I Probably Shouldn’t Respond, But….

Our favorite cranky curmudgeon, Mark Whittington decided to do a little trolling the other day. I know I really shouldn’t allow myself to be baited so easily, but I’ve got a little time on my hands this morning, and I haven’t done a good fisking in at least a few weeks.

Well, I actually do care if you get into space, especially if you share my values about Western Civilization. The purpose of the space program is not to get me and mine a trip to Club Moon but to spread human civilization beyond the Earth. If I get to go, fine. If not, sad for me but it doesn’t matter in the large scale scheme of things.

Human civilization by any reasonable definition of the term is not going to be spread beyond earth by this program. At most a few dozen civil servants are going to go camp out on the moon for a few months at a time. The techniques and technologies that are truly neccessary to do what Mark says he wants to see (spreading human civilization beyond the Earth) are being intentionally ignored by the current ESAS architecture. The companies that had contracts developing these technologies have for the most part had their contracts canceled explicitly since they are developing techniques that would make those HLVs that NASA has such a fetish for unneccessary.

But he’s right, NASA isn’t around to give us all a vacation in space. It isn’t here for our entertainment. What it should be here for (if it should be here at all) is to help promote the commercial development of space. That is the only way that “Western Civilization” is going to spread beyond the Earth. It isn’t going to happen on ultra-expensive, low-flight-rate, government run and operated vehicles. It will only happen when commercial companies are routinely traveling about inside cislunar space, and some companies are making money doing things on the lunar surface, in orbit, and beyond.

Anyhow, moving right along, Mark then does some interesting fact twisting:

Jon Goff, who once famously boasted that his company would have a CNN crew to cover the NASA return to the Moon landing, has some more complaints:

It’s interesting how a fun little jest about us at MSS probably being able to land a CNN crew on the Moon before NASA gets back there has now been hyped up to a “boast”. As though any serious person would have taken that comment to be a serious promise of what we think MSS will be doing fifteen years from now. We do intend to do lunar landers at some point if we can figure out the suborbital RLV first (since a lunar lander is really not too much more sophisticated than a VTVL suborbital RLV), but when or if that actually happens is dependent on how well this first vehicle goes, what we can do with the various intermediate markets between now and then, etc.

All that said, I still wouldn’t mind carrying out that boast. Just so long as there’s someone back on Earth filming Mark’s reaction for me.

Well, goodness, where does one start? Let’s leave aside the insults against those of us who have not drunk the alt.space koolaid. Those really demonstrate the poverty of the libertarian anarchist argument.

In case Mark couldn’t tell, those insults were meant as what is sometimes called “humor”. They weren’t intended as substantiative arguments, or a replacement thereof. And more importantly, I wasn’t so much insulting those who haven’t drunk the alt.space koolaid as those who had drunk the NASA koolaid.

The fact of the matter is, no matter what scenario one can imagine, most people alive on this planet will not travel into space, no more than most people in Europe in the 17th and 18th Century traveled to the Americas. Put that fantasy out of your mind.

Of course most people won’t be travelling to space, even if it becomes no more difficult than traveling to Europe. Most people on this planet haven’t and won’t leave their nation of origin. Most just don’t want to. However for those subset of people that do want to leave Earth and visit or settle places out in space, it would be nice if it were even an option. I would be overjoyed with NASA if they even were able to help as small a fraction of the US population get to the moon as the fraction of Europeans who had been to America by the end of the 17th or 18th century. But as I keep pointing out, this architecture won’t even lead to that much.

A sound space policy–and I think that NASA’s plan to return to the Moon is part of it–will open up the high frontier of space to a lot of people with the will and the ability to take advantage of the opportunity. It may not mean that you or I will be toasting the fiftieth Apollo Day at Tranquility Base. But it will mean that some people alive today might.

How? Waving hands doth not make it so. How exactly will ESAS help “open the high frontier” so a “lot of people” can “take advantage of the opportunity”? Why should I care if they do, if those “some people alive today” end up being just another couple dozen NASA employees? Why is that worth celebrating at all? If the current space policy actually lead to even say 10,000 people settling cislunar space over the next 20 years, it would be awesome. But the reality is that if ESAS leads to even a dozen people settling on the moon by 2025, I’d be amazed.

