Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Space, The Final Frontier

Posted by hyperpat on June 26, 2007

Recently Charles Stross posted an article about how we’ll never get around to colonizing the other planets in the solar system, let alone interstellar colonization, citing the extraordinary cost, technological difficulty, and very poor return on investment as reasons. He also pooh-poohs the idea that we’ll do it anyway just because it’s there. Now while his numbers are very probably correct given today’s level of technology, I think he is seriously underestimating the drive towards going where we’ve never been before, to make a new home far away from the old homestead.

Mars is the obvious logical choice out of all the sundry rocks in the solar system, as it is close enough to a human friendly environment that is fairly easy to see what steps would be necessary to make it into something where we can actually live. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Blue, & Green Mars set lays out these steps in admirable fashion, although it’s quite probable that the time frame he envisions is way too short to actually achieve that goal (although at least one scientist thinks we could be well down that path by the end of this century). Could we do it with today’s technology? Probably not. But the pace of progress shows no signs of slowing down, and if we can get to the point where a space elevator is a real possibility, it will remove one of the greatest impediments to this task, that of having to lift large quantities of various necessary tools and biomasses out of Earth’s deep gravity well with something as inefficient and dangerous as rocket power. Lacking such an item right now, exploration by both robot probe and manned missions is not only doable, but necessary, and we can leave the colonization for a little later.

Of course, the limiting factor here is not really technology, but money (of course, the better the technology, the less it will cost). Who is going to fund all of this? NASA’s mandate and budget will only stretch so far. And while there are always a few with visionary dreams, the average taxpayer doesn’t see much point to spending all this money to investigate a world that seems to be populated with nothing but some very uninteresting rocks. But it is precisely those who have that visionary dream, coupled with a few individuals who have some really deep money pockets who either share that dream or can be convinced of its value, that will really drive this. This is happening now, as private ventures towards developing an economical space plane have already shown.

There has always been a small segment of the human population that is just not satisfied with the status quo, who want to see what’s over that next hill, who will endure great deprivation in search of such dreams. Without such people, humanity would become stagnant and ingrown, always worrying about the local problem of the day, and missing one of the grander aspects of what it is to be human. Stross is wrong. We will colonize our solar system, as there will always be a few of us who don’t count the cost.

4 Responses to “Space, The Final Frontier”

  1. fencer said

    I want to read up more on radiation in space… that might be the real limiting reality for solar system exploration and colonization, on the basis of the little I’ve read so far.


  2. hyperpat said

    The problem of radiation is directly related to the travel time. Most scenarios currently envisaged have travel times to Mars measured in months or even years (constant velocity transfer orbits). Over such a period, radiation is a very real problem. The are two obvious answers: shorten the travel time, or provide adequate shielding.

    The travel time could be dramatically reduced by using a constant-boost vehicle. Despite the objections and fears of a few, this can be accomplished via the use of nuclear-powered craft, using nothing more esoteric than water as reaction mass. The amount of boost required is not large: even a constant boost of .01 gee would get you from Earth orbit to Mars orbit in about 19 days (factoring in the flip-over to decelerate at midpoint), and only 6 days at .1 gee. Adding a layer of shielding around the living module would add considerably to the total mass of the vehicle, but once again this is not beyond current technology, though it clearly increases the amount of motive force required to achieve such an acceleration. So, not impossible, just expensive, and requiring quite a bit of engineering to properly design and build.

  3. fencer said

    Is the limiting factor for constant boost the amount of fuel-stuff you can take with you? Is that why it’s not at the forefront of the usually considered Mars travel methods? Sounds like such a good way of doing things, with such low gees…


  4. hyperpat said

    Two factors: the reaction mass total weight and what the maximum achievable exhaust velocities for that mass are the prime limiters (throat jet temperature tolerance? Needs a lot of materials design work). A secondary consideration is reactor plant shielding and safety. But it should also be remembered that this type of craft would be an orbit-to-orbit type, never intended to land on any surface, which also means there would need to be a lander type vehicle taken along. There is a lot of engineering to do before this can be a viable option, and a lot of infrastructure needs to be in place (like a space station where workers can be housed while building this thing). All of these count against it being at top of anyone’s list right now.

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