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« More Ignorance Of Energy | Main | A Tale Of Two Senators »

Stuck In The Sixties

Gene Kranz has an editorial up decrying the "gap." Can anyone tell me what's missing from this piece? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Here's a hint, from the last two paragraphs:

Shifts in the world’s geopolitical climate are too unpredictable to rely on our allies for access to space — some who clearly intend on challenging our space leadership and whose governments are willing to make the necessary investments to be successful in space exploration.

I challenge Congress to heed the call from our industry leaders and the workers they employ. Give NASA what it needs to keep America first in space.

Because, you see, only NASA can put people into space, and keep America a leader.

Incidentally, I hadn't realized that he used the sound bite from the Apollo XIII movie as the title of his book. As someone once said, when failure is not an option, success gets pretty damned expensive. Unfortunately, as I've noted many times, NASA has a culture in which failure is not an option, but often happens anyway, at great cost, and with little innovation, because they can't take risks, politically. That's why we have to involve the element missing from the former flight director's lament.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 15, 2007 12:52 PM
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He's right, but he's wrong. Gene is right that it would be foolish to count on Russian access with the growing tensions between the US and Russia. But, as you state, he is totally stuck in the 60's by believing that access to space is strictly the domain of large governments and their marvelous bureaucracies.

Posted by Orville at June 15, 2007 02:29 PM

Other than a few sub orbital "jaunts" into the edge of space manned access to space currently IS "strictly the domain of large governments and their marvelous bureaucracies".

And I don't blame Kranz very much for assuming that it is likely remain that way for the next 5 years or so.

Maybe someone will have a private system on line that will provide Americans domestic access to ISS by 2010, but I am not placing any bets yet.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at June 15, 2007 05:22 PM

Let's see, with over 50 years of experience in manned orbital flight, private industry has exactly, excuse me Rand, I may be wrong, but I believe the number is ZERO flights! I know, Great Things are coming Real Soon Now. Why suddenly can private ventures do a better job than NASA (which is not saying much at all)? The infancy of NewSpace (sorry, am I using the term wrong, I know you are sensitive about its spelling and usage) should not be compared to early airlines, but to early railroads. Virtually no one made money. For a short time, they sacrificed themselves to create a nation, but in the end, fixed point A (Earth?) to fixed point B (ISS?, Moon?, Mars?) transportation was a failure. Yes, is still exists as a few heavily subsidized semi-private companies, but for the most part, you only hear about railroads when someone gets dead, or they dump their cargo (ironically, among other items, parts of an SRB) in a swamp somewhere. Find a REAL way to make money from space (got any methane asteroids nearby, or maybe a way to haul a 60 year supply from Titan?) and the orbital problems get solved in a flash. Unless and until you can make a profit from space (and sorry, space tourism is so much everyone polishing each others shoes) all you will have is a feeble and politcally motivated effort from NASA, a number of True Believers, and a Charlatan or two for good measure. Look at your own arguments, the other day you explained the cost of a ticket based on the cost of the vehicle amortized over a limited number of flights. Duh! Look at the balance sheet of an airline (or railroad for that matter) an you'll see the cost of the machinery is a fraction of the total cost. You can fly one flight or 50, there are fixed costs that WILL NOT CHANGE despite hopes and wishes. Why should cleaning 50 washrooms be cheaper than cleaning one? Sorry, I digress. Rand, you show me one private company that can put an orange in orbit and safely bring it back to Earth and I'll believe. Untill then, it's NASA, True Believers and Charlatans, and I'll just enjoy the show as they all build the most expensive Earth Augers we've ever seen. Just try and not kill anyone, ok?

Posted by Brad at June 15, 2007 06:16 PM

Let's see, with over 50 years of experience in manned orbital flight, private industry has exactly, excuse me Rand, I may be wrong, but I believe the number is ZERO flights!

[rest of ungrammatical incomprehensible bunched-into-a-single-paragraph nonsense snipped]

I'll go for "wrong," given the (relatively) robust business being done by the Russians. That it hasn't been done in the US has been due to a lot of sociological factors, not technological ones. Go sit in the corner with Gene, and see what happens over the next decade...

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 15, 2007 06:30 PM

I did say PRIVATE you know. If what the Russians do is private, please tell me what dictionary you use, it will help at my neighbors hearing next week (they forgot they took the cap off the bed of the pickup). As for "nongrammatical incomprehensible bunched-into-a-single-paragraph nonsense" comment, dismissing a rather logical argument either makes you a True Believer or a Charalan. How do you earn your living?

Posted by Brad at June 15, 2007 06:44 PM

Brad - short form: "I told Orville and I told Wilbur and now I'm a-tellin' you, that thing'll never fly!"

Posted by Dic k Eagleson at June 15, 2007 06:57 PM

"[railroad] transportation was a failure"


The U.S *passenger* railroad industry was crippled decades ago by 1. ludicrous railroad labor union contracts 2. federaly subsidized Interstate Highway System. (Had the U.S. government financed reconstruction of track infastructure to handle high speeds, it would be good transportation choice for intercity travel.) The American rail cargo transport industry is actually doing pretty darn well. Warren Buffets portfolio reflects that.

