Going Interstellar: History, Technology, Economics, And Power Of Flight Out Of Cradle

by Arturo Sierra

Before taking flight, the first issue to be addressed was making sure there would never be a better way to do it. How embarrassing it would have been, if the first had arrived there only to find others had beaten them to the punch. The waiting problem, it was called; go now, or wait for a faster ship?

The Law of Limited Surface Detail, commonly referred to as Ling-Holenbach Interval, took care of that. Proof that known physics at the time was all the physics that there was to know, save some details and tidying-up. There would be no new fundamental laws, no revolution in our understanding of the universe, and all that was left unanswered would remain so, because answers to those questions could not make sense. There was mathematical proof of this, in the form of horrendous equations that many still refuse to believe, and there was support from a mountain of empirical evidence, which most scientists would have preferred not to find. Time has proven Ling Shu and Hans Holenbach right. In short: there would not be warp drives, wormholes, nor any sort of FTL sorcery.

A more practical issue was fuel. Antimatter containment was (relatively) easy to figure out in theory, but getting hold of the advanced components for the tanks required a generation of material scientists dedicated exclusively to their production, to say nothing of antimatter factories themselves, built in space at a nigh prohibitive human cost. Stations the size of cities were transported around Sol 2, Venus, consisting almost entirely of radiators and solar panels—Venus being conveniently close to Sol while providing a good shadow to dump waste heat in. Catastrophic, spectacular explosions were par for the course.

The ships themselves were built at the Cradle-Sun L2. The first, Beijing, was four kilometers long and only thirty-two meters wide. The last ship built on Sol, Karakorum, would be thirty-five kilometers long and a hundred meters wide. These proportions were necessary, on the one hand, to keep the crew and passengers far enough from the annihilation chamber that the engine’s radiation wouldn’t fry them from the inside-out; on the other, to lower the drag and weathering from interstellar dust on the front-shield. On average, the ships could reach 0.4c, depending on payload.

Beijing was under construction for over fifty years. By the time it was ready to launch, some economist estimated that a third of global GDP was being spent on the project. The consequences of such an imbalanced budget were foreseeable. Not taking any action to prevent the social collapse it caused remains the original sin of interstellar travel.

At Kourou, the Cradle’s main spaceport, rockets left every twenty minutes, with a constant roar of metallic hydrogen and the shriek of first stages returning to their launchpads. At schools everywhere, children pretended to be space pirates with shouts of ahoy! and aye! while chanting the names of the ships: Beijing, Manhattan, Tokyo, Mumbai, Hamburg, Sydney… In television-sets across the world, talking-heads recounted continental dry-ups while hurricanes swept coastlines away and construction went forth gingerly at L2. In space stations from Venus to the asteroid belt, brittle bones shattered with a sound like breaking glass and air hissed while escaping through small fissures.

The technological, economic, industrial, and computational challenges were overwhelming, to say nothing of the medical issues presented by life in microgravity and by the torpor in which astronauts would travel. Additionally, to reduce the crew’s mass, their bodies—excepting vital organs—were atrophied, muscles, tendons, and fat simply chopped off or shriveled to nothingness. Indefinite extension of human lifespan was an obvious necessity, since no one would want to go on the ships only to arrive there old and infirm, and with no hope of return. Luckily, athanasia (or biological immortality) had been achieved half a century before construction began, provided the patient could afford the ruinous expenses of treatment.

Yet it has been argued that the most important problem of all was of an entirely abstract nature, and actually very simple: to answer the question “why?” Paradoxically, this was the one challenge that remained insufficiently solved even after Beijing left for Proxima.

One argument, often touted, was the “one planet trap.” Which—later generations would admit—didn’t hold a drop of water: the resources spent on making humanity interstellar, at the cost of everything else, were the main culprit in turning its Cradle a baren wasteland, both in ecological and societal terms. Others justified the venture by alluding to overpopulation, as if taking a thousand passengers at a time off-world, and at a monstruous cost, could have made a dent in demographics. Then there were the “to boldly go” arguments. Some people, it’s granted, will go to extreme lengths to satisfy their curiosity.

The true reason was obscured by a fog of such nonsense, but it was in fact quite straightforward: vanity. On a superficial level, the vanity of humankind’s richest, the “moguls” who commissioned the ships. But on its own that would not have been enough. It was the vanity of an entire civilization, reaching for an ambition that made it ill. If there had been some neighboring aliens to impress, it would have made a bit more sense, but of course, Fermi’s paradox turned out to have a rather prosaic explanation.

When Beijing’s engine was finally turned on, there were as many crowds gathered on rooftops to see the flame burning for the stars, pointing up to the sky to show each other and peering through binoculars, as there were crowds storming police stations, setting fire to factories and offices in the night. But the genie would not go back into the bottle. Nor could its spell be hurried along: it would take a little over twenty years for the ship to arrive there, and four more years for the news to make its way back. It was the first portent of things to come, that the distance between action and consequence grew so vast, no human mind can hold it.

It’s unfortunate that to talk of interstellar travel should mean to speak of money. Yet they don’t understand the enterprise who don’t think of it as a business first and foremost. If going to the stars had not promised profit, we can be sure nobody would have gone further than Luna.

