Re: SPACE: How hard IS it to get off Earth?

Robert J. Bradbury (
Tue, 16 Nov 1999 15:19 EST

> Eric Watt Forste <> wrote:

> Again, if it's going to be functioning in space, with a closed
> boundary, with living organisms in it, then it *is* a complete
> ecosystem. The question is not whether or not you need a
> complete ecosystem, the question is whether the ecosystem you
> construct will flourish or die.

I would argue that you would want to get rid of all the organisms but one, man. We have starting examples of this in the barrier facilities in which many rodents are maintained. We can readily synthesize the vitamins provided by our current bacteria, so why not eliminate the parasites entirely? It certainly would lower our energy requirements.

> The system you describe, a closed system with just a few
> species, has actually been attempted in early closure
> experiments. It proved, empirically, unstable. So I don't know
> why you feel that we already know how to do this when past
> attempts to do so have failed.

You have to deal with time scale differences. Over the long term our existing ecosphere is probably unstable. What we now see is due to long term downstream effects of earlier biosphere changes. Those changes continue even today, just slowly enough that we don't realize many of them.

I doubt *any* complex system can be constructed that is not unstable or very chaotic. Only if you have relatively simple systems can you have some hope of predicting and following all of the interactions.

> Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the history of the
> research. The early closures all *failed* at some point and had
> to be opened. The current complex approach which you dismiss
> developed in response to an exploration of those failures and
> successful attempts to remedy them.

If you are trying to recreate a biosphere with pre-existing tools (microorganisms and higher plants & animals), then you probably have to go for complexity (because nature has evolved to be that way). If you are willing to apply energy & chemical fixes and you aren't losing any "mass", then the system is by definition self contanined and you can drive the imbalances in any direction you want.

> You are welcome to go into space with just a few species and die
> after six months or so, but I have other plans.

I'd go with no species, a database of the existing biochemical pathways and DNA sequences for the enzymes involved in them and a chemi-synthetic system that let me synthesize any of those enzymes.

With that and some electro-chemical/nanotech patches e.g. 2Fe2O3 <=> 4Fe + 3O2, 2H2O <=> 2H2 + O2, CO2 <=> C + O2) I have no problem with long term survivability.

We need to worry about real problems like radiation damage.

Regarding the nanotech development for Space development:

> Yes, but if you work away from the "light of day" you slow down
> the process of diffusion of innovation. Many labs will be
> reinventing wheels unnecessarily.

Not if you have a top, down distributed effort. Private development is usually aware of what public development is occuring but the converse may not be true. Private development would borrow and steal from everything -- government & university labs, NASA, patent filings (after all patent law is difficult to enforce in space and why would you care anyway if you are in emergency "escape" mode?).

You do have to have enough secure communication between the groups to provide redundancy (in case one approach fails) without too much duplication.

> I don't know why you want to slow down the process with secrecy.

Only to the degree that there are overhead costs associated with secrecy does it slow things down. You might lose valuable insights or criticisms into fruitless approaches if you have wide public review, but things are moving so fast now that few scientists bother to publish negative results or waste their time telling others that something might not work.

> There is a *reason* why publication is recognized as a fundamental
> part of the process of scientific research.

Publication works in *scientific research* because you want verification that the conclusions are correct. There is a *big* difference between engineering (which is most of what Greg wanted) and scientific research (I've personally learned this the hard way). In engineering all you need to know is whether or not it works. Reality provides a much better review than any collection of your "peers" (rockets that don't work blow up). The only point on which we may disagree is the amount of "engineering" vs. "research" that might be required to fullfill the goals of getting a sustainable enclave into space.
> If you slow research down, people will die unnecessarily as a
> result. I can't countenance that, myself.
Well, then, I suspect you are up in arms about the drug industry and the FDA, since their current approaches do kill many (due to the unavailability of drugs that could work for a subset of the population) in the name of protecting a few (for whom those drugs may be dangerous).

