In Space Nobody Cares what You Do (as Long as You Don’t Do Anything)

Jan 6, 2015 | Thoughts | 0 comments

Space travel and colonization is a common love of libertarians and the like, and I, though neither libertarian or the like, am all for it. The concept at heart may be the infinite liberty of the eternal frontier–if you do not want to live in the local space station with its rules, you hop in your ship and rocket off to somewhere else.

Unfortunately (or not), this is hardly the case even if we did colonize space.

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A more Earthly (or rather, Oceanic) concept is of seasteading. A group of like-minded persons acquire a ship or floating entity of some sort, sail out into international waters, and then enforce whatever rules they want aboard. Unless they begin pillaging other sea-going vessels, they will likely not be disturbed. If someone aboard no longer wishes to be a part of this endeavor, he simply leaves. (One asks how this works if the mothership has no smaller boats or ships able to take him to shore, and as of yet I have heard no answer.)

Spacesteading is even more attractive to this freedom-minded mind. There is unlimited space in space, after all. As for being disturbed–

We must forget the images of popular scifi for a moment, and consider the real-life possibilities of space colonization.

All space travel (and remember, we are talking only real-life possibilities!) must be solely on Newton’s third law of motion. Either it is a rocket that shoves mass out the other end, or a solar sail that catches the solar wind. These are the only way to change velocity and therefore orbit, or, in other words, the only sources of delta-v.

Because of this immutable fact, space travel is not like Columbus sailing over the ocean or Leif Erikson before him. It is not like an airliner that goes across continents and if needed, can stop at any nearby airport. It is its own beast.

A space trip is impossible NOT to plan in advance. Every gram of fuel, reaction mass, and payload must be completely accounted for before ignition, or it will all be lost completely. A small miscalculation of the infamous Cold Equations is irreparable.

Thus, you cannot on your trip to Mars decide you’d rather go to Ceres instead, or toss an antique coin to decide which of Saturn’s moons you’d wish to visit when you get there.

Ah, I hear the one in the back: “What about torchships?”

What, indeed. Even if you do have a powerful enough rocket (a torchship, to the SF fan), economics dictate that you will not carry too much fuel. In fact, you will probably just carry enough fuel and supplies to get there within a margin of error. And, of course, torchship fuel must always be more expensive because of its higher energy content.

But enough. The point is that space travel is so difficult and expensive that Space Galt can go found Space Galt’s Gulch out in space and no one will come knocking on his airlock that did not fully intend to go there.

At first, this would seem wonderful to the libertarian-minded space fan. All the space you want and material can pay for, and no one can ever bother you! And unfortunately (or not) this is not possible.

I am going to skip the various arguments for and against libertarianism and its divers forms that have always been made, in space or not. Children will be born on these far-off settlements, and must be raised. Crimes will happen and must be punished. People will simply bitterly disagree, and then one side must control the station eventually, and the others perish or leave.

What makes Space Galt’s Gulch different, and impossible, is the first law of Newtonian physics: Objects in motion stay in motion unless acted on by another force.

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While it is argued whether or not a falling space rock did extinct the dinosaurs, space rocks do fall, and with enough energy they’d extinct anything.

Suppose some group finds and colonizes and an asteroid, and having sickened themselves on whatever ill of Earthly humanity they wish to “cure”, shove the asteroid towards Earth, and then succeed in murdering entire civilizations.

The correct answer to this supposition is not “Oh, well.”

It is also not, “They wouldn’t have the manpower.” Any space colonization effort, in the modern imagination, requires hundreds of robots, and it does not matter whether each robot has one individual master or one master has a hundred robots. The group might not even be on the asteroid in the first place, simply programming their electronic minions to do the deed for them.

It is also not, “They wouldn’t have the energy.” If the kind of power source exist to make space travel possible in the first place exist, they can power the engines of their doom-asteroid in the same way. Even if they don’t have the energy all at once, so what? There is no friction in space. Given enough time, even the smallest of engines could be mortal.

It is also not, “Their neighbors in the Asteroid Belt will stop them.” It is uncommon knowledge that the Asteroid Belt is not one large field clogged with asteroids. The romantic image of some ‘Belter civilization–with mining ships made of poorly-welded scrap and piloted by coarse pioneers that enforce their own mining rights–is simply not the case. The asteroids in the belt are so far apart that it is usually easier to get from Earth to a given asteroid than from one to another. These terrorists will be alone, and it is Mother Earth alone who must stop her unruly children.

