Remembering – Merry Christmas

Editors’ Note: Dr. Pournelle posted the following on December 24, 2002.

The Web Guy wishes all a Merry Christmas – or your personal equivalent.

From Rod McFadden

Christmas Eve at Sea John Masefield

A wind is rustling “south and soft,”
Cooing a quiet country tune.
The calm sea sighs, and far aloft
the sails are ghostly in the moon.

Unquiet ripples lisp and purr,
A block there pipes and chirps i’ the sheave,
The wheel-ropes jar, the reef-points stir
Faintly –and it is Christmas Eve.

The hushed sea seems to hold her breath,
and o’er the giddy, swaying spars,
Silent and excellent as Death,
The dim blue skies are bright with stars.

Dear God — they shone in Palestine
Like this, and yon pale moon serene
Looked down among the lowing kine
On Mary and the Nazarene.

The angels called from deep to deep,
The burning heavens felt the thrill,
startling the flocks of silly sheep
And lonely shepherds on the hill.

To-night beneath the dripping bows
where flashing bubbles burst and throng,
The bow-wash murmurs and sighs and soughs
A message from the angels’ song.

The moon goes nodding down the west,
The drowsy helmsman strikes the bell;
Rex Judaorum natus est,
I charge you, brothers, sing Nowell, Nowell,
Rex Judaorum natus est

John Masefield
Salt-water Ballads

Godspeed, everyone.

Remembering – Thoughts on Space

Editor’s Note: we saw today the passing of NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless, the first person to fly freely and untethered in space. He was 80.

Regular followers of Dr.Pournelle know that he was passionate about exploring space. So we dug into the archives and picked this one (there are many to choose from) written Wednesday, June 11, 2003. There are many links to other pages; some of the links may have ‘died’ due to the passing of years. We’ve only added some minor formatting changes.

Readers are invited to discuss these issues; many things have not changed in the years since. Use the comments area at the end to add your thoughts on this subject.


I can solve the space access problem with a few sentences.

Be it enacted by the Congress of the United States:

The Treasurer of the United States is directed to pay to the first American owned company (if corporate at least 60% of the shares must be held by American citizens) the following sums for the following accomplishments. No monies shall be paid until the goals specified are accomplished and certified by suitable experts from the National Science Foundation or the National Academy of Science:

1. The sum of $2 billion to be paid for construction of 3 operational spacecraft which have achieved low earth orbit, returned to earth, and flown to orbit again three times in a period of three weeks.

2. The sum of $5 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a space station which has been continuously in orbit with at least 5 Americans aboard for a period of not less than three years and one day. The crew need not be the same persons for the entire time, but at no time shall the station be unoccupied.

3. The sum of $12 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a Lunar base in which no fewer than 31 Americans have continuously resided for a period of not less than four years and one day.

4. The sum of $10 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a solar power satellite system which delivers at least 800 megaWatts of electric power to a receiving station or stations in the United States for a period of at least two years and one day.

5. The payments made shall be exempt from all US taxes.

That would do it. Not one cent to be paid until the goals are accomplished. Not a bit of risk, and if it can’t be done for those sums, well, no harm done to the treasury.

I had Newt Gingrich persuaded to do this before he found he couldn’t keep the office of Speaker. I haven’t had any audiences with his successors.

Henry Vanderbilt points out that having a prize, say $1 billion, for the second firm to achieve point (1) above will get more into the competition, and produce better results. I agree.


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.


The debate on SSTO (Reusable space ships, or Single Stage to Orbit) continues. Note that despite the tone of some of these letters, SSTO is not absurd, and has the support of many experienced rocket engineers, including the late Max Hunter. For political reasons NASA has always said it was too silly to study — else why hadn’t they ever done anything as simple as the DC/X as a research vehicle?

The report of the Council which recommended X projects leading to an SSTO vehicle, go here. The basic rocket equation discussion of the concept is here. There’s math in there, but not too much. The concept of X projects and their importance for getting to space, look here. I have repeated this short introduction below. Eventually I will collect all this material into ahref=””>see here.

Dear Mr Pournelle:

I’ve been a great admirer of your for more years than either of us would care to count and I credit you for teaching me as much about science as my college professors. However, I’m rather surprised by your enthusiasm for a Single Stage To Orbit launcher.

If we were talking about using advanced propulsion technology such as supersonic combustion ramjets I’d share your opinion. However, most SSTO proposals envision using conventional rocket engines. The multistage rocket systems that are currently being used aren’t a fashion statement, they are a reluctant adaptation to the performance limitations imposed by the basic physics of rocketry.

As you are well aware, the mass of fuel required for a mission rises exponentially with the ratio of the delta-vee to the specific impulse. The minimum, theoretical mass ratio for a rocket to reach earth orbit is about nine-to-one using LOX and Hydrogen. Because the low density of liquid hydrogen would require enormous fuel tanks that would be either extremely massive or to fragile to survive reentry, other fuels such as liquid methane or liquid propane would be more feasible.

However, the mass ratio required with these fuels would be around twenty-to-one. Rather than demand revolutionary advances in rocket technology, why not adopt an evolutionary approach. Since the loss of the Columbia will force NASA to at least consider building a replacement orbiter, we have the opportunity to redesign the vehicle to incorporate either Titanium or advanced, high temperature composites in its structure. We might even use an active cooling system that would make the thermal tiles unnecessary.

