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Yesterday I saw The First Man at Palace Centro Cinema in Fortitude Valley. I was bemused to see the film’s genre being described in some media as “science fiction”.
As I watched I reflected that the majority of humans now alive had not been born during the period of the moon landings, and that very few people under 55 would have any memory of those events.
I also discovered that a humble lamb yeeros is very expensive in Fortitude Valley.
While the moon landings were a huge event in North America, the Soviet Union, and Europe, the bulk of the world’s population at the time weren’t able to watch it on TV or even read about it in newspapers. World literacy was 50% in 1970. As the result the moon landings never really sunk in. I had the following conversation with a lady from India:
ME: There’s a Neil Armstrong movie.
LADY: Who’s Neil Armstrong?
ME: He was the first man on the moon.
LADY: People have been to the moon?
I remember the night it was announced on the TV. A thoughtful neighbor went outside, gazed at the moon and with a thoughtful look on his face muttered something incoherent. I could not have said anything better myself. An astonishing adventure.
It’s worth remembering actual science fiction like “2001: A Space Odyssey” released in 1968 by director Stanley Kubrick. It envisaged a large and advanced spinning space station (centrifugal force to replace gravity), regular passenger shuttles up there (mostly for scientists and V.I.P.s it seemed) plus an elaborate underground lunar base and finally a large spaceship assembled in space and sent on a manned mission to Jupiter.
We can note that none of these things have happened even by 2018 and will not ever happen (I predict). The reason is the enormous amount of energy needed to lift even the most modest payloads into space from earth. The energy costs are absolutely prohibitive. Our future, if there is to be any, lies in another direction, namely trying to save the climate and biosphere right here on earth so we don’t go extinct very soon.
The energy requirements to put something in space aren’t that great as they may seem. It takes about 100 gigajoules of rocket fuel to put 1 tonne in low earth orbit. Hydrogen and oxygen is a good rocket fuel. Water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen at 80% efficiency but let’s say 50% to allow for compression and liquification of the gases. A three megawatt wind turbine like one near Snowtown produces an average of 1.25 megawatts of electrical power. That’s an average of 30 megawatt-hours a day. There are 3.6 gigjoules in a megawatt-hour so that’s 108 gigajoules a day. With 50% efficiency at converting electricity into rocket fuel that is 54 gigajoules a day. So one 3 megawatt wind turbine could produce enough rocket fuel to send 1 tonne into orbit every two days. It comes to nearly 200 tonnes a year which is enough for 2 space shuttle launches.
Technically three wind turbines of 3 megawatts capacity each could have produced more fuel than was consumed by NASA’s entire space shuttle program.
Don’t forget, “the major reason that it costs SO MUCH (in energy and money) to put even a small payload into orbit is because one has to carry much of the fuel along for the ride. If you want to put 1 tonne of payload into space, you have to use a big rocket to do it. The walls and motors and especially the fuel have to go up into the air too greatly increasing the mass you are lifting off the ground.”
Initially, you are lifting all the fuel. Progressively, as the rocket rises, you are lifting a lesser mass of fuel (and lesser mass of stages in some cases) but fighting air resistance which increases as a factor of speed but is then modified by the decrease due to the atmosphere becoming more rarefied as the rocket rises. Then there is the matter of acceleration to orbit speed.
In essence, you have forgotten about the issue of payload fraction. The rocket and all its fuel is not payload. The payload is that little capsule that sits on top. In most cases, you are looking at a payload fraction of just a few percent, say 2% to 5%.
The empirical results are the proof to date. There is no large, commercial space station in space like the one in the movie “2001” and there is no massive under-surface moon base on the moon. Why not? The costs are too great and the engineering too difficult. And when we get there, there is nothing worth having apart from a bit of scientific data.
It is typical of scientific and technical progress that less progress happens in arenas where we expect and hope for it while progress happens in other arenas where we did not expect it at all. We are poor prognosticators. Space travel was a poster child but the hopes were pretty much still born. And travel to even the nearest star will always remain impossible.
I watched the moon landing in 69 at school on tv. Grainy b/w. At that early age I thought “This is pretty amazing and this is completely normal” It’s still amazing but alas is a distant memory.
