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No Country for Young Men

Richard Fernandez hits on something that bothers me about the mindset of the country: No Country for Young Men

The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen…

And in consequence the future, rather than beckoning to us, envelops us like a shroud. America which was famous for optimism, has sold its birthright for a mess of Obamacare and Obamaphones, like an old couple that have given up sweeping and tending a house that grew too big now that the kids have left.

It overstates a bit the part about us not wanting to go to the planets any more, given the number of robotic exploration missions in progress and planned for the next 5-10 years.

What bothers me is that he may well be right about our desire as a nation to settle space. Sure, we have people like Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos routing around the traditional (ie: old) model of manned space being the province of civil agencies and military bodies. But while there is plenty of interest and enthusiasm in industry and advocacy/activism circles for what they’re doing, I don’t get the sense that there is any sort of broader interest in or optimism for the long-term goals that these new players could enable – namely, space settlement.

Instead, the old conflict between robots and humans is cited, as if “exploration” were the sole reason for the existence of everything beyond Earth – look at it, take samples perhaps, but don’t otherwise touch it. “Robots can do a better job exploring.” “Robots are cheaper to send out to do exploration.” “Robots are less risky.” But robots aren’t humans and thus can’t be settlers. The mindset Fernandez describes would seem to cover this – the “geriatric culture”, as he puts it, would naturally prefer safety over risks, and that which fits in their fixed-income budgets to a venture whose costs and benefits can only be guessed at in advance.

This mindset also helps explain the despicable attitude of people like Patrick Stewart who believe that humans should just stay home, sitting in the corner of the universe until they’ve thought about what they’ve done. The argument is that, because we’re so wicked and naughty as a species, we don’t deserve to travel to and settle other worlds – we should be grounded until we learn to behave better and clean up all our messes. What is this if not the thinking of a punitive parent or grandparent, aimed at putting wayward youth into its place?

As Fernandez hints, this is a cultural problem that leads us towards stagnation and decline while others (whose motives and philosophies may be anathema to our own) fill the gap. If we as a nation choose living in the constrained present instead of looking ahead to (and working to fashion) an expanding future, it doesn’t mean others will feel compelled to do the same. It just means we get left behind.

How Many People Does It Take to Colonize Another Star System?

Popular Mechanics asks the question, but doesn’t look too deeply for alternative answers.

It’s a pretty interesting study, just looking at the different sizes of possible “classic” generation-ship missions and how to both ensure survivability (against unexpected problems en-route) and maintain genetic diversity (necessary for adaptability to unknown conditions en-route and at the destination). Small starting populations, obviously, aren’t as robust and end up significantly less diverse – the threshold seems to be around 10,000, and the ideal is around 40,000.

Which, hey, if you’re able to send a generation ship at all, making one carry 40,000 (or as suggested, several ships each carrying part of the whole for better redundancy) is probably the least of your problems.

Of course, there is a way to make it work with a much smaller crew and still have all the genetic diversity you could ever need: frozen embryos. Or perhaps, by the time such a mission became feasible, genomes stored as data and “reconstituted”.

Given the number of times this has been used in science fiction, I’m a little surprised that they didn’t at least mention it as alternative fix (even if it was not part of the study).

Elon Musk On Colonizing Mars

Not sure what he says in this clip because watching interview videos makes my skin crawl, but I’m sure it’s something interesting:

Elon Musk On Colonizing Mars

On the other hand, the blurb alone on this one made me chuckle:

Here’s How Elon Musk Can Tell If Job Applicants Are Lying About Their Experience

Mars (One) Needs Women!

Yes, of course it will need men as well, but for any viable permanent colony women of child-bearing age will be required. Which is why it’s interesting and positive that there are quite a few Mars One Applicants from that particular demographic.

