Economic vs Esoteric Technology

Space elevators are cool, but what I’ve learned from obessing about technology for +30 years is that esoteric technology is rarely what pushes us forward.

Here are some of my many mistakes over all those years about the future:

  • I thought flying cars would be a thing over 20 years ago. I remember they were even selling flying cars. It never happened.
  • Since even before that I remember reading about hydrogen fuel cell cars, building enormous solar cells in the Sahara dessert which would produce hydrogen for electrolysis which would fuel this new hydrogen economy. Never happened.
  • As a computer enthusiast I thought Amiga with the much more modern architecture would kick the PC to the curb. Didn’t happen.
  • Then I tought Apple with their modern PowerPC RISC architecture would bury the old kludgy x86 intel architure. Didn’t happen.
  • Decades ago I read articles about maglev test tracks for trains. I though regular railroad would be dead by now. I’ve taken trains many places, but still never sat on a maglev train.
  • I read a book as a kid in the 80s describing a smart house where lights are computer controlled. You talk to visitors through a computer screen etc. Sure this is slowly becoming a reality. But it isn’t a big phenomenon and it has taken almost 35 years since I read about it the first time.
  • Science magazines were ranting and raving about fusion power almost 30 years ago as well. Still we seem no further along today than back then.

What we see time and again is that real progress happen by significant improvement of well established technology. Anything building on existing technology tends to win out. Simple and economic tends to win. Anything that requires a radical paradigm shift which can’t be built on top of some existing industry is not likely going to succeed.

Look at the premis of Tesla. They took a pretty well know technology, a battery powered car and combined it with an even more established industry, that of computer laptops. Tesla was made possible because the prevailence of laptops meant a huge economic push towards battery development. The first Tesla’s had batteries built on thousands of laptop battery cells. The novelty of Tesla was to simply utilize and existing industry rather than being exotic and designing a battery from scratch.

SpaceX is not that different. They took 60s era space technology and built it with modern software such as CAD/CAM and 3D printers. Then they slapped on modern software for control. The landing of the Falcon 9 is almost entirely about software. This approach worked beautifully. It produced a cheap and effective rocked designed in short time.

The NASA Space shuttle approach which meant getting all dreamy eyed about esoteric technology was a failure. It produced a humogously espensive and complicated rocket which didn’t deliver.

Fusion Power isn’t delivering yet, but boring old wind and solar power is starting to deliver in a big way. Real success is being built on top of old technologies being gradually refined over and over again.

I don’t really see the need for a space elevator. Fuel costs are not really that significant. It has been the cost of making a new rocket which has made it so expensive. An anyway there are ways of reducing propellant mass.

Space planes like the Skylon, using Sabre engines which are essentially air breathing rocket engines actually has some chance of success. Now I’d normally but Sabre Engines in the esoteric category, but unlike space elevators these engines have actually been test fired and demonstrated to work.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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