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A Blast From The Past

Ben Bova has a piece in the Naples News that could have been written thirty years ago. In fact, it's exactly like stuff that he (and I) wrote thirty years ago. The only difference is that I have experienced the past thirty years, whereas he seems to be stuck in a seventies time warp, and I've gotten a lot more sober about the prospects for a lot of the orbital activities that were always just around the corner, and probably always will be:

An orbital habitat needn't be a retirement center, though. Space offers some interesting advantages for manufacturing metal alloys, pharmaceuticals, electronics components and other products. For example, in zero-gravity it's much easier to mix liquids.

Think of mixing a salad dressing. On Earth, no matter how hard you stir, the heavier elements sink to the bottom of the bowl. In zero G there are no heavier elements: they're all weightless. And you don't even need a bowl! Liquids form spherical shapes, whether they're droplets of water or industrial-sized balls of molten metals.

Metallurgists have predicted that it should be possible in orbit to produce steel alloys that are much stronger, yet much lighter, than any alloys produced on Earth. This is because the molten elements can mix much more thoroughly, and gaseous impurities in the mix can percolate out and into space.

Imagine automobiles built of orbital steel. They'd be much stronger than ordinary cars, yet lighter and more fuel-efficient. There's a market to aim for.

Moreover, in space you get energy practically for free. Sunlight can be focused with mirrors to produce furnace-hot temperatures. Or electricity, from solarvoltaic cells. Without spending a penny for fuel.

The clean, "containerless" environment of orbital space could allow production of ultrapure pharmaceuticals and electronics components, among other things.

Orbital facilities, then, would probably consist of zero-G sections where manufacturing work is done, and low-G areas where people live.

There would also be a good deal of scientific research done in orbital facilities. For one thing, an orbiting habitat would be an ideal place to conduct long-term studies of how the human body reacts to prolonged living in low gravity. Industrial researchers will seek new ways to utilize the low gravity, clean environment and free energy to produce new products, preferably products that cannot be manufactured on Earth, with its heavy gravity, germ-laden environment and high energy costs.

Cars made of "orbital steel"?


But I guess there's always a fresh market for this kind of overhyped boosterism. I think that it actively hurts the cause of space activism, because people in the know know how unrealistic a lot of it is, and it just hurts the credibility of proponents like Ben Bova.


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Dick Eagleson wrote:

Geez, that's embarrassing. Like he was wearing a green pastel polyester leisure suit and listening to a vinyl Fleetwood Mac album while writing it.

Dick Eagleson wrote:

Upon further reflection I have come to the conclusion that it could have been worse. At least there was no mention of trivially fabricating perfectly spherical ball bearings.

Carl Pham wrote:

Well, each generation has its perennial fantasies, green in their youth, that they never outgrow.

Look at all the children of the 90s who think the Internet will continue its explosion indefinitely (you know, like we children of the 70s thought rocketships would), and in 15 years everything anyone says or does will be archived on Google, easily searched, and disposable computers that talk will be the size of matchboxes and as cheap as candy bars, and you'll use HUD displays in your contact lenses to Twitter your good buds while you ride your solar-powered motorbike to your job coding up social-networking algorithms. I imagine they'll still think the wonders of the Internet are Just Around The Corner(TM) in 2050, too, when they're about to start collecting Social Security.

Mike Combs wrote:

Yeah, they'll have to pry "The High Frontier" out of my cold, dead hands, but I gave up on "containerless processing" and other such stuff many years ago.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on September 21, 2008 11:29 AM.

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