The Future of Space Exploration

spacex-icarus-670Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.

So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.

MarsOneSuffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.

Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.

ESA_moonbaseAnd when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.

Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere
Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere

But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.

But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.

And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:

Nuclear Propulsion:
Project-Orion-Spacecraft
The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.

Orion SchematicF0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.

Antimatter Engine:
NASA_antimatterMost science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.

Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.

In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.

antimatter_shipHowever, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.

No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.

Laser Sail:
solar_sail1Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.

This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.

Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.

solar_sailOnce more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!

A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.

So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.

Generation/Cryo-Ship:
ringworld2Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.

The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.

enzmann_starshipBy the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.

Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.

RAMA2Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.

Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.

Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.

Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel:
???????????????????????Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.

However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.

Galactica_newFor one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!

Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.

Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewBut before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”

The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.

But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!

warp_drive

Summary:
In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.

And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?

Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!

Source: ngm.nationalgeographic.comnasa.gov, discoverymagazine.com, eng.wikipedia.org, 100yss.org

“Progenitor”, another Anthology sample

It must seem that I do nothing these days but work on this anthology. Well, in truth, it has been taking up an inordinate amount of my time lately, school being out for summer and all. Without the rugrats to occupy my attention, I tend to dedicate myself to my writing. And given the prolific output from the other members of the group, I’d say they are working just as hard!

And here’s the proof: Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, a stellar writer and the person who inspired this concept, recently sent me her first draft of her ongoing story. It’s called “Progenitor” in honor of the colonization project on which our story is based. I highly recommend reading it, as this story’s likely to become kind of a big deal some day soon!

Progenitor:
The most famous of Magid Muktari’s epigrams was recorded within hours of his death.  As with most of his utterance within the last days of his life, it was in regards to his eldest child Sanaa, the only of his nineteen children to attain the same degree of esteem as himself.  

Surely we own our progeny until they realize that we do not. ~ Magid Muktari, 2081

*****

Magid Muktari tried to read the letter, but his eyes were drawn back to the blinking red ticker tape message that scrolled across the top of the stiff paper. 

祝贺, Felicitaciones, Congratulations,  تهنئة , बधाई  . 

It had been his idea to add the admittedly eccentric touch to the acceptance letters.  His colleagues had thought it excessive and unprofessional but in the end they acquiesced, giving the oldest and most contributory member of the International Intergalactic Yuva Colonization Project the leeway to make the changes he wanted before his inevitable retirement.

“What is this?” he asked knowing full well.  He could not think of anything more apt to say to his oldest daughter.  She understood that what he actually meant to ask was, why?

“For all the reasons you’ve been touting to the public these last fifty years.”  Sanaa squared her shoulders and recited from the legendary commercial that Muktari himself had created and starred in.  “Be one of the first to travel to another solar system.  Be the progenitor of a new world and a new culture.  Take part in the greatest experiment man will ever conduct.”  Sanaa tried to smile, but was suddenly struck by just how old her father was.  

Magid Muktari was actively dying.  Doctors had managed to cure Muktari’s cancer twice, slow the Parkinson’s, restore his eyesight, transplant his heart, and install a semi-robotic arm, but they had not managed to cure old age.  Flesh is still only flesh.  Sanaa was happy that she wouldn’t be there to see her father die.

“I never intended for one of my own children…”  Muktari’s slight body contracted as he coughed wetly into the bend of his arm.  “Do you not realize the dangers involved?”  Magid Muktari slumped back into the chair behind his desk.  “This isn’t a mere trip home-side, my love.  You will never come back to us again?  Not to mention,” he said lowering his voice, “it would be a shame for an unmarried young woman to go off alone.  This is against our tradition.”

Sanaa reached across the desk and took the letter from her father’s hand.  “According to this, I won’t be alone.“  She cleared her throat.  “You will be in the exceptional company of one thousand other strong, intelligent, capable, progenitors embarking on this voyage of lifetimes.”  

“What of finding a husband?”

“Do I have any marriage prospects, Baba?”  The question sounded like a rebuke and Muktari cringed.  There were none and Sanaa had long ago stopped hoping.  

Sanaa turned away from her father and leaned against the ledge of the massive view port, her breaths misting the glass.  In the distance to the right, against the black curtain of space she could see the flotilla, each ship moored in its respective dock.  Tiny figures tethered to lifelines laced with blinking lights moved over the surface of the ships, readying them for what would be both their maiden and final voyage.  She would be assigned to the second ship, the Avicenna, and by virtue of that alone, she thought it was the most beautiful of them all.

