Generation Ships – John Carlton
Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book recently apparently to show that interstellar travel is impossible. He expresses his point of view in this post.
And this one.
As far as Mr. Robinson is concerned, once the solar system is filled up that’s it, game over. Only one earth, one solar system, that’s all there is. It’s not possible to travel between the stars and even if we could, the missions would all fail. Of course he also believes that utopia is possible as some sort of Socialist paradise. Now that’s a fantasy.
David Brin has some rejoinders here.
As does Stephen Baxter.
And Gregory Benford.
As an engineer, I think that Mr. Robinson is clearly wrong. Or at least, he doesn’t understand the basic rules for setting mission parameters and designing to meet those parameters. Mr. Robison’s vessel failed because he wanted it to fail. But to extend that to saying that ALL such proposals would fail is more than a little egotistical. And wrong, really wrong.
Now I haven’t as yet read the book. Reading Greg Benford’s review left me going WTF, WTF, WTF, are you kidding? If you are going to write a book on pioneering could you at least set it up so that the pioneers are at least a little realistic. A ship without a captain or seemingly a crew? No community structure? What was it, a commune in space? Of course something like that is going to fail. That’s what happens to fragile structure and the commune is the most fragile of all. Just look at all the failed examples in the 19th Century. So that’s fail #1.
Then we get to the system and apparently the crew has forgotten the idea of pathogen protocols. And they all go down to the planet. Why? When you have the capability to build starfaring craft, planets suck. they have those nasty deep gravity wells and keep all their good stuff in their centers where it’s tough to get to. This is a spacefaring society. Why would they care about planets at all, at least in the beginning? Fail #2.
Then there’s the ship itself. I kept asking myself why it was so fragile and so small. Here’s how Greg Benford describes it.
Aurora depicts a starship on a long voyage to Tau Ceti four centuries from now. It is shaped like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity. The biomes along their rims support many Earthly lifezones which need constant tending to be stable. They’re voyaging to Tau Ceti, so the ship’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn, which takes place on a world orbiting Tau Ceti named Aurora. Arrival at the Earthlike moon of a super-Earth primary brings celebration, exploration, and we see just how complex an interstellar expedition four centuries from now can be, in both technology and society.
First of all, why the biomes? Doesn’t that add complexity that may not be necessary? Also why the wheel on axle design with such large wheels? Why add complexity where you don’t need it? When your vehicle is expected to be under thrust you want the mass as close to the center axis as possible so that you avoid dynamic stability issues. And having all that extra surface area just makes radiation shielding more difficult. Fail #3 and out.
Now it’s obvious from the way Mr. Robinson is presenting the story that the ship and it’s culture were set up to fail. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to make his point. But does that mean that a ship couldn’t be designed to succeed? Of course not.
Now one of the most interesting SF books of the 1980’s was this one, to me anyway.
It’s interesting because it was written by a Senior Boeing system engineer. And the story is mostly about how the engineering process works written in an entertaining manner. While it wasn’t Hugo material, at least the writer knew what he was doing. I learned a lot from Callin’s book on how to make a mission a success.
See, a while back , way back in the late 1980’s the National Space Society ran a contest on designing a space habitat. I entered. At that time my wall had been covered with space colony posters for years and I had been collecting space books and whatnot for years. And I had just graduated from college and did not yet have a job and I wanted a design project as a portfolio.
So away I went. Back then, doing the homework was harder because you couldn’t just go online and find stuff because the internet wasn’t available to everybody. Still, UB, my college and the local library had a bunch of stuff and I was able to come up with some design numbers. I’ve since lost the design sheets in one move or another, so I no longer have the exact numbers and the only drawings printed at full scale were sent off with the contest entry so I don’t have any pictures to show and the files themselves are long gone several hard drive crashes ago.
Still I do remember a few things about the project. Being able to calculate how much volume each person needed and what the requirements for hydroponics were going to be. Some numbers were fuzzier, like air recycling, but I worked out most of that for my colony size of 65,000 or so, which would make good size for a generation ship. I did make some guesses like how much gravity is “enough.” I think I went for 1/6 g but it might have been 1/3, which made the habitat space more compact.
If I were to approach such a design project again I would have much harder numbers for a lot of it simply because we have so much more experience in space. A lot of numbers that were vapor in 1988 are solidified by experience now. And that’s going to continue. I’m frankly surprised that Robinson had trouble finding hard data, because I know that I didn’t and doing research is so much easier now with so much online.
Of course, the reason his spacecraft failed in the end was not the ship itself. It was the society that Robinson had build the ship. From what I can see from Robinson’s posts, the reason that humans can’t go to the stars is because the Socialism he likes so much can’t handle pioneering and he’s right, Socialism and pioneering just don’t work. but then neither does Socialism and anything else work, except as bloody messes.
The fact is that the first colonies on the Northern american continent did fail, for the same reasons that Mr. Robinson’s mission failed. Too much Socialist idealism and not nenough hard practicality. But it’s the ability to be free enough to make your own decisions and get rewarded for those decisions that makes pioneering antifragile.
I come from a family with a long pioneering history. MY family came across the pond, not to a bustling NewYork in the late 19th or early 20th Century, but to a Massachusetts where Boston didn’t even exist yet. I think that we probably paid for the first farm in Roxbury with arrow points and tools. Yet my ancestor persevered and thrived, because that is what pioneers do.
Real pioneers don’t fail because failure is not an option and incompetence is something that can’t be tolerated. They do the work that needs to get done because they are working to make a better place for the next generation, not themselves. We as a culture have suppressed the pioneer spirit in the last few decades and maybe that’s a mistake. Because pioneers desire and understand liberty and the alternative is tyranny.
Here’s a bunch of links to get the pioneer spirit started. Sorry, Mr. Robinson, our carracks to the stars will not fail because the pioneer spirits in them, will not let them fail. Look if my ancestors can cross the North Atlantic in a tiny leaky little boat, can I say anything less?