Chad Perrin: SOB

23 June 2006

Movin’ On Up: the necessity of space colonization

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 07:08

Quotes of Stephen Hawking’s recent commentary on the importance of space colonization to the survival of the human race has been making the rounds in the news, in the thousands of weblogs that have taken notice, and in pseudo-intellectual coffee shop banter. The Associated Press wire first carried news of this back on 14 June 2006, almost 1.5 weeks ago. Here’s the surprise inside the box: I had a conversation about this very idea over Chinese food with one of a dozen or so Linux geeks the day before that.

Talking to Alan Silverstein is in some ways like talking to a mirror that reflects me, but a decade or two hence. I have on occasion engaged in conversations that get into abstruse discussions of philosophical and wide-ranging interest such as from that Tuesday evening without doing most of the talking myself. However, it is a point of note, and something of a rarity, for the reason someone else is doing most of the talking to be that they have more of interest to say than I have, especially on more than one narrowly defined subject. He had a lot to say about a lot of things, all of it interesting, and none of it plagued by the common shortcomings of people who pursue discussion topics where they’re out of their depth. It was our only face-to-face meeting thus far, though we’ve corresponded by email since then.

One of the topics of discussion was the likely necessity of what science fiction writers and genre fans have for decades called the “diaspora” — an outpouring of humanity into space, finding new world to colonize and new places to live, grow, and thrive. In the mid-eighties, it turns out, he wrote an essay on the subject that was published in the Coloradoan, entitled Humanity’s Launch Window. With discussion, we decided between us that I should perhaps post it to the Web, on one of my domains, and make it available for broad distribution and reading. Imagine my surprise when the very next day, Stephen Hawking was saying much the same thing as Alan Silverstein.

Hawking is more optimistic than Silverstein. He may not be taking the peak oil crisis into account yet. He may believe that humanity will be able to extend its launch window with further technological advances and wiser management of resources in years to come. He may also be trying to galvanize humanity into action, and feels that laying out in bitter, unrelenting detail the severity of the crisis would only generate despair and lead to listlessness and hopelessness rather than an improvement in the current state of affairs. He also may simply be taking a conservative approach to spreading his message.

We face some sizable obstacles. The first is obvious: we must overcome the inertia of the human species. Petty politics and other more immediate concerns, such as where we’ll have our next lunch meeting with our coworkers, create procrastination on issues like this. The second is also fairly clear: we must meet the challenge of advancement, both scientific and concrete engineering.

I believe the third to be a matter that will be counterintuitive to many. We need a free market economy that allows private sector advances that can lead to offworld migration.

The peak oil crisis will end, with us as the losers, long before we’ve irreparably destroyed the environment here on Earth. Failure to migrate off-world will ensure a longer period of continued, and ultimately more damaging, man-made environmental disaster. Living a “green” existence will not only be effectively impossible to achieve during humanity’s launch window, but will simultaneously obstruct our ability to advance the technologies necessary to get off this rock. Of course, barring world-scouring disasters that wipe out the human race, we will like roaches probably survive another four point five billion years on Spaceship Earth, until we’re swallowed by an expanding red giant star, but unless we do something soon it seem our fate is sealed.

Our only hope is to get private industry involved effectively, and the only way to do that is to limit the ability of proponents of the economic status quo (I speak, of course, of market-dominating corporations who rely upon governmental interference in economic affairs for their power) to stand in the way of innovation. If it was ever true, it is no longer the case that only government can reach the stars. Eliminating monopolistic limits on scientific and engineering advancement by the government, eliminating economic barriers to commercial space exploration efforts, and de-incentivizing the consolidation of economic power in command-by-committee legal entities would make pushing outward not only feasible, but financially tasty.

