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HYPERSONICS, RAIL GUNS & SPACE EXPLORATION

March 6, 2022

S01 - E04

Dr. Leon Vanstone discusses space, hypersonic vehicles, rail guns, and space exploration. RSnake and Leon also talk about equitable math and how science evolves.

Photo of Dr. Leon Vanstone
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Dr. Leon Vanstone

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT

Robert Hansen

With me today is Dr. Leon Vanstone. He's a physicist, lecturer, and an expert in ram and scram engine design. He's the CTO of HyperSciences, where he runs a team doing hypersonic projectiles.


We discuss the perils of space colonization, space travel, equitable math, and the perils of scientific discovery. Without further delay, please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Leon Vanstone.


Today I have with me, Dr. Leon Vanstone. He is quite a man to reckon with in conversation. I've had a number of really interesting conversations with him. My other guest, I'd like to introduce this thing that if you're on audio, you're not going to be able to see this, but it is a very large semi-cylindrical object.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Doesn't talk much though, I'm afraid.


Robert Hansen

No, it does not. We'll get to this other guest here in a little bit. I had a number of things I wanted to talk to you about. It's funny when I have conversations with you and other people in the same room at the same time, quite often, the room gets completely silent. There's a little crowd that builds and gets bigger and bigger.


Then people just walk by and they're like, "Hey, what's going on?" They walk over and then they're just part of the crowd, and it just keeps growing. You are the center of gravity of a lot of really interesting conversations.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That's because I'm a very big person.


Robert Hansen

A lot of mass. That's a very funny joke because your expertise is, among other things, physics in space. That's a fair way to put it. What is your doctorate in?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

My doctorate's in hypersonic aerodynamics, technically speaking. Although I did found a Rocket Lab at the University of Texas. So I do know a little bit of rocket science at least, you might say. If it goes really fast and terrifies the US government, it probably has something to do with me which has not helped the immigration process.


Robert Hansen

We'll see if we could work on that. I don't think this podcast is going to help very much, but we'll see. Why don't we start first by talking about space in general, and then we'll narrow in on your particular field of expertise?


I think amongst a lot of cultural elites, there is this strange, romantic view that we're going to be able to get off this rock pretty quick. We can potentially trash this planet because we have a plan B. That plan B is probably Mars or something else. Well, this is a pretty common...


Dr. Leon Vanstone

True. The idea that this planet isn't more fixable than a barren Martian hellscape is perhaps slightly misguided. But okay, sure.


Robert Hansen

We can agree on that. Especially because what are you going to do? Bore into the ground with their boring machine? That is what people are talking about doing. If that's the goal, let's go with that premise.


If we're going to talk through this issue, we need to talk as if we're on the same side as these people who want to colonize. Not to say that that's not also good to do, but putting all your hopes and dreams on that might be a bit rough.


First of all, let's talk about space in general. From my perspective, being mostly a security guy and having a lot of friends who work in the security space, I generally think of it as the fourth domain of war. Cyber being the fifth domain of war.


We have the sea, air, land, and space, which gets a bad rap. A lot of people are like, “We're Space Force.”


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That was quite funny. It was interesting because you do have to think about the context. A lot of people go there look at NASA and they see this organization. It's very much for the betterment of mankind, which it is. I'm not saying it's not.


But there's this forgetfulness that the Cold War was absolutely an arms race. This is why America won the space race. Not like they were the first. First satellite? No. First person? No. First woman? No. First man? No. First large vehicle thing? Nope.


You know when you were a kid you'd race each other to somewhere and then the other person would win. So you'd shout "Next one to the lamp post wins." You'd run 10 feet more and to their surprise, they would lose.


Imagine I did that but with Usain Bolt and then the world's media declares Leon Vanstone, Fastest Man Alive. It wouldn't make any sense. That’s because a race is of course the first one to the finish but you don't win an arms race by being the first one to the finish.


You win an arms race by being the last one standing. That was really what America did. It said quietly, not too loudly, but it quietly said, "We could put nukes on the moon. Do you want to keep escalating this?"


No small part supposedly of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the spending on the space arms race. So it collapsed and everybody else was left looking around at each other.


Robert Hansen

And the nuclear submarines.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

They weren't cheap either.


Robert Hansen

But they were a similar problem, though. If we can launch intercontinental ballistic missiles from a submarine that's even worse. You can't target that.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It could be anywhere. I didn't need one more black mark to my name. We weren't to talk about this. When that happened, and Russia re-stabilized itself more or less what it looks like today is the collapse of the USSR and everything, everyone quietly looked around each other and said, "So how about we just don't play in space?"


NASA reimagined itself, and it worked with its Russian counterparts very peacefully for a very long time to not weaponize space. No one wanted to spend money there. Then what you saw, of course, was that more recently the Chinese showed up and they're "Okay, we want to play."


Robert Hansen

I think we missed that whole Star Wars thing. There was a Star Wars program and the Kwajalein missile test range.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. Tons of stuff but then through the 90s and the early noughties, NASA quieted down. It becomes this holy civilian organization. Everyone's like, no, let's just not. Nuclear arms proliferation comes back, and all these treaties where America and Russia essentially agree to play nicely with each other.


What's been interesting, of course, and it was always a theater of war the whole time don't get me wrong, we all agreed that we weren't going to be two arms racing about the whole thing. We would fight on other fronts.


But then China shows up and of course, they want to play. The Chinese Airspace Program is military. So NASA said no. China is like, "Well, I'm going to build my own spaceship station then." Of course, everyone laughed, and they did it.


The first one crashed, I think, from memory. Then everyone laughed a bit more. Now, there's another one, no one's laughing. They’re putting probes on the moon, they're a very capable space nation.


China declares that it's going to the moon, and we'll maybe talk about this later. But who knows the legality of that from saying can you put a flag on the moon and say, it belongs to you?


Robert Hansen

We already did that. We're good.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

So you have this. Then, of course, what are you going to do when China shows to destabilize all these agreements and this whole thing collapses? Russia and America are looking at China that hasn't signed agreements with these other parties to limit itself.


It says, "Well, I'm going to put military stuff in space." As soon as they make that announcement, what happens? You see that the funding for the ISS gets pulled out from under it. So these other countries are like, "Why am I paying for a share of this space rig?"


They all fund it together, they all get the same data, everyone gets the same tech. It's up to you. China comes and says we'll build our own, put all the guns and missiles on it. We want all the weapons tech we want to do, then you don't get to look at it because this is ours and we built it. You wouldn't let us play the first time.


Every other country is like, "Well, that's stupid." Now I needed a gun space station. Suddenly, the whole thing falls apart. The ISS is being decommissioned or whatever, and everyone wants Moon bases. That's the reality of that.


The Space Force was part of that. It always existed as a subset of the Air Force. Now this was this very formal declaration made by Trump that, effectively the US government very seriously considers space to be an active theater of war, and would be moving toward that


Robert Hansen

Let's talk about the positive side before we get to the calamities, the war aspect.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

There have been so many of late.


Robert Hansen

Colonization, and also planetary defense, not to mention heliospheric but also solar flares. There's a lot of danger that's coming to us eventually. It’s a matter of fact. It’s just a matter of time, maybe well beyond our lifetime, but it will happen.


It makes a lot of sense that we would spend the time and energy to resource an agency or set of agencies that can look outward and plan for that. Put up some defense net of some kind to both identify and stop, theoretically thwart it in some way.


It's not crazy to think that there would be a huge amount of planetary spending outside of any individual country. ISS could be that although I don't think it's got the right sophistication for that purpose. But certainly, other things could. What do you think about that?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It's a blurry line. The only difference between the Saturn five and an ICBM is the astronauts. It’s very easy to take things that have everyday use, and use them for good or bad. Many things that have Aviation and Flight were in arms race and now we benefit from an enormously smaller world in terms of planes and technology with stuff that was I'm sure cybersecurity tools for God knows who.


Probably it eventually turns into things that are useful to people like AI and everything else. Just because it was a weapon or it's a theater of war doesn't mean it doesn't have very legitimate civilian uses. Most military technology does.


I agree with you there. Looking in the long term, it is a matter of time until something fairly catastrophic comes to this planet. It’s happened many times before, and it'll happen again. You would like to be able to do something about that which would require a disruptive capability in orbit or some kind of shielding capability or at the very least very sophisticated sensor equipment. So you can see things coming and decide what you want to do about that.


That’s all going to be very interesting because now what you're sort of saying is I want a satellite that has some nukes on it. It is not always going to be over me or we all want to put our satellites at the same place. What happens when one nuclear satellite crashes into another and bits of it come back to Earth? That will be a fun conversation for someone I'm sure,


Robert Hansen

I'm sure. It probably will happen eventually, if we put enough nukes up. I want to talk a little bit about the history, the backstory of how we got here. We started with Chinese rockets 1,000 years ago where people just shot stuff in the air. They thought it was fun, and it was decorative, and then became a warfare thing.


The difference between the Bernoulli’s effect, and ramjets and scramjets is an interesting story. The way I understand it, the United States government was working very heavily on building the first supersonic vehicles, and they could get them going.


Getting them up to speed was not a big issue. Keeping control over them was an enormous problem. We spent a bunch of time, a bunch of resources trying to do it, and over and over, get it just up to speed it was right there and then just lose control. Then as soon as it dropped below Mach it would get nice and stable again.


So we went to our UK friends and said, "Okay, we don't know what's going on." And they were like, "Well, we do and we'll trade you VX for it." So we traded VX gas for the ability to just make our tail fins bigger. A bigger plane of surface, and more maneuverable because of that.


There is an arms race but there's also this interesting collaborative effect that comes when you're dealing with these types of cutting-edge military stuff. I think scram and ram are the next big thing that is very similar to that. Would you do a brief primer just so people understand both the Bernoulli effect and then also what ram and scram are?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

The crux of it, your easiest way to go really fast is to have a rocket engine. But they are the pretty much least efficient of any engine you could use. This means for any given size of vehicle or amount of fuel, you're always at a disadvantage to a somewhat more sophisticated engine.


But they are, of course, very special in the sense that rockets do not require air to fly. They are totally self-contained, getting up to very high speeds. They're a bit of a brute-force approach in many senses but it is exactly as you said. When you don't understand the conditions you're flying at, when you don't really understand the physics of what you're doing, but you want to do it anyway, rockets are a great start.


At some point, you say okay, you've built the steam engine, you don't know thermodynamics, but you've built the steam engine. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could get to the internal combustion engine? You then say, "I want to have a more sophisticated engine." especially if you're flying inside the atmosphere, which already has oxygen in it. A large rocket...


Robert Hansen

It brings its own oxygen with it.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It's packed inside, which is a real pain. A 1000-ton rocket would have 400 tons of oxygen inside it. Liquid oxygen. For reference, that's pretty much the weight of the ISS. A decent-sized rocket taking off basically carries the ISS.


That could be cargo capacity, but it's not. It’s oxidizer instead. If you can just take it from the air, it's what your car does. No one puts oxygen in their car. You put gasoline in it, and it pulls in the air. You can just get a much more efficient engine, you can do more, etc.


Anyone that's building those kinds of engines will always have an advantage. That's where we all want to go. You say let's think of a standard transatlantic airplane. Ones with the big fan engines on the front. Those are just jet engines. Instead of producing lots of thrust, they have a spindle and they stick the big fan on it because it's a more efficient way of using it.


