in technology that will have numerous applications on earth.

But I'm pretty sure that if you state what you think the problem is, and look at a whole range of solutions are, you'll find there are better solutions than solar power satellites. Much, much better solutions.

I'm not entirely sure. Do you think we can replace all of our current energy consumption with carbon neutral renewable, plus all the rest of the planet coming on line? Are you okay with nuclear power (I am, I think it's a possible alternative, at least as a transition technology)? Or do you think it'll be possible for us to decrease our total energy footprint even with all the people who are just about to start consuming?

Do they have the added benefit of kickstarting a worthwhile endeavor? You do think space is worthwhile in general right? Probes and basic science and that kind of thing?

298:

So your stated problem is "find a technology that can replace fossil fuels"? Let's look at possible solutions. Actually, let's just look at a single possible solution: replace them with ground-based photovoltaics.

Yes, I do think it's possible to replace all of the world's electricity needs with photovoltaic power. The total world energy usage is 15 TW. I don't know what percentage of that is electricity and I'm too lazy to look it up, but let's say 100%. Then multiply by 3x (choose a different multiplier if you'd like) to account for the fact that you need to store energy for night, and that in some parts of the world you'll use photovoltaic plants built somewhere else so you'll get losses from long transmission lines. Let's round it up and say we need 50 TW of photovoltaic panels.

Just going online and looking at shopping sites, it looks like a home solar installation costs something on the order of $1/W. I bet you could get a bulk discount once you start buying by the square kilometer, but let's not assume that for now. So we're talking something like $50 trillion. That's something like the total world GDP. That's a stretch, but not an insurmountable one. A country can spend 50% of its GDP on a crash project if it deems it absolutely necessary. So what that looks like to me is that if all the countries in the world started crash projects, we could replace all use of fossil fuels with photovoltaics within 10 years.

Now mind you, I'm not claiming that this is the best way to achieve the stated goal. I'm also not claiming that this is the only possible goal one might state. Perhaps $50 trillion sounds a bit much, and you'd rather have a goal like "Eliminate all use of fossil fuels for electricity as quickly and cost effectively as possible." Where's the business case that putting photovoltaic cells in orbit is quicker or more cost effective than putting them on the ground? I'm not seeing it. I can just barely conceive of a crash project to build tens of terawatts of photovoltaic panels. A crash project to build tens of terawatts of photovoltaic panels and then put them in stable Earth orbit... Not so much.

299:

Just to argue the point, there is a possible use of space-based power - for orbital lasers to cool down the Earth so that we can continue to use more and more power every year without boiling the oceans.

I don't insist on it, but the physics is theoretically possible. The engineering and economics, that's hideous.

300:

Remember that the statement of the problem included effectively leveling the use of energy across the entire population of the Earth (though with the possibility of some attrition due to lowered birth rate). Let's assume the population is reduced to 3 billion, less than half the present population. That still means an additional factor of 10X to bring everyone up to the level of energy usage per capita current in the US, even assuming no additional need for energy to reach the higher standard of living that following the curve of progress over the last 3 centuries would predict.

301:

I think the problem is better stated as "what set of technologies allow us to solve the problem of increased energy consumption while causing the least unwanted consequences."

It's not just fossil fuel consumption that's the issue of course; there are several solutions to the problem and they should all be used where appropriate. But there are benefits to the solar power sat that terrestrial ones wouldn't have; the always on nature is built in to the location. The anywhere from two fold to order of magnitude increase in energy yield from location is nice too.

Terrestrial solar has a couple of specific flaws versus space based. You need space that's most likely going to be contested, for one. The optimal solar sites are a terrestrial resource to be struggled over. And I don't know what the carbon footprint for the manufacture of 50 trillion kw worth of solar is, but I bet it's significant.

If you're making the panels in space that's a pretty big bonus, as you don't have to make the replacement stuff on earth using transition power that is, likely as not, carbon positive. The carbon cost of getting a factory up there to build (at least) the robots who build the stations are probably decent.

I think the best solution to that problem is probably a combination of smart grid tech, localized energy generation in the form of (hopefully bacterial) fuel cells for home and business, reuse waste energy (like the home server/furnace combo people have been bandying around) and beamed in power for big projects/centralized industry.Tidal and wind power would be supplemental in places with proper territory.

Any big space project is going to have the advantage of international cooperation in a way that terrestrial projects may not; there's a history and system in place for international operations in space that doesn't exist as extensively in energy generation.

