We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Starhopper has landed

Last night, SpaceX completed a 150m hop test of the Starhopper test article for the upcoming Starship spacecraft. (Recall that Starhopper is basically a water tower with a rocket engine at the bottom.)

This may not look impressive to an untrained eye. After all, SpaceX has been landing rockets like this for a while. However, bear in mind what you are watching. This is a vehicle the size of a large townhouse (it’s 20m tall) being balanced at a single point at its base, and it isn’t so much as wobbling. (That’s much like keeping a water bottle balanced with your index finger.) Said house-sized object is then seamlessly translated upwards and over, and rotated at the same time, before landing perfectly. It’s propelled by the world’s first full flow staged combustion engine to actually fly — an engine burning methane, a relatively new fuel for rockets that has never before been used for real flights either.

Yes, SpaceX makes it look like getting a rocket to hover is easy. However, it isn’t even remotely easy.

This test makes it ever more likely that prototypes of Starship/Superheavy are going to be in flight tests of their own within the next couple of years. That, in turn, makes the era of affordable spaceflight ever closer. Recall that a fully reusable spacecraft means at least a two order of magnitude reduction in launch costs.

So, this minute long flight is a critical step towards the day where humans live permanently off the Earth. We at the Miskatonic University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics will continue to monitor and report as future Starship test flights occur.

You’ll believe a water tower can fly

Some time in the next week or two, pending only FAA aproval, SpaceX is planning to fly Starhopper, a test device for their next generation Starship launch system. Starhopper looks like a water tower with an attached rocket engine, mostly because it is indeed a water tower with an attached rocket engine. Starhopper is planned to rise to 200 metres into the air and then land, testing control systems and engine technology. This is a follow-up to a previous 5 metre test flight.

The engine is a brand new design called Raptor, which has a high specific impulse, meaning it is unusually efficient. Eventually, Starship will use up to 41 Raptor engines.

The test flight will be an exciting moment. The reason space travel is so expensive is that conventional rockets get thrown away after only a single use. (Imagine how unaffordable a flight from London to Berlin would be if the aircraft were thrown out at the end of the trip.) While a Saturn V would cost roughly $1bn today, the fuel would only cost about $1m. The bulk of current spaceflight cost is thus the cost of expending an extremely expensive piece of capital equipment instead of reusing it.

So, there is an opportunity to reduce the marginal cost of getting objects into orbit by orders of magnitude. SpaceX have already achieved some re-usability with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. However, Starship will be both much bigger (it will lift 100T or more into low earth orbit compared to Falcon Heavy’s 65T) and is the first ever fully reusable orbital launch vehicle (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy do not recover the second stage). It may even cost less to fly 100T into orbit than it currently does to launch a very small rocket like Rocket Lab’s Electron that lifts only 250kg to orbit at a price of about $7m.

Because it will be able to be refueled in orbit, it will also be able take that 100T to the moon or even Mars (albeit at additional cost because of the need for flights to loft the fuel.)

In other words, we are witnessing a revolution in space travel.

And with that stainless steel design, which can be transpiration cooled to avoid the use of heat shield tiles, it looks just like space travel was supposed to look back in the 50s.

Space regulations

United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that can put payloads into orbit on expendable rockets. They launched 7 payloads for commercial customers in the last decade, none since 2016. Their only customer is the US government.

In 2018, Spacex launched 14 payloads for commercial customers on their re-usable rocket. They are doing it for a fraction of the cost. Even the US government is using Spacex. ULA must be worried. What are they going to do?

ULA, and its parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have stood virtually alone in their support of the FAA’s rules revision.

What is this?

“I don’t blame ULA,” Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told SpaceNews. The revised rules the FAA proposed favor large companies that have bureaucracies in place to comply with onerous requirements, he said. “But for new entrants, small launch companies, reusable launch companies, the rules are backbreaking. It’s a tremendous barrier to entry. It’s almost as if the Russians and the Chinese wrote these rules.”

And now we know how ULA hopes to beat the competition.

