Mass Paradigm

One of the most interesting things to think about with respect to the near-future of space travel is the removal of limited mass as a paradigm. That is to say, right now the predominate design constraint for spacecraft is mass, because rockets are very expensive, so each kilogram of payload must be put to best use. Unfortunately, this means that the design and construction costs for spacecraft are very high, as much effort is put towards shaving off grams by using exotic materials and efficient designs.

But soon the current launch vehicle renaissance will result in launch costs low enough to demolish the limited-mass paradigm. There is a tipping point where it is economical to cut design costs and take the hit on launch costs. There will also see a growing emphasis on tough and reliable systems that last a long time, rather than fragile, light, efficient systems. Combined with lower fuel costs from asteroid mining and improved refueling technologies, the predominant modus operandi will be repairing spacecraft rather than replacing spacecraft. Designing for reusability and, more importantly, refurbishment will be critical.

We’re already seeing a shift towards this paradigm with SpaceX. Their launch vehicles use redundant systems to make up for their cheaper designs — their avionics electronics, for example, are not rad-hardened but instead redundant in triplicate. The mass penalty is minimal, however they also make up for it by using modern electronics concepts. For instance, instead of running numerous copper wires up and down the length of their rockets, they run a single ethernet cable and use a lot of multiplexing.

This kind of change is just the beginning, however. There will be a time when it makes sense to loft a big bundle of steel rods into orbit and have workers weld them into a frame for a spaceship. This has a number of benefits: the frame doesn’t have to be fit into a fairing, it can be reconfigured on the fly, and it doesn’t have to endure the acceleration and acoustic stresses of launch. Additionally, lifting big bundles of steel makes best use of the volume in a launch vehicle fairing.

I think the only two questions about the future of space travel are: How much will it be dominated by robots? and Where will the money come from? But those are questions for another time.

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On the SLS

NASA has always built its house on political sand, not rock. While they can get lots of funding at the political high-tide, they can also get bogged down to failure. For instance, the ill-fated Space Shuttle program (or STS) was a result of shifting goals and influences on design from disparate sectors.

Similarly, the new Space Launching System (or SLS) is the brainchild of political forces. Its first stage is an extended Space Shuttle External Tank, and its first-stage engines are Space Shuttle Main Engines. Its solid boosters are STS-derived. This means that most of the STS tooling can be kept, and thus constituencies keep their jobs. I have to admit, this re-use reduces design times, but it is not the most efficient way to build a heavy launch vehicle, especially since the technology is more intricate than it needs to be (jacking up production costs).

The SLS is designed to launch the Orion capsule, which was designed as part of the under-funded Constellation program. The Orion spacecraft uses the Apollo architecture, and NASA helps this comparison by painting the SLS with white-and-black roll patterns reminiscent of the famous Saturn V rocket. Combined with the use of STS systems, the SLS threatens to become one big nostalgic mash. Unfortunately for NASA, this means its shortcomings will be overlooked in the future, much like the Space Shuttle program.

For instance, nobody is quite sure what to do with the damn thing after we’ve designed and built it. NASA has recently released that instead of a circum-lunar flyby, the first manned mission of the Orion/SLS will visit an asteroid that will be tugged into orbit around the Moon. After that, everyone seems to throw up their hands and say, “Mars? I guess?”

Criticisms aside, its good that we are developing any sort of heavy-lift manned capacity, because eventually it will enable deep-space missions. I’m just worried that the SLS program isn’t coherent enough to survive shifts in funding or vision. Not that NASA is particularly gifted in either of those departments. With their limited funding, I’m more interested in their robotic missions (or potential thereof — submarine to Europa, anyone?), because any manned program in the near future will consist of paddling around in the metaphorical kiddy pool.

Say “No” to Manned Spaceflight

I like the idea of people walking around on other planets as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day I can’t go away with a clear conscience without making this point. There is no reason for a manned space program, either now or in the immediate future. In fact, it would be quite irresponsible of us to go mucking around on other balls of dirt.

