Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Otto, the self-driving semi-trailer company acquired by Uber, has made its first commercial delivery. Meanwhile Uber is launching its software product UberFreight, which seeks to match cargo with trucks and drivers (just as regular Uber matches drivers and fares).

I don't know if these particular efforts will be successful. Uber has the resources to deliver here, but they might be beaten by other companies. Nevertheless, these are signals of the world that is slowly emerging and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it all.

Consider also-
That's just a taste, the trend is pretty clear. Every form of vehicle is being converted to self-driving variants. Not just Google's car, but planes, ships, and cars, and new categories (such as that little grocery delivery bot, as well as small flying drones) are emerging too. And trains will too, I'm sure. Further, the regulatory and liability hurdles that are faced by UAVs (by which I mean everything from an unmanned autonomous 5lb drone to an unmanned autonomous ultra-large container vessel) with human passengers are much lessened for freight vehicles, so they will probably emerge into commercial applicability first. Commercial operators also have fewer emotional connections with their operations, so they won't hold onto human-operated vehicles out of nostalgia. As soon the cost-benefit numbers are there the transition will be swift.

It's hard to overstate how huge this is. Freight shipping defines the global economy. Anything that lowers the costs of shipping, reduces time, and/or increases volume will have knock-on effects throughout the economy as markets expand in scope and local specialization deepens. The Roman Empire was built on its roads and its control of the Mediterranean. The British Empire was built on its control of the oceans, and consequent trade via tall ship (and later steam ship) between Europe, the New World, and Asia. Container shipping is an ongoing revolution as container ships get ever larger. These changes were all inflection points in the integration of the global economy, and UAVs are going to be another one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The 10,000,000 Year Ship

I've seen a lot of discussions and potential designs around how to build starships capable of reaching other star systems. Everything from huge generation ships with hundreds of crew to wafer-thin "ships on a chip" sailing on starlight. But I was thinking today about how you could send a ship to another galaxy.

Without getting all mathy, the distances between galaxies is freaking huge. The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. At even 0.25c that's a 10,000,000 year trip. How could you possibly design a ship to last that long? What would it look like?

First, a couple assumptions. I'm not assuming any new physics or "magic" technologies. That's actually probably unrealistic over these time frames, but I don't care to speculate in that way. So we are talking about ships that have, at best, anti-matter acceleration and they cannot reach the relativistic speeds where time-dilation slows down the observed journey to within human lifetimes. If the EM Drive works, and/or the Alcubierre warp drive works, then we can revisit. For now I'm assuming a top speed of about 0.25c.

With that said ...

My first thought is that we can rule out sending physical human bodies. I'm not sure there's a level of cryostasis that would keep a human brain from succumbing to entropy over that timespan. So we are talking about a seedship that will grow humans once it gets there. Human DNA would also be subject to entropy, but if you have enough copies (easy to do with DNA), you should be able to peace back together a working genome at the other end.

In fact, entropy is your main enemy over these distances (more so than crashing into things - intergalactic space is pretty empty). That probably rules out any sort of active nuclear isotope battery. Anything that has a usable level of radiative energy would probably have radiated away by the time you get there. You could probably bring some Thorium-232 with you as long as it was kept shielded from neutrons. Thus you could have the parts for a thorium nuclear reactor on board, but what would you use to put that into operation? You'd need the equivalent of a battery and spark plugs to turn the engine over.

I'd say the key technology you'd need are transistors that don't age. No growing new crystals, no deterioration in the electrical properties, over 10,000,000 years. Super, super stable chemistry. Once you have that you make solar panels, batteries, and on-board compute and sensor systems.

From a design perspective you want to expose as little of the front edge of the ship as possible to oncoming H atoms you might crash into on your long trip. But you also want a lot of surface area for solar panels. I'd say the best shape is a hollow cylinder with a narrow leading edge with a stable shielding material, maybe water ice, to act as a bumper. The outside surface of the cylinder is solar panels all the way around. There could also be a central solid cylinder where all your key hardware is, connected to the outer cylinder with thin spokes.

The ship would be designed such that the light from a distant galaxy cannot power anything, but merely being within a galaxy provides enough solar power to turn on some basic senor systems. Once you pass beyond our galaxy's light the ship will lose power and go into a fully suspended operation mode, just coasting through the intergalactic space on momentum. Once you enter into a new galaxy the solar panels will start collecting solar energy again and turn on basic systems.

Now here's the real question, what kind of maneuvering ability would you have once you got there? I'm thinking two kinds.

First, we rule out anti-matter. It's possibly you use anti-matter to accelerate up to cruising speed, but I doubt you could bottle anti-matter for 10,000,000 years. More likely the bottle would fail at some point and the ship would destroy itself in deep space. No, you need a chemically and "nuclearly" inert system.

Second, you have to realize that we cannot aim for a particular star from the launch point in the Milky Way, so the computer will need to be able to wake up at the destination galaxy and pick a star, and hopefully have time to maneuver before it crashes into something. (It's probably best if you send multiple ships on slightly different trajectories)

The two best possibilities are probably storing a solar sail for the long journey and an inert gas ejected through ion thrusters. Mostly a solar sail, because it doesn't require bringing any reaction mass with you over the 2.5Mly trip. You then maneuver for a close encounter with a star and use gravity assists to slow down. Possibly more than one, making for a very long deceleration phase - but if you survived a 10My journey, a couple thousand more years here or there isn't a big deal.

One of my assumptions is that no civilization would try this until they've already mastered how to send Von Neumann probes throughout their own galaxy, so once you manage to get into a stable orbit around a destination star in your new galaxy, you'll just initiate that program out of the box. That's the easy part. It's designing a system that can coast for 10,000,000 and then wake itself up and maneuver at the destination galaxy that's hard.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

SpaceX: The Mars Plan

I've had a thousand thoughts bouncing around in my head since Elon Musk's Mars keynote yesterday. It's a lot to take in, and I was trying to organize my thoughts. However Jonathan Goff at Selenian Boondocks and Eric Berger at Ars Techica have offered some good takes already. You should read them.

Selenian Bookdocks: Jon's First Take
Ars Technica: Musk's Mars Moment

Like Eric and Jonathan I'm excited by the possibilities and I'm a lot more enthusiastic about this architecture than anything NASA is working on, but there's also quite a few things that worry me.

Part 1: Non-Mars Stuff

Skip this if you only want to talk about Mars.

Falcon 9: Even More Thrust?
Just sort of off-hand, Elon mentioned that the bulk of SpaceX engineering right now is focused on a "final" version of the Falcon 9 due next year. I previously had no idea there would be any more versions of the Falcon 9. I thought the Full Thrust model was going to be the last one. What could they possibly be adding? I really doubt they'll move the Falcon 9 to the Raptor engine (and methane fuel), as that would require a redesign from the ground up. That would be a whole new rocket. So what are they adding to Falcon 9? I have no idea.

Part 2: Concerns

As Jon summarized, SpaceX is pursuing both world-beating performance per launch and reusability at the same time. Just to give you an idea of how much performance we are talking about, here are the thrust/weight ratios of some well known rocket engines:

Engine    Vehicle   T/w ratio
SSME      Shuttle      73
RD-180    Atlas V      78
F-1       Saturn V     94
NK-33     Soyuz       136
Merlin 1D Falcon      180

As you can see, the SpaceX Merlin 1D is already the best rocket engine in the world. Now Elon wants to triple that? At the same time, adding the material reinforcement necessary to withstand 1,000 launches (as they are hoping their BFR will reach) worth of wear and tear only makes your thrust/weight worse. Is tripling what's already the best-in-class number even believable? It's a lot to swallow.

