Thinking Clearly About Space Part I: Hustling the Future
For more than a century, space enthusiasts have been hurrying the future: projecting how the world will be changed by technologies and capabilities humanity does not yet have.
Thinking Clearly About Space Part II: Everybody Wants Space
Who can resist the poetry of Humanity’s Timeless Outward Urge? Space is the endless frontier, we say—it’s in our genes. It’s the next inevitable step in evolution. It’s our species-level insurance against global disasters. It’s the spread of life and intelligence from a pale blue dot to the 99.9…% of the cosmos that isn’t Earth. Throw the bone, cue the music, match dissolve to orbit: thank you, Mr. Kubrick.Thinking Clearly About Space Part III: Hardware and Hand-Waving
It’s all profoundly moving. It may even turn out to be true. But it’s an obstacle to progress, if talk of Humanity persuades us that most actual human beings share our enthusiasm.
One of the clichés of space enthusiasm is author Robert Heinlein’s "Once you’re in orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere." It’s a vivid expression of the physics of launching a spacecraft and escaping earth’s gravity well. The velocity change required to attain low earth orbit, just 200 miles up, is more than twice that needed to go on from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to the Moon. It’s comparable to that needed for reasonable travel times from LEO to other planets, thousands of times farther away.
We usually repeat the cliché in the service of our hopes. After all, we put a satellite in orbit in 1957, and human beings in 1961. We were halfway to anywhere two generations ago—let’s get on with it!
But the cliché misleads as much as it enlightens.
Thinking Clearly About Space Part IV: The Virtuous Cycle
The temptation to slip from hurrying the future to hustling it is always present. You can see the latest variation at every space conference, on every space forum and weblog:
* “What will make us a space-faring civilization is people making money on space tourism and orbital hotels; on solar-power satellites or on helium-3 from the moon or asteroid mining.”
* “NASA and the big aerospace vendors and the politicians are all in the same bureaucratic swamp, maintaining their turf and their constituencies. Look at Spaceship One! Only private enterprise is lean and innovative enough to get us out.”
* “Sure, rockets have always been expensive, but that’s only because we make so few of them and fly them so rarely. With high flight rates and the streamlined operations that will bring, costs will drop to a fraction of what they are today.”
The common thread is that we don’t need more federal spending or new technology to speed our progress into space. All we need is the proven power of market economics to transform what is new, rare and expensive (electricity 1850, automobiles 1900, computers or jet aircraft 1950) into the routine and affordable.