Are We There Yet – The Generation Ship

That is the dreaded question.  You can imagine on a journey of thousands of years and potentially a population some of which can live indefinitely how often it will be asked.

They will ask a little more nicely than our kids ask it.  What is our expected time of arrival?

With some relatively basic math and an idea of how fast specific forms of propulsion will go you can come up with estimates of how long it will take to get from solar system to solar system.

Is that then the end of it?  Your journey will take 13,000 years round trip plus a few years to stay at your luxurious destination.

Well, no, I don’t believe that is it.

Technological progress will continue while the generation ship is in transit.  It will happen on Earth, but as I have indicated in previous articles we need a sizable population on the generation ship to ensure that knowledge is propagated and to maintain the culture.

The whole population doesn’t need to be geniuses.  Some of population will be really smart people.  Really smart people with an extended lifetime (we can hope).  People without a profit motive to withhold their gains in knowledge and every reason (to get there and back again like Bilbo, but faster than anticipated).

In addition, there will most likely be codops (Computerized Doppelgangers) on board the ship – the number of them may certainly exceed the number of physical humans.  If you are taking a generation ship – you would want codops of all the top minds in their fields on board.

This means that there needs to be research facilities on board the generation ship.  People and codops will be actively researching and modelling ways of going even faster.  Over hundreds or thousands of years it isn’t a question of if they will be successful, but when, and how much of a performance increase can really happen.

We could even throw together a sort of schedule (for the benefit of our science fiction with the generation ship) and figure out how much faster and when.  Perhaps there will be incremental increases slowly tipping the speed faster from 3.5 million miles per hour and faster.  Each increase in speed reducing round trip time.  It may well be that increases through scientific discovery might slow down – starting at (for example) 1 year for a .1 of light speed, then 2 years for another .1 of light speed – and so on.  Even so, with these distances, even small increases in overall peak cruising speed will have results in how long it takes overall.

There would be a real reason for a codop or person to periodically ask – “Are we there yet?” or more likely, “Has our scheduled arrival date changed?”

I look forward to a future where we have generation ships and a part of humanity – at least 200,000 physical people strong and who knows how many codops – goes there and back again.  That ETA for returning to Earth – it isn’t etched in stone.

The Generation Ship – Building, Maintaining, and Expanding

Previously, I described the path to ensuring that knowledge continues in a generation ship – and that the key to this was to start with a large population.  A large population requires a large ship.

Fortunately, there are many asteroids and dwarf planets in our solar system waiting to be hollowed out, given a bit of spin, and used as starships capable of carrying not only an initially large population, but the population as it increases.

Building The Generation Ship

Even in the present day companies are being formed, designs are being made, and devices created to mine asteroids.  Who knows if any of these companies will be among the companies that finally begin mining asteroids?  It can be said that even something as simple as an electrical, enclosed, ‘safe’ motorcycle has a high risk of the company creating it failing long before the first prototype is created.  Even less chance of a company designing the right equipment, getting it to an asteroid, and maintaining remote control of such devices as required to successfully mine an asteroid and bring the mined objects safely to Earth.

With the progress of technology, the drive of talented people, and time I am sure that we will mine asteroids.  At first these asteroids will be mined for the benefit of people on Earth and large expenses will be paid to get the mined substances back to Earth.

The development of mining asteroids will make the vast majority of the technology necessary to make the first generation ship.  Instead of tunneling into asteroids and mining a few select substances or breaking asteroids down and analyzing the broken down pieces to be selected to make the trip to Earth – these devices will be tasked with hollowing out large asteroids.

Vast amounts of material will not be required to be removed from Earth at huge costs.  A space elevator will not be required (although it would be helpful).  In fact, the ability to automate, remotely control, and have equipment tunnel in to asteroids is here today.  Which means that today, 2/19/2016, we could be starting to build the first generation ship.

Unfortunately, the small minds (sorry to be insulting) at NASA or the politicians that lead them keep pushing for Mars missions.  Mars is a nice target.  I can certainly see the appeal of getting people to Mars.  Think for a minute though – what if we hollowed out a smaller asteroid, brought it in to Earth orbit, manned it, supplied it, and then didn’t really care how long it took to get to Mars?  We could take hundreds of scientists there, instead of six to ten.  They could orbit the Red Planet for as long as they wanted and support a small society.  If you really have to put people on Mars you could do it easily as long as you provide the landing and return craft from Earth manufacture.

Building a Generation Ship – 3D printers and off-Earth manufacturing

The past few years have seen the rise of 3D printers – a manufacturing disruptive technology.  3D printing is really additive manufacturing.  Some 3D printers can be purchased with an additional device that takes powder and extrudes plastic wire that can then be fed in to the 3D printer for the printer to create new objects.  It isn’t too far fetched to imagine a third device that tunnels into an asteroid and captures the dust.  This device – a tunneling collector – then feeds an extruder to create the line to be fed in to the 3D printer.  The 3D printer can then make objects.  This tunneling collector would most likely need to separate the dust in to different materials and it might feed multiple extruders and multiple 3D printers that can work in different materials.