I think that the process of peer review for paper publication may slow things down just as much as any secrecy efforts might. What you want is "trusted" reviewers that can give you feedback without the overhead & delays the publication process typically requires.

> Botulin toxin can be produced easily by biotech, dissolved into a
> DMSO vapor, and dispersed by a variety of means. Etc, etc, etc.
> Rather than to Gray Goo, I might refer to Nick Szabo's essay on
> Green Goo.

Ah, but if this were perceived as a "real" threat (say the bioweapons treaties were never signed by a majority of countries) do we not have the technology to develop antisera or perhaps even vaccinate against or develop drugs that interfere with B-toxin? All of the fear of B-toxin was developed in an era when we knew nothing of molecular biology. In those days suppression of the bacteria was all you could do. Now-a-days it might make more sense to vaccinate everyone against it or simply add engineered bacteria that secrete a B-toxin binding & sequestration protein.

I think these things are threats because we haven't focused any attention for developing defenses against them, not because we cannot do so.

If you have a pointer for the Green Goo essay I'd like to review it.
> I do not see any mention by you of means by which you will
> prevent the emergence of the two situations that you admit would
> give us cause for concern. Amoral intelligences already exist
> in plenty, and will start enhancing themselves in short order if
> they have not already.

Yes, but they are not operating completely unseen by us or without our anticipating their possible strategies and developing appropriate countermeasures. The real dangers lie in things we cannot see or do not suspect.

> And there are people whose posthumanism
> extends as far as antihumanism... such people may already be
> engaged in fast self-evolution research.

While I may be strongly posthumanistic, I doubt I'm antihumanistic. I do not envision a situation in which as a post-human SI, I would really care to eliminate the primitive inhabitants of Earth (though I might give strong consideration to converting it into a more efficient simulation form). :-)

My suspicion would be that competitive pressures & awareness of the feasibility of conscious evolution would drive some subset of the human species in the SI direction and the rest would eventually die out. Why be actively anti-humanistic, when I can simply be passive and let nature take its course?

> I wrote:
> > With regard to the stale atmosphere issues, these are taken care of by
> > molecular sorting. With regard to food production, people seem to be
> > still thinking ancient-tech. A full complement of nutritious & tasty
> > gruels with all the necessary vitamins, proteins, fats & carbohydates
> > will be able to be produced in bacteria/yeast, directly from sunlight
> > or electricity, using biotech, long before we have hard nanotech
> > available.
> I see zero economic pressure for the development of such technology.
> Who will fund the research and why would they bother to fund it?

Its already being done. There are 60+ complete genomes currently known and the funding to unravel the functions of the unknown genes in those genomes exists (gotta give the Ph.D. candidates something to do ...). It will not happen overnight, but will move forward quickly as more automated methods become available and we become more clever about the experimental and computer methods that can be applied to these problems.

The economic pressure is clear, it is a population of ~10 billion people in the not to distant future (that argument was presented to me several days ago by the Dep. Director of the Inst. for Agric. Biotechnology in Moscow). The problem is that the pressure doesn't exist much in the developed countries where we can feed ourselves. In the lesser developed countries there are fewer resources and less development in the labs, but what they lack currently will be balanced in the future by shear #'s of inexpensive hands and population/economic throw weight (as well as the fact that they can rapidly leverage the technologies & information we have so painstakingly assembled).

> I'm still not convinced that effective in silico simulations of
> ontogenesis can be done without atomic-level detail, and that is
> a pretty tall order.

Agreed, you gotta get into space and build one darn big supercomputer.

> Handling dead babies on a regular basis is just plain bad for human
> beings psychologically, so I don't plan to do any of that.

Why? So we are hard-wired to think dead babies are bad. If your life (or the survival of the species) depended on a rapid turnover of dead babies to develop workable neo-genomes, then I suspect you would be willing to adapt.

[Please note when the news reporters or others read this note in the Extropian archives -- I am *not* suggesting this is a reasonable strategy in any situation other than the "last resort" scenario.]