Interplanetary Transport Ship (ITS)
I think the ITS can be thought of (and probably is thought of within SpaceX) as a really, really, really, really big Dragon 3. The ITS tries to be a lot of things. It's a second-stage rocket boosting out of Earth gravity with near-SSTO performance even without its booster. It's an in-space habitat for 100 people (20x the ISS crew complement) for 80 days. It's also a lifting-body decelerator (like the Space Shuttle) that ends up landing on its butt on Mars (or any other solid body in the solar system).

Any one of these things would be amazing. All three of them in the same vehicle reminds me of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A cruise ship that's space-rated and flies?

The only reason to do all these things with one vehicle is because you lack a real infrastructure of more specialized vehicles. As Jonathan also mentioned, a lot of the cost of SpaceX's architecture is that the ITS can only be used once every couple years when the planets align. It's dead weight (economically) the rest of the time. If you broke up the architecture into things that could be used during the other 22 months of the bi-annual cycle, you'd spread your costs out over a lot more missions.

For example, imagine instead of the 100 Mars colonists launching up in the same vehicle they fly to Mars in, you built instead the equivalent of a space-rated 737 sitting on top of a Falcon 9. That could take the colonists to a colonial transport ship which stays in orbit all the time. You board up when it's time to go to Mars, but the rest of the time the same 737-like vehicle could fly passengers to space stations in Cislunar space or maybe even Lunar destinations.

Similarly, Robert Bigelow is building large inflatable habitats for space already. They can't land on and take off from Mars like the ITS, but they're cheaper and more effective as habitats because of that. The BFR proposed by SpaceX can launch 300 tons to orbit per reusable launch, which is big enough to put (I'm estimating here) maybe a 50-60 person Bigelow module in orbit. Attach some solar panels and a couple vacuum-rated Raptor engines to that and you've got your colonial transport. And during the months when Mars isn't in the right place for a colonial mission, you could rent out the space in the Bigelow module to commercial or scientific missions.

If you built something like an ITS for transporting crew and cargo from Mars orbit to the Mars surface, but it stayed at Mars all the time, you could use it all the time for point-to-point travel on Mars, moving cargo or fuel between Mars' surface and orbit, or even accessing Phobos and Deimos. It would also be designed just for that, and wouldn't have to have all the hardware necessary to keep 100 humans alive for months at a time.

To reason by analogy, there's a reason people drive to the airport in cars, fly to Tampa in a plane, and then sail around the Caribbean in a cruise ship - rather than have a cruise ship pick them up at their house in Cleveland and fly the thing door-to-door to the B&B in Nassau.

Solar Power
Elon's keynote and the animations only showed one power source for the system - solar panel arrays. I imagine you could also hide some methane fuel cells on board and run them off the methane in the fuel tanks, but they would be a backup power source.

Solar power is not a bad way to go for small probes and satellites. But the size of those solar arrays, rated for 200kw (2x the ISS) indicate that the IST will need a lot of power. Moreover, Elon tried selling the ITS as a "go anywhere in the solar system" ship, but solar power doesn't work much beyond the asteroid belt.

Simply put, ships of this size, and missions beyond the asteroid belt, will need nuclear. Elon mentioned the need for "public cooperation" to get nuclear power on Mars, and what he really means is that the Department of Defense will have to get involved to build nuclear power plants. They have decades of experience building them for carriers and submarines after all.

Fuel Depots
SpaceX is moving to an architecture where the colonial ship is launched with dry fuel tanks, and then it is topped off. That's good, because it massively improves performance. The BFR (assuming it flies as designed) will launch 300 tons per launch, but the ITS says it will take 450 tons to Mars. The difference is the fuel that will be loaded into it once it's already in orbit.

However you'll note the immediate problem which is that the ITS cannot be loaded with fuel until it's already in orbit around Earth - with all its colonists already on board. How long will it take to launch multiple tanker flights to it?

A much better architecture would be to have a large, passively-cooled fuel depot in orbit. The tankers could spend months or years (whenever there is a free launch window) loading up the depot, or the depot could even accept fuel from in-space sources such as the Moon or asteroids if that ever comes online. Then when the ITS launches it would top off its tanks from the depot, rather than wait in orbit for multiple tanker rendezvouses.

Alternatively, if the ITS launched without colonists, it could be the fuel depot itself for a couple months, and then the colonists come up in a 737-equivalent when the Mars window opened.

Biggest Concern: Too Much, Too Soon
My overall concern, which is reflected in all my other concerns, is that it's too much, too soon, and the over-complication of the ITS is really driven by the fact that there isn't an infrastructure in place to support this yet.

For instance, Elon say he's trying to be the rail road to Mars. That makes sense, to an extent, but he's trying to build a railroad to a place with no humans to build the railroad, no oil or coal to fuel the engines, or anything else. The ITS is less like a railroad to California and more like an all-in-one expedition to Antarctica.

I think the companies that are trying to gradually build up in-space resources by first, e.g., building a business to refuel the satellites already in orbit, then start getting fuel from near-earth asteroids, then go to the Moon, etc. are going to be more successful in the long term.

Elon's project is the ultimate example of a Moon Shot. And most Moon Shots fail.

Funding & Partnerships
This is where I think Elon said the least but implied the most. SpaceX cannot afford all the up-front costs associated with this, and they probably cannot sell a significant number of "tickets to Mars for one" decades in advance. Their launch business and eventual satellite business will produce a lot of cash flow, and Elon would probably be willing to sell off his Tesla stake at some point to pay for this, but that really only covers the R&D and early prototype work. Getting from there to "hundreds of ships in orbit all leaving for Mars at once" isn't within SpaceX's capital budget under any scenario.

And to be absolutely clear, the $200,000 (or less) ticket price only works (if it ever works) once the system is fully at scale. It may genuinely only cost $150,000 to land the 10,000th person to on Mars, just like it genuinely costs only $50 to fly from L.A. to Las Vegas, but that's only because all the planes and airports already exist. Landing the first person on Mars will cost $10-20 billion.

What I think is happening is that Elon is trying to play NASA off against some other national governments. Maybe not China, but possibly Europe or maybe some rich Middle Eastern country. The question that every national space agency is going to ask themselves is "Are we going to let [that other country] land the first man on Mars?"

America was the first and is still the only country to land men on the Moon. That's a huge part of our national pride and self-conception. Do you think Congress would be happy if the first men on Mars were a couple of Saudi Princes who paid $1 billion each for the privilege? Or even a joint EU-Japan mission?

The challenge that Elon needs to overcome for NASA's support though are the contractors who currently suck down $$billions each year building NASA's Space Launch System and Orion craft. There's no room in NASA's budget for both SLS and the BFR. It's one or the other, and the Senators and House Reps in the pocket of Boeing and Lockheed will fight like hell to keep the SLS gravy train going.

Elon has a powerful card to play though. Humanity only lands on Mars for the first time once, and the people who do so will probably be remembered for as long as written records from this era persist into the future. Just as we all know that Queen Isabella sponsored Christopher Columbus, who will history remember as the sponsor for taking humanity to Mars? Is it going to be Saudi Arabia? Will history say that Bill Gates had to pay for it because Congress was too captured by Boeing? You better believe that SpaceX lobbyists will employ this argument at some point.

Part 3: Open Questions

In Situ Resource Utilization
The transport system outlined by SpaceX had four major hardware parts - the booster, the colonial ship, the tanker, and the ISRU system for making fuel on Mars. But we saw exactly zero information about the ISRU plant. Has SpaceX even started designing what it would look like? How much fuel can it produce? At what rate? Can it be shipped to anywhere in the solar system and assembled on site? Does it need people to operate or is it 100% robotic? We have no idea.

The entire proposal (both Mars and destinations beyond) rests on the ability to produce fuel at the other end of each trip. There's no trip back, no reusability, without ISRU.

