Stupidity On Space

6 Aug

Let me start with an observation.

In my pocket, I have a smartphone. It cost around £400. And it really is a fantastic piece of kit. I can browse the internet, read my email, find my way on GPS, take photos … oh, and I can call people too. Fantastic! And just about everyone I know has a smartphone too. Maybe the iPhone 6 is the hottest piece of gear on the market right now (I don’t know, nor do I care) but you can get a much cheaper smartphone which is almost as good, if you shop around a little.

Ten years ago, my smartphone would be priced so high that I couldn’t have dreamed of affording it.

Twenty years ago, the height of affordable personnel tech was a calculator watch. Mobile phones were rare, almost non-existent where I lived.

Fifty years ago, back when computers were being developed, hardly anyone would have expected their descendents to be carrying around more computing power in their pockets than every computer on Earth at that time, combined. Read Atlas Shrugged or the Lensmen books – their vision of the future took no account of how rapidly the price of certain pieces of equipment dropped. Atlas Shrugged has a vision of the future that has been superseded by everything from the growth of air travel to better and cheaper telecommunications systems.

This is generally true of all technical innovations. The early personal computers were staggeringly expensive. My father owned a second-hand BBC computer that was really little more than a glorified typewriter, compared to some of the machines I use today. That BBC computer would probably be worth less than £100 today, if you could find it at all. As the bugs are worked out and new pieces of technology go into mass production, prices drop sharply. And that is why I now carry a piece of technology, in my pocket, that would be worth millions only twenty or so years ago.

And that brings us to this latest piece of ignorance from The Guardian.

Really, there is so much ignorant ranting in this article that I’m honestly not sure where to begin. But I will do my best.

First, the price of day-trips into Low Earth Orbit is going to start out at astronomical (pardon the pun). Yes, it will; there’s a great deal of investment that needs to be done first, at the ground floor, before building spacecraft becomes a great deal cheaper. But really … that price is going to drop, sharply, as launch technology improves and more and more companies enter the market. What is only affordable to a rich man now will be commonplace for just about everyone in thirty or so years.

Don’t believe me? The idea of taking a foreign vacation, even a mere fifty years ago, would have seemed absurd for most people in Britain. Going to Spain for a weekend would have seemed a laughable luxury. Now, you can have a very nice weekend getaway in Spain for £500, perhaps less. What made this happen? The growth of low-cost airline flights from Britain to Spain, combined with the growth of the internet.

Second, the knock-on effects of space development are going to be staggering. Where do you think all that money is going to be spent? No one is going to be stuffing a million dollars on a rocket and firing it into the sun. Just hiring a few hundred thousand people to work on space travel is going to cause the economy to rise as more and more money starts flowing out into the wider world. An engineer on a good salary will buy more than just the basic necessities of life. He will do everything from buying computers to going to see stage shows.

And that is just scratching the surface. How much around us – how much that we consider to be commonplace – owes its existence to space programs? The next time you watch a weather broadcast? That prediction was made using orbital observation of the weather. Your smartphone? Everything from lighter alloys to miniaturised tech comes from space, directly or indirectly. Robots? Computers? Even things as simple as smoke detectors owe their existence to space research programs.

This is only going to improve as we move further into space. We are running out of resources on Earth? There’s an infinite abundance of raw material and energy, just waiting for us out in space. Power? The sun provides all the power we could ever want. Dangerous production techniques? Use them out in space, well away from anyone who could get hurt. I simply could not hope to predict all the improvements and innovations that will flow from the labs to the world over the next thirty years. Space offers so much that it would take years to detail it all.

In short, if you genuinely care about Earth’s ecology, moving into space is the best possible solution.

Third, it would rejuvenate our society. We are struggling with people who are temperately unsuited to live in our world, people who want to push the boundaries and see what lies over the next hill. Now, we disorganise them with ADD and try to drug them, unwilling or unable to admit that their true problem lies in limits imposed on them by a risk-averse society. In the past, these people went to the Wild West; in the near future, they will go into space. The pioneer spirit is dying. Going to space will rejuvenate it.

And it would also force us to concentrate on what is truly important. Much of the crap spewing out of non-STEM branches of academia owes its existence to a reluctance to focus on the practical. Let us instead rise towards a future that is bright and full of promise.

And fourth, we need it for our own security.

Aliens may or may not exist. If they do, aliens may pose no threat to us. But what does pose a threat are asteroid impacts. We live at the bottom of a gravity well. As Earth moves around the sun, its gravity attracts asteroids towards us. It is only a matter of time before something large enough to pose a serious threat – a dinosaur killer, perhaps – is drawn into our gravity well. And if we’re not ready to deflect it when it comes, many – perhaps all – of us will die.