“I would have loved marriage,” said Sanaa wistfully, “but men don’t want women like me.”  Sanaa unconsciously ran a hand over her veil.  In recent times there had been a half-hearted attempt by her generation to return to the original ways; a stab back at the failures of their predecessors.  But such attempts were weak and ill-informed and without real knowledge or virtue.  They took only pieces of the old traditions and left the ones they deemed inconvenient.  “Men want wives who believe, just not ones who show it.”

“My love, in times like these, where women outnumber men nearly two to one, and beauty and brains can be bought in equal measure for a few credits, your kind is a rare dying breed.”

Sanaa laughed weakly.  “One day, I will be like the quagga, a long extinct creature that people will think was only a myth.”  

“Is this why you’ve decided to do this?  Because of a husband?”  Muktari strained forward.  “I can find someone.”

That was the crux of the problem.  For thirty-three years Muktari had been finding Sanaa’s way.  When she complained about her overcrowded dorm room when she first left for university back home-side, Muktari arranged for her roommates to be reassigned so she could have the room to herself.  She didn’t tell him how she was thereafter ostracized but she later learned that he’d set a guard to watch her movements.  When Muktari received reports about the insults, he’d had each guilty girl expelled.  When the admissions board at the School of Medicine in Luxor had denied her entrance, Muktari had none too subtly reminded them who her father was.  For Muktari, protection equalled love, but for Sanaa, her father’s protection was as a wet cloth over fire.  She could not flourish if she was to remain.  And it seemed he would not die if she remained.

Sanaa shook her head.  “I’ll be leaving in six weeks, Baba.”

“I know.  I’m the one who set the schedule.  Remember?”

Tamima, Muktari’s fourth wife entered with a brass tray.  She acknowledged Sanaa with a nod and placed the tray on the desk in front of Muktari.  After she poured his tea she settled a hip onto the arm of his chair.  

Sanaa could hardly bring herself to look at the woman.  She had two reasons to hate her one-time friend, her only friend.  Tamima had not only found a husband while she had not, but she’d found one in Sanaa’s own father.  

“What does your mother have to say about your decision?” asked Muktari, rousing Sanaa from her reverie.

“I plan to go home-side next week.  I will tell her then.”

Muktari smiled knowingly.  “She won’t like it.”

Sanaa shrugged her shoulders.  At thirty-three, surely she was old enough to make her own decisions.  “No different than you, I expect.”

“Yes, but I will not stand in your way, even though it means I will never see you again.”  Muktari’s eyes grew glassy.  He lowered his gaze and busied himself with spooning sugar into his cup of tea.  He cleared his throat before continuing.  “But your mother would hijack the ship before letting you go, if she has it in her mind that you should not.”

Sanaa didn’t know the brash stubborn side of her mother that Muktari had often mused about.  She’d been living with her father and his many wives and children in their residential pod since their divorce when she was eight.  Her mother hadn’t minded his other wives, or their children, or even his neglect.  She’d always claimed that she was the only one of his wives he’d ever truly loved.  They eventually divorced because she refused to be forcibly expatriated to orbit because he’d made the decision to have more than his quota of children. 

When Sanaa was young, visits home-side had never been more than a week in length and only as frequent as once every two years, so her mother had always been on her best behavior.  When she lived home-side, during her years at university in Luxor, either her studies or her mother’s schedule disallowed frequent visits.

*****

I swear, science is stupid in the presence of love and God is greater than them all. ~ Magid Muktari, 2068

*****

The guide’s name tag read Adam and he wore the gray and green dress uniform of the Unified Tellurian Armed Forces.  Sanaa studied him as they waited for other orientees to arrive.  His hair was cropped close to his scalp and an irregular pattern of stubble shadowed his cheeks and neck.  Not a very professional look for a soldier, mused Sanaa. 

Adam had a keloid scar that started at his right temple and disappeared into his collar.  Such a scar could be easily eliminated in a single visit to a curbside plastic surgeon back home-side.  Such blemishes were unheard of there, which made Sanaa wonder if he was one of the newer models of synthetic entities.  She’d heard that they would sometimes opt for the addition of physical imperfections so as to seem more human, but as most humans wouldn’t live with such a scar, such attempts at humanity were fatuous. 

