Sunday, May 10, 2009

Floating to Space

I'm an unabashed space cadet from waaaaay back. Nothing interests me more than ideas to get humans out of earth's cradle to become a space faring culture. The problem has always been the high cost of getting to orbit. Once you are there, as Heinlein said, you are halfway to anywhere. Therefore any out of the box thinking on cheap to orbit capability is of interest.

Which makes John Powell's "Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbit Program" a fascinating read. Powell asks the question, can we float to space using lighter than air vehicles? Initially this seems like a stupid question, eliciting an "of course not!" answer. But hold your horses. Powell makes a convincing case that the idea is feasible. His proposal is quite simple. First build a station that floats in the stratosphere, about 25 miles up, where the pressure is less than 1% of sea level. This station is manned, serviced and maintained using a large, V-shaped airship. To get to orbit, an even larger V-shaped airship, with "wings" about 1 mile long is used. This airship uses both buoyancy and dynamic lift to slowly rise to orbit, using low thrust engines achieve the necessary velocity. The idea is compelling and makes you want to write a check to help fund the concept.

At this point, Powell's aerospace company has built and flown test vehicles for both the floating station and the lower atmosphere airship. These seem to prove that this part of the program is feasible and could be scaled up. What has not been done is to test whether airship designs could fly from the station to orbit. This needs a lot of work to determine if ships this large can be stable and whether a propulsion device can be made to propel the vehicle to orbital velocity in the near vacuum of the upper atmosphere, around mach 25.

The sheer beauty of this idea is that even if Powell is wrong about getting all the way to space using the proposed approach, just the floating station component is a great idea - a platform that can be used for a host of commercial applications and tourism. While I think a true space station makes for a better space experience, I can't help but think a floating station that has a black sky above and gravity is going to make for a more popular destination than one with zero gravity: if you can live without the zero-G sex experience, which I assume our first commercial tourists to the ISS have.

Powell stresses that the airship approach is inherently much safer than the current rocket approach, which seems intuitively true, although actual operations would determine that. certainly the idea of traveling slowly but surely, with minimal discomfort is very appealing, even if several hours without a restroom on ascent to the station might be problematic, but not unfixable.

I thoroughly recommend this book and wish Powell all the luck in getting his vision realized.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Thinking in Tweets

Recently Tim O'Reilly made an interesting comment: "my tweet stream is a kind of memory archive, which helps me to keep track of links. It's amazing how often I learn about a video or interview with me because someone else tweets about it." I find this interesting because I see the rapid increase in speed of digital communications becoming distributed prostheses for our minds.

Despite the common assumption that our minds are only within our brains, they are in fact extended beyond them. A simple example; we use our fingers as memory aids for counting. Today, calculators have pretty much supplanted mental arithmetic within a generation.

The written word, primarily stored in books, has become the memory storage mechanism of choice for 600 years, even since the Gutenberg invented the printing press. Even a modest library accurately stores more than a brain can easily store. Most formal learning uses books, facilitating a transfer of knowledge from the frozen memories on the pages to our wetware. But books are more than just archival memory stores. They represent stored thoughts. Reading a novel replays those thoughts in your mind, so that you quickly become lost in the unfolding events, seeing, hearing and feeling the characters and their worlds. For people like me, books are a brain prothesis that we cannot live without, surrounding ourselves with them on bookshelves in our favorite domains.

But books are relatively immobile, referred to when available. Electronic search has both improved the scope of stored knowledge and its immediacy, especially when accessed by mobile devices such as smart phones. Wikipedia and google search have become part of the process of my thinking today. I can retrieve facts that I was aware of more accurately and access new facts, not quite in real time today. The immediacy of search makes it feel more like a part of my thinking, than using a book.

Which brings me back to Twitter and Tim's comment. Twitter, unlike most written text, is very simple - 140 characters conveying a simple thought, often attached to a URL which contains the "memory archive" connected to the thought. Tweets are small, often rapidly generated, and flow out into the noosphere to be picked up and passed on if worthy of interest. In some cases, rather than dying away, they are amplified and eventually returned to the sender with retweets. This is not unlike the signaling in neurons in your brain and how thoughts vie for attention.

So consider for a moment, that we are rapidly approaching a time when our thoughts will no longer be mostly constrained in our brains, occasionally to be frozen in print, but the stream of consciousness to be broadcast out into the web to mix with others' and return. When this stream is happening as fast as our thoughts, it will integrate with our minds as reading does today. But unlike books, which are frozen thoughts, these thoughts will be dynamic, constantly changing and modifying the thoughts in our wetware. Readers already know the loss they feel when cut off from their books. Today, many of us feel a little disorientated when disconnected from the net. In the future, our minds may partially reside in the net.

The question is, how far can this go? Do our minds increasingly expand into the net, and if so, what will it be like to be human?