The problem of space travel…

The problem of space travel…

SpaceX’s Starship – the biggest rocket ever to date – lifted off successfully yesterday but was remotely denontaed after it endured at least a minute and half out of control – at one point it actually faced the other direction – and despite being turned back the other way it was about to fall back towards earth and a potential threat to living beings down below. Hence the rocket had to be destroyed. It was a failure yes, but also it was a success. Not an easy one however. That’s the up and downs of space travel, its like a yo-yo in fact. Success, failure, success, failure, that’s how it goes. That’s because rockets have been proved to be the easiest form of space transport so far. This shows what humanity is up against… to go where humans have not gone before requires some pretty substantial attempts and massive amounts of power. Its also exceedingly expensive and time consuming. Once humanity gets to the vast blackness of space there’ll be other countless dangers to contend with – including computers named Hal…

Sure, people can fly a kite or launch a model plan off a catapult into the air and watch these soar towards the sky with some relative ease. Even a paper plane, designed well and employed in the right circumstances, could soar a hundred feet or more into the air. But the bigger things get well, its more problematic. The objects so far described are light and employ air as the means of uplift to gain considerable heights. Bigger and heavier needs onboard power and energy. That’s because anything trying to make progress off the ground will find the earth comes after it at 11.8 metres per second. What it means is to even get anywhere near space, things are going to have to go pretty much faster than 11.8 metres per second in order to outpace a thing often described as gravity but is rather more the product of a space-time continuum.

Of course Starship attempted to show it wasn’t any sort of slacker despite its staying on the launch pad (Stage 0) a bit longer than it should have and then very gently sliding to one side before acquiring a brief but vertical trajectory. The fact it worked was perhaps more than anyone could have hoped for. A dream had indeed been put into reality and the massive effort contributed by so many people had paid off. Even so, with huge clouds of brown dust billowing all around as the rocket attempted to leave base, and bits of concrete and steel flying all over the place as the raptor engines duly attempted to demolish everything that stood in their way, many must have thought, ‘is this really worth it?’

Many people were discussing the almost total destruction of Stage 0. No doubt Starship’s 33 Raptor engines (or the remainder that worked after at least three had lost power due to the intense sandblasting the launch pad area received. People had lots of questions as to the damage to the launch ad infrastructure area. Other infrastructure (including the tank farm and vehicles too – there’s video showing these being mauled pretty bad by concrete chucks thrown off site) had been damaged and people asked whether the launch had been worth the effort. The videos of the take off as seen from the main road right past the launch site area were just incredible. Its not a first however for such scenes were also seen during the Apollo program. Locals were of course up in arms about it with some alleging SpaceX/Musk had waltzed into the area with little concern for its population or its biodiversity. Evidently the quest for space travel causes problems on Earth too!

Earth vs Space is an existential question too and its probably why Elon Musk shot a Tesla Roadster into space in what was seen as a publicity stunt (even though it was part of an existing payload) and which some slated as a waste. It was more than just a stunt however – a philosophical statement in fact for it highlighted the great difficulty of getting anything up there and its because space is dangerous. Yes ‘Starman’ was up there sat in his now famed Tesla Roadster, but he wasn’t a real live human being. If he had been he might have not survived long. Yet this is the crux of the problem for many pioneers have perished trying to get any heavy machine of any sort even just a few feet into the air – and even in the tests fights leading up to the development of the Saturn 5 rocket for use in Apollo, rockets blew up, caught fire and people died. This is the unfortunate fallout in terms of humanity’s desire to progress, and it hasn’t just happened in terms of space but in other things too – flight, trains, shipping, and other infrastructure.

Musk’s Tesla (with driver ‘Starman’) in space, 2018. Source: Twitter.

