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Thursday, 06 October 2011


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Back on topic.....Obviously images of the voyages will need to be recorded. How do you think they will do that, and if you want to hang one on your wall when you get back to Earth, how will that image be or 3D hologram kind of thing be displayed/printed.

"In terms of mere hardware, I know how to build a starship..."

So, Ctein, what kind of propulsion would you put in your starship:

Orion? RamScoop?

And more importantly, where would you go?

Two hundred years, probably. Three hundred years, most certainly.

Or we could be in the neo-dark ages at best or extinct at worst.

Call me a glass is half empty kind of guy, but I'd be willing to bet a lot more money on the dark ages than a starship...

Thanks for reporting out on this conference... I actually find it very interesting. And particularly interesting when juxtaposed to the article Mike wrote about the passing of Steve Jobs. Travel to stars systems will take the kind of creative visionary thinking that Jobs possessed.

When I first looked at the into I thought 'Wait! Both Pioneers have escaped the sun's gravity well...' Then I read on a bit...'OH...he means with people in them'

I think Voyager 1 is gone too. Of course none of them are aimed at where a star will be in a bunch of centuries so I don't suppose they count.

I considere myself a Junior Futurist and one of the issues I thought needed to be addressed is the human factors of the communication latency over long distances. We'll need to learn how to efficiently phrase questions knowing the answer won't arrive for 47 (or whatever) days. This problem will apply to communicating with machines as well as people.

Did that issue come up, by any chance?


Hmmmm. While all of this technically is about light years from my understanding, I do wonder "why"? Let's face it, none of the planets in our solar system could ever - in human time frames - offer more than a base for a few dozen humans. Humans travelling beyond our solar system is not a possibility. It's just too far. It would take many decades, and that's accepting unsurvivable g forces on acceleration. Several centuries if you don't want those g forces.

Working in the military / aerospace / science industry, I do however recognise an enormous opportunity to suck up millions of taxpayer money. Possibly billions. There's all manner of "interesting" research projects. Interesting, but ultimately not going anywhere.

So science and physics accepted, we're going nowhere. So why all of this hype? If we want to study Mars, send an unmanned vehicle. We already did that.

This is too far off topic. How far off? So far that starship travel is the only way to bridge the gap.

I would point out that only 65-odd years elapsed between the Wright Brothers first flight and the first landing on the moon. Perhaps we should be a trifle more optimistic about star travel.


Communications would be via quantum entanglement. Instantaneous.

Glad to read your point that the social aspect is the most difficult.

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years fascinated by high-energy physics. As the years piled on and I understood more about 'real life', I began to be disturbed by the often biting constraints that physicists in... um... not so profit-generating fields face. I came across the life stories of unemployed physicists and shuttered labs. And finally concluded that without understanding human societies and institutions, we would not ever get close to the full potential that human effort is capable of.

Am now a sophomore in sociology at the U of M. May this path be fruitful.

...and also. This seems to be a season of sad departures, and I'm not just talking about Steve Jobs. Let's observe a minute of silence in memory of the Tevatron.

Live long and prosper!


Dear Keith,

I don't have a preferred method; I think it's premature to think about that. But you can make it work with nuclear-thermal, EM-driven sail, fusion, antimatter. Ram scoop, though, doesn't seem possible. Thrust-to-drag ratio never seems to come out favorably. Last I read, anyway.

There was a track on destinations, chaired by Dr. Jill Tarter. It was one of the ones I had to skip, so I won't know what they discussed until the papers go online.


Dear John,

One of the papers I did hear, on project management, was titled “The 34 Year Starship” and it was about those JPL missions. The longest of which are approaching 50 years in duration. The conference did discuss both uncrewed probes and crewed vehicles as “starships.” General assumption is that you'd definitely be sending probes first, maybe lots and lots of them.


Dear Mike,

Yes, any mission, whether human or robotic, is going to have to have an extremely high degree of autonomy. Information flow on a continuous basis, both ways, is entirely reasonable. A question-and-answer session isn't.


Dear James,

"Why" is always a good question, and either you've got reasons or you don't. But your physical conclusion that it is impossible is simply wrong. No unacceptable G forces are involved. If you could boost at 1G the whole way (well, boost halfway, flip, and decelerate halfway) the subjective travel time to Alpha Centauri would be around 5 years. in fact, the relativistic time-distance equations for constant boost our hyperbolic functions; you can get just about anywhere in the universe in one human lifetime at 1G subjective.

