Archives For space travel

space designs

Whenever you see interstellar ships in fiction, they’re almost always immense, something close to the size of an aircraft carrier. There are a lot of good reasons for that. Traveling between the stars requires immense amounts of energy, so you’ll need reactors to generate it all or a huge set of solar sails to keep going, shielding from reactors and cosmic debris, and because you’re not going to be able to easily diagnose and fix problems light years away from mission control, you’re going to need a crew which needs living quarters, supplies, and means to generate and renew air, food, and water. Accelerating all that mass to relativistic velocities is going to be very difficult with anything short of fusion reactors and antimatter, and even then you’re going to be dealing with drag from dust and microscopic debris littered across the universe. Since trying to bend space and time is still only a vaguely theoretical endeavor at best, we’ve come to see the prospect of interstellar travel as something probably a) best done by machines, b) require long periods of planning and waiting, and c) very unlikely to happen in our lifetimes anyway.

Enter billionaire investor Yuri Milner with a $100 million plan to create a proof of concept for an amazing mission to Alpha Centauri that will take only 20 years and be powered by a laser that sounds like something Bond would be assigned to destroy before a genius villain bent on world conquest finishes its construction. In order to make it happen, he’s going to take a hatchet to a conventional view of an interstellar mission and slash anything that can slow it down. Fuel and power generation? Gone. Crews? Gone. Dust shields? Gone. The only things left are batteries, one solar sail, and a camera that you couldn’t find even on the cheapest phones you could buy today, with a resolution of just two megapixels. In other words, he’s going to create what would be the fastest Razr flip phone and shoot it into space with a multi-megawatt laser. On paper, it seems like a pretty sound plan. Such a huge jolt to a solar sail on a spaceship weighing a mere few hundred grams would accelerate it very, very effectively, and since it’s such a simple, small device, not much on it can really go wrong so you don’t need elaborate rescue scenarios or an adventurous crew of experts on board should something go terribly wrong along the way.

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, his preferred hiding spot. One of the biggest problems any interstellar probe would face is collisions with high energy particles and dust that makes up the interplanetary and interstellar mediums. While in interstellar space, this dust and debris will not be a problem until you get up to half the speed of light, and even then most particles aren’t going to even register until you’re going 0.95c which is far beyond anything Milner expects from his device. However, that assumes a fairly hefty ship rather than a cell phone sized little box we hurled into deep space. Going by the generally accepted calculations, the dust will erode a very painful 20 kg of shielding material, if we use the metric system to run the numbers and account for the law of inverse squares when it comes to the energy of the impacts as we accelerate. While the math works for accelerating less than a kilogram of spaceship to a significant percentage of the speed of light, it also says that this probe will be shredded into grain sized particles before it leaves the solar system as we know it, since interplanetary medium it would have to traverse as it gains velocity is much denser. To borrow a phrase, Milner’s gonna need a bigger ship.

But all that said, if we set our sights on interplanetary travel with larger, crewed ships and build lasers capable of powering their solar sails to navigate to the outer solar system and back, this project could really pay off over the long term. Imagine launching inflatable space stations with massive sails that surf our lasers to their destinations, then ride it for a slingshot around nearby worlds and make their way back to Earth. The only problem one could see in this scenario is a political fight over a laser that would put today’s best military technology to shame and have the capability of vaporizing satellites innocently orbiting in its path, but that’s a completely different sort of problem than we’re trying to solve here. When it comes to interstellar travel, however, a powerful laser and solar sails just aren’t going to be enough even though intuitively it seems to be a no-brainer that the smaller the craft, the faster and farther it can go while in reality, you’re pretty much doomed without enough heft to counter the rigors of relativistic flight. At least until we invent force fields and can really test them out using Milner’s ultra-lightweight probe…

