Luna Road

by guest blogger Ken

Howdy all! I’m back and (semi-) recovered from an unanticipated trip to upstate NY for my grandmother’s funeral. Always a somber occasion for anyone, and of course a time for reflection on not only the past in one’s life, but also the future. The picture of me to the right is one that I had never seen before this occasion. I guess I got an earlier start in space than I realized.

In a space context, a certain melancholy can be drawn from the recent release of “In the Shadow of the Moon” on DVD. It is a great documentary, on par with “For All Mankind” from 1989. One point that it may or may not have been trying to make is that the Moon Walkers are aging. This unintentionally begs the question “What happens when there are no humans left alive who have walked on the Moon, the sole other body in our Solar system that humans have visited?” It could happen.

The impact of that visit was immense, and we’ve been cruising on those achievements ever since. From a science standpoint it is still the penultimate mission, with a per gram cost of sample return orders of magnitude cheaper than most other sample returns we’ve undertaken (not sure about the Lunas). Why? I’d argue that the robustness required for sending people to the Moon allowed for a robust sample return, most of which we haven’t studied in detail.

Still, we’ve learned much from what we have studied, and the takeaway is that the Moon is a good place to get our “space legs”. Of course it’s going to be difficult. Of course there’s nothing there but raw materials to work with. Of course we’re going to have to carry in every single thing we need to work on the Moon (at least in the beginning). Nevertheless, the Moon and cislunar space address economic, security, and science objectives, all of which are at the core of the VSE.

In the latest issue of Espace Magazine there’s an article on the ‘tormented’ Ares I rocket. The author notes that after the VSE was announced, O’Keefe set course on a 5 launch/4 rendez-vous approach(!). I don’t remember that as having been settled since the space industry community was still working through the Concept Exploration & Refinement stage of the process. (Wait, Mark W. might have been arguing that way, I’ll bet that’s what it was…)

After Griffin came on board, ESAS was the ordre du jour, and the author argues that it was basically sold wrong from the start, being portrayed as an effective fait accompli, and ignoring the obvious fact that changes would have to be made once NASA started taking a close look at it. He then goes on to discuss the web reaction to the launcher, and the ‘virulent’ attacks on it. He gives the back of his hand to a certain poster that regularly haunts the comment sections of the space community. Personally, I’d like to think that Jon and I take a somewhat measured (if at times derisive) approach to critiquing the Shaft as the sole means to put crew into space.

I readily admit that I don’t have the engineering background to criticize the Ares I on technical grounds. My issues with the system aren’t technical in nature. I think it’s the wrong answer to the wrong question, and therefore not what we need to be spending our taxpayer time and money on.

I do think we need to decouple human transport to orbit from NASA. Only by breaking the monopoly that NASA holds on crewed orbital access will American industry be able to advance our commercial interests even further out into space. That’s why I cheer LockMart’s efforts with Bigelow to that end, and the efforts of Blue Origin, which just bought a large chunk of land in west Texas for a launch site, and SpaceX’s Dragon/F-IX rocket. It’s always struck me as odd that in the U.S. of A., the best place on Earth (still) to do business in a just legal environment, you can’t buy a ride to orbit, even though Americans go to orbit. Parsed in another way, why are we paying NASA to not make transport to orbit available to all Americans and their commercial interests? (I do consider things like art and music to be quasi-commercial)

If NASA’s not making transport to orbit available to Americans, why not? They provide transport for themselves. Why can’t we have some?

This is why I think we’d be much better off if crewed transport to orbit was decoupled from NASA. Most Americans apparently don’t think that NASA is really (or should be) in the business of launching rockets, even if the most visible thing they do is launch the shuttle. We want our heroes to be explorers, not bus drivers. Bus driving is for schlubs like us, who don’t get to be the first to set foot on an asteroid, but do get to eventually go to space in some work capacity.

We’re getting closer to that being a reality, and I’m pretty excited about the next few years. I’ve got a few bucks in the Roth IRA, I may just have to go pick up a couple shares of LMT. The handful of ORB shares that I picked up when Griffin was made NASA Admin. have done well. I just wish I’d had the capital to get a decent number of shares. [No, I did not have non-public information. The public info was more than enough to tell this analyst to hop on that train]

Please note that I am not a ‘Financial Advisor’ in any way shape or form other than to the bank that I work for (and we don’t have anything to do with equities), so please don’t ever consider my musings as anything more than idle ramblings. I rode Iridium all the way to zero, so don’t come looking to me for investment advice. 😉

If NASA’s looking for a good sales message, they should be selling space as a place where the U.S.A. holds a competitive advantage, and in this cruel and hungry world of ours we need to ensure that we stay at the front end of developments, and also be the means for the benefits of those developments to be distributed to the world in the name of peace and freedom, because in the eyes of the world we are the best hope for that actually happening.