At the very least, we need to deregulate those industries that bear directly on developing advances pertinent to space exploration. More likely, we need economy-wide deregulation in a libertarian sense, but I’m hoping we don’t need that much because short of a worldwide overthrow of the current state of affairs we won’t get it in the next forty years. It’s possible we might be able to approximate deregulation for niche markets that can do the early work we need by way of clever business practices, but to make it work we need to stop trying to impose new market-strangling rules and regulations in State and Federal legislatures — since the United States is the nation in the best position to do something about the problem of getting into space. Our second place best hope, unfortunately, seems to be China: for that reason, I’m rooting for them as well as for the American entrepreneur. Sure, they’re using some pretty grim methods in China to get things done (tax and spend, authoritarian rule, et cetera) and probably doing it for all the wrong reasons, but if they weren’t they’d be doing something else by the same methods and for the same reasons, so I’ll take the lesser evil where I can get it in this case, all while working on the greater good closer to home.

Here’s a surprise for you: George Bush was right. We need to go to Mars. We’ve been to the Moon, and we need to turn that into a stepping stone to the next goal. We need to do it sooner, rather than later. I am, to put it mildly, profoundly skeptical of his administration’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) ability to carry through, but they may just have put enough of an idea in the heads of some of the citizenry of the United States and the world at large to provide somewhere to stand while we reach for the next rung. Linux is on Mars: can humanity be far behind?

A couple years ago, I started discussions with a friend about starting a project to focus some of the open source spirit of innovation on the goal of getting off this ball of rock. It fell by the wayside, to some extent, but I’m getting that itch again. This time, I’ll do something about it.

Go read Mr. Silverstein’s essay, Humanity’s Launch Window. Think about it. Come back for more, as I think of more to say.

Don’t vote for anyone that would stand in the way of entrepreneurship, while you’re at it — and that includes anyone that approves of corporate subsidies or governmental appropriation of market forces.


  1. I like the idea.

    I do think, though, that you’re being overly pessimistic regarding conditions right here on earth. It wouldn’t be the first time (Malthus, Ehrlich, etc.) that the end of (or at least widespread misery for) humankind is upon us, almost upon us, or kinda someday more-or-less soon going to be upon us, after all. Moreover, I’ve got to say that assuming science will concquer the problems associated with space travel, but can’t solve the ones right here at home, doesn’t make much sense to me.

    The oil crisis will, I’m certain, be solved in the same manner as the worldwide horse shortage. (and before you think that’s no problem, consider that a horse craps 25 pounds a day. Consider that New York City had 7 million people in the 40’s, and probably at least 5 million at the turn of the century. Just to play with the numbers, assume one in four owned a horse and you come up with 15,625 tons of horse crap per DAY. You think smog is bad?)) Humans are some pretty resourceful bastards when we need to be, and we’ve solved problems ranging from the aforementioned Horse-Shit Crisis to the need for sewage to diseases to the preservation of food. There’s no reason to believe we can’t continue to persevere.

    Finally, as a matter of entrepenuership, there’s a big question to ask when it comes to space exploration…. Why? Yeah, you can get tourists to fork over some big cash for a trip into orbit, but what is on Mars (or the moon, for that matter) that people here on earth need, or want, enough to make such a trip profitable? Would you put your money into sending a spaceship to Mars for no other reason than to send a spaceship to Mars? There needs to be something on Mars (or some other planet) that we can’t (or almost can’t) find here–to an extent that what’s there is worth the trouble of getting it.

    Comment by Redneck — 23 June 2006 @ 11:21

  2. Try these on for size:

    1. Yes, humans persevere. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the space problem. The world isn’t coming to an end now: it’s coming to an end in five billion years or so. What’s in short supply now is time to do something about it, and the ability of humans to think ahead. See the comments regarding cockroaches.

