Pilots, part 6

posted 28 August 2009

So, how were we making all this money? Well, initially it was transport, like the name implied.

Switching completely revolutionized the travel industry. You're young, so you won't remember how much changed. The primary change, the root of everything, was that the connection between distance and time, and hence with expense, was cut. It's only very, very slightly more expensive to switch from California to Tokyo than it is to switch to Los Angeles. That was a gigantic change.

Nice places that were previously far away were the big winners initially. Australia and New Zealand had massive tourism booms and then, as the price dropped, immigration booms. Pretty much all of micronesia took off - the more isolated and undeveloped it used to be, the better off it became. The losers were places that were never particularly nice, but merely nearby -- crowded, crappy resorts in Mexico, practically everything in Florida, portions of Spain and Greece -- they saw their business dry up. The far-away places that were popular to start with did very well -- Hawaii is as popular now as it ever was; the Galapagos set a hard cap on the total number of visitors per year, and then sold slots to the highest bidders. The price has never gone down.

The ocean resorts were a surprise. Instead of cruise ships, the old lines just built huge floating hotels on barges, and switched them from place to place. The route that goes via the North Pole is surprisingly popular -- easy though, as it's all water there anyway. Some environmentalists initially got worried that constantly switching volumes of warm water to the north pole would upset deep ocean currents, so our science guys had to gently explain to them the volume of a switch sphere relative to the North Atlantic Current.

That was a rare exception though. In general environmentalists were ecstatic about switching, right from the start. Shipping across the pacific and atlantic, both by air and sea, were suddenly carbon-neutral events, and a hell of a lot cheaper. The end of air travel meant millions more tons of carbon never pumped into the atmosphere. Sure, we're still dealing with climate change today, but there's nobody who can say we weren't a force for good in that area. Of course, nowadays we're a lot more directly involved in climate maintenance.

On top of the legal transport boom came the "illegal" one. It started first with immigration in the USA: central America produced as many pilots as everywhere else in the world, and it didn't take long for somebody to spot the gap in the market. No more sneaking across the Rio Grande, no more cramming people into trucks. You just boarded a barge near your home town, and ten minutes later you were getting off of it at a secluded pier somewhere in upstate New York state.

At first the companies involved tried the old tricks of human smuggling, especially the guys operating out of China: charging extortionate fees, trapping people in warehouses until they paid off their debts, all those old horrors -- but competition soon wore that down. It was just too easy. And if the USA cracked down on non-citizen workers, just get on a different barge a week later and end up in Shenzhen, or Moscow, or a field in some nameless town in Nigeria, anywhere that needed labour that week. It was a revolution in labour, and it completely shook up the economics of a lot of industries. Build your factory in central New York, and bring in a thousand workers from China in a single group switch every morning.

Of course, that kind of thing caused a huge upheaval in labour laws, taxation, everything -- there was simply no way to stop people from other countries visiting or even working in your own; the whole concept of "borders" and defending them was completely meaningless; there was no way to police every open body of water, and that was all a pilot needed. The US was one of the last countries to abandon their border controls, because it took them so long to adapt everything to the new model. But now if you want a government service, you provide your "tax" card and pay for things as you go. Everybody gets one, whether you're here for ten minutes or ten years, and if you don't have one, you just get nothing.

People say the new taxpayer cards -- nearly every country has them -- penalize the illiterate, the itinerant, the people who fall through the cracks in the system. And they're right. But we were failing all of those people with the old system, too. And the benefits of a borderless world outweigh the drawbacks, I think.

I could go on forever, about the things we had to change as boundaries broke down. Law enforcement changed totally, once it became possible to commit a crime and be literally halfway around the world ten minutes later. It's hard to believe, but InterPol used to have just five hundred employees. It was an obscure little agency, a legacy from the 1920s, not the household name it is today. Energy generation, obviously, once we really got going... but that's jumping ahead again.

Oh, here's an interesting problem that came up when we started doing "long-haul" switches: orientation. Switch from one side of the globe to the other and you end up upside down, if you're don't know what you're doing. Good pilots can, with a lot of training, choose their orientation to some degree, but to be safe, most don't rely on it. That's why passenger travel goes around the globe in thirty-degree hops -- most people don't know that's why we do it that way. If you end up with the boat at thirty degrees to the horizontal, it just rights itself in the water. It means a slightly longer trip -- you sit on the boat for forty minutes instead of ten -- but we don't get a lot of complaints.

A related question that came up at the same time was velocity: why aren't we squished every time we switch? If you try and picture it, somebody on the opposite side of the globe is not only upside-down relative to you, they're also travelling at about a thousand miles an hour in one direction, and you're travelling at the same speed but in the opposite direction. If you just appeared on the opposite side of the globe instantly, you'd crash into the nearest wall at two thousand miles an hour.

The answer is that switching transfers mass, but not momentum. You swap that with your destination load. This isn't noticeable most of the time, because we're careful to switch roughly similar loads. But sometimes, especially in cargo shipping, if the returning container is mostly empty and the outgoing container is completely full, you get a sudden tug that pulls the barge sideways. Or if things go really badly... splat. But that hardly ever happens. That's why there are weighing stations at all switch ports, and another reason to stick to thirty-degree hops.

