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It’s your life… July 11, 2007

Posted by shubber in Uncategorized.
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A recent discussion in the comments section led to this entry in the Space Cynics blog. Specifically, a guest appeared to take pity on me for my lack of, um, vision, I guess, because I don’t subscribe to the kool-aid vision of STS, ISS, VSE, you name it as just being around the corner and the best use of anyone’s (read: my) time.Well, let’s see if I can clarify this:bozo.png

The development of manned space is stuck in 1st gear, engaging in endless do-overs of the same essential function it’s been doing since the days of Gagarin – sending very small payloads for limited periods into low Earth orbit, on relatively pointless missions for huge expenditures of capital.

I am not referring to the commercial sector and their comsats and imaging sats – those are businesses, and they are in it to make money (and have generally been doing quite well at that for some time).

My unwillingness to drink the kool-aid is forged from years of watching one slick presentation after another try to pitch the public on the next great thing: either from the alt.space community or from NASA and their partners – and then have it quietly tossed into the bin while another idea is pushed into the limelight. ISS and the Shuttle are but two examples of overpriced white elephants which have no real value to either the private sector or to the taxpayers, certainly not worth the price of admission.  The private sector is similarly littered with countless projects that were dubious to begin with…

The reason I began this blog is, in part, to help save other people from getting sucked into the latest huckster proposition without at least using their critical faculties to peer behind the smoke and mirrors and see what is really viable. Years ago, after giving a talk at a conference in Melbourne Australia on the space industry value chain and the reason why launchports and launch vehicles were a bad place to be focusing one’s time (regulatory and market issues being the primary), one of the engineering students approached me and said “I just want to go home and cry.”

My response: “I’ve done my job.”

He is now a very happy engineer, still in aerospace, but working on a real project at a real company and has a career ahead of him.

One of the most valuable things you have in your life – that is irreplaceable – is time. Money can be lost and earned again. But your life you never get back. So as a Cynic I’m here to call BS on Kool-aid fantasies wherever I see them, because there just aren’t enough of us out there to fight the siren songs being sung from every corner of the alt.space.tragic world.

They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers.

But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

-Carl Sagan (R.I.P.)

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Comments»

1. Brian Swiderski - July 12, 2007

I really appreciate the Space Cynics for what you guys do, and for heaping much-deserved ridicule on the vapor salesmen. However, I seem to notice a bit of uncomfortable squirming when Virgin Galactic or SpaceX is brought up, a kind of sulky “you’ll see” vibe. Although I haven’t been following this site very long, it was kind of smirk-inducing to see the latter’s unprecedented, NASA-shaming test launch mocked as recidivist failure.

As much as I enjoy seeing hucksters laughed at, I also love seeing determined cynics backed into a corner. When (not if) Falcon 1 is launching reliably and at a fraction the price of the cheapest competitor, what will there be to say? Deny they can scale it? Say there won’t be enough demand? None of their cost savings projections depend on economies of scale or reusability, so either or both would just be on top of what they’re projecting. Space Cynicism is a losing game–you might try converting to Space Pragmatism.

2. shubber - July 12, 2007

However, I seem to notice a bit of uncomfortable squirming when Virgin Galactic or SpaceX is brought up, a kind of sulky “you’ll see” vibe.

I’d suggest you’re seeing what you want to see, then.

Although I haven’t been following this site very long, it was kind of smirk-inducing to see the latter’s unprecedented, NASA-shaming test launch mocked as recidivist failure.

A failed launch is not “NASA-shaming” as much as the alt-space crowd would like to think it is. More broadly speaking, not all of NASA is “bad”. There is a hugely wasteful white elephant known as the Manned Spaceflight Program, but there are also some incredible groups at NASA doing robotic space, MTPE, aeronautics (when they get a few scraps from the table) etc.

And my point with regards to Falcon’s failure is simply this: SPACE IS HARD. VERY HARD. HARD IN THE SAME WAY THAT FALLING DOWN IS NOT HARD.

Is that easier to follow?

As much as I enjoy seeing hucksters laughed at, I also love seeing determined cynics backed into a corner.

Must be watching another cynic, then. No corners around me right now. 🙂

When (not if) Falcon 1 is launching reliably and at a fraction the price of the cheapest competitor, what will there be to say?

Congratulations. That’s what i’ll say. The Falcon 1 is, as I have said repeatedly, the Dell Computer of the launch business – they are going to make life tough for the existing launch providers that overcharge (or, more correctly, charge what the market will bear) in the particular payload class they compete in. But as long as the demand for launch is predicated on downstream demand for the services from the things that are being launched, it will not be a game-changing revolutionary “next great thing”.