You say, "Okay, what if I want to go quicker than that?" At some point, the jet that comes out the back of the engine does need to be moving quicker than the vehicle to give it a good push if you want a good efficient engine. At some point, you're just going too fast that you can't blow out the back. So you say, "Okay, I'm going to take the big fan off. I'm going to go with just a jet engine."


Robert Hansen

Let's do Bernoulli first. The way I understand it is there's still some confusion about whether the Bernoulli effect pushes a wing from the bottom or pulls it from the top. Or maybe it's a net effect that happens on both sides of the wing that causes lift.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

The difference there, I suppose, is the engine on an aeroplane is the wing. That's what makes it fly. All the engines do on the front is pull it forward, and you could use a rocket, you could use whatever. But it's the wing that makes it fly.


Whereas with a rocket, it's the actual engine that flies the vehicle. The Bernoulli effect is a mathematical equation for relatively low-speed aerodynamics. So if you go too quick, the model breaks. We understand it enough, we have to do something else.


Bernoulli's equation says that there is this concept of something called total pressure. The total pressure around a vehicle might be the same, but depending on the velocity of something over a certain area, the static pressure will change.


One of the ways that a wing is often described as functioning is that it accelerates air over the top of it, and less so under the bottom of it. What that does is it drops the pressure on top of the wing statically and lifts the whole wing up that way.


The trouble is it gets confusing because that's a tool. That’s a mathematical tool we use to describe this. It's very useful but at some point, it always breaks down, and it's math. What makes it so versatile about math is that it doesn't matter if I'm talking about toasters, pennies, plants.


If the model works, it works. But it has no physical meaning. It's not in and of itself, meaningful. It's a model to model something that's going on around you so that you can use it and design it, whatever.


All a wing does is push air down. Pushing air down, behind Newton, is pushing you up. It's the same thing if you've ever held a medicine bowl and thrown it at the ground, you lift up. If you're on an office chair, and you wiggle it moves too. Equal and opposite force. So a wing flies a plane by pushing air down and pushing the plane up.


Robert Hansen

Now let's get to ram and scram.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

As I was saying a bit earlier about the engines, as you go faster and faster, the way the engine works needs to change because you design the engine for what it does. The big fan engine on a commercial transatlantic jet is designed for about Mach 1. That's what they do.


If you want to go quicker than that, you take the big fan off, and you just use the actual engine in the middle of it. It's a jet engine. That does you pretty well. At some point though you're flying so fast that you start just compressing air in front of you.


On an engine, to think of a normal cycle, you've got a compression stage, you have a combustion stage, and then you have a turbine. The turbine is used to drive the compressor normally, and then any energy that's leftover is used to go forward. As you go faster and faster, you start shoving yourself into the air.


If I took a cup, I can scoop water out of a flat basin or a tank of water even though gravity would want to make it run out because I can scoop through. You can tell engineers were sophisticated when they came out with this because it's got a ramjet. The way it works is by ramming air down it. There's no compression stage on it anymore in terms of all these fans or anything else. Nothing like that. They don't work. They break.


Robert Hansen

Is that a material problem or is it a performance? That it just can't turn fast enough or?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

The blades don't like it. They end up off condition and they start to stall or they start to flutter and they tend to break and fall through the engine. Fast spinning things don't like debris moving through them.


What you do is you go to a ram engine and a ram engine is quite interesting in some senses. It’s a very simple thing. It often looks like a tube and then the smartness of it is all in understanding the physics of what's going on. You have to or it just will not work.


So you have a tube, the air goes in it, you have a constriction and the air is forced to move through it just by the sheer kinetic force of all the gas coming in behind it. It compresses down, you inject some fuel and you burn it. You burn it, very important, is what makes a ramjet a ramjet. You burn it subsonically. The bit where you do combustion is not moving very fast.


Robert Hansen

That's because it puts without the flame, is it?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yes. It's like trying to light a candle with a leaf blower going. We as humans have spent all our time getting combustion to work at low speeds. We were good at that. We stuck to it. Why fight those battles? Why make life harder?


But the problem you have, let's say this, lets I'm burning gasoline in my ramjet. The combustion temperature of gasoline, and I'm just making numbers up.


Robert Hansen

You wouldn't use gasoline?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

No, you wouldn't. But again, I don't want to talk about it publicly. But let's just say I was using gasoline as just something people are familiar with. Let's pretend the combustion temperature of gasoline is, I'm just making this up, 1,500 Fahrenheit.


As I go faster and faster, as I compress the gas more and more, and bring it to a stop in the middle of my engine, or as I suck all this gas into this engine, and slow it down really quickly to burn it, spit out the back, whichever way you want to think about that. As I do that, it gets hot because of the compressing gasses.


The perfect gas equation says; you ever pumped up a football with a football pump or your bike and you go to pull the end off, it gets hot. Compressed gas is hot. And that's good. You want that to an extent. But what do you do when the temperature of that compressed gas exceeds the combustion temperature of your fuel? What if my gas is at 2,000 Fahrenheit, and when I've burned my fuel in it, it's at 1,800?


Robert Hansen

Doesn't it just solve your problem now you don't have to worry about the leaf blower problem?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Now it's cooling down. I'm cooling down my flow. I have to put heat in to get useful work done. I have a fuel that burns at 1,500 Fahrenheit in a flow that's at 2,000 Fahrenheit. What I'm doing is I'm cooling down my flow. I'm taking energy out, not putting it in.


It's like you have terminal velocity. It's like a terminal temperature. As you fly faster and faster, the gas is so hot in your engines, subsonically that you get less and less thrust. Even if you could keep dumping more and more fuel in and manage the heat because it's trying to melt everything, which is a real bummer.


No one likes melty engines. You have to deal with all of that. But even if you could, physics says a heat engine, its efficiency goes to nothing and you get stuck. You can't fly any faster.


Robert Hansen

What speed is typically happening?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It certainly depends where you are in the atmosphere. But as a Mach number, which is typically given as a relative to the speed of sound, you're talking somewhere between Mach three and Mach five depending on what you've done and what you think. You're talking about like 1,000 meters a second kind of thing. You're flying it.


Robert Hansen

That's going pretty fast though.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That's spacey. Then what you say is you say, "Okay. Well, now I can't be subsonic in my engine anymore. I can't afford it. Because I get stuck. Even if I could deal with the heat and the inefficiency and everything else, I’d stop accelerating at some point."


So you say, "Okay, I have to use supersonic combustion now." Again, comes the brilliant naming convention of these imaginative engineers. Why is it called a ram engine? Because I ram air into it. You're like, "Okay, why is it called a scram engine?" Because I supersonically combust it and I ram air into it. You're like, "Alright, I see where we're going with this one, boys.


That's the only difference. It seems like a small trivial difference, but again, having that stay working, they have this teensy little problem where they explode. That doesn't end very well because the thing you have to...


Robert Hansen

Why? Why would that matter?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Typically if you blow the engine out, it's called unstop. Scramjet engines are prone to a phenomenon called unstop. Think of it like a funnel. I'm pouring water in a funnel.


But I'm doing so at like 2,000 miles an hour and the water does not flow consistently. If my funnel empties at any point, if I don't put enough water in it, it goes out.


Robert Hansen

Whenever that happens you just hit a pocket of low pressure or something?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You pitch up, you pitch down. As your vehicle flies around or whatever it does...


Robert Hansen

That seems like a useful thing to be able to do.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. It would be really useful. You've got high and low pressure. You think turbulence on a plane is bad. Wait until you do that 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times faster. You hit these pockets and they're coming at you much quicker, they're harder to see.


Robert Hansen

The clouds, I'm not sure, have interesting effects.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Rain. Rain at 5000 miles an hour. That's a bullet. Hail is definitely. These are real problems if you want to fly these vehicles and,


Robert Hansen

Wouldn't the solution to that typically be just fly higher?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You can but you still have atmospheric variation. You still have higher and lower pressure areas and all this. You'll never be perfectly smooth is my point I suppose.


You're filling this funnel with this varying thing thousands of miles an hour trying to do all kinds of stuff. You pitch up, pitch down, whatever and if it empties, all your thrust disappears and you massively decelerate.


If it overflows, which is the worst case, if you're very lucky, it'll overflow and violently pitch the vehicle. What you're now doing, put your hand outside a car in a moving vehicle, you can fly your hand. Right?


You're not even going 70 miles an hour. That's enough force just from the air to lift your hand up and down. If you're doing thousands of miles an hour, it'll just disintegrate the vehicle


Robert Hansen

I thought you meant your hand.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That's it. So it's a challenge. That's what hampers scramjet engines and as with most things you need the engine before you can have the plane.


The Wright brothers had a propeller. They knew about that technology. They flew the plane with one on it. That powered it as they flew.


When they were trying to do the supersonic stuff, they had an engine capable of accelerating the vehicle, it was just trying to figure out the vehicle. It's the same problem. You need the engine before it becomes cheap enough to fly something repeatedly and then figure out the rest of the physics which are also really tricky.


That's the problem that we're at now if you can crack that egg now that you know that I mean some people have gone ahead anyway. There are people with stuff doing hypersonic flight vehicles launching them off rockets and things like this.


I won't speak too deeply into that. But that's where we're at and why we care about them and why they're relevant because it's all about a hypersonic vehicle and what you can do with them.


Robert Hansen

So Leon, and I know you like talking, but we're going to have to let our other guest enter this conversation.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I can get a word in.


Robert Hansen

Yes. This is a hypersonic bullet, for lack of a better term. Is that how you describe it?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I wouldn't sanction that but yes, essentially. That's not official branding.


Robert Hansen

What would you call this?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

This would be a vehicle. It can be and/or maybe a payload, I suppose. It is something that HyperSciences the company I'm CTO for, we have an engine that functions in many of the similar principles that we just talked about, about ram engines, and scramjets, and so forth, that enables us to accelerate something like this to a very high speed. Similar to a company called SpinLaunch which has this kinetic launch.


Robert Hansen

Let’s get to SpinLaunch in a bit. I just want to talk about the utility of this vehicle first, and then we can chat there.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

For want of a better word, it is a chemical-powered rail gun that suffers very few of the disadvantages associated with a rail gun. I can repeatedly and cheaply accelerate something.


This is a 10-kilogram projectile but it works in the same principles as the ram engines on the SR-71. It scales to metrological masses, it scales to symmetry diameters. We have fired one of these or launched.


Robert Hansen

Just for the audience's sake, this is shaped very much like a bullet. It's very tapered, very long, cylindrical for the most part. Part of the key aspect of this as it has a compression phase where it slowly compresses the fuel-air mixture down and then combusts it and pushes.


As it's traveling through the tube, toward the outside of the engine, it gets faster and faster until it breaks free and becomes a projectile.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Right. I suppose that is the fundamental difference between what we're doing and a gun. A gun is not an engine. A gun applies all of its force onto that bullet, pretty much at the beginning. That’s when you generate all of the energy.


Robert Hansen

So when the powder is done, then the power's done.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Exactly. Then you've got some enthalpy reservoir, you never generate any. With a certain amount of energy or pocket of energy and you just harvest as much energy from that as you can and go.


