Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Story of the Week

I roll my eyes every time a media outlet heaps encomium on Elon Musk. I mean, this guy is not going to single-handedly save humanity from itself. It is with this attitude that I present this tale.

My sister and her husband are both bona fide rocket scientists- my sister put in her time in the Ait Force, got a masters in chemical engineering, and started working on satellite battery systems when her obligation was fulfilled. She still works for a company which designs satellites for the private sector.

Her husband recently retired from the Air Force, and holds a PhD in aeronautical/astronautical engineering. Atone point, he was the "space guy", advising a general on all matters orbital and beyond. As his career was winding down, he was looking for a job which would put his formidable-yet-esoteric skills to use. Almost inevitably, he interviewed with SpaceX, even though he also finds Musk annoying.

In the course of the interview process, he is speaking with the man himself, and Musk asks him how he would go about drastically reducing the cost of putting payloads in orbit. After talking about the limits of material science and the difficulty in formulating more powerful rocket fuels, my brother-in-law, being a science-fiction nerd as well as a science fact nerd, asks Musk if he has considered building a space elevator. At this, Musk gets miffed and starts on a tirade about how stupid the concept of a space elevator is, and the two of them get into a spirited back-and-forth for the rest of the time.

A couple of days later, my brother-in-law's contact at SpaceX calls him and says, "Mr Musk is interested in hiring you."

My brother-in-law replied, "That's funny, all we did is argue for forty-five minutes."

"If he wasn't interested, he would have ended the interview after five minutes."

I know you ruin a joke by going on after the punchline, but the Air Force wouldn't release him early to take the job, but he landed a prestigious wonk job afterwards, and he doesn't have to argue with an overrated tech bro these days.


Vixen Strangely said...

I'm trying not to politicize space tech arguments, but the problem with a space elevator is that it is the public transportation elevated train of doing space stuff. It's reliable, durable, and is not a one-off or bespoke unique engineered craft. Look at the guy doing Teslas and tell me whether his instinct is to do things hoi polloi can afford (although recently, his models are starting to move into the bourgeois-achievable). I think space-elevator tech is great if we had space-station/colonization destinations nearby, after. say, the Stanford Torus or Niven's Ringworld etc model of off-world artificial habitats or near-Earth Moon/Mars colonies--but that only gets one so far. But the pressures of an already-taxed and climate-damaged Earth might cause human spacefarer to depend o more long-range stellar thinking, because a satellite colony within our own star system is still going to depend on massive Terran-input. Based on our time constraints re: badly depleted-earth--concentrating on exotic but long-range space-faring systems servicing elites might just be his political bag as a practical matter. Funded by the novel concept of expensive cars with a high POS.

mikey said...

I can't help but admire Mr. Musk. It is rare to take large-scale risks and succeed, let alone succeed massively. He did it twice. Jobs did it three times, with Apple, Next and Pixar. But those were straight technology plays. Musk tackled electric cars at scale before there was any understanding of how to do e-transport infrastucture. And then he tackled private space launch business, including heavy lift, and succeeded far beyond anyone's dreams.

His position on AI is weird, and he's not a terribly pleasant guy, but he's doing things that nobody else has the courage or the ability to do. And that's pretty cool from where I'm sitting...