Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Space Vikings -Why People Will Go Into Space- by Seth Galbraith


This article has two videos you should watch. The first is just a short recording of a test launch. The second is a TEDxCopenhagen presentation from before the test launch.

Key points:

  • Any blacksmith with the right plans could make a spacecraft.
  • Save money by finding people who don't know how to do the job but are willing to learn.
  • You can do this with one ten-thousandth of the budget of NASAs space race programs.
  • Regulatory hurdles actually favor bold adventures over gradually building infrastructure.
  • In other words, rockets are just metal tubes and professionalism is a barrier innovation.

Three nations are capable or nearly-capable of supporting long-term outposts in space. All of them are driven by a myth of resistance to occupation. For the Russians the iconic occupier is the mongol horde. For the Americans the iconic occupier is the British. Between the 1840s and 1940's China was occupied to some degree by almost every colonial power from Portugal and Britain to Germany and Japan. Even the runners-up, like India, Israel and Iran also have similar post-colonial resistance narratives that shaped their identities.

France, Japan and the UK also launched orbital rockets, but they have had this capability for decades without developing their own independent human spaceflight program.

Of course a post-colonial national identity is not unusual in the modern world. Half of the world's population lives in countries that have had orbital launch capability at some point. But pushing frontiers and showing that you can drop a nuke anywhere you want matters most to a country that sees itself as the product of armed resistance to external exploitation.

I believe the post-colonial narrative is fading as it has become the new normal and the world is getting flatter. Maybe we will see one last new batch of national space programs emerge from Kennedy's "New Frontier" of equatorial countries that emerged from colonialism in the 70's and 80's, but eventually we will probably end up with one big international space station program. Maybe we'll have a few space stations, but they'll all pretty much be built from the same cloth as the current ISS: low earth orbit monuments to cooperation between countries-that-aren't-colonies-anymore.

When I say the world is getting flatter, I don't mean that exploitation is going away, but that exploitation within nations is increasing while exploitation between countries is decreasing. The post-colonial narrative was largely about how countries that benefited most from colonialism (like the UK and USA) should recognized the debt they owed to the countries that benefited least - or at least respect the independence of those peripheral countries. "We" westerners should realize that "our" prosperity was the produced at "their" expense.

The global movement that has emerged around Occupy Wall Street has a new post-post-colonial framing. "We" aren't the rich west and "they" aren't the third world. "We" are the 99%, whether we sleep in a wheelbarrow in Lagos or a McMansion outside of Las Vegas, and "they" are the 1% of people managing the system so poorly that the banks are foreclosing on our wheelbarrows and McMansions in spite of us keeping our end of the deal we made with them.

This is what will drive space colonization: general disenchantment with management. Schemes for libertarian barge-cities notwithstanding, you can't live in the modern world and escape completely from the stagnating influence of management hierarchies, stifling professionalism, and meddling regulations. And the savage, primitive, brutal environment of outer space is about as far as you can get from the modern world.

When there is nowhere left to run, people will sit on top of a homemade tank of explosive fuel and light it off.

For now this is only a temporary escape. Suborbital launches only provide a glimpse of space, but each launch that takes people further, higher and faster will show the boring old world below as a smaller and smaller circle until they have figured out how to get into orbit for thousands rather than millions of dollars. Then they will start learning how to survive in space for weeks, then months, then years. And finally small groups of people will just fly away into the solar system, not for science, not for profit, but just to live by their wits in a place where people can screw things up for themselves instead of being torn between regulation and exploitation.

-Seth Galbraith

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