chris_gerrib: (Rotary)
I'm at Loncon3, using the free wifi to update. The weather continues rainy and cool, which means it's good to be inside. I've ran into a number of Chicago and KC fans I know, and several authors.

I did want to make a brief SF comment. In one of the panels today, the group (all SF writers except for a guy from the Royal Observatory) said that we shouldn't colonize other planets. (Tobias Buckell was on that panel.) To that, I say bollocks.

Well, I should amplify that. Asking whether we should or should not colonize other worlds is like asking whether or not we should breathe. We will do both. It is what humans, nay, life, does. Here on Earth, life expanded to fill every viable crack, which means the only lifeless place I know of is interior Antarctica, if you don't count humans.

Life expands. It only takes a small group of malcontent humans or organisms getting out-competed in their current habitat to "colonize" a new habitat. Life expands - that's what it does. So, if we can get there, wherever "there" is, we will colonize.
chris_gerrib: (Me)
I'm back in Chicago, but not back at work (that's Monday's curse). While doing something close to nothing on the Internet, I stumbled upon "the forbidden island," AKA North Sentinel Island. This 28-square mile island in the Andaman Island chain in the Indian Ocean is inhabited by the most unknown people on Earth. I mean that quite literally, in that no non-inhabitant of that island can even speak their language! It's inhabited by an unknown number (estimated 200 or less) humans who don't wear clothing and live a stone-age existence.

These people have boats, but no oars or sails, and none of the local tribes from the other islands have had contact with them since the arrival of the Europeans in the mid-1700s. The only contact these people have with the outside world is an occasional helicopter overflight.

These humans have been completely cut off from the rest of humanity for at least hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Everybody who's attempted to land has been either killed or driven off at spear-point.

In science fiction, there is a concept called a "generation ship." This is the idea to put a group of people on a ship and send them to another star, with the idea that their descendants will complete the voyage. I've been told by some scientists that generation ships are inherently impossible - social collapse or inbreeding will destroy them.

Would somebody please tell the folks on North Sentinel Island that? It seems to me that they are running a generation ship that just doesn't go anywhere.
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So, Jim wright's post on why he didn't say anything about the last Space Shuttle flight got me thinking about space and railroads. Yeah, bear with me for a bit.

As I've noted before, the US Government created the Union Pacific Railroad and gave it tons of money specifically to build a transcontinental railroad. Without Government money, the railroad would have been build decades later. Similarly, the US government spent tons of money to go to the Moon. Again, no money, no Moon.

The difference, however, is critical. See, the Union Pacific knew that sooner or later it was going to have to cover its operating expenses and (in their case) repay loans. This drove all kinds of decisions, large and small. Obviously rail was a more mature technology then rockets, but I do think the analogy holds. We're now doing something similar, in that we're paying private contractors for orbital access.

This is why I'm not terribly sad that the Shuttle is retired. You see, I want space exploitation. I want colonies on the moon and weekend trips to orbital stations. These things only happen if launch costs go down. In truth, even if governments wanted to colonize space, launch costs still have to go down. Either that or you get a "colony" of two or three people camped out on a crater.

So, go for private enterprise!
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Because it's Friday, have some link salad:

1) Here's an interesting article about passenger rail - the case for not-so-high-speed rail. The author's points are that, although Europe has some very fast trains, much of the rail passenger traffic flows on quick but not super-fast trains. The same economic factors that make European trains viable could work in the US too. For me the key fact was that by reducing delays and making the slower parts of the trip faster, AKA, "cheap fixes," one could get significant improvements in travel time.

2) A bit late, but a reminder of a bloody date in American labor history. Back in the Goode Olde Dayes, union-busting was done by busting in the heads of union members.