Ikonoclast, the 100 gigajoules per tonne of payload to low earth orbit was supposed to be for all the rock fuel required. However, looking at the Falcon 9 rocket I see it uses around 470 gigajoules of kerosene to put a tonne into orbit. Hydrogen and oxygen is a more effective fuel and so should require less than 400 gigajoules to do the same job, so I am happy to say I was 4 times off with my 100 gigajoule figure. So roughly 9 wind turbines would have been required to fuel NASA’s entire space shuttle program.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
also, time spent in zero gravity has rather nasty physical effects.
the longer the time, the nastier the effect.
On the temporary minister’s “national interest test” for ARC grant proposals: I just want to express my hope that no academic is willing to cooperate with designing that thing. I’ve written to Sue Thomas expressing that hope (no reply of course). Even if it weren’t meant to be ac “NationalS interest” test, it would be in my opinion either (best case) a further piece of paperwork to be submitted, or (not best case) a real test, further militating against research either basic, or cultural-politically unpalatable to the powers that be. We don’t have to dig our own graves!
May, you don’t send people. That would be nuts. Look at the space shuttle program. It unnecessarily required a crew, increased the cost of getting payload into space, and got 14 people killed. That’s killed directly. If the money had been spent on malaria prevention it could have saved perhaps 50 million lives.
Well, since only around 20 million died from malaria over the 30 years of the shuttle program it might have been hard to save 50 million. But maths tells me that even just one million lives is a lot.
Apropos the “discussion” about self-driving vehicles on the other thread, human space travel is in the category of technologies that made huge early gains only to be bogged down by technical and economic obstacles, and never realised what appeared to be their early potential. Other tech that falls in this category includes nuclear fission power and supersonic passenger travel. Then there is the category of tech that makes rapid gains and surpasses all expectations, transforming the world. Examples of tech of this kind include cars, personal computers, photovoltaics and mobile phones. Then there is the category of tech that engenders vast expectations and huge hype, but never seems to get out of the starting gate, like nuclear fusion power and high-temperature superconductors.
Which of these categories will self-driving cars fall into? it’s too early to tell.
Apart from scientific research (which is important) what other purpose is there to space travel? No other planet or moon in the solar system is remotely habitable. We can’t bring back significant amounts of resources other than some scientific knowledge. And we can’t reach the stars, ever. This last is the answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Aliens can’t reach us either with singals or spaceships. Signals sent out from any place in space lose strength at the rate of 1/r squared. Probes lose density (probes per cubic parcec of space) at /r cubed which then affects the chances of a probe finding or us finding a probe. This if my maths is correct.
That’s basically why, IMO, we have not heard an alien signal or seen an alien ship. I feel it is possible that there are other civilizations of some sort of carbon based (most likely) life somewhere in the cosmos. But all such civilizations are so far apart, the chances of contact are almost infinitesimally small.
If taxi drivers made the minimum wage then the first self driving taxis would be that operated an average of 20 hours a day would save around $138,000 in wages over a year. If they just averaged one 8 hour shift a day over a year that’s about $55,000 in avoided wages. If it is assumed taxi drivers (or uber drivers as they are sometimes called these days) get half the minimum wage that’s still About $28,000 in wages avoided per year by a self driving taxi that operates an average of 8 hours per day. I have a toy that has more processing power than the world’s best supercomputer in 1984, so required computing power isn’t going to hold them back and the senors don’t seem particularly expensive either. Throw in increased safety.
At this point I’d say predicting self driving cars won’t take off is like predicting Chris Hemsworth won’t be completly CGI in a few years.
I just posted this to Nick elsewhere . I hope ai will cry, and all economists are humane!
See down page.
“Rounding Corrections” by Sandra Haynes
Rocketry: I may have recommended it before, but Charles Stross’ “A Tall Tail” is splendid fun, and free on the Internet from Tor.
If we build large space stations in the future they will mostly be built using materials gathered in space. Of course we have to bootstrap our way there to make it happen. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have reduced the cost of getting stuff in orbit considerably and will continue to reduce the cost. The biggest question is do we have the will to do it.
I second your recommendation of the Stross story.
Effort and resources would be better consumed protecting the future of the biosphere than on space exploration and research; but effort and resources would be better consumed on space exploration and research than on what they are actually being used for, namely, blowing people up. If the effort and resources directed to blowing people up were redirected, they would probably be sufficient to allow a lot of space exploration as well as protecting the future of the biosphere. Unfortunately, too many people like the idea of blowing people up.
