Let's start with a logical breakdown - the 5+Ws (Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How)
WHO is performing the processes of terra-forming are fairly well answered in the book
So Let's start with the WHY and WHERE:
Why attempt to transform a world? The cost and effort would be tremendous so the projected benefit has to outweigh the cost.
Ishaida was not a destination world, but was a necessary, advantageous stopover for the massive superluminal cruisers which crossed the expanse on their way to their ultimate destination - Cauputain. The Corporations saw a vision of profit: Create an oasis on the road of travel, and you'll attract visitors. Attract colonist, enable development, attract other investors, bring in more development. The economic math seems simple, it's really only a matter of scale. There are other reasons of course. When we discuss terra-forming Mars is it really about economics or more about conquest? I guess the other WHY could be simple: because we have to in order to survive - at least long term.
Now for the HOW/WHAT:
The viability of creating a standard/boilerplate terra-forming process is probably less realistic as a specific application would depend on the target planet's environment. The novel does touch on a few common ideas, but there's a lot more under the covers.
First thing's first - what the desired atmosphere needs - a) enough gravity to retain it, and b) protection to ensure it won't get blown away by the solar winds. Assuming the first two requirements are in place, it's then a matter of chemistry. Primary contributors to this are: 1) current atmospheric composition 2) geology 3) water 4) types of life. Some would argue (3) is not a valid requirement, but hey, it's my discussion article.
Whatever the current composition of the atmosphere is, it may need to be modified, usually by the introduction of "other" gases at a "planet-wide" and "accelerate" rate. The question leads to where these new elements come from - can they be manufactured (ie: more accurately transformed from other key elements) or will "external sources" need to be introduced into the mix? Now point (4) is/can be an impressive shortcut to this problem as well, creating essential gasses such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, and methane to name a few. Other methods may include geological sources and production via engineered chemical reactions. One interesting point of note, sunlight and temperature can itself modify compounds, and initiate chain reactions which may, if thought through correctly, produce a desired end result.
So, it's a matter of chemistry, locating the TFPs adjacent to required any source materials, a significant amount of energy, and scale.
Scale is an interesting problem. I propose what's needed is an organic approach to create the TFP machines - they need to self develop - to literally grow. Start small, add some "water" and voila! OK maybe more like add raw materials, and lots of energy, maybe a production factory, and off it goes.
As I said before energy makes this all happen. We can harness nuclear energy, but also direct solar energy. Any respectable terra-forming plan includes a way to manipulate the sun's tremendous contribution. This may include employment of mirrors, and vast solar collection arrays. Let's not forget referring back to point (4) life on Earth uses photosynthesis to capture the energy of sunlight.
There are lifeforms called extremophiles which can live in conditions of the extreme (hence their name). These lifeforms are key to our ability to engineer solutions. Take, for instance, the fact we have examples of extremophiles that can thrive on other sources of energy, and generate essential gases.
Endoliths are very interesting. Consider a lifeform capable of living deep within the recesses of a planet's mantle. If these creatures could be communicated with, manipulated...
All this being said, we have much to learn about these types of "life" and how we can use these tiny biological machines to affect some very big systems. One key reality is that terra-forming life will need to be very hardy, most likely be able to handle exposure to high levels of radiation. Impossible? Not at all - check out the Deinococcus radiodurans bacterium. Mars here we come!
So with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY and HOW, it really just leaves the WHEN. This is more a question of how long such a process would take - decades, centuries, or millennia. The jury is still out on this one as it is the result of so many variables. One key ideal measurement target - one maybe two generations - one hundred years. Hell we're not patient creatures. If we can affect change in one hundred years, what good are the systems we are employing? The rest of the universe can take multiple millennia to make things happen. Not us.
Bottomline it is a real possibility or no? I say definitely possible, and definitely doable, just not easy.
Stephen Hawking was once cited as saying that humans must leave Earth within the next 600 years.
OK, sounds like we have enough time.
His reasons were multi-faceted, all converging on multiple possible doomsday scenarios: AI retaliation, global warming, alien massacre, asteroid collision. OK, all sounds really, really bad, but over population is not a stretch either. Yes we have to get out there. No we shouldn't wait until we absolutely have to before we do - reasonably that would be exercising very poor judgement and would increase the the risk of failure.
Who's going to fund this adventure? Don't depend on your politicians they can't even figure out how to pay the bills without borrowing money. I mean, really.
Best thing to force us to shape up is a (failed) alien invasion. Then we'd all band together and focus on building vessels and technology! Unfortunately, it's much more probable that beings advanced enough to the traverse the stars have the knowledge to bio-engineer very effective means to simply wipe us out (ie: super virus) - and at the same time leave their future assets intact. Nope not one bullet shot.
I think we will be relying on the drive and ambition of our billionaire entrepreneurs just as long as their accountant board types don't ratchet them down. Leaving it to the bean counters and the risk equation will never permit true discovery.
Our problems aren't getting any easier. Just turn on the news from any country and you'll see infrastructure crumbling, debt growing, social unrest, war, famine, natural disasters - quick turn the channel. My answer is don't watch the news.
Where am I going with all this ramble? Pressure. Lots of pressure to solve the problems at home and not spend the money on silly old space travel.
So we need some real leaders to make a difference. Maybe that's you - I don't know. Maybe it's all of us. One thing for sure, we aren't getting off this beautiful green and blue orb by just dreaming about it.
Who really wants go out into a cold, black vacuum anyway?
Turn the TV back on. What am I thinking? Time to check facebook!
OK, so our real enemy is what we call our "entertainment". With enough time, we'll die off, keyboards in hand, but we'll be happy about it. We'll just escape into the matrix (until the power goes out).
Maybe someone should start a new religion - the Church of the stars - those dedicated to ascending and living out there...
Patrick MJ Lozon