Putting the life back in science fiction

Preludes to Space

While I haven’t seen The Martian yet, as a trained botanist, I’m wondering why they didn’t identify the protagonist as the Master Gardener of Mars.  Botany as a science really isn’t that useful on Mars, and what you really need is a good horticulturalist.

Still, this got me thinking.  I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Oceania, and part of that is because the Oceanians–the Polynesians, Micronesians, Melanesians, and Australian aborigines–inhabit some of the most difficult and alien areas parts of the planet, even if we think of them (erroneously) as paradise.  Moreover, the settlement of Oceania is a good testimony to how hard it is to settle such alien environments.  I’m not the only one who thinks this way either.  Dr. Ben Finney, Anthropology Professor Emeritus at U. Hawaii, is both a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (google Hokule’a), a member of the Planetary Society, and someone who has written multiple articles for NASA on what Pacific anthropology can teach NASA about colonizing space.

Anyway, what’s so alien about Polynesia?  For one thing, none of the islands could support humans very well at all without the plants and animals that the Polynesians brought with them from South East Asia and the Papuan Islands.  These include pigs, chickens, taro, bananas, yams, bamboo, sugar cane, kava, and so forth.  The Polynesians also got sweet potatoes from South America somewhere around 800-1200 CE, but that’s another set of voyages, and I’m getting off track.  The key problem for settling Polynesia is that you’ve got to settle coral atolls as a necessary step to getting to most of the bigger islands.  Coral atolls have plenty of fish, but they have no usable stone (atoll dwellers used clam shells for hard tools), limited water, and few plants can grow there.  In addition to building deep sea ships and learning how to navigate well beyond the sight of land, the islanders had to adapt their entire lifestyles to live on atolls, including learning how to build deep sea ships there, which is a real trick.  This adaptation meant they abandoned ancient technologies like pottery and knapping stone, because neither clay nor stone were available.  For all we know, they even abandoned bronze, but that’s much more speculative.  Once their descendants reached big islands like Hawai’i, they didn’t reinvent pottery or flintknapping, but kept making tools using techniques that worked as well on clamshells as they do on basalt.

If we’re thinking about humans colonizing space, there are a couple of lessons in Polynesian history.  One is that we’ve got to learn to settle space before we colonize other planets.  It’s not just a matter of building a better spaceship, it’s a matter of learning how to live in space, on the Moon, on asteroids, as well as colonizing Mars, the Jovian satellites, and so forth.  This is a giant cultural revolution.  The descendants of the spacers will colonize other planets, but they won’t be moving, say, American car culture to another planet.  They’ll be adapting how their ancestors lived in space to settling the surfaces of these new worlds.  This is something science fiction routinely gets wrong.

The bigger lessons, though, are that colonizing the islands involved whole suites of adaptations from all over, it took a long time, and it was a marginal activity.  The Polynesians had ancestors from everywhere from Taiwan and the Philippines to the Solomon islands, and their dozens of domestic plants and animals came from a similarly wide swath, everything from Asian chickens to Melanesian kava.  While the Islands near Papua New Guinea were all colonized by ca. 13,000 years ago, it took until about 3,500 years ago for the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians to start colonizing the Solomon Islands and from there to Fiji and Samoa.  Just being able to sail a canoe doesn’t make it possible to settle islands across the Pacific, any more than sending a rover to Mars makes it possible for humans to live there.  And those Lapita people?  They were beach bums and yachties,  fisherfolk who lived near the water, traveled among the islands, possibly traded pots and such, and who definitely hadn’t settled the interiors of all the islands they visited.  They lived on the margins, waterfolk rather than landsmen.

What if the settlement of space was a replay of the settlement of Oceania?  Well, looking around, we’re in that window where we’ve got ships, but we don’t know how to live on little islands yet, or even how to survive beyond cislunar space.  It might take us 10,000 years to get to Mars, too.

One of the ways you can gauge our readiness for space is to look at what I’ll call the Preludes to Space: all the technological precursors that we need to survive up there.  Yeah, we’ve got rockets.  So what?  Life support’s a bigger problem right now.  There are a lot of things we don’t have and don’t know how to do.

For example, if we were ready to colonize space, we wouldn’t be worrying about climate change.  On the scale of hell, a severely climate changed Earth is still massively more benign than Mars, let alone the Moon, Ganymede, or Mercury.  Keeping people fed, watered, housed, and living meaningful lives is going to be a problem anywhere there are people.  If we were serious about space, we’d be investing far more in things like water recycling and compact food production, and we’d be focused on deploying these technologies in places like Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.