Maybe we should just forget space and concentrate on Earth instead? You know the Climate Crisis, wars, inequality and the rest of it? Focus on the numerous problems and build a better world in all aspects? Maybe its a waste of time trying to get to the Moon, Mars even? No doubt McDonalds will be there plus wars and environmental disasters too. Our problems will no doubt get exported and it could easily be ‘same shit different planet.’

So why this quest to reach the stars? As some would point out if a mountain is there then its in one’s desire to try and reach the summit. We see the moon practically everyday so no doubt there’s a huge desire to go up there and see what it is all about.

Its not just that, anything we do there has to be a different way of looking at things. You name it, balloons, jumping off the Eiffel Tower in primitive winged suits, trying to emulate birds in flight, and the rest of it. If there’s a challenge of some sort someone’s certain to be up for it. Franz Reichelt must have thought that when he jumped off the Eiffel Tower on 4th February 1912 wearing a wingsuit designed specially for the purpose. ‘Good old Gustave built a tower for me to jump off!’ Alas Reichelt plumeted to his death. Just one of many hundreds, even thousands of pioneers, who have attempted to do the impossible – and failed.

Franz Reichelt (the Flying Tailor) about to jump of the Eiffel Tower in his specially designed wingsuit. Source: Twitter. (Note: Account doesn’t exist thus an archived image has been used.)

Writers like Jules Verne and others warned the world of the dire consequences that would befall humanity once certain new mechanical contraptions had become successful and were to be used by degenerate megalomaniacs – that is, for conquest, control and death. Perhaps the most famed was Captain Nemo and his Nautilus submarine and to a lesser extent Robur with his flying ship Albatross. These stories were written as fantasy at a time when such things were thought largely impossible and these were a way of warning humans progress would not be without its downsides. Such warnings have been prevalent since time immemorial and often viewed as something akin to cavorting with the devil. For example Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Metropolis and even Forbidden Planet. The human mind perhaps means well in its desires but produces unfortunate results that turn out to be a pact with evil.

On the positive side there have been many early space stories such as Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, From Earth to the Moon and Wells’ The Time Machine, and First Men in the Moon – all of which were purely a desire to explore new places – and not the desire for some crazed conquest or megalomaniac control of others. Essentially this is what SpaceX is meant to be all about – Mars. Yes there’s the Moon too but that’s simply one of the stages to be attained en route to the Red Planet. There’s no doubt under current human aspirations we’re gonna do a fair bit of damage to both worlds. The Moon for example particular minerals that will need to be mined – and that’s besides the moonbases that shall be needed to be built.

This thing about Mars is its touted as a means of becoming a multi-planetary species. And what will the consequences, even any benefits, of that be? Anyone can philosophise and debate that but there’s several questions that should concern us. For example the need to terraform Mars to make it habitable. That means some pretty major changes, perhaps involving nuclear bombs, to reshape the planet’s current dire offering and that’s because its not exactly a habitable planet. People are naturally excited at what SpaceX is doing but there’s also those who think Musk is on some ill-informed mission to travel to another planet. History indeed shows humans have a poor record – conquest of other lands, colonisation, exploitation, genocide, extraction of materials, subjugation of others and so on.

The Red Planet. Scene from Total Recall, a film that showed a rather unsavoury side of life on Mars. 1990. Source: Sabzian.

Humans nevertheless dream on whether its here or there or in space. They have gazed at the stars long before any notion of space craft had been thought up. Galileo, Kepler, and others noted the heavens and the stars that abounded and tried to work out how these heavenly bodies moved. Certainly they must have wondered too what it would be like to land on those very worlds even. What that means is transport of some kind is definitely needed. Sailing ships to reach new countries, canal boats to transport goods between towns and cities, and trains to transport people speedily between centres of population. Even in those days of mere stargazing noted inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci were trying to invent (or rather perhaps, conceptualise) helicopters, submarines, aircraft (in the form of ornithopters.) As for space it has to be rockets and space ships that can withstand extreme conditions and travel millions of miles.

