On Earth in the latter half of the 21st century:

  • the increasing ravages of climate change (e.g. droughts and a rising sea level) are creating more conflict between nations over the battle for resources and the need to deal with climate-change refugees
  • our new powerful telescopes have identified a relatively nearby star system with several planets that appear to be good candidates for colonization
  • technological advances have made plausible the building of sleeper ships


Given the likely enormous cost of building such sleeper ships, which is more plausible:

  • the major nations all agree to fund a joint effort to build one or more shared ships, or
  • coalitions of major nations each fund separate and competing efforts to build one or more ships

In the book "Starship Century," Peter Schwartz envisions a scenario - like the one I've provided - where competing coalitions each try to build their own starships. Some examples of his: the English-speaking nations, the Europeans, the Chinese.

But I'm wondering if the costs would be so great that the major nations would have to all cooperate on a single shared project, despite their rivalries and geopolitical tensions.

So is it more likely that the costs involved make it necessarily an all-together-or-not-at-all situation, despite the geopolitics? Or would the geopolitics be too much to overcome, so it would be a race between coalitions?

And if you think the latter is more likely, what do you think those coalitions might be?

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    $\begingroup$ climate change is a bad premise because you may compare it to accommodation to another planet or change the planet to human needs - with a tuning the earth a little. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jan 2, 2017 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ Handle "So what do you think?" with care, otherwise it may make your question sound very opinion-based. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Jan 2, 2017 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ The realist in me says governments will always go for the cheaper alternative. The third alternative, which is not, on your list is tackle instead of building a feel of sleeper ships. It would be vastly cheaper. Schwartz should developed a more sensible doomed Earth scenario. Just say the Earth is doomed, and go with that. Realistic doom scenarios are often shot in the foot by reality. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 2, 2017 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I vote "opinion based" anyway. We had some unexpected joint efforts and unexpected competition in the past. We didn't have any effect of such scale. So I don't think anyone can really know. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jan 2, 2017 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ There will be no significant impact of climate change during the 21st century. Average temperature today is maybe 0.5° C higher than during the time of emperor Trajan of Rome and about the same as during the time of king Hammurabi of Babylon. Any noticeable impact of climate change needs to be postponed to the 22nd or 23rd centuries, and by that time Zefram Cochrane will have invented the warp drive. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 2, 2017 at 15:20

3 Answers 3


I suspect that the groupings will fall in order of:

First world nations doing it themselves. In the current world this is the United States and China

Economic, military or other formal alliances like NATO, the EU or the The Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

"Second" world powers like the BRIC nations (less China, now)

Informal groupings like the "Aglosphere".

The reasons for these groupings are simply put, cultural. IF you are heading out on a colonization voyage, you want to settle with other people of the same cultural background. Think of the great age of exploration. Spanish and Portuguese explorers and colonizers were great rivals, despite the similarities between the tow nations. When the English began colonizing the New World, different sub groups of Englishmen would actually settle in different areas of North America, despite the potential need to band together against common enemies like the Natives, the French or the Spanish. Hence the first settlements of Puritans was based on religion, while following groups included Protestant dissenters, who created the political and social institutions that underpin the modern United States. You will note that other groups of English settlers with different cultural backgrounds created different political institutions in Canada and Australia.

The other reason, which is related, is a starship would be an enormous engine of destruction in the wrong hands. Current technology would support an ORION nuclear pulse drive, and it is unlikely that anyone will want to share the resources when they include thousands of nuclear "pulse units" AKA bombs. The military resources of the sponsoring nations will be going to producing, protecting and monitoring the pulse units of their own ships, and watchfully observing anyone else to ensure their "pulse units" are safely stowed aboard the ships and not potential threats to the homeland.

It seems also certain that the challenge of building a starship will actually be too much for many of these groupings. Once again, part of it is the resource base, but the other part can be described as institutional culture as well. The United States has a very competitive high tech sector, so companies as varied as Boeing, SpaceX and Blue Origin can all be competing to create technologies and provide services for the starship project, SpaceX charges @ 60 million USD for a launch on the Falcon 9, while a similar launch on a ULA Delta is almost 400 million USD, so you see how competition works in your favour. The ESA, OTOH, takes forever to come up with new generations of rockets, and building one is a maze of securing contracts for every member nation. Russia, China and India can be considered intermediate cases.

