Blast from the past: “comm space,” again

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Credit: clipartof.com

As part of my ongoing effort to explain why I’m skeptical of recent grandiose claims of riches to be made in so-called “commercial” space development, I offer here some highlights of stories I reported in the August 15, 1983, issue of Space Business News.*

On August 3, 1983, President Reagan had lunch with a group of NASA, Commerce Department, and industry officials convened at the White House to discuss what was then called “space commercialization.” Attendees included the President’s science adviser, the Secretary of Commerce, the President’s assistant for Cabinet Affairs (who later would lose power struggle with a National Security Council official to head Reagan’s Senior Interagency Group on Space), the NASA administrator, the President’s chief counsel, White House Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of staff, the chairmen of Fedex and Grumman Aerospace, and the presidents of Deere and Co., Rockwell Space Operations, and Orbital Sciences.

On the agenda for this meeting: the need for stable space policy (surprise!), the need for “appropriate economic incentives” for commercial space businesses (you know: subsidies, tax breaks, bond financing…), the need to eliminate “institutional barriers to space commercialization” (those pesky laws, regulations, and taxes) the need for help in dealing with international competition (protection?), and the need for NASA and other federal agencies to play a role in “fostering commercialization.”

Just in case you’re wondering, “the White House declined to comment on the meeting.”

Around the same time, then-congressman George Brown Jr. (D-CA) told a meeting of the American Bar Association that private space launch services would become “a space business worth $10 billion or more by the end of the 1980s.”

Pacific American Launch Systems president Gary Hudson reported that his company was eight months behind schedule in developing its Phoenix reusable space launch vehicle. Hudson also said human-rated Phoenix vehicles would be a cheaper alternative to NASA’s proposed space station project (approved by President Reagan in 1984).

The Commerce Department announced it would issue a second request for expressions of interest in commercializing its Landsat and metsat systems.

The Heritage Foundation said it would be studying prospects for space commercialization as part of “a comprehensive study of possible privatization/commercialization initiatives the government could take on (as I recall, the right-leaning Heritage served as an on-tap think tank for the Reagan White House).

And a study conducted by Boeing for NASA concluded that the market for gallium arsenide semiconductor crystals manufactured in space “could be worth $624 million by 1995, $3.1 billion by 2000 and almost $5 billion by 2005.” (I assume that these projections assumed the availability and affordability of commercial space platforms and an operating U.S. space station….)

In the August 29, 1983, issue of SBN, I reported that the White House hosted another meeting with NASA and industry officials on space commercialization, on August 19.  Alcoa and Grumman officials reported that they were working on a multi-year “exploratory” materials-processing-in-space program. NASA and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics announced that they had invited 130 top officers of investment banks, commercial banks, venture capital firms, insurance companies and aerospace corporations to an October meeting at NASA Kennedy Space Center on space commercialization.

In the September 12, 1983, issue of SBN, I reported that NASA Administrator James Beggs had told me in an interview that he would like to find a commercial operator for the space-shuttle system as soon as it starts to break even. He also told me that the best thing NASA could do to support space commercialization would be to make venture capitalists aware of opportunities in the space business.

I can still recall that interview: postponed multiple times, and then like pulling teeth when it finally took place. I can also recall who some of my most reliable sources were during my time at SBN: investment bankers, who knew how to tell a good business plan from – dare I say it? – a flighty one.

That’s all for today, dear readers.

 

* I offered a similar trip in The Wayback Machine in a blog post last July.

 

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Near-Earth space: a busy place

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Credit: universetoday.com

Our planet experiences 10-20 meteor impacts a day. This assessment comes from Bill Ailor of Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital & Reentry Debris Studies.  That is, space rocks routinely break up and burn up in the atmosphere. Sometimes a few pieces make it to the ground – and scientist and collectors take off in hot pursuit of these remnants.

On occasion, a video camera records an impact. See, for example, videos posted on YouTube of impact events over New York in 1992 and over Chicago in 2003.

Another interesting video posted on YouTube is an animated depiction of the near-Earth object discovery rate over the past few decades, made by Scott Manley of Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. Here’s the good news: it’s been going up fast in recent years and more and more telescopes are engaged in the search for NEOs.

Just last week NASA NEO observers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported two near-Earth asteroid fly-bys, one NEO flying between Earth and the Moon on March 5 and the other passing on March 6.