Samizdata quote of the day

Perhaps the first blow to the technocratic mentality came with personal computers, pioneered not by bureaucratic think tanks, but by college kids and hobbyists. Then in 2000, the private firm Celera beat the government-run Human Genome Project in mapping the human genome, despite the government’s almost decade-long head start.

Today, the leaders in space technology are not at NASA but at private firms such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. True, these companies benefit from government subsidies — some of them shockingly wasteful — but nonetheless, they are demonstrating once again economic advantages of private industry over government management of technology. According to Ed Hudgins, an expert on space privatization, “as a government bureaucracy, NASA simply can’t be efficient. Every decision must be vetted and procedures followed that have more to do with protecting butts than protecting safety and keeping costs reasonable.” Private companies, by contrast, are not only faster at changing plans when necessary, but they have the incentive to do so, because they—unlike government entities—must bear the costs of their mistakes.

Timothy Sandefur

Samizdata quote of the day

There’s sufficient evidence that Stanley Kubrick directed the fake moon landing film, but being a perfectionist he did it on location.

Runcie Balspune

50 years ago…

…America faked the first moon landing.

And I say: well done them. That can’t have been easy. What other country has faked a moon landing, eh? Take that Russia! And what about the Chinese? They can fake anything but not putting a man on the moon. Only America can do that. And not once either but, er, several times. Including one moonshot that “didn’t get there”. Now that’s attention to verisimilitude.

But seriously, consider what an impossibly complicated and expensive exercise faking the moon landing was. You need a big fucking rocket. And it’s got to go up. Quite a long way in fact. And in a straight line. And not blow up.

And then you’ve got to get people to talk about all the little details: command module, lunar module, re-entry, space suits.

Oh, and spare a thought for Hollywood’s contribution. People in space. People bouncing around on the “moon”. All done in an age before CGI. And making the Earth round just to keep the Spherical Earth lobby happy. And note how they got all the radio delays right. And they even mangled Armstrong’s “one small step” speech just so that 30 years later they could claim that transmissions were subject to “interference”.

But what’s really impressive is how they kept everybody quiet. 1969 America was a place where you couldn’t even drive off a bridge and kill your secretary without it being front page news. Home of the brave? Home of the blabbermouth more like. But they kept the faked moon landing hushed up. Neil Armstrong kept the secret to his grave. And the other astronauts, and the people at Mission Control, and the gazillions of engineers who “worked” on the rocket, the life-support systems, the navigation, the computers, the software. The material scientists. To buy all these people’s silence? Now, that must have cost a fortune.

Sometimes I think it would have been cheaper to have done it for real.

On a sound stage no one can hear you taking a dump

On this day in 1919…

John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew non-stop across the Atlantic in a modified Vickers Vimy, taking off in Newfoundland, Canada and making an incommodious but non-fatal landing in Connemara, Ireland.

Samizdata quote of the day

Just as Gutenberg’s printing press awakened the masses to the wisdom of the ancients, and the desktop computer put enormous computational power into the hands of ordinary people, low cost, off-the-shelf space technology is ushering in a new era of entrepreneurial ambition and human self-awareness. An audacity of spirit is sweeping the globe and small business’ ability to produce spacefaring individuals is altering the long arc of human history guided by an invisible hand of invention and adaptation. It is advances like these, placing new creative tools into the hands of empowered individuals and small groups, that have shaped our destiny as humans. Whether it be campfires, currencies, or corporations, nothing so profoundly shapes the destiny and evolution of humankind as those inventions that empower everyday people. Today we are bearing witness to this power being applied to the boundless frontier called space.

Charles Beames

Discussion point: what to do about drones being used to disrupt air travel?

According to the BBC, ‘persons of interest’ have been identified as responsible for flying the drone or drones that shut down Gatwick airport. As it gradually became clear that this was going on too long to be the work of careless hobbyists or malicious pranksters, the profile of the crime (it disrupted air travel but did not kill anyone) made me think that “climate justice” activists might be responsible. The BBC article says that is indeed one of the lines of enquiry being pursued. Still, let us be no more hasty to jump to conclusions or to blame every environmentalist in existence for the possible crimes of one of their number than we would like them to be next time someone loosely describable as “on our side” commits a crime.

