Why The Space Democratization Movement Blows My Mind

There’s real movement behind the democratization of space. Not in the form of sending more people into space, but in giving more people access to satellites.

Nano-satellites are getting cheap enough now that groups can raise enough money on Kickstarter to buy and launch them. That’s only a slightly interesting development on its own, but what fascinates me is that some of these groups are promising amateur scientists to opportunity to write software for these satellites and essentially rent time on the satellites the way you might have rented time on a mainframe back in the day.

That kind of blows my mind.

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and several other books, wrote a while back about the idea of future fatigue. He starts off by describing the feeling of reading about real life quantum teleportation:

In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement.

I suffer from a bad case of future fatigue myself. I read about stuff like this all the time, and just forget about it. “Quantum teleportation? Did I read about that? Yeah, maybe. Seems familiar.” My hypothesis is that we feel this way because it’s taking a long time for our technology to catch up to our imaginations. Siri may be pretty cutting edge voice recognition software, but it’s no HAL.

What gives me a real “future buzz” are the things that haven’t been science fiction tropes for decades. Like electric cigarettes. The whole idea weirds me out. And if someone had told me in the 2000 that my friends would be smoking electronic cigarettes in 2012, I’d have told them they were full of it. At first I only saw them advertised on torrent trackers and the like, advertised along with penis enlargement pills and services that would connect me with “adult friends.” I thought electronic cigarettes were just a scam. But now I regularly see people I know smoking them.

Electric cigarettes seem like a true novelty. More so than quantum teleportation or iPhones or the Large Hadron Collider, electronic cigarettes make me feel like I’m living in the future.

The thing is electronic cigarettes are actually pretty low tech. According to sources cited by Wikipedia, the first electronic cigarette was invented back in the 60s but never commercialized. I can imagine them showing up in ads in the back of comic books, along side x-ray specs, the 60s equivalent of advertising on torrent sites. It apparently took until 2000 for someone else to take the idea seriously. Realistically the 60s version would probably have been much larger, and I’m not sure the components would have been cheap enough in the 60s to make it economical and you wouldn’t be able to charge it over USB. But we’re just talking about freebasing drugs here, not quantum teleportation.

These citizen space satellites feel the same way. When it comes to space, the science fiction I’m versed in focuses almost exclusively on human space travel. If there’s any sort of democratization of space, it’s some sort of cheap space travel. Satellites don’t get much attention. The idea of everyone being able to rent time on a satellite seems truly novel. The fact that, even though I probably never will, I could learn to write apps for satellites and actually pay to have them run on a real satellite in space is much more amazing to me than being able to tell my phone to book an appointment on my calendar.

Although Android phones and Arduino boards are newish, and the cost of electronics has gone down, I don’t see a big reason why some sort of citizen satellites wouldn’t have been possible years ago. What it really took was a small leap of imagination, and that’s something I don’t take for granted anymore.

Photo: NASA Ames Research Center