And let me note here that these newly “discovered” objects are not new. As NEOs are part of the debris left over from the formation of the planets in our solar system, they’ve always been with us (even before there were “us”). They’re always moving, and as they orbit the Sun they’re colliding with each other and with other planetary bodies.

Quick tutorial: NEOs are asteroids and comets that come within a certain distance of Earth. Meteoroids are fragments of NEOs. Meteors are meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere. Meteorites are the remnants of meteors that land on Earth. (For details, see this page.) As JPL NEO expert Don Yeomans notes in his very excellent book, Near Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us, “More than one hundred tons of near-Earth object material pummels the Earth daily,” though “fortunately, the vast majority of this material is dust and pebbles that are too small to survive passage” through the atmosphere.

NEO debris hits our Moon from time to time, and now, because telescopes around the world are watching, we often see these impacts. This video and this news story report on lunar impacts observed last year.

Last week, the staff of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office spent an hour on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” site talking about their work.  Amongst questions and comments about “Thor’s bifrost,” “Fringe,” “Quantum Leap,” “Gravity,” Bruce Willis, and panspermia theory were a number of queries about the history and hazards of near-Earth object impacts with Earth and plans for planetary defense

Also last week, NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge Office posted a video on YouTube soliciting public involvement in meeting the challenge of creating “a plan to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.”

Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me alert those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter to a 30-minute video compilation of launch vehicle failures from the 1940s to the 2010s – one explosion after another, ranging from “oops” to spectacular. It was made by an Argentinian named Fabio Baccaglioni, who says he spent two days collecting video and two hours on editing them to produce “32 minutes of the best films about spaceships exploding from the early ‘40s to the last Proton-M explosion.” Most of the clips aren’t labeled, so you won’t know what rocket is failing when and where unless you’re a serious aficionado. I should warn that the video may include images of Space Shuttle failures.

For myself, if I had two days to spare, I’d take a mini-vacation, or maybe (finally) read War and Peace. Thanks to Mr. Baccaglioni for doing this work so we don’t have to.

More marketing to the ultra-rich

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Credit: thefinancialphilosopher.com

“The launch of sub-orbital space travel presents the opportunity to radically shift global property markets,” according to the London-based real estate firm Knight Frank.

Knight Frank – which describes itself as “the world’s leading independent real estate consultancy” – prompted a flurry of media coverage in the U.K. by posting a “news headline” on its web site, “To infinity and beyond for property,” atop a blog post about the company’s 2014 Global Wealth Report. This report “highlights the rising trend for private wealth investment in space…from asteroid mining to sub-orbital space travel.”

Knight Frank is not interested in developing space-based real estate. It’s interested in the prospect of selling more luxury properties to the world’s ultra-rich once they gain faster access to distant terrestrial locales by means of suborbital space travel.

Really.

The market that Knight Frank is interested in exploiting is UHNWIs.

I had to look it up.

In the world of business, ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) are people with investable assets of at least $30 million (U.S.), excluding personal assets such as primary residence, collectibles and consumer durable goods. Knight Frank apparently looks forward to the day when it can sell more third, fourth, and fifth luxury properties in far-flung places to UHNWIs who can fly anywhere in the world in just an hour or two by suborbital space flight.

Apparently, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson has convinced Knight Frank that this vision will materialize. “Talking to The Wealth Report, …Branson said: ‘New commercial space will be one of the most exciting investment sectors in the next 20 years, driven by the initial successes of companies like Virgin Galactic. There is already some good evidence that the leading players are receiving high levels of interest from the mainstream investment community and attracting valuations that reflect confidence in future growth and opportunity’.”

I’d like to see that evidence.

“Although sub-orbital trips for wealthy tourists will keep Virgin Galactic busy in the short term,” Knight Frank reports, “Branson says the next step for the technology will be to slash travel times around the world. ‘I’m very excited about a future version of our current spaceship which will make transcontinental travel clean and fast – London to Sydney in a couple of hours with minimal environmental impact.’

Ticket price will be critical.”

No kidding.

“If this is a technology for billionaires only,” Knight Frank says, “then property market disruption might be limited to a wider choice of global lunch options. But if the price drops to allow the merely very wealthy to access sub-orbital flights, then every assumption about current property prices will have to be reconsidered.”

Knight Frank’s Liam Bailey explains. “Take second homes in Europe. Right now, demand is mainly restricted to European investors, who try to limit their travel to less than two hours. In future, that same time limit could allow Chinese or Indian investors to pop over for the weekend to visit their Tuscan farmhouse.”

