Friday, January 15, 2010

Space Travel for Everyone!

Sitting in a Boeing 757 on my way from Denver CO to San Jose CA I couldn't help but wonder about the profound changes that the commoditization of flight has brought humanity. From being able to move thousands of miles in one day, allowing different work patterns, globalization of commerce, communications (the physical kind of sending items across the world in a few days), to commerce and the global economy.

Relatively comfortable in the air conditioned fuselage, enjoying the Rocky Mountains passing down below on a flight costing about $250, I wondered what civilization would look like when low Earth orbit or even space travel to other planets will be a commodity and cost comparably.
Just like I have taken my family of five on flights and even babies travel safely in airplanes (our nine year old twins went on their first transatlantic flight when they were less than five month old), a family will be able to relocate for work or go on vacation in a hotel on Earth orbit or visit Mars (post terraforming, of course). Instead of $200,000 for a brief sub-orbital flight or years of training for a chosen few astronauts costing millions and billions of dollars, the $5,000 launch to an average space vacation will be preceded by a safety video about how escape suits are found under the seat and what to do in case of an emergency docking with a future space station on the way to Mars. Maybe also a section about good exercises to do once gravity is present again.

What aspects of our lives will radically change? Will we purchase exotic jewelry made from asteroid platinum? Will we go to a Disney spaceship like we can go on a Disney Cruise today? Will places like Kennedy Space Center become no more exciting than any other museum or an airport? As much as it may sound imaginary, even current space flights are considered mundane, and even the third trip to the moon wasn't televised until the lives of the three crewmen was at stake (Apollo 13).

When will all that happen? Well, we're seeing the very first steps in that direction, but as any early-adopter market, it's expensive and doesn't always work as expected - we lost two shuttles in two disasters (even airplanes occasionally malfunction). The initial cost of space flight is orders of magnitude larger and speed of development is orders of magnitude slower (partially because of funding) than near-earth atmospheric flight. I also don't think it would be possible for a couple of bicycle shop owners to develop the next step in space flight without external funding or at all similarly to the Wright brothers in 1903. Based on that it is unlikely that space flight, doubtfully even to Earth orbit will be commoditized like flight here on Earth after less than a hundred years since inception and proof of concept.

Maybe my grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to take a vacation in orbit as a standard family earning the equivalent of a current five-figure salary. In the meantime, I can only continue and aspire to become one of those who will contribute to that vision in this century.

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