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Roald Amundsen
What would polar explorer Roald Amundsen think about the progress made in visiting the South Pole in less than 100 years?

Sidebar: Analogies to Christopher Columbus and other visions

“Let us not obfuscate the issue with false analogies to Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, or with visions of establishing a pleasant tourist resort on the planet Mars.”
James Van Allen, “Is Human Spaceflight Obsolete?”, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2004


Sam: I am talking to you from 512 years in the future.
Columbus: Are you some sort of devil?
Sam: Just a person. Things have really changed since your time, Columbus.
Columbus: How so?
Sam: Well navigation is a lot easier and more accurate.
Columbus: Have you mastered longitude?
Sam: Better, we have GPS; it’s like a sextant, but works even when seas are choppy.
Columbus: What about when it’s cloudy?
Sam: We can get exact position information even when it’s cloudy.
Columbus: So you can see the stars through the clouds?
Sam: Well, actually it was cheaper for us to launch artificial stars because there are millions of users.
Columbus: You are a liar or a demon, but I will humor you. So you can just figure out where you are in the middle of the English Channel when it’s foggy?
Sam: Well, no. We would just take the Channel Tunnel under it.
Columbus: All the way to Dante’s Inferno no doubt. How does a master of the underworld outfit a crew for a trip? How many crew do you need to sail the Atlantic?
Sam: Actually, people have gone around the world, solo.
Columbus: What are the ships made of?
Sam: Some of the strongest are made from woven strands of glass.
Columbus: That sounds like the wings of Icarus.
Sam: We have had explorers travel around the world in flying machines too.
Columbus: (Lucifer was an angel.) How are ships propelled?
Sam: Do you know how the lid can fly off a boiling pot? We have harnessed steam power in a little can and use it to turn a propeller kind of like DaVinci’s screw drive. We use a derivative of Greek fire to run the engines.
Columbus: Glass ships propelled by hellfire. I have decided you are a liar, but one last lie please. So how many people can afford to outfit an expedition like mine? In my time there were about a dozen royals who could do it.
Sam: A crewed charter for six months might set you back $250,000. Less than 1% of people are employed in agriculture now. We are extremely wealthy compared to people in your day. There are about 7 million households worldwide worth $1,000,000 or more.
Columbus: Be gone, spirit!


Sam: Things have really changed since your time, Mr. Amundsen.
Roald: How so?
Sam: Well, communication is a lot easier. We can send messages from the pole.
Roald: Did someone stretch a cable to the pole?
Sam: No, wireless communication is very advanced. There is even a wireless telephone system. Explorers made phone calls from the poles. You heard what I was saying to Columbus about GPS?
Roald: So the future belongs to Marconi, eh? Transglobal phone calls must be worth a fortune.
Sam: Actually, the undersea cables rule and the international wireless providers are bankrupt, but their system still operates.
Roald: A pity. What about the supplies required for an expedition?
Sam: You don’t need to carry 10 1/2 tons for a five-man expedition anymore. Two women, Bancroft and Arnesen, carried just 250 pounds of gear for their 100-day expedition to the South Pole in 2000-2001.
Roald: How did they keep warm? Did you say women?
Sam: Some big advances in thermal protection. Synthetic clothes.
Roald: That sounds like one of my ideas. Dress in layers, I always said. If it’s so easy now, there must be a lot of visitors to Antarctica.
Sam: 13,000 tourist visitors last year.
Roald: Artic exploration emasculated by so called technology. It sounds like one step forward, two steps backward. And next you’ll be telling me that Everest has a hotel.
Sam: No, but it has an internet cafe. 159 summits in 2002 with 3 deaths. 1600 cumulative summits and 175 cumulative deaths.
Roald: I would die for a view like that.


Sam: How have things changed in suborbital since my time?
C: Mass production and mass market have made things a lot easier. You’re an economist, you know the score.
Sam: How much cheaper is a suborbital flight now?
C: Well, as you will write this week, the X-15 program cost $1.5 billion in your dollars. Spaceship One and the Xerus cost about $20-$30 million to build and run in your dollars. Now you can buy a new suborbital flyer for $200,000 in your dollars. Since real GDP per capita is up by a factor of 7 since then, that’s less than one year’s income for the average family—about the same labor cost as a fancy car in your time.
Sam: What about thermal protection?
C: We have learned a lot about thermal protection. The spacecraft are much lighter and 100 times safer. It’s not just safer per mile, but safer per flight than air travel.
Sam: And next you’ll be telling me that there is a lunar hotel?
C: The Moon is getting lots of tourists. Over 1600.
Sam: How did my predictions bear out?
C: Some took a lot longer than you predicted, others less time. Bravery sometimes counts for more than accuracy. More noise may be worth more signal. That was a pretty interesting stunt you pulled in 2005.
Sam: Any stock market recommendations?
C: Now, now.


Sam: How have things changed in space travel since my time, D?
D: Well space programs are a lot cheaper and require a lot fewer staff to use your lingo.
Sam: How far have things come?
D: You could do the Apollo 11 landing solo complete with robotic replicas of the Apollo 11 astronauts. There’s a pretty big nostalgia market. You could have people play all the parts except yours, but that would cost extra.
Sam: Is suborbital travel routine?
D: Not really, people take the tunnels.
Sam: So how many people can afford to outfit an expedition like Apollo 11?
D: It’s a lot easier to borrow these days. Anyone could just use their stake. At 2% growth per year, our income is about 20,000 times yours. So the seven hundred million cost in your dollars is about one year’s average income. Sam: Do you have nuclear propulsion?
D: We zip around pretty quick. Your reactors kind of look like steam teapots compared to what we have. I wish could think of an easy way to describe energy production. Your Pons and Fleischmann were way off. Think of a 15th century alchemist trying to turn lead into gold compared to your nuclear physicists achieving it.
Sam: Is energy very expensive?
D: Energy is plentiful. Maybe half of our energy goes into space travel, but that represents much smaller share than the 7% of your economy devoted to energy production.
Sam: What is so valuable that people produce?
D: There were several revolutions akin to the industrial revolution since your time. About one-fourth of the people now do what you would call performance art. There is a club of a million people that pay each other to perform each other’s plays with a million performers each. Their restaging of the 2050 poker world series was a hoot. The person who played Daniel Negreanu was fabulous. The producers made $400 trillion on that one. That was a modest production. Cleanup costs for restaging WWII were enormous.
Sam: Thanks for your time.

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