Towards a Sustainable Expanding Civilization

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Dani Eder

The Seed Factory Project,

6485 Rivertown Rd, Fairburn, GA 30213

Author email:

I report progress in developing a concept for a sustainable and expanding civilization. This would begin with existing locations on Earth, then expand to progressively more difficult environments for added living space and material and energy resources. The expansion continues progressively throughout the Solar System and eventually beyond. Our approach is based on treating civilization as a complex engineering program to be optimized, rather than a dominance game of competing for shares of a finite world. We would apply several technologies to reach the desired ends. One is automated production systems that can bootstrap from a starter set and stored designs to any desired size. We also incorporate highly cyclic material flows and abundant renewable energy for sustainability. These technologies increase access to and use of more difficult environments to support a growing population at a higher standard of living. The ability to manage difficult environments and mitigate space-based hazards will reduce civilization-level risks, and having sufficient resources for everyone's needs reduces sources of conflict. This approach has enough advantages over the current trajectory of civilization to justify continued work.

1.0 - Introduction[edit]

Current civilization has a number of serious problems, including poverty, limited resources, and environmental degradation. It is dominated by flawed individuals and organizations who compete in what they see as a zero-sum game of finite land and resources. Many people have given up hope for the future because of limited jobs and climate change. These circumstances make it harder to solve the real underlying problems. Human actions are affected by what people know, and what they believe to be possible. By presenting what we think is a better approach, one that provides stability, growth, and hope, we want to encourage belief in a better future, and therefore change people's actions so that future comes to be.

2.0 - Concept Origin[edit]

So where did this new approach come from? The author is a space systems engineer, and most of my career has been devoted to future projects and programs. This naturally involves new technologies that are not yet fully developed. My current work is mainly on Seed Factories, which are automated production systems that can bootstrap from a starter set and grow to any desired size. The original idea for seed factories grew out of the cost and difficulty of transporting everything for large future space projects from Earth. One way to handle that problem is to leverage local raw materials and energy already in space, and convert them to usable products. This is known as Space Mining or In-situ resource utilization, (ISRU) for the earlier steps, and Space Manufacturing for the later parts. Today, [1] and related technologies are being worked on. However they would still require delivering a lot of industrial equipment to places like the Moon or Mars to support large projects like exploration bases and colonies.

The solution is to also make most of the mining and production equipment locally in space. You then only have to deliver a starter set of equipment known as the "Seed Factory". The name is an analogy to biological seeds, from which mature plants grow. The idea was first studied by NASA in 1980, in terms of self-replicating autonomous factories. The "seed" was then the first factory copy, which is delivered to a space location, and proceeded to copy itself many times. The computer, communication, and automation technology of that time was not up to the task, so the idea was put aside. I came across it again while writing an online textbook for the next generation of engineers: Space Transport and Engineering Methods (STEM). By 2012 the available technology was vastly improved over that from 1980, so I thought the idea was worth re-examining.

I relaxed the original assumptions that the factory had to make a complete and exact copy of itself without outside help. Instead, the "seed" was a smaller and simpler set of equipment that could make some parts and materials, working from stored design files. When combined with other items supplied from outside, they could be assembled into new and different machines. This progressively increases production capacity, so fewer items are needed from outside. The expansion of the factory continues until it reaches some practical limit. This is set by rare materials not found locally, or items that are too hard to make and therefore continue to be imported. Besides new machines, I allowed the growing factory to make different sized machines than it started with - smaller ones for more delicate or accurate work, and larger ones to increase the scale of production. Lastly, I did not assume the production had to be fully automated. Communications are much better today, so vehicles and robots can be controlled remotely, and some factory operators can be physically on-site as needed. The changed assumptions made the seed factory easier to design, and smaller for delivery to some remote place in space.