But the major point is you kill two birds with one stone. It may be 'better' to build terrestrially, but you only get the power supply at it. By putting it in space, you literally bind earth and space together. You get a platform for asteroid deflection, you get experience in space living while still being able to swap out crew, you have to learn how to build biospheres from scratch (handy once we start really remediating planet earth), you get orbital garbage cleaners, you get practice building the kinds of robots that can actually do stuff to make money.

It's more of a 'you're going to the store anyway..."


302:

Well, this goes to the question of what you think the problem is.

If you think that major reduction of our carbon footprint in the first half of the 21st century is urgent, then I can imagine lots of different ways one might achieve that goal. A crash project to build 50 TW worth of photovoltaic panels is one of them. (Not necessarily the best.) If you think that's impractical for some reasons (too expensive? too much land?), and if you think it would be better to build 50 TW worth of photovoltaic panels in orbit, then it's incumbent upon you to show why putting them in orbit actually mitigates the practical difficulties you've identified.

I don't think it does. I don't think it would reduce the cost, or the land area required on Earth, or any other important bottleneck. I'm just not seeing orbital photovoltaics as a way to drastically reduce our carbon footprint in the first half of the 21st century. Try sketching out some numbers!

If you don't think that major reduction of our carbon footprint is important, of course, if you think it's just a "nice to have" side benefit of something that you already want to do for other reasons, then that's another matter. But in that case, I think you'd be better off talking about what your real reasons are. Don't try to convince us that space colonization is the best way to reduce CO2 emissions just because you think that we think carbon footprint is important.

303:

I've been pretty clear on what the problem is: supporting the increased energy demands of a rapidly developing world hitting a population bottleneck. Global population is going to start decreasing soon, but we're still going to have a few years of peak population coupled with consumption by the majority of the planet resembling the current developed world.

Unless you think we can tell those people they need to just chill out and take their time with this whole development thing, you're going to be doubling the power requirements for the planet, conservatively. Many new sources of power are going to be necessary.

I don't think a crash project to invest solely in one form of technology to supplant fossil fuel is a good idea, no matter what that technology is. I don't care if it's cold fusion, reliance on a single technology for something like power generation is a bad idea and what got us in this problem in the first place.

I favor a number of different solutions, but I include the orbiting solar satellite for the reasons I listed in the last several posts.

I don't think it would reduce the cost, or the land area required on Earth, or any other important bottleneck. I'm just not seeing orbital photovoltaics as a way to drastically reduce our carbon footprint in the first half of the 21st century. Try sketching out some numbers!

Someone else was kind enough to offer some numbers about the differences in available power, peak terrestrial vs. peak orbital that looks like it was, indeed, an order of magnitude better than terrestrial.

I've outlined how this could help several other issues relating to space and the developing world. Many of the reasons I would prefer this kind of solution to the power problem have to do with the synergistic effects it would have on other space exploitation issues.

Rather than simply launch the first program we crunch numbers on, how about looking to the next set of problems while fixing this one? Choosing the solution with the maximum benefit, even if it costs a little more, could even catch on, especially if the opportunities result in greater economic benefit for everyone.

Don't try to convince us that space colonization is the best way to reduce CO2 emissions just because you think that we think carbon footprint is important.

Look man, I'm getting tired of saying I'm not suggesting space colonization. That's not what I'm outlining here, for any values of colonization I'm comfortable with. I've also never said anything resembling that line about it being the best way. The best way is a combination of all the approaches that work, and this is very clearly one that could work. It also has a lot of added benefits.

I've tried about a dozen lines on this in this and other threads and solar power satellites are a good hook. They're a clear, precise example of the kind of use of space that will not only be economically feasible but worthwhile for people everywhere. They require no new technology (unless their feasibility relies on Charlie's solar cell shitting factories), no new science.

How about this, why not space based solar satellites? Why not even admit that they're a possibility that should be investigated?

Or how about you tell me the carbon footprint for manufacturing and shipping 50 TW worth of photovoltaics. Then tell me where they're going. I mean, at 1 kwh/m^2 we'll only need what, 5*10^6 square kilometers? (It's late). All at ideal temperature and weather conditions, preferably somewhere convenient to connect to the various power systems. And the carbon footprint of the various wars necessary to clear that land?

Hey, I'm pretty sure we could cram all of that into the middle east, right? I mean, it seems like a great place to put solar and it's not like there's any historical precedents around this or anything...