printed moonbase

Hotel owner and space tourism pioneer Robert Bigelow has a pretty fervent belief that alien life is out there, that it’s intelligent, and that it may be visiting Earth. While most people would make little of the first two ideas, the third, especially his story of supposedly running into a UFO in the middle of the Southwest, prompted many journalists covering his aerospace company to put in plenty of jokes at his expense. As a result, every time an in depth profile of Bigelow and his big plans in Earth’s orbit and beyond appears, there’s an inordinate amount of skepticism injected into discussions of sober and eminently reasonable plans. Yeah, sure, we’re going to trust the guy who thinks aliens are vising our planet make space stations and bases on other worlds, it’ll be great, right? Well, actually yeah, sure, let’s have him do exactly that. Creating a very cheap, convenient way to put up self-contained interlocking habitats built to absorb radiation and swift blows from micrometeorites that ding rigid metal spacecraft is a fantastic endeavor, and having the first direct application of this technology on the Moon makes a whole lot more sense than a flag-planting mission to Mars, which works much better as a logical extension of that effort.

See, the problem with simply skipping ahead to a Mars mission because we’ve already been to the Moon back in the day is that you’re not actually building an infrastructure for future missions that go farther and farther. This increases the cost because you now can’t piggyback on assets already in orbit and deeper in space, and vastly increase the risk because if things go wrong, a possible place to which you can retreat and survive while someone can rescue you won’t be an option, so the escape plans far from home will be very limited. Considering that the Moon is the perfect dress rehearsal for a mission to another planet right in our cosmic backyard, and a very convenient place to launch bigger and bigger craft into deep space thanks to its shallow gravity well, going back before we set our sights for Mars isn’t a crazy plan at all. If anything, it’s much, much more conservative and reasonable than anything being dictated to NASA right now. The same thing applies to the design and execution of the inflatable modules. Bigelow didn’t design them himself, he bought the technology, patents, and methods from companies contracted for NASA-backed programs to build exactly what SpaceX just launched to the ISS today.

With all this in mind, can we please stop wondering if Bigelow and his investors and supporters are crazy and overly ambitious when the technology they use has been originally created by a number of companies which have been launching things into space for the last 50 years, have been tested over the last three decades, easily survived several launches into orbit, and which are designed for a space exploration strategy that’s been kicked around since the 1960s and is based on the slow-and-steady-one-step-at-a-time principle rather than jumping straight into the far, far more complicated world of interplanetary human spaceflight? As of today, we have both reusable rockets and inflatable space habitats, proofs of concept for everything Bigelow would really like to accomplish, and the only things missing are monetary support and political will. We can’t just look at proven, functioning, mature technology and shrug out shoulders in skepticism solely because the guy has a UFO story he likes to tell. Here’s someone who wants to finish an amazing undertaking NASA started and has the tools to do it. We should be helping him rather than constantly reminding us that he’s a little eccentric when it comes to astrobiology.

blue planet

For just a moment, let’s pretend that we solve the controversial legal issues that surround how and if we’ll mine asteroids in the near future, and have managed to expand our way into space faring cyborgs with warp drives capable of shuttling us from solar system to solar system in an acceptable amount of time. Over thousand of years, we’d have visited countless planets in our post-scarcity futuristic pseudo-utopia, and those with the means might ask themselves what if it would be a good investment to buy an entire world. You know, much the same way people buy expensive houses and private islands today. How much would something like that run a tycoon in the far future? Obviously it would have to be some insane amount of galactic credits. Several asteroids we’d like to main are worth tens of trillions of dollars in today’s cash. Typical, smallish, rocky planets like ours are ten orders of magnitude larger or so, and with fewer easy to access resources due to their molten innards, they should cost tens of septillions of dollars, right?