Because of both the natural tendencies for people to align within natural, cultural or nationalist groupings, as well as the potential threat of a starship in orbit, you may be more likely to see espionage, sabotage and unbridled competition between the nations as they scramble to complete their ships and exit the Solar System.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that you mean "largest economies" rather than "first world nations". Being a first-world country is more about citizens having a high standard of living. China's gross GDP makes it the world's second largest economy, but its GDP per capita makes it a second-world country. $\endgroup$
    – Nat
    Jan 2, 2017 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides Yes, I think the cultural affinity was why Schwartz gave the examples he did. And I see how the military/security consideration could get in the way of all of the major nations collaborating. But do you think it would prevent the US from collaborating with their usual allies (the EU, Britain, Canada, Japan. etc.)? I'm just thinking that other nations that were rich but not rich enough to go it alone might clamor to be included in one of these projects. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Jan 3, 2017 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ The US may or may not collaborate, depending on things like domestic politics, the state of the economy and urgency of the need, so the various groupings like the EU and Anglosphere should consider how to "go it alone" if required. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jan 3, 2017 at 5:03

It doesn't have to be an nation. We can see it already how even space exploration is privatizing. And with the promise of escaping certain doom on earth, almost any rich person would be willing enough to invest their money and power in. In modern/futuristic nations, they would rather give out financing in the form of subsides to maintain some political power over the project, instead of running their own. Nations of tougher regimes are another story, there, everything big and important must be openly directed by the state and its leaders.

With the big allied 'democratic' countries, we may be able to see a lot of cooperation and outsourcing, with the projects being led by the market. In the others (as long as they have enough resources to keep up), it may be more 'national'. It may be also very interesting who actually got to be in. How many passagers are paying customers, how many were choosing for their skill and maybe, how many were lottery based because nation needed to give out some hope to public to lower its rioting.

The difficulty and costs are big question. Based on the level of available futuristic science it may range from 'slightly more then current space programs' to 'unbelievable'. Some subjects may invest a bit more into propulsion to get there a few centuries ahead of others on more fuel-efficient paths...

But that is for the transportation only, don't forget the costs of needed terraforming. And making a distant planet self-sufficient life-supporting place is unprecedented to our human history. When our ancestors got to an unexplored islands, they still had air, fauna, flora and all the things in place. But the distant planet? What do we need to do to it make it survivable? How many machines and resources we need to transfer there before it starts producing their own? How many generations would need to survive in controlled habitants before they can 'get out'. And if one rich subject sends hundreds of ships and machines and drones and resources to this planet to make it livable, can another ship come and be like "huh, you know, we could afford only one civilian ship, so thanks for all the hard work making this place livable, but could you give us, like, one continent? Think of all the kids on board!".

Costs of terraforming varies even more then costs of transportion. If you give the planet magically compatible air and some alien vegetation, costs are minimal. Or maybe, you need to stay a few hundreds of years in orbit while genetically modified bacterias modify the atmosphere and ground to earth-like conditions. That would rise costs a bit. If you would need an army or drones to populate the planet with nature and to establish some basic infrastructure for resource gathering and processing, that would skyrocket the costs, because all these machines and materials needed to be send from earth.

  • $\begingroup$ This is the thing that I'm really pondering at the moment - in the scenario I mention, what exactly would be the relationship between the government and the private companies in rich democracies like the US? If the situation on Earth wasn't so dire, I could see private companies doing it themselves. But given that the scenario involves an Earth that seems unfixable, I think that the government would want to maintain control of the project (via NASA in the US), but, as you say, subsidize private companies who would do much of the work. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Jan 4, 2017 at 7:52
  • If the EU hasn't broken apart by then, they will cooperate. If you want a surviving EU in your setting is your call.
  • If Brexit didn't turn the UK into a crumbling offshore tax haven, they could cooperate either with most of the Commonwealth or with some of the Commonwealth and the US. UK and India or UK and US, but not UK and US and India.
  • Some rich, industrialized nations might band together simply because they are not the EU and not anglo-saxon and frozen out of those alliances. Israel plus Taiwan? Singapore plus Argentina?

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