Monday, May 28, 2007

New Space Age

Interesting article in Wired magazine about the new generation of space entrepreneurs. In particular it talks about Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, and his ambitious plan to get us into orbit (instead of the boundaries of space as Burt Routan has done).

Possibly one of the reasons we are not on the moon and on Mars is that space travel has, since its beginning, been left in the hands of NASA.

Since Gordon Moore recognized that the number of transistors on a circuit at similar cost doubled roughly every 2 years, we have come to expect massive increases in computing power on a year by year basis. Storage, though less noticed, has also undergone a similar revolution. 2 years ago, i bought a 1GB memory stick for $100 approximately. It is now possible to get a 4GB memory stick for $50 (an 8 fold increase in 2 years).
Computing could have gone the direction of space travel if the government had been in charge. 60 years ago the Eniac cost around $5 million (in today's currency). The US government was just about to launch an ambitious program to develop better and more efficient nuclear warheads and the need for computational power would by necessity increase. If they had decided that computers were a national security issue they could have set up an agency to handle computation. Civilian computation needs would be satisfied by the state agency. Today we probably would have had machines considerably more powerful than the Eniac but only a handful of them, each of them costing a fortune and probably taking up entire warehouses (this is often the case in science fiction books from that era). Only the biggest corporations would have been able to afford time on them.
Space travel went down the state controlled route and computing went down the entrepreneurship route. Needless to say, there is no Moore's law for rockets. If there were, today we could be vacationing on Mars, sipping a pina colada under a thin plastic dome at the foot of Olympus Mons.


Neil said...

While it's true that many fine things tend to wither under the dead hand of government, the parallels between wider space travel and increased computing power are outweighed by the differences... while the majority of people can enjoy and make use of personal computing (to play games, do their taxes, shop, surf for naughty pictures etc.), far fewer are going to have an interest in spending lots of money just to get into orbit (let alone take a vacation on Mars -- there are only so many goddamn red rocks you can stand to look at or buy as souvenirs!) Even as a private endeavour, space travel will likely remain the preserve of wealthy hobbyists.

Rajeev said...

Ah but this could be an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Today computing is cheap and therefore we use it for banking, surfing for naughty pictures etc. but if the price of computing were high would we then do so?

If space travel were relatively cheap then as there does appear to be a human compulsion to want to expand outward, I suspect that colonies on the Moon and Mars would create markets for cargo, tourism, and mining.

Don't forget, the price of a one-way trip to the New World from the UK was at one point about $300,000 in today's money. That didn't stop people from colonizing the Americas. If the price of space travel were to be similarily lowered, then I for one would be willing to buy my one-way ticket.

Neil said...

While it's true that people centuries ago paid through the nose to go to the Americas, there was much in the Americas to repay the costs of their exploration, most notably gold. There's nothing to attract tourists to the moon or Mars apart from the simple prestige of telling others you were there (to use Dr. Johnson's phrase, they may be "worth seeing, but not worth going to see".) Even that prestige will vanish the more affordable it gets, and then you'll have sniffy yuppie types admitting that yes, they "did" the Moon back in 2035, but that was before it got all tacky and commercialized.

With mining you might have more luck, but the most you could hope for would be a few temporary camps to house the miners themselves, and not much in the way of civilized amenities (a bit like Fort McMurray, Alberta, but with even less atmosphere.)

I'm as interested in exploring the universe as the next guy who read too much sci-fi when he was young, but we have to be honest that there isn't a whole lot out there that is accommodating or useful to us, and that which is (e.g. Earth-like planets) are too far away to be reached using current technology.

Rajeev said...

I disagree. One of the prime motivations for the colonists of the Americas (talking about colonists not the conquistadors) was to escape the perceived tyranny of the governments of Europe at the time.

There is and always will be an element of society that would want to start again and are willing to abandon all to do so. This seems very much in the human spirit.

The true attraction of the Americas was not gold but the possibility of starting anew. The framers of the American constitution certainly thought so.

As for there not being much there. Well that's a matter of perspective. Mars has abundant minerals and resources to support a nascent colony and more. It also appears that Mars has water.