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Space travel: utter bilge?

It is, today, just 40 years since I sat glued to a grainy black-and-white TV set and watched the Apollo astronauts land on, and then step out on, the moon. If you had asked me then, I would have assured you that by the year 2000, much less 2009, I’d have my own spaceship, or at least own a flying car and be able to buy tickets on a spaceship whenever I wanted.

It didn’t work out that way. Indeed, not only am I not going to be celebrating on the moon, nobody is going there for any purpose whatsoever. We don’t even have flying cars. How can we futurists be so blithe about the wonders of technology to come when there has been, so far from progress in this most visible of technological applications, an evident regress?

With space travel, there’s a pretty straightforward answer: the Apollo project was a political stunt, albeit a grand and uplifting one; there was no compelling reason to go to the moon given the cost of doing so. The nature of political stunts is such that it does you no good to repeat one, even if you can do the same thing better or cheaper or whatever.

There was something in the nature of a Lewis and Clark expedition in the moon landings, in that they surveyed the territory, not just physical but the technological territory of space flight. Notions of what a moon landing would look like changed drastically from the SF of the 50′s to the actuality of the 60′s. But in a sense, Apollo was too grand — the technology was way, way beyond what would be commercially viable for decades to come:

Airline speed improvement curve

Airline speed improvement curve

Up until right about the time of the Space Race, airliner speeds had been increasing along a nice exponential curve similar to a Moore’s Law improvement one. The technology didn’t max out at just subsonic — there were plenty of military supersonic planes, and even one pseudo-commercial (i.e. highly subsidized) one — but the economics did. It costs about 3 times as much to go just supersonic as just subsonic. That’s the flattening you see in that curve.

The interesting part of the curve, though, is that the curve itself represents the capabilities of the underlying technology — which didn’t stop. We should expect real services to reappear along the same curve if and when the capabilities meet a regime that has favorable economic properties.

They are about to: the curve should get into low-earth-orbital speeds in the coming decade, and orbit is an extremely efficient way to travel. It takes no more energy, total, to get to orbit than a 747 does dragging its weight through the atmosphere halfway around the world — and you get to, say, Sydney, in under an hour instead of over 20. The beginnings of the commercially viable space travel can be seen in the companies trying to do X-prize like suborbital joyrides — but the major impetus will come when the capability hits orbit and can land you somewhere other than where you took off.

PS — a recent post on The Technium about Moore’s-like technological exponential growth of all kinds.

37 Responses to “Space travel: utter bilge?”

  1. Steve Says:

    Simple question:
    For all the costs of NASA (since starting the space program): rockets, space capsules, space vehicles, facilities, i.e. all up costs; would we have been better off with government financing private sector companies to invent all the products that have come from space travel?
    I say space has NOT resulted in cost effective and commercially viable products!
    Am I wrong?

  2. JamesG Says:

    If we had used a small fraction of the money wasted on doing experiements on ant reproduction in orbit on nanorobotics instead, we’d be to Proxima Centauri by now and with a zero death rate and no disease, but you can’t tell people in charge a thing, they don’t want to listen to reality.

  3. Mass Space Travel: Real Possibility or Ridiculous Pipe Dream? | Peter Greenberg Worldwide Says:

    [...] links: Foresight Institute, The Guardian (UK), PeterGreenberg.com- Space Travel Today Share this story: These icons link to [...]

  4. Toads Says:

    Why would we get into low-orbit passenger flights by 2020? I doubt it. Boeing and other plane manufacturers are not planning any such spacecraft for passenger travel.

    The flat part of the curve has been in place for 50 years, and despite technological changes, there does not appear to be any major availability to passengers on the horizon.

  5. What Did Apollo XI Mean For Space And Air Travel? « Tai-Chi Policy Says:

    [...] Tags: Apollo 11, History, Space trackback Not much. It was a political stunt. On the other hand, look at this curve. Sure, it flatlines under supersonic, but in the next few years as we jump to suborbital, it will [...]

  6. Sam Says:

    None of the money went to the moon. Practically every cent was spent in this country. When you think of all the things we now have because of rocket and space race we got our money’s worth. Pacemakers, cell phones, internet, home computers, computers in general. Miniaturized everything. Which would you like to do without?

