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I am a Lost Cause February 23, 2009

Posted by Thomas Olson in gauntlet being dropped, hot air, public service announcement, sbsp, smack talk.
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As a good friend of mine reminded me: “Getting into an argument on the internet is like being in the Special Olympics – you might “win”, but you’re still [developmentally disabled].” I didn’t use the term he did, at the end, out of respect for the fact that my wife has worked with/for the MRDD community for nearly 20 years. But I agree with the sentiment, nonetheless.

About a week or so back, I let myself get into it on Facebook with someone over all the usual canards concerning Space-Based Solar Power. Even after I threw up my hands and walked away, it didn’t end well – I kept getting message after message in my inbox. It was late at night, he was spewing complete nonsense, and I should’ve just let it go.

Early last week found me in Portland, OR, packing up my mom’s recently-sold home. As that “someone” also lived there, I sent him a quick e-mail inviting him to dinner or lunch – largely as a peace offering. Even though we in the “community” may have some serious disagreements, I find we can usually find common ground somewhere, and as we’re rather a small community to begin with, it just made sense to me to extend an olive branch.

That olive branch, a couple days later, was abruptly thrown back in my face by this person, in a tersely-worded missive claiming that his work life takes up most of his time, and he doesn’t have any to waste “arguing” with me. He finished with: “I think you are a lost cause.”

Well, there you are. We’ve just crossed the line from impassioned, reasoned debate and discourse to “religion”. For only the truly devout would use the term “lost cause.” This is a term usually reserved for the damned and doomed. And of course, the proselytizer doesn’t have any time to waste on those he can’t reach – new victims await his message of hope and eternal salvation.

I was angered for awhile – particularly at his incivility. A born Brit should know better. A born Brit should also, simply out of a sense of history, realize that many of those who settled America and Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries were also considered “lost causes” by those whom they left behind. Convicts, slaves, religious cultists, the politically inconvenient, the oppressed, the starving – “lost causes” all. This would include my own great-grandparents. So we can be a bit sensitive to that term.

Millions of “lost causes” came to North America and Australia, during that period, survived the hardships, and prospered, caring not a whit about the sanctimonious judgments of others. Most of us here today are their descendants.

So in reconsideration of the “space” context, I concluded that I should wear that mantle proudly. Indeed, I am a “lost cause”:

I am a lost cause for anyone who seeks to convince me that railroad-building in the 19th century – with all its political corruption, human misery and business failure – is any kind of model for building space commerce infrastructure in the 21st;

I am a lost cause for anyone seeking to convince me that $200/lb to LEO with conventional rockets is in any way practical or profitable, unless you’re talking about a “new” dollar that’s worth a whole lot more than the ones we’re using now;

I am a lost cause for anyone trying to convince me that SBSP will be of any practical or economic value before at least 50 years have elapsed;

I am a lost cause for anyone trying to convince me that Helium-3 mining on the moon – for fusion reactors that don’t exist – is anything other than a smokescreen;

I am a lost cause for anyone attempting to make me believe that “we” can actually muster enough influence to lobby Congress to give NASA more money, at a time when the TRULY politically-connected and influential are reaping the benefits of bailouts right and left from a hopelessly corrupt DC machine;

And I am definitely a lost cause for anyone making the argument that Walt Anderson is actually “guilty” of anything.

Moral of the story: If you dare to think for yourself – in this or any other context – you are probably someone’s “lost cause” somewhere. Wear it proudly.

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Comments»

1. Brian Dunbar - February 23, 2009

So you’re a lost cause – that means you’re a surly grump over lunch or a beer?

Phht. Men of good will can sup and drink and have merry conversation no matter their feelings on business or politics.

If they can’t then the heck with ’em.

2. Keith Henson - February 23, 2009

I understand your being cynical about space. Been there, done that myself.

But about a year ago, I accidentally hit on a method that looks like $50 a pound to *GEO*. That’s still a lot higher than the minimum you could get with a moving cable space elevator, but we ain’t gonna get those till we get the fiber.