Seems a little simplistic, don’t you think? Remember that when you’re out shopping for an alien planet, you’re already living in a post-scarcity world with 3D printers ready to create your cities, infrastructures, and anything else you need at a moment’s notice. And settling on other worlds would mean that you have to be extremely self-sufficient, needing nothing more than access to interstellar communication networks and able to easily live off the land with your portable power supplies which allowed you to cross the vast distances between solar systems. That means not that much mining is going to get done on your new world, and the lack of demand means lower prices. What good is a million tons of gold if no one wants it or needs it? And if no one needs it, no one should be charging you for it, especially when you’re just going to extract the little bit of resources you need as you need them on your own. With resource values now out of the price, what exactly would influence how much a planet is worth? What the previous owners left?

Well, it may just come down to the same three most important things in real estate prices back on our boring little home world: location, location, and location. How close is the planet you will buy to hubs of civilization? Can you invite people on vacations, or safaris in alien jungles, or get scientists to excavate the ruins of a long gone extraterrestrial civilization? Does your new world offer some sort of gateway to other star systems, the last place to refuel and patch up a ship in the next few months or years of travel? Are there pretty views of the Milky Way in the night sky, and magnificent oceans you can explore? Those are likely to be things by which a species that can travel to other worlds will judge how much a planet is worth, rather than the value of what’s there to be mined or otherwise extracted. Still, considering how many people there will be when we’re spread across the stars and how many of them will be doing something akin to a normal job today since all the machinery they will depend on won’t maintain itself, it’s likely that planets will be a super-luxury item for the future top 0.1% who own the rights and blueprints to all of the technology making space exploration on an interstellar scale possible as an investment…

dsi space harvester

Despite several startups eager to set out into deep space and mine asteroids just like in a sci-fi movie but with fewer people and more robots, the sad fact is that extracting resources from the objects over our heads is technically illegal. No matter how much you’d like to and how much a few people insist, you cannot own land on the Moon, or Mars, or any other celestial body in any legitimate capacity. But as noted many times before on this blog, its virtually an inevitability that one day, this restriction in the Outer Space Treaty will fall and our extraterrestrial colonies won’t be shy about wanting to self-govern, although probably not as quickly as some people imagine that would happen. Realizing this, in a rare act of forward thinking, Congress has been working on an exemption allowing individuals and private companies to claim territory on asteroids and other worlds if they can legitimately travel there on their own: the Space Act of 2015. But sadly, while it sits in committee, there are legal scholars who doubt that it would actually work.

Here’s the big problem. One of the reasons why the treaty specified that no one could lay claim on extraterrestrial bodies has little to do with the egalitarian altruism nations felt towards space. It was actually a preemptive maneuver against military installations in orbit and beyond, which both the United States and the USSR were actively considering during the Cold War. They were basically trying to deny each other higher ground for massive nuclear launches that would open the door to movie-worthy scenarios like secretly launching a government to a lunar base, trying to fight a nuclear war on Earth, then allow the planet to recover before returning and rebuilding the nation. Allowing private entities to be exempt from this restriction raises the specter of some shady spies and military contractors doing clandestine preparations for an attack, or setting up the infrastructure for orbital and deep space force projection, so Russia and China will balk.

Without their public approval, there’s the legal argument that the United States is violating a key provision of the treaty, which also governs the rules for nuclear testing used for a saber-rattling exercise in just how much the superpowers and their proxies were committed to the strategy of mutually assured destruction. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that was a lot, to the point of possibly building doomsday machines. Should the Outer Space Treaty’s future become in doubt, there’s a non-trivial chance that the Cold War will come roaring back, albeit it would be a three-way contest between the major space-faring global powers who haven’t much liked one another for generations now. Figuring out how to get everyone on board is crucial because we all now know that we simply cannot keep the treaty the way it is for humanity to actually start to colonize space, but that we also cannot just openly challenge the status quo without potentially dire geopolitical consequences waiting for us on the other side of that legal gauntlet.