One of the things that we hadn't really anticipated when we first started building out Switch Transport was that switch ports would be just that: ports. Because we switch on water the whole time, all the old infrastructure of ports was exactly what we needed -- in fact, we needed more, as the passenger volume from the old airports had to be absorbed. So all the old shipping towns are just as important as they ever were, if not more so. And even deep inland, every big city these days has a switch lake or five -- even Vegas.

And there was another side-effect we hadn't thought of. Most inland cities use their municipal water supply as their switch lake, which means incoming barges from ocean ports have to be shifted from a brine lake to a freshwater one. A lot of people blamed the worldwide cholera outbreaks of '25 on switching, and they were probably right. But that was how we discovered the much bigger effect: invasive species. Almost every switch lake in the world has ended up with the same mix of incredibly tough plants, fish and algae -- a Darwinian playground. Keeping those species from running amok in other ecosystems is a full-time job.

Understand, these changes didn't happen overnight. It took more than a decade just to build the new transportation infrastructure, and there were a hell of a lot of bumps, mis-steps, and gruesome accidents on the way, both by ST and the niche companies. But just because we weren't done implementing the last idea didn't mean we could stop implementing the next idea that came along -- because if we didn't, some other company would, and eat us for breakfast. So that's when we made the jump into space.

Like I said a while back, in our really early experiments we'd tried to switch from a plane or a helicopter as a way of avoiding the cloud of rock dust we kicked up when we did ground switching. It didn't work, because I was new to switching. Later, as we all got more experienced, it became possible, but still not a very practical solution. Why go to the trouble, risk and expense of launching passengers and cargo into the air when you can just roll them onto a barge and push the barge into the middle of a lake? You don't even need a motor, far less a jet engine. There was no need to be airborne, so we ignored the whole possibility.

Only about a year after our big press conference, people started talking about getting into space. SwitchWatchers had started talking about it even earlier, of course, but with little in the way of practical plans. But in late 2021, a little startup called SwitchSpace -- not a very imaginative name -- announced they were going to do switches into orbit. A bunch of investors piled in -- everybody wanted to be in on the next big thing -- and they started researching the problem in earnest.

At the time the Russians were doing "space tourism" in an effort to keep their program afloat. Rather than attempt to get into space on their own, SwitchSpace just paid Space Adventures the going rate -- twenty million bucks -- to put their pilot into orbit on one of those ancient soyuz rockets, and an extra fifteen million bucks to put him in a space suit and let him out for an hour*.

The pilot they sent up was Johannes, a German kid, only nineteen at the time. He was a genuine talent -- great control, huge volume -- but he was young, with no sense of personal safety. He worked for Switch Transport for a while afterwards, until... okay. Anyway, he was a reckless son of a bitch, and cocky. That first trip, he was just supposed to be getting acclimatized to space and getting a firm sense of "here". Then they were going to attempt to build an orbit-ready craft and switch up from the ground. They were being careful: they had enough money for five or six space walks, but only three pilots willing to try it.

Instead what happened was they let him out of the craft, he looked down at the big blue globe, and was filled with awe and wonder. He blissed out, purer and cleaner than he'd ever done before. California rolled under him, and he couldn't resist -- he switched home, and nearly killed the Russians with a chunk of instant-frozen seawater travelling at a relative speed of several thousand miles an hour. It missed their capsule by inches, literally -- they lost surface instruments.

There was a huge stink about that, later. The Russians accused SwitchSpace -- who were mostly an American company, apart from Johannes himself -- of deliberate hostility, attempting to sabotage their space program, even of a plan to weaponize space. Things got really cold-war for a few months.

But that was practically background noise to the uproar caused by the revelation that Johannes had switched two hundred kilometres straight down, and landed safely. Well, relatively safely, anyway. Because of the mass differential between him and the disc of seawater he scooped out of the bay, he was travelling at well over a hundred miles an hour when he turned up at Oakland port.

It was luck, sheer dumb luck that his direction of travel was out into the bay rather than slamming straight into the dock. The video of that landing -- they always have cameras at switch ports -- is amazing. He skips over the water like a stone for about half a mile. Of course, even in that ancient space suit he had on, an Orlan, he suffered serious compression injuries from suddenly finding himself at a full atmosphere of pressure; he shattered his eardrum and burst a bunch of blood vessels. Plus the force of impact broke an arm and both legs. He was a mess when they picked him up -- he sank like a stone, but of course it was a space suit, so it's not like he was going to drown.

But he healed up all right, and really, that was all SwitchSpace needed. VC bought them out the day after the landing, as soon as it was clear that Johannes' injuries weren't fatal. The investors made something like double their money, plus some of it was in Switch Transport stock -- way more valuable in the long run. Not a bad return, right? But all we wanted was Johannes.

