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Blue Origin's Giant Rocket Plans to Take Millions Into Space, But Should It?

Insights + Opinion
BlueOrigin.com

"Our vision is millions of people living and working in space and New Glenn is a very important step," said Jeff Bezos, unveiling this week his space travel company Blue Origin's giant rocket named after Astronaut John Glenn.


Of course there is also billionaire entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk's SpaceX, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Paul Allen's Vulcan Aerospace. Dream big, that's the spirit! The final frontier with limitless possibilities. Our boys and their toys. Great fun!

Most of us sail at a lower orbit of course. Our games, our striving and exploration, our fun, takes place a little closer to Earth. My soul is nourished near and on the sea, so boats are my toys of choice. In my middle age, I have largely traded the competitive sailboat racing of my youth for a desire to "mess around" in relatively small, wooden boats in particular—sail and power—luxuriating in their handcrafted and poetic aesthetic.

As I've documented previously, large, ocean-going yachts are a whole different kettle of fish and pose a particularly grotesque challenge to any sense of a responsible carbon footprint, even if money is no object.

My "boat toy" desires are far more humble. Until a couple weeks ago, my "yachting" consisted of a high performance paddle board with a bamboo deck—sustainable right? In my future, I see a pretty day sailor, handcrafted in Maine out of local wood (I sold my prior sailboat since the kids preoccupied my free time) and a small motorboat to explore harbors (we call this "toodling around") and to make occasional short journeys around the southern New England coast where I live.

This summer, I visited the talented craftsman Doug Hylan and his partner Ellery Brown of Hylan & Associates in Brooklin, Maine to continue a conversation we've had on and off for over a year about building a small "green" powerboat. Same logic as a car or a house—energy, materials, etc. The challenge of making motorboats fuel-efficient is that it takes much more energy to push a boat through the water than to roll a car down a road. And a boat requires an exponential increment of power to push it faster than what's called "hull speed"—in other words to make it rise up and plane.

So the design challenge was to find the right shape (long, narrow and light), but stable enough for offshore conditions (wide and heavy is better) and with a highly efficient engine that would go "just fast enough." Doug has done some cutting edge work in this arena, with some updated versions of classic designs and power system innovations. But even with Doug's design ingenuity, latest technology and lightweight building techniques, he hasn't yet come up with a way to overcome those pesky laws of physics. Water is heavy and hydrostatic pressure is a bear.

As we were talking over the concept we had in mind, I sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for my vision of the first truly "green" picnic boat, locally crafted, that had the potential to redefine pleasure boating away from the unsustainable fiberglass that ends up on a junk heap and overwhelm Doug with new orders in the process. That's when he turned to me and said, "You know John, if you want to enjoy green, responsible boating, just slow down."

Doug's truth pierced Maine's stark summer beauty as we looked across the cove, silently absorbing the implications that ran far beyond boats. All the latest advances in design and technology couldn't come close to simply riding down the steeply sloped and physics determined energy curves he had showed me (slow down, use exponentially less energy).

I gave up on a new, high tech wooden boat and bought a classic bass boat that has been for sale all summer, built out of wood in 1969 and totally restored in 2009. For a fraction of what a new boat would cost I might add. Reuse, recycle!

And I'll be the guy going slow, at least most of the time. At hull speed (about 10 miles per hour), I'll burn less than a gallon of diesel per hour, a quarter of that when just calmly exploring a shoreline with friends in good conversation, going slow, enjoying the quiet. That's when the experience feeds the soul and relationships deepen, so it's not all sacrifice. Going "fast" when we "need to get somewhere" (about 22 miles per hour is tops in this case), I'll burn 8 gallons per hour with a guilty conscious.

In contrast, a yacht like I wrote about before will burn between 20 and 40 gallons per hour going 10 miles per hour. And a fast offshore fishing boat designed to get out to the shelf for the big fish and back in a day, burns 150 gallons per hour at the high speed necessary to be home for dinner—in other words, a 500 gallon a day toy.

My boat toy fetish makes me complicit, as does the rest of my lifestyle. But it's mostly the flying I do. As many have pointed out, we sustainability workers sure do fly around a lot. Flying kills a carbon budget fast. Physics again. No doubt we Americans have a big adjustment to make with our living. Much less flying and offshore fishing. More fly fishing. And more sailing, sailor. Not so bad.

Which brings us back to space travel. There certainly are real societal benefits from space exploration and some interesting space opportunities only these super-human entrepreneurs could ever dream up. But a little research suggests a frightening energy curve—based on those same pesky laws of physics—that we must confront (hopefully with Doug Hylan's wisdom hovering about).

Aside from the money issue, the amount of fuel for a one day (probably hour or less) zero gravity tourist experience in space you wonder? Well, according to my calculations based on one seemingly reliable source, it's 64,000 gallons of diesel equivalent.

Some fun. Sail on, Sail on, sailor.

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