Technology, transforming the space sector, and us

After concluding a bat’leth tournament, a lone traveler in deep space passes through a jagged sliver of space-time. This piece of the galaxy is defective, a “quantum fissure” in techno-babble, as if whoever made it was asleep at the wheel. This is the universe of Star Trek, of course, full of all sorts of space-time hijinks, like entangling your different selves from parallel universes. With this elegant premise, Commander Worf blips between worlds, married in one, onward to where his child never existed and to where crewmates he left behind are now dead. Channeling Schrodinger’s cat, he is neither here nor there, nor both, nor in-between. Worf is stuck becoming, unmoored from being.

Worf leaping among worlds of possibility. Credit: Star Trek, The Next Generation

Resolved in under an hour, it turns out traveling between alternate lives is like *yawning and stretching* just another day at the rocket ranch. Feeling pure terror when everything about your existence is yanked out from beneath you and curling up in a fetal position is not allowed. Not in this future. You know you’ve seen things but must move on.

This is the unsung optimism of Trek, without which its stories won’t fly. This is not the optimism of technology, transporters, starships, or the optimism Trek is praised for, where diverse beings pull together for a common good. There is another optimism entirely, assumed yet unsaid.

The hidden conceit in speculative storytelling is where characters experience fundamentally transformative possibilities but are left none the worse for wear. This is also so outside of sci-fi, in technology circles, space exploration, and, surprisingly, economics. A joke at NASA was “the meeting is over when someone says paradigm shift.” (Another version was someone saying “out of the box.”) Now that we’ve checked off all the standard topics on the agenda, we can call it a wrap! In storytelling, time, space, physics, technology, aliens, and some casual breaks in the fabric of reality, remind you nothing is as simple as you imagined or as limited. When you wake, your first order of business is a paradigm shift. Fear of change is not in the equation, except for the occasional nod to a 21st-century traveler to the 24th who finds they can’t deal. (Trek rarely shows us or our times favorably.)

But alternately, there is a school of thought where we are in a paradigm shift, now about information, knowledge, zeros and ones, and “screens.”

Do our outlooks for space exploration and technology assume we will also show the resilience of the characters that inhabit our fiction? The notion of technology stagnation would seem to say it’s not a problem to worry about. No one is going anywhere so fast anytime soon. But alternately, there is a school of thought where we are in a paradigm shift, now about information, knowledge, zeros and ones, and “screens.” We are just missing the change all around us for it being unobtrusive, whizzing by us in the Wi-Fi. Our current revolution is just not as physical and brawny as the ones before that filled the skyline with smokestacks and industry and later got us between those places with jets instead of trains. In this view, the streams of information surrounding us and scientific knowledge from probes and telescopes are as wondrous for space exploration as if we went there. And for resilience, we are showing we can take it, if with some growing pains.

I really have to catch up on my email.

Too long ago, it was another joke to compare email activity. Was your email filling up one, two, or too many screens of emails every day? The storm had begun earlier for some, but eventually, it drenched everyone. So, it’s not a surprise email came to be called the last resort for communication and, soon after, a form to be avoided. Information does not care, the way closing a door in a flood does not keep the water out. You adopt a strategy of denial at your own risk. Resilience was the expectation, as was processing it all, reports and findings and contributing yours. This was symptomatic of the times, as technology and possibilities came and went wildly and in mass. The question remains, after jumping from one possibility to another, what will be your final state?

NASA and space exploration go hand in hand with technology. But technology moves in a constant stream of possibilities dwarfing NASA’s choices by orders of magnitude. If we burst into a reverie about what’s possible and lacking, if we think of “stagnation,” the list is long.

Radiation exposure in space, materials, launch and software

On the supply side, things needed to get the things wanted, to have a wide-spread human presence in space, we must overcome the health challenges of being out there. Recently NASA set the bar for how much radiation a crew member could be exposed to over their lifetime. At 600 millisieverts (mSv), the limit is less than the 1,000 mSv crew would likely see with today’s technology on a single trip to Mars. So, on the bright side, the challenge is there to do better. On the other hand, even this low limit set for one-time trips by astronauts is not a formula for growing numbers of average people living and working in space. Houston, we need materials that do not exist! Already the private sector is seeing this need, running with promising materials.