Think about the refugee experience in a place, like Jordan, that is severely water stressed as it is.  If we had spaceworthy life support, we’d have things like, oh, hydroponic gardens in shipping containers, where the plants grew under LED lights powered by solar panels, water and nutrients would be mostly recycled and highly efficient, and a shipping container could support a family more or less indefinitely with the right nutrient inputs, which should ideally come out of recycling the family’s sewage and wash-water.  And such a system would be cheap enough that we could build hundreds of thousands of them and ship them to refugee camps around the world, or indeed, to any disaster area.

No, I haven’t run the numbers to see if this would actually work, but that’s about the scale of technology we need as a prelude before we’re ready to settle space, because once we’re in space, we’ll have to learn how to make those technologies using whatever materials are locally available.  Space colonies aren’t domed cities, they’re basically giant collections of greenhouses with tiny homes attached, except that the greenhouses have to be buried, the plants fed by LEDs, and the systems run off solar panels or something similar, to protect against everything from radiation to meteorites.

That’s what the preludes to space look like.  They’re pieces of a cultural tool kit that includes everything from building ships to life support.  If we were ready for space, let alone the stars, our planet would have a rather different set of crises than it does now, and our ability to cope with them would be much more sophisticated.  But we’re not ready yet.

If the space-nuts had any sense, they’d be investing hugely in developing life support systems and deploying them, not in high end cities, but in refugee camps, slums, and similar harsh places where life is marginal, because life will be marginal in space too. Polynesia wasn’t settled by a mass migration of overcrowded Papuans heading for Fiji, but by fisherfolk figuring out how to live on beaches anywhere in the tropical Pacific, and heading out and on.

Feel free to tell Elon Mush, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye that I said this, too.  They’re going to need a bigger toolkit if they really want to tackle this.


18 Comments so far
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I think there is quite a lot of work going on this this regard, from Nasa’s increasing work on recycling and food production on the ISS, to earth based work on water recycling, urban farming, solid waste processing toilets, etc. I think there is a greenhouse in the desert in Dubai that uses processed seawater.

I don’t see helping refugees as good way to start. Architects love this, but their low cost shelter solutions weren’t that effective. heir efforts were better spent on designing prefabs for the 1st world. Similarly, LED lighted hydroponics will more likely work in urban centers providing high value fresh food to the urban affluent.

Having said all that, I agree with your general argument. Sustainable colonization of space either in cities or on planetary surfaces will require growing food and effectively recycling nutrients with very high efficiency. have you looked at what the Earth Island Institute was able to do in the 1970’s and 80s on Prince Edward Island? It was a decent start.

Comment by alexandertolley

Basically, the deal with focusing on refugee camps is that you need to get farming in a box costs down to where they’re more comparable to the costs of farming the soil, not comparable to the costs of lab equipment. I’m fully aware that most architects’ attempts to aid refugees are generally silly. On the other hand, we’re going to have millions of people involuntarily on the move in the 21st Century, so if you’re trying to design things that help people survive, that are lightweight, highly productive, cheap, and easy to ship, it’s not silly to focus on serving slums and camps. Earth Island Institute was a great system, but it’s also somewhat privileged. When refugees can start making parts of their camps into food gardens, that’s when we’ll be doing better.

Comment by Heteromeles

Just so, having built the tools to survive off-planet, we’ll find they’re useful here. But having grasped how to live off-planet, how interested in planetary surfaces will these people be?

Comment by Tim H.

Not going to happen for humans, ever, is my bet. Maybe it happens for planet-evolved intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, very occasionally.

Not sure how much I even want to read Neal Stephenson’s new novel.

Comment by a scruffian

Well, that’s my bet too.

Still, as an exercise in creativity and worldbuilding, it’s fun to try to figure out what our society would have to look like if we were spacefarers. I think we’d be a lot weirder than most SFF writers are willing to write about. Thinking about the precursor technologies we need to develop to live in space is one way to get at this world, if we want to explore it.

Comment by Heteromeles

” I think we’d be a lot weirder than most SFF writers are willing to write about.”

One possible weirdness: A space based society could be obsessed with infrastructure and redundancy, while building goods for exchange (out of the community/ship/station) has little societal value. Look at feminst critiques about how productive/reproductive labor is valued in this society.
One way this redundancy obsession might play out is this: People ont to be sure that when (example) the hospital) is taken out by something, there’s still enough nurses and brain surgeons and midwives among the surviving population. So ideally everyone has some training and experience in many professions, to be able to fill gaps created by a catastrophe. Not generalists, but 2-3 specialisations for each (maybe: brain surgeon, centrifugal pump maintenance technician, trauma counsellor).

