Slip The Surly Bonds

Virgin Galactic

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Virgin Galactic has announced that it will team with NASA to make commercial space travel possible. From a statement by Sir Richard Branson:

Virgin Galactic has shown in the past few years how private sector investment and innovation can lead to a rapid transformation of stagnant technologies. We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past. We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future, so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars. Today’s announcement is an important step along the way to achieving our ultimate and long term goal of leading an industry which opens up the huge potential of space to everyone, whether it be for the experience itself, for science research, for fast and efficient transportation around the globe or for delivering payloads to space safely, cleanly and cheaply. We very much look forward to working with SNC, OSC and other partners in the future to bring this ambition to fruition.

What will space travel be like in the future?Well, we might stay at a space hotel. And what will we do in space? Lots of exciting activities are planned. Furthermore, imagine what sports will be like in a weightless environment! 1,000 yard field goals, anybody? 80-foot pole vaults?Personally, I have no craving for space travel. I’m content with terra firma and the wonders of this planet, which you could never see all of even if you dedicated your whole life to the attempt. You could never even see all of America…and I can’t imagine anything in the universe more awesome and majestic than hiking the Grand Canyon, seeing the sun rise across the Painted Desert, or descending into the fabulous underground otherworld at Carlsbad caverns.But there are people who will always yearn for space…some of them, I suspect, right here in this forum. People who will fully understand the feelings of John G. Magee, an American aviator and poet, who was killed in 1941 at the age of 19, when his Spitfire VZ-H, collided with another aircraft during a training flight at a British air base. Magee is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Scopwick in Lincolnshire, England. On his gravestone are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem High Flight:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth –Put out my hand and touched the Face of God.”

About filistro

Filistro is a Canadian writer and prairie dog who maintains burrows on both sides of the 49th parallel. Like all prairie dogs, she is keenly interested in politics and language. (Prairie dogs have been known to build organized towns the size of Maryland, and are the only furry mammal with a documented language.)
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51 Responses to Slip The Surly Bonds

  1. drfunguy says:

    Once China annexes near-earth orbit to complete military domination of the surface, commercial spaceflight will end its brief existence. Given their steady progress and devotion of resources to space exploration (and the US decline in this area) I expect this to happen within the next 25 years. The last shuttle is making its last flight this week and there is no plan to replace it; NASA is on the chopping block. Politicians apparently fail to understand either the military or economic implications of these actions. From a military perspective who controls near earth orbit controls the earth. And the space program has been an engine for technological innovation that has penetrated every corner of our lives. I can’t think of a more obvious sign of the decline of the American empire than the loss of a national ambition for space.

  2. dcpetterson says:

    To be human is to dream. Our very bodies are made of star-stuff. Our future is Out There.

    One of the best explorations of this ever written is Where the Winds Sleep by Neil P. Ruzic, Wernher Von Braun, and Donald G. Lewis. It deserved a lot more attention than it ever got. Check it out on Amazon.

  3. drfunguy says:

    I agree with you DC but (to paraphrase Heinlein) there is no gaurantee that whoever settles Out There will be speaking English; the laws of physics work just as well in Madarin and Hindi.

  4. mclever says:

    I’ve been wanting to comment on this thread, because I agree with drfunguy about the importance (psychologically, strategically, and technologically) of our quest for space. I just haven’t been able to think of anything substantial enough to add to what he so excellently already said.

    I guess with everyone so concerned about unemployment, political unrest (here and abroad), and the unwillingness of our politicians to actually address the underlying problems, perhaps we’ve got our noses too close to the grindstone to dream. To borrow from psychology and Maslow’s hierarchy, our national dialog is stuck on the bottom level needs for Physiological stuff like food, water, shelter, and we’re working on the next level up for Safety (security of body, employment, resources, etc.) needs. Dreams of space would require that we reach the Actualization level where we can actually engage in creativity, ingenuity, and acceptance of basic facts.

    Oh, and I’ll be adding Where the Winds Sleep to my wishlist…


  5. Number Seven says:

    I see no reason why China would stop the commercialization of space flight. I think that is a bit gloom and doom. Will we be able to compete? I don’t know but I sure hope so.

    We lost our edge. We should have been trying to commercialize space long ago. Think about the possible potential for mining near earth asteroids or better yet, the moon. I think China is going to the moon just for that.

  6. rgbact says:

    Could someone give me a couple bullet points that summarize the gains we’ve made so far from exploring space?