I’m not pretending that space travel will be easy or safe. It will be a very long time before we enjoy the benefits of a Star Trek-style society. The early space settlements will be cramped and smelly, crude and unpleasant. There will be many deaths along the way, many accidents that will made Challenger seem like a bump on the road. But those early space travellers will be volunteers, men and women willing to risk everything for a future of promise.

Where would we be, right now, without those early pioneers.

And, instead of bashing the mega-rich, perhaps we should thank them instead.

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20 Responses to “Stupidity On Space”

  1. Jas P August 6, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    You are so right about the spending and ingenuity Chris, apparently the average US citizen only contributes the cost of a pair of running shoes Cheap ones like $30-$40) to the space program each year, but something ridiculous like $2 -$3000 to the military budget every year, and yet it’s the space program over the last 50yrs that has come up with so many break throughs. Whilst the military does contribute, no arguments there before I get shot down, the space program does a far better job.
    A NASA scientist who spoke at were I work said if they had just 5% of the military budget, we would not only be on Mars, but probably on the moon’s of Jupiter.
    When you go back over the inventions and progress out of the space race for the last couple of decades it’s amazing.
    You’re slot on Chris, going to cost a bucket load for rich people for the next 10yrs, but won’t take long to come down.
    Take launching ashes into space, couldn’t be done 30yrs ago, 15yrs ago it was hundreds of thousands, now, $12,000US and you can be forever settled in space.
    Soon, it will be less, it was $15K only 3yrs ago.
    If it wasn’t for the rich, like Branson, humans might never progress into space. Unfortunately, economics and profit are a great driver for pushing boundaries, not human endeavour. Although possibly with some, like Branson, it’s a bit of both.
    Who cares, as long as they get us into space 🙂

    • Jack Hudler August 6, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

      Jas, the problem with that analogy is this. If we cut defense spending in favor of space, we leave ourselves vulnerable. It’s still a dangerous world out there, and I don’t wish leave our civilian and military leaders unable to respond.
      We’ll end up like the 70’s and 80’s, with Granada, and the Falklands war. Yes, we can respond, but it will be risky, and possibly end up nuclear, because we can’t effectively project enough power to solve the problem conventionally. Parking a battlegroup within strike range is a very effective form diplomacy.

      • Jas P August 6, 2016 at 5:32 pm #

        The World is always vulnerable unfortunately, look at the news for that. Effective diplomacy through battle groups only goes do far, and whilst effective, it certainly doesn’t counteract the current problems.
        Besides I’m not for cutting defence, streamlining maybe?
        As for your below comment, people always think those with money have nefarious reasons, because the media help fuel them. After a long time in Police, found the media always winding people up, twisting facts for a story, or just plain lying for headlines or ‘entertainment’
        You said it with ‘said often enough must be truth’ , media just try and reinforce it, and people buy it.

  2. Jack Hudler August 6, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    What I found incredulous with the Guardian article, was the responses in the comments section. It’s one of those ‘double face palm’ moments. How can people be so genuinely inept about economics.

    Why do they believe that people with money have nefarious reasons for what they do with it. Then have the gall to say that it should be spent elsewhere, instead of wasting it on space. I suppose this attitude stems from talking airheads and elected representatives repeatedly using the phrase ‘wasting money’ on anything they don’t understand, or not being spent in their constituency. Probably the latter
    An excellent example that reinforces the axiom ‘that anything said often enough must be the truth.’

    As you pointed out and as I’ll restate, where the hell do they think this money is going? Stop anyone on the street and ask them if they believe the company they work for receives any money directly or indirectly from any space program. No doubt the vast majority polled, if not all, will reply in the negative.

  3. William Ameing August 6, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    For most purposes, I suspect that some form of Virtual Reality will come sooner and much cheaper for space travel, at least for locations with short speed of light lag times. We will need actual travel to orbit only for transfers of equipment which will become unnecessary once a remote control industrial base in orbit has been built and the mining of resources in space needed to support that industrial base are established.

    Physical travel from the Earth’s surface is up against major constraints on energy, mass, and efficiency of the engines used until some form of a Space Elevator is built (it is well beyond our materials science right now) and major advances in physics that open up some form of a space drive and/or interstellar drive.

    In the somewhat longer term, we will probably be able to send some form of an electronic copy of ourselves as a remote agent (which will go through a lot of steps/advances in capability) for longer distances (with long communication time lags) such as Mars and the asteroids, until such time as the above major advances are made.