  7. Lou Minatti Says:

    “It takes no more energy, total, to get to orbit than a 747 does dragging its weight through the atmosphere halfway around the world — and you get to, say, Sydney, in under an hour instead of over 20.”

    Bullcrap. It takes millions of pounds of propellant to get a vehicle a fraction of the size of a 747 just into LEO. A 747-4 holds about 60,000 gallons of fuel for a cross-Pacific flight to move about 350 people. And it doesn’t take 20 hours to do so.

    [A 747-400 masses about 400k kg and at takeoff about half of that is fuel. However, you can't fly from New York (where I am) to Sydney without refuelling. And it does take 20 hours with the refuelling stop. So let's say 200k kg payload and 300k kg fuel.
    The specific energy of LEO velocity is 33 MJ/kg and of Jet A av fuel is 42.8. So energy for the 747 is 12.6 TJ and for orbit is 6.6 TJ. Note the whole point of the post is that improving technology has headroom in the raw energy equation, not that the rockets of yesteryear would be competitive. They weren't. --jsh]

  8. ic Says:

    Steve, you are definitely wrong. Necessitiy is the mother of inventions. What necessiitated the inventions of “commercially viable products”? How do we know which products to invent if we don’t need them? Unless you believe govt. bureaucrats actually have the imaginations and the talents to decide what to invent. How do we know to invent the PC, the internet, the cell phone,… all by products of the space pgm? And why should govt finance private sector companies, i.e. why should taxpayers (the govt.) subsidize private entities? A venture capitalist profits from a commercially profitable invention, what will taxpayers profit? Who decide which private entity to receive taxpayers’ money? Of course, the most connected, those who “contribute” the most to the politicians will receive the bulk of the fund. By the way, those we call earmarks and pork projects which cost us trillions already.

    Please, from now on, change your “govt. finance” to taxpayers finance. Govt. does not produce anything, taxpayers do. Govt. can print money, but the money is worthless unless it’s backed by the taxpayers’ productivity, else Zimbabwe would be the richest country on earth.

  9. Chad Says:

    To your first question Steve, yes we would have been dramatically better off.

    Second part is a bold statement considering GPS, satellite phones, satellite TV, etc.

    So yes, yes you’re wrong.

  10. Matty_J Says:

    Steve:
    Yes, you are.

  11. Billll Says:

    I did not follow the fortunes of the Concorde extremely closely, but I seem to remember that government interference, at the behest of the Greens, had about as much to do with its demise as anything. You would think that a fast plane from the west coast to the various points in the orient would have sold well, but it never happened. The Concorde was not allowed to fly out of San Francisco or L.A., and certainly not across the US. Boeing abandoned the SST rather than try to compete with government-subsidized airlines, although I understand it would have been a near thing.

    An adjunct to the speed graph would be a graph of the cost to fly from New York to San Francisco, in constant dollars, over the same time span.

  12. DensityDuck Says:

    Steve: Three words. Global Positioning System.

  13. Warren Says:

    ” I say space has NOT resulted in cost effective and commercially viable products!
    Am I wrong?

    I don’t know, Steve. How much did your computer cost?

  14. TMA Says:

    >would we have been better off with government
    >financing private sector companies to invent all the
    >products that have come from space travel?

    But how would we know which products those were going to be? We would have spent the money financing private sector firms trying to invent those damn flying cars.

  15. John C. Randolph Says:

    would we have been better off with government financing private sector companies to invent all the products that have come from space travel?

    No, we would have been better of with that capital remaining in private hands to fund whatever the people who earned it were willing to pay for.

    -jcr

  16. benJCarter Says:

    If you aren’t aiming for the moon, how will you know which products to develop?

  17. AST Says:

    The original lunar lander was a flimsy enclosure designed to go from lunar orbit land and return to the orbiter. The goal was literally to land a man on the moon and bring him back , but nothing more. When we go back we need to do it with a train of the biggest kind of loads we can put in orbit, sort of like shipping containers hconnected in orbit and landed on the lunar surface. In other words it has to look more like 2001 A Space Odyssey than 1969. It should be a laboratory for testing building materials from lunar resources and should provide shelter for men building a permanent base. I’d form a consortium of nations and private businesses to plan and build this. The goal should be to build a space port to build a Mars Lander and return vehicle.

