Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thoughts on SpaceX’s moon plan

When I saw that Elon Musk was going to make an announcement yesterday afternoon, I – like everyone – wondered what it could be.  I figured the best I could hope for was that he would announce that SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace had signed a contract to launch an expandable module to be either a private space station or a space hotel in 2019, or so.  But I figured it was more likely some Mars-based project they were working on since, while I love SpaceX, they do seem to be – in my opinion – overly focused on Mars.

I had to go to work, so it wasn’t until late last night that I got home and remembered to look up what the big announcement was.  In case you don’t know (then why are you reading this?) SpaceX plans to launch one of their Dragon 2 capsules on one of their Falcon Heavy rockets next year.  Onboard will be two people who will spend about a week in space.  Instead of just flying around the Earth, they will fly out to the moon, go around the back – letting them look down on the Farside of the Moon – before returning to Earth.

I was happily surprised by that announcement.  As the author of “The Moon Before Mars: Why returning to the moon makesmore sense than rushing off to Mars” I support all endeavors that refocus attention on the moon.  That’s why I love the Google Lunar X Prize and Unite Launch Alliance’s CisLunar-1000 idea.  For decades it seems that all the public has heard is “Mars Mars Mars,” so this is a great way to remind people that the moon exists and we can go there now.

However, while I hope everything about this works out as planned, I do have some cynical thoughts on the matter.  First off, SpaceX and deadlines don’t always go together.  Hell, even the announcement of this was half-an-hour late.  So while they’re saying this will go off in late 2018, I’d say that mid-2019 is a far more likely earliest time this could happen.

More serious is I have to wonder if this is a new service SpaceX will offer – flying two or three groups around the moon every year – or if it’s just a one-time stunt.  Possible reasons for such a stunt would be that just a couple weeks ago they announced a delay in the Red Dragon mission, which was to land an uncrewed Dragon capsule on Mars.  It was supposed to go in 2018, but they wouldn’t be ready so the first launch has slipped to 2020.  (Due to their orbits, there’s a best case launch window between Earth and Mars about every twenty-six months.) Could this sudden announcement to fly by the moon be a way to say, “Don’t worry, we’re still planning amazing things!”? 

Another possible reason for a stunt is the rise of suborbital space tourism.  Last year Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic made progress in their plans on sending tourists into space to experience a few minutes of microgravity.  If their testing continues to go well, they might begin test flights this year and start carrying passengers next.  Could SpaceX’s plan be a … dickish way of saying, “Yeah, they can get you into space for five minutes, but we can get you into space for a week and send you around the moon”?

In the end, what really matters is what actually happens.  For every space venture that actually lifts off, there have been a few thousand that never got passed the planning stage.  Hell, the Russians have been talking about a similar mission of sending people around the moon for like a decade now, but nothing seems to have come of it.  But I wish SpaceX, as well as United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, and the hundreds of other space businesses all the success.  To be frank, I’m starting to get tired waiting for the world they will build.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What too few seem to understand about fossil fuels

Recently, I had a bit of back-and-forth with a couple of guys on Facebook about fossil fuels vs. solar.  I didn’t think of this analogy at the time, but they seemed to put all our energy eggs into one basket of fossil fuels and nuclear.  When I suggested diversifying our energy sources by moving one egg over to solar energy, they treated me like a raving lunatic for even suggesting such blasphemy.  They started talking about that being a waste of resources, as if all the bricks and steel and money would be piled in the desert as some sort of modern art sculpture instead of building a power plant that would produce electricity indistinguishable from that produced by a coal or nuclear power plant.  I’m sure they thought they had a point, I just don’t know what it was.  I stopped replying because it was getting into the “arguing with idiots” area and one sort of hinted that since I didn’t share his belief in the glorious future of fossil fuels, I must be a socialist. 

In reality, I’m a realist.  For example, I know that Earth is finite, meaning there is a finite supply of oil, coal, and natural gas that we are rapidly burning through.  (Yes, there are some geological processes that are making more, but for every new barrel of oil the Earth makes we probably burn a few tens of billions.)  This means that – if nothing changes – there are only two possibilities.  The first is we squeeze every last bit of oil, coal, or gas from the ground.  The second is that there is still some left, but it is so deep or in such hard to reach locations that we can’t extract it at any profit.  Which means that at that point in time, even Ayn Rand would need to convert to a non-fossil fuel energy system. 

The Age of Fossil Fuels will end.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that.  There are only two questions: when will it happen, and will humans be smart enough to move over to an alternate power source before then.  Because if we run out of fossil fuels or they stop being economically viable before we have an alternative, that will lead to a mad scramble.  Economically, mad scrambles tend to be rather expensive, and socially they can be violent.  Common sense would seem to indicate trying to avoid them.

How do we avoid the mad scramble when fossil fuels run out?  By starting to build the alternative energy infrastructure now.  Every day we hem and haw or say things like “There’s enough oil for fifty years, that means we don’t have to worry about running out for forty-nine years,” we get a day closer to the economy ruining, bloody scrambling, human civilization ending(?) moment our children, or our children’s children run out of fossil fuels.  And I’m sure they will be proud their ancestors didn’t “waste” resources building something silly like a solar power station.