Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Demosphere and Space Colonization

Ever since the golden age of SF, a staple of the genre has been the colonization of space by humankind. Well before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to get flung around low earth orbit in a steel can, writers were dreaming of using rockets to visit the planets, and hyperdrives with which to build vast empires amidst the stars. It is a theme that has been returned to again and again. When men first set foot on the moon, it was to many a dream that tasted almost real; not yet a reality, but surely an inevitability. Humans would follow the ancient imperative of the species, and boldly colonize the farthest frontiers of the universe.

Has it all been a fantasy? Many are beginning to think so. Charlie Stross, one of the brighter lights of modern SF, wrote a lengthy essay, High Frontier Redux, which concludes:

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

Space, as Stross points out at great and detailed length, is a great deal more inhospitable than the most forbidding environments on Earth's surface. Even those places have oxygen, temperatures that are not fatally extreme (at least not immediately), and do not generally experience massive radiation fluxes. Added to this, of course, is the steep cost in time and energy of establishing colonies.

Of course, the resources of space in terms of energy and material are vast. The great expense of building colonies would be justified if those colonies could build and maintain solar power collectors, or mine out asteroids for their metals. Or rather, the expense would be justified, were it not that it would likely be much more cost-effective to do all that industrial work with robots. They require no shielding from the radiation, are quite comfortable in hard vacuum, and require no complicated life-support machinery. They don't get bored or tired, and best of all, there's very little danger of them getting any funny ideas about independence.

It's easy to foresee a future where human bodies never get much further than geosynchronous orbit. That's been the case ever since the Apollo program. All of the exploration has been done by automated probes; humans have done little more than whirl around in Earth orbit, doing experiments, repairs, and PR spots. Even the Apollo program was little more than a stunt; the manned Mars mission, if it actually happens, will amount to the same stunt on a vastly larger scale. For the foreseeable future, the only way in which most people will go to space will be as tourists (a tiny market for now, but this study at Space Future, Meeting the Needs of the New Millenium: Passenger Space Travel and World Economic Growth, predicts a vast increase in the size of that market.)

With robotics technology advanced enough to automate space industry - self-guiding, self-replicating, self-maintaining - the resources of the solar system could be harnessed without anyone ever having to leave the surface of the Earth. A population ten times larger than the current six and a half billion could be thousands of times wealthier, on a per capita basis. Humanity would sit at the center of a network of machinery that spanned the solar system, the resources of the solar system being sent back to them.

For anyone (like me) raised on a steady diet of martian colonies and galactic empires, there's a distinct lack of romance to this sterile, industrial cosmos. Yet it's very difficult to refute.

Charlie Stross isn't the serious intellect to examine space travel and find it wanting. Michael Anissimov, over at Accelerating Future, writes in Space Travel: Not For A Billion Years, that the Singularity will make space travel obsolete. With the computing power a post-human civilization will have at it's disposal, it'll be able to simulate so many more interesting, life-filled worlds than the universe could possibly provide, that exploring the universe becomes pointless (at least, if one is after novelty.) Not only that, but the internal clock-speed of a post-human civilization would make the moon, he says, 2/3 of a light year away.

My own recent speculations on the demosphere got me thinking about what effect a global polity would have on space migration. There's some reason for optimism. A global polity would likely spend a much smaller fraction of it's GDP (a figure likely to be significantly higher than current global GDP) on military hardware. If even a small part of the difference was to be diverted to space colonization, the high frontier could truly be opened.

Then again, a global polity would be just as capable of stifling any attempt of humans to move off the earth. In fact, I imagine it would have every incentive to do so. It's existence, after all, would guarantee peace and prosperity for a very long period of time, so long as it is able to stave off the pitfalls of civil war and outside invasion. The first cannot be ruled out entirely, but the second is impossible. Unless aliens invade ... or, say, those in control foolishly allow independent communities to establish themselves on other worlds. It might take centuries for those colonies to become large enough and independent enough to constitute a threat, but any global polity worthy of the name would have a perspective of millenia. Like Mandarin China banning the exploration of the oceans, the demosphere would prevent human migration into space for as far as the eye can see.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, there's always the Fermi Paradox. Lacking any reason to think that our planet is particularly special, there doesn't seem to be any reason life shouldn't be relatively common. Even one in a billion would mean the universe had trillions of living worlds. There's no reason to suppose our species was the first in the history of the universe or even the galaxy, and even with craft much slower than light there's been plenty of time for the galaxy to have been colonized. So why isn't it? Maybe they all just stayed home, for reasons similar to the ones above.

Space colonization might not be a dead idea, but it's been wounded pretty bad, and when you ask they doctor if the patient's gonna make it he gets that look on his face....

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