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Hostis Humani Generis, in the form of sea-goers, are called pirates. If some ship on international waters decides to harass some superpower’s shipping, then that superpower will arrive with some small section of its navy and utterly destroy them. As it is so unlikely for a pirate to succeed in such a scenario, there are rarely pirates in the first place, and so no nation really cares if some group of people on a ship or a pier declare themselves a nation as long as they aren’t too annoying. Even if the pirates do succeed, it is a tragedy, an outrage, but the actual damage done to the nation is not mortal.

Hostis Humani Generis, in the form of space travelers, are not such a minor concern.

How does Earth, or Mars, or whatever large country from which Space Galt hails know that Space Galt’s Gulch is not a band of space terrorists planning to drop their asteroid or station into them? They don’t.

Their only warning would be if they see the asteroid is not where it should be, and then they can dispatch a ship to stop it–but the ship must be armed, and there is no hiding in space. They might need a whole fleet, and they would have to build and send it in time to stop the asteroid.

Perhaps Earth will have build a standing space navy, just in case. However, the easier it is for Earth to assault some distant asteroid-colony, the less freedom that distant colony has. “Think of the children!” cries the Earth voter. “What might they be doing to them up there in that horrible station?”

The simpler solution is to never let anyone who might ever possibly cause trouble out of sight of Earth. Thus, no Space Galt, no Space Galt’s Gulch.

Ah, I hear the one in the back: “What about torchships?”

What, indeed. The danger of torchships is that they themselves are weapons of mass destruction. The standard rule of thumb is that anything traveling at three kilometers a second has kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT. At a high enough velocity, a can of soup is more deadly than a warhead of the same mass. Earth has even less reason to let Space Galt go his Space Way if he has access to torchship technology. If nothing else the theoretical terrorist group can put it on their asteroid and thrust it towards Earth even faster!

But fine, suppose Space Galt and all his Space Friends are banned from having any kind of torchship, and in fact every civilian has to go around on wimpy ion drives or solar sails. Problem solved? Nope.

Consider that one of the biggest issues in modern politics is nuclear proliferation. Though some of the secrets of nuclear weapons are hidden, not all of them are. Pirates can only steal and destroy. But if some terrorists found a way to make nuclear weapons from only algae and deep-water fish, that would be the end of seasteading. We would insist that everyone in the sea have license to do so, and make sure that no one ever stay too long. If they do, we would force on them inspectors to investigate.

Thus, with the very real possibility of a torchship-powered asteroid strike, Earth would have to send inspectors every so often to ensure that neither Space Galt nor his Space Friends nor anyone in Space Galt’s Gulch is or has ever tried to build a torchship engine, freedom be darned. If anyone were to try to go out of reach of Earth’s torchship navy, that would be grounds of their immediate destruction.

And inevitably, if inspectors come they will demand to be paid, and soon enough Earth will wonder why they are spending their own money to make sure some small group is not misbehaving, when that small group is not even being taxed. Death is inevitable even in space, and also apparently the reach of the Space IRS.

Which leaves us with what? The end of space colonization altogether? Hardly. I suspect we will end up with colonies that are large enough to protest any inspectors and become their own space nations. They will doubtlessly not be some futuristic minarchic paradise. Or, possibly more likely, there will be an wide open frontier up until the first asteroid incident, and that will be the end of the Wild Wild Section of Space Distant from Earth.

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Postscript: It occurred to me while writing this post that Earth could construct laser batteries to stop an asteroid drop. However, I suspect the very technologies allowing a laser platform in orbit to be fired at an asteroid will allow a laser platform on the asteroid to fire into orbit.

Postscript 2: I have used “torchship” as a generic term for fission drives (Project Orion) NSWR ships (Zubrin Drives) and theoretical fusion drives. If humanity has reached the point of using antimatter as fuel, this question of space colonies will no doubt have already been decided long since.

I note that fission bombs, nuclear salt water, and fusion are all sources of energy that can be used for some other very dangerous purpose than merely asteroid drops, and therefore their existence alone on far-off colonies is a hazard for the homeworld.


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