Monday, December 22, 2003

Rocket Science just ain't what it used to be folks: where the rocket jocks of the 60's had to derive formulae and work them out on slide rules, we already have the formulae and a good chunk of knowledge; lots of great software is out there now, based on the rules they came up with and the data they delivered. And now your home computer is more powerful than all of NASA's computers put together, circa 1969.

Materials science has progressed almost as rapidly as computer science. Composite structures of today are much lighter and stronger than the simple tin walls that provided the Apollo astronauts a barrier between life and vacuum.

Most importantly, now the private sector has become involved in space in a big way, notably through the incentive offered by the X Prize. Some two dozen teams throughout the world are using incremental improvement strategies in their vehicle designs, each seeking to be the first to perform two flights to 100 km up in the same vehicle in two week's time. And some are getting close: Scaled Composites space ship 1 broke the sound barrier five days ago; the first completely-privately-funded aircraft to do so. And other companies like Armadillo Aerospace are breathing down Scaled's neck.

This is all a very good thing. As more and more companies become involved in space launches (Mojave is turning into a spaceport) more and more of the support services that these companies need become available. This brings down the total cost. A further advantage of the clustering of these spaceports (Mojave, two in Texas, and the Orlando area) is that they become a magnet for talented people interested in becoming involved in space work, much like Silicon Valley did in the 80's and 90's for computers.

With two people already having paid their way into space, and two more rumored to be going soon, all at 20 million dollars apiece, there is definitely a market for space tourism. And it isn't a market for daredevils either. These are fairly average people who just happen to have a lot of money. Bring that price down geometrically and the numbers of people willing to pay will rise exponentially, at least until demand levels out. Considering that there have only been 450 people in space over the last 46 years, compared with the millions who would want to go, tourism is an obvious growth market, with a long time before demand levels off.

But to have a viable tourist market, there must be somewhere for the tourist to go, and something for him to do when he gets there. And a sensitive microgravity laboratory is not the place to bring a bunch of tourists. You need to take them to a place in space that is designed for their needs. What is really needed for orbital tourists is a true space station, not an outpost like the ISS. Something similar to the big wheel-shaped station in 2001:a Space Odyssey would suffice; it would rotate to provide a semblance of gravity in the rim, and still have microgravity in the hub. It would be large enough that the spin would be low enough to not cause vertigo (anything less than 2 rpm is ok).

But how does one build something that big in space? First, start with the biggest part of the STS system, the space shuttle External Tank. These tanks could be taken all the way to orbit, but are not as there would be no way to control them. Rather than wasting them as has been done on the past more than 100 flights, they should be taken to orbit and kept there, eventually assembling them into a ring-shaped station (16 of these tanks could be used to make a Space Island-type station. This does not even require a shuttle launch, as two external tanks (one fueled, one "dry", containing ~50 tons of cargo and an "Aft Cargo Carrier" containing the equivalent of space shuttle main engines and a large space habitat) may be launched "belly-to-belly" in a completely unmanned mission. So only 8 such launches (or 16 if the shuttle fleet ever gets flying again)would be needed to create a Space Island. Bear in mind that one external tank by itself is more pressurizable volume than the full projected complete ISS, Mir, and Skylab, combined.

So you build this lovely space island, and competition between suborbital companies eventually yields regular orbital transport, bringing your costs down... and your competitors' costs...

But tourism by itself is not enough. It will give a big boost to the space industry, to be sure, but tourism needs to be more than just an end - it is the means to an end, at least partly. But to really get space into high gear, industry must step in. There are plenty of advantages to operating industry in space, once the cost to orbit figure has come down to a reasonable level. Unlimited free power for one: the sun, she just keeps a'burning. Raw materials available everywhere, with no indigenous populations of snail darters for the greens to get in a tizzy over. Microgravity (think: ultrapure steel). Finally, no governments up there to tie up industry in red tape.

oooo boy, i'm just getting started...

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Over at Claire Wolfe's blog, there has been some discussion on the associated forum about intellectual property, one which has been rather heated and divisive.

I contend that "intellectual property rights" are a sham. Intellectual property is not property at all, and the copyright system amounts to fraud.

This is not to say that authors, programmers, composers, and the like ought not to be paid for their creations. They should. The key is that once the agreed-upon price has been paid for that creation, then it no longer belongs to the originator; instead it now belongs to whoever bought it.

In the case of music, for example, a band first puts together a CD, then sells it to a music publisher like a record company. The record company now owns the CD. They produce thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies of that CD, put them in cases with liners, and sell them to record stores. The record stores now own the CDs. Then the individual customer buys a copy of the CD. When all the CDs are sold, they no longer belong to the artist, or to the record company, or to the record store, they belong instead to the individual customers.

