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I swear, this guy is one of us August 3, 2009

Posted by Thomas Olson in CRATS, hot air, investment, offworlding, space tourism, Wasting Money.
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Much love to Cynic-in-waiting Paul Contursi, who offered us this very cynical take on on-orbit refueling by Rob Coppinger. Equally entertaining are the comments.

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1. Jonathan Goff - August 3, 2009

Well, other than having lots of flawed technical assumptions about how a depot would be implemented (which alas is all to typical of journalists writing about technical matters) and providing several non-sequitur and strawman arguments…it was at least very cynical.

His argument seems to be that propellant depots don’t make sense because there isn’t much commercial demand for them…but ignores the key market that just about every serious depot proponent has focused on–government demand for manned beyond LEO missions. A depot-centric architecture is about the only hope NASA has for being able to pull off a beyond-LEO program within the budget that they have. And even an anemic beyond-LEO program would provide more than enough demand to justify the development of depots. So, just from NASA’s perspectives, a depot-centric architecture is one of the few ways that actually could meet the goals Obama has for the nation’s manned space program (and do a much better job than Rob’s preferred option of continuing to throw billions down the drain with Constellation).

That said, I do think there is a commercial path to depots if NASA decides to continue ignoring the most historically and technically sound approach to doing exploration logistics. The problem is that it is going to take a much longer time, because the intermediate markets that do exist take you on a fairly circuitous path to the end goal of a full-up cryo propellant depot that can be used for beyond LEO missions. The reason I focus so much on NASA’s market is because that’s the only approach I see other than having a wealthy philantrocapitalist like Bigelow take depots on that would result in us having depots within the next decade.

That said, while I try to convince NASA to do the right thing, I am still moving forward slowly on the more round-about bootstrapping approach. Hope for the best, assume the worst.

~Jon

2. googaw - August 20, 2009

Among the economic fantasies of New Space, the second biggest is that commerce can magically do things far cheaper than NASA. The biggest is that commerce should pursue the specific big objectives of space fans as NASA has. Combine these fantasies and you get the amazing whopper that is New Space — that commerce can, and with some cheerleading will, pursue the same kinds of goals NASA is pursuing, only far cheaper.

It’s amazing that the Soviet Union couldn’t even see five years into the future with their plans using current technology, but supposedly libertarian space fans claim they can plan the future space economy out decades with technology that doesn’t yet exist.

Make no mistake, “the end goal of a full-up cryo propellant depot that can be used for beyond LEO missions”, like the Shuttle, ISS, and Moon Base, is a central-planning goal through and through. Even Jonathan admits that if commerce did anything like depots the route would be “circuitous.” I suggest that it may bypass this supposedly important goal altogether, as it has bypassed the Shuttle and ISS. After all, look at the options (central planners hate looking at options once they have made up their minds, but ongoing options are crucial to commerce):

* Deep space may not become economically interesting for a very long time (commerce is of course extremely interested in “beyond LEO” — GEO is the main commercial orbit — but I doubt that is what Jonathan is referring to. New Space folks tend to find real space commerce, like comsats, quite boring, to the point where they seem to forget that it even exists).

* Storable propellants may — practical people would say probably will — continue to make sense for, oh gee, _storing_ propellants over the many-year duration of most space missions (both deep space probes and comsats). It’s not like engineers haven’t been trying for the last sixty years to make LH2 and LOX storable. But somehow we can confidently plan a future in which, magically, the problem has been completely licked and traditional storables have lost their advantage. Even though commerce shows no signs of actually substituting cryogenics for storables on any of those boring satellites, which would be the obvious thing to do (far more obvious than depots) if the storage problem had been solved.

* Depots may not make economic sense after all — the economic case is hardly clear-cut, and most businessmen are, unlike New Space folks, highly aware of the large uncertainties surrounding economic judgments.

* Replace storables, not with cryogenics, but with ion, plasma, or some future development in rocket propulsion.

But forget all this – like good central planners we should all drop our skepticism, we should all drop our divergent paths to the future, and follow these specific hobby horses of space fan communities like lemmings over a cliff.

Real commerce does not generally proceed by pursuing specific grand “end goals.” Far less does commerce succeed by pursuing “the” end goal, especially in cases like depots where there are so many plausible choices (storables, cryogenics, advanced propulsion, depots in this orbit or that orbit, or no depots at all).

The main benefit of free enterprise over central planning is not that it can do the same things cheaper, it is that it can do _different things_. If one approach doesn’t work it can try another, and commerce has strong incentive to discover the most economical approach. To assert that we want commerce to pursue “the end goal” is to impute to it the attributes of central planning, which thankfully it does not have. Instead, commerce is and should remain free to pursue its own ends.

New Space still hasn’t wrapped its head around the fact that commerce wants to pursue primarily boring useful stuff, like comsats. NASA, by contrast, has not and is not pursuing actually economic goals (and, thankfully, has mostly stopped pretending to). Commerce isn’t out to privatize NASA, nor to pursue the goals of space fans inspired by NASA’s past feats or rhetoric. They are out to pursue very different goals, goals that actually make economic sense.

(For all the bad things one can say about Constellation, at least NASA is not, as in the Shuttle development era, pretending that it will be a commercial panacea — instead it is targeted at specifically non-economic goals such as Moon bases and Mars missions. Whether those grand goals are worthwhile, absent an economic justification, is another subject. But surely our central planners in New Space recognize the limitations of designing their beloved “future infrastructure” around overtly uneconomic goals? Surely the should, but…)


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