Lost in space... again

by John F. McGowan, III, Ph.D.

 

Lost in space: the fall of NASA and the dream of a new space-age by Greg Klerkx (Pantheon Books, New York, 2004, 392 pages) is primarily a book about "the alternative space community", which the author also calls "the entrepreneurial space community" and "space launch entrepreneurs."  Space enthusiasts who have attended the Space Frontier Conferences or follow the activities of the Space Frontier Foundation will quickly recognize the cast of characters.  Mars and the Mars Society also receive significant coverage in the book in two chapters titled "The Emperor of Mars" and "Mars on Earth".  The central theme of the book is the hope that private entrepreneurs can achieve inexpensive reliable popular access to space where NASA has so far failed.  The events and facts reported in the book do not necessarily warrant this hope.

 

Lost in space is well written, readable, and covers several recent attempts to commercialize space including MirCorp, Kistler Aerospace, Spacehab, and Dennis Tito's trip to the International Space Station.  The book also discusses the lobbying activities of ProSpace, Robert Zubrin and the Mars Society, and the various projects on Devon Island in the Arctic aimed at simulating Mars exploration.  The book also discusses NASA, the history of space exploration, and the history of space advocates in the United States, though the main focus of the book is "the alternative space community".

 

The book's "alternative space community" includes the telecommunications entrepreneur Walter Anderson and his holding company Gold & Appel, space entrepreneur and engineer Robert Citron and his brother attorney Rick Citron, Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation, Walter Kistler of Kistler Aerospace, Mitchell Burnside Clapp of Pioneer Rocket Plane, and a number of others.  The book is harshly critical of NASA and "Big Aerospace", meaning the giant aerospace contractors such as Lockheed that dominate the space business including the space shuttle and the International Space Station.  The book mostly accepts the claims of the alternative space community uncritically, although one can draw different lessons from the facts in the book.

 

The book skips over technical obstacles to inexpensive space access whether by rocket plane, expendable launch vehicle, or some other method.  This is most evident on page 98 in the chapter "Escape Velocity".

 

Few disagree that reusability is the key to unlocking Part Two of the Space-age promise -- frequent, inexpensive and reliable popular access to near-Earth space.  The point where opinions diverge, and radically, is whether the lack of a truly reusable spacecraft is due to insufficient technology or insufficient motivation.  The latter charge is usually leveled at NASA and its Big Aerospace partners by those in the entrepreneurial space sector: What real incentive do Boeing and Lockheed, and by extension the shuttle's owner, NASA, have to change the way things are?

 

The book clearly comes down on the side of insufficient motivation as the problem.  NASA and Big Aerospace are the villains of the book, blamed for nearly every setback and failure of the entrepreneurial space community.  It is easy to read the book and not realize that the entrepreneurial space community described in the book has never succeeded in putting even a paper clip in orbit despite burning through several hundred million dollars in investment capital, whereas NASA and Big Aerospace have put the space station, space shuttles, and numerous satellites successfully in orbit.  For example, according to the book Kistler Aerospace has consumed close to a half-billion dollars and is in bankruptcy proceedings, without launching a single rocket into orbit.  The author does express a few reservations about Kistler Aerospace, mainly noting that Kistler was top-heavy with NASA alumni, thus in a way blaming NASA's bureaucratic government culture for Kistler's obvious problems.

 

As the book quietly admits, entrepreneurial efforts to launch payloads into space have almost all failed.  The few successes have failed to produce frequent, inexpensive and reliable popular access to near Earth space.  Such a consistent pattern of failure over several decades should make one wonder.  The book and the entrepreneurs largely blame the baleful influence of NASA and Big Aerospace.  But can this really explain the failures?  The other possibility, glossed over in the book, is that it is hard to build and manufacture rockets.  This is certainly suggested by the hundreds of rockets that have blown up on the launch pad, during launch, and so forth.  The destruction of the space shuttle Columbia is only a recent, highly visible, and tragic reminder of this long-standing problem.

 

The knowledge of how to build a small number of unreliable, custom-built rockets able to shoot payloads into orbit is not the same as the knowledge of how to build large numbers of reliable, mass-produced rockets or rocket planes or other launch vehicles.  In fact, no one in the world may know how to mass-produce reliable rockets or rocket planes.  Mass-produced rockets or rocket planes must be composed of materials that can be reliably machined by factory machine tools.  To exploit modern computer-aided design methods and standard computer-controlled machine tools, the materials must be materials that standard machine tools can handle.  This is but one of many manufacturability issues that may confront mass production of reliable rockets or rocket planes.  This means that any space launch entrepreneur may face a major technology development project with substantial technical risk.