"Intellectual Property" sees this differently: it contends that even after the artist has been paid, and the record company has been paid, and the record store has been paid, and the customer owns the CD, that even then the artist still deserves to be paid again should the customer convert the songs to MP3 and make a copy of that CD on his hard drive. Or that the artist should be paid if copies of the songs on that CD are shared over KaZaA or something similar.

Property that, once sold, still belongs to the person who originally owned it, cannot really be called property at all. The practice of selling the same item to many people, while still retaining ownership of that item, can only be called fraud. If I sold a Van Gough painting to one person, then sold the same painting to another person, then sold it again to a third, I could surely not expect to still retain ownership of that painting. I could expect to be charged with fraud instead.

So, suppose I am van Gough, and I sell one of my paintings. The person I sell it to can make 1 copy or 100000, it doesn't matter. He owns the painting. He can sell the copies he makes, as long as the name "van Gough" appears on them. And, he could claim that they were copies of the original; he could not claim that each was the original. None of the copies would be worth as much as the original, as they are copies. In much the same way, an autographed copy of a book is worth more than another copy of the same book.

So as long as the words are not plagarized, as long as the original composer is noted, as long as the credits remain unchanged on a film, there is nothing wrong with sharing any data that you own over the internet.

The proponents of intellectual property would have one believe that once this "property" is sold, that the ownership still remains with the originator, and that the originator must be paid a "royalty" in order to share data this way. This is obviously fraudulent.

And what about the record store, the record company, and all the support companies "affected" by this "lost sale"? Ought they not be compensated as well? Again, They should not, as they have already been paid, as has the originator of the data. Any additional payments to these groups would also be fraudulent.

Government force must be applied to enforce copyright and patent regulations. This is due to the nature of ideas; once an idea is transferred from one mind to the next, ownership of the idea by the original mind is not diminished in any way. Indeed, in some forms of idea transfer (such as teaching), the idea may even be enhanced by the transfer. And really, that is what songs and movies and all patentable and copyrightable material are: ideas. They have no mass, they have no volume, but they do take effort to create. And that effort ought to be rewarded financially, when they sell their idea or collection of ideas the first time. After that, no compensation can morally be expected.

The reason government force is needed to restrict the flow of these ideas is that the duplication costs of these ideas are miniscule compared to the original production costs. So the record companies, the artists, and those with an interest in maintaining "copyright" must use force to get fraudulent extra payment for already-paid-for services.

The lever used to apply this force is a tax on blank cassette tapes, on blank CDs, on blank DVDs, on tape recorders, on CD writers and on DVD writers. This tax is ostensibly returned to the artists who lose "revenue" due to "pirating". In reality, most of this money goes into government coffers, with some doled out to the record companies and movie companies (you know, the very people who make the blank CDs and blank cassette tapes and blank DVDs).

How they distribute the cash must be an exceedingly complex formula: How does one know what percentage of the blank CDs sold will contain a bunch of MP3s, and how many will contain movies? Which songs and which movies? And how many of those CDs will be used to copy one's own 8mm home movies? One can be certain that record companies are not distributing cash to artists not signed to their label.

These taxes are applied to every blank CD sold. This flies in the face of the 5th amendment (compels the customer to be a witness against himself. to plead guilty and pay a fine for "copyright infringement" even if one is copying self-produced material). It and other laws which hinder or prohibit the sharing of files over KaZaA violate the first amendment ("Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press").

Clearly, data that I own, on a CD I bought, is mine, to do with what I will. This is the same for anyone else who buys a product like a book or magazine or CD or DVD or what-have-you. Whether these people choose to share this data over KaZaA, or to make a second copy for their own use, or to put their CDs into a big pile and burn them, is nobody's business but their own. They bought it, it is theirs. And if they want to share data, freedom of speech and freedom of the press guarantee that right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Rand Simberg has a good editorial on this, the 100th anniversary of manned powered flight. Here's a sample:

"Perhaps, had they had an inkling of the events they were setting in motion, and powers they were unleashing, the brothers Wright, devout sons of a midwest Bishop, would have hesitated themselves.

But probably not. Like all pioneers, successful or otherwise, they were risk takers. They would have had no fear of the future that they were ushering in--after all, they had no fear even of losing their own lives, at least not enough so to hinder their progress, though they knew that others had died in similar attempts, and even been inspired by them.

They had a competitor, though--one who was risk averse, and partly because of that, he failed. It should be no surprise that he was funded by the U.S. government."

Sunday, December 07, 2003