Monday, December 6, 2010

Counting Out Launch Costs

One of the big problems with space is that created by decades of television shows, films, and literature based on the idea of casual interstellar travel; these all have left spores in our cognitive ecology that say, more or less, that space is easy. I know that was the case for me personally, and it took a deal of reading and research to come to the understanding that, no, space is actually really hard. The supertech of Star Trek and its like conceals a lot of the very real problems involved with spaceflight, and together they create a large barrier to passing beyond the atmosphere.

The single biggest, I think, is the issue of launch costs. Many people probably don't appreciate just how blasted expensive it is to put stuff into orbit; thousands of dollars per pound. There are a bunch of reasons for this - Earth's escape velocity is high, and rocket prices aren't exactly being driven down by economies of scale - but any space program needs to deal with it honestly.

Science fiction writers don't always deal with it the same way. Sometimes there are good reasons why - the Mass Effect series, for example, postulates an element which can reduce an object's mass, thus making launches from planets to space trivially easy. Other times... not so much. I got to thinking about this while reading a timeline of Jerry Pournelle's Future History.

Disclosure: the only thing I've read that fits into this is The Mote in God's Eye. So some of my concerns may have been addressed elsewhere; otherwise, it may just be an issue of an insufficiently-detailed timeline. But nevertheless... this is a timeline that was originally put together in the early 1970s and slightly revised to account for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, the faster-than-light Alderson Drive is developed by 2008; by 2010, there is an active effort to suppress research into technologies with potential military applications. By 2020 people are flocking to extrasolar colonies, and by the late 2060s some of these new colonies are starting to build their own space fleets.

Yes - after only forty years, entirely new societies taking shape on virgin worlds somehow have enough technological and industrial capital to start building space fleets. Now, if the timeline doesn't cover a few key technological breakthroughs, my complaints do go away like smoke in the wind. But as I read it, taking into account the ban on research instituted in the early 21st century, I couldn't help but see this vast interstellar civilization being built on the backs of Space Shuttle descendants.

Ultimately, I know that's probably not the case. Based on what else I've read of Pournelle's writings, one of the assumptions was probably that we'd have fusion power and starship fusion drives by 2000. In this case I'm willing to put it down to an insufficiently detailed timeline that raised my hackles. Still - that doesn't mean that other creators all act this way. It's easy to miss the foundational problem of launch costs because, hell, space launches happen already! They're ordinary... but not sufficiently ordinary. They happen just enough to give the false impression that they're easy.

Until launch to orbit really is cheap and easy, I don't think all that much will happen in space that wouldn't have happened anyway.

1 comment:

  1. James Davis Nicoll12/09/2010 11:17 AM

    Fred Pohl's Jem is an exception: they have zippy fast FTL drives but the launch technology is still big chemical rockets and they cost a bomb to launch stuff. A small expedition to another life-bearing world costs many billions of dollars.

    I think he may have fudged how they were supposed to get back to Earth.