Thursday, September 13, 2012

For Reasons of Security as well as Insecurity: A Word on Technological Standardization

By the year 2100 we hope....

People will see travellers going from Earth to the Moon (and/or beyond) as regularly as we might see planes flying people overhead now from America to Asia. It will become a common sight that could also suffer because uninformed people may easily come to take it for granted and disregard its true , present costs and benefits. It seems that times change and people forget the great advances that were required socially as much as technically to allow these sorts of things to happen. Tremendous progress comes forth only from excitement about bold ideas... not only from well maintained portfolios... though they also have their place.

We must remember the important lessons of history or we'll be starting over from scratch again... if we survive.


For Reasons of Security as well as Insecurity: A Word on Technological Standardization

It is a strikingly under-appreciated and wholly modern development that humans may be about to embark on a visible, regular and sustained program of extra-terrestrial expansion to the heavens above. While this imminent development is popularly treated somewhat less poignantly than global warming, financial collapse or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it is nevertheless a much more important development which stands to have the the most lasting positive impact. Far more noteworthy is this approaching inevitability of space-faring than the latest sports scores or the topsey-turvey tumblings of todays American politics. The entire species is about to crash into an etherial wall as seemingly insurmountable as the sound barrier was to our recent forebears [2].

The major achievements of the next few decades, however, will be less about technical advance than they will be about technical integration. Related challenges will confront our peoples on many levels; economic, spiritual and traditional notions of all sorts are coming due for an appraisal against more modern ideas and discoveries. Shades of a second renaissance flourish all around us. We technologists and engineers are resigned to accept that even the emergent technologies of today and slated for tomorrow were discovered in the early post-Apollo period for the most part. The X-15 [3] is a fine example of our early technological prowess. The designs employed to get Space Ship One & Two beyond the confines of the planet find their similarity to the 1959 rocketplane designs undeniable... to say nothing of the Dyna-Soar [4] research conducted my the Air Force before space travel was snatched from their professional and well-trained grasp by one of the wisest men to grace the American shores [5]. Reasonably we can assume the people involved in the creation and utilization of these initial technological leaps were a mean age of 25-35 even at that time. This, in turn, means they were taught by those even older and these designs originated very shortly after the popular ascension of avionics in general c.1900 [6]. Indeed, when one makes a thorough study of developments in aeronautics and rocketry one does not see a gradual rise in learning from aeroplanes to rocketry, they were both being pursued with vigour at nearly the same time and by two almost completely disparate camps.

Since that time little has really changed (except for the multi-mergering of aero and astro companies perhaps). The spacecraft designs of the near future still rely on these early general styles [4][7]. We are, however, finally seeing a return to smaller American spacecraft [8] which is a hopeful, though primarily austere, development. The idea that it should cost tens of millions of dollars to send one person just to the edge of outer space is surely something which much also face the winds of change in this time of global fiscal retraction. Strikingly, this period of economic restraint could come to be viewed as a helpful last gasp of tired old economic theories based on scarcity for, though things seem bleak looking forward, we are fortunate indeed to live in a period of unlimited credit [9] (though we tend to call it debt - your credit card has all your debts and your debit card has all your credits, go figure). If we will simply prioritize issues of exploration and humanitarianism there is no longer any limit to the amount of good that can be done because of the present modelling of our fiat global economy. Already today some would argue that the UN saves roughly a billion lives a year though it itself is economically retarded.

Companies like Virgin Galactic, Biggelow Aerospace and Planetary Resources are perhaps the greatest chance for our long term economic sustainabililty that has ever existed in known history. Virtually limitless resources await our extraction - even just in our own solar system. Our young species can barely fathom what riches of minerals and various fuels await us in the cosmos just outside of our established comfort zones. But in order to get there, as I said before, the developments that need to be made are in our minds and in the zeitgeist of our times much more than in our laboratories.

While we wrestle with our commitments to foreign banking interests and sacrifice the social fabric of our nations to satiate their unending desires for profit - somewhere in the background, far from the mainstream fantasies of self-made millionaires and the absurdity of urban living, we find a quiet and meek group of reformers with no particular political agenda other than the overall betterment and expansion of the human species. So why are they not the rockstars of today ? Why does Britney Spears have millions of followers whilst names like Paul Allen and Robert Biggelow fail to attract the same level of interest in spite of their myriad and very important achievements ? It seems that somewhere along the way, the flashy bright-lights of show-business stole the essence of our knack for real prosperity and sustainable survival. We gave up our long-term dreams for quick thrills. While I certainly appreciate the great beauty and talent of Ms. Spears, as one example, I am far more concerned with real issues in the world today. We all long for momentary reprieve from our stresses and dilemmas, but we seem to have forgotten that most of them spring forth from artificially elevating these sorts of people far beyond their usefulness to society. People used to be famous for what they did, now fame is something that people do in itself. If we are not careful we might sacrifice generations, our planet or our very species to these sorts of momentary gratifications erstwhile making very little progress on important issues. Personally I think we are far more valuable to the universe than we give ourselves credit for and we, as citizens, are treated in this ultimately degrading way simply because we do not desire anything more for ourselves. We have forgotten the value of hard work, of dedication, of propriety and decency as a whole. Sure, we all want to get wasted on Friday night, but most of us here in North America have done nothing to earn the opulence in which we live, and we take far too much of it for granted. If it were not for the tremendous sacrifices of previous generations we would not have any of this to enjoy and we very glibly discount old world wisdom that speaks exactly to this present plight [10].