  7. dcpetterson says:

    rgbact – it’s a long list, but I’ll start. Others can add things.

    * Weather satellites.
    * Communications satellites.
    * Observation satellites.
    * New cancer treatments.
    * Microprocessors.
    * New exercise equipment.
    * New materials, including (but not limited to) teflon and velcro.
    * New high-temperature ceramics used in a host of applications, including personal computers.
    * Advances in climatology, meteorology, geology, physics.
    * Leaps in our understanding of the basics sciences, the history and composition of the universe, even psychology and sociology.

    Also check out here
    and here

    Some have argued a number of these could have been created without going into space. But the fact is, they weren’t. And none of that approaches the higher Maslovian needs — poetry, spirituality, the things of the soul, things that move the spirit through a sense of wonder and imagination and discovery. Life is not just about economics.

  8. drfunguy says:

    My point is not that they necessarily will, but that whoever controls orbit has military dominance of the surface. On the other hand, if whoever controls near space, China, India or Brazil or whoever, see commercial activity as a threat to their military use of space, why wouldn’t they shut it down?
    For entertaining fictional accounts of the strategic importance of space see Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (also an anarchist utopian theme) or Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall.

  9. dcpetterson says:

    drfunguy, damn, two of my favorite SF books. Great recommendations.

  10. filistro says:

    Speaking of surly… I’m almost home! (And pretty damn sick of traveling 😦

    Spent much of my time on a spectacular cruise ship somewhere between LA and Tahiti. Might as well have been holidaying in space… Internet connection cost 75 cents a minute on the ship… and was slower than dial up! (alas, that’s no exaggeration.)

    I love you guys, but not THAT much… 🙂

    Am in a hotel in Montana, will be home tomorrow. Now that I’m back online I see you all have been making a huge mess of things while I was on the high seas with the Beautiful People… there’s war in Libya, riots in WISCONSIN of all places, poor Scott Brown enraging the Freepers by confessing to an abusive childhood on 60 Minutes, J-Lo having a messy meltdown on American Idol… wow, it’s about time I got back to my computer.

    Dumped a lot of my email and haven’t had time to look back at previous threads (75 cents a minute, remember?) So… any refugee news in February? Can somebody just give me the Cliff notes?


  11. mclever says:

    Cliff Notes:

    You were missed, filistro!

    Get home safely, and we look forward to more input from you soon!


  12. dcpetterson says:

    First, mclever got it right.

    Second, the final shuttle mission ever took off this afternoon. The end of an era is upon us.

  13. DC,
    I think it’s just the last mission for Discovery. I heard them say that there are three more missions in total, with the final one lifting off this summer.

  14. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Final Discovery mission.

    There are a couple more to go, including Giffords husbands mission in a couple months

  15. dcpetterson says:

    Ah, thanks for the corrections. Here I thought I was informed 🙂 at least I can count on youse guys.

  16. Mr. Universe says:

    Endeavour is going up this spring with Giffords hubby. An extra mission has been approved (presumably for Atlantis) later this summer. Those are the only ones I know of at the moment.

    Yay! filistro returns.

  17. Gator says:


    I watched it from my front yard. I have seen probably 75 launches, 5 of them from the Cape and 4 from a family condo on the beach in Ponce Inlet. The rest from various places in central FL. My home is 40 miles from the Cape. I am ashamed to say that I had been taking the launches for granted for years. There was always another one coming in a month or three. And now there isn’t. Makes me ineffably sad. A story has ended. No more pages to turn. And only after that last page is turned do you truly appreciate your great good fortune for having been privileged enough to have witnessed the story unfold.

    I really need a drink.

  18. filistro says:

    BTW, just wanted to ask you Smart People… the cruise ship claimed the reason the Internet is so slow is that they use a comm. satellite that is 27,000 miles away from Earth. Can that possibly be true? In my profound ignorance I thought satellites were, like, a few hundred miles up or so.

    Also… even if it’s true, why would that make the Net connection slow when my GPS is also operated by satellite and it’s instantaneous?

    I think I was being scammed….

  19. filistro says:

    Hey look, Gator is back!

    At least SOMETHING good happened while I away!!!

  20. mclever says:


    If the satellites used were in geosync orbit, 27,000 miles was probably an exaggeration. Equatorial communication satellites are at something like 22,300 miles up to achieve geostationary orbit. These can achieve broadband speeds, but with a second or so of delay.

    However, there are Low Earth Orbit (LEO = 600-1500 km?) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO ~8000 km?) communication satellite clusters. If they were using one of these, then your speed would fall to about 64 kbs (think dial-up) and about 100 ms delay, give or take.

