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Curiosity: the Opiate of the Space Masses

August 22, 2012, 3:28 PM

A dollar doesn’t equal a dollar; a rover doesn’t equal a rover.

What does that mean? Well, let’s just put it this way: While NASA has done an exceptional job of placing a rover on the fourth rock from the sun, I, for one, cannot be muzzled any longer.

Most people celebrate the technological achievements of entities like NASA but ignore the means by which such accomplishments are capitalized.

The fact that the July/Aug issue of Thruster focuses on the 3rd-Screen of the NSG-4 Screens compels me to ask: What are people smoking?! If we took the reported (and my hunch is that the number is conservative) $2.5 B that it took to send un-manned hardware to Mars and instead threw it at XCOR instead, we could send 2,500 passengers to space on a Lynx. Actually, if I were to call XCOR and say, “I’m looking to buy 5,000 tickets, can you give me a cut rate? To whom shall I make the $2.5 B check out to?” I think Andrew and Jeff at XCOR would hesitate to low-ball me.

And what impact might sending 5,000 people to space have? To start with, only around 500 people have gone to space in the history of humankind. (Please see “Exit Strategy/Escape Velocity” in the May 2012 issue of Thruster.) That includes every country in the world and every space program. To quote Gary Oldman in The Professional, “EVERYONE!”

So I have to ask more specifically: What impact would sending 5,000 people to 62 miles have versus sending Robbie the Robot to Mars?

To date we’ve sent a handful of intelligent, courageous folks to space. But what would happen if out of the 5,000 people, 500 were talented musicians such as Kanye West, the Foo Fighters, Muse, the White Stripes, and Lady Gaga -- all of whom have said they’d like to go? What if 500 were philosophers? Entrepreneurs? Inventors? Professional athletes? What if the last 500 were students of all ages, the future leaders of society? What would they say when they re-entered? Astronauts who have experienced this have said some inspiring things, as Frank White chronicles in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. But let’s face it, we need the poets, the writers, the filmmakers, the gamers, the entrepreneurs, the fashionistas, and the journalists to go to space and tell us -- as only they can -- what it was like. Not just the heroes of NASA who were the Lewis & Clarks and Columbuses of their time.

In an amazing interview with Big Think, Burt Rutan said, "A NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut can’t be creative. He has to follow a predetermined detailed checklist written by an engineer and if he gets a little creative he’ll never fly again.” Rumor has it that spaceflight participant Richard Garriott shot the first movie in space, an 8-minute short dubbed Apogee of Fear. But NASA feared the impact such a film might have on humanity and pulled a naysay, so nobody got to see it. 

Sorry, NASA. I learned about this crazy thing in American history called “No taxation without representation.” I think we should consider not giving you $2.5 B in tax money so the rest of us can afford to buy tickets. How dare you say such a thing, Dick Rocket! Well, as much as I’m blown away by the technological marvels that NASA produces -- including Curiosity, the Space Shuttle, ISS, and just about every vehicle ever innovated by its amazing technologists -- I want to go to space. I want to see thousands go to space because I know the results would be profound. Not just on those fortunate to go to 62 miles, see the Earth’s curvature, float in microgravity, and have the greatest spiritual event of their lives, but on the people they meet afterward at cocktail parties, at school, at Thanksgiving dinner, on the bus...sharing their impressions of first-hand experiences in space would have the greatest impact on humans. You think a robot on Mars inspires people? Try talking to someone like Richard Garriott, Guy Laliberte, Dennis Tito, or Anousheh Ansari a week after they went to LEO. (Please see “NewSports” in this month’s issue of Thruster.) Try talking with Brian Binnie, the pilot of the SS1, or Mike Melville. Man, you don’t know inspiration until you’ve done that. Space Adventures and Eric Anderson, they know how to inspire at a profit.

Greason, Melville, and Dick Rutan marveling at how irrational we are.

NASA, you want to inspire people? Then give $1.25 B to VG and $1.25 B to XCOR. Actually, strike that. (I just re-read this month’s LargeCap article.) I’m one of the few NewSpace fans that is not celebrating CCiCap. In fact, I think NASA might be bustin’ a CCiCAp in SNC, Boeing, and SET’s @#$. (Please see “LargeCap Review” in this month’s issue of Thruster.) Why? Because it is how these companies are funded that will make all the difference. Why is it that we understand the Space Shuttle was too expensive to be useful and never achieved the reusability of monthly launching as many hoped for when it was conceived but people in NewSpace are so excited when SET and SNC get the same funds? Is it any coincidence that Dragon looks like an Apollo-era capsule and Dream Chaser’s nickname is “Baby Shuttle”? Baby Shuttle? I’m going to start a company called “Baby Betamax” or “Baby Sub-Prime Mortgages.”

