More notes on my draft optimistic hard sci-fi setting, the Bright Conference.
Fuels and Engines
Rockets make people a bit weird. Some proposals feel like "Pro Tip: You can commute to work faster by taking amphetamines, driving through oncoming traffic, and firing a belt-fed machine gun."
It's technically correct advice, but Isp isn't everything. Arriving at your destination is nice too. Normally, I'd go "Augh, hydrazine!" but after reading about some of the speculative engines and fuels out there I've started to say "Nice, safe, predictable, cuddly hydrazine. You'd never betray me."
For the Bright Conference, I'm limiting technology to something with a real-world test or a thorough proof of concept, not just a sketch on a napkin or a thought experiment. Anything at a Technology Readiness Level of 3 or above on this table is probably fine. This means no antimatter rockets, no fusion rockets, and no handwaved reactionless drives. I'm going to err on the side of plausibility.
For human exploration pods, liquid methane and liquid oxygen makes a lot of sense, with hydrazine or some other monopropellant used for reaction control. Other species may have other requirements, technology chains, etc, but they're still limited to the viable, and not just the possible.
can make some rockets more efficient with cheap power. Where do you get
cheap power? The local star is the obvious source. You've already got a
giant fusion reactor. Why not use it?
Solar panels. Plenty of room for improvement, but panels add mass and cooling requirements.
Beamed power. If you're staying in a system for a long time, set up a solar power station and send the power to your ship. Microwaves, lasers, battery transfers: whatever works best.
Alternatively, use a nuclear reactor. Waste heat management is an issue (Damn you Carnot!), but this seems like a technology chain that could be optimized, given sufficient time. It also seems like a solid modular product. Buy an off-the-shelf nuclear brick with a built-in radiator, stick it on your spacecraft, and use an adapter to convert the output to your needs. No user-serviceable part inside.
Fusion reactors are possible, but only on an installation scale, and only when using the free fusion reactor in the sky isn't viable. They're usually next located near their hydrogen source, or used in gate devices.
|Scott Scneider, Supernova (2000). |
Not a great film, but great miniatures, and at least some sensible hard-ish sci-fi decision making.
No shields, no magic, no credible defense. This isn't a tactical sci-fi setting. It's a policy sci-fi setting.
Accidental impacts (micrometeorites, debris), general radiation, and solar storms make some form of armour useful, but not every component can be armoured.
Nuclear weapons are still viable (for different reasons than in an atmosphere), but conventional explosives, or even simple kinetic impacts, are still dangerous. If someone really wants you dead, they will find
a way. The missile/drone/laser/plasma/shell always gets through.
Spaceships are fragile. The most technologically advanced alien ship is
unlikely to survive a few direct hits from an autocannon.
choice is this: do you haul around a defensive system that you'll
probably never use, and won't save you even if you do use it, or do you
rely on reputation, risk/reward calculations, and unintended
Most species use dual purpose systems.
Technology that could be weaponized, but has another useful function to
justify its existence, and the cost of hauling it around. You don't need
to pack a rocket launcher, you need to pack a hiking pole.
are expensive. Each probe is a miniature spaceship, with its own fuel
supply, maintenance costs, and duplicate (in miniature) of many systems
aboard the main ship. Cut corners and your probe becomes unreliable or
even a liability. It's the same problem faced by escape pods and
shuttles. On the other hand, having more than one eye is very useful.
can be used for long-distance communication or accelerating small
probes. Most high-velocity probes ride behind a laser, which sweeps dust from their route.
It seems plausible that compact high-efficiency lasers could exist, but
they aren't completely effective defensive weapons. You can turn an
incoming bullet into an slightly warmer incoming bullet, while filling
your ship with waste heat in the bargain.
High-density energy storage mediums can be turned into explosives, or at least inconveniently feisty devices, under the right conditions. Communications equipment can be used as electronic countermeasures. If you can transmit a signal, you can transmit a countersignal, noise, or lies.
finally, thermonuclear bombs can be made low-maintenance, relatively
safe to store/hit with a hammer. You can't guarantee any given ship
isn't carrying a small missile with a city-destroying warhead.
Side Note: Atomic Rockets and other hard sci-fi advice sites remind readers that most FTL systems can be casually turned into weapons mass destruction. This can be a problem for military sci-fi, but the Bright Conference says, "So? We have weapons of mass destruction."