Then I realized something that rapidly led to a major shift in my world-view and the direction of my work. That was simply remembering Physical Laws are universal - they are the same in space as on Earth. If self-bootstrapping automated production works in space, it should work on Earth too, with similar advantages. NASA had never considered applying the seed factory idea to Earth, because industrial production on Earth is not part of their agency mission. But the problems we have down here are more immediate and much larger scale than what we want to do in space. So my focus shifted to developing seed factories and related technologies on Earth first. Once enough experience had accumulated, they could later be leveraged to build rocket factories and other facilities on the ground, then deliver mining and production equipment into orbit.

Even on Earth, the local environments range from moderate, to difficult, to extreme. Development and habitation are concentrated in milder areas because they need less technical support. Even the best areas on Earth, though, still need some supporting technology, like protection from the weather. The more difficult the environment, the more technology is needed to make it livable for people, and the harder it is to operate equipment productively. Automated production, recycling, and renewable energy can make it easier and less expensive to live and work in these difficult places. So they expand the physical range and accessible resources for civilization. Space can then be viewed as merely a more extreme environment, to be tackled when the technology is up to the task.

The resulting approach is to develop the technologies for the easiest places first. As experience is gained with them, they would be adapted and upgraded to more difficult locations. Existing locations would produce starter sets and deliver them to the new locations in an expanding wave. When the conditions are hostile enough, such as deep underwater or in space, they would be operated remotely at first, until enough equipment is in place to live safely and comfortably. The expansion would continue as long as necessary to access the vast amount of untapped resources, and sustain a growing population. The growing factories produce renewable energy sources and waste reprocessing equipment among their other equipment. This makes civilization more sustainable. Higher levels of automation can produce large amount of useful products, relieving poverty and underdevelopment. The overall advantages are so large, that for several years I have devoted most of my efforts to develop these ideas.

3.0 - Conceptual Design Process[edit]

How does one go about developing an idea like this? Having worked on large engineering projects in the past, I know this one is too complicated for one person. I have neither the required knowledge, time, or funding to do it all. At best I can make a start, and distribute the idea through articles like this so that other people can take up the work. Among the needed tasks are to identify required research and development, and then validate the equipment designs work and are worthwhile. With limited resources I've had to focus my personal efforts. Technologies for recycling and renewable energy are already in active development, and so is automation in general. However seed factories are a relatively new idea that has not gotten a lot of attention. I therefore started the Seed Factory Project to concentrate on that aspect. I've gotten some help from other people. So when I refer to "we", that includes all the technical and financial contributors to the project besides myself. Our project goal is to combine what we learn about seed factories with work by others on automation and sustainability into complete designs, then build and demonstrate they work as expected.

Figure 1 - Linear life cycle stages.

Engineering projects can be simple, like improving the drainage around my house, or massively complicated, like going to the Moon or building the Internet. I assume that self-bootstrapping automation that spreads across multiple Earth environments, and then into space, will be towards the complex end of the scale. An interdisciplinary field called Systems Engineering has evolved to manage such complex projects. It is also my engineering specialty, so I have experience with it. I've therefore adopted systems engineering tools and methods to work on the project. That does not mean my way is the only way. It's just the one I am most familiar with.

In systems engineering, the "system" is all the parts of a project or design that are being worked on, as distinguished from the rest of the world outside the system. One of the basic ideas is that systems go through a "life cycle" from initial idea to final disposal (Figure 1). A proper design then considers the whole life of the project, from start to finish, and not just one aspect, like lowest manufacturing cost. The design process is usually divided into several stages of increasing detail. The first of these is "Conceptual Design", which covers from original idea to documenting a "System Concept". This describes the main elements that make up the system, and how they relate to each other and the outside world. It includes preliminary estimates of size, cost, and other features of interest.

Key parts of the systems engineering process include:

  • Breaking down a complicated project in such a way that the smallest pieces are simple enough for people to design.
  • Modeling the system so it can be analyzed and optimized, and comparing the actual physical system to the models.
  • Controlling and tracking the information accumulated, the design of the pieces, and their relationships to each other. This is so different people and teams can understand how their work fits into the whole, and the total system will meet the goals set for it.