Martian Gravity
We know that zero-g is terrible for you. We have no idea whether Martian gravity is strong enough for long-term human health. We have no idea whether Martian gravity is strong enough to allow a woman to carry an infant to term and bear a healthy baby, or what effects the gravity will have on a growing child. Frankly the whole discussion of making humanity multi-planetary is entirely premature until we answer this question.

Free-space & Asteroids
Elon always talks about planets. He never talks about all the resources in space itself. His focus for humanity is always planetary, never in-space habitats as detailed by Gerald O'Neil. The resources of the Solar System in space are many times greater than the resources of any planet. Solar power is more abundant, the asteroids can be mined in their entirety (as opposed to a thin surface layer like on a planet; you can't mine a planet's mantle or core), and rotating 1g habitats could be mass-produced to create internal surface areas sufficient to accommodate any level of colonization. But Elon never talks about this. Why? Would the BFR be available to people who are willing to try?

Part 4: The Good Stuff

Despite my concerns, I'm still very excited and wish SpaceX the best of luck. Here's a short summary of why.

The Vision
NASA's vision of "Journey to Mars" is basically the same idea as Apollo. Spend a lot of money, send a few missions of a few people to Mars, and then stop. Flags & footprints are nice, and they're certainly a nice feather in the cap of the United States, but they don't change the picture for humanity. Even the Norsemen who tried to settle North America in the 10th century had a bigger vision than NASA.

Will Elon's particular mission architecture work? I have no idea. I have many concerns. But I'm glad as hell he's trying to do it. The American people can look at what SpaceX is trying to do and turn to NASA and say "What the hell, man? Why is SpaceX trying to build a whole fleet of ships while you're still dicking around building one Orion capsule?"

Elon has the potential to commercialize deep space at "flat" (not cost-plus) prices, just as he has already commercialized launch to LEO and GEO. This has implications far beyond Mars. If NASA can be convinced to switch to this model, we'll be in a world where NASA's mission planning office is a guy with a telephone asking for quotes. "We want to send 100 tons to Europa. Please RFQ."

Bare Launch Costs
Although he glossed over it quickly, the projected launch costs per ton to LEO for the BFR are about $150/kg. That's a great number. Cheap commodity transport is what allows globalization to work. Even if the BFR never sends a colonist to Mars, sending paid cargo to Cis-lunar space at that price would be awesome.

ISRU/Refueling on Orbit
There is no opening up the solar system (or even the Low Earth Orbit) as long as we need to take all the fuel for the return trip in the initial launch. Real space ships refuel in orbit and at their destination. A real space-faring civilization has fuel and supply depots throughout the solar system. NASA has never even tried to build this. If SpaceX succeeds in this, humanity's future in space is bright.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Blue Origin: New Glenn, New Armstrong

New Glenn

Jeff Bezos announced to the media via an email (which in its own way is an unusual choice - why not a blog post on the company website) that their new rocket they were building is going to be called New Glenn, and it's a big sucker. Here's a picture:

As you can see, Blue Origin will not be messing around with small rockets like their New Shepard for much longer. They're going straight past the small orbital rocket stage, even past the medium-sized rocket stage, and going right for heavy lift.

The only numbers we know about New Glenn are-

  • 23 feet diameter
  • 270-313 feet tall
  • 3.85 million lbs force at sea level
  • 7 BE-4 engines

The interesting number here is the force at sea level. 3.85 million lbs is a lot. That's 60% more force than the fully optimized Falcon 9 or Delta IV Heavy, and 72% more force than the Falcon 9 was rated at when it first entered service. It's about 30% less than the Falcon Heavy is aiming for and half of the Saturn V. In other words, Blue Origin is skipping right past the current state of the art in heavy lift and is going for super-heavy lift. It's ambitious, to say the least.

However the two most important numbers are missing - price and payload mass to orbit. A rocket could have infinite thrust, but it only takes off to the extent its thrust exceeds its own mass * force the gravity. And it's only useful to the extent that its thrust is greater than mass*gravity such that there's mass left over for cargo. And it's only economically relevant to the extent it can do that for a reasonable amount of money. After all, NASA's SLS will have plenty of thrust too - it's the $2 billion per flight price tag that's the issue.

I am optimistic that Blue Origin's numbers will be good, but that's mostly just because I trust Jeff Bezos. I can't look at this pretty graphic up above and tell you what mass fraction New Glenn will be able to reserve for cargo. I'm just sort of assuming that Jeff Bezos knows a lot about shipping products from point A to point B and has given his engineers clear goals about what sort of payload sizes he expects. I'm also assuming that New Glenn will be fully reusable (like New Shepard is proving to be) and that whatever construction costs Blue Origin faces, it will be amortized over multiple flights and will therefore already be cheaper than any provider that isn't SpaceX.

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that this is interesting but "watch this space for further details".

New Armstrong

At the end of the letter announcing New Glenn, Bezos teased (without providing any further details) that Blue Origin's next rocket will be named New Armstrong. If it's not clear to you already, let me spell this out - Blue Origin is naming their rockets after the first Americans to achieve certain milestones.

Blue Origin's first liquid fueled test vehicle was named Goddard, after Robert H. Goddard, the inventor of the liquid fueled rocket.

Blue Origin's first sub-orbital rocket that could reach space was named New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in a sub-orbital Mercury rocket to space.

Blue Origin is now naming their first orbital rocket New Glenn, after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

New Armstrong must then of course be named after Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. The assumption then is that Blue Origin's New Armstrong is being designed to go beyond Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond.

Bezos has stated that he wants to help build the infrastructure that opens up the entire solar system to economic development and colonization. He's specifically mentioned manufacturing on the Moon and developing the resources available from asteroids. I suspect that New Armstrong will be the rocket that starts us going down that path. To that end, I would expect the following-

  • It's going to be really, really big. Obviously.
  • All stages will be reusable. Not just the first stage.
  • It's primary mission will be to launch mining equipment, true space ships, and space habitats - infrastructure that never comes back to Earth, but spends the rest of its existence in space. These habitats will allow workers (who fly up on a New Glenn maybe) to service commercial and scientific activity in LEO, GEO, and Lunar Lagrange points.

As I mentioned in the New Glenn section, I don't have enough numbers here to really get excited, but I'm starting to get excited by Jeff Bezos. His long term goals are ones I share, and thanks to running Amazon he knows a thing or two about shipping products from point A to point B, operating at large scales, and delivering value at low marginal cost. I think this is really happening, and Elon Musk finally has some real competition for being the man that opens space.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Apollo 2.0 or establishing a beachhead?

Elon Musk has recently stated that he wants to send a mission to Mars in 2018 and then send people to Mars in 2024. Those are ambitious timelines for sure, but Musk is nothing if not ambitious.

The real question, the one that matters though, is the nature of the mission. Will Musk recreate the Apollo program, or instead do something smart?

The core problem with space is that NASA has built rockets that go to space, but have built no infrastructure for supporting people to stay in space. This lowers the costs of individual missions, but also means that missions never get cheaper and easier. Without supporting infrastructure, each mission needs to be a self-contained and self-supporting system. Those are expensive.

Musk has said he'll reveal the architecture of his Mars plans in September, so I will reserve judgment on the plans until then. But here's what to look for when that news comes: Do the missions make each future mission easier?

I'll give you can example. Today when NASA sends a probe to Mars, that probe has to bring everything it needs with it. It's own solar panels for power, for instance. If NASA sent astronauts to Mars, they'd have to bring their own air and enough fuel to return back to orbit.

The ideal first few missions to Mars would not bring much science equipment. Instead it will bring tools that synthesize solar panels and wiring from Martian soil. It will bring tools needed to synthesize rocket fuel (liquid methane) from the CO2 and water ice found on Mars. It will bring a big 3D-printer for making pressurized habitats. Etc.

