The Perfect Storm?

Just wanted to post a link to a good article by Shubber over on Space Cynics.

Shubber’s basic hypothesis is that the combination of economic pressures on the country, and NASA’s current Constellation plans will likely lead to a cancellation (or at least gutting) of NASA’s manned spaceflight program. While I sometimes disagree with the Space Cynics (or their tone), I think Shubber’s hypothesis in this article is probably spot-on.

But I had a few comments I wanted to share.

First off, I share Shubber’s amusement at those who think that we aren’t in a serious economic downturn. I don’t think I’ve blogged much about this, but I’ve pretty much been convinced for the last five years that the housing bubble was an unsustainable farce, and that when the market was finally allowed to clear out some of these malinvestments, that things were going to get ugly for a while. My problem has always been timing–when I am right, I tend to be right a little too far in advance (for instance, I figured that the tech bubble was a bubble all the way back in ’97 or ’98, even though it took another few years for the bubble to actually burst). Unfortunately, I think this downturn is going to be very hard on the entrepreneurial space industry as well. It wasn’t just the collapse of the LEO comsat market that doomed the last wave of alt.space attempts–the general slowdown of the market at the same time was also a major contributor.

Second off, I think Shubber’s point about Weldon retiring is also important. A lot of people who are defenders of Shuttle Derived HLVs (the Shaft, Longfellow, Shuttle-C, DIRECT, etc) like to fall back on parochial interests to save the day. The argument goes that the Shuttle program just provides too many jobs in important places to ever be canceled, regardless of if it makes any technical or economic sense. However, I wonder how true this really is. With Weldon retiring, will there really be anyone with clout on the manned spaceflight side of things that could stand-up to canceling or gutting the program? Especially if the funding is competing with bio-ethanol, entitlements, or funding the Great Important Super-Duper War Against IslamoNaziHitlerFascism?!!!!1!eleven!!1!

Third, while I agree with Shubber’s overall point about the utility of the ISS, I think a caveat is worth mentioning. While I agree that ISS was very overhyped as far as its commercial potential, I think it also provides insufficient evidence on whether or not there is potential for commercial orbital research. Without frequent, reliable, low-cost access to space, there isn’t any chance that orbital research can compete very well with terrestrial research, and ISS hasn’t done anything to help solve that problem. Now, it may turn out that even with frequent access to an orbital facility (say weekly flights, ticket prices below $5M per person), that the case for orbital microgravity research just really isn’t that compelling. But until we’ve resolved the access situation, I don’t think we can truly pass final judgement on microgravity research.

My last thought deals with Shubber’s last two paragraphs, where he says:

One thing that may give some of you heart, though, is that if NASA officially leaves the manned space game the door is wide open to you private sector proponents who have long claimed that they were the main obstacle to the successful private development of the sector.

… of course, if that wasn’t really the reason, then I suspect you aren’t going to be quite as happy about my prediction coming true as one might expect you to be.

I do have to admit that I did once think this way–that NASA manned spaceflight was holding us all back. I still think that NASA is hurting things, but mostly in the form of opportunity costs. By them blowing billions on playing steely-eyed rocket boys and Apollo reruns, they forgo the opportunity to really help the private space market blossom in a way that would benefit everyone in the long run. Just getting rid of them isn’t going to change the financial difficulty of raising money for commercial space launch, and it isn’t going to make the engineering any easier either.

That’s not saying that the end of NASA’s manned spaceflight program would necessarily be a total tragedy–just that it isn’t going to really directly help private space development either.

Anyway you face it, we’ve got a long hard slog ahead of ourselves. NASA could have made some real progress during the window it had over the past four years, but that opportunity is pretty much gone. Whether NASA manned spaceflight goes on, or ends, it’s still mostly irrelevant to the kind of work that needs to be done in order to become a truly spacefaring civilization.

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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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8 Responses to The Perfect Storm?

  1. Shubber says:

    While I agree that ISS was very overhyped as far as its commercial potential, I think it also provides insufficient evidence on whether or not there is potential for commercial orbital research. Without frequent, reliable, low-cost access to space, there isn’t any chance that orbital research can compete very well with terrestrial research, and ISS hasn’t done anything to help solve that problem. Now, it may turn out that even with frequent access to an orbital facility (say weekly flights, ticket prices below $5M per person), that the case for orbital microgravity research just really isn’t that compelling. But until we’ve resolved the access situation, I don’t think we can truly pass final judgement on microgravity research.

    J –
    I actually have the same opinion – one day when we actually do have CRRATS (cheap reliable reusable access to space) I strongly expect that all kinds of great manufacturing and R&D will be performed in microgravity.

    However, since we don’t have CRRATS, the reality is the ISS is a colossal waste of money and engineering talent – and one which has helped put NASA manned space on the path to extinction.

  2. redneck says:

    I very lightly disagree that NASA getting out of the manned business wouldn’t help. There are a few people that want to go that would finally understand that NASA was not going to do it for them. I think a handfull of well placed investments could have an effect out of proportion to the direct dollar amount invested. People trying to make these things happen could spend a little less time explaining that they don’t work for NASA.

    It is not clear that the handfull of people prodded to action would appear. It is also just possible that the perfect storm could uncover the strengths NASA doesn’t even know it has, and it could lead us all into the future.

  3. Shen says:

    Al Gore in the 1990s put himself in the middle of NASA decision making. He was instrumental in making sure the ISS turned out the way it did, and that the second generation shuttle made so much progress. He also had a hand in NASA’s shift toward a greater global warming emphasis.

    It may be too late to change course for NASA. Since Al Gore left, no one in high places has been interested in personally making things right again.

    So say goodby to NASA as a manned space program, and hello to NASA as a global warming cheerleader.

  4. HobbySpacer says:

    Hi Jon,
    I started to post a comment here but it got so long I decided I better put it on my own blog. See: An imperfect (but pretty good) economy vs a perfect storm
    – Clark

  5. Anonymous says:

    CRRATS (cheap reliable reusable access to space)
    Entirely off topic, but ..

    I see where this came from, but dont bury the old CATS just yet.

    You see, there are payloads that dont require reliable nor reusable, as long as the access is cheap enough. In fact, for any trans-earth-orbit application these payloads are actually the bulk of the launch mass.

    By the way, mass production methods build reliability in batches with quality control feedback.

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    Coming from a Manufacturing Engineering background myself, I’m no longer very convinced by the cheap, mass-produced launch vehicle argument. If there’s enough flight rate to give you mass production, there’s also enough flight rate to give you enough demand for RLVs. And I think that when all factors are considered, CRAATS RLVs are going to be better–even for delivering propellant or Toilet Paper–than mass produced ELVs.

    Just my opinion of course.

    ~Jon

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Shubber,
    We’re on the same page then.

    ~Jon

  8. Anonymous says:

    I predict President McCain will not gut VSE.

    Hell, he may even keep Griffin.

    As to recession, If we are going into one, it will be a very mild one by historic standards.

    P/E ratios are much better than they were when the tech sector went kablooey.

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