It was soon apparent that Adam was not an android as a dark blush spread under his pale sepia skin.  “Why are you staring at me?”  He asked this without looking up at her.

Tact and honesty had always worked best for Sanaa in the past.  “Just trying to determine if you’re one of the new models of synthetics.”  But then, she thought belatedly, perhaps it was not her tact that had worked best but the fact that she was the daughter of the august Magid Muktari, man of Earth, space, and the stars.  “But, it’s obvious that you are not.”

Adam glanced sideways at Sanaa.  “How can you be so sure?”

“According to Darwin, blushing is the most peculiar and most human of expressions.”

Adam tapped in a sequence on his data pad and then extended it toward Sanaa.  “It seems that you are the only person to appear for the midnight orientation.”

“I’d counted on that.”  Sanaa passed her hand over the data pad so that the diamond bijou she wore around her wrist lined up with the reader.  A hollow voice announced her name.

In the thirty years that people had been living orbit-side, most had still not managed to shake the habit of adhering to the twenty-four hour day.  There was no need to conform to the practice of guarding the hours in space, but living in the shadow of Earth was enough to make them cling to the old habit.  The younger generations and those born orbit-side were less connected to the old habits and more willing to discard them for new.

Now it was Sanaa’s turn to burn under an overly curious gaze.  She was accustomed to the emotions her name wrought, and by extension and to be exact, her father’s name.  She read awe and uncertainty on Adam’s face.  “Yes,” she acknowledged flatly, “Muktari is my father.”

“I’ve read that you helped your father design the ships, that you actually sketched the first design.” 

Sanaa nodded.  “This is all true.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose.  The awe Sanaa first read on his face had been replaced by mild disgust.  She was used to that too, people misunderstanding her certainty for arrogance, truth for contempt.  She was expected to assume an attitude of false humility, play down her part in the genesis of this project.  But why?  Muktari had doted on her as a child, had called each of her drawings inspired, each of her stories prophesy.  He wove her childish imagination into his work.  He’d credited her with his very success.  Social ceremony had always seemed such a waste and unnecessary deceit in Sanaa’s estimation, and the best lesson she’d ever learned from her father, although it had the tendency to breed loneliness.

“Why do you need to an orientation then?  Surely, you know everything about this ship from the cargo hold to the system-wide computers to the—”

“I don’t know about the cryonics chambers.”  Sanaa knew the way though, after all the Avicenna could almost be called her ship.  She headed off following the maze of steel lined corridors to the cryo-stasis bay without waiting for Adam.

Sanaa found chamber eight hundred and eighty-eight, the one assigned to her.  It was surrounded by hundreds of other similar chambers, glittering silver in the low blue lighting of the cryo-stasis bay.  As Sanaa knelt next to her chamber she thought about how she’d had to choose this extreme course for the chance to chart her own life free from the weight of the Muktari name.  When she awoke in a century, she would be only Sanaa.  She would be only herself.  With a push of the red button, the chamber door folded open, a cloud of cold air hissing out.  IV lines dangled limply down the sides, the capped needle ends resting on the bottom.

“Doesn’t look very comfortable.”  Adam stood a few chambers away with his arms crossed behind his back.

“What would be the point?” asked Sanaa absently.  She passed the bijou on her wrist over the chamber console.  UNAUTHORIZED blinked across the expanse of the screen.  Sanaa glanced up at Adam who stepped forward and accessed the computer by punching in the code.

“I read that your father would sometimes send you to inspect—”

Brow furrowed with concentration, Sanaa held up a hand.  “Hmph.  Propocholine.  But how…”  She scrolled through the list of steps in the cryo-procedure, her heart picking up speed as she made her way through it.  She’d never liked enclosed spaces and the fact that she’d be sleeping for the more than one hundred years it would take the Avicenna to reach Yuva, did nothing to allay her fears.  “I should have known, clathrate hydrates.”

“Why are you so interested in the chambers?”

Sanaa disengaged the program and stood up.  “Why do you want to know?”

Adam studied her for what seemed to like endless seconds.  Sanaa had never been what one would call recessive, but this type of open inspection unnerved her.  She crossed her arms.