    Of course, I do see possibility for us to extend that launch window. We might harness the power of cold fusion, for instance, and be able to create and sustain such energy-generating reactions without using up limited supplies of uranium. I suspect, at the current rate, that solution will at best be “too little too late”. After all, we’re not only going to need to start replacing our oil-based power: we’ll also need to increase the power we can get, as populations increase and advanced technological luxuries increase, thus increasing the power shortage pressures. A horse shortage never occurred at a time when basically all the world except dead desert lands were already settled, for instance — and populating the ocean would only make things worse, as that would require even greater energy expenditures. The more populous the world gets, the more people there are using power, and the more power each person needs to use.

    Add to that the simple fact that moving people out of Earth’s gravity well uses a heckuva lot of power just for very small numbers of people at present, and realize that we’re talking about moving nontrivial numbers of people. The more I think about it, the less reason for optimism I see. The only reason humanity has overcome obstacles in the past is that someone did something about it before it was too late. In some cases, “too late” was a very long way off. In this case, I don’t think it is — so it’s time for someone to do something.

  3. There are a great many potential business reasons for moving off-world, and I’m not even talking about tourism (which I don’t think will provide an early viable business model). The big one that comes to mind is a simple one: raw materials. Another is, interestingly, energy sources — there isn’t enough surface area on planet Earth to be able to build enough solar panels to pay for the energy expenditure of building and deploying the damned things before we run out of energy, but space is another matter. There’s also space on Mars and the Moon, which is not an unending supply here on Earth, to say nothing of the potential benefits to be gained from (near-)zero-gravity manufacturing processes.

  4. Here’s another tantalizing possibility for you to ponder: Remember the Free State Project, well underway? How likely do you think that is to produce Libertopia? How much more opportunity is there for starting over properly on another world?

    Comment by apotheon — 23 June 2006 @ 11:43

    1. Remember the free market. It wasn’t a government program or an emergency measure or some other reaction that brought us the automobile (to refer again to the Horse-Crap Crisis of ’01); or the medicines and vaccines we have, or developed sewer systems or figured out how to preserve food; it was good old-fashioned greedy rich-wanting-to-get-richer capitalist-swine profit motive. That’s managed to overcome all of our crises so far, not because some far-sighted person saw into the future and fixed the problem before it was too late, but because a need arose and someone realized they could get rich serving that need.

    As for replacing our oil-based power, we needed to do this once already. There came a time when steam, when the horse-and-buggy, when sails, weren’t enough to get the job done. We managed to replace those with better technologies–more efficient, stronger, cleaner, safer–and not only cover the energy needs we had but those which we would have in future generations. I don’t see any reason we won’t continue to do so; it’s plain and simply our nature as human beings.

    So I still think you’re somewhat pessimistic regarding both the condition of our planet–even here in the USA, there’s a ~lot~ of unsettled land besides dead desert–and human ingenuity. To mix the two, between the land we have and such advances as bio-engineered and chemical-treated feed, veterinary medicine, Salicornia (a salt-marsh weed that thrives in sea-water-irrigated desert and makes excellent fodder), etc., etc., etc., we ~could~ fill any “horse shortage” in this day and age. My apologies if you thought I was characterizing your position as a matter of emminent extinction, but I think in coming years (assuming we don’t let the muslims blow us all up) we’re going to thrive, not merely crawl through with a few of us still breathing to see the next century. And we’ll do this for the very reason that you expect us to get into space–human ingenuity, capitalism, entrepeneurism.

    1. Actually, I hadn’t thought of power. I can fairly easily see a solar plant on the moon, for instance, possibly even made with metals drawn up from the moon’s own core. But then you get the same problem that you get with any other resource you find in space: It’s way, way, way up there, and we’re way, way, way down here.

    Like you mentioned earlier, getting even small amounts of goods, or small numbers of people, into space is a major undertaking–even to the moon, much less to Mars. Tote up the cost of a single lunar expedition, and see how much steel you’d have to bring back to make up the cost of the trip, how much granite, how much nickel… hell, how much gold or platinum. Then figure out how we’re gonna get it down here–fling 5 tons at a time in Earth’s general direction and go find the 1 ton that made it to the ground?