    There’s supposed to be a new sat network going up in 2015 that will have 1Gps speed and only 7ms delay, and Skype users everywhere will rejoice!


  21. Gator says:

    Hey Fili,

    I think some might take exception to your assertion that my being here is good! LOL!
    Great to ‘see’ you. Enjoy your return to friendly confines. Home is always nice.

    Max, I’m glad to hear there are a couple more launches. Put off the finale for a little while anyway. I’m still gonna’ drink, though.

  22. filistro says:

    mclever… thanks for the sat. data. If you weren’t so adorable, you would be absolutely terrifying, you know that?… 😉

    Gator, you are and always have been one of my very favorite people at this blog. If they’ve been pickin’ on you, they’ll be sorry…

  23. Monotreme says:


    Altitude of 22,000 miles for a geosynchronous satellite, which is what I assume they were using.

    However, I don’t buy the slow connection argument. If that were true, then it would take a lot longer for me to download a movie over my DirecTV connection.

    Good to “see” you again.

  24. mclever says:


    More like Gator’s been pickin’ on everyone else. 😉

    He apparently prefers the “Devil’s Advocate” role.

  25. filistro says:

    @Treme… However, I don’t buy the slow connection argument. If that were true, then it would take a lot longer for me to download a movie over my DirecTV connection

    Just as I suspected. Also I don’t see why net connection should be so expensive for people who have their own laptops on board. I suspect the cruise ships just don’t want passengers wasting time online when they could be up on deck, using their ship cards to buy cutesy umbrella drinks at 6 bucks a pop.

    It’s good to be back. I’ve missed everybody.

  26. filistro says:

    mclever… it’s important to remember that while Gators have sharp teeth and crushing jaws, they also have enormous hearts (4-chambered, just like human beings) and are very, very, VERY smart 😉

  27. filistro,

    the cruise ship claimed the reason the Internet is so slow is that they use a comm. satellite that is 27,000 miles away from Earth. Can that possibly be true?

    More like 22,000. Many communications satellites (particularly older ones) are in geostationary orbit. If latency in communication isn’t a problem, that’s no big deal. But bandwidth tends to be limited at that range, and latency is certainly an issue in cases such as telephone conversations.

  28. Mr. Universe says:

    Most geosynchronous satellites live in the Clarke Belt at 22,000 miles. Named for the Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke because he proposed the idea back in the fourties. But that isn’t why Internet sucks on ships. See below. I think you may have had someone who was poorly informed.

    Ship to shore Internet communications

  29. filistro says:

    Mr U… that’s very cryptic….

  30. Mr. Universe says:

    Was editing when you saw it. But it appears everybody else beat me to it. Man, we do have some brainiacs in here.

  31. dcpetterson says:

    Gator, I’m jealous of the launches you’ve seen. I’ve not seen a single one. I may have to get out to Arizona, to watch one from the Virgin Galactic Spaceport once it’s up and running.

    My parents saw one of the Apollos (no, this wasn’t before I was born — in fact, I was already a young adult, they just went on vaca without me). From what I hear, those birds were impressive — imagine a small earthquake, thrust from the engines so powerful that the Earth actually buckles beneath it, spreading in a wave like you get when a pebble is thrown into a pond, a wave in the ground tall enough to see it moving at you. None of us will see a launch like that again.

    My dad used to like pointing out that my grandfather was born before the Wright Brothers’ first flight — and he lived to see humans walk on the Moon. In a single lifetime, that is what we accomplished.

    And then, it all very nearly stopped. Yes, the International Space Station is an impressive achievement; and Hubble has taught us more about the Universe than any other single scientific instrument; and we have sent robots to every planet (New Horizons will fly past Pluto in 2015); and the Space Shuttle has been a success beyond belief.

    But as late as 1969, there still was talk of a crewed Mars flight by 1976. It didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because Richard Nixon killed NASA. He drastically cut its funding, canceled all but a handful of Moon missions. We have not been back to the Moon since 1972, which is almost 40 years ago. There is more time between us and Apollo 17 than between the Moon landings and the height of the Great Depression.

    I just hope we are closer to the next Moon landing than we are to the last one. I hope I live to see it. And I frankly don’t care if America does it — though I would prefer that, the point is to do it. If China can shame us into a return to exploration, so much the better. And if not, if they are the ones to carry humankind back to the stars among whom we were born — then so be it.

