Why Generation Ships Will NOT “Sink” A Failure To Communicate

Recently Sarah Hoyt published a post of mine:


While I was ecstatic to guest post on Sarah’s blog, File 770 reposted with their usual editorial style and Mike’s commenters behaved in their usually classy, hyper intelligent fashion, flinging their usual monkey poo. Because they didn’t actually read the links I posted they really had no way of knowing what I was talking about. I was directly referencing and being critical of the post that Mr. Robinson wrote, not the novel.  But if you didn’t read the posts there’s no way to understand that.  Thus the monkey poo.  That’s what happens when you don’t understand things.

Pixel Scroll 4/12/16 My Pixels Were Fair And Had Scrolls In Their Hair

Apparently when I tried to point out that I was using a professional perspective I was being pompous.

(4) BEYOND LIMITS. Man, that John Carlton excerpt is really compelling me not to click through. Partly because the introductory clause “As an engineer” can be pretty reliably translated as “I am about to mistake my own pomposity for objective fact.” (Not saying being an engineer means someone will do this. But using “As an engineer” as a preamble often heralds it.)

“As an engineer…..”

IME, pretty much any explanation that begins with “As a/an (insert label here)…..” has a pretty high chance for less than productive commentary.

(4) This was the equivalent to one of those “X reacts to X reacting to {youtube video}” videos. If you are going to weigh in on a book, have the decency to read it.
Lord knows I found Aurora to be a bad book, but I can say this as I slogged through every page of shitty characters, bad dialog, flimsy plot, and contrived ending. The only things that I can take from Carlton’s “review” is that he fancies himself an engineer and needed an excuse to tell the Web about it.

Sorry, but I was an engineering student not a literary major. I think that if I’m going to critique something from a technical standpoint, stating that I have an appropriate background is relevant.  And I don’t “fancy myself” as and engineer and designer, it’s what I normally do and have the hardware to prove it. As for needing an excuse, I post about 14 posts a week, here.  The post that I sent Sarah started out as this one, like all the other posts. Sarah asked for guest post and I sent it in rather than posting it here.  I should have included a bio and link to here. My bad. Whether or not I am an engineer or not, well there this hanging on my wall:


And here’s the space habitat that I designed for the NSS space habitat contest.


The fact is that behind that old drawing was a LOT of effort to look at long term survival in space really hard.  I needed something really good for a portfolio and I worked hard to get the best numbers that I could. So I gained good idea what the difficulties in designing a generation ship might be.  It was from that background that I started the blog post.


4) in loyal adherence to the puppy tradition, Carlton reviews a book he hasn’t read.

When you have the capability to build starfaring craft, planets suck. they have those nasty deep gravity wells and keep all their good stuff in their centers where it’s tough to get to. This is a spacefaring society. Why would they care about planets at all, at least in the beginning?

[…] why the biomes? Doesn’t that add complexity that may not be necessary?

So his idea of a good time is apparently for thousands of people to spend generations upon generations of their lives cooped up in a space ship, on a trip carefully planned to avoid going anywhere in particular.

Actually I was commenting on what KSR and the others posted in the stuff that I DID read.  I was not reviewing the book.  I have a VERY limited budget for reading material right now and I’ve never been a fan of KSR so I didn’t buy it.  Also, a spacefaring culture might have a different attitude about “cooped up.” Do most people feel “cooped up” because they live in a town.  Also I never said that people would live in  just ONE space ship. And pioneering is not about “having a good time,” it’s about risk, growth and  going forward into the future. Pioneering is hard, rough and not fun at all.  At the end you have will have “built that” for your kids, if not for yourself.

4) I had no idea that deciding to check out John Carlton’s post would take me to Sarah Hoyt’s blog. He was apparently stimulated to write by a couple of Robinson blog posts and substantial reviews of “Aurora” which he cites up front in his post. He evidently felt this was enough for the purposes of his post, but he really should have read the book, I think it pretty much goes without saying.

Of course his main argument is a broad political one, suitable for According To Hoyt. An important aspect of the novel is that the characters who arrive at the destination star system are meant to be more or less realistic human beings in unprecedented desperate circumstances that they didn’t volunteer for, the result of arguably quixotic decisions taken by their ancestors. Carlton says they lack “pioneering spirit” because they are socialists, like (he says) Robinson. I think this is naive and misses the point. However I suspect it would probably have some resonance with some of the novel’s detractors who do not share Carlton’s politics.

I think that one problem was that the Prager video was edited out of the post when it got transferred to Sarah. My fault.  I also should have elaborated more about the things I’ve learned from my family history and why that cultural approach worked so well.  Still it was a blog post, not a dissertation. How does he even know what my politics even are, anyways?

The commenters did point to this post from Charlie Stross.


Which is more of the same.



Since I still had the post ready to go I thought that I would expand upon it. One thing that was cut from the post on Sarah’s blog was the ability to insert quotes from the posts I was referencing. So here it is again with the stuff added.



Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book recently apparently to show that interstellar travel is impossible.  He expresses his point of view in this post.

Earth is our only home.

Oh no again!

This conclusion, startling to some, obvious to others, has ramifications that are worth pondering. If it comes to be a generally agreed on view, it might change how we act as individuals and a civilization. These changes in behavior might turn out to be crucial for our descendants. So although this entire discussion consists of speculations about hypothetical futures, which is to say, science fictions, still they are worth thinking about, as useful orientations in our sense of our own history as a species.

The problems that will keep us from going to the stars can be loosely grouped into categories: physical, biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological. One could add economical, but economic problems are trivial compared to the rest, as economics is amenable to adjustment on demand. Reality is not so tractable.

Physically, the main issue is that the stars are too far away.

This problem has been finessed in many science fiction stories by the introduction of some kind of faster-than-light travel, but really this is not going to happen. It’s a convenience employed to get us out into a great story space, a magic carpet that gives us the galaxy. I like that story space very much, but any realistic plan for getting to the stars will require slower-than-light travel, probably quite a bit slower. The usual speed mentioned in these discussions, as keeping a balance between the fastest one can imagine accelerating a spaceship while still being able to decelerate it later, is one tenth of light-speed.

The closest stars are four light years away, although now we know that this Centauri group has no planets we can terraform. Among other nearby stars, Tau Ceti, twelve light-years away, is now known to have planets in its habitable zone; they are too massive for human inhabitation (five or six g), but they might be orbited by habitable moons. Traveling at one-tenth light-speed, a voyage there would take 120 years plus the time needed for acceleration and deceleration, so that people speak of approximately two hundred years transit time.

Thus a crossing to even the closest stars will require a multiple generation effort, and the spaceship will need to be a kind of ark, carrying all the other animals and plants the humans will carry with them to their new world. This suggests a very large and complicated machine, which would have to function in the interstellar medium for two centuries or more, with no possibility of resupply, and limited possibilities for repair. The spaceship would also have to contain within it a closed biological life support system, in which all the flows of energy and matter would have to recycle as close to perfectly as possible, minimizing catches or clogs of any kind.

