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It’s springtime at the asylum… June 24, 2007

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“I believe it’s roughly a 50/50 chance that young children now alive will walk on martian meadows…will swim in martian lakes,” Wood said. It is not technology, nor money, he said, the pacing ingredient is marshaled will.

fry.jpg

Scientist Calls Mars a Terraforming Target for 21st Century

This little gem actually stumped me for awhile. The premise, that we could actually terraform Mars in less than 50 years, is so laughable that I didn’t know where to begin. But I knew that I had to – because it is precisely the serving of this sort of Kool-Aid that we Cynics are railing against on a regular basis. Who holds these sorts of modern day shysters accountable for spewing forth such fables in the guise of seriousness? What of the lives they ruin by convincing some young naive person to pursue a life of Mars terraforming, only to find out 30 years later after a wasted career in a dead-end area, that “oops”, it was all a pipe dream?

There are plenty of good areas to be working in to actually advance the cause of space development, and research, without spewing such drivel – eminent scientist in a totally unrelated field notwithstanding. The only way “young children now alive will walk on martian meadows…will swim in martian lakes” is if they accidentally get frozen, a la Fry, and wake up in the year 3000.

A Cold Look at CATS June 22, 2007

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Note: this is a guest blog post from a longtime friend of the Cynics, Monte Davis

Space advocates agree that cheap access to space — frequent, highly reliable transport to orbit at a small fraction of today’s cost per kg — is essential to any rapid or large-scale expansion of space activity. It was once hoped that the Shuttle system, approved in 1972 and first flying in 1981, would provide it. And for the last 20 years, discussions of CATS have dissected every aspect of the Shuttle’s failure to do so. Critics have sought the crucial mistake in every aspect of its design, technology and operations, as well as the politics that helped shape them.

One conclusion is widely shared: that Apollo had proved we could do anything we set our mind to. So if the crucial mistake –whatever it was — had been avoided, we could have had CATS long before this. Sadly, this conclusion hides (and helps perpetuate) a deeper mistake: the failure to understand that CATS is many times harder than Apollo was.

Space fans love historical analogies. But Columbus and the Wright brothers and even Zheng He are getting tired. So let’s bring on another hero: Roald Amundsen of Norway, whose 1910-1912 expedition was the first to reach the South Pole.

vikinghat1.jpg

Let’s imagine that his expedition was a triumph for NASA (the Norwegian Advanced Sled Authority). Soon after, they and King Haakon VII determined to develop cheap access to the Pole….

“We showed Scott and his Brits a thing or two. Now… what we need in six or seven years is a robust system for weekly round trips to the Pole from Auckland or Capetown. It should be able to haul heavy freight for big facilities there. And accommodate scientific and commercial equipment. And do some hush-hush work for our ski forces. And be far safer than Amundsen’s dogsleds. And oh, yes — creating it should cost less than his expedition, and it should deliver material to the pole far more cheaply.”

NASA wanted 45% or more of Amundsen’s budget, but had to settle for 20% to start with. Combining icebreaker and sno-cat technology, they built four hybrid vehicles, along with an elaborate infrastructure. Not surprisingly, in the end they needed nine years and twice the initial appropriation. And a huge staff was required to keep the bleeding-edge system running. And it could make only a few trips a year. And — surprise! — it cost so much that savings were negligible, and Norway’s corporations showed little interest in cargo service. But so much money and political commitment and national prestige had gone into it. Few were inclined to admit its shortcomings and start again with something more realistic. Even if they were, the operating costs were too high to permit it.

So Prime Minister Ranald Raegen declared the system operational, and called for planning of the polar station. Over the years, projected costs increased and the plans were cut back — partly because of tragic mishaps, but mostly because the transport system and its delays cost so much. Indeed, the station would have been canceled if the Swedes and Danes hadn’t been roped in. Construction kept running behind schedule and above budget, until it appeared that the station would never be completed or fully staffed.

By 1947, 35 years after Amundsen’s triumph, NASA was preparing to retire its aging, much-criticized hybrid vehicles and beginning work on its Vision for Sled Enhancement. But frustration and impatience were widespread. Many who wanted to go to Antarctica were offering competing visions. They knew what had gone wrong. In fact, they had a variety of explanations:

“It was the damn politicians in the Stortinget back in 1915! They lost sight of the Vision, and didn’t spend enough to build the hovercraft that would have made a successful system.”

“No, NASA should have stayed with what worked for Amundsen — built more, bigger dogsleds, and raised huskies by the thousands.”