Of course the highest priority would be to redesign the orbiter to include modular systems with a much longer service life that would minimize the maintenance required between launches. The next logical step is to replace the solid fuel rocket boosters with liquid fuel boosters that fly back to land on a runway rather than drop into the ocean. As you remember, the original design of the shuttle included a liquid fuel, fly back booster which was abandoned because it was so massive.

Using twin, flyback boosters that are compatable with the existing STS configuration offer a number of tantalizing possibillities. Because the entire orbiter, fuel tank and boosters assembly is quite light until it is fueled on the launch pad, we could adopt the Russian practice of horizontal assembly. This approach is proving to be very cost effective for Boeing. Secondly, using twin, liquid fueled, flyback boosters for the Shuttle offers the possibility of using them as components for a modular, heavy lift vehicle. You could put 100 tons into orbit simply by replacing the orbiter with an expendable payload faring and propulsion-avionics module that is packaged in a reentry capsule. By adopting a more conventional configuration in which the payload is mounted on the nose of the external tank and the propulsion module at the aft end, you would have the flexibility of using two, four, six or even eight flyback boosters. The only “expendable” components in this STS would be the external fuel tanks which we should be taking all of the way to orbit anyway so that they can be used for station structures or recycled into reaction mass.

James Crawford []

It is one design possibility. I was long a fan of “wings” of some kind, and Max Hunter always liked to have some lift in the reentry vehicle to get cross trajectory capabilities. The problem with wings is they cost like crazy going up, increasing the time of flight, which increases the time that drag operates on the ship, etc. In general the faster you go up the less fuel you need. We have considerable flight data on the Shuttle itself; we need some on entirely different designs now.

Do note that the “bonus” of putting fuel tanks in orbit is smaller than it appears. Fuel tanks in low earth orbit soon orient side-on (one end “down” or pointed at Earth), and the drag goes up, and the tank comes down fairly quickly — and in an unpredictable place. It’s is pretty big, and while 80% of the Earth is water and much of the rest not inhabited or not thickly inhabited, do that enough and you’re sure to hit someone. The remedy to that is to put up two tanks and tether them so that they ride end-on to the direction of traffic, but this means (1) you have to put two tanks into every place you launch one, (2) you need to have someone attach the tethers, and you have the tether as a not negligible dead weight or structure penalty, and (3) at some point you have to go do something with the tanks, which probably aren’t where you want them, because even tethered in pairs they will come down faster than you like. That is a pretty severe operations penalty.

Two stages to orbit, or one stage and a flyable zero which may well be a ring of jet engines, is another possibility: again the operations penalties are not insignificant. The operational penalties are not small: imagine if every time you wanted to fly across the Atlantic, you had to have a second airplane that did nothing but get your plane aloft. It may be required, but it’s not desirable.

So: let me sum it up. We need to build more rocket ships. We need to fly more rocket ships. We need better data. These were conclusions we sent to the President in 1983, and repeated to a different President in 1989. They haven’t changed. We need X programs. Real ones, not corporate welfare programs like the “X”-33. Continued next week.

Jerry, I have one quibble about your formulation of offering prizes to stimulate space capability: At least in the initial prize for reusable launchers, allow for multiple winners, to encourage more entrants. The investors’ perception of risk will lower if the prize for being second by a month is still substantial. Multiple different systems is good; lack of alternatives is a significant (though far from the only) part of our current problems.

Henry Vanderbilt

Agreed. Have second prizes of half the size of the first. For all categories.

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.


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 reports. Continued later.


At this point I urge you to go read the material in Mail, including spread sheets and the like. It’s well worth the effort, but it’s a bit long for inclusion here.

Then partly in reply to that, Henry Vanderbilt sent:

And Henry Vanderbilt on SSTO and unexamined assumptions:

Jerry, I can appreciate the irritation you must feel over your anonymous mainstream aerospace correspondent; he is to a considerable extent a prisoner of unexamined assumptions, and he seems to be taking you (us) to task for failing to treat these assumptions as laws of physics.

To sum up, it’s not news that an SSTO requires that *everything* aside from propellant – structure, payload, engines, orbital maneuvering reserves, reentry and landing provisions, the pilot’s lunch – fit into something ranging from roughly one-eighth to one-sixteenth of the gross liftoff mass, depending on propellant choice and engine performance. All else, 88% to 94% of liftoff mass, must be propellant. Payload, if any, must fit into the remaining 6% to 12% of GLOW. [And in early models that is likely to be around 1% of GLOW. JEP]

Nobody I know says that engineering such a system to carry a useful payload with a useful vehicle life in a practical vehicle size at an affordable cost is easy. Indeed, NASA has provided us with multiple demonstrations that under its habitual space-launch system development model (contractor-in-every-district mass-assault engineering with a major extraneous-agenda burden) weights and costs will reliably grow to impractical levels, whether the goal is SSTO or not.

Your correspondent bases his modeling on assumptions derived from historical experience with this system, produces a spreadsheet that shows impractical weights and costs, and asserts this proves SSTO impractical.

In fact, what he proves is something we knew back in 1988 when we steered what became DC-X away from NASA: SSTO (indeed, cheap space transportation in general) is impractical *within the existing NASA-Industrial complex*.

I can’t blame a fish for not realizing there are environments other than the water it swims in, but your correspondent really ought to be able to think things through a bit further than the average fish. Other better space-launch development environments are possible. Easy to achieve, no, no more than radically-cheaper reusable space launch systems are easy to engineer. But neither is impossible. And (plug time) anyone who wants to learn more about the possibilities should come to our next conference, April 24-26 in Scottsdale AZ. ( )

Henry Vanderbilt Executive Director, Space Access Society

Precisely. It’s not so much irritation as dismay: I feel the way Max Hunter must have felt when Arthur Clarke began his campaign against SDI with incorrect assumptions. I think you were not there the day that Arthur came into a council meeting to see Max ready to oppose him, and exclaimed “But Max, I learned everything I know about celestial mechanics from you!” Whereupon Max said, gently, “I didn’t teach you enough, Arthur.”