Here is where the biological and ecological problems come to the fore, but sticking for now to purely physical problems, the starship would be exposed to far more radiation than we are on Earth, where the atmosphere and magnetosphere protect us to an extent. Effects of that extra radiation are not fully known, but they won’t be good. Cladding would help, but would add to the weight of the ship; the fuel carried for deceleration might serve as cladding en route, but that fuel will get burned as the starship slows down, increasing the starfarers’ exposure, already higher than it would have been on Earth.

Lastly, in terms of purely physical problems, if the starship runs into anything substantial (like a couple of kilograms) while moving at a tenth of light speed, the impact could be catastrophic.

These physical problems, especially those concerning propulsion and deceleration, are the ones that have received the most consideration by the starship discussion and advocacy community. As engineering problems they can can be given at least hypothetical engineering solutions, using equations from physics that we know to be true. Thus they are, in effect, the easiest problems that starships will face, being relatively straightforward. But they aren’t that easy.

Biological problems are harder for humans to solve than physical problems, because biology concerns life, which is extraordinarly complex, and includes emergent properties and other poorly understood behaviors. Ultimately biology is still physics, but it constitutes a more complex set of physical problems, and includes areas we can’t explain.

We do know that things go wrong in biological system, because this happens all the time; living things get sick and die. They also very often eat each other, or exist as diseases for each other. These realities mean that biological and ecological problems are much more intractable than physical problems, and are unsolvable in the enclosed context of a multi-generational starship.

It’s a matter of size of community, and its isolation from new inputs. A starship would be something like an island, but an island far more isolated than any island on Earth. Processes identified by island biogeography would apply inside a starship, and many of these processes would be accentuated by the radical isolation. As generations of people, plants and animals passed, reproductive and evolutionary success would be harmed by genetic bottlenecks, also disease, limits on resources, and so on. The super-islanding effect might cause more species than usual to become smaller, and to mutate in other ways, as one sees on ordinary islands. And because bacteria tend to evolve at faster rates than mammals, complete isolation may lead to the development of a suite of bacteria quite different from what the spaceship was sent off with. All mammals include huge numbers of bacteria living inside them, either symbiotically, parasitically, or without significant interaction, so this more rapid genetic shift in the bacterial community could become a big problem to all the larger creatures. On Earth there is a constant infusion of new bacteria into mammals, which sometimes can lead to bad results, as we know; but overall, it’s a necessary aspect of healthy existence.

We are always teamed with many other living creatures. Eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, and this relatively new discovery is startling, because it forces us to realize that we are not discrete individuals, but biomes, like little forests or swamps. Most of the creatures inside us have to be functioning well for the system as a whole to be healthy. This is a difficult balancing act, and does not work perfectly even on Earth; but divorced from Earth’s bacterial load, and thus never able to get infusions of new bacteria, the chances of suffering various immune problems similar to those observed in over-sterile Terran environments will rise markedly.

Because we need a broad array of bacterial companions, one would want to bring along as much of Earth as you could fit into a starship. But even the largest starship would be about one-trillionth the size of Earth, and this necessary miniaturization would almost certainly lead to unknown effects in our bodies.

This leads us to the ecological problems, or perhaps we were there all along, because biology is always ecological, as every living thing is a miniature ecological system. But focusing on the level of the community brings up the problems created by the metabolic flow of substances in a closed biological life support system. These flows, of both living and non-living substances, would have to stay balanced within fairly tight parameters, and they would have to avoid any major rifts or blockages. Cycles of oxygen and carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other chemicals and elements, would have to occur without major fluxes and without catch-points along the way where the element is getting clogged in the system. Earth experiences large ecological fluxes over time, with build-ups of certain elements (oxygen in the atmosphere, carbon in sedimentary rocks) that force evolutionary processes: whatever is alive has to adapt to the new conditions or go extinct. Both often happen.

These fluxes and build-ups would happen inside a starship too, but as the starfarers would be interested in keeping themselves from going extinct, they would have to manage or finesse all the flows to keep from being harmed by them. This would require supporting almost every other living component of the system, except the diseases they would inevitably carry with them; and if chemicals like phosphorus were bonding to substrates as they cycled in the water cycle, which is something they tend to do, this would be bad for the system as a whole. There would never be a chance for exterior additions to the system, nor any good way to stop the cycles, clean up the substrates and release clogged chemicals. Nor would it be easy to fight or escape diseases that would have piggybacked their way onot the ship; or to deal with any newly evolved aggressive microbial species suddenly feeding on plants, animals, or humans.

In short, a perfectly recycling ecological system is impossible; Earth is not one, and an isolated system a trillion times smaller than Earth would exacerbate the effects of the losses, build-ups, metabolic rifts, balance swings, clogging, and other actions and reactions. All that could be accomplished by starfarers in such an ark would be to deal with these problems as well as possible, minimizing them so that they might hang on long enough for the starship to reach its destination.


And this one.

On the other hand it would have to be small enough to accelerate to a fairly high speed, to shorten the voyagers’ time of exposure to cosmic radiation, and to breakdowns in the ark. Regarded from some angles bigger is better, but the bigger the ark is, the proportionally more fuel it would have to carry along to slow itself down on reaching its destination; this is a vicious circle that can’t be squared. For that reason and others, smaller is better, but smallness creates problems for resource metabolic flow and ecologic balance. Island biogeography suggests the kinds of problems that would result from this miniaturization, but a space ark’s isolation would be far more complete than that of any island on Earth. The design imperatives for bigness and smallness may cross each other, leaving any viable craft in a non-existent middle.

The biological problems that could result from the radical miniaturization, simplification and isolation of an ark, no matter what size it is, now must include possible impacts on our microbiomes. We are not autonomous units; about eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, but the DNA of a vast array of smaller creatures. That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation, and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences, and trying to replace them artificially. What the viable parameters are on the replacements would be impossible to be sure of in advance, as the situation is too complex to model. Any starfaring ark would therefore be an experiment, its inhabitants lab animals. The first generation of the humans aboard might have volunteered to be experimental subjects, but their descendants would not have. These generations of descendants would be born into a set of rooms a trillion times smaller than Earth, with no chance of escape.

In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.

Of course sociology and psychology are harder fields to make predictions in, as humans are highly adaptable. But history has shown that people tend to react poorly in rigid states and social systems. Add to these social constraints permanent enclosure, exile from the planetary surface we evolved on, and the probability of health problems, and the possibility for psychological difficulties and mental illnesses seems quite high. Over several generations, it’s hard to imagine any such society staying stable.

Still, humans are adaptable, and ingenious. It’s conceivable that all the problems outlined so far might be solved, and that people enclosed in an ark might cross space successfully to a nearby planetary system. But if so, their problems will have just begun.

