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.

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