RE: Space Colony Survival

Billy Brown (
Wed, 31 Mar 1999 08:54:05 -0600

den Otter wrote:
> > From: Billy Brown <>
> > That would be a really good idea, except that we can't possibly set up a
> > colony that could actually survive.
> That's a pretty sweeping statement..

Yes, it is, but I think I can defend it - as long as we are talking about current or near-term technology, at least. I will add, as an aside, that I think the time constraint is a big factor. If we could afford to spend 50 years on the project it would be a lot more plausible.

> Actually, it [surviving on Mars] would be easier than surviving in
> a space station such as MIR, or later the international version;
> there's natural gravity, a solid base to build your structures in/
> on (bunkers-esque structures would be a good idea for various
> reasons), there's less trouble with radiation and there are plenty
> of raw materials. Not to mention the positive psychological effect
> of being able to go outside and take a relatively safe walk in an
> earth-like environment..

Yes, that's true. Mars is probably easier to colonize than anyplace else we could get to, and much easier than orbital space.

> Yes, but I don't see why maintaining the minimal infrastructure
> for life support would be such a big deal. If you can do it in a
> much smaller and generally more limited space station, then
> why not on a planet which even has the components to
> make water and oxygen readily available. Farming can be
> done using relatively simple greenhouses, the produce of
> which can be used in combination with imported "astronaut"
> foods. With a bit of work, one could farm a broad variety
> of fruits, vegetables, algae and perhaps even produce some
> "meat" (certain insects are easy to keep and quite nutricious,
> for example).
> As MIR has shown, improvising can get you a long way when
> parts break down, and one can imagine that several hundred
> people, many of whom with technical backgrounds, could come
> up with solutions to just about any problem if their life depended
> on it. As in any pioneering situation, everyone's inventiveness and
> flexibility is pushed to the limit, often with remarkable results..
> Apart from that, advance (unmanned) missions would drop
> of as many spare parts etc. as would be financially possible..
> For this purpose, some kind of electromagnetic launcher
> could be constructed in space (optional). All of this excludes
> practical nanotech, which would make the colonization
> easier still.

The difference is that the colony needs to be able to survive indefinitely, so that it can serve as the starting point for a new civilization. That means it can't get by on a stockpile of spare parts. Ultimately, it must be able to build all of the equipment it needs to survive, and all of the tools needed to make that equipment, and the tools to make those tools, ad infinitum.

> However, it's IMO very unlikely that it would have to come to
> this. I find it extremely hard to believe that several hundred
> specialists with functioning nanotech and plenty of lab space
> couldn't somehow find a way to keep the colony alive almost
> indefinitely..

Ah. I think this is the root of our disagreement.

What exactly do you mean by "functioning nanotech"? I ask, because I think your assumptions about what you will be able to do with it are very different from mine.

What we are implicitly assuming here is a future in which AI is a harder problem than nanotech, and therefore we don't have to worry about the SI issue until after we have survived the gray goo threat. In that scenario, early nanotech is going to be rather limited in what it can do.

Early assembler technology may be theoretically capable of making anything, but in reality it would require a lot of human effort to make it work. First you have to actually design the things you want, in some kind of CAD program. Then you have to figure out how to assemble them out of whatever molecular building blocks your system uses - hopefully this process will be highly automated, but it will still have manual steps if you want to make anything complex. You may be able to make a new valve by hitting a button, but if you want a new kind of robot its going to take a lot of work to actually make it.

Also, nanotech only addresses the manufacturing issue. We still need to locate resources, mine them, maintain our equipment, and so on. We still need people to operate all that equipment, and *lots* of specialists just to make sure that we have someone who can design any given thing. We need programmers to write the software (and if you want to get advanced enough AI to make the nanotech more Drexlerian, we'd better have a small army of them).

Nanotech would greatly simplify all of the manufacturing problems, but without human-equivalent AI it doesn't help much with all of these other issues. So, our early-nanotech colony might only need a few tens of thousands of engineering types, but we still have to have the whole gaggle of scientists and assorted other workers.

> > 4) Right now, a massive worldwide effort might be able to set up a few
> > hundred people on Mars, with minimal equipment and no long-term survival
> > prospects.
> A massive, world-wide effort could do a *lot* better than
> that (certainly
> with me in charge ;-) Could you perhaps explain what exactly the
> problem would be with creating sustainable life support?

Based on the data I've seen, even a well-run Mars project with good economies of scale is going to have a cost of several tens of thousands of dollars per pound of mass delivered to Mars. That means we're spending around a million dollars apiece just to land people there (counting a pressure suit and minimal personal necessities). Equipment is a real problem - the minimum mass for indefinite-duration life support is probably going to be measured in tons per person. Add a few hundred tons for research labs, power systems and so forth, and were well into hundreds of billions of dollars. I think that's about as big a program as we could hope for, even if the major governments were convinced of the danger.

As an interesting note, I will point out that no one has ever even come close to building a real, completely closed, indefinite duration life support system. Recycling air and water has been done, but no one even tries to tackle the food production problem. The most plausible approach to that for a Mars colony would be to build greenhouses and/or hydroponics facilities, but that requires shipping a substantial amount of equipment from Earth (which is why I expect the life support mass requirements to be so large).

Billy Brown, MCSE+I