Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reflections on First Orbit

April 12th, 1961 - Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. This film re-lives that feat in real time using stock footage and footage shot from the International Space Station.

My thoughts on this anniversary may seem odd, seeing as how for the last 54 years humanity has been a spacefaring race largely through the efforts of huge government investments and nationalistic chest-thumping.

But in that time, access to space has been restricted by the various governments on Earth, progress has been retarded by those same governments once they had their TV moments, political sound bites and news coverage; and as a result we remain tied to this planet save for a few pitiful robots and a handful of ankle-waders in atmosphere-scraping orbit. Contrast this with air travel, which has been mostly driven by private and economic factors.
  • The Wright Brothers made their first successful flight in 1903. 
  • The first scheduled air service was in 1914. 
  • In 1927 Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. 
  • Jet engines appeared in 1942, in World War II
  • The first supersonic passenger aircraft (the Russian Tupolev 144) was flown in 1968. 
Humanity went from "Man can't fly" to supersonic commercial flight in a mere 65 years, and for the past 50 years commercial flight has been so ubiquitous that we can now earn "air miles" at the grocery store.

In 1954, this is where we thought we might be in the year 2000, and it was a reasonable expectation based on what our parents experienced in their lifetimes:

Ignore the cheesy special effects. It was the quality of their vision, not their models, that concerns us. Of course, our parents were far more daring than we have become. We're not just a nation, but a world populated by the delusional, sharing their delusions, and pretending they like it. We build cages so we can sit in them and pretend we are "free". We are superlative at faking those things that we will never attempt in real life, and patting ourselves on the back about having achieved "realism". It is in equal measure saddening and sickening.

Only within the past few years have our governments experimented... just a little... with allowing visionaries like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan do what they do; and to a huge extent this has been because our governments have proven themselves unequal to the task of sustained national interest, much less technology. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, risk absolutely nothing except that which belongs to them and their willing investors. And they do so in full knowledge of the fact that the vast bulk of monetary returns are yet to be discovered.

Without committees, the entrepreneurial mind explores boundaries outside the confines of convention and national interest. This is important, because if anything at all is true, it is this: The Universe is not owned by the United States, or by Russia, or by China, or the European Union. It is not someone's lawn that we need to be told to stay off of. It belongs to none, and should be accessible to all. It is well past time for governments to back down and quit hogging all the Space.

P.S. On the anniversary of this great achievement it's not lost on me that these thoughts seem somewhat dark and negative. My point is this: the celebration of a past event is meaningless if we cannot use it as inspiration to do so much more than we have done, and to be so much more than we have been. Every advance at every point in the human drama has come about as a result of dissatisfaction. No one has ever done anything new as a result of being "ok" with the status quo. I am not ok with the status quo. We need to step up and do better. Those who are not of that mindset should simply shut up, live their risk-free "lives" and let the pioneers be pioneers. Get out of the way.


  1. I agree with you about the benefits of having the government step back and letting the private sector take over. Government regulations have no doubt held back space progress (much as they currently are for alternative nuclear power plant approaches). Granted, anything moving fast enough to be in orbit is moving fast enough to cause considerable destruction, so I get the reasoning behind wanting to limit that.

    But for the sake of discussion, I'll raise another question (to which I don't know the answer): how much of the previous lack of private sector investment in space is due to government regulations compared to lower costs of entry? Manufacturing and engineering processes, material sciences, computer power... have all improved considerably since Apollo. Not only does a smartphone have more computing power than Apollo, but we have an improved ability to gather real time digital telemetry (not just cool videos!) from rockets, better AI control software that takes up less mass, higher fidelity computer simulations to weed out bad designs before ever building a prototype, lightweight carbon composite materials, the ability to 3D-print complex rocket nozzles (that would take who knows how long to build using traditional methods), and the accumulated wisdom of the past fifty years to draw on.

    All of this has been slowly lowering the capital investment required to enter into spaceflight. Granted, the reduced government regulations are essential too, but a lot of these technology advancements are in fields only tangentially related to spaceflight (computer miniaturization, and manufacturing process, for example), and maybe this infrastructure had to be developed *before* private access to space could be made cheap enough to attract investors?

    Or at least that's something I've been wondering about; I could be wrong. But it seems to me like a lot of the loosening regulations have come after the fact, as a response to the private sector finally saying "OK, this is something we're ready to do now," rather than the other way around.

  2. Best. Comment. Ever.

    I'll reply in a separate post because it covers a lot of ground.