The Space Technology Curve

I don’t usually post from Facebook, but Jeff Greason has an interesting/depressing thought:

In the Star Trek episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, Kirk is told “I’m going to lock you up for two hundred years”. He looks at the camera (very nearly breaking the fourth wall), and says “that ought to be just about right” — in other words, telling the viewer that Star Trek is set about 200 years in the future.

That episode was filmed in 1968.

That was 50 years ago.

Somehow, I don’t feel we’ve made 1/4 of the progress from Apollo to Star Trek

As Mike Heney points out over there, we haven’t even made a quarter of the progress from Apollo back to Apollo.

21 thoughts on “The Space Technology Curve”

  1. NASA has bad habit of doing nothing
    Coupled with a massive delusion of doing great things.

  2. That we are only 1/4 of the way to Zefram Cochrane is only part of it.

    In that episode, Kirk tells the pilot of the F-104 trying to intercept the Enterprise when it gets crushed in the tractor beam, that he cannot lock him up for 200 years — pilot’s son “leads the first expedition to Saturn” in the 1990s. Of course, the pilot is beaming because this is the first news that he is going to be a dad, and so on.

    Whether we will ever get a warp drive is pure wishful thinking. That we would send expeditions to Saturn in the 1990s seemed plausible to many in the 1960s.

    1. I can fix this plot hole!

      We’re right on track. Spock mistakenly interpreted the texts about the pilot’s son leading the first mission to Saturn to mean that he went there himself. Actually, he was just one of many, many team leaders on the Cassini–Huygens mission, which started development in the early nineties, launched in 1997, and continued operations around Saturn until 2017. Due to his stints at JPL, he still hasn’t put in enough years to make colonel yet.

      Unfortunately, the plot holes in Star Trek Discovery are beyond fixing, but it would take a bigger blog to even attempt enumerating them. In the last episode they revealed that the Enterprise (NCC 1701) engages in ship-to-ship combat by launching hundreds of advanced manned fighter craft out of its shuttle bay.

      1. Enterprise did some serious damage to the Star Trek canon too, but at least it was a good show.

        The Enterprise as an aircraft carrier? Ye gods! Everyone knows CLAC’s weren’t developed until the early 20th century Post Diaspora by the Royal Manticore Navy during Honor Harrington’s time. That won’t be for two more millennia, plus or minus.

        1. Yep. The Enterprise is a CLAC.

          What’s worse is that this universe-rending continuity failure wasn’t even hinted at in Star Trek Discovery itself until the season two finale. Up till then, their shuttle bays were big enough for a couple of shuttle craft, at most.

          A couple of weeks ago I was looking at Star Trek Discovery at IMDb, which gives the season 2 episodes 6.5 to 8.7 stars, which is really good. So I…

          *Randomly clicks on user reviews for season 2 episode 13, which has 7.6 stars*

          Stars: 2, 1, 2, 5, 6, 5, 2, 7, 5, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 3, 4, 9, 3, 2..

          There are 50 reviews posted, and they average 4.76, not 7.6. Weighting them by how many found a review helpful, the score would be 4.55 out of 10.

          So I mosey’d on over to Rotten Tomatoes and season 2 gets 82% on the Tomatometer, but lo and behold, only 35% of viewers like it, and it gets a 2.3 out of 5, which would be a 4.6 out of 10. That’s a pretty big discrepancy between critics and viewers.

          Digging further, I started reading user reviews. I noticed that the zero and one star reviews were often pretty long and detailed, going on about how horrible the show is, whereas the somewhat offsetting five star reviews that brought the average up to 2.3/5 rarely had text at all.

          I then noticed that the five star reviews seem to come from users whose user names were given as first name, period, last initial, over and over again. So I started clicking on those reviewers, and none of them had ever reviewed anything else, none had anything on their watch list, and they all registered in November of 2018. I’m guessing they were created to try to get the viewer ratings up.

      2. Season 2 of STD was exactly like a STD, horrible and wont go away as fast as you want it to. They got picked up for another season. Did you know Spock is dyslexic?

        1. STD is a fresh version of Star Trek in the same way that the Koran is a fresh version of the New Testament.

  3. Although a warp drive would be quite the gadget, there is plenty within our solar system to keep us busy for centuries. At least for the first time I see a way to a sustainable path forward.

  4. I finally watched First Man this weekend. I didn’t like it and would have gone to Burger King after it, as it was depressing. Besides the constant reminder of death, there was the handling of Buzz Aldrin, which only served to remind me that he is still alive. Can you imagine accomplishing what he and Neil did, yet watching as fellow moon walkers die off and realize that 50 years later; we can’t send people beyond 500 miles.

    At least for the first time I see a way to a sustainable path forward.

    I agree, we now have a path. However, it will only remain sustainable if government stays out of the way.

    1. Recall the scene where Neil passed out in the multi-axis trainer, insisted on going again, and then ran to the bathroom and puked?

      What got me about that scene is why they kept filming it when none of the actors would have felt a bit sick. I’ve spun hundreds and hundreds of children of all ages on an even more violent multi-access trainer and they all scream in delight. None get sick. None even get dizzy. At public events kids line up a hundred deep just to take a ride in it, and then want to go again. Yet Neil and the other astronauts, the cream of America’s test pilots, can’t handle it?

