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Mail 243 February 3 - 9, 2003






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Monday  February 3, 2003

There was a great deal of mail Saturday and Sunday concerning the Columbia disaster, and what can be done. Go see that first...

> Does anyone know if there is an MP3 version of A Fire In The Sky?

There is one at

The link is from the NSS CD page at Prometheus Music: 

Hope this helps!

v/r, dh

Alas that's the crazy jazzed up version that NSS put out. It was better as a simple song done by Jordin Kare accompanying himself. If I can get hold of him for permission maybe I can rip it myself. Meanwhile, Julia Ecklar's The Phoenix is very appropriate. Thanks. On that subject I add this letter largely because of the accompanying disclaimer:

Does anyone know if there is an MP3 version of A Fire In The Sky? It would be fitting - yes of course there is - in fact you have already linked to it at
  scroll down, free registration required.

Last I knew Jordin Kare was still asking for a clean legal copy of the Buzz Aldrin interview - video or audio - the Kare's may well have such by now.

The information in this transmission is intended to be totally worthless and devoid of any benefit to anyone with the exception of, possibly, the intended recipient. If you received this communication in error or if you accidentally read it when it wasn't addressed to you, then please immediately delete all of your saved game files and email addresses and then energetically beat yourself about the head and shoulders with a recent technology publication of your choice. All other more intelligent actions taken in response to this information are prohibited, so there.

So there indeed.

SSTO discussions. Continued from last week:

I was an SSTO fan for many years. Now I am skeptical to the point of seeing reusability--on the launch vehicle level at least--as a fetish arising out of undisciplined thinking. Given the current state of technology, it just doesn't make any engineering sense to put into space anything that isn't going to stay there, no matter how valuable/rare it is perceived to be. The one exception is, of course, humans.

For this reason, I think NASA should develop a minimum mass/size reusable crew vehicle for 6-8 personnel, designed to be flown as a payload on current heavy lifters. NASA should then buy launch services for these vehicles and other Administration cargoes on the open market. Only after securing future manned spaceflight capabilities on such a rational platform should NASA spend any money on next-gen stuff.

Sorry, Jerry...I know what you believe, and I understand why, but first things first. US manned spaceflight is ready to go down the drain because of over-reaching and fuzzy thinking. Let's get it working again before trying to leap ahead.

Tony Evans

Thank you for sharing that with me. Let's see: you think I am a fetishist for wanting an SSX X program, while you will trust NASA to develop an entirely new kind of "man rated" ship to be flown off expendables, and to do that in some reasonable time frame.

I see.

As to your first revelation, that it makes no sense to put anything in space that doesn't stay there, that may be true, but it says nothing about costs of getting it there. On the face of it, throwing away the rocket is a pretty expensive proposition: it may be the right idea, but it's not intuitive. The intuitive notion is to have ships whose cost of flight is fuel driven. Granted, if rockets -- motors, avionics, fairing, the whole magilla -- were free then expendables would be the obvious way to go because the launch costs would be related only to the fuel costs. The point is that they are not free. Moreover, big dumb expendable boosters -- one of the serious alternatives to reusable space ships -- have the inherent problem that all the payload goes to one orbit. You need means of redistributing packages to where you want them after they get there. Sometimes that is not a problem. Sometimes it is.

In other words, the concept of reusable spacecraft comes out of an operations analysis -- greater flexibility of space operations, and thus making more missions possible -- and pure cost analysis. On that last: "man rating" of expendables is very expensive for obvious reasons. "Man rating" of aircraft is done differently, as it would be for space ships that have flown many times. Which would you rather ride to space and back: a ship which has, itself, flown to space and back fifty times without being disassembled between flights; or a ship that has made 28 flights in over 20 years, and was so thoroughly "refurbished" between flights that much of it was in essence a brand new ship each time?

Reusable ships are tested for reliability by flying them. Expendables are "man rated" through analysis.

I realize all this seems fetishistic, but I at least think it's just analysis.


"I think NASA should develop" says Mr. Evans. Why NASA? Why not private business?

NASA is a research and development organization. NASA needs to stop pretending that the shuttle is a routine vehicle, recognize that it's an X-plane, and simply let a one-page RFP for a space plane, which it then purchases the services of. NASA needs space planes from different companies. Federal Express doesn't just use one kind of airplane to do business; neither should NASA.

While the space agency has good people and is splendid at doing research, it's NOT A BUSINESS. Everyone needs to recognize that. Yes, I'm part of a company that wants to sell vehicles to NASA. NASA should spend its money on training and exploration and the things it does well, and let private enterprise do what it does well.

Aleta Jackson XCOR Aerospace

Private industry in the aviation world at least has always benefited from government research and development. The government is far better suited to fund X projects than private capital: by definition X projects have no goal but developing new technology, and they balance risks against that payoff -- but they have zero chance for immediate profit. Few private companies want to invest in technology research at the billion dollar level, with the only possible payoff to be exploitation of that technology in future down the road projects.

What private industry does well is to take existing technology and make usable products from it. Sure, there are cases like Intel in which the technology development is itself part of the business plan and profit cycle of an industry. That also drives marketing, and costs. 

The drug business is in a constant battle between private development for profit (and exploitation of the ones that pay off) and government labs doing some of the same work: no one has ever done a good analysis of the cost/benefits of a government X program in drugs. It might be very high leading to lower drug prices.

We're of course agreed and always have been that NASA shouldn't be in the vehicle development business, nor should it be operating spacecraft. Those are all functions for either private companies selling launch services, or the military who have to learn to do routine operations in space -- one thing the military must do is practice doing in peace time things they have to do in war; it's no time to learn how to operate a mess hall or supply system when people are shooting at you, and that's no time to learn how to get to space.