No, this isn’t a detailed specification.  Many years as a programmer and project manager leads to an understanding of what a detailed specification is.  However, at the 10,000 ft level you can understand what technologies are required in order to build a generation ship.

Starting at this point a small group of people could identify and list items necessary to build a generation ship.  Remotely controlling a 3D printer isn’t difficult.  In fact many 3D printers already come with that capability at least over wireless internet connection.  Replacing wifi with a more appropriate radio technology should not be overly difficult.

Planning and designing the internal structure of the generation ship itself would be much more difficult than the simple creation of the technologies to build the generation ship.

Building a Generation Ship – Getting it to Earth Orbit

Creating rocket fuel, handling rocket fuel, transporting rocket fuel on Earth, transporting rocket fuel to Earth orbit, transporting rocket fuel from Low Earth Orbit to the asteroid are all difficult, expensive, and risky.  So, why do any of them?

A highly suggested answer might be that you need fuel to move a large object such as an asteroid from wherever it is in orbit to Earth Orbit.

Hollowing out a large object such as an asteroid would require more than one set of tunneling collectors, extruders and 3D printers.  If you divide the surface area of the asteroid in to sectors you can then have n number of sectors and then a set of equipment for each sector.  In the center of each sector would be the entrance tunnel to the asteroid.

These entrance tunnels would immediately need to be capped by the additive manufacture component.  The caps would be like rocket exhaust tubes.  Gasses can be created from some of the contents of the asteroid and first thing after the creation of the caps/rocket exhausts you create chambers and compression pumps.  We will call the combination of tunneling collector, extruders and 3D printers the Tunneling Collecting Manufacture Facility (TCMF).  First there might be different types of TCMF – some designed for lightweight launch to make the initial tunnels in the asteroid.  Then other more precise units that can be manufactured by the TCMF that do much more refined manufacture and collection capabilities.

As gasses and pressure are created inside the asteroid they will be exhausted out of the capped tunnels with the rocket exhausts.  We can call these Capped Tunnels Rocket Exhausts (CTRE).  An asteroid-wide network needs to be created on-site or delivered to the asteroid.  This system with a modest computer control will manipulate the TCMFs to slowly guide the asteroid to Earth Orbit at one of the Lagrange Points.  Not too close to Earth to cause panic attacks, but close enough to make delivery of additional technologies and the human cargo easier than going all the way out past Mars orbit.

It will take years for the asteroid to arrive at the Lagrange Point.  It will take years to hollow out the asteroid.  It will take years to create the internal buildings and structures for the initial colony.  The fact that it will take years for each task is not daunting.  All three tasks can take place concurrently.  The TCMFs will continue to build themselves and the internal structure of the asteroid.

As the asteroid is guided to the Lagrange Point it will be nudged gently in to a spin.  This spin will have to be fast enough to generate 1g of gravity.

The initial delivery of TCMFs to arrive at the asteroid must be accompanied by solar cells that will need to be placed by automated rovers on the asteroids surface.  Power will be weaker further out from the sun; however, as the asteroid approaches the Lagrange Point it will gain power similar to the power available to solar cells on Earth.

Building a Generation Ship – Interstellar Propulsion System

Electrostatic Ion Drive – will be the main propulsion source for the generation ship.  This can drive ships to get to Mars in 39 days – covering approximately 48,678,219 miles, or about 52,000 miles per hour.  This is an ideal form of propulsion for a ‘ship’ that is already outside of the gravity well of a major planet.

Ion drives only have a very small amount of thrust; however, it is a constant accumulative thrust.  This makes for covering a light-year in about 13,000 years.  This is unfortunately a really long time.

A hybrid drive could be used.  A theoretical drive designed in the 1960’s called Orion – uses nuclear bombs and a giant blast shield to protect the ship – propelling the ship at tremendous speeds.  According to one article I found online could be 200 times faster than the space shuttle which travels at approximately 17,500 mph.  This would be 3.5 million miles per hour.  This results in a light year taking about 4,600 years.

Still, 4,600 years is longer than reliably recorded history of humanity on Earth.

With a combination of nuclear impulse, ion drive, and slingshots by multiple planets, perhaps the ending speed of the generation ship can be shifted even higher.  Between nuclear impulse explosions the ion drive can continue acceleration of the generation ship.

Maintaining a Generation Ship – Regular Scheduled Maintenance

Maintaining regular maintenance over a period of thousands of years presents a lot of difficulties for human staff.  Activities might be scheduled to be maintained once every 50 years, 100 years or even longer intervals.  Certainly, human members of the maintenance staff might not have been alive the last time a specific maintenance task has been performed.

