Why

guest blogger john hare

Many of us think about the how to get there, though we may disagree where there should be. Far less often do we discuss why, and then it frequently becomes a series of circular arguments on both sides. First and foremost, the honest answer is, “We want to”. The good reasons for going, and bad, both follow that simple desire.

The desire to go splits between two camps fairly rapidly. Those that believe that whatever we do must pay it’s own way, and those that think society should pick up the tab. I happen to be in the first group, with  respect for some of the people in the second camp. To me, many of the people in the second camp are well beyond reasonable in their attitudes toward the resources required to get there. NASA is less than a percent of the budget, so a 100% increase would be a drop in the bucket, and such arguments really miss the point. A hamburger is less than a percent of my income, but I will change restaurants if they double the price. It is not a matter of what percentage  of my income goes to the hamburger, as what can I get for my money elsewhere. If for the same money, I can get a whole pizza next door, or a steak across the street, that hamburger can rot.

When opponents of spaceflight, or just manned spaceflight speak up, it is more often the source of the money being spent than the money itself that has them up in arms. People talk about yachts, corporate jets, and CEO bonuses, but they don’t scream at congress much unless it comes from their tax dollars. The CEO of Walmart probably collected multiples of the bonuses handed out to those of a few bailed out institutions and I didn’t hear a word about it.

For the sake of integrity and sustainability, the time, effort, and treasure spent to move off planet needs to come from sources that willingly part with the money. Satellite TV viewers and spaceflight participants willingly pay for the service they get, even if they complain about the price. People like Jim Davis that consistently bring up the why frequently have multiple opponents bringing up all sorts of benefits that he doesn’t happen to accept. We need to build our  hows around people that agree on the whys of spending the effort. That means we don’t reach into the pockets of those that disagree.

One of the heavy arguments is that we should move out  into the solar system to get all of our eggs out of one basket. For some, this is the “Go ye forth and multiply” portion of the word. I happen to agree with this, just not in the methods  and urgency frequently suggested. Permanent settlement elsewhere must have economically sustainable reasons as well as the ability to survive independently if they are to serve as off planet safety nets.

If they cannot survive economically, then they are a permanent burden on Earth’s resources which will forever limit the size. I would resent living in poverty to support a Lunar settlement with no purpose. I feel I can safely assume that many would be more resentful than me.

If the Lunar,  Mars, or ONeal colony can never be survival self sufficient, then it cannot be a safety net. If they must have sporks to survive, and cannot ever produce them, then they will die if Earth does. The safety net wouldn’t be safe unsupported, which destroys that particular reason.

I believe that off Earth colonies can be self sufficient eventually in case of need, and economically self sufficient early. Somewhat like say Australia, they could do without the rest of us, but would prefer not to. Las Vegas is economically self sufficient without being survival self sufficient. There is a difference.

Exploration is a general need to open new markets, resources, and real estate. This is a bit different from the purely scientific telescopic exploration of interstellar space. Exploration alone though will only pay the bills as long as someone that acquired his money elsewhere is willing to pay them. When the supply of patrons runs out, the bills don’t get paid and exploration stops. The way to keep a supply of patrons is to constantly return something they find of value. Apollo stopped when the USG patron no longer needed that particular cold war return. No ROI, no patron.

Legitimate whys are to provide a product or service people want, or an acceptable ROI to a patron. When I look at NASA in the current state, I see that they are using  the patron funding, as any product delivered to customers is masked by all the raa raa cheer leading. Their means of getting more funding consists of convincing the patron (USG) to ante up. The results show in the relative funds available to NASA over the last half century compared to Walmart or McDonalds. Unless NASA provides convincing arguments to the patron, or starts delivering a profitable product, funding can be expected to remain flat at best.

In commercial spaceflight, we must cultivate willing patrons and give them relevant ROI, or profitable products. My background doesn’t mesh well with the patron model, so products become my why. There have been “Whack a Mole” arguments about every speculative product I’ve seen mentioned. Helium 3, tourism, SPS, NEO resources, platinum, and many others have been attacked as non existent or non-profitable or whatever. Indisputable killer apps are hard to come by, or they would be exploited as we argue.

Business models will need to be flexible enough to address as many markets as possible with the least possible investment to reach each one. As long as Lunar transportation costs are $100k per pound or more, it will be tough to make a good case for profits on material exports to Earth. The cost of placing the equipment on the moon can easily dwarf the value of the product they make available. He3 and platinum have their proponents, though that mole gets whacked a lot . Tourism and patron funded exploration might be the only near term profitable industries for now. Get the price down low enough, and somebody will pay for a magnetic anomaly search of Tycho. 

NEOs are about as speculative as the moon for making a solid business case, while Mars is close to impossible. Except for reason #1, “We want to”. Those of us that want to need to get the costs down to the point that we can afford to get to whichever there we happen to find interesting, with backing only from like minded people, without having to force or trick funds from others.