Much like the archaeologists of the past who used ancient scrolls to keep their fires going, any serious presence or in-situ resource utilization could be inadvertently destroying priceless research subjects. Imagine if we started harvesting ice from asteroids, and then discovered that very old ice tends can contain detailed records of proto-stellar conditions in the Solar System. Even things like rolling robots across Mars or slamming probes into the Moon are calculated risks. We’re pretty sure we won’t mess up anything important, but we aren’t sure. Paradoxically, we can’t be sure what we’re missing without taking some of these risks.

Nonetheless, sending advanced primates to do the job of fast, clean, accurate robots is as irresponsible as it is stupid. Animals are hosts to trillions of bacteria, and if even one strain gets onto the surface of Mars, say, and adapts to the not-so-inhospitable conditions, it’s all over. We rely on the hard vacuum of space to kill off any potential infection vectors on robotic spacecraft, but we can’t do the same for humans. If we’re going to be sending humans to any place remotely capable of developing life, we need to be almost 100% sure there is no life there to begin with, or that the presence of invasive species of bacteria won’t eliminate it.

Even if we make sure to within reasonable doubt that there is no longer or never was life on Mars, we might be screwing ourselves in the long run by sending humans to colonize. If a mutant strain of bacteria spreads to cover the planet like the stromatolites of ancient Earth, and starts eating up what little oxygen is left, then any terraforming efforts could be foiled before they begin. Imagine if our engineered bacteria produces oxygen as a byproduct, and a rogue strain works in the other way. We’d have created a widespread stable ecosystem that leaves us asphyxiating out in the cold.

The two arguments in favor of long-range manned spaceflight have never held much water for me, even if I wanted them to. First, the “putting our eggs in one basket”. Now, current manned spaceflight has nothing to do with the colonization of space. If we were serious about spreading a permanent, self-sustaining presence to another planet, we would have to completely reorganize the existing attitude and institutions surrounding manned spaceflight. Currently, the world’s collective manned spaceflights are a road to nowhere. The ISS is a good sandbox for learning about long-term missions, but we don’t really use it like that.

The second argument is economic. I’ve gone over this is previous posts, but the short of it is that it will be a long time before its profitable to go off-world for resources — unless, that is, there is an exterior source of funding. It’s conceivable that a mild industry might build up around mining space ice for fuel and 3D-printing components. However, at some point funding has to be provided by someone interested in scientific exploration or the intrinsic value of space exploration. A self-contained space economy with Earth as the main buyer is not viable. Perhaps there exists a chicken-egg dilemma: a permanent off-world colony needs industry to survive, and industry needs off-world colonies to thrive.

That’s the cold, hard reality of the matter. I don’t want to have this opinion, but avoiding the truth about manned space exploration isn’t doing anybody any good.

The World in 15 Years

It’s been a while since I’ve just written something for fun without justifying myself, so I decided to make a post where I just make shit up. Basically, I’ve been thinking about something I heard a while back, which went along the lines of: science fiction is about personalizing issues in the present day and bringing abstract problems to a level in which the characters deal with it directly. While I disagree with the statement to some extent, I also agree with it the more I think about it. Fallen Angels makes climate change a very tangible force that the characters have to deal with, for instance. Power Nap (a webcomic) expands the sense that corporations take advantage of their employees for productivity beyond reasonable limits, and personalizes it for the protagonist.

So, I momentarily abandoned my plans for writing a space opera. Most of all, I just wasn’t ready for a writing project of that magnitude. But more importantly, it didn’t MEAN anything to me. I wanted to write a story that took some problem or idea that affected me and make it very real and tangible. With the latest set of vicious storms in my area knocking out power for days, even disabling emergency services and perhaps water utilities for a time, I began thinking about how reliant our global society is on electronics and the electricity to power them. This coupled with the thoughts that had been stewing about in my head ever since I casually skimmed a National Geographic article. The article was not that interesting, but the subject matter was one that hadn’t really occurred to me before: a freak solar flare, like one that happened in 1859, could essentially fry the entire power grid and all of our electronics. This, to me, proposes a much more interesting and up-to-date apocalyptic scenario than the standard nuclear armageddon.

