L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 245, November 2, 2003
Daniel Conan Weiner, R.I.P.
The New Space Race
Exclusive to TLE
So, it's finally happening, someone else is going into space, about damn time too. I was two years old when the first man set foot on the moon, and I was six when the last one did. I'm now thirty-seven, and I've waited all these years to see somebody, anybody, build a real space program. In 1973 America slashed budgets, crippled programs and shelved new technologies which would have taken our people to the moon, Mars and beyond. Our exploration and exploitation of space were replaced with a combination of showpiece displays like Voyager and Viking, and the dismal space-shuttle which was never meant to be the low-cost hi-volume vehicle needed to power a real program.
So now China is moving to capture the abandoned high ground of space, and why? Money. China has realized that there is money to be made in space and they intend to get it. China has used unmanned capsules to germinate seeds in orbit, which causes the plants to produce huge fruits (though readers of H.P. Lovecraft might be a bit leery of the idea), and they are now discussing the production of pharmaceuticals, metal alloys, silicon chips, and other items which can be made better and more cheaply in the low gravity environment of space. Even ball- bearings, perfect examples of which can be made cheaply in space, could provide significant revenues for Chinese space-industry. The Chinese have come to realize that the real money in space will not come from billion-dollar satellites but from simple industries which produce high-value, high-volume products.
In America however, the band plays on. NASA sits with its hugely expensive shuttles, engaging in showpiece projects like the Hubble and the International Space Station, designed to demonstrate our technical superiority instead of advancing our conquest of space. Government wags wax philosophically about our future in space, and provide wonderful graphic illustrations of Mars colonies and the like, while not actually doing anything about them. Projects like NERVA and Orion gather dust on the shelves, while systems like the Avco-Everett laser-launching system and its derivatives are ignored. America talks-the-talk while refusing to walk-the-walk.
Why? Because politicians fear space. A population in space, be it on the moon or Mars or anywhere else would be impossible to control. How could you extend central government authority across hundreds of thousands or millions of miles of space? The logistics of space- travel preclude the kind of police-state authority of which our government is so fond. Add to that the fact that any population perched on the top of the gravity-well possesses an immense tactical advantage in war, something that Robert A Heinlein showed in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and you doom any chance of government support for a real space-program. Unless somebody else gets there first.
Well now we have just that situation. The Chinese space initiative is bound to scare the hell out of the statist's in Washington, and like any criminal, the two motivations of any politician are fear and greed (and before anybody pipes up to explain how profitable space would be to the tax-masters in our government, I remind you that our government is made up of lazy criminals, they don't want to work for their loot, just take what's already there). The fear of the PRC flag over our heads is bound to make the powers that be wonder what else is hanging up there with it. Oh sure, the Chinese say they won't "militarize" space (just study it, you know, "for academic purposes only"), but as any soldier will tell you, high-ground is inherently a place of military advantage, and space is the ultimate high-ground.
That always slays me, the idea that sitting in orbit looking down at your adversaries military deployment is somehow different from pointing a weapon at them. What do these people think reconnaissance is for? Reconnaissance is the first stage of any military action, because without knowing where the enemy is at and what he is doing, military operations court disaster. Do they think G.P.S. is not a weapon? Tell that to the Iraqis or the Afghans. No my friends, space is ‘militarized' by the laws of physics, and to ignore that fact is to invite doom. No matter how dense our politicians might be, the threat posed by a significant foreign presence in orbit cannot, and I believe will not, go unanswered.
So the question becomes not whether we will respond, but how. Current vehicles like the shuttle simply cannot compete with the Chinese program, our price-per-pound is some 15 times higher than theirs, and newer systems like the X-35 will not lower that figure to any great degree. So competing on that basis would bankrupt us unless we slashed other spending, which we all know will never happen. If we wish to compete, America will need a new ground-to-orbit system, and the cheapest one would be a laser-launcher (not that this means it will get used, just that it would make the most sense, not that government is known for making sense).
The Laser-launching system comes in two varieties, straight laser and augmented laser. The straight laser system was first suggested in the early 1970's and works like this. Build a capsule of 1 metric ton total weight (kind of like the Apollo capsule with the final stage attached) with a hollow chamber and vent at the base. The laser shoots into the chamber, this heats the air and causes it to rush out the vent, shut down the laser and new air rushes in, repeat about 250 times a second and zoom, your capsule goes up at 30 g's. The inside of the chamber absorbs the energy and burns away for the final kick outside the atmosphere, so you get about 900 kilos into low orbit. The augmented version simply uses another stage which carries hydrogen and oxygen and pumps them into a combustion chamber. The fuel is burned by the same laser running continuously. The augmented system eliminates the high-g takeoff and the weight restrictions, and because the heavy expensive engines used on conventional rockets are replaced by the ground-based laser more of the weight can be devoted to payload and fuel. The laser, while hideously expensive itself, remains to be used time after time, as fast as another vehicle can be put on the pad.
The laser-launching system will allow two-tier pricing for payloads by using the unpowered capsules for bulk cargos like water, nitrogen, and machine parts, while the powered models would be used for more fragile cargo, like people and sensitive equipment. These lifters can be mass-produced with engineering tolerances little greater than those used by the automobile industry, with the unpowered capsules having a detachable lift-chamber and cheap ceramic heat shield for use as a payload re-entry vehicle. The powered lifters could provide materials for orbital habitats or orbital vehicles (space-taxis if you will) as well as lifting manned re-entry vehicles. All with a price-per-pound of less than $500 (some say less than $200).
This is, of course, just one option, though it is probably the best one for the near-term. Hell, we might dust off Charles Bull's Supergun for putting things like water-ice and nitrogen into orbit even cheaper (these items are essential for long-term space living). Once we are in orbit, NERVA, the nuclear spacecraft engine whose development was shutdown by NASA in the ‘60's, would take us to Mars and the belt, if we built it. The moon, and earth orbiting habitats, could become major centers of industry, especially those industries which produce toxins and other unwanted side effects.
All that is in the future however, but it is a future that has become a lot closer to reality now. All because governmental fear, and the need to ‘do something', will be working for us instead of against us. Hopefully, it will blossom into full-fledged paranoid competition to seize the position and resources of space and grow completely beyond government control. . .