None of their cost savings projections depend on economies of scale or reusability, so either or both would just be on top of what they’re projecting.

Which is what I expect, as Elon is most certainly NOT an idiot.

Space Cynicism is a losing game–you might try converting to Space Pragmatism.

Space Cynicism isn’t a game, it’s a way of life. 🙂

3. Brian Swiderski - July 12, 2007

A failed launch is not “NASA-shaming” as much as the alt-space crowd would like to think it is.

To abort after ignition, cycle the fuel and launch within an hour, pass max-Q uneventfully, achieve stage separation, have the nozzle completely undamaged by collision with the staging, achieve 2nd stage ignition, and reach 300km before engine failure on the 2nd ever test launch of a totally new class of vehicle, with a totally new ground operations system doesn’t merely shame NASA–it has the entire industry in uproar. Big Aerospace is hard pressed to do that with incremental evolutions of existing vehicles, 9-figure investments, computer modeling up the arse, the most expensive testing and fabrication equipment on Earth, and ground operations perfected over decades.

SPACE IS HARD. VERY HARD. HARD IN THE SAME WAY THAT FALLING DOWN IS NOT HARD.

I know, isn’t it great? Space is the Total Challenge, ultimately requiring the best skills, creativity, and technology in every discipline. But it isn’t just a “slog” like you guys say–even minor progress yields massive technological ROI, new directions, and new understandings because it involves so many different fields. Once there’s an economic core of people whose lives depend on such progress, and many of whom will be scientists and engineers themselves, the advances will come blindingly fast, IMHO.

But as long as the demand for launch is predicated on downstream demand for the services from the things that are being launched, it will not be a game-changing revolutionary “next great thing”.

But aren’t you forgetting that new supply can create new demand? There was no demand for home computing before home computers were brought to market. The average consumer wasn’t walking around dreaming of playing text MUDs, word processing, and dot-matrix printers–only a few hardcore geeks were, and their enthusiasm exposed the general public to the possibilities. We didn’t create computer technology for the reasons we now use it–it was just there for a few low-demand applications, and then people figured out they might as well use it for other things too.

Falcon will bring independent space programs within range of universities and mid-sized companies, which means accelerated progress on space technology due to easier access to the environment for testing and research. The same college culture that evolved around computers in the ’70s will, I think, develop around space technology, with grad assistants pulling all-nighters building satellites for various departments. Some of them will then take off to found their own space companies, etc. etc.

And as far as manned space is concerned, frankly I don’t think either Virgin or SpaceX will ever be able to keep up with demand once the service is available, let alone have to worry about sustaining it. Not only is space travel a lifelong dream for millions, but an unprecedented novelty, a profoundly addicting and life-altering experience, a status symbol, and an unbeatable thrill. Call it Kool-Aid, call it naive; but from what I can see, the launch of VG and Falcon 9 will ignite Moore’s Law in space.

Space Cynicism isn’t a game, it’s a way of life.

I imagine a rather ulcer-inducing way of life. My own Space Zen tells me that vapor is, after all, just water with too much hot air involved. I agree with Brian Binnie: When it comes to personally going there, space sells itself, so just build it and they will come. I know I will.

4. Monte Davis - July 13, 2007

We didn’t create computer technology for the reasons we now use it–it was just there for a few low-demand applications, and then people figured out they might as well use it for other things too.

Brian, did you read comments 34 & 35 in the CATS thread before writing this? Or did they rolled right off?

What you write above is wrong — factually, unambiguously wrong, every bit as wrong as if I were to assert that gravity at sea level is 9.8 microns/sec^2, or that the Isp of LH2/LOX is 450,000.

The technological and economic context in which the PC emerged — for hobbyists c. 1970 and for a mass market c. 1980 — was not that of “a few low-demand applications.” There was a very large, very profitable IT industry, supplying many high-demand applications to business and scientific users.

It was the very large profits, the reinvestment in R&D, and the cumulative experience of that industry, from 1950 onward, that gradually led to every essential ingredient of the PC — microprocessors and RAM and ROM ICs, disk and diskette drives, operating systems, programming languages, libraries of proven routines — and drove their cost down 90% to 99% from their 1950 counterparts.

That’s why the hobbyist vendors at IMSAI in 1970 — then Jobs & Wozniak at Apple, Don Estridge at IBM, and all the rest — could put together PCs from commodity components, and price them at $5K or less, instead of custom-built devices for $100K or $250K.

If you ignore those 20-30 years and start your historical analogy c. 1980, then yes — it’s more or less true to say that the “supply” of affordable desktop capability quickly generated “demand” far beyond the spreadsheets and word processing many people foresaw as their main uses.