Sadly, it seems that human space exploration began as a military affair and would run as such until the Moon landing, and will now begin to creep back into a military-driven mode as nations able to claim extraterrestrial territory and resources seek to enforce that claim with weapons at the ready, relying on intimidation and the same MAD tactics they have for the past 70 years as they expand into the solar system. But that said, there is the remote possibility that seeing how much there is for the taking, the U.S., Russia, and China will let greed win over pride and bitter memories, and make trade agreements to invest in each others’ space mining companies. This seems like a very optimistic scenario, I know, but this is pretty much the only way I see any sort of cooperation on amending the Outer Space Treaty happening in the foreseeable future. For a large enough sum of cash, even the most complicated frenemy relationship could find a way to peacefully avoid flash points. And we just might get our wish to expand into space just like most futurists half a century ago dreamed we finally would, as a very welcome byproduct…

[ illistration by DSI: Deep Space Industries ]

terraformed mars

Mars has been calling humans for centuries and with every year we seem more eager to come and set up the groundwork for a lasting presence, so much so, there’s someone very seriously thinking about making the planet its own nation state. But living on Mars is far easier said than done because it’s atmosphere is a ghostly shell, it’s cold, dry, and barren, its magnetic field will offer so little protection from cosmic radiation that its surface can even kill bacteria that happily live inside nuclear reactors, and there are serious question about whether its soil will grow food and plants necessary for long term survival. And that’s not to mention the challenges of getting there safely, and the astronauts’ mental health tens of millions of miles from home. Now, when we do solve the problem of actually getting there comfortably, intact, and quickly, we could deal with the problems of living in a frigid alien desert by building vast, complex, expensive habitats, and hope for the best. Or we could get really ambitious and turn Mars into a livable world.

Plans for terraforming Mars have been around in both science and science fiction for decades, calculated to take several hundred years, cost trillions, and start out by pumping a noxious mix of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to build it up and melt the polar icecaps. The process should essentially allow for a similar runaway greenhouse effect as Venus’, but keeping Mars at very warm and comfortable temperatures for us. Solar panels the size of Texas hovering over a few strategic points near the poles to redirect sunlight and melt the ice faster, have also been a periodic part of the plan. After the planet starts to warm up, hearty algae can be planted to feed on the toxic gasses and start replacing them with oxygen, much like on primeval Earth on a fast forward setting. If everything goes well, some 125 years after we begin, trees could grow in the Martian soil to speed the process up even more and stabilize the oxygen levels for humans.

Of course, those very interested in terraforming Mars do not want to wait over a century before genetically engineered super trees create the first forests on their chosen planet. They’d like to speed things up a bit using nuclear weapons. That’s right, under one terraforming scenario that Elon Musk explained to Colbert a few night ago, the process of making Earth 2.0 starts with the apocalyptic nuclear bombardment of the Martian poles. Once you’ve basically converted much of the dry ice to vapor after 500 to 800 mushroom clouds finally dissipate, the hot steam could, in theory, start the runaway feedback loop that would puff up the atmosphere and trap enough sunlight to raise the planet’s average temperature to a toasty 15° C or 60° F, although there will be so much fallout that the plants needed to convert much of that to oxygen and nitrogen would have to wait at least a few centuries. And that’s the downside of this plan, really. It is a cheaper, easier way to start terraforming, but over the long term it would really slow things down.

In general, since Mars is already a radioactive desert, there isn’t much that nuclear fallout could do to it that the sun isn’t already doing on a daily basis on the surface. But the surface is not an issue here, it’s the soil underneath. Radioactive elements like cesium will leach into it, poisoning the plant life we’ll ultimately need to sustain. You can see a similar problem in the Bikini Atoll as nuclear tests have rendered growing food there dangerous when cesium-137 mimicked the role of potassium and was absorbed into the local flora. It would take massive remediation efforts to prepare Mars for its greening, something which would run up the budget significantly, or we can just wait for the century or two it would take for the soil to be safe enough for the algae. And for my money, no one is going to choose the far more expensive and resource-consuming process when just waiting would do the job. But that means that we paid for cheapening out on starting the greenhouse effect we needed with an additional century, in the best case scenario.

