Commercial Spaceflight: The Next Big Boom?

If you are looking for an investment opportunity, how’s this for size?  An industry where a founder of Google, a founder of Microsoft, a founder of Pay Pal, a founder of Amazon, an airline and cell phone magnate, a former head of Goldman Sachs, and the highest grossing filmaker of all time are all investing – some heavily.* Some are creating new start ups or investing in the start ups of others. That’s a lot of smart money all in one place.

What is this new potential boom?

In 1824 the US Supreme Court case Gibbons vs. Ogden, the court nullified a monopoly for steam ship travel along the Hudson River. One of Mr. Gibbons’ employees, a river captain called “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt ran with the result of this decision. He went on to fame as a Steam Ship builder and operator and eventually a railroad magnate. He also became the richest man in America. The transportation revolution he helped spearhead changed America and the world.

In the last few years, the NASA based government monopoly on space travel in the United States has been nullified. We are now in the Steam Ship phase of commercial spaceflight. There will be later the equivalent of railroads (right now the concept is called a space elevator – it is a vertical railroad.) But that will be the topic of a future column.

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Somebody is going to be the Cornelius Vanderbilt of Space. Somebody is going to be the Henry Ford of Space (hopefully with all the inventive genius minus the bigotry.) Somebody is going to be the Jay Gould of Space. Somebody is going to be the Andrew Carnegie of Space materials. Somebody is going to be the Guggenheim (Copper mining Barron) of Space mining. Somebody is going to be the Alexander Graham Bell of Space. Hopefully we will have the Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison of Space as well.

We are entering into a period of innovation and exploration done by the private sector on the first true frontier since the American West. All of the NASA missions up until now were just Lewis and Clark. We are entering into a time of great expansion – also a time when fortunes previously unthinkable are made.

I’ll be exploring this new horizon in a series of articles.

* If you are wondering who the investors referred to are: Larry Page (Google), Paul Allen, (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Pay Pal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), John Whitehead (Goldman Sachs) and James Cameron (Titanic and Avatar.)

Next up: Who are the current players in commercial spaceflight?

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International Criminal Court, Gaddafi, Libya and Exile

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Muammar Gaddafi, which will just cause him to dig in deeper. That is why I am re-issuing the blog post I wrote last December and then updated when NATO started the “kinetic military action” in Libya.

Generally, I don’t want to make a habit of reissuing old posts. Recent events have made a strong case for the premise of this piece and it deserved a revisit. This post was originally written weeks before the Tunisian Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution and the Libyan Revolution. President Zine El Abadine Ben Ali of Tunisia wound up in exile in Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has peacefully retired to a palace along the Red Sea. Yet that did not happen in Libya.  According to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi:

“Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don’t think anyone can make him change his mind,” he told reporters.

Granted Berlusconi certainly has his own share of political and legal problems. But of all the European countries Italy has been the closest to Libia and Berlusconi probably has the best read of the Libyan strongman’s mindset. His statement gives credibility to this post that I originally made last December.

Why haven’t the two Korean nations united as did East and West Germany?

Perhaps it is because there is no way out for North Korea’s ruling Kim family. If the Korean nations unite, who can doubt that a prosecutor or judge in Europe will indict them for crimes?

This was the same dilemma that faced Saddam Hussein. He knew the US invasion was coming. Days before the start of military action in 2003, Saddam was offered a life in exile. Why not live out his days with his wealth and Viagra?

But Saddam only had to look at the situation of his friend, former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Four years earlier Milosevic, after having left power in Serbia, was arrested and held in a jail cell. He was placed on trial. He died in prison.

Saddam knew Milosevic well. The Iraqi’s had their bunkers built by the Serbs who had learned from the US bombing in the 1990’s.

They were kindred spirits. So when Saddam was offered exile, he had only to look at Slobodan’s fate and conclude that he was better off trying to stick it out in Iraq. We all know the rest.

Contrast this to the Exile of Chilean General and dictator Augusto Pinochet several decades earlier. Pinochet was allowed to live in exile in Spain with some of his ill-gotten gains. The transition in Chile to democracy was relatively smooth and peaceful when compared to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The Kim’s of North Korea have no doubt watched what happened to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. They knew them both. People who are used to leading entire countries can conceive of retirement with their wealth, but living in a prison cell is worse than death.

The European courts and judges mean well. The idea of dictators living out their years in the lap of luxury without being brought to justice is distasteful. No civilized human being likes that idea. Part of the idea is making sure that dictators and others know that there is an international watch on their doings and that this would encourage good behavior.

But reality has us working in a world with paranoid dictators at a time that nuclear technology is achievable. Dictators and repressive regimes are turning to the Korean model of buying time and respect by acquiring nuclear weapons. Wounded dictators with nowhere to go are as dangerous as cornered animals.  They will fight to the finish. Now they can do so with nukes.