Because the proximity restriction, the "you need to have been there" problem with switching, it has a loophole: switch chaining. If you switch to a location, you need to have been there before -- it works even if you got there as a passenger of another pilot. So once one pilot has been somewhere, they can switch other pilots to that spot with them, and then those pilots can get there too.

So once Johannes had made it into space and back successfully, orbit was potentially open to every pilot. There was no need for any more expensive rockets, no risky re-entry vehicles. The Russians killed their whole space program -- well, their launcher program -- for that final thirty-five million bucks. Maybe a bit more if you count the guys they sent up from the copycat companies.

Of course, it wasn't simple. We had a huge number of problems to solve. Firstly, you can really switch straight up from the surface to orbit -- you're switching down a sphere of vacuum, for one thing, which causes an almighty thunderclap down here, and up in space you're coated in a huge disc of water which turns to ice instantly. Not a great idea.

The solution was the orbital hops that we're familiar with today. They would have seemed impossible in the early days, but by then our pilots had a couple years of experience under their belts, they were getting used to doing chains of switches to get across the globe; those thirty-degree hops. They got better and better at staying in the zone after a switch, meaning they could switch again almost immediately -- and that was key.

In an orbital hop, your first switch takes you out of the pool and into the air, about two miles up; high enough to deploy parachutes if things go wrong. You fall for a minute or two -- you become weightless inside the cabin -- while your pilot gets zoned again. The water you switch up with you falls to earth as an extremely localized shower. Your next switch takes you high into the upper atmosphere, then another switch or two and you're in space. Total travel time, maybe ten minutes. Net energy expended zero -- just switched from one place to the other.

Because you're swapping mass with air, the mass differential is huge, so while you don't notice it, the air you swap with comes out travelling at hundreds of miles an hour. Those are what cause the "sonic booms" people associate with orbital switches, although we're never travelling that fast, at least not relative to the surrounding atmosphere.

The next problem was the switch capsule itself. There were all sorts of conflicting requirements: practicality, safety, commercial concerns. We had to make a capsule that would float upright in water, but also be able to maneuver freely in space. It needed to be able to withstand instant changes in pressure, from a full atmosphere to a third of one and back. And to maximize the volume of stuff we could transfer in a given switch sphere size, it needed to be as close to spherical as practical. For safety, it needed parachutes in case the pilot lost their cool on the way up or down, and vacuum-capable escape pods in case something went wrong once they were up there.

One feature we had in the original capsules was in case the pilot lost their zone halfway through a switch itself -- the switch-or-pushback option I was talking about earlier. The capsules were a series of concentric spheres, with an airtight pod right at the core for the pilot. The idea was that if the pilot accidentally switched a sphere half or a third of the size of the full capsule, they would be killed instantly, and could maybe get their cool back in time to switch the remaining inner spheres to safety.

We dropped it because, in practice, that never happened. It was like the life vests on airplanes: failure never happened that way. It was either safe, or universally fatal. A pilot sufficiently rattled to lose their zone halfway through a switch doesn't get it back five minutes later; they'd be lucky to get it back five weeks later. And switching half a capsule inevitably leaves a bunch of vaporized volatiles, exposed electrics, oxygen tanks cut in half by the interface... long story short, a half switched capsule explodes, messily. It's only happened a handful of times in the entire history of switching, but everyone remembers those times. There are no bodies to bury.

There are some people who say the reason we dropped the multiple-shell design was because a single shell left a lot more room for cargo, and made us for money. I hate that rumour. Let's get it straight: that would be a stupid move for us. Our reputation for safety is critical to us; our pilots are incredibly valuable people to us, both emotionally and commercially speaking. We're not going to be risking people's lives just for an extra ten percent margin, or whatever. Fuck whoever says that. Sorry.

It took us two years of furious R&D, racing against the copycat startups, to get a reliable, practical design for the orbital capsules. Johannes was our main test pilot for that entire period. He had more than a couple of close calls, usually his own fault. What we ended up with is the familiar shape you see today: what everyone calls "flying saucers". A spherical core, with a flattened ring surrounding it. Some people say there's a hundred designs that would meet our requirements, that we chose the saucers for the sci-fi appeal. And those people... well, they might have something there.

But it's a natural shape for our purposes. A perfect sphere rolls over in water too easily; the ring is very stable in water, and stays level when falling in atmosphere, resistant to cross-winds. It's also extremely strong, and easily segmented to allow for much more practical defence against depressurization. Once you get into space, having a vehicle with no "front" is helpful, especially since the actual direction you end up facing tends to be a little unpredictable. There are reactor jets spaced equally everywhere around the hull, so it's easy to maneuver.

Of course, some people on the other side of crazy think the saucer design came straight from aliens. They use it as proof of their even crazier belief, that those same aliens were the ones who snuck down and secretly modified our brains -- my brain -- to create the ability to switch. What can I say? We have a permanent settlement on Mars and a hab in orbit around Jupiter. We are truly a space-faring race, especially since yesterday. And yet still people think we're surrounded by little grey men with big eyes who refuse to show themselves.


* This is an actual extra service offered by Space Adventures, the leading provider of space tourism.

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