The more urgent problem is that now whoever it was has demonstrated the method, anyone can copy it.

Technically and legally what can be done to stop a repetition? What should be done? What should not be? If you are one of those who have enjoyed flying drones in a responsible manner, or who is developing ways to use drones for emergency or commercial use, start work on your arguments now, because, trust me, the calls to BAN ALL DRONES NOW are going to be loud.

Voyager 2 leaves* the heliosphere

NASA have announced that Voyager 2 left the heliosphere on 5th November 2018 (*albeit the exact scope of the heliosphere is vague). A dramatic drop in solar particles leaves Voyager 2, the first of the Voyagers to launch, but the slower and hence second to leave our solar system, whizzing off into interstellar space at 34,000 mph with a stack of Plutonium on board, the next planet is some 40,000 years away. It is now around 11,000,000,000 miles from Earth.

Voyager 2 left Earth on 20th August 1977, 16 days before Voyager 1, four days after Elvis died. Since then, probably over half the people on Earth have been born. France was yet to use the guillotine for the last time (well, pending further changes). Jimmy Carter was striving to be the worst US President in living memory. Concorde was yet to start scheduled services from London to New York. And the Queen was celebrating her Silver Jubilee.

In the world of popular music, ABBA were at their zenith. British Leyland were making Austin Allegros, David Owen was Jim Callaghan’s Foreign Secretary, planning no doubt for Ceausescu’s 1978 State Visit, when Madame Ceausescu was fêted by the Royal Institute of Chemistry. The accursed, groaning slave empire (h/t the late Auberon Waugh) we called the Soviet Union, was yet to invade Afghanistan, by then a ‘progressive’ republic, not yet wholly in Brezhnev’s warm embrace. And next door, the Shah still ruled in Iran. And the European Economic Community, having digested the UK, Ireland and Denmark, was working on welcoming recently democratic Greece by 1981 (Good call, that).

Coming back to the Voyagers, let’s pay tribute to the fantastic engineering of 1970s NASA in building a flying nuclear reactor so tough and durable that it can still run a probe some 41 years later, and the fantastic trajectories of the craft. Still sending back signals at 20 Watts, over 16 light hours away. A gallery of Voyager images is here.

The sheer scale of the Voyager journeys brings to mind the Total Perspective Vortex of the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Perhaps, and I speculate wildly, the true purpose of the Voyager missions was to scour the Solar System for signs of something specific, and not found on Earth. They are both still searching, quixotically and heroically, and in the spirit of scientific enquiry, if not for signs of alien life, then perhaps for Theresa May’s integrity.

An Open Letter to a Terrible Podcast

[I’m intensely interested in the current generation of space entrepreneurs. They really do have the capacity to transform the future of our species. I’m obsessed enough to listen to several space-related podcasts and watch a couple of Youtube channels on the topic. For reference, good podcasts include “Planetary Radio” for coverage of planetary science missions and government space policy, “Interplanetary Podcast” (an irreverent program produced by the British Interplanetary Society), the “Aerospace Engineering Podcast” (a recent addition I don’t yet have a strong opinion of) for insights into new technology, and I watch Youtube episodes of “TMRO”, “The Everyday Astronaut”, and Scott Manley’s show, all of which have interesting content. “TMRO” in particular is wonderful at conveying enthusiasm for the progress being made these days. “Planetary Radio” is much stodgier and more government space program oriented, but has excellent content and typically covers the whole spectrum quite fairly.

And then, there’s “Talking Space”, a podcast that I’m no longer willing to listen to. I rarely tell people that I’ve stopped subscribing to their content, but in this case, I felt compelled to write them a note — it’s unusual to find people in this media segment who so faithfully channel Ellsworth Toohey. Even though almost no one who reads Samizdata will have heard their tiny podcast, I’ve included the entire content below:]

I regularly listened to your program until your episode just after Falcon Heavy’s test flight. I was disgusted at that time with your astonishingly negative attitude about that launch, and unsubscribed for a while, but I decided to give you another chance. Having just stopped listening halfway through “To the moon, Elon!”, I think I’m through with your podcast permanently.

