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Jerry Pournelle

Sunday, February 25, 2007

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The LeMonde article by Norman Spinrad and various replies including my own.





It began with a letter from a reader:

  Dr. Pournelle,

 I recently came across an article by Norman Spinrad concerning SDI, manned space flight, and the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy.  The gist of it is that the big push for SDI (which he claims was a sort of Trojan Horse devised by you - among others - to get the federal government to explore the solar system in a serious way) hurt the space program. You’re prominently mentioned, and I thought you might be interested in looking it over.

recherche=too%20high%20the%20moonToo high the moon

Well, Norman got a lot of it wrong. 

First, although the Council wrote parts of Reagan's 1983 SDI speech, and provided much of the background for the policy, we certainly did not write the speech. Mr. Reagan was a better speech writer than any of those working for him. By far. 

Norman's open and publicly expressed dislike of Reagan was certainly reason enough not to invite him to a meeting of a group that was first called into existence to write the Space and high-tech Defense portions of the transition team papers (first meeting November 1980 after the election); many of those at the Council meeting had not voted for Reagan (some Democrats, some Libertarians) but all of them had sufficient respect for him to be able to work with the group, which included Buzz Aldrin, General Graham, Colonel Kane, General Meyer, Dr. Stuart Nozette, George Merrick of North American Rockwell, Fred Haise of Grumman (and Apollo 13), Pete Conrad, Owen Garriot, Max Hunter, and a number of science fiction writers including Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven (who hosted the meetings at his house) and Dean Ing. 

We were not trying to boost space, we were trying to win the Cold War, and we were all agreed that the West ought to win the Cold War. We were agreed that it would be very good if low cost space came from that. Indeed, you can't do Strategic Defense without lowering the cost to orbit, just as you can't fly Air Mail without lowering the cost of air travel. However, I point out that giving NASA another $40 billion, or another $400 billion, would have done NOTHING AT ALL. NASA has always had plenty of money; funding levels are not much below those of Apollo days.. If NASA had more money they'd spend it on more bureaucracy.

It was the SDIO that built DC/X and flew it many times. General Graham, Max Hunter, and I talked the head of SDIO (VP Dan Quayle in his capacity as Chairman of the National Space Council) into building the DC/X. It flew straight up, moved sideways, and landed on a tail of fire just as God and Robert Heinlein intended rockets to do. When NASA took DC/X over they burned it on the first flight. This isn't all coincidence. Proving that you don't need SuperShuttle is death to a NASA career. NASA and George Abbey make a career of owning access to space; they don't want you to have it without their permission. NASA is careful whom they allow into space, and if it were cheap to go there, they would have no control over access to space. NASA exists now primarily to pay the NASA bureaucracy and keep it busy ($100 billion for a couple of cans they call a space station that won't do what SKYLAB did a long time ago?). Giving NASA more money would not have build a space program.

But then we always thought winning the Seventy Years War was a good idea. Perhaps they haven't noticed in France? I would have thought they would; perhaps it is only Americans living in France who didn't notice.

The proper way for government to participate in development is through X programs. I have a lot on that here on this site.

By all means see what Norman has to say, but he's got it wrong in several dimensions.

And if you want to promote space access, I recommend the Space Access Society. Write Henry Vanderbilt: hvanderbilt@bix.com for details.


Now for some more letters:

 Click to go to What Is This Place? page


 You might want to point out that we also did Clementine as a test of the SDI Brilliant Pebbles concept,and also discovered ice on the moon, for $80 M.  It had been sitting there since will before Apollo (say a few B yrs) and NASA never flew to check it out.

Part of the motivation was to demonstrate that things could be done cheaply in space, also necessary for effective defense.  The entire Goldin Faster Cheaper Better mantra grew out of SDI, endorsed by the Space Council as you recall, and all of NASA’s current crop of robotic missions are being built off of what SDI developed and tested with Clementine, and the Delta series experiments. But NASA has had a mixed record in implimenting it, the only outfit that is doing it well is APL, a DoD/SDI lab, and Spectrum Astro, an SDI created company.

The threat of SDI, the validation of what Reagan achieved,  and the

threat of  cheap space to NASA and the Clintonistas was large enough

that the first use of the line item veto was to torch Clementine

follow-ons and DC-X follow-ons

We had to get into space to show the Soviets we were serious and it worked on several fronts.  The lunar ice will alone be worth well more than was ever spent on SDI and its just a side benefit, the current economic benefits to the US as you know of the success of SDI is incalcuable.

You might want to post this on the site to respond to our French friends, who by the way have every reason to try to subvert US military space power and use useful mouthpieces along the way.

Stu Nozette

If you and Larry Niven had any part in SDI then good for you. As has been pointed out if there were other benefits “spun off’ from the research then what is wrong with that. Whatever Reagan’s faults he is directly repsonsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The spending upon SDI and the military virtually destroyed their economy (which was in poor shape due to its inherant flaws) and  Eastern Europe was freed at the cost of zero American (and other lives). It is not surprising to see an article of this nature in a French magazine. They have never recovered from their descent to a second rate power. (The only real successes they have seen in the past 200 years was under Napoleon.)

