Anyway that aside, it really brings up the old infrastructure problem -- Large investment in infrastructure is a two-edged sword, bringing both benefit and lock in, and when it comes time to change there is lots of debate. I think Neal either misses or avoids a big part of the argument here -- infrastructure is turned into the bad-guy and the good guy. People don't see the benefits it has brought for a myriad of reasons - they have internalized it, they are not in the class of society that directly gets money for it (and the general improved life isn't apparent because their neighbors are in the same boat), they are afraid of tax increases (or lack of tax cuts), they don't understand the current tech, and figure that "it has problems so anything else we do won't fix it either", it has broken society in the following ways...
Really all of this though is just setup. The way I see it, large scale tech and infrastructure projects are hard to get at and harder to revamp because they are just too easy to target with populist attacks from all sides. The issue is usually complex, but easy to attack with a simple disingenuous quip. Doubly so when the alternative is something that sort-of works, because then the quip doesn't even need the effort of disingenuety, just a mean spirited "they are trying to change the perfectly good stuff we have just to take it away from us, and ignoring everything else to fix"
I have no idea of the solutions we could offer to these types of scenarios, but I do think that somehow we need to find a way to look at these piles of infrastructure we have an find ways to make them better. To do that we need to get around the "infrastructure problem".
But that's not even the clever bit. The clever bit of Jordin's proposal is that the laser tracking/energizing system can be built modularly. You can build one prototype module that can launch one toy craft. Then you figure out how to mass produce it and build a whole bunch of these puppies that can lock onto and zap a much larger heat-exchanger carrying craft.
What you get is very cheap access to orbit without ungodly huge R&D and infrastructure costs up front.
(In this case "ungodly huge" = price of a space elevator.)
I never said it would be trivial. There are two big differences, though. 1) The laser-launch craft wants to be hit. We can mount retro-reflectors on it, and it can transmit back helpful data. 2) The laser is going to be stationary, and the vehicle is going to be traveling on a known track.
and anyway it will be weapon technology.
This makes it much more likely that it will get funded and developed.
It's often said that to lock in a program, you need to create a class of people who might lose their jobs if it is shut down. These people are highly motivated and willing to go to great lengths to protect that program. In contrast, people afraid of tax increases or people who do or don't observe the benefits have little motivation to do anything.
The people afraid of losing their jobs protect that program from ever being cut, but they also prevent any radical improvements that might make them obsolete.
(In the old days, they also had to worry about Gordon Gekko style takeovers/restructuring. Not so much these days.)
I tend to oppose many government infrastructure efforts because the government has no incentive to do a realistic cost/benefit analysis of new projects. It is always in the legislator's and lobbyist's interest to start a new project, whether it be massive high speed rail lines, expensive green power installations, or large subsidies for classes of fuel and transportation that are uneconomical in the free market (hydrogen cars, corn ethanol). The only people paying a cost for new projects don't have a direct voice in the planning meetings.
The interstate highway system of the United States has long been the shining example of a "good" infrastructure project. But it has certainly subsidized the development of sprawling suburbs and a car-centric culture. Nowadays many expensive government infrastructure proposals (such as passenger rail) are aimed at mitigating the externalities from the earlier infrastructure projects. I wish we took a little more care at spending money wisely.
That dialog part of the article is hilarious. Too bad he forgot to add an "As you know, Bob, the government has spent $4 trillion..."
Then smack away, because the end of Anathem sucked ass.
But didn't you read the article? It explains clearly why even halving launch costs would not make much of a difference.
As Musk is so fond of saying, the existing options are the Lamborghini's of launch vehicles, whereas he's trying to build the Honda. Safe, reliable, and cheap!
I have a lot of hope that we will have a new Space Renaissance in our lifetimes and I think the work that SpaceX, and other companies is doing will be instrumental in getting us to Mars and beyond.
From what I understand of the rocket business, this is completely wrong.
Current rockets designed by the established players (LockMart, etc.) are optimised for performance, not overall cost. This comes from a variety of factors, starting with the basic philosophy of the designers, to the rocket fuels chosen, all the way up the design hierarchy.
