(Somewhere in a not-very-near neighboring world, where science took a very different course…)
ALFONSO: Hello, Beth. I’ve noticed a lot of speculations lately about “spaceplanes” being used to attack cities, or possibly becoming infused with malevolent spirits that inhabit the celestial realms so that they turn on their own engineers.
I’m rather skeptical of these speculations. Indeed, I’m a bit skeptical that airplanes will be able to even rise as high as stratospheric weather balloons anytime in the next century. But I understand that your institute wants to address the potential problem of malevolent or dangerous spaceplanes, and that you think this is an important present-day cause.
BETH: That’s… really not how we at the Mathematics of Intentional Rocketry Institute would phrase things.
The problem of malevolent celestial spirits is what all the news articles are focusing on, but we think the real problem is something entirely different. We’re worried that there’s a difficult, theoretically challenging problem which modern-day rocket punditry is mostly overlooking. We’re worried that if you aim a rocket at where the Moon is in the sky, and press the launch button, the rocket may not actually end up at the Moon.
ALFONSO: I understand that it’s very important to design fins that can stabilize a spaceplane’s flight in heavy winds. That’s important spaceplane safety research and someone needs to do it.
But if you were working on that sort of safety research, I’d expect you to be collaborating tightly with modern airplane engineers to test out your fin designs, to demonstrate that they are actually useful.
BETH: Aerodynamic designs are important features of any safe rocket, and we’re quite glad that rocket scientists are working on these problems and taking safety seriously. That’s not the sort of problem that we at MIRI focus on, though.
ALFONSO: What’s the concern, then? Do you fear that spaceplanes may be developed by ill-intentioned people?
BETH: That’s not the failure mode we’re worried about right now. We’re more worried that right now, nobody can tell you how to point your rocket’s nose such that it goes to the moon, nor indeed any prespecified celestial destination. Whether Google or the US Government or North Korea is the one to launch the rocket won’t make a pragmatic difference to the probability of a successful Moon landing from our perspective, because right now nobody knows how to aim any kind of rocket anywhere.
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