Any planetary body the voyagers try to inhabit will be either alive or dead. If there is indigenous life, the problems of living in contact with an alien biology could range from innocuous to fatal, but will surely require careful investigation. On the other hand, if the planetary body is inert, then the newcomers will have to terraform it using only local resources and the power they have brought with them. This means the process will have a slow start, and take on the order of centuries, during which time the ark, or its equivalent on the alien planet, would have to continue to function without failures.

It’s also quite possible the newcomers won’t be able to tell whether the planet is alive or dead, as is true for us now with Mars. They would still face one problem or the other, but would not know which one it was, a complication that could slow any choices or actions.

So, to conclude: an interstellar voyage would present one set of extremely difficult problems, and the arrival in another system, a different set of problems. All the problems together create not an outright impossibility, but a project of extreme difficulty, with very poor chances of success. The unavoidable uncertainties suggest that an ethical pursuit of the project would require many preconditions before it was undertaken. Among them are these: first, a demonstrably sustainable human civilization on Earth itself, the achievement of which would teach us many of the things we would need to know to construct a viable mesocosm in an ark; second, a great deal of practice in an ark obiting our sun, where we could make repairs and study practices in an ongoing feedback loop, until we had in effect built a successful proof of concept; third, extensive robotic explorations of nearby planetary systems, to see if any are suitable candidates for inhabitation.

Unless all these steps are taken, humans cannot successfully travel to and inhabit other star systems. The preparation itself is a multi-century project, and one that relies crucially on its first step succeeding, which is the creation of a sustainable long-term civilization on Earth. This achievement is the necessary, although not sufficient, precondition for any success in interstellar voyaging. If we don’t create sustainability on our own world, there is no Planet B.


I don’t think that it could be more clear that he is saying that starflight is impossible.  I disagree.

David Brin has some rejoinders here.

1- First, where I absolutely agree with Kim Stanley Robinson is over the biggest of all Big Lies in hard-SF tales about humans conquering the galaxy… the notion that it will be easy for ortho-humanity to colonize other earthlike worlds. A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities… this re-figuring of the American West in space is a standard motif, from Poul Anderson to Lois Bujold and a thousand other authors, and although it is so alluring a dream, it ain’t necessarily so.

A point that Stan hammers repeatedly, in AURORA, is that living ecosystems defend themselves. They have predation pyramids and immune systems and it seems improbable that human settlers will just fit right in, finding it easy to eat but not too-easy to be eaten… or simply poisoned by a zillion incompatible chemicals unfamiliar and lethal to Earth biology.  Some authors have pointed out this problem before—Ursula LeGuin, David Gerrold in his Cthorr series and I’ve poked at it. Indeed, the SF author with the biggest galactic empire of all—Isaac Asimov—gave himself an out by assuming that all 25 million human-settled worlds had been free of metazoan life when robotic machines came along to terraform them for humanity. (See this resolved and made clear in Foundation’s Triumph.)

So, at one level, KSR is offering a badly-needed splash in the face with some cold-water reality, countering a hoary and overly-lazy old SF trope.  And yet…

And yet, there is such a thing as way-overcompensation.  In fact, it now seems likely that alien life forms will use plentiful adenine as their energy molecule and as one of their nucleotides.  And the 20+ amino acids that we use in proteins just happen to be the ones that are most thermodynamically stable and easiest to produce and collect.  I am not saying there won’t be bizarrely different biochemistries out there!  But if you take twenty life worlds out there, I bet some will supply most of what we need to eat, enabling us to supplement with transplanted foods.  The poisoning or immune system problems are bigger unknowns. But are you saying it will be forever beyond human science to analyze such things and reconfigure versions of humanity that would be capable of coping?

Indeed, this notion of us adapting to new homes is one that both KSR and I have dealt with, before. Trouble is… it distracts from AURORA’s core polemical message.  And that message is a heavy one.

2- Alas, we keep running into the same problem, even among fellow members of our Promethean guild. To envision that your current set of problems might seem quaint to people just a generation hence. 

In this case, when an author uses tech-science difficulties to stymie his colonists, the question then arises… might not the next mission learn from these mistakes? One has only to squint and picture that successor ship finding Tau Ceti’s obstacles quite surmountable.

Especially since… and this is kinda crippling… (spoiler alert!) …. Earth eventually saves some of the returning colonists by sending them exactly such a trick of technology.  One that will change utterly the design of the next wave of starships, making them four or five orders of magnitude simpler, safer, easier, cheaper and quicker!

In other words: okay okay, so generation ships are barely plausible. But then, in that case, how about skipping them to something better?

3- Another deck-stacking… Robinson presumes Solar System civilization is just barely rich enough to have afforded to send a few generation ship expeditions… but not (generations later) wealthy enough to make expeditions increasingly a matter of proliferating whim. In the end, the stay-at-home lesson boils down to an assumption of permanent (if relative) poverty.

Indeed, the simplest way to perfect your systems for a generation ship is simply to keep such a ship as a freestanding colony in the Solar System. There might be ten thousand such habitats in a rich civilization.  Pick a few that volunteer to have no physical contact with others, for a century. Many of the closed ecology problems KSR discusses could be old-hat and solved.

4- Ah, but a strong moral point against generation ships is the commitment of your grand-children to a stressful and dangerously limited life in which they had no choosing.  Stan does a good job conversationally weighing the ethical tradeoffs… if leaning on the scales a bit. But again, our conclusion is simply to find something better than generation ships.

For other scenarios about starships and generation ships, see Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, an anthology of stories and articles about our longterm future in space, edited by Gregory and Jim Benford.

5- KSR’s no-Captain premise may allow lots of colorful chaos, murder and plot-propelling societal collapse. But it also is silly. Even if the population aboard ship lives according to Robinsonian prescribed post-Marxian according-to-needs principles combined with Rothbardian no-coercionism and LeGuinian anarchic individualism (that predictably shatters under stress) they’d still have backup plans and those would include occasional emergency drills that familiarized them with age-old techniques. Those drills would include meritocratic selection of a ceremonial captaincy – AI -chosen, perhaps – that could assume command in a crisis. Should that arrangement then fail in order to drive the plot? Sure! But stacking the deck should be subtle. Even just a bit. It should not be based on everyone aboard having never cracked a single book about ancient eras of exploration.

6- What I find stunning is that in this book KSR indicts his own prescriptive utopia as brittle and incapable of resilience! I am sure the intended message was “if my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition, then no one can, hence forgetaboutit.” But that is not what the reader derives. Rather, the book’s take-away is just “my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition.”

Indeed, from the behavior of the denizens of Aurora, one is left to conclude something fundamental about this ship and expedition – that it was created by the folks back home, and carefully staffed, with one fundamental goal in mind – to be a “Golgafrincham B Ark.” A dig that should be self-explanatory, if you are sf’nally literate.

