Bill Gaubatz, RIP; the DC/X story; the Big SFWA Indie Flap; and more

View 832 Sunday, July 06, 2014


Christians to Beirut. Alawites to the grave.

Syrian Freedom Fighters


“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


I haven’t done much this week. I’ll try to catch up a bit now.

I heard today that Bill Gaubatz, the project director for Douglas who built the DC/X, has died. Bill was the engineer who took the DC/X concept and turned it into flying hardware, on schedule, and under budget. He knew how to build teams and get them working, and this without much support from his employer: a reusable spaceship would not be as profitable as selling more and more expendables, and Douglas already sold expendables to the the Air Force. Still, they did bid on the project, they put a good man in charge of it, and they got out of his way.

I’ve told the DC/X story before, but last time I told it was when I had just missed my last chance (as it turned out) to see Bill Gaubatz again. I’ll repeat it here:

I missed the 20th Anniversary of the DC/X which happened in New Mexico over the weekend. A lot of people wanted me to come to it, and I’d have liked to go, but the logistics couldn’t be arranged. We’d planned to get together with Phillip and the grandchildren on this weekend a long time ago, and while the DC/X was important and it sure wouldn’t have happened without me (well, me, Max Hunter, and General Graham were the ones who went to VP Dan Quayle then the Chairman of the National Space Council –

Rather than make that a long parenthetical I may as well tell the story. The Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy came about in a curious way. Back in August of 1980 before the election there was a planetary encounter or some other event at JPL, and G Harry Stine and BJO Trimble were there. Mrs. Trimble was the Star Trek fan club activist who had pretty well sparked the big push for another season of Star Trek when it was being considered for red or green light by the network, Harry was an old space enthusiast, consulting engineer, pilot, and science fiction writer, and I was an SF writer with some political experience. We planned a small conference to be held at Larry Niven’s house later in the fall to see what we could do to promote the space budget in the incoming administration, which we thought would likely be Reagan’s. I’d done some briefings when Reagan was Governor and I was in the professor business. None of this was important and it wasn’t worth making notes about.

But then Reagan won the election, and he asked General Schriever to prepare a paper for his incoming administration: a space and defense policy. At this point it gets complicated. Back in 1968-70 I was the junior author of a book called The Strategy of Technology. The senior author was Dr. Stefan T. Possony, then a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. We had worked together on some other projects, and Steve was very much my mentor. The Strategy of Technology was a succès d’estime, meaning that it sold reasonably well, but got really good reviews and was interesting to the people we had written it for – it eventually was a textbook at all three service academies in one class or another, as well as in the War Colleges, and there are copies used in some senior military seminars even to this day. (The principles are still valid but all the examples are from the Cold War or Seventy Years War era when the Soviet Union with its 26,000 nuclear warheads and enormous delivery capacity was the main threat to the US. Those who remember that era will understand; but there is now a generation that doesn’t remember the USSR and its Strategic Rocket Service and Tsar Bomba and the rest of it. But I digress.) Anyway there was a third author to The Strategy of Technology, Francis X.Kane, Ph.d., Col. USAF. As an active duty Air Force officer Duke didn’t want his name on the book, which was quite critical of some US policies. Kane had been Director of Plans for General Schriever, and General Schriever asked Duke to do the transition team space plan that Reagan had asked for. Kane obtained his Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown University where his principal advisor was Professor Stefan T. Possony. Possony had been in the Pentagon during much of WW II, then to Georgetown, and thence to the Hoover. (Possony got his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna about the time I was born; he was active in the Schussnig government which opposed – with the help of Benito Mussolini – Hitler’s bid to take over Austria.  Obviously that opposition failed. When Austria fell, Steve fled to Czechoslovakia, and when that fell he fled to France where he was an advisor to the Air Ministry – until 1940, when he fled to unoccupied France and managed to get passage to Oran and thence to the United States.  Steve was fond of saying that the Gestapo had his library – three times.)

Steve and Duke asked me if I could help get this space plan together. It would need a meeting of a number of aerospace people, and a good working environment. The Nivens had already committed to a space promotion conference, and agreed to expand it. It expanded beyond even his home’s ability to provide guest space for all those who were coming – about 40 all told – but Marilyn Niven with some volunteers said she could handle the meals, and the house was certainly large enough and had the right atmosphere for a space conference. We reserved a nearby motel for sleeping rooms; everything else would happen at Niven’s house in Tarzana.