3) Here's a controlled study that (not surprisingly) supports the theory that having health care insurance leads to better health outcomes. Who woulda thought? /sarcasm/

4) An interesting reflection on consumer goods in space colonies, forwarded on without comment.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
The first permanent building in Las Vegas, Nevada was built in 1905. In 1930, the 5,100 people there made it the very definition of a "jerkwater" town - a place the locomotives stopped to refill on water. In 1960, well into the casino era, the population was 64,000. As of the 2010 census, Clark County (Las Vegas and suburbs) has a population of 2.1 million. Phoenix, Arizona, was historically a bit bigger, having a population in 1950 of 106,000. Today, the population of the metro area is 4.2 million.

The source of this information, the blogger at Gin and Tacos, uses this data to make a political point. These population figures are possible because of water, cheap electricity and air conditioning. Two of those three things (water and power) came about because the Federal government built dams and irrigation projects, such as Arizona's Salt River Project and the Hoover Dam, with taxpayer dollars. Without this Big Government intervention, 9 our of 10 Arizona and Nevada Tea Partiers wouldn't be there. This is because 9 out of 10 people wouldn't be there.

I'd like to use the same data to make a point about space colonization. Man can no more live in these areas (at least in anywhere near these numbers) then Man can live on Mars. Yeah, dying of lack of air is quicker than dying of thirst and heatstroke, but no less certain. If we are going to colonize Mars, we'll need the same level of effort, and the same level of dependence on technology to survive.

I'd also like to make a point about sustainability. There is and has been for a while a fear that not only can the region not support additional growth, but that it can't support its current population - that the water allocation was based on a wetter-than-average historical period. Space colonies will face the same problem, and in both cases, the solution will be the same. Either resource prices (be it the air tax or the water bill) will go up, forcing some people to move, or there will be a catastrophic failure causing a mass exodus.

If the former event occurs (and that's where I'm putting my money) not only will population and usage levels go down, but the higher price will attract new resource providers. For Arizona, I have a vision of solar desalinization plants sucking water from the Gulf of California and piping it up to Phoenix. For a Martian colony, well, I'm sure they'll think of something. But at a certain size of problem, the only solution is government.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Via Tobias Buckell, here's an interesting thought about our non-return to the Moon:

In 1956, a US Navy expedition led by Admiral George J. Dufek flew to and landed on the South Pole. They were the first group to stand on the Pole since Robert Falcon Scott's party in 1912. That's a gap of 44 years. (Admiral Dufek's group was also only the second to survive the trip, yet how many of you know who he is?)

We haven't returned to the Moon in 37 years and counting, and for similar reasons. Going to the Moon now is at least as hard as getting to the South Pole was then, and in both places there's no immediate reason to go back. Once the "proof of concept" that we could get there was done, further exploration awaits better technology.
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I'm not at work tomorrow (driving downstate) so this will probably be the last post before Christmas. For those of you that celebrate, Merry Christmas! (For all others, please enjoy your weekend.)

On to the topic of the day. Via Tobias Buckell, a man on fire, I read an interesting article about using the Biosphere 2 to study global warming. You may remember the Biosphere 2 from back in the day. Basically, it was an attempt in the early 1990s to set up a totally self-contained environment, much like what you'd need to colonize space. The experiment was a failure. What happened was that oxygen levels in the dome fell drastically while CO2 levels went up. In the end, supplemental oxygen from outside was needed.

But Biosphere 2 was an interesting and useful failure. Part of the oxygen problem was caused by concrete in the structure. The concrete was reacting with CO2 and oxygen, creating calcium carbonate. In effect, the concrete was rusting. A lesson learned - no concrete for space habs.

Another lesson learned was the impact of soil bacteria. The little critters were going hog-wild in the heavily (organically) fertilized soil, sucking in oxygen and expelling CO2. Lastly, and of great impact for global warming research, was the understanding of CO2 exhalation from plants. From the Discovery article:

As it stands, photosynthesis, which takes in carbon dioxide, only slightly outstrips respiration, which releases it again. The difference between intake and output—just 1 to 2 percent of the total carbon going into ecosystems—accounts for the amount of carbon fixed in things like the trunks [of trees].