The most disappointing thing is that Stan Robinson is generally a master of problem-solving fiction, making him an archetype of what I believe to be the fundamental premise of Sci Fi, making it the opposite of traditional fantasy. The premise that children might – sometimes — learn from the mistakes of their parents. But not this time. By that metric, Aurora is, for all its tech-heavy recitations — alas – far more polemic than science fiction.


The only thing I can disagree with is that I don’t think that any serious person who looks at generation ships or starships think that EASY describes the construction and operation of same in any way.  Maybe in a golden age thriller, but not today.


As does Stanley Baxter.

The Ship


Most of what we learn about the Ship’s structure is given in Chapter 2. The Ship consists of a central spine 10km long, around which 2 rings of habitable ‘biomes’ spin, torus-like. Each ring consists of 12 cylindrical biomes, each 4km long, 1km diameter. There are also spokes and inner rings. The rings rotate around the spine to give a centrifugal gravity of 0.83g.

The 24 biomes contain samples of ecospheres from 12 climatic zones: Old World versions in one ring, New World in the other. Each biome has a ‘roof’ with a sunline, which models the required sunlight and seasonality, and a ‘floor’ on the side away from the spine. The liveable area in each cylinder is given as about 4 km2, which is about a third of the cylinder’s inner surface area: 96km2 total. In each biome there are stores under the ‘floor’, including fuel; we’re told this is used as a radiation shield during the cruise.

rotor station

The total habitable space is allocated as 70% agricultural; 5% urban / residential; 13% water; 13% protected wilderness. The wilderness areas are meant to be complete ecologies.

The crew numbers given appear contradictory; in some places Robinson states there are about 2100 total, but elsewhere is given a number of 300 people per biome which would total 7200. The crew numbers do vary through the centuries-long mission, with births and deaths.

How reasonable are these numbers, given the mission’s objectives? Could the Ship support that many people? Are they enough to found a human population at the target? And is there room for true wilderness?

Closed Ecologies

We don’t yet know how to maintain closed ecologies for long periods. The Ship’s biomes would suffer from small-closed-loop-ecology buffering problems, as Robinson illustrates very well in the text; we see the crew having to micro-manage the biospheres, and dealing with such problems as the depletion of key trace elements through unexpected chemical reactions. In some ways this may prove to be an even more daunting obstacle to interstellar exploration than propulsion systems.

Human population

If there are 300 people per biome, and given a total of 96km2 habitable area, that’s a population density of 75 /km2. Compare this with Earth’s global average of 13 /km2 ; crowded southern England is 667 / km2. In terms of the ability of the agricultural space (70% of total) to support the crew, that seems reasonable to us.

But if only 5% of the space is used for residential purposes, the effective living density is high, at 1500 per km2 – comparable to densely populated urban areas such as Hong Kong. Such densities would seem problematic on a long-duration mission, though of course the crew do have access to the other 95% of the habitable areas; people hike the wildernesses.

This group is of course meant to be sufficient to found a new human breeding population on a virgin world. What is the minimal population size to maintain the species without an evolutionary bottleneck? Something like 1000 is a good guess. Robinson’s original population was at least twice that. If that population size was maintained, genetic diversity would plausibly be sufficient.


We’re told (Chapter 2) that each biome has about 4km2 of living space and that 13% of that space is given over to ‘wilderness’, that is 0.52 km2 per biome. The ecologies can include apex predators. In a biome called Labrador, for instance, ‘In the flanking hills sometimes a wolf pack was glimpsed, or bears’ (chapter 2).

This idea is explored in more depth in Robinson’s 2312, in which mobile habitats called ‘terraria’, hollowed-out asteroids, are used as reserves for species threatened on a post-climate-change Earth. But even these terraria are not very large in terms of the space needed by wildlife in nature. A wolf pack, consisting of about 10 animals, may have a territory of 35 km2 (Jędrzejewski et al, 2007). A 2312 terrarium with an inner surface area of about 160 km2 would have room for only about 4 packs, or about 40 individual animals, a small population in terms of genetic diversity.

It seems clear that the much smaller biomes of the Ship, though large in engineering terms, would be far too small to be able to host meaningful numbers of many animal species in anything resembling a natural population distribution. A wilderness needs a lot of room.


We are given a mass breakdown for the Ship as a whole. We’re told that during the Ship’s cruise phase, when it is fully laden with fuel, the total mass is 76% fuel, 10% each biome ring, and 4% the spine.

We aren’t told the Ship’s total mass, however, and to study the propulsion system’s performance we’ll need at least a guesstimate. This is derived by a comparison with the Stanford Torus design.

Each torus-like biome ring consists of 12 pods of length 4km, diameter 1km. So the surface area of 1 pod is 14.1 km2, including end caps. And the surface area of one biome ring is 170 km2 (which is much larger than the Stanford Torus).

The Ship’s biomes seem to lack a Stanford-like cloak of radiation-shielding material. Robinson says that ‘fuel, water and other supplies’ are stored under the biome floors to provide shielding; the ceilings are shielded by the presence of the spine. Elsewhere Robinson says that during the voyage, the fuel is ‘deployed as cladding around the toruses and the spine’ (Chapter 2)

Assume then that if a Ship biome ring has the same structural properties as the Stanford torus, and if most of its mass is in the hull, then a guesstimate for a single ring mass (without the fuel cladding) can be obtained by multiplying Stanford’s 0.1m tons structure mass (without shielding) by a factor to allow for the Ship ring’s larger surface area. The result is (0.1 * 170 / 2.3 =) 7.4 million tons per biome ring. We know this is 10% of the Ship’s total mass, which therefore breaks down as

76% fuel = 56.2 million tons
20% biome rings = 14.8 million tons
4% spine = 3 million tons
Total = 74 million tons.

These numbers shouldn’t be taken seriously, of course, except as an order of magnitude guide. Maybe they seem large – but remember that Daedalus needed 50,000t of fuel to send a 450t payload on a flyby mission to the stars, a payload comparable to the completed mass of the ISS. By comparison the Ship will be hauling two habitat rings each fifteen kilometres across. This is not a modest design.

Notice that if the Ship’s propulsion follows the Daedalus ratio, the fuel would consist of 60% D = 33.7m tons, 40% He3 = 22.5m tons.

And notice that since this fuel is used for deceleration only, the acceleration systems need to push all this mass up to ten per cent of lightspeed. These numbers do illustrate the monstrous challenges of interstellar travel, with a need to send very large masses to very large velocities, and decelerate them again.

On that note, let’s consider the propulsion systems.


Mission Profile

The Ship is a generation starship. Launched in 2545, it travels 11.8ly (light years) to Tau Ceti at cruise 0.1c (chapter 2). According to the text the journey consists of a number of phases.