While this provides a framework to organize a project, you still need specialists in different areas, like cost analysts, mechanical and electrical engineers, and facility planners, who can apply their knowledge.

Figure 2 - Systems engineering steps.

The Systems Engineering process in practice is one of continual refinement, with later work affecting earlier assumptions, and finer detail being developed over time. However it can be described as a set of discrete steps for presentation purposes (Figure 2), which are applied repetitively at various levels of the program:

  • Requirements Analysis - This identifies needs, and measures of effectiveness. Higher level goals are converted into measurable statements of performance, cost, and other desired features. These measurable features are called system requirements. Various features, like cost and performance, affect each other. We therefore model user preferences with measurable criteria and a scoring function. The requirements and criteria are then used to evaluate designs as they are developed.
  • Functional Analysis - Divides a system into smaller and simpler elements, leading eventually to individual functions that can be designed for. It concentrates on what needs to be done rather than how to do it, so as not to exclude possible solutions.
  • Requirements Allocation - Distributes subsets of the requirements to lower level program elements. Single upper level requirements often must be divided into more specific components to accomplish this.
  • System Modeling and Concepts - Builds mathematical models of the system elements based on alternate identified design concepts to meet the requirements.
  • Optimization and Trades - Varies model parameters for a design alternate to find the optimum values, then trade off optimized alternatives against each other to select the best result.
  • Synthesis and Documentation - Combines results from lower level design work into a coherent higher level whole, and documents the results as a baseline for further work.

For the conceptual design stage, these steps are applied until a coherent system concept results. The concept is then evaluated in terms of the overall goals. Is it a good enough solution to be worth going further? Are there unresolved technology issues that must be addressed first? The conceptual design and evaluation is usually documented in one or more reports, with recommendations for further work. As of August 2016, the conceptual design stage is not complete, but we have made considerable progress over the last few years. I will summarize the status in the remainder of this article, and reference the various documents where more details can be found.

4.0 - Conceptual Design Status[edit]

---[ updated to here ]---

Previous space programs have been criticized as being too “mission oriented” and not sufficiently tied to earthly needs to be obviously desirable on their own merits. The present program attempts to remedy this issue by starting with human goals and allowing the technical results to proceed from them, rather than dictating a space mission as an initial assumption. We treat the Earth as another planet in space, which even in temperate environments humans have not yet learned how to inhabit fully, and in the more difficult and extreme environments cannot inhabit at all without substantial outside support. In this context, space becomes a somewhat more extreme environment than those found on Earth. Technologies for living sustainably from local resources would apply everywhere, from the most agreeable locations on Earth to the most extreme ones in space. Developing them then both improves life for the great majority of people, and enables expansion to the more difficult and extreme locations, tying earthly needs to developing space in a natural way.

The nascent concept started as a set of tutorial examples for students studying Space Systems Engineering. The author gradually realized that the collection of examples, taken together, seem to be a better approach to future space programs, and also applied back to Earth. For example, learning how to extract useful materials from random asteroid or Lunar rock works just as well for extracting useful materials from random Earth rock. Since more people live on Earth, the first application for such a technology would be here, and then later in space. We have adopted this approach generally - develop the technologies for where people live now, then extend them to more difficult locations, including to space. In this paper we summarize the work so far by leaving out most of the technical details worked out as examples in the textbook. We will also look at what further work can be done to improve the integrated program.

The textbook and the details of the program contained in Parts 4 and 5 are both works in progress. They follow a software-like model of incremental improvement rather than a paper-based textbook and journal model of publication as a finished product. As open-source works, any competent contributor is invited participate in further work, and the results are available for anyone to use. The present author (Eder) has done most of the work to date.

n.0 - Program Approach and Status[edit]

Early concept studies for a proposed program such as this must make assumptions about who is the eventual “customer” – the entity who has needs and desires to be met, and who is the designer who will perform the work. For our study we assume the customer will be civilization as a whole, rather than a particular nation or corporation. The designer is assumed to be a non-profit foundation, with later transition to other organizations to implement. To go beyond concept studies, the designer must demonstrate to the customer that the proposed new program has enough merit to implement it over current programs and plans. That is one of the goals of such a study.