That’s how I feel: I didn’t teach enough in Step Farther OUT and Strategy of Technology.

Or, I have become entirely senile; but if so, then all the other signers of the 1988 SSX report including Max Hunter and Gordon Woodcock and Chuck Lindley and the rest had become senile too…

Our briefing to Quayle had a chart on potential problems. The first item on that chart was “Capture by NASA.” Had NASA been put in charge of DC/X it would not have been built, nor ever flown. When NASA did get control of SSTO development the result was X-33. NASA simply cannot do X projects. It has forgotten how, or even what X Projects are.

NASA can do, and sometimes does, space science. Not space technology development. Space science. But the glory days of expanding space technology are gone, and NASA will never regain them.

I have recently been dismayed to learn that we probably have no aerospace team left in the US that would be capable of building a 600,000 GLOW multi-engine savable SSX for flight testing. No one. If we wish to revive the X projects we will have to start smaller and build new teams that relearn lessons we once knew.

I hate that, and I would love to be proven wrong; but my advisors estimate that a more modest system with the goal of savable, reusable, and capable of Mach 12 for 1 minute as a Thermal Protection System testbed would be about right now; useful, within our capabilities, and leading to teams able to do more ambitious projects.

I would still like to see a 600,000 pound GLOW SSX, but I would be satisfied with the Mach 12 savable and reusable TPS test system as a preliminary step. But we better get to that or we may lose that capability too.

None of this is expensive compared to the cost of a war; the whole thing would cost less than was wasted on X-33. It is cheap compared with continued reliance on Shuttle.

“did anyone approach Douglas with this proposal?”

Having worked for McDonnell Douglas for 13 years during which I watched their airliner business go from 48% of the market to 0% (bought out by Boeing), I couldn’t let this comment go by without comment.

The whole reason there is no longer a company called McDonnell Douglas is that our management completely lacked any tolerance whatsoever for risk. We built excellent vehicles, but management turned down each and every opportunity in the late 80s and throughout the 90s to drive forward into the future. This, in the aerospace business, is pure death.

Sure, there were lots of other problems with the company but it was risk-aversion that guaranteed that McD-D would eventually die in its sleep.

Owen Strawn

Indeed. Thanks.


Things sort of died away after that, at least for a while, mostly overwhelmed by the war.

Then we got an inquiry about Prizes again. (June 11, 2003)

Hey Jerry,

I like your books, and I from reading both them and your site, it seems I agree with most of your politics. But (if memory serves) you have advocated a $1 Billion government funded incentive for the first private company to get to space. Why do we need government to get involved? Free enterprise is already doing much the same thing with the 10 million X prize. Why do we want the government to get involved and take credit for something that would have happened anyway, and that the existance of a government space program may very well have delayed? I read Diamondis wanted to get in space with NASA, decided their was not much of a chance of that, and got the X prize together. Why do we want a government X prize to compete with any future private prizes? I understand government having military space projects, but I don’t know that the government should be involved with civilian space transport. Private groups would not be able to leap straight to the moon, that is true; they would have to jump from one profitable step to another. They would have to build the infastructure gradually, but if private funds can get us to suborbital flight, (and is looks like this is going to happen early next year), why not orbital flight and beyond? The father private enterprize gets in space the more funds will be available to it. Why get the government involved? Sorry if I misstated or misremembered any of your opinions. I didn’t see the particular place on your site where you advocated a billion dollar incentive. I seem to remember you advocated something similar in one of your non fiction books.


Ian Perry.

The X Prize is $10 million, and hardly an incentive to get to orbit. Rutan’s efforts will not lead to orbit: there is no path from what he is doing with hybrid engines to real orbital flight. Hybrid engines are at best (assuming they can be made to work reliably) utility engines for small delta-vee.

If you can raise a billion dollar prize for a reusable manned orbital ship — if the Gates Foundation wants to offer one — then you will see efforts at building them. The X Prize doesn’t lead to orbit.

Meanwhile, there are more national defense needs for reaching orbit than there are commercial; if it were not so we would already have private orbital development a lot further along than it is.

For 40 years I have been trying to get both government and private industry to develop means for low cost manned access to space. With private industry it always goes this way: you convince people there are technical risks but we can solve them.

They then ask “And what is your business plan? We know the market for communications satellites, but that can be done unmanned. Why do we need on-orbit construction capability? What can people do for money in space? What is the market?”

To which the answer is, “If you build it, they will come,” and you wave your arms about a lot, and talk about tourism and such like, and the chap quite properly says, “Hmm. There are both technical risks and market risks, why don’t I invest my billion in an oil company?”

The fact that I believe there will develop markets using large manned space facilities doesn’t mean I can make arguments that survive due diligence inquiries. On the other hand I have no trouble at all showing why easy manned space access and on-orbit assembly capability has profound military implications.

We could have developed all this in the 60’s and 70’s, but we went another path. Arthur Kantrowitz tried to convince Kennedy’s people that the best way to the Moon was through development of manned space access, a von Braun manned space station, and on to the Moon in a logical way that left developed space assets. That didn’t work, because Johnson’s support of the Moon Mission was contingent on spending money in the South: the real objective was the reindustrialization of the South. The Moon mission itself was a stunt.