But in space, we are not at a stage comparable to computing in 1980 or even 1970 — it’s still much more like 1950. Rocket engines and airframes and turbopumps and thermal protection systems and launch infrastructure have not declined 90%-99% in real cost from 1960s levels. Avionics aside, Musk and Rutan and Bezos are not assembling commodity components from parts catalogues … not even close.

Appeals to Moore’s Law have an even deeper flaw. Moore’s Law works because ICs process bits…abstract patterns of “gate open” and “gate closed”… so ever-smaller hardware and currents can carry out exactly the same function.

That is not the case for launch technologies… not even close. If we could make a perfect scale RS-68 a millimeter high, it would lose heat faster than it could burn propellant (square-cube scaling). Would it help if Intel Galactic came up with a way to make 10,000 of them (or 10,000 teeny-tiny Dragon capsules or Bigelow habs) on a chip? And if not, what’s the point of chanting “Moore’s Law” like a magic mantra?

Bottom line: your repeated analogies between space and computing are bogus — bogus historically, bogus economically, bogus at the level of basic physical and engineering principles.

Other than that, they’re fine. 🙂

5. Brian Swiderski - July 13, 2007

Brian, did you read comments 34 & 35 in the CATS thread before writing this?

They may not have been posted yet.

What you write above is wrong — factually, unambiguously wrong

So it’s your assertion that communications, games, and pornography were in fact original markets for the computer industry?

The technological and economic context in which the PC emerged — for hobbyists c. 1970 and for a mass market c. 1980 — was not that of “a few low-demand applications.” There was a very large, very profitable IT industry, supplying many high-demand applications to business and scientific users.

Just as there is currently a very large, very profitable aerospace industry, supplying many high-demand applications to business and scientific users. You’re begging the question by redefining the scope of the issue: The “low demand” refers to (a)the original applications of computing, and (b)the tiny market for personal computers such as they existed before the PC revolution. Very credible, well-respected computer luminaries thought nobody other than hardcore hobbyists would be interested. The myopia of companies like Xerox in failing to recognize the potential is now legendary.

But in space, we are not at a stage comparable to computing in 1980 or even 1970 — it’s still much more like 1950

Commercial computing firms didn’t exist in 1950. Computer hobbyism didn’t exist in 1950. There was no secondary computing industry providing logistics, support, or components. There weren’t millions of enthusiasts around the world closely tracking the progress of computing, and willing to pay significant premiums the moment it came within their price range. The microcomputer, if it was ever imagined, was envisioned as a far-future development over centuries if not millennia. Space isn’t merely like computing in the early 1970s, it also has vastly more explosive potential (not to be witty).

Avionics aside, Musk and Rutan and Bezos are not assembling commodity components from parts catalogues

That’s because they’re providing a service, not a product. That could change when the Space Ship Company begins licensing SS2s, and the volume of SpaceX launches ramps up, but for the moment they don’t need to be commoditized to achieve massive savings. It’s their services that will establish the standards for commoditization, and companies like Armadillo that do use parts catalogs will be there to capitalize on it.

Moore’s Law works because ICs process bits…abstract patterns of “gate open” and “gate closed”… so ever-smaller hardware and currents can carry out exactly the same function.

I didn’t say Moore’s Law growth could last forever, just that it would be initiated. There is a decades-long backlog of technological progress that hasn’t gotten any play in the space market due to Big Aerospace apathy, and SpaceX is applying it at every level of operations. Even after they’ve achieved equilibrium, their success will flood the market with startup and R&D money, force the majors to get some exercise, and drive growth that I don’t see returning to linear until space is heavily commoditized.

And if not, what’s the point of chanting “Moore’s Law” like a magic mantra?

“Moore’s Law” is now generic for continuous exponential growth over a short unit time, not a specific technological development.

Bottom line: your repeated analogies between space and computing are bogus — bogus historically, bogus economically, bogus at the level of basic physical and engineering principles.

You argue Newspace will not succeed quickly, if ever, because you claim there’s little demand for its services. The analogy to personal computing is screamingly obvious, and has nothing to do with the nature of the technology–it’s the nature of supply and demand we’re talking about.

6. Chiya - November 2, 2007

“He is now a very happy engineer, still in aerospace, but working on a real project at a real company and has a career ahead of him.”

I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Could you explain what he is doing now?

7. shubber - November 3, 2007

Sure – last I saw him he was working for an aerospace company (think reasonably big, international, but not Bo/Lock/NG) in Australia. Most of the work involves something to do with flight software or avionics for the JSF and F-111 platforms (can’t swear to it 100%, but i’m pretty sure that’s what he was doing when I ran into him at a RAAF base in Queensland).


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