    Think about space warfare and space travel in general where the Crew, Passengers, Colonists, etc. are all electronic copies using robotic equipment. That will reduce mass needed for people and life support considerably. If necessary, when you reach your destination, a new biological body could be grown with your memories. Although by that time, many people will probably be staying on(in)line permanently and abandoning their biological bodies (particularly when those bodies get too old or have major medical problems).

    Once we have the science, technology, and space industrial base, we will probably be “Beam up Scotty” in a more literal way: beam up a bunch of electronic/optical/whatever information with no physical biological bodies involved.

    • Jas P August 6, 2016 at 5:19 pm #

      It’s interesting, a lot of study recently has been on the effect of the travel on the participants, their psychological state as they reckon the travel will screw us up so much. So it might be that life support is going to have to catch up, either with stasis tubes or teleporting before we go anyway.

  4. deguerre August 6, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

    My dad was an aerospace engineer at NASA in its heyday (He went straigt from ABMA to NASA when it was formed). You should have heard some of the ideas the Agency was coming up with just as soon as the engineering caught up. Then Budget cuts happened and Nasa was no longer the innovator it once was.

  5. Rich Harrison August 6, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

    The space launch market has historically been dominated by a few, large government contractors who secured huge cost-plus contracts to build what are effectively one-off, use-once and throwaway, hand build rockets and spacecraft (human and non-human rated). Even NASA’s “reusable” Space Shuttle required 10’s of thousands of technicians and engineers to prepare a shuttle to launch again after each flight. From the perspective of these contractors there is a very good profit to be made with this model and many, many, many billions to be made if anyone dares ask for something new even if it never flies.

    Now we have a few “mega-rich” individuals who are daring to suggest that the existing model is broken. How dare they! And even if they have a secret, or in the case of Elon Musk – he’s public stated he wants to die on Mars, just preferably not on impact – not so secret plan to “escape the earth”, I fail to see a problem.

    This is not a rich versus poor issue.

    After all, n the not so distant future we may have to rely on forward thinking and innovative individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to protect the Earth and all of us from a asteroid/comet impact which is just a question of when, not if. While I’m sure the existing, established launch companies could manage to put together a astronomically (pardon the pun) expensive plan to stop the offending asteroid/comet, I have no confidence in their ability to deliver the specified product on the required time line on a cost-plus contract basis. There’s simply too much profit to be made if the project drags on for years… oh, wait… that might not work…

    ps. If you’re ever in the Space Coast are of Florida when SpaceX is launching and then landing a Falcon 9 back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, I highly recommend taking the time to go watch the launch/landing. Its the coolest event I’ve ever seen in person.

  6. Drowe August 7, 2016 at 1:44 am #

    The article in the guardian is nonsense, curiously what annoyed me most about it was the sentence about the deck being stacked against women, that remark told me all I need to know about the author.

    However, there is a fundamental flaw in your article. Your entire line of reasoning is based on your first assumption, that space travel will become affordable for the normal population and that is questionable. The most optimistic estimate for how cheap it could become is about 200$ per kg, that is just 10% of the current costs, but would still mean about 20000$ per person. That’s not out of reach for someone who really wants to go, but still in no way comparable to a holiday in Spain. It’s also just to reach low earth orbit, going to the moon would be significantly more expensive never mind mars, the asteroid belt or Jupiter’s moons. The cost of fuel is currently negligible compared to the rest, it’s about 10$ per kg, but fossil fuels are running out at some point and as we approach that, fuel prices will skyrocket, driving up the cost.

    Some people will do it anyway, but those will be the exception, the knock on effect will not be as extreme as you think, though the technological advances would still be worthwhile. The exploitation of extra terrestrial resources is even less likely to happen within our lifetime. And the third assertion can only really happen if your premise was correct. Your fourth point is the only one that is undoubtedly true.

    Nevertheless, I agree it should be done anyway. I just don’t think it will happen this century.

    Greetings Drowe

  7. PuffinMuffin August 7, 2016 at 2:13 am #

    I can’t help but think of the jobs that will be created due to these people spending money.
    Would she like those people holding these jobs to be unemployed? It seems being rich must be awful: whatever you do, it’s wrong.

    And there’s worse ways to spend money than on rockets. On weapons, perhaps? People trafficking and sexual slavery? Manufacturing illegal drugs?

  8. Anarchymedes August 7, 2016 at 2:38 am #

    ‘Ten years ago, my smartphone would be priced so high that I couldn’t have dreamed of affording it.’