As a technical approach we are using Systems Engineering methods. Systems Engineering has evolved as a way to develop complex projects over their complete life cycle. A complex program, such as expanding human civilization, will have multiple desired features. These include cost, performance, risk, schedule, and a number of others. We want to balance these often conflicting desires and produce a "best" solution from the customer's perspective. To do this we define a number of measurable criteria based on what is important to the customer, and then combine them to a single scoring function. Best is then whatever design alternatives produce the highest score.

By their nature, complex programs are too complex for any one individual to design. The System Engineering approach also includes breaking down such a complex program into a hierarchy of elements to the point that the smallest parts can be comprehended and worked on by individuals or small teams. At the top level, the program goals define what the overall design objectives are. These are turned into detailed explicit statements, then divided and passed down the hierarchy as "Requirements" to the lower tiers. The lowest level elements will then be designed according to their assigned subset of requirements. The intent is when these individual elements are combined into the complete program it will then accomplish the desired top level goals. Managing complexity by dividing it into many smaller parts, and then assembling the parts into larger and larger functional elements is not simple or easy, but at present no better way is known.

At present, the overall program goals, program level criteria and scoring function, and the program level requirements have been defined. The structure of program elements has been established, and functional analysis to populate the lower levels of of the structure has been started. A concept for the overall program has been formulated, and a number of individual design concepts have been identified for lower level elements. The potential advantages of the new program are evident, but much work remains to be done to complete a conceptual design and demonstrate the potential can be realized in practice. The remainder of this paper summarizes the current state of the design. For full technical details see parts 4 and 5 of STEM.

n.0 - General Design Features[edit]

We identified three important functions that seem to be required for civilization as a whole. These are (1) production of material goods and energy, (2) human habitation for protection, comfort, and enjoyment, and (3) transport to move people and goods from one place to another. Varying subsets of these functions occur at most developed locations, new or existing. Since the functions will recur in multiple locations, we look at their general design first, then specific instances for particular locations. Production of food at a minimum is required for survival. Production of other goods and energy is required to build not only habitation and transport elements, but more production capacity. Therefore we see improved production technology as the first area to concentrate on, but improvements in the other areas are also desired.

We have not yet determined what specific technologies are needed for improved production, but we have identified a number of candidates. In addition to well-developed technologies like automation and robotics, these include:

  • Self-Expansion - Using a minimal starter set which not only produces useful output, but grows by helping make more equipment for itself.
  • Modular Design - Using standardized sizes and interfaces so that production elements can be added or rearranged without custom design.
  • Generalized Resources - Using materials and energy found everywhere as sources, rather than requiring high grade sources only found in certain places.
  • Distributed Operations - Decoupling humans and production tasks from needing to be in the same place at the same time(i.e. a traditional factory).
  • Cyclic Flows - Including reuse/repair/reprocessing of materials into the original system design rather than an afterthought.

Work on general habitation and transport technologies has not started yet.

n.0 - Specific Candidate Designs[edit]

The author is a Systems Engineer with long experience on space projects, and the examples developed in the STEM textbook were initially all related to space. Now that a program concept has emerged with a large Earth component, more work is needed to fill in that part, add missing space elements, and draw all the parts into a coherent program. The following list of designs should be considered candidates for the space parts of the total program. They have not reached final selection, nor have been optimized.