Essentially, the best first missions to Mars will not plant any flags or leave any footprints. Instead they will establish a beachhead. When the first person lands on Mars (possibly as soon as 2024) they should find a settlement and abundant energy and rocket fuel already waiting for them.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The New Space Race: SpaceX is in the lead, but Blue Origin will win


It's too easy for humans to fall into unproductive rivalry. In most commercial domains there's usually more ways to grow a pie than not, and that's certainly true of space access. By this post I don't mean to suggest that I want one space company to "win" and the other to "lose", but rather to look at two approaches to space access development and, maybe, make some predictions about which one will make more "pie" over time.


There is a widely (though not universally) held opinion among people who follow commercial space development that NASA took a wrong turn in technology development when it started the Apollo program. Apollo was a wonder of the world and stands even today as a monument to human ingenuity and work ethic. But it was also unsustainable and did not lead to a permanent human presence on the Moon, or even in Low Earth Orbit. Basically, Apollo was a fantastic one-off event who's only lasting contributions to humanity (besides American national pride) are things like Tang and Velcro. Not really the stuff of legends.

Getting to space and staying in space are two different things. The first can be done "on the cheap" by building a really huge rocket and seeing how far you can throw it. This has been The NASA Way ever since the Kennedy Administration. The closest NASA has come to "staying in space" is the International Space Station, but that has never even been fully crewed (it can support up to seven people) because NASA never figured out how to operate more than one rocket at a time.

Staying in space is about infrastructure, not ever-bigger rockets. To make a historical analogy, the Apollo program shares some similarities with Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World. It was a daring voyage into the unknown, sponsored by a major political power. But Columbus' voyage lead fairly quickly to European settlements in the New World, whereas Apollo has not lead to anything similar. Why? Because the Spanish explorers didn't try to bring everything with them from Spain. They brought just enough water and food to make the voyage, and then lived off the land when they got here. NASA has never learned to "live off the land" in space, and hence the only way they know how to get to places beyond Earth (like Mars) is to build bigger and bigger rockets (like SLS). This is crazy and just as unsustainable as Apollo.


Until about six months ago I was of the opinion that the only company that had a chance of breaking free of The NASA Way and changing how people got to space was SpaceX. Companies like Lockheed Margin and Boeing had no interest in anything deeper than milking the US military and cable satellite companies for expensive launch contracts, and Arianespace in Europe was no better. Upstart companies like Virgin Galactic, Masten, and XCOR are stuck in development hell with zero near-term prospects for escaping sub-orbital bunny hops. And then there was Blue Origin, but they were so secretive it was impossible to tell whether they were actually making any progress or stuck in the same development loop as the other also-rans.

Well in the last six months, Blue Origin has started to open up and, based on their progress and comments from Jeff Bezos, I think Blue Origin (and not SpaceX) may end up being the company that really "changes everything" about how people get to and stay in space.


Blog: First Developmental Test Flight of New Shepard
Blue Origin Completes More Than 100 Staged-Combustion Tests in Development of BE-4 Engine
Blue Origin Makes Historic Rocket Landing
Jan 22, 2016 Blog: Launch. Land. Repeat.
Mar 9, 2016 Ars goes inside Blue Origin’s secretive rocket factory
May 26, 2016 Blue Origin will intentionally crash its spaceship during the next test flight

The Argument:

Remember what I said before: Staying in space is about infrastructure. It's about living off the land. If you have to bring all your food, water, air, fuel, and everything else with you from the surface of the Earth, the only way to go further or stay longer in space is to use bigger and bigger rockets. The Apollo rocket was already a monster, and all it managed to do was send three men to the Moon for three days. The Space Launch System that NASA is building now is "Apollo on steroids" and will only manage to send a small crew to Mars for one mission. This is not how you build a spacefaring civilization.

What's needed to get to and stay in space is a vast supporting infrastructure. Every kilogram launched from Earth requires thousands of dollars (hopefully soon to be only "hundreds", but still expensive) worth of rocket and fuel. A passenger going from the surface of Earth should have just enough fuel and air to reach Low Earth Orbit, and there by greeted by the equivalent of an O'Hare airport in space. At this "O'Hare in Space" the passenger will transition to a facility that has enough air and shelter to keep him (and his fellow passengers) alive and comfortable for their stay, and then make their transfer to another craft that will take them to points beyond. For this to be an affordable prospect all of this infrastructure, air, and fuel needs be built using resources already in space, saving the cost and effort of launching them from Earth.

Right now the casual reader who doesn't think about space much may think this is just unreasonable. How much stuff is in space anyway? Isn't it mostly empty? That's why it's called "space", not "stuff"!

Well that's partly true. Space is mostly vacuum, there's no denying that. But that doesn't mean its empty, or that the stuff that it does have is hard to get to.

Getting places in space isn't about distance. Because there's no air or water resistance in space a craft once accelerated will just keep going in that direction forever. Therefore the only costs associated with space travel are the energy cost of accelerating and decelerating. (Plus your time, but ignore that for the moment) Well it just so happens that the energy (measured in delta-v) to launch from Earth is much greater than the energy needed to go from LEO all the way to Mars and back. Earth's gravity is really strong that way. In fact going from Low Earth Orbit all the way to Jupiter is easier than launching from Earth, and going to Pluto is only requires 10% more delta-v than launching from Earth. Basically, once you've launched from Earth, everything in the solar system is "closer" (in terms of energy) than going back to Earth. And asteroids in Near Earth Orbits are much, much closer. Like 95% closer.

So once you're in space, you have access to the all the resources of the Moon, the asteroid belt, and whatever comets are flying by at the time. A single 1000-ton meteor in Near Earth Orbit (of which there are thousands and they fly by Earth all the time) would have 100 tons of water ice and 900 tons of rock and metal. A metal-rich 500-meter diameter meteor could exceed the entire Earth's proven reserves of platinum. The dwarf planet Ceres has more water than all of Earth's oceans. And of course the Moon is, well, the Moon. Its energy, rock, and metal resources are basically infinite (from the point of view of wee little humans). Combined with robotic manufacturing and the unlimited solar power found in space, there's no limit on what we could build. As little as 41 tons of equipment landed on the Moon could bootstrap to an industrial base millions of times larger than America's national economy in just a few decades.

So why Blue Origin (and not SpaceX):

There is no doubt that SpaceX is revolutionizing access to LEO. If it succeeds in reaching full reusability of its Falcon rockets, the Falcon Heavy could launch the equivalent of a Boeing 737 into orbit (with all the passengers that implies) for a per-person cost no greater than flying, say, from London to Hong Kong. It will be amazing.

However, Elon Musk has stated that his goal is to build an even bigger rocket than the Falcon Heavy for the purpose of throwing 50-100 people (plus equipment) at a time to Mars. He has never once spoken about, or shown any interest in, developing Low Earth Orbit or the Moon or the Asteroid Belt. Basically, Elon Musk is trying to commercialize and sell tickets to a really big Apollo program.

Jeff Bezos on the other hand, has not shown any particular interest in Mars. He has stated instead that his goal is to see "millions of people" traveling to space and back, and working in space. Not Mars. Space. And the only way that happens is if he develops the infrastructure necessary to "live off the land" once there. There's no other way to do it, and Jeff Bezos has stated specifically that this is what he expects to see.

So don't get me wrong - I want Elon Musk to succeed at everything he's trying to do. It's all very noble. But it also seems somewhat unsustainable. Once the few thousand (or maybe even tens of thousands) of people who want to emigrate to Mars (and can afford the $500k per person ticket!) have gone, Elon's Mars rocket will stop flying. But if Blue Origin builds a self-sustaining economy in space, those rockets will just keep flying forever (basically the same way that commercial planes and shipping do today). And frankly, once you have the infrastructure to support millions of people in Low Earth or Lunar Orbit, getting to Mars is almost trivial.


