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Gore on space policy and commercialization

Last Thursday in Las Cruces, New Mexico the X Prize Foundation held an invitation-only “executive summit” to discuss issues associated with the emerging space tourism industry. The luncheon speaker was a very high-profile individual and a bit of an unusual choice: former vice president Al Gore. The entire event was supposed to be off the record and closed to the media, but the Gore speech (as well as one earlier in the day by NASA administrator Mike Griffin) was on the record, and the organizers allowed a few reporters to attend and report on those talks. (I wasn’t one of them; while Gore talked at lunch I was checking out the X Prize Cup preparations at the Las Cruces airport.)

Most of the limited media attention about Gore’s speech has focused on his comments regarding the national space policy released by the Bush Administration earlier this month, which didn’t get much attention in the broader media until a Washington Post article on it a week ago. Gore was critical of the policy, drawing some parallels to Iraq. Popular Science has a video excerpt of his talk, where he warns that the policy “has the potential, down the road, to create the kind of fuzzy thinking and chaos in our efforts to exploit the space resource as the fuzzy thinking and chaos the Iraq policy has created in Iraq. It is a very serious mistake, in my opinion.” Leonard David, of SPACE.com, also touches on Gore’s space policy comments in a blog post.

(There is some question of whether Gore’s comments were, in fact, supposed to be on the record: Alan Boyle of MSNBC, also in attendance, asked Gore if his comments were on the record and was told no; he also declined to make an officially-on-the-record statement. That distinction loses some of its broader significance with the broader coverage, including PopSci’s video excerpts. Gore does note in the video that he may make a separate, more official pronouncement about the policy at a later date.)

One thing most of the coverage missed, though, was that Gore talked about issues other than the new space policy, including some more positive comments about space commercialization. Several people I talked with in the days following Gore’s speech said that he discussed the importance of encouraging increased commercial use of space. As Charles Miller of CSI said in an email message to me yesterday, a key part of the speech was “Gore’s statement that space right now is in the exact same position that the Internet was in the 1970s… and that space needs to be commercialized in order to achieve its full potential… just like the Internet only achieved its full potential by being commercialized.” (It appears that Alan Boyle got a similar email.) Miller said that this is “a critically important statement”, particularly given the chances that Democrats will take over one or both houses of Congress next month.

19 comments to Gore on space policy and commercialization

  • Mark R. Whittington

    One might be forgiven for a little skepticism, given Gore’s record as both a Senator and Vice President. X-33 was such a commercial success, after all.

  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    Gore does not know anymore about space commercialization than he did the Internet.

    Chas and others are dreaming if they think that Gore wants to do anything more than environmental satellites and robotic probes to deep space.

    Dennis

  • brent

    Gore dislikes the new National Space Policy? Who would have guessed?

    On a different note, did anyone notice that the 2007 Defense Authorization Act has a provision (Section 913?) that calls for another space commission to assess national security space organization like the one in 2001? Or am I reading it right? Or does anyone care?

  • Chris Mann

    I think you’re being a little too harsh Dennis. While Gore may not have understood what the internets were or why his personal internet was taking so long to get to him, he played a very major role in 1986 of getting the nationwide expansion of NSFNET funded. Without funding in that very crucial window, who knows how much longer it would have taken for the hardware titans like Cisco and the major backbone providers to get started?

    While I never EVER want to see him again in the White House, I’d be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on this.

  • X-33 was such a commercial success, after all.

    Although ultimately responsible for all space policy at the time, I’ll bet it was nither Clinton or Gore who were responsible for the wrong design choices that ultimately led to the X-33 debacle.

    While I never EVER want to see him again in the White House

    Watsa matter, afraid of the truth are you? You must be one of those very fearful Bush supporters.

    Be afraid, be very afraid. Boo! Reality is gonna getcha.

  • Tom

    Although ultimately responsible for all space policy at the time, I’ll bet it was nither Clinton or Gore who were responsible for the wrong design choices that ultimately led to the X-33 debacle.

    Indeed. The Administration at that time was sold a “bill of goods” as to the maturity and feasibility of hypersonic/SSTO technology. You can’t blame Gore for this.

    Also note that the 1990s saw the dramatic growth and success of the U.S.’s superb robotic science program. (Wish I could say the same about our anemic human-oriented commercialization efforts.)

    Rest assured that 2 years and 2 weeks from now (and possibly just 2 weeks from now), the current direction of VSE will be moot. Science will again reign supreme!

  • Rest assured that 2 years and 2 weeks from now (and possibly just 2 weeks from now)

    Another thing that is going to happen in a few weeks is that we’re going to be our Mars Rovers and Orbiters back on the other side of the sun.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of Mars we still have 2 years from now. Will it be anything like the Mars we have now?

    Somehow, I doubt it.

    I’m still a fan of manned space flight, though, but I think we should be targeting for sustained two year missions in large interplanetary spacecraft laboratories, to low gravity, deep space locations, where shielding regolith is readily available. One with zero g and a view.

    Phobos and Deimos and Ceres, and LEO and GEO comes to mind.

  • Chris Mann

    Watsa matter, afraid of the truth are you? You must be one of those very fearful Bush supporters.

