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ESAS And Sustainability

The comments are up to close to a hundred over at the original space politics post on the Perils Of ESAS. Al Fansome provides a little useful bit of history:

NASA buying “commercial” may be smart procurement policy but that is not private sector space.

I hear this whine about the commercial sector.

The truth is that the biggest breakthroughs in transportation in this country were smart partnerships between government and private industry.

I am just arguing for a similar “smart partnership”. Stating “this not true private industry” because “it is not 100% private industry” is a strawman argument.

Let me illustrate:

RAILROADS: I think we can agree that the development of the transcontinental railroad, is a programmatic success. It was not 100% pure “private”, but it worked, and worked very well from a programmatic perspective. The Government did not come in and start designing trains, or building the train tracks. Instead it provided huge economic incentives to private industry to achieve the goal, and got out of the way.

Building this railroad was sold based on its major “economic” and “national security” benefits. If you read the Congressional record from an 1856 report, it is clear why they build the transcontinental railroad.

The necessity that exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by everyone. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than (the Panama Canal, -Al)

The importance of our Pacific possessions is felt in every pursuit and in every relation of life. The gold of California has furnished the merchant and trader with a capital by which enterprises have been undertaken and accomplished which were before deemed impracticable. Our commercial marine has been nearly doubled since 1848; internal improvements have been pushed forward with astonishing rapidity; the value of every kind of property has been doubled; and the evidences of prosperity and thrift are everywhere to be seen. The security and protection of that country, from whence have emanated nearly all these satisfactory results, is of the greatest importance; and that can be accomplished only by direct and easy communications through our own territories. Railroads will effect this.

No talk of cathedrals here.

Can you imagine how the NASA of today would have proposed to solve the transcontinental railroad challenge?

That NASA would almost certainly argue that they need a national initiative to design a new and build a better train, that could go over mountains, and would start a Government-led program, using Government engineers to design it.

AIRWAYS: The US Government did many many things to promote aviation in this country. It invested in “technology” … specifically the “technical” priorities of industry … not the technical priorities of the US government. It created the “Kelly Airmail Act” to buy “commercial services” and create a market to justify private investment in buying airplanes. It designed/developed/operated the air traffic control system.

The one thing the US Government DID NOT DO was to design, own or operate the airplanes.

The huge U.S. federal investments in the airways were primarily driven by “national security” purposes. The biggest policy changes, and federal investments, were driven WWI and WWII.

But even in the face of a national security crisis — when we absolutely had to have that breakthrough airplane — at no time did the federal government take over the role of designing or building the airplanes.

INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM: Donald Robertson likes to argue that the Interstate Highway is an example of government success in developing transportation systems, which I agree with, but on closer examination it still makes my point. BTW, Donald is correct in that US Government took a larger role in this initiative — in that the Government effectively put up 100% of the FUNDING to build the highways. This just means that the Government was the monopsony customer.

The Government did not “build” the interstate highways … they hired private contractors. The US Government did not hire a huge team of civil engineers to produce the detailed design of all individual parts — the engineering expertise was primarily from private industry. The US Government did not design or build the cars that run on this highway.


In all three cases, these national initiatives had to be sustained through multiple Presidencies and many many Congresses, and they succeeded.

This is what “sustainability” is all about.

So, why did they succeed?

Related to Griffin’s philosophical speechers … we did not do this because somebody gave a speech arguing that this was the modern-day equivalent of “cathedrals”. We did not do this because somebody gave a speech arguing about “acceptable reasons and real reasons”.

In all three cases, it is clear that our elected leaders wrote huge checks — year after year — because of the significant “economic” and “national security” benefits.

- Al

PS — Too bad “economic” and “national security” impacts were not evaluated as key discriminators when NASA looked at the various alternatives.

I would note (as I did in the next comment there) that in fact the CE&R studies did consider those things, but it's true that with ESAS NASA essentially ignored them.

Amusingly, Mark Whittington seems to refer to the discussion obliquely (though as always, he's vague about exactly who or what he's complaining about, just repeating his silly and unique-to-him mantra of "Internet Rocketeers' Club"):

One of the common slams against NASA's return to the Moon program is that it is not "politically sustainable." People making that charge don't generally provide any details, though it is suspected that they envision President Hillary Clinton or President Obama cancelling the program the very second their hand comes off the Bible in January, 2009.

This is hilarious, since the "people making that charge" have provided a huge amount of details, including budgets, performance numbers, schedule slips, etc., in the Space Politics discussion thread described above. But Mark doesn't dare actually link to them from his own blog, apparently lest his readers find out what those details are, and realize what a poseur he is when it comes to space policy analysis.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2007 06:40 AM
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Interestingly enough, the land-grant model used by the federal government for the transcontinental railroad (we'll give you some useless land that will become highly valuable if you can do what you say you can do -- and we'll keep the other half) was pioneered in the construction of the Erie Canal -- but there it was private landowners offering land incentives to the government to build the canal.

