False Dilemmas

I want to keep this thought brief, but I feel it’s important to think about from time to time. Basically, we need to remind ourselves that just because we can think of a dumb, unworkable way to approach a given problem, doesn’t mean that is the only way to approach things. To give a relevant example, Mark Whittington made the following point in comments to my Lunar Markets post:

No venture capitalist is going to invest money into a lunar shuttle based solely on a lunar base that will become reality in ten or fifteen years or on commercial markets that are likely decades in the future.

His point is valid in a way. There are no lunar markets today that are both so provably real, and so large that they can possibly justify a venture capitalist investing to develop a full-blown cislunar transportation architecture as well as developing all of the hardware and infrastructure to take advantage of that market. That is true, and I’m not going to argue with it.

However, it’s also a false dilemma. There are other paths to the end goal of commercial lunar markets that don’t involve raising venture capital to directly pursue those lunar markets today. There are nearer term, more realistic markets, that require less startup capital, and involve less risks, that make future lunar enterprises come closer to closing the business case. There are probably more than I’ve ever dreamt of. Many of them involve little or no government money. Many of them probably could eventually lead to privately developed manned lunar missions prior to the first LSAM landing.

If private enterprise reaches the moon, it probably won’t be because of some master plan dreamt up by some wunderkind (least of all me). It will be the result of many smaller, nearer term, more incremental plans by many competing individuals trying to provide value to others in new and innovative ways. That’s how markets work. Grand multi-year plans hammered out by genius technocrats aren’t what capitalism is about.

The moral of the story being that if a given approach is stupid, but the goal is worthy, try thinking of other approaches before dismissing the goal as impossible.

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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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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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11 Responses to False Dilemmas

  1. Bill White says:

    Mark writes (at his blog):

    Well, let’s see. NASA reaches the Moon the old fashioned way. Meanwhile the COTS program is successful and results in a commercial space transportation sector. Then NASA builds on the success by starting a Lunar COTS program. Private companies step up and , before long, the Moon is opened to private development and the government started Moon base becomes a town. Everybody wins.

    True enough. But there are pre-landing lunar COTS-like opportunities as well.

    I submit that a “gift basket” of supplies could be pre-positioned at the chosen NASA landing site by a purely private cargo lander with funding coming from companies seeking marketing exposure for their products.

    Also, pre-position cameras. If CNN sent a set of proprietary TV cameras to land a few weeks before the NASA landing they could image the incoming LSAM from the lunar surface and show exterior views of the actual touchdown. Put the cameras on rovers and they could find the best spots to image the incoming LSAM and stream the video back to Earth.

    NASA’s budget is tight enough. CNN, FOX etc. . . should deploy those cameras on their own dime and hire NewSpace to do it.

  2. Mark says:

    Bill – All of those are great ideas, which I was fishing for earlier in my post. In fact, putting an “instrument package” on the Moon is being talked about as a Centennial Challenge should our new Democratic overlords can be persuaded to fund it.

  3. Darnell Clayton says:

    Commercializing the moon? I guess the easiest way of doing that would be to find a way to cheapen the cost of travel.

    If that doesn’t happen, we ain’t goin’ anywhere!

    Note: Remember, most major companies are accountable to stock holders, who have short term interests for the company (i.e. make us money fast).

    Most space companies would probably love to go back to the Moon, but unless they can justify it to their stock holders, they might as well not even mention the idea.

    Does anybody have any inexpensive ways to reduce the initial cost to the stars? (other than a space elevator or nuclear propulsion)

  4. Jon Goff says:

    Mark,
    Assuming no cost overruns, budget cuts, technical delays, etc, the current best case estimate for completing that Super-Dooper NASA Lunar Base (TM) is 2024. That is almost two decades from now. Do you really think that the space industry is going to sit on its thumbs for two decades waiting for NASA to toss it another scrap? You’re making the same fallacy that space elevator advocates make–that all the competitors to your favorite idea are going to stand still until your plan can get carried out. That’s not how reality works Mark. If NASA really takes till 2018-2020 to get back to the moon, there is a very real chance (though not 100%) that private space will have beat them there.

