T – 9 days and counting…

The clock is ticking down toward Out of the Cradle’s re-launch on the 15th of January 2007. For me, it really is like a rocket launch, because there are a lot of things to get ready, in preparation for the ‘big day’.

… “CDR, NTD: You have a GO for the T minus nine blog post” …

We’ve got some really good stuff coming which I’ll say more about when we get closer to T-0, so stay tuned.

In the meantime:

What’s Out of the Cradle all about?

This blog is about space, because space is important to your life. Space is, in fact, extremely important. To you, personally. It’s important in exactly the same way that oxygen is: it’s trivially easy to forget that it’s there, in fact you could live your whole life not really appreciating that it existed, but if it were to be taken away, you’d die.

Space: can’t live without it

Sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Surely we don’t need outer space to live? But we do – the sun, from which almost every living thing on Earth (ultimately) derives its energy, is way out there in space. No sun, no trees ,no plants, no oxygen in the air, no food, no animals, no us. It’s crucial.

Something worth pondering now and again

OK, no-one’s suggesting that the sun is going away any time soon, and you don’t need to know anything about astronomy or space exploration for it to keep you alive, so you’ll have to forgive me for a rhetorical gimmick.

But all the same it’s something to think about, it expands your perspective a bit: space is keeping you alive, right now, every bit as much as the beating of your heart and the breath in your lungs. There are a great many other reasons why space is important, and I’ll get to those in future posts, but I thought I’d start off with the real kicker: if it wasn’t there, you’d be dead.

Space is the 99.99999 percent of everything there is… that we ignore

Hopefully that got you thinking about that big empty place above the atmosphere. That place where 99.999 repeating percent of the universe exists. That place that humans, by and large, don’t really think about. We spend all our time, thoughts, and efforts inhabiting the other, vanishingly small, 0.0000… who knows how many zeros …0001 percent of everything that exists: planet Earth.

We care about family, jobs, our city, our country, and sometimes, the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong – those are all incredibly important things, and it is right that we focus the majority of our attention there.

But I just wanted to point out that most of us have a blind spot; one that’s hiding the entire universe behind it.

6 thoughts on “T – 9 days and counting…

  1. By the term Space (or outer space) we don’t just mean the vacuum between interstellar objects, we mean the whole of existence outside out atmosphere. And that is extremely important. No one wants to go explore a vast nothingnness; the point of leaving our little cradle and swimming around in our local nothingness is to prepare for traveling to a destination.

    I imagine the earliest sailors, puttering around in little skiffs off the shore, being mocked by those who saw no use in leaving land. What’s the use of it? they might ask. You aren’t going anywhere. But those little skiffs were a necessity in reaching the next step: destinations.

    So yes, space is something we can’t live without; but exploration of it must have in goal to reach another world.

  2. Hi Gabe – welcome to OotC.

    You raise an interesting point. I like your seafaring analogy. I suspect those early seafarers, puttering around in their skiffs, weren’t just practicing for longer voyages, though – I bet the first people to venture out onto the sea were fishermen; they weren’t going to explore other continents, but to feed their families. It was skill honed by generations of hungry fishermen that made it possible to sail all the way to far lands.

    In space, we haven’t even reached the ‘fisherman’ point. People don’t regularly go into space for economic benefit – to ‘feed their families’ so to speak. We’re still learning how to survive in space, let along to prosper there.

    We’re doing things the other way around in space – we are learning to survive there as an enabler (primarily) of exploration, and commerce will come after that. This makes it all the harder – you can spend a lot more money learning to ‘sail’ space if you expect to profit from it, but today we spend that (astronomical) amount of money with no hope of a return on the investment, so that we can explore.

    If only there were ways to make money in space – it would be teaming with businessmen who would solve the hard problems of ‘sailing the spaceways’, and exploration of distant planets would become a whole lot easier and cheaper as a result.

    That leads nicely into space’s biggest conundrum (and I’ve stolen my own thunder a bit here as I plan to make a post of this point): to make (large amounts of) money in space requires cheap(er) access to space. Cheaper access to space requires high flight rates for the launch systems. To reach the high flight rates, there has to be a demand for lots of launches. The primary driver for launch vehicle demand in that scenario is … that someone be making (large amounts of) money in space.

    It’s a real chicken-and-egg catch-22. Without markets in space, there will never be cheap access to space. Without cheap access to space, there will never be markets in space.

    Something has to give, or we’re all stuck on Earth forever.

  3. I caught the bug of high frontier and I keep rooting for it, however I increasingly have doubts. Everyone in this community blames the stagnation in space on the catch 22 situation of supply/demand/demand/supply, and so did I. However, just recently I added 2 and 2 together. In an article I read (I forget where and when) someone pointed out that if the mass production of thousands of suborbital V2 rockets was possible in bombed out Germany, with nowadays technology an resources it should be no problem to open a production line churning out orbital vehicles. Then comes the Bigellow launch on a converted ballistic missile, and i realise that maybe a half or more of all launches is done by rockets that are versions of ballistic missiles. There exists a supply of THOUSANDS of them, along with production lines to build more. There is no catch 22. What there is, is the fact that rockets are weapons, and that space access gives a huge strategic advantage to anyone who can afford it. For those reasons, cheap, mass access to space will never be allowed, and always will remain the preserve of highly politicized monopolies(enterprises like SpaceX will either be undermined or corrupted) . Please, prove me wrong, because I really want to be wrong on this one.