This is a long answer to a letter with which I mostly agree and issues which you and I have discussed before: most readers probably know that Richard Pournelle is a VP of XCOR, and that if the government adopts the programs I advocate, XCOR will almost certainly be a big part of them. After all, X projects themselves need to be done by private companies: we don't want to build big government factories and arsenals of space. But the old NACA was in fact pretty influential in guiding the development of the aerospace industry, operated big wind tunnels that no single company could afford to build and maintain, and through the X-1 through X-15 programs took us a long way.

Government does some things well. X Projects have historically been one of them. The disaster comes when a private company captures an X project like X-33 and twists it into something entirely different. Bureaucracies tend to work in their own interest, and that is no less true at Lockheed than at NASA. Privatization is the sure for many ills but alas not for all of them: we need a way to develop space technologies. In particular we need a follow on to the RL-10 engine, and to learn a lot more about the plumbing of multiple engine reusable rockets.

XCOR likes wings a lot more than I do, but certainly we need to learn more about the use of wings; and 2STO will certainly work even if SSTO turns out to have too small a payload per mission. All of these are still technologies, and need to be developed, and funding their development is a reasonable task for government.

Adam Smith said it is a proper role of government to fund those great enterprises which have high risk and high payoff for the nation, but the payoff to any one individual or group is not high enough to justify the cost. He had in mind canals and roads (as did the Constitution with Post Roads being a specific power of Congress); but X Projects fit that model just fine.

Of course prizes might do the job as well. Clearly it is time to move all this to its own page, but I have a lot of other stuff to do including getting a column out...

On a related subject:

Subject: Locus Online re Columbia

Jerry, A very bizarre commentary on Columbia over at Locus Online:

I doubt they will print my letter of reply (see below), but I'd sure love to see someone set this pusillanimous oaf straight.

Regards, Geoff Styles

- Dear Locus Online, I'm disappointed that Gary Westfahl's commentary should be your first item related to the Columbia disaster. Others can better enumerate the reasons for manned space flight, but I must object to the silly and frankly tasteless inference that seven astronauts died because of science fiction.

As to the notion that the genre consistently downplayed the risks, I grew up reading space-oriented science fiction, including Heinlein, Clarke, and Clement. None of them left me with the impression that for the foreseeable future the human exploration of space would be anything less than difficult, dangerous and occasionally deadly.

I can't help but wonder if Mr. Westfahl is merely frustrated that society has not followed the lead of much of current science fiction in turning its back on space.

Sincerely, Geoffrey Styles

I also wrote my own reply and sent it to Locus, which is a magazine about science fiction.

Dear Locus,

I see that Mr. Westfahl has written twelve books about science fiction. A real expert on our field. But yet I wonder.

First, I don't know many people actually involved with the real world who thought there were no dangers in space exploration any more than I knew anyone who thought being a test pilot was a safe career. Astronauts are test pilots, and about 1 in 25 missions statistically has gone bad. This was Columbia's 28th flight. Nor do I think science fiction writers have minimized the dangers. Certainly many of us have emphasized them. Having spent some time in the aerospace business at the pointy end, I certainly never thought it was without danger. At Edwards when one augured in the chaplain would call on the widow, they name a new street at the base, and fly the next day. The chance of finishing a tour of duty as a test pilot in those days was about 75% or put the other way there was a one in four chance you wouldn't leave the Mojave Desert. There was never a shortage of volunteers, but no one minimized the risks.

We do not have any means for repair of ships in orbit because NASA has steadfastly refused to develop decent space suits that don't require pre-breathing for use. Because we have no "put them on and get out and see what's wrong" suits, we have never developed any procedures for doing that. Pete Conrad was able to fix Skylab even so, but he did so improvising - like Mr. Westfahl's much despised space cowboys. But of course Westfahl, being a critic, apparently was able to miss the point of the Space Cowboys movie.

If we had built - they didn't need developing because NASA Ames had already developed them, although NASA Houston killed the program - real space suits, we would also have provided means for using them, including some shuttle tile material and some super glue, tether lines, and instructions in repair procedures; but because we have never had decent suits, NASA preferred not to know about damage on takeoff. Me, I'd like to know: at least there's a chance to say goodbye. And there's always a chance that human ingenuity will come up with a miracle, as was done with Apollo 13. Not a high chance, but some of us would prefer to go out trying. Given the size of the chunk that hit Columbia on takeoff there's a high probability that inspection would have shown there was no chance of surviving re-entry. That would leave rescue by Atlantis, a race against time. Or a decision to go in, knowing there wasn't much chance. Or a search for something else. But at least they'd know.

As to why explore, some people like Westfahl have to ask. Some, like the crew of Columbia, don't need to ask that question. Like Scott at the South Pole, the Columbia crew knew the risks and they chose to take them: as would many readers of science fiction, and many Americans, and all the astronauts and test pilots I have met. The star road takes a fearful toll: but it's one paid cheerfully.

Mr. Westfahl hasn't been asked to go up. He's not at risk. And I am not at all surprised that an academic critic of science fiction hasn't the foggiest notion of what we are all about.

Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D. One time Space Scientist, North American Rockwell One time academic. And present science fiction writer.

And back on another front:

Subject: The smoking gun 

This is an Aussie newspaper that I haven't read before, but…

That's the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers. -- Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in "Oath of Fealty"

Well that is probably the end of Saddam. 

The Prizes discussion resumes. See last week.

Mr. Pournelle,

I just read your proposal on offering prizes for companies achieving various stages of space flight and exploration. I think you're on the right track, but I differ with you on details.

There are a couple of things I don't like about a big prize for achieving a milestone.

Firstly, what about the guy who comes in second? They spend millions, quite possibly come up with a better solution, and get nothing. "No prizes for second place" is also going to make it more difficult to get investors to come on board: it's already a risky proposition, now you add the risk of not coming in first. It's going to mean that you get fewer participants, and once they have a lead established, no one else will even try.

Secondly, it's my opinion that the "one big prize" system encourages a "we did it once, and we never have to do it again" mentality. It might encourage launch systems that can get there once, but don't necessarily have good long-term operational characteristics.

I have a counter-proposal that runs on similar lines, but I think addresses some of these issues.