I estimate that it is possible to reduce launch costs by at least 10x, and that is using 1960's rocket technology with modern computers and sensors. The key is looking at what is going to reduce overall operational cost. I don't have room to explain everything, but suffice it to say I'm a fan of big dumb boosters.
There are many, many political factors at work that have slowed down the cost reductions which we would see if this was some other industry. One of the biggest factors is that the major governments don't really want launchers to become cheaper. Again, it gets back to the space race, and the governments don't want just anyone to have ICBM capability. The big companies also don't want competition for their cash cows, so they lobby hard to make sure space access remains as expensive as possible.
I couldn't agree more. They are already at least 3x cheaper based on my very rough calculations and wikipedia:
- Falcon 9: $56million
- Delta IV: $150million
- Atlas V: $187million
And they are just at the very beginning of recovering their research costs and systematizing the process of rocket building. I am amazed at what they have been able to accomplish thus far.
They're 1960's technology, not 1960's prices... ;)
There is no shortage of proposals for radically innovative space launch schemes that, if they worked, would get us across the valley to other hilltops considerably higher than the one we are standing on now—high enough to bring the cost and risk of space launch down to the point where fundamentally new things could begin happening in outer space. But we are not making any serious effort as a society to cross those valleys. It is not clear why.
Sure SpaceX is the first (almost) successful commercial venture of its kind and has been a long time coming. But they're still using essentially the same old ICBM technology the USA and USSR have been using for the past 60 years.
Stephenson is advocating more energy, research and money be devoted to the technologies on the horizon that would replace giant explosive tin cans.
California (coincidentally home to all the current rocket makers) first banned the launchers from docking in Californian ports claiming they were weapons - then banned loading the satelites in foreign ports claiming they were exporting secret technology.
Besides, Stephenson at least used to have a consulting relationship of some kind with Blue Origin, the rival launch-system startup funded by Jeff Bezos, which is still awfully quiet about their vehicle, at least for the moment. (I was wondering if this was a preview, but even if it was, he'd be highly unlikely to say so.) If the relationship continues, or even if he just holds stock, that might be reason enough not to talk up the competition.
As much as I am an enormous fan of non-chemical-rocket approaches into space (as hartror linked), they all fall into one of two categories: "Not proved feasible" (space elevator and all variations thereof), and "Contains the word 'nuclear' and not proved feasible". I break that second one out as a separate category on the grounds that making many of these proposals functional seems a lot more likely than the more far-out ones, but are Utterly Impossible because nobody will even fund research into a space technology that contains the word "nuclear", let alone permit it to fly. We barely get RTGs into space, because they are the only solution, and not without ignorant protesters nearly managing to stop it.
For instance, I'm a fan of the nuclear lightbulb ; I don't know if can be built or not, and I suspect I will never find out, because nobody within my lifetime will try, despite the fact it may require no actually new physics or technology.
If you're trying to make money in this field, best start with the things we actually know will work. Let us all hope the multi-trillion-dollar-market-cap SpaceX of 2040 see its way to funding some of these proposals, goodness knows our governments aren't going to until the word "nuclear" completely loses its fear factor.
Oh, and if we all die because we're hit by a meteor that could have been stopped with a nuclear lightbulb or even Project Orion, let the record show I hate you all, humanity.
Blue Origin is focused on suborbital space flight using rockets. But I remember Stephenson making some vague statements about his work there (at a reading of Quicksilver at the University of Washington) that included research into space elevators and other less-proven technologies.
Full giant extremely-long and interesting article here: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/ffglass_pr.html
The modern Capitalist attitude among modern business schools is that research and development is a cost center which must be minimized. This was a major element of Carly Fiorina's plan to cut HP to profitability. However, tremendous resources are thrown into marginal technologies in order to redundantly market and protect them.
Most great innovations in American culture seemed to occur due to a great existential need by our military. The Internet was designed as a communications network to survive nuclear attack. Rockets, as Stephenson pointed out, were improved for ICBMs. Most alternative fuel research is funded by the DoD to provide alternatives for tanks and jets in case our nation gets cut-off from its oil supply.
As someone who has run for office twice, I deeply understand that lobbyists exist largely to make money flow regardless of the suitability of a given contractor or product. I doubt our current military-industrial-congressional complex is independent enough to provide groundbreaking developments when incremental improvements suffice. Military lobbyists have become too powerful and too monetarily influential to the candidate that wins.