However, thinking about this game me an idea. We do know of a way to get the oomph of huge nukes and create the same kind of damage without any of the complicated weapons we’d have to somehow convince nuclear powers to give up after modifying complex treaties that are taken so seriously that violating them could open the way to turning Mad Max into a preview of much of our world’s future. Large kinetic missiles dropped from satellites could easily kick start a huge polar melt and our terraforming factories could immediately get to work on making sure that the feedback loop does begin by surgically adding extra greenhouse gasses when needed. And as the kinetic impactors would be just solid spikes of hardened alloys, manufacturing thousands of them should actually be orders of magnitude cheaper than getting nuclear warheads ready and secure enough to be launched into space. This way, we could get the benefit of a nuclear-scale bombardment for a tiny fraction of the price, none of the radiation, and none of the delays. The only things that would be left in the aftermath are craters that we’d help erode away.

So the process sounds good so far, once again. There’s just the small question of whether the hard work of terraforming the red planet will actually stick, which is still a matter of debate. You see, the problem is that Mars may be too small to hold on to a large, thick atmosphere like ours and its lack of volcanic activity and weak magnetic field would only make it worse. Technically, a planet capable of holding on at an adequate atmosphere for 10 billion years can be as small as just 5,690 km across while Mars is almost 6,800 km in diameter, so you’d think there’s a rather comfortable 12% margin above the minimum. But this is a spherical chicken in a vacuum figure which isn’t capturing the complexity of chemical reaction between the sun, surface, and air, and don’t take the solar wind into account. We could invest 250 years into creating a thick, luxurious atmosphere only to see it scoured away to barely breathable in less than twice that time as the planet’s weak magnetic field can’t protect it. We’d have to add 70,000 tons of gas to the Martian atmosphere every year to offset the loss. Hey, no one said terraforming a world will be easy.

Ultimately there will be many challenges to creating Earth 2.0 and the end product might never resemble our home world. Costs will mount, political and legal questions will have to be tackled, and the project could only be accomplished if every advanced economy works together to keep it moving along for longer than something close to two thirds of the nations we recognize today existed. It would be the biggest mega-engineering project ever undertaken, which is why it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future to be blunt. But it seems that we understand much of the underlying science and have a good idea how to actually make it happen, so if money could one day cease to be a hindrance to this idea, or it suddenly became a top priority after a major catastrophe loomed on Earth and millions needed an escape route within a few hundred years, we may just turn Mars into our second home world with kinetic missiles and a greenhouse gas spewing network of factories. Should you ever be legally able to buy land on Mars, maybe you should shell out for a hundred acres. Your great-great-grandchildren might thank you…

[ illustration by Marcel Labbé-Laurent ]

pluto on flyby

After finally getting a close look at Pluto and putting many decades of speculation to rest, there are three important things to keep in mind. First is that humans have now seen every world we once considered a planet in our solar system and have taken pictures and measurements that will give us decades of research to help us figure out where we came from and provide a basic foundation for figuring out if we are really alone in our tiny little corner of the cosmos. Second is that we need to keep thinking about how to properly define what a planet is, since Pluto shows pretty much all the signs of geologic activity we expected to find, and isn’t merely a rock which simply hangs around in space, absorbing the solar wind and asteroid impacts. And third, and in many ways very exemplary of how science can drive us to do odd but beautiful things, is that a container on New Horizons was carrying the ashes of the scientist who discovered Pluto, and in a way, the man who set the chain of events ending with this mission in motion, was there when the small world he spotted so many decades ago, was finally visited for the very first time.