With the recent passing of Neil Armstrong we must confront our failings. Based on his own very personal achievements there was no reason for him not to think that by the time he passed to the other side we would have a fledgling moon-base well established upon the soils he had once braved on our behalf. When we decided to retire that venerable workhorse, the Space Shuttle(s), he was one of the truly most prominent people to advocate on behalf of America not slowing down any more than she already had. This man remained out of the spotlight for so long that his proposals to congress should have been taken with more sincere regard. He wasn't just talking about preserving technology he was talking about preserving what little motivation remained from those many decades previous. More still, he wanted us to push farther and faster. In his own way, I believe was trying to warn us of how stagnant we'd already become. We did not have replacement vehicles prepared, we had no vision, no plans and nothing to hope for... nothing to aim for. If the Space Shuttle was to be retired so soon and there were no other plans in place then we dangled on the edge of forever losing the momentum that President Kennedy and Astronaut Armstrong had risked their very lives to inspire many moons ago. His words were scantly heeded. Now he is gone. In the years and decades since those initial triumphs, we have never sent another human being even 10% of the distance the Apollo astronauts had covered. The question that begs to assert itself is “why” ?

Now, “moon conspiracies” aside, we need to get a handle on why this happened. In looking at the capsule systems used for our early space program we have to wonder again – why ? When the US Airforce already had suitable space-planes on the drawing board and they had also already scratched the edge of outer space (Armstrong included) [3] how is it we went with an archaic 'cannonball' type of craft that cost multitudes more to build, launch and was less safe and had more huge costs and wild risks associated with 'landing' and recovery? As we have seen with the successful flights of Virgin Galactic, none of this was necessary. Early astronauts were selected from pilot corps, but they had to fight to have a window, much less any sort of manual controls (a fight which resulted in the saving of several lives, we might add) in their early spacecraft. When the Space Shuttle came to be, it was viewed as a tremendous step forward by the public because of this early misstep. A massive cargo ship that went up like a capsule but came down like a plane was not as revolutionary as it was presented to be. While this was indeed an advance from earlier capsule designs it was wholly behind the times, even in the 1980s. While some can argue indeed that the shuttle was needed to produce the space station (a dubious claim to be sure – see Chinese Space Station) I don't think anyone ever imagined that such would be its only task and once completed it would be retired without doing ANY deep space exploration to speak of. Whenever I advocate this position I often hear from people; “the shuttle was never designed for that” and blah blah, but if a tin capsule the size of a ford pinto could be outfitted for lunar travel, there is no way I will ever believe that the shuttle was simply incapable of anything more than taking stuff up to LEO. It had ample room for fuel, food and refitted quarters. Instead of even parking one at the ISS for future use, they were basically scrapped by short sighted and greedy politicians. Never was the shuttle involved with ANYTHING that happened beyond LEO except perhaps the deployment of some geo-synch satellite or something. A total waste looking back. We could have put everything up there on conventional rockets, sans-shuttle, if we wanted and developed well suited smaller and cheaper craft for personelle that needed to be a part of a mission (think Soyuz)

So again, the technology wasn't the problem. The shuttle very well COULD have been outfitted for at least one extra-planetary adventure, but it never was. Its not that the technology or funding didn't exist (the shuttle coming in WELL over its already ample budget), its simply that the desire to utilize it for such a purpose wasn't there. The leadership at NASA or in America as a whole wasn't there. In a recent survey something like 30%+ of respondents indicated they would be willing to go on a manned mission to Mars even if there as only a 50% chance of returning safely [1]. Obviously these people are perhaps zealots for the cause, but it speaks volumes to how diametrically opposed two camps are. One is not willing to ever suffer a human loss for the sake of exploration (tell that to John Cabot, Champlain, Amerigo, or Columbus and see the scoff you get) whereas the other is willing to be strapped on dynamite and blown to the moon, as long as it gets them there. We need balance. Innovation is never a foolproof 100% safe practice. Obviously we need to be cautious where we can be, but the launches of Virgins Space Ship One really rubbed it in our face how silly we'd become about this business. Every space shuttle launch was costing hundreds of millions of dollars, a seat on the Soyuz is still about 35 million, but Sir Richard and his team have set an INTRODUCTORY price of $250,000 !! That will also surely come down as the forces of supply and demand are applied. By my research, the cost per person to launch on Virgin (excluding regulatory fees and mandatory insurances) is likely about 5-10 thousand dollars over the life of one of their space-planes. That's for the average 170 pound person which means the cost per pound would be about $44. comapre that to about $27,000 per pound on the space shuttle [11] and just wonder if the problems we face are really about technology, money or something else. Why were we so idiotic about the whole thing. Surely some geek back in the 70s must have known all this... we must remember these policies were adopted by politicians, not scientists. Therein lay much of the problem. But now that we are entering an era of private space-flight the designers and builders and passengers all have input. If one place is charging $1000 per lb of cargo and another $50, there better be some damned good incentive to use the first guy in an open market.

