SPACE: How hard IS it to get off Earth?
Wed, 10 Nov 1999 20:40:01 EST

Here's a question for our aerospace professionals (and space groupies like me): How quickly after the development of a general purpose programmable assembler could a completely "de novo space program" be developed, and how many (or rather, how few) people with what expertise would be necessary to do it?

Here's the scenario that generates the question: Imagine that a "classic" Drexlerian assembler is developed and is available to a group of people having the goal of setting up an independent, self-sufficient extraterrestrial presence for biological humans as quickly as possible. Imagine that this group is working independently of the established aerospace companies. The motivation behind the goal of getting off Earth fast would be two-fold: 1) to escape as quickly as possible from restrictions on development of transhuman technologies such as genetic engineering and 2) to establish some distance as quickly as possible from an Earth where Really Bad Stuff might happen once the availability of assembler technology becomes widespread.

The goal is to establish a safe base away from Earth as quickly as possible. This base may be a temporary haven - a jumping-off point from which more distant, secure and dispersed settlements would be launched, again as soon as possible. Thus, I imagine that the immediate goal is to establish a presence on Luna, where raw material would be most quickly available for further development. I know that it takes less delta-vee to utilize resources in the asteroid belt, but in this scenario, time is of the essence.

So, what is the minimum set of basic skills and how quickly can the posited "small band of nanotech-enabled transhumanists" get off Earth?

I envision the following basic scheme:

<> Some kind of very rapid recapitulation of the history of the manned and
unmanned space programs.
Thus a basic rocket booster would have to be developed and proven with a minimum of tests and versions. This booster would ideally be 1) modular (so that it can be employed for a range of payload weights) and 2) fueled by material that could be readily synthesized using assembler technology (hydrogen and oxygen from water?)

<> A range of engines and fuel tankage systems that could be adopted to
exo-atmospheric vehicles of various sizes.

<> Some kind of basic modular robotic spacecraft "bus" would have to be
developed. This "Basic Robot Bus" ("BRB") would serve as a core navigation and communication module that could be applied to many different functions, such as establishment of an independent, secure orbital communication infrastructure for the project, both in Earth and Lunar orbits and beyond, and should also be easily adaptable to manned vehicles.

<> Modular robotic extensions for the BRB for use in on-orbit and lunar
surface construction

<> A lunar surface rover chassis for use of the robotic systems in preparing
a lunar habitat

<> A basic manned spacecraft that could serve as a transit vehicle to be
boosted up from Earth surface
to LEO

<> A basic "hab module" that can be boosted into LEO and made part of a
translunar vehicle

<> A lunar lander stage that can mate to a standard hab module

<> Modular, scalable life support systems - from spacesuit to "hab module"

<> (Maybe) a spacesuit.

<> (Maybe) a reentry vehicle in case the whole thing falls through and the
initial emigrants have to abort the program.

<> A plan for robotic prefabrication of a basic lunar initial habitat.

This seems like the minimum kit necessary to get off Earth in a hurry. Assuming the basic technical capability of a fully programmable assembler (i.e. the ability to make diamonoid structures of arbitrary size and complexity and thence the ability to extract basic elementary chemicals pretty easily), how few aerospace professionals would need to be involved? What if they brought with them to the task only the knowledge that was in their heads and publicly available information? Given state-of-the art CAD circa, say, 2015 (assuming no runaway singularity in the meantime - which I do), how quickly could this minimal group start throwing stuff into orbit? How quickly could they start remote fabrication of an initial lunar habitation? When could the first people get securely off Earth with a reasonable safety margin and a reasonable chance of maintaining their presence off Earth indefinitely? I assume 1) that very simple designs might be possible and 2) a secure launch site would be available - but one that might not be secure for very long once hardware starts going up.

This thought problem is thrown out with the intention of seeing just how difficult the "I'm clearing out as fast as I can after the assembler breakthrough" scenario really is.

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
      Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                           Thomas Huxley