  18. Sam Says:

    Tang FTW!

  19. Tantor Says:

    The requirement to minutiarize electronic components to fight in the tight confines of space capsules jump started the computer industry, particularly the personal computer. The PC is cost effective, commercially viable, and has revolutionized our lives for the best.

    Humans are destined to travel into space because the Earth will naturally become inhabitable as the sun grows unstable. It will be a wrenching transition, like our ancient ancestors leaving the trees for the savannah, forcing them to learn to walk upright. We will have to learn to tap the resouces of outer space to live and physically evolve into new forms to fit our new environment. One of the great amplifiers of this effort will come when we learn how to draw energy from the fabric of everything around us, not just plutonium.

  20. Stewart Says:

    Steve: Yes, you are wrong. Without the civilian space program, such incidentals as weather and communication satellites would never have been commercially developed so soon. A case could be made that the life insurance money saved from hurricane tracking alone more than makes up for the pitiful small sums spent on NASA.

  21. Frank Says:

    “I say space has NOT resulted in cost effective and commercially viable products!”

    How about the technology for integrated circuits engraved on silicon chips? That seems to have had a fairly profound impact in only a few decades, on the order of the extension of coin stamping technology in the mid-15th century to movable-type printing. We are only a few decades into the consequences of the launch of a wave of “new products” built on that foundation.

  22. Joe Yowsa Says:

    Space did it. Semiconductors, the 8080, all sorts of stuff we don’t even know about. DEC and its computers grew out of that era.

    But can the idiot Obama duplicate any of that? Obviously not.

  23. a clay Says:

    The reason we haven’t gone back is that space is bleak and dull. Why spend a fortune to explore a wasteland?

  24. Mike G in Corvallis Says:

    I say space has NOT resulted in cost effective and commercially viable products!
    Am I wrong?

    Steve, you are profoundly wrong. Think of how much of your life depends on the existence of communications satellites, weather satellites, and the Global Positioning System.

    (You’re probably way too young to remember the era when we essentially had no freakin’ clue where hurricanes were or how powerful they were until they hit land. And if we couldn’t monitor them from space, we’d be in that situation today.)

  25. Dean Says:

    “It takes no more energy, total, to get to orbit than a 747 does dragging its weight through the atmosphere halfway around the world…”

    “That’s a very poorly written sentence. It takes no more energy, total, to get” what to orbit? Are just supposed to assume that you mean an object of the size, weight, and carrying capacity of a 747? Or is it just some mysterious “something” to orbit. Is that “something” larger than a basketball? Can’t tell from the way you wrote that sentence.
    [Yes, something the size, weight, and carrying capacity of a 747 --jsh]

  26. Don Meaker Says:

    The Convair 990 was designed for mach .87 compared to other airlines mach .82, but was not commercially viable because of government air traffic control system slowed it down to the speed of other aircraft.

    The purpose of government regulation is to keep us here, under control. Once we get to the asteroid belt we will be free of the petty dictators.

  27. djr Says:

    The real killer has been the loss of freedom – to do just about anything not tied to the petty masters (as others above imply). Look at the explosion of inventions & industry of 100+ years ago, compared to now; we have been squashed like a bug – in fact most have embraced the choke-hold.

    I assume that things will collapse soon. Maybe smarter / independent / freedom-oriented people will survive the ride through the other side to lay a foundation that permits life on earth and private trips to the stars.

  28. Locomotive Breath Says:

    At the height of the Apollo program, the then department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) lost, was defrauded of, or otherwise could not account for more money than NASA spent. Which was the better investment?

    The thing that has limited supersonic flight for all aircraft, not just the commercial ones, is the sonic boom.

  29. Ten Says:

    Articles like these bring out the trekkies and their fantasies about living on other worlds (presumably in other shiny clothes,) guaranteed riches (and no disclosures of relative costs getting there,) how we always invent cool technologies hanging from bags in zero-grav (yay!) and the ever-popular “lefties are unimaginative twits who don’t get all our Proud Vision, our Daring Scope, and completely lack Our Lust for Exploration”.

