[FoRK] Losing my religion

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Sun Feb 14 06:10:27 PST 2010

Re:  the pens / pencils things, thanks to Sean for reloading the cache.  I believe I went hunting for the truth behind that anecdote some years ago and got the same answer, but clearly its utility as a rhetorical device exceeded the truthiness value needed to pin it in my cache. ;-)

Damien says several things...  that I agree with.  We're making progress, if only barely.  I'll ignore the unwarranted snarkiness and just respond to some of the substance in order to hopefully move things along a bit.

> Sure, after all, its just a bunch of people working together, whatever you
> call the group and however its funded.

Yes...  but.  That's exactly the point:  several characteristics of such groups and social organizations tightly define and constrain what can be accomplished and how it may be accomplished.  These characteristics include but are not limited to:  where the funding comes from, how reliable the funding is, what the ultimate incentives are for members in the group and for other groups cooperating or competing (or both) with the group, and the social choice functions (i.e., way individual preferences among group members get aggregated into decisions and enacted) involved.  This is the heart of the matter.  NASA has *FAILED* to fulfill *any* significant long-term, big-picture objective with respect to manned spaceflight, despite *having that charter* (whether you agree with it or not) and despite numerous attempts, really, since Apollo.  If you agree with that assertion, then understanding why that is the case might be useful.  At least, I would think so.  (Note that this exercise is useful *whether or not* one agrees that manned spaceflight is a reasonable priority and / or use of tax dollars.  Which, actually --- I do not.)

> Probably the only entity we have
> discussed so far that has the multi-decade vision needed is your friend, the
> space geek. Im sure he is quite capable of working in the private sector,
> but has chosen the public sector as the best way of achieving his life
> goals.

Unfortunately, it has become quite clear --- to him --- that this has been the incorrect choice except insomuch as it may move him closer to the head of the line with one of the private entities in the next decade or so.  But even he recognizes, I think, that such a conclusion would have been better arrived at some few years ago, when Bezos and the billionaire-spacer clubs started getting their shit together.

> Yeah, the usual way, the world over, of handling the relatively fast
> election cycles and even faster business cycles, is to set up
> an independently funded institution - so that they don't have to worry so
> much about funding, and can instead focus on the steps needed to be taken to
> achieve a longer term goal.

Of course, that's why all the major problems of the world --- famine, mitigating existential risks, building a robust and sustainable space-access industry and capability, assuring sustainable energy and food bases, etc. --- have been handled by these sustainably-funded organizations.  (Not.  Sorry, that was snarky, but what fucking science-fiction reality are YOU living in where all these benevolent Foundations handle all of man's problems?)

Just the point:  NASA isn't capable of achieving its charter *because* of the fickleness and dependencies baked into its funding;  further, that funding requirement is far greater than it would otherwise be if they didn't have to move their massive bureaucracy *and* their highly-specialized network of private sector symbionts through time and complexity in order to achieve the charter.

Can we at least agree on the latter?  The only argument that I can think of *against* that latter point would be:  that's all necessary and the *only* way to configure things to achieve the goal.  I haven't heard anybody make that argument;  I think it's a rather weak one.  So can we at least agree on that much?

> Thesis is that NASA isn't competition at all. Business isn't prevented from
> entering the space launch field.

Keyword:  *prevent.*  You are absolutely correct:  they are not *prevented.*  I never claimed they were *prevented* per se, or if that was how the assertions came across, then that is my bad.  Say, rather, they are systematically though inactively discouraged to tackle the big picture by the very incentives and structures set up by the present arrangements.  Existing incentives and structures have been a drag on things for several decades.  I've now said this five different ways to Wednesday, I'm not sure how I can further avoid having you attempt to argue against a point I'm not actually even trying to make.

> In practice, the ideal is to have an institution, like NASA, that has long
> term goals and also has the role of stepping in and maintaining strategic
> capabilities where business fear to tread.

Keyword:  *fear.*  Exactly.  Well, and *greed.*  The combination of the two, run through the function of how we've organized the whole industry around a public, bureaucratic super-entity with the charter but with funding subject to the winds of political whim, is precisely the problem.  

> In fact, I am sure NASA and the military would be more than
> happy to employ whatever launch facilities the private sector can come up
> with.

