Thursday, September 20, 2007

Astropreneurs are kidding no one

Posted by goatchurch at 11:53 AM

Now they've got dear old Arthur C. Clarke to record a video promoting the Google Lunar X-Prize. Yes, even he couldn't keep a straight face when he read out the sentence: "Now the Google Lunar X-Prize will inspire a new fleet of private space craft to take humanity back to the moon."

Just so you get the message properly, the speakers at the launch party said:
Today we're challenging private teams around the world to design and build robot explorers and race them to the surface of the Moon. The Google Lunar X-prize is a competition that will once again demonstrate that small dedicated teams of individuals can do what was once thought only possible by governments.

Science has a serious marketing problem. This is the best antidote I've seen for that... We believe that setting an ambitious goal like going to the Moon is a really good way to improve the state of Humanity and the World, and that's why we care about this.

How many of you [young people] would like to go to the Moon? Raise your hands. Yeah. That's why we're here. We're capable of doing that. Maybe not all of you, but at least some of you will be able to go.
And there's also an official cheezy short movie dramatizing what the winning the prize will be like. An excerpt:
Until recently, space was off-limits to the public, but in 2004 the winners of the Axsari X-prize proved that private enterprise could travel to space in a reliable reusable spacecraft less expensively than any government programme.

The competition ignited a revolution that will launch thousands of civilian passengers into space. Today, the Google Lunar X-Prize is challenging free enterprise to reach much further, to the Moon to pave the way to harnessing its wealth of resources. Only days away its earth partner in a unique two world system.


Earth's off-shore island, the Moon can become our greatest asset. It could help provide our world with abundant resources and clean affordable limitless energy.

Much of the lunar soil is Silicon, a key ingredient of solar cells. In the future the silicon could be mined and used to build huge solar powered satellites. These satellites could be deployed to capture clean solar energy for the Earth, each one capable of powering a large city.
I am going to scream! Guess what most of the dirt on the Earth is made of? Silicon! You don't need to go to the Moon for that. Why isn't it being used on the ground already then? Solar powered satellites are one of those very bad old ideas that have been looked into at length over the years, admittedly by Government scientists who must by definition be stupid. (After all, they only invented the internet.) The fact that you mention it as an idea, and the only idea proposed in the movie, proves you still haven't thought of anything better!

Look, kids. None of you are going to the Moon. There are certain more pressing matters which will present issues of human survival in your own lifetime that you'll know about if you've been paying attention to the scientists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think if any science fiction reader from the past saw this prize going down as the one great hope for Humanity, he would die of shame that the whole endeavour has withered down to this. Sure, there may be a few die-hards with nowhere else to go who will claim that the Surge is working. But this was not how it was supposed to be.

Perhaps we ought to put this whole space-ship fantasy on hold for a couple of generations and pay some attention to the question of its own long-term survival on the home planet, eh? I don't think even the most optimistic man is of the belief that we're going to get these life-rafts off into space before the ice-sheets collapse.

Even if they're only supposed to rescue the billionaires.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, of course. But this is not an argument you can win, and it wouldn't be worth winning it anyway.

9/23/2007 06:19:00 AM  
Blogger Damien Sullivan said...

You may have heard of this fundamental force, called grarvity, and that its effects are rather strong on the Earth than on the Moon. If factories for solar power satellites massed rather less than the desired satellites, and were feasible in the first place, it could well make sense to launch factories to the Moon rather than to build or launch satellites from Earth. And being in space would avoid some of the problems of solar power on a rotating, atmospheric, planet. That the idea is not feasible takes real analysis with numbers, not pointing out that silicon is in dirt, and the feasibility is likely to change over time. Quickly enough to matter, well, we'll see.

9/23/2007 02:15:00 PM  
Blogger goatchurch said...

I understand that the issues involved in the manufacture of solar cells are chemistry, purity, precision, and a very large series of steps necessitating a complex production line. Gravity is not a convincing factor in the cost. Therefore one can say for sure that the manufacture is not going to get magically easier in space. In fact it's going to be far far more difficult.

It is therefore unlikely that solar cell manufacturing plants are going to be smaller than the size of a battleship, which is how big they are on earth, not counting all the suppliers of the preprocessed materials.

9/24/2007 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger TomsRants said...

Not to mention, how are we going to launch that "battleship" to the moon? Even the heavy-lift capability of the good-old Saturn V couldn't make that happen. Fact is, ISS notwithstanding, we as a species simply don't have the necessary experience with large-scale construction projects off-world. It's experience that's presently VERY expensive to obtain. It requires vision, commitment, and a loooonnnggg time horizon, a lot longer than next quarter's earnings statements or even a Presidential election cycle.

9/29/2007 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Weaseldog said...

Given enough energy and dedication, such endeavors appear to have a path of technical feasibility.

But humans have better things to do, like inventing new ways of killing each other.

We may soon be spending over a $trillion a year, in the effort to kill each other in new and better ways. Imagine what a NASA budget of that scale could accomplish.

Carl Sagan said that it is unlikely that we are a species that could pull this off. and I believe he was right.

We'll use up our endowment of fossil fuels and when the next big rock lands on the Earth, we may very well become extinct.

We probably aren't capable of doing better. If we could, we would, right?

10/01/2007 06:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am puzzled as to why the ‘Mundane SF’ movement has adopted this anti space travel rhetoric.

In the guidelines for the MundaneSF submission, it states that ‘today there is no materially profitable space travel’. But there are already space tourists, so that is not true. It doesn’t make sense to put that alongside the other technologies listed.

Progress in space travel appears disappointing, especially as we see that it is 50 years since Sputnik. But having just read a book on the history of science, I have to say that 50 years is not actually a long time when it comes to human progress. Technologies often stall, for various reasons. Then something comes along to give them a boost.

So the future of space travel is surely a very appropriate topic for mundane SF. We just don’t want characters to arrive on Mars and find aliens already there.


10/04/2007 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger goatchurch said...

The key phrase is "materially profitable".

Obviously, you can make anything profitable by selling it as a tourist attraction -- even if it's panning for gold in a depleted stream.

But there's a substantial difference between that source of income and actually being able to gather enough gold dust in a day to pay for your food.

If we could identify any material wealth out there in space, then we could envisage a gold rush scenario where people who invested in space technology would get a sufficient pay-back.

Doing it for prize money or the provision of expensive thrills for billionaires is essentially faking it, and I am disappointed that anyone is fooled.

Did you know that the total mass of the asteroid belt is less than 4% of the mass of the moon?

There is nothing out there we can use. The clue is in the name: Space

10/10/2007 02:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be right that there is nothing useful up there. But humans are not rational. If a corporation were to build houses on the moon, people would go and live there.

Besides, raw materials and material goods are hardly the only form of wealth.

When you say 'space', you make it sound so negative. Whereas I think 'what could we do with all that space?'. Your glass must be half empty.

10/11/2007 03:16:00 PM  
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