Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We've Moved!

Space Cynics has a new home, and a fresh new look:

The New Space Cynic Website

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Using the Fed to Lower Launch Costs...?

One of the oft-heard metrics amongst the space-development crowd is that if we could only lower the cost of launch to under $1000 per lb to orbit, as opposed to the $10,000 per pound that the hideously expensive shuttle charges, new markets would be enabled. There may be a bigger problem to consider....

Consider these bits of monetary trivia:

• The US Dollar has lost considerable amounts of inherent value through devaluation (some might argue outright debasement) of the currency as larger amounts of liquidity are pumped into the marketplace.

• The US government, through the Fed (which is actually a private bank, but that's another matter best left for other blogs and other websites to discuss), has borrowed extremely large amounts of money to finance expenditures on everything from Defense to Welfare, in order to support the shortfall in revenues that exists between the taxes collected and the $ spent on programs.

• The Euro, and most other major world currencies, have surged against the US Dollar over the past 7 years. Here in Australia, when I arrived in 2002, the exchange rate was US$0.62 to the Aussie Dollar - now it's US$0.83 and climbing...

• The Dow is *not* at an all-time high. Inflation adjusted, the Dow actually has to hit over 16,000 just to reach it's highs from the past 15 years. Think about that.

• Last year, Linda Goldberg, a vice president and head of the International Research area at the New York Fed, spoke about how in today's global economic environment, dollar depreciations have asymmetric impacts on exports relative to imports. She argued that the wide use of the dollar as the invoicing currency in international trade transactions affects how exchange rate movements influence traded goods prices in different countries and trade balance adjustments. In her analysis, substantial dollar depreciation did not provide much relief for U.S. producers competing with importers; however, markets for U.S. exports could really grow.

• Dollar depreciation reduces activities in upstream through different channels including increased cost, higher inflation rates, lower purchasing power, and lower return on investment.

So what does all this mean?

A couple of things come to mind (but these are not the only likely outcomes - i would be interested in your thoughts on other implications of these macroeconomic forces...)

1) Unless the US manufacturers are raising prices, the true international cost of a US made rocket or satellite should be getting significantly more competitive against their competitors (e.g., Delta II relative price should have dropped by 20-30% against the European equivalent)*

2) The cost of international launches should be getting more expensive in US dollar terms for purchasers of launch services*

3) The "true" cost of a Shuttle launch, in international terms, appears to have dropped by almost 35% since 2000, but then we all know how squirrelly NASA accounting can be...

Finally, as the US financial base gets more strained from increased liabilities (social security, medicare, ongoing wars, etc) and difficulty in obtaining future deficit financing (because of the dangers of raising interest rates - required to make the US debt offerings attractive to foreign buyers, but avoided by the Fed because of the impact it would have on the US domestic economy by punishing all of those mortgage holders who have Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs)...), the ability to fund discretionary expenditures such as a trip to the Moon or Mars will become a harder and harder sell in an era of forced austerity.

* note - this all assumes, of course, no currency hedging has been done by the companies in these industries.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ooooh.... Aaaahh... zzzz....

NASA needs a new spokesperson.

Here's a hint - if you have to resort to the following as a way to make the manned space program seem interesting:

"Two vehicles weighing 230,000 pounds going 17,500 mph, it's tough stuff,"
- Mission Management Team leader John Shannon

you're trying too hard.

Two words: relative velocity.

Unless you consider driving a car down the street whilst hurtling through the milky way galaxy "tough stuff".

Saturday, June 09, 2007

You are my Sunshine...

Ok, I'll admit my first reaction to this article in wired:

Military Target: Solar Beaming Sats

was, Oh no, not again (apologies to Douglas Adams). Those of you who have been following the Cynics since we debuted April 2006 will recall a previous blog post on why Space Solar Power is a kool-aid effort of the highest order.

But believe it or not, I am actually partly heartened by this latest push to SSPS.