  • The Ship is accelerated to the cruise speed of 0.1c by means of electromagnetic ‘scissors’ slingshot at Titan, imposing a brief’ acceleration of about 10g, and then a laser impulse for 60 years.
  • The Ship decelerates at the Tau Ceti system using its on-board fusion propulsion system. The technology, like that used by Daedalus, is known as ‘inertial confinement fusion’ (ICF), in which pellets of fuel are compressed, perhaps with laser or electron beams, until they undergo fusion; the high-speed products provide a rocket exhaust. For twenty years the Ship is decelerated by the detonation of fusion pellets at a rate of two per second. The fusion fuel is a mix of D and He3, as was the case for Daedalus (Chapter 1).
  • We’re told that the total journey time is about 170 years (Chapter 3), consistent with the profile given.
  • Colonisation in the Tau Ceti system is attempted and fails (this will be considered below).
  • A section of the crew chooses to return to the Solar System. The ICF system is refuelled at Tau Ceti, and used to accelerate the Ship to 0.1c (Chapter 5).
  • As the Ship’s systems break down, the surviving crew completes the final leg of the journey in cryosleep.
  • The Ship has no onboard way to decelerate at the Solar System (Chapter 6). The ICF fuel was exhausted by the acceleration from Tau Ceti, save for a trickle to be used during Oberth Manoeuvres (see below). The laser system reduces the Ship’s speed, but not to rest: from 10%c to 3%c. We’re told that the Ship then sheds the rest of this velocity mostly with 28 Oberth Manoeuvres, using the gravity wells of the sun, Jupiter, and other bodies. This process takes 12 years before crew shuttles are finally returned to Earth.

We can consider these phases in turn.

Acceleration from Solar System

In considering the acceleration system, it should be borne in mind that what we need to do is to give a very large, fuel-laden Ship sufficient kinetic energy for it to cruise at 0.1c. And because of inevitable inefficiencies, the energy input to any acceleration system will have to be that much greater.

In fact the launch out of the Solar System is a combination of two methods, vaguely described, neither of which is remotely efficient. There’s a ‘magnetic scissor’ that accelerates the ship over 200 million miles: ‘…two strong magnetic fields held the ship between them, and when the fields were brought together, the ship was briefly projected at an accelerative force equivalent to 10 g’s’.

(Of course such acceleration would stress the crew, even though in tests humans have survived such accelerations for very short periods – indeed the book claims five crew died. And such acceleration could stress lateral structures, such as the spars to the biome rings. Perhaps the stack is launched with its major masses in line with the thrust, and reassembled later.)

In Jim Benford’s grad school days, he ran some actual experiments on this effect, using a single turn coil. The energy in the capacitor bank driving it was about 1 kJ and the subject of the acceleration was a screwdriver sitting on a piece of wood in the coil centre. The coil current pulsed to peak in 2 µs. The screwdriver was accelerated across the room to a target at about 10 meters per second. The kinetic energy of the screwdriver was about 5 J and therefore the efficiency of transfer was less than 1%. It seems unsafe to assume an efficiency much better than this.

For the Ship, there then follows a laser driven acceleration. While lasers can certainly accelerate light craft, as has been shown experimentally, they can’t accelerate the enormously massive vehicle that the novel describes. The power required to accelerate by reflection of the laser photons can be calculated from the Ship mass (74 million tons), final velocity and acceleration time (to 0.1c in 60 years, so 0.17% g). The amount of power is about 100,000 TW, a truly astronomical scale. (Earth’s present electrical power output is 18 TW.) The efficiency of power beaming is low because only momentum is transferred from the photons to the ship. Efficiency is the time-averaged ratio of velocity to the speed of light. Therefore the efficiency of this process is about 5%.

The Ship and its mission would have to be a project of a very wealthy and very powerful interplanetary civilisation. It seems unlikely that they would resort to such a hopelessly inefficient system, if it could be made to work at all.

Deceleration at Tau Ceti

The Ship uses its onboard fusion rocket to decelerate.

We’re told the ICF deceleration phase takes 20 years at 0.005g, starting from 10%c cruise speed, with a Ship with an initial fuel load of 76% total mass. These numbers enable us immediately to calculate one critical number, the exhaust velocity of the fusion rocket. A ship with 76% fuel mass has a mass ratio (wet mass / dry mass) of (100/24=) 4.17. The rocket equation tells us that given that mass ratio and a total velocity change of 0.1c, the exhaust velocity must be 7%c. This is twice that of Daedalus, but perhaps not impossible for an advanced ICF system.

Our mass guesstimate above allows us to assess the performance of the rocket. Consuming 56.2mt of fuel in 20 years gives a mass usage rate of 94 kg/sec (cf Daedalus first stage 0.8 kg/sec). (Notice that the two fusion ‘pellets’ consumed per second are pretty massive beasts; in the Daedalus design pellets a few millimetres across were delivered at a rate of hundreds per second. This detail may be implausible. Indeed 49kg may be larger than fission critical mass!)

You can find the rocket’s thrust by multiplying mass usage by exhaust velocity, to get about 2000 MN (megaNewtons). This is much larger than the Daedalus first stage’s 8 MN. And the rocket power is 20,000 TW (the Daedalus first stage delivered 30 TW). Note that this power number is comparable to the launch figures.

Again, these numbers can be taken only as a guide. But you can see that the power generated needs to be maybe three orders of magnitude better than Daedalus, and exceeds our modern global usage by four orders of magnitude.

Meanwhile this system would consume a heck of a lot of fusion fuel. Where would you acquire that fuel, and where would you store it?

The storage is the easy part, relatively. Daedalus’s 50 kt of fuel was stored in six spherical cryogenic tanks with total volume 76,000 m3. At similar densities to store the Ship’s fuel load would require 860 million m3. That sounds a lot, but the volume of a biome ring is about 38 billion m3, so the fuel volume is only 2% of this, making it plausible that it could be stored, as Robinson says, in cladding tanks on the biome rings and spine, without requiring large separate structures. The Ship is big but hollow. It’s not immediately clear however how effective a layer of fuel would be as a cosmic radiation shield.

And note that the need for cryogenic store over centuries before use would be a challenge – as would the need to store any short-half-life propulsion components such as tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years, and would decay away long before the 170-year mission was over.
Getting hold of the fusion fuel, meanwhile, is the tricky part. It’s hard to overstate the scarcity of He3 in the Solar System, and presumably at Tau Ceti. Even Daedalus’s 20,000t would deplete the entire inventory of the isotope on Earth (37,000t), and the Ship’s 22.5mt would dwarf the Moon’s store (1 million t); only the gas giants could reasonably meet this demand (the Daedalus estimate was that the Jovian atmosphere contains about 1016 t). The Daedalus design posited acquisition from Jupiter, but estimated that to acquire Daedalus’s fuel load in 20 years would require that the Jovian atmosphere be processed at a rate of 28 tonnes per second. So again the challenge for the Ship’s engineers will be three orders of magnitude more difficult.

