We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

How will it really happen?

I am going to go very far out on a slender limb and tell you my thoughts on how things might play out over the next few decades.

First, NASA is in deep trouble. The Ares 1 is well behind schedule and the gap in their ability to take cargo and passengers to the space station has widened into a chasm. Ares 1 was pushed ahead by former NASA director Mike Griffin for two reasons. It was an effort to train younger engineers on a smaller manned vehicle design before all of the old folk retired and as a means to get to the space station when shuttle retired. Building Ares 5 as a first effort was correctly thought to be a bad idea. The problem is, Ares 1 seems to have become less an interim vehicle and more of a goal in itself. This is something one less enamoured of government would have predicted. I do not think Ares 1 will fly before 2015 and 2017 would not much surprise me.

So where does that leave us?

SpaceX has flown two very small expendable rockets of a new design with new engines. By itself that would be fun but not of much use for the long term. What is important is the commercial sense of this vehicle. It is cheap to build and cheap to fly as such things go, and more importantly for our topic today, it was the first step towards a bigger and more interesting expendable, the Falcon 9. This rocket uses a first stage cluster of 9 of the same engines as the Falcon 1 main engine and is big enough to deliver cargo to the space station. Given the clean performance of the most recent Falcon 1 flight, a second success in a row, I am going to predict they have this vehicle working by no later than the 2nd flight. That means a true commercial orbital cargo capacity by 2011, and possibly as soon as 2010.

But wait, there’s more. The cargo carrier is not just an expendable container. It has windows… for a reason. The Dragon capsule was designed and built as a manned craft from the start. After a few cargo flights SpaceX will have the operational data needed to risk placing people in it. That should happen within only a few years of the first successful flight of the Falcon 9. There is also a next generation rocket on the drawing board, the Falcon 9 Heavy, but let us leave SpaceX for now.

Although I know less about their efforts, Orbital Sciences Corporation should not be counted out in this market niche and time frame. It is entirely possible there will be two commercial package and personnel delivery companies operating in the space station environment by 2012.

Let’s look at Bigelow Aerospace. They currently have two inflatable habs in orbit. They have a 100% success rate on their orbital operations and have years of real flight data backing them now. Somewhere in the period of 2010-2012 they will be putting up the full scale unit. That one will contain a goodly amount of rentable pressurized and fully habitable volume in space. Their habitats have shown themselves to be rugged enough to survive years in space… but there is nothing special about them being in orbit. They can provide habitable volume in any low or no pressure environment. Next. Orbital Outfitters. They are making space suits for the passengers and crew of pretty much everyone working in the suborbital tourist market. Spacesuits are very expensive items and even with all of that cost are not very good. American astronauts painfully lose fingernails inside their suits. All the time. No one quite knows the cause but I understand the Russian Orlon suits do not have the problem. Perhaps an energetic small company that is building more suits and trying different things at a faster pace can solve the problem. It is always easier to try new things when the test article is relatively cheap.

Next we have a whole crop of suborbital rocketeers. The first of these, SpaceShipTwo, should have its official roll out sometime this year. Its first stage carrier, WhiteKnightTwo has already flown. Unless something drastic happens during the test campaign, real suborbital tourist flights will begin by 2011. There will be multiple airframes and the flight rates will be accelerating towards a goal of airline operational rates per tail number. This means more civilians will have flown into space by 2013/2014 than the total number of government employees who have flown to date, and that is assuming no one else succeeds.

Next in line is XCOR and its Lynx 1 project. I have a soft spot in my heart for this ship because I played ever so small a part (paid!) in its early design stages. The Lynx 1 carries only one passenger who gets to sit in the co-pilot position. The rocket plane will rotate at the end of the runway and basically go straight up to an altitude higher than that reachable by tourist flights on Russian fighter planes. Lynx 2 will follow a couple years later, paid for by the Lynx 1 flights, and will be a true suborbital vehicle.

Another interesting project is Space Diver. Armadillo Aerospace won the first phase of the lunar lander competition and now has a fairly reliable vertical take off and landing vehicle (VTVL). They are also intending to use it for tourist flights to suborbital altitudes. However, if you have a small rocket like that at high altitude, it is also possible to simply… unstrap and step out at apogee. Colonol Joseph Kittinger set the skydiving altitude record of 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960. To my knowledge, no one has even attempted to better it since then, largely because it is difficult to get a balloon gondola to a significantly higher altitude. That is why our current day record seekers are looking at Armadillo’s VTVL as a path to ever increasing record altitudes. Eventually someone will skydive from space. At some later time, some will do so and live to tell about it.

There are numerous other players, but this is enough to give you the flavor. Each one of these companies has orbital plans as well, mostly in the 2017 and after range.

There is more to spaceflight than this, and there a certainly a number of small companies like Orion Propulsion and Spacedev who are doing well and building components for other commercial space entrepreneurs.

I should also note there are now seven FAA licensed spaceports in the US, and those locations will become centers at which the commercial and entrepreneurial energy will reach fever pitch.

Now that I have laid out where we are, I can go out on that limb and project the future.

It is 2020. Several billionaires with interest in space have banded together in a Lunar Project. SpaceX has heavy cargo lift for hire; Bigelow has a large orbital business park of inflatable habs. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR and several others have the capacity to deliver people to orbit. SpaceX has a much upgraded Dragon capsule that can be used to get to the moon; Orbital Sciences has worked with Orion Propulsion and others on the Lunar Transfer stage; Armadillo Aerospace has the lunar lander and return vehicle technology well in hand; Bigelow has built a lunar version of his successful orbital habs; and orbital outfitters has provided a new generation of lunar EVA suits.

All the staging work happens in orbit and those directly involved work and sleep at the Bigelow facility. A set of large Bigelow habs are sent from there to the lunar surface first. The pilots and workers who are going to follow remain at the Orbital Bigelow until the cargo is confirmed to be down and safe.

There are one or more super-Dragon capsules on open frame Orbital Science transfer vehicles, along with Armadillo built landers. The engineers check out all the parts in orbit; once satisfied the crew transfer over to the capsules and fire their Orion built thrusters to gently move away from the hotel before firing the main engine.

Several days later they arrive on lunar orbit and the construction crew shift to the descent module. They land near the habs and other cargo and proceed to move them to the robot prepared foundation area. Once inflated they enter and bring the habs up to full operational standards. And then they stay until the next crew arrives to relieve them. Meanwhile, more cargo ships land and they continue to expand the facility.

After a few months they declare Luna City (more like a tiny village) open for business. Among the first customers to arrive are researchers from various space agencies around the world. One or more of the habs has a big NASA logo on it and is handed over to them in a televised ceremony. Next come the tourists. By 2021 there are more than enough super rich on Earth to afford the multi-million dollar trip. Technology has moved on since the $20M tourist flights to the space station on Russian rockets.

Since Luna City is a commercial venture as well as being the dream fulfilment of those with the money to do so, it is intended to grow. Large numbers of very smart people in an unusual environment sparks creativity and very lucrative patents. The filming of documentaries and movies, moonrock jewellery, patents, tourists and paid for researchers and labs pay the bills.

And thus begins the vast outward explosion of free people.

92 comments to How will it really happen?

  • Well you had me all excited up until the money shot at the end. The essay reminded me a lot of an essay that thrilled me as a youngster called, if memory serves, “They Skytank Portfolio”, mapping out the expansion of commercial orbital habitats and manufacturing that would happen in, er, the 1980s.

    I know I am always a damp squib- I am a child of the space age after all, so am cynical about dreams of space- but what is always missing is some meat on the bones of the economy we’re supposed to develop. We all know that nobody does nothing if’n there ain’t no money in it. Where’s the money? You can’t make money without producing. What does this gleaming space economy produce?

    Since Luna City is a commercial venture as well as being the dream fulfillment of those with the money to do so, it is intended to grow.

    Okay, that sounds good! Tell me more…

    Large numbers of very smart people in an unusual environment sparks creativity and very lucrative patents.

    It does? Is there any actual evidence for the idea that if you put smart people somewhere weird, this combination itself intrinsically produces “creativity and patents”? If I grabbed a hundred phds, made them wear clown suits and ride a roller coaster, would they become an ideas factory? Why does sticking them on the moon, a dreary wasteland which requires permanent incarceration, stimulate creativity? More blood to the head in 1/6G?

    The filming of documentaries and movies,

    Well, sure, one or two documentaries. Movies? The Moon is not often a setting for movies, and when it is, that’s because it’s science fiction and gee whiz. Once it’s Torremolinos without the atmosphere, your gee-whiz factor drops drastically. What’s the market for moon documentaries?

    moonrock jewelry,

    Well, yes, not quite a whole economy, but it’s something.

    patents,

    Again, I’m lost as to why Tom Edison would have done better on the Moon.

    tourists

    I’m not at all convinced about this one. Yes, there’ll be an initial burst of sci-fi fans emerging from their mothers’ basements to visit the Moon, not that they’ll be able to afford it, but after that?

    The Moon is a phenomenally fucking dull place. It’s grey-brown rock. Half the time it’s in pitch darkness. You can’t go outside except in a spacesuit or vehicle. You can’t touch it. There’s no beach, no interesting local foods and culture, no architecture or museums. It’s just a big ball of dead rock. It’s Death Valley without air. Why the feck does anyone think there’s a mass tourist market?

    and paid for researchers and labs pay the bills.

    Researching what? What can you research on the Moon that you can’t on Earth? What can private industry do there that they can’t do here?

    And thus begins the vast outward explosion of free people.

    I think you’ll find that government will explode out there ahead of them. For any foreseeable future, space habitats will be dependent on the Old Planet; and the last thing the Old Planet governments will do is allow an outbreak of anarchy in the Colonies.

    ***

    I am sorry to be negative. I know the argument goes “we don’t really know what we’ll do until we get there”- but this is an act of faith, that some kind of economy that we can’t imagine yet will magically erupt in the velvety blackness of space. I’ve read lots of articles about expanding off-planet, and nobody seems to have any concrete enterpreneurial plan. If there is some productive benefit to being in space, it ought to be conceivable from down here dirtside. That nobody seems to be able to think of a real use for space- and relies instead on this faith-based vision- implies to me that it may well be that there is no profit to be had.

  • Laird

    Well, I expected Ian B to show up and throw cold water on this essay, but damn! that was fast!

    We get it. Zero-G/low-G/hard vacuum manufacturing/research holds no allure. Sitting around in Bigelow’s habitats all day will be phenomenally boring. Very smart people in a novel environment which cannot be reproduced on earth won’t come up with any new or revolutionary ideas. Scientific progress is completely linear: if we can’t see it from here it’s not coming.

    You must be a great fan of Malthus.

  • Dale Amon

    A number of things are apparent:

    * You are not an adventurer and would not have been found on a wagon train heading west in 1870.

    * You would not have thought the Wright Flyer worth all the fuss.

    * You will be remaining on Earth.

    * Some of us do not intend to do so.

    Things happen because people want them to happen. There is enough money and momentum behind us now that this is *going* to happen. Not necessarily the way I said but probably with some elements of it in the real mix.

    We are leaving this dirtball and the sooner I can get to that gorgeous gray frontier, the better. Some of us were born for frontiers. Some were not. There is no shame in it if you were not.

  • Dale, appeal to this “Spirit Of Adventure” thing is not an answer. I dreamed of being Ian B, Space Cadet when I was a kid too, and I still do. But that’s a dream. It’s not a plan.

    Socialism- which gets a fair old knocking on this site, and for the reason I’m about to state- is full of dreams. Where it fails is in the actualite. And likewise socialists accuse us liberals of being cold-water killjoys who won’t get with the programme and live the dream. Why? Because we look at their economics and we say, “this doesn’t work. What pays for it?”

    So take your wagon train to the new frontier and stick it where the Sun don’t shine- the moon, two weeks out of every four- and let’s have a bit of good old, down to Earth realism about this thing.

    You know what those guys on the wagon trains knew for certain would greet them at their destination? Soil, air and water.

    What’s the Moon got?

  • And just to address this bit of happy-clappy which I missed-

    Things happen because people want them to happen.

    That is not true. Things happen because they are practical. Lots and lots of people wanted communism to happen. It failed because it was a broken idea. You cannot make it work, however much you believe in the communist dream.

    You cannot just will whatever you want into existence. Dreams are constrained by reality.

  • Dale Amon

    There are trade offs. Water has to be recycled… but there aren’t any arrows either. If you can’t see how to go about settling the moon and other bodies, I am not going to convince you in a few comments or blog posts. Probably not even if I wrote a full treatise on the subject.

    I prefer to spend my time making it real. The best refutation of your arguments will be their failure to reflect the reality of the world of the 2020’s.

    Invest your money as you choose. No one is stopping you from not investing in New Space.

  • I am not going to convince you in a few comments or blog posts. Probably not even if I wrote a full treatise on the subject.

    I’ve never seen you try, Dale. Neither you nor anyone else. Space fans concentrate on the easy part of the problem (getting there) and ignore the hard problem, which is the question of why go there, and the economic basis for doing so. Then when faced with criticism you launch into ad homs about how the one criticising has no imagination, no spirit of adventure, and is, oh lawks! closed minded.