The method is to use a rocket to get up about 200 miles and pick up a little of orbital speed, then using a huge ablation laser with an ISP from 550 to 1500 take it the rest of the way to GEO. This won’t work for a traffic model less than a fair fraction of a million tons a year. But if you are trying to build power sats that’s exactly what you need.

If you can get stuff to GEO for $100/kg then it looks like bus bar power of a penny a kWh and from that synthetic gasoline for $1 a gallon.

I need to put the details up on a web page, but the power point is about 7 Mbytes if you want to see it.

Keith Henson
An L5 Society Founder
hkhenson@rogers.com
http://www.htyp.org/dtc

3. Thomas Olson - February 23, 2009

You probably said it better than I….

4. Bart L - February 24, 2009

You’ve got excellent reasons for being a “lost cause” on all of the topics you mentioned. However, since you’re not a Kool-Aid drinker for SBSP, low-cost launch, He-3, etc., what does interest you in space still? What do you think will work, given all the aborted or downright silly ideas?

I’ve seen a few posts like this, here and on N’Watch, bashing this or that dumb idea, but often find few positive recommendations. Are those found on a different blog?

/b

5. Thomas Olson - February 24, 2009

I’m interested in all of space, Bart. Have been since I was a kid. I want to see people live and thrive everywhere from the moon and Mars to the asteroids and beyond. I want to see tourism and orbiting hotels. I want to see the private commercial space sector one day dwarf the government sector, as is the case with all other areas of our economy.

My problem is the nutty ways that people propose to achieve that goal – ways that are impractical, full of “unobtainium”, have 8 or 9-figure upfront costs, or ways that hide their true costs (this is also known as being untruthful).

So the real question becomes, “How do we get from here to there?” I have a few ideas – I’ve even shared them for those who’ve cared to listen (that would include ISDC last year, Bart, and I didn’t see you in the audience – pity, that…).

I think in the short run, strategic investments in “enabling” technologies will get us much farther in the long run than trying to throw down everything into grabbing the entire brass ring in one swoop.

For example, I believe that lower-cost launch is possible – but not using the materials we presently use to make rockets – but getting that material requires new methods, hence my focus on certain nanotech startups. But that means to get there we may have to wait awhile, and that is unacceptable to those with limited patience who think they can get it all now, if only they can convince someone with a really deep pocket to fund them.

To be fair, I’m very supportive of SpaceX, because they’re doing it all with private money, and had to raise all their own capital before getting a single NASA check. But Elon himself admitted that the only “efficiencies” would be “at the margins”. In other words, no huge reduction in launch cost was coming anytime soon. That’s the world that exists today. But if you could “grow” the bulk of your rocket components in a vat from nano-assembled diamond, the rocket equation changes because the empty lift mass is a lot lower, but still as strong. That means more payload.

I’m looking at “smart materials” that may one day find themselves in better spacesuits. I’m looking at something called an “axial-flux” electric motor that claims 80% efficiency, available for transportation, regenerative braking, and wind generation, something I also see on a Mars rover.

There’s a ton of ideas being developed, and tons of potential money to be made, right now, on materials, products, and services that may seem unrelated at first, but will all one day become key components of a thriving space-commerce infrastructure. But it’ll take patience, a long term plan, and a solid grounding in reality.

6. Eric Haynes - February 25, 2009

Great blog Tom as I learned a lot and you certainly seem to know what you’re talking about. I too occasionally get upset with some other internet blogger then I realize he/she is just a complete stranger usually trying to get my goat.

A couple of thoughts on dealing with some difficult internet folks. 1. If you’re constantly getting flustered on some subject then maybe it’s best to politely bow out with a short, succinct summary of your view..and leave it at that. 2. If you know you’re right well then..you’re right! You don’t need to prove it to anyone, especially on the Internet. 3. Save YOUR TIME (Shubber talks about the importance of YOUR TIME and he couldn’t be more right) and energy for something that’s meaningful and important to YOU. 4.Take care of yourself and the people you care about. DON’T waste YOUR TIME on difficult people on the Internet that you don’t know, it’ll drive you crazy if you do.

7. Bart L - February 25, 2009

>>I’ve even shared them for those who’ve cared to listen (that would include ISDC last year, Bart, and I didn’t see you in the audience – pity, that…).<<

I stand abashed. I got pulled in too many different directions this year. Thanks for your thoughtful answer. I will keep an eye out for the developments you discussed.