So that's my argument. SpaceX is great and I hope they succeed. And in fact, I think they'll achieve fully reusable passenger rockets before Blue Origin does. But based on their current business trajectories and the attitudes of their founders, right now I'd put my money on Blue Origin being the company that changes how humans get to space - and stay there.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Continuance of Growth

Timothy B Lee, a technology reporter I'm generally fond of, seems to think we are near the end of technologically-lead productivity growth (outside of IT, medicine, and transport), and that the future is just (i) the rest of the world catching up to where America is now, and (ii) a lot of status competitions and endlessly bidding up the price of positional goods. There's no room in his view for continued improvements in consumer welfare.

This confession is rather shocking, as it shows an incredible myopia about the prospect of near-future technology, and also a lack of imagination about future consumption goods that aren't positional. It really reminds me of the apocryphal quote of Charles Holland Duell, who allegedly said that "Everything that can be invented has been invented" (only Tim is actually saying it!). I know my own position is much closer to what Duell actually said in 1902:
In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.
And of course he was right. The century that followed was amazing and saw technological improvement and economic growth that would seem to be science fiction or fantasy to anyone from previous centuries. "Common workers having second homes or vacationing on other continents?? Please!"

In this essay I will argue that Tim is wrong on all counts. There are prospects for dramatic economic growth, both in and outside the sectors he identifies as ripe for improvement; these prospects will be objective improvements over the quality of life of even rich Westerners today; and these improvements will be non-positional, so their price will track marginal costs of production rather than auction pricing.

I. Further Automating the Production of Consumer Goods

Consumer goods are not positional, so their prices track with marginal cost. If you can lower the marginal costs, the prices fall. We have seen this marginal cost improvement most dramatically these last few decades in the production of transistors. A new phone today can replace a multi-million dollar super computer and a whole store's worth of consumer electronics from 1990. But other consumer goods have also gotten cheaper, and will get cheaper yet.

Tim dismisses food as already "too cheap to matter", but most calories consumed today are in the form of a few crops (wheat, corn, rice, soybeans) and their manufactured oil byproducts. This isn't because they're really that good for us or tasty, but because they are amendable to automated farming and thus cheap. One farmer can tend thousands of acres of corn. The same cannot be said of fruits and vegetables, and if you asked Tim I bet he'd agree that Americans don't consume enough of them. And of course they're expensive because they're labor intensive. Fruit and vegetable farming require large numbers of low-skill migrant laborers to work long hours in the sun doing repetitive work. Machine vision and handling is now reaching the level of quality needed to automate the planting, tending, picking, sorting, and packing of these crops, and the price declines that follow will be substantial. Also, lots of labor will be freed up for more productive activity.

Drone aircraft are also playing a role in the further automating of agriculture. Drones can patrol over fields on a near-constant basis, observing them for water issues, blight, ripening status, soil health, etc. This technology is already being deployed.

Healthy proteins are also expensive, and getting more so all the time, as cattle and fish farming push the limits of Earth's biosphere. But we are on the verge of using biotechnologies such as CRISPR to produce as much edible proteins as we need from plant sources, even algae. One study I saw suggested that algae ponds about the size of Rhode Island would produce enough protein to meet the needs of every human currently alive on Earth. If being able to feed everyone on Earth with such a small input of resources isn't growth, I don't know what is.

Tim admits that personal electronics are a growth area, but doesn't seem to think about what it means that factories in China are automating the production of phones and other tiny devices with dexterous robots. Lights-out factories will eventually be able to produce any number of phones, VR headsets, etc. for the cost of materials and electrical power. And that's how you get the equivalent of $50 Android smartphones in every product category. Instead of rich people having one VR headset the family shares, there will be devices of equal complexity in every room.

Transport is also a huge consumer good, both consumed directly (our cars) and indirectly (shipping of products). All forms of transport from the largest cargo planes and ships to personal mobility pods are about to become drones, and we will stop owning our cars directly but rather call them up as needed and share the cost burdens with the other passengers. Automated fleets of long-haul trucks and planes will transform supply chains, and self-driving cars will change our daily life in ways we probably can't imagine now. Of course Tim admitted transport was sector was ripe for disruption, but it also sort of contradicts his point about only catch-up growth existing going forward. Self-driving cars are analogous to having a personal driver take you everywhere, which is not something the top 20% of America have access to. That's a Top 0.1% thing. But soon we will all have it.

The most significant consumer good of all though, by dollars spent, is construction (both residential and commercial). A large part of why housing is expensive in many parts of America today has nothing to do with technology, and is all about the limits on developing new housing supply imposed by local law. But even without those limits, building houses, offices, factories, etc. consumes a great deal or labor and is time-consuming as well. This limits the size of the interior space that any one human can reasonable afford to consume. But if technologies like Broad Group's factory construction or contour crafting takes off, you'll see huge efficiencies in this sector which will translate into growth. Maybe London and New York apartments won't have to be the size of shoeboxes in the near future.

II. Automation of Services

Tim mentioned private jets as one the few things that "the rich" have that everyone else doesn't, but I think this is overly focused on physical goods over services. Most economic activity is services these days, after all, and the rich consume a lot of them. Those are going to become democratized with the near-term explosion of machine learning and automated services.

Tim mentioned medicine as being ripe for improvement, and he's right. But this is more than catch-up growth by making medicine cheaper; healthcare is about to go places that rich Westerners today can only dream of. Look to the convergence of AI (such as IBM Watson), Sensors (such as FitBit and Open Water), and Robotics (such as this robot surgeon) to imagine the possibilities. The ability to have ubiquitous sensors feeding information into a personal AI physician is unprecedented in terms of healthcare management, and it will be available at the cost of software (nearly zero) with necessary machine-precision surgical interventions available for the cost of mass-produced machines (pretty cheap, and consistently higher quality than hand-made stuff).

Another example is private banking and financial advice. They've been unaffordable to the poor for a long time partly because they require a lot of human labor and partly because the banks that sit at the center of the global financial sectors collect monopoly rents and brokerage fees, keeping things expensive (and making financiers very wealthy). Both of those factors are going away. Finance is being decentralized thanks to open financial networks like Bitcoin, and banks sitting at the center of all the webs are about to starve to death as financial transactions make an end run around them. Also, the rise of "robo advisors" is the first step in AI offering tailored, personal investing and cash management advice to everyone for the marginal cost of software (aka, zero).

Similarly, education is being democratized. Artificially intelligent tutors are bringing personalized education to every corner of the world for the cost of an Android laptop and data connection. Although Tim calls this "catch up growth", because aristocracy have always had private tutors, it is non-linear growth nonetheless because there will be much less "cognitive waste" in the world. Instead of brilliant minds being wasted tilling fields in rural India or Africa, they will have the tools to meaningfully contribute to humanity. Doing more with the (biological) capital you have is growth.

Do automated tutors solve the issue of Harvard having limited admission slots? No, but you can solve that problem by other means. Getting into Harvard, after all, isn't so much about getting the education as sending the signal that you have abundance intelligence and drive, and it's that signal (not the English criticism classes) that opens up career and marriage opportunities. But there are other ways of generating those signals that don't need to cost $200,000 or more. One simple example is an IQ test, and I'm sure you can think of others. Start a company, for instance.

III. New Frontiers of Growth (more speculative)

Robot vision and AI systems exist today and its easy to see how they can be developed just a bit more to deliver value in many sectors if you just take 10 minutes to think about those sectors (and not rely solely on trending news topics). But there are also technologies that are more speculative, and offer the prospect of amazing growth in the future.

Biotech is one of them. CRISPR technology is only a couple years old, so it's hard to judge just how transformative this is going to be, but initial prospects suggest "very" transformative. Gene transplants won't just fix people with bad mutations, but will give ordinary humans super-powers, such as the ability break down and excrete coronary or amyloid plaques. Lengthening telomeres and rejuvenating our immune systems and supply of stem cells will extend healthy life by decades. Algae will be given the genetic machinery to produce drugs, useful industrial materials, and even edible proteins that could replace all cattle farming with a few bioreactors. If living decades longer in great health and being able to easily feed 10 billion humans isn't economic growth, I don't know what is.