Isn't that a bit of a myth? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET#Misconceptions_of_desig...
God, that guy has a way with words.
>Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.
Is he seriously citing the adoption of petroleum fuels as an example of path dependency?
Now we have a system where we can only use a fuel that is delivered in a certain quantity to a local gas station as a liquid that can be burned.
Compare this with the electricity grid where we can switch from coal to nuclear to wind to gas without anyone noticing.
Am I simply rationalizing the history of modern transportation, and if so can you enlighten me as to the "paths not taken" that I'm blind to?
The ICE was possible because oil infrastructure was there - the first gas stations were the pharmacists who already sold the oil
We use rockets to get to space because getting as good at other methods is too expensive.
Imagine if Nasa had been in charge of developing aviation in the US - you certainly wouldn't have Cessnas and 737s.
There is a brilliant parody about Nasa being in charge of the old wagon trains going into the weat and their plans to make one giant wagon that would be able to make the journey and return safely.
I can think of three reasons:
1) We need to put up comsats.
2) Military superiority
3) Because we can and it's cool.
To the first, as the article stated the sky's already getting a bit full as there are only so many comsat "slots"
To the second, SDI never really worked and that threat doesn't exist anymore.
To the third, well...is it worth the brajillions? I personally think it is because we don't know what's out there, but that's a really poor sales pitch. :)
Perhaps it's my limited imagination and understanding, but I'm unable to conjure the reward that offsets the risks/costs.
It's a bit old but looks interesting...sadly not available on Kindle.
Space is dead. Anyone who gives a couple moment's serious thought will realize that there is really no such thing as environmentalism in space; at best, there are aesthetic concerns. (Many people are not willing to be even that thoughtful, but one can only try so hard.) Some of the things we do on Earth would be better done in space, where the byproducts hurt nobody.
Earth does not have enough of certain resources for a really green society, based on the fact that many green technologies require various rare earths. Getting more palladium or platinum from space will enable us to build more fuel cells and such things. For bonus points, combine with the above and refine in space.
The problem isn't that space is useless by any means. It's not even useless to "the poor". It's just that there is a bit of a gulf between where we are now (communications satellites) and where it becomes really useful, even putting aside the technological advances that will arise in response that will be useful even on Earth (a lot of environmental systems work and such).
There's also the not having all our eggs in one basket, which is getting increasingly important. I do fear in the race between anybody's brother being able to build a biological uberkiller and having humans in space the former will win by a decade or four.
Setting up self-sustaining human presences in colonies on other planets/moons makes it vastly less likely that some random asteroid that we didn't see coming will wipe us all out. (Other potential disaster scenarios involve superviruses, grey goo, that giant volcano under Yellowstone, and so forth.)
Those are just some reasons that I could come up with quickly, but I'm sure there are others
I know everyone believes that the threat of nuclear war has completely gone away - but there are still an awful lot of ICBMs and IRBMs in the world.
(There are others.)
Because what we have works well enough for the task at hand. The problem, which Stephenson alludes do earlier in the article, is space just isn't proving to be as useful as we had anticipated. We're already doing pretty much everything that you can justify from an economic perspective. Activities like asteroid mining and space solar power aren't going to make sense for centuries even if we dramatically cut the cost of $/kg to orbit.
So sure, we could do the same things more cheaply after a huge investment in, say, tethers. But so what? How does it make sense to spend trillions on a new launch technology when you could use that money to buy all the conventional rockets you'll need for the next 50 years.
They believe we use rockets/Qwerty/Windows because they are the best and the all seeing market has chosen wisely, not because of a series of effectively random decisions and coincidences that occured in the past.
Also we would only end up as "the Ottoman empire of the 21st century" if someone else creates a radically superior technology which we spectacularly fail to copy, reproduce, or simply license form them.
I think the sad truth is, there just isn't much to do in space if all you have is a cheap and easy way to escape earth's gravity.
Sure space tourism would be fun for a while. But at some point we need to either terraform something or decide to live in city sized spaceships, THEN you'd have a real incentive to innovate launch vehicles.