Nobody is imagining anything remotely 1G that speedy in a 1st generation starship. Not even to A-C. It just costs way, way too much; the only ways we know how to do that would cost quadrillions of dollars. I'm not exaggerating. Simply not going to happen. Any real mission is going to take much longer than that. Possibly decades for probes (a laser driven probe that peaks at 0.3 C is almost affordable and takes about 20 years to get to A-C), likely centuries for people.

The vast majority of the people presenting economics and financial papers assumed that taxpayers would NOT be paying for it. Not out of any ideological bent, but they simply don't envision the world's governments putting the kind of sustained money into this to make it happen. So, realistically, those were not the economic models that were mostly considered.

What hype? I didn't see hype at the conference. I didn't present any hype here. Where are you reading hype?!


Dear Bill,

What, even more off-topic than PARROTS?!

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

You might like articles by John Michael Greer, e.g. An Elegy for the Age of Space and The Way the Future Wasn't.


"hype": sorry, a poor choice of word and phrasing, and most certainly not aimed at you or the conference. I refer to the sort of conversations that my industry (defence and aerospace) has with Government in order to get money out of them.

Re the g forces. I read that the nearest star with planets that "might" be habitable was 6 times further away than Alpha Centauri. Called Gliese 581, and Planet D is the most promising. Anyway, 20 light years away. One of the technologies we are going to have to master is shrinking the fuel, food and water stores for decades of supply into a volume and mass small enough to fit onto even a very large space ship.

Boy, what a subject! I completely agree that engineering the human and organizational aspects of the endeavor is the difficult part. The first step of course is answering why you would want such a mission to succeed in the first place. Only then can you go about organizing the necessary organizational structure to achieve it.

I can say why the US government chose to land several men on the moon. I can say why Columbus sailed to America. Unless there is a strong and compelling case for travelling to another star, no amount of "dreaming" will get an organization off the ground to do it.

Was there any lecture on why humans should take on this task?

So far the biggest steps in science in general and flight & space flight in particular have been made under a sense of urgency; WWI turned string-bags into aeroplanes, WWII shaved off excess wings and struts, and turned the power/weight ratio around. Getting to the moon was mostly driven by the urgent wish to beat the Russians/Americans.

Most people at this time think economics are a force of nature, but as far as I can see, economics is nothing like gravity or electromagnetic force; they are just a way to exchange stuff. Once the need gets urgent enough, economics are put on hold until the crisis has passed (see WWII economics).

Adding these two up means we don; t need a one, two or three century track. Just watch what happens when the first Voyeger-probe from another civilisation whizzes by, or the maiden speech of Hitler in Klingon is picked up by radio...

This is awesome. Thanks Ctein!

Hi Ctein,
Posts like this always put me in mind of "Rogue Ship" by AE van Vogt ;-).
I can't see us going anywhere unless we come up with a new propulsion system; Orion I suspect is hugely more complex than made out (We're going to launch a spaceship with thousands of atomic bombs on board...) ("Poject Orion" by George Dyson is worth a read), Deep Space 1 has potential with it's ion engine, I assume it is scalable to the size of ship you are discussing.
I can't see laser power working for more than short interplanetary distances; the lasers (admittedly small) that are fired at the moon reflectors left by Apollo missions only have a few photons getting back to Earth. There would also have to be an alternative fuel source onboard to decelerate at the destination.

Socially I suppose nuclear sub crews are the nearest we can get to what it would be like on a starship.

Voyager 1 is now a whole 16 light-hours from Earth, after 34 years.

best wishes phil

At one of my computer programming jobs, we had a saying that somewhat fits with this: "Most of this seems pretty straightforward, but it's that 'Go to moon. Get rock' step in the middle that worries me."

All the really interesting problems are things we haven't done before. To the point where we can't even begin to spell out the specifics. Rocket science itself, that's easy.

Robots are better suited for the traveling. Humans should have nothing to do with it. All you have to do is invent the genetic technology to hatch humans on arrival from a test tube. And a way for the robots to educate the humans as to their mission. Requires a power supply that lasts a couple dozen years to get to the nearest habitable planet, no social problems, no human problems for the entire trip, takes 1% of the resources... all u need is a plutonium power supply. Easy.