    For energy, I suppose it’s possible to run something such as a laser or simply use the mirrors in the earlier example to focus light at a solar plant on the ground, or some similar exercise, but for any kind of raw materials, you’d need to first get some conveyance out to where it is, then get the stuff out (and preferably refine it to its purest form on-site, so you don’t waste money transporting the impurities along with the goods), then get the stuff out of the gravity well of whatever we got it out of–even the moon has enough gravity well that we’d use up a lot of fuel transporting anything–then get it to earth, then get it through our atmosphere without boiling whatever it is away. That’s a tall friggin’ order, there.

    There’s plenty on the moon or on Mars that we need or want; there’s no doubt about that. From ores to water to simple living space, we’ve got a shitload right here in our solar system. but the problem is, there’s nothing out there that we need or want badly enough to make the herculean effort to bring it down here.

    As for colonizing other planets, that will bring up the same problems–with the major difference that profit motive will be a survival mechanism rather than the actual goal.

    Comment by Redneck — 24 June 2006 @ 02:25

    1. Great — if we had a free market, or even anything vaguely approximating one. We need to get busy enough to fix that. When I referred to people fixing the problem as individuals, I didn’t mean specifically that someone saw into the future and realized something needed to be done — I meant that someone had to do something and, luckily, conditions were conducive to that. Right now, conditions are almost conducive, and retreating fast from that state. Thus, we need to get on the ball.
    2. What conveyance? Build one out of some of the materials you want to use Earthside. You only need enough going upward to get started, then the rest can come down, for the most part. Hell, if it comes to it, use the chaff that’s left after material refinement as an ablative for reentry. Entering the atmosphere isn’t so energy-expensive anyway, especially if we can work out a way to harness the reentry friction-generated heat for the equivalent of airbrakes. Think about the space shuttle for a moment: a big metal brick with ceramic underside and relatively tiny little wings. That thing returns humans to Earth from orbit in a “controlled” plummet, and it works just fine (most of the time). You can afford to be a little more lax with nonliving matter. Even better, consider the space capsules from the days of our original Moon trips: a conical hunk of metal that deployed cargo chutes and used the ocean as a landing pad. Really, the big effort in getting raw materials from the Moon would be calculating reentry angles and touchdown locations — which is basically a solved problem. Throw a few engineers at it, and we’ll have a solution. The real issue will be getting set up to mine (and possibly refine) stuff — though I think it’d be cheaper to drop it unrefined and do that groundside. Anyway, just wallpapering the Moon with energy collectors and beaming it Earthside would be a benefit, if nothing else — and in the meantime, we could start building our launch platform for longer jaunts.

    Comment by apotheon — 24 June 2006 @ 03:02

  5. So you’re referring not to the availability of resources, but the availability of capitalism? I can definitely see that being a factor–then again, China has a serious lack of capitalism, and they’re next in line. If anybody beats us to Mars, it’ll be the Chinese (And the hell of it is, if our restriction of capitalism causes the US to fall behind the Chinese, the blame will fall on capitalism and not the shackles placed upon it.). However, while that can shackle humanity, it won’t kill us; I still think humans are smarter, more resourcefull, and generally tougher than you give us credit for.

    Building a conveyance capable of space travel is a lot more than a matter of snapping up the scrap ore and throwing together a big box. After getting however many tons of raw material out of reach of a planet’s gravity (and as we’ve noted, getting even small amounts out of Earth’s gravity requires an enormous expenditure of fuel–while the gravity of the moon or Mars is lighter, that’s still a far from insignificant barrier.), you still have to reach Earth. Momentum will do that, if it’s aimed in the right direction, and the timing’s right, and half a dozen other factors, but then there’s two other problems–getting it to the ground, and getting it on the ground.