And regarding the return journey, although the Ship is stripped down, a fuel load of similar order of magnitude must be acquired from the Tau Ceti system, and without the assistance of a Solar-System-wide infrastructure. Of this huge project, Robinson says only that ‘volatiles came from the gas giants’ (Chapter 4).

Deceleration at Solar System

At the end of the novel, the Ship returns to Earth, decelerating mostly using what is called the ‘Oberth Manoeuvre’, invented by Hermann Oberth in 1928. This is a two-burn orbital manoeuvre that would, on the first burn, drop an orbiting spacecraft down into a central body’s gravity well, followed by a second burn deep in the well, to accelerate the spacecraft to escape the gravity well. A ship can gain energy by firing its engines to accelerate at the periapsis of its elliptical path.

Robinson wants to use this to decelerate from 3% of light speed down to Earth orbital velocity. 3% of lightspeed is 9,000 km/s. For reference, Earth’s orbital velocity is 30 km/s. Several deceleration mechanisms are referred to in the book. An unpowered gravity assist, passing by the sun and reversing direction, can steal energy from the sun’s rotational motion around the centre of the galaxy. That’s worth about 440 km/s. Other unpowered gravity assists can be used once the ship is in a closed orbit in the sun’s gravitational well. Flybys for aerobraking in the atmospheres of the gas giants are referred to as well. Altogether, these can get you <100 km/s.

But the key problem with using the Oberth Manoeuvre for deceleration of this returning starship is that this craft is on an unbound orbit. That means that, on entering the Solar System its trajectory can be bent by the sun’s gravity, but will then exit the System because it has not lost enough velocity to be bound to the Solar System. To be bound would require velocity decreased down to perhaps 100 km/sec, which is 1% of the incoming velocity. Therefore 99% of the deceleration has to take place in the first pass. And you can’t get that much from an Oberth Manoeuvre.


As the Ship’s systems collapse, the returning crew gets from Earth plans to build a cryonic cold sleep method, which allows the viewpoint characters to survive until they reach the Earth.

This technology logically undermines most of the problems the early parts of the novel confront, and therefore undermines most of Robinson’s point about the difficulty of interstellar travel: If only the colonists had waited a few centuries for cryo technology, it would all have been so much easier! But this contradicts Robinson’s thesis.


Quite a bit of technical details about the ship here.  And more.


And Gregory Benford.

In 2012, Robinson declared in a Scientific American interview that “It’s a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It’s a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora spells this out through unlikely plot devices. Robinson loads the dice quite obviously against interstellar exploration. A brooding pessimism dominates the novel.

There are scientific issues that look quite unlikely, but not central to the novel’s theme. A “magnetic scissors” method of launching a starship seems plagued with problems, for example. But the intent is clear through its staging and plot.

I’ll discuss the quality of the argument Aurora attempts, with spoilers.

Plot Fixes


The earlier nonfiction misgivings of physicist Paul Davies (in Starship Century) and biologist E.O. Wilson (in The Meaning of Human Existence) about living on exoplanets echo profoundly here. As a narrator remarks, “Suspended in their voyage as they had been, there had never been anything to choose, except methods of homeostasis.” Though the voyagers in Aurora include sophisticated biologists, adjusting Earth life to even apparently simple worlds proves hard, maybe impossible.

The moon Aurora is seemingly lifeless. Yet it has Earth-levels of atmospheric oxygen, which somehow the advanced science of four centuries hence thinks could have survived from its birth, a very unlikely idea (no rust?—this is, after all, what happened to Mars). Plot fix #1.

This elementary error, made by Earthside biologists, brings about the demise of their colony plans, in a gripping plot turn that leads to gathering desperation.

The lovingly described moon holds some nanometers-sized mystery organism that is “Maybe some interim step toward life, with some of the functions of life, but not all…in a good matrix they appear to reproduce. Which I guess means they’re a life-form. And we appear to be a good matrix.” So a pathogen evolved on a world without biology? Plot fix #2.

Plans go awry. Backup plans do, too. “Vector, disease, pathogen, invasive species, bug; these were all Earthly terms…various kinds of category error.”

What to do? Factions form amid the formerly placid starship community of about 2000. Until then, the crew had felt themselves to be the managers of biomes, farming and fixing their ship, with a bit of assistance from a web of AIs, humming in the background.

Robinson has always favored collective governance, no markets, not even currencies, none of that ugly capitalism—yet somehow resources get distributed, conflicts get worked out. No more. Not here, under pressure. The storyline primarily shows why ships have captains: stress eventually proves highly lethal. Over half the crew gets murdered by one faction or another. There is no discipline and no authority to stop this.

Most of the novel skimps on characters to focus on illuminating and agonizing detail of ecosphere breakdown, and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. “The bacteria are evolving faster than the big animals and plants, and it’s making the whole ship sick!” These apply to humans, too. “Shorter lifetimes, smaller bodies, longer disease durations. Even lower IQs, for God’s sake!”

Robinson has always confronted the nasty habit of factions among varying somewhat-utopian societies. His Mars trilogy dealt with an expansive colony, while cramped Aurora slides toward tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped… that the future has only bad options.”

Mob Rules

Should the ship return to Earth?

Many riots and murders finally settle on a bargain: some stay to terraform another, Marslike world, the rest set sail for Earth. The ship has no commander or functional officers, so this bloody result seems inevitable in the collective. Thucydides saw this outcome over 2000 years ago. He warned of the wild and often dangerous swings in public opinion innate to democratic culture. The historian described in detail explosions of Athenian popular passions. The Athenian democracy that gave us Sophocles and Pericles also, in a fit of unhinged outrage, executed Socrates by a majority vote of one of its popular courts. (Lest we think ourselves better, American democracy has become increasingly Athenian, as it periodically whips itself up into outbursts of frantic indignation.)

When discord goes deadly in Aurora, the AIs running the biospheres have had enough. At a crisis, a new character announces itself: “We are the ship’s artificial intelligences, bundled now into a sort of pseudo-consciousness, or something resembling a decision-making function.” This forced evolution of the ship’s computers leads in turn to odd insights into its passengers: “The animal mind never forgets a hurt; and humans were animals.” Plot Fix #3: sudden evolution of high AI function that understands humans and acts like a wise Moses.

This echoes the turn to a Napoleonic figure that chaos often brings. As in Iain Banks’ vague economics of a future Culture, mere humans are incapable of running their economy and then, inevitably, their lives. The narrative line then turns to the ship AI, seeing humans somewhat comically, “…they hugged, at least to the extent this is possible in their spacesuits. It looked as if two gingerbread cookies were trying to merge.”

