Monday, June 16, 2008

Who, Me, A Space Cynic?

The following posting on the Space Cynics website is worth reading, as is the accompanying discussion:

It also contains the following one-hour-seventeen-minute discussion among three of the "Cynics" and one honorary Cynic: David Livingston, Shubber Ali, Thomas Olson, and Reda Anderson (Technical note: allow a couple minutes for this to download). I'm on an acquaintance basis with all of the folks David Livingston included in the discussion except Mr. Ali. The Cynics describe themselves briefly here. It's not that they're cynical about the entire space enterprise or the value of it, but simply that they have a bit of a cynical bent when it comes to analyzing the claims and dreams of the space advocacy community. As they put it, they're not anti-space, they're anti-Kool-Aid, meaning they're not willing to swallow anything space advocates--professional, amateur, or otherwise--put before them. Such an attitude is healthy and certainly long overdue.

My own path as a space advocate has ranged from uninvolved (pre-1996) to True Believer (1997-present) to NASA basher and Raving Libertarian Lunatic (1999-2005) to NASA contractor (2006-present). I have drunk, swallowed, spit up, reported on, or purveyed various flavors of Kool-Aid at one time or another, including the items discussed below. An utter cynic would have gotten out of the business long ago, not gotten himself deeper into it. Still, one must ask: what function does a cynic serve in a community that is just as fractious, divided, partisan, and occasionally just as (or more) irritating as the rest of the nation's politics? If the cynics are smart, they'll at least make you think. These folks do exactly that.

David Livingston runs The Space Show, an Internet radio show that is hosted out of Seattle. He has interviewed and written about many or most of the bright lights in the space industry, giving him perhaps the broadest experience with its players, second only to Leonard David. Shubber Ali and Thomas Olson are both entrepreneurs and finance guys with broad experience with the space industry and the technology industry in general. Reda Anderson had the distinction of being Rocketplane Kistler's first paying passenger before their fortunes turned to the worse.

The anti-Kool-Aid crusaders on Space Cynics are trying to instill a little more realism into the activities or proposals groups like the National Space Society and others have offered to the public. To begin, the four-way conversation posted above takes on three "churches" attending the ISDC:

  • The Church of the Trillion-Dollar Asteroid
  • The Church of Cheap Access to Space
  • The Church of Space Solar Power

A little later in their talk, they also discussed:

  • The Church of Spaceports

The Church of the Trillion-Dollar Asteroid

I've probably been a member of this church at some point, as I was greatly impressed by its accidental founder, John S. Lewis, author of Mining the Sky. This particular "church" argues, in line with Lewis's book, that if a well-stocked Amun-class asteroid were mined for its component materials and sold at their current market value, the total value of one asteroid would amount to $20 trillion. The problem, the Cynics rightly point out, is that if you make the vast riches of such asteroids available to the Earth's economy ("as common as water"), you'll also make these metals and minerals as cheap as water, in which case the $20 trillion becomes an economic fantasy.

As an alternative, the Cynics suggest that the resources of the asteroids would more likely be used by people already living in space for their own purposes rather than on Earth. Maybe, says I.

The Church of Cheap Access to Space

The missing point in most of the great ideas being proposed at ISDC, the Cynics argue, is that they're impractical without cheap (and reliable) transportation to space (CATS or CRATS, depending on who you read). Rather than arguing that CATS will only be developed once there are guaranteed markets for the hardware, they state that the markets will follow from the lower-cost, reliable transportation. There is some logic to this. Cheap and reliable air transportation resulted in a boom in tourism in this country by people who went to new places just because they could. And following upon those impulse travelers were other, related services and cargoes.

The Cynics seem to believe that it's more realistic now to focus on enabling technologies, like nanotechnology, biotechnology, communications technologies, and computer storage systems. Nanotech, for example, will eventually make diamond-strength lightweight materials possible, which would make Big Dumb Boosters able to carry more payload and fuel. As Moore's Law continues making computers faster, smarter, and smaller, they will also make booster guidance systems and satellite payloads lighter.

