Space Jockey

In Space Jockey, Robert Heinlein showed us a (roughly present-day) world in which commercial rockets routinely brought paying passengers and cargo to the moon, but the machines that plotted the trajectories were much too large to bring on board.

In the real present day, of course, you can plot a trajectory to anyplace you like with a machine that fits in your pocket. What you can’t do is actually go anywhere.

Where did the portable trajectory-plotting machine come from, and what happened to the rocket that was supposed to go with it?

I am firmly convinced that the answer can be found by comparing and contrasting the laws and regulations governing rockets (and high-density energy sources, on which rockets inevitably depend in the absence of wormholes big enough to send real power through) and those governing computers.

13 thoughts on “Space Jockey”

  1. You’ve made the right connections but you haven’t connected them the right way. The divergence dates back to the days late in World War II. We captured the German scientists who were working on command and control; the Red Army captured the German scientists who were working on rockets.

    That resulted in the U. S. concentrating on command and control (computers). We couldn’t put the payloads up that the Soviets could so we decided to use the rockets we could produce to put up smaller payloads. That placed a premium on miniaturization. IC’s, printed circuit boards, connector technology, and everything that set the stage for modern computer technology stems from that.

  2. Where did the portable trajectory-plotting machine come from, and what happened to the rocket that was supposed to go with it?

    Computer games drove a lot of the progress on computers, for you need the most powerful hardware to run them. Consumer demand did the rest.

    As to the rockets: I think that the rockets of ‘Golden Age’ SF should be regarded as a metaphor for any technology that gets you, or your payload, into orbit. Rockets as such are too expensive as large-scale propulsiuon systems (you need fuel to get a rocket into orbit, and of course you need more fuel to get that fuel up, and some more fuel to lift the fuel that lifts the fuel that lifts the rocket etc, etc, ad nauseam), while alternative technologies aren’t ready yet. Electromagnetic catapults might be one of those – energy is expended at launch, and you only need the energy to lift the payload, and not the fuel.

    Another hurdle is international law. To make commercial space travel viable, those laws will have to be revised:

    In order to encourage commercial operation of passenger launch vehicles, changes in space law at both national and international levels are also required. Such aspects of current-day space law as government responsibility for damage caused by launch vehicles launched from their territory, the need to register all launches with the United Nations, and the need to treat all space travellers as “envoys of mankind” are not practical for commercial space travel, and are ripe for revision to become convenient commercial procedures. This objective should therefore be put on the agenda in fora wherever space law and international law are discussed, as recommended also in the recent AIAA report (11).

    (Emphasis mine).

    You can find a pretty good summary of space law here.

    Especially interesting is this:

    4. Use of nuclear power sources (NPS)
    The working group on this issue has been suspended since the adoption of the set of principles in 1993, i.e. there has been no discussion of this matter. It is conceivable that the discussion will be resumed in the future if there is the political will to widen its scope or to cast it in the mould of an international treaty.

    Given the current legal regime, nobody wil want to ‘resume’ this particular discussion.

  3. I think the major reason we don’t have super rockets is that we really don’t need them for any economic reason.

    There is no real economic reason to go the moon, for example. We are not so short of resources that we have to schlep them in from space. The only really useful thing in space is space itself and there is a big business taking advantage of that i.e. information satellites but those do not require super rockets to loft.

    I image that if the state had never gotten into the space biz that private enterprise would have started lofting satellites sometime in the 70′ but beyond that I don’t think there would have ever been a lot of investment.

    Without a real economic need to drive its development, space propulsion technology has been driven by the whims of politics.