To continue in that direction, space settlers might want to avoid the bleeding edge of technology to keep supply chains short and enable the sort of specialization sharing mentioned above. Again, all in light of that a catastrophe is 100 times more fatal than on earth.

I’d say that these values – infrastructure/life support over exchange economy, ‘redundancy’/resilience over ovespecialization – could work in marginal situations here and now.

Comment by martin089

I’m pretty bullish on both solar power and LED lighting but I don’t see how LED-lit shipping containers can to compete with natural illumination for feeding Earth’s hungry. You lose about 97% of the available energy in sunlight if you combine the most efficient commercially available solar modules with the most efficient LED lights. Maybe you lose only 93% if you use a mix of blue and red LEDs instead of white phosphor LEDs intended for general illumination. You pay a huge hardware cost for the privilege of discarding all that sunlight.

For the same reason that I don’t think that vertical farming can produce much of an urban area’s food calories. The energetic penalty for artificial illumination is enormous. That can be justified for premium products: drugs, fresh herbs, the perfect salad ingredients. It doesn’t make sense for producing staple crops. The energy cost of transporting food from rural fields to urban consumption centers is much smaller than that of switching to urban growing with artificial illumination.

A containerized climate controlled greenhouse with a little PV electricity for automatic control functions might make sense. You get the climate control and pest control benefits of enclosed growing without the enormous cost of piping all the light the plants need through two conversion systems.

Comment by Matt

Oh I agree, Matt. Thing is, if you’re on an interplanetary spaceship, you really don’t want to be using a direct solar greenhouse, because those huge windows to let the sunlight in are going to be a real nuisance, for everything from radiation protection to keeping them pressurized (think of the pressure differential across the “glass”) to making them proof against strikes by dust particles. So the reasonable alternative is to use LEDs and power the system either from solar panels or from whatever power plant the spaceship uses.

You run into similar problems settling planets, asteroids, etc.

So yes, this is all slightly facetious, but it’s a cheap example of how hard it is to live in space. Since we’ve got a lot of hungry people on Earth, it’s pretty reasonable to solve the problem here first, using shipping containers instead of spaceship segments, because there are a lot of them and they can be moved easily. That provides some incentives to try to develop space greenhouse technology here on Earth first, rather than just letting NASA create hugely expensive custom-built ones for their missions.

Comment by Heteromeles

Far out in the solar system you can’t get enough natural sunlight to grow crops in the first place, so I agree it’s artificial illumination or bust. In the past I have tried without much success to see if there are any chemotrophs that can feed off hydrogen and serve as food in turn for human food-animals. Water electrolysis is so much more efficient than artificial illumination, it might be better than our deep space voyagers eating vegan.

For inner solar system orbital habitat I think that greenhouses would be the way to go. Plants are pretty tolerant of radiation compared to humans, and humans don’t have to spend a lot of time in the greenhouse section. They can avoid visiting it altogether during e.g. solar proton events.

In the inner solar system I think that the mass penalty of conversion systems for sunlight -> electricity -> plant-light will be worse than the mass penalty of making greenhouse panes strong enough to withstand the pressure differential. The Lunar night is long enough that artificial illumination is probably required again, though, if people wanted a permanent moonbase with onsite food production.

Of course I too regard this as all off in wild speculation land — with foreseeable technology there is very little rationale and many obstacles for humans trying to permanently live away from Earth. If there is a permanent human presence beyond LEO in the next 30 years I expect it to be another pyramid-building project from governments seeking prestige or a shockingly expensive hobby for billionaires.

Comment by Matt

“Far out in the solar system you can’t get enough natural sunlight to grow crops in the first place, so I agree it’s artificial illumination or bust.”

It takes bigger mirrors. Ten times farther away takes 100 times the mirror surface area, plus whatever you lose from particle scattering. If you have to ship plutonium out there for power, then you need something equally valuable to ship inward, and the slower the traffic the more it costs in delay. So if the mirrors are cheap enough they’re worth doing, particularly if you can build them in place so that the major part of the cost is maintenance and not transport and delay.

Comment by J Thomas

“if you’re on an interplanetary spaceship, you really don’t want to be using a direct solar greenhouse, because those huge windows to let the sunlight in are going to be a real nuisance”

Use great big mirrors to focus light on a very small window. If you can arrange that the light is approximately collinear, then refract it and then put it back together minus the x rays and gamma rays and any other components you don’t want.