Developing space assets is not a stunt, and please do not send me mail citing all the various potential industrial uses of space. I wrote many of them, and G. Harry Stine wrote most the rest, Harry getting much of his data from the meetings I chaired (and don’t take this as any kind of resentment against Harry: we divided the labor and he did the popularizations, and I miss him). Industrial potential is not a market plan. I know. Boy do I know.

Prizes are a way for government to reap the benefits of developing space capabilities without the government dominating everything through the creation of another monster like NASA. Prizes cost nothing until the feat is accomplished.

Editors’ Note: Please leave your comments and thoughts on this subject below. Politeness is a virtue that should be followed as you enter your comments.

Another Asteroid

From the Editor: I noticed that another asteroid – named ‘3200 Phethon’ is getting close to the neighborhood. From one report:

Calculations show there’s no chance that the three-mile-wide object — a “potentially hazardous asteroid” known as 3200 Phaethon — will hit Earth. Instead, NASA says, it will whiz harmlessly past our planet, coming as close as 10.3 million kilometers (6.4 million miles) on Dec. 16, 2017.

This will be the closest 3200 Phaethon has come since 1974. The space rock has a highly elliptical orbit around the sun, and it won’t come this close again until 2093.

One of the Editor’s favorite books by Dr. Pournelle is Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about a asteroid that hits the Earth, and the results of that impact. The above news article got me thinking about that story again, and that got me to dig into the archives for this Remembrance from Wednesday, February 19, 2003. Note that some of the links in the original story may not be available now; we leave as an exercise for the reader to perform a bit of ‘google-fu’ if they are interested in finding relevant and current links.

The discussion is rather long, but, as usual, interesting. Please add any comments you have about this discussion if you wish; polite discourse is always welcome here (and always was – Dr. Pournelle always claimed that he published the most interesting letters about myriad subjects). You might also want to gaze up at the sky Wednesday night (13 Dec 2017), as we are in the middle of another display of the Geminids meteors.

And if you want to read (or re-read) a great story, your humble editor can recommend Lucifer’s Hammer, or any other of Dr. Pournelle’s books. There’s still time to get the books for someone else as a holiday gift.

This remembrance starts with a letter from a reader:

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Potential Lucifer’s Hammer alert!

An asteroid discovered just weeks ago has become the most threatening object yet detected in space.

A preliminary orbit suggests that 2002 NT7 is on an impact course with Earth on 1 February 2019, although the uncertainties are large.

Astronomers have given the object a rating on the so-called Palermo technical scale of threat of 0.06, making NT7 the first object to be given a positive value.

From its brightness astronomers estimate it is about 2km wide, large enough to cause continent-wide devastation on Earth.

More at the link.

Lessee, 16+ years off, with NASA’s current bureausclerosis, we’re all goners if it’s on a collision course.


Jim Riticher

Thanks to Jim Riticher, Ed Hume, and many others. Don’t Panic. But indeed expecting NASA to Do Something is a pretty futile bet.

Then came:

And From Henry Vanderbilt on the Hammer:

Interesting. On February 1st, 2019, we come within the error band of a 2 kilometer asteroid’s orbit, as best it’s currently known. 2002 NT7 is the name of the recently spotted rock.

The stories on this emphasize that as orbital projections for 2002 NT7 are refined – and they will be, quickly, now that astronomers know where to look on old photos – the path will almost certainly be pinned down as missing Earth by a comfortable margin.

“Almost” certainly. Interesting times indeed were we to stay inside the area of uncertainty as it narrows down. Not that there’s any mystery about what we can and should do at that point, of course – start building the ships and technology it’d take to go out and move it.

But would we do so in any effective way? Suppose the usual suspects get funded and start doing what they do best, cranking out studies and viewgraphs, all aimed at defining the absolute optimum method of dealing with the problem by the end of, say, FY 2015… Oops! We’ve fallen a bit behind schedule, but not to worry, our top people are studying the problem!

Cynical? Moi?

Henry Vanderbilt

In fact we could mobilize to Do Something, but we probably won’t. Max Hunter used to say that if you could just get a herd of American dinosaurs running together in the right direction, it was a tremendous sight to see. We did go to the Moon in that decade, you know.

But it would take Presidential priority, appointment of the right managers, and no Congressional interference. And no lawyers. And the lawyers would mostly rather be what they are than get out of the way even if the cost was Hammerfall. And the odds are changing…

Hammer of God, it’s gonna fall, Hammer of God come to punish us all,

Dr Dr. Pournelle I’ve been trolling through various sites covering asteroid 2002 NT7 and had the unnerving experience of seeing the odds of impact dropping from 1 in 10,000,000 (at,1282,54081,00.html ) to something less than 1 in 100,000 (at the New Scientist website: ). Even in Lucifer’s Hammer the odds didn’t fall that fast (-: At least it’s not landing on a Thrusday.

Cheers James Evans

Hot Fudge Sundae… And see below.

The Hammer:

I have a proposal about what to do about what I think of as LH19. Not specifically what to do but how to get things going. The President should borrow a cue from JFK and redo the ‘we do these things because they are hard’ speech and set forth a deadline for America to produce a package that can rendezvous with this object and alter its orbit.

It doesn’t matter if a few years from now the orbit proves to be non-threatening in 2019. It will eventually match up with Earth’s passage again so why wait? Also, there are bound to be other threats that make this a prime opportunity to learn how to not only keep bad rocks away but also put them where we want them for exploitation.

