Longtime readers will no doubt be shocked to find out that I am a nerd, and have been for a long time. Back in the 1970s I subscribed to Galaxy science fiction magazine in no small measure because of Jerry Pournelle's monthly column "A Step Farther Out" about space and space technology.
I've just run across a blog that is basically this for the modern age: Casey Handmer is a former JPL techie who seems to be in one of the many space exploration companies that are popping up everywhere these days*. I think I ran across his blog via a link at The Silicon Graybeard, but Handmer doesn't focus on "what's the space news from this week" - rather, it's in-depth discussion of fascinating topics that I either didn't know, or topics that I thought I did know but actually knew wrong. Here is a smattering of some of the most interesting ones:OMG space is full of radiation, and why I’m not worried
Domes are over-rated
Modular space stations don’t save time or money
The Moon’s water is less exciting than you might think
There are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold on Earth
Historically, mission/system design has been grievously afflicted by absurdly harsh mass constraints, since launch costs to LEO are as high as $10,000/kg and single launches cost hundreds of millions. This in turn affects schedule, cost structure, volume, material choices, labor, power, thermal, guidance/navigation/control, and every other aspect of the mission. Entire design languages and heuristics are reinforced, at the generational level, in service of avoiding negative consequences of excess mass. As a result, spacecraft built before Starship are a bit like steel weapons made before the industrial revolution. Enormously expensive as a result of embodying a lot of meticulous labor, but ultimately severely limited compared to post-industrial possibilities.
Starship obliterates the mass constraint and every last vestige of cultural baggage that constraint has gouged into the minds of spacecraft designers. There are still constraints, as always, but their design consequences are, at present, completely unexplored. We need a team of economists to rederive the relative elasticities of various design choices and boil them down to a new set of design heuristics for space system production oriented towards maximizing volume of production. Or, more generally, maximizing some robust utility function assuming saturation of Starship launch capacity. A dollar spent on mass optimization no longer buys a dollar saved on launch cost. It buys nothing. It is time to raise the scope of our ambition and think much bigger.
* Now this is the 21st Century I was promised.