Governance of future societies is a continuing anxiety in science fiction, especially if demand has to be regulated without markets, as a starship must. (Indeed, as sustainable, static economies must.) As far back as in Asimov’s Foundation, Psychohistory guides, because this theory of future society is superior to mere present human will. (I dealt with this, refining the theory, in Foundation’s Fear. Asimov’s Psychohistory resembled the perfect gas law, which makes no sense, since it’s based on dynamics with no memory; I simply updated it to a modern theory of information.) The fantasy writer China Mieville has similar problems, with his distrust of mere people governing themselves, and their appetites, through markets; he seems to favor some form of Politburo. (So did Lenin, famously saying “A clerk can run the State.”)

Aurora begins with a society without class divisions and exploitation in the Marxist sense, and though some people seem destined to be respected and followed, nothing works well in a crisis but the AIs—i.e., Napoleon. The irony of this doesn’t seem apparent to the author. Similar paths in Asimov, Banks and Mieville make one wonder if similar anxieties lurk. Indeed, Marxism and collectivist ideas resemble the similar mechanistic theory of Freudian psychology (both invented by 19th C. Germans steeped in the Hegelian tradition)—insightful definitions, but no mechanisms that actually work. Hence the angst when things go wrong with a supposedly fundamental theory.

The AIs, as revealed through an evolving and even amusing narrative voice, follow human society with gimlet eyes and melancholy insights. The plot armature turns on a slow revelation of devolution in the ship biosphere, counterpointed with the AI’s upward evolution—ironic rise and fall. “It was an interrelated process of disaggregation…named codevolution.” The AIs get more human, the humans more sick.

Even coming home to an Earth still devastated by climate change inflicts “earthshock” and agoraphobia. Robinson’s steady fiction-as-footnote thoroughness brings us to an ending that questions generational, interstellar human exploration, on biological and humanitarian grounds. “Their kids didn’t volunteer!” Of course, immigrants to far lands seldom solicit the views of their descendants. Should interstellar colonies be different?

Do descendants as yet unborn have rights? Ben Finney made this point long ago in Interstellar Migration, without reaching a clear conclusion. Throughout human history we’ve made choices that commit our unborn children to fates unknown. Many European expeditions set sail for lands unseen, unknown, and quite hostile. Many colonies failed. Interstellar travel seems no different in principle. Indeed, Robinson makes life on the starship seem quite agreeable, though maybe tedious, until their colony goal fails.

The unremitting hardship of the aborted colony and a long voyage home give the novel a dark, grinding tone. We suffer along with the passengers, who manage to survive only because Earthside then develops a cryopreservation method midway through the return voyage. So the deck is stacked against them—a bad colony target, accidents, accelerating gear failures, dismay… until the cryopreservation that would lessen the burden arrives, very late, so our point of view characters do get back to Earth and the novel retains some narrative coherence, with character continuity. Plot Fix #4.

This turn is an authorial choice, not an inevitability. Earthsiders welcome the new cryopreservation technologies as the open door to the stars; expeditions launch as objections to generation ships go away. But the returning crew opposes Earth’s fast-growing expeditions to the stars, because they are just too hard on the generations condemned to live in tight environments—though the biospheres of the Aurora spacecraft seem idyllic, in Robinson’s lengthy descriptions. Plainly, in an idyllic day at the beach, Robinson sides with staying on Earth, despite the freshly opened prospects of humanity.

So in the end, we learn little about how our interstellar future will play out.

The entire drift of the story rejects Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s “The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but humanity cannot live in the cradle forever.” – though we do have an interplanetary civilization. It implicitly undermines the “don’t-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” philosophy for spreading humanity beyond our solar system. Robinson says in interviews this idea leads belief that if we destroy Earth’s environment, we can just move. (I don’t know anyone who believes this, much less those interested in interstellar exploration.) I think both ideas are too narrow; expansion into new realms is built into our evolution. We’re the apes who left Africa.

Robinson takes on the detail and science of long-lived, closed habitats as the principal concern of the novel. Many starship novels dealt with propulsion; Robinson’s methods—a “magnetic scissors” launch and a mistaken Oberth method of deceleration—are technically wrong, but beside the point. His agenda is biological and social, so his target moon is conveniently hostile. Then the poor crew must decide whether to seek another world nearby (as some do) or undertake the nearly impossible feat of returning to Earth. This deliberately overstresses the ship and people. Such decisions give the novel the feel of a fixed game. Having survived all this torment, the returning crew can’t escape the bias of their agonized experience.


Greg Benford is pretty clear that Robinson is stacking the deck. For that matter so is Robinson himself.

Next Big Future has some stuff here:

As an engineer, I think that Mr. Robinson is clearly wrong.  Or at least, he doesn’t understand the basic rules for setting mission parameters and designing to meet those parameters.  Mr. Robison’s vessel failed because he wanted it to fail.  But to extend that to saying that ALL such proposals would fail is more than a little egotistical. And wrong, really wrong.

Now I haven’t as yet read the book.(Somehow this sticks in the craw of the people over at File 770. Which is interesting considering how many commenters said what a painful reading it was.)   Reading Greg Benford’s review left me going WTF, WTF, WTF, are you kidding?  If you are going to write a book on pioneering could you at least set it up so that the pioneers are at least a little realistic.  A ship without a captain or seemingly a crew?  No community structure?  What was it, a commune in space?  Of course something like that is going to fail.  That’s what happens to fragile structure and the commune is the most fragile of all.  Just look at all the failed examples in the 19th Century. So that’s fail #1.

Then we get to the system and apparently the crew has forgotten the idea of pathogen protocols.  And they all go down to the planet.  Why?  When you have the capability to build starfaring craft, planets suck.  They have those nasty deep gravity wells and keep all their good stuff in their centers where it’s tough to get to.  This is a spacefaring society. Why would they care about planets at all, at least in the beginning? Fail #2.

Then there’s the ship itself.  I kept asking myself why it was so fragile and so small. Here’s how Greg Benford describes it.

Aurora depicts a starship on a long voyage to Tau Ceti four centuries from now. It is shaped like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity. The biomes along their rims support many Earthly lifezones which need constant tending to be stable. They’re voyaging to Tau Ceti, so the ship’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn, which takes place on a world orbiting Tau Ceti named Aurora. Arrival at the Earthlike moon of a super-Earth primary brings celebration, exploration, and we see just how complex an interstellar expedition four centuries from now can be, in both technology and society.

First of all, why the biomes?  Doesn’t that add complexity that may not be necessary?  Also why the wheel on axle design with such large wheels? Why add complexity where you don’t need it?  When your vehicle is expected to be under thrust you want the mass as close to the center axis as possible so that you avoid dynamic stability issues.  And having all that extra surface area just makes radiation shielding more difficult. Fail #3 and out.

Now it’s obvious from the way Mr. Robinson is presenting the story that the ship and it’s culture were set up to fail. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to make his point. But does that mean that a ship couldn’t be designed to succeed?  Of course not.

Now one of the most interesting SF books of the 1980’s was this one, to me anyway.