/b

8. imipak - March 1, 2009

The obligatory xkcd reference: http://xkcd.com/386/

9. Thomas Olson - March 1, 2009

That made me chuckle this morning…thanks.

10. Keith Henson - March 3, 2009

Thomas, if we have to wait for nanotech, there is a good chance people will not bother with space at all. Other things just become too distracting.

You can Google “clinic seed” henson for a story I wrote about it.

Pre nanotech, I don’t think there is a way short of a few hundred billion dollars to get the cost of getting into space down into the $100/kg range. Post nanotechnology, a moving cable space elevator should get it down to about 15 cents.

Pre nanotech we might be able to use a combination of rockets and huge lasers to push a million tons of construction material a year out there.

Keith Henson

11. Thomas Olson - March 4, 2009

Keith, without nanotech, most of us won’t live long enough to see commercial space happen!

Nanotech, however, has this strange way of GETTING INVESTOR FUNDING, to the tune of hundreds of millions. It’s also producing products and making those investors money. We’re still waiting on alt.space, despite the fact that nanotech and alt.space got into the public consciousness at around the same time. (mid-late 80’s)

There is no “pre nanotech”. Nanotech is already here. It just needs to evolve to the “assembler” stage. That’s coming. Sooner than $100 to orbit, I’ll bet.

“A few hundred billion dollars” isn’t available these days. We’re too busy bailing out the banking and insurance system.

“Other things” have been getting “too distracting” for about 40 years now. That’s NASA’s fault. They wanted to promote the “hero” model of spaceflight, rather than the “everyman” model. This has now backfired on them, with ripple effects that hurt alt.space efforts now.

Where are the “huge lasers” coming from? Who will build them? What will they cost? Who will pay for them? Who will operate them (can we trust those people)? Can they also be used to knock out other people’s satellites? Will the international community feel threatened by them?

12. Jim Davis - March 11, 2009

“And I am definitely a lost cause for anyone making the argument that Walt Anderson is actually “guilty” of anything.”

Tom, can you clarify exactly where you’re coming from in your defense of Anderson?

At various times you’ve given the impression that you think:

Anderson is as innocent as a newborn. He broke no law. He’s been framed or railroaded or someone had it in for him.

or

Anderson broke the law but the law is stupid or unjust so he shouldn’t be punished..

or

Anderson broke the law but there are much worst offenders who haven’t been punished nearly as severely if at all so he shouldn’t be punished.

or

Anderson broke the law but I like Walt and what Walt does so he shouldn’t be punished.

To be honest I’m only sympathetic in the case of the first scenario.

13. Thomas Olson - March 13, 2009

Jim, I’ve spoken to Anderson at length many times, including his current digs, and no one would claim that he’s “innocent as a newborn”. OTOH, he still claims that what he did to preserve capital offshore (Smaller World Trust) after the sale of Esprit Telecom was perfectly legitimate. He is still slugging it out in tax court, where the IRS actually admitted they didn’t have any evidence to support their claims (!).

There were 12 original counts. 6 had already been dropped prior to the plea-bargain arrangement. He only arranged to “plead guilty” to 3 of the remaining 6. After all the research that I’ve been doing (for a book on Walt I’m authoring), digging into the transcripts, 3rd-party accounts, etc., I’m convinced that Walt would have won his case at trial had he been able to secure the fiscal resources to do so.

There’s a lot more to this story than I can relate in a short post, but he was essentially tortured into a confession. There is a lot of material available at justiceforwalt.com, for anyone who’s interested. Jim, you can always e-mail me “offline” for further questions. (And it’s very possible someone DID have it in for him – a few strategic FOIA requests I’m making could shed some light on that hypothesis)

14. James Rogers - March 13, 2009

I can’t help but think I’m being childish when my smile gets bigger every time I read this entry. Thanks Tom. I’ll wear the badge with honor.

15. Townsville Talk Forum - March 14, 2009

Hey,

I’m enjoying the site.

Keep up the Good work.

Love Heaps

Sky


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