My personal belief is that when some of us start getting ‘there’, the ROI products or services will be found. Nobody knew about the profitable fishing grounds off Newfoundland until they got there. Nobody knew about the Virginia tobacco or California gold before they got there. Nobody knew the intense profitability of mass production until upstarts on a new continent introduced it, partly out of necessity. Many of the most profitable products and services in the world were totally unknown until somebody got ‘there’ and found them. How many people would have believed that bottled water would be a major market today based on projections 30 years ago?

Belief or faith that something will turn up is not an acceptable business case unless it is somebody with a long track record.  Burt’s credibility got his SS1 funding when nobody else could raise the dough. Those of us that believe must establish a track record to get funding, get the costs down so that the funding looks like a good ROI to an investor doing due diligence, and find as many revenue sources as possible for each endeavour.

Time to market must be factored in to any of the plans. Iridium took so long that cell phones and fiber optic took the projected market away. At this stage, we need a running game with some short passes instead of Hail Mary’s. While looking way down field, some bureaucrat or competitor is tying your shoe laces together.

My biggest qualm with  the government doing it all is perhaps most accurately expressed as a religious statement. We must be careful how the belief or faith in the future is spread. Persuading somebody to accept your church is doing God’s work, while getting a law passed that forces people to join is the opposite.

The arguments against need to be addressed not so much to change the minds of people that have made up their minds and locked the door, as those that don’t have an opinion that might join us later. Often the colonization of the Americas is used as a frontier to compare to space. The counter argument that space has no air, water, or food, while anyone could make a living with a couple of hand tools in the new world doesn’t stand up. Some of the Europeans didn’t initially know how to farm effectively and died. Indians wiped out some of the early colony attempts. A high percentage of people died on the Atlantic before even reaching the new lands. Any space expedition, public or private, that casually accepted the casualty rates of the early American settlers, would be tied up in criminal and civil court indefinitely.

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johnhare

johnhare

I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.
johnhare

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20 Responses to Why

  1. While it was lengthly, this was a good read!

    Personally I have been rather bummed out with the way things are going in regards to the space industry.

    With the economy shrinking and the goverment curbing spending on everything save keeping our troops alive and the oh so bloated healthcare they want to pass (I’ll rant about that elsewhere), I lost hope that the future of space will have a more aristotic feel via China then a more democratic one via USA.

    Anyways, your arguments make plenty of sense, and if the space community wants to reach the heavens above, then they are going to have to find a way for it to become self funded (lest it become a tax burden like heal–oh never mind!) 😉

  2. kert says:

    Again, “why” has a really easy answer, that is next to impossible to argue with : to gain a new continent, and a few more in the longer-term future.

  3. mark says:

    @kert. We’ve got a barren, frozen continent right here at home that no one seems to want. And it’s even got oxygen! Even forgetting the Treaty, I see almost no incentive for developing Antartica, and millions of times less incentive for developing Mars.

    @john. Well said.

  4. mark says:

    On second glance, I think kert was referring to the Moon, but I still think my argument holds.

  5. johnhare john hare says:

    I can easily argue with the new continent reason if I choose. That I choose not to doesn’t mean that it is indisputable. People that do not share our world (universe) view find that argument weak.

    If it was impossible to argue with that reason, there would be massive efforts world wide to get there right now.

  6. kert says:

    If it was impossible to argue with that reason, there would be massive efforts world wide to get there right now.
    No, i think why there is no massive effort is that the idea of moon being a eighth continent has not occurred to most of the people.
    We have been trained to be two-dimensional thinkers in this regard. Most people imagine a “world atlas” as a flat plane or a globe representing surface of the Earth, as if this would be the limit of the “world”.

    Even forgetting the Treaty, I see almost no incentive for developing Antartica,
    Ok, John, i was wrong. Yes it is possible to argue, with thoroughly uninformed .. can i even call that an “argument” ? You may not see it, but there are LOTS of countries in the world that would gladly take all the coal, gas, ores and everything else that Antarctica has.

    I can easily argue with the new continent reason if I choose
    I mean, if you have to argue about usefulness of a new continent, then you may as well just not have the argument altogether : you have lost the person anyway.

  7. Pingback: Why go to Space? « The Four Part Land

  8. johnhare john hare says:

    I thought about my reply while at work today. My meaning is, what do you offer your backers for ROI? Unless you can do it yourself, you need funding. Funding tends to come from people that want something for their money. If you can’t get them good financial return in less than ten years, it won’t happen. For most investors in something as risky as this, it needs to be less than five years.

    The exception would be if you can get the resources from people that share your dream, in which case a twenty year look ahead might happen.

    When you say there is a new continent up there, investors are going to want to know what that continent is going to give them.
    If they are thinking of land, they will be thinking of the Antarctica, desert, and sea bottom alternatives.