    Well, go ahead answering doubts with insults. But in the still of the night, when you raise your head briefly from frantically scribbling rocket ships, try to remember it’s not the technology that’s the problem. If you want to posit some kind of economy on the Moon, you’re going to have to start thinking damned hard about it at some point. It would be possible, with sufficient effort, to build a habitable bungalow at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The question which remains is why anyone should bother. If the best answer is “you could make jewelry from seafloor rocks”, you’ve not got a very good answer. Olivine is olivine, wherever it comes from.

  • Sadly I’m with Ian B. It has nothing to do with pioneer spirit, or lack there of.

    If we build it, they will come, is not a business plan. It’s a desire.

    There might be amazing things you can do in zero-gee/low-gee/hard vacuum – we just don’t know, but I do know that unless the prices come down a long long way very quickly you’ll struggle to find enterprises interested in fronting the cost to find out.

    I also really question the idea that the people who set up in space colonies, should this happen, are going to be free. The reality of the environment and the nature of the colony set up suggests these would have to be one of the heaviest regulated places to live in human history.

  • Dale Amon

    No, Ian, the answer is ultimately ‘because you want to’ and ‘because you can’. For those of us he wish to move off planet the bottom line is to find a way to meet subsistence requirements. Food. Air. Water. Shelter. Trace Minerals. Trace minerals are not a big issue so long as you know what they are: you do not need a lot of them. Air means you have some source of Oxygen to replace losses, and perhaps a buffering gas if you wish a higher pressure solution and wish to keep pO2 at Earth normal. Food means you have to be able to grow your own. It will require a protected environment. Water is mostly recyclable but you have to replace losses from somewhere. Even the moon may have enough to replace the losses.

    We also need energy and shelter. Energy can be had via solar half the month anywhere and constantly at the poles. Shelters will initially be inflatable habs covered in regolith. More substantial buildings may be built of local materials. The question there is not how, but which technique and when?

    So the very lowest rung of the ladder is a large investment by billionaires that creates a small self-sustaining town that does enough to cover the irreduceable minimum material imports: Hydrogen; some vitamins; small high technology hardware for eplacement modules. The residents are there for life; there is no return in their future, only a small cross looking out over the valley.

    The only economy that matters to those who are subsisting is the local one.

    Do you think that cannot happen in the next 20-50 years? I do. Would you think such a life was a wonderful adventure? Doubtful. I think you would hate it so much as to claim that noone else would. But you would be wrong. I would leave, one way, with death the only exit and the only sound you would hear would be the last Earthly door I would ever hear slamming shut behind me.

    I will go further. Those who go out there face infinity and will be looking outwards. Extreme hardship and survival will make them tough.

    The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth. The Rest of Us Shall Have Left for The Stars.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I suspect that if Dale Amon’s scenario is true, we’ll know it when the world’s governments regulate it out of existence. Great Things happening absent the enabling hand of government just isn’t going to be allowed.

  • So once we’ve cut through the (in terms of this discussion irrelevent) engineering, we get to-

    So the very lowest rung of the ladder is a large investment by billionaires that creates a small self-sustaining town

    Philanthropy by billionaires. Why they will pay for Dale’s pressurised dome on Ganymede isn’t covered.

    The residents are there for life; there is no return in their future, only a small cross looking out over the valley.

    Stirring relgious imagery.

    irreduceable minimum material imports: Hydrogen; some vitamins; small high technology hardware for eplacement modules.

    A supposedly independent society utterly dependent on resupply ships. Let’s hope their captains have an endless fascination with moon necklaces.

    Do you think that cannot happen in the next 20-50 years? I do.

    An appeal to disproof. (Do you say communism cannot work? Prove it!)

    I will go further. Those who go out there face infinity and will be looking outwards. Extreme hardship and survival will make them tough.

    The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth. The Rest of Us Shall Have Left for The Stars.

    And In A Final Burst Of Unnecessary Capitalisation, We Get The Smackdown! Again. Those Poor, Meek Fools Who Simply Asked For A Sound Economic Basis Upon Which To Proceed. What Nebbishes! How Small Their Horizons Are! I bet they’ve never read The Little House On The Mare Imbrium!

    Really Dale, this is just golden age science fiction. If daydreaming about this stuff stirs your blood, fair enough, but stop trying to present it as some kind of sober discussion of reality. I asked for a discussion of economic development, and all you’ve got is the cover blurb from Astounding Stories.

    Best of luck with the new frontier. Give my regards to Tom Corbett.

  • Alec

    I’m with Ian on this one. Would billionaires have funded the 1960’s Moon landings?

    Ian, thanks for your beautiful articulation on this.

  • a large investment by billionaires that creates a small self-sustaining town that does enough to cover the irreduceable minimum material imports: Hydrogen; some vitamins; small high technology hardware for eplacement modules. The residents are there for life; there is no return in their future, only a small cross looking out over the valley.

    Nice image, it is, Alan Steele did it very well in one of his short stories too. However, you are still glossing over hugely complex steps.

    For a start, without significant gene work, can baseline humans even carry babies to term in micro/low gravity? Sod the idea of coming back, can we breed out there and if we can, does it require a lot of work? I suspect you’ll find the number of adventurers will be less if they find out that you have to live with the levels of miscarriage and infant death we did during previous waves of pioneers.

    Once you’ve researched that – which could take a while, assuming you want to get the equipment out there to do real primate studies (which you should) – I have to still take issue with the self sustaining idea, at least without Nanotechnology in it’s current Science Fiction state.

    Building a small scale silicon chip fab on the moon is going to be an interesting exercise, as is creating real clean room facilities for research.

    We still can’t build self sustaining growing eco-systems on Earth, let alone off earth, not to mention the work that still needs to be done in the field of scaling closed loop life support systems.

    I don’t want to claim these things are impossible, that would be absurd. But I do want to make it clear that the Heinleinien vision of a colony born from the activities of a Harriman like figure is fiction. Fun fiction, but fiction never-the-less. The boring engineering of building places to live and water distribution networks, air and ventilation systems, closed loop farms, methods of cleaning dust out of mechanisms over protracted periods of use and a myriad of other “real” engineering problems, which exist on top of the actually mundane challenge of getting there are more significant than your initial post suggests.

  • Dale Amon

    The problem here is that you do not know either the literature nor the people involved but are talking as if you do.

    The billionaires are already doing the first stages of this project. Elon Musk; Bob Bigelow; Paul Allen; Jeff Bezos; Richard Branson. Jeff Bezos was not even mentioned in my article… his goal is Mars. He’s spending a large part of the yearly interest on his fortune down in West Texas building his spaceship, the New Shepherd.

    You do not like the idea that many of us would live a subsistence life to go out there and that there are a number of billionaires who are no different from us (except for the money) who want to see it happen. Those billionaires will keep their fortunes growing while expending a certain amount as seed money for the dreams we share.

    You do not like dreams. Too bad. Without them we are soulless, empty and worthless beings. Dreams take hard work. They take sacrifice. They take money and blood and sweat and tears and loss. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they do not. If I did not believe in success I would have taken some boring clone job writing accountancy software long ago and had a nice big house and probably be praying for the day to come when I could retire and leave it all behind for a few years until I died of boredom or cancer or both.

    Instead, I am fully alive and look forward to tomorrow and the day after. I am following my dreams. I will fight for them until I breath my last. I and others have the skills that are needed; others have the money; the whole team together is going to get us off this planet.

    You are welcome to your world view. I do not share it and never will. Nor do I even particularly expend much effort considering it other than for these brief comment reply moments.

  • The problem here is that you do not know either the literature nor the people involved but are talking as if you do.

    I can’t speak for Ian, but I do know quite a lot about the literature and the people and followed the same dreams for a goodly while, certainly until about 2000 when I was perfectly willing to alienate friends following the lines you’re talking about.

    But the reality is, my wife doesn’t remotely share the dream, and I do love my wife, and my dream isn’t worth the relationship. Even if it was, now I’m over 40 I do mind the things that are important to me changing.

    The other problem with your life of argument (which does remind me of your associate Mr Simberg) is that many of us still have dreams and lead full non-boring lives. We just don’t share those dreams.

    Frankly, the world would be rather dull if we all did.

    My concern is I’m not entirely convinced, that baring some serious global catastrophe, you’re going to find anywhere near enough people to share them with.

    Anyway, my deepest and most sincere wishes of luck to you in following your dream, and, perhaps, 40 years from now when I’m sitting by the pool sipping a good single malt, you’ll be somewhere out there. But I’ll still be sitting by the pool with a good single malt :)

  • Dale Amon

    I have no illusions that it absolutely, positively will happen. But if it does, I’ll be happy to wave in the general direction of Earth and raise my glass of whatever we managed to distill with the assistance of vacuum and ice cubes made by leaving the tray outside for a few minutes…

  • I’m interested in the economics but have a different perspective than IanB and Daveon. I’d like this vision to be made real because I’m sold intellectually by Patri Freidman’s idea that lowering the barriers to entry for new Governments will positively influence existing Governments and provide opportunities for some to live in their ideally run society, even if they are a bit cramped / damp / cold or whatever.

    So, after the billionaires have set up a frontier town in space (and assuming, if you don’t mind, that they can) how does the frontier become a new tranche of start-ups in the so-far unexciting business of running countries?

  • Robert Speirs

    There is a practical reason to go to Space. To make sure the bad guys don’t get there first.

  • The Bigelow modules can be used to construct a spaceship in orbit to go to the moon and Mars. All you need is the engines, fuel (which could be modified Bigelow designs), a structural skeleton to suspend the Bigelow habitats (you could even have a rotating habitat complex to induce artificial gravity), and guidance mechanisms attached to the skeleton. Add HAL.

    On the moon the construction crew would have to deal with the dust. It gets into equipment and into habitats/ lunar excursion suits. It is a serious problem.

    Construction crews would have to first go about burying the habitats in lunar soil to afford more radiation protection. Eventually such mining activities can expand to underground lunar base construction activity.

    Tourism will not support the construction of a moon base(s), nor will lunar observatories. More unique or profitable uses for the moon must be thought of for enough investment to be made in a lunar colony.

    Uranium mines (presumably more heavily favored on the “dark” side of the moon where the Earth’s core/crust 4 billion years ago was deposited—if theory is correct— could be quite profitable if it exists in sufficient quantity. Other heavy elements may exist in higher quantities here that are of value.

    Certainly there is a lot of aluminum present for possible harvesting for orbital construction of asteroid mining vehicles. But this would require new construction methods both on the moon and in orbit, and a reason to mine asteroids.

    There is a lot of locked up oxygen on the moon as well and the makings of a pretty decent rocket fuel…if enough energy (solar?) can be created to strip it and extract it.

    Oh, to find a fragment of a planetary core as an asteroid….but then you have to have a way to get such heavy raw materials back to Earth short of slamming it into the Earth. Bottom line…will it cost more than the profits made? So far it looks to me like “yes.”

  • Pa Annoyed

    It might be worth noting that even today with costs of $20,000/kg to get stuff up into space, there is still a queue and a three-year waiting list.

    Probably the two most immediately valuable resources are access to orbit/escape, and lots of vacuum. Down here on Earth, there are plenty of industrial applications for vacuum, and even more for an absence of oxygen. (No corrosion, for a start. Not even of very reactive metals. How much is that worth?) Small volumes of it are fairly expensive, and very large volumes impractical.

    For example, consider the question of transport of materials from one part of a manufacturing process to another. In principle, transport doesn’t need any energy input. All the energy used in transport goes into overcoming friction. But if you suspend the load on superconducting magnets, and fly it through vacuum, there is no friction. One of your major overheads is gone.

    Similarly, large scale machinery floated on magnetic bearings can be spun up to enormous speed, for a fraction of the expenditure of energy. Even with more conventional bearings, it’s a lot cheaper. Lower gravity makes large masses easier to manoeuvre and handle. You can make things bigger.

    Some stuff like fusion plants are limited by size. The physics scales so that bigger is easier. But of course, that’s harder and more expensive to engineer. On the moon, all you’ve got to do is build the coils – you don’t need to put a huge doughnut of metal around it to keep the air out. You probably still wouldn’t want it sat out in the open, but a large shed ought to be sufficient shelter.

    Communications and observation are a lot easier without atmosphere, too. Line-of-sight lasers are cheaper even than fibre. And a radio telescope built on the moon would be able to pick up a lot more.

    That same high-resolution radio technology could be turned back on Earth, for pinpoint directional access. Even though the moon is much further away than LEO, the fact you have a rigid base on which to build large scale structures means you can get better directionality than you can from a satellite. And such selectivity translates into greater bandwidth.

    You’ve got better access to orbit. The combination of raw materials and space means you can build more satellites, cheaper, and satellites are already economically viable. Also, on the moon, you can place orbits lower – you can have satellites whizzing round a few hundred metres above the surface, if you like. It would also be a far easier prospect to build a space-elevator on the moon, which would of course make things cheaper still.

    You have low temperatures on the night side, and fairly high temperatures in the day. Both of those would save a lot of cooling/heating of industrial processes compared to our very stable Earth temperatures.

