Friday, February 27, 2009

Some Other Space Items

Hat tip to Martin for finding this Washington Post survey on the usefulness of spending on NASA:


I got into an interesting discussion with Tom Olson, an expert on space entrepreneurship and one of the contributors to Space Cynics. First, you can read his original post:

Not able to leave this alone, I felt that I must respond:

You’ve got excellent reasons for being a “lost cause” on all of the topics you mentioned. However, since you’re not a Kool-Aid drinker for SBSP, low-cost launch, He-3, etc., what does interest you in space still? What do you think will work, given all the aborted or downright silly ideas?
I’ve seen a few posts like this, here and on N’Watch, bashing this or that dumb idea, but often find few positive recommendations. Are those found on a different blog?

To which Mr. Olson responded:

I’m interested in all of space, Bart. Have been since I was a kid. I want to see people live and thrive everywhere from the moon and Mars to the asteroids and beyond. I want to see tourism and orbiting hotels. I want to see the private commercial space sector one day dwarf the government sector, as is the case with all other areas of our economy. (Well, up until recently. --BL)
My problem is the nutty ways that people propose to achieve that goal - ways that are impractical, full of “unobtainium”, have 8 or 9-figure upfront costs, or ways that hide their true costs (this is also known as being untruthful).
So the real question becomes, “How do we get from here to there?” I have a few ideas - I’ve even shared them for those who’ve cared to listen (that would include ISDC last year, Bart, and I didn’t see you in the audience - pity, that…). (He's right. My bad. I was elsewhere when his talk was going on because I got rerouted to another room.)
I think in the short run, strategic investments in “enabling” technologies will get us much farther in the long run than trying to throw down everything into grabbing the entire brass ring in one swoop. For example, I believe that lower-cost launch is possible - but not using the materials we presently use to make rockets - but getting that material requires new methods, hence my focus on certain nanotech startups. But that means to get there we may have to wait awhile, and that is unacceptable to those with limited patience who think they can get it all now, if only they can convince someone with a really deep pocket to fund them.
To be fair, I’m very supportive of SpaceX, because they’re doing it all with private money, and had to raise all their own capital before getting a single NASA check. But Elon himself admitted that the only “efficiencies” would be “at the margins”. In other words, no huge reduction in launch cost was coming anytime soon. That’s the world that exists today. But if you could “grow” the bulk of your rocket components in a vat from nano-assembled diamond, the rocket equation changes because the empty lift mass is a lot lower, but still as strong. That means more payload.
I’m looking at “smart materials” that may one day find themselves in better spacesuits. I’m looking at something called an “axial-flux” electric motor that claims 80% efficiency, available for transportation, regenerative braking, and wind generation, something I also see on a Mars rover.
There’s a ton of ideas being developed, and tons of potential money to be made, right now, on materials, products, and services that may seem unrelated at first, but will all one day become key components of a thriving space-commerce infrastructure.
But it’ll take patience, a long term plan, and a solid grounding in reality.

I like the cynics. They make me think. I reacted to one of their more provocative discussions soon after ISDC, which took on "The Church of the Trillion-Dollar Asteroid," "The Church of Cheap Access to Space," "The Church of Space Solar Power," and "The Church of Spaceports." The point of picking on all these groups was to bring a little financial realism to the wild dreams of space advocates. Of course the problem with all this thinking is that I've found myself wondering, as a non-engineer, non-scientist English major, who is right? What path will really get us to space?

Anyone who wants to become a space advocate, as I obviously do, must set themselves on a quest for lifelong learning. And I've got to state here that I don't want to do all the math. I'm an advocacy writer, I'm not paid to do rocket science; but I want to have a layman's understanding of the various technologies. I want to know that I'm supporting the right things for the right reasons. Never mind. I've got more reading to do.

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