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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

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.