    On the far side, you have radio silence, and wide-open spectrum. On Earth, you get bombarded with signals across the EM band from radio and TV and wifi and mobiles and radar and et cetera. And you’re not allowed to broadcast noise at high powers because of the interference you’ll cause everyone else. The moon is comparatively quiet, and especially so on its far side. Go to some bit of the moon away from the radio telescopes, and you can be as noisy as you like.

    And tourism has a lot more potential than the dead, grey surface would imply. You can build vast “indoor” inflatable structures on the surface, you can dig underground with far less structural support needed, and you can build yourself a far more pleasant environment.

    One where you have space to move. Where everything is bigger, brighter, bouncier. One, and I think this is a real seller, where you can fly!

    Who hasn’t had dreams of flying? Not in an aeroplane, but by strapping on some wings and jumping off a tall building? Knowing how hang-gliders and glider pilots feel about it, I suspect it would take a long time for that to get old.

    No, the economics of cheap access to the moon is quite easy to envision. Yes, it’s a wasteland now, but then, so was the Earth in a sense before people, (and indeed, life in general) tamed it. And of course one has to remember the most important fact of economics – it isn’t the resources inherent in the world around us that are the fundamental source of wealth; it’s people. Their activity, their ingenuity. If you had people living on the moon, you would have all the economic resources you need.

  • What’s the Moon got?

    Nothing, and in industrial quantities too. I agree with you Ian, to an extent. In order to survive any space settlement must be financially viable, at least to the extent that it can, long term, cover the cost of essential imports.

    I can see billionaires expending their cash on hopes and dreams, not all of it, and not all of them, but some and some.

    However, in the long run settlement will be driven by commercial successes. Orbital industrial growth will require workers, mass and habitat.

    Initially all will be hauled up from gravity wells, but time will come when a cubic decakilometre resource rich rock will be hauled from the asteroid belt because the material will be needed and that will be cheaper than hauling mass from Earth or Luna surface.

    That will lead to permanent facilities in the belt, and large scale settlement of earth orbit.

    Commercial activities, that will be the driver long term, and I can see it being an inevitable path once the first manufacturing facilities are established.

    The new age of expansion will have exactly the same drivers as the last one, and it will be equally as successful.

    Out there it is raining soup, and you are complaining that whats the point, because we don’t know how to make bowls.

  • Dale, you appear to be trapped in a novel, about how the finest, noblest men of Earth are mysteriously disappearing, until only the feeble nebbishes are left behind wallowing in their self-created mire; eventually the heroic minority of mankind are discovered, rugged and tough and lantern jawed, on the Moon.

    You could call it Atlas Buggered Off.

    You do not like dreams. Too bad. Without them we are soulless, empty and worthless beings.

    Do you actually expect to be taken seriously spouting aerie-faerie nonsense like this? Everyone has dreams. The difference is, some of us actually recognise the need to measure those dreams against reality, instead of just declaring some kind of spiritual superiority in the face of scepticism.

    I asked for a concrete basis for your predictions. You have none at all. I don’t think you even understand the question, which is sad considering the usual high quality of analysis offered here on Samizdata.

    Nor do I even particularly expend much effort considering it other than for these brief comment reply moments.

    The defining feature of the crank is certainty.

  • With regards to that “dirtball,” Earth will forever be the best place humanity will inhabit for some time to come unless faster than light travel is perfected. Even then, something better than Earth where we evolved is going to be rare.

    That beautiful gray frontier is a boiling frozen dry vacuum hell. Microgravity and probably longevity (minus the years removed from radiation exposure which accelerates genetic damage and cancer rates) are pluses to space dwelling.

    I seriously doubt most space workers would want to be away from Earth for so long they could never walk upon it again. Just go out, make their strike and return to retire to a beach.

    While I seriously doubt humans would have either conception or birthing problems in microgravity…indeed I would expect the opposite… it is true anyone spending more than 6 months in space in a microgravity environment may have serious health problems, or at some point afterwards may never be able to return to Earth’s gravity. But gravity can always be produced in a rotating shell.

  • Out there it is raining soup, and you are complaining that whats the point, because we don’t know how to make bowls.

    Not at all. I’m asking why anyone will go 250,000 miles through a hard vacuum for some soup, when they can buy a tin in Sainsburys.

    Look, as I said, I’d like space exploration to happen too. What I initially picked up on was that Dale had offered no plausible reason to go there; then when pressed all he announced was a wagon train to the stars in his dreams.

    The other point is this piffle about getting away from governments. Governments are going to claim every square inch that a man can land on, and unlike in American Revolutionary times they have the technology and power to enforce that too. The Moon is not going to be unowned territory. If people are ever allowed to settle there, it will come with government attached. As another commenter said above, it is going to be the most regulated place in history.

    And there is that important point; it’s a grim place to live. The Moon, Mars, they’re deserts. The view is terrible. It seems exciting to us now because of our sci-fi heritage, but it’s just rocks. And you cannot go outside. You cannot get a breathe of fresh air. You’re living permanently indoors. That is a big psychological problem. The awesome Lunar vista (big rounded dull grey hills, we’ve already seen it) will seem far less exciting once you’ve been there a year and got over the “wow, I’m on the Moon!” buzz.

    Will we find some way to exploit and live on other worlds in the future? Sure, probably. But let’s not get carried away. It’ll be hard work, dull, dangerous, and the government will be there first. It certainly won’t be a place to find liberty. All I was actually asking for was an economic justification beyond Dale’s dreaming billionaires- and that, he could not provide. Because as he says, he doesn’t lower himself to the consideration of such mundanities.

  • Dale Amon

    he doesn’t lower himself to the consideration of such mundanities.

    Actually no. I merely pointed out that whether you agree with me or not does not matter to me. You do not seem to be a venture capitalist nor anyone else who is going to help my venture along, so expending large amounts of time on someone who I am certain is willing to utilize all of the possible hours of time I have in endless debate is simply of no interest to me.

    If I were merely talking about space as my only means of taking part in it, I might do that. Back in the 1980’s I expended silly amounts of time debating such issues. That is not now the case and I have far better things to do in the space arena than just talk.

    I post my thoughts because some enjoy them. If you want a learned debate, you will need to find someone else with more time to waste than I.

  • Eric

    From what I can see there’s probably some good money to be made from orbital power stations, so we’ll see them sooner or later. Sooner, if the peak oil people are right. Hopefully the quantities involved will engender cheaper, more reliable rockets, which in turn will make other ventures profitable.

    But the moon… I don’t see it. What does the moon give you that you can’t get in LEO or on Earth itself? Somebody further up mentioned uranium… wouldn’t it be far cheaper to design thorium power plants? If what you’re really looking for is real estate, wouldn’t a floating island or a settlement on Antarctica make a whole lot more sense?

  • Midwesterner

    Perhaps it is in my heritage. For millennia my ancestors have gone out on the high seas in unsafe little boats. My dad remembered to the day he died watching his mother read in a letter that her little brother was ‘lost at sea’. The same little brother she named my dad for. I have looked through my family tree and seen wives with serial husbands. Fickle? No, ‘lost at sea’. And yet still more continued to go. They could have stayed on their rocky islands and fished from shore and subsistence farmed. But they didn’t.

    I can’t imagine sitting by a pool with a good single malt unless it is for a break between adventures. Even the thought of the ‘retired’ lifestyle gives me a queasy feeling of claustrophobia. It is that lifestyle that makes rich kids so overwhelmingly spoiled useless destructive, even nihilistic, brats. It is not a healthy way for a human to live. I am at my most contented when the horizon is far away, pure bliss is a destination measured in astronomical units and a means to get there. Setting difficult goals and achieving them is a deeply spiritual reward.

    Some argue that space is a different sort of case because we can survive on earth without life support systems. Last winter we had a low temperature where I live in the mid minus-30s degrees Fahrenheit (close to minus 40 degrees Celsius). At the coldest, we had a power failure and the power was off for many hours. When it gets that cold, the metal in the power lines contracts to the point that breaks happen. The difference is only of degree, not nature. History is full of people who died of exposure where others now live safely. It was more difficult for the first humans to settle extreme climates than it will be for the first settlers in space.

    Somebody will need to build the support bases. Somebody will need to survey the availability of elements. Somebody will need to haul freight, haul passengers, haul fuel. Somebody will need to produce food. Somebody will have to do everything even if it is to support and repair robots doing the ‘real’ work. I want to be one of those “somebody”s.

    Why climb Everest? Why a sailboat when motors are cheap? Why a garden when stores sell food? Why a motorcycle when cars are warm and dry? Why anything? Why not just hook up probes to your brain and lock yourself in a pleasure cocoon? Why even that? Why did Yeager fly with broken ribs? For that matter, why did he break them riding a horse? Cars are safer.

    What kind of a puritan expects people to justify their dreams and ambitions? I do not extend editorial control of my aspirations to anyone.

  • Not at all. I’m asking why anyone will go 250,000 miles through a hard vacuum for some soup, when they can buy a tin in Sainsburys.

    Ian, I usually agree with you wholeheartedly, but on this one, I am completely across the pond.

    I can tell you why I would go: to simply have the bragging rights to have done it. I would prioritize rigging up some environmental bubble where I could wake up in the morning on the moon, or mars, walk out onto bare soil, and urinate my name in the sand. Tell me that wouldn’t be worth it all?

  • Phil Terry

    Is it economically viable is THE question? That we have billionaires produced by the biggest bubble in history as the only ones able to fund i.e. waste the tax payer money used to generate those bubbles (fiat money inflation is the biggest tax) simply means that government funds (direct and indirect) are the only things funding space… I would have thought on this blog we already know that government spending is sine qua non wasted spending. QED. Space is a dream which should never be funded.

    Discuss. I’m with Ian B

  • Dale Amon

    First, while there may have been a few who did not end up losing their shirts in the dotbust, the particular people funding the current generation of New Space were not really among them. Jeff Bezos: Amazon, one of the largest online retailers; Elon Musk: PayPal, the largest online payment handler; Paul Allen: Microsoft; Bob Bigelow: Budget Suites Hotels in Las Vegas; Richard Branson: Virgin Music and Virgin Atlantic; John Carmack: Doom and Quake games.

    While one might correctly blame the real estate bubble on the government, in general bubbles are a natural phenomena of growing and changing economies. There is a human tendency to pile on and that creates over investment; when the bubble collapses the well run companies are left standing and the infrastructure and IP created by the failed companies is recycled at low cost and helps create a stable and prosperous business.

    It’s a key part of the “Creative Destruction” of Capitalism.

    I fully expect the same will happen when the time comes that commercial space crosses the boundary from closely held companies to public. There will be a funding frenzy at some point and I fully intend to be on the right side of it stuffing my pockets as quickly as I can and working with people who are smart enough to survive the end of the bubble and go on to be the leader in space. Easier said than done, but that is the way it is done.

  • Nuke Gray!

    Here is one Lunar Industry which could have a future- harvesting plasma! I mentioned a year or so back my idea of converting plasma (which is composed of protons and electrons) into hydrogen by using electric power to trap the electrons and the protons in different magnetic containers, and then slowing them down (a cyclotron in reverse), and cooling the particles until they naturally couple up as hydrogen atoms. (If neutrons were as easy to handle, we might be able to build atoms to order!)
    I called this the Squirrell engine, because it would work slowly, storing hydrogen cryogenically until you sold it to a spacecraft, or storing it aboard your own craft after the initial blast from orbit. The moon would be an ideal place for solar power to keep your Space-Gas station operating.
    So there is another idea- making hydrogen from space.

  • Right now, I’m wishing I was a woman, just so’s I could shake my head and exclaim, “Men!” (or perhaps “Boys!” would be more appropriate).

    The reactions here are just about as inconsistent with the usual run of things on Samizdata as one could possibly imagine, apparently simply because the subject is rocket ships. Whereas samizdatisas and the commentariat usually- and wisely- deconstruct the unreality of the plans and programmes of others, when it comes to rocket ships suddenly the only acceptable perspective is following dreams to reach the unreachable star, following your heart and so on. And to criticise that is to have no imagination, and not even a soul(!) and to be, in Midwesterner’s words, “a puritan”.

    I find this experience identical in character to arguing with those we normally characterise as the “Left”. They have all sorts of dreams- they dream of universal free health care, of a green ruralised Earth, of creating a new kind of man free of the prejudices of the past, and we on the classical liberal side, the libertarian side, the individualist side, we dissect their dreams and bring them down to Earth with a bump, if we can, simply by analysing the practical basis of these dreams of theirs. More often than not of course, we are dismissed and ridiculed… for not sharing their grand dream.

    You have to be pragmatic. Midwesterner talks of coming from a long line of seamen. Well, so do I. On my mother’s father’s side, there are plenty of men lost at sea. There is a spooky family tale of one great-great grandfather who was seen by several people in Liverpool, surprised that his ship must have docked early- only to find later it had been lost with all hands. But they didn’t take those risks for a dream. They took those risks because it was a job, and because there was some benefit in doing it. This is the question that remains however much one eulogises the Buck Rogers spirit, the question of “why?”, and “because it’s there” is not a good enough answer. Chris Bonnington climbed Everest because it was there, but he never pretended he was creating a new civilisation at the top of it.