Which is the equivalent of saying I want to push a football. I can walk up to it and roll the football sure or I can just kick it. That works quite well in moving a football.


What if I want to move a truck? If I take a running kick at that truck is it going to budge even an inch? Unlikely. All I'm going to do is break my foot. Because at some point the amount of energy you're trying to put into something approaches the limit of what you can structurally build.


That's what you see. The guns only get so big before they just explode. What you'd rather do then, maybe not a truck, but I can push a car. If I gave a car a kick, it wouldn't move but I can push it.


So if you have an engine, something that constantly applies force over a distance, you can keep accelerating things to much higher velocity than we're used to. This is the concept of the ram accelerator, which is the underpinning technology that our company is looking to commercialize.


What it allows you to do is take very large masses in comparison, that you would never see a gun that would ever scale to and accelerate them to very high velocity. Mach 5, which is about 1.5 kilometers a second. What is that for you imperialists? About a mile a second, give or take.


What is useful there is or as you described it, the principle of this engine is that you take a tube, you pre-fill it with gas — fuel and oxidizer mixed together —and the tube is constant. It's kind of like extending the cowling on SR 71. Through it, then you accelerate this geometry.


The trick here, the clever bit, is in understanding the physics well enough to do this. And as this whizzes through, the car would only be just a bit wider than the body, it will compress the gas around it. And then if you tweak your physics just right, you can get it to ignite, and it will stabilize as a subsonic combustion region on the rear of this projector.


So it looks like a rocket club. It looks like this is actually a rocket in a tube. And it's kind of similar to what Elon Musk is doing. He's trying to re-land first-stage rockets, for instance. But if that's my first stage, this tube, and if that stays on the ground, and it can be big and heavy, I don't have to re-land anything I never fly.


So one of the applications would be to throw second-stage vehicles through this thing. Just ballistically launch them to some altitude and then have a small insertion stage come in to move cargo to orbit. You can also do other things. It's a low-cost mass accelerator.


Actually, one of the somewhat surprising applications for this technology is drilling and tunneling, mining, and any kind of resource extraction. The way we currently mine hard rock is you just rub it really aggressively with much enthusiasm, basically. If you look at a drill, it's just a stubby head. All you do is you just grind it into the ground with a lot of weight and it turns hard rocks literally into sand. That's what it does.


Unsurprisingly, rubbing something aggressively is not a very efficient way of breaking it. How long would you have to rub two bricks together before they were nothing but powder? But a hammer, on the other hand, is a much more efficient way of doing it. So you can meteor these things into the ground and you can very efficiently tunnel with their application.


Robert Hansen

And you can do it over and over again. You don't have to make every one of these out of well-milled aluminum.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

No. Yeah, this is a bit more sophisticated. This is something more like an aerospace. We flew this as an aerospace demonstrator. But yeah, you can make it matter.


The geometry is the smart bit, not the insides of it. I can pull these out of concrete, pull them out of plastic. As long as it will survive the environment it's in, I can make it out of that. And that's what's nice about it. You can injection-mold them out of plastic if you want to, accelerate these things up to very high velocities, and then smash them into something. That has a very legitimate civilian application, which is primarily what we're interested in.


Robert Hansen

So oil exploration, mining exploration, geothermal...


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Geothermal is actually a really big one; your ability to dig very deep, large holes through very hard rock. Another one that's really useful is resource extraction. Another one that's got a lot of applications is subterranean infrastructure. It is hard to break rock so people typically don't do it.


Hey, we know, we're in Austin, Texas. How many people have basements here? Very few. Because there's very thin topsoil that goes straight down to something substantially harder. It's not worth doing. So all of these things become considerably more doable and cheaper than they were before. And in that sense, it's this very enabling technology system.


It's really a hypersonic technology that we're working towards. That's what we're interested in, especially you touched on mineral extraction but in rare earth metals. At the moment, the way you mine rare earth metals is you find somewhere that's got a lot in the soil. You scrape all the soil off the side of a mountain, you process the soil to get them out. Maybe you don't want it, put it back.


And there's plenty of rare earth in hard rocks, just a pain to get them out. It's not like they exist as an actual metal or a vein of it, really. It's just kind of vaguely mixed in and it's so hard to get the rock and process it. But this would potentially enable America and many countries as well to remove the stranglehold that China has on rare earth, which might be a great thing.


Robert Hansen

Certainly, it could be. One other thing I think we didn't talk about is the different types of material sciences. Normally, if you take a Mach Five vehicle and you slam it into a piece of rock or something, there's no difference between slamming into a piece of rock and slamming it into another Mach Five vehicle, except there is no rock on earth that could possibly stop the kinetic energy of a Mach Five vehicle. It just turns it to dust.


Therefore, there is some benefit of slapping the two of these things together from a material science perspective. You can create totally brand new types of material, whatever it is; a liquid and a solid that would normally never go together would suddenly be forced to turn into something. And liquids, from our perspective, are something that's stable at our temperatures, but you can turn something very solid into a liquid very quickly.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah, that's very true. You can have some interesting metamaterial applications with this technology by basically slapping two of them into each other at ridiculous speeds. What that does is for some very interesting phases of matter, or just rather unusual combinations of things that would never happen normally at the surface or happen rarely.


You think of it as like kinetic quenching. If I take a sword and I heat it up, and you see this in blacksmithing, they dump it into the bucket and all the steam comes up. It makes the metal stronger. Because when it's hot, the metal is actually in a better phase, and then you quench it to freeze. And it's sort of the same thing. You slap these two things together. It's also fast.


There are enormous forces applied that cause something interesting to happen. Then it's over so quickly that it kind of gets stuck in a state that would never naturally be in. And then you can come and hoover up the dust and that has some very interesting applications. Yes, you're not wrong.


And there are a lot of applications we just haven't looked at because we don't have this engine that enables us to quickly accelerate hypersonic speeds. And while we do rockets, they're expensive; 2 to 5 million a pop so you keep them in your back pocket for bigger stuff. But we're more interested in these commercial use cases where you say, "What if I could throw something to orbit every 30 seconds? What if I could make some really exotic matter?"


Robert Hansen

What are the general costs to launch comparatively between these different platforms? Like if I want to launch a 100-kilogram object into space using chemical rockets or this, what would be the delta?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

On a chemical rocket, it would be orders of magnitude cheaper.


Robert Hansen

Cheaper?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

We are cheaper. I mean, if I want to just accelerate something small, launching this10 kilograms, how long is that? A meter-long. Yeah, getting that up there, you're talking about a couple of $1,000 or something. And I mean, that's not a real cost. That's like with people involved and supply lines and logistics.


Robert Hansen

So you can even get it down further if you had a supply chain and people want to do this all the time?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. I mean, of course, you could scale anything. Here's a good analogy. What does it cost to launch a rocket? I don't know. About 100 mils, it depends if it's used or not. People assume that going to space is expensive because the rocket is expensive, but a Boeing or an Airbus plane, they are hundreds of millions of dollars for the plane.


The difference is how many times it flies and all of the ecosystem you've built around airports, getting fuel there, and everything else. Now, the logistics of bringing the price down are baked into that. And that's going to be a difficulty, I think, with terrestrial rocket launching, just having that scale on it. Getting it down to that cost is going to be hard.


I mean, that's great. A rising tide raises all ships. I hope Elon, Jeff, and everyone else can make good on their promises because that would be fantastic. I'd love to see it. My stretch goal in life is to die by Jupiter.


Robert Hansen

We'll get to that.


Robert Hansen

When I think of this, I think of these terror weapons from World War Two and the Iraqi project Babylon and the super guns. Why isn't that the answer? I mean, why can't I just say, throw a bunch of gunpowder at the end of this thing, or whatever explosive, and just launch it over 100 miles?


Because they have gotten these guns well over 100 miles now and I don't see a particularly huge reason other than the cost and the inflexibility of moving the guns around why they can't scale that.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

There's a few things that just make it a real pain. One of the biggest ones outside of the sheer logistical nature of this thing is, it's a bit like a rocket engine, you're so close. A gun of that size is so close to blowing itself up, it's almost a coin toss, just like a rocket. That is a vehicle so close to material science, the edges of our understanding of everything, that even tiny little changes can cause it to blow up.


In the same way, the gunner. It's so stressful just to do it once, the idea that you do it 20, 50, or 100 times. I might do 100 launches in a day, that'd be no problem for the RAM accelerator because it doesn't fire impulsively. But for a gun, doing it once is doable, doing it many times, it's going to blow up quite catastrophically. That's one piece.


The second piece is if you wanted it to actually be large like if you want a one-ton vehicle, this is a baby toy in terms of what I would consider a space vehicle. But in terms of an artillery round, this is quite large and heavy. It's hard for modern weaponry to throw things like this with few exceptions.


So if you want to launch a natural vehicle or anything of any reasonable size, and again, look at what's been offered, a couple of feet wide, 10-foot, 20-foot long sort of thing, a gun would really struggle there. And then the flip side of that is because you're doing it so impulsively, the G loading on the vehicle is insane. You're talking about 10,000 g, 20,000 g.


And for context, 1,000 g is the sort of force that you would see if you took the cover off your phone and dropped it on a concrete floor. That's 1,000 g. Packaged electronics will survive that quite well. I had a solid state hard drive that said, "Warranty void if product is whetted more than 1,500 g, or if I pulled the sticker off." That pesky sticker does always get you but I took it apart anyway. That's fine. You can drop things. That's okay. That's 1000 g, that's pretty survival for package electronics.


But when you start getting to 10,000, 20,000 g, the idea that anything would survive that... You know, 20,000 g, a one-gram component resistor, LED, effectively weighs 20,000 times more. I've got a tiny little resistor with two little legs that hold it to a circuit board. No embarrassment, we're trying to do the math. But what is that? It suddenly weighs 20 kilograms. And boom, it's pulling on the circuit board and they want to rip out.


And that 400 tonnes of oxygen I told you about earlier and a large rocket suddenly becomes 20,000 times heavier and stuff starts to break and everything else. It really becomes incompatible there.


Robert Hansen

Also, I think from a defensive perspective, if you want to have something like this, you definitely don't want to keep it in one spot. So if I'm thinking of the v2 super gun or...


Dr. Leon Vanstone

V3 combustion gun, yeah.


Robert Hansen

And Project Babylon, I think those are very dangerous because they're just sitting there in one spot. They're very heavy. They're big infrastructure. You can't move them on a rail. They're just stuck. That's where they're going to be.


I think from a defensive perspective if you have to move the thing around, or you want to move the thing around like, "Our insertion point in the space would be better if we were over here," like this, you could probably pack on the back of a truck and move it around.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Sure, even from a civilian point of view. Look at all the schedule delays caused by hurricanes off of Florida because you can't move Cape Canaveral. Some hurricane rolls through and suddenly everyone's schedule is bumped back by nine months.


Robert Hansen

This could go right through a hurricane.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. If I launched one of these in a hurricane, what I would get is a hurricane with a hole in it. When you're doing 1000s of miles an hour, the idea is that the first three seconds of your journey has to be slightly sideways wind velocity and capacity. It's nothing.


Robert Hansen

Right, which is interesting because in a ramjet or scramjet, it would have catastrophic effects.


Dr. Leon Vanstone.


That would be sad. It'd be a bad day.


