Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Strings attached

Alastair Reynolds posts some musings about the roll-out of the Ares 1-X. (How does it stay up, for goodness sake? It looks like someone balancing a pencil on their finger.) He also engages in some speculation about what the world would be like if Gerry Anderson were in charge of human spaceflight. Like, for instance, the rocket wouldn't roll out; the assembly building would instead roll back. Yes, if there's a way to over-engineer a problem, our Gerry will find it.

Rather, if I may smugly outgeek correct Al (who once trounced me in an informal test of knowledge about prog rock drummers) it would be Derek Meddings or Mike Trim who would find the way, they being the ones who designed the fantastic vehicles that made Gerry famous. But for the sake of argument we will use the umbrella term "Anderson" to describe the milieu.

I actually think they did have a hand in some of the Soviet space designs, like their prospective moon rocket the N1. It looks like an upturned cornetto because the Russkies didn't have the industrial base to build five massive engines as used by the Saturn V. Instead they had to pack in 30 much smaller engines, so the base of the rocket had to make room for them all. The fact that all four of the N1s that actually left the launchpad managed to blow up before first stage separation also has a distinctly Anderson feel to it, doesn't it?

In the Anderson world, anything resembling a Health & Safety executive was strangled by red tape at birth and no one ever invented the fuse. These two facts alone mean that a cloud-piercing skyscraper can be brought down by a small fire in the basement. On the other hand, we wouldn't have had to wait years for the A380. Okay, a couple might crash mysteriously in the development phase but hey, there's always another fresh off the production line. So we can assume that all that spared H&S effort went into enhanced R&D, which included an aesthetic element sadly missing from modern design bureaux. All in all, quite a reasonable payoff.

There would be a strange dissonance between very clunky hardware (all tapes and rackety nosies) running extremely powerful software, not to mention an advanced degree of miniaturisation that enables satellite phones with full video to be hidden in watches, power compacts etc. The roads would be a lot safer because no one would dare erupt into road rage when there's the possibility the object of your rage will sprout hidden machine guns and blow you to pieces. There would be no fuss over a third runway for Heathrow, or anything like that, because heavy planes the size of a 747 can take off vertically (or, failing that, off a short ramp).

At the family level, the high degree of personal automation would make us all very quickly clinically obese: why come through to the dining room for tea when you can be carried there by a chute hidden behind a picture in the wall? On the plus side, if your child's a snotty brat then simply implant a new personality. And think of the saving on driving lessons or indeed any form of education. No, it's not abuse, really.

Overall I think the world would be a happier place. International terrorism would be a thing of the past: how successful would 9/11 have been if the twin towers could simply duck? And even if someone did smuggle a bomb onto a plane it would be handily labelled "bomb", so quickly dealt with.

As long as we don't have to wear the clothes. That's all I ask.

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