 

Nearly all working space launch vehicles are expendable launch vehicles.  Even the space shuttle requires extensive refurbishing after each mission according to the book.  This means that no one may know how technically to build truly reusable space launch vehicles.  Reusable space launch vehicles may be an unsolved technical problem.

 

In general, private investors exhibit a strong, perhaps irrational, aversion to technical risk in startup businesses.  Private investors in the modern economy have a preference for business plans with a proven technology and nontechnical risks such as business or marketing risks.  Many venture capital firms for example will explicitly state that they are looking for a proven technology.  The goal is often to cash in on a newly proven technology.  This prejudice extends well beyond the formal venture capital community.

 

What is the technical risk that investors avoid?  There is always some technical risk in any business, certainly a technology related business.  For example, in the computer field, suppose an entrepreneur proposes a business to market pet food over the Internet.  There is some risk that the software engineers that the entrepreneur hires to develop and build his or her web site will fail.  This is a minor technical risk.  Investors will know that a web site to sell pet food over the Internet can be created, even if some teams of software engineers would fail to execute the plan.  However, suppose the entrepreneur proposes a business to develop an artificial intelligence to read books and write reviews of the books that appear to have been written by an intelligent human reviewer.  Probably, no one in the world knows how to create such an artificial intelligence today.  This is major technical risk.  This is the technical risk that private investors avoid.  A proven technology is typically a technology with a working prototype or a working pilot experiment.  Proven technologies usually do not have a major technical risk, although they can have a minor technical risk.

 

This aversion to technical risk means that an entrepreneur faces a better chance of raising money if he or she claims there is no major technical risk.  The technology must appear proven, even if this is not true.  Oddly, private investors are sometimes willing to invest vast sums of money in technological projects with strong business or marketing risks.  This is evident in space with projects such as Iridium which were able to raise billions of dollars.  So too, investors seem willing to fund entrepreneurial space launch companies perceived to be confronting the enormous political clout of NASA and Big Aerospace, yet they might be unwilling to gamble their money on a technical risk, even if the technical risk is less than the business or marketing risk.  The hypothetical rational investor of business and economic theory shouldn't care whether the risk is technical or business or marketing.  In reality, the nature of the risk makes a big difference.

 

Despite the free-market rhetoric prevalent in the business community, private investors often rely on the government to assume major technical risk.  In any field where the government strategy for technology development or scientific research is flawed and further progress involves substantial technical risk, technological progress may stall, as may be the case with space.  Private funding for business plans with an admitted major technical risk is often not forthcoming even if the potential market is huge and the business risks are negligible.

 

As described in Lost in Space Kistler Aerospace is a typical example of a business that appears to have low technical risk.  The company's K-1 rocket is supposedly designed to use three Cold War surplus Russian NK-33 rocket engines.  Most of the work was contracted out to existing Aerospace companies.  The plan seemingly involved negligible technology development, only recycling of known technology and expertise.  The company featured many established rocket and space experts as executives and engineers.  Seemingly, then, the technical risk should have been low -- proven technology and proven expertise.  This is exactly the kind of proposal that private investors prefer.  According to the book Kistler Aerospace was able to raise more money than all of the other space launch companies put together.  It remains to be seen whether Kistler Aerospace will be able to make its rocket fly into orbit after emerging from bankruptcy protection.

 

The book also tends to accept uncritically the market projections of the space entrepreneurs and space market research firms.  For example, the true market for space tourism is very difficult to project.  A few multimillionaires such as Dennis Tito willing to spend millions of dollars for a trip in space is difficult to extrapolate to a larger more predictable market of people willing to spend smaller amounts of money.  The book often relies on analogies to the early days of commercial aviation.  However, there are significant differences between space and aviation.  Popular tourist destinations and popular business destinations existed throughout the world in the early 20th century when commercial aviation was starting.  Tourists and business people already took trains and ships to and from these destinations.  There is nothing comparable in space today.  The International Space Station is the only destination right now and it is hardly a vacation paradise.

 

Thus, the hope in Lost in Space that private entrepreneurs will lower launch costs dramatically may not be realized.  Is there anything that space enthusiasts or space advocates can do about this?  First, space enthusiasts should understand and solve the technical obstacles to inexpensive access to space.  These technical obstacles probably exist.  Second, space enthusiasts may need to convince private investors to fund business plans with a significant technical risk, such as a project to develop manufacturable rocket technology ultimately in the form of factories that mass-produce rockets or rocket planes.  Third, space enthusiasts may need to find better markets and better products and services to offer in space than current favorites such as space tourism.

 

Lost in Space ends on an upbeat note with the dream of a new Space Age that will benefit mankind.  With inexpensive space access, much may be accomplished in the future, including the exploration and settlement of Mars and other planets.  Whether private entrepreneurs and financing can make this dream a reality remains to be seen.