When America Led

I was thinking about the various world-changing technologies that will likely be developed during Nefarious’s early adulthood… Things like machine sentience, and the space elevator, which I was reading about today. One Wikipedia article made the claim that the cost of actually building it would be somewhere between $6 and $40 billion — a relatively minuscule amount of money. As is often said, what a shame it is that so much money is misdirected into war. I can’t begin to imagine what an amazing place the world would be if we invested money into building the future rather than destroying the present.

The advantage to the space elevator is of course that it brings the cost of bringing things to orbit to a couple hundred dollars a kilogram — a fraction of what current launch systems cost. To make it obvious, imagine if you lived in an apartment building, and you had to take a rocket to get to your 20th story apartment rather than taking the elevator… it would be ridiculous. Well, rockets to space may one day be just as silly and outrageous wastes of money. Still, thinking about space elevators got me reading about launch systems of the past. I was surprised to read about the massive size of the Saturn V rockets used in the moon project — they’re as tall as a 36 story building. WOW. Watching them take off would have been like watching a skyscraper fly into the sky.


After America went to the moon, Werner Von Braun and NASA had their eyes on a Mars shot — how sad that America lost its way and decided things like the Vietnam War were higher priorities — and they needed even bigger rockets. The Nova rockets in the picture above were truly massive — five hundred feet high, seventy feet across, and able to bring over a million pounds of gear into orbit in a single mission. WOW again. Some of them had rocket engines generating three million pounds of thrust. Sadly, the next era of American rocketry devolved into nuclear missiles, and America’s sights became shamefully low.

I know I’ve mentioned it here before, but that pales before the even more extreme Project Orion — although it’s not really fair to compare them since Nova was “real” and Orion was “theoretical”. Project Orion was another skyscraper sized rocket intended for interplanetary missions, powered by series of nuclear bombs pushing it into space… The largest of their designs was an eight million ton behemoth with the potential for interstellar ark-style travel. I doubt we’ll see nuclear spaceships, but at the same time, now that we’re discovering so many exoplanets, including some earthlike ones, now would be a wonderful time to set our sites not just on the other planets of our solar system, but on the stars.


It’s my hope that one of the side effects of Obama’s presidency is a renewed interest in science and futurism in America, and that we see new technological races, and we return to a world that looks forward with a sense of wonder and optimism. In any case, anything would be better than another eight years of resources squandered in war.


  1. wlfdrgn wrote:

    I actually saw an Apollo launch when I was very young. You know the scene with tons of people, campers, etc, all parked in the grass, along a canal, with a big countdown clock? That’s where I was. I don’t remember which one it was, but it must have been one of the last. I also saw a shuttle launch, although from farther away. The Apollo launch was much more impressive, and probably not just because I was so young.

    I think the most depressing thing about space exploration today isn’t that we’re not living on the moon, going to Pluto for vacations, etc. It’s that the first time, from Kennedy issuing his challenge to the nation, it was, what, 8 years before we walked on the moon? 8 years from never having had any animal in space, never having had any man-made object orbit the Earth, never having launched a human on a rocket at all, to walking on the moon.

    Then bush issues his challenge. Having all the knowledge we have today, having done all of this before, he challenged the country to go back to the moon in 15 years. Then cut the budget.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Don’t count on it.
    We wasted 35 years on a stupid reusable rocket plane that has killed more astronauts than all the other apollo, gemini, mercury and any other progams. I’d venture to guess that space shuttles have gobbled up more money than all other missions combined (adjusted for inflation). I’d say that Vietnam had less to do with the end of Apollo than America’s collective growing disinterest in moon missions. Atomic rockets?!?
    That’s like a car that runs on live cats or babies. Something that doesn’t even look good on paper.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  3. why does wikipedia carry such weight? I’ve found numerous inaccurate entries. It’s gospel according to whomever is writing it.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  4. starbadger wrote:

    Dyson wasn’t thinking big enough.

    Use an asteroid or why not MARS.

    I doubt firing H-bombs on the back side as was the orginal idea would harm the travellers on the other side.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm | Permalink
  5. starbadger wrote:

    Pluto might work if it is a 2-3 thousand diameter ball of dirty water – it is almost untethered from the sun – unlike mars – and most likely it is easier to burn water as atomic fuel – and who cares if it takes a couple thousand years to get to the next solar system – pt. is it has size -

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Will wrote:

    Considering all the things that could go wrong, NASA seems to have a pretty good record. The two shuttle “accidents” were due more to stupidity and arrogance rather than technological issues. The shuttle has sent and returned a large number of astronauts safely and the few who did not is only a small percentage in what is an extremely dangerous activity. Having said that, the shuttle should have been replaced and/or redesigned a long time ago. It was obvious even before it was first launched that its claims of being economical/safe were false. Now its a dinosaur that should have become extinct a long time ago.

    I do think that “we” (the people of this planet) should work together rather than this being a US, Russia, China, or whoever project.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  7. wlfdrgn wrote:

    The shuttles were really designed as a 10-year test in reusable spacecraft. The first launch, in the early 80′s, was far, far more than 10 years ago. It’s like expecting a ford escort to go a million miles without a major tune-up. Something’s going to break.

    Astronauts will die no matter what. Lucky for us, driving a car is perfectly safe, and flying, and boats, and…. The sad thing is that when three astronauts died on the pad during a test, everyone in america knew their names BEFORE they died. When shuttle astronauts died, americans didn’t even know their names AFTER they died. The space program isn’t doing anything engaging enough right now to keep people interested.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 4:20 am | Permalink
Wow Shannon, that's really annoying! What is it, 1997 on Geocities? Retroweb is NOT cool!

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