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I have noticed that today’s social media feed (and even the actual media feed) is filled with people who are angry about billionaires going to space. Now there are lots of actual reasons to be quite angry about the existence of so many billionaires and their ever greater consumption of humankind’s limited resources! For example, I am furious at how easy it is to pour dark money into politics and buy up right-wing politicians without anybody finding out about it (or other politicians too, I guess…but apparently most oligarch money quietly goes to the right). Likewise, I am angry at how billionaires use their enormous wealth to skew markets. Such wealth is already a product of market tampering and political favoritism. Where you find billionaires you find monopolies, monopsonies, and cartels. You also find the attendant ills of price-fixing, regulatory capture, and strangled innovation.

Above all, where you find billionaires, you find graft. What is even the point of having so much money other than to convert it into power over courts, and police, and laws, and rules?

So billionaires (or really the status inequality which they represent) are a big problem…but that doesn’t seem to be what is making everyone angry about Branson, Musk, Bezos, et al. Instead on social media I find lots of variants of the tired old line “with so many problems here on Earth, how could you spend that money on space?” (although, in fairness, a close second was “how about they pay their taxes instead?” and that criticism is absolutely on point). A lot of people seem angry about “joyrides and stunts” from these plutocratonauts. It makes me worry that hatred of these creeps is transforming into more pushback against space exploration–and none of us can afford that!

Commercialization of space has a sort of dinosaur’s wing problem. Archaeopteryx obviously gleaned all sorts of advantages by flying around on stylish feathered wings, but how did evolution bridge the awkward gap between such gracile bird-like fliers and their ungainly forbears who just had flaps and pin feathers? There are irrefutable reasons for nation-states to pour money into space exploration (“confers military and technological dominance” jumps first to mind), but what entices entrepreneurs to try to scale such formidable barriers to entry? The first satellite provided the Soviet Union control of the heavens. The first space hotel will provide a way to die trying to use the toilet.

Perhaps this generation of space billionaires is the transitional flap which will someday develop into a functional wing (perhaps a more apt metaphor for this would involve the freewheeling early days of private aviation which involved all sorts of Lindbergs and Howard Hughes).

Also maybe spending this sort of money will actually provide some economic returns. When I get money, I spend it on catfood, beans, shoes, electricity, and internet. Billionaires don’t have a billion more cats than me or use a billion times more electricity, or need a billion more boots (and frankly, I doubt they even eat beans at all). Even with a dozen mansions, a super yacht, and a gulfstream (and a non-bean-based menu) spending simply does not keep up with capital accumulation–their money is hoarded. but money spent on space is actually spent here on Earth (on engineering, materials science, researchers, and other useful things)

Or we could just tax these guys properly and spend the money on scientifically useful space exploration (and medical research, and infrastructure, and fundamental R&D etc.). Yet for some reason, politicians don’t seem to be rushing to close loopholes and collect those taxes. For right now these ungainly space jaunts may be the best way towards actual meaningful space enterprise.

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During the Civil War, pennies were rare because of the wartime demand for metals.  In the Northeast and Midwest, private parties minted tokens to fill the demand (which the Federal Government hated and banned in 1864).  Here is a Washington Market exchange token from that era featuring a magnificent turkey on the obverse (with vegetables and a mildly subversive “live and let live” motto on the flip side).  I am running out of things to say about turkeys, but looking back at this tiny slice of our numismatic past is a good way to enter the Thanksgiving season, and we’ll see if we can find one more good post about the noble sacrificial birds before the great feast.  Gobble gobble! Enjoy your plentiful pennies and let’s kep the country unified!

New York coin Civil War Token

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Ferrebeekeeper has written about nanosatellites—tiny swarms of lightweight & (relatively) inexpensive satellites which mimic the functionality of big pricey birds.  That article was enthusiastic about the tiny spacecraft, however the FCC (which reviews communications satellites and approves/denies satellite launches) has some reasonable reservations about the idea, particularly considering all the of space junk which is already whipping through near-earth orbit at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour).  Last year Swarm Technologies, a mysterious and shadowy start-up founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California applied to the FCC to launch 4 little satellites called BEEs (which, in the inane blather of forced acronyms, stands for “Basic Electronic Elements”).  The FCC turned down the request, concluding that the functionality of the satellites (which are maybe for some sort of network?) did not make up for the safety risk they posed.  Yet Swarm Technologies launched them into orbit anyway in mid-January, in a rocket which blasted off from India.  Each Bee is 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height.

National security agencies (which have substantial technologies for monitoring Earth orbit), are able to track the “bees” but it is an open question whether they are fully dark or whether they are producing little pings and chirps for their well-heeled private masters here on Earth.

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This is an unprecedented first for the FCC and other space agencies which have never been so blatantly flouted by a scofflaw corporation (although given the brazen, lawless, and dangerous conduct of America’s highhanded corporations and lordly oligarchs, it will probably not be the last).   The satellites lack propulsion systems and they will probably fall back into Earth’s gravity well within 10 years and burn up (I suspect an astrophysicist could tell you something less approximate, but this timeframe should serve for general purposes).

If Swarm could have held their horses a bit, they may have been able to reapply: Lockheed Martin is currently building a much more sophisticated radar system to monitor small objects in orbit.  I wonder if this is a glimpse of the privatized future of space which everyone is always touting.  If so it is not a particularly compelling picture.

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Congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company for successfully testing its new heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, a reusable multi-stage heavy lift rocket for delivering large cargoes to Earth orbit or for traveling on cislunar or even interplanetary trips.  The rocket is the largest conventional rocket built since the mighty Saturn V which took humankind to the moon (although the space shuttle’s elaborate  boosters were capable of greater thrust).  The Falcon Heavy vehicle is capable of  producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff–which means it can heft around around 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) of payload into low-Earth orbit.

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Today’s launch from Kennedy Space Center was largely successful: the top and bottom boosters landed safely on designated platforms.  The center booster, alas, did not quite perform as hoped and slammed into the ocean.  The rocket’s payload, Mr. Musk’s electric Tesla roadster (with a mannequin and sundry pop-culture science fiction novelty items) successfully entered a heliocentric orbit which will bring it back and forth between Mars and Earth as it loops around the sun.  The launch paves the way for a new era of private industry in space (SpaceX plans to monetize subsequent Falcon Heavy rocket missions for government and commercial payloads and missions), but it is only a step on the way to a planned BFR (Big “Falcon” Rocket) for interplanetary missions.  I am excited by that concept, though I hope Mr. Musk will take a moment to think about the top of Venus’ atmosphere as a potential destination as well as cold arid Mars. For right now though, hooray for this thrilling milestone!

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Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing.   In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically.  Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures.  Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started.  Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist).   SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).

The grasshopper blasts off--or maybe lands?

The grasshopper blasts off–or maybe lands?

The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper).  If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year.   As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court.  Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!

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