Why? Because, as many of you have heard me say (or write) before, I am firmly of the belief that only the DoD has the budget, the operational experience, and the political clout to develop truly cheap, reliable, reusable access to space. Not NASA, and not the toy spaceships being developed by the private sector.

But if the DoD does decide that they have a case for development of such technologies (hypersonic transports, responsive space access, etc), then the trickle down to the commercial and private sector will follow - as it has for many other technologies we take for granted now (including GPS). But only the DoD would have the resources to pull off a massive 10km geostationary solar power station - and even then they'd only be able to do it if they had first created a spacelift capability that doesn't exist today (and, of course, had developed the experience to do major on-orbit assembly operations amongst other things).

Of course the Military Industrial Complex (read: big aerospace) would LOVE this kind of model, which means it would be able to get a fair bit of Congressional support. A far cry from NASA's meager attempts to flog a manned space program that barely limps along from year to year, fingers crossed that they don't blow up another shuttle in the process.

For now, though, at least we have a study.

The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first steps.

Good luck to Lt. Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith of the US Air Force as he develops this study. Note to Major General James Armor (Director of the National Security Space Office) - kudos for having the foresight to look at this problem... just keep an open mind when looking at the implications the report will likely present (and don't let them try to feed you the kool-aid in the process). SSP isn't easy, nor trivial - it will require a major rethink of DoD Space and if the foundation isn't laid, this simply will not pan out.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Electrons 2 : Atoms 0

For those who say no good can come from Microsoft (we'll avoid any embarrassing mention of the Zune here...), I would like to share with you yet another stunning example of how technology is revolutionizing the way we see the world:

Photosynth Demo

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: the new frontier is NOT space, but cyberspace. Secondlife, Google Earth, and things like Photosynth are making the web the true next frontier for humanity, one where the "cost" of entry is a PC and an internet connection.

How can outerspace compare with that?

Until, and unless, we get truly Cheap, Reliable, Reusable, Access to Space (CRATS), the masses will never leave terra firma. I'm concerned that our window will close in this generation unless that point is absorbed and acted upon by those with the bucks.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Electrons 1 : Atoms 0

The Space Cynics have officially opened the Cynics Lounge in Second Life!

So come down, bring your favourite beverage, grab a lounge chair on the rooftop, and watch the virtual rockets being tested in the sand box.

In the future, we'll be having chat sessions at the Lounge for those who want to challenge our positions, ask us questions, or just hang out and discuss whatever comes to mind.

Major kudos to Robin Snelson for helping a Second Life newbie (me) get us started there!

p.s. - we're looking for good furniture and fixtures, so any donations are appreciated

p.p.s. - and for those who've never seen it, I recommend a quick trip to First Life

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

So What IS Their Mission...?

From a recent interview (courtesy of Space Daily):

GRIFFIN: Nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I'm proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to quote "battle climate change."


Riddle me this, readers - can anyone point the Cynics to the actual authorization so we can see what NASA really IS supposed to be doing, according to Mr. Griffin's "If it's not in the Authorization, it's not our mission" criteria? Perhaps he can get them out of those silly manned space missions to nowhere while he's at it?

I don't care if you are in the "Global Warming is a crisis" camp or the "Global Warming is Hyped" camp - or, if you're in the Global Warming is a natural phenomenon camp for that matter. The issue I want to dig into here is what IS the mission of NASA? The organisation has many different arms - from the most well known and dysfunctional (Manned Space) to the often times brilliantly successful (robotic space - e.g., Hubble) to the virtually unknown by the masses (biology, aeronautics, etc). When I used to do strategic planning work with NASA back in my KPMG days, their "strategic plans" were a mishmash of different objectives and directions. I doubt much has changed, other than the lettering of Codes at NASA HQ.

The question at the root of all this is: Does NASA even know what it's "elevator pitch" mission is, and can anyone succinctly describe it here?

The soapbox is open, let's hear your ideas.