The Cold War is over. This time the big space effort should be about realizing a profit.

Eric Pobirs

I can certainly agree with that. I even know how to do it.

Lucifer’s Hammer continues on course. As of now I do not intend to be on the side of the planet that it may hit (assuming it’s still on course and I’m still around). And the odds keep changing…

Dr. Pournelle I’ve been trolling through various sites covering asteroid 2002 NT7 and had the unnerving experience of seeing the odds of impact dropping from 1 in 10,000,000 (at,1282,54081,00.html ) to something less than 1 in 100,000 (at the New Scientist website: ). Even in Lucifer’s Hammer the odds didn’t fall that fast (-: At least it’s not landing on a Thrusday.

Cheers James Evans

I know how to deal with the Hammer. It is apparently of some interest to the high tech community: the site where the beast’s orbit could be seen was taken down due to too much traffic.

I’ll have some in the column. I know precisely how we can deal with that thing and make a little money in the bargain. After all, the Council I chaired considered all this many years ago…

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

Asteroid 2002 NT7 should be classified as a resource and an opportunity (not to be missed). If there be any Caretakers of Planet Earth and The People, they are at present unskilled and unproven and even untested in bringing to reality the ancient philosopher’s lever.

It is not too soon to begin the trials and errors (let us hope for none or few errors), and begin to think about collecting all those idle, rusting stockpiles of the world’s nuclear warheads, not to dismantle or decommission, but to transform them into those space levers that will be required to change the orbits of certain asteroids of interest or notoriety.

There will be room for lots more years and eons of hope, if practice is begun in prudent time, before Lucifer’s cruel Hammer makes all hope futile. Could we be witness to the hand of Providence reaching toward The Children of The Stars, sighing a silent breath of hope, “Wake, Little Ones, Here’s a piece of a star. This is your childhood’s end. Wait and watch and die, your fossil bones will last awhile. Or reach for stars and bend a planet’s tail, your species might live on.”

The orbit of Asteroid 2002 NT7 should not be nudged or bent willy-nilly lest future cycles repeat the peril. Instead, consider a landfall on Earth’s Moon, or Mars. Someone may want to dig the crash site in 200 years. If energy resources, time, and economics were of no concern, a safe parking orbit might be dreamed of, even a dream of solar wind sail navigation after an initial use of a nuclear nudge.

Belay the dreams. Assemble the corps. Begin the practice. Attain the skills. Earth must be prepared.

Respectfully yours, James Ehman

I would myself think this a better investment of American resources than anything we can do in the Middle East; but I am an old republican, not one of the neoconservative imperialists.

And Roland has found this:

Which is more relevant than it might at first appear. You will all recall that I was keynote speaker at the last Directed Energy convocation as USAF Phillips Lab…

Then came some reactions. Is this all hysteria?

Over in the SFWA conference I mentioned that the Hammer is coming. I got the [response] that

> 2002 NT7 has about a 1 in 250,000 chance of impact as of the last time I
> looked at the JPL asteroid risks page last night. See
> As usual, the more sensational press is going nuts about the end of the
> world. All the hooplah is based on 15 days of observations. The asteroid
> will remain in view for some 300 days.
> The real threat to a comfortable retirement these days is the stock
> market.

Which caused me to write this, and I thought it worth repeating here:

1 in 250,000 is pretty thin odds: that is, the expected value (given 4 billion people on earth) is 16,000 dead. If we assume that if 16,000 people were trapped in a mine we would spend at least $1,000,000 on each one of them, (easily what is being spent on the 9 miners in Pennsylvania) that is $16 billion we would spend to prevent a disaster of this magnitude.

In fact we are spending a great deal more to avenge 911, but of course those were New Yorkers and much higher value (for insurance calculations) people than 16,000 random people of Earth.

Or, 1/250000 times 4 trillion dollars loss (surely it is that high) by no great coincidence comes out at $16 billion dollars. Since the expenditure of that $16 billion is not itself a negative thing — surely we would get SOME return on the investment to build space infrastrucure — it seems that there is a positive return from spending the money to prevent the disaster even if it turns out it would not have happened.

As with any Bayesian analysis we can also calculate the value of finding out more and narrowing the uncertainties: that is

Preventing the disaster will in fact cost more than $16 billion. Depending on the amount it would cost — probably more like $160 billion — we can calculate how much we should spend to find out what the odds really are. Since the most economical path to discovering the true odds would be to spend the money on things that would also be useful in preventing the disaster if it turns out to be more probable than we thought, it’s pretty clear what we should do:

fund projects that reduce the cost of access to space.

Which will also aid in the Strategic Defense of the United States. I’ve already pointed out that the first step to that would be a couple of $2 billion X projects, one Air Force and the other Navy, to develop single-stage to supersonic pure rocket ships with at least 12 (I prefer 16) engines. These should be ships, not ammunition. Reusable with short turnaround times. Vertical takeoff and landing, recoverable, savable, reusable, operations driven: the goal is multiple flights on the same day, with routine operations.

In other words, here is the work statement for the contract:

  1.  Massively Multiple rocket engines
    1. Massive means at least 12; rockets rather than jets
    2. We don’t specify the fuel.
    3. Strongly suggest that the fuel not be hydrogen because of operational considerations.
  2. Savable
    1. Able to survive an engine out at takeoff
  3. Routinely reusable with short turn around times
    1. Fly twice in a day and 6 times in a week and do that more than once
  4. Higher and Faster
    1. Performance is secondary to the other three points.
    2. Supersonic flight is the minimum goal. Anything better than that is good.