    No, I think he’s just more interested in appealing to populism than writing good policy.

  • Watsa matter, afraid of the truth are you? You must be one of those very fearful Bush supporters.

    No, I think he’s just more interested in appealing to populism than writing good policy.

    Yes, global warming is a populist movement, there is no scientific basis to it at all. Hitler appealed to populism too, and I would never compare Gore to Hitler, but comparisons of Bush to Hitler certainly does come to mind. Playing on fear, invading countries on false pretenses. Yes, you’re right, how we do wish for the good old days of Al Gore and RLVs and space stations as national policy now, don’t we, but in this climate of fear, worldwide war, death and irrationality, the Gore years do seem rather distant. Yes, you’re right, we need to just stay the course and hunker down. Everything is going just fine in America. Soon man and woman will be walking on the moon again.

  • Chris Mann

    Mr Elifritz, I’m calling a ceasefire on the godwin issue. Please accept it.

    Back OT. While the X-33 may have been sold to some as a commercial vehicle, it was supposed to be a R&D test bed. Had NASA not killed it prematurely it would have validated a whole host of technologies: Linear aerospike engines, composite LH2 tankage, autonomous flight systems, metallic thermal protection systems, and created a large swath of data on the aerodynamics of large lifting bodies. It’s a shame that it was killed so close to completion.

    Getting Venture Star to a mass fraction of 0.9 using current materials was always fantasy, but I’m well convinced that the vehicle could have been made feasible with drop tanks.

  • Jeff: The luncheon speaker was a very high-profile individual and a bit of an unusual choice: former vice president Al Gore

    I don’t see why this would be an unusual choice. Mr. Gore has a consistent record of interest in space policy; for better or worse, it was probably he who pushed the political and geopolitical coalitions that allowed the (Republican) Space Station project to survive the (Democratic) Clinton Administration. A Gore Administration probably would have emphasized some kind of space endevor, albeit a government-directed one, but a government space project with small commercial bits tacked on is what we’ve ended up with anyway. Ideally, the Clinton Administration viewed government’s role as to encourage development of new technologies they thought important, and there is no reason to believe a Gore Administration would have changed that.

    Many people here may not agree with his views, but he has at least as much right to speak on the subject as anyone here.

    – Donald

  • Ferris Valyn

    A Gore Richardson ticket – thats one I like. (hmm, I may have my next posting for dailykos)

  • Since I was actually there, one of the points that struck me was Gore’s rejection of Rick Tumlinson’s request for help on making the case for space settlement being used to ease the pressure on the Earth’s environment. Gore’s response was very typically of the “we have to fix things here first before we can go live there”. He clarified his “space commercialization” meme from earlier by saying he thought all of the commercial applciations of space were related to responding to the Earth’s environmental crisis with Earth observation missions and ways of giving everyone the “overview effect”.

    In other words, Gore’s idea of space commercialization was simply to build more Trianas.

  • Mike Pucket

    “Rest assured that 2 years and 2 weeks from now (and possibly just 2 weeks from now), the current direction of VSE will be moot. Science will again reign supreme!”

    Rest assured that President McCain will continue to support the VSE at least as strongly as he does in the Senate currently.

  • Doug Messier

    The criticism of Gore seems a little harsh here (although not unexpected, given some of the respondents). Things have changed a lot in the last few years since Venture Star went kablooey. It’s not unusual for anyone to change their views about things as conditions change. In fact, it can be refreshing given the current political climate we’re in.

    As for Tumlinson’s suggestion, I don’t find Gore’s answer to be all that unreasonable. You’re talking about huge upfront investments before you can begin to ease population and resource constraints on Earth. A lot of funding would be needed for basic infrastruction, probably more than is generally understood. Most of us live in the developed world; we tend to take that infrastructure for granted until it breaks down.

    You have to balance opportunity costs there, taking practical steps directly aimed at solving the problems, or building up a massive space infrastructure and settlements that someone may pay off. It’s not as easy as an equation as it might seem.

  • Jim

    If Gore thinks that space commercialization is where the Internet was in the 1970′s then he feels it has a long, long way to go. Remember is was almost 20 years later, in the early 1990′s that the Internet boom finally occured. Sounds like a anti-space commericalization remark to me if he expects it will take that long to develop.

    Both Charles Miller and Al Gore are out of touch with reality and what folks like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are doing now if they think space commercialization is 20 years in the future.

    I was around programming in the 1970s and believe me no one was even dreaming about commercialization of the computer network like folks are doing with space now. It would have been laughable…

  • Brad

    The Clinton era space policy is nothing to look back fondly upon. A good arguement can be made that it was the slow starvation of NASA under Clinton budgets that lead to the failed Mars probes and the Columbia disaster.

  • Chance

    “Both Charles Miller and Al Gore are out of touch with reality and what folks like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are doing now if they think space commercialization is 20 years in the future.”

    Perhaps they are out of touch, but many proponants of commercialization are overly optimistic of just how fast it will take over.

  • Nemo

    The Clinton era space policy is nothing to look back fondly upon. A good arguement can be made that it was the slow starvation of NASA under Clinton budgets that lead to the failed Mars probes and the Columbia disaster.

    The CAIB made exactly the latter argument in their report.