Robert Hansen

It's interesting that it's really the stuff around the center mass that is the problem with that engine design.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

They're very sophisticated. That very first bit of atmosphere that we so lovingly live in, relatively thick and soupy and has all this rain and stuff and movement in it, it's a problem if you want to do something sophisticated in it.


And again, another advantage of something like kinetic launch for your first stage is that it takes a lot of that. It's a very repeatable, predictable method of doing it because we understand ballistics very well. If you throw something up, where does it go? Where does it come down? So it does make it very robust, yes.


Robert Hansen

Let's talk about rockets now, because I think rockets are really great for exactly one thing; getting people up in space. I find it difficult to believe you're going to be able to build something where you can fit a human in this and create a tube long enough that it's going to be comfortable for anyone let alone a Jeff Bezos and his crew kind of situation.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I mean, it could definitely be done. The problem you run into is if you say, "I want to accelerate someone to a speed." And if you want to limit them at a g, you can do the math quite quickly on how long it has to be. I mean, probably maximum comfortable g that could be sustained for short periods of time, like less than 20 seconds, maybe 20 g.


Robert Hansen

That's a lot.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Eyeballs in, if you don't like someone too much, you could be done. You'd be fine. Like 70 miles an hour, dead stop into a war. Car wreck is like 100-150 g. There are people who have survived those sorts of things.


Robert Hansen

Yeah, but the next day they're not feeling great.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

No, I would rather be on a rocket. Like 10 g track, if you wanted to do this for a human, which I wouldn't say is the first thing you would go to and this amazing cargo application, we can elaborate more on that bit. But you can easily have a 20-kilometer tube with a one-and-a-half-meter vehicle that weighs a couple of times that would carry a few people and put them in orbit.


But to your point, one of the things I think this is a very useful application for is non-squishy content. I know this isn't cutting-edge, but it still illustrates the point. The maximum crew capacity of the ISS is about 10 astronauts give or take. The weight of the ISS is 400 tons.


Now, what that would imply is that for every astronaut, for every single person, I need 40 tons of stuff. So for every 100 kilograms of an astronaut, I need 40 tons of metal and stuff and equipment. And okay, you can probably do a bit better than that if you want it to be leaner. And if you're not staying there very long, it can be less.


But if you want to live in space, which he was saying is the dream, colonization, we have the stations and stuff on the moon, I need that amount of stuff to support every living, breathing thing. And just for short periods of time, not decades, just more than a few days, basically.


Sure, you take a Starship, it's got a 100-ton capacity, whatever it is. You fill it full of people and now each person has 100 kilograms so I've got 1,000 people in space. That's great. But what's 1,000 times 40 tons? I need 40,000 tons of stuff now to keep 1,000 people alive. On that rough map, these systems now extrapolate like that.


But my point being, for every human you put up there, you're going to need a lot of metal. In fact, if I built a 100-ton station, if I extrapolate from the ISS, I can put two and a half people in it. Okay, there's no such thing as fun with two people in it. So one Starship will carry enough stuff for two astronauts or could carry a spaceship with two astronauts and it could live up in space. That's it. That's all you can do.


So even if it launches 10,000 times, that's only 20,000 people in space. 30,000 people fly on a plane like that. Millions of people fly every hour or day or whatever. In fact, I think about 36,000 airplanes take off in the US every day. So it gives you this impression then that you are talking about moving away from a world of onesies and twosies and getting to a thing where it's an everyday thing. And it's not like all of humanity even gets to fly on a plane. It's just like the top 10, 20.


Robert Hansen

So what are you picturing? What kind of cargo is most critical for getting people to Mars? What do they need? Water, food, the equipment to sort of manage the air supply?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It depends on your vision of how you can do this. There are those that want to go to Mars as quickly as possible. If you want to do that, you need a station or some kind of ship. You're going to have to make it either on earth or in orbit of Earth. There are some people looking at how to produce... Because things can't be big in a rocket because they've got to go in the rocket.


Robert Hansen

That's why there's two horse butts.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Exactly, yeah. So it has to package into a rocket or maybe you can launch raw materials and you can do that in space. You can 3D print your vehicle in space. But you're going to need all kinds of things. You need water, you need supplies, you're going to need food, you need shielding, you need a vehicle. Those things aren't thick. They're basically coke cans. The aluminum shell on the ice is really thin. You need all that stuff...


Robert Hansen

But it's got to have quite a bit of shielding. So what is shielding?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You can do a few things. You can either have certain areas that you don't spend a lot of time in and you only shield local areas. You can put water, pump the water on the outside of the vehicle and store it as ice on the outside. It's sort of a protective shell. Water actually makes quite a good shield. You can say you don't care, honestly. The astronauts aren't going to die, but they'll probably get cancer.


Robert Hansen

So what's the difference between setting something up that's heavy versus something that's light with a design like this? Let's say filled entirely with a lead shot or something.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It makes no difference to me. The heavier it gets, the easier it is to get up there. Well, in some sense, yes because I've got a punch to the atmosphere. So being small and heavy helps me and it only makes my engine a little longer from my perspective. But yeah, this is an ideal package for moving large, heavy things.


Robert Hansen

Then the idea is you have a very small booster stage at the bottom to take it from low Earth orbit to the next.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Right. It's exactly like a spin launch or any of these kinetic launch concepts where we basically accelerate a second stage.


Robert Hansen

You really want to explain the launch today. All right, let's just do that. No, I think it's interesting. For those who aren't aware what it is, it basically is like a David and Goliath slingshot. It goes faster and faster and faster and then whoop. All of a sudden, it hits that exact perfect apex and then releases and it goes straight up.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It's a giant spinning arm. Imagine that windmill thing as a kid where you put water in a bucket, and then spun it around really fast, and the water stays in the bucket as it goes over your head. Imagine you did that up to about two kilometers a second, and then you let go of the bucket. And it just whooshes off and up. That's the idea.


Robert Hansen

But from what I can tell, they only have a very small demonstrator.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Well, take it with a pinch of salt. Of course, the CTO of one company believes that knowledge is better than another, but still, I genuinely do. They have a spinning arm that's about the size of the Statue of Liberty currently, and it's a 1/3 scale demonstrator. They threw something down. It should have looked a bit like this, it was larger, but they didn't say how high it went.


So who knows what happened there? But they threw that, and then it takes hours for them to spin it up. You have to really make sure you let go of it at just the right time, or if that's a bad day for everyone. Then the idea is they would throw a second stage. Their g is also higher than ours is, as best we can figure it out anyway.


Robert Hansen

Well, also there's a sideways g.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Right, it's spinning, so it's kind of crashing, and there are some things you can do to mitigate it. Yeah, we think they have higher g for longer periods, which is less agreeable for the vehicle.


Robert Hansen

The way that you would fix that is you'd point it away from yourself. So you would have the effect of always accelerating towards the center as you're spinning it around or something like that. Is that your idea?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Well, you have to support it. There has to be some kind of cradle on this giant arm thing. It's a mess. Also, I'm just guessing what they're doing. I haven't spent too long studying it.


Robert Hansen

The major reason I'm not a super big fan of that design is, first of all, it's enormous. As you said, a third the size...


Dr. Leon Vanstone

A one-third scale demonstrator is the size of the Statue of Liberty. You're going to struggle to move this. It's enormous.


Robert Hansen

I wanted to put this somewhere that's difficult to get to like the moon or something, that seems like you'd need your technology just to build their technology.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

One thing I like about this is you can tunnel and fly with it. So if you were on the moon with one of our tunneling versions of this, not only could you dig your moon base, you could then turn around and use it to throw satellites out into the cosmos for almost zero cost. Because again, you keep the engine and only the payload gets thrown.


Unlike today, where even with a conventional rocket, you end up with a lot of debris that spends stages going round and round, which becomes a hazard for everyone else. There's also the cadence. The spinlock trauma is enormous. It has to spin up. It takes them hours, if not a good chunk of the day to get the thing up to speed.


I could reasonably fire something like this off every couple of minutes without even trying too hard. You end up asking yourself, "Well, how quickly can I move these around and reload the system?" That becomes my problem, as opposed to this enormous spinning arm that then has to spin out and come to velocity and then spin back down.


And I will say credit to the spin launch guys. I do like what they're doing. They're still saying, "Rocket launches once every three months or once every month." You get a pad, you get the vehicle on it, do the inspections, you launch it, and then it comes back, and blah, blah, blah. They're still talking about a complete change in cadence from a launch once a month to a launch every day, which is good work.


Robert Hansen

Well, that's not going to work for you.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I mean, one plane doesn't take off from an airport every day. They queue them up behind each other and it's two minutes ago. Again, if you want to move to that kind of a world, which I do, we have to, because I do believe that space exploration is important. If you want to move to that...


Robert Hansen

Why is it important?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

There's a great many reasons. One, it's an area where you will develop technology. People talk about this and they say, "Why should we go? It'd be funding Space Technology, shouldn't we be focusing on technology here on Earth." And you're like, how do you think we went to space? We didn't only develop space technology to go to space. We use terrestrial technology.


Robert Hansen

We also used it to threaten Russians.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

So the technology that's developed in space is not limited to space. Here's an example. When the Hubble telescope and the lenses on them weren't great, while they were trying to figure out how to fix it, a bunch of physicists decided to figure out if they could take something that was blurry and make it sharper with some math. And the answer is that you can.


They used that for a while until they fixed it, but that technology ultimately found use in MRI machines. It's used in image processing now when you have blurry images that should be chopped to tighten them back up. And you see a host of terrestrial technologies that are used on terrestrial applications. Like, science doesn't work like that. Science doesn't care, math doesn't care whether your understanding came from space or from the ground.


At the end of the day, it's just a tool for you to use and build that out. And even more broadly, perhaps, there's infinite resources in our solar system. If we could harness it, you're talking about a world where no one would need to be hungry, no one would need to go without. There's these infinite resources. All of this silly squabbling goes away and people can get on with things.


And maybe I watched a bit too much Star Trek, but that doesn't seem such a bad world to me. Why not? Why do we have to keep fighting over everything? Why can't we just move to a place where, "Hey, do you fancy a platinum asteroid?" We can get you one if you want it. I don't know what you're going to do with the moon's worth of platinum but have fun.


Robert Hanse


This actually seems like a great way to shoot stuff back to us too. There's no reason you have to keep stuff shooting out. You could also have it shooting back and have some sort of deorbiting.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You've got a real good net though. Some guarantees will have to be made, but sure. It represents a way of moving large masses around. It's a platform we don't really have. One really good analogy is to imagine a chemical pad railgun.


Robert Hansen

Yeah, let's talk about railguns. I think they're interesting for two different reasons. They're interesting because, to me, it's like, why do you spin launch when you can do railguns? But also, railguns and spin launches both have one benefit that you don't have, or at least not an easy one, which is that they work with just solar power.


I could just throw this thing around, just keep turning it with solar power, and naturally, it throws off. Now, if they have huge solar power or battery banks, this infrastructure would be enormous.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

There's an opportunity cost that comes with that, but yeah.


