Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Corporations in Space

Leonardo da Vinci is a one of a series of case studies anyone who wonders why we don’t have space travel right now should consider. Because Leonardo da Vinci was an idiot. Well not really. More like an idiot savant. Unnecessarily ahead of his time. What I mean by that last crack is that he pretty much epitomizes the American criticism of people who live a life almost entirely of the mind: “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich”?

Leonardo once “designed” a helicopter.

There was no motive force in the world that could have turned his invention fast enough to get it off the ground.

If Leonardo had used his considerable talent to think about pumps instead of flying machines, I have little doubt that he was smart enough to have produced a working steam engine. Many, many years before the first one was actually put to use in a mine. He would probably have had to solve some metallurgical problems along the way, but he would have found a ready buyer in mining operators even in his day. He could have become completely free of rich patrons for his art had he made that engine. That steam engine would not have powered his helicopter either, but it would have sped the invention of an actual helicopter by over a century.

But Leonardo had too much of an artistic temperament to think about mundane things like mines and metallurgy (beyond sculpture). So he produced pretty pictures of helicopters that never did anyone any good at all.

Infrastructure matters.

Going on to a somewhat more relevant and modern example, computer networks could have been invented and linked back in the 50s. But why? The computers they would have linked could not do much, the telecom links would have been unreliable with huge data losses, and the maintenance costs of the infrastructure would have been staggering.

Computers could have been linked in the 60s, and in fact the Space Program made some tentative steps in that direction, because of the present need of the program and because the money was there for upkeep. ARPANET was conceived in 1962 or so. But a civilian version would have charged too much to be of any commercial use because of the paucity of customers. Ditto for the 70s.

ARPANET started to transmit in 1969, and the DoD underwrote the costs. This began to build telecom infrastructure.

The PC market exploded in the late 70s and early 80s and suddenly there was an end-user infrastructure and a growing customer base. Remember the old modems with a 2 cup cradle for an old telephone handset? That led to Compusoft and the rest of the early internet. But without that PC and telecom infrastructure, the internet would have been stillborn. Sure, in some alternate universe a Telecom could have seen it as the wave of the future (ATT? HAH!) and created a network by brute force. But it would have been a commercial failure, and paradoxically, that failure probably would have made capital gunshy and delayed the development of a real and useful Internet by a decade or more.

We would have sent packets into the ether and stranded them there.

Most high technologies need a nutrient-rich environment in which to grow. Infrastructure has to be in place, and the costs have to eat only a small amount of GDP. They can’t be too tricky to maintain, or customers will do without or find a replacement. They can’t suck at public resources too badly. Most ideas never get off the ground, and people are not willing to give up a significant chunk of their standard of living in order to take a risk on something that has a high probability of failure, as most new ideas do. Payoff has to be relatively short term (within a few decades) in order for a business to find that technology profitable.

The costs are too high, the timelines for development too long and risk of failure too great for a business to take a chance on many complex technologies.

Sometimes, the government has to nurture the technology along until it is mature enough for free enterprise to take over. But visionaries in government are few and far between (and seldom in positions of power), so human progress is slower than it otherwise could be.

Space travel is definitely one of these complex technologies I’m talking about.

We, as a human race, achieved it before we were really rich enough to take advantage of it. We pushed the infrastructure hard, but it couldn’t stand the strain over the long haul. We were in a 1950s computing world, and we demanded that Cisco develop fiber-optic links between our vacuum tube monsters. They did, but it cost us an arm and a leg. Even my favorite redneck Country Rock group talked about “too many lives we spent across the ocean, too much money we spent up on the moon”.

We sent our hopes and dreams to the moon and stranded them there.

We were too early. Mankind wasn’t rich enough to afford the moon. I’m not sure it is, even now.

Jim’s essay on space travel is food for thought, and I definitely share his Libertarian-leaning sentiments about commercial space flight.

But I’m not sure we are out of the government-funded cocoon stage for space flight technology, and if we aren’t, it’s as if we’re asking commercial enterprise to build an Internet to connect transistor-based late-1960s UNIVACs. I’m not sure that computer infrastructure would have been big enough to justify the costs. Just as I’m not sure that the space travel customer base is big enough to absorb the development costs. Maybe it is. But if it isn’t, the resulting failure may set us back more than if we let NASA bumble along a bit longer.

I think Jim talks too glibly about the age of sail as an example. Building a sailing vessel, or even a fleet of them, was in no way as resource intensive as building a space program. In the language of business, the barriers to entry were high, but not astronomically (HAH!) so.

Not true for space travel.

Even with the lower barriers to building a wooden ship or two in the Age of Exploration, governments under-wrote a lot of the costs, as one of Jim’s commenters noted.

The first companies out there are going to look like government-sponsored monopolistic rapists, very much like Hudson Bay or East India. Commercial space exploration is not going to be pretty.

I really don’t care about that, though, my major concern is that when people talk about private enterprise, they don’t talk about what, exactly, space is going to provide that isn’t cheaper to get (or get a substitute for) down here. The only business plan I see at the moment is tourism. NASA has not turned up any useful process that creates things in low G environments that people really want down here, and NASA has been trying to find such a technology for decades.