  32. Number Seven says:

    Hi Fili, welcome back. Don’t have the cliff notes but will mention that Bart has left us. Not sure if there was a why to it, just noticed he isn’t posting anymore. I guess he decided to side with the 2 Percenters, lol.

  33. drfunguy says:

    You are fortunate indeed to have seen so many lift offs, perhaps it make up for living in Florida. 😉
    Nah. At least not for me.
    I was lucky enough to watch Apollo 11 take off from across the crick there. It made a lasting impression.

  34. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    Welcome back. Hope you have an uneventful last part of your journey.

    Don’t believe mc, et al.. They’re just shooting you a line to make it sound really technical. As a computer expert, I can tell you the real reason.

    Yes, it is because of the distance, first, and the delay caused by etheric discombobulation. When them little computer bits travel here on Earth, the farthest they have to go is only 12k miles. To go from ship to shore they gotta go 23k up and 23k back down and then travel thousands of miles on the ground. With such a trip, them poor bits get tired and many just are too pooped to do the whole thing. So a lot of redundancy and error checking is required to make sure any messages get through properly. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of “bit strings”. Do you have any idea how much engineering is required to make a string over 46k miles long?? AND one that will support all them bits? Plus you got to account for Coriolis effect. AND keeping that string tied to a moving ship being tossed to and fro on the briney deep.

    Hell, I’m tired just telling you about it. Imagine what them poor little bits feel like.

    THAT’S what they are so slow, and it’s so expensive. Don’t believe anything else these heathen tell you.

    And that’s the truth. Sometimes truth is stranger than fact.

  35. Gator says:


    My family moved to Orlando in ’68. I was in third grade. Disney hadn’t even announced it was coming yet, so the big stuff was Martin Marietta and Kennedy Space Center. I was at the launch of Apollo 11. My Dad had connections and we were at the VIP bleachers about a mile away. The ground shook and the sound was amazing. The Shuttles are big (you could see them on the pad from Mosquito Lagoon and Bethune Beach north of the cape with the naked eye) but the Apollo shots on the Saturn Vs were ridiculously huge. I went on a field trip once in probably 6th grade to see the VAB while they were working on one. Amazing! The sad thing is, I have become jaded. Literally for the last 40+ years of my life I’ve grown up and lived within sight of the launches. I had lost my wonderment, my sense of awe. I had forgotten that what I was seeing was not mundane, it was incredible. I truly regret that and will see that I fix it.

  36. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Oh, and you see how hard it is for a couple of dozen of us to agree to anything. Imagine trying to get a kilobit to come to a consensus on where to stop for lunch!

  37. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    One of the coolest things about flying hot air balloons was that it never got old. I got to relive the joy and wonder of my first flight with every first time rider I took up.

    I, too, envy your proximity.

    I’m downing a scotch in your honor. 🙂

  38. Gator says:

    Got to keep hold of that little boy that looked up at that rocket and got wide-eyed and dreamy. I think maybe he almost got lost in the mazes of adulthood. I got him by the hand now and I’m pulling him back into the sunshine.

  39. dcpetterson says:

    Gator, rent The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. If they don’t bring the child back, you have no poetry in your soul.

    Oh, and if you can find it, Tom Hank’s HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon. Incredibly good.

  40. Mr. Universe says:

    One thing I like to do is follow the ISS. I have a locator widget on my desktop. Last time the shuttle visited the ISS it just happened to be passing over me as the shuttle was performing the backflip for the heatshield inspection. So we got the binocs out and watched that manuever for about few passes (the ISS orbits the Earth at about 17,000 mph in graduated figure eight orbits. It goes by quickly). Tried using the telescope but it goes too fast to track. Check this cool shot out of the ISS and Atlantis transiting the Sun:

    ISS and Atlantis Transiting the Sun

  41. dcpetterson says:

    Damn, Mr. U, that’s one of the coolest pics ever. Someone done good.

    It strikes me — in 1961, when JFK said we’d get to the Moon by the end of the decade, no one knew if it was even possible. Maybe 95% of the technology we’d need didn’t exist yet — and we didn’t know if it could even be made, if physics even allowed it as part of the functioning of this Universe. We didn’t know if the joints of a space suit could work in a vacuum, or if the surface of the Moon could support the weight of a human, or if a rocket could be built big enough to carry a vehicle there. Or if humans could even survive outside the atmosphere for the week it would take for the trip.

    Eight years later — a mere eight years, the span of two full presidential terms — humans stood on the Moon.

