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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Farmers in the Sky

It's been almost two weeks since I've posted about outmigration to Alpha Centauri and Project Orion, because there's been so much going on otherwise. I want to get back to that now over the next few weeks, and specifically I want to focus on the logistics of how Orion would realistically be built, and also what conditions would be like for the crews who would, in some cases, be destined to live out their entire lives on board a crowded vessel not much bigger than a modern container ship.

A very significant amount of the habitable space within Orion would necessarily be devoted to agriculture. Other than some gardening and landscaping (and one summer priming tobacco as a teenager) I have almost no background in agriculture whatsoever. But we need to have some basic ballpark estimates of what types of plants (and maybe animals) we would need to grow, how much space is needed to grow them, and what kind of yield we could expect from that space and how many colonists could be fed and clothed with that yield. In choosing the species to bring with them, the colonists need to consider both the environment of the spacecraft and also the environment of the world they ultimately intend to terraform and colonize. A plant which is ideal for one environment may not be ideal for another. On the other hand, it may be that if we have enough information about the colony world, we can tailor our on-board agriculture to best suit that eventual terraforming.

Incidentally, we will be considering the requirements for terraforming some of our earlier colonial candidates within our own solar system at some point in the near future.

So, some of our considerations from the plants we would bring are going to be food yield, fiber yield, wood yield, pollination, planting-to-harvest time and biodiversity.

One plant candidate worth considering is Pearl Millet, which has a yield of about 2000 kilograms per acre in about four months time, which is pretty impressive.

There are others which need to be considered, but for our purposes I'm just trying to get an idea of how much space will be required for agriculture and how many colonists will be supportable by that.

It may well be that the first colonists will be selected not for their skills as pilots or technicians, but rather as horticulturalists.

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