How do you train an ambassador who cannot be held accountable?
How do you prepare someone for a mission where death is very, very likely? Not deliberate murder, but accidental death from malfunctioning equipment, radiation, running out of fuel and air, or living a long, interesting, and terribly lonely life around some distant star.
How do you train someone for a situation that is almost entirely unknown? No mission control, no fixed criteria for sucess or failure. Just guesswork, improvisation, and staying calm under pressure. Playing the long game when you can't see the board.
Anyone running an ambassador training program also can't rely on the
sci-fi standard youth indoctrination camp. You can't rely on secrecy and
limited information. You need wholehearted consent. Your ambassadors
will be out in the world, thinking for themselves, reading all the
forbidden literature, uncovering all the leaks and war crimes, or running into another astronaut, alien, or adaptive artificial intelligence trained to argue philosophy.
An Excerpt: Training
"Moving on to proposal three. Hire some puzzle-makers and psychologists. Tell them to design some non-anthropocentric puzzles. Really hard ones."
"Should we ask an alien for advice?"
"Perhaps, if we can explain the concept to them. I'm sure other species have had the same problem. But they could bias the training."
"Noted. I think we should look at full-scale simulations as well."
"Like virtual reality?"
"No, that never works. I mean the sort of simulations that paramedics use. You arrive on scene, there's fake blood everywhere, an overturned car or a collapsed stage, and you need to triage. Like an obstacle course, except it's realistic."
"And instead of actors it's logic puzzles?"
"Or actors in alien costumes."
"Right. And our trainees have to navigate the scenario."
"Hear me out. We want our trainees to be used to bewildering situations, of clinging to rationality when the world is apparently going mad. So we dose them with mescaline, and perhaps a mild emetic, or something else to simulate zero-G sickness. I don't know, I'm not a doctor."
"Can someone explain how we'll get useful information out of this proposal? How are we evaluating trainees? Is this timed or..."
"It's holistic. The point is to see how they do under extremely adverse conditions designed to simulate, as best we can, the experience of being out there. Alangrave described visiting a station as 'being a mouse in a shopping mall designed by Escher.'"
"And trying to solve a rubix cube, on mescaline, while theater students dressed in rubber suits hit you with pool noodles is exactly like that, right? Come on. Proposal four..."
Pack Only What You Need
In null gravity, humans aren't going to do a lot of walking Is leg amputation really such a radical proposal? Cybernetic eyes and cortical implants are science
fiction, but chopping off legs is science fact. 30-40% a
human's mass is legs, and you don't need legs in null gravity. Space agencies in the real world seem to agree. Launch mass is one concern, but maneuvering mass is also important, and a species surgically altering itself make space travel easier is not uncommon.
"We had a very pious and humane man, who gave them a most excellent sermon on this occasion, exhorting them not to kill us all at once. 'Cut off only one of the buttocks of each of those ladies,' said he, 'and you will fare extremely well; if you are under the necessity of having recourse to the same expedient again, you will find the like supply a few days hence. Heaven will approve of so charitable an action, and work your deliverance.'
Closed-Loop Ecological Life Support
The ultimate goal is to turn a human into a closed cycle. The only input is energy. The only output is waste heat. Everything else is recycled. Unfortunately, humans require a lot of complex inputs and make a lot of weird outputs. There's no way to get a backpack-sized permanent life support system working for a human. Even with mildly handwaved tech, a full recycling setup would probably be too large to bolt to a one-person spacecraft.
Since this is an RPG and not a manual, I can probably get away with saying "Feces centrifuge," "biosolids conversion algae," and "algae supplement pellet" and let you imagine the rest. Closed-loop recycling is both a psychological and an engineering problem. NASA claims the ISS is 80% efficient.
Some back-of-a-napkin math suggests that a perfect plant/algae based CO2->O2 recycling system (i.e. algae in tubes) is probably not portable, or stable for 1 astronaut. Since cryogenic storage of large quantities of O2 and N2 is viable, this system does not need to be 100% efficient.
A human Bright Conference pod usually uses three systems:
- Alien bioengineered algae pods. Mostly used to supplement food. CO2, power, and water in, O2 and sucrose out... but nowhere near enough to close the loop. It could if humans were more efficient, but we aren't.