304:

As you suspected, your calculation of the real-estate needed for 50Tw of terrestrial solar was a little off. Using your value of 1Kw/m^2, 1Km^2 would provide 1Gw of power. 50Tw is 50,000Gw and hence would require 5.0 * 10^4Km^2 (you were high by a factor of 100).

In reality, your original number is probably (coincidentally) a closer estimate because nothing like 1Kw/m^2 is available terrestrially. Depending on the latitude you are using for your site, the value could be 100w/m^2 or less when averaged over time. Combine this with the fact that 25% efficiency is a really good number for the kind of PV you could even imagine purchasing in quantities of a km^2 or more and you get most of that 2 orders of magnitude back.

305:

Or rather, there's plenty of unoccupied land ... except the Crown says it's owned by some rich nob who employs gamekeepers with guns to keep the poor away.

s/Crown/Legal System/

Ironically, the Crown land in Edinburgh consists mostly of Holyrood Park - a large expanse of undeveloped land in the middle of the occasionally-second most expensive city in the UK in which to buy a house (in a "nice" part of town, natch). Free for all to use, access unrestricted, great place to walk/play/feed swans/hold festivals, just don't try living there.

The "gamekeepers with guns keeping people away" thing is unrealistic in that the Police are rather intolerant of the implied threat of armed force. They like to hold the monopoly on that in the UK, and it's a lightning-fast way to lose your shotgun certificate. One complaint to the Police, and bye-bye.

Nope, if a rich and privacy-fixated punter wants to keep the great unwashed off their land (in contravention of the right to roam) then they tend to just build a fence, or (in extremis) employ "doormen" with no necks and large muscles (and hopefully render themselves the next target for public disobedience - van Hoogstraten didn't do too well).

306:

You are talking apples and oranges...

Yup, I screwed up. My eye skipped right over the tourism part.

We really, really do not have to ship up everything from Earth.

I agree, Alex. See the paragraph of my post that starts with "Obviously that is ridiculous and will never happen...".

My one concern with the lunar/orbital manufacturing approach is that we don't yet have the tech to create finished construction materials from in situ space resources (lunar regolith, asteroids, dead comets, etc). I do have high hopes that some combination of advanced materials research and 3D manufacturing might get us there at some point. I think this is a time and money problem, not a fundamental science problem.

It would be useful to know what specific technological capabilities we need to develop to make such bulk space-based materials processing possible. We would then have a clearer picture of how far we are from those capabilities.

307:

Thanks for the correction. So there does seem to be a legitimate case to make for space based power being significant better in terms of total area/resource outlay.

308:

I've just started reading Greg Egan's new book, Clockwork Rocket. It takes place in a universe very different from ours, all because of the change of one sign in the metric of spacetime1.

Despite the fact the the physics and chemistry Egan's created makes spaceflight easier than in our universe (the way kinetic energy is released by chemical action results in much more powerful rocket fuels that aren't limited in the same way by specific impulse as ours are), he makes a major plot point of the need to have a large and varied population, and a large and varied biome for a long interstellar trip. I'm curious, Charlie, did Egan talk to you about these issues while he was writing the book?


1. You can check out the physics of this universe at his website, but if you want the elevator pitch, it's that the 4-space he's writing about is Riemannian, whereas ours is Lorentzian.

309:

this VNM-in-space idea is great until you bring up the 'use asteroids' idea. while there's plenty of 'stuff' (i.e. space junk we've left floating around up there) - i'm sure we'd run out of it pretty quick if we starting industrializing LEO. If you just want to use 'stuff already there' its kind of spread out, and its got its own mass and inertia and Newtonian-physics-agenda. there may be a benefit in hopping off to the asteroid belt and grabbing a few big rocks and bringing them down to LEO as raw material inputs for manufacturing - there may be a cost-savings over launching the stuff from earth - but that would have to be significant since you can launch industrial-manufactured ready-made mass from earth, while you'd have to do all processing/molding/manufacturing from scratch after dragging the stuff into a local/stable orbit over some distance without importing a dinosaur-killer and 'missing'...

I'm also curious (i'm sure brighter people than me have done some homework in this regard) - as to how much mass could be added or removed to/from the earth/moon orbital space without affecting local orbital mechanics... I'm sure its a large amount of mass - but in the sci-fi-fantasy of colonizing the galaxy out to the moons of Neptune and beyond - and importing asteroids to a major orbital industrial complex in the meantime - this might be a concern...

