05 January 2012

Some thoughts on the Hacker Space Program

Let me start out this post by laying the groundwork: at the Chaos Communication Camp 2011, Nick Farr, Jens Ohlig, and Lars Weiler make a presentation entitled "Hackers in Space: A Modest Proposal for the Next 23 Years." Here is the abstract (emphasis is mine):
Four years ago, the global Hackerspace movement was kicked off at the 2007 CCCamp, having led to a worldwide, decentralised, collaborative network of hackerspaces on every continent. Fueled by the DIY and hacker spirit, we have come a long way. Now that we have the infrastructure in place, what do we do with it? In times when nation states abandon their space programs, we see the exploration of outer space as our goal for the coming decades.
We propose a three phase Hacker Space program we feel can be accomplished in the next 23 years. Phase one is the launch of an open, free and globally accessible sattelite-based network built by hackers as the ultimate defense against terrestrial censorship of the Internet. If that sounds too easy, let's go to phase two: Put a hacker into orbit. This will be the preparation for phase three. By 2034, we plan on landing a hacker on the moon.
Join us! Participate! Bring your own space suit and inspiration!
Taking inspiration from them, another group of hackers started the Hackerspace Global Grid, which is basically a design for part of phase one of the Hacker Space program:
Design and build a modular terrestrial base-station for satellite communication. Based on open-source hard- and software as well as open standards.
In other words, their project is the ground station for a proposed "globally accessible sattelite-based network built by hackers as the ultimate defense against terrestrial censorship of the Internet." Their shorter term goals are modest (again, the emphasis is mine):
If you're in desperate need to communicate you do not care about watching videos on YouTube nor do you want to download the latest album of your favorite band to have the perfect soundtrack for whatever the hell you're doing. You want to get a message out and receive updates. You want to inform and stay informed yourself. A first step will be providing bare-minimum communication infrastructure for that moment of feaco-rotary intersection that will hopefully never happen. But it did happen, several times during 2011 alone in several places. It will happen again.
Think twitter updates, not video streaming.
Next: let me state up front that I share the desire for an open, free and globally accessible network to prevent censorship of the Internet. I presume that the end goal is more important than the way we get there, no? That is my main area of concern and the focus of this post. If I may, please do not take my criticism of this idea as criticism for being bold; certainly, the HSP is a bold idea worth investigating; but perhaps we should step back and consider a few things before we jump in.

It is my contention that brains, brawn and (mostly importantly) money, allocated toward the Hacker Space Program, with the ultimate goal of placing a hacker on the moon, are a huge misallocation of resources. Now, let me be clear: this isn't to suggest that all of the sub-projects that will inevitably emerge from this program are worthless. I'm not even suggesting that the program itself is worthless (because it isn't). But we're dealing with a relatively fixed amount of resources that do not return nearly enough on investment for this project to be worthwhile.

First, two quick observations from cave explorer Bill Stone's TED talk: space is incredibly expensive, and other people are already trying to do this. So what, you say. I say, these two observations taken together, this program essentially duplicates many things that have already been done, or already happening, or are planned in the near future, by people with a lot more knowledge and experience, at a ridiculously expensive cost. The result is not that we wouldn't get anything for our money, but that we wouldn't get nearly enough for our money for the project to be worthwhile.

Turning to the Hackerspace Global Grid, let us return to the modest idea:
You want to get a message out and receive updates. You want to inform and stay informed yourself. A first step will be providing bare-minimum communication infrastructure...Think twitter updates, not video streaming...
The FAQ (inadvertently, I suppose), answered my next question, which is: can't we already do this, at least sort of? Their suggestion:
There are also ideas of building upon already existing HAM radio packet data networks for this task.
Yes, precisely. Did you know that you can send Twitter updates via APRS? Right now? Now I know that this doesn't answer all the questions, but it's a start, and it doesn't require ground stations or satellites in space.

In summary: I share the goals of phase one of Hacker Space Program, but I think doing via space is perhaps unnecessarily expensive. Is there really no way to do it terrestrially, for significantly less cost, and presumably much better performance? We owe it to the community to investigate ways to allocate our resources in the most efficient way possible.

Phases two and three are further off, but I have less understanding of why they're really desirable. A single Apollo mission in today's dollars would cost $100 million. 23 years from now, all the much more. Even if hackers could do it for a fraction of the price, is that really worth the cost? So we can say "we did it"? Surely, even for hackers, that price tag is far too high.

Your comments and criticisms are certainly welcome.
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