I would treat space launch like the power buy-back laws for electrical utilities: if a company can demonstrate the ability to launch a mission to specified parameters, the government MUST purchase a number of launches from them within a certain time frame.

In slightly more detail:

Using a similar financial setup to your proposal ( I defer to your expertise here), the government sets up basic mission parameters for a couple of useful missions: payload X to orbit Y for Z dollars. One might be a satellite/science payload launch, one a delivery to ISS, one a heavy lifter.

If a company can demonstrate launch capability by putting a dummy payload in orbit on their buck (aluminum girders, say), the government is required to buy 10 launches from them at the specified price within the next 5 years. The company eats their development costs, and any cost overruns.

At the end of it, you wind up with companies that have demonstrated working launch systems, and demonstrated income. They can now attract investors.

I would not specify SSTO, takeoff/landing mode, fuel or most other technical details: you want them to try every approach.

If the program is wildly successful, it could go over your 2 billion dollar mark in costs, but you would get at least 4 working launch systems out of it, and 40 launches.

The major flaws I see are:

Too much success could get expensive. Not really a bad problem, but a problem. Possibly put some kind of cut-off on each launch category: first 5, within 10 years, etc.

Companies will all tend to try for the mission with the easiest launch parameters first. However, after 10 launches, they have to go to a different mission profile to get more money from the government.

Towards the end of the program, it may be harder for companies to attract investors because the launch market is swamped with launches the government is auctioning off. Again a problem of success, and a short-term one.

I would be interested in your thoughts on my idea.

Lastly, back in 1989, you were the guest of honor at the Hostigos science fiction convention in State College, PA. On Friday night, I came up to you in the con suite and asked you to sign my copy of Legacy of Heorot, which you did even though it was outside the regular book signing hours. (I had to leave early the next morning to go back to work in Philadelphia.) I just wanted to say thank you, it was gracious of you and meant a lot to me at the time.


Jon Acheson

Insisting on perfection generally gets nothing. A number of us have tried to get modifications of the Space Services and Procurements acts to require purchase of launch services. I even had one in which the government would simply pay for the verified launch of water or sand into orbit: developing the launch capability would be worth it. Nothing came of any of that.

The value of prizes is that there is no cost until the task is accomplished, and the total cost is limited and known. If you insist on "being fair" to all the losers in a competition then you are in essences saying don't do anything.

It would take Congress about 6 hours to pass the prize legislation I described. If that cause no results, well, so be it; but it might in fact get things going. There may be better ways, but I have seen no reason not to try the prizes in addition to anything else.




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Tuesday,  February 4, 2003

Subject: The EPA kills


- Roland Dobbins

Indeed. Alas. The interesting thing is that NASA won't make any changes to ANYTHING "man rated" without enormous reviews, except for politically correct stuff like this.

Had we decent space suits we would long ago have had both the training and the means to do tile repairs. And of course back in about 1992 Niven and I visited a NASA project for a Shuttle and ISS rescue ship, which was supposed to be on the fast track. But NASA spent the money without producing much in the way of hardware, and then seems to have abandoned the program although I would not be surprised to find there is still a money sink in there somewhere that produces some paper every year, but doesn't add to the ability to rescue astronauts.

Chapman is right. Take the shuttles and all other operations away from NASA and give them to the services. Let a much truncated NASA play science games. NASA has some really good science people. Even there I'd want NSF looking over their shoulder, because NASA science administrators are about what you'd expect.

Of course the real questions come now. Was rescue possible? Did NASA want to know?


I can't get the idea out of my head that some sort of Columbia rescue might have been attempted. At the heart of this is my assumption, which is still an assumption but there's plenty enough reason to believe it, that damaged tiles are what destroyed the ship. Analysis was done which made the program director confident, he says, that there was no damage. In retrospect, I want to know how reasonable that belief was. Maybe completely reasonable, maybe a complete whitewash. His statements that "nothing could be done anyway" strongly suggest to me that "not wanting to know" played a role in his belief, and in his decision not to get imaging to check the tiles. His decision making was derelect, if so. I can't imagine a worse indictment of a scientific manager than that they "didn't want to know."

Even if it were totally true that nothing could be done, the more he feared damage, the more he should have wanted imagery. It would be invaluable to the post-mortum in the worst event.

And I don't believe for a second that nothing could be done. Very much could. Atlantis could have made an emergency flight. Risky but doable.

Then there's the Russians. They launched a Progress cargo pod to the ISS Sunday. If it had a launch window for rendevous with Challenger, and if they could have quickly substituted cargo, they could have sent supplies and repair equipment to the Columbia. The thing couldn't have docked, of course--cargo transfer would have to have been by extemporized EVA, but two of the Columbia crew had EVA suits and minimal EVA training. It might have been possible.

Such resupply would allow more time to do the most crucial checks before launching Atlantis.

So that gives us a two-pronged rescue effort. In the cargo pod, we send repair equipment, so an attempt can be made to patch up Columbia. The main plan, though, is for everyone to come back on Atlantis. If there's enough confidence in the patch job, the pilot and co-pilot might attempt to recover Columbia. Or perhaps just try to bring it down by automatic/remote control if that's possible. Finally, if the risky Atlantis launch goes bad, Columbia can try it's luck with the patched wing and everything possible done to lighten the ship.

Much more knowledgeable people than me might have worked out this or better plans. But they didn't want to know, so no one even thought about any of this.

Michael Juergens

That is my impression. It could be wrong.

Eric  on the Locus contribution.

This man appears to be a perfect example of "Those who can't do, teach."

What's more, although he tries to deflect the accusation in advance within the article, he is indeed a coward.

He starts by wagging his finger at a group of unnamed individuals but there is little doubt who he has in mind. It's interesting that he, by all appearances given by his bibliography and information offered on various sites a life long literary academic, is self-appointed as a commentator on this issue but doesn't hesitate to use that same label in a derogatory sense against those with actual scientific and engineering experience in aerospace. Heaven forbid that qualified individuals lend guidance to the field and expect their opinions to carry a bit more weight than the lit-crit crowd.