I started inviting people mostly by phone, with the promise of an opportunity to be persuasive at a level where persuasion might have some effect. We had a pretty good turnout, starting with Buzz Aldrin, George Merrick who was manager of the Shuttle program at North American, Dr. Gould from North American, Max Hunter, General Graham, Gordon Woodcock from Boeing, George Koopman, several other military officers, Phil Chapman, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, Lowell Wood from Teller’s people, Steve Possony of course, a number of science fiction authors I thought would be useful including Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Dean Ing. Gary Hudson and some space entrepreneurs. Art Dula. Phil Chapman. BJO Trimble was recording secretary and in charge of building a fan base. I’m naming names off the top of my head, and I will forget a lot of them. SF publisher Jim Baen. More active duty military people none of whom were officially there. We worked all weekend and produced a paper for the transition team, then at the President’s request we started in on a plan for after inauguration at another meeting. The President read the full reports, which strongly recommended Strategic Defense. In 1983 he made his Star Wars speech. It included several phrases from the Council reports.

Anyway, after that frantic period between November 1980 and January 1981 we were asked to continue to work on space policy, and we were all space enthusiasts. I was chairman, largely because I had found someone willing to host the conference and Niven sure didn’t want that job. We did some good work in the next eight years. Then, in 1988, we had a meeting at which Max Hunter said “Maybe it’s time to revive the X Programs.” There’s a long story in that. Anyway, a much smaller group still under the name of Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy (well, I had to call it something; Newt Gengrich thought it was a pretty good name) devised the SSX project, which General Graham, Max Hunter, and I took to DC just after the inauguration. Mr. Bush had pretty well cleared all the Reagan people out of the White House, but he couldn’t fire VP Dan Quayle, and Quayle was ex officio the chairman of the National Space Council and also had been “the respected junior Senator from Indiana” even in the New York Times until the day he was the Republican VP nominee after which, in under 24 hours, he became a bumbling philandering fool in much of the media; but in fact he was a pretty sharp cookie. He had control of a fair amount of the Strategic Defense Initiative research budget. The SSX Project was 600,000 pounds Gross Lift-Off Weight. There wasn’t enough money in the SDI funds to built that, but there was enough to fund a scale model to test many of the vital concepts of Single Stage to Orbit, and Mr. Quayle was able to get that project funded after having RAND and some other people reevaluate the feasibility of Single Stage to Orbit – which most of the aerospace industry had decided was impossible. There were also questions about control at low speeds and low altitudes. DC/X would test those questions and others. But this isn’t an essay on X projects – for that see my Access To Space.

Anyway, after that Mr. Quayle passed the SSX proposal to the National Space Council which got DC/X funded. Bill Gaubatz made the ship happen, on time, under budget, not paper studies but flying hardware, and I’d have liked to have been at the 20th Anniversary. And of course the whole story is more complicated than this; but it would not have happened without Dan Graham, Max Hunter, and for that matter me. So I’d love to have gone to the Anniversary. But I’d rather have spent the weekend with my grandchildren.

What I would have said had I been at the anniversary is that the SSX Project as proposed by the Council back in 1989 would still be an excellent X project. The 600,000 GLOW is still just about right, and with new structure materials and vast improvements in computers, gyros, avionic – both in capability and weight savings – SSX might actually make orbit. Max Hunter used to say “We may not make orbit with SSX but we’ll sure scare it to death.” And we would learn just what we would need to make a fleet of ships that were savable and reusable, and which could fly several missions a month, at essentially fuel costs. That’s access to space. One day we’ll do that. Not by government built ships; but government does have a role, as it did in development of aircraft. Not building airplanes but in funding research. And X projects are still one of the most valuable tools for developing technology. But then I’ve said all this before. If I’d have gotten to the meeting I’d have said it again.

I note that over the years many of the participants in making DC/X possible have died. Those include Robert Heinlein, Harry Stine, Duke Kane, Steve Possony, Dan Graham, and I’m sure many more. I hope they’re all waiting to welcome Bill Gaubatz to the old space warriors club.



The big flap started last Thursday with a letter to all Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) members from SFWA President Stephen Gould:

Dear SFWA Member,

Author Douglas Preston has written a protest/response to Amazon about its recent behavior in its negotiations with Hachette Book Group and is inviting co-signers in support of this message. I think it strikes a pretty good balance between respectful and accurate and I will be signing it as an individual and as President of SFWA. In addition, the Board had decided to endorse this message and we invite members to co-sign as individual authors (by emailing Preston at .)

Steven Gould

President, SFWA

This was followed by a storm of protests from independently published writers who believed that SFWA had taken the side of traditional publishers of which Hachette is one the Big Five, against Amazon, which is the major publisher of independently published works, fiction and non-fiction, science fiction and fantasy and all other genres, and incidentally also the book seller of nearly half the printed books sold in these United States.

