Space Shuttle Program coda: There and Back Again

STS-135, 7/21/11

But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

Take me out, to the black

This is just really, really cool – the crew of Endeavour STS-130 awoke this morning to the Ballad of Serenity.

And NASA announced it on Twitter – and is even hosting the mp3 for download. Though you can also get it from the Firefly Wiki.

funny comment from the thread at Whedon’s site: “and then the Space Shuttle program was cancelled. Coincidence?”

here’s the lyrics:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…

NASA Serenity

the Romanticist astronaut

Steven is a bit harsh on Brickmuppet, who was complaining that we haven’t escaped low-earth orbit in four decades, and how that represented a betrayal of our generation’s birthright. Steven argues that the past 40 years, dominated by unequivocally successful space probes throughout the solar system and (in the case of Voyager) beyond, have been anything but a betrayal, but I think Steven misses the point.

Steven is right, that the best way to do science is via unmanned probes. You can pack more sensors and bring back more data without the need to keep a human being alive – this is just the simple reality of biology, information theory, and physics. But the space program was only partly about science, it was also about something more primal, about something that is unique to the human animal, the need to explore and understand. That indefinable wanderlust has been the subject of artistic exploration as well as physical – I think it’s best captured by Romanticist art, in particular the famous painting The Wanderer (1818) by German artist Caspar David Friedrich:


I’ll leave the meta-analysis to Wikipedia but I think anyone will recognize a familiar emotion in this work – the same emotion that makes us receptive to 2001: a Space Odyssey, or Star Trek, or even Lord of the Rings. The space program was the ultimate expression of this wanderlust because it was real – the possibility existed that we might actually follow where our imaginations have lead. All of us wanted to be an astronaut, and most of us still do. Maybe our children will yet be, one day.

surfing FTL

In scifi, FTL is achieved by jumping around spacetime, because accelerating to light speed would require infinite energy (as per Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Gamma is not your friend). However, now some physicists have theorized a way to accelerate to c and beyond, by “surfing” on a wave of space-time:

In theory, the universe grew faster than the speed of light for a very short time after the Big Bang, driven by the dark energy that represents about 74 percent of the total mass-energy budget in the universe. Dark matter constitutes 22 percent of the budget, and normal matter (stars, planets and everything you see) makes up the remaining 4 percent or so.

Strange as it sounds, current evidence supports the notion that the fabric of space-time can expand faster than the speed of light, because the reality in which light travels is itself expanding.

Cleaver and Richard Obousy, a Baylor graduate student, tapped the latest idea in string theory to devise how to manipulate dark energy and accelerate a spaceship. Their notion is based on the Alcubierre drive, which proposes expanding space-time behind the spaceship while also shrinking space-time in front.
Cleaver told, “The dark energy is simultaneously decreased just in front of the ship to decrease (and bring to a stop) the expansion rate of the universe in front of the ship. If the dark energy can be made negative directly in front of the ship, then space in front of the ship would locally contract.”

All you need to do is manipulate the 11th dimension. And it doesn’t even require infinite energy. Just a Jupiter mass or so. Simple!

amazing earthset/earthrise videos

Kaguya mission logoThe Japanese spacecraft Kaguya, on a mission to the moon in what is described as the most significant moon exploration since Apollo, has delivered incredible HDTV-quality videos of the Earth rising and setting over the lunar horizon. These are unbelievable, like special effects in some movie, but they are real.

Earthrise from the moon

Earthset from the moon

The (english-language) homepage for the Kaguya mission is here. Kaguya is named for a princess in the Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

Iridium reborn

iridiumThere’s a great in-depth article in the Iridium satellite network at TG Daily that is worth a read. When I worked in Boston back in 1997, an Iridium executive had come round to pitch the service, and made a compelling case for the technology and wow factor. Two years later it was bankrupt. the business model just wasn’t right for a consumer service:

Analysts speculated back then that Iridium would need about 1 million customers to reach a break even. The estimated cost just to maintain the satellite network was about $540 million per year. Despite the hype, Iridium saw just a lukewarm feedback from customers: Just 3000 customers subscribed to the service in 1998. By the end of March, the customer base was just 10,300 and by the end of June just about 15,000. Still, especially market research firms fueled the hype around the company: Dataquest, for example, estimated in early 1999 that global satellite phone services would be able to attract about 10 million subscribers by 2003. Consider calling rates between $7 and $10 per minute and handset prices of more than $3000 and you can easily imagine that this was at least a $1 billion per month industry, if Dataquest was right. As we know today, they were wrong.

What was ignored at the time was the fact that Motorola had borrowed lots of money to build Iridium’s satellite network (the final price tag was reportedly more than $5 billion). The staggering cost to build and maintain the network as well as the failure to attract enough customers pushed Iridium’s quarterly losses above the half-a-billion-dollar mark by Q1 1999 and eventually forced the company to file for Chapter 11: Less than a year after the official launch of the service, Iridium defaulted on a $1.5 billion loan in August 1999.

I was under the impression that the network had been dismantled and the satellites abandoned. Instead, it had been bought out for pennies on the dollar and the business model completely revamped to focus on industry and military customers rather than the mobile consumer market. There still is no network quite like it, even though it’s based on technology that’s already decades old.

the economics of interstellar trade

Paul Krugman may be known as a fire-breathing liberal economics professor today, but back in the 70s when he was just another aspiring junior faculty, he wrote one of the coolest things in economics since.. well, Freakonomics. Namely, a short treatise on the economics of interstellar trade (PDF). Here’s the title and abstract:

The Theory of Interstellar Trade

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer traveling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

The tone of the manuscript itself was even more light-hearted – for example, here is Figure 2, reproduced in its entirety:

Impressive, no? (Krugman notes that readers who find Figure 2 puzzling should recall that a diagram of an imaginary axis must, of course, itself be imaginary).

But the main contribution of the paper were Two Fundamental Theorems of Interstellar Trade, both truly proved with genuine rigor (or so I assume, the math seems fine to me but the theory is beyond my expertise). These theorems are:

  1. When trade takes place between two planets in a common inertial frame, the interest costs on goods in transit should be calculated using time measured by clocks in the common frame, and not be clocks in the frames of trading spacecraft.
  2. If sentient beings may hold assets on two planets in the same inertial reference frame, competition will equalize the interest rates on the two planets.

It occurs to me that this is a rich field to mine for speculative fiction. Consider the case where two planets are not in the same inertial frame, like the homeworlds of the Pierson’s Puppeteers? Could someone on either world then take advantage of the violation of the Theorems above and make a fortune?

Of course, there are less sophisticated ways to profit as well:

Hi my name is Prince Valtor Tazalutium the Third from the distant planet Nigeron 7. I have dispatched the fastest cargo ships in my fleet to Earth filled with the rich treasures of my home planet. However because of the vast distance between our two planets my ships will not reach Earth until I am long dead and therefore will not receive a return on my initial investment. As I have no heirs I am looking for one trustworthy stranger to buy these ships and their cargo en route to your planet. I am willing to sell them for $50,000.00 US DOLLARS. If interested please contact me at