He offers that the history of atmospheric flight created a delusion of ease. This would come as a great surprise to the hundreds who died in the process of making modern powered flight a reality for civilians. Things proceeded as quickly as they did because Western Civilization had developed highly refined methods of handling engineering endeavors and producing rapid advancement. We were applying this understanding to space in the early days but then this beast called NASA was invented and things have gotten progressively worse ever since. If we had continued to use our hard won knowledge in a rational manner rather than to create a massive bureaucracy and jobs program we'd unquestionably be in a much better position to exploit space today.

By Westfahl's measure there is nothing dangerous worth doing. If his kind had made up the mindset of Europe centuries past nobody would ever have gone farther to sea than a few miles until the technology to produce a Princess Cruise liner was perfected and thoroughly tested. What an exciting bunch that Europe would have been. )A sneak preview of the current one, perhaps.) After all, the failure rate in the era of Columbus was much higher than 2% and even the successes had a substantial number of fatalities.

What magical point in the future will be suitable for us to set out to explore space again in the world according to Westfahl? What magical technology will deliver us in safety and comfort sans effort? Who shall chair the committee that will judge us ready? The character of this individual will have great influence on what is found to be adequate prowess. Left to Westfahl I suspect nothing less than instantaneous teleportation while reclining in a Barcalounger will do. Anything less would just be too frightening and uncomfortable.

I have to wonder. We've long since mastered atmospheric flight, transporting vast numbers of humans and megatons of freight on a daily basis. Every once in a while something goes wrong and people die. Are we to mothball our airports until we can improve the odds further still?

Westfahl doesn't aid his position by enlisting a scene from an adventure movie, 'Space Cowboys.' Obviously they were indulging in blatant fabrication for that scene but it does not diminish the message of the film in which the heroes do not surrender to circumstance without doing their best to succeed. This is what NASA has failed to provide our shuttle crews. They are reduced to 'spam in a can' not for lack of ability but because the bureaucracy dictates it.

If Westfahl doesn't like the way NASA is running things he'll hardly find any argument from the people he's criticizing. The list of people who'd prefer to see most or all of this left to private enterprise has a very high crossover with that of space exploration's most ardent supporters. Likewise the claim that there is no immediate need for space's resources would come as quite a surprise to those portions of humanity who still look upon dependable electricity service as a luxury.

Science Fiction does not drive our dreams and fears, it reflects them. It has been doing this since people first began telling stories. Mass media may create some illusions in the minds of consumers but the basic need to see what is past the horizon is something we possess at birth, long before we understand what 'final frontier' means.

Eric Pobirs


Returning to the SSTO debate.

Dr. Pournelle, I began this note several weeks ago, never guessing that it would be relevant so soon. It is interesting how many similar thoughts have already been submitted, but I think this has a slightly different slant. 

Regards, Robert Mitchell Research Fellow Landmark Graphics 

Cheap Space Transportation

I read your discussion of cheap space transport with a great deal of interest. Clearly, there is a market for cheaper satellite delivery to orbit. If you could deliver roughly the same or better reliability as current launch systems, but at, say, a 20% reduction in cost, the customers would stand in line to buy. I would expect this level of cost reduction to be easily achievable, since no launch system has ever been designed with minimum cost to orbit as the primary design criterion. I realize you want much more than this, but the point I'm trying to make is that there is a realistic business argument to be made. I'm sure D. D. Harriman would understand. Without a solid business argument, there is no option but government funding.

While I am sympathetic to your arguments, let me play devil's advocate with some of the details.

Why do we want single stage to orbit (SSTO) technology? The benefits I can think of are:

1. No logistics problem of assembling and reassembling multi-stage vehicles, assuming all parts are recoverable and reusable. 

2. Multi-stage design has numerous problems of design and integration that could be avoided by SSTO design.

The major drawback to SSTO is that it must be a very high performance design. This suggests that it will be expensive to build, and likely expensive to maintain. Engine life, if not vehicle life, may be short because of high performance - low weight design. As you observed, payload is marginal, so everything must be designed to the limit of safe design, or beyond. It seems to me, "design to the limit" caused the failure of the X-33 program. The liquid hydrogen tank was being fabricated from composite materials to save the last ounce of weight, and an effective design could not be produced on budget. Lastly, I don't think that building sub-orbital models and then "tinkering" them to orbital capacity is a viable strategy. At this level of design sophistication, drilling holes to save weight is just not an option.

By focusing on SSTO, we have lost sight of our goal! The goal is to minimize the cost of delivering things to low Earth orbit. To achieve this goal we need:

1. Low vehicle cost. We want to buy a lot of them and we want economies of scale. 

2. Low maintenance cost. 

3. High reliability. 

4. Recoverable and reusable if the economics dictate. 

5. Conservative design. 

6. Low cost to launch.

You will be hard pressed to assert that SSTO satisfies any of the above criteria! (The current space shuttle doesn't meet any of these criteria either! For example, the solid rocket boosters are recovered and refurbished without regard to the cost. The design criterion was that they be reusable, period. ) Note that high performance is not one of the design criteria. High performance is costly in every aspect of the design, and will likely fail every one of my design goals. Minimum fuel usage is probably not a design goal, either. The design must meet the performance requirements with some margin for error. Any improvements over designed efficiency will be considered good fortune!

My guess for a suitable design would be a two stage to orbit vehicle, with the first stage booster to be a very simple design - pressure fed engines using RP-1 and liquid oxygen. The orbital stage will be designed to accept 2, 3, 4, or 6 first stage boosters to allow maximum load flexibility. We might fly these stage 1 boosters to a soft landing a la DCX, then barge them back to the launch site. The orbital stage will be very DCX in design, but of lesser base performance dictated by overall system cost. This stage will likely be reusable, so it will be designed with low cost maintenance considerations.

Another stage 1 option might be "stage trees", to borrow a term. I wonder how cheap we could make reliable, single use solid fuel boosters? Especially, if we made a lot of them.