Without realizing it, Adam mirrored her stance.  “I was…well, just thinking that, well…”

“Go on.”

“I was thinking that if you have any academic questions about the chambers or the procedure itself, I might be able to answer them for you.”

One of Sanaa’s eyebrows lifted and her mouth formed an O.  Her knowledge of medicine was impeccable, but her knowledge of history and current events lacked much.  “Dr. Adam, I gather?”

The creator of the Adam Cryo-Stasis Hibernation Chamber nodded.

*****

The most apocryphal of the Muktari aphorisms is: A silent woman is a dangerous woman, an angry rebellious woman always speaks the truth, and an acquiescent woman is a liar. ~ Magid Muktari, 2056

*****

Yohan Lee grabbed Sanaa’s bag with his left hand and steadied her with his right hand under her elbow.  “You seem unwell, doctor.  Should we escort you to a clinic?”  He gently but firmly guided her through the crowded airport toward the exit.

“Thank you for asking, Yohan, but I really am well.  I had to take a hefty dose of Xanivan in order to tolerate the ride home-side.  The shuttles seem to be getting smaller.”

“They are smaller, the better to preserve fuel and the cost of maintenance, they say.”

Outside, the air was thick and smelled sickly sweet.  Sanaa’s eyes burned.  She suddenly remembered why trips home-side never seemed much fun.  The air they breathed orbit-side was purified through air processors unlike the thick as mud contaminant they choked on here.

Sanaa glanced around for her mother’s transport. 

“This way, doctor.”  Yohan’s hand slipped from her elbow and he headed toward the left.  She lost sight of him for a moment amidst the crowd of people moving in conflicting directions, but she soon caught up with him.  He lifted her bag into the trunk of a small green vehicle and slammed the lid shut.  He opened the back door and motioned for her to step inside.  “I trust you’re ready to depart, doctor?”

“Please stop calling me doctor.”  Yohan Lee had been a wedding gift from Magid Muktari to Sanaa’s mother thirty-five years earlier and he had not changed in all that time.  Although he was a synthetic entity, Sanaa often forgot he was not human.  Though an older model, Yohan was of stellar quality and his learning algorithms gave him the ability to not only learn, but mimic human reactions and motivations.  He’d always seemed, to Sanaa, more human than many true humans.

“I wanted to give you the respect that your title dictates.”

“Doctor is my profession, not my title.”  Sanaa placed a hand on Yohan’s shoulder.  “I’m just Sanaa.”

Sanaa was hardly inside the transport before Firdaws wrapped her arms around Sanaa’s neck.  She pressed a wet kiss onto her cheek.  “It’s been too long, child.  If you didn’t look so much like me, I wouldn’t remember your face.”

Sanaa returned the hug.  “It hasn’t been that long, Umm.” 

Firdaws held up a hand and counted off the years, emphasizing each one by flicking up a long thin finger.  “Four,” she said resolutely.  “That’s too long to stay away from your mother.”

“If you had really missed me, you could have visited orbit-side.”

“You know I can’t stand going orbit-side.  It isn’t natural.  Man is supposed to have soil beneath his feet, not the atmosphere.”

 ****

Few people knew, other his closet family, that Magid Muktari was almost completely blind for the duration of nearly a year.  Pioneers in the ophthamalgic sciences used an advanced yet experimental technique to restore his vision.  Upon opening his eyes for the first time with his newly restored vision, it is said that Muktari exclaimed: Blindness is not the absence of vision, but indeed the state of a heart that despairs.

*****

See? What did I tell ya? Is it not a work of art in progress? Stay tuned because I hope to post follow-up pieces, including those of writer’s Goran Zidar and William Joel. If you like Terraforming, Generation Ships and AI’s, you’ll want to be around for these guys too. They’re kind of a big deal 😉

Updated Anthology Map!

Hey all. As you may know, my writing and I are busy at work producing an anthology about space travel and colonization. We have our location picked out, the star system Gliese 581. We have a planet, known as Gliese 581 g. We still need more writers, I was hoping for a dozen or so people to contribute to our short story collection. So if you’re a writer and enjoy classic sci-fi, space travel, exoplanets, weird aliens, androids, terraforming, sub-orbital colonies, space elevators, terradome and so forth, let me know and I’ll set you up with a project!

