Daily Archives: August 26th, 2010

Is Space Colonization Still Just Fantasy?

Space colonization has been a theme (or meme?) in literature for over 150 years, probably thousands of years earlier than that really (Book of Enoch). Anyway, humans have dreamed of traveling to alien worlds in the heavens for a very long time, it isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Dr. Stephen Hawking is only one voice among many lately who has advocated colonizing planets in the solar system. Discovery of extra-solar planets over the past 20 years and recently of a solar system closely resembling ours that is 127 light-years away is piquing public interest in the mainstream about space travel and how we can study such things.

However, there are voices of dissension in the ranks, and from sources one wouldn’t expect any at all.

Especially from a science-fiction writer:

Renowned science-fiction writer, Charlie Stross, argued last week in his High Frontier Redux blog that space colonization is not in our future, not because it’s impossible, but because to do so effectively you need either outrageous amounts of cheap energy, highly efficient robot probes, or “a magic wand.”

“I’m going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn’t unfamiliar,” Stross opens his post, “domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O’Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore.”

“The obstacles facing us are immense distance and time -the scale factor involved in space travel is strongly counter-intuitive.”

Stross adds that “Planets that are already habitable insofar as they orbit inside the habitable zone of their star, possess free oxygen in their atmosphere, and have a mass, surface gravity and escape velocity that are not too forbidding, are likely to be somewhat rarer. (And if there is free oxygen in the atmosphere on a planet, that implies something else — the presence of pre-existing photosynthetic life, a carbon cycle, and a bunch of other stuff that could well unleash a big can of whoop-ass on an unprimed human immune system.”

Stross sums up by saying that while “I won’t rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic that, interstellar travel for human beings even in the comfort of our own Solar System is near-as-dammit a non-starter.”

Stross’s blog  received over 450 comments as of this writing. The most prescient follows:

“First, Stross’s analysis fails to take into account future civilization types; I get the sense that he takes a normative view of today’s technological and economic realities and projects them into the future. This is surprising, not only because he’s an outstanding science fiction visionary, but also because he’s a transhumanist who has a very good grasp on what awaits humanity in the future. Specifically, he should be taking into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we’re talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system.

“Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs (which is how the term ‘cyborg’ came to exist in the first place).”

I find this curious that a writer with ‘gravitas’ like Stross takes such a dim and extremely conservative view about space colonization, because some of his books address the issue. And they give no indication of such an opinion.


Maybe he just separates the ‘real’ world from his work, like millions of other folk all over the world?

Walk along now, nothing to see here.

Well anyway, it just goes to show that when you think that you have the world figured out, it goes and proves you don’t.

Especially when folks like Hawking and Stross throw curve balls at you!

Stephen Hawking on Space Colonization – The Human Future or SciFi Fantasy?

hat tip