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
by Sam Dinkin
Monday, August 2, 2004
“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.