310:

If you are doing asteroid mining, you won't be bringing the asteroid back to LEO. Almost everything you would want to build as space infrastructure you would want to be out at GEO or one of the Earth-Moon, Earth-Sun Lagrange points. Second, even the smallest asteroids are a lot of raw material. You are probably only going to mining two or three asteroids for the first couple decades. Personally, I think that the asteroids would be mined in place. I don't think anyone would initially try moving one.

Having worked with autonomous robots, I'm extremely wary of VNMs or any potentially lethal autonomous machine. I've seen a 300lb tank robot almost break a guy's legs when it started up unexpectedly. I've been chased by a fast-moving 200lb robot when someone accidentally flipped a sign in the obstacle avoidance code. If robots get used for mining, it will likely follow the trajectory of the Mars rovers. Heavy micromanagement at first, followed by gradual introduction of autonomous behavior but still requiring an explicit daily operations plan to be uploaded.

I'd imagine an asteroid mine/orbital refinery/foundry to be an extremely brutal environment which would make a submarine or deep sea oil well look luxurious by comparison. But I believe that you would still be able to find work crews, and people willing to do multiple rotations.

The bulk of the work on ISRU and ISFR seems to focused on the Moon, with the rest mostly focused on Mars. The section on Lunar ISRU from the 2009 JSC biennial research report in particular is pretty interesting reading.

I wouldn't be particularly sad if space doesn't turn out to be viable within my lifetime. There are enough other big problems to solve.

311:

#310 Para 3 - Which is exactly what makes "Outland", and to some extent "Aliens", such terrific films about the realities of deep space exploration.

312:

Greg Egan is famous for being reclusive; I have only once, ever, received an email from him, and we've never met or spoken.

313:

B, the Earth masses approximately 6 x 1024 kilograms. Let me write that out for you:

6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms.

Or: 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons.

Or: 1,000,000,000,000 times Mount Everest (approx).

The Earth is in orbit around the Sun.

The Earth's orbital velocity is a whisker under 30 km/sec, or around 107,000 kilometres per hour. That's just over 66,000 miles per hour.

Nothing we can achieve with our current technologies stands a snowball's chance in hell of significantly altering these figures at a significant digit.

314:

It looks like Tom Murphy did a follow up post to his original "Why Not Space?" post. Stranded Resources

He has a great Delta-V versus distance graph.

315:

"The solar collector dishes and other major structures would be built in space from Lunar or asteroidal materials, not lifted from Earth although some of the precision bits such as control systems might be fabricated Down Here. This would require a lot of incremental bootstrapping before any significant level of energy collection would be in place -- the first gigawatt total is decades, possibly even centuries off assuming we actually commit to space fabrication and the necessary energy collection systems."

Yes. Or, as I said earlier, people are handwaving away the creation of a large industrial infrastructure, which has to include the biosphere that we currently freeload off of.

316:

"By the end of history I’m refering to Francis Fukuyama and the view that once we achieve a certain social and political system there will be no change."

I seem to recall hearing some such nonsense, back in the sunny late 90's. It hasn't aged well.

317:

Indeed not - it's been thoroughly discredited, or at least, the common interpretation has been, by the very fact that history is still proceeding full pelt. Even at the end of the 80s, with the Cold War coming to an end, the thesis (that Western-style democracy would overcome all - not realising the future would contain Putin's Russia) was dubious.

318:

Having worked with autonomous robots, I'm extremely wary of VNMs or any potentially lethal autonomous machine. I've seen a 300lb tank robot almost break a guy's legs when it started up unexpectedly. I've been chased by a fast-moving 200lb robot when someone accidentally flipped a sign in the obstacle avoidance code. If robots get used for mining, it will likely follow the trajectory of the Mars rovers. Heavy micromanagement at first, followed by gradual introduction of autonomous behavior but still requiring an explicit daily operations plan to be uploaded.

I'm always dumbfounded by the number of supposedly smart people who think it's not that hard to write a bug free computer program to control large scale complicated tasks. Or "self repairing" code.

We're such a long way from there.

319:

Or, as I said earlier, people are handwaving away the creation of a large industrial infrastructure, which has to include the biosphere that we currently freeload off of.