I personally doubt that NASA would allow anyone to build and launch such a vehicle from the US. Perhaps Japan might be interested - I'm surprised they haven't done this already.

In the following I have taken an angrier tone than this letter deserves, but I have grown weary of saying all this over and over. If people want to address the subject, surely it is not unreasonable to ask that I be challenged on what I have said and proposed, not on some myths? It isn't as if the papers weren't available, many of them RIGHT HERE.

I presume your letter covers the subject? It contains a mass of bad assumptions, none made explicit, while what is made explicit is delivered as a revelation when in fact every bit of that was considered before the Council recommended SSX to the National Space Council. The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that the Council consists of idiots. In fact, we had the very people who produced the arguments against SSTO that kept it in limbo for so very long, and who had figured out what was flawed in their original thinking.

Given that nearly everyone, including me, failed to see all this for 20 years or so, I suppose it's not surprising that others still don't get it; but I do wonder that few have bothered to read the original Council reports and the arguments we made then, so that I have to do it all over again. In future, before writing me on this, at least read what I have written. You can start with papers available right here on this web site. One was my Congressional testimony about SSTO and SSX. It was under oath: I may be wrong, but I certainly wasn't making things up. At least read that. 

You might also want to see just who this Council is, and some of what it said. That's here too.

Now to take a few obvious points.

  1. Spacecraft are expensive. At the moment they are made extremely expensive by the high costs of launch: they have to last a long time. They are generally obsolete about the time they get up given new technology. But even cheap spacecraft are expensive, and if they are lost on takeoff this is A Bad Thing.

  2. It is desirable to have SAVABLE space craft: ships that on launch can be saved if one of the more common problems develops; saved before they get to orbit or even to re-entry altitudes. The first criterion of SSX was SAVABLE.

  3. We don't want to "buy a lot of rockets" to get costs down. That may be the right way to do it, but rocket ships are expensive, and even in mass produced quantities the ammunition concept concedes some fairly heavy costs. The goal is to get costs down: not to buy a lot of rockets. As to "expensive" vs. "cheap" spacecraft, the same analysis applies as to airplanes. Each copy of a 747 is a very expensive proposition; but if that plane flies many times the cost per flight is minimized. What we want to look at is the cost of getting stuff into orbit, and those costs need to include operations costs. 

  4. Trying to minimize the cost per launch vehicle is a classic case of suboptimization, of solving for the wrong variable, and the fact that this is a very common mistake doesn't excuse it.

  5. We learned nothing from "X"-33 and no one expected to learn anything from it. Why you wish to beat me up about a project I opposed and about which I forecast disaster is beyond me. All "X"-33 proved is that Lockheed was able to influence decisions a lot better than I or my Council could. That probably wouldn't have happened in Reagan's day, but Bush First got rid of every Reagan person in the Administration as soon as possible, leaving us with no one to talk to but Mr. Quayle. Quayle was in fact able to get DC/X funded, but not to get enough money for SSX.

  6. "X"-33 wasn't intended to be SAVABLE, and thus threw away a major cost benefit of the kind of spacecraft we advocated. 

  7. The major advantage of the SSX approach to spacecraft design was that it could be incrementally tested. That is, like DC/X it could be flown to low altitudes and landed. Then progressively higher altitudes and speed regimes. We would be developing flight data. We would be learning about operations costs, as well as about performance requirements.

  8. The assumption that SSX design was to be performance driven is flat wrong and demonstrates unfamiliarity with the concept as proposed and advocated. 

  9. One of the major features of the SSX approach to space ship design was that this was to be an operations driven design. By concentrating on operational factors we would learn what performance we required. If the performance proved to be beyond our capability within permissible costs we would know that reasonably early. The data developed would be useful in determining what the new approach should be.

  10. By having an X ship that could be incrementally tested and operations driven, we could determine what kind of performance improvements we could make through incremental changes in structure design. Most early models of high performance craft are over-designed. By flight testing you see what parts are more than strong enough, and lighten the structure. This is what Hunter used to call "nickel and dime" improvements, and they can result in very significant performance improvements without risks.

As to your breathless revelation that Shuttle doesn't do this, you may well have got some of that observation from me, and almost certainly you achieved that revelation from people who were part of the Council. Did you think we were unaware of it?

Accusing me of wanting a new supershuttle is absurd given all I have written on the subject, and my apologies if this seems a bit curt, but I am weary of people using that argument. The Shuttle is not reusable, it is refurbishable, and Columbia's 28 flights over its lifetime are absurd compared to, say, the lifetime flights of an early 707. 

Your guesses on what might be the final ship may well be correct, but are based on guesswork and theory. The SSX approach was intended to find out by flying hardware. None of us were locked on to Single Stage to Orbit: but of course it's convenient to label us with that and then spend time talking as if all reusable ships have to be SSTO and have to have super high performance.

Our approach was a series of experimental programs to develop ships that would be:

  1. Savable

  2. Reusable

  3. Higher

  4. Faster

  5. Cheaper

The notion was to develop those ships through incremental testing.

All that was in the reportsContinued later.

Richard sends this:

Ex-staffers say NASA needed to do more


CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA failed to properly assess the damage caused by the 2.67-pound chunk of foam that hit the space shuttle because of a don't-worry-about-what-we-can't fix attitude, a retired NASA tile chief and a former deputy shuttle program manager told The Herald on Monday.

''How the [expletive] can you say it's inconsequential,'' said Ernie Reyes, the man responsible for making sure that tiles stayed on Columbia when it first flew in 1981. ``It wasn't inconsequential to the seven lives on a four-something-billion-dollar orbiter.''

NASA engineers just didn't take the incident seriously enough because solving the problem would have been too hard, said Reyes, the first space shuttle ''tile czar'' and former quality-assurance chief at Kennedy Space Center. ''Somebody should have done more. Jimminy Christmas that should have sounded alarms across the agency, around the world,'' Reyes said.