Now, whether or not they’re qualified is another matter. I’d easily circular-file half the applicants from their text blurbs alone (as I would with the male applicants of the same age range), as they indicate a complete lack of understanding of what education and skills building and living in a Martian settlement might require of them (or indicate personality attributes which could cause problems in the social environment of a settlement).

On the other hand, it’s hard to tell from the information provided whether or not someone would be qualified as a settler. The real purpose of posting these videos is not related to candidate selection, anyway, but rather a means of generating public interest in Mars One through direct public involvement. They are, however, an interesting insight into what a slice of the public believes space settlement involves.

NASA Space Colonization From 1975

They believe the huge space colony could be built before the year 2000.

 

Yeah, if you could build that space colony already, that would be great.

 

It’s 2013, Where Are Our Space Colonies?

From Gizmodo:

Back in the 1970s, a handful of artists drew up intricate renderings of said mind-bending super space stations for NASA. They make the International Space Station look like a flying tin can—which is essentially what it is. In these concepts, the space stations are big enough not only to support suburban-looking neighborhoods with houses and blonde-haired dudes in polo shirts but also entire farms with livestock and everything.

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I hope that in my lifetime space colonies will become a reality. Like Carl Sagan once said to future space settlers, “Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there – the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

Mars on Iceland, v2.0

Thanks to a cheap promotional airfare and some friends willing to go on a weekend trip to the Arctic north, in the winter, on a lark, I now know what Iceland looks like in the dark.

Something like this…

Midnight at the Mars Colony

…which reminded me of the agricultural bubbles at the Green in In the Shadow of Ares.

In fact, they’re a set of agricultural greenhouses in the town of Hveragerði, and despite their size are each about a tenth as wide and about 1/15th as long as their fictional counterparts.

CLARIFICATION: No, we did not actually go to Iceland on a lark. We used an airplane.

 

Deferred Dreams of Mars

A not particularly revelatory look at NASA’s ever-deferred humans-to-Mars efforts: The Deferred Dreams of Mars

Still worth a read, even if it is mostly a recitation of the conventional wisdom on the topic – not to be harsh on Brian Bergstein, it’s just that there’s nothing really new in what he has written. Apart from references to SpaceX as a synechdoche for the emerging private space industry, the substance of the article is little different from Bob Zubrin’s complaints about NASA’s lack of vision for Mars from 1996.

Funny, though, that there’s no mention of SLS in the article, but he does (in the SpaceX paragraph) repeat the conventional assumption that ginormous rockets would be required for manned missions to Mars. There is also no serious discussion of Mars settlement, only sortie missions, which I have to suspect comes from Bergstein interviewing mainly NASA employees.

Indian Migrations and Space Settlement

I’m doing some reading in Indian history as part of my research for the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares. In John Keay’s India: A History, I came across this interesting passage in his discussion of the ‘epic age’ of the Mahabharata and Ramayana:

As for the retreat into exile, the other central theme in both epics, this is taken to indicate the process by which clan society resolved its conflicts and at the same time encroached ever deeper into the subcontinent. Eventually population pressures on land and other resources would encourage greater social specialisation and he assertion of a central authority, two of the prerequisites of a state. But during the first centuries of the first millennium BC, these same pressures seem merely to have encouraged a traditional solution whereby clans segmented and split away to explore new territories. [emphasis added]

In the context of the chapter, he is taking a common thread of the two epics (the exile in the wilderness of their respective protagonists) as a hint as to how the ?r?an colonists gradually spread to the east and south from the Indus Valley.

What struck me as interesting is that much the same thing could happen with space settlement, especially given some TBD mode of practical interstellar travel.

