02 October 2015

The Real Space Age

My father was a rocket scientist (no, seriously. He was a chemical engineer who managed the project for the J2, the second stage engine of the Saturn V moon rockets). As a kid and in my work my interests veered in rather different directions, but I have been interested for a long time in futuristics, astronomy, and space travel, all in a rather casual way (considering I am, shall we say, somewhat mathematically challenged). 

Anyway, if you would like to understand the simplest basic reason that we have not, as a civilization, realized the "Space Age" promise of Gerard O'Neill's cities in space, moon colonies, etc., it's this:
Tsiolkovsky was an autodidact and a genius, who, along with Fyodorov were the intellectual leaders of Cosmism, a late 19th and early 20th cent. movement that envisioned a future for man in space, and influenced the Soviet space program. But his equation, that shows that the ability to achieve escape from the Earth's gravity depends logarithmically on the ratio of mass of propellant to mass of payload, explains a fundamental truth. Which is that lifting large masses off the Earth's surface is always going to be extremely expensive. It's physics. There's no way around it. Not using rockets, anyway. 

But I do believe that humanity, if it doesn't destroy itself and our world first, will eventually move out into space. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, and their ilk obviously believe this, although I think their faith in rocketry is probably futile. What is needed is leaps forward in materials science, because the way it's done (I'd be willing to bet the way it is being done by some intelligent beings, somewhere out there in the vastness of the cosmos), is with space elevators. It's an old concept. Tsiolkovsky himself wrote about it. The problem is that there is no known material strong enough to create a space elevator on Earth. Mars, almost; the Moon, yes, but not the Earth. Yet. We will have to figure this out. And when we do, which I'd guess will be in a century or two, then, and only then, will the real Space Age begin.
A space elevator is a proposed type of space transportation system.[1] Its main component is a ribbon-like cable (also called a tether) anchored to the surface and extending into space. It is designed to permit vehicle transport along the cable from a planetary surface, such as the Earth's, directly…

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