Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Space Colonies Study Project meeting

On Saturday I attended the first of a series of meetings at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society in Vauxhall, London for the new study project on space colonization.  It was great to meet some of the others in the project especially after the skype discussions.  We talked about a lot of different aspects of the colonization of space (along with a whole lot of other things) and we made a great deal of progress.

The meeting was chaired by the leader of the project, space advocate Jerry Stone.  Jerry was particularly excited about the then forthcoming launch of MAVEN, the latest NASA mission to Mars.  As we know, the launch went well and so at last Jerry really can call himself an interplanetary poet as his haiku about Mars as a destination for human exploration is on its way!

We talked about companies and other organisations we could contact to see if they have any interest in supporting or being involved in the project and this is an early goal for the project to look into.

The differing use of plant life on board the colony was looked at and its differing roles in not only providing sustenance but also the psychological well being of the colonists.  A broad selection for biodiversity was considered but initially fast growing species such as pine and fir trees might be used to ensure an ecosystem could get hold.  We decided it would be useful to discuss these points with ecologists and the use of modelling ecosystems in the colony in simulations was discussed.

It was noted that it could be difficult to produce plastics in a space colony and the use of carbonaceous asteroids or plants as a source or substitute was considered.  It might be useful to look at Deep Space Industries or Planetary Resources and if they are doing any work in this field. 

One of the themes of the day to me was the goal of the colonization of space and its importance. The group concluded that the settlement of space by human civilization was an end in itself especially as it is virtually to be certain to be accompanied by an array of other life from Earth.  The aim was to develop the solar system as an area for human habitation. This was taken as a given and the utility of space colonization in achieving other, hopefully profit bearing, activities was looked at as a way of initiating such a project.

Early on, one such idea put forward was the use of a space colony as a venue for experimental synthetic biology.  Synthetic biology, it was suggested, is a growth industry for the twenty first century yet at the same time, there are many alarmed by the possible dangers it presents.  An area within a space colony could be an ideal experimental arena for this industry with the possibility of it being totally isolated. 

The author at BIS headquarters
The possible need to add nutrients to the lunar soil used in the colony’s construction as soil for growing was discussed and also the need for possible extraction of any toxins.  The lack of good experimental data on the coriolis effect and implications it might have for colonists was noted.

We also examined the general modes of construction of a space colony and the need for the worker’s habitats to be built first of all.  The potential use of foam concrete and foam metal was looked at in the construction of the of the colony.  The use of a mass driver to propel construction material from the moon to L5, the site of the colony, was also discussed and concerns were raised about how accurate one would be.  An alternative of moving an asteroid in to position first of all was suggested.

The Robonaut on the International Space Station was referred to in our discussion of the colony’s construction and also in the context of the building of Space Solar Power Satellites. The generation of solar power from space using satellites was another of the primary uses put forward for a space colony.  Here, satellites constructed by workers from the colony would beam solar power down to Earth for a price.  The group considered that whilst robotics and automation had greatly increased in sophistication since the original studies from the seventies, it was not yet at the stage of a general “construction droid” although there was nothing to suggest this might not be possible in the future.  Such droids might work in a group or swarm.

The generation of energy using solar power from space has always been the main practical aim given for the initial settlement of space and the group felt more should be done to communicate this idea to the public. 

We then discussed the possible government and administration of a space colony and ideas included a full, digitally based democracy.  I gave the group a short presentation on the legal aspects of space colonies and in particular the use of extraterrestrial resources such as lunar material.  A discussion of the Moon Treaty from 1979 in particular lead to concerns that whilst the treaty had not been given sufficient standing by the international community it might still be used to challenge attempts by governments or organisations seeking to exploit lunar or asteroid resources.

It was a great day with a real sense of achievement and I am looking forward to further meet ups as the project continues.  We were even treated to some tasty treats including a cake decorated with the project’s logo!

The study project's logo bearing cake, courtesy of Jerry

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

2081 - A review of the book by Dr Gerard O'Neill

by Adam Manning

I’ve long been an admirer of Dr O’Neill’s classic on space colonization, The High Frontier.  As a result I was excited to order a copy of a lesser known book of his entitled 2081 which, as the name suggests, is a description of a possible future set in that year.  Written in 1981, it’s interesting to note not only the future world he describes but also, given that we are now over thirty years on from his start date, to reflect on the changes since it was written and how his future projection fares as a consequence.