    If a President said, “Within ten years, we will stand on Mars” — we could do it.

    If we could convince Congress to dream. For ten budget cycles. When they’ve become all about political posturing and being crazy enough to satisfy the most insane pieces of advertising rhetoric possible.

    America has lost all sense of greatness, all poetry, all the things that elevate humanity to something more than a productive robot, traded it all in for an accountant’s hat and a teabag.

  42. DC, don’t forget that the US didn’t have a big debt burden in the 1960s, and there weren’t serious competitors in the world market for factory-produced goods. It’s a very different time now.

  43. dcpetterson says:

    It IS a different time, Michael. You’re right. What we need today is a massive public jobs program. And something to revitalize American industry. A commitment to a Mars colony is precisely what we need.

    Instead, we are daily extorted to think small and pull back. No. This is the time to Dream Real Big.

    But no one will do it, because of those accountant’s visors. Mars is the perfect Keynesian stimulus. Hell, even to find a way to generate the power needed for a colony on Mars, we would be forced to create efficient sources of energy that have nothing to do with fossil fuels.

    It’s perfect. But it won’t happen.

  44. shortchain says:

    Whether the US spends 40 billion on NASA instead of the 20 billion planned won’t make much difference in the debt burden, given that we’re throwing 660 billion at DoD.

    Factory-produced goods? What difference does that make? Now the USA is the world leader in financial instruments — arguably the source of vast wealth for at least the next generation. The people in that industry are making money hand over fist. Only problem is it doesn’t involve a lot of labor, fundamental research, or even clerical help.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that AIG, Goldman-Sachs, and a few others have gone where no man has gone before.

  45. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    Actually, in 1960 the debt as a percent of GDP was 55.19, less than a percentage point from the 56.09 in the 1st year of the Bush II administration, after which the Bush tax cuts and deficits began the drive upward to 83% in 2009.

  46. Max,
    I stand corrected. I thought it had gone way down by then from paying off the WWII debt.

  47. dcpetterson says:

    I recall (this is a strange memory — I was 4) the controversy in the 1960 election over “deficit spending.” That is, I remember the phrase. I don’t recall whether Democrats or Republicans favored it 🙂

    I also vividly recall that my parents initially favored Nixon for President. But the famous televised debates changed their minds.

    It’s also important to note how we paid off the WW2 / Depression debt. A 92% (then falling to about 80%) top marginal tax rate on the extremely wealthy. Which also led to the most dynamically-growing economy in world history.

    It really is no coincidence that Kennedy’s New Frontier was part of that. It helped us all to dream about — and work for — what America (and the world) could be, rather than what men of limited imagination told was was no more than possible.

    Do recall too that the Kennedy Era was a time of unbridled patronage of the arts and sciences. The Peace Corps began then, and the National Endowment for the Arts shortly after.

    Please also compare this to our founders. Franklin, Jefferson, and the rest were men of arts and letters. Franklin was a scientist in addition to a statesman and philosopher. That some in America today want our elected officials to be beer-swillin’ good ol boys is inimical to all that made America great.

    We need dream-stuff in our national vision — rooted in pure science, as Franklin always did. Most particularly in times of crisis, for that is when our national character is most sorely challenged and tested.

  48. Gator says:


    The debt as % of GDP did continue to fall through the 60s and was in the high 30s by 1969 and low 30s from 1970 through about ’83-’84. So your point was correct. The debt/GDP in ’68 for example, was 40.52% as compared to 2010 at 93%, so your point is absolutely valid.

  49. dcpetterson says:

    The cost of NASA, by the way, even in the height of the Moon Race, has always been around 0.3% of the Federal budget. Its contribution to the debt is (and always has been, and would continue to be, even with expanded human flight) insignificant.

    NASA funding has never been about the budget. It has always been about national priorities.

  50. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Gator made a great point: “The debt as % of GDP did continue to fall through the 60s and was in the high 30s by 1969 and low 30s from 1970 through about ’83-’84. So your point was correct. The debt/GDP in ’68 for example, was 40.52% as compared to 2010 at 93%,

    As I pointed out earlier, the debt stood at 55% in 1960.

    So we see the 8 years of Kennedy/Johnson, a period of high tax rates, the Vietnam War, paying down of the debt by 15 percentage points, and we STILL had room for the Apollo Project!

    Man, paying for what you get DOES have it’s benefits.

  51. dcpetterson says:

    I’m right there with you on that, Max. Gator, thanks for that chart. It says a lot.

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