"All you have to do is invent the genetic technology to hatch humans on arrival from a test tube."

Jesus, THERE's a nightmare par excellence! Talk about kids who would blame their parents for everything that was wrong in their lives...that plan really seems to take "cruel and unusual" to a new level to me.


Hi Mike,

1) We may have no choice.
2) Your mindset is uniquely "western"... the Chinese would have no problem with this.
3) Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may mean the kids will never know they were raised by robots, they have nothing to judge their parents by. You can teach kids anything... invent a creation myth.
4) I would have preferred robots to my parents.

“The vast majority of the people presenting economics and financial papers assumed that taxpayers would NOT be paying for it.”

I don’t know which has less appeal: my government devoting tax revenues to building starships or Sinopec-HSBC-Lockheed Martin laying claim to planets.

Quantum entanglement communication plus robots, more fun than piloting drones. With shorter trip time and no humans on board, the sociological problems can be averted. Of course, "quantum entanglement communications" is another way of saying "Go to moon; get rock."

Dear James B.,

Time and magnitude are on your side. MadAve hasn't figured out how to sell people on delayed gratification on the scale of centuries. Makes it hard to hype any realistic starship in a convincing way.

As I said, at 1G constant boost (subjective), the distance grows exponentially with time. It takes only a few more years of crew time to go ten times as far. All you need is fabulous amounts of energy and money.


Dear beuler,

No lectures there on "Why do this?" This was a conference for people who already thought it was worth doing. There was a track on how you convince others of that, but I didn't go to it (the five-track-one-body problem, again).


Dear Jan,

Yes, general agreement that a humanity-threatening crisis would make it happen, time and money be damned. But not the scenario we're hoping for.


Dear Phil,

Lasers and light sails are, engineeringwise, one of the easier solutions. We pretty much understand everything we need to to scale those up to interstellar-probe levels. In other words, very high probability the engineering works, out of the gate.

Problem is that it's a very inefficient system. Only a small fraction of the energy in the beam gets converted to kinetic energy in the vehicle. If you pull up figure 4 (the chart), the row of vertical dots right of center is for a small light-sail probe. Note how much money goes into electricity-- most of the cost of the mission unless you figure out how to make power very cheaply. OTOH, the timescale and cost, total, is within a range of projects we know how to do.

OTTH, we don't know that a lightsail-driven probe can even survive interstellar travel. They're relatively delicate. So, although the engineering works out of the gate, but the mission may well fail. "The operation was a success; the patient died."

BTW, there are well-known tricks to make self-decelerating light-sails. No need to carry additional fuel for that.


Dear Yunfat,

In the broad sense, you're right-- general consensus is that the next century will produce one or more game-changing techs. One problem is, no one knows what they'll be; there isn't even a large plurality picking the same ones.

The second problem is that trying to imagine such techs falls into the wish-fulfillment trap-- we think of the benefits, but we don't know what the problems are. Devil is always in the details.

There are ways to run simulation games to address that part... but we still don't know what will actually turn up.


Dear Andrew,

Don't worry about that. There's no known way to establish an interstellar hegemony. What's Imperial Earth (or Lockheed) going to do, threaten to bomb the hell out of you, as soon as they can get another ship there ... in two hundred years?! Oh yeah, that'll be a credible threat. Broad agreement that any interstellar mission is pretty much going to do whatever they feel like doing, with very little sense of obligation to do what Earth tells them.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com


your post got me thinking, which is surely among your intentions, and I thank you for that. I’m by no means a physicist, but Wolfram Alpha helps me with a few of the more mundane calculations that you can probably do in your head.

Anyway, I came across this on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6H1TxRGLUc It’s a tad over 12 minutes long, but appears to address exactly the theme you and your colleagues did at the conference, even choosing the Alpha Centauri example that you offer. I have no idea who the narrator is, or his motives, or even if his calculations are entirely accurate. However, despite an initially laconic delivery, he does appear to make some good points (I nearly switched off after the first two minutes, but then he got on to real science and dropped the “Avatar” analogy). He had me interested from the point where he scaled our sun and Alpha Centauri to the size of peas, and placed them 100 miles apart with the earth being a grain of salt 4 inches from the pea-sized sun. That’s a very long way.