In the meantime, I’ve updated our map of the Gliese 581 to more accurately reflect the planets and the names they will be assigned in our story. Have a gander:

Another Anthology Sample!

Gliese 581 g, aka. “Yuva”

Hello all again! Recently, my colleague and collaborator on the upcoming anthology about space and colonization – Mr. Goran Zidar – sent me a draft of his story. Dealing with Terraformers, the story tells the tale of the people who went on ahead of the main colonization force to alter the climate of Gliese 581 g (aka. Yuva) to meet the needs of the coming settlers.

As all fans of sci-fi know, terraforming is a very labor-intensive process that takes decades, if not centuries, and requires some pretty top of the line equipment and hard science. So you can imagine how excited I was to see Mr. Zidar’s take on the whole thing. Well, the text of his draft is posted below, the first installment on what will be a full-length short story, and certainly impressed the hell out of me. Read it for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.

Terraformers:
“Don’t you just love it?” Kirana said. She leaned back against the stones and let the reddish light of the sun bathe her face. The warmth from the small red dwarf star felt good through her oxygen mask, and she closed her eyes to let it wash over her.

“It’s just a sunset, Kira,” her brother, Justin, pointed out. “We see them every day.”

“Dad says that in ten years we’ll be able go outside without masks. I can’t wait.”

“Ten years? That’s ages.”

“It’s not that long when you think about it.”

“What do you mean?” Her brother looked at her, his brows furrowed.

“The machine’s been running for more than thirty years already. Ten years isn’t much compared to that.”

“It is when you’re only eleven.”

“I suppose, but it’s still incredible.” She sighed wistfully. “I’ve lived here my whole life, but it’s like I know we don’t belong here.”

“You’re a weirdo, you know that?” He gave his sister a playful shove.

“You know that Earth’s sun is about three times bigger than here?”

“Now that’s incredible,” Justin said. “Imagine it. Must be like summer all year round.”

“Now you’re the weirdo.” She shoved him back.

“Kira. Justin. Where are you?” Her father’s voice came over the intercom.

She looked across to her brother who rolled his eyes. “On the ridge, Father,” she said, keying the mic for broadcast. “What’s up?”

“I need you both back here. We’ve been summoned. There’s a shuttle arriving to collect us in three minutes.”

“Okay, Dad. We’re on our way.”

“Yippee!” Justin said, clapping his hands together. “I’m going on a shuttle.”

Kira raised an eyebrow. “There must be something big happening for them to send one of those.”

“Let’s hurry.” Justin rose and disappeared between the rocks. “We don’t want to miss it.”

Kira laughed as she chased after her brother. “Slow down, Justin. They won’t leave without us.”

The pair reached the small research station just as the shuttle was touching down. Dust flew everywhere as the landing thrusters engaged to bring the small transport to a gentle stop.

Their father waved them over as he waited for the dust to settle. Kira could tell by the stiffness in his stance that he wasn’t happy. She knew he hated interruptions and a summons from on high would definitely not sit well with him. She slid her hand in his and squeezed it slightly. He relaxed immediately; she always knew how to read his moods.

“What about the ATV?” she said.

“I’m sure they brought someone to drive it back.”

This station was located about 1500 kilometres from the space elevator. The three of them had spent the last few days trekking across the planet’s surface to survey the damaged research stations closest to the space elevator. Most of the data could be collected remotely, but father hated the politics topside and these malfunctioning stations were the perfect excuse for him to get away.

The hatch on the shuttle cracked open, and Daric stepped out. As soon as Justin saw it was him he ran up to the pilot. Daric opened his arms and the pair embraced fondly. Justin dreamed of one being a pilot, and Daric was something of his hero. It’s a good thing he was such a nice guy because Justin can be annoying from time to time.

“Hey there, Daric,” her father said he drew nearer.

“Good evening, Sir.”

Kira felt her dad stiffen. Formality didn’t sit well with him, especially not when it came from Daric.

“What’s up?” he said.

Daric shrugged. “No idea, I’m just the taxi service. Whatever it is, it’s above my pay grade.”

Her father sighed loudly. “Let’s get this over with.”

They all climbed into the shuttle, Justin claiming a seat in the cockpit next to Daric while Kira and her father sat in back. She found her father looking out the window. Dust billowed as the shuttle’s engines started, obscuring the view outside. By the time they’d cleared the dust, they saw that ATV had already begun its long trek back to the Needle, as the space elevator was called.