When is NASA going to go beyond these mostly redundent shuttle flights and do something with real benefits. There are plenty of raw materials out there but the govt was never good at thinking ahead.


Apollo:  An American Victory in the Cold War

  Paul D. Spudis

  Next week will mark the 30th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon by the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.  Much attention will be paid to this anniversary, commemorating the mission’s historical significance and how it revolutionized science and technology.  Indeed, the Apollo program was a boon to science, in that the data returned from the Moon landings created a new paradigm through which to view the origin and evolution of solar system objects.  Moreover, Apollo’s contributions to technology development, commonly called “spin-off”, undoubtedly created wealth, new products, and innovations that have made our lives safer, easier, and happier.

  But the real significance of Apollo never seems to be discussed.  It’s commonly acknowledged that the initiation of the Apollo program by President John F. Kennedy in May, 1961 was done primarily for reasons of national prestige, part of our ongoing geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union.  Even academic scientists, as insular and parochial as they are, recognize that Apollo was not undertaken for scientific reasons.  Nor was the goal of a Moon landing undertaken for its own sake - in the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest, “Because it’s there.”  The great explorations of the Victorian age had become an irrelevancy in the age of the ICBM and push-button warfare.  No, the goal of the Moon was a technological challenge, a gauntlet thrown down before our global competitor, the Soviets, challenging them to a technocratic fight to the finish.  Although it is commonly acknowledged that we won this challenge, the profound effects of that victory are less often considered.

  Despite their subsequent claims to the contrary, it is now clear that in the early sixties, the Soviets has accepted Kennedy’s challenge.  The breathless competition in space at that time was met with a seriousness that can scarcely be credited these days, with each new “first” being heralded as the key to space success (and by inference, global domination).  The Soviets orbited the first satellite, the first man, the first woman, and were the first to hit the Moon with a man-made object.  They orbited the first multi-man crews and one of their cosmonauts, Aleksei Leonov, made the first “walk in space,” floating outside his spacecraft in 1965.  America, stumbling at first, rapidly caught up and soon matched most Soviet achievements.  We began making our own space firsts - the first rendezvous and docking in orbit, long duration space walks, and the successful flight of the giant Saturn V booster.  But everyone knew the high-stakes measure of success - to be the first to reach the Moon with people.

  A series of momentous events, only some fully visible to the public, in late 1968 and early 1969 sealed the fate of the world’s first “space race.”  In America, the successful Christmas-time flight of Apollo 8 into lunar orbit captured the imagination of the world.  A few months later, the first Lunar Module, the vehicle designed to land men on the Moon, was successfully tested in Earth orbit during the flight of Apollo 9.  These two events all but assured that the United States would accomplish its goal of landing a man on the Moon, “before this decade is out.”  This goal was finally realized with the epic flight of Apollo 11 in July of 1969.  In contrast, and largely unknown to the world until recently, the Soviet Moon rocket, the gigantic N-1, a vehicle even larger than the American Saturn V, blew up twice-one booster detonated on the pad and another rocket exploded a few tens of seconds after lift-off.  These disastrous failures, covered-up for 25 years, sealed the fate of the Soviet Moon program.  Without an operational heavy lift booster to deliver their spacecraft, no Soviet lunar mission was possible.  America won the Moon.

  Although the meaning of Apollo was debated endlessly in the western press, often in a na´ve and fatuous manner (e.g., “we spent $24 billion for a box of rocks?”), what lessons did the Soviet Union draw from this disaster?  Apparently, the Soviets became convinced that, in programs of vast technical scope, particularly those requiring the practical application of high technology (particularly high-speed computing) to very complex problems, America could accomplish anything it wanted to. The Soviets viewed the Americans as having achieved, though a combination of great wealth, technical skill, and resolute determination, an extremely difficult technological goal-one which they themselves had attempted and failed, at great cost both in human lives and national treasure.

  What effect did such a calculus have on future actions?  In 1983, another President, Ronald Wilson Reagan, called upon the scientific and technical community of the United States and the free world, who had given the world nuclear weapons, to develop a missile defense - one that would make America and other countries free from the fear of nuclear annihilation.  This program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ”Star Wars” by its critics) was specifically conceived to counter the prevailing strategic doctrine of “mutually assured destruction (MAD)”, in which a nation would never start a nuclear war because it would fear its own destruction by retaliatory strikes.  The price of peace in a MAD scenario was to live in a state of permanent fear.  The promise of SDI was to eliminate that fear by defending ourselves from nuclear missile attack.