This is, of course, the best objection to the whole exploiting space thing I've been going on about. There are some reasons to think it'd be doable near to mid term but yes, I think the large scale application of this technology is decades away at least.

I think more money needs to be spent of testing the idea before anyone can really say if the it could work; at the very least a small testbed model in space, which is realistically billions of dollars.The science is there but the engineering.

I'd object to the hand-waving descriptor though; there are pretty well thought out steps along the way, just no idea how hard the steps will be to do.

As an optimal long term power solution though, I think it's a pretty good one. Clean, globally mobile without too much infrastructure or resource consumption once it's up and running.

Now that I think of it, we should probably see if energy lost to the atmosphere during transmission would end up contributing to global warming. I hope not, I'd hate to accidentally shoot my own unicorn.

320:

We're so far from there we couldn't see it with a telescope. As I've pointed out here before, something like 60% of all software projects are never completed, and of the rest, I estimate exactly 0.00% of them are bug-free. And the software industry seems to have to re-invent the wheel afresh every couple of decades, so we never do get to the top of the learning curve before starting over again.

321:

Hey, those wheels don't reinvent themselves, you know!

I'm not that old (about Charlie's age), and this is my third go-round with cloud computing, although it's wearing different Halloween masks. I mostly ignored it when it was 'thin client computing' back in the '90s, but caught the tail end of "Sit here at the terminal, kid, and log on to the mainframe."

322:

I have read Fukuyama's original essay twice. His thesis was, the combination of liberal parliamentary democracy and market economy - with some state intervention - was indeed the "end of history" but only in a limited, Hegelian sense. He didn't mean that 'stuff' wouldn't happen anymore, but rather, that after the fall of Communism we would never again see a clash amongst competing philosophies or Zeitgeists fighting for world domination. The war was over, Capitalism tempered by social democracy had won and would rule for ever and ever (my words, not his)

I found the idea unappealing, even vaguely repulsive, because it was too close to Karl Marx predicting the future. Since then roughly 20 years have passed, and in the short term he has been partially vindicated - Arabs pressing for democracy at Tahrir Square probably warmed Fukuyama's heart, and rightly so - but broadly speaking I still think he was wrong. Actually, we are clearly seeing these days that parliaments and markets aren't working as advertised; at the very least they leave ample room for future improvement.

Further, I believe he didn't consider the economic, social and political impact of technological advances even in the near future. Von Neumann machines are a good example, of course, but I'm sure you can think of many others.

323:

#318, 320 and 321 - Been there, done that, got a drawerful of tee-shirts! ;-)

I caught the end of "log onto the mainframe" too, and, as an actual real-time developer, can testify that the only error conditions that are "handled" are the ones we can think of in advance and devise a test for.

324:

Like the above, 25 years of professional experience, and "log on to the mainframe" was a University thing. Along with the (always last used) teletype terminal...

For hard real-time embedded stuff, as you say, the first rule is "never crash". This resulted in productivity levels of about 550LOC/man-year for our C and assembler, MIMD, there aren't any suitable real-time OS available in the early 90s, system (for every line of production code, we typically had three lines of test harness and eighty lines of documentation).

We had a hardware watchdog timer next to the processor wired to the reset line; and startup times of "not very much". If you didn't reset the watchdog after every processing interval (because you'd locked up, etc), you would be rebooted and running for the next interval a few milliseconds later...

...take that, not-predicted severe error condition!

325:

I think the periodic refresh is simply due to the different generations moving into the field. Old ideas get reintroduced using the technology that dominated their era. The old knowledge isn't lost, but people don't go looking for it either. I remember feeling depressed when I learned in my second year of college that some of the hot new things that year in CS were essentially applications of theory from 60s.

I feel like the issue of smart people misunderstanding the difficulty of writing good software stems from the same sort of cultural assumptions that space enthusiasts make. Both are outside context problems, and the analogies that we apply to them are not particularly good. The other issue is that both suffer from a surplus of individuals with unhealthy amounts of hubris.

326:

More of an Ada man; here goes:-

Package Temperature_Measurement is

-- Use Kelvin scale
type Valid_K_Type is new Float range 0.0 .. 10.0E9 ;
K_Temp_Out_of_Range : exception ;

-- Other code

Procedure Will_Raise_Error is
Current_Temp : Valid_K_Type := 5.0 ;
Delta_Temp : Valid_K_Type := 10.0 ;
begin
-- More code
Current_Temp := Current_Temp - Delta_Temp ;
--Can't reach these statements
--More code
Exception
when K_Temp_Out_of_Range =>
-- In the real World, it's impossible to get here other than due to a sensor malfunction.
-- Error handler
when others => raise ; -- Just to do something with them

end Will_Raise_Error ;

-- Other sub-programmes
end Temperature_Measurement ;


Firstly, let me say that I make no guarantee that this stub will actually compile!

