Saturday, June 16, 2007

The futility of space exploration?

Cory Doctorow, at BB, links to a good piece by Charles Stross called "The High Frontier: Redux."

Bottom line, space is way too expensive, too vast and too harsh to even bother with colonizing.


Charles leads by restricting the argument. He writes:

And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Book that. More later.

Next, he turns to the vastness of space. If you scale it, then the meat of the solar system is about two inches wide and the next nearest planet would be about ten miles away. Fair enough, but so what? Look, a couple of thousand years ago, the earth was unknowably large. You sort of just sailed east or west and were either consumed by dragons or just fell off the edge of the planet. A few hundred years ago, we'd settled down to the fact that the earth was largely round, revolved around the sun and by using this knowledge, you could sail from, say Greenwich to Point B in several months, mileage may vary. Turn of this Century, you could go from England to Capetown in a few weeks (Yeah, I'm reading Churchill's "Boer War"). I did that trip from Europe to the southern tip of Africa in ten hours (without consuming limes or my fellow passengers). With fuel as the rate limiting step, you could get around the earth in twenty to thirty hours. Go sub orbital, and the trip gets even shorter.

Innovation shrunk the planet.

Now when Columbus sailed from Spain in search of Native American Indians to exploit, he didn't stop and say, "you know, this shit would be alot easier if I had, like, you know, a plane."

No, he just went.

Now, take for example his bit on spacesuits:

A Russian Orlan-M space suit (which, some would say, is better than anything NASA has come up with over the years — take heed of the pre-breathe time requirements!) weighs 112 kilograms, which pretty much puts a floor on our infrastructure requirements.

One of the most fascinating things about Virgin Galactic is the work they're doing on cheap spacesuits (cheap here, being relative):

Newman is developing the materials and the design for a space suit that astronauts could use to explore Mars or the moon. But if you’ve got the cash, you could sport one, too. As a space tourist, your suit would be fabricated right on-site. First, robotic arms pirouette around you, creating a 3-D laser scan of your body. Guided by that image, the arms extrude a liquid composite of Kevlar, spandex and nylon (over an insulating undergarment), which tightens as it cures, sort of like shrink-wrap. Materials integrated into the weave will actively control thermal regulation. Most of the suit’s materials will be recycled when you are finished using it. A polymer torso shell serves as a docking point for your helmet and a frame for your oxygen tank—and maybe a holster for your digital camera. Newman’s innovation is to use mechanical counterpressure to constrain your body’s tissues, rather than a bulky layer of gas to pressurize the suit. By orienting the threads along something called the body’s lines of non-extension, she can make the suit extremely tight yet highly flexible.

Here's a possible look:

Now go back and look at that Soviet Orlan job.

Kevlar. Man, that's a wonder material. On the battlefield, it pushed back against the tyranny of the rifled bullet. Days was, the best way to avoid dying from a bullet was to not be there when the bullet came traveling by. Now with kevlar and the mystery meat they make those plates out of, you've got a better than even chance. My point is, material sciences saw a need and filled that need. Larry Niven predicted this development in his Known Space universe. He called them skinsuits. Their day is coming.

Same goes for space travel. As far as rockets, space elevators, stratospheric blimps or carrier craft, I'm agnostic. My goal is get there. We will go when the need is demonstrated.

Next, Charles uses a lot of math, a language I speak poorly. For me, 1 + 1 equals whatever the hell I tell it, and Pi should be rounded down to four digits (which explains my short career as a bridge builder). So let me get back to that first quote:

And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one.

"Quasi-religious?" Look, I enjoy the works of Doctorow and Stross immensely. But one is a Red Diaper Canadian (Doctorow) and the other is socialist with an odd case of ostalgia for the failed Soviet experiment (Stross). That makes them both stark raving mad, in my book. But as long as both are functional and pay their taxes on time, who am I to complain? They also look forward to the Rapture of the Nerds. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of unintended consequences!!

They're collectivists and I'm an individualists. They want to gather humanity up and experiment. Run it through a meat grinder and come up with Man 2.0.

Me, I want to hedge.

One thing I've learned is folks with those beliefs are resistant to one of my "Five Freedoms." Namely, the freedom to move. I use George Monbiot's odd fetish with airplanes as my touchstone. Can't experiment, see, if the Chickens keep running. With these guys, movement in general is bad, unless it's from the back of the bread line to the front. It's part of their "quasi-religion."

Look, if the nerds do in fact rapture, and we wind up with the sum total of human knowledge residing in some sort of intelligent soda can, well, then fine. But if we're not hedging, then look out. One thing about the Good Idea Fairy, the larger the population she gets her hands on, the more the misery when the God of Unintended Consequences comes wandering by.

See, my only contribution to the space race is going to be my life savings, some fifteen to twenty years from now, for a nights stay in the Bigelow Inn.

But I will say this, you look around and it looks like General Nuttiness is taking Supreme Command in differing parts of the world. And when the nucking futs take over, sometimes you need to be able to move out at a dead run with all you can carry:

Just goes to figure.

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