  The Strategic Defense Initiative was roundly criticized and belittled by many in the west, who thought it “destabilizing.”  Numerous scientists, including those who had done weapons work, criticized it as ”unachievable.”  Arms control “specialists” decried “Star Wars” as ”provocative” and an escalation of the nuclear arms race.  But Reagan did not listen to the naysayers and insisted that SDI proceed.  The number one foreign policy objective of the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence was to eliminate SDI; the famous Reykjavik Summit of 1986 collapsed on this point, when Reagan would not trade SDI  to Gobachev and the Soviets in exchange for massive cuts in ballistic missiles.

  If the bulk of academic and diplomatic opinion was so averse to SDI and to some scientists, very idea of missile defense was so “unworkable,” why then did the Soviet Union fight so long and adamantly against it? The Soviet Union was convinced the SDI would work and were convinced that America could achieve exactly what we set out to do.  Here is Apollo’s legacy:  Any technological challenge America undertakes, it can accomplish.  The reason this legacy had currency was the success of Apollo.  We had attempted and successfully achieved a technical goal-one so difficult and demanding, that it made virtually any similar technical goal seem achievable.  Moreover, this was goal that the Soviets themselves had attempted and failed.  They reasoned that getting into a decade long competition with America on SDI would similarly end in an American victory and would be a race that would destroy their system, as indeed, it did.

  President Kennedy started Apollo and the race to the Moon as a Cold War gambit; a way to demonstrate the superiority of the free and democratic way of life to that of our communist adversaries.  That goal was successfully achieved to a degree still not fully appreciated today. The success of the Apollo program gave America something it did not realize was so important - technical credibility.  When President Reagan announced SDI twenty years later, the Soviets were against it, not because it was destabilizing and provocative, but because they thought we would succeed, rendering their vast military machine, assembled at great cost to their people and economy, obsolete in an instant.  Among other factors, this hastened the end of the Cold War in our favor.    Space advocates often lament the lack of direction of today’s space program.  An unspoken concern by many who feel this way is the accompanying lack of determination and commitment in our current space program.  They look back wistfully on the glory days of Apollo, when esprit d’corps was high, the work days were long and hard, and sleeves were rolled up and teeth were set in determination.  It was like a war then.  It was.  And we won it.

RE: SDI and the Present

From:         Robert Wright (rob_wright@msn.com)


Well Jerry, the great SDI debate has reared its ugly head again. The naysayers are out saying it is impossible while it is being designed and built.

FYI, the National Missiles Defense system is now one year into the new Boeing Integration contract. The deployment decision is in another year. By 2005 we may actually be defended from nuclear attack.

It is really frustrating to work for a year on a program that is called impossible. We have had two successful flight test already. The first intercept flight test comes up this fall, with two following soon after.  With success will come deployment.

This has to be one of the great stealth programs going on currently, no one seems to know it is going on. If anyone is interested in more information I have a page of links at http://www.io.com/~robwrht/bmd.htm

Robert Wright


At the Space Center here in Huntsville, there was a dedication of a Saturn 5 rocket replica on the 30th anniversary.


All the old guys were here, and if you have any contacts, you need to get a transcript of what they said.  They truly are unhappy with the current NASA situation and publicly stated just that when they were here.  I think it was Buzz Aldrin who caused a stir in his dedication speech.


I'm pretty sure Goldin didn't care for it.  And as a major employer here in the Tennessee Valley, the news program I watched was quick to allow the NASA bureaucrats to talk.  And of course they dismissed what the astronauts had said.


Saying that, I think some of the programs being funded, like at UAH, are worthwhile.  Deep space research and the like.  But I certainly think we need to get out there and start doing stuff with people.  There's no wonder anymore.  There's only "Oh another shuttle launch.  Who cares."  And the less-interested youth will certainly make space a low priority in the long run, when they're in places to make decisions.


Paxton C. Sanders


Saturn was the most powerful machine ever made by man; and NASA took two working Saturns and laid them out as lawn ornaments so that they would not compete with Space Station and Shuttle. This was deliberate destruction of the people's property, but those who did it were promoted, not sent to prison where they ought to be. Perhaps that is too strong: but they ought to be dismissed with prejudice, barred from ever working on any government or government financed or government approved project whatever. It was done for pure politics to ensure the need for Shuttle. And it was criminal.


Jerry,     I read Spinrad's article and he kind of missed the point. NASA could not have used the SDI funds because without the SDI program those funds would not have existed. Betting that the Pentagon would need to help fund NASA to get SDI in space is a pretty good bet.  Some space scientists try to play the same zero sum game in the great manned vs. unmanned debate. They claim that money spent on the shuttle and space station would be better used for sending unmanned probes to the planets. What they fail to understand is that without the manned program there wouldn't really be an unmanned one. Killing a program filled with robots is easier than killing one with astronauts (though history has shown both can indeed be "defunded"). In any case, I don't think SDI took one penny from the regular NASA budget. In fact I think the push for SDI probably saved a few pet projects that would have been dumped otherwise.    Chris Lopes


I can hardly disagree; I always thought that.