    If people are to live in space, it has to be based on facts and practicalities. If they’re going to have something to sell to Earth to make it worthwhile- be it Uranium mining or tobacco plantations- the product needs to be cheaper than the alternatives. Deriding scepticism with insults about lacking in spunk is ridiculous. Our ancestors didn’t brave the great risks of the high seas just for the jolly of being there. They did it because there was some ecnomic and practical point to doing so.

    Dale obviously has a very jolly time hobnobbing with the exocrats and billionaires, and good luck to him. But the article posted purported to be a description of how a society and economy would come into existence. It is quite reasonable to ask hard questions about the practicalities of that which has been proposed. If the immediate reply is an airy wave of the hand and defensively deriding the “spirit of adventure” of anyone who doesn’t share the dream, that suggests a profound lack of thought regarding those practicalities. As I said above, it is indicative of the same mindset as socialists and statists of all kinds who declare their dreams and believe that because X is what they want, X can and will be done.

    “Billionaires will follow their dreams” is not a business plan. It is disappointing that so many people here- in what is normally a haven of economic rationality- want to believe it is.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    IanB writes: “Billionaires will follow their dreams” is not a business plan. It is disappointing that so many people here- in what is normally a haven of economic rationality- want to believe it is.

    I don’t see why it is economically irrational for space enthusiasts, or indeed enthusiasts for any other endeavour, to look to the rich to pioneer a new field. I remember reading in Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty that the rich are often at the cutting edge of new ideas that others – like Ian B and so on – consider to be dotty, implausible or frivolous. The uber-rich can afford to indulge their hobbies and their passions, as they did, for example, in spending money on automobiles and air travel back when these technologies came along. (No doubt Ian would have argued to sticking to riding on horses!) As they did, economies of scale kicked in, reducing the cost per unit and so these things gradually came within the reach of the masses. I don’t see why the same cannot happen to spacefaring.

    Maybe I am missing something here and being unfair to IanB, but there is a jeering, unpleasant tone to his Eyeorishness on this issue that seems at odds with what I broadly regard as the optmistic ethos of a belief that people, left to their own devices, can do what they want and in some cases, do remarkable things.

    Don’t let the grumps get you down, Dale. Fuck em.

  • Et tu, Johnathan?

    So far I’ve now been accused of “arguing for sticking to riding on horses”, that I would have opposed the Wright Flyer… wow, maybe I would have smashed the looms with the rest of the Luddites, yes? Sheesh.

    As to tone, I have responded in the same discourteous style as I have encountered, having been accused of apparently lacking any spiritual worth whatsoever because I hoped that a post entitled “How will it really happen?” might actually address, you know, how it will really happen. It is not Eeyorishness to question “plans” which are apparently no more than wishes and presented overwhelmingly in language appealing to emotion rather than reason- that the pursuit of “dreams” and spiritual fulfillment negates any obligationn to address reality.

    Automobiles, the Wright Flyer, railroads and steamships all had obvious applications, practical applications, from before they ever existed. Yes, people dreamed of flying, but the civilian and commercial applications were obvious enough. I merely pointed out that “we will think of a use for it later” is an act of faith, not planning or prediction.

    Dale dreams of living in a little bubble on the Moon, paid for by billionaires, and to hell with any greater justification than that. He’s entitled to dream about that if he wants to (though as I said, the realities of that might be rather more grim than the Astounding Stories rhetoric acknowledges), but presenting that fantasy as a roadmap to the future- and that anyone who questions that fantasy is a spiritually defective luddite- is absurd.

  • ..and while I’m waiting for my previous answer to escape the Smite filter-

    Johnathan, the aeroplane wasn’t funded by billionaires. It was invented by two guys who ran a bike shop.

  • it seems to me the mining aspect could be the one to make it economically viable, especially as the easy-to-reach minerals on earth become mined out. The question is, is there enough on The moon to mine, or is there money enough in The moon to keep it going long enough for technology to develop to reach, settle and exploit The other planets?

  • Alisa

    Ian, you know very well that the reason we here oppose leftists is not their dreams, nor their irrationality. The only reason is the feature built into their ideology that those dreams must be realized on our dime, whether we like it or not. I wonder why do you choose to ignore this in all of your comments.

    Whereas samizdatisas and the commentariat usually- and wisely- deconstruct the unreality of the plans and programmes of others

    No they don’t, they deconstruct the unreality of the plans and programmes of governments, as you well know, and again, for some strange reason choose to ignore.

  • The question is, is there anything on the moon worth mining? Bulky materials such as iron or aluminium ore are no use for trade for obvious reasons- huge transportation costs. There may be something rare on Earth that can be cheaply ferried from the Moon, but I’m not sure what that is. As I said, I am not opposing exploitation of the Moon. I just want to hear something on a practical economic basis instead of appeals to the Spirit Of The Frontiersman.

    The key thing is that any Moon economy (or any other off-world settlement) will be heavily dependent on Earth goods and will need something to trade back to Earth for them. I don’t think Dale’s subsistence Moon-village is practical. The thing being overlooked- as it is overlooked by leftist localists, and left-libertarians such as Kevin Carson (or increasingly Sean Gabb) who eulogise the Local Economy is that local economies are impoverished.

    I live in a town of 170,000. That would be a big, big Moon village. We are utterly dependent on external trade. If we erected a wall around Northampton (and some agricultural land) and attempted to set up a town autarky, we’d rapidly collapse to an impoverished, pre-industrial state. It’s not just that we wouldn’t have access to the world’s resources (no uranium or oil in Northampton) but that there are not enough people here to produce the huge variety of modern goods we take for granted. The benefits of global trade are not just in the international division of labour; it’s not just that France is the best place to make wine and England is the best place to make hay, it is that modernity requires a global workforce and intense specialisation and enormous businesses producing goods. Building a space rocket requires a vast global infrastructure making the myriad components- metals, plastics, electronics, chemicals and so on, and you can’t knock that up locally. You can’t create a pencil locally (famously). The localised village economy is physically incapable of the productive diversity required. Dale handwaves imports as “a few electronic modules”, ignoring the vast range of different materials we use in our every day lives and which will be absolutely essential for the Moon Men. We ignore the global diversity present in a humble PC, but once considered, like that in a mere pencil, it is breathtaking. Even a pencil will be an import on the Moon.

    The Moon village cannot be an autarky. It must be part of the Earth economy. It will need to produce something to trade with Earth that can be cheaper on Earth than the Earth-produced equivalent, or is altogether impossible to manufacture on Earth, in sufficient quantity to trade for a constant stream of imports. It will require this because it has to maintain a modern technological society. Even if the Moon-villagers want to go back to subsistence farming, they cannot, because the Moon is not a habitable wilderness with free soil, air, water and natural recycling. It is an implicitly high tech environment.

    A few thousands of people- even a few tens of thousands- even a million, cannot generate a high technology society. There simply are not enough of them. We can build rocket ships entirely because our planet teems with billions of us. The Moon society faces the same reality.

  • Alisa-

    Ian, you know very well that the reason we here oppose leftists is not their dreams, nor their irrationality.

    It isn’t?

    The only reason is the feature built into their ideology that those dreams must be realized on our dime, whether we like it or not. I wonder why do you choose to ignore this in all of your comments.

    I’m not ignoring it, because I don’t agree with it. One reason for opposing them is their theft from us to pay for their plans. But another good reason is that their plans are rotten even if achieved- nationalised healthcare isn’t just bad because it’s funded by taxpayers, it’s bad because the service is shit, and we can demonstrate why that is inevitable under a nationalised system.

    But the point is, I’m “opposing” Dale. He’s free to dream as he wishes. I’m pointing out that he’s wrong. His plan is not a plan, it’s just a dream. Presenting a plan in public invites criticism. As I said, he’s free to do as he wishes. I’m just pointing out that it won’t actually work.

    No they don’t, they deconstruct the unreality of the plans and programmes of governments, as you well know, and again, for some strange reason choose to ignore.

    Moonbattery is not the exclusive preserve of governments, and I’m not aware that there is any rule preventing criticisms of non-governmental organisations. I don’t feel restrained from pointing a finger at Scientology, just because it’s a private religion. Do you think it’s beyond crticism because it isn’t a government? The Greens aren’t a government, but we all enjoy having a hack at their shins. Polly Toynbee isn’t a government either, but the world would be a dull place if calling out the foolishness of her ideology were off limits.

  • erratum-

    should have read “But the point is, I’m not “opposing” Dale”

  • anon

    One commenter wrote above:

    With regards to that “dirtball,” Earth will forever be the best place humanity will inhabit for some time to come unless faster than light travel is perfected. Even then, something better than Earth where we evolved is going to be rare.

    I suspect that is true in the same way, and to the same degree, that Africa, where we evolved, will forever be the best place humanity will inhabit for some time to come. That WAS true … until certain basic technologies expanded our idea of what was livable — and we found that some of those places out of Africa had advantages of their own.

    As to Ian B’s concerns — they are quite legitimate. Closing the economic case for a human settlement off the planet is difficult. There are ideas but none of them are proven (or, with current transportation, provable). You will know that has changed only in retrospect. I seem to recall that the business case for the European colonization of the New World also proved difficult, with failures on the way. I know a bit about this subject and it is wrong to trivialize the problems. It is also wrong to be so daunted that we give up trying to solve them.

    The transportation technologies we need are not science fiction; they are largely in hand or demonstrated in the lab at least. The material resources we need to survive and thrive in space have, in fifty years of exploring the solar system, been located although the mining technologies have been tested only at laboratory scale.

    And I think it unlikely that we will find the products or services that find a “export to Earth” market sitting in our armchairs; there *are* ideas for such products and services but we simply won’t know what will work until there are trials and errors and business failures — and a few successes. Just because an idea may seem silly (in the future, your plan is to sell BOOKS by using COMPUTERS in people’s HOMES???) doesn’t mean it won’t work — and many of the ideas that seem sensible today to some may be real losers.

    That’s why central planning will never close the gap of finding profitable exports to the Earth — and why without private enteprise playing a central role in space development, space will remain barren.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    anon’s comments are dead on. Exactly.

  • Alisa

    I’m not ignoring it, because I don’t agree with it. One reason for opposing them is their theft from us to pay for their plans.

    Just to reiterate: to me this is the only reason.

    But another good reason is that their plans are rotten even if achieved- nationalised healthcare isn’t just bad because it’s funded by taxpayers, it’s bad because the service is shit, and we can demonstrate why that is inevitable under a nationalised system.

    But the point is that they cannot be achieved: the service is shit because it is nationalized. If it weren’t, it could still theoretically be shit, but only for a very brief period – before it went out of business. Again, a point you choose to gloss over, and which I wish to stress in order to highlight our differences of opinion, mine being that people are free to make bad and stupid choices and run lousy businesses with shit service, as long as they don’t physically force others to be any part of it.

    His plan is not a plan, it’s just a dream.

    And what exactly is wrong with that?

    Presenting a plan in public invites criticism.

    Didn’t you just say that it’s a dream, not a plan, and didn’t several people on this thread, including Dale, confirm just that?

    Moonbattery is not the exclusive preserve of governments, and I’m not aware that there is any rule preventing criticisms of non-governmental organisations. I don’t feel restrained from pointing a finger at Scientology, just because it’s a private religion. Do you think it’s beyond criticism because it isn’t a government? The Greens aren’t a government, but we all enjoy having a hack at their shins. Polly Toynbee isn’t a government either, but the world would be a dull place if calling out the foolishness of her ideology were off limits.

    No, no any such rule at all, although as it happens, virtually all of these instances of moonbattery that you listed either rely on government funding, or actively seek the same, or publicly and loudly support it from the sidelines.

  • Alisa

    And another, more general, and more personal remark: at this point I actually am quite skeptical about space settlement myself, but I am being given serious second thoughts on this by some people I least expected to be so enthusiastic, such as Counting Cats and Pa Annoyed. So never say ‘never':-)

  • Robert of Sheffield

    The ores we mine are all the result of plate tectonics, but the moon is geologically dead, and deficient in heavy elements besides. Mining it is not feasible.

    The asteroids, on the other hand, include some which are rich in potentially commercially useful metals like iridium, most of the Earth’s supply of which is locked up in its core. Mining the asteroids may be feasible, but not in the near term.

    There are three things the Moon can supply though: vacuum, isolation, and distance.

    We can make better vacuums than the Lunar surface, but not in large volume. If a manufacturing process requires vacuum, and gravity, the moon is an obvious place to go. However, shipping the finished product to Earth would be expensive.

    Isolation is desirable for various types of research. Telescopes on the lunar far side, shielded from the Earth and free of atmospheric distortion, would be scientifically useful. For anyone working on dangerous biological materials, being on the moon is an extra safeguard. These aren’t profitable activities, but in the long run economic growth will lead to universities rich enough to fund them.

    For some billionaires though, the most immediately useful thing is distance from government. No nation may claim the moon, so a lunar base would be outside the jurisdiction of every government. You’d need good lawyers to make that stick, but for a billion you should be able to afford them.

  • No nation may claim the moon, so a lunar base would be outside the jurisdiction of every government.

    I think you’ll find that that means nobody can actually settle there, like Antarctica. Effectively, it’s not unowned land, it is owned by every government via international treaty.