A SMACK NASA officials Monday said engineering analyses and computer models told them Columbia withstood a smack from a 20-inch-by-16-inch-by-6-inch flying chunk of insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank. The shuttle probably suffered loosening of nearly three feet of crucial tile and some structural damage, but a Jan. 28 analysis found it would not be a ``safety of flight issue.''

On Saturday and Sunday, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said his agency reviews found the foam hit was ``inconsequential.'' Sam Beddingfield, a former deputy shuttle program manager, said that NASA management ''blew it'' by downplaying the foam hit. And Bob Hotz, a member of the commission that looked into the 1986 Challenger accident, agreed. He said it seems like management took the attitude, ``Gee, if it's not a problem, let's don't deal with it.'' Reyes said the agency probably downplayed the problem because it was ''too hard'' to fix. Dittemore has repeatedly said there was no way to fix shuttle tile in space or make flight adjustments on reentry. Monday night, NASA spokesman Bill Jeff said the agency did a thorough review of the incident and was not trying to avoid an issue that was too tough to handle.

But Reyes said the agency might have been able to come up with a solution if it applied itself as it did during the Apollo 13 crisis. When an oxygen tank on Apollo blew, NASA turned a lunar module into a lifeboat and even used socks, cardboard and duct tape to repair a key device that removed deadly carbon monoxide from the capsule.

FLIGHT VIDEOS About two days after the Jan. 16 launch, NASA engineers realized from flight videos that the shuttle's wing area had been hit from insulation from the external fuel tank. One of them immediately told Reyes, who replied: ``Oh man, you're going to have trouble on reentry.''

Foam can dislodge a tile on launch and ''if one lets go, others are going to let go,'' Reyes said. '' Once you expose it to the stress, it's going to be a daisy chain.'' If the tile goes, he said, the aluminum shuttle could melt. NASA managers should have remembered that, Reyes said. He said he recalled a landing in the early 1980s when a shuttle tile came off on a wingtip and ''that scared the hell out of me.'' It melted the aluminum in a way ``that looked like someone had taken a hot knife to a stick of butter.'' At Monday's press conference, NASA's Dittemore said several days of examinations by engineering, safety, quality, tile, fuel tank experts and mission managers all agreed ''in a check and balance system'' that the debris incident was no problem. While no one objected at the time to that conclusion, upon further review there may have been some concerns raised by others, Dittemore said.

REDOING ANALYSIS ``I would suspect there were some who had reservations. But I was not aware of them. They weren't part of the playbook at that time. ''We are redoing the entire analysis,'' he said. Reyes said NASA should revive jet-pack-like devices for spacewalks so that astronauts can repair tiles in space with the space-shuttle version of caulk. ''We can't say it's not feasible,'' Reyes said. ``If it's human life involved, it's damn feasible.''

Typical NASA. No one there seems to understand just what is going on. "We were just doing our jobs as best we could."

But then look at what our schools produce:


Saturday night, following the Columbia disaster, I overheard two college-age couples at the Yenching Restaurant in Harvard Square discussing the news.

They all agreed that NASA must be stopped from any further activities in space because their rockets are "environmentally unfriendly, just like the Concorde. Who knows what damage they are doing to our air up there?"

I wanted to tell them that at least the astronauts were not stealing the air, but thought the comment would be wasted. Fiction imitates something, for sure.

Larry May

And those are the best and the brightest. O God O Ottawa...

And, in case you were sleeping easily:


The guys over at CAIDA (Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis) have done an analysis of the SQL Slammer worm in cooperation with a bunch of other people who's work I take seriously. If their analysis is right then we have just stepped into a very scary and dangerous time for computer security. I would go so far as to say we have now officially entered the "it's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better" phase. According to their data "It infected more than 90 percent of vulnerable hosts within 10 minutes". The report is here:

90% of all vulnerable hosts in 10 minutes?!!?

This means it actually scanned every host in the world in approximately 10 minutes.

Doubled in size ever 8.5 seconds!

This thing just tore through the world in short order. The need for a firewall to block a personal own network should be mandatory at this point now I'd say.

Anything Microsoft ships from now on has a critical need for "defaults off" security I would say.

-Dan S.

Ye flipping gods!








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Wednesday, February 5, 2003

On Ending Slavery:

Dr. Erwin is no doubt correct about the deficit of consumption of the slave economy of the ante-bellum U.S. South. However there is a more important point about consumption and slavery  the consumption of slaves themselves.


There are at least three types of slavery which I will call light, medium and heavy. In the classical world light slavery was a profession that opened opportunities to talented risk takers. The Romans had a conveyor system of status that started in slavery and then advanced at least a few of the lucky to freedman status. Their progeny could become citizens. Because slaves and freedmen had a monopoly on most financial matters many freedmen and their families became very wealth. Some became powerful. Narcissus, the freedman of Claudius, was largely responsible for the invasion of England. These kinds of prosperous slaves presumably held up their end in economic consumption. Indeed the consumption of nouveau riche freedmen was a topic of popular distain.


Light slavery was not the predominant form however. The predominant form has always been heavy slavery which is characterized by one or all of the following: prisoners of war status, mining or agriculture, a supply surplus, and the consumption of the slaves. Again Rome provides the examples with the latifundae slaves system that consumed war prisoners and the Jews who built the Coliseum after the First Jewish War. These slaves consumed virtually nothing  little food, no medical treatment, and very poor housing. They were themselves consumed  worked to death. Such slaves have a decidedly positive economic effect. The master class in effect parasitizes the slave class. They extract maximum output while minimizing inputs. In nature Carpenter ants do much the same thing to other species.


This kind of heavy slavery has persisted. The American POWs held by Japan were slaves who were worked to death. So were many of the captive people of the Nazis. Indeed much of the Jewish Holocaust may be seen as an expression of heavy slavery. The Nazis tried not to gas the young healthy slaves for whom they intended extermination by work and neglect.