I know, I've been involved in some of those experiments. I could make something nearly as good as the space polymers I was involved with for much less than what it cost to make them on the Shuttle, even with NASA underwriting the transportation costs - bench space was pretty nearly infinite in my lab compared to a cramped Shuttle cargo bay.

But, like Jim, I think space travel is necessary for the survival of the race, and I want my grandkids (at least some of them) off Earth. My genes are selfish that way.

I just don’t have enough information yet to be as happy as he is about the lack of vision in our government. Maybe he’s right. I hope so.


Eric said...

As with Jim's original post, I agree and sort of disagree. As with Jim, I think your core point is solid. And as with Jim, I'm not sure you pick good examples. (Leonardo, you know, made a tremendously good living not only drawing useless pretty pictures but as a technical consultant on various military and civil projects--I realize you were just using him as something to riff off of to get to your point, but knocking Leonardo for something he doodled as a sci-fi goof between gigs as a superstar pop artist and delivering on various government contracts seems a bit much. Maybe if Leonardo had been a starving artist instead of the most-sought-after engineer and artist of his era he would have worked on a steam engine. Or maybe if the Venetians had hired him for that instead of designing fortifications or the King Of France had wanted mining equipment instead of various toys, paintings and sculptures to send the international message, "Leo works for me now, suck it.")

And, as with Jim, I think one of your examples could have been a bit more multipurpose towards your point. I think you underestimate the expenses of building a fleet of wooden ships--England basically deforested nearly the entire country and would have probably imploded but for the American colonies panning out in a big way--but the other thing about those ships is they could do more than just colonize the New World, they could also defend the homeland, convey finished goods and raw materials around the world, and engage in pirac--er, privateering against Spanish galleons heavy with gold (filling your coffers and impoverishing your primary enemy--two birds with one stone, eh!).

It's worth noting that the golden age of spaceflight--really the 50s and early 60s (Apollo may seem like the golden age, but it's really the twilight)--involved machines that were multifunctional. Designing rockets and guidance systems may have had a nice civillian purpose in flying in a big circle and beeping or waving at everyone, but it also made for a nice test-run of ICBM technology with a nice sideline into launching commercial and military satellites. Like those wooden ships, the rockets of the fifties did a lot more than one thing.

Which actually makes your main point even more, I think. Launching a puppy or monkey in a rocket that can also deliver a nuclear explosive or position a telecommunications device is actually useful in multiple ways. Launching a spaceship just so you can say, "Dude, spaceship," enh, not so much. You're right that there's a lack of a business plan or little purpose beyond tourism, and you're right it provides little motivation. A big chunk of that is we don't have many missions for versatile spaceships, however much they cost, and so the spaceships may not be worth the investment that an expensive wooden ship was worth. (A not-irrelevant aside--the usefulness and multipurposefulness of a wooden ship is such that ships were frequently recommissioned after their initial usages--military vessels reconfigured for trade and freight vessels reconfigured for military or police use, many of these ships old or otherwise obsolete but still serviceable, even if only as barges or prison ships or bulk transports; contrast with the planned scrapping of the shuttle fleet--because what else can you do with a thirty-year-old space shuttle except sell it for parts or put it in a museum?)

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, "dual use" technology is why the space program such was not more of a bust than it was, but once you got all the dual uses out of it, which we had done by the 70s, there was not much impetus to go forward. That's a good point about the analogy with sailing ships.

I still think making a ship was too easy, I think you miss the "low barrier to entry" there - that's why England got deforested - too easy for any schmuck to finance a ship, even as wood got scarce and they looked to Scandanavia for masts and keels before America started producing them in bulk. But that's a different economic problem - tradgedy of the commons - that won't befall space travel early on because the barriers are so high.

And I am busting on Leonardo because he did have the brains to be James Watt, and the only reason he dabbled in engineering was that his patrons asked for it. He needed to be dragged into practical stuff, he didn't really do it voluntarily. His mind flitted too much - I wanted to contrast him to the Wrights, but I'm too jet lagged. The Wrights invented the wind tunnel and re-wrote the accepted drag tables and did all sorts of shit becuase they DID realize that the infrastructure wasn't there for them to be successful - lucky for them they didn't need too much more infrastructure, but what they built enabled them to be first in the air. I'm not sure we're as close to regular space flight tech-wise as the Wrights were to powered flight - we need more than a fan in a tube and an aluminum engine.

Also remember the barriers to entry for any kind of engineering were pretty low in Leonardo's day, and the stuff Leonardo did do was not all that earth-shattering compared to his art and his studies of anatomy.

CW said...

John I think (maybe hope) that the market can lower the cost of space travel to a reasonable level to actually do something meaningful. Of course, "meaningful" is open to debate. The cost of putting a small payload into LEO has come down via competition, with some interesting results for the market (Sirius, Thuraya, etc). The next big question is how can companies make money on space exploration. Are there valuable minerals on the moon? On some asteroid? Elsewhere in the solar system? I just don't know. We have to be able to turn a profit in outer space for it to work and it isn't super clear exactly how that's going to work yet, beyond LEO anyway. I am still very optimistic for Virgin Galactic though.

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