Amateur Rocketeer Week

Hope you enjoyed Amateur Rocketeer Week. It was an interesting topic to cover in the context of Getting Big Stuff Done. There is a connection between the enthusiasm and do-it-yourself attitude of these amateur rocketeers and the energy that drives the men and women at organisations such as SpaceX. They bring that Silicon Valley-style relish for the new and never-tried-before, and couple it with a never-say-die attitude. And, of course, they dream big. Necessary ingredients for GBSD.

Here’s an article I’ve linked to previously on my other blog about that SpaceX attitude, written by none other than Andrew Chaikin, author of the authoritative history of Apollo: A Man on the Moon.

Significantly, the Merlin engines—like roughly 80 percent of the components for Falcon and Dragon, including even the flight computers—are made in-house. That’s something SpaceX didn’t originally set out to do, but was driven to by suppliers’ high prices. Mueller recalls asking a vendor for an estimate on a particular engine valve. “They came back [requesting] like a year and a half in development and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just way out of whack. And we’re like, ‘No, we need it by this summer, for much, much less money.’ They go, ‘Good luck with that,’ and kind of smirked and left.” Mueller’s people made the valve themselves, and by summer they had qualified it for use with cryogenic propellants.

[Air & Space: Smithsonian Magazine]

Getting Big Stuff Done

Why aren’t we on Mars already? Where are the space hotels? Whither the massive solar arrays in sun-synchronous orbit providing all our energy needs?

As I noted earlier, it’s not really about the cost of these projects, but rather the priorities of the human race. Or perhaps, more accurately, the priorities of the those of Earth’s governments with the means to attempt some of these projects. 

And if you’re thinking that whatever the cost, we ought to be spending that money here on Earth, let me provide another little bit of perspective:

  • NASA’s 2012 budget: US$ 17.7 billion
  • US Foreign Aid budget: US$ 50 billion (that’s nearly 3 NASAs)
  • (again) Cost of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan & Pakistan: US$ 3.2 - 4 trillion
  • Cost of providing enough food aid to feed every hungry person in the world for 1 year: US$ 73 billion (source: UN World Food Programme)

Clearly, we can get Expensive Stuff done if the governments concerned think it’s important enough. Unfortunately, the nature of government - in particular the US government - and the vested interests concerned means that getting the Big Important Stuff done is less and less likely.

Except for one thing.

The smart and hard-working geeks that have spent the last 3 decades throwing their energy into computers, software and the Internet have all made a bunch of dough and are now spending that money on the stuff they think is important. And it’s more than just realising their boy-geek fantasies of fast cars and rockets. They are determined to change the world. Again.

Elon Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, led the charge with SpaceX - a private launch company that is about to make history by docking their Dragon space capsule with the International Space Station at the end of this month.

And just today, a new venture was announced with the backing of Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Google) and James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic, Aliens), to mine near-Earth asteroids for metals.

The megamillion dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals such as platinum and gold out of the rocks that routinely whizz by Earth, with the aim of having a space-based fuel station up and running by 2020.

       [The Guardian]

And before you dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky, the venture has cred. The founders are Eric Andersen and Peter Diamandis, who have already made money sending tourists into space and to the ISS.

It looks like getting the Big Important Stuff done is now the province of private enterprise. This is a good thing. We need a new discourse of space. One that enthuses young humans with adventurelust and the romance of the frontier, rather than with NASA’s tiresome “education outreach”. The kind of crazy, for-the-love-of-it enthusiasm that results in this:

The goal: Erect a monolith on the moon. (See 2001 for reference).

Is there an upper limit to the amount of money you can raise on Kickstarter? Because I guesstimate this project will require about half a billion dollars. So I only need to find 5 million geeks-like-me worldwide who think this is a cool enough idea to donate 100 bucks. That seems pretty doable…

       [Ironic Sans: David Friedman]