  4. Hi Adam, welcome to the site. Great comment – lots of interesting stuff to think about there!

    I think the catch-22 is very real. Nazi Germany achieved high volumes and low(ish) costs in V2 production by using slave labor. That’s not a route we want to take.

    I think that it is indeed possible today to open a production line churning out very large numbers of orbital vehicles – but who would buy them? Since no-one in queuing up, no investor would put in the money to build that production line in the first place. In fact, the market at the current price point is so small that Lockheed Martin and Boeing have had to merge the Delta and Atlas lines, forming the United Launch Alliance, to stay in the game.

    Surplus ballistic missiles look like good cheap launchers on the face of it, but if they really were, you would have to assume that the US Air Force (since they own lots) would already be using them for their own military launches. They don’t, so you’d have to assume that the costs of re-furbishing them into real launch vehicles, and the capabilities and reliabilities of those old ICBMs are just not compatible with launching high-value assets into space.

    I also don’t buy the ‘mass access to space will never be allowed’ angle. It sounds a little too much like a conspiracy theory for my liking. Rockets (space launch vehicles) are most emphatically *not* weapons, any more than airplanes are. Like airplanes, they can be used to carry weapons, and they can be used to carry civilian goods. The military doesn’t demand exclusive control of all airplanes because airplanes can carry bombs, and I don’t see a different standard being applied to launch vehicles in the future.

    At the present point in time, I believe that the engineering and economic challenges of getting to space are hampering us far more than the political ones.

  5. Sorry, I know that if I post another comment, I’ll start sounding annoying, but this time I’ll try to fix that by trying to be more positive towards the end, and I’ll try to make it the last one.

    1.Nazis had slave labour (and with it, sabotage). nowadays we have higher automation and better technologies, I suspect these things balance each other out. I understand of course that mentioning Nazis as a ‘positive’ example of something successful happening will evoke a defensive response of ‘but they used slave labour’, which is why it is not a good PR move to use them as an example in public, which is what I’m doing right here, damn…

    2.You say that although it is possible to create a production line, lack of demand makes it uneconomical, to a point where Lockheed and Boeing had to merge lines. Well, yes, as we all keep saying high prices=no mass market=high prices. But if we are to succeed, someone has to take a chance and break that cycle by providing either end and just betting their money on the other end appearing. The current duopoly of Lockheed and Boeing didn’t do that, is all I’m saying, and considering their high connections I wander if the corporate inertia is the only factor responsible?

    Which takes us to 4 ‘conspiracy’ (yes, I skipped one point, do it next). I don’t think there is one. It wouldn’t take a conspiracy, only a certain mindset, and a consistent policy. The mindset (everything is a threat, we have to control everything), I think wasn’t there when airplanes were first entering mass market. The policy, well: non-proliferation, transfer of technology restrictions (I’m foreign, that’s why I mention these) , and most of all the consistent favouritism and nurturing towards limited number of providers who will ‘play ball’ and thus closing the market for newcomers (something like home-front non-proliferation policy :)).

    And back to 3, how messy. Yeah, I agree on this one. The ‘stash’ of ICBM’s is probably not reliable enough to be used for transport. However the production lines, the know-how, the staff, are all there. Even if they need some working on (reliability mostly, I suppose) that effort was not made. This means that lowering the price of space access and spurring mass market was never a real issue for the high and powerful in the space industry. Why?

    And now for the optimistic ending: you write that engineering and economic problems are more important than political. I was saying that political are fostering the economical. However, looking at all the commotion in the new space community I am beginning to be convinced that the engineering is no longer such a challenge, and that it will set us free :). The ‘damage’ has been done, the technology has been disseminated. All the elements seem to be there, just stir and simmer slowly. Now it’s just a question of who will first put it all together.
    Here’s an example: Bigelow, who is trying to break the vicious circle from the demand side, was (maybe still is?)going to use SpaceX Falcon. However, he also talks to Lockheed Martin. If even the Lockheed, a member of the state-supported duopoly realised that with the current dissemination of technologies keeping a lid on the market and exclusive rights to it is no longer viable, if even they are so starved for business that they consider entering the truly open market, there is hope (unless they are just going to undercut SpaceX and then drop Bigellow, no stop, there is still the saturation with the technologies in the open market, if they cut off one head, another will pop out, phew, gave myself a scare there). They will have to enter the game of open market and I don’t even mind if they win it, as long as things begin to happen.
    Thanks for listening, I needed that ;).

  6. You’re welcome :)

    There’s absolutely nothing annoying about posting thoughtful comments, so for goodness sake, don’t stop.

    The question of whether or not humanity is going to break out into space any time soon is an open one, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. We might not get there, and if we don’t, I believe that will be to our detriment. There are certainly some pretty big obstacles in our way.

    At the moment, the problem is being worked from multiple angles – Bigelow on markets, Musk and Rocketplane-Kistler on access, even NASA is getting into the game with COTS.

    The outcome of the game is not known, but the playing sure is fun to watch. We live in interesting times.

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