Posted by Jim Bennett at May 21, 2007 08:36 AM

I note that Mr. Whittington's blog title IS "Curmudgeon's Corner". Should one really expect reasoned debate from a curmudgeon?

I think not.

Respectfully submitted,

Posted by MG at May 21, 2007 09:36 AM

I note that Mr. Whittington's blog title IS "Curmudgeon's Corner". Should one really expect reasoned debate from a curmudgeon?

I think not.

Respectfully submitted,

Posted by MG at May 21, 2007 09:37 AM

I note that Mr. Whittington's blog title IS "Curmudgeon's Corner". Should one really expect reasoned debate from a curmudgeon?

I'd say not, if he didn't continually pretend to offer it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2007 09:41 AM

The one thing the US Government DID NOT DO was to design, own or operate the airplanes.

No, but they flooded the market with cheap surplus planes from WWI - planes designed to their specs. There were also public subsidies to the construction of the airports....

The Government did not “build” the interstate highways … they hired private contractors.

They set the spec, and plans are routinely reviewed by state and federal engineers. The work is also inspected by state and federal workers. All this was built on 1000 years of experience in building roads and bridges.

Posted by ech at May 21, 2007 10:05 AM


a true ESAS revolution suggested in my latest article:

"ESAS + COTS + AresX moon missions"

Why don't MERGE (both) ESAS and COTS vehicles (also) for moon missions?

Posted by Gaetano Marano - Italy at May 21, 2007 10:40 AM


a true ESAS revolution suggested in my latest article:

"ESAS + COTS + AresX moon missions"

Why don't MERGE (both) ESAS and COTS vehicles (also) for moon missions?

Posted by Gaetano Marano - Italy at May 21, 2007 10:41 AM

sorry for the double post

Posted by Gaetano Marano - Italy at May 21, 2007 10:43 AM

Yes, NASA can and should do more to facilitate the private sector, however unless there is private sector DEMAND the engine will not continue to run.

NASA can be a better starter motor or spark plug however until and unless spaceflight is purcahsed by private players spending private dollars we will be merely running the starter motor and not the engine.

Uncle Sugar can get the ball rolling but only dollars that do not originate or first pass through Unlce Sugar can create a sustainable market.

Posted by Bill White at May 21, 2007 11:52 AM

I wholeheartedly agree that private space transportation will only truly come into its own as private markets start developing. That said, the key problem right now is that all of those markets (or most of them) are very speculative. That makes raising money for the ventures very challenging, even if the markets are realistic and potentially quite large. The other problem is that building these markets is going to take time. NASA could do itself (and everyone else) a lot of good by serving as an anchor tenant.

Take propellant depots for instance. Once a depot is operating, and looks like a going reality, business that depend on depots can start growing. Stuff like say translunar tourism, Dave Salt's idea for a GEO tug, etc. It's really hard to close a business case for translunar tourism that needs a propellant depot, when the propellant depot doesn't exist yet. It's hard to close a business case for a propellant depot when all or most of its customers have a hard time existing without the depot existing first. It isn't impossible, but the chicken-and-egg problem is huge.

That's where NASA could make a huge difference (while also benefiting enormously themselves) by acting as an anchor tenant. If NASA could find a way to act like a dependable customer, it would make it a lot easier to close the business case for a depot. Also, knowing that NASA is the anchor tenant will ease the fears of potential investors that maybe that depot won't still be around when your business is up and running.

I'm not saying that NASA should be the only or even primary market for these services. Just that if NASA were smart, and actually worked to foster these technologies, it would make it a lot easier to get to a point where those businesses were commercially successful, selling primarily to private markets.

There may be ways of getting from where we are to where you would like to see private space development go that don't involve NASA acting like a customer. But they are far higher risk, lower probability, and likely to take a lot longer.


Posted by Jonathan Goff at May 21, 2007 05:59 PM


You may not have noticed but Mr Whittington seems to have now removed the blog entry that you quoted from.

I guess he finally realized just how stupid his arguments make him appear and is trying to clean his tracks - such are the qualities of a serious "space analyst" indeed.


Posted by Dave Salt at May 22, 2007 10:50 AM

No, Dave. It's still there. I just had the link screwed up. I guess you're just the first person who tried to follow it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 22, 2007 10:57 AM

Okay, now I see it. However, I also saw it the other day when I viewed it via your link but couldn't see it a few hours ago.

Could this be yet more evidence of AWG :-)


Posted by Dave Salt at May 22, 2007 12:37 PM

I see a major difference between the examples cited above and the current situation with access to space. That being that people, materiel, and/or economic incentive exist between the destinations being joined together by the faster and more direct methods of transportation. I the case of space, where are the people and economic incentives to build a space infrastructure between destinations?

By the way, I would like to go on the record as stating that I am no fan of the ESAS. There are methods to get from here to there without the expense and complexity as described by the ESAS. Much of the ground and space access infrastructure already exists to build upon to get an initial start to building space infrastructure. NASA should be running research programs and passing the end result of those research efforts onto for-profit or non-profit entities.


Posted by Joseph Mahaney at May 23, 2007 02:42 PM

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