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The high road

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Nov 30, 2005 3:44 am
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by Sam Dinkin; One of the few things that everyone in the space industry can agree on is that there are many petty controversies in the space community. This is holding back the industry from having more demand, more political support, and more capital.

Division has costs and few benefits

When I started writing in May 2004, I set out to be the most controversial space columnist. Looking back at the last 18 months, I have only been asked to retract stories three times. I had one article where two different readers called me a genius and a novice. In another article, two different readers called me a fascist and an anti-Republican hack. One article got two CEOs to call. The “L” word was only mentioned twice during the year. In all, I would say I achieved what I set out to do. It has achieved none of my space development objectives, though. Now I am hanging up my spurs. I don’t want to stop writing, just stop being a divider.

When I joined IBM in 2000, an executive addressed all the new employees at orientation. The message was that if there is a clear choice in the market, “money flows,” but “confusion” causes the money to “stop flowing.” Another thing I did while at IBM was lead an invention team. The rule at our meeting was that we could never say an invention was bad, wouldn’t work or had already been invented. The only way to get the floor was to offer a new, better invention.

By stopping the confusion in the space industry, and ceasing our petty feuds, we can set the stage for capital to flow and new ideas to flower.

The world can brook a vibrant space industry

The world is awash in capital. We have trillions of dollars of houses, cars, and businesses. The world’s productive capacity is growing all the time. We are figuring out how to build old things better so quickly, we have to find an ever-increasing pace of new items to produce. Ever more of our productive economy is being devoted to entertainment, beauty, recreation, vacationing, art, luxury food, leisure, and lifestyle medications. And it is doing so with less energy per dollar of GDP. It is only a matter of time before early adopters follow the style of Paul Allen, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, and start their own space programs—or at least go for a ride.

Space is a sexy topic. The press covers it about forty times as much as its current relevance to the economy. There’s about $3 billion in private launch activity in the $12 trillion US economy (1/4000) and space gets maybe 1% of all press. The word “space” is on about 10% of the web pages listed on Google that has the word “the”. In the New York Times since 1981, it’s 5%. There are many definitions of space on Dictionary.com, but eight out of nine advertisers on Google and Dictionary.com thought I was looking for outer space.

All the existing aerospace related firms and many others can prosper if demand and capitalization grow for space enterprise. All of the following companies and more can succeed: ATK Thiokol, Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Energia, Imaginova, Incredible Adventures, Lockheed Martin, Liftport, Masten Space Systems, Northrup Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, Rocketplane, Space Adventures, The Spaceship Company, SpaceShot, SpaceX, TGV Rockets, t/Space, United Space Alliance, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Skill, and XCOR Aerospace.

While there are long-term lean scenarios, there are also extended boom scenarios. If there is an elevator that is put up, we will need more rockets, not fewer. We will spark a vast new era of development, colonization, and exploration with lots of rockets and spaceships flying off of a space elevator.

Another extended boom scenario is if suborbital space tourism turns out to be half as lucrative as theme parks ($19 billion in 2001). At 50,000 suborbital tourists a year, there is room for all the space tourism providers to turn a profit. 50,000 requires maybe 0.36% of each millionaire household in the world to send one of their number (25,000); games provide a like number each year. Let’s talk up the boom scenarios and use other positive scenarios to compete with each other.

It would take years for the capital to be deployed to increase industry capacity to serve that many people. Such a boom would also contain the seeds of its own modulation; if there are tens of thousands of flights, there is many times more likely to be a fatal crash than if there are only hundreds of flights. That is to be expected in any nascent transportation form. We can be pragmatic and cautionary without being negative.

There is a good deal of tail wind making space a reasonable bet for a capital boom. A “Netscape moment” may be happening soon, as Elon Musk recently put it.

Taking the high road, we can make space happen

Customers can be taught to like space rides. If there is no “confusion” in the space world, it will be that much easier. Investors can be taught to like space again. When there are customers and demand, it should be very easy to teach the investors that the space industry is worthy of their dollars. By cooperating, we can make it easy to invest.

Instead of constantly seeking the optimal in technology and space policy, we can make do with the commercially viable. We can talk up our own products without disparaging anyone else’s. We can talk up others’ products. We can use them. We can sign memoranda of understanding with each other. We can send out press releases together. In short, we can take the “high road.”

I will personally pay $1 to the first 500 people each year that tell me in person that they have not talked down any aerospace companies for twelve months.

As Monte Davis recently said on “The Space Show”, we have to set aside our petty differences. Shut up about Moon vs. Mars, hybrid vs. liquid, SSTO vs. TSTO, alt vs. biz, tourism vs. military, private vs. public, orbital vs. suborbital, robots vs. people, and asteroids vs. space invaders. Start subordinating our unimportant grousing about other’s companies and products to common goals. Start smoothing over our differences, agree to disagree, and push forward a positive message about our own and all competing products. Start teaching each other how to promote in a positive way and teach the media how to cover us in a positive way.

The world is awash in capital. It can afford to devote a hundred billion dollars on developing space if it can merely be shown to have promise and if all the experts merely say it’s possible or remain silent. If there is less dissent, we will proceed to ascent.

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