After the collapse of the original self-contained experiment, the facility, which is open for tours, was used for large-scale tests of global warming. One of those tests has put paid to the notion that, as temperatures rise, plants will suck in more CO2. As one researcher said, "carbon just chased itself around the cycle faster," resulting in no net benefit.

Biosphere 2 had a small ocean, which, perhaps surprisingly, remains self-sufficient (nobody feeds the fish). However, elevated CO2 levels resulted in a more acidic ocean, which radically slowed coral growth. This means even less oceanic CO2 sequestration.

Failure is always an option. The trick is to learn from one's failures.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
While writing yesterday's post about Amelia Earhart, I ended up doing a bit of research on Pacific islands. Being a space geek, this led me to think about space - specifically asteroid colonization. Basically, the economics of asteroid colonies could be similar to Pacific islands.

In yesterday's post, the hypothesis was that Earhart's plane crash-landed on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island of the Phoenix Islands group. Of that group of eight islands, only one, Kanton, is inhabited. For most of Kanton's history, the place was uninhabited. Then, in the 1930s, it became a refueling point for Pan Am Clipper flying boats. After WWII, it transitioned to a refueling base for land-based aircraft. At the height of settlement, it reached a dizzying population of around 100 people. Then the aircraft stopped coming, and per Wikipedia, in 2010 the population had fallen to 24 people, who were in desperate need of food. Also of note, throughout Kanton's history, the lack of fresh water was always a problem.

The US Coast Guard ended up making the delivery as the Republic of Kiribati, who governed the island, couldn't. Not surprising - Kiribati has just under 100,000 people spread out in penny packets on islands over an area the size of the country of India. An economic or military powerhouse they are not.

It's easy for me to see potential parallels to asteroids. Kanton, with an area of 40 square kilometers, would probably correlate to a mid-sized asteroid. I could see an asteroid becoming a mine site, getting a small settlement, and when the mine played out or otherwise became unprofitable, the place becomes abandoned, or worse, semi-abandoned.

This dynamic isn't unique to islands, of course. America is full of ghost towns - places where a town was built and then abandoned. Parenthetically, ghost towns are not just in the West - they exist in Illinois too. Here, our wetter weather tends to cause the abandoned buildings to decay faster, leaving less to look at. But if you see a clump of trees surrounded by farm fields, occasionally that clump is what's left of a ghost town.

Similar problems plague the other islands in the Kiribatis, which is why that nation is one of the poorest in the world, and almost completely dependent on foreign aid. So, would similar problems plague asteroid colonization? Ghost asteroids - sounds like a neat title for a book.


Dec. 9th, 2010 10:15 am
chris_gerrib: (Default)
So, a private company, SpaceX, has successfully placed a capsule in orbit and retrieved it. SpaceX becomes only the seventh organization, and the first non-governmental organization, to acomplish this feat. Said launch was a test flight of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which has an unmanned cargo version and a manned transport version.

I've talked about cost to orbit in my space colonization discussions. SpaceX's solution is not cheap, but vastly cheaper than any existing one. Nor are they alone - other companies are working on the problem. I am convinced that (relatively) low cost to orbit is coming. The question isn't "if," it's "when" and "how low?"
chris_gerrib: (Default)
So, I said I was going to talk about Mary Roach's book Packing for Mars. Before I do, a few comments on last night's election.

Regarding the election in general, I agree with what Scalzi said, although now that Boehner, et. al. will actually have to govern, I suspect that they'll be some disappointed Republicans in 2012. Regarding the Tea Party, I'd like to thank them for running such a crew of flakes - we couldn't have held the Senate without you.

Moving on to Packing for Mars, I found it an interesting book. Mary Roach, the author, focused a lot of the book on stuff NASA doesn't like to talk about, namely the messy biological "stuff" like bowel movements and space sickness. Gross, but not surprising for somebody who wrote a book about the science of sex.

Having said that, anybody interested in space colonization needs to understand the problems facing living in space. Two things I learned were of especial interest. First, methane gas build-up can be a problem. Gas from where, you ask? Well, ever see somebody light a fart on fire? (I did attend the occasional party in college.) That blue flame is methane, and if you don't do something with it, over time you could blow up your spaceship. Which would be bad.