People tend to lament spending money on basic science, curiosity-driven research which is not going to be obviously responsible for creating new jobs or founding new companies, but simply asks what is and why it works that way. But notice how many people were fascinated to see an icy, remote world, and how impressed they were that a 3 billion mile flight was planned to within several thousand miles between spinning alien objects we couldn’t see as anything more than a few faint pixels with out most powerful telescopes. We may have chained ourselves to desks in gray offices, toiling away on reports no one wants to read under the buzz of florescent lights as we watch the clock for quitting time, but deep inside we’re still explorers and wanderers. That’s why no matter how dullards and politicians who pander to them try to bankrupt space travel and exploration, we’ll always find a way to go. The urge is always there. The challenge attracts way too many curious minds. Clyde Tombaugh found a way to visit the outer solar system. He may have not been alive for it, but still, where there was a will to explore, we found a way…

porn starlet

PornHub has a grand vision, a vision of a man and a woman having sex on camera just as they reach the edge of space and feel the grasp of our planet’s gravity loosen for half an hour. It’s a vision that’s been proposed to the only company that may have been willing to do it in 2008 and was promptly shot down, but PornHub was undeterred and started a crowdfunding campaign to bring zero gravity porn to the horny masses. Considering the challenges of sex without the help of gravity would be extremely amusing to watch, and if humans want to live in space, we’ll need to learn how to have sex on a spacecraft, I have no doubt this vision will be brought to life. Just not for PornHub, and not right now. No one is sending passengers into suborbital space and it’s simply not practical for the first commercial passengers to be a porn crew since no one from the crew will want to invest time in blocking, timing, and the necessary rehearsals. Just getting a few tourists floating around the cabin at the Karman line is going to be difficult enough as it is.

Now, a few dozen flights in, when the mechanics of the flights are settled and the crews can get more ambitious with their missions, this idea can actually work. Of course the problem for even the most accomplished and capable porn star would be the difficulty of getting an erection after the redistribution of fluids in zero gravity, and trying to actually maintain a position for cinematic intercourse when the slightest push will send them bouncing around the cabin. And there a lots of questions about how the money shot would be executed as well as whether 30 minutes can be enough to get a decent video, or whether multiple flights would be required. Perhaps they’d be interested in hiring Zero G to wrap their heads around the necessary blocking and physical limitations. None of these challenges are insurmountable, mind you, and they could actually do science a solid and perform research that would never be funded otherwise.

But again, this is a little premature. (Make your own jokes, I refuse.) We need to get people into suborbital space reliably in the first place, and then to orbital hotels where they could shoot just about anything and everything they’d want. Don’t get me wrong PornHub, although I know your porn business is your own real concern in this, you’re actually helping humanity in the long run, and your efforts to shoot naked people putting things into their own or others’ bodies could one day help start a family on the Moon or Mars. And really, your only problem here is being five to ten years ahead of your time. Though maybe you can also make your pitch a little less obvious as to its commercial value and a put in some things regarding advancing human understanding of sex beyond our planet, really sell it as an experiment, get in depth interviews with some blow by blow, and thrust by thrust commentary, and really advertise them when you try this again in probably six years or so when we have this whole commercial suborbital flight figured out.

[ illustration: porn starlet Ariana Marie ]

neurons

Back in the day, I argued that if we were going to get serious about space exploration, we also had to budget for large, luxury spacecraft rather than just capsules in which we would cram the brave men and women we’d be sending to other worlds with a pat on the back for agreeing to deal with the discomfort and damage to their bodies. Among the reasons listed were the basic physiological problems of spending many months in zero gravity, and mental health hazards of boredom and cabin fever. But now there’s another very important point to add to the list. If you spend too much time out of the Earth’s magnetosphere, you will become less competent at the elementary tasks of exploration. Curiosity, focus, determination, situational awareness, the very traits that make humans such good generalists on our own world, and which robots can handle within very limited contexts, which is why we’d want to aid them when exploring new planets, all will become severely diminished after long-term bombardment by cosmic rays.