Robert Hansen

And railguns are very similar. I don't know if their infrastructure has to be as big, but it's certainly big. But because it's just huge banks of capacitors, you just throw it off. How do you guys see yourself compared to railguns?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

There are two pieces, I suppose, that are big differences. One is the energy requirement. And you are right, it's a little simpler there if all you want is solar panels. I will say that you can get the RAM accelerator to work, you could work on hydrogen and oxygen. So you don't need water and electricity. And it is one more extra resource.


And if you're around asteroids or you're on the moon, there's a fair bet you've got water because if you're anywhere near people, you will have to have water. Or if you're near rockets as well. Rockets aren't electrically powered either although I suppose we won't get into the plasma thrusters.


But yeah, it is one extra requirement so you might not see it on very remote mining operations or something. But anywhere there's a person or anywhere there's a significant installation, you'd have that.


But if I'm being quite blunt, the number one advantage of this technology is it actually works. Railguns will work once. The reason it's called a railgun is because the vehicle, the projectile, the armature has to touch two rails. So you've got something that's in contact with two rails doing hundreds of meters a second, 1000s in fact. It gets hot. It has to rub them. It has to touch them and they get real melty.


There's a very good reason that the US military recently retired or canned the railgun program they were running. Well, they weren't not going to say, but it probably doesn't work as well as they would. Usually, they have some material problems where they haven't quite figured out how they're going to do it.


Robert Hansen

One nice thing about it on a battleship, let's say, is that you have nuclear power on the battleship. Theoretically, you could have next to infinite amount of energy to keep firing these rail guns but how much cheaper Is it to just siphon off some seawater and turn that into hydrogen and oxygen?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. There exists today the technology to do that. That would be very doable. If you happen to be floating on a literal ocean of combined rocket fuel and you have unlimited electricity, then yeah. I mean, if you want to put this on a barge, one of those nice oil platforms that are sitting in the middle of the Gulf Sea or something, perfect. Well, all you need is sunshine.


Robert Hansen

That brings me to one of the things I want to talk about, which is the legal implications of trying to actually get one of these things up. I'm not going to get to the punch line too early, but one of the things that I've been thinking is why are we even talking about doing this in the United States? It seems like the United States is one of the least friendly places to be doing this from. You could just, as you said, put it out on a barge somewhere.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You could, yes. Although I will say the FAA extends its jurisdiction to any American person, regardless of where they are in the United States.


Robert Hansen

Guess what, you aren't.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Well, no, I am because I have a green card. They don't let you play for free. So you do have this problem and there are so many things you could do. Anywhere is going to be wary of you launching things to space. More immediately, especially with the current circumstances, they're worried you are going to start World War III with unannounced launches of some kind of small vehicle, going at an incredible velocity...


Robert Hansen

Which may or may not go off course because some of these things are tests and who knows what they're going to do?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Or just more generally, let's say Elon Musk launches a rocket and it falls down in the middle of London. Well, then what do you do? As a country, it'd be a major diplomatic incident. But when it's a person, there is no precedent for that. What do you do when a civilian starts World War III?


Right now, there are people out there building habitats that look like they would work on the moon, building rockets that would launch them to the moon. Musk likes tossing cars in the wind, you could say, why not just launch from a moon base? That would have been a reasonable demonstrator.


And the reason is that if he did that, the US government would want to have a real friendly chat with the man. Because if you put a base on the Moon, again, there's very little precedent for that. Do you own it? Is it yours?


Robert Hansen

Is it your flag or is it someone else's flag?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

What if I get in my rocket and land on the moon because this is mine now? Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Who's to stop me? Or quite scary...


Robert Hansen

There are some international treaties about this, though. It's supposed to be neutral because it is the moon.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Right, but not all of them agreed to it. It's not like everyone signed it. And if my memory serves me right. I don't think the US and Russia did either. I may be wrong, but you may want it to the moon. Or what if there's only one piece of it that has any relies on it? Then the Chinese, good job mapping water out on the moon. My guess is while we have been romanticizing Mars, but getting straight there is a bit of a fuss...


The analogy I like is to imagine you live next to a small river or something. And you've heard of this great new land across the ocean. So you jump in your rowboat and you roll down the river. It's a shallow river, what else can you do? And then you get to the ocean, and you have to rowboat yourself across the transatlantic ocean, which is going to be a real fuss that doesn't go well for some people.


And because it's this challenge that you have to have a vehicle now, a boat that will navigate tiny little rivers and enormous, great big oceans, wouldn't it be lovely to have a dry dock? Wouldn't it be better to go to the mouth of the river and build a drydock to launch a large vehicle from? And there's a saying in orbital mechanics that getting to orbit is halfway to anywhere. And it's really true if you do the math of the Delta-Vs you need to do that kind of thing or the vehicle you want.


And there's the moon, which is made of more or less exactly the same stuff as the Earth. It's already in orbit of the Earth, and also very conveniently doesn't even have an atmosphere. There's nothing to even mess with you on the way out.


So my guess for what the Chinese plan is, they want to build a moon base, and they're going to use that as sort of a dry dock to the solar system.


Robert Hansen

As we should.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I agree. America has changed its posture the same way. It immediately said, "For realsies, this time we are going to build a moon base." Because they don't want the Chinese to show up and land on the only spot of ice and say, "This is our rocket fuel now. We own this." What do you do then? That would be an interesting day, I'm sure.


Robert Hansen

So what are the current hurdles that you're facing from a legal perspective getting stuff up? One of the things you and I talked about offline was getting things up more than once per day is something that they're just not prepared for. There's no way to do that currently. What other obstacles are you facing?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

And I understand; people that legislate don't want these things to get away from them because they're worried that something will go wrong. It is not easy, though, to fly one of these things for fear that you start World War III or for fear that it simply drops on someone's head.


You have to go to special places and things like this. Like the White Sands Missile Range and Spaceport America. We were talking to them about a possible launch campaign coming up and it's just tricky.


Robert Hansen

Currently, you're at the White Sands, right?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

We've done some stuff out of Spaceport, but they're basically next to each other. And one, if you're at Spaceport, you're basically playing by White Sands rules because the military also doesn't want you to drop a rock, unsurprisingly.


So we were chatting with them and I said, "Well, what do I do if I want to launch?" They were like, "You can notify us about two weeks out and then get your permission and you can do a launch." You're like, "Okay. What if I'm setting up and I'm ready and I forget to ask until the end of the day to give it a go? "Well, you have to wait two weeks." I'm like, "Well, it's not great but okay. I guess we'll have to get better at planning."


And I'm like, "Well, what if I want to do 20?" And they're like, "Well, we'll give you a window. You do a few in the window." I was like, "Well, what if I push out? What if I have to wait until the afternoon because there's something I want to fix?" "Well you've missed your window and you can't launch."


It's just a whole other world, where you would get the rocket to be perfect, and waiting two weeks is nothing because you've spent three months setting it up anyway. So you can afford to just wait until it's perfect. I'm like, "I want to fly one of these off, tinker with it, see where it went, fire another, one tinker with it some more." Now I can do trial and error. I can try one and see if it works.


I remember talking with somebody; you sort of see this analogization, sometimes with Silicon Valley. It's very innovative. How do we get Facebook but for space? Facebook maybe not, but how do you get this kind of very rapid innovation space for a rocket? Why can't we do as we did with Silicon Valley, very agile and all these things?


And I'm like, well, here's the very straightforward answer. Zuckerberg or whoever sat in this very romantic made-up idea in their dorm room coding away with some grand vision in their mind. Imagine if every time Zuckerberg wrote a line of code, he needed FAA approval. Or when Steve Jobs wanted to send an email, get FAA approval. I mean, it's not horrendously onerous, but it's not a quick process.


Robert Hansen

One of the things I like about your technology is, because it is dual use you can fire it down or up, it seems like you could actually run a lot of these tests in the atmosphere pointing at a rock, put it straight down. And, oh, did that work? No. What about this one? I mean, you do end up with a big hole in the ground, but at least you get your tests in.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That's definitely a good chunk of what we've done. That really allows you to perfect the first piece of any orbital-capable vehicle. Or if you wanted to do any tumbling, that'd be great, too. We've flown one of these in a mine. The end of the mine didn't enjoy that very much.


As you hinted at earlier, it has to fly. Somebody has to fly and you want to start getting smart. This is something that you're starting to see with rockets. They don't just want to go up anymore. Sometimes they want to come back down. Or sometimes you want to understand the physics of it. There's a whole piece of application for this where I could start doing hypersonic flights.


I want to do a hypersonic component flight test, I can facilitate that with this technology. I can start to do a very iterative technology path, which is very different from


Robert Hansen

So you've invented a brand new engine?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I mean, I haven't invented it, but I've certainly commercialized it. No more so than Elon Musk invented the rocket. It wasn't him at all.


Robert Hansen

But this thing in front of us here, this isn't one thing. This is an engine. What do you do with an engine? Well, you blow your leaves off your lawn with an engine, you do all kinds of things with engines.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

And this is a problem we have run into a bit as a platform technology company. People don't often see the vision of that. Imagine you invented and held the patents for the jet engine. And you're like, I'm a flight company now. I'm also a power company because natural gas power plants will run basically on jet engines. Tank engine, sure, why not? Boats, they run on that. Even some drills have compressors.


All of these things, it's an engine, you can do whatever you want with it. The better question to ask is, what do I want to do now that I have access to this whole new area that I didn't have access to before, which is repetitive, hypersonic flight, ultimately?


Robert Hansen

So we've talked about the very big. What about the very small? How miniaturized can this get?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I don't know. Inch wide or something? Package it down to less; a half inch, a quarter inch. At some point, viscosity becomes a bit of a problem. It's a surprisingly new dynamic.


Robert Hansen

So even as a desktop demonstrator that people could do, I wouldn't call it in their home, but in small lab environments. You could build these things?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. I mean, you could build one with a 50 .cal You could absolutely go all the way down to little tabletop things that are only a few meters long.


Robert Hansen

And how fast do those go?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Alarmingly. I don't know, you might come down to about 1300-1500 meters per second, something like that. And if you made it longer, it can go even quicker. But just something that's fairly small, medium to long, surprising velocity.


And you might say, "Well, Leon guns do better than that." But then guns don't move this. But if you just want to do it as a tabletop, the University of Washington has a 38-millimeter diameter one, and they accelerate things through that. You want it to be a safe kinetic amount.


When your kinetic energy starts going up and up, you start running into problems because there's a lot of energy to stop. If you throw it into the sky, you worry less because it just hits some bit of dirt somewhere you hope. But doing it in a university environment...


Robert Hansen

Just can't wait for that hate mail.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I mean, yeah, you could build this as a tabletop. And this is what's really exciting in some systems. The technology is very robust and it's been there for a long time. And it's interesting to us that it never quite got picked up on. Ironically, it might be the absurdity of the harp and the sharp and the Babylon project where this one guy goes on a literal moonshot building these ridiculous guns.


The idea of firing a bullet into space is sort of absurd. And when you basically tell people you want to do something quite similar, I think they get a little worried. I mean, the concept of a rocket is utterly ridiculous. It's a flame thrower broomstick. Can you imagine before rockets were an everyday occurrence trying to explain this thing? This is an enormous explosion downwards. And if I catch it just right in my bucket, I won't explode, and I'll go up. They're like, "Get out of here. This nonsense."