  4. There’s more use for better, faster, smaller computers than for rockets with the capacity to make it to space. Aside from actually going to space, what would you use a rocket the size of a Saturn V for? We don’t need anything even remotely that size to carry a nuke around the world…

    … and if you’re going to space, you’re going one of two places: “close” and “far”. If you’re going to just barely leave the atmosphere, a 2-stage plane is your best technology. Rumor has it there’s an active plane of that sort based on the XB-70 Valkyrie, with a structure not too different from an inverted M/D-21 Blackbird. But, the government didn’t develop those back during the space race because they wanted to go “far” — that is, to the moon — and the best way to go “far” is with a big rocket. Therefore, the research dollars went to rockets…

  5. The difference is that Moore’s law doesn’t work for rockets the way it works for electronics. Or more accurately, Moore’s law only works for microprocessor types of electronics.

    A classic example of misapplication of Moore’s law was a blog comment about solar power. “Just wait 10 years for Moore’s law to work on solar chips.” In actuality, long ago we reached the practical limits of solar power and rockets (as described by Einstein and Newton,) and further research won’t double performance, ever.

    Remember, Heinlein also described the watershed change in society that the “Douglas-Martin sun power screens” had on society in “The Roads Must Roll.”

  6. Technological advance continues, it just continues in areas the regulators haven’t walled in yet, and they’re building more walls all the time. Worse yet, they’re starting to get proactive, coming up with regulations for fields like nanotech that haven’t taken off yet.

    The fundamental problem is that our government doesn’t trust us. And getting into space requires powerful technologies which can be used for evil. Only the government’s tame, carefully monitored inventors are allowed to work on the technologies that show any promise of making space travel practical.

  7. Ah, Heinlein. The man who predicted (in The Door into Summer, 1957) that by 1970 we would have nuclear war, household robots, and cryogenic suspension, but in the year 2000 engineers would still be doing their calculations on slide rules.

    What about the household robots and cryogenic suspension? Has government regulation stymied research into those areas? How about nuclear wars? Is the government monopoly on atomic weaponry been a good or bad thing, do you think?

  8. Govt regulation has certainly stymied innovation in housing, air transportation, private space ventures, food processing, science and medicine and other areas. The existence of nuclear bombs does not necessarily imply a need for zoning laws or the FDA.

  9. Well, I don’t know if you’d consider it government regulation, but the Society for Cryobiology has done a pretty good job of suppressing progress in cryogenic suspension, by adopting a policy of expelling any members who engage in research related to it. Given the amount of progress that’s been made by cryonics organizations doing research on a frayed shoestring budget, maybe we WOULD have reversable suspension by now if not for that policy.

  10. “What about the household robots and cryogenic suspension? Has government regulation stymied research into those areas?”

    Household robots exist. I’ve got one that cleans my carpets nicely. It doesn’t talk, but I consider that a plus.

    As for cryogenic suspension, of course government regulation has stymied research.

    “How about nuclear wars? Is the government monopoly on atomic weaponry been a good or bad thing, do you think?”

    A monopoly on atomic reactors has been a bad thing overall. With personal atomic reactors, there would be little need for us to live all crammed together, and we would have little need for vulnerable infrastructure to provide us the power, fresh water, waste treatment, and so on that could be built into our homes with cheap atomic power generated on-site.

  11. Hmmmm….

    Maybe because the government maintained a monopoly on the ‘big’ rockets while it lost any control on the computing instruments with the introduction of the integrated chip and its release into the hands of public.

  12. Heinlein fudged a little on his rockets. The rockets in his books are smaller, more reusable, have better payloads, and use less/cheaper fuel than anything people have come up with subsequently.

    Even if you had a totally free market, using a Saturn V to put a payload the size of an Apollo capsule around the moon just isn’t economical.

    Trying to put Heinlein’s rocket economics into practical terms, if you read his short stories, the Earth/Moon shuttles seem about the size of an 1800s-era steamboat, with ticket costs basically a more expensive version of jet airfare in the 1950s. Given that the physics of rocket travel are *very* tightly constrained by the rocket equation, you can’t get that kind of technology without incredibly high exhaust velocities, which wouldn’t be attainable without 1) Much better fuels, and 2) Much better metallurgy for nozzles.

  13. It might also be the fact that computers are developed and sold by private companies while rockets are manufactured and controlled by the government.

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