Given those goals, build the best flying hardware you can build for $2 billion in 3 years.

Once we can do that, we can develop one or two stage to orbit savable reusable ships. And from that we can discover the true odds — space observations are a lot easier to do than atmospheric — and develop means to shunt this thing away from us if it is in fact aimed at us. Or even maneuver it into Earth orbit to exploit it.

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry, you should look on JPL’s site here

to see the current estimates. The really frightening numbers are for 2060-02-01. According to JPL we are in for a direct hit on that date with a miss of .56 earth radii as against 4.47 for 2019. Of course, the likelihood is, that if it near misses in 2019, then its orbit will be modified by the Earth’s gravity and anything possible.

Edward Chambers

Well. .56 radii. Well. So if it misses us in 2019, here it comes again…

I was thinking about the problem of stopping a Hammer-like object and remembered some information about the Deep Space 1 probe mission.

What is to stop us from sending a small network of ion drives to NT7 2002 and using them to do a slow burn orbital insertion of the asteroid into a stable orbit and then mine it for materials? An ion drive is ideal for this kind of application I would think, some information about ion drives just to serve as a refresher:

“The ion propulsion system on Deep Space 1 carries about 81.5 kilograms of xenon propellant, and it takes about 20 months of thrusting to use it all. It increases the speed of the spacecraft by about 4.5 kilometers per second, or about 10,000 miles per hour. If we had the same amount of chemical propellant, it would provide only one tenth as much velocity increment. If DS1 carried a larger solar array, it certainly would have a slightly higher acceleration, and if it carried more Xe propellant it could reach a much higher final velocity by simply thrusting longer. But DS1 is testing ion propulsion solely to find out if it works as well as predicted. Future missions that use it likely will carry more propellant to achieve still higher speeds.”

Deep Space 4 is slated to use an array of ion drives for propulsion to test higher speeds among other new tech in 2004.

I don’t have the numbers on hand but I would be curious to see if it is feasible to use a small network of ion drives on NT7 2002 with a prolonged burn of a 1-2 year duration would be sufficient enough to put it into a stable orbit around the Earth that would lend to having it get mined easily. We have the technology to do all of this now I think, if not would someone please correct me? What have I missed here? I would be greatly interested to work out the math on this with everyone.

-Dan S.

P.S. Last I heard we had a 1 in 100,000 chance between now and 2060 of being hit by NT7 2002. After 2060 data becomes dicey due to the close passes NT7 2002 will make.

If we have access to space we will have little problem diverting this thing. The risk is real, the expected value of doing something about it is probably positive; the only real question is the will.

A Presidential Priority on X concepts by USAF and USN would do it. Whether they’ll get it is another matter.

Above is an estimate of the energy in Lucifer [click to embiggen – Editor].  6.6 x 10^5 Megatons of HE (this was done in Mathcad)


No small amount…

On the Hammer …

I read with interest the cost/benefit analysis you presented in the Hammer page. The trouble is, I don’t think it’s a 1/250,000 problem – it’s a binary problem.

If it hits *at all*, even in the most uninhabited and uninhabitable wasteland on Earth, it will very likely kill far more than 16,000. If it doesn’t hit, it won’t kill anyone.

None of which should change the basic conclusion, that it can’t hurt and will almost certainly help tremendously to have low-cost access to space, even if we do determine it’s not going to hit. If not NT7, there will always be something Out There that might need to be investigated or deflected. Imagine trying to execute a “Rendevous with Rama”-like mission today with the resources we have available – it just wouldn’t happen.

The last odds I saw were 1 in 100,000, in one of the links to the New Scientist – but the scariest statement I saw in that article was that this was pretty close to the average odds of an asteroid hitting us anyway in that timeframe anyway.

William Harris

Actually, if it hits the casualties will CERTAINLY be far greater than any paltry 16,000, which has been known to happen with earthquakes and tsunamis. The conditional probability given that it hits of 1 million or more casualties is essentially 1.0 (.9 with at many 9999 as you like).

Expected value models are a rough cut. They aren’t intended to be exact and they often reflect impossible outcomes (ONLY 16,000 given that it hits is very nearly impossible). On the other hand, an expected value model is easy to compute (as opposed to a weighted average of all possible outcomes) and in fact is pretty good for decision purposes.

Your average probability of  being killed by a meteoric event is about the same as your lifetime probability of being killed in an aircraft accident. It’s also an expected value model calculation.

The other point is precisely the case: something will happen, and we don’t have the means to do much about it. It’s about time we did.

In case you haven’t seen this one, the lead-in says it all.

……..Karl Lembke

More …

* Asteroid will miss Earth in 2019 * New observations confirm that asteroid 2002 NT7 will not strike the Earth in 2019 – but the possibility cannot yet be ruled out for 2060. Full story:

The chances of one of these hitting us is small for any given century. The chance over a longer time is much larger.  We can if we like DO something.

And for calculating orbits:

Here are some asteroid impact calculators for the Hammer Page

quick and dirty

very detailed

Finally, a Neat Java Applet with a display of the orbit can be seen here. You can Zoom in, spin the solar system around, and animate the display. The data they are using does not currently jive with projected impact date.

NOTE: as seen here

the possible impact in 2019 has been ruled out.

and of course all the basic information on asteroids can be found here, for those who are interested.

Michael Zawistowski

So ends this Remembrance, although each new asteroid brings up similar discussions – you can find lots of material on the latest one –  “3200Patheon”.