Robert Hansen

We talked a little bit about China earlier. I think one of the things they're doing that some of my more interesting friends have told me, they have parked some kind of satellite at L2 Lagrange. And for those who don't know what that is, there's a couple of low-energy places around any three-body system, where you can park a vehicle and not spend much energy to be there.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah, it's a stable place. It's a parking spot for satellites basically.


Robert Hansen

So you don't have to spend a lot of energy. You can stay there for long periods of time, and then do whatever you're going to do, presumably for months, years, or whatever.


L2 Lagrange, if you draw a line straight from the center of our planet through the moon, it would be beyond the moon, on the dark side. What do you think of the Chinese satellite? If you were to say, I'm going to park a satellite right there, what would that satellite do? What do you think it's for?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Well, there's a number of things. Depending on how you park it in L2, you have like a halo orbit where you're in... Because L2 is an area, it's not a specific place. So you can have a little halo orbit that you're kind of going around. And you can always get visibility.


There are completely civilian reasons to be there, which is, you want to look at the dark side of the Moon. The Chinese have launched a number of missions to the moon to look for water resources.


Robert Hansen

So this could be an entirely commercial use case.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That's what they're claiming. They're saying it's a moon observation. And that is a good place to look at the moon. The Western world, if you will, just put a whole new space telescope out there to look out into the cosmos because now you can use the moon as a shield. Well, it's a lie. It's Earth L2, but still, there are reasons you would want to be there.


One of them principally, the moon is tidally locked. It doesn't spin. Or it spins at a rate that it always looks at us, which is why you always see the rat in the moon or the rabbit in the moon, or whatever those blobs are to you. You never see the back of it. There's a dark and light side of the Moon. So being at L2 with the moon allows you to look back.


Robert Hansen

So it might be just purely surveillance to understand all the topology of the moon?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Sensing equipment, all kinds of things. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be there. Alternatively, they might want to do something naughty and the Chinese space agency is entirely a military organization as far as my understanding of it goes. Or whatever they want; everything in between.


It could be communications. It could be monitoring what other people are doing. It's a great place to hang out if you want to keep an eye on other people's stuff. The Chinese aren't the only people to have put something in L2.


Robert Hansen

True. So space junk, it's a fun topic. One of the things that came up on this Ukrainian-Russian invasion that's happening right now that I thought was especially interesting and slightly terrifying as well, all Putin has to do is just blow up some random thing in orbit. And we'd have no space capabilities for a very long time. Not because of the electromagnetic, but just because of the space junk.


All the stuff whipping around in orbit, it would take months to identify it all and figure it out. We would be ultimately very screwed and ultimately catastrophic downstream effects potentially.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That would suck.


Robert Hansen

But one of the things I like about your technology is, it seems like that might not be a solution, but it might be a great way to quickly go up and capture something and take it back down.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yes, it would give you a fairly cheap vehicle that you could go up there and grab something you didn't like, and maybe you're not even necessarily in orbit. You just go up to something that will actually run with whatever the object is, snare it in some fashion, and just drag it back down.


Robert Hansen

And this is why the mobility of your system might be extremely important because launching it from Spaceport might not be the perfect catching point. It might be heading in the opposite direction. It might be heading across purposes.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Right, and just generally, people don't think about this too much with an airplane. An airplane could take off from an airport and then do a 180, go the other way. But the way we're building a spaceship at the moment is you build a launch site to launch in a certain direction, either equatorially or polar or whatever you want to do.


You can't just turn the rocket around and jump from one to the other. It wastes a lot of fuel; it's not worth it. So you have to have that modularity. In an airport, you just take off, turn the airplane around, and fly the other way. It's no problem. But you can't do that with a Spaceport.


Again, if you want to move to a world where you're launching these things in all directions for all kinds of different things for catching space junk, or whatever it is, we cannot continue... What we are currently doing with our infrastructure and with our legislation does not in any way align with the vision of people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and everyone who says they want to see...


It's the vision of Blue Origin. It's the vision of SpaceX, but it's the people in those organizations that are really making their future possible. Their vision is to see millions of people living and working in space. How are you going to do that when I can't even launch one rocket without a lawyer and about six months’ worth of paperwork?


And, of course, as always no one wants to say yes to this. If you go to the FAA, and you're like, "Hey, by the way, I want to do something no one's ever done." Their first answer isn't like, "That's really cool. Let's go." No.


Robert Hansen

They're very rarely excited by these kinds of things.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

No administrator ever got fired for saying no, but you'll very quickly get fired for saying yes. So it's really hard. You're constantly fighting everything. And it has to be safe, it has to be reasonable, but you're never going to see that change.


Imagine, again, if you wanted to fly a single airplane and needed to file six months’ worth of paperwork and argue with all these people. We have to choose what we want to do because the future we say we're trying to move towards looks nothing like the reality we're operating in today. And I have no doubt people plan to change it. But still, nonetheless, that's where we are.


Robert Hansen

I spent some time at Goddard — that's the center of research at NASA — they have a lot of sensors going up specifically to monitor the sun. There's a lot of effort to understand the sun. First of all, we don't understand it very well. But also, it is a very threatening body above us. It could wreak havoc down on us very quickly with a solar flare.


We know that has happened once. Fortunately, we didn't have much infrastructure to destroy at the time. But one aspect of this that I think even if we don't start launching 20, 30, or 100 of these things a day, I think we need to have everything ready to go to do it.


Because if that one day happens where the solar flare comes along and wipes out everything we have, all the GPS systems, all the communication satellites, we're going to need them back up really quickly. And this seems like one path to getting at least a starter network up and running where we have some GPS, we have some communication path, we have some way to bounce these communications around the planet or whatever.


Have you guys talked about that at all with NASA? Like, "You really need this." If you're looking at the sun this intently, clearly there's something else going on there and we care about it. Why not focus on solutions as opposed to just detection?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yes, because even if you see the giant solar flare coming, that's not going to do a lot of help. And this happened to SpaceX quite recently. They lost about 40 Starlink satellites to a flare. They were just unfortunate when they went out and it took pretty much all of them out. Yeah, they launched it, and all of that fuss and money, it just fried them all.


And as you said, it's a very real threat. As far as we can tell, it's happened before. We assume it's going to happen again. You want an ability to replace your infrastructure quickly. And just generally, what if I want a satellite swarm? What if someone attacks me or something goes horrendously wrong, and some catastrophe destroys every satellite up there?


And you're actually in a better place to understand this. The reliance that we have on things like the GPS signal or global timing. How do you know what the time is between devices? How do you synchronize communication? How do you talk to parts of the world where you don't have the infrastructure?


Also what happens if, as you're saying, you remove ground-based infrastructure in favor of orbital infrastructure, like I don't want to lay a cable, it's expensive, can I just have internet by satellite? Sure, you can now, that's the thing, till the satellite stops. And you didn't bother building the infrastructure in the first place because there was no point. So what do you do now? You can't replace that really quickly. You're kind of screwed.


Robert Hansen

Which is why I think having 50, 100, or 1,000 satellites ready to go at a moment's notice that we could just launch in a week or so, seems like a really important thing for NASA to be focused on to me.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I would agree with that. It's definitely an idea we've pitched. But with five or six launch sites across the entire world, it would not at all be hard to achieve. And with enough of these in your back pocket, you could just bang one up every few minutes and just launch a constellation in a matter of days.


Robert Hansen

Similarly, it seems like you could do something very similar for space satellites that are meant to monitor something outside of our solar system. If you want to have a very large camera pointing out into some event you're like, "There's a black hole about to consume something out there. We need to get a really good photo of it."


Yeah, you can do with the ground-based stuff, but you can also shoot up a constellation of high-resolution cameras all pointing at the same place at the same time, and combine the images. That might only cost hundreds of thousands or low millions of dollars, which seems almost like a no-brainer. Of course, you would do that.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Again, the kind of capability that you can realize with something like a ram accelerator can really offer a shift in the paradigm of how you think of satellites. When the rocket costs $100 million, why wouldn't I spend $10 million on the satellite? You wouldn't spend $10,000 on a plane ticket, and then only spend $200 on the rest of your holiday.


So you have this really expensive rock, and you're going to put a really expensive satellite in. But exactly your point, one, because of the failure rate of electronics, it's nice to have a large number of things. So if something freak happens, it only destroys a couple. Two, you can install sensors.


There was this story where someone realized that in a data center, you might have millions of spinning disk hard drives. And every one of those hard drives has an accelerometer in it. The accelerometer is not very good, but it's just there in case you drop it. A couple of scientists convinced one of the data centers to let them patch it so they could pull the accelerometer data out.


They had 10,000 simultaneously reading accelerometers. And the accuracy of all of them reading at once was about as accurate as a steady seismograph. The point being that you can launch the swarms of vehicles up if it becomes cheap, each of them with small sensor payloads, and the aggregate of them really comes together to give you accuracy.


So it's a paradigm shift because, again, this engine is very enabling. You could do things you could never do before.


Robert Hansen

Space Elevators. I really liked this idea. Obviously, it's a single choke point so it could easily be destroyed, which is dangerous. There's actually a recent sci-fi show about this. But it does give the ability for us to very rapidly get stuff up. I should say, not as rapidly as this.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It would be a great piece of civilian infrastructure.


Robert Hansen

Most of the reason I think that that technology is way too far away other than the material sciences of it is just getting it up there in the first place. But this seems like a way we could actually do that. It seems like you could attach some very strong cable and get it started.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yes, you could theoretically. One of the things you require with a space elevator is a balancing mass. You put something up there that wants to fly out, and then you drop a cable down exactly as you suggest. It's like you're spinning a bucket of water, but off the planet and tethering it with a piece of string.


This would be another way you could just put a very large amount of mass up into orbit at a reasonable cost. And when you're talking about space invaders, I don't know how reasonable it is. That would be another application where this would work.


The trouble is because space elevators at the moment, it's just the unobtainium that you need to make them. I think someone did the math and found that if you use carbon nanotubes, you might just about get away with it. But theoretically, yes.


And if you could realize that, it would be a completely world-changing piece of infrastructure. One, it only costs you a few $1,000 worth of electricity to go up. Then you can regeneratively harvest it on the way back so the difference is only your friction.


Robert Hansen

I'm going to ask the obvious question I'm sure you get whenever you're talking about this stuff. Why aren't you talking with Elon? Or why hasn't just said, "I'm just going to take this off the market and own it?" Because it seems so revolutionary to me. It seems so useful for his own efforts of colonization or getting stuff into space.


Why wouldn't he heavily invest in your company or take it over? Why wouldn't you just start violating patents and just do it?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Certainly, that's the Musk you know. He bought Tesla after all. I'm sure that came with an NDA and the founders can't talk about it. Maybe he will. My guess would be that, at the moment, he doesn't have the same vision of this technology as we do.


If everybody in the world thought about this the way I did, I'd be insanely wealthy right now. But not everyone thinks that that's your answer, or that's their problem. Elon Musk is a process man, it would seem to me. He wants to launch more rockets. We build a good process to make them cheap. He wants to get electric cars and batteries. He builds a process to make them cheap. Want a bigger Tesla battery? Cool, get two of the originals and stick them together.


He just builds one of something, makes it cheap, and scales them out. And that's not to knock him.