    I have Alien (the movie, the director’s cut), filmed in 1979 (if I’m not mistaken – give or take a couple of years), and Prometheus, filmed between 2008 and 2012. Now Prometheus is a prequel to Alien: in that fictitious universe, its events are supposed to be happening earlier. So it’s a lot of fun (at least for me) to watch the differences between the similar details (the ship’s interior and controls, for example, or the main computer) and scenes (the landing on the planet) in those movies. Nothing demonstrates it clearer how our image of the future changes with the present-day knowledge and technology.

    Which means I totally agree that ‘what is only affordable to a rich man now will be commonplace for just about everyone in thirty or so years.’ And I’ll say more: in thirty or so years, we’ll have things we can’t even imagine now: not even the sci-fi authors. Look at the same smartphones or tablets – or their components, such as flat touchscreens. There is nothing like that in Alien!

    ‘And fourth, we need it for our own security.’ Well, this is an interesting statement. I personally fiercely disagree with the concept of aliens thinking the way 20th century Earth politicians did (which is why I prefer military science fiction where different factions of humanity fight each other: in other words, Angel in the Whirlwind over Arc Royal 🙂 ) However, seeing the amount of mutual resentment and downright hatred evident in the daily news these days, I believe if we don’t get away from each other soon, we’ll self-destruct. Humans need a certain amount of personal space – and I don’t mean the physical space only. They need the freedom to believe in whatever they want to believe, and act on it: to be what they want to be, the way they see themselves. So even if the WW III won’t finish us, there will be WW IV, V, etc., even if they will be fought with stone axes over post-apocalyptic ruins – unless we can say to those whom we hate, and who hate us, look, the universe is big, we go our separate ways.

    And finally, returning to the subject of imagining the future: throughout the history, there have been lots of so-called ‘prophets’ and ‘visionaries.’ They all, however, have one thing in common: none of them has correctly predicted, or ‘envisioned’ the real course of events. No Ancient Egyptian has ever ‘seen’ modern Cairo; no Mycenean sybil has ever glimpsed modern Athenes; and so on. And I believe even if they had, they’d never have been able to understand a thing about it – and so wouldn’t have been able to describe it. So our attempts to imagine the future (especially the more distant one, as in Dune), are likely to be just about as successful. Still, they are fun for us now – and exercise our imagination.

    • Drowe August 7, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

      There is no doubt, that some scientific advances are unpredictable and have the potential to radically alter the world. We have seen many of them in the last two centuries, electricity, internal combustion engine, air planes and computers are just a few examples. There may well be inventions in the future with similar impact on our society, but there is also the possibility that there won’t be any in the area of space travel. And that isn’t too unlikely. We are currently approaching the physical limitations in microprocessor technology for example, there is a limit on how small a transistor can be. We know also, that there is a limit in information density, there is only so much information that can be stored in any limited volume of space, however we’re far from achieving that.

      For space travel there are physical limits as well, the escape velocity is a fixed value, so is the amount of energy in fuels. There are limits on how small nuclear reactors can be without being unsafe. The way physics work can’t be changed. And we would do well to keep that in mind, because visionaries like Elon Musk sometimes lose sight of that and propose ludicrous ideas like the Hyperloop or solar roadways, because they get obsessed with ideas that would require breaking the laws of physics to be viable. The dream of affordable space travel for everyone will remain a dream for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean a lunar base or orbital manufacturing are outside of the realm of possibility. It’s just that there will only be very few people in space, the vast majority will be as automated as possible, for the simple reason, that radiation is a serious problem, and so is living in microgravity for extend periods of time. It’s also more cost effective, because even if you could reduce the cost of transporting something into space by 90%, it would still be very expensive. And people need food and water and oxigen to live, machines don’t.

      As for asteroid mining, I highly doubt that will be viable for quite some time. The problem with mining asteroids is, that it requires completely new methods for everything. The lack of gravity alone is a huge problem, because many processes need it to work. The lack of an atmosphere doesn’t help either. I don’t doubt it will be tried anyway, but unless a lack of resources on earth makes it necessary, it will remain the exception, motivated by pushing the boundaries, not by profits.

      Greetings Drowe

      • chrishanger August 8, 2016 at 11:09 am #

        Or we come up with antigravity or something new

        Chris

      • Drowe August 8, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

        If someone does, I will revise my opinion. But until then I’ll stick to reality when it comes to making predictions for the future. The dream of a space based civilization so far is not within our grasp. If the required scientific discoveries happen, what you described becomes a possibility, but there is no guarantee this will ever happen. I’m not saying to abandon efforts to make it realistic, I’m all for space exploration, but arguing for a space based civilization based on scientific advances that aren’t even proven to be theoretically possible is not helpful. It hasn’t been proven to be impossible either, that’s why I concede that it might happen, but it would be one of those unpredictable advances.

