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An Open Letter to a Terrible Podcast

[I’m intensely interested in the current generation of space entrepreneurs. They really do have the capacity to transform the future of our species. I’m obsessed enough to listen to several space-related podcasts and watch a couple of Youtube channels on the topic. For reference, good podcasts include “Planetary Radio” for coverage of planetary science missions and government space policy, “Interplanetary Podcast” (an irreverent program produced by the British Interplanetary Society), the “Aerospace Engineering Podcast” (a recent addition I don’t yet have a strong opinion of) for insights into new technology, and I watch Youtube episodes of “TMRO”, “The Everyday Astronaut”, and Scott Manley’s show, all of which have interesting content. “TMRO” in particular is wonderful at conveying enthusiasm for the progress being made these days. “Planetary Radio” is much stodgier and more government space program oriented, but has excellent content and typically covers the whole spectrum quite fairly.

And then, there’s “Talking Space”, a podcast that I’m no longer willing to listen to. I rarely tell people that I’ve stopped subscribing to their content, but in this case, I felt compelled to write them a note — it’s unusual to find people in this media segment who so faithfully channel Ellsworth Toohey. Even though almost no one who reads Samizdata will have heard their tiny podcast, I’ve included the entire content below:]

I regularly listened to your program until your episode just after Falcon Heavy’s test flight. I was disgusted at that time with your astonishingly negative attitude about that launch, and unsubscribed for a while, but I decided to give you another chance. Having just stopped listening halfway through “To the moon, Elon!”, I think I’m through with your podcast permanently.

The BFR, if it flies, will be the first fully reusable orbital launch vehicle in history, and will also be one of the heaviest lift vehicles in history. Musk claims it will reduce launch costs by a factor of about two orders of magnitude. Even if it only reduces launch costs by a factor of ten and not one hundred, it will be a major milestone in human history, and I don’t believe that I’m exaggerating.

Not a single mention of that had been made by the time I shut off the episode. All I heard was “it might take a years longer than Musk says” and “this will cost money, where will it come from?” and the even more offensive “Yawn” remark where one of your hosts expressed actual boredom with the news.

On the cost, Musk has a long track record of securing the funding he needs, and as to the former, when he was asked about the timing at the press conference, he absolutely owned up to the fact that they were unlikely, saying that the dates in question were optimistic and based on nothing going wrong.

We all know by now, after his work at several companies, both that Musk rarely makes his dates, but that he almost always manages to achieve the the engineering goals he’s set. SpaceX had its first orbital launch only ten years ago, but is now the world’s leading launch provider, with only the Chinese government launching more often, and given the customer contracts they have in hand and the continuous increase in launch rate, by next year SpaceX may be approaching the Chinese launch cadence. There’s very little reason to doubt that they’re technically capable of building BFR or that they’ve got real revenue that they can apply to R&D, given that even a cursory estimate shows that their operating revenue is now into ten figures.

As for the ridiculous “Yawn” comment: presuming BFR launches, and I presume it will given enough time, it will dramatically alter the cost of human access to space. If the costs end up where Musk claims they will, the price of things like human colonization of cislunar space will be in the feasible range for the first time. If they end up 10x past what he thinks they will be, they’re still going to cut the price of access to space by 90%. This changes everything, even for science missions, which will benefit tremendously from far cheaper launches.

Spending your time nattering about how much you dislike Musk (which was a clear subtext) or are bored by him, how unlikely it is that he’ll get the money needed for development when he clearly managed to get the money needed for the development of all his projects to date, and how he might miss his date by years when that’s utterly immaterial, demonstrated to me that you guys are not my sort of people. You utterly miss the interesting part here — I can imagine your analysis of the first passenger railroad being something like “but the cross-ties are made of wood and will rot! They’ll have to be replaced at intervals!”.

Further, even if Musk doesn’t manage this and Bezos (who is working to the same goals) does, it still doesn’t matter — the world is about to be transformed, and all you can do is look for excuses to grumble.

I realized, in the midst of listening, that I understood the name of your podcast at last. It’s “Talking Space”.

Not “Doing Space”. “Talking Space”.

The lot of you are talkers, and the same sort of talkers who have naysayed pretty much ever interesting development since private development of space technology began in earnest. People like Musk, and Bezos, and Beck, and Haot, and all the others, who are putting their money on the line and their skin in the game, are the doers.

I’m done listening to talkers who have nothing to say but negative things when they themselves haven’t done anything. Musk’s people managed to go from zero to launching 20+ commercial orbital missions a year in a decade. What have you gotten done that makes you feel you can look down on SpaceX’s achievements?

I’ll conclude by saying this even more bluntly: the people responsible for human progress don’t spend all their time negatively gossiping from the sidelines about people who have done far more for humanity than themselves. We need more competent entrepreneurs, not more nasty talking heads.

15 comments to An Open Letter to a Terrible Podcast

  • From WIMFlyC:

    “This illuminates our investigation of flying cars, and other promised future technology, considerably. As Wells prophesied, the world did indeed fumble along from compromise to compromise as it always has done and as it will do very probably for many centuries yet. No wise global government of enlightened airmen took over and ushered in the era of technological nirvana. And yet, all the pundits to the contrary notwithstanding, we did get the family car. It seems all too likely that if the pundits had actually been in charge, that Failure of Nerve would have become an enforced reality instead of an obscure missed prediction. We would have sidewalk awnings, no cars, and the Great Stagnation would have started in 1910.”

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    JoSH, I had no idea you read Samizdata! I shall have to post more often!

  • XC

    I am so not a Musk fanboy because of Tesla. However, Space/X, shiver me timbers!

