Thinking about the recent SpaceX booster landing and the transformative power of control.
- Atoms to Bits
As our planetary civilization has been evolving there’s been a shift from “atoms to bits”. Engineers have realized that they can build dynamic control systems in software that can adaptively adjust the physical structures that they build such that those structures can remain stable in the face of changing conditions. Simple examples are a home heating system, or a skyscraper with a large weight at the top. Fancier examples are lighter wind turbines that adaptively adjust their wind blade surface exposure to avoid being damaged by overly strong winds. This is something that Saul Griffeth talks about at Otherlab and it represents a persistent technical migration away from static structures.
One reason for this change is that the cost of control is often less than the cost of static reinforcement. It is also similar to techniques that nature uses herself. Birds have adaptive control surfaces that bite at the wind and have a subtle understanding of exactly how to optimally interact with the air to do as the bird wishes. In a sense the bird and the wind are the same thing; the bird in its expression or understanding of the wind becomes the wind.
A “technique” for having control systems is to use genetic algorithms. Karl Simms work is well known but many people have tried their hand at this:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STkfUZtR-Vs .
(It’s worth noting that nature is messier and dirtier than these virtual simulations, building control systems in the real world is much harder than the virtual toys above).
Another technique is to use remote control such as via drone operators. It doesn’t make much sense anymore to put an actual human as an “operator in the loop” inside of a control system when they can control the device via a radio at light speed.
(As an aside it is worth noting that bureaucracy tends to be static. Our social and political structures tend to be reactive to a crisis and build up more structure. After 911 the TSA was created to act as a static defense against further similar incidents.)
2. Moon, Mars or Asteriods?
In any case — there’s been some debate about what are the first targets for colonization beyond Earth. Some have argued for the Moon and some have argued for Mars. Once outside of Earth’s gravitational well both locations are fairly close effectively. I personally tend to favor the use of ion drives once out of the gravity well, and although it can take a while to build up the momentum it is possible to place a ferry in a permanent orbital path between Earth and Mars such that the travel time wouldn’t be too bad.
Mars has volatiles and Robert Zubrin has argued that it’s a better choice than the Moon as a first place to have a permanent settlement. 9 months of travel time is also a concern. As well since it’s more likely Mars has fossils or life, an audit may be necessary before we infect that planet.
Others simply like the proximity of the Moon — it feels closer to home — which may not be an insignificant criteria.
Most of the speculation about these colonization efforts tends to paint them as crafted structures on the surface but in fact likely they would be exploiting natural caverns and be largely invisible to observers. However in both cases there is significant construction work required. One advantage of the Moon is that it is close enough to Earth that both semi-autonomous robots and remote-controlled drones operated by humans on Earth could be leveraged.
I personally however tend to favor a third option. Once you’re outside of a gravity well why go back down? It feels like catching a nearby passing asteroid and bringing into a circular orbit around the Earth is the right way to build a stepping stone between Earth and space. This takes advantage of the kinds of control systems that we can build — and moves us towards being able to harness local resources. See:
But either way one or all of these choices will probably be exercised by various entities in the coming decades.
The role I see of SpaceX and like technologies is to move enough atoms to space so that we can get an iterative industrial process going. Once we have enough stuff squeezed through the bottleneck of our gravitational well then we can proceed geometrically from there.
By moving away from static structures to dynamic structures we’re starting to re-evolve the same kinds of control systems that we ourselves are. Situational capability becomes a narrow form of Artificial Intelligence.
With enough control we can do things like have millions of tiny robots re-separate the planetary ecosystems into bio-regions. Or unbuild all of the unused buildings, roads and debris on the trail that our civilization left behind as it grew up. Or pluck all the plastic out of the oceans.
It’s not entirely clear what the pressures are for space travel. It’s primarily the dream of billionaire visionaries. There are rewards at the other end. The real issue is a stepping stone gap. There’s a leap between Earth and Space that is just a bit far. Mastery of material sciences and physics are required to leap that gap.