Sunday, May 10, 2015

Could private spaceflight have happened before now?

UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for a very cool update.

In response to an earlier post, Reflections on First Orbit, Caleb left an insightful comment. I'm  reproducing the entire thing here because it really is insightful and you should consider the whole of it:
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. 
Great points, and they cover a lot of ground. You made me think.

I'm going to assume you meant to say "higher costs of entry" is what kept space investment from happening.

I'm then going to counter with the proposition that the costs of entry were not actually higher, relatively speaking. Rather, the goals were loftier.

You'll often see a tally of the expenditures for Apollo, for instance, with the message being that only government could have amassed this sum and targeted it for this purpose. On one level, I could simply accept that the massive government expenditures in spaceflight were necessary and that this was the only way to make it happen. On that level, I would point to the example of the Louisiana Purchase. Though it was a bargain, Napoleon having sold vast tracts of what was to him worthless, it was still a large expense for its day. And having purchased and secured the lands that would become 15 new states, the US Government granted tracts of land to homesteaders who settled and worked it. Whereas it was the government that acquired the land, it was private enterprise that tamed it.

But this would overlook the fact that NASA's every effort in the 1960s following Kennedy's famous speech was aimed at the immediate goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. It wasn't suborbital flight. It wasn't orbital flight. It wasn't a space station, orbital manufacturing, or even satellite launches, though we got some of those things. Those huge expenditures were for the purpose of zipping through those milestones and ignoring others to get to the Moon. And when that was done, we were a country whose adrenaline was spent.

I don't think that was the proper approach to tame space. In fact, I argue that it was over-reach. Kennedy wanted something dramatic; so he reached for the Moon. The Moon was reached, but not acquired. After only six manned exploratory landings, we haven't been back. Thus, my previous post focuses on the lack of progress once the political goal was achieved. That having been done, politicians lost interest in the more mundane tasks of taming Space. We kept up the momentum for a little while, but it didn't take many setbacks to reduce us to passengers to near-Earth orbit on Russian rockets.

I submit that without that massive and expensive government exercise in one-upmanship, we would, with a slower start, be far closer to the visions of 1950s speculation. The 1950 George Pal movie Destination Moon gave us an early glimpse of that vision. The first 15 minutes of the film adequately portray the mindset of America, I think, before that mindset was changed by the progressive dominance of Statists.

The idea of that time was that the government would rely on private industry to provide the technology for such travel, as it did with automobiles and air travel. While this fictional example also jumps straight to the Moon for storytelling purposes (it is called Destination Moon, after all) it's clear that the expectation was that industry would do so for economic reasons, even if they were expected rather than clearly known in advance. It was a form of prospecting. The fact that the government poured billions into the actual Moon landing is a clear indication to me that the economics were not yet right for it. A great deal of that effort was pure waste.

However, the desire was there. A 10-year-old watching Destination Moon would be a 25 year old young scientist, engineer, or mathematician in 1965, the year Intelsat I first launched. This was the first geosynchronous communications satellite as proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945, and the first privately built object placed in orbit. We were going to go to space anyway. And the current work being done by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, etc. are very much along the lines of what could have been done in the 1960s if the Moon had not eclipsed everything.

And if the Hollywood presentation doesn't sway you, here's Wernher von Braun himself in 1955 explaining the road map to a lunar mission. Look at vast gulf between that and what Apollo delivered in its extravagant haste:

The Fog of Present Thinking.

We like to think that because we do things in a certain way that those things have to be done in that way. Usually the reason for it gets no further than "because that's how it's done." It's understandable to limit our thinking to the boundaries of our own experience. So I often encounter the argument that certain technologies are needed for spaceflight.