I’m expecting you’d rather deal with the problems of great big mirrors than great big windows.

Comment by J Thomas

That’s certainly another way to do it, and I think that’s what they’d planned for the Stanford Torus back in the day, in any case.

Comment by Heteromeles

Check out ‘Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience’, a 1985 collection of articles in which lessons are drawn from Polynesian and other long-range migration/diffusions here, with more anthropology and sociology than most space books. (Yes “interstellar” is grandiose, and in fact most articles concern this solar system.)

Comment by Monte Davis

Good point. I haven’t read it in a while, but I was certainly thinking about it.

Comment by Heteromeles

Apart from the minor details, I think the basic idea here is sound. We would need new technologies, and we need them to be cheap and reliable. We will probably develop them to deal with marginal situations here on earth, and the people who have to live in marginal situations are not the ones who are the best off. It will be little niche markets that expand improbably into space. Things that are pre-adapted, that started out as solutions to other problems.

Going back to specifics, I can vaguely imagine greenhouses that would work for hot dry places. Plants need to evaporate water, so you put them in a greenhouse, and you have a condenser that’s buried deep enough that the temperature is around the average yearly temperature. When it’s hot you circulate air to the cool place and let water condense out of it, that gives you drier air for the plants to transpire into and also distilled water that you can give them to do it again. If the heat that comes with the sunlight is too much, you might do better to bury the whole thing and use machinery that can take temperature extremes to get electricity from the sunlight to power cool lights. It would take a lot of fiddling, which can be mostly automated but which can be done by hand when you have people who can’t find more valuable jobs.

Get something like that working as a marginal thing (marginal because it’s cheaper to grow food in some congenial place and then ship it everywhere else). And then you’re most of the way to using it in space.

Even more marginal — designed for refugees, prisoners, and armies of tough soldiers who don’t have the budget to be pampered like US soldiers — set it up to deliver algae etc which could be tailored to produce what humans need. Potentially far more efficient growth, much quicker cycle time, all around cheaper and probably more reliable. But the end product would be an acquired taste. When reliability is critical, the less there is to go wrong, the better. So space applications should start out that way, but it’s marginal on earth because you need customers who have no choice but to use it in place of real vegetables and grains.

Comment by J Thomas

Thanks J. Given the complaints I’ve heard over the years, I’m not sure an algae culture is a better option. The problem with algae (or bacteria, or fungi, or cultured meat) is keeping the cultures from getting contaminated with other algae or bacteria. Yes, algae would have less unused biomass compared with plants, but unless someone creates a killer app (akin, say, to a kombucha culture or something similar) that allows people to grow edible unicellular organisms without all the fuss of making the media and keeping it sterile, I’m really not sure they’re more efficient. As you noted, there’s ample room for huge technical advances.

Comment by Heteromeles

I can’t be sure what would be better, of course. But in my imagination the disadvantages of higher organisms are so severe that it will be necessary to find workarounds for the disadvantages of algae etc.

My first thought is to do without pure cultures. Make it an environment that’s extreme in some way (one obvious candidate is to make it a bit hotter than most things like) and find or create organisms that survive well there and which are not poisonous. As much as possible find vigorous organisms for each ecological niche you notice. You can evolve them in situ, the longer they spend in the particular environment you supply, the better they are likely to be at outcompeting accidental arrivals. Particularly since on a spaceship there will be strictly limited opportunities to grow at that temperature etc.

It’s of course good to try to avoid contaminating your cultures, but sterile technique is kind of expensive. And if you can mostly automate the process then it’s good to have a lot of parallel cultures so that if one of them goes bad maybe the others will grow right and you can sterilize the bad one and reseed it from another.

And it helps that it doesn’t have to work forever. If it works for months or years until your flight arrives where it’s going and you can have the whole ecosystem refurbished, that’s good enough.

People have been making buttermilk and yogurt and cheese, saurkraut, bread, beer etc for a very long time without pure cultures or sterile technique. When they can set things up so that the organisms they want are the ones that grow best, it usually works pretty well. Something like that is probably possible for this. And I tend to think it’s necessary. If you can get something along these lines working, you can probably get them working a lot quicker than you can get it working with higher organisms, and also cheaper, smaller, lighter, and more reliable. The other foods can be what you try on an experimental basis while you depend on this. Assuming it works. If it can be made to work, the shorter lifecycle means you find improvements quicker.

Comment by J Thomas

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