Alas, I’m not making this up. As the rich grow richer and, consequently, the poor grow poorer, this disturbing vision might, indeed, become real. For me, this vision is a nightmare.

And lest you call me “socialist,” let me note that even from a pro-development perspective, economic inequality is seen as a hindrance to economic growth.

Last October, Shamshad Akhtar, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Affairs, reported at a U.N. meeting that “both global inequality and inequality within countries have been on the rise during the past two decades…. According to an estimate by UNICEF, the richest and poorest population quintiles earned 83 per cent and 1 per cent of global income, respectively…. Importantly, key evidence shows that income inequality hurts economic growth.”

“In developing countries,” she continued, “concentration of assets has been found to inhibit productive investment and restrict growth potential and thereby hinder the development process…. In both developed and developing economies, rising inequalities have been associated with excessively debt-financed consumption and investment patterns that have then contributed to financial and economic crises.” The assumption that “rising inequality [is] a price that has to be paid for development at lower levels of per capita income does not hold ground in recent empirical studies.”

Larry Ellison, an UHNWI rated by Forbes magazine as the third richest person in the U.S. and the fifth richest person in the world (net worth, $48 billion), already “collects houses on Malibu’s Carbon Beach and also owns of 98% of Hawaii’s Lanai Island.”

With first-class tickets on the Virgin Galactic shuttle (I suppose that all seats will be first-class), an UHNWI could buy up the nation of Yemen and turn it into a luxury resort, a la Dubai.

Knight Frank says it “has identified more than 70 wealthy individuals, with a combined wealth of over US$200 billion, who are targeting” the space-development sector. I guess the company is keeping an eye on investors in asteroid mining, in hopes that they will get rich, or richer. Its 2014 Wealth Report includes an “Asteroid Index,” identifying five allegedly high-value NEOs that will come within 0.2 astronomical units of Earth between January 2015 and October 2017.

Here they are: 1999 JV6 (approximate value, $1.5 trillion; estimated profit $218 billion; 2000 AC6, $2 billion/$247 million; 2000 BM19, $36 trillion/$3 trillion; 2000 CE59, $5 trillion/$923 billion; and 1989 UQ, $13 billion/$2 trillion.

These estimates come from Asterank, an Internet database originally compiled by Ian Webster and purchased by Planetary Resources – an asteroid-mining company! – in 2013. Ian Webster is now a software engineer at Planetary Resources.

Did I miss something? Is it April? Is this whole thing a joke? Or maybe a really weird advertising initiative?

This vision of a future world in which today’s ultra-rich become ultra-ultra-rich and own an even larger swath of Earth (what’s next? The oceans?) reinforces my view that humankind is not (yet) fit to expand its presence into space.

 

In the time machine: the Paine Commission

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Those of us with home offices don’t get the day off when it snows…. But our snow days can be quiet, which prompted me to pick up Pioneering the Space Frontier, the final report of the National Commission on Space (1985-86), appointed by President Reagan to develop a long-term plan for U.S. space exploration.

I served on the staff of the commission, focusing on a series of “public forums” – town meetings of a sort – designed to gather public input on the U.S. future in space.

What we heard from people from meeting to meeting (see the report’s chapter on “The American people and the space program”) is that they wanted to know more about what was going on in the space program and also wanted to participate in mapping its future. We heard that the U.S. should be expanding cooperation with international partners – the Soviet Union and China were mentioned. People told us they didn’t want NASA to pursue another “one-shot foray or a political stunt” like Apollo.

The “pioneering mission for 21st century America” that the commission recommended was “to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.”

(Dear readers, you can read my critiques of space-frontier rhetoric in previous blog posts.)

Looking back, I’m not at all certain that this recommendation encapsulated the public comments we gathered. It did encapsulate the desires of the space community – industry and other advocates. And almost 30 years later, we’re still attempting to execute this mission.

And – was it foreshadowing the Obama administration’s Asteroid Initiative? – a chapter on “space enterprise” envisioned extraterrestrial mining on the Moon, “Earth-crossing asteroids,” Phobos and Deimos, and in high-Earth orbit and featured illustrations of an automated spacecraft flying past an asteroid and an astronaut departing a transfer vehicle for a close-up look at an asteroid.

I wonder: have we yet to execute the Paine Commission’s vision (a vision, by the way, that’s been replicated by many a blue-ribbon study group) because it’s unaffordable or otherwise undo-able, or because, ultimately, it does not serve the public interest?