    The space shuttle is much more than a big metal box with kitchen tile on the bottom, or else even the Russians would have managed to make one–and they’re still bragging about Sputnik. Rockets or cargo chutes, however, still work fine for craft that handle a few people for a few days–again, though, to make such a venture profitable you need a ~lot~ of raw material, far too much for rockets or cargo chutes, and again, at a far greater expense than raw material right here on earth. I’m sure it can be done, but what i’m saying is by the time you went through all the effort, you’d spend several times the value of whatever you managed to bring back.

    Energy is a possibility–especially if you can find a way to use solar power or electricity to move a spacecraft–and quite possibly waste disposal; just point it in the general direction of the sun, give it a good hard shove, and gravity will do the rest. But at least at the moment, those aren’t feasible options; just a lost closer to it than the extraction of raw materials. Before we can make commercial space travel a reality, we have to be able to make it a possibility.

    Comment by Redneck — 24 June 2006 @ 01:46

  6. So you’re referring not to the availability of resources, but the availability of capitalism?

    Well . . . I’m referring to both, but the lack of free market capitalism is the bigger of the problems, and if we had some of that I’m sure we could more easily overcome the incipient resource shortages.

    China has a serious lack of capitalism, and they’re next in line.

    Strict tyrannical authoritarianism has the benefit of being able to reallocate resources however it likes. As long as it can maintain order, it’s easy to just take resources away from keeping its population fed and put them into achieving space travel. Of course, China will have very specific goals, beyond which it won’t care to extend, and will be less forthcoming with its advances and discoveries than some other potential spacefarers, and as a result it won’t be nearly as free and clear a benefit to mankind as a whole than a free market solution to the problem — and will still be less efficient, probably by a factor of about a hundred at minimum, than that hypothetical free market solution could be. In the meantime, a more “pure” state-run economy like China’s is better able to allocate funds to a space program than this bastardized hybrid economy we have here that crushes entrepreneurial dynamics before they get too innovative and upset the market dominance status quo too much.

    Building a conveyance capable of space travel is a lot more than a matter of snapping up the scrap ore and throwing together a big box.

    Bah, “space travel” is easy. As you describe for disposing of waste, just point it in the direction of your destination and give it a push. The biggest problems from an engineering perspective right now are those of keeping humans alive inside your vessel.

    The space shuttle is much more than a big metal box with kitchen tile on the bottom

    You’re right — except that the main reasons it’s a lot more are that it has to be reusable and there is zero tolerance for damage to the cargo it carries in transit (since the cargo involves expensive human lives).

    while the gravity of the moon or Mars

    Keep in mind that the energy expenditure for getting things out of Mars’ gravity well is near to that of doing the same from Earth, but the Moon — not so much. Keep in mind that the Moon’s surface-level escape velocity is only about 2.4km/s, while from surface level on Earth is about 11.something (the number escapes my recollection at the moment), which represents at least an exponential, if not geometric, increase in energy required to escape the gravity well. As a point of interest, I think Mars sorta splits the difference between the two, but I’m pretty hazy on that. Don’t forget that Earth also has the added problem that 11km/s in Earth’s atmosphere is thoroughly hypersonic to a degree that makes it effectively impossible to use escape velocity thrust as a means to get out of Earth’s gravity well (to say nothing of the fact that sort of acceleration would flatten anything inside the vessel), increasing the energy requirements of reaching escape velocity significantly, while the Moon doesn’t have that problem — and, similarly, we wouldn’t have problems with turning humans into a thin red paste inside the cargo hold of a raw materials shipment back Earthside.

    The Moon could be turned into a penal colony as well, I suppose, though that seems like a tremendous net lose on effort expended.

    Comment by apotheon — 24 June 2006 @ 03:35

  7. […] I’ve created, and made available on the Web, the ARChive: Apotheonic Resource Collection. It includes the essay Humanity’s Launch Window, previously referenced in the SOB post titled Movin’ On Up: the necessity of space colonization, as some of the more astute of you might have noticed if you remembered the URL for it. […]

    Pingback by SOB: Scion Of Backronymics » ARChive — 6 July 2006 @ 04:09

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