New Machines

After thousands of years of development, by the 19th century sailing ships had reached an incredible level of sophistication. They were fast, their rigging could cope with a variety of wind conditions, and their crews were trained to run the ships as best as possible. Then came the steam engine. At first, ships powered by steam could not really compete with sailing, because the machines were tricky to run, the paddles initially used to propel the

M. van Pelt, Space Tethers and Space Elevators, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76556-3_2, 33

© Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009

vessels were inefficient, and there was no worldwide infrastructure of fuel depots to enable an adequate range. Many were skeptical of the need for this new technology and doubted that the potential advantages would outweigh the investments. Was it really worth the trouble of completely converting the established and trusted system of sailing ship transportation? However, as the technology matured, steam boats quickly made the old sailing vessels obsolete. They became faster, were independent of the wind, and required much smaller crews, thus enabling rapid and predictable transportation at lower costs.

Later, in the early 20th century, cars were initially also greeted with skepticism. The first automobiles were expensive, broke down frequently, and could not travel on rough roads like horses could. Nor were they able to carry the huge amounts of cargo transported at high speed by steam trains. Nevertheless, eventually the car made it possible to transport people and goods in quantities and at an efficiency that would be impossible to reach with horses. Just think of how much food and stable space would be needed if everybody still used horses instead of cars, and how much slower local transportation would be. In addition, cars, unlike trains, are not limited to rails and can thus get to any village. They can be used by the driver and a few passengers, or even no passengers, while railroads are economical only if transporting large numbers of people or large amounts of cargo. The modern, large-scale economies needed to support the billions of people now inhabiting our planet could never be supported by horsepower alone or by trains alone.

The steamship and the car are just two examples of new technologies that dramatically disrupted the status quo, even when at the time their use did not seem to be required and their benefits seemed insufficient to warrant further investments. Space transportation now appears to be ready for a revolution as well. Even though conventional rocket propulsion can support all we do in space and has only relatively recently reached its maturity and become trusted, the limits of its performance capabilities and economic possibilities are already in sight.

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