Friday, June 30, 2017

Possible Futures – Orbital aviary

In “The Moon Before Mars: Why returning to the moon makes more sense than rushing off to Mars,” I wrote about how the moon has the space for farms and processing plants to grow and process food for orbital hotels and condominiums as well as for crewed missions throughout the solar system.  One issue, however, would be meat.  Meat is muscle, and in a lower gravity, you don’t use your muscles that much.  Lunar chickens would be scrawny.  The solution, I figured, would be the rotating space stations you see in science fiction.  These would be in lunar orbit – to be close to their feed sources on the moon and the processing plants there – and would have Earth normal gravity.  They would be giant chicken farms, but for PR purposes, they would be free-range chickens.

One thing that would stop the need for these giant chicken farms in lunar orbit would be synthetic meat, or meat grown in a lab.  When I wrote The Moon Before Mars, I assumed that synthetic meat would be a part of space diets, but there would be people who preferred the real thing.  However, I now think that synthetic meat will become acceptable sooner than our ability to build giant, rotating space stations for chickens. 

So what’s the point of this post?  Well, one of the ways I’m trying to build up support for returning to the moon is writing stories set there, for example, my collection “A Cabin Under a Cloudy Sea and other stories.” When I came up with the idea of chicken farms in lunar orbit, I figured that was a great setting for a story.  But what story could I do there?  At some point, I had let my imagination wonder, and I came up with an idea for a future dating app.  So I eventually put the two together and came up with a story about a kid growing up on this chicken farm orbiting the moon – run by about twenty people, half of whom are his family – as he works on finding a girlfriend. 

So I had this idea for a story – number 1,206 on my list of stories I need to write – set on this space station full of chickens.  And then I realized that this space station full of chickens, while not impossible, is a very unlikely future.  Is there anything similar I could do to keep the story alive?  How about an orbital aviary?

An orbital aviary could be in lunar orbit, but would be more likely to just be in Earth orbit.  It would probably start as a single rotating station, but then more would be stacked together to provide different environments, from tropical, to desert, to artic.  And they would be full of birds.  Well, birds as well as trees, grasses, insects, mice, fish, whatever.  Unlike the chicken farms that would import food, the orbital aviary would try to be self-sufficient. 

So what would be the point?  A lot of people talk about terraforming Mars as if it’s something we actually know how to do and have practical experience with.  Trying to create and maintain a self-sufficient ecosystem containing several hundred species of plants and animals would be a colossal challenge.  And you could fit a few hundred birds – of one species or several – in one rocket launch, as compared to one or two baby elephants. 

Critically endangered species could get a safe place to hopefully bounce back.  It would be like breeding them in captivity, just a bigger captivity with fewer, or even no predators, and the only humans around would be staff, scientists, and bird watchers.

There is also the possibility of bringing back some extinct species.  With the right preserved specimen and the right technical wizardry, we could bring back the passenger pigeon.  But would we just release it in the wild here on Earth? 

So that’s my idea for an orbital aviary.  It would be a test to see if we could build a stable ecology, a place for endangered or de-extinct species to thrive, and a place for people to get a bit of Earth nature in space.  And it would be a setting for a story I may never write.

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