- A regenerative metal-organic CO2 scrubber. CO2 buildup will kill you faster than you'll run out of O2.
- A sealed chemical scrubber in case of a fire, power loss, or other catastrophe. Peel the top off the tube, get an extra few hours of life.
We can't eat alien snacks, and they can't eat our snacks. You have to pack a lunch.
The Vital Ingredients (a.k.a. There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch)
"Vital Ingredients" is a mistranslation, but it stuck. The theory goes that most newly contacted planet-bound species need time to adapt to the level playing field of null gravity and hard vacuum. An altruistic well-established species can set up a buffet (or bird feeder) of raw materials. A traveling species can replenish supplies for free (or under the terms of a very generous supply-limiting contact). It costs the altruistic species very little and earns them an enormous amount of goodwill.
It not something you can count on, but it does exist. There's usually a term to prevent permanent freeloading, but some species don't mind if their buffet attracts permanent residents. A buffet can create a space station and a culture. Locating these buffets could be a mission for the PCs. Not all are equally useful.
A Vital Ingredients buffet usually includes a few tanks of bioengineered algae-analogues to upgrade raw materials. Almost nothing on the buffet is something humans consider food. Aside from oxygen and water, ethanol is usually available. Tbe joke runs that you can starve to death sober or you can starve to death drunk.
Luckily, some alien species have fancy algae-analogues that will upgrade methane, acetic acid, or other common buffet items into glucose or starch, and a handful of vital amino acids. The life support package of well-equipped Living Module may include a few of jars of these cultivated organisms, in the optimistic hope that the module will be useful for decades.
|NASA (values are per day)|
For 1 person-year:
- Water (80% efficient recycling): 1.3 tonnes. Call it 1.5 tonnes. Note that this only counts biologically necessary water. ISS astronauts use a lot more water for hygiene.
- Oxygen (no recycling): 0.3 tonnes. Call it 0.5 tonnesfor safety and to provide extra O2 to flush the filters. Doesn't count fuel oxygen.
- Food (with minimal water) (negligible recycling): 0.2 tonnes. Call it 0.3 tonnes, or 0.5 tonnes if you want to be generous.
There are no magic gravity plates in the Bright Conference. You have to get your gravity from Sir Isaac Newton. The assumption is that exploration is sufficiently dangerous that long-term health effects of null gravity are probably not what will kill you. Living Modules contain exercise equipment, but spun gravity rings are not viable at the moment. If you make it back to Earth - and it's a very big if - a long hospital visit will be mandatory.
No showers. Just a wash cloth and centrifuge, or wet wipes, or perhaps, as a luxury, a plastic bag you can climb into. Pre-launch, consider permanent hair removal from some areas (or your
whole body; it'll save time), cauterization of nail beds (see below), and freezing your gametes (if you want to have offspring).
Human spaceships require constant maintenance. Sterilize the vent filters. Suck up skin flakes and dust with a tiny vaccum wand. Wipe down surfaces with your limited supply of biocide. A UV sterilization lamp might not be the worst idea. Could help with vitamin D and, possibly, the blues. While most gates are near stars, "near" is a relative term.
The Bright Conference is a 5-minutes-into-the-future setting. If we can't do it now, then I can't include it.
Spacecraft are designed to use Hitchhiker Waivers. Humanity cannot currently afford to pay the Gatekeepers, but other species will occasionally pick up a low-mass ship or two and take them along, with no assumption of liability on the other side. Humans can also negotiate travel arrangements with alien species directly, usually with better terms.
I'm thinking around 20 tonnes is a good value for a one-person one-year ship.
A spacesuit with a backpack. The backpack partially swings to the side to reveal a hatch. You attach the hatch to your living module and climb out, like a spider shedding its exoskeleton. A spacesuit isn't clothes. It's a small uncomfortable room with pockets for your limbs.
The helmet has a ranging laser and one or more visors. Inside, there are a few display screens, a water tube, a microphone, and speakers.
The backpack has a battery, radio, radiator, tiny solar panel, air tank, water tank, gyroscope, and propulsion system. The backpack stays outside the living module. If it breaks, the astronaut can use the entire living module as a sort of giant backpack.
Gloves are the worst. Human hands are not designed for space. Portable robotic analogues are not viable yet. EVA work means losing your fingernails. Getting your nailbeds cauterized before you go to space might not be the worst idea. Fine manipulation is almost impossible.