    Sure, PC’s would have never come along hadn’t we first put a beer can on the Moon.

    Problem is that the “space program” is subject to all the abuses and cost overruns any other collectivist boondoggle will be and IS. And the solar system is inhospitable in the extreme. And there ARE no such things as FTL drive, terraforming, extraterrestrial mining, or a single one of all the myriad fantastic imaginings of trekkies, not one of which has any grounding in cost, ROI, or even the nature of doing tiny little stuff in hard, cold vacuum except work a spanner or fix a bad toilet.

    It’s more than four billion kilometers to Pluto alone — as far as we’re concerned, it could be a hundred billion. Anyone done that math, please?

    NASA should be abolished. Private enterprise can instead, privately enterprise. The US is a million dollars a day in debt for the next quarter million years and we have a bunch of lousy Socialist bastards in DC, with all the plans in the world do do dirty Socialist junk for the foreseeable future.

    Space travel and living in space are and have always been rubbish, notwithstanding all the sci-fi channel titanium nutheads. Maybe when we get things even remotely right on Earth we can come to some joint consensus how not to blow yet another half billion or so indulging our impacted Tom Swift fantasies.

  30. Dave Says:

    Integrated circuits were NOT invented for the space program. They were invented for ICBMs, which (mostly) predated the space program. We would have that technology today even if we had never gone to the moon.

  31. Marcopohlo Says:

    I’m inclined to believe that the Lewis and Clark metaphor is a good one – great PR, lots of good new info, but not really repeatable.

    And so, for a few years, the west was opened up by available technology – wagon trains and pony express. Not really all that fast, in terms of development.

    But then some countries built trans-continental railroads, and then North America really opened up – which is why I think the long-term economics of a space elevator could be good.

    To push the metaphor to its breaking point: over the very long term, of course, it was cars and trucks that really made America. So the article is right: until we can mass produce the Millenium Falcon, space travel will not be like a trip down to the corner store – but over the short term, it could be like a train ride from New York to California.

  32. Jack Okie Says:

    A few observations:

    Steve is wrong; others have answered so I won’t.

    Environmental silliness has indeed hampered aviation (and energy production), but I think the Concorde is sort of like the Boeing Clipper: A beautiful expression of the aviation arts, but overtaken by technological progress. Branson and Rutan are aiming for sub-orbital inter-city flights; SpaceShip 2 is just a milestone on the way.

    NASA should be removed from the transportation business and returned to its proper function, R&D, like the original NACA.

    Materials science is the limiting factor in earth-to-orbit and return. Given where we were with the X-15, B-70 etc in the 1960′s, it is hard to believe that we have been stuck to the point where the space shuttle tiles were the best we could do. Hopefully the X-37 will advance the art.

    The back-to-the-future ARES / ORION is an ill-considered, risk-avoiding place holder. If the best we can do is return people in a tin can under a parachute, we should just hang it up and leave space travel to the Chinese. We need a true space station / depot, where earth-to-orbit vehicles (aircraft, with wings) optimized for that purpose deliver the materials and people for further space operations.

    Military necessity and greed drove mankind’s earlier explorations. There may or may not be commercial applications within current reach, but we had better get serious about the military realities of space. I can assure you our (potential) adversaries in China will.

  33. Vadept Says:

    Why go to space:

    Energy. Only so much solar power reaches the earth, and most people would rather use that space for living and grand vistas than miles and miles of solar panels. You can, however, place a vast solar array at, say, a lagrange point, and nobody will care. That solar array can beam its energy to earth in the form of microwave radiation, which we can collect and distribute.

    Resources. Space is loaded to the gills with metals and stone. There are entire mountains of rock just floating around out there that nobody cares about. Grab them with whatever space-factory you have up there, and change them into whatever you need.

    People. Once you have energy and resources, you have everything people need to survive. We can build colonies. I don’t mean colonies on planets, I mean colonies in space. Take one of this big space-mountains and spin it into a tube, use your solar array to power it, and you can have people living their quite comfortably. Oh, sure if the lights go out, everyone dies… but if earth-based infrasctructure completely collapsed, you’d see death rates around 99% too. Our entire civilization survives only because of our technology. Space will be no different.