“No, it’s the bloated NASA bureaucracy and their corporate cronies! They can’t innovate like our little team in the warehouse at the Trondheim docks! With a few more rounds of financing, we’ll show them how it should be done!”

“Who cares? All we’ve done for 35 years is spin on our axis on top of the ice! We need a goal, a still more ambitious Vision to motivate the nation! Start work *now* on the Polar Deep Drilling Project and the Polar Power Tower!”

Many in the Alt. Antarctica movement expected great things from private enterprise. They pointed to the winners of the Ansarsdottr Prize for a quick, low-cost dash to the Ross Ice Shelf. They anticipated Bransson Tours’ day trips on the Weddell Sea. They were sure that PoleX would reach its destination the next time around, or the time after that… and Antarctic travel and commerce would burgeon.

There was one radically different point of view, favored by only a handful of cynics. They agreed that with enough investment, 1915 technology could have done it. But they believed that “enough investment” would have been many times what Amundsen had spent for his lunge to the Pole. The task would inevitably have taken far longer than nine years, with many technology trials and experimental prototypes, before it could hope to get close to meeting all the original goals.

These cold-eyed people believed that the national exhilaration of 1912 had led to a profound over-estimation of the real demand — political and commercial — for access to Antarctica. And that over-estimation had blinded almost everyone — not only NASA, but the government and the people — to the real magnitude of the difference between an expedition for glory and a practical, cost-effective transportation system. The result was crippled not by any one mistake, but by the hubris at its heart: the insistence on doing quickly, in a single program, what could only be done as an incremental, evolutionary effort, learning along the way.

Even now, the Alt.Antarctic pioneers were going to need a lot more time and a lot more money than most were willing to acknowledge. Yes, private funding would make them nimbler and more efficient — but that much more? To believe that the hovercraft, frequent trips and polar hotels would now come quickly, with costs plummeting, required a truly magical faith. The Alt.Antarcticans’ focus on private enterprise as against public bureaucracy seemed like a red herring (very popular in Norway). Someday there would be a bustling, even profitable and self-sustaining Antarctic travel business… but getting there was still going to be a long haul.

In short, the doubters murmured, the new visions — those of the critics as much as that of NASA — had all too much in common with the ambitious delusions of 1912.

This was so uninspiring and chilly a perspective that most people just ignored it and talked about their visions a little louder.

Hello Space Fans! June 20, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.
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The Space Cynics have moved!

Thanks to the help of an anonymous space tragic, we are in the process of finishing our migration from the Galactic Empire of Google to WordPress.

We hope you like our new home.

Using the Fed to Lower Launch Costs…? June 19, 2007

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One of the oft-heard metrics amongst the space-development crowd is that if we could only lower the cost of launch to under $1000 per lb to orbit, as opposed to the $10,000 per pound that the hideously expensive shuttle charges, new markets would be enabled. There may be a bigger problem to consider….

Consider these bits of monetary trivia:

• The US Dollar has lost considerable amounts of inherent value through devaluation (some might argue outright debasement) of the currency as larger amounts of liquidity are pumped into the marketplace.

• The US government, through the Fed (which is actually a private bank, but that’s another matter best left for other blogs and other websites to discuss), has borrowed extremely large amounts of money to finance expenditures on everything from Defense to Welfare, in order to support the shortfall in revenues that exists between the taxes collected and the $ spent on programs.

• The Euro, and most other major world currencies, have surged against the US Dollar over the past 7 years. Here in Australia, when I arrived in 2002, the exchange rate was US$0.62 to the Aussie Dollar – now it’s US$0.83 and climbing…

• The Dow is *not* at an all-time high. Inflation adjusted, the Dow actually has to hit over 16,000 just to reach it’s highs from the past 15 years. Think about that.

• Last year, Linda Goldberg, a vice president and head of the International Research area at the New York Fed, spoke about how in today’s global economic environment, dollar depreciations have asymmetric impacts on exports relative to imports. She argued that the wide use of the dollar as the invoicing currency in international trade transactions affects how exchange rate movements influence traded goods prices in different countries and trade balance adjustments. In her analysis, substantial dollar depreciation did not provide much relief for U.S. producers competing with importers; however, markets for U.S. exports could really grow.

• Dollar depreciation reduces activities in upstream through different channels including increased cost, higher inflation rates, lower purchasing power, and lower return on investment.

So what does all this mean?

