The news today is all about a rocket launch. The Atlantic magazine gushed that Jeff Bezos was ‘a successful businessman who could pursue his lifelong dream of going to space.’ Color me unimpressed, and here’s why:
Bezos is not a “businessman,” he’s a robber baron. We have seen his like before. He is not rising to some noble purpose. He is, in his own words, “playing with my Amazon lottery money.”
Many people have drawn a false dichotomy between “space” and “saving the Earth” but that is not, in itself, a valid criticism. “Space” is a space station for observation and experimentation; it is the study of other planets so we can understand our own; it is exploration of our universe so we can grasp our place in it. Bezos and Musk want to skip over those things and go directly to commercialization. Mark my word, they will resist any regulatory laws to protect clean orbits or environmental consequences on Earth.
Nor do the centi-billionaires deserve any great kudos for coming up with reusable rockets. NASA blazed a trail in rocket technology, and now is starved for funding by populists who think science is a special interest. Technology moves forward on a scaffold of supporting innovations. For instance, railroads could not be built until there were fundamental advances in steam technology, steel manufacture, and even timekeeping. For another instance, two people working independently developed a theory of evolution at the same time. Two people working independently developed a working telephone at the same time. Motion pictures, light bulbs… same story. It was time for those things.
We have several new technologies that were not available to NASA: supercomputers, additive manufacturing (essential in aerospace now), and compact, efficient electronics. It is time for reusable rockets: the only question is what they will be used for.
Now, about that rocket: it has ONE engine. And Bezos climbed in after only 23 flights of the design. He was trying to ‘prove that it was safe’ but frankly, no way in hell would I ride that thing. It lacks what an architectural engineer would call a ‘redundant load-path to ground.’
The SpaceX rocket uses several smaller engines in an array, so that if one of them fails, the computer can adapt and get you back to ground in one piece. Setting aside my intense dislike of Elon Musk, that is a better design.
I’ll write more on space privatization later, but forgive me if my admiration of these wealth-jockies is under control.