However, if it does, then "Will_Raise_Error" will raise the programmer defined exception "K_Temp_Out_of_Range" unless one of the defined variables is changed before the statement "Current_Temp := Current_Temp - Delta_Temp ;". This is what I mean by a "handled error"; one that you've anticipated happening, and written code that says "when this happens, do that".

327:

I'm putting in another vote for space-race culture. I was born a good half-decade after Neuromancer came out, and thus pretty far into the period when the last vestiges of the Heinlein generation of space-centric sci-fi were being replaced with variations on cyberpunk (which is fairly unconcerned with space both in the sense of outer space and in the sense of locality) or at least being reframed as relics of a bygone age. By the time I was old enough to understand an episode of Star Trek, I already considered the space-exploration thing to be a phenomenon that was most strongly connected to a particular period of time (I wasn't aware that this period extended back to the twenties and forward to a few years before I was born, and instead thought it more tightly surrounded the first moonshot, but I was young). Someone slightly younger than I am would have had more immersion in non-ironic space-exploration fantasy and someone slightly older would have had less immersion in the almost explicitly antithetical cyberpunk craze, and someone brought up in a different way or with family members already interested in SF would probably have been primed differently.

To many people who aren't really into scifi, the genre is still seen to be defined by a focus on space exploration and space colonization. As a result, the low-end slush is still almost universally about space exploration and space colonization. But, coming into the world and coming into the scene during that fairly short period when a major trend in science fiction was to minimize the importance of space travel, I came to find space-centric SF fairly boring.

Here ends my anecdotal evidence supporting a purely cultural claim.

328:

"Thanks for the correction. So there does seem to be a legitimate case to make for space based power being significant better in terms of total area/resource outlay. "

If we ignore the whole problem of getting them up there, and/or manufacturing a whole bunch of stuff in an environment where one has to bootrap up from almost nothing. There's not a lot of factories built where one has to start with a biosphere.

329:

There's not a lot of factories built where one has to start with a biosphere.

Gee, I can't think of any possible benefits to understanding how a biosphere works by trying to build one. We shouldn't even look into it.

If we ignore the whole problem of getting them up there, and/or manufacturing a whole bunch of stuff in an environment where one has to bootrap up from almost nothing

I don't think anyone here is ignoring it. Look back at the comments: a lot of people have addressed various points on why it may be better in space. Stop looking at it like a pure space solar vs. terrestrial solar equation. Looking into space solar isn't going to evaporate all the money for terrestrial solar.

There's stuff worth doing up in space, and even getting research going would mean a whole bunch of useful basic science getting done. As well as making all the other science missions cheaper by decreasing payload costs to orbit. Asteroid deflection becomes vastly easier, if you're into that kind of thing.

How big of a factory are you thinking I want to build up there? I'm not saying we're going to have some kind of 1930's assembly line up there. People will be there in short shifts to keep the automated stuff working. Little baby steps, demonstrating value at each step along the way.

330:

Orbital Beer Co. design team around me, please!

331:

Me: "There's not a lot of factories built where one has to start with a biosphere."

Jerico: "Gee, I can't think of any possible benefits to understanding how a biosphere works by trying to build one. We shouldn't even look into it."

Strawman much? My rather obvious point is that if one is trying to get solar power, the costs of doing so in orbit are either hundreds or thousands of times the cost of on the ground, and the start-up cost factor is probably on the order of millions

Me: "If we ignore the whole problem of getting them up there, and/or manufacturing a whole bunch of stuff in an environment where one has to bootrap up from almost nothing"


Jerico: "I don't think anyone here is ignoring it. Look back at the comments: a lot of people have addressed various points on why it may be better in space. Stop looking at it like a pure space solar vs. terrestrial solar equation. Looking into space solar isn't going to evaporate all the money for terrestrial solar."

No, they are ignoring it, talking about a mythical solar cell which is somehow in orbit (and somehow beaming the power down to Earth). The closest that they come to not ignoring it is blithely waving it away, or billing it as a benefit.