This problem can be attacked by several methods:

  1. Extending the human lifespan.  This is of course of keen interest to me, as I have no interest in dying at any point in time.  There are serious questions raised in increasing the human lifespan.  If there is a maintenance that happens once every 100 years will you reliably remember the performance of this task when you have been alive for 300 years?  Related to this is how much memory can we physically store in our brains?  Is there an upper limit? We have a generation ship with a crew of 200,000 people, and these people may reproduce as often as well, perhaps as often as they can.  If we remove biological death as a possibility, how does this impact the predicted population of the generation ship over thousands of years?  Most people in the present have more than once career over lifetimes of around 70 to 90 years.  Is it really likely that people who are maintenance staff could be forced to be in the same job for hundreds of years?  Probably not.  Perhaps they could be consultants when these rarely performed regular maintenance are performed.
  2. Codops (Computerized Doppelgangers) may become a reality before the first generation ship is created or before it is completed.  More than likely massive computers will be on board with a thriving population of codops.  It is certainly possible that there could be millions of codops living on-board the ship far outnumbering the physical humans on board.  These codops are certainly capable of movement in the electronic world, which means that they could control robotic bodies as easily as say – they could control a virtual body playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft.  Problems of memory over hundreds of years would be solved.  In fact, you could make many necessary positions crewed exclusively by codops with robotic avatars.
  3. Complete Automation – could be possible.  However; even mildly taking serious the movie “Wall-e” and of course “2001: A Space Odyssey” might urge a bit of caution in terms of complete automation.  However; this is also a problem with using codops.  Codops while human in origin are essentially a specific branch of AI and could easily go crazy like Hal did in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or perhaps even easier.  At least Hal required a logical paradox to go crazy.  Often, it takes much less to make a human crazy, harmful of self, or harmful to others (see my series of posts on the Inhumanity of Humans).

Sourcing parts should be easy with some notable exceptions.  The generation ship would be large enough to support a vast store room for parts required that cannot be created on-board ship.  Every effort would have to be made to be able to source parts from within the generation ship.  Manufacturing – including 3D printing – does pose risks to the crew and citizens – in that there is no place for pollution to go.  Some of the regular maintenance we are outlining will certainly involve cleaning of the air.

There should be at least 1 nuclear power plant on-board the generation ship.  It would provide power to all the internal usages.  In addition it would provide power for the ion drive.  Finally, the creation of the nuclear impulse bombs needs to be sourced from somewhere.

Nuclear power in an enclosed area poses threats to the crew and citizens.  What is a nuclear accident and tragedy on Earth if it occurred inside the generation ship would most certainly result in the death or destruction of the health of the vast majority of the crew and citizens.  Although, the codops would be fine it would be a horror beyond horrors for the ship to only be crewed by codops like some ghost ship – much like the beginning of “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke or Greg Bear’s “Eon”.

Maintaining a Generation Ship – Irregular Maintenance

It is bad when your car breaks down.  You have to call a tow truck.  You have to buy parts that perhaps were only made for your car and cost a lot of money.  You have to pay for mechanics to work on the car because you can’t do it yourself.

On a generation ship there are no tow trucks.  Most likely the crew and citizens would be the fastest moving humans in the history of humanity.  Even if there was a tow truck for generation ships it would be unlikely to be able to catch the generation ship.

Similarly, there is no going home for spare parts.  It is just barely possible that spare parts could be sent to the generation ship.  While the generation ship would hold the fastest moving humans in the universe, non-living objects that can withstand higher rates of acceleration are certainly possible and might be able to catch up with the generation ship – at least during the early parts of the journey.

Of course, those spare parts won’t be sent until the radio message from the generation ship reaches Earth.  Then the humans of Earth (if they so choose) would need to make the part and the automated ship to send the part (who knows how long that will take) and then there is the sheer travel time from Earth (which may be further away than when the generation ship left) to the generation ship.  Knowing the humans of Earth they may just debate making the part and sending it and decide not to.  Not to mention that if the problem were on an essential system waiting years for the part or parts could involve waiting past the deaths of all the physical humans on board the generation ship.

Relying on Earth for any support is likely to be a wildly delirious fantasy.  Bad Earth humans, bad humans.

Resulting in the idea – that no matter what the generation ship must be self-reliant in any cases of irregular maintenance.  All parts must be sourced or stored on-board the ship.

Expanding a Generation Ship – Population Increase Beyond Expectations

As discussed earlier in – for lack of a better word – this white paper on generation ships – extending human life may well be very important to ensure that regular maintenance is performed on the ship.  There are also some side benefits to help the ships crew and citizens maintain cultural coherence or consistency in the thousands of years they are away from the Earth and passing knowledge from one generation to the next (and many other generations).

