Sublight Interstellar Travel (was RE: Colonize Atlantis!)

Billy Brown (
Fri, 5 Mar 1999 12:38:11 -0600

Anders Sandberg wrote:
> Hmm, exactly what problems do you see? That they need to be *big* is
> obvious, you need space for a lot of frozen people, livestock and
> gametes, equipment for colonization (you have to be prepared for
> almost anything; most likely a portable asteroid factory would be a
> good idea), space for thawed people to work, protection against
> relativistic shrapnel and of course things like propulsion, shuttles
> and life support.

The fundamental problem with any attempt at interstellar colonization using conventional technology lies in the fact that machines don't work forever. Complex machines need constant maintenance to avoid breakdowns, and sometimes they break down anyway. High-performance systems are by definition highly stressed, and consume spare parts the way an airplane burns fuel. SF stories commonly deal with this problem by pretending it doesn't exist (the "starship runs itself for 300 years while we hibernate" routine), but in the real world we'll have to face up to it.

This simple fact creates a complex, multidimensional problem for anyone who wants to build starships without nanotech. You need to have the equipment, manpower, raw materials and knowledge to keep your ship running indefinitely (which is essentially equivalent to being able to build the entire ship from raw materials). At the same time you need to be able to achieve a significant fraction of light speed, which means that payload mass is very expensive. Oh, and the whole thing needs to be cheap enough that a pre-nanotech civilization can actually afford to build it.

Without advanced automation, your crew doesn't even have the manpower to do routine maintenance on their ship. Without nearly-sentient AI, they can't possibly know enough to repair things when they break. Without nanotech, the ship needs to carry so many different kinds of manufacturing machinery that you end up with a flying city.

> Yes, but it is fun. Wait till you see my *other* roleplaying
> project! :-)

Yeah. Remind me sometime to tell you about the cyberpunk game where the GM let me play a sentient AI (heh heh heh).

Billy Brown, MCSE+I