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Melvill atop SS1
You don’t have to be a heroic test pilot like Mike Melvill to help move the suborbital industry forward. (credit: J. Foust)

Suborbital graduation day

I was listening to Jim Muncy the other day on The Space Show and he said that there are things every one of us can do to help us each realize our vision for space. Can you pick up a phone? The U.S. is a democracy and an even more effective way of having your voice be heard than casting a ballot on election day is to pick up the phone and call your Senator or Representative and tell them to vote for or against your favorite space bill.

This is guaranteed to be a barrel of laughs. For those of you reading our sister publication spacepolitics.com, following HR 3752 (not to mention its predecessors), one was called upon to express support, express interest in S.2771, then HR 3752, then try to get a “hold” removed from it, then try to get a “hold” placed on it. (See “When good legislation goes bad”, The Space Review, this issue.) Mostly it is a great catharsis to put your representative to work. Why beg for some government to direct some of its money some way or other when there are much more direct actions you can take?

If you like action, there is probably something to call some Senator or Representative about every day. It’s not always clear what legislative agenda you should have. The existing space interests have not gotten us very far and are unlikely to do so on a time scale shorter than Bush’s “visionary” plan that leaves most of the work until he is out of office. It would help to know who is talking fancifully and who is talking sensibly. If there were a series of space propositions that could be bet on and traded, that would go a long way to crystallizing the debate about space.

Perhaps we can take matters into our own hands. Burt Rutan showed that a Tier 1 rocket program can be put together for $25 million. John Carmack may take that down another factor of ten (although if you impute the value of his time, it might be back up there). There are a lot of openings for people with a variety of skills.

What do you think a security named “Branson flights 2007” would trade for?

Can you write a business plan? If you can’t, see “Space shot” in this week’s issue. Business plans will help the Small Business Administration, banks, and venture capitalists both understand your idea and understand that you know something about business. It’s often the first step on the road to riches and even if the riches are not space related, having money is a great way to get funding for a space hobby, venture or lobbying campaign.

Can you interpret a business plan? Investment banks, hedge funds, mutual funds and venture capitalists are going to start needing engineers with expertise in rocketry and the business acumen of an MBA. There are not too many people who can conduct due diligence (which Webster’s defines as “the care that a prudent person might be expected to exercise in the examination and evaluation of risks affecting a business transaction”) on suborbital and orbital ventures. This is an opportunity to make a buck as a rocket scientist, but also an opportunity for infiltration (I’m joking—or at least half joking). If pro-space people can infest funding organizations, maybe we can get some good space ventures funded.

Can you do payment processing and manage a website? The greatest political poll is the ongoing Iowa Electronic Market’s presidential stock market. You can see that Bush (a security that pays $1 if Bush wins) was trading at $0.74 before the first debate, then only $0.58 after the debate. We need one of these for space hypotheses.

I’ll probably get around to it at some point, but perhaps you will want to establish such a market. Robin Hanson tried to help DARPA do this and got laughed out of town, but that does not mean it is bad economics or bad policy. What do you think a security named “Branson flights 2007” would trade for? If you read all of the Virgin Galactic website, you will see a need for regulatory relief. If you read the Futron-Zogby poll you might have doubts about the veracity of Branson’s statement that he found 5,000 people who want to fly for $190,000 recently. Interest does not always translate into willingness to pay. Without another poll, it is hard to say whether SpaceShipOne changed that many minds so quickly. Kerry and Bush did; so it’s possible. Would you check the price of that security before deciding to take equity or cash if he offered to let you come work for him?

Can you write? I went to my local Barnes and Noble (called “Book Stop” to keep Austin weird) and there were only nine non-fiction books on the space program. The $16 billion a year NASA budget is more than most countries’ GDPs yet there are only nine books that rate to be in the top 130,000. The rest are in the long tail of poor sellers. If you know a great policy person or writer, convince them to become a space writer. We need to attract some more writers that are popular. Writing does not pay all that well unless you get a best seller. There are a lot more science fiction books than space books, but L. Ron Hubbard had an even better idea than science fiction to make a buck.

The $16 billion a year NASA budget is more than most countries’ GDPs yet there are only nine books that rate to be in the top 130,000.

Can you prophesy? Maybe you can start a new religion. The Puritans were great colonists as were the Mormons. My recommendation is draw on Judeo-Christian traditions like creating an Ark and wandering in the desert and so on. It is probably a bad idea to follow the Heaven’s Gate folks into becoming a suicide cult. Try to build the religion to be lasting. Maybe include some elements of the Atkins diet in the religious rules so that the members will live longer to tithe longer. Maybe retirement should be a sin. Work might help the faithful live even longer. Maybe there should be something about encouraging risk taking so that the members will invest in stocks instead of bonds and be more likely to take suborbital flights. Throw in an element from the movie “The Skulls”—a fraternity where older members leave some money to younger members so they can have a new car when they graduate. This last thing is unlikely to make the faithful happier. They are likely to redouble their efforts in the rat race once they find that the money they have is not the key to happiness. Putting happiness in the religion seems to be not too important. The popular religions these days seem to be more about other things and that seems to have stood the test of time in organized religion.

Can you get organized? It turns out getting a Ph.D. is mostly about getting organized. Many folks who take a long time to graduate do so because they have not yet found a job and want to keep a teaching or research assistantship job. Students who find jobs and want to graduate often just have to bear down and spend a marathon session to finish their dissertation (a little autobiography going on here). The suborbital industry is disorganized, kind of like a dissertation that is not yet complete. Don’t feel too bad: the most powerful man in the world, Alan Greenspan, is ABD.

The suborbital industry is disorganized, kind of like a dissertation that is not yet complete. Don’t feel too bad, the most powerful man in the world, Alan Greenspan, is ABD.

In one big pile there are sources of money: Jeff Bezos, Bob Bigelow, John Carmack, Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth, Dennis Tito, lead a $50 trillion/year global economy that would be worth $1 quadrillion if it were sold off at the 5% 30-year T-bill rate. If we can securitize a bunch of things that are nailed down and untraded, we ought to be able to create a huge source of capital for exciting ventures like colonization, tourism and even Bigelow’s vision for orbital industry.

In another pile are the funding organizations: NASA, DARPA, NASA’s version of In-Q-Tel (which got preliminary funding by the way), DoD, Oklahoma, and soon The Colony Fund.

In another big pile are a bunch of regulations: HR 3752, S.2772, different language, good intentions on the part of the regulators, the Congress, the President and even NASA.

In another pile are the industrialists: Jeff Greason, John Carmack, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk.

In another pile are the engineers: Burt Rutan comes to mind this week, but this is not where we have a shortage.

We also need a dose of visionaries like me or David Livingston; a pinch of gestalt courtesy of Futron and our fearless editor and our publication’s tireless staff. Throw in a boom mike, an equity boom, and a sonic boom, and we are there.

Then we need an organizer. If we had a multi-billion dollar industry, we would have little trouble getting the attention of Congress to get a good regulation passed once every few decades or so. If we had good regulations, we would have little trouble getting a multi-billion a year industry going. If we had plenty of funding, the funding organizations would self-organize. If we had plenty of funding organizations with good missions, the money would flow in. What we have is a massive chicken-and-egg problem here, but I think the egg may have 78 chromosomes so an organizer would need to be really good. Is anyone a linguist or a genome biologist? There are never enough grad students around when you need one.


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