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Dr. Vinge: We Must Reduce Launch Costs Now

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Mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge, who coined the term “Singularity”, is an advocate of the Lifeboat Foundation’s mission: get some people off the Earth and get them self-sustaining as soon as possible, as an insurance policy against existential risk. In his “What if the Singularity does not happen?” talk for the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, Vinge calls the continuing pursuit of space under current-day launch costs as a “sham”:

Well, launch to LEO still runs $5000 to $10000/kg. As far as I can tell, the new Vision for Space Exploration will maintain these costs. This approach made some sense in 1970, when we were just beginning and when initial surveys of the problems and applications were worth almost any expense. Now, in the early 21st century, these launch costs make talk of humans-in-space a doubly gold-plated sham:

    • First, because of the pitiful limitations on delivered payloads, except at prices that are politically impossible (or are deniable promises about future plans).
    • Second, because with these launch costs, the payloads must be enormously more reliable and compact than commercial off-the-shelf hardware — and therefore enormously expensive in their own right.

I believe most people have great sympathy and enthusiasm for humans-in-space. They really “get” the big picture. Unfortunately, their sympathy and enthusiasm has been abused.

Humankind’s presence in space is essential to long-term human survival.

That is why I urge that we reject any major humans-in-space initiative that does not have the prerequisite goal of much cheaper (at least by a factor of ten) access to space.

We at Lifeboat Foundation wholeheartedly agree. A self-sustaining space station, which could weigh thousands or even millions of tons (the International Space Station weighs 235 tons), must be built out of components either harvested in space or launched for costs less than an order of magnitude than the current costs. We’re coming to a point in history where these expensive launches are just a waste. Why invest billions in going to Mars when we can’t even get out of our own atmosphere for anything less than millions of dollars? We have to put investment towards better approaches to launch. Superconducting maglev or mass driver approaches likely hold the key.

2 Comments so far

  1. we need to work on multiple parts of the access to space problem.

    1. Do more with the weights we can launch now. Magnetically inflated large structures

    This can help enable large scale power gneration in orbit and on the moon. Being able to generate 100+MW with the matter of folding a structure into the nosecone of are heaviest lift rockets.

    2. Place investments into multiple non-chemical rocket efforts.
    Arrayed laser mirror launch systems

    Magbeam and hypersonic tethers for boosting vehicles going 7–10 mach up to orbit.

    Look at minimag orion

    3. Use more alternative funding such as prizes for successful milestones. Pay for success with prizes.

    Do more to encourage competitive private development of space launch systems.

  2. I think it is imperative that we work within the technology we currently have available. It is the same issue we face when discussing solutions to global warming or Peak Oil — there is no as-yet-undeveloped future technology that we can rely on with any certainty.
    It may be expensive and inefficient to escape the planet with chemical rockets rather than anti-matter, but good lord, we have try with what we have!
    I work for NASA, currently as a propulsion engineer on the aging space shuttles. Processing spacecraft is not easy business, but technical challenges are not what is keeping us from spreading into the solar system. The answer is funding — there is staggeringly little emphasis on giving our species a change for long-term survival. The resources are prioritized to short-term band-aids and the long emergencies are ignored. Prize programs such as mentioned above exist, but they are very limited in scope.
    In short, the answer to making it happen is always the same: public support and funding.

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