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Old 05-22-2012, 12:56 PM   #1
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So the Dragon has been launched, the ashes of James Doohan are floating around above us, and in a couple of days (if all goes well) we'll have the first docking and resupply of ISS by a privately owned spacecraft.

Is the era of government-sponsored spaceflight at an end? Is this just a phase which we are passing through, handing over the mundane day-to-day stuff to smaller operators while we gaze down the road to bigger and better things?
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Old 05-22-2012, 12:59 PM   #2
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private innovation is the bigger better thing.
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Old 05-22-2012, 01:03 PM   #3
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^agree! as long as private companies see a market for space travel they will innovate much quicker and more efficiently then government ever did.
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Old 05-22-2012, 05:41 PM   #4
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Very cool.
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Old 05-22-2012, 06:50 PM   #5
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^agree! as long as private companies see a market for space travel they will innovate much quicker and more efficiently then government ever did.
I am not disputing this point at all, but I think of it like private long-haul trucking companies using the Federal interstate system: one would likely not exist if not for the other.
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Old 05-23-2012, 01:38 AM   #6
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I think privatized spaceflight will grow very slowly. Sure, there is a bit of a market between some insignificant gov't or telecom satellite here or there, and resupply of the ISS of course, but that will be it for a long time. No one company is going to invest the kind of money that the US gov't has (in the past) in spaceflight. Just won't happen because there will not be a market to warrant it and they can't afford it. The US gov't had the space race, the moon, the orbiters, etc. Private companies don't have that kind of motivation and certainly won't be able to raise the capital.

Hell, with how disinterested the public seems to be in space, we might not see any more big leaps in our lifetimes.
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Old 05-23-2012, 02:48 AM   #7
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No one company is going to invest the kind of money that the US gov't has (in the past) in spaceflight. Just won't happen because there will not be a market to warrant it and they can't afford it
That's what really bugs me.

Say what you will about the efficiency of the private sector, but most of the "great achievements" of the 20'th century came about as a result of government spending on a colossal scale.



Take the power plant down by the beach a few miles from here- Encina Power Station. NRG Energy owns that. It's small, and it chugs along quietly doing its job, with natural gas going in one end and a big sine wave coming out the other. It creates delicious oysters as a byproduct. Same goes for the San Onofre nuke plant up the road a ways, except that it cost more, consumes less fuel, and spits out a much larger sine wave (and no oysters.) There are thousands of these (thermal power plants in general, not just nukes) in the US, and nobody really notices them. The History Channel certainly hasn't made any documentaries about 'em.

Then there's Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and the whole Tennessee Valley Authority system. Those were government projects. Lots of money, and lots of documentaries.



For that matter, what about those dime-a-dozen reactors? These days you can practically order 'em out of the Sears catalog, assuming you have both several billion dollars and a license from the NRC. But where'd the very first one come from? If you said that Chicago Pile-1 was constructed in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project, you're a winner.



Lots of roads where I live, probably lots where you live, too. Nothing fancy about a road, really. Crush some gravel, bind it with some concrete. Rinse, repeat. Without having the actual data readily at hand, I'd guess that maybe 75% of the roadway (by mileage) here in Carlsbad was built by the various development firms who constructed the neighborhoods, business parks, etc. The county and state chipped in too, laying in El Camino Real and San Marcos Blvd, so that I can get from the privately-built roads where I live to the privately-built roads where I work.

But when I want to drive all the way across the country? I get on Interstate 10, part of the Eisenhower Expressway system, brought to you by the largest public works project since the pyramids, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. (Lots of documentaries about that project as well. And also about the pyramids.)



Let's say that you want to design and build a new computer. Easy enough, just become Cromemco or Apple or Imsai or whoever else. A couple of smart hippies and a VW bus will suffice. Wanna fund the construction of the very FIRST general-purpose electronic computer? Talk to the US Army; they're the ones who footed the bill for ENIAC (and the second one, EDVAC, as well.)



So, if you wanna make a business out of launching mundane payloads into orbit, go ahead and be the private sector. Wanna pioneer the concept of putting ѕhit into space in the first place? Get thee to Congress and the Appropriations Committee (or the Soviet Central Committee, as the case may be.)

When it comes to breakthrough research and development on a massive scale, there is no substitute for Federal funding. The private sector is like the Japanese in the 1960s; great at refining and perfecting already-existing technologies which have proven to have commercial value, not so great at inventing new ѕhit in the first place. Nobody who has shareholders to report to wants to pick up the tab for Basic Research, as there's no guaranteed payout in it.