…when your current technology won’t give us everyday people living in space – and not heading back.

But the need for leaps beyond new materials is also clear. More mass in space will help here, assuming putting up more mass is not stopped by the watchers of every ounce still not realizing costs are elsewhere. Perhaps too, exploring new materials via software simulations will help us find what we are looking for, or at least point us in the right direction. The possibilities are endless, which is good when your current technology won’t give us everyday people living in space – and not heading back.

Artificial gravity in space, structures, launch, “go big, or…”

Jogging in artificial gravity, from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As if the radiation isn’t bad enough, another need we must meet before we get what we want, is gravity, so living and working in space does not mean sacrificing your health. When your sister goes to space again for another year-long research expedition, human health concerns will be a thing of the past because of artificial gravity. Spinning large structures will be one solution if they can hold up to the twisting (besides the tension). Again, breaking from technology stagnation may mean inventing new materials. The un-obtanium must become our obtained-ium. Being power rich, from being much less concerned about the mass of what we put in space, will go a long way here too. The alternative, where our technology is stuck, is to grin and bear the litany of adverse health effects in zero gravity. We can embrace wild possibilities now and the benefits or limit everything assuming such major shifts are too far away to worry about.

Rockets, point-to-point transport, hypersonics, and depots

Those routine launches would include near-empty stages, filling up, and a solar system open for business.

A rocket a day, preferably many, would go a long way toward killing the funk of technology stagnation. Brawny, with fire and thunder, such a leap would seem a visible sign of a shift akin to our industrial revolutions. Depots in space would receive propellant, as multiple competitors focus on improving the supply of a simple liquid payload. Those routine launches would include near-empty stages, filling up, and a solar system open for business.

Closer to home, hypersonics, from propulsion to materials, would seem likely to stall in the face of climate change, fuel burn, and a TSA that makes shorter flights seem moot. That’s not stopping research, if now about weapons, or some enterprises that think they can surmount these difficulties. As with launch, zipping across continents faster than our ever slower (but efficient) jets would also signal a monumental shift. Point-to-point transport to anywhere on Earth in about an hour would seal the deal, and an AI managing all the traffic would remind us that box-paradigm-shift thing is here.

Having launched to space, spaceplanes topped off with propellant may find a role in returning people to Earth one hundred at a time. At the risk of predicting the unpredictable, a hundred people dropping straight down to be caught by chopsticks at a tower, last second, is not a return we’ll ever look back on as pedestrian. Yet pedestrian is what we need, that spaceplane taxiing over to its gate only to hear we have to wait 5 minutes for another one to clear a spot (Agg!)

Demand, the pull that justifies it all

Dr. Leonard McCoy, momentarily in our time, from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986.

It’s easy to forget everyone and everything trampled underneath the wheels of the previous shifts.

Benefits for people on Earth can’t be about a job without customers. Products from medicines to medical research, to new materials for Earth applications, promise to set the stage. NASA recognizes the ISS will not last forever, and yet NASA has long-term needs to have its people in orbit. Commercial space stations with NASA as a first or “anchor customer will fill the gap.” But success will be measured by what comes after, endless customers outside government and more facilities than NASA could ever need. Following up, propellant depots can find customers in satellite providers of all new services, internet anywhere, and 911 too.

In all these stories, we risk repeating the revolution we had last time. It’s easy to forget everyone and everything trampled underneath the wheels of previous shifts. Economists get into this fray debating total factor productivity or other measures. The environmental damage, the human cost, and the ugliness are all brushed aside. The price is paid, omelets and eggs come up, and we see the same old sins again. This is the romance of change. Like a general’s plan all set to fight the last war, what are we missing this time around?

We can debate and envision possibilities all day. I’ll probably miss the mark on every one. The true shift that makes this story work will come from taking in so many possibilities, but always knowing our way home. Along the trip, if we avoid the worse of past leaps and revolutions, we might find the best of all worlds, and the one we never imagined.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s