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Cynic or Critic? April 26, 2006

Posted by Thomas Olson in Uncategorized.

I think this new blog is a great idea – thanks, Shubber, for starting it and inviting us to participate. I’m already out there blogging on a variety of other issues, so I look forward to sharing views with some of my good friends on the seemingly interminable challenges involved in getting people into space in our lifetimes.

For a long time now, as many of you know, I’ve been working on the concept of a “populist” funding mechanism to get some projects going and expand the enabling business infrastructure. At this point I have to admit I’ve also drunk the kool-aid to some extent. The core premise was that so-called “new space” companies had a lot of great engineering and business concepts that were being ignored by VCs, institutions, and Wall Street in general – ergo, We the People would bypass those old stodgy institutions and create something new.

Turns out Wall Street may have been looking at this industry after all, and came to some conclusions. After spending several years of my own life looking under the hood, I came to the very reluctant conclusion, myself, that most of these firms, while filled to the brim with incredible engineering talent, were sadly lacking when it comes to business principles and planning.

The entire New Space premise seems to be “build it and they will come” – but not enough building is happening, and, predictably, no one is coming. No one seems to accept that we’re about 25 years behind Silicon Valley and there’s at least that much work to do. There’s no other option but to roll up our sleeves and do it, however long it takes. There will be no shortcuts.

So, in this forum, I consider myself more of a critic than a cynic – I want new things to happen in space, but I’m highly critical at this point of the business skills of the new crop of “alt.space” entrepreneurs. I intend to hold their feet to the fire from here on in.

Many decry the insider status of NASA/DoD contractors exemplified by the term “BoLockNor”, but it seems that several are jockeying simply to be the next generation of contractors, as opposed to being true space-commercial entrepreneurs. If they succeed, good for them, but everyone else, 20 years from now, will be railing against “TransConX”. What does that do for our children and grandchildren, to work hard simply so that a fortunate few can be the last guys in the Country Club?




1. Monte Davis - April 28, 2006

If they succeed, good for them, but everyone else, 20 years from now, will be railing against “TransConX”.

You can see it coming: I remember when Orbital Sciences was being talked up as a paradigm-breaker, but now it’s hardly mentioned in alt.space circles (certainly less than might-have-been mooning about Beal, Kistler and Roton).

I assume that must be because it has become a going concern and is actually selling launch services — i.e., it has gone over to the Dark Side.

(Hi, Shubber!)

2. TomsRants - April 29, 2006

That raises an interesting question: Should one of these companies truly become a “breakout” firm, will they stop showing up at conferences? Will the rest of alt.space stop talking about them?? Dare we hope? LOL

Sidebar: A friend of mine attended Space Access and commented that “Rocketplane buying Kistler is like roping a hamster and a poodle together and calling it an Alaskan dog team.”


3. Bill Dauphin - April 30, 2006

The entire New Space premise seems to be “build it and they will come” – but not enough building is happening, and, predictably, no one is coming.

I think the “build it and they will come” model demonstrably can work — how many people knew they needed personal copmuters before the Two Steves and the Apple ][? — but the problem is that you have to be able to build it.

Go back to the origin of that phrase: In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella already owned the cornfield; building his field of dreams was within the scope of his own personal existing resources, requiring only a certain degree of personal sacrifice. The same is true for the two most commonly cited precedents for the BIATWC model for alt.space: the early pioneers of personal computers and the Wright brothers. They all were able to “build it” by taking only personal risk.

The sad, tragic thing is that to sustain hope for BIATWC (i.e., to make it plausible that we could have a space “Wright brothers”), alt.space advocates must assert that spaceflight really isn’t that hard. Then they’re obligated to explain why, in that case, it’s always seemed so hard… which they do by resorting to quasi-libertarian charges about the alleged stupidity and corruption of government and its “captive” contractors.

And that explains the phenomenon Monte observed WRT Orbital: It’s not selling launch services, but selling launch services to the government, that marks them as minions of the Dark Side.

Mind you, I think it’s still theoretically possible that BIATWC could work for mass-market spaceflight… but our “Wright brothers” will need personal resources vastly greater than those found in a bicycle workshop. Paul Allen and Robert Bigelow and, to a lesser degree (only because he’s entering an existing market), Elon Musk are attempting this model, but it remains to be seen to what degree they’ll succeed. Beal already failed at it.

Of course, if Bill and Melinda Gates suddenly decided colonizing Mars was more important than saving lives in the Third World, we could all start picking out building sites with a good view of the Face… but I wouldn’t wait underwater for that to happen!

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