If you have any comments or discussion on this subject, please use the comments area below, being respectful and polite about others’ positions on the subject. You might also include any links to new discussions on this subject; just be aware that we limit the number of links in a comment to 2. – Editor

Fires Now and Then and Thoughts on FEMA

Editor’s Note: the current fire situation in Los Angeles is not a new phenomenon; the “Santa Ana Winds” often bring fires to the area. We dug around in the archives and found this post from October 2007. There are discussions of the fire, fire response, comparisons with Katrina, and a ‘report’ (Jerry’s term for his analysis of a subject) on FEMA.

Regarding the current fire in Southern California, Jerry’s son Alex reports: “Chaos Manor and my own house are safe, and we are now allowed back in to my development. I plan to check on it later today. Thank you for all the concern and inquiries. Our friends and family are fine. My (Alex’s) neighbors weren’t all as lucky, as several houses burned down.”

Southern California is ringed with fire. There are no problems near us, and our roof is fireproofed, but no place in Los Angeles is entirely safe. The brush stops 100 yards from our house — we are on the flats in Studio City, but Laurel Terrace is the edge of the hills, and 100 yards from us begins 50 square miles of nature conservancy part — meaning scrub brush and chaparral penetrated by a fire road but without water supplies. That last burned off about 20 years ago so there is plenty of fuel up there.

All is well at Chaos Manor but we are watching, especially when the winds pick up.

Tuesday,  October 23, 2007

The fires continue.
117.669067&spn=2.085959,5.50415&source=embed .

A report from the Arrowhead area:

The first looters they had up the hill were two guys in a white pickup truck with Nevada plates. They saw – and lost – a pickup with what was described as

“15 hispanic males in the back of a truck getting ready to loot at golden rule and manatoba” and “Fullsized pickup truck to 10 to 15 hispanic males in the bed of the truck; 173 was clear from the dam to manatoba.”

These are volunteers dealing with this. There aren’t enough CHP’s to enforce the road closures which is leading to this.

I have no estimate of the reliability of this report; I have not heard it on the news, but then I wouldn’t expect to.

I posted this in another conference:

When I was a lad in Tennessee, my father was a Colonel of the Tennessee
Volunteer Militia (unorganized). What this was you can guess: Minutemen,
with state commissions and a chain of command but little else, but since in
rural Tennessee everyone was armed this was no problem. IN case of floods or
tornadoes the volunteer militia would protect property against looters.  I
do not think we have any such things now, in part because the governments no
longer trust the citizens — or at least not all the citizens, and equality
is thought to be far more important that public safety.  Disarm the citizens
and rely on the professionals…

The Kentucky and Tennessee Colonels are usually the butts of national jokes, but they served a real purpose when I was young.

Several news crews report having to run for their lives. The fires can move fast.

Now for the good news:

Chaos Manor is unaffected. I have buttoned up the house and turned on AC and air purifiers for obvious reasons. The pool is filled with wind-blown debris but that’s not unusual in Santa Ana conditions. Looking from my balcony I can see neither smoke nor fire in any direction.

The San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood Hills have no fires. One hopes there is some vigilance because there are those who enjoy fire crises and take opportunities like these to set more fires.

The meteorologists report that the Santa Ana conditions are slowly weakening, and the Devil Winds will be pretty well gone by tomorrow. After that there may even be rain.

Rain, of course, is the ultimate remedy to all this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s much calmer here this morning. California fire department officials are confident. Which means the hysteria will start, and the blame game will begin. Not enough airplanes, FEMA wasn’t here, George Bush didn’t personally come down an urinate on one of the fires. It’s all Washington’s fault, and it was all caused by global warming. It’s all the fault of having a First World Civilization, which pollutes and warms and burns. But we’ll fix that with No Child Left Behind, which will see to it that there aren’t enough educated people to sustain a first world civilization.

Thursday,  October 25, 2007


The fires are out in Los Angeles County, although they remain in Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. Once the LA County FD Hotshots get rested up they can go put out the other fires. LA County invested a lot of money in County fire resources, more than the other three counties put together, so it’s hardly astonishing that we were able to control our fires before the others.

One reader comments

Katrina and gunfire at helicopters

One other thing you don’t have in the California fire disaster: people sitting on roofs, slowly dehydrating while National Guard choppers flutter by, ignoring their waving and flares.

My wife was a nurse at University Hospital.  After three days without power, water pressure or sewerage, only one half-hearted attempt was made to supply them by air.  That pilot must not have had any experience at vertical replenishment, because he dropped his palletload of bottled water fifteen feet to the roof (the hospital’s helipad was across the street, under water).  Almost all of the bottles burst.

If curses had any real force, whoever decided to put the hospital’s emergency generator in the basement, along with the pharmacy, the cafeteria and central supply, died of several horrible diseases at once.

When they finally got my wife out, two days after the fumbled water drop, she was told that planes were departing for San Antonio and Shreveport.  She knew that I was waiting in Shreveport, because we’d got a few text messages through what was left of the local cellphone net.  She made the mistake of mentioning that, so guess which plane they put her on.

I’m glad that the FEMA response to the wildfires isn’t the Chinese fire drill that we saw in New Orleans, but Jimmy Carter’s mistake still stands, so I’m sure you will see your share of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance.

BTW: Recent forecasts are that the next sunspot cycle will be the quietest since the Maunder Minimum that coincided with, and probably caused, the Little Ice Age.  How much would you like to bet that by 2017 we will see governments offering tax incentives to burn _more_ carbon?