Robert Hansen

It's a very Henry Ford way of looking at things.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Indeed. It's a great approach if you want to bring the cost of something down that's expensive, like a battery. He built one rocket engine that was the Falcon. The Falcon 9 has nine of the engines on it. The Falcon Heavy was three of Falcon 9s strapped together. Starship has 47


There's just one engine they built, and they just mass-produce them. It's a good approach. NASA was trying to always build the world's best rocket, but you have a budget.


So, what you really want is what's the cheapest rocket. A bit more Russian in its approach. It's a good approach. I'm not knocking it. That's his vision; a man who always seems to want a bigger rocket.


That's just that. Rockets are his thing and that's where they're going. That's his vision of the future.


I'm fine with that. I'm fine for them to have this enormous heavy-lifting vehicle that…


Robert Hansen

We're still going to need it is my opinion. We're still going to have to have it for people, getting human beings out in space.


But for everything else, it seems like that might be wildly overly engineered for something that could just be a few thousand dollars.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

As a side piece with the people, you may even see that we go to something like space planes. There are companies out there like Reaction Engines who are building these vehicles that are more like the Richard Branson Virgin One thing.


Robert Hansen

Let's talk about that. Another way to get into space is fly real high and then rocket for the last couple of kilometers or whatever.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

you can actually fly to escape velocity in the atmosphere if you can physic the hell out of it. You can do that too.


If you can fly fast enough, at some point, you'll get to escape velocity. Then you just angle up a little bit and zoom out.


You don't even need the rocket. That's pretty fast. We're not near that one.


Reaction Engines, the company that are building the SABRE engine have a concept for a vehicle. That's just a single-engine vehicle, or a single stage-to-orbit vehicle is what it's called.


Nothing comes off, nothing gets dropped. It's basically an aeroplane. It takes off and it flies up to some really high speed faster than most of these vehicles can fly, and then a rocket kicks in and does the rest. Now you're in space.


Robert Hansen

It's really a two-stage. It's just...


Dr. Leon Vanstone

No. They don't drop anything. They have two engines on them and those engines are both air-breathing when they want to use them for air and then they close the intake off and they carry a little bit of oxidizer on them. Then they just inject the oxygen after that.


Robert Hansen

seems like a semantic thing to me but I'll give it to him. But it's totally recoverable as well?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah. It all goes up together. I would say this, you could not fly a rocket to space as a single stage. It is a vehicle that flies on such thin margins that the only way to get there is to throw the bits of it that you're not using into the ocean as you go.


You have to. Imagine you're in a dragster on a race, and you're revving this engine. It's screaming and screaming, you drop the clutch, it takes off. It races for 30 seconds and then runs out of fuel. There you are just going at whatever speed you've got, and you've got to get to the top of some hill that's coming.


You know you're too heavy. So, what you have to do is you have to start unbolting bits of the car and tossing them off to the side of the road. Dropping the mass of this thing so it will roll up to the top of this hill.


That is what a rocket does. You have to throw the spent fuel tanks off as you go, or you would never get there. That's why they're staged. It would be impossible otherwise.


Robert Hansen

I want to change the topic a little bit. You are a professor, have been a professor. You teach. People who are younger than you learn things from you. I don't know how to I don't how to phrase that exactly but you teach.


One thing that has come up societally here is the difference between objective math and equitable math. a lot of people are just going to have to tear their hair out if they're at all listening up to this point and hanging with this conversation. Most people are going to be very annoyed with this but I think it's very interesting and important.


if you go to the deepest, darkest parts of Twitter, you're going to find stuff that says, well, one plus one isn't two. Or they'll come up with some math that isn't math. There'll be 100 people trying to explain what that means and usually, it's very terrible.


you just look through it. They're like one banana plus one orange isn't two oranges. That's not the math. That's a very bad understanding of even what it is. But I think there is something there. It's a little bit complicated.


The sorites' paradox is one way to look at it. Let's say you have a big pile of sand. You call that a pile of sand. You remove a grain from the pile of sand. Is it a pile of sand? Yes.


Well, what if you remove two grains of sand, and you keep doing that forever, are you still going to end up with a pile of sand? No. You're going to end up with one grain of sand or no sand or whatever.


So there's this point at which math turns into something a little bit different. Where you have to explain what we're even talking about before you can even start with the math.


This is me steel manning this argument as much as I possibly can because this is hard for me to even fully grok. There's a lot going on here with regard to societal understanding of math.


I'll give you a bunch of examples. Let's say you have two solar masses, and both of them are half the mass needed to create a black hole and you shove them together.


Do you have one gigantic sun? Or do you have something completely different?


You have one black hole; you don't have two suns. Or let's say you have some item potent math, like zero to the power of whatever or zero times zero, anything. Zero times five.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Zero times four is zero. Zero times five is zero. It doesn't matter what you do to zero, the result always comes to zero.


Robert Hansen

Unless you do Nam and then it turns into Nam.


There's all these examples that I think from a mathematical perspective get really interesting.


If I'm going three-quarters the speed of light, and I double that, am I going one times five the speed of light? No. I probably tore myself up because no one can go that fast. There's all kinds of things that are between here and there. They get more complicated.


back to earth, let's say I have some woman who can barely get by on her salary. She's barely able to afford the cheapest place in her building. You're like, "Well, I'm going to cut her salary in half." Does that mean her place is half as good? No. She has no place. Now she's homeless.


There's a lot of examples of this that if you're not particularly well versed on economics, you can get in real trouble for. Like I made this amount per week. I go to the dollar store; I buy three things for my kid because I have $3 left over.


Suddenly, I go to the dollar store, and everything's $1.25. My $3 wasn't worth the same this week as they were last week. I can only buy two things for my kid.


And fuel prices. I can drive this far and this much fuel. Suddenly, I can't do that anymore. I put the same amount in every day, I don't know what's going on. Now I can't drive as far.


There's this experience about math. This is what you were talking about earlier. Mathematical models are toys, and they're not particularly good toys sometimes. In the context, without explanation, they're not good toys.


At minimum, they don't take into account all of these hidden variables that one who was describing the math to a child who has some very strange lived experiences. It's like, I don't know what you're talking about because that isn't true.


When this ends up happening, these other random effects occur. If I'm in a car that can only go 80 miles an hour, and I push the accelerator down twice as fast, I'm not going twice as fast. It can only go 80 miles an hour.


there's so many examples in the real world that we run into. How do we get how do we bridge that gap?


I know as an educator you have to deal with some pretty complex topics. These are probably pretty bright kids if they're at your doorstep. How do we as educators, as people will try and have conversations with people who aren't particularly well-educated yet bridge that gap? What do you think about that?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

The problem is you build a model. You say to someone, "build me a model for something." People, money, and household or miles driven, and all these things. They will do that.


They will look at the bulk of the problem they're trying to solve, they'll build themselves a model and that model will float out into the universe or into the internet. People will use it or they won't.


That model is only as good as the person that built it. It's a tool for you to use. It's like saying I have a hammer, and I take a nail. I can hammer in my nails, of course.


Then somebody says, "Well, this screw looks pretty similar to a nail. I'm going to get this hammer, and then they're going to go."


as a kid, if you've ever tried to hammer a screw, does it work too? If you don't appreciate the very slight nuances to a problem or to a solution or to a method, how would you know?


there is this problem where you just get told, "well just do this." or, statistically, what does that mean? In economics, I can have one and a half people. But in reality, I cannot.


Robert Hansen

Well, you can. You're not going to like the results.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You can but they are not going to buy anything.


Robert Hansen

It's like this barrel of monkeys’ thing. You can do that. I wouldn't though.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Or another example. What does it mean to take the average of something? We used to sometimes joke within the lab, the mean is meaningless.


I spend half my time at home, and half my time at work. Which means if you take the average, I live and work and eat and sleep and wash my clothes all on the highway.


That's my average location. It is on the highway midway between home and work. That's where I spent all my time.


then you're there saying, "Well, how does Leon get the clothes washed on the highway? it's not making sense.


Robert Hansen

It winds a lot in Texas.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Exactly. I just hang it up and lorries come by and splash me.


Robert Hansen

no, you have a convertible. What are you talking about?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

In order to use the tool, you have to understand the tool. I'm going back to Bernoulli's. Bernoulli's is a way of thinking about fluid dynamics and the way that a wing works. It doesn't give any physical understanding of the problem.


No more so than picking up a hammer teaches me how to build a house. But I have to have to know that first. How not to break my thumb, or not to use screws.


There's nothing implicit to a model that explains what its use or anything about it, or to a tool, to a hammer. Think of a hammer, without instruction what are you supposed to do? I think that gets lost.


I remember once listening to someone and he said "These are the equations that govern my system." I said “okay”. He said, "clearly you can see it's a wave."


I said, "How do I know it's a wave?" It was great. He's Italian. "Because it is the wave equation.” I'm like "Of course, that means it must be a wave.”


it's as if people will put the math up and they'll say, "hey, obviously, from the math you can see" I really struggle with this universally. I don't see a toy. I don't see why that should mean that wing a plane flies.


Took me a long time to really think through it. What does a wing do with it? it just pushes down. It's all they ever do.


Robert Hansen

Or it gets sucked up in a tube.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Or sucked up and then you fly down. You could do that. airplanes fly upside down. It still works. You have to have a better understanding of the model of things.


I think this is where science has gotten a bit miscommunicated perhaps. Every university has a press office. all the big ones do. The press office’s always hungry for content.


The academics are never very good at producing well-relatable sentences. For instance, you can go and google wine cures cancer, wine causes cancer, and wine prevents cancer.


Robert Hansen

This is a perfect lead into my next question. There's this thing right now a lot of people are saying; trust the science. It's a mantra and it's not a very good mantra because what does that even mean?


one day, Google will say how many planets there are. It does and then the next day, it doesn't include Pluto. Which is it? science said one day that Pluto was a planet the next day, it said it wasn't a planet.


Which one am I supposed to believe? How do we go from something that's counterfactual to definitely true? We all now know it to be true without there being this middle ground where people say, "Well, I generally believe our current science. However, this new experimental science is something we should keep our eye on"


Why are we so binary about what is true and not true given the fact that we are so often wrong?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Science is constantly changing. At some point, the world was flat, and at some point, the heavens rotated on spheres. All this is just someone's best idea.


In a decade, it might turn out that quantum mechanics was entirely wrong and Einstein had the right idea. Who really knows? I think you won't. Just have to be ready for that.


We saw a lot of the COVID stuff. It was anyone's best opinion. It could change overnight. This “Robert, trust the science” is a poor way of doing it.


imagine you were going to buy a house, buy a fresh build house. In this purely fictional world you say, I'm touring a fresh build house. There I am with my realtor, the person touring me around.


They show up and they say this, "You've got to know this is a great build of a house. Trust the hammer. Trust the drill. We used nothing but the finest hammers to construct this house."


That would seem really strange. What do you mean trust the hammers? Whereas if I walked into the house and they said, "Hey, don't worry, but you can really trust the builders. These are good builders because they build solid homes.


You're like, "Okay, I could trust a builder." the hammer's irrelevant. Maybe they had habits. Maybe it's just Steve with a brick, it doesn't matter. If the builder is trustworthy, it's fine because it's the builder that uses the tool.