Still, it's kind of cool to see Dragon going up. It's kind of like being the seventy-third person to build an airplane, assuming you're the first one to make a successful business out of it. Of course, everybody knows Orville & Wilbur. I doubt we'll see any epic rap battles about Percival Fansler (created the first scheduled commercial airline service in January 1914.)
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Old 05-23-2012, 03:11 AM   #8
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All you've told me is that private investors don't throw money at risky (wasteful?) projects when government is there to fund it instead. You're correct; piggybacking is more efficient.

What this doesn't tell us, however, is whether the private market would generate similar advancements in the absence of readily available and abundant government funding.
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Old 05-23-2012, 11:59 AM   #9
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What this doesn't tell us, however, is whether the private market would generate similar advancements in the absence of readily available and abundant government funding.
It is a logical impossibility to say that something will not or cannot happen in the future.

We can, however, observe that something has never happened (or has happened only rarely) in the past, and use that data to project forward with a prediction that something is unlikely to happen in the future.


Focusing on the specific example of spaceflight, there are certain areas in which we would be shocked not to see private investment. Space tourism and bulk cargo transport are two such examples. Historically speaking, once the foundation has been set into place by the hand of large government infrastructure projects (construction of the transcontinental railroad lines, construction of the interstate highway system, construction of water and sewer systems, etc) private companies have excelled at hauling cargo and tourists across those lines. There are immediate, tangible gains to be had from providing these services

Where we should not expect to see private investment is in making the next "big leap", whatever it might be. The goals are too ill-defined, and no clear path exists to monetizing, for instance, interstellar travel or the manned exploration of other planetary bodies.


At that point, it basically comes down to a very simple question. Are we willing to say "Ok, we have gone far enough. We are going to stop exploring and settle down now, to wait out the sunset years of humanity in a rocking chair on our front porch and whittle wood."
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Old 05-23-2012, 12:23 PM   #10
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I understand the argument you're making...I'm just not sure I agree with it. I'm quite optimistic that scientific curiosity is not limited to those on the government dole. Will the scope of future projects and explorations via voluntary private funding match what could be done with confiscated public funding? Probably not, but that's a more than acceptable trade-off, in my opinion.

Deep-Sea Exploration is the Next Big Thing For Billionaires

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The deepest point in the ocean, the bottom of the Marianas Trench off the coast of Guam, is the scene of a new kind of space race: a deep-sea submarine race, undertaken by such private investors as director James Cameron, Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Citing the excitement of exploration, all are involved in the construction of next-generation submersibles to plumb the trench and other deeps, taking advantage of price reductions in many components and the dearth of such innovation in the scientific community. Though designed to take the builders and other thrill-seekers to incredible depths, the ships are by and large not intended to be one-shot wonders, William J. Broad of the NYTimes reports:
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“It’s not a publicity stunt,” [one builder] said of the planning effort. “We’re commercial vehicle builders. We want a product that can be used repeatedly without any difficulty — one that is very elegant, very safe and very competitive.”
That’s an improvement on the Space Shuttle, many would say. And several builders have indicated that scientific research may get to ride on billionaire builders’ coattails:
[Cameron] added that he was talking to oceanic institutes about developing long-term relationships for use of the submersible.
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“We’ve gotten a pretty resounding response from the science community,” he said, “because they have such limited funding and access to these deep environments.”
EDIT:

Here's an interesting little study I just stumbled across:

Private versus Public Initiative in Arctic Exploration: The Effects of Incentives and Organizational Structure
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Old 05-23-2012, 12:31 PM   #11
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At that point, it basically comes down to a very simple question. Are we willing to say "Ok, we have gone far enough. We are going to stop exploring and settle down now, to wait out the sunset years of humanity in a rocking chair on our front porch and whittle wood."

tell that to Lindbergh.
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Old 05-23-2012, 12:36 PM   #12
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Just to further my point and to concur with Joe: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/05...-the-moon.html.

You don't see any mention of a private company, in any of the countries mentioned, looking to pursue the moon base option. Gov't will pave the way (if their taxpayers will allow it).

Edit: You know how state tax forms allow you to donate some of your return to certain charities/projects/etc? If the 1040 had a "Donate to moon base construction" spot, I would totally put a few hundred $ towards it each year.
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Old 05-23-2012, 12:43 PM   #13
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You don't see any mention of a private company, in any of the countries mentioned, looking to pursue the moon base option. Gov't will pave the way (if their taxpayers will allow it).
Why would private companies bother? It's extremely difficult for private companies to compete with government-funded projects.
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Old 05-23-2012, 12:55 PM   #14
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And that's great. But you're actually supporting my point.