3D Printing is a big deal. I'm surprise Tim didn't think about this. It won't replace mass-produced injection-molded plastic, but it will allow entirely new abilities by taking advantage of micro-geometries and reducing the complexity of aerospace parts. SpaceX and Blue Origin are already using 3D printing to make engines that traditional technology simply cannot make, which is how SpaceX is able to advertise the Dragon spacecraft's ability to land mass on any solid planet or moon in the solar system. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Airbus have also started using 3D-printing to replace complicated parts in terrestrial aviation with simple but previously-impossible-to-make parts, so this matters for stuff here on Earth too. Microlattices, for instance, cannot be made by any other means and offer amazing physical properties.

Speaking of space access though, having access to all the energy and physical resources of the solar system is sort of a big deal. Like how "discovering the New World" was a big deal for Spain. A single and not terribly large platinum-group metal asteroid would have more valuable metals and rare earth elements than have been mined from Earth in all of human history to date, and all you need to refine them out is a big magnifying glass. The asteroid Ceres has more water than Earth does. A single Bishop-ring habitat spun out from a carbonaceous asteroid would have a internal surface area about the size as India. Solar power is rather abundant, to say the least. And so forth. You might think these are fantasies, but that's because you haven't thought about how cheap reusable rockets are going to be, or what efficiencies using the energy and materials already in space will bring.

There are also a lot of companies out there trying to develop next-generation nuclear energy, both fission and fusion. We only need one of them to succeed to allow for nearly limitless energy growth. And once one of them succeeds, we will find a way to use that energy, just as software has found ways to use all those transistors that Intel, NVidia, and ARM keep making.

IV. Time and Labor Saving Consumer Devices

As for saving the time of average consumers, currently the biggest time wasters at home (not just for me, but in general population surveys I have seen) are cooking, commuting, yard work, and laundry. At least the first three of these are about to go away. Cooking will be replaced with robotic kitchens and drone delivery. High quality foods (including cheap fruits and vegetables!) will be deliverable from a smart phone app, so average folks will have the equivalent of a personal chef. (And on the restaurant side, much of the kitchen staff costs will go away) Commuting of course is about to be zeroed out with self-driving cars. You can spend that time working on productive tasks or relaxing instead. Yard work will be replaced with robotic lawn mowerstree trimmers, and weed removers.

Also it's worth pointing out that these things aren't going to be cheaper just because they replace human labor with machine labor. They'll also allow new business models that make do with a lot less hardware than we have today. You don't need your lawn mowed every day, for instance, so an entire street should share of single robot lawn mower or subscribe to a law mower service that sends out unattended mowers just as near-future Uber will send out unattended taxis. Self-driving cars will be shared cars. Tree trimmers will certainly be shared. That's a once-a-year thing after all.

As for laundry ... I don't know. Maybe one day. We're probably more likely to invent disposable clothes made out of paper before we make a robot that folds clothes. Or not. Hard to say. It's a hard problem.

V. Conclusion

At this point you probably think I'm a hopeless technological optimist, but to me this is just common sense. The timelines are fuzzy, and everything turns out to be a little (or a lot) harder than first imagined, but this sort of stuff does come true eventually. Predictions about cheap solar power have finally come true. Predictions about calling services from your smartphone have come true. Predictions about the increasing power efficiency of smartphones and graphics cards have come true. Machine learning is already exploding and delivering real results, most visibly with self-driving cars.

To come back to the topic of Tim's post, I again suggest that it's shocking that someone who allegedly reports on technology can underestimate the consumer surpluses and new 'super powers' that are about to descend on us. I'd suggest for anyone who thinks along the same lines to do the following exercise: 1) Make a list of all the sectors our economy spends money on, and 2) imagine how robots can replace that. It's going to happen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Blue Origin enters the fray

There are a number of interesting companies innovating with rockets these days (such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR), but only one that goes to orbit: SpaceX. For the last decade the story of innovation in space access has been the story of SpaceX first and "everyone else" a distant second. Who knows, maybe the XCOR Lynx or Virgin's SpaceShip Three will reach orbit one day, but then again, maybe not.

And that's an unfortunate situation for space enthusiasts, because it's competition which really drives companies to lower prices. SpaceX can lower its costs all day long, but without competition it would have less incentive to open up the space market to everyone. SpaceX needs competitors.

Luckily, as I have mentioned before, United Launch Alliance seems to have finally gotten the memo that the old way of doing things under NASA isn't going to cut it anymore, and real innovation is needed. Their work towards reusability and creating platforms for exploring cis-lunar space is great stuff.

Now a third company has really come into the top ranks: Blue Origin.

Of course Blue Origin is not a new company. They've been around for over ten years now, but they've been so secretive that it was impossible to know what they were really working on or how much progress they were making. Would they get to orbit like SpaceX has been doing, or were they stuck in a sub-orbital development cycle like XCOR or Virgin? Until very recently, we had no idea.

BO's first flight test was April 2015, one year ago this month. It then flew and landed its New Shepard vehicle in November 2015 (reaching space but not orbit), January 2016, and April 2016. That means it has flown the same rocket (not just the same model, but the same actual vehicle) to space three times now and landed it safely. That's higher and with a better flight record than the SpaceX Grasshopper achieved in 2014.

Of course the SpaceX rockets are going to orbit, so they're much bigger, flying higher, and going much faster than the Blue Origin rocket. Successfully landing the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage last year was a much harder problem in many ways. SpaceX is in the lead in this race, but let's give Blue Origin credit where it's due: They're in the race. No one else (except maybe ULA) can say that.

What Bezos is doing is critical to actually realizing the promise of low-cost access to space. Fly, land, refuel, fly again, cheap. This is mandatory for low-cost space. We don't need another Space Shuttle that cost $1-1.5 billion per launch. So far, SpaceX has shown it can make rockets fairly cheaply and get them to orbit. Blue Origin is showing it can fly rockets and then fly them again. (SpaceX has yet to do this) The company that puts those two features together will be able to change the world. And of course we hope they'll both succeed, so we can all reap the rewards of competition, lower prices, and continued innovation far into the future.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BEAM: 97% cheaper than NASA is just the start

In a few days the SpaceX mission CRS-8 will launch from NASA's Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station. CRS-8 is a cargo resupply mission to ISS; its primary payload is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable expansion for ISS.

I've written before about how SpaceX (and recently, Blue Origin, but that's another post) represents a potential revolution in the cost of space launch compared to systems developed and operated by NASA. That's great, but it's also a truism that it's not enough to get to space - humans need a place stay (where they won't instantly die) once they're there. And that's where BEAM comes in.

The ISS cost $100 billion to construct, using NASA's technology. The total bill is estimated to be around $150 billion (including all costs from international partners), but about $50 billion of that was just the cost of launching the pieces on the Space Shuttle. So $100 billion was just for the strcuture, and that's a lot of money! According to Wikipedia, that's the most expensive structure ever made. It's a plausible claim anyway.

BEAM by comparison cost "only" $17.8 million. That's still expensive by most people's standards, but there are homes in London and New York that cost more. This is within the realm of something that normal humans can afford, and is certainly affordable to larger commercial entities.

Another useful comparison between Bigelow's structures and ISS is the internal volume, since that's where any potential people would live and work. ISS has an internal volume of 916 cubic meters. The Bigelow modules are numbered according to their volume, so the BA 330 has 330 cubic meters of internal volume and the (proposed) BA 2100 has (wait for it ...) 2100 cubic meters of internal volume.