Side Note: Real-world spacecraft typically use a high-pressure low-oxygen mix for habitats (to prevent flash fires) and a low-pressure high-oxygen mix for EVA suits (to prevent the suit from popping and to allow astronauts to bend their limbs). For the Bright Conference, I'm assuming a high-pressure suit could be designed with current-generation materials (and a blank cheque). If not, I'd need to add a decompression / bends procedure for every EVA.
The backpack has a control arm for the maneuvering unit. Compressed nitrogen or CO2, very limited delta-v. If you can, stay tethered. If you can't, you may need to ask for a push back to your spacecraft. How embarrassing.
A small pressurized room with a bed (a sort of sack), a toilet, a bunch of computers, the high-maintenance bits of the life support system, and a lot of storage. "Snug" and "cozy" might be applicable if you're feeling generous, "a coffin with pockets" if you're not.
Forward-thinking designers add a second hatch. It's not an airlock, but a second Excursion Module can dock, or you can dock hatch-to-hatch and link two or more Living Modules in a chain (though it'll be an ugly unbalanced mess of panels and radiators). It'd be nice if humanity settled on a universal standard for hatch designs. Spirit of cooperation and all that..
All the other parts that make a spacecraft possible, but do not require human interaction or regular maintenance. A robotic arm with a camera may be useful. Propulsion system. Reaction control system. Solar panels, heat radiator, main battery. Tanks. And adapters. So many adapters.
How Many Crew?
One is the loneliest number. A Bright Conference astronaut is, arguably, the most expensive and vital part of a mission. Given the chance of death and failure, why risk two astronauts when one will do? Loneliness is also an incentive to seek contact and make connections. Either make friends or go mad.
Pair-bonded humans form a common cultural unit. Two astronauts can also keep each other honest (in ideology or chores ). On the other hand, two can be as bad as one. Personal space does not scale.
Three is an interesting number. Three allows for luxurious watch rotations. You can have a human active and communicating at all times.
The Kardashev Scale
A few species in the Bright Conference have managed to hit Kardashev II, through Dyson Swarm-like constructions. Megastructures can give a civilization a goal. They are also required for ultra high-end research and manufacturing.
Given the age of the galaxy, sensible species might expect more Kardashev II+es around the place. The most plausible answer is the inherent instability of organized life. A 10,000 year construction project has a lot of room for error, sabotage, changes of priority, etc. Civilization may not collapse, but it wobbles a fair bit. There's no stable plateau.
Data on failure is available. Learn what to do, what not to do... but who's lying to you, and why? Aside from differences of perspective, philosophy, and judgement, there's a temptation to insert false and misleading
data. Pretend to fail. Pretend to succeed for non-obvious reasons. It's another reason for contact (and potentially a secret the PCs can discover) Xenoarchaeology is more than just looting and resource reclamation.
Some species aim for a
timeless, god-like, inscrutable reputation so that other species leave
them alone. In a setting without magical technology, this is tricky. Some species deliberately erase their past and start anew.
Getting It Wrong
Post-contact, every washed-up billionaire with access to a rocket
wanted to explore life outside our solar system. They signed Hitchhiker Waivers, strapped their tiny improvised capsules to the hulls of
outgoing alien ships, and disappeared. Very few made it back. The
decision-making process of a coddled wealthy sociopath is not useful in
the Bright Conference. On Earth, you can fail gently. There's always the
secret bank account, the equity in your house, the friends in high
places, the speaking circuit, or the consultant route. If all else
fails, there's ditch water and roasted rats.
Hitchhiking: An Excerpt
The system was more beautiful than he imagined. A binary star, and the glittering arc of a space station. A line of solar panels and reflectors, black as midnight on the inside, glowing red on the outside, with glittering silver supports and docks. The Kurslek ship that had accepted their Hitchhiker Waiver took them within a few hundred kilometers of the station, then let them go and changed course to dock with the massive solar collector.
The novelty of the view faded within a few hours, though, given the cost of this little adventure, Brandon milked every flicker of joy for all it was worth. After taking thousands of nearly identical photos and drafting a few nuggets of wisdom, he had his new assistant Flynn tap out an open Hitchhiker request using the translator program and waited. And waited.