  9. kert says:

    My meaning is, what do you offer your backers for ROI?
    The only historical workable scenario is, you tell them you are going to India.

  10. Jim Davis says:

    The only historical workable scenario is, you tell them you are going to India.

    Kert, this is the type of non-answer that makes all but the most fervent believer throw their arms up and walk away.

    The space skeptic wants details not sound bites.

  11. kert says:

    I tried to make a point, that this has never been done. I mean selling the idea of new continent being out there. In case of Columbus, he did not sell the idea of new continent to his backers for great ROI, he sold another idea.

  12. Jim Davis says:

    That’s fine, Kert, but you can’t just assert that “there’s a new continent out there”. Arguments from personal conviction aren’t very persuasive. “There’s a new continent out there” has to be the conclusion to your argument, not the premise to it.

  13. johnhare john hare says:

    “You tell them it’s India” is exactly the type of trickery for funding I am concerned about. I have been in a non-space business for 23 years, and I have learned to walk or even run from customers that lie. They will burn you at some point, and their sincere apologies don’t make up for the losses you will incur. If you resort to dishonesty up front, it’s wrong, no matter the nobility you believe the end will bring.

    I believe we need to get there. I believe that if we don’t do it with integrity, the end result is bad. Poor analogy. A young man wants physical relations with a woman. (I’m a guest on a family blog here, trying to keep it clean.) If he uses the phrase, “Anything is better than nothing”, he needs the number of his lawyer and the STD clinic on speed dial. Space is the same, we need to do it right, or accept that it’s not happening now in the manner we want.

    Needless to say, I believe we can do it right. Also, if you don’t know Jim, he probably knows this industry better than either of us. I have lost both sides of a single argument with him. (Atlas vs X15)

  14. Adam Greenwood says:

    “Even forgetting the Treaty”

    That’s kinda a big thing to forget.

  15. enginemike says:

    ‘ “Even forgetting the Treaty” That’s kinda a big thing to forget. ‘

    It’s real easy to forget if there are fish to fry.

  16. kert says:

    “You tell them it’s India” is exactly the type of trickery for funding I am concerned about.
    Again, i was trying to make precisely that point. This one time in history where man went and opened up a new continent for modern civilization, was based on an error, and the idea of going there was sold to financial backers on this wrong premise. Columbus would not have gotten his backing for opening up a new, unknown continent.

    No, i dont think the “why” should be sold based on lie.
    I DO think that acquiring a new continent is a compelling reason for “why”, but it wont be universally sellable to everyone ( Nothing else is, either ).

    Its just a type of reason, once communicated and understood properly by two parties, cannot be really further argued over : it comes down to fundamental philosophical leanings, almost religious.

    However i do think that the message of a new continent being up there has not been articulated, very few people have heard the argument, even fewer have understood.

  17. johnhare john hare says:

    I can live with that. Having been burned a few times, I’m careful when I see truth being shaded.

    I believe a lot of us ‘get’ the new continent argument. It remains though that you must turn an ROI that is acceptable to your investors. A new continent will not cut it. Energy, materials, information, and good experiences(tourism etc) will definately will. Every step needs a business case that closes, even if it is just bragging rights for the financier.

  18. John Bossard says:

    John,
    I appreciated the spirit of your post. The notion of “paying your own way” has a definite resonance with me, personally.
    One of the answers that I like best as to the question of “why” go into space is simply: “It’s none of your business”. What this answer means is that, as free men, we do not need to justify our motivations for choosing to go. My reasons are my own. These reasons can be noble or trivial, benefiting many or benefiting only one. They can be secret.
    Yet the freedom one has over one’s motivations for going is proportional to how much of your own resources you’ve expended to get there, which is why paying your own way is so important. The more you need to rely on OPM (Other People’s Money), whether that be taxpayers, or venture capitalists, the more effort you have to put in to justifying expenditures, which seems proper.

  19. Karl Hallowell says:

    In the very long term, space has some big advantages. There’s a lot more energy, mass, and space available up there than down on Earth. There’s no ecosystem to contaminate with heavy industry. Further, such expansion is a proven way to expand a society in many ways. The only real question is when will humanity (or its descendants) get around to settling out there.

    Now seems as good a time as any to try. We have infrastructure that at least allows us to test most colonization technology now. We know most of the obstacles that stand in the way of colonization and have some ideas for making a colony economically viable. It seems reasonable to try, if only to see how hard it is.

  20. johnhare john hare says:

    Now is a good time if, and only if, you can provide ROI for the people that put up the resourses to get out there. ROI can be in dollars, also in satisfaction, bragging rights, political power, or some warm fuzzy feeling. With no ROI in real time, we’re not going.

    Obviously I agree that we will eventually, it’s just important that it be done right.

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