Again, science or these mathematical models, it is just a tool saying 'trust the science' is like saying, trust the hammer. What you should be saying is 'trust the scientist' I trust the scientist that did this. They understood the tools they were using, and they came to an unbiased conclusion.


you can just lie. Scientists aren't magic, they're people too. There's a lot of egos in science. They can just lie.


Robert Hansen

also, a lot of conflicts of interest. They're paid often by grants from people who have a vested interest in making certain outcomes happen.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Sure. Everyone's paid by someone. Everyone has a vested interest.


Robert Hansen

That is precisely why it's wise to question everybody until we have good answers.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I think we're never going to have good answers.


Robert Hansen

I think sometimes we will. That's saying sometimes an airplane's flying and we're like, well, it clearly worked. If we're seeing positive outcomes, then obviously this model at least is workable. They may not be accurate.


We may not know why the earth is doing the thing it's doing but hey, we can still navigate. We can still send satellites up, we can still use GPS. Our model about where the sun is or the earth is or the exact size of it might be off by a couple of meters here and there. But as a model, it's close.


If someone came to me and said no, we were wrong. The earth is really like three meters wider than we thought it was. It's okay.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That is a piece of the scientific process that gets a little overlooked on these Twitter arguments. When it suddenly really matters whether something is right or wrong, and you certainly care about what a bunch of people are arguing about is the scientific process.


Yes, there's this bit where you publish papers, and you will argue over who's right. And you go to conferences and bloody blah.


But there's actually this big long Venn-like process that is rather unsatisfyingly decades-long where you see how these things play out. Well, where are my proof points?


We're doing experiments today that are showing that things that Einstein came up with half a century ago might actually be right. all this gravity wave stuff and everything else. Things that were predicted mathematically or guessed mathematically decades ago, and only now bearing fruit.


The sort of disappointing piece about some of these things is sometimes you have to make your best guess and move forward. You can't always have well-bounded problems where you get accurate, immediate feedback. I think this is my equation so I use it, and it predicts it well, and the answer falls out.


Sometimes you have really chaotic systems where it's really hard to know. You might say, "Leon, here's $10,000, spend it in the US economy to make inflation go down. Find a way to spend $10,000 that combats inflation."


I go out, and I guess, and I try it, and who knows what inflation is going to do? One, $10,000 is not a lot of money. Two, that whole system is so chaotic anyway. It probably doesn't matter.


Robert Hansen

That's a lot of problems. I have problems with a lot of the microscopic experiments. It's like, well, how many variables did you eliminate? "Well, we put it inside of a chamber." "Did you look at it? that's light bouncing off of it. Were you talking in the room? That sound waves bouncing off of the glass.


there's a lot of variables that are not accounted for even in the most well-meaning experiments. You can just tell these are not done by people who are really trying to narrow down on the hard part of the science, which is getting rid of anything that might make their environment or their experiment even slightly invalid.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I would reframe that saying it's impossible to remove doubt from any experiment completely. Your options then are either waiting a really long time to see if you can find a reason that it's wrong that’s reducing doubt in that way. Or it's about...


Robert Hansen

But you can certainly reduce doubt. There are certain ways that you can narrow down. The variables here are numerous, but they're accounted for. These are the things that might be wrong about my thesis.


I don't know if they're wrong. I have no reason to believe they're wrong but if anyone wants to try to narrow this down and repeat this experiment, here's the areas that I would focus on to try to narrow down and make sure that I'm right.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Sure, and the scientific literature goes out, publish or perish. You get to put your dirty laundry out there for the world. That's that piece that takes a decade. If somebody says, "well, maybe there's some merit in that. I'm going to try and repeat it." it does work, or it doesn't work, or they get a different answer.


That's a whole problem with the entire scientific world; it's hard to publish experiments that have been done before.


There are an increasing number of studies that show when you repeat somebody else's experiment, you don't get their answer. That's a piece that people don't want to talk about because honestly, it's also expensive to repeat experiments


Robert Hansen

is expensive but the fact that a lot of these are not repeatable, it's more than 50%, I think. I forget the real number.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

it depends on what it's for. For the biomed stuff, it can get pretty crazy, which again, they are these large multivariable problems that are really hard to isolate stuff.


Robert Hansen

Some people walking around, sneezing and coughing, and eating whatever they're not supposed to be eating. Doing drugs.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You're also paying that Ph.D. student to do this experiment and the rate at which they graduate is highly dependent on the success of the experiments they do. Suddenly you are motivated to find something.


Robert Hansen

trusting the science in this context as you said really needs to come down with the reputation of the individual.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Don't trust the science; trust the scientist. Decide if you like an individual or a person and then say...


Robert Hansen

or perhaps trust the method in which an experiment was done if you can verify that it was done in that way. Beyond that, stay skeptical if there's competing evidence.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You can even just say, "I don't really feel that that feels right. That just doesn't sit well with me." if you want.


You can say I don't really trust that. I think there are problems with it. That's fine. Go do an experiment that proves it wrong then. That would be the counterpoint


Robert Hansen

A good example of this was the gravity driver, the EmDrive.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Yeah, the weekly microwave.


Robert Hansen

There was a lot of people who really wanted that to work. NASA said, fine, let's come in and test it. Then they found out it doesn't work. Great, now we can move on.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

The last I had seen, any of the ground-based experiments seemed to suggest that it did work, but I don't know if they ever launched it.


Robert Hansen

It didn't work but they figured out why but whatever. The point is the same. Let's put it this way, I've heard no one talk about it in the last couple of years.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Which either means it didn't work or it went entirely black.


Robert Hansen

I'm pretty sure it didn't work. You're going to want to round this out with this. One thing we've talked about before is space has always been interesting to the people who are interested in it. But there's a lot of people who just aren't captivated by it for whatever reason.


Elon launching a car into space was pretty interesting. What is the stupid thing you'd want to do if you just had a bunch of money and a bunch of rockets? Well, you might launch a car in space.


That's interesting, stupid, and you could do it. It's funny. It also is great for branding and all these other things. He needed to send up a mass anyway so why not send up something that's at least promotional?


What do you say about the next generation and getting them excited? What does it take to really ramp up their excitement?


There's Marsworld that's coming out that will be like a Hollywood destination. It's actually in the desert somewhere. Maybe it's Las Vegas or something.


There'll be this five-star restaurant experience similar to Star Wars world or whatever, in Disney World. Those things are interesting but I don't know whether that does what you're talking about. How do we get people excited about space?


If you were the marketer of space, and you had to get out there and run some SEO campaigns to get people excited about space, get some clickbait going, what would you do?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

This was a conversation I would have sometimes when I was lecturing. It's giving rocketry 101. I'd like to ask my students why are you in my class?


At the end of the day, it's just an engineering class. Engineering isn't all. There is a book that tells you how to build rockets, there's a book that tells you how to build washing machines.


The engineering difference between those two is basically zero, the physics and the actual equations and everything. Systems engineering approach is identical.


I'm like, "why are you in my class learning about rockets? Why aren't you in the washing machine class? which we don't have because no one cares. Sorry, washing machine engineers.


The answer we'd normally get to was that they were there because a rocket is a literal vehicle. It is also a figurative vehicle to the future. It is something that says, "this is a way in which I see the future of humanity."


If we stay on this planet, if we don't opt to get off and go explore and look around, I know how humanity's story ends. It's guaranteed.


In about 6 billion years or something, the sun will explode and destroy the planet. a lot can happen in 6 billion years but that really is a galactic nothing.


if we leave, the story's uncertain. I don't know what will happen. For me, that's a much more compelling story.


We know that there's a future for humanity. We know that we can go out there. As I said, I myself probably watched a bit too much Star Trek as a kid. I see this thriving.


Robert Hansen

So it's Hollywood. Hollywood is how we get there.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It's true. Look at a cell phone. The people that built cell phones watched people with imaginary little talky boxes they could talk into. adults build the technology that they saw imagined as children.


even today you see that with the things that are coming out. Flying cars and robots and Iron Man suits. People don't realize how linked art and technology is.


people build the things that they imagined. You've got these children that saw this technology and were wowed by it and then as adults were consumed by that vision. They were like "I will make this a reality."


As someone who is an entrepreneur, I'm sure you understand. More than anything, if you want to realize something, you just have to will it. You have to want it so bad that you will make it real. Most people give up.


you have to inspire these children in this idea of a better world that is almost limitless in resources. Where everyone can live a comfortable life and we can go and explore a boundless frontier that has endless miracles and fascinating, beautiful things contained within it. Go out into the world as opposed to just staying on our small little space.


personally, for me when somebody says, "Leon, why should I explore space?" I'm like, "why should you leave your living room? Why do you go on holiday to different places? Why bother? Couldn't you just live in your living room forever ordering in pizza?"


Robert Hansen

I think there's another aspect of it. If your place is going to get hit by a gigantic Meteor, you might want to leave. There's the repopulating the species after this planet is long gone.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That comes back to my point. Even if we don't get destroyed by something cataclysmic, even if it isn't a meteor, there isn't another pandemic that kills everyone, there isn't nuclear war, there isn't one of all these many things that could very conceivably destroy the entire human race in a single go, in 6 billion years, the sun explodes.


It's guaranteed. We know the world will end. It's guaranteed


Robert Hansen

It's hard to get a budget for something if it's going to happen in 6 billion years.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

I know, man. Those politicians, tiny little psychos.


Robert Hansen

those other catastrophic things might get people brainstorming.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You might say that's what has to happen now.


Robert Hansen

It's definitely going to happen in 6 billion years, but it might happen way sooner than that.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

That could happen tomorrow quite frankly.


Robert Hansen

With the way things are going, yeah. You and I are probably similar in the fact that we both believe Mars is the next step.


We have to get there; moon and then Mars. We have to get to Mars just for some stability; to get people off this rock in case the bad thing happens.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

In a stable human population that has enough genetic diversity within it not to basically die out is probably 20,000 people.


Robert Hansen

they're going to have all kinds of issues transporting people back and forth with regard to new viruses. Can you imagine saying, "Okay, well, some of the people we're sending up might have something like SARS-CoV-2. Are you cool if we land?"


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Or you might even end up in the situation where you imagine you go to Mars. There's a Mars colony and Earth colony. Completely separate types of viruses are going to evolve there in unison with the people that live there.


what was the common cold for the earth person might completely devastate a Martian colony and vice versa. You end up diverging entirely in terms of what viruses and pathogens you have in each of the communities,


Robert Hansen

which means we need a very fast pipeline between the two constants just to keep the viral pathogens similar enough so that people are. It sounds a little weird but you want both species to have the same viruses?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

You do. You want them to be constantly. You're trading stuff so that you don't diverge as a colony and how you do the logistics of that. You already have people...


Robert Hansen

Marsdating.com, you're ahead of the curve.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

If you thought the old-fashioned internet was slow.


Robert Hansen

In a couple of months, you get to meet the girl of your dreams. Leon, I want to thank you very much for doing this and to our other special guest here. Have we named this partner yet?


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Mr. Pointy, maybe? I don't know.


Robert Hansen

Mr. Pointy. It's got a little dent at the top there.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Thank you, FedEx


Robert Hansen

We can send this stuff into space but we can't get it across the country.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

It was fit for flight to space, but not sadly for FedEx.


Robert Hansen

Leon, thank you very much.


Dr. Leon Vanstone

Appreciate your show. Thank you.


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