Posted by John Kavanagh at June 15, 2007 09:35 PM

Commerce is necessary to make space travel a going concern. Brad's examples of going concerns are analogous to the Age of Sail and the Age of Rail - individual missions to the New World to scavenge exotic stuff to merchandise back home (the proposed Titan expedition), or set up regular commerce between Points A and B. We can't do the latter because there is currently no Point B - that is, there is no extraterrestrial point of commerce to connect our "rail line" to. No Martian city or lunar mining colony or orbital resort hotel (the ISS doesn't count, any more than an Antarctic research station does).

Space industry has to start somewhere, and right now it's limited to Earth's orbit. (Unless Neil and Buzz's bootprints could earn enough bucks on eBay to pay for a moon shot.) Satellites can be profitable because a sat requires only one launch (before it needs to be replaced or overhauled).

Then there's manned space flight industry. It seems like a silly waste of time because it caters to only the Mr. Howells of the world. But that's how just about all new industries start out - sugar, tea, coffee, books, air travel, motor travel, cold beverages. Industries have to start somewhere, and if space yachting and orbital resorts are the current limits, then start. We have the technology, and at least the former is cost-feasible. (As much as Trump spends on c@sino palaces, I have to wonder if building an orbiting resort would cost that much more.)

Problem is, we're too used to thinking of NASA and its foreign counterparts as the only game in town. We're too used to the Star Trek idea of space ships originating from govgernment. That kind of thinking discourages people from making any serious plans about private-sector applications. Innovation is fueled by expectation of profits, and to NASA and most of its counterparts, profit is not an option.

Someone has to take the commercial baby steps so that the potential innovators will have a reason to innovate. It doesn't matter if the only customers for now are Thurston and Lovie and their friends.

Posted by Alan K. Henderson at June 15, 2007 10:03 PM

I would like to hear a speech from someone with the power to do more than make speeches, maybe the President, something like this:

"Forty years ago, the first of twelve Americans landed on the moon. Since then, a hundred people or so (insert actual figure here?) have gone into space, seven have died in the attempt, and another seven have died on the way back. These deaths were tragic, as all deaths are, and especially of those in the prime of life - but they were inevitable, and acceptable.

Frontiers are dangerous. They always have been and always will be. Thousands died among the pioneers in early America, thousands died among the early Australians, and undoubtedly thousands died among those who crossed from Siberia into America. Those deaths among our pioneers were the price of America, and is there anyone here who thinks that price was not worth paying?

Space is the new frontier, the High Frontier, the endless wild black yonder, a frontier that will never be exhausted as long as humanity lives. Like all frontiers before, it promises treasures beyond imagination - and like all frontiers before, it will exact payment in the lives of brave pioneers for that treasure.

We should not shrink from that challenge; we should accept and embrace it as did the pioneers of the Old West. And when we do, the price that will be paid will buy us the Solar System and, Providence willing, the stars beyond.

One difference from the old frontier is that no individual or small group can afford the price in money to make the attempt. The cost is simply too great, for reasons written into the fabric of the Universe.

Accordingly, I now make this commitment; the first company to get ten people to the Moon, keep them there for two years and bring them back alive with a ton of Moon rock will be given a prize of twenty billion dollars.

I am sure that the response to the call for volunteers will be the same as the response from British men to the call from Shackleton for volunteers to explore Antarctica.

We are going back into the black - and this time we're staying!"

I don't claim to be a speechwriter, and please excuse my poor efforts, Such a speech will never be made, of course. Not in America.

Posted by Fletcher Christian at June 16, 2007 05:22 AM


On one level I agree 100% with your attitude. Yet, we need to remember that if a President says:

Accordingly, I now make this commitment; the first company to get ten people to the Moon, keep them there for two years and bring them back alive with a ton of Moon rock will be given a prize of twenty billion dollars.

Its the taxpayer's $20 billion dollars you are spending and they will whine. Plus Congress needs to say "yes" also. However, make a profit without tax dollars and there are many fewer venues for such whining.

The needed paradigm shift is to find money that is not tax-payer sourced even as we simultaneously attempt to leverage tax dollar spending in the most effective manner possible.

And I continue to ride my favorite hobby horse which is that the trillion dollar advertising and marketing industry (a trillion per YEAR!) offers the most likely source of money that could be siphoned into space exploration. Harness space exploration to sell Quisp rather than Quake and use the revenue to build rockets and if public support for space exploration is "an inch deep but a mile wide" that inch of depth is all that is needed to motivate a choice of Quisp over Quake.

At Soyuz prices this might work. At EELV prices? No way. SpaceX? Yup, a fighting chance.

BUT the critical paradigm is to find money that does not first need to pass through Uncle Sugar's digestive system.

Posted by Bill White at June 16, 2007 06:42 AM

"I'll go for "wrong," given the (relatively) robust business being done by the Russians."


That "business" is being conducted by companies that have heavy government ownership, subsidy, and control.

What I don't understand is the double-standard applied by people like you and Ed Wright--the Russians are praised for what they're doing and the Americans are considered essentially "socialist" in their practices. Yet the Russians are much less of a market economy in space than the United States--which explains why the Russians get the business and American companies struggle.

Posted by David Heckman at June 16, 2007 11:01 AM

David, nail hit squarely on the head. Thanks.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at June 16, 2007 03:30 PM

"[rest of ungrammatical incomprehensible bunched-into-a-single-paragraph nonsense snipped]"

Jesus, Rand, for a super-smart engineer who's so super-smart that he can't even speak to normal mortals, you're awfully quick to resort to "tl;dr".

Posted by DensityDuck at June 17, 2007 07:27 AM

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