    Since this is all Boys’ Own fiction at this stage, we can’t say precisely what would happen, but if it looked like settlement were going to occur, presumably the government of the new territories would be the UN or some subsidiary Exo-communities Committee.

    For some billionaires though, the most immediately useful thing is distance from government.

    The other point is that billionaires don’t need distance from government, indeed often billionaires go out of their way to be involved with it, to gain economic benefits, social prestige etc. Billionaires are themselves the least troubled by intrusive government people on the planet, since money really does buy freedom. It’s hard to see what a billionaire can do in a pressurised pimple on the Moon that he can’t do at his luxuriously appointed private island hideaway. I’m reminded of a while back when Tony Blair attended a shinding with Richard Branson and various other zillionaires on such a private island, and Branson joked that because Blair was there the girls had to wear bikinis. The super-rich can get away from it all right here on Earth.

  • Alisa,

    But we disagree on how it will happen tho.

    In case it has not been made clear by my rants on the last few postings I honestly regard Lunar and Martian settlement as a waste of time and resources. Our future is in orbit and freefall, not pointlessly languishing in hostile environments at the bottom of gravity wells.

    Gerard O’Neill had it right. The proper home for humanity is space. Give it a couple of decades and, with the exception of Earth for a while yet, the population somewhere in orbit will forevermore exceed the population of all planets/moons combined.

  • Dale Amon

    In the longer run I agree. We’ll need a lot of infrastructure in space before we start building O’Neill settlements. However, there will always be folk who prefer living on planetary surfaces.

    Personally I prefer the idea of a modular family sized spacesettlements that can move as they choose and dock with a conglomeration of their choice… or undock and move elsewhere.

    There are of course a lot of interesting considerations about rescue, crime/piracy… the future will doubtless be as interesting as the past.

  • I seem to recall that the business case for the European colonization of the New World also proved difficult, with failures on the way.

    There were failures but the business case was apparent immediately. Within 50 years of the Columbus crossing there were ships fishing in the NW Atlantic. The Gold was a real, tangeable asset which, given the economics at the time, was a sought after commodity. Tobacco and all the other stuff they found was gravy.

    Plus, once settled, the colonies were still traders from day one.

  • I can’t imagine sitting by a pool with a good single malt unless it is for a break between adventures. Even the thought of the ‘retired’ lifestyle gives me a queasy feeling of claustrophobia. It is that lifestyle that makes rich kids so overwhelmingly spoiled useless destructive, even nihilistic, brats. It is not a healthy way for a human to live. I am at my most contented when the horizon is far away, pure bliss is a destination measured in astronomical units and a means to get there. Setting difficult goals and achieving them is a deeply spiritual reward.

    I’m not sure how to read this in the context of my pool and good malt comment.

    I’m 40 now, I’m on my 3rd startup, I’ve lived in the UK, France and now the US. I’ve flown around the world a few times and done business all over the world. I’m living through rather a lot of adventures, not least of which is now living 5000 miles from where I was born.

    As I said, I’m no longer interested in the pioneer life for adventure and, more importantly, neither is my family.

    However, at least in my mind, I want there to come a time when the adventures are more gentle and I can actually enjoy the effort I’ve put into living. Working like a nutter for 80 years and dying in saddle doesn’t strike me as all that much fun either.

    With regard to the “retired life”, there are so many things to do, to learn, to read that I can’t conceive of being board even in “retirement”. Frankly I see my working life and endeavors as a way of getting to the point where I can actually get on with all the things I’ve not had time to do yet.

    Bored in retirement? Perish the thought!

  • Laird

    Dale, Patri Friedman has already proposed your “modular family sized [space]settlements that can move as they choose and dock with a conglomeration of their choice”, right here on earth. It’s called Seasteading. In the short run that seems more achievable that space settlements, and should help to develop the technologies and techniques that will be needed to make space habitats function.

    IanB is right to question the economic drivers of space exploration/colonization, because without some rational economic justification it won’t happen, or be sustainable. Where he and I differ is that I have more confidence that human ingenuity will find some, probably in ways we can’t even conceive of today. Yes, that’s more of a “dream” than a “business model”, but it is one based on human history. After all, the “business model” for powered flight was pretty tenuous in 1903.

    Assuming the existence of some economically valuable work to be done there, we have had some discussion in this thread about the expense of getting workers to the moon (or space habitats, or wherever), the cost of their maintenance, and their likely inability to return to earth. Obviously, permanence of the move was the norm for pioneers throughout human history; only in the last few decades has travel been fast and cheap enough that people could move around the planet pretty much at will. One other feature of early pioneer days (notably in North America) was the use of indentured servitude. Such persons were contractually bound to work for a term of years as a condition of being relocated to the New World. That seems a viable economic model for space habitats. We could even see the return of “company towns”, where the employer owns all the homes, stores, etc. This could be necessary if nearly everything must be imported (at great cost) from earth. Might not be the most wonderful (or libertarian) place in which to live. Thoughts?

  • After all, the “business model” for powered flight was pretty tenuous in 1903.

    Hmmm… not really. Powered flight had been seen as having commercial applications from the early days – the first commercial route opened (London-Paris) in just 1919, that’s only 10 years after the first cross-channel flight. Military aviation applications were apparent extremely early on, something William Boeing took advantage of in 1916.

    Space has also been enormously commercially successful. The business applications in communications, earth sensing, weather etc… have had incredible returns.

    The problem is the same just isn’t true of manned space travel.

    The internet has removed one of the real reasons for faster travel, and, I suspect, the advent of inflight internet and real-time communications will put pay to the need for sub-orbital manned travel for business purposes. A senior, high value, exec isn’t out of the loop in the air any more. $10,000 for a 1st Class bed, with a ironing service for their clothes, pyjamas, good food and internet is expensive for a hotel room, but less than the likely costs of a sub-orbital flight.

    There may well be a “killer app” for Space Development but I don’t think we know what it is yet, and I personally don’t think it’s going to be tourism. Without that killer app, the only valid reason we come back to for space colonisation is that the earth is one fragile basket to keep humanity in. That’s a reason for governments to settle space and maybe the odd philanthropic billionaire, but that’s not the same as a sound business reason.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Alisa,

    “at this point I actually am quite skeptical about space settlement myself, but I am being given serious second thoughts on this by some people I least expected to be so enthusiastic, such as Counting Cats and Pa Annoyed.”

    At this point, you should be. The costs of getting there are still in the tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. At the moment, it simply isn’t worth the cost.

    My point was, though, that if you could get there cheaply, space and the moon do in fact have a lot of industrial potential. It’s not simply a useless wasteland. Any engineer can think of dozens of processes that would be made easier. And there are perfectly feasible ways around most of the problems you would face living there. (Including a lack of pencils.)

    Ian B has a point in saying that it has to be economic if it’s going to be done as more than an expensive leisure activity. Where I disagree is in his stubborn determination not to accept that it could be economic; or that just because people won’t devote a lot of time explaining to him their thoughts about the economics, thinking that their unwillingness to answer means there are no solutions.

    People don’t answer because many of the precise details depend on things we don’t know yet, like what’s going to be invented over the next fifty years. And it will be at least that long before the moon is economically viable. The point being made by people like Dale is that if you go there anyway, people will start to invent the stuff you need. You can steer the process, make it happen. If you never go there, and wait for everything to line up perfectly ready to go before you make the first move, you will be waiting forever.

    The moon has lots of obvious potential, but in the short-term is not at present economic. We wouldn’t be doing it for the money. But if you wanted to, you could make it truly economic; and the longer-term benefits for humanity of doing so would be enormous. It just takes people and ingenuity.

  • Dale Amon

    Dave. I think the business model in the short term, the next 5 years, is fairly clear. People have hardware, customers and budgets already for the products and services in that time frame. You’ve been listening to me for a long time on this front and I think you’ll have to admit I have not been terribly far off so far.

    I know (sometimes via privileged information) a little about the slightly longer terms plans of several, going out perhaps as far as 2017. I’m on fairly solid ground on my prognostications that there will be a number of manned commercial vehicles operating before that time. How many or what kind or who is for the market to decide. I know the ones I would take bets on, ie the investment kind, had I the money to do so.

    The suborbital flights are almost certainly part of the Branson plans for the future. Face to face meetings and conferences are still important parts of business. Private time with people in your field is invaluable. A great deal of interesting business happens in the bar. We’re social mammals and until we have direct brain implants that let you be present in a virtual space as real as a hotel bar, travel will still be important. And even then… people still go to movie theaters in droves. It isn’t just the big screen and sound, its the social event and experience.

    London to Sydney in 45 minutes makes sense if you can do it cheaply enough and I think the coming generation of craft will get it down to that range. However, my short term views are not counting on that.

    As to the long term; I have suggested what I think will happen. I cannot possibly know the details nor the exact markets and products that will be high value enough 15 years hence. 15 years ago I might have considered a world where Amazon and PayPal exist and commerce on the internet is a very substantial thing; where I can pickup a 1.5 trillion byte disk drive for $120; where an entire 6 degree of freedom set of gyro and accelerometers can be built submicroscopically on a $1.50 MEMS chip and used in games; where private rocketeers had actually sent a man into space and a tourist rocket was about to roll out; where mobile phones and computers and the internet and advanced sensing technology were about to give us a tricorder with everything but the transporter beam…. but most people then did not see that far ahead. Nor do they now. I will also admit there are things I expected which are not here yet; and things I did not expect that are.

    I will stand by my estimate of a private manned moon venture by the 2020-2025 time range that expands from that start using whatever business model has developed based on the situation, the technology and the perceived needs and problems of that time.

    I believe in the direction, and like I have lived my life, I will figure out the details of how to get to the next goal as I pass each prior milepost.

  • Midwesterner

    I’m 40 now, I’m on my 3rd startup, I’ve lived in the UK, France and now the US. I’ve flown around the world a few times and done business all over the world. I’m living through rather a lot of adventures, not least of which is now living 5000 miles from where I was born.

    If your ‘single malt by the pool’ is a break between start-ups, then I envy you. It sounds like you are living a dream. From the rest of your comment, it sounds like, rather than sitting by a pool as a life-style choice, you anticipate a retirement in which the rewards you seek have a less material imperative.

    As for dying in the saddle versus dying in the Barcalounger, no hesitation from me there. I’ll take the saddle any day.

    With regard to the “retired life”, there are so many things to do, to learn, to read that I can’t conceive of being board even in “retirement”.

    I wish I was one of those billionaires for whom space settlement is an option for one of the things they do in retirement.

    Your remark to Dale was obviously intended in good humor. But speaking for myself, I would rather be sitting out there with Dale, et al, watching the storms of Jupiter from orbit and raising a toast to the poor sods sitting next to their chlorinated concrete ponds back on Earth. And then getting back to hatching the next great project. Throughout my life, the best times have generally begun with somebody saying “Oh no. [Mid]‘s got a plan.” I wouldn’t mind at all if some of them began with “Oh no. Dale (or Elon, or Jeff, or Paul, or Bob, or Richard, or John, etc) has a plan.” I am naïve enough to imagine I will live as long and in as good of health as my father did. It is quite reasonable to imagine I may travel to space within the next thirty five years.

    The mistake is in believing permission to settle in space requires justification. It doesn’t. It just requires that the people who want to do it cobble together the methods and resources to do it. It should be pretty obvious to everybody by now that they only thing that can prevent space settlement in the not too distant future is governments that fear it. I can hear in stentorian tones Dodd, Rangel & Co. condemning tax evasion by escapees from the IRS living in colonies at the Greeks and Trojans and not paying taxes on their activities there. No doubt the official reason they will attempt to prevent private space settlement is for health and safety reasons. Space is too dangerous of a place for the OSHA inspectors to conduct mandatory compliance reviews.

    Four light hours from Earth? That’s a feature, not a bug.

  • Where I disagree is in his stubborn determination not to accept that it could be economic; or that just because people won’t devote a lot of time explaining to him their thoughts about the economics, thinking that their unwillingness to answer means there are no solutions.

    For fuck’s sake. I mean fuck. Fuck it. Stop this.

    I initially showed scepticism at Dale’s glossing over the hard part of the problem- the purpose and practicalities- and raised a point that these are usually ignored by space fans and I’d like to see people actually addressing them instead of just writing about rocket ships. The immediate reaction to this was to attack me as lacking in vision, spirit and soul. We then got Dale’s absurd “subsistence village on the Moon” bollocks, and how he never spares a moment’s thought for doubt in his dream, because he is gifted with the gift of visionarinessness and anyone who doubts it is a doomed Earthbound nebbish.

    I have expended considerable effort trying to discuss the difficult questions that need to be answered, particularly the fallacy that a “village” can be almost self-sufficient anywhere and this is all standard liberal economic reasoning. You can’t get away from the global economy on the Moon. You are utterly dependent on it.

    It is not stubborn to raise a quizzical eyebrow at somebody who will offer only “dreams” and insults at those who won’t follow the dream. I haven’t seen any “thoughts about economics”, just starry-eyed (literally) hand waving.

    Nobody is obligated to answer, but if they are going to present something as “how it will really happen” then they may be expected to have some fucking idea of “how it will really happen”, and if they’re going to comment they could spend the time they’ve spent in Odes To The Rugged Frontiersman actually answering one of the practical sodding problems instead.