That got me thinking about the near future, and so I’ve compiled a list of some things I think will be likely to occur in the next 15 years. I tried to not be too optimistic. Yes, I know that some of it is inconsistent, and some of it is much more detailed than other parts.

Geopolitics
Asia
-China becoming more democratic, but increases censorship nonetheless
-Huge number of economically successful high-tech countries in East and Southeast Asia
-Pacific Rim emerges as haven for free data sharing, as well as Eastern Europe

Africa
-Poor countries still poor
-Communication technologies become even more widespread
-Corrupt governments overthrown in continuous cycles of bloody revolution
-Raw material supply becomes unreliable
-Poor corrupt countries may fall into anarchy

America
-Rest of world becoming more socialist in terms of government handling of resources
-USA increasingly resistant to government regulation of resources and thus begins to lag in large societal changes and technological adoption
-More and more unrest as the US government fails to agilely address new problems
-Increased attempts by media-industry-controlled government factions to eradicate un-supervised data sharing on Internet
-USA oversteps some boundaries trying to persecute free data sharing companies in Asia, world becomes weary of US intellectual property pushes

Europe
-Everything goes to shit in Greece with communist election, pulls out of EU
-Spain pulls out of EU because of financial collapse
-Germany pulls out of EU in anticipation of EU and Euro collapse
-Euro goes to hell
-European economy collapses, lots of companies migrate their finances to US or Asia in anticipation
-Several brief civil wars break out in countries hit hard, tourism in Europe goes to shit, causes more economic decay

Technology
Space
-DARPA project kicks off space recycling
-Retired space stations are cannibalized
-Expanded commercial industry, competition with SpaceX
-Asteroid mining just starting, expected influx of resources (Earth mining becomes ridiculously expensive as resources are depleted)
-Plans for mars still just plans (commercial and governmental)
-Commercial space station with sponsors (Red Bull module?)

Computers
-More advances in mobile technology
-Competition in information glasses (see Google Glass)
-Increased presence of laplets (netbook / tablet hybrid, see Microsoft Surface)
-Increases in high-speed Internet availability
-Cloud gaming (processing on external machines, screen streamed)
-Some cities are implementing ubiquitous wifi
-Self-driving cars prevalent
-Resource sharing via private companies becomes more accepted

Medicine
-Cures for blindness, etc
-Advances in prosthetics, mind-controlled apparatus
-More use of robotics, especially in operations
-Cancer research still unable to cure cancer
-Pushback against genetic engineering to solve rampant problems (e.g. anti-sepsis bacteria, clotting-inducers, artificial immune boosters, disease-vector re-engineering)
-Technological advances in molecular synthesis jeopardizes pharmaceutical industry

Transportation
-Niche markets of supersonic flights and new efficient airships are filled
-Ocean drilling for oil becomes extremely common, Gulf spill stigma overcome
-Oil synthesization expanding as a market, more viable as oil is used up and Middle Eastern oil is unavailable
-Price of flights start to increase, flying starts to become less popular

Environment
-Increased reliance on new breed of safe fission power
-Global warming still “on the rise”, even though it has been partially linked to various natural processes
-Carbon emissions significantly reduced in Europe and America, increased in Asia
-Attempts to limit number of chemical rockets used, rejection
-Anti-desertification movement gains momentum, Saharan reduction initiated
-Still huge pushes towards recycling


I might update this post with some short descriptions of why I make some of these predictions, but until then you should leave a comment agreeing or disagreeing. Also follow me on Twitter @mattlevonian if you like my blog.

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