Humans, in general, when presented with not a lot of entertainment like to have sex.  Perhaps there will be technology that will allow us to turn pregnancy on and off with 100% accuracy; however, more than likely there will be accidents.  Many accidents over thousands of years.  These accidents may increase the population at an unexpectedly higher rate than planned.  No matter how large an asteroid chosen to make the generation ship – it will be a finite space.

Over thousands of years there may be cultural changes where it is viewed desirable to have lots of children and where it is frowned on to have lots of children.  In any case, the point of a generation ship is the survival of humanity.  Yes, the generation ship will explore space.  However, in thousands of years when the generation ship returns to Earth there may no longer be humans on it.  The generation ship could well return to Earth to find it uninhabitable.  Humanity might exist, but devolved and completely forgotten about the generation ship.  Humanity may just be humanity the way it is right now – with little technological progress due to Luddite attitudes after some technological disaster and have forgotten the generation ship.  When these children of Earth return – perhaps the greeting of Luddite Earth would not be so warm and welcome.

Space is not empty.  We don’t know for sure what is really out there.  I suspect that there are many planetoids, dwarf planets, brown dwarf stars, ejected asteroids from unknown solar systems to be used as supplies if we have the technological capability to do that.  The tentative plan would be to locate and tow (use as blast shield and attach to main asteroid) any large asteroids that can be located in the interstellar space between solar systems if necessary.

This would be no easy task.  If our asteroid is moving at 3.5 million miles per hour any asteroid potentials to add to the ship would have to be located long in advance of when our generation ship passes them.  There would need to be a team, supplies (including nuclear impulse bombs), equipment and a space ship to take all these things to the target.  The space ship would have to decelerate (potentially very quickly) and the generation ship would have to decelerate (but not as much).  Preparation of the new target would need to be done incredibly fast – perhaps by codops with avatars.  Then the asteroid would have to accelerate to moving faster than the generation ship in order to catch the generation ship.  The two asteroids would have to be attached to each other which would be very difficult.  Then the two asteroids would accelerate as one back to cruising speed.  Over the years after this the new asteroid would be hollowed out and become a twin of the original generation ship.

It is likely in this scenario only codops with rugged avatars could complete the task.  Codops being non-biological in nature would be able to decelerate far quicker than a ship with physical humans on board.  Then, once minimal preparations have been performed, the codops and their avatars could accelerate faster than any physical human could tolerate to catch up to the main generation ship faster.

Even in the codop-only scenario – it is likely that speed benefits gained by slingshot effects in our original solar system would be lost – potentially permanently impacting the time the generation ship requires to go interstellar distances.

The Generation Ship – the Paradox of Knowledge Propagation and Crew Size

A long stand-by of science fiction is the generation ship.  The core concept is that there is so much space between solar systems that a ship would need to be developed to last thousands of years.  People (at present) don’t live for thousands of years.  So, a generation ship might start with a small population that would be designed to grow over time.

Lots of science fiction writers over time have found the problems that a generation ship might encounter.  One problem is that we never know how the next generation of humans will turn out.  This problem is multiplied when talking about two generations.  It boggles the mind how things might turn out on a generation ship where the people have hundreds or thousands of generations until they reach their destination.

One way to alleviate this generational problem which we encounter as much on Earth as we would in generation ships is to have a large population base in the beginning instead of only a growing population at the end.  The more people there are and the more varied their ages (including the very old) the more likely inter-generational information will survive.

This might seem counter-intuitive; however, at least as far as knowledge is concerned a population needs to have more than one teacher in any subject.  In order to have more than one teacher for each subject you have to have a need for more than one teacher in each subject.  These teachers get together for meetings to figure out how best to teach their subjects, what are the best practices for teaching, and many other related topics.

The paradox is that a generation ship will have larger populations as the journey progresses.  How do you manage a large population that then, in turn grows larger over time.  Why do you need a growing population?  Is it necessary to assume that a generation ship’s population grow over time?

Cultures that are thriving, living, and developing new concepts – are cultures that are growing in size.  This is an assumption on my part.  In addition, populations that are to remain exactly the same size require draconian measures in controlling individual crew member’s lives that inherently a very static, benevolent dictatorship style government (or not so benevolent) would necessarily develop.

What does this say about our generation ship?  First, it has to be large.  Greg Bear’s story “Eon” involves what appears to be an abandoned generation ship created from a large asteroid called “The Stone” or “The Potato”, but appears to have been the real-world asteroid Juno.  In a funny twist like the Empire’s newest super weapon – you might needs to start with a hollowed out dwarf planet which when fully utilized can hold millions of people and start with a population of 200,000 (approximately).  Then you have things like different schools, different school districts and, most importantly to our topic, multiple teachers for each topic.  This counters the paradox of starting with a large population in a generation ship against spatial constraints.