Monday, September 12, 2011

Flying Cars, Jetpacks, and Video Phones

When I was in the first grade, I figured that by now, I would be working on a space station. After all, back then by now was an entire lifetime away, and my dad had a model of the lunar lander next to the TV in our living room. I mean, come on, if humans could land on the moon before I was born, then surely there would soon be a continual need for more than a dozen people in space at any one time. Surely by the second decade of the 21st century there would be at least thousands of people on huge space stations, lunar bases, and if all went well, even on Mars and beyond. As a matter of fact, by now we should be testing out Starships and deciding which exoplanet to visit first.

Let's see... Wright Brothers - 1903. Apollo - 1969. Moon Base Alpha - 1979. Clark County Space Station - 1989. Asimov Mars Base 1 - 1999.  Right? Right?!

Well, maybe not quite. As I mentioned in The Orion Battleship, Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we will. And conversely, just because we haven't done something, doesn't mean we can't do it. Yes, there is no Mars base. And the progress curve from Kitty Hawk to Apollo suddenly plateaued just when it looked like it was going to reach all the way to infinity. The problem, of course, is staring you in the face. That's right, blame it on your iMac. Or that box wired to your flat panel monitor. The trouble all started with the transistor.

First Working Transistor
The transistor dates back all the way to 1925. But alas, it was far too ahead of its time. It would take two more decades until it was developed into something that could be useful with current technology. By 1956, scientists at Bell Labs won the Nobel Prize for "...discovery of the transistor effect." Soon, transistors would become smaller and smaller, even to the point where they could be printed on integrated circuits. That's what a microchip is. The humble CPU that is almost literally everywhere these days. Whatever device you are using to read these words has zillions (well, probably billions) of transistors in it. Our modern electronic world-of-the-future is built on transistors.

Now here's the really funny part: Yes, I couldn't live without my laptop. And you'd need to pry my iPhone out of my cold dead hands to take it away from me. But Space Stations and Lunar Bases and Mars Exploratory Ships don't need transistors. At least, they don't need billions of them. They don't need terabytes of storage and billions of CPU cycles. Let me explain...

We (and when I say we, I mean "me" but I think it's probably common enough to say we) seem to think one area of technology is directly relevant to other areas of technology. Here's a scenario: I, being a child of the 70's & 80's, was greatly influenced by Star Wars and Star Trek and expected real life space ships to eventually progress to what I saw on the movie screen.

Unfortunately, that sort of pushed out my memories of The Rolling Stones (the book not the band) and all my other beloved hard SF stories as old-fashioned low tech Golden Age stuff. (Quick, where did the Star Trek episode "Trouble With The Tribbles" come from? That's right! The Rolling Stones!) I liked my space ships to not act like rockets and to use anti-matter and other much more fashionable exotic stuff. I was following the Wright Brothers to Apollo tech curve, remember? After all, my phone has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969, right? I can digitally record four TV shows at once for crying out loud! Even if I grudgingly admitted anti-matter drives might be out of reach, those space stations and lunar and Mars bases should still be right around the corner.

But they're not. And here's why: We do have space stations. They are called communications satellites and weather satellites and GPS satellites and Lord knows what else is up there. What we don't have is huge, 2001 A Space Odyssey-esque spinning wheels in the sky. We do have Mars bases. But they are just mobile robots. We have deep space explorer missions that use ion thruster drives. Heck, we even have nuclear powered deep space probes. What all those things have in common, is that there are no humans aboard any of them. We do have one space station that a handful of human beings can live on. Everything else is operated by humans on the ground and computers and robots out there in space. The transistor and eventually the microchip helped eliminate humans from space.

I was looking at the specs for a recent deep space probe. It had two 12 mHz CPUs (one was for backup.) Yep, your iPhone has a CPU a thousand times faster than that. But remember, it's not a stretch to say Apollo 11 landed on the moon with slide rule technology.

Because of transistors, humans simply aren't needed in space as much. We can do so much more from the ground. You don't need a human to take pictures of Mars and return to Earth 10 months later to develop the film if you can have a robotic digital camera send thousands of digital pictures back at the speed of light. Then you use people who use those super fast CPU's at JPL to process the terabytes of digital images. You don't need a human to maintain a weather satellite. If you do need to fix a satellite (like Hubble,) you send somebody up for a one-time fix. They don't need to live there.

Here's the rub: The really hard parts of human space travel are not solved by microchips. And microchips make humans unnecessary for the not so hard parts. The hard parts need more lifting capacity at launch, an infrastructure to support multiple launches, very powerful engines that can have large amounts of Delta-V, light weight materials that are specifically designed to operate in space, and life support systems to handle multi-month voyages. Space is not human-friendly. You pretty much need brute force to beat space. Computing power does not help to make it more friendly. What would help human space travel is a lightweight, extremely efficient, cheap, and safe power source.

Apollo was successful because you had an enormous number of people spending an even more enormous amount of money and willing to take risks to achieve a certain specific goal.

It's pretty much like my post on Doing Beats Having. Human space exploration needs to be a passion, not just an idle fancy if it is going to happen. Why are there no flying cars? Because nobody can build one cheaply enough that is idiot-proof enough that will fill enough of a need to be successful in the marketplace. Ditto with jet packs. You see, the reason we have billions of transistors on one computer chip is because it turned out to be relatively easy to manufacture that many of them. Unless there is some kind of manufacturing breakthrough, you're not likely to see any iJetpacks soon. We do have video phones at least. But nobody uses them. Why see somebody when you can just text them or use twitter OMG! I don't think any SF writer saw that coming.

We could duplicate Apollo if we wanted to. And yes, computer aided design and simulations would make some things easier than they were back then. But most of the same old problems mentioned above still exist, and it's simply takes a tremendous amount of effort to overcome them.

Finally, look at it this way: I read on Atomic Rockets or Rocketpunk Manifesto (I can't remember where) that it would be easier to "colonize" Antarctica or deep under the ocean, than Luna or Mars. But we haven't. Yet, it's closer and easier and could provide all kinds of benefits. But people just aren't very interested in living on the sea floor or in Antarctica. And right now, they aren't interested in a Mars base either.

But I am. Which is why next post we'll begin Part 1 of How To Build A Spaceship :)


  1. Great, thoughtful post! I imagine the bottom of the ocean will start looking better when we max out the carrying capacity of the continents we have now. :P Maybe I could buy land now?

  2. Ha ha, I think you could pick up some prime Marianas Trench real estate cheap!

  3. Well, flying cars and jet packs are stuff that make up science fiction stories. And while some these are things that we used to just dream about when we were still young, some have become very likely possibilities today. In fact, rumors are circling about flying cars being released late next year. If that is true, then I'd definitely buy one as soon as it's available!