    Space fans love to talk engineering. They pretend that’s the hard part. It isn’t. It’s the easy part. Fling enough effort at it, you can go to the Moon. You can go to Mars. Hell, you can go to Pluto. But if you want a colony there, it’s going to have to pay for itself. It is clear that apparently everybody here in their junior spaceman outfits thinks the laws of economics are abolished above the Van Allen Belts. You can do anything, just because you dream hard enough. “Something will turn up”. What the something is, we cannot guess. But we have faith and that is enough, my brethren.

    You guys want to believe that, go ahead. But that is stubborness to the degree of disconnection with reality. Don’t blame the guy who dared ask the question, because it might puncture a bubble or two. Presumably pressurised bubbles in Tycho Crater.

    You want to live on the Moon? You’re going to have to import virtually everything. Pencils, motors, hydraulic valves, plant pots, textiles, paint, shoes, door seals, lightbulbs, semiconductors, glue, air conditioning filters and so on and so on. It’s not a raw materials issue. It’s a manufacturing issue. You don’t have enough people to run facilities to make the 1E6+1 products necessary to maintain your facilities. Not even close. You’ve got to buy all that crap.

    What can the Moon send back to pay for it?

    Without an answer to that, the dream evaporates.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Ian,

    I’ve already told you about some of the industrial advantages of space. You apparently just ignored it. Part of the reason nobody is answering you is that you are giving the incredibly strong impression of not listening; of nothing anybody saying making the slightest impact. That might be wrong, but it we need a little help seeing it here.

    First, if we want to just talk about rocket ships, we can. Yes, the economics is important, but it doesn’t have to form the basis of every conversation about the subject.

    Second, the point of colonising the moon would be to become dependent on the lunar economy. The people on the moon will mostly work for other people on the moon. And yes, that’s less efficient than trading on/with the Earth, but the moon is still a big place.

    You’re welcome to raise a quizzical eyebrow, but what you’ve done is a lot more than that. Your very first comment asserted that nobody could think of a productive use for being in space. You start off by attacking the dream, and then wonder why people attack back. It’s not people who won’t follow the dream they’re insulting, it’s people who start off by denigrating the dream as uneconomic nonsense.

    You’re quite right, the space colony will, in a sense, have to pay for itself. What makes you so certain it can’t? You have to provide the essentials of life, and then the tools/infrastructure to develop more. But once it’s got over the initial barrier of getting there, that’s relatively cheap. Because the essential point you’re missing is that once you have people there, they pay for it by paying each other. The fundamental law of economics is that it is based on people trading with one another. If the people trading are on the moon, it is just the same. Nothing changes because you’re beyond the Van Allen belts.

    And no, you’re not going to have to import everything. You can’t. You’ll either find a way to make it locally, or you’ll find a substitute.

    Why on Earth do you think people won’t make motors, or valves, or plant pots on the moon? The only ones on your list that are a potential issue are those requiring organic chemistry – carbon abundance is only about 0.1% on the moon, which would make it expensive. Certainly not as expensive as importing it from Earth, though, and I don’t imagine for a second they’ll get it that way. Nearly everything else just requires a standard machine shop, or isn’t necessary anyway. (Semiconductors are harder, but there are actual advantages on the moon for a lot of that.)

    There’s nothing there that simple engineering can’t take care of. Yes, it’s more expensive than on Earth. Yes, it’s more expensive doing it in a smaller economy. But it’s not so expensive as to be impossible. Your town on Earth might choose to buy most of this stuff from outside, but it doesn’t have to.

    Now, if you want to discuss economics and engineering further, I’m happy to do so. You can disagree if you like. But please stop carping on about how everybody is a starry-eyed dreamer who hates you for disagreeing. We’re supposed to be friends here.

  • Dale: Everytime I think of sub-orbital travel I am minded of Arthur Clarke’s comment on it: who would travel by a method where you can’t use the toilet for the first half of the flight and wouldn’t want to for the second. Yes, London to Sydney in 45 minutes sounds interesting, and, as you’ve gathered I’ve flown enough to know that face-to-face beats (for the moment) telepresense. However, I have also flown 1st Class Long Haul on a good airline and frankly, I didn’t need to get anywhere faster than that – seriously. Time to prep, have a nice meal, a vintage brandy and arrive refreshed and comfortable was amazing. I even caught up with email, something which practically never happens.

    Aside from that, I can see that there _might_ be a place for the biz-jet for sub-orbital but I’m going to remain a skeptic on the actual economics of it. I spent too much time working on a small commercial aircraft project to be anything other than a skeptic.

    I’ve also spent enough time in cutting edge technology (mobile in my case) to know that inside information can be a two edged thing. I remember a meeting with a senior Ericsson exec in London in 2000 where he told me that their 3G network would be rolled out inside of a year. At the time they still didn’t have GPRS working reliably, but he was confident based on everything he knew. I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but every bone in my body screams for me to keep being a skeptic on this.

    I just have a sinking feeling that without a significant tech development in something like nano-tech we’re not going to see significant manned space development.

  • Mid:

    I remember reading The High Frontier when I was about 14, apart from sharing a name, O’Neill’s work completely blew me away. The images of the various space habitats had me enraptured.

    However, I was a little shocked when I gushed about this to my best friend and found him extremely skeptical and downright rude about the probability of the habitats being remotely as pleasant as the ones depicted. I then started to get troubled by comments by the likes of Thomas Gold, and others, that rather than looking like Southern California, the best outcome were habitats that looked like a nice hotel – and that they felt that that was the more positive outcome.

    Having spent a lot of the last decade on the road I do understand that I’m not keen on spending my older years living in the equivalent of a nice hotel. Visiting them? Certainly, and the 2030 timeframe for a holiday on the moon would be about perfect, but live? I don’t think so.

    You mention bad weather on Earth but a cold spell without power on Earth is a walk in the park compared to a power failure or pressure loss in space. On Earth it could be dangerous but mostly it’s an inconvenience. In space, it means probably death. It’s another reason I suspect that space based living won’t be as free as somepeople like to think.

    Jupiter space? Certainly not without significant improvements in radiation shielding technology and huge breakthroughs in gene repair and cancer therapy.

    Now it might be that we’ll develop full rejuvination technology in that time and in that case I might change my mind about the pioneer stuff, but, I think, without that and full backup technology to hedge against an inconvenient full body loss, I’ll leave it thanks.

    While there are books unread, skills unlearned, games not played, walks not walked, interesting little restaurants to find, and rare scotches to drink – the Earth will remain enough for me as a home.

    But don’t let me get in your way…

  • I’ve already told you about some of the industrial advantages of space

    Yes, but Ian has a point. Space _might_ have some industrial advantages – but a lot of the ones that engineers originally thought of haven’t actually panned out (zero gee alloys with no-convection for example) – basically, we do keep coming back to the problem that a lot of the things we think could be better done in micro-gravity aren’t.

    Anyway, the problem isn’t that you could make things in space, it’s that the infrastructure you need out there to start manufacturing things doesn’t exist and that everything needed has to be brought in remotely, and not in conveniently large ships. Some of the things you need, micro-processors for example, require insanely complex manufacturing plant on Earth which will be hard to scale down to the size that could be replicated off world. Baring, that is, the development of some form of nano-technology.

    Ian’s right. The problem isn’t that we can’t do this. Of course we can; we can do practically anything given enough money – including free Universal Healthcare up to the standards of the best America can offer to every human on the planet.

    The issue is whether or not it makes any sense remotely.

    He3? Show me a working Fusion reaction and show me that it makes sense to get He3 rather than earthbound De.

    Titanium? Show me that it makes real economic sense to get it from the Asteroids rather than down here.

    Rare elements? What will that 1×10^6 tonne block of them in orbit actually do to the commodity price?

    O’Neill asked a good question about where an industrial society ought to be, and it probably should be based in orbit. But there is one hell of a gap between that and it making business sense to move it there.

    As a thought exercise, imagine building a self supporting colony in an inhospitable place on Earth, where you are limited to a few cargo helicopter flights a day and that everything you need has to come as cargo carried by those.

    Now image doing all that and needing to bring in air, water and food for as long as it takes to get yourself living off the land.

    It’s not the engineering that causes the trouble, it’s the logistics.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “it’s that the infrastructure you need out there to start manufacturing things doesn’t exist and that everything needed has to be brought in remotely,”

    Yes, and no. The infrastructure doesn’t exist, so the first thing you will have to do is build it. Once you’ve built it, the economics changes radically.

    “Show me a working Fusion reaction”

    We’ve already got working fusion reactions. The problem is scaling it up to the point where it continuously returns more than you put in. That’s expensive, partly because it means building a great big vacuum chamber. How will they ever do that on the moon?

    “Titanium? Show me that it makes real economic sense to get it from the Asteroids rather than down here.”

    For Titanium down on Earth, it doesn’t make sense. We’ve got plenty of Titanium. But if you’re mining asteroids in orbit for use by colonies in orbit, it makes a whole lot more sense.

    That was part of what I was trying to say. The space economy will mainly be between the people living in space. (The information economy will still be a point of contact, though.) It’s going to need a lot of help from Earth to get it started, but that’s a one-off cost. Space will only work if it’s self-sufficient. But once it is, all the problems posed by the gravity well go away.

    “As a thought exercise, imagine building a self supporting colony in an inhospitable place on Earth, where you are limited to a few cargo helicopter flights a day and that everything you need has to come as cargo carried by those.”

    Yep. And the first things I’ll fly in are a hydroponics farm, an engineering workshop, and a fast-breeder fission power plant.

    “Now image doing all that and needing to bring in air, water and food for as long as it takes to get yourself living off the land.”

    Yep. Now imagine what happens once you are.

    You’re quite right that the logistics of initially setting it up are a huge problem – and currently intractable, until we’ve invented some more stuff. But its survival doesn’t depend on the start up transient as much as the steady state. We’re not setting it up in order to make money. (At least, not in the commonly understood sense.) But the idea is that once humanity has got it set up, it will make enough to continue on its own.

  • Alisa

    Cats, I particularly liked your point of making the distinction between space and planets. My skepticism is not about the mechanics or the economics, but about the belief that we can go to space to get away from government. To me it seems naive, seeing what human nature here on Earth is like. But your point opens the possibility of nearly unlimited mobility, in nearly unlimited directions, to nearly unlimited distances. Sure, they will try to get us to collect taxes or to enforce OSHA regulations, but they’d have to chase us all over the space. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

    As to Pa, it’s just as if I saw a twinkle in his eye for the first time ever:-)

  • Ian,

    I see your point, and I also largely agree with it. No lunar colony will be completely self supporting for a long time to come. All hight tech will have to be imported, because it is just too expensive to make in other than industrial quantities. A population of a few hundred/thousand/tens of thousands is just too small to do it. If a Lunar colony were to try to be self supporting it would be poverty stricken for hundreds of years while the population built up to the point where mass production became viable. Trade will be essential and gravity wells will make that difficult.

    This is why I am convinced the driver will be orbital manufacturing. We can already see the business models for this. Now we are reaching the point where there will be multiple competing private carriers in the near future space based manufacturing will, and I really do mean WILL start to take off. There are just too many good and profitable reasons to do it. More and more orbital infrastructure will be created, more and more processes will become viable as secondary and tertiary support industries are established. The commercial arguments for colonising near earth orbit are just too compelling. Once we are up there, expansion will be driven by a need to access raw materials more cheaply than hauling them up the well from Earths surface. Hell the moon could be funded by raw material export; a catapult on Lunar surface delivering material to Earth orbital manufacturing might (I have no idea of the numbers) render Lunar settlement profitable.

    Provided governments don’t regulate it out of existence, I cannot see a way of preventing this from happening. The commercial arguments are just too compelling.

    Given your normal clarity and insight (and I am not being sarcastic) I am astonished that you don’t see this.

  • Alisa,

    I don’t think it is even a matter of family or small community habitats. The day will come, not in my lifetime, when O’Neill habitats (think Babylon 5) measuring hundreds of miles will be built.

    Given nanotech building techniques, I have no problem envisaging habitats measuring thousands of miles in length and circumference being grown (yes, grown). I have no doubt that that the capability to do this, even if we don’t do it immediately, will exist within a hundred years.

    O’Neill habitats, even the smallest, give the advantages of gravity wells plus the advantages of freefall. Win/win for humanity, and they will, without doubt, be built.

  • Pa, you’ve missed the point. It’s not a question of whether somebody can make a valve in a machine shop.

    I got in a debate a while ago similar to this (it was about what sort of society the inhabitants of Battlestar Galactica could have created, come planetfall), and there were some of us making the point I’m making now, and others saying, “they know how to build a helicopter, so they can build helicopters”. So I posted the link to “I, Pencil”. And people missed the point.

    The point of that essay is it takes the world economy to produce pencils as we know them- cheap, identical, affordable pencils. The ability to do that, and the knowledge it takes to do it, is not located in one place and is distributed throughout the world economy. But people instead said, “well, I reckon I could probably make a pencil if I tried hard enough”. They probably could. But they couldn’t make a commercial pencil. They could make a hand-crafted pencil of some kind. It would take them a long time. Home made pencils would be expensive, because their manufacture would consume a great deal of resources, mainly time, as opposed to flying off a production line in their millions.