CATS also makes it possible for less durable satellites to be built, as they will no longer need to be designed to survive severe liftoff environments in addition to space itself. But, again, we haven't built the nanotech "unobtainium" yet, so all of this becomes moot until someone does.

One interesting comment Shubber Ali made was that the Vision for Space Exploration (called "VSE" throughout the discussion) and the manned space program would be dead within about three years of the 2008 presidential election. He looks upon that as a positive development, but didn't elaborate enough to give me a clear picture of what he meant. Presumably he means that if the government gets out of the "space program" business, the private sector will be forced back on its own resources.

The Church of Spaceports (and Space Tourism)

I happen to agree with Ali's assessment of Anousheh Ansari: he's happy for her, envious, and glad she got the opportunity to go into space as a tourist aboard the International Space Station--but that her flight didn't change a damned thing about the prospects for space tourism. In fact, since Dennis Tito's flight in 2001, the Russians have jacked up the price of a ticket aboard Soyuz from $20 million to $25 million because they realize that they've got something of marketable value and because, quite frankly, they're the only game in town (reason enough, in my opinion, to break up the monopoly power of governments).

The Cynics also took on the recent fetish for building "spaceports." If the vehicles launching from spaceports are actually going orbital, they have to worry about things crashing into states to the East of the spaceport. If the vehicle is flying up to space and returning to its launch site (like the presumed flight path of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo), there's no real need for a spaceport, since the vehicle is taking off and landing from a standard airport runway.

The counter-argument to this, of course, is that Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to do more than just send up the rocket planes. They're looking to provide a complete vacation experience, much like Sea World's Discovery Cove is about more than just jumping into the pool and swimming with the dolphins. Presumably Virgin will have additional hotels and other space-themed facilities attached to their departure area. Still, couldn't such things be built at existing airports? Maybe. But right now, Virgin has committed to the vast stretch of nothing near Truth or Consequences, NM, while Dubai and Singapore are building spaceports of their own.

The question remains: if you build it (space tourism), will they come? The Cynics pinged market analysts for giving space tourism entrepreneurs the answers they want to hear instead of hard marketing facts. For instance, one of the Cynics (Tom Olson, I believe) talked the State of Idaho out of building a spaceport, saying there wasn't much utility for it, calling attention to the downrange issues mentioned earlier.

The Church of Space Solar Power

I know I've attended this "church" for awhile, though some of my engineering buddies have stopped me from drinking the Kool-Aid completely. Space solar power (SSP) is a great idea; like nuclear fusion, it has always been 20 to 30 years in the future. The Cynics point out that the nation's and the U.S. government's attention span is more like two to four years; in other words, one election cycle at most. Expecting long-term funding of SSP, even if done under Department of Defense auspices, is optimistic, in their view.

The Cynics also offered up an argument I hadn't heard before: that we might develop the technologies to fix our energy and "carbon footprint" problems here on Earth before we ever get to SSP. In short, by the time we're able to build SSP, technologies on Earth might have made the concept obsolete. Shubber also suggested that the decentralized ethos of the Internet might make monolithic, centralized, large-organization-controlled power systems unpopular. His vision of the electrical grid of the future would be houses and office buildings painted with solar cells contributing or drawing off the grid as needed. Well, sure, but what does such a system do in the event of cloudy days and, you know, night? Other power sources would still be needed, and SSP systems are exposed to sunlight more reliably and for longer percentages of time than ground-based solar. (That's a sip of Kool-Aid you're reading there, not a full-blown gulp.)

Why the "Churches" of the Space Advocacy Movement Lose Momentum

The group then shifted to a more general discussion, discussing why some space advocacy groups fail or individuals lose interest and enthusiasm. One primary reason: lack of results. I'd have to say that part of my cynicism about SSP and other space issues I've read and wrote about has been fed by the lack of new things being done and said. Where are the technology development experiments? Where are the hardware demonstrations? Where is the public outcry for SSP? CATS? Human Mars exploration? Explanation: it's not there because the public hasn't seen any results. Enthusiasm, even among True Believers like me, will only last so long if no one is delivering something.