Nevertheless, those first moguls who commissioned the ships didn’t know how or if the investment would pay for itself. Especially after the Mars terraformation fiasco—Mars being the fourth planet of the Sol system, a 0.4g rock with no magnetic field, and which proved stubbornly adverse—the chance that any worthwhile source of richness would be found seemed slim. Indeed, the exorbitant price of antimatter and the roundtrip time to Centauri meant importing commodities would be pointless. Thanks to exploratory probes, Proxima was known to harbor primitive lifeforms, but what commercial use they could have remained uncertain. This is why most historians argue that the scheme was not to make money, but rather to protect the money the shipbuilders had by a feat of social engineering.

A more enthusiastic perspective argues that moguls already envisioned what would turn out to be the main appeal of interstellar venture, even to this day: that they who finance colonization of a system have an opportunity to not simply play a part in a global economy, competing with other actors under the supervision of a more or less competent government, but to actually own the complete infrastructure of a settlement, becoming landlords of a world. In effect, owning a planet.

Describing the hardships of colonization exceeds the scope of these pages. Suffice it to say that making a world fit for human habitation, and humans fit to inhabit it, was a task that would take more error than trial. The sacrifices can be called heroic, but are more often thought of as foolhardy. For three-hundred years the settlements teetered on the edge of collapse, even as the Cradle sunk ever deeper into chaos. It was in its attempt to escape the one planet trap that humankind came to the brink, as Proxima and later Rigel Centauri needed a constant stream of resources to sustain themselves, but the effort to supply them drained the homeworld of its lifeblood.

Recounting the fate of the ships themselves is more pertinent. Soon enough, their owners discovered that they had no way to enforce ownership over them, at least once the colonies became more-or-less self-sufficient. Few people had any desire to crew an interstellar vessel, having to spend decades in transit. Of course, they didn’t spend all that time conscious, instead living in a state of semi-torpor, similar to the conditions of the passengers, but less drastic, in and out of an induced coma so that they could be awakened at short notice in case the ship demanded attention—which proved to be quite frequently. On that first flight, the crew of Beijing spent a total of five years each, out of the twenty-some that the trip took, awake on watch and tending to maintenance. Cooped up in a living space smaller than most apartments, eating their own waste recycled, and breathing the same, stale air over and over again. It was certainly not the moguls—so accustomed to a high standard of living—who wanted to be at the helm.

But once control of the ship was transfered to its captain and crew, how could they be forced to comply with the owner’s wishes? They could go to Proxima and not return, flying instead between the stars of the Centauri system, much closer to each other than the Cradle to any of them, and increasingly able to support interstellar trade. In fact, the colonies paid quite handsomely to have the ships service the Centauri routes, and later to go back and forth to Virginis, Lacaille, and Indi, all easier to reach from the colonies than from the Cradle.

Moreover, an interstellar vessel is also a weapon of mass destruction like no other: at 0.4c, it is impossible to hit with defensive weaponry, and any ordinance it fires strikes with unmatched destructive power. If the locals allow it to park in low orbit of a planet or space station, it can cook a city simply by pointing its engine down and letting the radiation do the work. At least on one occasion, during the Concerted War, a ship has proven the extent of their destructive power, when Karakorum dropped its fuel tanks on Rigel Centauri and came near to sterilizing the world. Yet, just as a ground-based power has no reach over ships, so ships—crewed at most by half a dozen people—lack the capacity to rule over worlds.

The independence with which crews operate eventually meant they did not need to obey the whims of any planet-bound authority. It was the birth of a culture, that of interstellar traders. And trade they did: over the next kiloyears, as Sol gave out its last breath, ships went ever further, to Hede (683), to Keda (CD46), and ultimately here, to Gran Gliese, and beyond. By then, colonization had ceased to be a matter of mere vanity: advanced terraformation techniques, more reasonable shipyards, and streamlined antimatter production made the settlement of new worlds a profitable and sustainable business. As for trade goods, they include genetically moded biota for terraformation, such as algae, lichen, and bacteria, as well as luxury plant and animal stuffs, and then products requiring an advanced industrial ecology that young settlements have not yet grown: processors, superconductors, fusion reactor cores, and plastics—since hydrocarbons are difficult to come by on some worlds. Additionally, computer programs, made artificially scarce, are leased and taken by the ships. Fifty solar kiloyears after the first flight of Beijing, the furthest known human world is Mu Arae, almost fifty lightyears away from our birthplace among the stars. Traders go between them all. Their journeys continue the legacy of exploration that weaves the fabric of our history.



Arturo Sierra was born in Santiago, Chile, where he still lives. So far has led an uninteresting life and, with any luck, it will remain that way. In English, he has previously published in Sci Phi Journal and EscapePod.

Philosophy Note:

As fascinating as interstellar space-travel is, it’s hard to come up with a reasonable justification for it, that could make colonization economically viable. It’s also very difficult to imagine what sort of goods it would be worthwhile to transport across such distances, making trade viable. This story represents a distilled summary of what little I’ve been able to speculate in the way of a system that makes sense.

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