The first part of the book contains an overview of prior futurist writing including the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne so as to consider how accurate previous predictions have turned out.  These inform Dr O’Neill’s futurism as he takes note of the way previous writers were successful or not in projecting what might happen. 

We are then launched into a wide ranging exploration of the world of 2081.  In The High Frontier at various points Dr O’Neill adds colour to his writing by using the figure of a couple of new immigrants to the space colony to help flesh out his description.  He uses this technique to an even greater degree in what is a vivid account of life towards the end of the twenty-first century.

Surprisingly not much space is spent on describing the space colonies for which Dr O’Neill is often remembered now. The narrative concerns a visitor from a space colony travelling to Earth. Dr O’Neill focuses mostly on practical matters, such as detailing how the various transport systems function.  Sub-orbital travel to quickly move around the surface of Earth is common.  The people in the pleasant, domed American settlement the visitor initially spends a lot of time in generally use self-driving cars to get around town. 

One of the most striking concepts of the future from our time involves that of the Singularity, that is a rate of technological change so accelerated that it is impossible for us to really understand what might be on the other side.  Computer technology has undoubtedly permeated industrial society by even 2013 let alone 2081 to a much greater degree than even Dr O’Neill seems to have predicted.  He briefly sketches the use of laptop computers in 2081 and digital cameras able to store a whole one hundred photos.  Yet not even he could grasp how ubiquitous and constantly engaged computer technology and specifically the internet would become over the next thirty years, to say nothing of the seventy years beyond that.

I wondered whilst reading this book whether we had in a practical sense gone through a technological singularity already over the last thirty or forty years. Whilst not perhaps the total break with our current world set out by transhumanists, there can be no doubt that the current power of computers was not fully envisaged at the time 2081 was written.

In Dr O’Neill’s 2081, only an educated elite seem to need or be able to work. Much of the population that is unable to acquire the advanced technological skills needed to work cannot be employed and instead seem content to live in the background on public benefits.  Fortunately for the purposes of his narrative, the space colony’s visitor to Earth spends time with a successful middle class family and enjoys their high standard of living.  Only shopping as a cultural delight, the bulk of their consumables are purchased via online commerce. 

The one very futuristic element in the North American setting is that old science fiction stand by, the humanoid robot.  He is a butler, kitchen maid and all round helper with a face that reminds the visitor of a panda. 

Dr O’Neill doesn’t seem concerned with the politics, philosophy or religious beliefs of the people of Earth in 2081 and his primary mission is to describe the technology they use to lead their comfortable lives.  The space colonies provide much of Earth’s huge energy needs. Yet the expansion of humanity into space has seemingly not worked any major changes into the outlook or beliefs of Earth’s inhabitants – they simply lead easier and more enjoyable lives.

One of the chief concerns we have when we think of the future is global warming. In 1981 this was already considered a problem and we might be generous to Dr O’Neill and consider that given the knowledge at that time, he is remarkably astute to mention it as much as he does.  Fortunately one of the themes of technological changes to 2081 is ensuring it is more benign to the environment. The environment, Dr O’Neill notes, is going to be a major movement and locus of change in the future. Let us hope he is right.

After a cross country holiday, our visitor to Earth then goes on a world tour. Great Britain and Europe more broadly fare well in the world of 2081 although the Soviet Union is still limping on, albeit with much of its communism muted by de facto capitalism.  Africa fares worst in his future.  Whilst Dr O’Neill decides that all out World War 3, a possibility to be sure, doesn’t actually happen by 2081 the international scene is still acutely dangerous. In passing, we are told that some African capital cities have been destroyed through the use of strategic nuclear weapons by terrorists.  Alarmingly, the narrator only narrowly misses being destroyed in a nuclear bazooka attack on an airport terminal in Africa that kills 4,000.  Dr O’Neill’s concern is that nuclear terrorism may come to be a catastrophic danger.

He travels through Asia and spends time in Japan, the most advanced technological nation in the world where the humanoid robots so precious in America are a common place.  For all their advanced society and enormous wealth, the Japanese are desperately paranoid about the risk of nuclear terrorism.

What is striking about this vision is that the people of 2081 are not quite as exposed to the incessant digital information flow that we already are in 2013 yet their world has been transformed by a greater, more encompassing change in the use of technology. In Dr O’Neill’s world it has been used to enhance people’s lives to give them ease and comfort.  No longer the fossil fuel based polluting society of today, by 2081 the use of space solar power has altered things for the better.  It is a hopeful vision in which not only has life expanded out into the solar system but has somehow struggled to provide the possibility of a benign existence on our precious Earth.