So how is it going GHG-wise? No improvements showing up – indeed, its looking worse all the time.
Witters, the lack of adequate response to global warming is frightening. It makes me think we’re all going to die. Not from global warming as that will only kill poor people and some of the middle class. But from some other threat as it has become clear we not very good at responding to clear and present and simply fixed dangers. Unless we pick up our pants, as soon as we run into a serious problem that’s a bit tricky we’re probably dead.
On the bright side the cost of renewables is now low enough to prevent new coal power plant construction and to also reduce natural gas use. Renewable energy will become cheap enough to shut down existing fossil fuel power plants. Rooftop solar has a lot of potential to help shut down existing coal plants here in Australia.
So the good news is, things could have been worse and emission levels higher.
With transport, electrification is going to occur as the cost of battery cells is low enough and still decreasing for it to work and self driving cars may mean electric vehicles rapidly take over from internal combustion engine ones.
(a) “The lack of adequate response to global warming is frightening.” Check.
(b) “Global warming … will only kill poor people and some of the middle class.” I am not at all sure it will be that limited. Anyway, my family is “some of the middle class” so I don’t feel secure at all. Note, If we go to even 3 degrees C of warming it will be much worse than your scenario paints.
(c) “It has become clear we not very good at responding to clear and present and simply fixed dangers.” True enough, and many of these modern system dangers are not simple clear, present and fixed dangers. They involve complex and chaotic systems, fragile equilibria, amplifying feed-backs, dangerous tipping points and potentials for runaway changes. I refer to climate systems, ocean and air currents, sea levels, ecology, keystone species, diseases, disease vectors, agricultural sustainability, extreme event frequencies etc. etc.
People in general lack the knowledge, imagination or education to envisage large-scale discontinuity events. They tend to imagine that present prosperity and stability will continue indefinitely just with some more good progress added in. A certain modest degree of optimism bias can be useful but blind Pollyanna optimism is downright dangerous.
Ikonoclast, I see you suffer from a condition known as “caring about your fellow human beings”. I too suffer from a small particle of that. But I have mollified it by funding a second hermetically sealed shelter in addition to my own for my loved ones and those I care about. Of course the facilities aren’t as extensive as my own and the life support will slowly fail, forcing them to fight each other to the death for my amusement. But they can’t say I didn’t think of them.
Global warming has the potential to be worse than the Black Death in terms of absolute numbers of people killed, but it’s hard to wipe out a large portion of the world’s population through global warming alone as countries such as China and India are now rich enough to shift food production to greenhouses and vats if necessary and invest in air conditioning so most of the populace can survive heatwaves. So the very poor certainly may be put into a position of dying but most of everyone else will live. Of course some of the rich may have their planes sucked into sharknadoes or whatever unpredictable weather events arise, but I see that as a business opportunity to sell improved aviation safety equipment. There’s a silver lining on every cloud, even if it is caused by the exploding jet fuel.
We are all going to die. Were you hoping to live forever?
Well, some of us are always dying, but so far all of us have managed to not die.
The long death of nuclear: Toshiba have definitively pulled out of their wholly owned Moorside project in the UK, on which they had already spent >US$500 million. It’s very hard to see why the same logic won’t kill the remaining projects in the UK pipeline after Hinkley. The white elephant will not find a mate.
Thanks for the nuclear update, James. I was surprised to learn so much had already been invested beyond the financial wreck that is Hinkley C. As my father never used to say, “Don’t pin your hopes on a plan that relies on people remaining stupid for decades. Years is fine though.”
One thing that often isn’t mentioned with regard to the cost of blasting stuff into space is that while the cost per kilogram has remained high, advances in electronics mean that stuff that does get blasted up there can do far more per kilogram than it used to. But not, you know, meat. Meat is just as useless as was in the 60s. Actually, it’s gotten worse as the mass of astronauts has increased. While the power of electronics per kilogram have improved by orders of magnitude, the United States paid Russia something like $25 million to modify Soyuz so they could cram their gargantuan astronauts into it. Some of whom are over 1.8 meters tall. (On earth. They get taller in space.)