    You grossly underestimate what it takes to make a valve, or a motor, starting from raw materials. You vastly underestimate the advantage we have on Earth by having specialist designers and manufacturers of valves and motors, dedicated to making just valves or motors. They themselves depend on a network of other specialists- specialists who refine metals from ores, and refine oil, and make a myriad synthetic materials, or particular alloys. People who make the paint, people who make the lubricants, people who make the tools used to make the valves. People who generate the power, and build the power stations and grow the coffee the workers drink… it’s an immense network. It is something that you cannot replicate on a small scale.

    You either understand this or you don’t. Localists don’t get it, and there seems to be the same faulty reasoning going on here with our “self sufficient” moon colony. It takes all the resources of our advanced capitalist economy to produce the products we use, at affordable prices. The guys in the moon colony don’t just need to be able to make a generic motor in a machine shop. They need all kinds of motors, and the manufacturing facilities and expertise to make them, from the giant ones powering their mining robots to motors for sewage pumps or for fuel pumps to motors that open airlock doors and so on- all different motors with different design requirements. That multiplies ten thousand fold, for all their other needs. This is not a trivial matter, and I ask you to reflect on the scale I’m trying to depict here.

    One town on Earth- if you handed them all the raw materials and told them to get on with it- could not manufacture everything its inhabitants use, from power plants to motor cars to plant pots. It requires a mass manufacturing economy of millions of souls to do it. On Earth, a small isolated economy could downgrade to the level of technology its numbers could sustain- all the way to hunter gatherer if need be. On the Moon, it can’t do that. It has to be a high tech economy. It needs the motors and valves and the plastics for the domes and door seals and new solar panels and specialised lubricants and so on. Until some far advanced stage where there are millions on the Moon with an advanced industrial mass economy of their own, they will need to rely on the manufacturing economy of Earth. The Moon village- or town- will not have the manpower to be self-sustaining, by many orders of magnitude.

  • The infrastructure doesn’t exist, so the first thing you will have to do is build it. Once you’ve built it, the economics changes radically.

    Sure, but that’s the problem. Once you build the infrastructure the economics change. But without the infrastructure you can’t change the economics. It’s a classic Catch-22 – and I’m not convinced that a few Billionaires is anything like enough to make that leap.

    We’re not setting it up in order to make money. (At least, not in the commonly understood sense.) But the idea is that once humanity has got it set up, it will make enough to continue on its own.

    If you can’t make money doing then there really isn’t a reason to do it except as some noble human endeavor.

    Now, I’m all for the noble human endeavor myself, I’m particularly keen on the “eggs in one basket” arguments. But without that, or a full on environemental collapse that makes the Earth effectively uninhabitable there isn’t really a reason to do it. Which is why I don’t see this working purely from the money of some enthustiastic billionaires.

    The problems are just so much more intractable – with our current technology – than they appear when you articulate them simply.

    OTOH – give us nano-technology of the “grow a valve from light and dust” variety and a space elevator and then the dynamic changes completely.

    But once it is, all the problems posed by the gravity well go away.

    Hmmm… actually I’m not convinced about that. While gravity can be a drag (tee hee) it has a lot of advantages from the point of view of building things. One of the things we have learned from the ISS is that some things that are easy on Earth are a royal pain in the rump in space.

    And again, none of this detracts from what a great vision it is. But, it’s currently a wonderful but impractical vision.

    Replace space travel with free food, healthcare and housing for every human – another noble goal – and try to argue about what a difference it would make to the world to have effectively eliminated poverty… or, would you argue that it doesn’t work like that?

    So, while we could do. It doesn’t mean that we can or will.

  • Samizdudes and dudettes-

    We seem to have two types posting on this fascinating topic; the space-cadets and the pessimists. I am on the space-cadet side, even though I grok the point that economic viability is required for any sort of extra-Earth settlement.

    One problem that people mention is the cost of getting outside the atmosphere, or getting raw materials back to Earth. What if technologies developed in the near future, which reduced the delivery cost per ton of iron to something comparable to shipping same from Africa to California? I am not holding my breath, but it is certainly possible that someone will wake up next year with the resources to develop such, and run with it. We’ve been able to softly touch down a craft on a comet, so, the robotics needed to comb asteroids isnt entirely inconceivable.

    Yes, I get that this is a lot of techno-handwaving, but, I do have a bit of experience in the rocket business. There may even be a hunk of metal whizzing about the planet right now that is still running some of my code. And if that is the case, it is also within the realm of the possible that my code will outlast everyone alive today.

    Economies spring up in all sorts of surprising ways. I can say that if you asked me to give my opinion about a worldwide market springing up with no barrier to entry, whereby anyone could sell even household items to anyone else, I would have bet against eBay a year before it caught on. But, there it is, and it works. Fifty years ago, people would scoff that many millionaires would be made from game development and manipulating an electric slide rule, so dont tell me it cant be done, and there is no economic incentive for people to go to orbit, the moon, or beyond. We just dont know until people get there, try and fail a lot, and a few viable efforts emerge.

    I ride a motorcycle as much as I can, not because it is more economically viable than my SUV, but because it is beautiful, and dangerous, and requires that I am more active than just leaning back and pushing on the accelerator. Up the saddle, down with the recliner!

  • Midwesterner

    Daveon,

    Actually, during that cold snap several people around here died of exposure when their vehicles failed. My point is that initial phases of settlement in hostile environments are always dangerous. Is space far more dangerous than the North Sea? Of course. How long can you survive in the North Sea when your technology sinks? Probably a few minutes longer than in space. But if you compare the level of manufacturing technology and reliability available 500 years ago in seafaring boats relative to the consequences of failure and compare it with the level of manufacturing technology and reliability possible today in spacefaring relative to the consequences of failure, I expect you will find that early manned space travel will be comparable to early sea travel.

    As for the spectacular space stations people imagine, they are not where I imagine being. My frame of reference is having lived in compact motor homes and once on a sailboat for a while. Wear your quarters like a suit and live ‘in’ the greatness outside. When space stations that grand are eventually built, I doubt I would do more than visit them like a port.

    And I imagine there will be extreme improvements in radiation shielding technology. It is very poorly developed because we have never needed it. There has been no need for it here on earth. Who in the 1700s would have imagined that one could be protected from a direct lightening strike by a remarkably simple and cheap thing now called a Faraday cage? Amazing technological devices aren’t necessarily complicated or difficult to make. But somebody has to try before solutions will be found.

    Oh, and don’t worry. You won’t get in my way. :-)

  • Nuke Gray!

    Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane- all named after British Lords. Victoria and queensland honour the same Queen. Mt Kosziosko, our highest mountain here in Australia, is named after some famous Pole. What do you want to bet that Billionaires will finance expeditions just to put their own names on the maps?
    And if someone discovers new forms of life, they’ll be famous- and the hopes of doing just that will finance many jaunts into space!

  • My frame of reference is having lived in compact motor homes and once on a sailboat for a while. Wear your quarters like a suit and live ‘in’ the greatness outside.

    Where I have problems, and I suspect this a brain “wiring” issue, is I don’t really see that you are living in the greatness outside either. At best you’re living in a suit looking at the greatness outside.

    Even in a boat you can sit up on deck, feel the wind in your face blah, blah. In a trailer you can sit outside with the BBQ.

    Sitting in your trailer for months or years at a time? Well, once you’re past the awe and splendor of the scenario, I suspect it’s back to the latest video games or web to pass the time.

    For me, aged 80, living in the hills above Nice (or where ever) I have the option to walk the dog down to the local Boulangerie, grab a nice espresso and chat to the people in the village.

    Being alone in a trailer, light minutes from other humans would be too much for a social animal like me.

    I don’t even think the internet would make up for it.

  • Midwesterner

    For me, aged 80, living in the hills above Nice (or where ever) I have the option to walk the dog down to the local Boulangerie, . . .

    Are Muslims allowed to have dogs? :-)

    Seriously though, I can tell just from your assumptions that you are thinking in terms of stationary confinement cells, not roomy and comfortable traveling suits. I guess I’m just not a passive person at any level. Maybe it is a brain wiring, or at least a personality type, issue. Happiness for me is casting off and raising sails or heading down the ‘on’ ramp with a full tank of fuel. You would probably be the equally happy guy watching from shore, drinking a beer and puzzling over why those guys want to be working so hard. People are different. Respecting that is part of being an individualist. But you might want to rethink your choice of France, though. It will probably be one big banlieue by then. |-P

  • Pa Annoyed

    Ian,

    Yes, I understand your pencil point. Our economy is enormously complex.

    But firstly, just because we make cheap pencils in a complex way doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be made if they weren’t cheap, or that we can’t make them more simply. They’ll inevitably be more expensive, but they don’t have to be so much more expensive that we couldn’t afford them.

    And secondly, while it is true that everything is going to be hand-made and expensive at first, that won’t continue indefinitely. We would start to manufacture the complex machinery and develop the specialisms that enables us to do it more efficiently, if indeed there is sufficient market for pencils on the moon to justify it.

    While the complexity is enormous, what I think you might be underestimating is the incredible speed at which we can build it. On Earth, the industrial revolution was only a couple of centuries ago. The Victorians had a far simpler economy than ours, and they managed. (They even had pencils!) We start small and simple and build our way up to the vast and complex result. We can expand our capabilities exponentially.

    Specialist knowledge is not a problem on the moon – the Earth is just a phone call away, or they can look it up on the internet like everyone else. Imagine connecting say the early industrial revolution to the internet – how fast could they progress to modernity given the knowledge? We did it in 200 years even without it.

    Not everything will transfer, though, and there will have to be a lot of invention, too. People will find different ways of doing things. They won’t have motors to open air lock doors, or plastic seals. They’ll use levers and interrupted screw threads and they’ll build their first domes from aluminium and concrete and glass. I don’t agree that you would need a vast technological society to be able to solve these basic mechanical problems. If you can’t do it the Earth way, invent another way. It’s what people do.

    You are perfectly right that building a whole civilisation from scratch is not a trivial matter, but I invite you to consider that the inventive human mind is not a trivial means with which to try to do it. A hundred highly trained engineers even less so.

    One point on which I think your economics is definitely wrong is in thinking they would materially import any of it from the Earth. Even though it would be slower and more expensive to make it on the moon, it won’t be nearly as expensive as flying it up from Earth! No, they’ll take the bare minimum to get started, and then they’ll build the rest themselves more slowly.

    I don’t underestimate the difficulty they will face. Probably the first fifty years will be a struggle for survival, and for the following hundred years they will be poor and overworked with few luxuries. But I would expect them to be at least self-sufficient and viable within 20 years of starting and need no material imports thereafter. They don’t need most of the things we have, and that take all that complexity to mass-produce. Food, water, air, communications, and a basic ability to patch things when they break; all the rest is gravy.

  • I can tell just from your assumptions that you are thinking in terms of stationary confinement cells, not roomy and comfortable traveling suits.

    I guess we’d first need to define “roomy” – I can see a semi-mobile habitat working in the relatively small CIS-Lunar region – but with any propulsion system we can reasonably expect to have in 40 years, combined with inflatable modules, you’re talking multi-year transit times living entirely inside the habitat with just open space to look at for months and months at a time. I’m sorry but while I can see the attraction of the open sea for a few months, you know that when you get to your destination you can get out and see things and stretch your legs. On arriving in Jupiter system, you’ll still not be able to leave the “boat”.

    I can’t actually conceive any system that would make that pleasant for me.

    Respecting that is part of being an individualist.

    I’m still not entirely convinced by the individualist arguments on this. We are, at heart, social animals, most of us like company and having humans around. I know I am. Spending years separated from people in a self contained unit of my own sounds like a prison sentence to me. A colony has the benefit of other people.

    But you might want to rethink your choice of France, though. It will probably be one big banlieue by then.

    Maybe, maybe not. I only plan to have a summer place there, probably in the hills overlooking Nice or Menton. The “plan” is a fluid thing. I’d prefer Spain myself, but the wife has French ancestry, and I’ll admit that I’m something of a fan of the food, wine and cognac.

  • Laird

    I agree with everything you say, PaA, and the key passage is “People will find different ways of doing things.” They won’t need pencils per se; they will need a means of making marks on paper or other substances. That doesn’t require clever wooden tubes with a graphite/clay mix in the center. Maybe the answer is fountain pens using some form of dye extracted from moon minerals. Hell, for most purposes probably it’s a stylus on a computer screen. We don’t need all the complexity we now have. We’re used to it, and it’s convenient, but it’s not crucial, especially for pioneers. They will improvise, adapt, make do, or (for many things) simply do without.

    Ian B’s argument is analogous to that of the anti-evolutionists who claim that the eye is too complex to have evolved without divine intervention. Both are wrong.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Laird,

    Thanks.

    I think Ian B’s argument is not so much that the eye couldn’t evolve without help, but the ancillary argument claiming that “half an eye is of no use”. The eye is fantastically complex, and relies on many hundreds of interlocking parts all functioning perfectly. Ian’s argument is that without being able to support all of that complexity, one would necessarily be blind, or as good as, in the modern world. That human eyes cannot be scaled down/simplified and still function well enough to survive.

