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.