    This thread brings up “cost,” but the cost associated with space travel is almost entirely associated with getting out of the gravity well. Once you’re out there, you’re “halfway to anywhere.” Note most probes carry little bitty ion drives that can zoom them out to the outer planets in a decade. You don’t need huge expenditures to travel in space, just to get there.

    So my point about these costs, this government space flight, is that it doesn’t have to beggar us. The government has done its space travel in a series of “one shot stunts.” They never stopped, never build infrastructure, never considered how they might turn the resources of space to the advantage of earth. Yes, space elevators and such, but consider, for example, Apophis, that big asteroid that’s supposed to just miss us. If we sent something out to meet it, to “catch” it and drop it off at a lagrange point, you’d have all the hard material you need to build a space station or a space factory or whatever you wanted. You wouldn’t need to haul these heavy space station modules into orbit, you’d just need to haul tools and workers.

    We don’t need to spend more on space, we need to spend SMARTER.

  34. Glenn Says:

    Steve, I added a data point to your graph.

    Space Ship One

    Commercial companies are extending the flight parameters. In a few years we’ll have people flying Mach 3 or 4 around the world commercially.

  35. Glenn Says:

    Well, that didn’t work.

    Basically, we have commercial enterprises filling in where they should, extending the envelope. We’ll have Mach 3 or greater passenger flights available in the coming decade and we can keep extending the graph upwards and outwards. :)

  36. Joe Says:

    Where is this meme coming from that the space program was even remotely responsible for integrated circuits? The space program had NOTHING to do with integrated circuits. NOTHING. NADA. ZIP. Due to radiation issues, resulting in RAD Hardening technologies (developed for the nuclear missile programs), I/Cs could not and were not used during the space program until relatively recently and even then, older technologies are still favored over newer ones.

    (The space shuttle uses a grand 1MB of memory in its computers! They didn’t even switch to semiconductors for the memory, from magnetic core, until 1991!)

    The cold reality is that manned space program has had about a 1:10 ratio of commercial spin offs, which is really bad–most of the things often cited were already in development and would have happened anyway or were the result of non-space based military technological development. Unmanned space programs have given us satellites, which have been a boon to communication and navigation (though it should be pointed out that light fibers and “boring” undersea cable technology have had a much stronger influence on the internet and free speech than satellites.)

  37. Josh Reiter Says:

    I wish people would stop pulling out the tired argument that without the Moon landings we wouldn’t have personal computers and Tang. All evidence suggests that integrated circuits would have continued to be developed and improved upon without the want of a guidance system for a lunar lander. When Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit he didn’t really do so with space technology in mind. TI was mostly concerned with radio technology and seismic surveying equipment. Texas is a oil producing state after all.

    Now, on the other hand I also get tired of people that continually proclaim that we should just forget about moving into space until we figure out how to solve all our problems here on Earth. If cavemen had sat around huddled in the dark thinking they had to fix all their issues first before venturing outside we would likely still be sitting in there.

    The atmosphere that supports your breathing only extends about 2.5 miles above your head. That means you wouldn’t survive your average commercial plane ride without some type of climate control and life support. We have the technology right here, right now to go live and work space. It takes a continued and methodical expansion of the technological envelope to find the method that works best. This means that we need to develop a real and working space infrastructure. NASA would serve us best if instead of fixating on building big dumb expendable rockets it instead developed technology that private enterprise feels to risky to take on. Something like a space refueling depot.

    We should put aside politics, pork barrel spending, and regulations that the prevent people with the want and desire to develop resources on near Earth asteroids, the Moon, and on Mars. Those places right there represent enough new space and resources for Man to use for quite some time. We don’t need to overwhelm ourselves at this point with thoughts on how to get the Alpha Centauri or Pluto for that matter. Again, a steady, methodical, and practical approach is what we need to find success in surviving in space.

    Finally, don’t forget that space also represent not only physical room and resources to grow into but also a new frontier in which Man can grow philosophically and ideologically. Every time man has up rooted themselves and ventured onto new lands here on Earth they always find a way to develop and define new governments and new freedoms so as to strip themselves of the tyrannies imposed upon them by old stagnant forms of government.

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