The story was told that this was a deliberate insult by SFWA aimed at independently published writers, and worse, it comes in the midst of a long and drawn out debate within SFWA over whether to admit as ‘professional writers’ those whose only credentials are self-published worked. One of the people who brought up the issue of admitting self-published writers to SFWA was me, and the case I used as illustration was Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, my daughter, whose book Outies, a book written (with permission) in the universe of The Mote In God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has been a top selling science fiction book for decades, and remains popular (and very readable I would say, but then I would, wouldn’t I?). When Jenny wrote the book she solicited offers from publishers and received several, all with generous (for first novels) advances, but terms that gave the publishers the lion’s share of eBook rights so long as the book was “in print”; and since electronic books never go out of print, that means the life of the copyright. She did some calculations based in part on Mote sales, and some expectation the author’s name would attract some attention and sales, and decided to self-publish the work, again with our permission. The bottom line is that the book earned more in a year than the advance offered by the publisher, and she still owns all the eBook rights; and it’s still selling, as indeed it ought to since it’s a pretty good read. Not as good as Mote, say I, but then I’d say that, wouldn’t it?

I pointed out that this ought to qualify as a valid credential for joining the Science Fiction Writers of America. She was offered publication by a major publisher, and has earned more in self-publication than she was offered, and she retains all her rights in the book, and surely that’s professional? And since she has been the publications manager for a major California university, she’d be a pretty darned valuable member. My point was that if SFWA is the organization of those who write and publish science fiction in America, she blooming well qualified, and so did a number of other writers out there.

SFWA has dithered over this for two years. Since we were in the process of moving incorporation from Massachusetts (a rather bad place to incorporate a national organization because of their laws about face to face annual meetings) to California (not my recommendation but better than Mass.) and that didn’t get finalized until last month, we couldn’t have changed the by-laws anyway, but we could have been ready to do it when we legally could, but we didn’t and hence I say dithering. The current schedule is that the officers will vote on the matter at the end of August, and then put it to the membership, and it will all be settled by the end of November, and I still call that dithering; but we are slowly making progress.

But with that record of inaction on the matter comes the action last Thursday, without notice and without consolation with anyone, not past presidents, not the committee that has been studying admission of independently published writers, not any readers, not a Ouija Board or a spirit medium in an attempt to make contact with founder Damon Knight, nor anyone else. Just suddenly the President, apparently authorized by a vote of the board, puts the organization on record as endorsing that petition; and this has been interpreted by nearly everyone in the Independently Published Author community as a slap in the face.

Not so, not so, at least one past president, and at least one board member, has said; but of official word from President or Board comes there none as of this afternoon, and the professional science fiction and fantasy writers who have been independently rather than traditionally published have begun declaring their unhappiness over this. I can’t really blame them, but I do wish they would wait a bit before believing that SFWA wanted to insult them. I doubt that was the motive.

But that has taken up some of my time this weekend, and probably shouldn’t. I would better have used my time writing something here, or working on several projects I have going including one with Niven called “Story Night at the Stronghold” which takes place a couple of years after Hammerfall for those familiar with Lucifer’s Hammer (and if you aren’t you are missing one whacking good story). I doubt I have persuaded anyone, and I am chagrined that the Masters of SFWA have not acted at least to issued a clarification of what they meant by endorsing that petition, and stating that they are not taking sides in this commercial dispute but protesting the tactics of one side, Amazon . I would also like them to protest the tactics of the other side, the traditional publishers, who want to lower royalties and payments to authors, yet like to be thought of as the authors’ friend.

As to my own experience with Amazon, a reasonable part of my income now comes from eBook sales of my backlist (and the collaborations with Niven). Amazon pays much higher royalties than the traditional publishers, and pays them monthly, not every six months for the period ending six months ago.

Anyway it’s dinner time, and if you’ve heard anything about this flap, it really ought to be a tempest in a teapot, but I can well understand independently published authors some of whom are making considerably more per month than some traditionally published SFWA members make in a year feeling a bit miffed about this restriction on just who is professional and who is not.

More another time.


‘The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most accurate, up-to-date temperature data confirm the United States has been cooling for at least the past decade.’



Roland Dobbins


‘The levels of Antarctic sea-ice last week hit an all-time high – confounding climate change computer models which say it should be in decline.’



Roland Dobbins


And more and more data accumulate to show that whatever the climate is doing, we don’t have a model to explain it.  Perhaps there won’t be a Krakatoa or Tambora volcano in the 21st Century.  But what if there is?



Subject: : Does anyone today remember the cost of freedom????

This was just one beach.


William Ellern

Some still remember.  Some have forgotten.  And increasingly, more never knew.











Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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