Whatever happened to the backyard inventor?

From Wells to the 1950s science fiction was dominated by the idea of the inventor who would fly to the Moon

Dateline 15 July 2005

H G Wells lived just a few miles from my house. I spent yesterday afternoon on Horsell Common, where the original War of the Worlds was set. I didn’t see Tom Cruise.

It was a common theme of science fiction from Wells to the 1950s that space flight would be developed by a backyard inventor – as powered flight was at Kitty Hawk. Arthur C Clarke was a little more sophisticated. He knew someone would have to pay the bills, so he set out to think of a way to make space flight profitable: he invented the communications satellite. I don’t suppose even Clarke conceived, in 1947, that I would be able to write an article in Horsell and bounce it in a fraction of a second to the shores of Lake Champlain, but that is one consequence of his invention.

What no-one anticipated was just how much space flight would cost. By the time of the Apollo program, people were anticipating that space flight would be common place. By the year 2000 we were all expecting to take our vacations on the Moon. Yet no-one has been there since 1972.

How did our dreams become so mired in politics? The conventional answer is that the costs proved so high that only governments could meet them. This is to look at the whole thing backwards. The costs became so high because government was meeting the bills.

In 1945 space-flight was approximately as advanced as computing. IBM estimated a global demand for around five computers. But the market brought millions of minds to bear on the project, and the price of computing power continues to tumble every year. Trans-Atlantic flight in the 1950s was where space flight is now: the prerogative of the military, and a handful of mega-rich tourists.

There are three main costs to space flight: the energy cost of the lift, the personnel cost, and the manufacturing cost of vehicles. The third is monstrous because there is no production line. Each vehicle is designed and built individually. This cost will fall automatically as soon as one of the other two does. A greater demand for space flight will lead to mass production. As demand grows the cost will continue to fall.

To trigger this virtual cycle – the benefits of which we have seen in computing and inter-continental flight – all we need to do is bring down one of the other two costs. The energy cost is tough. It will remain high until some new principle of physics is developed. That can and will happen, but only when there is a market for space flight. It is not likely to be the trigger for the other two. And so we look at personnel.

Into the 1990s NASA was still requiring 20,000 technical staff to be present for each launch. Experimental launches by McDonell Douglas required just three. The moment you complicate procedures to that degree, you make things more costly and less safe. No-one can monitor the work of 20,000 people, so no-one really knows whether the procedures are working.

The private sector could cut the personnel costs of space flight to 0.00015% of NASA’s. That would bring the cost of vehicle design tumbling almost immediately. Demand for space flight would soar and, some time soon, a new engine design would slash the energy cost too.

Those vacations on the Moon are still just a few decades away. All we have to do is abolish NASA and sell its assets by auction.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 15 July 2005

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