Pondering our technical future in what we see today

Most of us like nighttime space launches the best. Is that because of the light show? Maybe, but I suspect, or maybe hope, it’s because that on the right night, we can literally watch a human machine pierce the cosmos. We have the sense at such moments that perhaps the best is yet to come for us Homo sapiens.  

For me, a good space launch can spark a mental chain reaction. I wonder if out there somewhere other societies have lifted off. That makes me think about our technical progress and whether there is, in fact, only one optimal solution for each technical challenge and we are still a long way from finding them. 

Since it’s space launch that sparked this chain reaction, let’s consider the challenge of getting people and equipment into space. Ironically, when I watch that exhaust plume, I somehow doubt that the most advanced societies out there are doing it like this: Sucking up ancient detritus, turning it into flammable liquid, lighting it and riding to space atop, potentially, dozens of the devices. Common sense but not a lot of evidence tells me that our heirs will look back on Starship and the other modern rockets as interesting steps in the right direction. Or maybe they’ll just laugh. In any case, instinct tells me there must be a better way. The only question is which nation, corporation or university will find it.

Could nuclear fission be the answer? I want to say, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” but the safety and environmental questions are enormous. As our cover story indicates, the focus right now is on nuclear fission for in-space propulsion. The idea is to turn the reactor on far from Earth, which might be safe, but of course won’t work if your goal is to launch stuff from the surface. Perhaps the seeds of a more satisfying innovation lie somewhere in the U.S. Department of Energy’s announcement last month about achieving fusion ignition as a step toward clean energy. Now we are getting somewhere.

So what about transportation from here to there on Earth? It might be silly, but I can imagine — and that’s all it is — that out there somewhere, extraterrestrials are being whisked from point A to B in pneumatic tubes under their planet’s surface. What about windows? Now that I’m in the aisle seat phase of life, this doesn’t sound so crazy. Locally, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if the extraterrestrials are bopping around in craft roughly like the electric-powered advanced air mobility designs we’re beginning to see. These aircraft are a much greater departure from conventional aircraft than today’s rockets are from their predecessors. Good for these pioneers. Best of all, even if only some of the promises come true, we won’t have to be a lottery winner, billionaire or jauntily famous actor to fly in one.

Maybe when these innovators are done with advanced air mobility, they can take on space launch. 

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Pondering our technical future in what we see today