The trip up to the station perched atop the Needle took less than fifteen minutes. Kira sat in silence while Justin chatted incessantly to Daric. She was constantly amazed at the young pilot’s patience when it came to dealing with her brother. With a smile, she looked out the window at the station that loomed before them.

The station was a reminder of where they came from, the only really tangible thing they had that spoke of Earth. It was built over a hundred and fifty years ago, originally serving as the ship that brought the reconnaissance team here. It was huge, large enough to accommodate some humanity’s best minds and their families.

Doctors, scientists, engineers, mechanics, and teachers, the best and brightest with all the skills needed to shape an entire world to their will. An entire generation had lived and died on that trip. Cryogenic storage techniques were deemed too experimental to risk on this journey. The crew all knew that even with the best life extension therapies available to them, most of those who’d left earth would never live to see their arrival.

Gliese 581 is twenty light-years from Earth. It was a long way to travel, and the journey lasted more than a century. Kira’s father was born in that inky void, a true child of the stars, but she and her brother had been born here. Everything they knew of Earth came from their studies. To her, the human home-world was nothing more than a collection of images and words, equal parts beautiful and terrible. The poisoned ball of rock beneath her was more a home to her than Earth ever would be.

When the colonists first entered the system, their ship was placed into a low geo-stationary orbit around the star’s fourth planet, and their work began. It stopped being a ship, and became the crucible for their hopes and dreams. After all these years it may no longer be capable of interstellar flight, but it remained their home.

She thought of everything they’d managed to accomplish since their arrival. All the lives lost, the risks, the sacrifice, all of it so that when the next waves of humans arrived, they’d have a world to live on. Some part of her wondered if these newcomers would be worthy of it. From what she understood of human nature, she doubted that they would be.

The shuttle docked with the station, and the three of them disembarked, leaving Daric to complete his post flight checks. Their father took them aside and hugged them tightly. It was a long hug, and based on Justin’s fidgeting, not something he was entirely comfortable with.

“What was that for?” Kira said when he finally released them.

Her father smiled. “Does a father need a reason to hug his kids? I just wanted to show you I loved you.”

 “Dad,” Justin pushed their father back a step. “We already know that.”

“You’re going to a council meeting, aren’t you?” He always got clingy before one of those. The nest of vipers he called them. Kira hadn’t ever really seen a viper, but she understood the reference well enough.

He nodded. “Now go home, both of you. We’ve been roughing it for a while so I’m sure you’ll enjoy being free of these damned suits. For a little while I’ll be there just as soon as I can.”

“Yes, father.” Kira sighed.

“Oh, and Kira.”

“I know, I know, keep an eye on Justin.” She turned and ushered her little brother into the station.

“I’ll see you in a little bit.” Her dad called out after them.

Kira rolled her eyes, and give her father a dismissive wave as she turned the corner. Walking through the corridors of the station made her feel uncomfortable. She imagined that the steel walls were closing in on her. It was always like this after coming back from the planet’s surface. Down there she felt like she could go anywhere, do anything, but up here, everything was so constrained, so… regimented.

Things had to be done according to a predefined schedule, and there was never any room for compromise. Of course she understood exactly why such routine was important; their very survival depended on it, but it always took some getting used to after being planet side for a few days. 

See what I mean? Sub-orbital stations, space elevators, atv’s, shuttles and sleeper ships. I’d say this stuff practically writes itself, but it doesn’t! People like Mr. Zidar, Mrs. Muhammed-Ali, Mr. Joel, and myself do! Ah, I’m just kidding, we aint divas and we definitely don’t think our hips weight a tonne. Then again, if this book goes mainstream and makes us famous… all bets are off 😉

Generational Ships

systems___cryogenics_1Ever since my writing group and I got on the subject of space and colonization, some recurring themes have come up. For starters, there’s the concept of interstellar space travel, the kind that doesn’t involve fictitious Faster-Than-Light drive systems and therefore cannot exceed the speed of light. In those situations, which are far more likely to happen in this and the next century, the question of how to keep crews alive until your arrival keeps popping up.