The reason why those evil big gummit employees need to go is that they will take care of the hard, exacting, and expensive task of exploration. Eventually there will be some kind of base, around which the next wave of space travelers, the entrepeneurs, will gather to form the first lunar settlement. The third wave will be the tourists, in my opinion.

The basic exploration actually needed as a precursor to settlement only has to be expensive if one is trying to get the program to double as a space-nerd welfare scheme. More importantly, much of the exploration and development that is most needed to make lunar settlements and cislunar economies a reality are being actively ignored by NASA at the moment, and will be further ignored as the costs of the Shaft, the Continual Employment Vehicle, and the *ahem* “Longfellow” start overruning their budgets.

The reality is that NASA is now cutting funding to research being done on anything related to on-orbit assembly, zero-g cryogen storage and transfer, and anything else that might make it unneccessary to employ thousands of ATK and BLoMart employees in several states to build and launch the Longfellow. They care more about pandering to special interests and padding the pockets of connected companies than they do about helping mature the technologies needed for civilization to “spread beyond Earth”. Now, this isn’t 100% fair. Brant Sponberg, and his team with Innovative Partnerships are fighting the good fight to try and get at least some crumbs for developing these techologies. I really aplaud Brant and his team for what they’re doing. It should be obvious however where NASA’s and Congress’s real priorities lie. While Brant is struggling to get authorization (and money) to offer prizes more than a piddling $250k for helping foster some of these critical technologies, NASA is planning on spending $20-25B over the next several years in developing their own launchers.

It’ll be great if NASA gets authorization to offer larger prizes, and especially if they can get a few million to back the Lunar Lander Analog prize for example. I would applaud that as an excellent use of NASA money. That still doesn’t mean that I’ll support or condone wasting billions on pork just because NASA did the right thing with a few million.

Anyhow, barring a sea-change at NASA, it looks like several exploration/settlement technical milestones are going to be done entirely (or almost entirely) by those darn unrealistic alt.space companies:

  • The first succesful transfer of cryogenic propellants on orbit
  • The first reusable lunar transfer vehicle
  • The first LEO propellant depot
  • The first reusable lunar lander
  • The first production level lunar ISRU propellant plant
  • The first permanent off-world settlement
  • The first offworld settlement with more than 20 people
  • The first private individual (as opposed to civil servant) on another world
  • The first child born and raised off of earth
  • The first lunar platinum extraction facility
  • The first spacesuit that can survive use on the moon for more than a few weeks at a time without serious overhauls

And very possibly:

  • The next person on the surface of the moon
  • The next object of any sort on the surface of the moon

And my personal favorites:

  • The first CNN crew on the surface of the moon
  • The first me on the surface of the moon

Settling the Moon or any place else in space without a government presence is a fantasy. There is no incentive for all of those alt.space firms, which have not boosted so much as an ant into low Earth orbit, not to mention the Moon as of yet. The cost/benefit ratio is just too great to manage for a private firm at this time.

Well, first off Mark is wrong. Orbital Sciences was originally privately funded when they developed their Pegasus. They’ve boosted many billion ants worth into orbit. There’s also that Falcon I sitting on the pad out in Kwajelein that’s about to put paid to his silly cooment. He is right though that with how expensive NASA does things, the cost/benefit ratio is way too high to justify doing anything on the moon (not even sending government employees there). We’ll just have to change that. Making technology more capable and less expensive is something that the private sector (as opposed to the public sector) is quite good at.

Sure, you probably won’t see any near-term private company that tries to sell a business plan that involves going directly to the moon and setting up a colony there. Or if you do, they won’t get funded. What you will see is private companies incrementally developing the technologies, techniques, and markets needed to get there. You’ll first see private orbital and suborbital flight over the next few years. Then you’ll see the start of orbital tourism, private microgravity research (in private facilities), private on-orbit assembly and servicing. By the time the CEV is ready, you may well see private spacecraft flying on a semi-regular basis. And long before Longfellow is ready, you’ll see private joy-rides around the moon, private tugs delivering on-orbit assembled satellites to GEO, and other similar ventures. You may even see a few tourist expeditions to the old Apollo landing sites before NASA astronauts ever tread again on the lunar surface.

