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Designing a Generation Ship
Alex Steffen, 6 Jan 10

Charlie Stross has a brilliant post up on his blog, taking up the question of how best to design the institutions to run "generation ships" -- spacecraft designed to take large numbers of people a very long distance.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that's the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it's twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they're all almost unrecognizably different.

Consumer capitalism along our current model simply won't work as a way of running a long-duration generation ship (the failure modes are lethal and non-recoverable). Communism (or rather, Leninism) has a slightly better prospect, but is still a long way from optimal. Monarchism is just a pretty word for "hereditary dictatorship supported by military caste". What are the alternatives? And what do we need to consider when designing a society that can survive for a 500-1000 year voyage in a bottle without exploding?

I'm skeptical of the possibility of deep space exploration and colonization anytime in the next couple centuries, but this is a pretty great gedanken experiment. The comments are pretty phenomenal as well.

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Comments

Is this a metaphor? Shouldn't we figure out how to live on "spaceship Earth" first?

If not, he's starting off wrong by confusing an organic society with a machine. You can't design something to last 1000 years that is inherently unpredictable and constantly changing. And lets not get started on the economics and logistics of the endeavor...


Posted by: Scott on 7 Jan 10

i am really inspired by what author has written in his blog


Posted by: Ruchika Singh on 7 Jan 10

We ought to concentrate on sending a stream of probes first, probes that are connected to earth by relaying information from the leading probe back and commands back from earth through the train of probes to the front. Energy could be sent in a laser beam powered by a satelite using solar energy to accelerate and power the probes.

By using molecular engineering probes that have enough computing power to run specialized telescopes looking forward would in effect extend the internet out into space/time. These probes could also be robust enough, due to molecular scale engineering, to use the slingshot effect around the sun or one of the more massive planets to start out at very high speed. Light energy sails could then deploy to collect the laser light following the stream for energy and propulsion. The sail could concentrate the laser light to power solar PV cells.

The signals back and forth along the stream of probes could be sent by reflecting the laser energy with a mirror system that inserts the digital information stream by varying the relectivity.

After a few decades our knowledge of where we are trying to go would increase exponentially due to the telescopes on the probes. And if one or more of the probes failed, the others would maintain their connection and mission. Sure their would be a bigger and bigger time lag as the probes stream went further into space/time, but that could be dealt with through careful planning.

Unlike a colony, these probes could accelerate to higher percentages of light speed, as the decades went by signals to and from the front probes would take years, then decades. But why send a slow colony out without all the information we can get first? In fact the colony spacecraft could alter its course depending on probe information. It could even be inititally designed to have it's own probe factories and deploy the probe stream ahead of it.

Now as far as cultural, political, and economic factors, we ought to establish ocean city states to explore how this is going to work. Island nations about to be inundated by ocean level rise due to GHG climate change should be approached by a group organized on the internet to build a virtual city state first, then these island nations could become the legal armature for the floating city states.

Start now online with future citizens as virtual ciotizens of a virtual city styate designed as an artificial atol. A ring wave generator/breakwater around a lagoon, with a floating island inside. I would design it to emulate a natural atoll/island, that's my personal artistioc prefference.

The ring and island would be built with fiber cement hollow cells assembled together, covered with sand, earth, and nastural vegetation. The island a hollow structure extending above and below ocean level with homes, factories, and stores occupying the space much like a modern skyscraper.

Except that the final shape would emulate an island with a fjord going down the middle. Homes would front on the fjors cliff and have openings out onto the slopes of the island. I envision a volcanic like rise from the beach level and an iceberg like structure underwater. That would give plenty of internal space.

Aquaculture would be possible in the lagoon and under and around the island. Transportation by boat could come into the lagoon and then into the fjord feature through the middle of the island.

Anyway, this is a step humanity needs to go through to test exactly how intentional city states that could graduate to travel through space could be developed. Another argument for this step is that it would allow for the development of submersible colonies in case of a catastrophic asteroid strike on earth.

The only way a trace of humanity might continue would be to submerge under the ocean as it's surface boils away, then just hope it stops in time for colonies to survive by submerging into deep ocean trenches as the evaporation continues.

I think these are the directions we need to go in as a civilization to try and survive long enough to travel in space. The Drake Equation indicates a path like this would be necessary for interstellar civilizations to exist. Statistically on the long scale of time/space we are a brief blink so far. We better get proactive very quickly if we expect our fragile life form to survive the titanic forces of the universe.


Posted by: amazingdrx on 24 Jan 10

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Posted by: Hotels in Muenster on 30 Mar 10

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