As humans have looked up towards the heavens creative minds dreamt upon the possibilities of even getting part way there. One of the earliest most successful in that respect was Gustave Eiffel”s huge tower built for the Paris Exposition in 1889 – a project many thought would be impossible. But once it had been built it drew huge crowds only too eager to admire the stupendous views that could be got from its summit. And that too garnered people with other so far impossible ideas such as Reichelt mentioned earlier – who discovered perhaps too late his fate had been sealed once he stepped off the tower.

Indeed if people wanted to fly through the air in relative safety there was at least the cablecar. A number of early cableways (take or give a number of earlier more basic examples such as mines and quarries) provided that thrill including those at Beachy Head or the Wetterhorn. There were lifts that took people to great heights such as the Burgenstock and to great depths such as the gold mines in South Africa where lifts reach a depth of 4km or 2 and half miles. There too were mountain railways and funiculars – all these tasked with making the life of humans more easier and more enjoyable. Doubtless these and other forms of transport could take people to quite new and exciting places. Indeed life would be quite boring if it were not for the use of transport such as these. Yet in terms of space its still not any sort of convivial transport. Yes huge numbers of people would love to venture into space but so far its simply out of the question.

One must ask therefore, do we even need to go there? Space is such a hassle that humanity really ought to manage with what they have on Earth! The Moon has none of the beauty Earth has and the same can said of Mars too, the next objective in humanity’s quest to venture the cosmos. So perhaps we should turn our backs on space?

The first problem is we have dreamt far too long about space and the exciting adventures it could offer. Certainly since the fifties we have begun to see its potential more and more and to build rockets as a possible form of viable transport. Space films were all the rage too with many in both the A and B lists. Even Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (conceived and filmed between 1964 and 1968) was meant to predict what life would be like some thirty five years later. Even now, we look at space travel and think well that didn’t happen! We did get to the moon but that was all – and compared to Kubrick’s film, things have actually turned out to be quite limited in fact. For example we haven’t got space stations (certainly not huge ones with gravitational potential) nor space ships that go to Jupiter.

In a perverse way it could be said the hotel room at the end of the film wasn’t about aliens but a sort of homage to life on earth in fact – much like the beginning of the film that showed the planet’s primitive life. And what that hotel room actually meant is we were developing technology without any care or concern for how humanity actually needs to live – and so we were in fact becoming imprisoned by the desire to create the future, technology and space travel. And in fact the monolith wasn’t any sort of alien race or super intelligence at work but in fact a by product of those efforts that had decided to try and warn humanity of its ill gotten endeavours.

Yes its extremely hard to attain many things, even to throw bones into the air and have spaceships magically materialise. Its a lot of bloody hard work and huge amounts of R&D and money just to even get to the near edge of space, never mind beyond the infinite. What is even more endearing is humanity and even all the animals, fish, birds, reptiles, insects – every single living creature on earth is also a space traveller! Every one of us is hurtling through the cosmos at a much faster pace than any of our current spacecraft could hope to achieve! Maybe we just don’t love the Earth enough to do without space travel?

The Beachy Head cableway – used 1900-1902 to build the famous lighthouse. Source: Daily Mail.

One might look at this picture of the Beachy Head lighthouse builders and ask ‘what does this have to do with space?’ Indeed that is the wrong question. As these guys soar through the skies between the tops of the famed cliffs and the light house sat right down in the bay, they’re also soaring through space too. In a way one could say we have it both ways by being on Earth. Out there in space, one is pretty much alone and the further they get from Earth the more they are alone. As many sci-fi films and novels have shown space isn’t exactly a nice environment although under the right circumstances it can be a most invigorating medium to experience and learn new things in ways that are not possible on Earth.