In other words. just three BA 330 modules would have the same internal volume as ISS, and a single BA 2100 module would be more than twice the volume.

We don't have a purchase price to compare the BA modules with ISS because Bigelow is not offering them for sale. The business model to start is to lease the space to national space agencies and corporate interests for 60-days at a time or more. The pricing released in 2014 was $25 million for 2 people for 60 days, which works out to $208,333 per person per day. ISS by comparison works out to about $7.5 million per person per day, so we're talking about a 97% discount from the NASA price. And that's based on SpaceX's non-reusable rocket prices! Getting the stations in orbit is a big part of their final cost, so reducing that price by 90% will eventually lead to even lower prices for Bigelow's leasees.

The BA modules present the opportunity for any developed nation of reasonable size to have a space station as larger or larger than ISS for less than 3% of the cost. It also opens up the ability to go to places besides Low Earth Orbit. A BA 300 station could be landed on the Moon and essentially be a pop-up Moon base for six people. Or it could be placed in orbit around Mars. Or attached to an asteroid mining rig, much as deep-sea living quarters are a part of the modern oil & gas industry.

The big lesson is that when you reduce the cost of something by two orders of magnitude, a lot of previously quiet demand can make itself known. Bigelow has already signed agreements with seven national space agencies and an unlisted number of corporate interests. They're just waiting on a manned space vehicle to prove out so before launching them, and the Dragon v2 is expected to fly in 2017. Before this decade is out you should expect to see a lot more people in space.

Friday, February 26, 2016

From Deng Xiaoping to Donald Trump

Like many Americans of the "professional class", I have been at turns shocked and dismayed by the success of Donald Trump during the current Presidential campaign season. But this isn't a rant against Trump. I have come to understand, I think, why he's succeeding (and why Sanders is succeeding), and to sympathize with their supporters. In that vein, I'm here to ask: Is the near-total control of American politics by corporations at an end?

(In this post, when will speak of the Republican and Democratic parties, I mean as they were, not as they are becoming. Donald Trump may be running as a Republican, but he is not representative of the Grand Old Party. And in many ways, the same is true of Bernie Sanders. I am speaking of the Bush Republicans and Clinton Democrats. For now I will just say Trump and Sanders as stand-ins for what is coming after, but hasn't been named yet)

It's no secret that the Democratic party is most strongly supported by industries that rely heavily on human capital - media, law, and (most faithfully) academia. From a funding perspective, they're essentially a coalition of the creative class and public sector unions. Republicans by contrast have seen most of their support come from industrial and financial capital-intensive firms - oil & gas, home construction, pharmaceuticals, casinos. A few sectors, notably finance, telecom, and defense firms, support both about equally.

And during my lifetime, the laws passed (or pushed) by the Dems and GOP reflected this funding. But overall, they have pushed a pro-corporate agenda. Free trade, low tariffs, and (on the Republican side at least) lower corporate taxes. At an aggregate level this has been good for the US economy, and our economy has grown at a steady clip. If you look at the aggregate or median numbers (such as median GDP/capita) we're doing much better than Europe or Japan.

However what the aggregate and median numbers hide is the distribution of results within the American economy. Over the last 20 years all of the gains have accrued to the upper classes in America, especially at the very top of the economy. Wage income is up or at least steady among the professional classes, and capital income among the management class has become stratospheric. In the public sector, wages have grown at the steady rates that were "negotiated" between the union representatives and the Democratic politicians whose campaigns they funded. But there was no equivalent benefit or protection for the less educated service workers and vocational laborers in America's private sector, where steady job losses and stagnating wages have been ongoing.

The reason for the poor job prospects of American labor class is a fairly straight-forward story of supply and demand. Post-War American corporations faced competition from Japan and Germany, but this competition was paired with demand from Japanese and German consumers. Starting with Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the late 1970s however, the global economy started to experience a massive increase in the supply of labor, but without an equivalent amount of demand for American goods.

The former Soviet Union and, more importantly, India similarly reformed their economies to be more open in the early 1990s, increasing the supply of labor even further. At the same time, America (under both Republican and Democratic governments) continued to sign more and more free trade deals with other countries, including NAFTA in the 1990s, but that was hardly the only one. The combined effect of these reforms is that it was cheap to move manufacturing and some services overseas, and there were no political barriers to doing so.

Again, to emphasize again, this was great for America as a whole. On the aggregate level the economy grew well all during this period, and while recessions happened, they ended. In the 2008 "Great Recession" had one bad year of job losses and then steady gains ever since. And all Americans, in theory, had the ability to buy the cheaper goods and services that flowed from Mexico, China, India, and elsewhere. But in practice what happened to individual Americans was a lopsided lottery. You either did a little bit better or much, much worse. The increase in the supply of labor had two effects: 1) Any time supply goes up further than demand, price falls. Econ 101. The global price of labor was being set by China rather than Detroit, even after accounting for productivity differences. 2) Labor lost a lot of bargaining power. Whether a shop was unionized or not, management always had the option of moving the whole operation to another country, Carrier just decided to do. Combine these effects, and wages go nowhere while jobs go elsewhere.

So what was great for America's professional class, and great for the world as a whole, was bad news for America's working class. In chart form it looks like this:

Wages are down, and also, jobs were lost. Here's the labor force participation rate. You can see it picked up during the 70s and 80s when women entered workforce in increasing numbers, but then it stagnated even as the economy grew during the 90s, and has been falling ever since the turn of the century.

Falling or stagnant wages, increased uncertainty that a job will stick around, and a real risk of becoming permanently unemployed and dependent on others has a terrible effect on people. While life continues to improve in the rest of the developed world, America's death rate climbed thanks to increased suicide and drug overdoses.

I mean, drug abuse has become so bad that pharmaceuticals that relieve opiate-induced constipation are advertising during the Super Bowl.

These are the people that America's political system has ignored for the last forty years. They're the non-elite, less-educated, working stiffs who don't contribute to campaigns or fund lobbying groups in Washington D.C. I know people who insist that political money has limited control over how elections turn out (look at all the money that Jeb spent), but it seems to have a lot of influence over who runs in the first place. Before "the people" vote in the primaries, the donors who fund the campaigns vote (with their checkbooks) in the pre-primary, limiting the pool of potential candidates to people who the donors agree with. And once in Washington, when politicians cast around for ideas on how to solve this or that problem, they turn to think tanks and lobbyists that are funded by the same corporate lobbing groups or politically active rich guys who benefit from free trade. Rich guys like the Koch brothers and George Soros have very different views on many things, but one thing they have in common is zero direct experience with the concerns of the working poor. It may not even be malice.

This despair and anger is what both Trump and Sanders are tapping into, which is why there is a lot of overlap between their supporters. These are the first two candidates that have bypassed entirely the donor primary and decided to represent the working classes directly, although they take different approaches in doing so. Ross Douthat thinks that Trump is a flash in the pan, that he's a personality rather than the representative of an institutional movement, but this is wrong. Trump and Sanders represent a class of American workers in revolt against the American system. And thanks to social media, they don't need an institution like the DNC to organize.

American corporations aren't about to roll over and cede the field to labor, but for the first time in a very long time, they'll have to share it.

What I hope, as someone who wants both free trade to continue for the benefits it brings, and who doesn't want to see anyone suffer from the economic gyrations that free trade inflicts, is that the Corporate Party and the Labor Party of the future realize that there is a mutually beneficial arrangement where the economy is open and competitive but the government acts as a giant risk pool providing generous safety nets to workers who experience factory closings or redundancies. That way the aggregate and median numbers continue to improve even while the variance individual families experience is reduced. This is the place that many European countries have already come to, but I'm concerned that we may end up instead in a self-defeating cycle of political back-and-forth between labor-populism and corporate-cronyism, like Latin and South American economies experience.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The new shape of space

Two quick items that reveal that the major players in the space sector have not only realized that the paradigm is changing, but they're finding the confidence to say so publicly.

