Your Focus Determines Your Path

I have been recently thinking and arguing a lot about NASA’s new uberproject, commonly called the Moon, Mars, and Beyond initiative, or sometimes the Vision for Space Exploration. I’ve argued on several instances that I don’t think the direction that Mike Griffen is currently steering the space program will actually lead to the settlement and development of the solar system. After quite a bit of discussion, I realized that your perspective on what constitutes “space development” or “space exploration” will greatly impact your opinion on how to best go about achieving those goals. In fact, this is a fairly valid general point: your focus determines your path.

If you think that having a small McMurdo-on-the-Moon style lunar science base is space development, then your opinion on what is an ideal method to accomplish that will differ quite a bit from someone like me who doesn’t see the moon as settled until there are dozens of settlements and hundreds of thousands of people living and working there.

If you’re only planning on sending a few people a year to a small government camp, with no intention of ever opening the moon up to commercial exploitation, building a big Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle may make a perverse amount of sense. If on the other hand you actually want to make money on the moon through say, lunar tourism, you realize that the only way you’ll ever get the costs low enough is if you have some sort of reusability built into your transportation system. Which means biting the bullet with on-orbit rendezvous, docking, propellant transfer, and vehicle assembly.

If your goal is to get back to the moon as soon as reaonably possible, you might decide to just give a big contract to a large government contractor, and pull enough technical expertise back into NASA to manage the project and see it through. You might think in such a situation that it would be irresponsible or risky to give money to smaller, unproven aerospace companies. However if your goal is to actually promote the settlement of the solar system, you quickly realize that unless most of what happens in space are market-driven activities nothing much will happen. You might realize then that trying to catalyze the development of a vibrant and innovative commercial space sector is important. More important then getting new US flags on the lunar surface, more important than maintaining pointless make-work-scheme-for-nerds jobs in key congressional districts, more important than finding out if microbial life ever existed on Mars, more important than sending a cool, glitzy, next-to-useless probe to the Moon before 2008, more important then subsidizing bloated overmerged government contractors, more important than keeping wind-tunnels open in Virginia, Ohio, and California, and yes, even more important then keeping a aging space telescope still sending back pretty pictures for peoples’ screensavers. If you realize the importance of catalyzing the commercial space sector, you might even find that in so doing you’ll actually get where you want to go quicker than by just throwing more money down the BoeLock hole. There are few paths between any two locations that takes longer than a shortcut.

Let’s do it right this time Mike.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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4 Responses to Your Focus Determines Your Path

  1. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    I started a comment on this entry and it kind of grew on it’s own. Good stuff. I rolled your blog, as it were.

  2. Harmon says:

    At the 2005 NSS conference in May, the space law session discussed this. Comparisons were made to the Antarctic treaty, which has succeeded in keeping the Antarctic a vast virtually uninhabited wasteland for the past 70 years – as no commercial development is allowed. And also the undersea treaty has hindered the development of the ocean floor. Commercial development, and property rights and the ability to profit from what development you create, is key. Wayne White, Bob Zimmerman, lots of like minded folks discussing similar issues.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Harmon,

    Good point. I think that if NASA decides to go the route of a building a McMurdo-on-the-Moon, that it will be a lot harder to get a good property rights structure put into place. It would be oh so easy for partners to complain that commercial development would get in the way of their science (as it probably would to at least some small degree–while vastly helping them out at the same time), and to say “this ought to be like Antartica”, and use that as a precedent.

    From thinking about that, I think that the best case scenario would be if the first landing were done by a private venture setting up facilities independent of whatever government facilities get put up. While Congress might not have much of a problem signing something that kills property rights on the moon if there is no commercial interest already there, they’re a lot more likely to fight it if it’s seen as impacting high-paying jobs in their districts.

    Just a thought.

  4. Kelly Starks says:

    Good point (and good luck with the blog). NASA is building a NASA vision. Human colonization of space has never been part of that vision. In a real sence it can’t be since it would leave NASA in the dust, and NASA’s vision is centered on – well NASA being IN that future.

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