There's nothing radical about deep-sea exploration. It's not "new science." We have been probing the depths of the ocean in a useful, commercial capacity for well over a hundred years at this point, building vehicles and machines which are progressively faster, more reliable, and capable of operating at greater depths under harsher conditions.

I'm not saying that it's easy, but it's evolutionary, not revolutionary. All these folks are doing is taking the logical next step in an already established and mature field, no different from when Boeing switched from using piston engines to jets, or when the B&O Railroad Company started phasing out steam locomotives in favor of diesel-electrics. It allowed them to go further / faster / higher / cheaper, but not to actually go anywhere new.
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Old 05-23-2012, 01:36 PM   #15
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There's nothing radical about deep-sea exploration. It's not "new science." [...] I'm not saying that it's easy, but it's evolutionary, not revolutionary.
That's a fairly arbitrary distinction. Revolutionary advances are made possible by the accumulation of evolutionary advances. At a certain point, that accumulation opens the door to a previously impossible or unconsidered option.

The Wright Bros flight was revolutionary in retrospect, but it was made possible by evolutionary advances in material technology, internal combustion engine technology, etc. The design was based directly on the previous gliders the Wrights had built. There were dozens of attempts of varying success by different people before the Wright Bros 1903 flight. We look back and place historical significance on the "revolutionary" moment, but the gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge and ability is evolutionary.
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Old 05-23-2012, 01:58 PM   #16
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I do have to agree with Joe that govt. play a crucial role in the early development of most projects or technologies that initially do not stand on their own in the market. Many industries start on public subsidies before being turned over entirely to the private sector and this process is important to jumpstart innovation in these areas. However, it is always a great day when these things are fully turned over to the private sector because that means the market is most likely there and competition will begin. A good example of this would be the solar panel industry. While still not stable in the market on its own it is way cheaper then it use to be and only through govt. subsidies would this have been possible in the same time span.
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Old 05-23-2012, 02:33 PM   #17
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The Wright Bros flight was revolutionary in retrospect, but it was made possible by evolutionary advances in material technology, internal combustion engine technology, etc.
And I wouldn't consider the Wright Flight to be at all revolutionary in the context in which we are speaking, for precisely the reasons you pointed out. It was not a "Grand" project by any reasonable measure.

Orville & Wilbur didn't have to expend large amount of time and money to develop new materials and construction techniques, or perform a lot of basic research into physics or aerodynamics. Internal combustion engines already existed, and the techniques for working with wood and canvas were already well understood. All they did was put everything together in the correct order, drawing on existing knowledge of the principles of flight which extended as far back as 16th century Italy.

That is one of the factors which I use to distinguish "radical advances" such as described above. They necessarily require massive capital outlay in order to do science and/or engineering on a scale which is not attainable (or economical) by private industry alone.
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Old 05-23-2012, 03:53 PM   #18
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Building a submarine to go deeper, faster, and farther wouldn't be revolutionary. Building a 20,000 ft. tall subterranean rail-gun to propel large objects into space would be would certainly be on the edge of revolution/evolution. Connecting the eastern United States to Western Europe with an underwater vacuum chamber designed to ferry people back and forth at several thousand miles per hour with extreme efficiency...that would be revolutionary.
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Old 05-23-2012, 04:05 PM   #19
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Connecting the eastern United States to Western Europe with an underwater vacuum chamber designed to ferry people back and forth at several thousand miles per hour with extreme efficiency...that would be revolutionary.
What about a multi billion dollar "high speed" rail connecting two small cities in CA that will always operate in the red?
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Old 05-23-2012, 04:12 PM   #20
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What about a multi billion dollar "high speed" rail connecting two small cities in CA that will always operate in the red?
Why build a multi-billion dollar "high speed" rail connecting two small cities in CA that will always operate in the red?

Because California.

For public to EVER be successful, it has to be "more convenient than not public transportation" - A 300mph train has the potential to be "more convenient", but our government supported "high speed" trains generally average between 25-35mph including stops. Factor in that I have to take a taxi or walk to home/work and public trains will never work. The only way for "high speed" trains to be feasible in the US is as an intermediate-distance solution - where distance makes car travel inconvenient/unpleasant and air travel unfeasible. A 75-mile trip becomes "consumer viable" at average speeds of 150-200mph, and a 300-mile trip becomes "consumer viable" at average speeds of about 100mph.

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