The BFR, if it flies, will be the first fully reusable orbital launch vehicle in history, and will also be one of the heaviest lift vehicles in history. Musk claims it will reduce launch costs by a factor of about two orders of magnitude. Even if it only reduces launch costs by a factor of ten and not one hundred, it will be a major milestone in human history, and I don’t believe that I’m exaggerating.

Not a single mention of that had been made by the time I shut off the episode. All I heard was “it might take a years longer than Musk says” and “this will cost money, where will it come from?” and the even more offensive “Yawn” remark where one of your hosts expressed actual boredom with the news.

On the cost, Musk has a long track record of securing the funding he needs, and as to the former, when he was asked about the timing at the press conference, he absolutely owned up to the fact that they were unlikely, saying that the dates in question were optimistic and based on nothing going wrong.

We all know by now, after his work at several companies, both that Musk rarely makes his dates, but that he almost always manages to achieve the the engineering goals he’s set. SpaceX had its first orbital launch only ten years ago, but is now the world’s leading launch provider, with only the Chinese government launching more often, and given the customer contracts they have in hand and the continuous increase in launch rate, by next year SpaceX may be approaching the Chinese launch cadence. There’s very little reason to doubt that they’re technically capable of building BFR or that they’ve got real revenue that they can apply to R&D, given that even a cursory estimate shows that their operating revenue is now into ten figures.

As for the ridiculous “Yawn” comment: presuming BFR launches, and I presume it will given enough time, it will dramatically alter the cost of human access to space. If the costs end up where Musk claims they will, the price of things like human colonization of cislunar space will be in the feasible range for the first time. If they end up 10x past what he thinks they will be, they’re still going to cut the price of access to space by 90%. This changes everything, even for science missions, which will benefit tremendously from far cheaper launches.

Spending your time nattering about how much you dislike Musk (which was a clear subtext) or are bored by him, how unlikely it is that he’ll get the money needed for development when he clearly managed to get the money needed for the development of all his projects to date, and how he might miss his date by years when that’s utterly immaterial, demonstrated to me that you guys are not my sort of people. You utterly miss the interesting part here — I can imagine your analysis of the first passenger railroad being something like “but the cross-ties are made of wood and will rot! They’ll have to be replaced at intervals!”.

Further, even if Musk doesn’t manage this and Bezos (who is working to the same goals) does, it still doesn’t matter — the world is about to be transformed, and all you can do is look for excuses to grumble.

I realized, in the midst of listening, that I understood the name of your podcast at last. It’s “Talking Space”.

Not “Doing Space”. “Talking Space”.

The lot of you are talkers, and the same sort of talkers who have naysayed pretty much ever interesting development since private development of space technology began in earnest. People like Musk, and Bezos, and Beck, and Haot, and all the others, who are putting their money on the line and their skin in the game, are the doers.

I’m done listening to talkers who have nothing to say but negative things when they themselves haven’t done anything. Musk’s people managed to go from zero to launching 20+ commercial orbital missions a year in a decade. What have you gotten done that makes you feel you can look down on SpaceX’s achievements?

I’ll conclude by saying this even more bluntly: the people responsible for human progress don’t spend all their time negatively gossiping from the sidelines about people who have done far more for humanity than themselves. We need more competent entrepreneurs, not more nasty talking heads.

The efficiency of state space development

Last night, Elon Musk mentioned that the development cost of Falcon Heavy was about $500M, an astonishing sum, until you remember that NASA’s new Space Launch System has consumed about $20B to date and isn’t finished yet. Full development costs for SLS are said to be $35B.

Also, while Falcon Heavy re-uses most of its hardware and costs about $90M a flight, the current quoted SLS flight cost is $500M, and more realistically might reach $1B per flight.

However, while Falcon Heavy can only carry 63 tons to low earth orbit, SLS Block 1 will be able to carry 70 tons.

Eventually, SLS Block 2 will be available, with a payload of 130 tons to LEO. By that time, SpaceX’s BFR, which will be fully reusable, may be in flight. BFR will be able to carry 150 tons to LEO, and is intended to be fully reusable, so a flight may cost as little as a few million dollars — likely under 1/100th of the cost of a flight of SLS Block 2.