One way is to utilize some kind of cryogenic procedure, where passengers are put into “reefersleep” for the duration of the journey and awakened upon arrival. Though it might sound a bit crude, it’s actually a very practical solution to the problems of how to keep a crew preserved and provided for during the incredibly long voyages that space travel entails. This procedure has come up repeatedly in the realm of science fiction, particularly H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Robert A Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, PKD’s Ubik, the Alien franchise, and the Revelation Space universe, just to name a few.

RAMAThe other solution, which is the subject of this post, is to construct generational ships. These are basically “interstellar arks” where people and even entire biospheres are transported from one location to another. Crews are kept in waking conditions, experience subjective time, and entertain themselves in interactive, simulated or virtual environments in order to stay sane until they complete their voyage. Though much more expensive to build, these ships are an equally elegant solution of what to do about non-FTL space travel and colonization.

These two have made many appearances in science fiction, and I’ve compiled a list of all the Generation Ships, Space Arks, and O’Neil Cylinders I could find.

Firefly:
At the beginning of each episode, it was explained how Earth was used up, prompting humanity to seek out a new home. This is what eventually led them to 34 Tauri  in the 22nd century where they began the process of terraforming and settling its the many worlds and moons. Though it was never explained in detail, mainly because the show was cancelled before they could (screw you Fox!), indications are given in the movie Serenity and the expanded universe that this involved Generation Ships.

In the movie, this was done mainly through visuals, where a large of flotilla dusts off from Earth and eventually finds its way to the system of the White Sun. It was also said that the process of terraforming took decades, which would require that the crews had somewhere to stay while the terraformers did their work. Also, speculative point here, but it would stand to reason that the fleet would have to have some pretty large ships to accommodate both settlers and the kind of equipment they would need.

Chasm City:
This novel, set in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, involves a large thread that follows the settlement of the world known as Sky’s Edge. This took place early in the universe’s backstory, before the development of lighthuggers and therefore required that the ships used be able to support crews for long periods of time.

From Reynold’s descriptions, these ships were large, cylindrical vessels that boasted vast bays to hold their many cryogenically-frozen passengers. At the same time, the waking crew needed vast facilities to provide for their needs. These included mess halls, sleeping quarters, medical bays, and recreational facilities. Sky Haussmann, one of the children amongst the crew, had a nursery with a robotic clown and virtual backgrounds.

This divide, between a waking crew and frozen settlers, represents a sort of compromise between the cryoship design and the generation ship. On the one hand, you’ve got the majority of your crew at near-frozen temperatures and perfectly preserved for the voyage. On the other, you’ve got a crew walking about and looking for food, rest and entertainment. However, it still qualifies, and even inspired my group in our quest to design the perfect story for colonization!

Orphans of the Sky:
One of the earliest known examples of the use of generation ships in sci-fi, this two-novella set was also one of Heinlein’s first works. Like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, it features a massive cylindrical ship that is drifting through space. But unlike Rama, Heinlein’s ship, known as the Vanguard, has become a derelict that is permanently adrift in space.

As the story goes on, we learn that this was due to a mutiny which killed all the piloting officers many generations back. Since that time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. In fact, they now view their ship as the cosmos itself, and interpret its “voyage” as a metaphor.

The crew are also ruled by an oligarchy of “Officers” and “Scientists”, at the head of which is the descendent of the original captain. Much like pre-industrial times, most crew members are dedicated to a simple life where they tend to agriculture and are illiterate. Seldom does anyone ever venture to the “upper decks” where the “muties” (aka. “mutants” or “mutineers”) are kept. These individuals, it is learned, know the truth of the ship’s purpose, another reason why they are ostracized from the rest of the crew.

As you can plainly see, this book not only featured a generation ship and some rather hard science when it came to colonization, it also raised some valid and interesting questions about how space travel and confining environments could effect subsequent generations of people. Those who were born into an enclosed environment would come to know it as their whole world. And in the absence of external, verifiable facts (such as messages from Earth or historical records), they could even be led to believe there was nothing beyond their walls.

Paradises Lost:
Similar in tone and setting to Heinlein’s Orphans, this story by Ursula K. LeGuin focuses instead on the psychological impact that generational travel would have on a human crew. Adapted into a musical, this story explores the basic question of what happens when you spend your whole life (and entire generations) traveling toward a goal, only to find that the endpoint has become otherworldly and unattainable?