Brandon felt like the two-person pod was shrinking. His doctors had told him
that he couldn't take uppers or levelers with the antinausea meds, and
he'd downed the backup bottle of celebratory champagne hours ago.
Masturbation was out. "Are you sure it worked?" he asked, yet again.
"Yes. You can see the receipt ping from the Kurslek ship, the Gatekeeper station, the solar station, and even a mining outpost. They heard us. They just haven't replied." Flynn was hired because he was supposedly an expert on this sort of thing.
"Because nobody in the system wants to go to Earth right now," Flynn said. "Once again, if they wanted to go, they'd tell us how long we'd have to wait. But they don't. So they haven't."
"Do they know we're running out of air?" Brandon growled.
"Give me that," Brandon said, reaching for the tablet. Flynn dutifully handed it over, and, with smirk of authority, Brandon selected the Kurslek ship from the dropdown menu and typed, "Take me home right now."
"Clause requires statement: Consequence." The statement was printed in yellow. No transmission.
Brandon typed again. "Take me home right now or I will die."
"Clause requires statement: Consequence."
"Fucking thing is broken," he said.
"It's not. If you want to issue a demand in Galactistandard you need to offer something or state the consequences of a failure to accept. It can't be implied." Flynn didn't sound worried, just bored.
"But the consequences are that I, we, will die."
"And... humanity will take revenge?"
"No they won't. We signed a Hitchhiker Waiver. Didn't you read it? We are on our own."
To his credit, Brandon had read the waiver, in both a literal Galactistandard translation and in a summary presented by a lawyer. He just hadn't believed it. He stared at Flynn with growing rage, then tapped at the pad.
"Statement: Clarification: Unless we are returned to Earth we will die in 72 hours."
The app accepted the statement, translated it into a much longer string of Galactistandard, and beamed it to the Kurslek ship.
Six long minutes later, the ship replied. "Statement: [this ship] is not returning to the [Sol system]. Statement: Overriding Fact: Transmission from [this system] to [Sol system] is not possible for [9.8 days]."
"What the fuck," Brandon said. "Why not?"
Flynn put his hand on the tablet. "That's how gates work. It has something to do with relativity. The Gatekeepers won't allow quick return tickets."
"So you knew? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Back in college, my roommate signed up for one of your brain hacking trials. Remember, the miracle slow-release neurotransmitter booster? He was supposed to get a paycheck and expand the frontiers of science. Instead he had a massive stroke and died, along with everyone else who signed up."
"They signed a waiver," Brandon said automatically.
Galactic Rest Frame
Gatekeepers arbitrarily allow passage. They rarely allow multiple quick trips, and almost never allow a leap-and-return journey.
There are several explanations:
- It's a method of preventing war. Everyone has time to think about their actions.
- Two vessels colliding in the same gate is catastrophic.
- The Gatekeepers wish to appear more inscrutable than they really are.
- It has something to do with relativity.
Let's take the worst case scenario. The fastest star we've measured is whipping around a black hole at 8% of the speed of light. That's a mild Lorentz factor of 1.003. And an oddly convenient bit of math: for every year and a day you spend orbiting that star, a year and one day passes on Earth. That's not a lot of time to get up to relativity-based shenanigans. "Behold my twin! Their birthday is in February but mine is... slightly later in February! Dun dun dunnnn!"
Relativity though experiments include often include phrases like "an appreciable faction of the speed of light relative to one or more observers", as if rocket fuel is free. It's possible get a rocket up to those speeds, of course, but it's not easy. Saying "some high fraction of the speed of light" makes thought experiments interesting. Actually getting to some high fraction of the speed of light, without handwaving the material costs or inventing magic engines, is trickier.
Speed is expensive and risky. In the absence of gate tech, it's far more efficient to develop some form of stasis (biological, AI inheritors, etc.) and slow-boat your way around a system or between the stars.
Gate tech is heavy. It's difficult to miniaturize and very energy-inefficient at low transported volumes. No ansibles. The smallest gates are used on scout probes, and they still weigh 500kg and only work once before melting. Species have tried to make smaller ones, of course, butthe investment to make them at all is enormous.
And if you do try to use a gate to send information into the past, the experiment will fail. Someone leaves the lenscap on the detector. The rocket explodes. The gate hits the wrong receiver. Funding gets cut at the last minute. Civilizations still try of course (because physicists can't believe it, and frankly, you can't blame them), but it never works.