Monday, March 10, 2014

Peacocks and Spaceships

Evolutionary psychologists often argue that male extravagance is a peacock’s tail. That is to say, it serves no useful function other than to signal to females that one is fit enough (financially or biologically) to afford it. Take cars. Expensive sports cars outperform cheaper ones, to be sure, and they really are intrinsically fun to drive, but is a new Ferrari Spider truly a quarter-million dollars more fun to drive than a new Chevrolet Camaro? No, but knowing you are driving a Ferrari (and, more importantly according to ev-psy, other people knowing it) instead of a Chevy clearly is, or the manufacturer wouldn’t stay in business. A discretionary $295,000 purchase says much more about a fellow than that he likes firm handling on curves. Still more does a $1.5 million Bugatti.

If there is any hint of disdain in the last paragraph, I don’t mean it. If anyone can afford such toys and enjoy them, the underlying reasons for enjoying them are unimportant, and, in any case, perfectly legitimate. Besides, what more effective way to address income inequality, so much in the news lately, than for the well-to-do to spend what they have recklessly, thereby reducing their liquid assets and putting the cash into the hands of those of us who supply them?

(I’m not entirely clear about explanations for female extravagance by ev-psy reasoning, or about whether any are needed, but we’ll leave those questions for another day.)

An even better way to demonstrate one’s surplus fitness is to buy experiences, since they are not a swap of cash for a valuable physical asset. When they are done they are done, leaving nothing of cash value. A relatively modest example, also much in the news lately, is a horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park. (The new NYC mayor’s bid to shut down the business so annoyed actor Liam Neeson that on recent TV talk shows he has spent far more time defending the horse taxis than promoting his current projects.) These rides are pleasant enough (yes, I’ve been on them with dates), but part of the charm apparently is the $100-$200 cost. Well, at long last a ride to suit the Bugatti set is on the horizon. Not only does it look to be incredibly fun, but it costs enough to charm anyone.

Back in 1968 Apollo 8 traveled to the moon (without landing) and back. We all were sure that commercial space flight was no more than a few decades away, and that by 2001 there would be orbiting hotels and permanent lunar bases. Inspired by Apollo and perhaps also by 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a Pan Am spaceliner docks with a space station, Pam Am began taking reservations in 1968 for its future lunar flights. The waiting list grew to 93,000 before the airline itself went out of business in 1991. We are more than a little behind schedule, but Virgin Galactic is in the final test flight phase for its 6-passenger commercial spaceliner SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo is semiballistic: it boosts into space (conventionally defined as over 100k altitude), travels a ballistic arc, and then glides back to the New Mexico spaceport where the flight started. 600 people already have booked. Though SpaceShipTwo is not intended for travel between cities, in principle a similar craft could fly somewhere else with reliable weather and a 10,000 ft (3048m) runway.

The concept of semiballistic HSTs (hypersonic transports) has been around for many decades, and became especially fashionable among futurists when the Concorde SST began test flights in 1969. In an HST, one could fly LA to Tokyo in an hour, albeit at a stiff price. In his 1982 SF novel Friday, Robert Heinlein has a character describe the experience:

“I like to ride the semiballistics – the high gee blastoff that always feels as if the cradle would rupture and spurt fluid all over the cabin, the breathless minutes in freefall that feel as if your guts were falling out, and then reentry and that long, long glide that beats any sky ride ever built. Where can you have more fun in forty minutes with your clothes on?”

That beats a carriage ride anytime. You, too, soon can share the fun at the price of $250,000 per seat, or a mere $500,000 per couple. If you’re a guy and that doesn’t charm the date you just treated to a ride, maybe you’d better start thinking you’re not her type.


  1. I don't have anywhere near the money, but it certainly would be a heck of a ride. Space tourism does seem to be the current trend. It's fun to fantasize a future where one could take a week off and live on a space station like in the movie 2001.

    1. Among those who agree, who can afford it, and who have bought tickets are Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise, Justin Bieber, Kate Winslet, Princess Beatrice, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, and Sarah Brightman (she had the disco hit "I lost my heart to a starship trooper"). Even though the two ships of the fleet will be named “Enterprise” and “Voyager,” William Shatner is not among the ticket-holders. He said he is scared to go into space, and I give him credit for saying so.

      Money issues aside, recreational space flight would be fun. I posted a couple of short stories set on an orbiting hotel, by the way, over at Richard’s Mirror : “Return of the Judi” and “Sky Wheels (or Old Derby Girls Never Die),” both detective stories of sorts.

    2. Thanks, sounds like something I'd enjoy, I'll check them out. I like the pun. Ha.

  2. Yeah that space flights to the moon in "2001" always made me wonder when we were going to get to that point. I was disappointed it never happened in 2001 properly. But as you pointed out, PanAm went out of business before the crucial date.

    That optimism of space travel in the near future held on for a while into the 70s. But by the 80s, you didn't see any more "quick trips to the moon" or the like in sci-fi films. The only one that really comes to mind is "Total Recall" in 1990 with it's "Get your ass to Mars" moment. I wonder if that is a reflection on the film makers or on the public. Is the moon just not that interesting to us?