This is the result of a recent study which exposed mice genetically engineered to have neurons that glow under the right conditions, to lab-generated cosmic rays. After the equivalent of a few months worth of exposure to particles like ionized titanium and oxygen, the mice became a lot less curious, mentally sluggish, and learned slower. The results were comparable to dementia patients, and under the microscope, the reason was readily apparent. Cosmic rays attacked an inordinate number of dendrites, which are the parts of a neuron exchanging neurotransmitters with its neighbors. Fewer connections meant less efficiency and accuracy in communication, so it resulted in what amounts to reduced competency across the board. This is another reason to hold off on planning grand Mars missions. Damaging the minds of astronauts, perhaps for the rest of their lives, is too high of a price to pay just to get a flag-panting moment…

See: Parihar, V. et. al. (2015). What happens to your brain on the way to Mars Science Adv, 1 (4) : 10.1126/sciadv.1400256

cape verde

Despite the constant political challenges and bean counting nihilism, human spaceflight is still a routine event and no matter how much some want to relegate space exploration to robots, any way we look at it, the domain of space travel is not a human or robot proposition, but will always need to be a partnership. Ultimately, monetary considerations be damned, we want to explore and discover. It’s what made us who we are today and we’ll do it even if we have to merge with machines to do it, even if those modifications are almost inhumanly extreme, as long as they’re within the realm of plausibility. But as long as human explorers’ bodies will have organic tissues there will always be the specter of medical emergencies and the need for treatments, surgeries in extreme environments, and dealing with damage from radiation. Right now, if an astronaut is in dire need of emergency treatment the plan is to evacuate him or her and perform whatever procedures are necessary on Earth. Beyond our planet’s orbit, this will not be an option.

Considering the current plans to send humans to asteroids, back to the Moon, and eventually, towards Mars, NASA has been hard at work soliciting ideas for how to do everything from robot surgery, harness ultrasonic devices to help with treatment and diagnosis, and extreme ways of approaching treatment of radiation sickness and long term effects of elevated exposure to both cosmic rays and mutagenic solar particles. This is great news not just for space exploration, but for humanity in general, because radically new approaches to medical treatments will let us live longer and healthier lives. With surgery being a last resort replaced by high tech scanners and ultrasonic devices, lasers, and genetically engineered viruses tested through the rigors of life in radioactive vacuum of space, and what surgeries are performed meant for minimum collateral damage and rapid healing, we could treat more issues, and use far fewer antibiotics.

Imagine a world in which superbugs evolve slower, people would live longer and healthier, and we can fix conditions currently treated by a constant dose of doctors gravely nodding and back pats for enduring them. And of course, since many of these treatments would be designed for maximum effect with minimal or even nonexistent infrastructure, we could deploy them to help developed nations. But hold on, you may ask, why not help developed nations first since that’s your goal along with just better medical technology? Because helping developed nations is not the kind of simple proposition it’s often portrayed to be. It’s become a sport to castigate those who spend their wealth on humanity’s distant future instead of its poorest members and it’s an extremely safe bet to do so. But the reality of the situation is that pouring billions of dollars into unstable regimes with no accountability and perverse incentives solves little. Designing for the rigors of space frees us from the political constraints and forces us to be more creative.

When we know no help will come, ever, not just late, there will be no infrastructure other than a spacecraft around us, and failure to meet the challenge is certain death, evolutionary, halfway, compromised designs are not an option. Being able to then package the successful fruits of all that hard work and ship them into even the most remote wilderness would be huge, a massive game changer that could help billions live a better life. As bizarre as it sounds, basic research, driven purely by the need to accomplish something that by definition has to be efficient, quick, and effective in practice, not beholden to profit margins, shareholders, or patent wars may be much cheaper and exactly what we need to finally capitalize on the bleeding edge research we find being nurtured in startup and university labs today. The space program provided the case for integrated electronics and countless materials that make our modern world what it is, and it can also provide the know-how to drastically improve our lives here on Earth and in space.

[ illustration from Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers ]

skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?