Jerico: "There's stuff worth doing up in space, and even getting research going would mean a whole bunch of useful basic science getting done. "

Which is not relevant to the discussion.

"As well as making all the other science missions cheaper by decreasing payload costs to orbit. Asteroid deflection becomes vastly easier, if you're into that kind of thing."

Which is basically again assuming that Earth to orbit infrastructure, if not the whole space industry infrstructure.


"How big of a factory are you thinking I want to build up there? I'm not saying we're going to have some kind of 1930's assembly line up there. People will be there in short shifts to keep the automated stuff working. Little baby steps, demonstrating value at each step along the way."

Being able to build 10's of TW of solar power satellites plus beaming ability is a really big effort. And you're handwaving again '..to keep the automated stuff working'.

332:

This is almost certainly horse pate at this point, but

Strawman much? My rather obvious point is that if one is trying to get solar power, the costs of doing so in orbit are either hundreds or thousands of times the cost of on the ground, and the start-up cost factor is probably on the order of millions

You're rather obvious point is grounded on what exactly? We have absolutely no way to know that. There is no way to know what the cost premium (and I have no doubt it will be a significant premium) putting solar power in orbit will be without at least attempting a small scale trial project, much like the one I linked to earlier in the thread. $10 billion seems like a decent enough sum of money for a whole slew of useful failures even if nothing significant comes out of it.

Lets just stop and revisit where we're at here. I'm advocating the pursuit of space based solar power (scaling up of established technology coupled to a transmission technique that has been demonstrated) to complement a whole suite of alternative, carbon neutral energy technology. This includes terrestrial solar.

The premium paid for solar in space provides you with several benefits it is impossible to have on the surface, regardless of the amount of money you spend there. First, it is always on, immediately doubling the energy efficiency vs. identical technology on earth and drastically changes how solar can support constant drains when it's dark out. Second, the average solar energy is a constant 1.4kw/m2(I think?) where as terrestrial maximum is 1.2 and average is much, much less. Third, solar takes up space on earth, currently requires carbon intensive industry to produce the tech, etc. Fourth, you can drop the energy anywhere you need it, using established power grids.

Additional benefits, not related to the energy issue, include decreasing the launch price for everything else going into space by a variable amount. This includes scientific projects, satellites, tourism, asteroid monitoring, etc., even if the solar enterprise fails.

That's the point for a lot of this really: even if we invest Apollo money (impossible, I know) and the actual projects fail terribly, in a total worst case scenario, we're out billions of dollars and at worst a few lives, with a whole shit ton of money spent organizing, training, coordinating and educating an entirely new generation of engineers, producing pubic patents, etc.

Over the much longer term (i.e. at the point where predictions of elapsed time become meaningless) I think spaced based energy and industry is a perfectly legitimate solution to a number of the problems of running a technologically advanced society on a finite planet.

No, they are ignoring it, talking about a mythical solar cell which is somehow in orbit (and somehow beaming the power down to Earth).

In projections of theoretical efficiency, yes, they are. And they're using known technology for the solar panels, and data from fairly extensive tests of transmission technology specifically developed to beam power from space to earth or the opposite.

A similar problem arises when you talk about implementing any technology at a large scale. There is no way to figure out the economics of it without doing it.

Which is not relevant to the discussion.

I'm sorry, what conversation did you think we were having? Of course it's relevant to the conversation. It's one of the fucking points of putting solar panels in space. Solar panels in space aren't going to be cheaper than terrestrial ones. I don't know why you think I'm arguing that. I'm saying they'll have other benefits, implicit in the cheaper costs of terrestrial solar, that may outweigh this difference in general terms.

Neither of us has a pot to piss in because no one has any idea how hard this kind of a project is do. As part of a suite of solutions to increase the net energy production of the planet (which will increase in the next twenty to thirty years, regardless of conservation efforts in the WEIRD world)space solar has a number of unique benefits. We'll have a better idea about both costs and benefits after 2016, when we see how the PG&E project fails.


333:

I'm afraid I agree with you about the PG&E project probably being doomed to failure -- more to the point, it's the sort of failure that will damn the entire concept of commercial exploitation of off-earth solar power for a generation, if we aren't very lucky indeed.

The best thing might well be if PG&E cancelled their pilot project or put it back 5-10 years. We need something on the scale of Falcon Heavy flying reliably and relatively cheaply, and we also need cheaper high efficiency solar cells, before we can expect a viable pilot program.