Of course they will.  Here's a thought exercise, however:

NASA's never really *made* much of anything themselves.  Indeed, they've even *designed* very little, all in, themselves.  There was no immediate reason, even going back to the immediate post-Apollo era, that private industry could *not* have taken on more of this, quite capably.  It's only now that some are, and unfortunately those few are having to start essentially from scratch on several very basic fronts.  So the open questions, for which I've presented one explanation and nobody else has presented any explanation, are:  why did the private sector *not* step in earlier, particularly when the then-existing private entities were closer to having the capability to do so, and why *now* are new private entities stepping in so aggressively?

Come up with an internally / externally / historically consistent hypothesis that explains those two things, and we're cooking with Crisco.  I'm all ears.

> None of this scales while we are riding into space on chemical rockets.

Well, we'll see.  I agree that this isn't the endgame, and that what's possible while operating under that technological constraint is pretty meager.  But what I meant, really, is that there is finally a smooth path apparent with proper incentives that moves the technology along the curve in a sustainable fashion.  No claim was made about the technology;  the claim was re: the business plan (i.e., the incremental and private approach) and the enthusiasm of the new participants for tackling enough of the picture to really get things done as independently as practical, rather than being highly specialized and highly dependent gee-gaw providers whose main motivation is to see that their already-designed gee-gaws as well as many new ones are included in every subsequent mission plan.

You want to argue with Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and those guys --- go right ahead.  I'm not going to, and I also refuse to accept that what they are undertaking is an expensive hobby / status symbol rather than viable business planning with refreshingly large scope.  These are smart guys.  Their track record about handicapping profit opportunity and related planning better than yours (or mine.)

> Whatever space dreams you have are dead. Whatever dreams of visiting other
> planets are gone. Done, buried, rotten and eaten by worms.

THAT particular religion died for me long before I made my little trip to NASA.  I've said it around here before and I'll say it again, there's no Star Trek, no monkeys zipping around the galaxy in pressurized tin cans.  The economics (along with everything else about the idea) --- unworkable.    That's baked into the idea itself, not even a function of the things we're "debating" (or whatever it is you're trying to do, I still can't tell.)  

FWIW, I came to that conclusion back in college while taking an astronomy course that devoted an entire semester to running the numbers for estimating Drake equation solutions. 

That's why I've gone to pains several times in this to *avoid* making any claim that this whole activity is a legitimate activity for anybody to be doing or to indicate that I approve of it as a public goal.  However...  while I think the limits and constraints involved are quite severe --- we agree on that --- I do tend to agree with Zubrin et. al. that there is some potential social-psychological benefit to that dream, and some degree of pursuit of it by some group or groups, somehow. 

Indeed, that's the whole point:  it's *not* a big enough priority, IMHO, to warrant the public money we've thrown at it, yet we've done very poorly for those who *would* see it through, as far as is possible, by giving that charter to an organization yet failing to provide adequate resources to meet that charter --- over, and over, and over.  That was the Arrow point:  perfect example of a negative-sum arrangement, implicit and probably unavoidable given how we've chosen to organize things to supposedly "accomplish" this goal.  Everybody loses, or at least has now for several decades.  (QED.  Instead of taking pot-shots at various other bits, if you disagree with *this* --- please explain.  Whose interests have really been best served by the countless starts and stops re: various manned spaceflight initiatives since Apollo?)

I agree w/ you re:  Branson in it being ego- and PR-driven, but I wouldn't bet that he doesn't actually expect to make a profit on this.  And I wouldn't bet that he doesn't.

> Meaningless drivel

Meaningless snarkiness and disagreeability.  Sorry, again, for pushing whatever hidden button I pushed of yours.  Well, not really sorry, except inasmuch as I appear to have bought some griefing that I didn't realize was going to be thrown in for free. ;-)

> Yeah sure, whatever you fear the most. Except, you wouldn't even be thinking
> about this stuff without the existence of that god awful monster. Instead of
> rolling around in your sandpit eating dirt, you were rolling around eating
> dirt and looking up, wondering. Because of that chimera. I was too. Be
> thankful.

No idea what that's all about.  If I were being snarky, I'd make some comment to the effect of "oh, yes, let's thank our benevolent government-god and its central planner-priests and lay bureaucracies for all our bountiful blessings.  May they never be analyzed or criticized in any way, and may they endure forever, unexamined and unchanged, for no improvement can be possible and all bounties flow from them.  Now let us tithe."  

But I won't.



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