Fill’er up … in Space

Some Saturday fun!

Back in the 1960’s, you could feel an incredible sense of momentum in space exploration, which of course led to man setting foot on the moon. Remember this?

One had the sense that space as the “final frontier” would be conquered. So a TV show like Star Trek fit into the cultural milieu rather well. And we got creative visions that started looking like this

But things have not progressed as quickly as we might have expected. Why not?

Some argue that we lost out enthusiasm for space exploration. I think it is the cost of sending up non-reusable rockets. We have not yet found a way to reduce those costs to a level where using space becomes normal.

As Elon Musk correctly observed, costs can be reduced if rockets can be re-used. They might also be reduced if rockets did not have to carry so much fuel up into space. That is, by the way, the bulk of the rocket payload.

How to do that?`What if rockets only needed enough fuel to get to a space re-fueling station? I saw an article discussing this today at Giga. Very interesting.

And where does the re-fueling station get its fuel? Hmmm … perhaps liquid fuel could be uploaded to space less expensively by space elevator. It might look something like this

Or, as battery technology gets better, space fuel could be stored from solar energy, which space has in great quantities. BTW, thinking this way takes us a step from bringing everything we need to be in space with us from earth to using what is in space to keep us in space.

I think this last issue – how to store solar energy is the most interesting. For years, we saw only incremental improvements in battery technology. More recently, we have made progress, but I have the sense that we will soon see a breakthrough.

And why do I think so? The main reason is that with more and more emphasis on using battery technology in things ranging from mobile devices to terrestrial transport vehicles, there are more incentives to improve it. More investment (like Tesla’s recent plunge) will lead us ahead faster.

It is a fun story about space. But the story is only in part about space. It is as much about the inter-connectivity between learning in one area and progress in others.

My favorite story about this type of inter-connectivity goes back to James Watt. Watt was the guy who back in 1781 radically improved the efficiency of the steam engine (to 10 horsepower), which ignited the industrial revolution. But in fact, Watt had been unable to solve a critical problem — how to make the pistons work efficiently. It was John Wilkinson who solved that by adapting technology for boring cannons to making pistons. This new application made the steam engine worth developing further.

Bravo Wilkinson!


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