Friday, August 05, 2011

The looming quiet desperation and thoughts about space exploration

We like to think we are technologically advanced. We like to think we are in control. Then, things like tsunamis and hurricanes and volcanoes occur, and we see we are not so much in control at all.

Then, even if we are "in control", what that means is that we are relatively safe and self-sustaining. What that means, in turn, is that we are able to procreate successfully. That leads to overpopulation.

So, when things are going poorly, we are in danger of losing population. When things are going well, we are in danger of overpopulation.

Parts of the world are already overpopulated. This is a fact. Most countries as individual units are not self-sustaining, most families as individual units are not self-sustaining. It is a paradox, maybe, that the more "in control" you are, the less self-sustaining you are. If you live on a farm, say in the manner of the Amish, you are still at the mercy of the weather to ensure you can bring in crops.

SO, successful self-sustenance depends entirely on advantageous geographic placement. This is common sense when you look at history, from early to current, but less common sense when you look at current, because technology allows us to overcome geographic disadvantages.

The reason I mention these pieces of common sense is because of thoughts about space colonization. Because, if things go well, we are headed towards overpopulation. What that means is that we'll have to go somewhere else.

It does mean that, it is unavoidable. It is not just fanciful. If things go well, population will either need to go somewhere else "corporeally" in the flesh, or somewhere else "spirtually" in death. So we have the science fiction Star Wars/Star Trek/quasi-Asimovian model, or we have the science fiction ethical suicide/soylent green/quasi-Orwellian model.

Both of these require significant hardship and even "dehumanization". The ideal scenario would require tolerable hardship and minimal dehumanization.
People are willing to endure both for some type of payoff. Explorers and settlers of the past have sought a payoff by seeking the geographic advantage that would optimize self-sufficiency. In addition, an important concept maybe, they leveraged geographic features to enable their exploration.

North America was not explored via "wagon trains", of course. It was not even settled via wagon trains. North America's coasts and bays were explored first via sea and then internally explored largely via river. Rivers were the highways that would handle significant cargo and provisions for a longer expedition. You could be reliably borne on river currents towards a destination with less effort and greater speed. Once reliable river routes to geographically advantageous locations were secured, settlement followed readily.

Is there an analog to river currents in space exploration? Is it possible to "hitch rides" on near earth approaching asteroids, hop from asteroid to asteroid, where their orbits are used to move further and farther than would normally be possible? It would take a long time, but that discussion comes later.

There is another aspect of exploration that we shouldn't forget, and that was that at a certain point, the explorer was more willing to risk not returning. That is, if the explorer was primarily seeking self-sufficiency, they would establish themselves in the frontier.

This is why private space exploration is important. The notion of some big payoff being out there for the intrepid risk-taker is inherently a private venture. How the payoff is conveyed back at first is not via physical transfer of significant cargo, but of establishing the route. It may well be a one-way route. The terrestrial component of the venture owns the route. The extra-terrestrial component of the venture owns the geographic location. They people off-planet take the risk of living off-planet for the rest of their lives. (Why? more about that later also).

Then, there is development of the location. The location must be developed before cargo (the payoff) can be conveyed back. The location might initially be developed robotically, this seems very likely. Then once a human habitable confine was produced, then humans could colonize.

The extent to which humans could colonize would depend on the advantages of the geography. There needs to be a payoff, it can't all be "for science" or "for glory". In the colonization game, there is a dual payoff: alleviation of load on the colonizing geographical location, and abundance of otherwise more scarce resources in the colonized geographical location.

There is also a "tiered" set of payoffs. The initial tier is the technology that permits robotic off-planet construction, including atmospheric generation, because this technology is multi-purpose. The second tier is the establishment of the reliable route. The third tier is the establishment of the human colony that can convey back resources. The fourth tier is a self-sustaining off-planet colony. The fifth tier is improved efficiencies in replication of the model, where colonies become more readily established even further out.

For an example of the fifth tier, if giant, long passage interstellar-travel space ships could be built off-planet, given more abundant metals, fewer gravitational constraints and vast chemical fuel sources available among the planets and asteroids, then this would provide a payoff.

Variations of all of this have been described in hundreds or thousands of science fiction stories. They tend to jump to the "fifth tier" of accomplishment pretty quickly, because that is where a lot of the more imaginiative stuff can happen, but it will take a very long time. A Very Long Time.

So this is where all the things that I said would be discussed later are discussed. There is very definitely a "fork in the road" between the quasi-Orwellian and quasi-Asimovian future. Going down the q-O path is not conducive to switching back to the q-A path. The q-A path choice requires a resolute refusal of the q-O path.

Even so, it seems clear some manner of population control will need to be applied on Earth, especially in problem areas. However, no population control would be needed on Mars: more population means more colonization activities could occur. This in itself may be incentive to give it a try.

Living conditions will be different, primitive in some ways and advanced in others. It may be that Martians will live largely below the surface, but even now, on Earth, there are significant city center malls in colder climates that are entirely underground. Martians would acclimate to that mode of living, optimize it and even discover new modes of expansion below planet surfaces which can be leveraged on even less hospitable worlds and in less hospitable climates on Earth.

Because even our current knowledge of what is on the nearest bodies to us shows, with below-ground development, that there are places on Mars and the Moon that could be made much more comfortable than some places on the surface of Earth.

In terms of extrapolating from current technology to the technology that would be needed for extra-terrestrial and then interstellar colonization, it is clear to see that robotic off-world construction could be realized. What is less clear are the propulsion mechanisms that could power effective space travel over long distances, especially extra-solar distances.

Also, as mentioned, there may be "river currents" within our solar system to leverage. Maybe they exist even beyond the heliopause in a way that faciliates interstellar travel.

But, it took months for goods to get from continent to continent in the time of ocean sailing ships. It will take weeks to get things back and forth from the Moon, and months to get things back and forth from Mars. It will even take especially long periods of time for speed-of-light signals to reach from place to place, as space explorers have already seen in the remote control of off-planet systems. But these things are not insurmountable. Humanity has written hugely important messages with quill pens and delivered them by sailing ship and caravan, to lasting effect. We just have to recognize that it will be that way again with regards to space: there is no 'transporter', and may never be, to help facilitate and speed up the storyline.

All of this sounds like a stretch and it is a stretch, we'll have to stretch. But I believe that, on the whole, it is a more admirable, human and viable endeavour than some manner of worldwide death cult based on either controlled culling or managed perpetual warfare. It is not our "manifest destiny" either, but it is our character.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home