“Commercial space”: subsidies for billionaires?

I grow fatigued*…

…By the claims of so-called “commercial” space companies and their proponents that – at last! – NASA’s doing business in a new way, the right way, the free-market way, buying launch services on the market.

It’s not a new way – NASA’s been buying launch services from private companies for decades. It’s not the “right” way – there is no “right” way…at least not until some business can offer the government cheaper space launch services without first demanding subsidies to develop the services.

And – and this is what keeps sticking in my craw – it’s not the free-market way, not with the government doling out hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dwindling dollars in subsidies.

NASA’s April 18 announcement of its “Next Set Of Commercial Crew Development Agreements” http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/apr/HQ_11-102_CCDev2.html – a total of $269.3 million to amazon.com magnate Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins, the egomaniacal Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the mysterious family-owned business Sierra Nevada Corp., and The Boeing Company

“These awards,” says the agency, “are a continuation of NASA’s CCDev [Commercial Crew Development] initiatives, which began in 2009 to stimulate efforts within U.S. industry to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities.”

Why do these “commercial” space companies need government handouts? The awardees are not hard-up start-ups (and these government handouts are not their first).

Jeff Bezos, founder and, presumably, owner, of Blue Origins, has a personal net worth of $18.1 billion, according to Forbes – equal, ironically, to NASA’s annual budget. The company provides no financial information whatsoever on its web site, nor is it available from the usual business web sites.

Elon Musk is not forthcoming about his net worth. Some say he’s invested most of his money in his companies. In addition to this month’s $75 million subsidy from NASA, SpaceX also has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide cargo resupply services the International Space Station, “with an option to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion.”

Musk’s Tesla auto company, producer of $100,000-plus electric cars for movie stars and others with money to burn, has received close to a half billion dollars in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Mr. Musk co-founded PayPal and served as its Chief Executive Officer from May 2000 to September 2000. In 1995, he co-founded Zip2 Corp. with investments from the New York Times Co., Knight-Ridder, MDV, Softbank, and the Hearst Corp. In 1999, he sold Zip2 to Compaq “for the largest cash deal in Internet history.” compensation from Musk’s annual compensation from SpaceX is reported to be around $33,000. The total value of his stock options in his privately held company is reported to be $134.2 million.

According to campaignmoney.com, for the 2009-2010 election cycle Musk contributed $118,000 to political candidates and groups. For the 2007-08 election cycle his contributions totaled $93,000, including $28,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2007 and $25,000 to the same group in 2008.

Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) may be new to the civilian space business, but it’s a well established member of the military-industrial complex, until recently doing business largely on classified government projects. The privately owned company offers no financial information on its web site (though the company does report it has earned “Top Woman-Owned Federal Contractor” status), and information on the net worth of SNC’s CEO and president Eren and Fatih Ozmen is equally elusive. See USAspending.gov for information on SNC’s (or any other company’s) contracting history with NASA.

Last August, SNC “proudly announced that Inc. magazine ranked Sierra Nevada Corporation in the Top 10 for Growth in Dollars out of the 5000 companies selected on its 29th annual Inc. 500, an exclusive ranking of the nation’s fastest growing private companies.” Inc. magazine reported the following details about SNC: 3-year growth, 189 percent; 2009 revenue, $993.7 million (2006 revenue: $344 million); company founded 1963.

According to campaignmoney.com, during the 2009- 2010 election cycle SNC’s CEO and president contributed more than $50,000 to political candidates and their organizations plus SNC’s company PAC (their contributions for the 2007-2008 election cycle totaled around $62,000).

As to the aerospace behemoth Boeing, its 2010 profit – or “net income,” as Boeing calls it – was $3.3 billion, on revenues of $64.3 billion, with a year-end backlog of $321 billion. I won’t even try to sort out how much money Boeing invests in lobbying and political campaigns.

Why do these companies need subsidies? If I had a say in how the government invests my tax dollars, I’d say “No!” to all four of these outfits.

*“Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”

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A Great Guy: Barry Blumberg, 1925-2011

Barry Blumberg passed away yesterday (April 5), during a meeting at NASA Ames Research Center in California. He was 85.

The last time I saw Barry was on October 14, 2010, when he spoke at an astrobiology symposium that I’d organized for NASA. I’d invited him to join a panel addressing the history of NASA’s astrobiology program.

Here’s a bit of the bio I wrote for Barry in October:

“Baruch S. Blumberg is a research physician at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. He was the founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (1999-2002), a virtual research organization that is an element of the [NASA] Astrobiology Program. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with D. Carleton Gajdusek, in 1976 for discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious disease, which led to blood screening programs for the hepatitis B virus. Upon receiving his award, he told the New York Times: “I’m especially pleased that someone from Philadelphia won. It’s appropriate in the Bicentennial year and makes up in part for the Phillies not making it to the World Series.” (See below for the rest….)

Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator from 1992-2001, likes to tell the story of how he brought Barry to NASA, enlisting him to head up the agency’s new, virtual Astrobiology Institute. Dan and Barry sat down with me at an astrobiology conference in 2008 to tell the story of how this development came to pass. Goldin said that at one point during their first meeting, at NASA headquarters, Blumberg speculated aloud that Goldin would not want someone as old as he was (then in his 70s) to fill the position. Goldin said he’d laughed off his concern. Blumberg said he did not recall this part of the conversation….

In a keynote address at the above-mentioned October 14 event, Goldin again told this story, noting he’d told Blumberg that what counted wasn’t his age but his energy level “and you seem like about 22 to me.” He said Blumberg “did a magnificent job” at the Astrobiology Institute.

I have two funny stories to tell about Barry, and I’m sure he’d laugh at both. After last fall’s astrobiology symposium, Barry came to a party at a NASA colleague’s home. My fiancée joined us as well. When I introduced him to Barry, my dear boy asked him, “So what’s your claim to fame?” Some years ago, another NASA colleague and I joined Barry for a program at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Barry had his car with him – a large and rather rickety station wagon – so he offered to drive us there from NASA headquarters. Witnessing the unflappable Barry navigating his way through typically hideous rush-hour D.C. traffic in this boat of a car, refusing to hurry – and actually stopping at one point, halfway around the treacherous Thomas Circle, to figure out which way to go – was quite a trip….

I liked Barry for many reasons: his sharp intellect, his communication skills, his sense of humor. I especially liked him because he enjoyed working with women. He appreciated those social qualities that are especially strong among women – the nurturing, the warmth, the desire for connection.

Ever since Dan Goldin recruited him to come to work with NASA, Barry was an untiring advocate for astrobiology – not just NASA’s program for the field of research as a whole. At a public event in 2006, he offered these views:

“Rarely, if ever, has a federal R&D program sparked such broad impact in only a decade. Astrobiology science and/or educational activities exist at some level in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in Puerto Rico. Astrobiology research can be found at 38 of the nation’s top 50 research universities and in 222 research institutions nationwide. The quality of the science in astrobiology is impressive….”

Here’s the rest of Barry’s bio:

“Dr. Blumberg has a B.S. degree from Union College in Schenectady, NY (1946), an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (1951), and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Oxford University (1957). He worked with the National Institutes of Health from 1957 to 1965, at which time he joined the Fox Chase Cancer Center. At age 64, Dr. Blumberg returned to Oxford as master of Balliol College, becoming the first scientist and first U.S. citizen to hold the position. Dr. Blumberg is the recipient of numerous other awards in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Eppinger Prize from the University of Freiburg (1973), the Distinguished Achievement Award in Modern Medicine (1975), the Governor’s Award in the Sciences from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1988), and the Gold Medal Award from the Canadian Liver Foundation (1990).”

We will miss him.

Disaster in Japan: just the facts…

I’ve seen plenty of good science reporting on the March 11 Tohoku earthquake-tsunami that double-whammied Japan last month, but the best I’ve seen so far is a straightforward, scientific account of the event in the March 22 issue of EOS, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union. (EOS has done a great job reporting the facts about Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s latest earthquake, and many other contemporary and historic catastrophic events.)

The earthquake was “a plate boundary rupture along the Japan trench subduction zone,” according to EOS. Scientists estimate that the source area of the earthquake was 500-500 kilometers long with a maximum slip of 20 meters.

That’s a punch-in-the-gut description….

According to the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC), the first tsunami wave hit the coast of northeastern Japan 15 minutes after the quake occurred. The ITIC received eyewitness reports of tsunami waves up to 13 meters high. The coast near Sendai “moved more than 4 meters horizontally and subsided about 0.8 meter.” A professor with the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo told EOS that the tsunami may have flooded areas more than 5 kilometers inland.

Though I know we reside on a living planet, I find it hard to imagine such changes.

One scientist observed that while plate tectonics has been remodeling the surface of Earth for at least a billion years, likely longer, researchers have about 100 years worth of earthquake occurrence data to work with so far.

My take-home message is that we Earthlings should not be expecting precise earthquake predictions anytime soon. (We should also be ready for other unimaginable events, made worse by human crowding of coastal areas.)

Add to the challenge of limited data the politics of science. A U.S. Geological Survey official told EOS that it’s “difficult for those operating in political time to deal with events that are a blink of the eye in geologic but are not in the memory of even one’s grandparents.”

No kidding.

Everything clear now?