And the whole manufacturing thing is probably best delayed until we have, at a minimum, working asteroid sample return missions -- Hayabusa was a bare skin-of-the-teeth success, the Russian Phobos return mission hasn't lifted off yet (quite :), and despite mutterings from the White House and/or NASA nobody is anywhere near launching a manned NEO mission.

Until we've demonstrated the ability to go grab a couple of hundred kilos of rock samples from a NEO -- whether by manned capsule or unmanned probe -- and taken a close look at what they're made of (before they've been subjected to orbital re-entry -- all we have to study so far is stuff that's landed on Earth) we aren't really ready to think about the suitability of such materials as feedstock for manufacturing stuff in orbital handling facilities.

334:

Yeah, that's about the size of it. As far as I understand it, the PGE thing is a subcontract out to a start up? I have heard exactly squat about it for a couple of years, and the money was already spent, which is never a good sign.

It really bothers me how bad a decision going with the shuttle was.

335:

Why is there this insane desire to put power generation as far away from its users as possible, then depend on some fantastically long supply chain that's incredibly expensive to erect, maintain, and keep secure?

We see that even with desert solar. Sure, there's 10% more sunlight in the desert, but there's 10% loss in the lines getting it to the nearby cities, and the have to build the power line over some really rugged mountains that have kept people from building big roads and railroads through them for the last century.

Scared of having a solar panel on your roof? When the dust settles, it's cheaper and more efficient than depending on desert or space solar. Plus, if it fails or if something more efficient comes along, you can upgrade it with a ladder in a week, rather than with a series of space launches or by flattening another couple square miles of desert over the next decade.

336:

Mod note - I've been a twerk for just under 12 hours, and expect to be here at least another 3; posts may contain more than usual quantites of cynicism from now until 23:00GMT.

If we put the generating plant a long way from the consumers, we have an excuse for charging them a "renewable fuel levy", and then giving it to our rich friends in the powercos.

337:

Absolutely agreed.

Moreover, if you're the big power plant in a small town, you get to be a big part of their tax base, with the political power that brings.

Solar panels on roofs don't generate extra taxes, and they don't add to the political power of big energy companies. Instead they decentralize power, decrease the security/anti-terrorism infrastructure, and they require their owners and users to monitor and limit their consumption.

Given the way many people think, I'm not surprised that politicians, monopolistic businessmen, and consumption-minded citizens can't stand them. That's no excuse for the other 90% of us not to see whether we can install the darn things.

338:

There is certainly something to that; after all energy companies are largely responsible for determining future energy policy and it's pretty clear they've been actively impairing the development of alternative sources and gaming the political system to manipulate the economics of fossil fuels.

Decentralization is great from engineering, ecological, and aesthetic points of view, but it doesn't provide much of an incentive for the capital outlays necessary for rapid retooling of the energy infrastructure of the human race.

Numbers I'm finding point to a peak population between 8 and 9 billion, sometime between 2050 and 2070. The period between now and then is probably the most important in terms of our eventual energy solution, because whatever we use now is going to support the highest load, assuming* several things about the way we consume power.

(*that consumption scales with population, primarily, along with some more about per person consumption declining with time. These may be bad assumptions.)

Developed world (where developed=high energy consumption per person) is about 1.2b in 08, call it 1.5 now. Most of what's now off grid is going on grid between now and peak population, so we're talking about at least a four fold increase in energy consumption, sustained for around a generation, sometime between 2050 and 2070. As far as Malthus goes, this is the bottleneck.

Speaking of Malthus, this is going to be peak consumption for many things besides just energy. Having a lot of energy, without serious emissions, is going to make just about everything else we have to do to negotiate the bottleneck easier.

After the bottleneck: population trends and efficiency increases form a lovely feedback loop on total energy consumption. Before the same two are going to require an enormous variety of energy solutions to support civilization as it most likely will be, without really fucking up everything.

This reasoning, however poor it is, makes me support space solar in addition to a number of other technologies. There doesn't seem to be any reason to sneer at power stations, for certain roles, at a certain point in the evolution of energy solutions between now and the bottleneck, and a few reasons to favor them.

For my personal space cadet .02 (or however many thousands of words it is at this point) none of the other solutions I can think of realistically occurring (and I do think that this may be realistic, pending PGE results) give the added benefits of space, which I've outlined at probably exhausting length, of a good reason for having people in space.

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