    With state-of-2006 space transportation systems, lunar surface markets may very well be “subeconomic”, but long before 2018, they won’t be. Just because a plan doesn’t make sense at this exact second doesn’t mean it still won’t make sense five or ten years down the road. That’s what you continue to fail to understand. The world won’t stand still while NASA relives its glory days. Bigelow is putting up a station and trying to gin up demand for a truly impressive manned spaceflight market. Lockheed or someone else is going to demonstrate (for one customer or another) orbital propellant transfer and long-duration cryo storage. Someone may very well build a propellant depot add-on to Bigelow’s station. Then the development cost from there to start selling translunar personal spaceflight trips gets to the point where the business case can close. And so on from there.

    Yes going straight from zero-to-hero as it were on lunar markets probably won’t work. But what I keep trying to tell you is that You. Don’t. Have. To.

    ~Jon

  5. Anonymous says:

    The easiest way to attract private industry to the moon is to prove that there is actually economic resources on the moon.

    Until there are both proven markets (i.e NASA puts out a tender for 10000T per year of LUNOX or ITER wants to buy 10T per year of 3He at ludicrous prices) and proven resources (several hundred thousand tonnes of easily extractable platinum), noone is bloody well going there on their own dime.

    Forget all of this rubbish about COTS, NASA subsidies, gift baskets, cameras, advertising or tourism, it’s simply not happening in any scale without either of the above.

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    I agree that there are probably no resources on the moon that are actually “economic” at this exact point in time. I think it is that, and not anything relating to treaties or regulations that is holding back lunar development at this exact moment.

    However, as I point out in my next post, that which is subeconomic today will not always be so. Little by little as the costs inherent with a lunar business drop as some of the technologies and infrastructure become off-the-shelf, you’ll start seeing business plans for lunar projects start closing.

    They aren’t ready to go right now, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be long before NASA is in a position to throw a “Lunar COTS” bone to anyone.

    ~Jon

  7. Josh Gigantino says:

    If we are going into space, we must go to many places. To make the economics of human settlement work we will need resources from many places. The Moon (or just Mars) is not enough.

  8. Ed says:

    Sorry to keep picking on Mark here (it would be much easier if he’d enable comments on his own blog)…

    Well, let’s see. NASA reaches the Moon the old fashioned way.

    There is no guarantee that this is ever going to happen. Waiting for NASA to go back to the moon – indeed, waiting for NASA to do anything – is one of the major mistakes this industry has made over the last 30 years.

  9. Jon Goff says:

    Ed,
    Yeah, I wish Mark would enable comments on his own blog. I also agree wholeheartedly with your comment that:There is no guarantee that this is ever going to happen. Waiting for NASA to go back to the moon – indeed, waiting for NASA to do anything – is one of the major mistakes this industry has made over the last 30 years.

    There is no guarantee that private industry will succeed at openning cislunar space up for commerce in the near future. But sitting on our thumbs waiting for NASA to toss us another scrap is a guaranteed way of making sure that nothing interesting happens in the next two decades.

    I sure as heck don’t intend to waste the better part of my professional life waiting for NASA.

    ~Jon

  10. Anonymous says:

    I can absolutely guarantee that if there is no economic or scientific value in opening up cislunar territory for commerce, private industry will not be doing it.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, what you’re effectively asking for is the US government through NASA to spend trillions on market distortions to create bases that frankly, noone wants or could ever consider using?

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    I can absolutely guarantee that if there is no economic or scientific value in opening up cislunar territory for commerce, private industry will not be doing it.

    Fortunately, I think there’s quite a bit of scientific (and more importantly economic) value in opening up cislunar territory for commerce. As I point out in my subeconomics post, a lot of that value is at the subeconomic level at this precise instant, but some of the intermediate markets are almost there. I think in the long run we’ll definitely see commercial enterprise on the moon in a very serious way.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, what you’re effectively asking for is the US government through NASA to spend trillions on market distortions to create bases that frankly, noone wants or could ever consider using?

    Are you replying to me or to Mark? If Mark, yeah, I can see your point. If the moon is really so subeconomic that private enterprise won’t be interested, I have a hard time seeing how blowing $50-200B on a lunar base is going to help (btw, the “trillions” bit is so hyperbolic that it detracts from your point).

    I’m more of a fan of either leaving it entirely to private industry, or at worst having NASA spend a little of its money paying for risk reduction demonstrations to bring some of the key technologies to maturation. Stuff like orbital cryo propellant transfer, and possibly aerobraking.

    ~Jon

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