The second thing I learned was that the meals for the Gemini and Apollo program were designed by veterinarians! See, in the 1950s, the Air Force had been using monkeys to test if people could actually survive in space. So, they needed some veterinarians to deal with the monkeys. When it came time to figure out what to feed the astronauts, the best "experts" were, you guessed it, the vets. This led to some seriously unappetizing food items.

At any rate, I found Packing for Mars an entertaining read.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Because link salad will go bad if it's left in the refrigerator too long, here's your Friday edition. Before I get to that, thanks to everybody who congratulated me on my publishing news yesterday. I'm quite pleased with myself. Now, returning to our regularly-scheduled programming:

1) Via Ballon Juice, the blogger Kung Fu Monkey misses Republicans. You know, the sober, sensible fact-based types that expected weapons systems to work and were in favor of science.

2) Via the nice folks at Making Light, I give you Nine tips to Identify Clutter. De-clutter away!

3) From my friend and Campbell Award-winning author [ profile] maryrobinette, I give you the Chilean mine rescue to scale, or, Half A Mile Down Is Really Damn Deep.

4) The other night, I found myself watching in fascination as some of the folks from History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" tackled Indian roads. The show is called IRT Deadliest Roads, and featured in this episode a one-lane road with 7,000 foot vertical drops and no guard rails. Oh, and the road had two-way traffic! I'd rather juggle dynamite than drive those roads.

5) It's been making the rounds, but I got it from Tobias Buckell. I give you the true size of Africa. It's a map of Africa with various countries, including the US, resting comfortably inside of it. The visualization puts a lot of Africa's problems in scale.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
I wasn't planning for Part 5 of this series, but here goes, with some odd thoughts that didn't fit anywhere else.

orbital stations = cruise ships

The economics of an orbital hotel would be very similar to a cruise ship. The space constraints are similar (no orbital golf!) and the construction and operating costs are similar. Lunar hotels could be more like a resort once using on-site materials becomes viable.

The myth of "only one"

A lot of fiction looking at the near future postulates only one base, hotel or whatever. This is a legacy of the Cold War, when only the two superpowers were playing in space. But now the Chinese have a manned program, and Japan, India and the Europeans have independent programs of various levels. So, even if "space" remains the province of nations, the factors that lead to national space programs will lead to multiple, national space presences. Once private enterprise gets in the game, for every Elon Musk or Tony Bezos, there are several Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern plutocrats that we Americans have never heard of and who might want to play.

The need to "get rich quick"

One of the commentors on this series said they'd go to space "if I could get rich," or words to that effect. I think focusing on the individual getting rich is the wrong focus. Many of the people who went to the frontier, from the settlers of Massachusetts to the Vikings in Iceland to the cavemen who went over the hill because they got kicked out of the tribe were not motivated by personal wealth. Rather, they were motivated by the need and/or desire to be somewhere else.

Now, the entity that funds the colony needs to make a return on investment. But they may decide it's cheaper to put low-paid colonists on their station then high-paid but temporary workers. And there are all sorts of people who would move off of Earth on a permanent basis. Some of them are political / religious / social extremists, and some of them just want to get away from current society (however defined). I don't think the people working on Antarctic research stations are making grand slam bucks. I also suspect that many of them, if offered the opportunity to stay permanently, would do so.

I've tagged all parts of this series "colonies" to make it easier for you (and me) to find.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
In Part 3, I came to the conclusion that once humans decide to stay on the Moon or in orbit, they will be as self-sufficient as possible. So the question is, "why will humans go?"

The usual answer, "mining," is wrong, at least in my opinion. The right answer is "tourism," with a side of "research."

See, in the near future, there is a huge up-front cost in getting to the Moon, let alone setting anything up there. The logical (from a transportation infrastructure basis) intermediate point, low Earth orbit (LEO) is notably lacking in stuff to mine.