And so we see quite plainly that the problem isn't technology or money, its will. Its planning, desire, direction and purpose. Its the fact that as much as we are interested in space, we don't really have a face or a presence anywhere advocating and leading 'the way' anymore. When Neil Armstrong walked in to the chambers to challenge the plans of the government of the day, he was only one man. There doesn't seem to be a strong national or international group devoted to study, implementation and amendments of space policy. As we see several independent private space companies emerge we must confront the fact that they too are somewhat disjointed, frivolous and without strong overarching plans. The UN has one such branch, but they never seem to do too well with concerns of the first world. Those of us who are keen already know that the “weapons in space” treaties are being eroded away to oblivion and that Nuclear ABM treaties have done international co-operation in space far more harm than they've done anyone any good.

We need a shift in paradigm. Aeroplanes were once an archaic and dangerous contraption too. The more we are encouraged to invent the more technology evolves. Real safety comes from lessons that can often only happen 'in situ', no one knew (or cared) about the advantages of seat-belts and airbags until there had been enough accidents to stimulate the actuarial accounts into action. In the 1990s Canada had one of the highest R&D budgets around, for all fields of enquiry. In that time we were routinely cited as the BEST place to live, work and expand horizons in the world. Since we have become more concerned with strict economy, than the value of humanity, even our economy has fallen to shambles. You want a good example of the sorts of things we need to change, of how far ahead we should be from where we are – especially in light of the gross expenditures we've invested in these old, inefficient ideas? Ask Jim Floyd about it. This guy was designing spacecraft before Armstrong was out of middle-school... it wasn't the money or the technology that held him back (he went on to design several components of the Apollo missions) its all about the politics. Much depends on what the masters of men thing 'the people' are ready for. Instead of sitting quietly in the background producing designs for our overlords, maybe its time that spacers like us all got together and made our own union, or party... what do WE want to see happening above the skies in the next 25, 50 or 100 years ?

We need to explore these issues as much as we need to explore other worlds. Much like science and religion, the realms of technology and politics seem hopelessly at odds. The way we are treating the internet today far exceeds any legitimate necessity. If we monitor everyone who uses the internet and strip away all their rights making them guilty before proving anything we only hurt its potential. People will become afraid to use it, they will no longer innovate or participate they will migrate away to something they find to be less intrusive on them. I fear outer space has already been legally pillaged in a similar way, and I find it quite curious that the Airforce Space Command is in charge of both cyber and outer space to the extent it has become. I honestly appreciate the need for some oversight, but The father of these such realms and considerations, Eisenhower, saw plainly what militarization in these frontiers would mean. Totalitarianism subtly rising against the very essence of everything that is bright, good, trustworthy and wonderful about all of us was the thing to watch for in the post-WW2 world. Civilian controlled was the way he wanted it and by turning 'security' of outer and cyber space over to such organizations we desecrate the legacy he intended for all free peoples... but then I guess we didn't pay much heed to the warnings about the military-industrial complex either. I recently made a post on Lockheed's sight about the F-35. It is touted as the plane that will keep us all save in the decades to come... I dont think it will be of any use beyond 2020. One does not bring an aeroplane to a satellite fight, after-all. [12] We would do just as well to maintain our moral and intellectual superiority over our superiority in armaments alone. If I'm ever out late one night working on a micro-satellite to give free wi-fi to my city and it launches by accident or something I dont want a barrage of scud missiles wreaking havoc on my pantry. Every day, the tighter and tighter we stitch this network of security around us, the more amazing opportunities and good people we lose. If we aren't careful we could inadvertently transform this whole world of possibilities into little more than a Prison Planet. It was ever thus. The real final frontier is within us, it is nothing without us. The more headway we make inside ourselves, the more naturally will our zeal for confronting boundaries spring up. Are we really willing to give it all up for security which can never truly be guaranteed ? Personally I'd rather we already had our moon-base. I'm sure most people with an eye to the sky would agree.


[1] MARS MISSION SURVEYS, there are many more online, but here are a few examples;

[2] SOUND BARRIER, it was viewed as a demonic force in the sky by early pilots in the periods 1935-45 ... how far we've come.

[3] X-15, one of the pilots would eventually become the first man to set foot on soils not of this Earth

[4] Dyna-Soar late 1950s Airforce design

[5] Starting with General Eisenhower

[6] One of the Fathers of Rocketry, born c.1882

[7] Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne

[8] USAF X-37B Unmanned Craft

[9] Global GDP growth, notable is the exponential increase since the dawn of the 20th century

[10] Kipling, Recessional

[11] Costs for LEO and GTO per pound. Space Shuttle pp. 3

Yahoo Answers about cost per pound, not the most accurate numbers but useful to see the discussion and the rapid decrease in cost of late.

[12] Syriana 'End of Threat to our way of life'

Anti-Satellite Weapon

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