Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Arithmetic of Interstellar Travel

I've a new Kickstart update with a video:

I apologize for the crudeness of the video. I really am considering digging up Steve Jobs and throttling him. Imovie files are not compatible with Kicstarter. So, I had to convert to quicktime, and then it was too big. So I had to cut scenes, and narrate on the fly, and the result is, well, probably not even a middle school level film production. But you'll get the idea.

Other things. John Quiggin pokes fun at interstellar travel with some easy calculations. I'd make comments questioning some of his assumptions there, but then, what would be the point? I'll do it here instead.

"I'm going to assume (generously, I think) that the minimum size for a successful colony is 10 000. The only experience we have is the Apollo program, which transported 12 astronauts to the Moon (a distance of 1 light second) at a cost of $100 billion or so (current values). So, assuming linear scaling (again, very generously, given the need to accelerate to near lightspeed), that's a cost of around $100 trillion per light-second for 10 000 people. 1200 light-years is around 30 billion light-seconds, so the total cost comes out roughly equal to the value of current world GDP accumulated over the life of the universe."
So, what's wrong with the assumptions? Well, first off, Quiggin uses the Apollo program. No offense to America's space program, but come on, that was a stunt.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not disparaging the effort. It was the most spectacular and magnificent stunt ever, defining our species as the only known species to travel to another world, but still, finally just a stunt. And by that I mean, pretty much guaranteed to be a one-time deal, with a vast gamble that the odds could be beaten, with lots of corners cut (but leave that to the real experts, the Soviets), and a certain amount of acceptable risk on the part of the world's greatest stuntmen ever and their organization. But, a colonizing effort? Hardly.

What would be a better baseline comparison? I'm thinking totaling up the entire web-of-technology system cost of what it takes for one car in 2013 to drive from New York City to Los Angeles. So, right off the bat, the cost of the car, the cost of gas, cost of the trip (food, water, lodging) is the tiniest portion of this total cost. Got the idea? We should probably also include cost of the interstate system, cost of the infrastructure to gas up the gas stations, supply food to the hotels and restaurants, electricity, fresh water, factories that built the car, refineries that makes the gas, riggers that pump the oil, etc. etc. etc.

Well, fuck man, isn't that the cost of Western civilization going back to some arbitrary point? Or world civilization going back to at least the origins of agriculture?

Yup. But, you know, amortized.

So, is Quiggin's total cost too low? By a huge margin!

Let's take a different tack. How about the United States colonizing the Moon with 10,000 by 1978? What do you think? 24 men launched to the Moon, so the Apollo costs by a factor of 416, the do the Quiggin arithmetic?


1 comment: