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A Cold Look at CATS June 22, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Mark R. Whittington - June 22, 2007

Monte, very cute and funny, but we know that the exploration of Antarctica went a little differntly, what with Admiral Byrd using air transportation. And there is the ban on commercial development. Still, entertaining.

2. Monte Davis - June 22, 2007

Mark: And when there’s a way to get to space as much better than chemical rockets as aircraft were better than dogsleds or sno-cats, the picture will indeed change.

I don’t know what to make of the tendency to focus on space treaties, rather than cost and limited demand, as the obstacle to fret about. It’s as if I were to go on about the NFL’s age discrimination in not hiring me because I’m 57 (rather than because I’m out of shape and have no experience or skill at football).

Should there ever be both really valuable space resources and cost-effective access, we both know that arrangements will be made. I don’t really believe there are venture capitalists out there thinking “Oh, I’d put $10B into space tomorrow if it weren’t for the all-powerful UN.”

3. Jim Davis - June 22, 2007

Monte,

Spot on for the most part, but I take serious issue with the following:

“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.”

Dropping back into the real world, there is no particular reason to believe that 1970 (or 2007 for that matter) technology was up to the task of delivering CATS. If and/or when CATS happens I doubt people will be slapping their foreheads and moaning “We could have done that 50 years ago!”

Further, the notion that all that is needed is money, technology trials, and experimental prototypes for CATS to happen is dubious. Falling back into an historical analogy, no amount of money, technology trials, and experimental prototypes would have taken humanity from the Wright Flyer to the DC-3. Far more important for aviation then was intensive real life commercial and military operations at every technological level between the Wright Flyer and DC-3. For space intensive operations at all technological levels between ELVs and whatever emerges for CATS is far more important than X-planes and laboratory experiments.

Unfortunately, the demand for space in 2007 is miniscule compared to the demand for aviation in 1907. There is an obvious, but unpalatable conclusion to be drawn from this.

I suspect at heart you’re really a closet Kool-Aid drinker, Monte. 🙂

Jim Davis

4. Mark R. Whittington - June 22, 2007

Monte, all of that is true, except I wasn’t refering to any space treaty.

5. Monte Davis - June 22, 2007

I agree 110%, although I couldn’t find a way to weave it into an already labored analogy. The brutal chicken-and-egg problem for CATS is that it’s hard to accumulate lots of experience at these prices, while lots of experience is the only way to lower these prices.

I welcome the suborbital ventures for what they can teach us about frequent, commercially lean operations. But when I look at the best possible numbers for traffic, and how much of that they could re-invest in getting from suborbital to orbital… and compare that to the most optimistic estimates for the cost of doing it… like I said, a long haul. “Long” as in “looooooooong.”

6. Mark R. Whittington - June 23, 2007

Monte – Remember the COTS program that is designed to jump start orbital transportation. Not a pure libertarian model, to be sure, but one I think that has value.

7. Monte Davis - June 23, 2007

Mark: my point is much the same vis-a-vis Antarctica. The treaties restricting activity there are not among the most important reasons that it isn’t a bustling industrial zone. Like the space treaties, they represent a high-minded impulse that manifests itself only when the serious players don’t actually see much strategic or commercial value to be gained. When and if they do, in Antarctica or in space, such treaties will quickly be “reinterpreted” or simply ignored.

So why do they keep coming up in discussions of space development? I can understand it only as

(1) a pleasant distraction from looking at the ugly technical and economic realities (‘boy, we’d have Clavius Base and helium-3 by the ton if investors weren’t uncertain about propety rights’)

(2) a ritualistic bow to the blue helmets and black helicopters of the New World Order (‘once again, the mighty Gulliver of US commercial space has been tied down by those no-count Lilliputians at the UN’)

8. Mark R. Whittington - June 24, 2007

The technical and economic realities you bring up are quite real. But I don’t think that it makes the necessity of revising the current treaty regime a “pleasant distraction”, but rather one of the many things that has to happen before the economic development of space can proceed.

9. Ashley Zinyk - June 27, 2007

There’s enough demand for Antarctic access (though not necessarily polar access) for about 2500 people to reside there (~1000 in the winter, ~4000 in the summer). I don’t think we’ll have more activity in space than that in the next 100 years, but that still leaves a lot of room to grow.

Most alt.space companies with budgets in the low millions will probably fail to produce CATS, but a multi-billion dollar effort will definitely fail. You can’t do something cheaply by spending a billion dollars. In the future, space travel may be a billion-dollar market the way automotive travel is today, but modern cars weren’t developed by improving billion-dollar machines; they were made by improving cheap machines.

By the way, your wordplay on things like “Ansarsdottr Prize” and “Bransson” was great.

10. shubber - June 27, 2007

but a multi-billion dollar effort will definitely fail. You can’t do something cheaply by spending a billion dollars.

Hardly.

Reducing the costs/improving the economics of an existing technology platform by spending billions of dollars is PRECISELY what Boeing and Airbus are doing right now with the 787 and A350WBX.

Sure, it is very easy to waste billions of dollars, and many projects have done just that. But using that as the basis for your argument is flawed, because it is project specific – i can cite plenty of examples (such as the two above) that refute your position.

but modern cars weren’t developed by improving billion-dollar machines; they were made by improving cheap machines.

Wrong again – billions of dollars are spent whenever a new car plant and design are rolled out. Yes, individual units may be cheaper at the end of the process – but if they only built ONE BMW 330i from a factory in South Carolina that was built to create that BMW, then the cost of that machine would be in the billions.

11. Jonathan Goff - June 28, 2007

Shubber, Ashley,

Another way to rephrase things is that *for low-volume* markets, spending billions of dollars is a bad way to make things cheaper. Once the market gets to a certain size, spending large amounts of money for improvements can actually reduce costs.

But that doesn’t sound anywhere near as pithy.

~Jon

12. Monte Davis - June 28, 2007

Ashley, I do look forward to significant contributions from alt.space. More independent teams testing more innovations is a good thing; market discipline is a good thing; frequent operations and the accumulation of experience is a very good thing.

That said, I don’t expect alt.space to progress by leaps and bounds. It takes time for any technology to work its way out of the high-cost, low-volume, limited-demand, limited-experience corner that space occupies. Your guesstimate — achieving the scale of current Antarctic activity over the next century — sounds reasonable to me; if space tourism pans out, that may be preceded (rather than followed, as in Antarctic history) by “transient” thousands analogous to those on today’s Antarctic cruise ships.

What I was trying to highlight was the way that frustration and impatience over the last 30+ years have led many space fans to believe that:

(1) there was a plausible but much faster route that NASA could have taken

(2) private enterprise has a magic mojo that will make its progress both much faster and much cheaper

(3) Some mix of (1) and (2) will quickly “make up for lost time” and produce in 10-25 years something like the capability and cost levels implied by the Pan Am shuttle -> orbital Hilton -> bustling Moonbase sequence of the movie 2001.

To expect (3) is to invite another boom/bust cycle of anticipation and disillusionment (cf. Apollo and after, Shuttle and after, Space Station Freedom and after, and — I strongly suspect — VSE and after.)

That won’t serve “private” space any better than it has served NASA. Whatever the path to CATS turns out to be, a roller coaster isn’t the best model. 😦

13. Kirk Kittell - June 28, 2007

Like the space treaties, they represent a high-minded impulse that manifests itself only when the serious players don’t actually see much strategic or commercial value to be gained. When and if they do, in Antarctica or in space, such treaties will quickly be “reinterpreted” or simply ignored.

Mark, funny you should mention that: Kremlin lays claim to huge chunk of oil-rich North Pole. I think this is a good analogy for how things will work on the Moon… or anywhere. Once you have the capability to get a resource and a place to sell it, I think that all bets are off.

14. Mark R. Whittington - June 30, 2007

Kirk – People have had the capability to access the Arctic for a long time. Putin has been the first person with the audacity to make a territorial claim, though.

15. Brian Swiderski - July 1, 2007

There’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, but some of you folks are downright cynical. 🙂 The fact is we have yet to seriously–as a community, as a nation, or as a world–sit down and figure out what it would actually take to make the best-case scenarios happen. There are limited studies galore, pursued by people and groups with narrow agendas, but no concerted attempt is made to reconcile them or resolve key questions. At the risk of sounding like the despised Kool-Aid drinker, to me it seems these questions haven’t been answered because nobody’s actually tried.

Every successful Apollo mission accomplished more than the previous, yet the program was cancelled after 3 years of Moon landings; Shuttle, however, while sold as CATS, was never implemented as such, and has launched for 27 years only by the weight of pork and bureaucracy tied into it. In equivalent dollars, each additional landing mission only cost slightly more than a Shuttle launch (~$2b), so even if *half* the to-date STS expenses had gone into developing better technology, we could have gone to the Moon another FORTY times in the intervening years–assuming no cost reductions whatsoever. And with that level of activity, no matter how incompetent we imagine NASA to be, they would have contributed far more than they have to opening space. I.e., the lesson to be learned from Apollo is not to avoid doing “the hard things,” but to be serious and committed about it when you do tackle them.

When I see statements like that only 2,000 people will be in space 100 years from now, it makes the Cynical position difficult to take seriously. Everyone who experiences weightlessness seems to regard it as transcendent (nausea notwithstanding), and viewing the Earth from space as the closest thing to heaven, not to mention that everyone I’ve ever asked who’s been to space said they’d go back in a heartbeat if given the chance. Phrases like “see the face of God” routinely come up in describing it, and that to me doesn’t sound like 2,000 ultra-rich people vacationing in orbital summer estates; that sounds like Virgin Galactic is going to throw a match into a giant powder keg of long-frustrated hope and ambition. I know how you guys feel, given all the disappointments over the years, but you should really lighten up. We’re all Kool-Aid drinkers compared to the average Joe.

16. Jim Davis - July 2, 2007

“At the risk of sounding like the despised Kool-Aid drinker, to me it seems these questions haven’t been answered because nobody’s actually tried.”

Brian, I think you skipped the drinking phase and went right to having the IV inserted. 🙂

“…nobody’s actually tried.” ? Are you serious?

Jim Davis

17. Monte Davis - July 2, 2007

Brian: if I understand your claim, the sum spent on STS operations since 1981 would have supported forty moon missions and simultaneously “developing better technology.”

By the latter, do you mean (1) incremental improvement to Saturn ELV technology, presumably “slipstreamed” into those missions… or (2) a better-than-STS RLV technology? Or both?

18. Brian Swiderski - July 3, 2007

Jim,
I don’t mean that nobody’s done studies or desperately tried to leverage engineering-driven operations, but this is what I mean: Nobody has gathered the community together, hashed out a consensus about what it will *specifically* take to achieve this capability, and then followed through on a commitment to make the effort.

NASA at its very best is given a clear, singular goal and then does whatever it can to achieve it, but its designs and planning rarely take the broader context into consideration. They approach tasks mission-by-mission, program-by-program, and do things as discrete projects rather than as parts of a paramount agenda. While they’re all enthusiastic about space, and want to contribute, the idea that NASA has only one mission has never penetrated the culture or influenced how things are done.

In other words, though Apollo was a great program, it wasn’t an attempt to answer the questions being asked here, and neither was Shuttle or ISS. The only purpose of going to the Moon is to lay the groundwork for settlement and development, but NASA made no provision for that in designing project Apollo–their mission was to put astronauts on the Moon and get them back home safely, and they did it. The only purpose of a reusable orbiter is to lower costs and reduce turnaround time, but those objectives fell by the wayside in order to meet the immediate objective of building a new US orbiter that was required to be reusable. The only purpose of a NASA or international space station is as an assembly and/or embarkation point for other destinations, but that was sidelined in order to meet the mandate for a space station. Do you see what I’m getting at? They’ve never tried to answer the question we’re asking, just very specific engineering questions.

Nor have they been serious about getting others to answer it. They may “solicit commentary” from time to time when major policy changes occur, but there is no grand attempt to bring together America’s scientific, engineering, business, and enthusiast communities to create a plan and unify behind it. Programs are handed down by the White House, and missions within programs are designed basically by the experts needed to get them done. There is no real community involvement beyond the most superficial level.

But quite apart from NASA, I haven’t seen that kind of consensus-building in the broader community either. Before the current wave of commercial enthusiasm, there was a recurring cycle of solipsism and disappointment: Very narrow, but shallow studies would be done by some group or academic with a pet technology, naturally affirming its feasibility without bothering to build a detailed roadmap. Some interested engineers would then form a company to develop it, again without paying attention to issues larger than the technology, and they would eventually run out of funds in the process of development. There was little prior consultation with the community at large, so the ideas being pursued were just based on the interests and expertise of a handful of people, meaning glaring technological obstacles were often missed until money had already been sunk, and then the credibility damage that followed was often fatal.

Since nobody had tried to unite the community to form a concerted effort, there was no real funding for efforts that might otherwise have made solid contributions, and other groups pursuing their own pet projects were too busy steaming toward their own demise to think about working together. Basically, the firms that litter the graveyard of Newspace past were not asking the right questions, and failed to solidify and leverage the community. They failed to understand that money comes from the will of those providing it, and collaborating with a broad spectrum of people with the same goals could have brought them the investments, the expertise, and the industrial relationships that might have kick-started this engine much sooner.

As for today’s Newspace, the situation is upbeat despite taking longer than it should. Elon Musk did put a lot of effort into looking at exactly what needs to be done for CATS, and is implementing changes to a lot more than launchers to bring that about. But on the other hand, despite the good commercial beginnings, and recognizing that SpaceX’s people are running themselves ragged already, I do think they could spend more time evangelizing their efforts and getting other Newspacers to coordinate with them. That’s the key principle these companies need to learn: Since they’re obviously not in it for the money, their reasons are quite similar, and they compete only because they differ on the best way to go about their common objectives. Why not come together, build a consensus, and see what areas are open to large-scale collaboration?

Companies and academics talk about their systems at conferences and try to attract investment, but nothing is ever really settled–usually they won’t get enough money to do in-depth testing, so they just sink back into another round of perpetual financing, wasting their talent and time. I admit it would be an awesome feat in itself, but just get the community together, get them to agree to hash out the basic architecture, and commit to pooling their resources toward it, and then we can say that the issue has our full attention and isn’t just another perpetual debate topic.

Monte,
Guessing about what technologies would be developed would be second-order speculation, but I’ll try. Since the premise is that the Moon continues to be the destination, whatever technology is pursued would have to have at least some notional benefit for that. NASA doesn’t particularly care whether such benefit is actually realized, but the notion of it is needed to motivate the choice. STS is too massive to be an efficient cislunar transport, and even its cheap, fast dreamworld version would only be useful as transport from Earth to a space station.

Saturn would probably have remained the workhorse until at least 1985, fulfilling the role Soyuz does for Russia, with incremental improvements over time and perhaps replacement around ’90 with some slick Lockheed number. I don’t know where they would have gone with the mission configuration, the LM, SM, CM, TLI, etc., or how ambitious or spineless they would have become with experience, but I feel confident in saying the Moon would probably today have about 50 people on it–all trained astronauts and cosmonauts.

Again, I’m not one of those who believes if we’d *just* stuck with Apollo we’d have lived up to Arthur C. Clarke’s vision, but we would absolutely be at least three decades ahead of where we are right now in the public sector. The private sector would also be far ahead, benefiting from all the raw data, experience, and technology concepts derived from it. One doesn’t have to believe that Apollo was the best of all possible worlds to say that abandoning the Moon was the biggest blunder of all time.

19. Monte Davis - July 4, 2007

Jim: I’ve been tracking this stuff since well before OTRAG, before Klaus Heiss’ initial proposal to commercialize a shuttle, before even Gary Hudson v 1.0. The belief that “nobody has tried before” (or “really truly tried before” seems to be an essential flavor enhancer for the Kool-Aid.

20. Jim Davis - July 4, 2007

“Nobody has gathered the community together, hashed out a consensus about what it will *specifically* take to achieve this capability, and then followed through on a commitment to make the effort.”

Brian, if I understand you (correct me if I don’t), you seem to think the issue is “How do we best implement these great ideas?”

That’s not the issue at all. The issue is “Are these ideas in fact great?”

Clarke said that all great ideas pass through three phases:

1. It’s completely impossible; don’t waste my time.
2. It’s possible but it’s not worth doing.
3. I said it was a great idea all along.

Of course, if an idea is not great it doesn’t pass through all the phases.

You seem to be operating on the premise that we’re in Phase 3. Actually, depending on the scheme in question we’re in Phase 1 or 2.

Jim Davis

21. Brian Swiderski - July 4, 2007

Jim,
I think we substantially agree, but I’m perhaps phrasing my position awkwardly. What I’m saying is not anything about the “phase” of the current set of ideas, but that we’ve failed to establish a broad-based collaborative process for making that determination. Maybe if people could be persuaded to commit to looking for a common solution, more resources might be freed up from the marginal ends and coalesce around what the community together finds to be better prospects. Until this happens, the ability of the industry to learn from or even recognize mistakes will be severely limited. Nothing is settled by the failure of an underfinanced firm that doesn’t even reach the market due to financing issues–it’s neither here nor there, and its efforts are effectively wasted.

The inability to either test ideas in the market or settle questions collaboratively keeps out large-scale investment, which in turn just perpetuates the problem. That’s what I mean by “nobody has ever tried”–they’ve never even had the opportunity to try. SpaceX will have the opportunity due to its preexisting resources, but that’s just one firm and we’d do well to have multiple efforts reach the market. Unless other firms band together, pool their resources, and collaborate on alternative approaches, all of our hopes will ride on the complete success of SpaceX.

22. Monte Davis - July 4, 2007

But Brian, it isn’t a community.

There’s one faction, cherishing the Apollo legacy, for which space is all about Missions: they moan “all we’ve done for 35 years is go around in circles in LEO” (ignoring the fact that we still can’t get to LEO at anything like a reasonable cost). They want Mars! or at least a Return to the Moon! and don’t seem to care that bleeding-edge Missions, by definition, are done with highly fine-tuned, mission-specific hardware — which (just like Saturn) are not what anyone sane would specify for ongoing, cost-effective operations.

There’s another faction, animated IMHO as much by by “government can do no right” political ideology as by desire for space per se. As far as I can tell, their belief that alt.space will progress many times faster at a cost many times less rests on the conviction that CATS isn’t really any more technologically or economically challenging than early aviation — we’ve just been doing it wrong, trusting in bureaucrats (boo!) instead of entrepreneurs (hurrah!). That some of them also think big ROI from space resources is just around the corner seems to be icing on the cake; what really thrills them is the thought of New Space mammals showing up Old Space dinosaurs.

And then, mixed in with both groups, there are the people very fond (like you) of words like

concerted
consensus
commitment
community effort
evangelizing
only one mission
paramount agenda

And above all that old warhorse will

who are so rapt in the tiny fishbowl of space-policy controversies that they simply forget or deny one huge, in-your-face-obvious fact: most people (citizens, voters, politicians, investors, the world at large) simply don’t care very much whether we achieve CATS (or get to Mars, or back to the Moon, or blow NASA away with feisty commercial enterprise, or whatever) in twenty years, or fifty, or never.

There is, compared to the (very real) technical and economic challenges of doing those things, a very limited amount of will (limited numerically, financially, culturally) aimed at getting this species into space on a significant scale. Even if you could (improbably) get it all pulling in the same direction, there’s still a long slow road ahead.

23. Brian Swiderski - July 4, 2007

Monte,
I agree, there is no cohesive community. Building one could be the first step to success, and nobody (AFAIK) has ever tried to do that. We stake out our niches and communicate in passing, maybe share a moment of inspiration when one or another accomplishes something, but the net result is something less than the sum of its parts.

While you are correct that will is limited, we should remember precisely why that is–fanaticism can’t flourish in a vacuum. If you dedicate yourself, your time, and your income to space development, who’s there to appreciate it and share both the burdens and (hopefully) triumphs? Maybe if you’re lucky, like Carmack, you can assemble a small group of dedicated people, and enjoy the moral support of a passive internet fanbase–but even then it’s still basically you alone against the universe, and few people flourish under such conditions.

Would space advocates in general be more zealous if doing so meant they were joining a cohesive, organized, and truly fervent community with concrete ambitions? I think the answer is obviously yes, and their enthusiasm would influence the general public. But frankly, the general public are of secondary or tertiary importance at best. Winning their support may help to some degree, but their opinions won’t be especially relevant until decades after the battle has already been won. What matters are the people who already want to see this happen, and whether they can come together and make a community where fanaticism is a team sport, and where people can dedicate their lives to space as confidently as some dedicate theirs to the military, religion, or humanitarianism. Not all of us are just spouting rhetoric when we say space is a matter of human survival, and many would act accordingly if they felt their contributions wouldn’t just dissipate into the thin air of mere “enthusiasts.”

As for the timetable, I still don’t understand your basis for insisting that it *must* be a long, hard slog to achieve CATS. Insofar as we both (?) agree that NASA has never seriously tried to achieve it, merely focusing on individual missions; and the fact that truly commercial, economics-oriented space firms are a relatively recent innovation; it would seem you’re merely extrapolating a trend that doesn’t apply. I understand the limitations of commerce, but this round of development (SpaceX in particular) will be the first time markets and Silicon Valley principles are rigorously applied to launch costs, and neither of us has any idea how radical the effect will be. Any reduction in prices cascades down the line, potentially triggering critical thresholds in other parts of the industry and setting off more benefits, which could in turn cascade back. At even half of SpaceX’s most conservative projections, the price (and time!) savings would be substantial, so we really, truly have no clue as to the feedbacks that will take place when this ramps up. But the fact that this is so tantalizing shouldn’t be a basis for denying its likelihood–there’s no systemic reason to think it won’t happen in the next decade.

24. Jim Davis - July 4, 2007

“I think we substantially agree,”

I don’t think so.

“but I’m perhaps phrasing my position awkwardly. What I’m saying is not anything about the “phase” of the current set of ideas, but that we’ve failed to establish a broad-based collaborative process for making that determination.”

But Brian, we *do* have such a process. In the US it is broadly characterized by:

1.) Representative, democratic government

and

2.) Free market economics

This process has made the determination that all but the most modest of space projects are unrealistic and/or not worth investing in.

If you disagree with this determination I suggest that it is more likely that you, rather than the process, is in error.

Jim Davis

25. Brian Swiderski - July 5, 2007

“But Brian, we *do* have such a process.”

We do not have a process for addressing the issue in question. If you’re saying that we should yield to industrial and government apathy and abandon manned space to a slow death, then we are in fundamental disagreement. These mechanisms are means to an end, not arbiters of the agenda itself, and we don’t define the value of something by whether any given *process* advances it.

“This process has made the determination that all but the most modest of space projects are unrealistic and/or not worth investing in.”

Largely self-fulfilling prophecies governed by issues unrelated to the objective of CATS. It’s circular to call something impractical by virtue of one’s own decision to hold it in low priority, and then to justify that priority by saying it’s impractical. Investment decisions have nothing to do with the subject: An investor will rightly recognize that creating a massive infrastructure is riskier than providing for a small niche, because their objective is ROI. But only when that infrastructure is already built, and hardware is competing in the market to supply the demand for CATS will free markets come into play to help decide what is actually worthwhile. Unfortunately, that will never get built by relying on startup investment, so you’re left with a degenerate chicken-and-egg scenario until someone very rich comes along and/or a lot of dedicated people choose to collaborate. Investment is just a means to reach the market, not the market itself.

“If you disagree with this determination I suggest that it is more likely that you, rather than the process, is in error.”

Investors and governments speak to their own agendas, not those of anyone else, and they’re useful for this purpose only insofar as agendas coincide. To the extent they don’t coincide, then other routes to market need to be pursued, including those already mentioned. Determining worth by the level of investment is the tail wagging the dog–it’s the ultimate performance that matters, not how it got there.

26. Kirk Kittell - July 5, 2007

Mark:
People have had the capability to access the Arctic for a long time.

People haven’t had the capability to access the petroleum resources underneath the Arctic — nor a place to sell it — for a long time. (‘Long’ is a subjective term, of course.)

27. Jim Davis - July 5, 2007

“We do not have a process for addressing the issue in question.”

Sorry, Brian, we do. Your contention that democratic, representative government and free market economics are inadequate to address space issues seems to be based on nothing more than your own personal dissatisfaction.

“If you’re saying that we should yield to industrial and government apathy and abandon manned space to a slow death, then we are in fundamental disagreement.”

Brian, this makes no sense at all. Abandoning manned space flight would not mean its death; it can be revived at any time if the effort is deemed to be worthwhile. The failure of Henson’s Aerial Steam Navigation Company in 1842 didn’t mean the “death” of manned flight.

Of course if the effort is not deemed to be worthwhile it’s no great loss; like rigid airships and fast ocean liners, we’ll have moved on to better things.

“These mechanisms are means to an end, not arbiters of the agenda itself, and we don’t define the value of something by whether any given *process* advances it.”

And what end would that be, Brian? And how was this end determined?

“Largely self-fulfilling prophecies governed by issues unrelated to the objective of CATS.”

In other words the only issues you feel are relevant are the ones that interest you personally. Sorry, Brian, that’s not how it works.

“It’s circular to call something impractical by virtue of one’s own decision to hold it in low priority, and then to justify that priority by saying it’s impractical.”

Yes, that is circular. It’s also not true.

“Investment decisions have nothing to do with the subject: An investor will rightly recognize that creating a massive infrastructure is riskier than providing for a small niche, because their objective is ROI.”

So you admit your comment about circularity was inaccurate?

“But only when that infrastructure is already built, and hardware is competing in the market to supply the demand for CATS will free markets come into play to help decide what is actually worthwhile.”

Exactly what infrastructure are you speaking of? Markets and infrastructure go hand in hand. It’s pointless to speak of infrastructure at this juncture. We have no idea what infrastructure will be required.

“Unfortunately, that will never get built by relying on startup investment, so you’re left with a degenerate chicken-and-egg scenario until someone very rich comes along and/or a lot of dedicated people choose to collaborate. Investment is just a means to reach the market, not the market itself.”

Yes, that’s right. It’s going to a long, hard slog (just like Monte says) and we have no idea how it will all pan out. That’s the real world.

“Investors and governments speak to their own agendas, not those of anyone else, and they’re useful for this purpose only insofar as agendas coincide.”

Precisely whose agenda do you think investors should speak to…yours? As for governments, as Monte points outs, very few people have *any* agenda at all. Space is merely a combination of national prestige and welfare for scientists and engineers.

“To the extent they don’t coincide, then other routes to market need to be pursued, including those already mentioned.”

To *what* market? What crystal ball are you using to determine what market(s) need(s) to be pursued?

“Determining worth by the level of investment is the tail wagging the dog–it’s the ultimate performance that matters, not how it got there.”

But unfortunately we can only assess ultimate performance after the fact…not before. Before we can only estimate the best we can and invest accordingly…which, of course, is exactly what is being done.

Again, I suggest that you’re confusing your own personal sense of dissatisfaction as prima facie evidence of systemic disfunction.

Jim Davis

28. Monte (no relation) Davis - July 7, 2007

What Jim said.

29. Brian Swiderski - July 7, 2007

“Your contention that democratic, representative government and free market economics are inadequate to address space issues seems to be based on nothing more than your own personal dissatisfaction.”

Whose dissatisfaction should my statements be based on? Are you perpetually satisfied with the status quo by virtue of its being the “decision” of aggregate abstractions? I’m no libertarian, but the idea is simply ludicrous. You decide, on your own terms, the degree to which you support or dissent from the aggregate position, and that position does not dictate your actions as an individual.

“Abandoning manned space flight would not mean its death; it can be revived at any time if the effort is deemed to be worthwhile.”

This is a rather shocking statement from a Space Cynic. You seem to think we have an unlimited window of opportunity, and that the political and economic conditions which made its creation possible (a)still exist, and (b)can be taken indefinitely for granted.

“Of course if the effort is not deemed to be worthwhile it’s no great loss; like rigid airships and fast ocean liners, we’ll have moved on to better things.”

This segment of the debate is really moot–it is deemed worthy already, by me, by most of the American people, and by many brave entrepreneurs, regardless of how well the mechanisms in question presently reflect that.

“And what end would that be, Brian? And how was this end determined?”

The end is survival and growth of the human species, and it’s determined by the nature of life. We would preserve and spread that which defines us, as far and wide as possible. In addition, many of us simply love the view, the sense of adventure, and the desire to be part of creating an awesome future.

“In other words the only issues you feel are relevant are the ones that interest you personally.”

Obviously. Why would something I consider irrelevant interest me?

“So you admit your comment about circularity was inaccurate?”

It was not inaccurate. Investors consider a sector riskier if other investors are not getting involved in it, so they themselves avoid it and perpetuate the status quo. To then cite this as evidence of economic infeasibility is circular.

“Exactly what infrastructure are you speaking of?”

Any. We can’t claim the market rejected a potential CATS solution if it never even reached the market.

“We have no idea what infrastructure will be required.”

Hence my statement that the community should come together and commit to figuring it out.

“It’s going to a long, hard slog (just like Monte says) and we have no idea how it will all pan out.”

Then how do you know it will be a long, hard slog? You may be correct, or access to orbit may be dirt cheap ten years from now. So far nobody has given me a solid reason to lean in the former direction, but I have several reasons (already stated) to suspect the latter has a decent chance of happening.

“Precisely whose agenda do you think investors should speak to…yours?”

Of course not. VC or angel investing is one potential means of reaching the marketplace, and if they fail you try something else.

“very few people have *any* agenda at all.”

Then why bring them up?

“Space is merely a combination of national prestige and welfare for scientists and engineers.”

Space is the entire universe beyond Earth. Everything else is laughably unimportant, and anyone who disagrees is simply wrong.

“Again, I suggest that you’re confusing your own personal sense of dissatisfaction as prima facie evidence of systemic disfunction.”

The fact that a toothpick makes a poor bottle opener doesn’t make the toothpick dysfunctional, and it certainly doesn’t make the bottle unworthy of being opened. You just have to think outside the box, recognize that you can use anything to do anything, and look for the best tool for the job. The institutional approach doesn’t work very well over the long haul, and we don’t know what the outcome will be of the entrepreneurial approach, so there’s no reason not to consider the “community-based” approach.

30. Brian Swiderski - July 8, 2007

I would just add a very limited, unmanned example of the community approach: The Planetary Society’s Cosmos 1 project. That particular project wasn’t designed as a stepping stone, but a much larger manned effort involving various organizations, philanthropists, innovators in numerous fields, and firms could eventually yield profitable businesses without initially relying on angels, VC, or government contracts.

31. Jim Davis - July 8, 2007

“Whose dissatisfaction should my statements be based on?”

Well, considering that you advocate a complete overhaul of how a nation’s priorities are set and its resources allocated I would hope that your statements would be based on the dissatisfaction of a great many people, tens of millions for a start.

“Are you perpetually satisfied with the status quo by virtue of its being the “decision” of aggregate abstractions?”

Oh, no. Being satisfied with the system does not imply being satisfied with the status quo. It is not inconsistent to dislike the policies of a president and like the system that made him president.

“I’m no libertarian, but the idea is simply ludicrous. You decide, on your own terms, the degree to which you support or dissent from the aggregate position, and that position does not dictate your actions as an individual.”

I’m not objecting to your actions as an individual, Brian. I am objecting to your contention that democratic representative government and free market economics should be altered to something more to your liking.

“This is a rather shocking statement from a Space Cynic. You seem to think we have an unlimited window of opportunity, and that the political and economic conditions which made its creation possible (a)still exist, and (b)can be taken indefinitely for granted.”

Oh, no, Brian. I think it entirely possible that our descendants might view manned space flight with all the bemusement we view pyramid building. But so what? Either manned space flight has long term value or it doesn’t.

“This segment of the debate is really moot–it is deemed worthy already, by me, by most of the American people, and by many brave entrepreneurs, regardless of how well the mechanisms in question presently reflect that.”

No, I think you’re mistaken here. Most Americans will not care one way or the other if nothing replaces the shuttle or if the various space tourism schemes fail.

“The end is survival and growth of the human species, and it’s determined by the nature of life. We would preserve and spread that which defines us, as far and wide as possible. In addition, many of us simply love the view, the sense of adventure, and the desire to be part of creating an awesome future.”

Ah, at last we come to it. The above should properly be the conclusions of your arguments not their premises. All of the above is merely quasi-religious speculation (which of course doesn’t mean it’s wrong). Most people do not accept the premise that space flight has anything to do with the survival and growth of the human species, etc.

“Obviously. Why would something I consider irrelevant interest me?”

Possibly because others considered it so. But if you’re not interested in what others think…

“It was not inaccurate. Investors consider a sector riskier if other investors are not getting involved in it, so they themselves avoid it and perpetuate the status quo. To then cite this as evidence of economic infeasibility is circular.”

In other words investors never invest in anything new. Interesting.

“Any. We can’t claim the market rejected a potential CATS solution if it never even reached the market.”

No, but if no CATS solution ever reaches the market…

“Hence my statement that the community should come together and commit to figuring it out.”

Of course. Markets are obviously incapable of that. Let’s form a commitee!

“Then how do you know it will be a long, hard slog?”

Did you even read anything Monte wrote? You have a very low demand for a service with very high costs.

“Space is the entire universe beyond Earth. Everything else is laughably unimportant, and anyone who disagrees is simply wrong.”

I take back my comment about quasi-religious speculations. There’s very little “quasi” about the above!

“The fact that a toothpick makes a poor bottle opener doesn’t make the toothpick dysfunctional, and it certainly doesn’t make the bottle unworthy of being opened.”

That’s a great analogy, Brian. Let me expand it for you. You advocate abandoning our current system of determining priorities and allocating resources for something else because the current system isn’t producing a bottle opener even though bottles don’t exist and we have only the vaguest notions of what they might be like and we have no idea if they will ever be useful.

“You just have to think outside the box, recognize that you can use anything to do anything, and look for the best tool for the job.”

Which of course assumes that there is a job that must be done.

“The institutional approach doesn’t work very well over the long haul, and we don’t know what the outcome will be of the entrepreneurial approach, so there’s no reason not to consider the “community-based” approach.”

Which seems to be a euphemism for a religious approach.

I think we’ve both stated are positions adequately, Brian. The last word is yours.

Jim Davis

32. Brian Swiderski - July 9, 2007

“Well, considering that you advocate a complete overhaul of how a nation’s priorities are set and its resources allocated”

I haven’t advocated that. What I’ve said is that people who want this to happen don’t necessarily have to filter their objectives through the meat grinder of politics or financing. That is not a revolutionary suggestion: All it would be is a cooperative consortium with open licensing to the participants of the resulting technologies, around which the various firms could then build complementary businesses.

“I think it entirely possible that our descendants might view manned space flight with all the bemusement we view pyramid building.”

So of the following motives, you think it entirely possible that all of them will cease to exist:

1. Desire to personally experience new environments.
2. Love of and desire to spread mankind.
3. Yearning for challenges.
4. The need for a political escape valve (i.e., frontier).
5. The need and desire for new beginnings.
6. The emotion of wonder.
7. Need and desire for new and greater resources.

Frankly, if we abandon manned space, I think it entirely possible future generations wouldn’t even comprehend it. Not the motivation for it, but the physical possibility. When the entire world is the Old World, civilization stagnates, and will eventually die. A Dark Age without end, put out of its misery by the next nickel-iron peacemaker of sufficient mass. And no, Jim, that is not “religion,” that is the simple lesson of history–civilization dies without new horizons, and species die when things fall from the sky.

“But so what? Either manned space flight has long term value or it doesn’t.”

Here you are again deferring the question to undefined others in an indefinite future. Either *you* think it does, or *you* don’t. If you think it does, then you don’t need anyone’s permission to work for the benefit of mankind. If you don’t, then your position isn’t Space Cynical; it’s anti-space. And if you refuse to take any position beyond dismissing those who do, that doesn’t contribute anything. I think you mistake being radically noncommittal as objectivity.

“Most Americans will not care one way or the other if nothing replaces the shuttle or if the various space tourism schemes fail.”

Yes, they would care. They wouldn’t march on Washington or call for special elections, but it does matter to most Americans. The notion that their children will have more possibilities in life matters to people. That the future be physically broader, wealthier, and positively different than the past matters to people.

“All of the above is merely quasi-religious speculation”

Jim, your comment borders on denial. You’re telling me it’s “religious speculation” that mass extinctions periodically occur as a result of asteroid impacts and supervolcanos, and that history is pure opinion. Sorry, but you’re not entitled to your own facts–the arguments I make originated in the scientific community, and their primary exponents continue to be scientists, engineers, and people who follow science and engineering. But I’m sure Stephen Hawking would be amused that you consider him tantamount to a Scientologist.

Don’t you find it interesting that the only people who think humans should stick to Earth are also the ones who want our extinction–i.e., dogmatic religions and anti-human fringe environmentalists? Isn’t it the least bit indicative of something that all these highly informed, prestigious, accomplished people are vehemently supportive of manned space, while those most vehemently opposed are fringe activists whose arguments consist primarily of false dilemmas?

“Most people do not accept the premise that space flight has anything to do with the survival and growth of the human species, etc.”

And *yet again* you defer reality to some undefined aggregate. The fact that most people know or don’t know something only affects the practicalities, not the underlying justification.

“In other words investors never invest in anything new.”

That isn’t implied by what I said. The class of investors who fund risky startups, namely angels, don’t have the resources to bring a CATS venture to market, and VC considers such ventures too risky. Since some angels are willing to invest in them anyway, they’ve almost always lost their money when additional financing couldn’t be found, which just reaffirmed the VC position and kept more cautious angels away. Other industries, such as software, are far less risky and involve far lower development costs, so you don’t see the same kind of chicken-and-egg situation.

“Of course. Markets are obviously incapable of that.”

Markets can’t work until a product or service reaches them, and the barriers to entry are extraordinarily high for CATS contenders. A community-based approach would circumvent the usual financing process, combine the best possible insights, and allow multiple firms to reach the market with their own versions of the technology.

“Let’s form a commitee!”

More like a convention.

“You have a very low demand for a service with very high costs.”

The demand is low because the costs are high; the former goes up steadily as the latter decreases, and then makes a quantum leap whenever critical thresholds are surpassed. It’s a basic principle of economics, Jim–beyond the most basic biological needs, supply and demand set each other dynamically, through equilibrium feedback. It’s not linear like they teach in high school econ. When there is an ongoing supply of something, people look for ways to use it, and the cheaper it is the more it can be used for, in which case it becomes even cheaper until a new equilibrium is established.

