Monday, April 11, 2016

SpaceX vs Secular Stagnation

Last Friday the technology world was abuzz with the news of the successful attempt by SpaceX to land the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on a ship, so it could be reused in future missions, thereby substantially reducing their cost (the first stage accounts for as much as 60% of the cost of the launching hardware, and SpaceX has managed to be already substantially cheaper than its competition, even before being able to count on such reuse): Vid of SpaceX Falcon 9 landing in ship

Some friends quickly pointed to me that SpaceX is empathically NOT a software company, so this achievement was doubtless a counterproof that my statement about technological advance having stopped (except in the realm of software) was if not false, at least in need of some big qualifications. Maybe so, but I wouldn’t uncork the champagne just yet, until we take stock of a few facts:

·         First successful attempt to land the first stage safely, after four unsuccessful ones… as Elon Musk himself has said, they will have made it when it stops being newsworthy because, you know, the normal thing is that the damn thing lands safely instead of exploding, and not the other way round

·         Of course they will get there sooner rather than later, which will allow them to roughly cut in half the price of putting a kg in orbit (from the current 6,000 $/kg of the Proton rockets –a bit below or above that depending on how the ruble stands relative to the dollar- or the 9,000 $/kg of an Ariane 5 to somewhere in the range of 4,600 $/kg), a far cry from the “one order of magnitude less” that you could read in apparently reputable media (like this article in the WaPo: Commercial implications for space travel? gimme a break!)

·         Don’t get me wrong, having reusable components of rockets is an absolute must if we want to go regularly, predictably (and, as it seems unavoidably necessary, cheaply) into space, so it is kind of a big deal that at last we have this wonderful new technology. Oooops, only it is not so new, those older than 20 years may remember that promising thingie, the Space Shuttle, that not only reused the boosters (the thin lateral rockets) without much ado, but also managed to reuse the whole friggin’ vehicle (well, they blew a couple of them with their crews inside, which partially explains the booming costs of all and every space programs afterwards)

Now don’t take me wrong, I think this is a big deal, indeed it kinda rekindles my faith in some teeny weeny technological progress, but it reinforces rather than question my main thesis about the pace of such progress having substantially slowed down, becoming indeed slow enough not be counted on to successfully oppose the headwind of a decreasing demography in order to restart economic growth and make it likely that our sons will live better than us.

Let us not forget that in 1969 we landed a guy on the moon. That was true, groundbreaking progress. Not so what has happened since the Apollo program was retired. Quoting Charlie Krauthammer (in what may be the only issue where I agree with a staunch conservative), it is like, after Columbus discovered the American continent (okay, rediscovered it, as we seem to be finding new evidence that the Vikings where there before), and announced it to everybody in Europe, we were all cheering the news that a ship had arrived to the Canary islands three decades after the feat. Doesn’t sound especially exciting or inspiring, does it?

You may have read that the owner of SpaceX (the aforementioned Elon Musk) sees this as the first step in the development of the technology capable of taking a human being in the near term to Mars. An old Chinese saying states that every 10,000 miles journey begins with a first step, and that taking the first step is already having half the effort done, but I’m afraid both Mr. Musk and myself will be long dead before the first human sets his foot in the red planet (as much as I would love to be wrong). I work in a company that builds thermal control systems for spacecraft, and I know a bit about how goddamn difficult is to qualify every itsy bitsy piece of hardware that aspires to go outside of good ol’ Earth’s orbit, and I’m sure Mr. Musk knows even better, so I guess he is just pitching his company to potential investors with a dream that he should know better than most that is dastardly far not just from being realized, but from being half realizable.

Which takes us back to where I left my last post, more or less: just to replicate technological feats that were routine in the 70s of last century takes us an inordinate effort and has to be celebrated and cheered just because of how infrequent it is (what may come next: swooning over a design for a commercial plane that can go above the speed of sound? Shivering with excitement because a nuclear reactor of a new generation is about to go on line? Opening our eyes in disbelief because some toroidal magnetic container will for the briefest time hold inside plasma as hot as that in the core of the stars? Dawg, all of those things were already achieved in the second half of the twentieth century). Yup we have extraordinarily powerful computers, so powerful that we are running out of meaningful uses for them, apart from storing countless videos of cats (videos in turn that have a tremendous potential to train AI programs to identify cats with little help from human operators… unfortunately to train them to recognize things like beautiful sonnets is proving much more daunting, as we regular humans can’t seem to agree what it is that makes a sonnet beautiful in the first place, so we can hardly teach a machine to do it) and allowing us to be ever more shoddy programmers and more careless at how we store information, being so cheap that it doesn’t pay to try to be efficient or to tidy things up.

Now I can almost hear critics saying that the future belongs not to the faint of heart or to the “rational” man that points to how difficult everything is, but to the bold visionaries that dare to have valiant, courageous dreams and pursue them regardless of how far-fetched they may appear to their more timorous, faint-hearted contemporaries. In the immortal words of Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes short again and again;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I get it Teddy, I’d much rather be that “doer of deeds” than the critic pointing out how meaningless the achievements of Elon are, and how in the end he is most likely not going to send anybody to Mars. We still inhabit in a mythological land of thoughts (inherited, from… where else? the central decades of the last century) where the naysayers are most often wrong, and the bold visionaries are more often than not vindicated, their visions materializing to the stupefaction and chagrin of the many who smugly had proclaimed before that they were impossible and unrealizable. That’s roughly the story of electricity, air travel (in machines heavier than air itself), television, nuclear power, personal computers (for which the CEO of IBM famously forecasted a total worldwide market able of absorbing forty to fifty units) and flying cars. Well, at least the critics have been right (so far) about flying cars. Except that nobody criticized that particular idea because it seemed obvious at the time they were first propounded (probably sometime around 1930) that they were the logical next steps and that a few decades from them they would be commonplace.

So I don’t really care about sounding smug, a timid soul or an impotent critic. Uncovering what Bacon called the “idols of the tribe” is a valuable social service, and our current lionization of entrepreneurs has a dark side, derivative on their usefulness for the dominant reason to sanction a spirit of acquisitiveness at all costs, regardless of the social cost and the potential environmental impact that would greatly benefit from a little critical tampering down. By the Way, of the current crop of lionized captains of industry, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are the only ones I truly respect, as (regardless of how psychotic they turn out to be or how toxic the workplaces they have created are) I recognize the legitimacy of their striving and the potentially positive societal impact of the companies they have founded and which they still lead. Just don’t expect me to drink the kool-aid they serve with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment