Interstellar Colonization is Really Difficult

SF author Charles Stross crunches the numbers and explains how difficult space colonization is.

The long and the short of what I’m trying to get across is quite simply that, in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today’s perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics — interstellar travel for human beings is near-as-dammit a non-starter. And while I won’t rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future, the conclusion I draw as a science fiction writer is that if interstellar colonization ever happens, it will not follow the pattern of historical colonization drives that are followed by mass emigration and trade between the colonies and the old home soil.

He also looks at colonization in the solar system and comes up with a similarly gloomy outlook. Based on my back-of-the-envelope fact checking, his reasoning and conclusions look solid. The comments are long and involved, but bear Charlie out as well.

The most entertaining bit of the comment thread are the people saying that he’s wrong, not because his math is wrong or his reasoning is flawed, but because science fiction authors shouldn’t be so pessimistic and should believe whole-heartedly in the colonization of space.

10 thoughts on “Interstellar Colonization is Really Difficult

  1. I dunno. All this says to me is, “build a space elevator first; you can figure out the next part once you get into orbit”.

    One step at a time. Just one step at a time.

  2. Yeah. Though that’s not what people are focusing on, except for LiftPort, and as Charlie noted in comments, LiftPort is busy working on the elevator part and not the fullerine cable (or equivalent tech), and are in danger of going bust. If they’d focused on the cabling first and were successful, they’d have a product that has a terrestrial market and thus the potential for bootstrap funding for the next steps. So I’d like to see the one step at a time be a manageable step instead of a headlong leap. We did the headlong leap for Apollo, and look where that got us.

  3. Space elevators just get you to orbit. That doesn’t even address the whole planet-to-planet thing. 🙂 [Color me skeptical about our ability to get that done. It’s a far, far better idea than single-stage-to-orbit, but that’s not saying much for it.]

    We did the headlong leap for Apollo, and look where that got us.

    Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis? I’ve always blamed the post-Apollo doldrums on Nixon’s attitude towards manned spaceflight and Vietnam.

  4. Yes, but as the first step, a space elevator is probably the way to go, and once you’re to orbit, power-wise, you’re more than halfway there.

    I’m certain Nixon and Vietnam played their parts, but the underlying problem was that we did nothing sustainable in the early exciting days. Everything was focused on getting a person on the moon, not on getting people into space on an ongoing basis.

  5. Oh, I agree—if we can handle the engineering details of the space elevator, it makes a lot more sense than chemical propulsion for Earth-to-orbit operations. Just think how much more smoothly this weekend would have gone if all that was needed to fix those pesky ISS computer problems was jetting over to the other end of the elevator to pick up some spares. Even if you only use a space elevator for cargo and never for personnel transfers, it’s a win.

    [I say “… and never for personnel transfers …” because I know how pesky man-rating anything is. ;)]

    See, and I don’t think Apollo was wrong in doing that regard, but I do think that a lot of mistakes were made in the post-Apollo era [which I would start in 1968, because by then, we were practically there]. Once we won the race to the moon, no one had a crisp answer for “Quo vadis?”—no one that got funding, anyway.

  6. “Space elevators just get you to orbit. That doesn’t even address the whole planet-to-planet thing.”

    Actually, they do, kind of. Out by the counter-weight, the elevator will be moving faster than orbital velocity. Drop something off the end and not only does it avoid paying the 8 km/s to get into orbit but it gets a bit of the delta vee needed to reach wherever.

  7. Sorry, James … I mentally went from the “How do we get stuff to orbit?” problem to the “How do we go from planet-to-planet quickly enough so our crew’s bodies don’t completely fail them?” problem without signifying the leap. The error is mine. 🙂

  8. I used to have a program called Swing By Calculator from jaqar and it’s amazing what you can do with relatively modest impulses if you start in space and are not afraid of some !Xtreem! Oberth manuevers as well pushing the envelope on aerobraking at the end.

  9. describes a system that requires a lot of money and time to set in place and functionally test. Systems of this type are the only ones that will get th job done. As presented its performance is that to which it can evolve; upon initiation, expect larger intervals of time to be consumed to travel within the solar system and within the MW. Note that it puts u on our way to becoming a Kardashev type VII civilization.

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