His conclusions are that the physics of propulsion and less than 100% efficiency of propulsion systems would result in so much heat in the engine that the starship could not survive. I take it that you would quickly observe that “chemical” propulsion systems are not the answer, but your laser-based 0.3c system is not going even half as fast as his example.

If you have 12 minutes to spare, I’d be very interested in your interpretation of his conclusions.

I have several reactions:

1. Maybe the smart people ought to hold off on the starship and work on some of the problems that we really urgently do need to solve. Just for example, we need to double world food production again in the next few decades, and this time it will be really hard. Our agricultural system isn't sustainable. And poor countries won't achieve demographic transition unless they experience shared prosperity, development, and access to education. But all this development will increase our global energy demands, and our current systems, also unsustainable, are causing global warming, so we need to figure out how to power a technological civilization more sustainably on a large scale. Etc. There's a long list of problems of this type: if they don't get solved, someone might want a starship someday as a last-ditch escape pod, but that's it.

2. Anyway, it's hard to read about all this serious talk of building starships without laughing out loud. Assuming you think Americans will play an important role in this, you're talking about a country whose institutions are so dysfunctional that it can't even manage to build a high-speed rail network, or a tunnel under the Hudson river, or maintain steel bridges properly, or put people back to work doing all the useful things that need to be done at a time when millions are idle and the government can borrow money at negative interest (!). In this country the only things that can get done are the things that provide immediate profits for the 1%. Europe? They can't figure out how to make money work. China? Don't get me started. The point is, our current global civilization can't even solve the easy problems, let alone the hard ones.

3. On the other hand, those same institutions are pretty good at attacking imaginary problems like nonexistent inflation, the awful burdens imposed on society by deranged schoolteachers who expect (gasp) non-poverty wages and (horrors) pensions, and so on. Since imminent invasion by aliens is also an imaginary problem, perhaps our institutions would actually be really good at wasting resources on that fleet of starships we absolutely need.

4. But maybe I'm thinking about this all wrong. Building starships wouldn't be a waste of resources. As a way of getting the economy going again, building starships would be infinitely preferable to our current approach, i.e., doing nothing except giving free money to the 1%. As a massive government procurement program, it would be much preferable to alternatives such as invading more countries or starting World War Three. And the beauty of it is that the starships wouldn't even have to work! The only thing that would matter is that we're building them. Think of the possibilities - a 30-year or 50-year or "endless" battle, not against "terror" or "Oceania" but against the stars. Full employment! A renewed sense of purpose! Morning in America!

5. OK, after all that, I admit: starships would be cool. I hope that human beings figure out how to build them someday. I hope our species doesn't die out here on this planet, and if we must, I hope it isn't soon. Surely, part of what makes us human is that we're dreamers. We think big. We have big dreams. I'm glad you guys are dreaming such beautiful dreams. Don't stop, after all.

I am quite sanguine about the prospects of eventually going to the stars. At this point, it's mostly an engineering problem. (We know how to make anti-matter, we just don't know how to make much of it, or to control it when we've got it. If we could do those two things, we could do continual 1G boost.) So, engineering.

Nor do I think the social or organizational problems are insuperable barriers...or won't be. We now keep people in prisons for decades, and they survive. A large interstellar ship would be much more pleasant than that, and much more varied, and probably much larger.

The way I see earth evolving is that we'll hit a peak population sometime in the next century, and after that, population will begin to decline and eventually reach an equilibrium at a lower level than we have now. And we'll have general peace, and most people will have material sufficiency. So then, what do we do? We go to the stars.

I really don't see much purpose in humans traveling around the solar system. Robots could do everything we need. And why go down another gravity well when we have so much trouble getting out of the one we have? But the stars...that's different.


I have the notion that such a venture doesn't so much need an organization to run it (in the corporate sense) so much as a society (in the community/nation sense) to develop the necessary autonomy of purpose and long-term view. There are very few corporations, let alone projects that have been able to survive for the sorts of durations necessary.
Certainly, I share your view that the people stuff is the difficult & most interesting bit here.