In terms of our current means of being almost entirely planet bound, we regularly depend on transport that doesn’t require rockets or anything of the sort. Most of our travel options have staying power – in other words they’re not likely to disappear in a puff of smoke. Trains, planes, automobiles, ships. Even cable cars and lifts. Many of these these are tethered to the ground (or to earth’s gravity) in one way or another. Essentially by using the Earth itself as a bedrock, humans could gain spectacular heights, whether it be by a balloon, a plane, or a tower. Whereas rockets use fuel that is spent as soon as that gets used and sections (or stage) that are thrown away (burnt) as soon as they have been employed (often for a few brief moments.) One could say that space travel has been a form of throwaway transport. Unlike other forms space travel is used once and its gone.

That’s where SpaceX (and Musk) enter stage Texas – Boca Chica to be exact. The philosophy behind SpaceX is to make space travel attractive. In other words, easy, cheap and convenient. No doubt readers are aware of the various SpaceX ventures, including the success of rocket stages that could return to Earth once they had been deployed, and of course the various iterations of Starship given that some too have alas exploded or crashed.

Its nevertheless still extremely expensive. Starship, the biggest, tallest, space rocket ever built, blew to pieces after around four minutes of use along with rocket fuel that had cost 10 million dollars. That on top of the alleged 20 to 25 million dollars it costs to build these. Even the program’s Falcon 9 rockets cost something like 67 million dollars to build and launch. Costly yes but there’s also other factors too such as environmental issues – much of which we’ll never know the true cost.

Starship flips in reverse during the last minute or so into its abortive fight. What goes up must come down…. Source: Twitter.

Unlike SpaceX, there’s Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and a host of other companies trying to make space cheaper whether it be for passengers or cargo. These companies of course involve lots of new ideas based around older engineering concepts which could possibly be far better adapted. Space Elevators perhaps being one example. Then there’s high altitude balloons, the most successful example which was Felix Baumgartner’s daredevil jump from space – even that was higher than what Starship went! The latter reached 32km altitude whilst Baumgartner attained a height of 39km.

Ironically space endeavours these days are often something undertaken by the considerably well to do, namely billionaires, those who have access to vast amounts of money and resources the rest of us don’t have. Indeed to be a space pioneer these days one almost invariably has to be a billionaire. And that sorts of sets it aside, a kind of its us and them club. But then space has always been exclusive and a privilege for a chosen few.

Those like Branson, Bezos, Musk, it looks like they’re trying to make space viable for the many and not the few. At least that is what it seems. But it can be assured even if space did become cheap, it would never be cheap, not cheap like a day trip by bus or train somewhere. It will still be for the privileged and no doubt it will continue to be very expensive. Many will continue to question the worthiness of space travel given there are far more pressing problems to be solved on Earth. Ironically it was those who went to the Moon and sent back pictures of the Earth, a beautiful looking blue planet yet so fragile and which at that instant, many suddenly realised it was their one and only true home – and one that should be looked after well. That was found out the hard way, the expensive way. Evidently humanity didn’t think hard enough on that before anyone went to the moon.

Richard Branson during his Virgin Galactic space flight in June 2021. Source: Twitter.

In terms of making the cosmos cheaper to access, SpaceX is certainly on a ‘right track’ – give or take a bit. Its notion of reusing rockets and recycing spacecraft isn’t entirely new however. The Space Shuttle tried that road at one time and of course there’s also been Virgin Galactic. What it means is a good old fashioned form of transport – aeroplanes – was employed as a solution to space travel. The Space Shuttle indeed used a rocket launch format for most of its life however earlier iterations saw it piggy backed on a plane, and that basically is how Virgin Galactic are doing it too. The issue here at the moment is the difficulty of gaining enough lift capability once launched from a plane to be able to really make it into space (which is 50 miles or 80km above earth – as defined by NASA.)

As Branson’s company showed one could make it to space at well…. let’s say some sort of ‘reasonable’ cost and its no doubt one where people could get to experience near weightless gravity conditions. But again, cheaper, still means very expensive in the scheme of things. For example in 2022 it was said potential travellers would need to cough up a huge $150,000 to reserve a place – before paying a further amount of $450,000 – in order to travel on one of the company’s space trips. Whether Virgin Galactic are able to continue and honour its quest to promote space tourism is another thing – for the company has been going through a very rocky period with scandals and bankruptcies.

