[rec.arts.sf.science] Re: Charlie Stross vs. Interstellar Colonization

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Pekka P.Pirinen

Aug 7, 2007, 4:34:11 PM8/7/07
Subject: Re: Charlie Stross vs. Interstellar Colonization
From: Monte Davis <monte...@verizon.net>
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.science

[Moderator's note: CATS = Cheap Access to Space, per
http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/CatsPrize/ .]

"Dave O'Neill" <dav...@gmail.com> wrote:

>I don't think they're actively blocking CATS though. I think that CATS is
>harder than its ar[d]ent fans maintain.

This is at the core of all the competing belief systems about where we
stand in space and why. It's germane to Charlie's thesis because for
everyone except the Zubrinistas, CATS -- to boring old LEO -- is an
essential step towards colonization on any scale that would matter.
And, I submit, it's why arguments about the lack of progress over the
last forty years keep circling back to 1969-1973 and the start of STS

I'll say flatly at the outset that I believe CATS is indeed many times
harder, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than Apollo was. Since
spacers love historical analogies, put it this way:

To proceed from Apollo to CATS is like telling Roald Amundsen in 1912:
"Great work, dashing to the South Pole like that. We showed Scott and
his Brits a thing or two, eh? Now... what we want is a robust,
reliable system for weekly round trips from Auckland to the Pole, one
that can haul heavy freight and support scientific labs, and do some
hush-hush work for the Norwegian Navy, and quickly become safe enough
for Mom & Dad & Buddy & Sis. ...And oh, yes -- we need it to cost a
fraction of what your dogsled run cost per pound delivered to the

So NASA (the Norwegian Ambitious Southpole Authority) was tasked to do
it by 1920, with about 20% of the budget of Amundsen's expedition.
Working at the bleeding edge of steamship and sno-cat tech,and
eventually spending twice their inital appropriation, they built a
handful of vehicles that -- surprise! -- required a huge staff to keep
the end-to-end system running. And could make only a few trips a year.
And wasn't all that much safer than the dogsled teams. And (d'oh!)
cost a lot to run. But nobody was in the mood to learn from that and
start again.

So Prime Minister Ranald Raegen declared it operational, and called
for phase II: what would become the International Southpole Station.
Well... surprise! Partly because of two ship and sno-cat disasters --
but mostly because the transport system cost so damn much -- the
station was chronically behind schedule and over budget. (In fact, iut
wpould have been canceled if the hadn't been roped in). Some estimated
that it would start collapsing under snowpack before it could be
completed or fully staffed.

By 1952, forty years after Amundsen's initial triumph, there was a lot
of frustration and impatience in Norway. The Alt.Antarctica movement
flourished, deeply committed to living and working and doing science
and making money at the Pole. It hadn't actually *gotten* to the Pole
yet, mind you. But its fans knew what was wrong with NASA. In fact,
they had a variety of explanations:

"It's the damn politicians in the Stortinget! They lost the Polar
Vision that Amundsen had, and didn't appropriate enough money to build
the hovercraft and bullet trains that would have made the system a

"It's the NASA bureaucracy! Only private enterprise can be innovative
enough -- and with a few more rounds of financing, our lean mean team
in a dockside warehouse in Trondheim will show them how it should be

"We should never have abandoned the Amundsen approach that succeeded
so well and made us all so proud! We should have build still bigger
sleds and raised huskies and malemutes by the thousands!"

"All we've done for forty years is spin on our axis on top of the ice!
We need to get started *now* on the Polar Deep Drilling Project and
the Polar Power Tower!"

There was one other explanation, favored by a handful of skeptics.
They believed that the problem wasn't technology -- in principle, with
enough investment, souped-up 1912 technology could have done it. But
they believed that "enough investment" would have been many, many
times what Amundsen had spent in 1910-1912. It would have taken not
eight years, but a couple of generations, with many trial iterations
of the technology and a lot of operational experience, before it got
anywhere close to meeting all the 1912 goals.

These folks believed that all the argument and posturing over "public
vs. private" was a red herring (very popular in Norway). They believed
the fundamental obstacle was an underlying lack of *demand* great
enough to drive through all those intermediate steps -- whether
expressed politically as Stortinget appropriations, or through the
marketplace as investment in ventures for private polar access. All
the talk of the Amundsen Vision was swell, but it was coming from a
handful of people. Most Norwegians had said "way to go, Roald!" and
gone back to their daily lives. Unless a lot more of them were willing
to spend a lot more -- again, via public *or* private channels --
patience would have to take the place of any great leap forward.

The skeptics admired the winners of the Ansarsdottr Prize for a quick,
elegant mission across the Ross Ice Shelf. They looked forward to the
Bransson project for quick tours of the Weddell Sea. But they knew it
was a long way from those fringes to the Pole, and wished PoleX all
success next time around, or the time after that.

Most of all, they took seriously the real scale of the challenge. They
believed that someday there *would* be a thriving, self-sustaining
Antarctic economy. But they couldn't persuade themselves that the
Alt.Antarctica folks would be *so* much quicker and more efficiient
than NASA... that their first (or second, or third) efforts would be
*so* successful and *so* profitable... that the hovercraft, bullet
trains, frequent trips and affordable fares were just around the

In short, rather than embrace a new version of the delusions of 1912,
they took Charlie Stross' advice, recalibrated their expectations, and
"dug in for the long slog."

This was, naturally, so drab and uninspiring that most people ignored
them and kept talking about the Vision.

Only louder.

-Monte "apologies to Oslo" Davis
c. 2007

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