I can only point out that Los Angeles County has worked at organizing for disasters, and although we don’t have a full Civil Defense organization as we should, we have a considerably better organization structure than many.

Friday, October 26, 2007

At first there appear to be parallels between Qualcomm Stadium and the Superdome story; but in fact there aren’t many. In the Southern California evacuations, they were evacuating to a secure and safe place with electricity. The telephones worked. The road grid worked. In the whole county fewer than a dozen main roads were closed. There were gas stations open, grocery stores open, clean water in all the taps. Most of the people who evacuated didn’t need shelter: they had friends or went to motels. Moreover, once they were out of the fire area, the worst they faced was a night in their cars. The fires didn’t chase them and there were no floods.

I will say that California is better governed and has a more civil tradition than New Orleans. The areas people were evacuated from were safe, unlike much of New Orleans long before the flood. And while we have a few corrupt cops, I cannot imagine a team of four LAPD detectives systematically looting a Wal-Mart even when cameras are rolling…

Saturday, Oct 28, 2007

Department of Hopeless Security, FEMA branch.

We’ve all seen the preposterous “Press Conference” in which FEMA employees — bureaucrats, cubicle workers — stood in for reporters to ask questions. The excuse was that there wasn’t time to get a proper press conference organized, and this was a way to get the information out without simply having a bunch of press releases. One can see how that might make sense — to public information bureaucrats in FEMA. “Mister Secretary, are you pleased with the performance of your people?”

Oh, Yeah.

One more reason why FEMA ought to be abolished entirely. Its political charity work — bailing out people who did not have insurance — can be taken over by whatever the Department of Welfare is called now, or parceled out between Urban Development and Interior. The actual emergency preparedness and response activity should devolve onto a reanimated Civil Defense structure. Actually, Civil Defense should be headed by an Army Undersecretary, although a DOD Undersecretary would do. The point is that Civil Defense is mostly preparation and coordination, with the major efforts being local, county, state. The central organization can have some central resources to parcel out at need, but local government ought not count on Washington to put out its fires and clean up after hurricanes. That’s not the point of the Federal Government.

Civil Defense takes time to set up, and there’s always a danger of bureaucratization: one reason why Civil Defense needs to be largely in the hands of volunteers, not “professionals”.  As an example, the problem of allocation of Marine helicopters to be used in fire fighting.

There are plenty of helicopters at Camp Pendleton, and there were fires around (later in) the Camp Pendleton area. Do you simply tell a Marine chopper pilot “Hello, there’s a fire, go put it out?” Do you include fire outputting in the normal training of a military chopper pilot? The result of putting aircraft with good pilots not trained in this kind of work into a fire zone doesn’t have to be imagined. There’s plenty of experience: air collisions, fire retardant dropped in the wrong places, confusion over where to reload the helicopter, air traffic control in confined areas, etc. It may be that lack of a helicopter over a certain area results in the loss of a million dollar home; but the remedy is not to send in untrained pilots in hopes that the home can be saved without mishap. The remedy is to put a firefighter manager into the helicopter with the pilot.

Now who is the manager? Should the State have a bunch of them, trained, on standby ready to go in there when there are fires, and otherwise doing nothing? That can be expensive, and fast. Who are these people? Who pays their salaries while they are on duty? Who pays them when there are no fires? What do they do in the eleven months of the year when California isn’t burning?

This is in part pure speculation. I don’t know a lot about fire fighting, but I do know enough to ask those questions; apparently these questions haven’t suggested themselves to John and Ken and our local radio and newspaper reporters, who are howling about the State regulation that requires trained spotters to be in firefighting helicopters not piloted by regular firefighters. The spotters — managers, actually — should, they say, have been instantly available, sitting in helicopters waiting for any possible break in the high winds that grounded most of the aerial firefighting resources during the first two days of the fires. Which is fine, if there were lots of trained managers with nothing else to do.

A proper Civil Defense organization looks into such matters, sets up reserve corps of volunteers who get paid for time spent in training and are called into service at need: not just firefighting managers, but logistics people, medical administrators, traffic managers and air traffic controllers. A proper Civil Defense organization looks into the local community resources and organizes them for use when Comes The Day. Most communities have a lot of resources that can be employed in emergencies, but the time to learn what to do is not just after the earthquake or while the fires are raging.

It’s not so much that FEMA is incompetent as that competence is not possible. You simply cannot have a central organization that “manages” local emergencies. You can provide resources and encouragement for local citizen groups to set up and train Civil Defense teams. Huge assets like aircraft carriers with nuclear electric power generators, hospital ships, high speed logistic ships may be “managed” centrally — indeed have to be, since no community can afford such things — but the response time is going to be slow. It has to be.

In New Orleans, a proper Civil Defense organization would have had someone whose job it was to manage the transportation resources — including all those school busses that sat unused until they were inundated by the floods. It would have a Civil Defense unit whose job it is to provide communications. (In California my son Alex is part of a California Emergency Services organization that does just that.) It would have — but that’s the point, isn’t it?  Planning for the local emergency, assessing the community resources, and setting up an emergency management structure is precisely the point, and it needs to be done community at a time.

Set up proper Civil Defense and there won’t be a need for phony press conferences to tell the world how good you are.

We used to have real Civil Defense until Jimmy Carter in his infinite wisdom decided we didn’t need it any longer. After all, it was DEFENSE and that provoked the Soviet Union. If the US prepares for disasters including war, then it must be planning to have wars.  So Jimmy got his Peace Prize. And we got FEMA.


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