    I lived in St. Pete, FL during the heyday period of space launches and we would go to the roof and watch the contrails. Absolutely amazing. I had a poser of the moon over my bed and marked the landing sites and roving paths.

    Elon (maybe Bezos) are the only people who are going to give me even the slightest possibility of going into space.

    Worst case, I guess, I could liquidate the majority of my retirement and take a flight with Branson. I know my wife fears I might do just that.

    -XC

  • CaptDMO

    Space. The Final Frontier.
    For litter collection!
    When I see the FIRST in the series of 25 ton recoveries of space junk, I may be interested in what
    the tasseled loafer crowd ponders about the future of Earth orbit.
    Feel free to start with the BIG pieces!

  • Sam Duncan

    Well put, Perry. I more or less agree with XC. I don’t think Tesla or Hyperloop are up to much, but SpaceX has already delivered more than many commentators thought possible. I’ve said before here that I don’t imagine that Musk is actually any better at rockets than he is at cars; it’s just that everyone else so far has been even worse. But the more I see of the company, the less sure I am about that.

    And a +1 for Scott Manley’s YouTube show. I started watching it for his videogame content, but his space stuff is knowledgable and pitched at just the right level for an enthusiastic layman like myself. (It helps that he sounds like me. 😉 )

  • Eric

    I am so not a Musk fanboy because of Tesla. However, Space/X, shiver me timbers!

    Gwynne Shotwell makes the proverbial trains run at SpaceX. If she ever leaves your timbers will probably no longer be shivered.

  • Rob

    Musk has a proven track record of securing huge sums and talking bollocks; however, you would hope a podcast of supposed experts in the field could contribute something better than “yawn”. You could get any bored teenager off the street to do that.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Musk’s people managed to go from zero to launching 20+ commercial orbital missions a year in a decade. What have you gotten done that makes you feel you can look down on SpaceX’s achievements?

    I wouldn’t want to belittle his business achievements and don’t look down on it, but this was using proven technology in a existing and growing market powered by global communications expansion, private launch service providers have been in existence since the end of the Soviet Union when the technology first became open and available outside of government.

    Mad props to him for succeeding and dominating, but it is not really a “technological” achievement so far – but it will be once the heavy and re-use become economically viable.

    Musk has a proven track record of securing huge sums and talking bollocks

    Unfortunately what grates most libertarian gears is those huge sums are mainly taxpayer largesse, both in lump sums and external cost avoidance. In the UK his already overpriced luxury products benefit from a generous purchase subsidy, with grants for charging points needed to operate them, “free” (taxpayer funded) electricity at public charging stations and benefits in kind such as Congestion Charge exclusion, and not forgetting he will probably avoid future costs on battery disposal (that’s a bridge that is going to be crossed very soon). Admittedly, the long term goal is to have electric vehicles everywhere, and whilst Musk may be seen as a trailblazer in this arena, the reality is he is just a paid mercenary in a forced behavior program mandated by the government.

    Musk needs to up his game on battery technology, which we all know is the blocker when it comes to wide acceptance of EVs, but so far nothing but the usual fluff. If he does not get this sorted out, nothing else matters.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    I wouldn’t want to belittle his business achievements and don’t look down on it, but this was using proven technology in a existing and growing market

    I’m not sure who else “proved” the technology of landing and reusing rockets before SpaceX. Could you direct me to who that was? (There are literally thousands of innovations in the Falcon 9, from the densification of the fuel to the use of actuators over explosive bolts to permit full test of all components on the ground, to the mechanisms used to allow rapid disassembly and inspection of portions of the vehicle after landing.)

    Musk needs to up his game on battery technology, which we all know is the blocker when it comes to wide acceptance of EVs

    The existing batteries in the Tesla line seem to have more than adequate range, and their price has dropped dramatically every year.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Rob says:

    Musk has a proven track record of securing huge sums and talking bollocks

    I take it that Rob has successfully flown, landed, and reused lots of rockets at this point, and is launching far more than just 20 orbital flights a year, and thus has real accomplishments to display.

  • Runcie Balspune

    I’m not sure who else “proved” the technology of landing and reusing rockets before SpaceX.

    My comment was referring to the decade before that was operational which was using proven tech, the re-usable function is only recent.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    My comment was referring to the decade before that was operational which was using proven tech, the re-usable function is only recent.

    The decade before that was the creation of two 100% from scratch rocket designs, arguably three, using an all new engine design, loads of new designs for rocket equipment that could be repeatedly ground tested, and extensive use of composites for the first time. They also pioneered technologies like subcooling. They also did this all on their own — neither Falcon 1 nor Falcon 9 incorporated components built for previous rockets; the Falcon 1 was the first privately designed liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit. They also were working on reusability for years.

    Of course, I know people who will happily claim that pretty much everything anyone accomplishes isn’t really theirs. “You didn’t build that!” etc. are common tropes these days. Attempts to minimize how significant the accomplishments of the organization were over this time, and passing off the years of work on reusability as though it were a mere bagatelle, is hardly shocking even if it is somewhat ridiculous.

    Musk has demonstrated at this point, time and again, that his organizations are capable of producing astonishing feats of engineering, and at costs that are pretty damn low compared to others, though usually with substantial delays over projected timelines. I see no reason not to expect that the future will look somewhat like what has happened up until now, the SECs insistence in all documents that past performance is no indication of future performance notwithstanding.

  • Tedd

    Hear, hear. There’s excellent technology analysis out there, but there’s also a lot that treats technology like a spectator sport.

  • Paul Marks

    The project has, as Perry M. has pointed out, already had a lot of success – and I wish it even greater success in the future.

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