It’s interesting because it was written by a Senior Boeing system engineer.  And the story is mostly about how the engineering process works written in an entertaining manner.  While it wasn’t Hugo material, at least the writer knew what he was doing. I learned a lot from Callin’s book on how to make a mission a success.

See, a while back , way back in the late 1980’s the National Space Society ran a contest on designing a space habitat.  I entered. At that time my wall had been covered with space colony posters for years and I had been collecting space books and whatnot for years. And I had just graduated from college and did not yet have a job and I wanted a design project as a portfolio.

So away I went. Back then, doing the homework was harder because you couldn’t just go online and find stuff because the internet wasn’t available to everybody.  Still, UB, my college and the local library had a bunch of stuff and I was able to come up with some design numbers.  I’ve since lost the design sheets in one move or another, so I no longer have the exact numbers and the only drawings printed at full scale were sent off with the contest entry so I don’t have any pictures to show and the files themselves are long gone several hard drive crashes ago. The only thing I could find was the drawing I scanned and inserted above.

Still I do remember a few things about the project.  Being able to calculate how much volume each person needed and what the requirements for hydroponics were going to be. Some numbers were fuzzier, like air recycling, but I worked out most of that for my colony size of 65,000 or so, which would make good size for a generation ship.   I did make some guesses like how much gravity is “enough.” I think I went for 1/6 g but it might have been 1/3, which made the habitat space more compact.

If I were to approach such a design project again I would have much harder numbers for a lot of it simply because we have so much more experience in space.  A lot of numbers that were vapor in 1988 are solidified by experience now.  And that’s going to continue.  I’m frankly surprised that Robinson had trouble finding hard data, because I know that I didn’t and doing research is so much easier now with so much online.

Of course, the reason his spacecraft failed in the end was not the ship itself.  It was the society that Robinson had build the ship.  From what I can see from Robinson’s posts, the reason that humans can’t go to the stars is because the Socialism he likes so much can’t handle pioneering and he’s right, Socialism and pioneering just don’t work. but then neither does Socialism and anything else work, except as bloody messes.


I come from a family with a long pioneering history.  MY family came across the pond, not to a Bustling York, but to a Massachusetts where Boston didn’t even exist yet.  I think that we probably paid for the first farm in Roxbury with arrow points and tools.  Yet my ancestor persevered and thrived, because that is what pioneers do.

Real pioneers don’t screw up  because failure is not an option and incompetence is something that can’t be tolerated. Yes the environment and the unknowns get the pioneers, think the Donner Party, but the typical pioneers don’t go down without a fight.  They do the work that needs to get done because they are working to make a better place for the next generation, not themselves.  We as a culture have suppressed the pioneer spirit in the last few years and maybe that’s a mistake.  Because pioneers desire and understand liberty and the alternative is tyranny.

Here’s a bunch of links to get the pioneer spirit started.  Sorry, Mr. Robinson, our carracks to the stars will not fail because the pioneer spirits in them, will not let them fail.  Look if my ancestors can cross the North Atlantic in a tiny leaky little boat, can I say anything less?

Here’s some pictures from my reference collection.  I have stuff going from the beginning of the space age to now.  When the oldest book I have on spacecraft systems was written the longest anybody had been kept alive in space was measured in minutes. Yet they dared to dream.

I may be many things, but I am not arrogant enough to believe that something can’t be done simply because I don’t want it to happen.  Yet that arrogance is exactly what’s happening in KSM’s book.  All to support a the narrative of “only one earth.”















  1. Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » CLARIFYING THE MUDDIED WATERS: Why Generation Ships Will NOT “Sink” A Failure To Communicate….
  2. Anonymous · April 17, 2016

    Humans who want to do something constructive such as colonize space are not going to get very far until they stop obeying self-loathing socialists. Rule one of life is telling friend from foe. Rule two is not being a domesticated herd animal and submitting to your foe.


  3. Wayne Blackburn · April 17, 2016

    While I don’t doubt that you’re right about them not reading the post, I feel I should point out that the first comment you posted above has a certain amount of merit. Sarah’s readers, having seen your comments there before, would not be put off by the opening of, “As an Engineer”, but someone who does not know you at all is somewhat justified in being skeptical. The number of people out there who try to use credentials as an appeal to authority is staggering.


  4. CarlsbadRob · April 17, 2016

    Why would you design the ship so that everyone lives day to day during the journey. Science Fiction is full of sleeper ships in which either seed and DNA form the bulk of the passengers or else folks sleep with a crew that handles things (and presumably take turns sleeping a good chunk of the way). The idea of a sleeper ship saves on food and consumables and it would be easier to talk folks into the journey if they had some expectation of being around at the end rather than simply dooming their great grand children to the prospect of taming a world.


  5. Abelard Lindsey · April 17, 2016

    Collectivists such as socialists have always opposed the “exit” option. The Berlin Wall was the most notorious example of this opposition in recent history. The KSR novel, entertaining in its own right (it actually is not a bad novel), is merely another example of the socialist’s hatred of “exit”, pioneering, and freedom.


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  7. Walter Sobchak · April 17, 2016

    Wow. That is quite a post. Very interesting. I am neither an engineer nor a biologist, but I have heard of frozen embryos, CRISPR genomic editing technology, and other wonders of modern bio-tech. Further, why would anyone launch an enormously expensive expedition such as that without first sending robotic surveyors in to build a very detailed picture of the target down to the microscopic level.

    Your points on Government are very well taken. The first pioneers of North America worried greatly about that problem, which is why they produced the Mayflower compact.


  8. LarryD · April 18, 2016

    The precursor to generational ships is generational habitats, a la the O’Neil Cylinder. Not people and green houses transplanted into space, people and farms, ranches too. People and an entire supporting ecology, plants, animals, and microbes too. The more we’ve been learning about how much of our health and well-being is influenced by the microbes that live with (and in) us, the more I think O’Neil and his colleagues were wiser than anyone knew. The first of these habitats will be built in Earth orbit, with experience they’ll be built further and further away, as humanity homesteads the solar system. When we have habitats out into the outer planets, even into the Kupier belt, we’ll have the experience and technology developed to turn one into a generational ship.

    This is all “hard” SF, only a question of engineering. Sleeper tech is more speculative, no one has demonstrated that suspended animation is possible for large mammals for years, let alone decades or centuries. And a g-ship will be doing observations of the interstellar medium during its journey, it won’t be idle time.

    Remotes, sure we’ll send remote drones to scout ahead, before we ever send a generational ship, but the nearest exo-world is going to be over four light-years away, and an eight+ year communications lag is going to be a severe limit on the instructions we can send to the remote (and the issue of the remote sending a signal back)


  9. Pingback: Just Plain Stupid About Space | The Arts Mechanical
  10. Pingback: Designing A Generation Ship Or Space Colony | The Arts Mechanical

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