Shubber also fired a broadside at the Mars Society, saying point-blank that it wasn't just a matter of lack of results weakening the organization. He also stated that the organization had become "The Cult of Bob," centered upon its primary founder, Robert Zubrin, with dissenting opinions being thrown out. Nothing like airing a little dirty laundry to get the fans stirred up.

What Does the Future (3-5 Years From Now) Hold?

Shubber's predictions included:

  • The Space Shuttle will stand down in 2010.
  • The International Space Station will be finished, then mothballed by the U.S. or possibly taken over by the Russians, as revenge for deorbiting Mir.
  • The VSE will be cancelled, resulting in an end to the U.S. government's manned space program until a better way into space is found.
  • Support for SSP will fall apart because it is as expensive as the Manhattan Project and will take five times as long to build.
  • Virgin Galactic will be the only company flying reusable launch vehicles.

David Livingston's predictions:

  • Much like Shubber, he doesn't believe that any suborbital tourism companies will emerge besides Virgin Galactic.
  • The VSE will be killed or deferred and kept alive as a "jobs program" to keep the government from letting go 30,000 employees in the midst of a soft economy.
  • Earth imaging will continue to advance in support of global warming research.

Thomas Olson's predictions/comments:

  • The U.S. recession will be worse than expected.
  • The U.S. government will have to cut its budget significantly ("What a concept!"), given the large unfunded commitments it has now (the war in Iraq) and the commitments it has yet to pay for (Social Security and medical care for the Baby Boom generation). "Frankly, we just don't have the money [for space]."
  • The country is in debt and the dollar is crumbling, as is our national infrastructure. Retrenchment will have to occur somewhere; most likely that will be in space.

Reda Anderson did not have any predictions, though she did have a funny comment after David, Shubber, and Tom made her an honorary "Space Cynic": "We probably all need counseling." And she's most likely right. After all, as I noted earlier, if these folks (and I) really thought there was nothing to this space business, we all would have given up and dropped out of it years ago.


So: all in all, not the biggest dose of optimism I've heard/read in awhile, but I couldn't find much fault with the Cynics' essential premises. However, I must call into question Shubber's assessments that a) the VSE will be killed completely and that b) that would be a good thing. As David noted, the government is not going to cut loose a bunch of civil servants and contractors in the middle of an economic downturn, before or after the election. Could other things happen, besides "deferral?" Possibly. I'm not placing any firm bets. As I noted in an earlier posting, about the only difference I see between the presidential candidates--now down to McCain and Obama--is the size of the cut Constellation might get. But that's a far cry from being killed. And quite frankly, I don't see the advantage of killing the national manned space program completely. The U.S. would keep the program alive, if only to keep half a step ahead of the Chinese. One could make the argument that killing the program would provide an excellent chance for rebuilding, but when? By whom? And once the Boomer space fans and some hangers-on from Gen X start to retire and drain Social Security, who's going to have the money, time, or inclination to fight for space?

Before I go too far down the road toward hopelessness, I would like to point out that these grim assessments are precisely the reason why NASA and the space advocacy community need to present realistic benefits of space activities to the general public. If we can't provide decent answers to "Why should we go into space?" and "What's in it for me (John/Jane Q. Taxpayer)?" then our cause is lost for at least a generation.

It frosts me that the historian Daniel Boorstin might end up being right, and that the Saturn V and Apollo Moon landing sites will turn out to be not much more than the Pyramids of our age--and that future generations will wonder how and why we did such things. The question is, how do you counteract cynicism and despair? Like Keith Cowing at, the Cynics are excellent at pointing out the foibles of the space business; they are somewhat less forthcoming about offering constructive solutions. And for the True Believers--still yearning for a reason to believe in this space stuff--such solutions are reason enough to keep doing what we do.

1 comment:

Monte Davis said...

Nicely done. You might enjoy: