Monday, July 19, 2021

We've Been Here Before

      At the recent Indianapolis Hamfest, I picked up a copy of Alice Clink Schumacher's biography of Hiram Percy Maxim.  While he's mostly remembered as one of the most prominent early amateur radio enthusiasts and a founder of the American Radio Relay League and the International Amateur Radio Union, and to firearms enthusiasts as the inventor of the silencer, his professional career began in the early automobile industry.  The gun silencer came about as a result of his successful efforts to quiet the internal combustion engine.

      Maxim's earliest work pre-dates the "brass lamp" era and continued well past it.  The first commercial motorized road vehicles were used by industry -- and by the very wealthy.  The early auto companies were often set up by businessmen who had already made a lot of money in other fields.  Passenger cars were very much a toy for the rich in their first decade or more.  Heavier vehicles were bought by industry and governments.  Nobody else could afford one.

      Barring any last-minute changes, Blue Origin, the spaceflight company set up by Jeff Bezos, will have their first crewed launch tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. EDT.  Passenger spacecraft are very much a toy for the rich; larger, more capable vehicles are sold (or their services leased) to governments and industry.

      I wonder, when William Kissam Vanderbilt II (with help from a few of his wealthy and powerful friends) built the exclusive, private Long Island Motor Parkway in 1908, did critics gripe that he and his rich friends were going to use their motorcars to flee the city on that limited-access ribbon of smooth concrete and leave the poor trapped in urban squalor?  Of course, it didn't work out that way; in 1938, LIMP was handed over to the city, an out-dated white elephant that had never made a cent, while Robert Moses snaked modern multilane public highways through Greater New York.  By then, a poor man in a beat-up Ford flivver enjoyed speed and freedom Vanderbilt had only dreamt of.

      Space travel has yet to produce a Henry Ford (or even an Elwood P. Haynes).  Maybe we'll get Frank J. Sprague or George Pullman instead.  What we're not going to get is plutocrats ruling from orbit.  Like their predecessors at the controls or in the passenger seat of a 19th-Century automobile, the crazy rich (and their employees) will serve as self-funded beta testers until the new wears off and the risks shrink.

      Then it'll be our turn.


RandyGC said...

Yep, that's how technology works. All but the very poorest in the US today live with access to goods and services the very rich, Kings etc. couldn't even dream of a century ago. And would probably get you burned as a witch or thrown in an asylum before that.

BobF said...

Although there are prudent reasons not to, I am surprised the government has not interfered with private enterprise space efforts. I keep wondering when the axe will fall. Not if, but when.

Mike V said...

But in a real sense, the Long Island Motor Parkway was a proof of concept that other road builders could follow as demand for roads increased. Just like Bezos and Musk are building on the foundations laid by Goddard and Von Braun.

Roberta X said...

BobF: "Interfere?" Uncle Sam has been *hiring* private companies to fly people and hardware. There have been multiple programs at NASA with just this aim. For routine (!) tasks, NASA has determined they are better off hiring it as a turnkey effort. That's why SpaceX is the crew/cargo carrier for the U.S. portion of ISS.

Private passenger spaceflight is regulated by FAA, in the same way and under the same kinds of standards as commercial air travel. This has been the case since the initial Scaled Composites X-Prize flights.

Mike V: that was my point.

Mike V said...

NASA funding to the private companies may be the best thing they’ve done since Apollo.