8.1 Earth to Orbit Transport
  • Startup Launcher - The task here is to deliver the first parts for an orbital assembly and production platform. A small, three stage, fully reusable rocket and some other alternatives will be considered, or to buy transportation on other existing launch vehicles. The intent is to upgrade or replace this method by more advanced launchers once the cargo traffic justifies it.
  • Bulk Cargo Transport - On Earth we use different methods to deliver bulk goods and humans/delicate/priority cargo. When sufficient traffic justifies specialized launch methods, we consider a Hypervelocity Launcher as a substitute for the first stage of a conventional rocket. A rocket stage is still needed to complete reaching orbit.
  • Low G Transport - The complementary system for delivering humans and delicate cargo has a number of options. Existing and planned launchers outside the program are definitely candidates, as are combined air-breathing/rocket systems, or a low-g gas accelerator.
8.2 Near Earth Production
  • Orbital Platform(s) - These are one or more platforms that start by simple assembly of themselves from pre-made parts launched from Earth. They progress to assembling and fueling larger payloads, eventually adding production functions. The first platform would be in Low Earth Orbit, with later locations to be determined. They would start out mostly remote controlled from Earth, and add permanent crews once sufficient supplies and crew modules are in place.
  • Orbital Mining - Replacing supplies from Earth with supplies extracted locally has an estimated 50:1 leverage on being able to do things in space sustainably. We consider three early mining candidates: air from the upper atmosphere via a compression scoop, human-made debris in Earth orbit, and natural Near Earth Asteroids.

Eventually we intend to study other production tasks like materials processing, parts fabrication, and growing food.

8.3 Near Earth Transport
  • Electric Propulsion - This is another high leverage technology with about 10 times the fuel efficiency of conventional rockets. Options include electrostatic ion, microwave plasma, and electrodynamic. Large scale use of electric propulsion is necessary to enable orbital mining and other space activities effectively. Although the efficiency gain is large, the thrust levels are relatively low.
  • Chemical Propulsion - The high thrust provided by chemical propulsion is still needed for some near Earth tasks. These include landing on the Moon, and crew transport through the Earth's radiation belt. Once in a shielded habitat or transfer vehicle the higher efficiency electric propulsion is preferred.
  • Skyhook - This is a practical form of space elevator which can be built with existing materials by only spanning about 20% of the Earth's gravity well. It rotates, which provides artificial gravity for the crew, and a velocity difference above and below its orbit. Compared to a non-rotating elevator it is much shorter, and so less exposed to meteoroid damage. Rather than needing to climb a very long cable, you need only ride for half a rotation and then let go to reach higher orbits. The Skyhook is built incrementally when traffic can support it. It helps build itself by lowering the required velocity of an Earth-to-Orbit vehicle, thus increasing payload. The increased payload can be used to carry more Skyhook hardware. Propulsion is still needed on a Skyhook to deliver net cargo upwards, but the effect is to replace part of the chemical rocket velocity by higher efficiency electric propulsion.
8.4 Distant Space

Expansion beyond Near Earth locations is expected to be in later phases of the program, so is not well defined yet. We can describe some general concepts, which may change as more work is done. The Skyhook can only partially span the Earth's gravity well, but can span a larger part or all of the Moon's and Mars' gravity wells. One in a high Earth orbit can be used to inject into interplanetary transfer orbits. In gravity wells this allows you to replace chemical propulsion with more efficient electric propulsion. For transfer orbits it allows faster trip times and less exposure for crews. Carbonaceous asteroids can supply the materials for carbon fiber to build the Skyhooks. A network of Skyhooks provides easy access to all inner Solar system destinations.

Asteroid material at first provides simple radiation shielding for crew habitats. As processing and production is developed, an increasing range of fuel, oxygen, metals, and more complex products are made via advanced production methods. At first, all the starter equipment is brought from Earth or previous locations. The need for this goes down until only rare materials or hard to make items need to be delivered. The location makes surplus items beyond its own needs, which pays for the things it cannot make itself. Thus it becomes self-supporting and a part of the general civilization. Development of the Moon, Mars, and the larger asteroids in the Main Belt follows the same progression.