        Our energy problems might be solved by someone inventing cold fusion, but it would be a terrible idea to rely on someone inventing cold fusion to solve our energy problems. Anti gravity would solve the problem of needing fuel to transport something into space, but we can’t rely on it happening. It would be really cool if we could build a space elevator, but at the moment we can’t and we might never be able to do it. It is possible that aliens come to visit tomorrow and reveal themselves, but if I predict that they will not, I’d most likely be correct.

        Greetings Drowe

  9. bexwhitt August 7, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    As a 57 year old it does not matter personally but my fear is Space Travel will be limited to what Einstein set out so it will happen but be very difficult. Humanity’s future clearly is in space but it’s going to be hard slog.

    • Vapori August 7, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

      Ok the guardian article was a wrong.

      But at least one of your arguments is a bit mistaken.
      computers or information technology in generell and the price development in it can only be compared to other information technology.

      And normally the price stagnates at some point if the technology is mature.

      And it’s kinda true for most kinds of technology of course there can always be an intuitive leap and technology advances by leaps and bounds sometimes . But I don’t see that coming in space technology right now.

      And excuse me if I say it. but the numbers you guys are using to calculate are a bit wrong.

      True to bring 1kg into orbit takes 12000$ but that means satlites or supply’s for the international space station.

      To bring a kg of living human into space is more like ~70000$
      actually there is a bit of leeway there.. there. the seats actually don’t care if you you are 50kg or 150kg

      So if we assume that reduce that by 90% we are roughly by ~500000 $ per human instead of the 7-8 millions now hmm cheap

      Sure maybe Space-lifts can be build than it would be ~25000$ per human
      i don’t want to pour cold water over anyone there but that is always calculated in a very optimistic manner if you ask me.

      True there might be a fusion powered spaceship ones.
      but that get’s often mixed. up if you build it small you might be able to build it with the technolgy of this time or over the next few years.

      If you ask me casual space traveling will not come in the next 100 years. but than I might be as wrong as Gottfried Daimler when he thought that there would never be more then a million car’s in the world.

      Still Technology is surly not stagnating and even if no one of us ever sets a foot on the moon or on a space station.. there are still big techs coming.

      neuronale networks (in computer programming for self leaning computers)..
      crispr cas 9 /cpf1(gen editing) Natrium-Ion battery’s For energy safety and storage and efficiency.. not for mobility and another hand full who might have a big impact like driverless trucks..
      I hope that the governments will be able to allow these technology to be used to there full potential and at the same time trying to smother the impact a bit but then my hopes are pretty low. .

      All of these techs will have a heavier impact in the next 15 years then any advancement in space travel.

  10. Erika August 7, 2016 at 11:41 pm #

    Dude, yeah

  11. PhilippeO August 8, 2016 at 8:22 am #

    Yeah, the article is bad writing.

    but not all tech successfully become cheaper and widespread, handphone and computer are success stories, video phone failed, concorde failed. autogyro failed. for every successful tech, uncountable other failed.

    The problem with space is human body is extremely unsuited for space, creating environment where people can live in space is extremely costly. I suspect space development would go robotic or remote controlled science instrument and asteroid mining. If space tourism develop, it would exist only in Earth Orbit. i just cant see human colony successfully established, wherever its in Moon, Mars or L5. space as final frontier is nice fantasy, but i doubt it would actually work in real life.

    as for mega-rich throwing money to space, eh i suppose there are no harm in that. it mostly be waste, but no worse than car collection or balloning round the world. Some might stumble for some good, science after all developed by rich gentleman who doesn’t have to work. But just like most victorian gentlemen don’t develop anything worthwhile, so does today mega-rich.

    for rejuvenating society, that complete bullshit. if there are ‘pioneer’, there are Alaska, Army, or immigration to Third World country. most pioneer settle in Oklahoma or California because two thing : free land (steadholding) or gold rush. Most people like free money, not hardship, go ‘where no one go before’, or adventuring. if you want to improve society, start give people free money, it has proven to work.

    • chrishanger August 8, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      Video phones work now – Skype. I imagine the tech wasn’t mature for the earlier phones.

      Chris

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 8, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

        Actually, I thought part of the problem with Video phones earlier was “public acceptance”.

        Most people didn’t want to answer their phone when the caller could see their “morning face”. 😉

        Things like Skype are used by people when they chose to be seen.

        Oh, it’s interesting that many stories where Video phones are used also have a feature where the caller doesn’t see the answerer until the answerer is willing to be seen.

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