The American plantation system of slavery was of the medium sort. Contemporary plantation slavery systems in the Caribbean and Brazil were considerably more severe. At the end of slavery there were about as many black slaves in the US as in Brazil but Brazil had imported five times as many. Being closer to Africa they consumed slaves  they worked them to death like prisoners of war. In America even before the British ban on the slave trade, slaves were harder to replace. In the South they tried to establish an economy based of a permanent self perpetuating class of slaves. As Dr. Erwin points out this economy was not competitive. We should celebrate the destruction of this kind of peacetime permanent institutional slavery but be cautioned that millions died as slaves to Japan and Germany a century after Lincoln and no economic force was going to free them. It required American armed intervention.

Patrick Boyle

And see below.

Roland finds an interesting discussion:

Subject: American studies.

 -Roland Dobbins

Thanks. Needs thinking about.

A warning about OPERA

Those of your readers who have downloaded the new Opera 7.0 ought to be aware of these vulnerabilities, three of which are serious, in Opera's JavaScript Console implementation. 

Annlee Hines


On scams... A new one, don't get bit

Looking at the archives I came across your piece on 419 scams. These have been going on for donkey´s years....I recall receiving snail mail in the late 80´s in the UK. I´m extraordinarily cynical about such things now of course, having worked in Russia since 1991. Pretty every scam possible has been tried on me at one time or another. 

The latest variation is quite cute, and it's often tried in the wholesale mobile phone business. Order some phones from a wholesaler. Send them a cashiers cheque. We all assume that, just as they are here, cashiers cheques are real money. This is not true all over the world. So, then send an email saying " whoops, we overpaid on the cheque we sent you. Please send the overpayment to xxxxx". After you´ve done this, your bank comes back 6 weeks later and says " Sorry, the cashiers cheque didn´t clear." I ran it through to the end once ( without sending the overpayment, of course ) and thought it worth the $ 30 bounce fee just to see how it would pan out. Cheap knowledge really. I´m now getting this once or twice a week from S Korea, Uganda, once from Mauritius. In addition of course to the three or four 419´s, Prime Bank Guarantee Funds ( I once sat in on a meeting of such a con, and advised the investors that it was a con, and told them that they would lose their money. They went ahead anyway, lost their money, and somehow I couldn´t bring myself to work for that boss ever again .), Standby Letters Of Credit and all the rest that clog the email every day. Might try and write it up for a magazine......just to get that $ 30 back if nothing else.

Tim Tim Worstall 

´Before the Romans came to Britain it was the rolling English drunkard who made the rolling English roads.` GK Chesterton.


We are investigating Ogg and other sound formats now.

On Ogg:

Ogg Vorbis is a new compressed audio format. At the moment, there are no pocket music players that offer Ogg support, but several are expected soon. (And of course devices like PocketPC can run Ogg players. I am sorely tempted to buy a Palm Tungsten T, partly because an Ogg Vorbis player is available for it!)

Vorbis is designed to solve the same problems as MP3. However, it was also designed to be completely free. You can use Vorbis and not pay any money to anyone. Development of Vorbis was slowed down by the need to have lawyers review all the work as it was done, to make sure that Vorbis shouldn't infringe any patents. Now Vorbis is out, at 1.0 release, and it's great.

Vorbis packs more quality into fewer bits than MP3. I have been re-encoding my CD collection into Vorbis, using quality level 6 (on the Vorbis 1 to 10 scale). I haven't done scientific double-blind testing, but my simple A/B testing has me convinced that Vorbis sounds better than MP3. (And I encoded my MP3s using high quality settings.)

Ogg, itself, is a container format. Much like QuickTime, an Ogg file may contain one or more streams of audio, video, etc. There are several audio formats and a video format available, all patent- and royalty-free. Ogg Speex is a high-compression audio format intended for spoken voice; Ogg Flac is the new home of the FLAC project, Free Lossless Audio Codec (you only get 50% compression, but you get a bit-perfect copy of the audio back when you uncompress); and Ogg Theora is a video format based on VP3.

I just checked at the MP3 licensing web site: 

If you post an MP3 of a song, and you are not making any money off the song, they don't want to talk to you. So you are clear to use MP3 for your project. But do please consider offering Ogg Vorbis for those of us who are enthusiasts.

Stay well. -- Steve R. Hastings "Vita est" 

Thanks. We are looking into it.

On Zero Stages

Hi Mr. Pournelle,

I'd like to suggest a bizarre twist for your SSTO designs, which amounts to a flying launch pad. The current SSTO's are in the performance range of maybe, barely, just might. If the actual launch started near Mach 1 and at high-altitude, any payload capability would be greatly improved.

What I'm suggesting is both nutty, and very workable. Use some struts for a launch pad, surrounded by a ring, where you attach large commercial jet engines. I'd recommend the new GE90-115B used on the Boeing 777, which are projected to cost about $21 million each, with each generating 115,000 lbs of static thrust. With a dozen of them you have 1.38 million pounds of thrust to work with. Since they're attached externally to the ring, using normal engine mounting pylons, you can add or delete engines as the design or payload changes.

This concept uses off the shelf, extremely high-reliability, and extremely high fuel efficiency propulsion. As a rocket design it would be insanely poor performance, looking at mass ratios and such. As a flying launch platform, which eliminates high-speed rocket flight through the lower, denser layers of atmosphere, it makes great sense. Plus, you're just below Mach 1 for the actual launch. The SSTO vehicle structure won't encounter the high pressure atmospheric loadings that current launches induce, so you get a weight savings in the structure. You also get rid of the high-drag phase of flight, and have a higher initial velocity for the launch. It eases some of the tight design constraints on an SSTO vehicle.

If the SSTO engines don't ignite properly, or some other problem is detected, you abort the SSTO launch and have the jet propelled platform fly the rocket back down to earth. This is the safe-return capability that is so crucial to the resuable and recoverable concepts. If you got really bold, you could use fighter aircraft engines and try to launch at Mach 2 to 3. The nice thing about the concept is its versatility, testability, and recoverability. The engine inlets are far from any debris falling off the rocket (like ice), and aren't run beyond their normal specifications, as would be the first inclination of an expendable rocket mindset.