But if people will pay to visit the Gobi Desert, they'll definitely pay to visit LEO. Here's the key point - the people paying to go aren't paying so much for the experience - they are paying so they can sit around at parties and say "when I visited X, I..." So, virtual reality will never surpass actually visiting places.

Thus, we'll get orbital hotels first. The very first orbital hotels will be zero-gee "camps," but that will get old quick. The first celebrity who comes down from one and tell space-sick stories on a talk show will drive a move for spun stations, a la Von Braun. Actually, the fractional gravity of the sleeping / eating areas will be an additional selling point.

These orbital hotels and the infrastructure to get there will lead to (relatively) low-cost Lunar access. Taking an Earth-to-orbit capsule and modifying it to go to the Moon is fairly straight-forward. (Earth to Mars, not so much.) That will lead to Lunar hotels and research bases, a la Antarctica.

Well after we get those bases, we'll see Lunar mining. By then, the basic research needed to support life on the Moon will be in place, although I expect the Lunar mines to be mostly remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) driven from Earth, with a small human repair crew. The driver for Lunar mines will be second-order economics, or the NIMBY phenomenon.

Basically, mining, a dirty, dangerous and environmentally-challenged industry, will find itself being regulated and lawsuit-ed off of Earth. Once mining starts to move off of Earth, all sorts of mining operations, such as water for the Moon or metals to build space structures, become viable. A positive feedback cycle starts.

But at the beginning of it all, tourism is the driver. And the first tourism is orbital, which means cheap(er) orbital access.

Previous entries: Part 1, Part 2, whole series.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Based on the analysis of Part 1 and Part 2 of colonial economics, a simple factor emerges: if it is cheaper to ship supplies in than to obtain them locally, the supplies are shipped in.

Yeah, I know that sounds about as profound as "water is wet" but when looking at Antarctic bases or oil rigs, we tend to get distracted by the glamour. But it's an important point, because, unlike here on Earth, there is only one way to ship stuff - via spaceship - and that way is at least as expensive as air freight. And as I think I've demonstrated, commercial businesses AND scientific researchers are allergic to air freight. Or their accounting departments are, which is the same thing.

Grow Houses

So, once the decision is made to put humans on site, there are strong incentives to be as self-reliant as possible. For say, a moon colony, or an orbital tourist hotel, that means recycling air and water. One of the ways to do that is have a small garden. This doesn't have to be a massive, self-sustaining ecosystem. Think more like a grow house, at first optimized to generate oxygen. Although, if you visit the link, you'll note that greenhouses can be helpful in recycling water - the plants respire water, which normally has to be extracted by dehumidifiers.

Actually, putting "closed growing environment" in your Google will produce all kinds of useful articles, like this perfectly Safe For Work article on closed-cycle hydroponics. For our purposes, note the discussion about water consumption. But if you're going to grow something, it might as well be useful. And unless you can sell $100 salads (or even if you can) high-water, low-bulk produce is first on your list to grow. Or other leafy plants. (Sorry, the idea of "Stoners In Spaaaace!" just flashed in my brain.)

Ah, moving on, one will note that, in the first colonies, the grow house is not a primary, or at least not the only, source of oxygen. It's a supplement, and backups are available. But the experience in running grow houses allows one to develop the experience to make them bigger more useful and more reliable.

But running a grow house has a cost - labor. Also, the more one relies on locally-grown food, the more cooks are needed. It's the difference from opening a can of spaghetti sauce versus making your own sauce from fresh tomatoes. From the point of view of space colonization proponents, this is a good thing. Running a grow house or working in a kitchen is not that technical a job, which means that a spouse of a technical worker might be persuaded to tag along.

Failed Colonies

Any discussion of human colonization isn't complete until somebody points out a failed colony, like Jonestown or the much earlier Roanoke Colony. Yeah, well, colonies will fail. It's sad, and I hope you and yours aren't involved in a failed colony, but failure happens. Some of the failures, like Roanoke, will be a mystery, others, like Jonestown, will be an opportunity to learn from. At any rate, saying we can't colonize space because some colonies fail is like saying we can't have powered flight because some planes crash.