A couple of things come to mind (but these are not the only likely outcomes – i would be interested in your thoughts on other implications of these macroeconomic forces…)

1) Unless the US manufacturers are raising prices, the true international cost of a US made rocket or satellite should be getting significantly more competitive against their competitors (e.g., Delta II relative price should have dropped by 20-30% against the European equivalent)*

2) The cost of international launches should be getting more expensive in US dollar terms for purchasers of launch services*

3) The “true” cost of a Shuttle launch, in international terms, appears to have dropped by almost 35% since 2000, but then we all know how squirrelly NASA accounting can be…

Finally, as the US financial base gets more strained from increased liabilities (social security, medicare, ongoing wars, etc) and difficulty in obtaining future deficit financing (because of the dangers of raising interest rates – required to make the US debt offerings attractive to foreign buyers, but avoided by the Fed because of the impact it would have on the US domestic economy by punishing all of those mortgage holders who have Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs)…), the ability to fund discretionary expenditures such as a trip to the Moon or Mars will become a harder and harder sell in an era of forced austerity.

* note – this all assumes, of course, no currency hedging has been done by the companies in these industries.

Ooooh…. Aaaahh… zzzz…. June 11, 2007

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NASA needs a new spokesperson.

Here’s a hint – if you have to resort to the following as a way to make the manned space program seem interesting:

“Two vehicles weighing 230,000 pounds going 17,500 mph, it’s tough stuff,”
– Mission Management Team leader John Shannon

you’re trying too hard.

Two words: relative velocity.

Unless you consider driving a car down the street whilst hurtling through the milky way galaxy “tough stuff”.

You are my Sunshine… June 9, 2007

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Ok, I’ll admit my first reaction to this article in wired:

Military Target: Solar Beaming Sats

was, Oh no, not again (apologies to Douglas Adams). Those of you who have been following the Cynics since we debuted April 2006 will recall a previous blog post on why Space Solar Power is a kool-aid effort of the highest order.

But believe it or not, I am actually partly heartened by this latest push to SSPS.

Why? Because, as many of you have heard me say (or write) before, I am firmly of the belief that only the DoD has the budget, the operational experience, and the political clout to develop truly cheap, reliable, reusable access to space. Not NASA, and not the toy spaceships being developed by the private sector.

But if the DoD does decide that they have a case for development of such technologies (hypersonic transports, responsive space access, etc), then the trickle down to the commercial and private sector will follow – as it has for many other technologies we take for granted now (including GPS). But only the DoD would have the resources to pull off a massive 10km geostationary solar power station – and even then they’d only be able to do it if they had first created a spacelift capability that doesn’t exist today (and, of course, had developed the experience to do major on-orbit assembly operations amongst other things).

Of course the Military Industrial Complex (read: big aerospace) would LOVE this kind of model, which means it would be able to get a fair bit of Congressional support. A far cry from NASA’s meager attempts to flog a manned space program that barely limps along from year to year, fingers crossed that they don’t blow up another shuttle in the process.

For now, though, at least we have a study.

The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first steps.

Good luck to Lt. Col. M.V. “Coyote” Smith of the US Air Force as he develops this study. Note to Major General James Armor (Director of the National Security Space Office) – kudos for having the foresight to look at this problem… just keep an open mind when looking at the implications the report will likely present (and don’t let them try to feed you the kool-aid in the process). SSP isn’t easy, nor trivial – it will require a major rethink of DoD Space and if the foundation isn’t laid, this simply will not pan out.

Electrons 2 : Atoms 0 June 4, 2007

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For those who say no good can come from Microsoft (we’ll avoid any embarrassing mention of the Zune here…), I would like to share with you yet another stunning example of how technology is revolutionizing the way we see the world:

Photosynth Demo

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the new frontier is NOT space, but cyberspace. Secondlife, Google Earth, and things like Photosynth are making the web the true next frontier for humanity, one where the “cost” of entry is a PC and an internet connection.

How can outerspace compare with that?

Until, and unless, we get truly Cheap, Reliable, Reusable, Access to Space (CRATS), the masses will never leave terra firma. I’m concerned that our window will close in this generation unless that point is absorbed and acted upon by those with the bucks.

Electrons 1 : Atoms 0 June 3, 2007

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The Space Cynics have officially opened the Cynics Lounge in Second Life!

So come down, bring your favourite beverage, grab a lounge chair on the rooftop, and watch the virtual rockets being tested in the sand box.

In the future, we’ll be having chat sessions at the Lounge for those who want to challenge our positions, ask us questions, or just hang out and discuss whatever comes to mind.

Major kudos to Robin Snelson for helping a Second Life newbie (me) get us started there!

p.s. – we’re looking for good furniture and fixtures, so any donations are appreciated

p.p.s. – and for those who’ve never seen it, I recommend a quick trip to First Life

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