Thanks Ctein for your replies, If I get any brown or black-outs I'll know who to blame ;-)

cheers phil

Dear folks,

Several people have brought up the matter of quantum entanglement communication, so I better address this. The short answer is that doesn't give you faster than light communication. Although the “spooky action at a distance” propagates at at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light (most recent experiments), any information that is conveyed that way is the information that was imposed on the system when you created the entanglement. We still don't have any way to physically separate the sender and receiver faster than the speed of light.

If you try to impose new information on the sender after you separate it from the receiver, you break the entanglement, so that trick doesn't work. You also can't use it as a kind of Morse code system by monitoring the timing of the collapse, because when either the sender or the receiver station looks at the entanglement it collapses. You can't peek at it to see what time the sender collapsed without collapsing it yourself.

I would note, theoretically, that if there were a way around this in physics, it would mean that there was no fundamental physics preventing a faster than light drive. If you can imagine one, you might as well imagine the other.

On the other hand, quantum entanglement does present a theoretical alternative to sending warm bodies. Entangle the crew with a quantum template on earth. Ship the templates off to wherever you want them to go. Then collapse the state. You end up with exactly the same crew that was on earth, at the moment you entangled them. You don't get there any faster, but the whole life support/culture support problem goes away. It's a kind of cold storage.

Understand that physically doing this is phenomenally difficult. It may very well not to turn out to be any cheaper or easier than sending people the conventional way. It might turn out to be much, much harder and more expensive.

But it is physically possible.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear James B,

Indeed, nobody at the conference was envisioning building anything that would go remotely that fast. I could disagree with his engineering analysis on a number of important points, but I don't think that's necessary. If you look at my figure 4, the 2 gold diagonal lines on the far right are for an antimatter-matter drive going at 1G acceleration. The top line is based on the current cost of antimatter; the bottom one assumes you can drop that cost by a factor of 10. Note that the price tags are on the order of 10-100 quadrillion dollars. Not trillions, quadrillions. That's a number that's on par with the gross economic product of the entire planet for the next millennium.

And that's only for a 1 ton robotic payload.

Figure out how to pay for a full-blown matter-antimatter starship before the year 3000, and then I'll start worrying about engineering details [practical grin].


Dear JC,

A 1st-generation starship wouldn't be a 1G boost vehicle; the engineering and economic problems are simply too horrendous. Most (not all) of the designs are one way trips, as they don't permit a return voyage within a human lifetime. Charlie Stross doesn't even like calling them "starships" or "missions;" he thinks it badly distorts the thinking about how these would actually work and behave. They are entire self-contained worlds that just happen not to be bound to a particular star system and are moving at unusually high velocities.

Consequently, it would absolutely, positively be a very large and varied and pleasant environment.

At least it better be, if you want the mission (sorry, Charlie) to survive!

One interesting tidbit: selection criteria for the population likely will not be as physically rigorous as one would imagine from current space missions. It turns out that the minimum population you need to assure sufficient genetic diversity is somewhere between 2 and 4 orders of magnitude (depending on who's doing the calculations) smaller then the population you need to avoid technological/cultural decay. While the population would no doubt be cherry-picked in the extreme, physical fitness would not be more important than many other criteria; you can afford a lot of slop along that axis.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Having read Heinlein's "Orphans of the Sky" and all the variations about multigenerational starships arriving at already human populated planets, (and given that I'm now 60 years old) I think I'll wait for a superluminal starship before I buy a ticket.

Want to facebook this but no button. Have to cut and press.


2) Your mindset is uniquely "western"... the Chinese would have no problem with this.

Not sure about that. The only person who do this is in a western movie called Superman I. As one of the Chinese, I have real problem with this (but see note below).

I do not recall any Chinese would send their children like this without regret. Remember the majority of the Chinese are still under socialist / communist rule (which emphasis the group) whilst the majority of the western culture, at least on the surface, emphasis individual capitalism. Like the Tiger Mother, you need to stand next to your children.

Having said that I think the q. entanglement is good. If we have complete and instant communication, we might use Droid like today or as in that 3d movie. They would see us but the real spirit is not there but in a 3rd rock 20 light year away.

BTW, the issue is not just work across human barrier but across culture one. That is why we have different language by the intervention of God. Remember Babel. Reach the sky ... sorry guys!

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