    On the other hand, it’s a legitimate argument to ask why anyone would choose to be ‘partially sighted’ if they didn’t have to be, merely for the chance to found a brand new civilisation on another world. Ian evidently wouldn’t, and finds it hard to believe others would, either, in the long run. Other people evidently think they would. It’s fair to point out that living in space does have major disadvantages too, even if they’re not quite as fatal as Ian supposes, and a fair difference of opinion to ask if it’s really worth it.

  • Midwesterner

    Daveon,

    I can tell the whole lifestyle is alien to you and it would take a prolonged explanation and you still might not get it. I’ll try to just touch a few points.

    First, until continuous 1G acceleration is possible, not much will be happening. That will almost certainly take some form of nuclear power, probably fusion with very small amounts of matter ejected at near light speed.

    I haven’t worked the math myself but my understanding is that 88 days of 1G acceleration is 1/4 light speed. Solar system distances are not that far if that is correct, even allowing for 50% acceleration/50% deceleration. They would very much correspond to sea voyages during the days of sail.

    People have been crewing ships for centuries. In the beginning long voyages were probably quite unpleasant. But do you really think that people no longer are capable of living without every modern luxury?

    Also, you seem to be working on the assumption that I am the only one crazy enough to want to wander around the solar system doing odd jobs. Bulletin: there are a lot of us.

    I don’t know if there is any point in trying to explain this next part to you because I’m sure you’ve never experienced it. While planning the next part of your trip you pick a waypoint on the map that you know contains what you need to stay a while and catch up on maintenance and other matters. You arrive there and, no surprise, there are others there doing the same thing. It is a very social experience. I’ve met people of all ages from all over and we exchange information about conditions and where to get this or that. This social community is even more advanced on boats. If you have any friends who live and travel aboard boats, ask them about it. There is a whole civilization of people who move from place to place living on their own boats. At the commercial end of the scale, modern cargo vessels have crews from maybe 1/2 dozen up to maybe 20 or so. Hint, if you are looking to get a berth on a sailboat to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, learn to cook like a professional. Good sailors are a dime a dozen, cook cooks, well, they help owners keep the good sailors happy.

    Of course people in space travel will meet each other in various places. Popular rendezvous will almost certainly have carousels where on arrival you can tether to a rotating pinwheel and maintain ‘gravity’ while you are there. Take the elevator ‘up’ to the hub and find as much social experience as you can endure. Then move on with your cargo, research project, or whatever you do to make ends meet.

    It’s not for everybody. But what is?

  • First, until continuous 1G acceleration is possible, not much will be happening. That will almost certainly take some form of nuclear power, probably fusion with very small amounts of matter ejected at near light speed.

    I haven’t worked the math myself but my understanding is that 88 days of 1G acceleration is 1/4 light speed. Solar system distances are not that far if that is correct, even allowing for 50% acceleration/50% deceleration. They would very much correspond to sea voyages during the days of sail..

    Well, if you’ll let me, I actually have done the math :) – at 1G practically the entire visible universe is accessable, but that’s not where we started this topic. We were, at least I was, talking about the next 40 years or so, which take me to my 80th birthday, beyond which, at least with current human anti-aging technology it’s pretty academic to me.

    At this point we don’t have a technology, nuclear or otherwise, which could provide you with 1G acceleration. Nuclear pulse drives are the closest we could get but that seriously underestimates the practical engineering problems of building one and also designing a system which would make it a means of propulsion without killing the passengers. Even our best Plasma drive designs (VASIMIR springs to mind) would still leave it as years to get to the outer planets and many many months to manage favourable transits to the inner ones. We then have to consider how to square these propulsion systems with the structure of the habitats.

    Drive systems with the Specific Impulse required to give you that level of real time thrust don’t currently exist outside of Science Fiction – and if we had them, then we’d probably already have a pretty significant space based culture.

    Believe me, I spent decades looking at the options for space drives and getting disallusioned about them.

    There are reams and reams written on practical space drive designs.

    Also, you seem to be working on the assumption that I am the only one crazy enough to want to wander around the solar system doing odd jobs. Bulletin: there are a lot of us.

    I’m sure there are a lot of you, but it comes back to whether there are _enough_ of you, the distinction is subtle. And, generally speaking, yes I actually do think that most (read: the overwhelming majority) people are no longer capable of living without modern luxuries.

    Actually, that’s a bit harsh. I think people are capable of living without modern luxuries, I just don’t think that most of them would want to if they have a choice in the matter.

    By all means go, but having gone into engineering to get involved in the development of space and then realized just what a nightmare it is, I got out again. Kudos to Dale, Rand, Aleta and others who are living the dream – but for me the dream died in the harsh light of practical engineering problems.

  • Alisa

    Indeed Mid. And you haven’t sailed the Greek Islands yet!

  • Midwesterner

    Daveon,

    You just gave me a deja vu of my father explaining why he bailed out of research chemistry before even finishing his degree. His uncle and mentor was a research chemist high up in a major company and in the 1930s convinced my dad that research chemistry was just glorified paint mixing. Of course the WWII rubber shortages helped trigger the entire petrochemical industry and my dad missed out on the most game changing revolution in material sciences in history.

    Nothing personal you understand, but I hope your timing is equally unfortunate.

  • Daveon

    Well, I bailed almost 20 years ago now. 17 I suppose. And so far I haven’t missed it. I sure as hell haven’t missed the money! Even now I don’t see anything there that would get me to my primary goal of financial independence. So I don’t think I’ll regret it.

    I do hope to go as a tourist which is one of the reasons to make the money.

  • Pa Annoyed

    You don’t need continuous 1G just to get to the outer planets.

    Take Neptune, about 4.5 billion km away. Say we want to get there in a month, or about 2.6 million seconds. a = 2s/t^2 = 2*4.5e12 m / (2.6e6 s)^2 = 1.33 m/s^2 or about 0.13 g. If you’re willing to take 10 months about it, you can do it with a hundredth of the acceleration. (Note, I’m ignoring a bunch of stuff in this calculation. If you want to turn around and stop, you need double that acceleration.)

    As it happens, we have plenty of rockets that can manage a lot more than 1g. (They couldn’t take of from Earth, otherwise.) But they can’t carry enough fuel to run the engines for a solid month.

    However, if you can run them in a shorter burst to get you up to about 2000 km/s, then in a month you’ll have travelled about 5 billion km, so 200-2000 km/s is the sort of number to aim at. Current conventional/affordable technology can achieve about 15 km/s. So we need about a factor of twenty improvement. A significant challenge of course, but by no means is it obviously fantasy. There have been nuclear rockets designed (and prototypes tested, on Earth) that could do much better.

    Of course, if getting fuel into orbit was cheap, you could do it with a conventional rocket simply by building it bigger. That’s one reason why it would be nice to have a base on the moon.

  • Ostralion

    Pa Annoyed- this is why the idea of turning plasma into hydrogen is something we should look into! If it is feasible, then bases and stations around Earth could be devoted to this one task! Get the robot up to orbit around Earth, and you then refuel, and complete your mission. If you have sent a plasma-converting robot ahead of you, then you’d have fuel when you arrived at your destination. Plasma would be thinner out near Neptune, but still viable, as would solar energy- just make the cells bigger!

  • Alisa

    For god’s sakes Nick, why don’t you just stick to your name? It’s a fine name, believe me. If I were your mother I would be very angry!

  • Pa Annoyed,

    As it happens, we have plenty of rockets that can manage a lot more than 1g. (They couldn’t take of from Earth, otherwise.) But they can’t carry enough fuel to run the engines for a solid month.

    You need to look up the term Specific Impulse which covers the problem of how long you can accelerate for, for given engine types and what your theoretical maximum speeds are. There’s currently nothing on the actual drawing board which can provide the levels of SI you need to make the Outer Solar system practical for a manned vehicle, at least without multi-year transits. Even the nuclear rocket designs we have don’t make it.

    There are conceptual engine designs which could do it, but then we’re looking far further out than the 40 years we’ve been talking about.

  • Jay ~Meow!~

    I think is was Jerry Pournelle who said “Show me a way to make a billion dollars in space, and we’ll have a healthy space program tomorrow.

    Solar Power Satellites. Sadly it seems to be aa case of gathering and spending a mount everest of money in order to eventually make a himalayan range of money.

    There are three very large technical hurdles to over come – a launch system that doesn’t suck. Rockets are not it. I like Laser launch. With adaptive optics, small protoypes flew years ago.

    A habitat for people in space – The “Biodome” in Arizona a few years ago showed exactly how far we are away from that. Oops a call, I’ll be back later

  • Jay ~Meow!~

    The other engineering challenge is – can we refine metals from lunar regolith, or asteroid materials in space?

    Those are three huge hurdles to building solar power sats. Once the infrastructure is present then there’s energy to run a high technology civilization until the sun burns out.

    Vision is the problem. Even now, the entreprenurial billionaires who are blazing the trail (Early adopters) are thinking rockets and Apollo 11.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Daveon,

    I already know what specific impulse is, and it doesn’t (on its own) cover either maximum speed, acceleration, or endurance. It’s more like a measure of efficiency in using reaction mass.

    You also need the initial and final mass, which you can plug into the Tsiolkovsky equation to get the delta-v.

    Delta V = Specific Impulse * ln(m0/m1)

    If you make your initial fuel/reaction mass m0 big enough, you can get any delta-v you like. Problem is, it goes up exponentially, so it soon gets very expensive, unless the engine is super-efficient.

    Like I said, you’re aiming for a delta-v in the neighbourhood of 200 km/s to even start thinking about it, which means if you limit your fuel mass to a million times the payload, you need a specific impulse in the neighbourhood of 15 km/s.

    Conventional rockets operate in the neighbourhood of 4 km/s, so they won’t work. Neither would nuclear rockets, which currently can achieve about 7 km/s. But VASIMR operates at between 30 and 300 km/s, so in principle it could.

    There are rockets with the specific impulse needed; what they don’t have is the thrust to weight ratio. This is the other main quantity needed to see if a propulsion design is practical.

    And conversely, there are rockets with sufficient thrust to weight, but not the specific impulse to do it with a reasonable amount of reaction mass.

    Project Orion came up with designs for specific impulses around 16-50 km/s with thrust/weight in the region of 3-4. That would work. But would probably get the Environmentalists with their panties in a bunch. And with many times your payload in nuclear weapons, probably the health and safety people, too.
    (If you plug the numbers into the Tsiolkovsky equation, Delta-v of 400 (accelerate and decelerate) over a specific impulse of 50 km/s gives m0/m1 = 3000, roughly. You might not mind a high payload ratio if your fuel is cheap, but bombs probably aren’t.)

    I agree that we don’t have any practical designs that could do it. But we already knew that. The question is, is there any fundamental reason why normal technological development over the next hundred years couldn’t invent one?

  • The question is, is there any fundamental reason why normal technological development over the next hundred years couldn’t invent one?

    With all due respect that’s not the question we were discussing. My desire to be sitting over looking the Bay of Nice of a warm summer evening with a good Malt in the 2050s versus sitting in my hab watching storms on Jupiter was the entry point.

    However, as I’ve said several times here there are plenty of technologies that could conceivably be game changers in this, the problem is, as we extrapolate, I, at least, keep hitting the problem of extrapolating through a technological singularity.

    However, if I am to be optimistic: we develop advanced nanotechnology manufacturing techniques and develop a range of nuclear impulse technologies which, with a few space elevators open space up completely. Alternatively, we come up with some breakthroughs in anti-matter development or zero point energy.

    However, on that track we also end up with Augmented Intelligence way earlier than some of those engineering triumphs and we get into the position that we’ve augmented minds working on building improved bodies and find that what actually gets out there isn’t necessarily recognisable to a baseline human sitting on his deck in Menton drinking Scotch.

    Beyond that, if the Augmented Minds can develop true AGI and uploading technologies then I have a suspicion that it becomes really hard. Charles Stross does this nicely in Accelerando where the first real interstellar mission is actually taking uploaded minds rather than people.

    If I’m pessimistic: 100 years from now there’ll be limited development of CIS-Lunar space because there really isn’t all that much to do when you get there. We still fly around the world in subsonic aircraft and we’ve found that computer technology has leveled off in the way that other technologies have and 2109 looks a fair amount like 2009, except with different fashions. But we live in houses or flats, we drive 4 wheeled vehicles that look like cars and worry about health care.

  • Ostralion

    Alisa, I don’t tell anyone else about your other aliases, so why not leave me alone? I figured out who ‘Midwesterner’ was long ago!
    Seriously, Nicholas has one serious drawback- I get picked upon around 25 December every year to play a fantasy character. Can you guess which one, based on my name? I bet that never happens to you. There are no fantasy Alisas to worry about!

  • Alisa

    Yes there is one, and she is quite famous too! Care to guess?

  • Ostralion

    Whilst I don’t regularly watch the Simpsons, I know there is a character called Lisa. Is this similar enough that you are identified with it? And do you have a date connected to the name, like every Nicholas does?

  • Alisa

    No, it’s not Lisa, although not less of a cultural icon:-) And no, no special date – unless maybe May 4th? I’ll give you a hint: when I look in the mirror, all I see is me.