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.
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.