It’s great that SNC convinced NASA that it should be funded. Possibly not great for NewSpace. Ideally, the way SNC would have been capitalized -- and frankly, SET too -- is through private investment. Why are we so rational when it comes to the hard science of shuttles, space stations, launch vehicles, and the like, but so darned nonsensical when it comes to how we capitalize these technologies?  

And another thing that grinds my fears...

To quote the infamous Peter Griffin, “You know what really grinds my gears?” It’s a new player in asteroid hunting: 501(c)(3). 501(c)(3) allegedly wants to save humankind through donations, through crowdfunding. “Dear Mr. Jones, can you please donate $20 to 501(c)(3)? If you decide not to pay us and don’t forward this email to 10 people, an asteroid will fall on your head.” (Please see “Public Policy in NewSpace” in this month’s issue of Thruster.)

Should I take my girlfriend to see Big Momma’s House V -- which, I’m sure, will be hotlarious -- or donate $20 to save humankind? An Andrew Jackson to save humanity? Some days that sounds like a good choice, but that depends if it’s the same day I wait three hours at the DMV to get my license renewed. On those days, I’d probably just skip the 20 bucks and let the asteroids do their thing. But there are days when the sun shines brightly and I would probably fork over 20 big ones to keep our species an active participant in the Darwinian Olympics. Why not?

Why not? Why doesn’t 501(c)(3) just create a for-profit company and be the SpaceX of saving humanity’s collective butts? As Caleb Henry wrote in this month’s Public Policy article, insurance companies should heed our call. [Paging, Allstate.] If, in fact, reputable scientists can prove an asteroid is headed for downtown Des Moines on July 25, 2019###, then maybe Allstate might want to consider being the lead investor in a company that puts the ROI in asteROId hunting? They would never do such a thing, you say. Oh really? You know how many insurance companies went belly up after Katrina? The Japanese Tsunami? Well...

Insurance companies, wake up. An asteroid impact may make this disaster look like a paper cut.

For the record, blaming investors for being short-sighted -- as some of the folks at many cash-strapped organizations do --  is short-sided. My friends, as Thruster’s editor-in-chief said in this month’s letter from the editor, green fuel is what is needed here. Mithril Fund fuel. Canaan Partners fuel. DFJ fuel. Founders Fund fuel. And the fuel of the angel investors who are slowly but surely making their way into NewSpace investing. Backing for-profit ventures with the pressure to perform to pay their investors back the original capital invested and then the IRR cherries on top is what it’s all about, not some fuzzy good feeling. (Please see LargeCap Review in the premier issue of Thruster.)

Connecting the Dots

We live in a vicarious culture where millions of Americans can be *inspired* sitting on their butts gobbling Cheez-Its watching a rover land on Mars but never have the opportunity to go to space. This is the real *curiosity* for Dick Rocket. How can so many be complacent with this set-up? Is it because we’ve learned to fixate on the boob tube (or the 21st century equivalent BoobPhone and BoobTablet) and salivate at the amazing things that billions of dollars pumped into publicly-funded projects can accomplish? Why is it that I think this is a major distraction and the real magicians are all of the NewSpace entrepreneurs toiling away to build technologies and companies that will lead us to the actual democratization of space?

Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses. Today it appears technological marvels are the opiate of the space fans. The real players understand that the magic is not in the widget, it’s in the other three NSG 4-Screens. But that’s the genius of NASA. It inspires youth to believe that one day they too will be able to...sit and watch other people or robots go to space? Maybe SpaceX can get valuable data from the Curiosity that will inform Red Dragon. But maybe for the rest of us who just want to go sub-orbital in this frickin’ lifetime, what matters is that XCOR still doesn’t have an operational vehicle and VG can’t seem to overcome propulsion problems.

Not a robot on a rock thousands of miles into space.

This is what is so painful. The conflation of space enthusiasts who treat Mars rovers with the same intellectual and spiritual focus as they would Michael Phelps becoming the first gold medal winner to cite Cheech and Chong as his biggest heroes. Curiosity landed on Mars? Snookie’s pregnant? Mitt got a new haircut? Sandoval got a base-clearing triple in the All-Star Game? Yeah, yeah, I know all of that. But I still haven’t gone to sub-orbital with my friends on a tricked-out spacevan. It hasn’t happened, and arguably it won’t until the opiate of the NewSpace masses is discarded.

Dick Rocket is a frequent contributor to Thruster and Chief Scrutineer of NewSpace Global. He wants to go to space and bring his friends with him whether they like it or not.


Curiosity: the Opiate of th...

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