In the near term (say, the next 100 years), if efforts to commercialize space access pan out and we begin building colonies in space, on the Moon, and on Mars, we will have established a new “wilderness” in the sense Keay describes elsewhere in the chapter: an untamed space where danger may lurk away from the safety of established civilization, but where the freedom exists to build afresh. The process of settlement and ongoing development will due to resource and labor shortages limit the degree to which a central authority can be asserted, providing a breathing space for innovation between the continuously expanding frontier and the expanding boundary of civilization trailing behind it. Political or social conflicts unresolvable in the civilized regions can be defused through one or another party choosing to escape to the freedom of this breathing space or the wilderness beyond, thereby pushing the frontier further outward — versus being kept bottled up in a finite arena where the intractability of the disagreements and the inescapable proximity of the conflicting parties can foster discontent, unrest, and violence lasting generations.

In practice, this might mean expanding to lunar colonies as near-Earth orbital habitats become too regulated or restricted by Earth governments or international treaties. On the Moon, disaffected individuals or groups frustrated with their circumstances in an existing settlement might decide to start their own settlements on or beyond the fringes of areas already settled or explored. As the lunar frontier ‘closes’ due to Keay’s “social specialization and assertion of central authority”, similarly frustrated settlers might decide to try their fortunes on the martian frontier, then among the asteroids, and so on through increasingly less-desirable properties.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened already, in our own history. The story of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims, the Mormon migrations to Utah, and the “Go west, young man” ethos of the Old West were clearly manifestations of this same concept.

In the longer term, given some means of practical interstellar travel, this process of expansion-by-exile into the wilderness could happen on a vastly larger scale. If this turns out to be true, the ‘wilderness’ becomes effectively infinite.

Of course, this depends on a conservative view that we will continue to be recognizably human over such long time scales, as the development of new frontiers will likely result in an acceleration of technological innovation – including ‘transhuman’ technology like cognitive enhancements, targeted genetic improvements, or even ‘uploading’ into non-biological (or who knows, even non-physical) forms. What makes the expansion-by-exile concept useful for science fiction is that it can avoid the trap of having to tell a story from the difficult-to-conceive perspective of these transhumans by giving an author the choice among worlds on a spectrum of development — after all, given the Amish as a present-day example, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of those irreconcilable differences that might drive settlers into exile in the wilderness would concern the adoption of certain transhuman technologies, resulting in worlds (whether at the center or the periphery of civilization) whose inhabitants are still relatably human.

 

Promising Radiation-Exposure Treatments

This could certainly be useful in martian and lunar settlements, and perhaps moreso on the way to and from them – Researchers successfully treat previously lethal doses of radiation:

“The fact that this treatment can be administered up to a day after radiation exposure is so important,” said Millie Donlon, DARPA’s program manager for this effort. “This is because most of the existing treatments we have require they be administered within hours of exposure to potentially lethal radiation – something that might not always be possible in the confusion that would likely follow such an exposure event.”

The treatment – a combination of two readily-available and stockpileable pharmaceuticals – increases in mice the survival rate from a normally lethal dose to 80%, and there are indications it could be even more effective in humans. Note that it appears to treat only the immediate effects (“radiation sickness”) and there’s no mention of whether it reduces rates of long-term medical problems stemming from the exposure, such as cancers. Of course, one mustn’t be too greedy — I’m sure someone exposed to a lethal dose of radiation would consider the potential for cancer later in life an okay tradeoff to not dying a rapid and horrible death.

What might come of this discovery, if it does work as indicated?

  • Long-term space activities outside LEO (including transportation to and from deep space destinations) might be perceived as less risky if solar flares or other high-exposure events are less of a problem;
  • Spacecraft, stations, and surface facilities could be made simpler and lighter – if it’s accurate to consider this treatment as effectively raising the lethal dose (and again ignoring the long-term consequences in favor of short-term survival), structural countermeasures for extreme events don’t need to block quite as much radiation, and lighter or larger “storm cellars” become possible;
  • Nuclear power accidents become less hysteria-inducing (but then so might nuclear weapons use – c.f. Michael F. Flynn’s The Washer at the Ford)

Interesting.

Apparently, Resveratrol also has some anti-rad properties.


2012 Prometheus Award Finalist


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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

April 2014
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