Why is London at London? Why is Detroit at Detroit? Why is Kolkata at Kolkata? Maybe it’s because of all the great theatres, or maybe because that’s where all the apartments are, or maybe because of all the great taco joints?
Nah, we all know that the great cities of the world are where they are because of one thing: Location, location, location. Specifically, because of trade locations.
That’s why London was founded at the furthest inland point where ocean-going boats could come up the Thames. That’s why Detroit was founded on the Detroit river, one of the four straits linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s why Kolkata was founded in the Ganges delta, the mouth of all maritime exports to the Bay of Bengal from all of eastern India.
In fact, most metropolises, cities, towns, and villages are where they are because of trade. From the largest canyons of concrete to the tiniest of village markets, trade points are the seed that makes a town or a city. This continues today. With trans-oceanic communications cables that link the internet from continent to continent, those beaches that are the closest points from one land mass to another are prized real estate. Widemouth Bay in the UK really only saw any population move there when the first telegraph cables were laid.
Widemouth Bay is a good example to explore. With any trade hub, it’s not only that the location is close to other places, but also that it is a place that satisfies many things at once. For trans-oceanic telegraph and internet cables the shore must be fairly free of boats and their cable-tearing anchors. It must be mostly sandy and soft to keep the cables from wearing out during the tides. And it must be free of strong currents that could move cables around.
London is also a good example. It is where sea-ships could reach the interior. It is where the land is flat, not hilly. And it is the closest location to the ocean where the Romans could build a bridge with just mules and logs (high-tech at the time compared what Queen Boudicca could muster).
Each trade location, from Roman river traffic to the modern internet has a few, well, trade-offs. But this got me thinking. We know of the trade hubs of yesterday and today. But what are going to be the trade routes of tomorrow? I’m not talking about next year; I’m talking about in 80 years, in 800 years. When humans are on Mars and Europa. When we are in the Kuiper belt and throwing snowballs about on Pluto (I don’t want to hear it, Neil!)
So, where on this map are the trade points TO the solar system?
Just like all other trade hubs, the paths to space have necessary conditions:
- As far as we know right now, we need to use rockets to get to space. Space elevators are still pretty fictional, and Star-Trek like transporters are entirely fictional. So, rockets are what we can realistically imagine as the future. Still, I mean, rockets are pretty awesome, so I’m cool with just having rockets in the future.
But, have you ever wondered why Cape Canaveral and NASA are mostly in Florida? Or why the European Space Agency (ESA) launches from South America? It comes down to a few things:
- The earth spins. I know, I can’t believe it either. Day and night? What is that about? Well, one of the cool things about the earth spinning is that the equator moves faster than the poles. A lot faster, about 1000 miles per hour (460 m/s), in fact. So, the closer you get to the equator, the faster you are moving. This centrifugal force helps rockets lift off the ground. Essentially, the force of gravity is offset at the equator, so it’s easier to launch from there. (I’ll go over more of this in Note 1)
- It takes a lot of energy to move around once in space. Mr. Newton had a bunch of laws that no-one likes very much, but he was very insistent that we follow them. One was that forces must always equal. So, if you want to change the direction you are going about in space, you have to throw things out the back in the opposite direction from where you want to go. Mostly this is in the form of hot gas. And yes, it is, chemically, similar to what you are thinking of.
So, say you are orbiting, moving from west to east, from Hawaii to California, but you want to go south to north, over the poles, from the US to Canada. Well, you must stop all the momentum going from east to west, expelling hot gas out in front of you, and then you have to turn to point north and expel hot gas out behind you. All of that rocket that you used to get up into space was pretty much pointless. You should have just pointed north and launched that way in the first place! In this example, you used around three times the energy to make adjustments as what you used to get into space. Probably a bit less, with all the air-drag to get above the atmosphere.
Basically, all orbital adjustments are expensive and cost a lot of fuel, so if you can launch close to the orbit you want to end up in, you really should do that. And since most of the stuff in space wants to be orbiting about the equator anyway, launching from the equator is a really good idea. Aside: The equator is nice because of geo-synchronous orbit (literally ‘synced to the earth’), meaning that the speed of a rocket going around the Earth is the same as the speed the earth spins. This is nice because your rocket just ‘hovers’ above a point on the Earth and it’s real easy to talk to, to bounce TV lasers off of, and look at stuff from.
Ok, so we now know that rockets are most likely and that the equator is good for launches because of centripetal forces and because of the expense of orbital adjustments. But there is one more very import thing:
- The ‘oh, crap’ moments. In rocketry, things go badly very quickly. I mean, it is a giant tube that is exploding constantly, but just not enough to be a regular old boom. Unfortunately, many ‘oh crap’ moments have happened (per aspera, ad astra) and we humans have learned that it’s really nice to have a soft thing to land on. Typically, by soft thing, we mean an ocean. If you look at most of the launch sites, they have an ocean next to them. Specifically, because the Earth rotates from east to west and because of those centrifugal forces mentioned earlier, the ocean is to the EAST of the launch site. So, when a rocket does have a gigantic ‘Oopsie!’, the escape pods and exploded bits will land in the ocean and not on an elementary school or in a dry summer forest.
That means, there are two things that you must look for in locations on the earth to launch space rockets from. Just like oceanic internet cables had a few conditions, we have now figured out the ones for space travel: Land near the equator AND land with a lot of ocean to the east. Let’s take a look on the map for locations that may fit these two simple requirements:
Oh my, when you look at the map, there really are not many places that fit the bill! In fact, there are only eight locations on the whole of the Earth! (magenta stars) Here’s the list of those places:
Kismayo (Somalia), Macapa (Brazil), Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), Christmas Island (Kiritimati), Nauru (Nauru), Sorong (Indonesia), Ternate (Indonesia), Gorontalo (Indonesia), Bontang Lng (Indonesia), Singapore (Singapore).
Okay, okay, yes, Kennedy Space Center is not on this map, I know. And yes, I know that you can be just a ‘bit’ off of the equator and still be saving a lot of fuel too (See Note 1). Still, I want to illustrate the MOST optimal locations are actually fairly sparse.
The ‘solutions’ to the space ‘problem’ are just like the solutions that the Romans faced in Britannia thousands of years ago. Yes, there were less optimal places to put London that would have worked alright, but London was the MOST optimal; so they put London at London. In our future, I think that we’ll have to put spaceports in the places I listed, for the exact same reason.