The story takes place aboard a generation ship known as the Discovery, where people are born and die on a trip to colonize a distant planet. Much like the Orphans, the ship becomes their entire universe and begins to seem more tangible to them than Earth or their mission to colonize a new world. The reason for this quite simple; as the journey goes on, those who knew a life on Earth are slowly dying off, and subsequent generations know about these things only through tales and lore.

As a result, a new religion is borne which teaches that the ship is “spaceship heaven” and that it is bound for eternity. This religion is known as Bliss, and the younger generation are embracing it against the wishes of the older. The story is told through the eyes of two elder characters – Hsing and Luis. They know their lives will end on board the ship and that their mission lies in the hands of future generations. Naturally, they worry since said generations are convinced that they should never leave the ship they call heaven.

Rendevouz with Rama:
One of the best examples of a generational ship, which extra-terrestrial in origin! Known as Rama, this massive space cylinder was basically a self-contained world that was carrying the Raman civilization from one corner of the galaxy to another. When a crew from Earth arrive and begin to survey the interior, they begin to notice several tell-tale features.

For one, the interior contains several structures which appear to be arranged in “cities” – odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks. In addition, there is a sea that stretches in a band around Rama dubbed the Cylindrical Sea, and trenches cut into the sides that appear to be windows.

In time, all the machinery comes to light, thanks in part to the admission of light through the ship’s long windows. Small creatures that appear to be biological machines (aka. “biots”) begin to come out as well and conducting routine maintenance. In time, they come to the conclusion that the buildings constitute factories, that the cylindrical sea contains trace elements and bio-matter which they will begin to convert into “Ramans” as soon they get in range of their destination.

In the end, it seemed that the Ramans determined that the best way to spread their species was to break them down into their component parts, place them aboard ships that would float for generations through space, and begin recompiling them once they got to where they wanted to go. Ultimately, Sol was just a stopover on their long journey, and more ships were coming in subsequent novels. Still, this first exposure to the alien generation ship was an educational experience!

Ringworld:
Written by Larry Niven, the Ringworld series is considered one of the greatest examples of exploratory sci-fi. Set in the Known Space universe of the distant future, the story revolves around the discovery and exploration of the Ringworlds, an artificial habitation ring built by an extinct civilization. With the makers of these rings long dead, the rings themselves are adrift and their engineered inhabitants degenerated into a primitive state.

These artificial rings are roughly one million kilometers wide and one thousand kilometers across, approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Each one encircles a Sol-type star which provides both life sustaining energy and light. And of course, they rotate, thus providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s through the action of centrifugal force. And night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin ultra strong shadow square wire.

The ringworld has a habitable flat inner surface that is equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Hence, it is able to sustain extensive ecosystems and all forms of life. This appears to be purpose of the rings in the end, the creation of habitable areas in space that were removed from terrestrial environments. And added bonus was the ability to transport said life over vast distances through space without having to stick them in an enclosed environment.

So really, these things were like a gigantic version of a generation ship, capable of moving an entire species or civilization through space.

Stargate Atlantis:

The series Stargate Atlantis contained a few mentions of vessels which fit the profile of generation ships. For starters, there was the Ancients City Ship, a self-contained city that was also a spaceship. Though it was capable of FTL travel, the vessel was capable of sustaining a city-sized population for extended periods of time as it traveled through space.

In addition, in the third season episode entitle “The Ark”, Colonel Sheppard’s team discovers a facility inside a hollowed-out moon that turns out to be an ark created by the people of the planet around which the moon is in orbit. The ark was built to preserve the existence of the people from the planet so that they could reemerge and rebuild their civilization. Generations prior, these people had fought a disastrous war with the Wraith in which they were almost exterminated.

Though not a vessel per se, the moon base served the same purpose as a generation ship. Though the moon orbited their original homeworld and the people really weren’t traveling through space (except in orbit around their planet), the principle was essentially the same. People were kept in stasis until the day came when they could awaken to transplant themselves on the intended world, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their civilization.

Yes, the examples abound! In fact, the concept of the generation ship and related ideas are so fertile that I’m kind of surprised that it took me so long to really appreciate it. But then again, I came to a lot of the classics a little late in life. Ah well, it doesn’t really matter when you get to the destination, provided that you get there and enjoy the journey. Which is kind of the concept behind a generation ship isn’t it? If you can’t just warp your way across the universe – if you got to take your time and drift slow – you might as well travel in style!