The means of space transportation using planes as a piggy back is generally fine for light craft and a handful of passengers but its not for heavy cargo and other stuff – which would be needed for example to build things such as huge habitable space stations orbiting the earth. Whichever way its looked at, the whole question of truly getting into space remains quite problematic. Even building planes that could become spaceships has never really been successful. As we have seen others do try to find new ways of reaching space. Here are a couple of alternatives…

Maise & Powell’s ‘Star Tram’ – a 12 mile long hyperloop system intended to launch craft into space with ease.

Often the answer to space travel seems to be the use of earth as a true anchor point. One unusual solution was a form of hyperloop! Musk is often credited with the modern concept that is hyperloop. It was in fact a pair of scientists – Dr Powell and Dr Maise – who first conceived a modern hyperloop system and that was more than a decade before Musk had garnered the world’s interest – and decades after the concept had first been mooted!

The big difference was Maise and Powell deemed hyperloop would be an ideal means of getting craft into space. Again no new fact. The notion was based on one Jules Verne had espoused in his science fiction novel From Earth to the Moon (1865.) This entailed the use of a railgun – essentially a massive cannon that would be used to launch rockets into space. Maise and Powell had taken an interest in previous iterations of railguns and decided their concept would be better – in particular one drawn up in 1994 by a NASA’s scientist, John Makin. After looking at Makin’s scheme Maise and Powell decided it wouldn’t work. Thus their system – known as Star Tram – came into being. It was a hybrid hyperloop/railgun that had a means to launch craft to space. So much easier said than done but nevertheless its one example of the ways and means humans have explored in terms of alternatives to using rockets as a means of accessing space.

There’s also space elevators as mentioned earlier. These have gained considerable credibility in recent years even though the idea is quite old – the earliest concept was drawn up in 1895! Arthur C. Clarke advocated these unusual elevators in his sci fi stories. Space elevators too have traditionally mooted the earth as an anchor point although newer ideas advocate that point in fact be a space station poised in earth’s orbit. The reason for that is, among other things, by anchoring the space elevator to earth itself its more difficult to keep the line taught and adjust it accordingly to conditions. Some suggest ships which would be better than a land based anchor point. As the Wikipedia entry under Space Elevators shows, there’s a whole host of companies and ideas behind the concept, and there’s so many different variables, yet numerous challenges and practical obstacles to overcome before we even see a singe space elevator in use.

It seems the Chinese have an answer to space elevators – rockets! This video illustrates the concept.

New materials such as graphene have emerged and these, or others, could well be the answer to manufacturing a cable that needs to be at least 35km long minimum (about 22 miles) and preferably several hundred miles long in order to do an ideal job. Its not exactly an easy answer though because even if a space elevator was built, access to space still isn’t afforded easily. For a start there’s still a considerable expense – and not only that it would take a considerable amount of time to make the ascent. The size of the elevator would pretty much limit what could be taken up in terms of passenger numbers and cargo.

In the event, to get up there still presents enormous problems one way or the other. Yes, rockets, are very expensive but at least they can do things, they have taken humans to the moon, they take people to and from the International Space Station and the rest of it and they can carry heavy cargo. In many ways it seems rockets will be the thing for the future despite the promise of other means of attaining space. Companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will no doubt well make great strides in taking people to space, but until some sort of space base gets built – something that needs to be far bigger, more substantial, than the International Space Station – and have some form of artificial gravity too – the means of getting to space will continue to be difficult and hugely expensive.

All in all space will probably never be good value… there will never be a balance between what needs to be done in terms of space travel – and what urgently needs to be done in terms of Earth its livability sustainability and the environment.