It's also separate from the SSTO design itself. If a pure SSTO isn't performing well enough to justify continued operation, the flying launch pad could be introduced to help rescue the program. The launch pad could also be tested prior to any final SSTO design by flying water-filled mock-ups of various SSTO proposals. If the SSTO design is abandoned or obsoleted, the engines revert back to Boeing for installation on a 777. If the government has already paid for the program, Boeing gets some free engines.

The hard end of the design work is in engine design/performance and mounting, plus fuel system technologies. This is essentially just off the shelf knowledge available from Boeing's commercial aircraft engineers. All that has to be added is the launch platform design, and control/guidance software. The design concept could be tested with a smaller platform, that uses cheaper business-jet class engines. Basically, it's something made out of airplane scraps and off-the-shelf engines, that could be thrown together quickly and make SSTO a more viable option. If looked at as a bizarre version of a sky-crane or commercial cargo jet, instead of a rocket, the idea makes sense. All the design wastes in operation is some kerosene. Instead of a 1 stage rocket, you have a 1.25 stage rocket, and the world's largest leaf-blower.

Essentially, it doesn't matter what the dry weight of the platform is, or how efficient it is. It simply has to work, without sucking up the budget. If an engine has a problem, there's a bunch of others to take up the slack. If an engine needs maintenance, you just call an engine mechanic from the airport, instead of employing hundreds of full-time technicians. If a particular launch test is thought very risky, you detach and decel the launch platform just prior to SSTO engine ignition.

It's simple, re-usable, easy to design, re-sellable as engines, and has no-wings.

Best Regards,

George Turner

Well various forms of jet-powered zero stages have been around a long time. Gary Hudson was talking about them in the mid-80's as were others.

If you can launch from 40,000 feet you don't really need any velocity: just getting up to where you can have large engine bells without prohibitive drag is enough to make SSTO more than feasible.





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Thursday, February 6, 2003

Begin with the end of one discussion.

Dr. Pournelle,

I am a bit surprised that your correspondent Mr. Boyle discussed the economics of slave labour at some length without mentioning the Stalin era in the USSR.

That's a bit like writing an essay on Space Exploration without mentioning the USA; or a history of 19th century naval warfare without mentioning the Royal Navy.

Doesn't he know that there were about 5 million slaves at any one time in the USSR, continuously from about 1936 to about 1958, and that around 20 million people were "consumed" over that period?

The economics of that are quite interesting; it seems that despite the gold and coal they mined, the cities they built (Norilsk, Magadan, and others), and the canals they dug (Belomor and others), the "inputs" in terms of guards, fences, dogs, towers, trains, ships, and so on were such that the overall effect on the country's economy was highly negative.

Many of those people were qualified professionals too, and removing them from the productive economy had its own negative impact.

Of course, accurate numbers are impossible to obtain, but the above is generally accepted as reasonably near to the truth.

Best Regards,

Andrew Duffin

It is always well to remember the Gulag where more died than ever did at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen. 

If you bought a slave you had an interest in his staying healthy. If he was just a worker, say a sharecropper, let him go and bring in a replacement.


Depends on the market price, doesn't it? In the Old South where I grew up, there was no law, but there was a strong social custom honored by all the landowners we knew, that a sharecropper had the right to die in the house he had lived in: if he got too old to work, a new house was built for the new worker, who was usually a relative. Share cropping came about from the boll weevil: growing cotton was a risky business, and the landowner generally had to mortgage the land to get the money for seed and fertilizer and farm animals -- when I grew up, our land was farmed by mules, there being no privately owned tractors in our part of Tennessee. The landowner provided land, seed, fertilizer, and the mules; the sharecropper provided labor. Generally the landowner also had to advance money for the sharecropper to live on during the year. There wasn't any retirement system except that sharecroppers who got too old to work generally became "gardeners" and did other light work in lieu of rent and to get enough for food.

There wasn't much money in cotton farming because the risks were very high, between army worms and boll weevils, and a couple of crop failures in a row meant that the bank owned the land.

But the story of the compassionate slave owner floats about, and such people can be found in Uncle Tom's Cabin: but of course they often went broke, and the Simon Legree's of the world prospered. The neat slave cabin with Ol' Massa luvvin' every one of them had its counterpart in real life; but it was still an ugly business.

Incidentally, the oldest son of our main sharecropper went to an agricultural college in a time when few, white or black, went to any kind of college.

Slavery was a doomed institution: the economics don't make sense. At the time of the Civil War, the Garrison newspapers routinely fired their pressmen at age 47 to make room for younger workers. Needless to say they paid no pensions or anything else we would call "benefits". What happened to the former employees of this champion of freedom wasn't his concern. At the same time there were laws, at least in Tennessee, forbidding masters to manumit slaves who had no prospect of employment.

It was a doomed institution, and most of those in the South who thought about such things knew it. Why the US of all the major civilized nations had to have a civil war to abolish slavery is the subject of ten thousand Ph.D. dissertations, but I have never seen an analysis I fully accept.

And this for pure fun (the copyright on Chesterton's poems expired long ago:

Dear Jerry -

I noticed this at the end of an e-mail from Tim Worstall on Wednesday.
"´Before the Romans came to Britain it was the rolling English drunkard who made the rolling English roads.` GK Chesterton."

It's one of my favourite comic poems so at the risk of incurring your wrath at breaking Copyright:

The Rolling English Road
by G.K.Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

I pass Kensal Green station four days a week; I've yet to find paradise at the end of the line - only Euston Station, which seems to be intent on heading in the diametrically opposite direction!

Toodle pip,
"... the fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by the superficial design flaws." Douglas Adams (1952-2001): So Long and Thanks For All The

And for one of Chesterton's masterpieces, which tells why one might go to war, see Lepanto.










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Meetings and trips and work, Oh my.






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