      So my question is why didn’t somebody kill that scene? “Ryan, do you feel sick?” “No, this is fun!” Take after take, it should have become apparent to everyone that the scene was technical garbage because the actors weren’t even slightly dizzy, much less losing consciousness. That tells me that adherence to historical accuracy and physics was jettisoned early on.

      1. The actors weren’t moving their heads, were they?

        That’s the thing with those multi-axis spinning things; you’re fine as long as you just sit there and enjoy the ride. But if you start moving your head from side to side, the Coriolis effect kicks in in your semicircular canals, all of a sudden your eyes are telling you one thing while your middle ears are telling you something else, and you don’t feel so fine any more.

        1. Not sure about that. We haven’t had any complaints and the kids do all sorts of insane things while they’re spinning around and doing flips.

          The thing about the multi-axis trainer is that the eyes and ears stay in sync because unlike a merry-go-round, it’s never spinning in a single direction long enough to screw up the inner ear’s cilia/fluid sensor. It really is no different from playing basketball or doing a gymnastics routine or any other activity where you pivot your head constantly for situational awareness.

          Now if we left them in a spin with a fixed rotational axis, they surely would start getting dizzy, and if we put a pair of VR goggles on them that weren’t synced to the angular rates, then they would develop motion sickness. But just spinning around on three axes for a minute and a half doesn’t seem to induce anything but whoops and giggles.

          1. There was one ride at Disney (maybe Space Mountain?) that as it ended, you went through a tunnel with spinning lights. I could feel myself starting to rotate, even though it was a level track. I’d have to shut my eyes.

          2. Visually induced vertigo. That’s killed a whole lot of pilots, too.

            Air and Space has a long article on pilot disorientation.

            Our 3-axis trainer only rarely spins someone more than two revolutions on remotely the same axis before they go off spinning some other way, or the spin reverses direction, so the fluid in the inner ear rarely equilibrates to the rotation.

            However, one quite small child, maybe seven or eight years old, did start loudly yelling a disturbing number of Rick and Morty quotes for someone so young. ^_^

  5. We are rising up the curve faster now because:

    1) Personal wealth has grown to such proportions that private individuals can build their own space program – leading to vision and imagination and energy. Everything NASA lacks.

    2) Some technologies (e.g. computers) have continue to scale up in capability and scale down in price so that things like landing Falcon 9 first stages (and the GPS that makes it possible) is possible.

    Once all the eggs are out of the single NASA basket, a country which values energy, drive, imagination, thirst for profit and winning will produce people who will continue to accelerate the flight up that curve.

    1. Point 2 is really important. SpaceX deserves a lot of credit for ingenuity that lead to landing their first stages upright. However, what they have done would hardly been possible two decades ago as the rate sensors would have been too big and unreliable. Yet, it took SpaceX to deploy the technology. NASA’s built up bureaucracy doesn’t allow for such agile thinking. Now the SLS’s SRB’s just look so ridiculous, and that’s on top of how silly an idea they were for Constellation a decade ago.

  6. Rand (and commenters):

    As it turns out, I successfully pitched to a publisher an alt-history SF/F/H anthology called “The Secret Lunar Wars: 1956-1979”, where authors get to explain why, in fact, no human have been back out of LEO since 1973. The call for submissions just opened on Friday; here are details for any of you who want to try your hand at it:

    P.S. The really big SF stretch in the proposal is the director of NASA claiming that “We could have multiple bases on the Moon by now if we wanted to.” Maybe, but not built there by NASA.

    P.P.S. Rand, I prepared a spreadsheet containing 200+ actual space missions during that timeline, as well as some related events. If there are some other things that you think should be in that timeline, please let me know.

    1. Related to my response to Gregg, there is a good reason that NASA continues to rely on solid rocket boosters. Solid fuel is better for long time storage and quick on demand launches. That is to say, solid fuel is better for ICBM’s sitting long term alert. But how to regularly test such fuel and systems? Fly them in a civilian capacity, such as the Space Transportation System or more recently the Space Launch System. Of course, when your real goal is maintaining weapons designed to fight the last war; you tend to lose innovation. Oh, you also never wanted your ICBM’s to fly back home.

  7. Building off what Greg said.

    Society as a whole is progressing in ways that we as a group don’t fully comprehend because no one has enough knowledge about all of the different things happening in all the different industries. That might be an offensive comment to some smart people but it is true.

    Rather than being so focused on one area, look at all of the ways life is getting better for people in general as technology is innovated across industries. This is important, not just to burst your sads, but because major advances often happen through cross pollination. The more you know about different industries, the more opportunity for that spark of creativity that you might be able to apply to a space based industry, or perhaps it would take you in a totally unexpected and highly rewarding direction.

    The advancements we see in the space industry today couldn’t have come sooner as they rely on the progress of other related and unrelated fields. We are at a point where there is a confluence of technology, money, creativity, workforce, timing, and other factors that make what we are experiencing today possible. As the rest of society continues to develop, the cycle of discovery and the serendipitous cross pollination of knowledge will be very helpful the space industry.

    My bet is that unexpected developments in some very mundane age old industries will have some huge impacts in our off world activities and no one will have predicted them.

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