There was virtually no demand for aircraft for nearly two decades, apart from the war, until someone got the idea that all these hobby toys sitting around doing nothing or making stunts for chump change might deliver mail. Then people figured, with sufficient scaling, they could use them for transportation. Most business is opportunistic.

“Which of course assumes that there is a job that must be done.”

The same old jobs still exist, and space offers a very large pool of potential solutions that bring along new challenges. It’s an utterly exotic environment whose potential hasn’t begun to be fathomed, and your attitude is unbelievably obtuse and, I hate to say it, ignorant. Frankly, all of human history laughs at your implications–there was no immediate purpose to most of the progress we’ve ever made, and yet here you are using machines you don’t need in order to do things you wouldn’t care to do if you weren’t led to do so by a chain of developments. Oh, you mean you can talk to someone 1,000 miles away, and all it would cost is billions of dollars to build telephone wires, fiber optic cables, and satellites? What the hell would you want to do that for?

33. Brian Swiderski - July 10, 2007

Addendum:
Did we spend trillions of dollars developing computer technology just so people could skip a few days’ wait for postal mail, play games, and watch pornography? No, that’s just how it happened–we created computers for very limited, high-cost, low-demand applications like wartime codebreaking, and subsequent demand was created by subsequent supply. That’s how science and technology work, and that’s what will happen with space.

34. Monte Davis - July 12, 2007

subsequent demand was created by subsequent supply.

So on your planet, nobody had done payroll accounting, or spreadsheets, or business correspondence, or record filing, before there were computers? Fascinating — because here on Earth, businesses had been doing vast amounts of that for a long time, and bought 30 years’ worth of IBM and Univac and Honeywell computers to do it faster and cheaper, before the first PC appeared.

That’s not a niggling historical detail; that’s a crucial phase. It was precisely because of that pre-existing, effectively limitless commercial demand for what computers could do that the mainframe/mini computer industry flourished for 30 years, and paid for the R&D that would eventually make PCs possible. (BTW, they spent much more in aggregate than the UK and US had spent on Bletchley Park codebreaking machines, ENIAC for artillery trajectory calculations, etc.)

And it’s precisely because there has been and is no comparable large, pre-existing commercial demand for access to space that space has been stuck in its “Colossus – ENIAC” phase.

It’s revealing — and kind of sad — that your analogy leaps over that gap. I understand that you want to believe space can go directly from its big, low-volume “government” stage to the cheap and cheerful, mass-market “PC” phase. But if you really think “that’s how science and technology work,” you’re in for a big letdown.

35. shubber - July 12, 2007

Did we spend trillions of dollars developing computer technology just so people could skip a few days’ wait for postal mail, play games, and watch pornography?

No, we didn’t spend trillions of dollars developing computer technology at all. We spent a much smaller sum of money developing the first computers, then Mr. Market stepped in and purchased more and more machines, first for business use (remember the days of tape drives, punch cards, and shared computer time..?) and eventually this led to the creation of cheap enough parts that hobbyists built the first home computers. Never mind the 40 years that took, by the way.

No, that’s just how it happened–we created computers for very limited, high-cost, low-demand applications like wartime codebreaking, and subsequent demand was created by subsequent supply.

This is the problem with analogies: they SUCK.

That’s how science and technology work, and that’s what will happen with space.

Let me know when the technology is available at Radio Shack for me to build my own rocket ship….

36. Brian Swiderski - July 13, 2007

Monte: So on your planet, nobody had done payroll accounting, or spreadsheets, or business correspondence, or record filing, before there were computers?

So on your planet, there’s no luxury tourism, desire for rapid transportation, or thrill-seeking industry? To hear you tell it, the PC industry couldn’t succeed because average people weren’t interested in buying $50,000 mainframes–your reasoning makes no sense. Or if an average consumer was asked at the time if they’d pay $1,000 for a computer, do you think they’d say yes? They would say “Hell no! What am I gonna do with a computer?” The Futron surveys, which already more than justify optimism, vastly underreport the actual demand that will be realized from tourism alone.

Monte: It was precisely because of that pre-existing, effectively limitless commercial demand for what computers could do

There is limitless commercial demand for entertainment and speed.

Monte: And it’s precisely because there has been and is no comparable large, pre-existing commercial demand for access to space that space has been stuck in its “Colossus – ENIAC” phase.

I’m going to have to call BS on that. You claim there was preexisting demand for PCs merely because potential applications existed, but refuse to apply the same standard when talking about space. Furthermore, you support your claim by noting the high costs and low demand for vehicles that were never designed for commercialization in the first place, and then insist that it’s somehow an intrinsic property of the launch industry.

Shubber: “We spent a much smaller sum of money developing the first computers”

Ditto space rockets.

Shubber: then Mr. Market stepped in and purchased more and more machines, first for business use

Also ditto space rockets, although costs remain massively inflated due to the legacy of cost-plus contracting. SpaceX will slice through that Gordian knot, and then (hopefully) proceed to address other costly systems like the way ranges are operated.

and eventually this led to the creation of cheap enough parts that hobbyists built the first home computers.

Armadillo, Masten, UP Aerospace, etc. They’re not at the Apple I stage yet, but they’re in their garages slaving away toward it.

Never mind the 40 years that took, by the way.

Forty years of technological development to achieve what virtually no one even thought possible. The technology for massive space commercialization already exists, it’s clearly plausible, and simply has to be implemented. Any technological progress in the field will just be on top of already explosive latent potential.

Shubber: Let me know when the technology is available at Radio Shack for me to build my own rocket ship….

Let me know when the technology is available at Radio Shock to build your own aircraft.


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