Sure, there will be government involvement, but it’ll probably end up being NASA renting private facilities on the moon rather than the other way around.

Abolish NASA, stop all public space exploration, and one might eventually see private space explorers reach the Moon. But in my opinion they are likely to find the Chinese there waiting to greet them with a no tresspassing sign. Then it will not matter how clever those future entrepeneurs are.

Ah, the Red Scare. It’s kind of amusing that on-orbit assembly is oh-so impossible for us Americans, and even the thought of a private US firm being able to put a CNN crew on the surface of the moon before NASA is heresy. However the Chinese make some small rumor about sending people to the moon, and it is a serious threat. Mark should note that Chinese government-run lunar program will probably take the same route that Russia was planning on taking: on-orbit assembly of modular spacecraft from smaller launch vehicles. Somehow in Mark’s world those darned socialists are smarter than us American capitalists….funny that a self-avowed capitalist has so much more faith in government and central planning than he does in the market. It seems he has more faith in the power of communism than even the communists do. Most of them are smart enough to realize how much bullox communism is, and are trying to shed it in favor of some form of capitalism as fast as they can.

Yeah, the Chinese may get there with a few dozen employees and setup a small base. They might even do so before private enterprise gets there. And when private companies get there, they’ll land a couple miles over and setup their own facilities. As will another company, and another, and another. They probably won’t mind having another trading partner out there. The important thing to remember is that due to the OST that China signed, they can’t claim land there any more than we can. They can only exclude others from interfering with their stuff that they bring there. The moon has the surface area of Africa. Do you really think that a dozen Chinese guys are really going to be able to fence the whole thing off before private enterprise gets there?

The Chinese, socialists that they are, will have the guns.

And private companies, Americans that they are, will also have guns. I’m not sure what Mark’s point is.

Anyhow, that’s all I have for now. I hope this little fisking shed at least some light to go with all the heat.

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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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5 Responses to I Probably Shouldn’t Respond, But….

  1. Bill White says:

    One minor nit. 😉

    Why bother with cryogenic fuel transfer?

    Standardized plug-n-play drop tanks should be considerably easier to develop. Fill with lunar LOX in 1/6th gravity and when re-fueling a spacecraft at EML-1 (for example) eject the empty tank and plug in the full one.

    = = =

    As for the rest, we won’t do better than Mike Griffin as NASA Administrator. He needs our support whether we quarrel on details or not.

  2. Ed says:

    Jon, I’ve been following this argument through the last few days and provide a roundup here, as well as adding my own two cents.

    I’ve also started a Space Blogroll. Your blog and about 30 others were grandfathered in. I’m posting the notice here so that any space bloggers not already on the blogroll can find out how to get on.

  3. problem says:


    I have a little question. Do you believe that “private space” needs NASA (or the government in general) as some sort of initial customer, or do you believe that even without this support “private space” will flourish?
    If you believe that you don’t need this support, why make a lot of fuss about the VSE? You will then achieve your objective regardless of VSE.
    I also believe it is important to support the VSE, just because it is a jobs program. For the moment there aren’t a lot of people employed in the alt.space sector. When the sector will need more people there will be a lot of people aviable that come out of the VSE program. If the VSE gets scrapped a lot of experience will go away, and the alt.space sector needs this engineering expertise.


  4. Michael Mealling says:

    Can you please be clear if you’re talking about the VSE or NASA’s proposed architecture for the transportation piece of the VSE. Most in our ‘industry’ think that there are key concepts in the VSE that could help accelerate adoption. Pretty much in the same way the government accelerated the rail industry by creating incentives. But that doesn’t mean that we all also agree with the ESAS as proposed by NASA.

    The Architecture could also help accelerate things by smartly creating infrastructure earlier rather than later.

    So the answer, at least from my stand point, is that no, its not required, but if done right it could accelerate the pace that “private space” could take over much of what’s done in cislunar space…


  5. Paul Dietz says:

    The Architecture could also help accelerate things by smartly creating infrastructure earlier rather than later.

    And even better, everyone could get a pony.

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