By 1962 we had transistor computers, disk drives, and importantly... customers for computers. The computer revolution was well under way, and NASA was just another customer. But we didn't really need anything more advanced than those computers for space travel, as demonstrated by the fact that we actually did it. Going to the moon was a mostly analog enterprise. Our parents planned the Moon shot with slide rules, and the bulk of that computational planning was necessary because of the complexity of a landing, second take-off, docking, and return to Earth well ahead of an economically feasible schedule. It takes far less effort to calculate a suborbital or orbital flight.
Motherboard: Faking the Moon Landing (not a hoax site) The Surprisingly Basic Technology of the Moon Landing
But today we think "Hey, we need computers," because we now include them in everything from toasters to greeting cards. But I'm fortunate to have been professionally active in the period when digital processing was in its ascension and the analog processing of the time in question was dominant. Much of my expertise was analog. For example,
  • Telephones are digital now. But they don't have to be. The key components of Bell's telephones (and all of them for the next century) were a battery and carbon.
  • Terminal emulators are called "emulators" because they emulate the workings of an electromechanical teletype machine. Our ASCII, EBCDIC and UNICODE are derived from the Baudot codes used by those mechanical devices.
  • Signalling was commonly transmitted, not through digital codes, but through analog pulses and frequencies (SF, FSK, DTMF, and pulsed current, for example.)
  • Photographs were transmitted by wire in 1842. Modern faxes began in imitation of an electromechanical process.
This tendency to lean on electronic computers overlooks and under-utilizes the vast potential of the organic computer carried in the cranium of every human pilot.

Likewise, 3D printers are no panacea. 3D printers allow us to construct things in one piece that traditional techniques would assemble from multiple components. Even then I argue that welding components together is not conceptually different from what a 3D printer does when it slowly builds up a model, layer upon layer. You want to count how many components are in a 3D printed object? Count the layers. Every time I critically examine a list of things that are "not possible to produce" without 3D printers, the list is effectively reduced to zero items. 3D printers make for cheaper modeling because you don't have to tool up for a single item. But the biggest result of expensive modeling is that your planning becomes so much more careful.

Higher tech isn't always an improvement. Spaceship One's rocket burns a mixture of rubber and nitrous oxide because this choice of fuel is dense, cheap and stable. Much more so than the liquid rockets of the 1960s. As a result, this tiny engine achieves suborbital altitude. But it uses no technology that couldn't have been obtained in the 1960s had not one entity been calling all the shots.

Look at any new car lot. Electronic fuel injection, ABS computer-controlled brakes, fuel and filter monitoring sensors, emission controls, GPS positioning and navigation, OnStar, satellite radio, collision detection, rear-view camera, an iPod dock, on-board wi-fi... etc. Your car is capable of astonishingly accurate telemetry and tracking to the point where some cars today are capable of driving themselves. Cars are built this way because the features sell, the manufacturers find them to be profitable, and in some cases because the government mandates them. But not one of them... not a single one... is there because it's necessary.

Ultralight Aircraft
Photo by Heather Ray.
Likewise, a cloth wing strapped to a lawn chair and small engine with a fan can get you airborne. Very little is required for air travel once the principle is known. All of the safety features and scalability naturally acrete. The economic barriers to new tech are primarily finding the principles. Once they're known, then advancement rapidly and naturally follows.

My point is that spaceflight didn't actually require any of those things that today are commonly considered to have lowered the cost of entry. Cost of entry wouldn't actually be lowered because those things wouldn't have actually been used... certainly not to the degree that they are relied upon today.

On the other hand, until the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, US Government policy flatly forbid anyone but NASA from launching a rocket into space; and afterwards, it remained highly regulated [pdf]. Money doesn't buy your way past that barrier.

In other words, while the technological barriers were non-existent and the economic barriers readily overcome, the barrier of government regulation was insurmountable. And once it was lifted it left behind a climate of regulation and calcified thought processes that we're only now overcoming. And even that is happening slowly. Today... this year... the U.S. Government believes that it has the actual authority to "license" (i.e. control access and permission) the operation of individuals working on another planet. Here's a link. And they think that this is a progressive and wonderful step at de-regulation. In the 1950s they would have been laughed at for being completely deluded. And now it is we the citizens who have been deluded into thinking that we need their permission.

I maintain that if we had followed the natural path of free enterprise, we would very likely have a permanent presence on the Moon today, and that commercial space flight would be routine. Arthur C. Clarke's vision of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey might have actually happened in 2001.

UPDATE: Talk is cheap. As a demonstration of what I'm talking about... that manned spaceflight doesn't actually require all of the complexity that we've been indoctrinated to think it does... Copenhagen Suborbitals has begun an amateur space program. This is not wishful thinking; it's the real deal, as documented in this episode of Spaced Out.

So seriously, I'm all done with insistence from any quarter that this must be a government-first activity. That's the way it happened in history, but there is no evidence of any sort to support the idea that it must have happened that way, or even that it was the best way to approach spaceflight.

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