The fact that the U.S. has (pretty) just laws makes it a good place to do business, and if the U.S. takes just law into space, that will be a good place to do business as well. As hurtful as it is to say, Russia and China do not seem to be necessarily likely or inclined to open the space frontier to everyone’s benefit, and Europe, oy, look at all the paperwork!

Since the whole issue of why NASA isn’t connecting with Gen Y seems au courant at the moment, I decided to go back and review some of the lessons from NASA’s Strategic Communications work last summer, which I took a look at in “NASA’s new plan for talking at us”, parts I and II.

Dru made a comment in the first part that Gen X will likely be a significant part of the new/alt.space workforce. He’s more right than he knows, as Gen X is the transition generation. We’re only about 40Mn or so as compared with the huge bulges ahead of and behind us. Nevertheless, we are the ones carrying the knowledge to the latest generation. To the bare extent we’ve had a presence in the space field. The Goldin years were certainly not kind to GenX at NASA,and we’re still largely ignored by most everyone, even though we were the pathfinders for a lot of the benefits that the Gen Yers grew up with. I’ve been using an ATM card since 1981. My Atari is long gone, as is the TI-99/4A that I spent so many hours coding, saving the results on cassette tapes. I’ll admit, I almost became a programmer, like so many others of my generation. I was using Minitel to get financial research before Al Gore invented the internet. I’m what you would call an early adopter. That’s why my laser pointer is green and yours is red (and I’ll get a blue one when that comes out). It’s why I’m ripping vinyl (and cassettes!) to mp3 on my USB turntable.

I looked through the presentation that Loretta noted over at Wired blog. My first impression was that it was way too long. The sufficiency of the message was delivered in just a few slides, and there was a lot of dross, presuming upon my time. The takeaway message is that Gen Y wants you to do space their way. Looked at a bit more carefully, the message is a technological one – you’re not using the right tools to connect to Gen Y, which is just getting started in the big bad world, but which will eventually become an economic powerhouse perhaps even greater than the Boomers. This means crafting and channeling information in different ways than NASA is used to doing things. Rather than running tape on the NASA Channel, they need to be doing short videos that can be played on iPhones. Rather than issuing Press Releases to AP, they need to be running insider blogs and RSS streams. It’s hard to think of NASA as being on the way to technological obsolescence.

I made the comment at a LEAG conference lunch to Dr. Spudis and Dennis Wingo that NASA is not on my critical path to the Moon. That’s part of why I’m so happy about the private sector developments in crewed spaceflight. If it can be decoupled from NASA, then the private sector will be on the path to the Moon, making things easier for me. I do intend to overcome every obstacle on Luna Road.

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3 Responses to Luna Road

  1. Rand Simberg says:

    From a science standpoint it is still the penultimate mission…

    If it was the penultimate one, what was the ultimate one?

  2. murphydyne says:

    Ouch! Thanks Rand.

    I think the word was just lying around in my brain because it’s in the EETC indenture that I’m picking apart at work. Of course, I should know the importance of the distinction between the last sentence in the clause and the penultimate sentence in the clause.

    Let’s see if I can salvage it in some way.

    It remains the penultimate space mission because the ultimate space mission has not yet occured, the one where we go out there for good.

    Rand’s right, though, trying to use penultimate to convey greatest, best, none better, and so forth, (because the real best is yet to happen) is bad English. It’s from the root word penult, meaning next to last, second to last, as close to last as you can get without actually being last. It does not come from the root word ultimate with a pen- in front of it.

    My Random House desk dictionary says it’s from a contraction of paene ultima, or almost the last, with ultima being ‘the last syllable of a word’. From the Latin feminine of ultimus, the superlative of ulter, or far.

    So whipping all of that around, the last syllable of a word is the farthest one. The Moon is the farthest we’ve gone (ignoring where we’ve thrown our tools into the void), but we are going further (hopefully). So it may not have been an entirely inappropriate use.

  3. Ben Brockert says:

    “It’s hard to think of NASA as being on the way to technological obsolescence.”

    Really? As one of that “generation y” group, I have a hard time thinking of things where Nasa is actually on the cutting edge.

    Most of the interesting missions they’re running are outsourced to universities or companies. Most of their launch money is being spent to fly technology from the 70s.

    Being an organization that just distributes money would probably be the most effective thing Nasa could do, but completely removes any claim of being a technology leader and would require trimming a lot of fat. Or dumping a lot of ballast, or cutting a lot of guy wires, or whatever your preferred euphemism for firing most everyone whose actual employer is Nasa.

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