For Monday, Part 4 - Gerrib's vision of the future, or Yes, Virginia, the Gobi Desert has tourists. (Whole series here)
chris_gerrib: (Default)
So, in Part 1 of my continuing saga on Space Colonization, I talked about the economics of Antarctic "colonization." Basically, once the research to be done reaches a certain level, setting up a base, as opposed to flying in and out, makes sense.

Today I'll talk about oil rigs and colonies on the ocean floor. Actually, let's get the ocean floor out of the way first. We'll have sea-bed colonies after space colonies. Simply put, it's easier to keep a modest pressure in then to keep a massive pressure out. On Mars or the Moon, taking an inflatable building and covering it with local dirt is a perfectly viable construction technique. You can't do that on the ocean floor - at a certain (fairly shallow) depth, the amount of oxygen in the air needed to keep the building inflated is toxic to humans.

But that's not a problem, because we do have oceanic colonies - they are called "oil rigs." After all, the business end of the oil rig isn't at the ocean surface, it's at the sea floor. So, economic things to note about oil rigs:

1) They run short shifts - usually two weeks on, two weeks off. This is because travel time to and from is measured in hours via helicopter.

2) Again, they do live off of the land - nobody ships water to them, they make their own.

3) Being close to the work matters. Even though work at the bottom is done by remote vehicle, logistical support for the vehicle and time lag for the operator means that the human behind the screen needs to be close.

4) Oil rigs also bake their own bread. It's cheaper to ship flour via boat and hire a person to bake on 3rd shift than it is to have more frequent runs and bring in fresh bread.

What the observant reader should note is that shipping costs matter. They should also note that ocean shipping is cheaper than air freight. What's not clear is how much cheaper.

My dad, in his working days (he retired a couple of years ago) had call to air-freight aluminum castings from China to the US. The cost? $2 a pound. I recently had call to ship medical supplies to Zambia. The shipping company never asked how much my shipment weighed. They asked how much volume of stuff I had. I could have shipped as much as 56,000 pounds for $3150.

That's $0.0625 per pound. That's two orders of magnitude cheaper than air freight.

Yet even at six cents a pound, it's cheaper to hire a guy to bake bread than ship it to an oil rig. Part three - what this tells us about how self-sufficient any manned colony would have to be, and the (unfortunate) importance of failure. Part four will be my vision of how we get "true" colonies in our solar system. (whole series)
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So, Charles Stross has blogged extensively about how space colonization is not economically viable with foreseeable current technology. He makes a number of arguments, one of which is "call me when people colonize the Gobi Desert."

Well, people did colonize the Gobi - we call them "Mongolians." The immediate comeback to this is oil rigs, Antarctica, and the ocean floor. In other words, we might have spartan, not-even-close to self-sustaining outposts in space, but not "colonies." I submit that an understanding of the economics of those environments will produce useful (and not-obvious) results.

Let's talk Antarctica first, and a later post will address oil rigs and the ocean floor. We have colonized Antarctica with research bases. People don't live there permanently, but per the British Antarctic Survey, shifts are from 2 to 33 months long. What does this tell us?

1) Travel time to and from station drives the "colonize" vs. "visit" decision. With travel times of weeks via ship, setting up permanent bases and flying people in made sense.

2) Travel time also drives minimum shift times in a rotation. It would take the better part of a week to fly somebody from Great Britain to Antarctica via any commercial route. With that travel time, 2 months is probably the minimal amount of time you want somebody to be there.

Other useful facts about Antarctic "colonization."

3) Everybody maintains at least one base on the coast, accessible by sea. Bulk goods, such as fuel and food, have to come by sea, not air. In short, shipping costs matter.

4) Nobody ships water to Antarctica. In that regard, the colonists live off the land.

Tomorrow, oil rigs and ocean-floor colonization. Part 3, Grow houses Friday Monday, in part 4, I'll try to tie this together in a unified theory of colonization. (whole series, including part 5)


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