Here's a video from United Launch Alliance (the Boeing/Lockheed joint venture) describing the near-term development of Cis-Lunar space, leading to an in-space population of 1,000 people (plus tourists) and $2.7 trillion in space-driven economic activity within 30 years. Personally I think that's conservative, because they don't want to sound crazy. But note that they are predicting that the in-space population will grow from 6 today (the astronauts on ISS), to 20 people (on a mix of commercial space stations built by Bigelow Aerospace) just within 5 years. Robotic prospecting of resources will also begin with the same period.

The key part of this video is focusing on economics. The current amount of activity in space is driven by the cost of lifting propellant from Earth to orbit. Propellant sourced from the Moon and Near-Earth Asteroids would be 1000x cheaper. Processing aluminum and other bulk materials in space would further reduce the amount of material that needs to be lifted from Earth. These sort of cost reductions are what will allow a greater number of private businesses with venture capital to engage in space-based activities.

The second item is an admission from NASA that the Senate Launch System (SLS) has no purpose. Basically, NASA is now scrambling because it's no longer able to ignore what the Augustine Commission told them years ago: the SLS is so expensive, that even if they build it they can't afford to maintain it and fly it. And now they are approaching the steps where they start building the rocket, but they still don't have any missions for it (because no mission with SLS's price tag can survive budget review).

It's not clear how much longer this farce will continue. SLS was never a rocket program - it was from the beginning a jobs program for the NASA centers to produce endless paper studies, and the third-party contractors who would allegedly eventually build the rocket to do likewise. This make-work attracts tons of government funding, some of which is recycled back into the campaigns of the Senators who pass the funding bills in the first place. As a funding tool for political campaigns, the SLS mission continues to perform nominally. But SLS development money is crowding out high-profile missions that the public actually likes, like the Mars rovers, and eventually this funding competition will come to a head. Once SLS is actually here, and the per-flight price tag is sitting on the Budget Committee's table, someone in DC (who isn't a Senator from Florida, Alabama, or Texas) will eventually ask why SLS exists when launch services from SpaceX and ULA (and maybe Blue Origin by that point) are available for 1/100th the price.

And when that day comes, hopefully, NASA will finally get out of the launch business and focus on the exploration and science missions for which they are uniquely suited.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Primer on Bitcoin "Mining"

A friend asked me to explain, in a simplified manner, how important the "mining" process is to Bitcoin (and its alt-coin forks), and whether that process is integral. This post an attempt to answer that question only, without going into all the details of how Bitcoin works.


The first thing to understand is that Bitcoin is an amalgam of cryptographic tools, each with their own purpose. Each tool solves a particular problem that decentralized ledgers have. The mining process is integral to solving Sybil attacks.

A Sybil attack is something that can happen to any system where enrollment is open to all parties and there is no trusted moderator to authorize identities. Since anyone can sign up, individuals who want to attack the system can create thousands of accounts and flood the system with false information, or spam. This is exactly what happens to email systems, which are federated and have no central authority, and thus spam filtering is an essential part of any useful email service.

The most common type of spam filter (such as Gmail uses) is based on pattern recognition. Machine learning algorithms rely on users to flag emails as spam and then as enough data is gathered, begins to automatically filter emails that are similar into your spam folder. This is considered "good enough" for most email systems, as the cost a user pays for receiving a spam email in their main Inbox is usually just the few seconds of their time it takes to recognize it as spam and mark it as such.

Back in 1997, a cryptographer named Adam Back came up with a different type of spam filter, which he called Hashcash. The central idea of Hashcash is that email senders would be required to attach a cryptographic hash to each sent email that represented an amount of useless work; a deliberate waste of computing resources. Back called this attachment "Proof of Work". Email servers receiving email would be able to quickly and easily check whether the Proof of Work was legitimate, and would automatically delete any email that didn't check out. The idea was that if the wasted resources exceeded the ROI of sending spam, spam would stop. And spam has a very, very low ROI per email. It would only require wasting a few cents (or maybe fractions thereof) worth of computing resources to kill spam for good. Receiving email servers could also set the level of Proof of Work they required to pass email on, so maybe users who got spam when the filter was set to 0.1 cents would increase the barrier to 1 cent.

Unfortunately, internet users really like "free" email supported by ads, and really don't like paying postage to send emails (even a few tenths of a cent), so Hashcash never caught on as a spam-fighting tool.

Satoshi Nakamoto (Bitcoin's pseudonymous developer) saw the usefulness of Hashcash though, and incorporated it into Bitcoin. Generating the "Proof of Work" was assigned to the parties to the Bitcoin protocol called "Miners". They waste tremendous computing resources (and electricity) to generate insane amounts of Proof of Work, only instead of attaching the Proof of Work to an email they attach it to a block of Bitcoin transactions. The other Miners (and the Bitcoin nodes, which do not mine) check the Proof of Work for validity, and assuming it checks out everyone adds the block to their copy of Bitcoin's blockchain.

The point of Miners producing Proof of Work is for the same reason Back attached Proof of Work to emails - to prevent spam. Only in Bitcoin's case, spam isn't a bad email, it's a bad financial transaction. Specifically, without mining someone could spend the same Bitcoin twice, which is called a double-spending attack. A Bitcoin spammer could send their Bitcoins to you, but they could also simultaneously send them to any number of other parties (including themselves!). This sort of attack would increase the number of bitcoins in circulation with each fraudulent transaction, setting the Bitcoin ecosystem into a death-spiral of hyperinflation.

The way that Proof of Work prevents double-spending is a bit more involved. The bare essentials of what you need to know is that when you "hash" a digital file, you're essentially creating a unique string of characters that "represents" that file. Change even one bit of the file and the hash string also changes. Therefore you can easily and verifiably pair digital files and hash strings. The Bitcoin miners attach hashes of the previous block of transactions into each new block, which creates a verifiable "chain" of transaction blocks, each provably leading from one to the next. You can't download the Blockchain, change a few transactions in a block from the day before, and present it to another node as proof you own those bitcoins, because if you altered block 25,115 to give yourself money, the hash of your altered 25,115 would not match the hash of block 25,115 that's in block 25,116. Your transaction would be automatically rejected as invalid.

Of course if the most recent block in existence is 25,116, you could send the same bitcoins to both Bob and Chris. They, after all, have no block 25,117 to compare it to, so assuming that Bob and Chris are not in contact with each other, they would both think that the transfer to them was legitimate. However, when you broadcast both of the transaction to Bob and Chris, the miners competing to produce block 25,117 would recognize that the two transactions contradict each other, and would discard one of them (usually the one with the lower fee, or if the fees were identical, they'd just discard one at random). That's why people who receive bitcoins are advised to not treat a payment as "final" until it is several blocks "deep" into the established blockchain. Assuming Bob and Chris are prudent and risk-averse merchants, they would wait until at least block 25,120 before sending to you whatever you were trying to buy with the bitcoins. (And the one whose transaction was not included in the blockchain might be pretty mad)

Simply put, without the Mining process, Bitcoin would not be both a (1) secure and (2) open, system for transferring value. Some protocols, such as Ripple, have dispensed with mining, but they necessarily also had to dispense with "open". The Ripple protocol is a closed protocol that is entirely controlled by a trusted central party. The "blockchain" initiatives many banks are working on are the same. That's fine for some applications, but not if you're worried about that central party getting hacked by gangs or subject to a legal injunction impounding all your assets. If you want money with censorship resistances, you need it to be decentralized and secure. Some new cryptocurrencies, in an attempt to remain decentralized, secure, and open without the wastefulness of Proof of Work, are trying to replace Proof of Work with a different protocol called Proof of Stake. The security provided by Proof of Stake has not been proven yet however.