The exile option is far from perfect (Europeans know this from the Napoleon experience, where his return from exile led to another war.) The alternative, attempting regime change against dug in despots with atomic weapons (think North Korea, and soon Iran) and suddenly exiled dictators playing in their retirement palaces doesn’t seem so bad.

The world and European courts need to reexamine their prosecutorial zeal and allow the exile option to reemerge.

After the recent events in Lybia and Berlusconi’s remarks the last sentence above is more relevant than ever.

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Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan, Nuclear Weapons and the Dead Man Switch

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Good riddance.

Kudos go to President Obama, US Intelligence and the US Military.

There are questions that remain. What about the whereabouts of Ayman al Zawahiri the Al Qaeda number two (presumably now number one)? Al Zawahiri is supposed to be more of the operations specialist when Bin Laden was supposedly more of the financier and inspirational leader. Although Bin Laden turning out to be in a mansion in the large Pakistani city of Abbotabad with computers on the premises, rather than in a cave in Waziristan may indicate that Bin Laden was more in control that we were led to believe.

Pakistan is not looking good in this matter. The mansion was the largest in the neighborhood, less than a mile from a Pakistani Military Academy. “Hey who lives in the big house down the way?” would be a natural question. Someone at a fairly high level in Pakistan knew the answer.

When I grew up in New York City in the 1970’s one of the largest drug dealers in the neighborhood lived down the street from a police station. As a naïve kid I asked, “The whole neighborhood knows the drug dealer lives there. Why don’t the police arrest him?” A friend looked at me as if I were crazy, “Of course the cops know he lives there. Somebody must be getting paid not to arrest him.” It made sense.

Somebody in Abbotabad knew it was Bin Laden in that compound. That is why he felt secure enough to have a wife and elder son there with him. A fugitive on the run does not risk his family being caught with him unless he feels safe. The only way he would have felt safe there, is if local, and possibly national, officials knew he was there and were looking the other way.

Then again, it was never truly in Pakistan’s national interest to find Bin Laden. For a decade, the US has spent Billions and Billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan – primarily motivated by rooting out Al Qaeda, the Taliban and especially Bin Laden. The US national interest lies more naturally to align with Pakistan’s rival India. We do business with India, the Indian military and especially the Indian navy are a counter balance to China in the region.

But since the US wanted Bin Laden we had to do business with Pakistan. Once the US no longer has an interest in Afghanistan and therefore Pakistan, all of that money will dry up. By keeping Bin Laden out there, Pakistan kept the gravy train on the track. Pakistan also has domestic political reasons to shelter Bin Laden as the Bin Laden post-mortem demonstrations indicate. So Pakistan had more self-interest reasons to keep Bin Laden alive than to turn him over. It appears that some in Pakistan decided to play that game with the US.

The question now is about Bin Laden’s “Dead Man Switch.” When a suicide bomber walks into a public place, the smart ones will rig a “Dead Man Switch.” It can be a plunger that the terrorist has to keep depressed or the bomb goes off-creating a disincentive to simply shoot them. Shoot the bomber, his thumb goes limp, the bomb goes off, innocent people die. A similar device, a foot pedal, was used by the Chechen terrorists who took over the Russian school.

It would be a big surprise if Bin Laden did not set up a system where upon his death or capture by the US, it would be a signal to launch planned terror attacks. The apparent complicity of Pakistan, the world’s only current Islamic nuclear power is troubling in this context.

A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb is revered in his country. He may have aided North Korea with their nuclear program and in all probability Iran with theirs. If Pakistani officials in the know were bold enough to hide Bin Laden from the US, how can they be trusted with nuclear materials?

Let’s hope that Osama Bin Laden’s Dead Man switches all fizzle, and that none of them are nuclear.

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Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hillary Clinton and the slam dunk

WASHINGTON DC – In a startling development Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that Saddam Hussein’s missing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) have been discovered in Libya.

“It appears that the WMDs that were supposed to have been in Iraq have finally turned up in Libya,” said Secretary Clinton. When asked how certain the  US is of this, she replied, “It’s a slam dunk.”

When reminded that the “slam dunk” phrase was used by a previous administration in regards to WMD in Iraq, Secretary Clinton said, “President George W. Bush was a baseball owner and President Barak Obama plays basketball. This administration knows what a ‘slam dunk’ really is.”

When asked how the US could know this when the President has promised to not have “boots on the ground” in Libya, Clinton responded, “We don’t have boots on the ground. Military guys wear boots. CIA guys wear shoes.”

When asked for a comment on this remark Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta , said, “The Agency has a policy of not commenting on the footwear of our covert operatives.”

Reached by telephone for comment, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld , said “What? In Libya?” then there was sound that sounded like a hand slapping a forehead, “Why didn’t we think of looking there?” Then the line was disconnected.

A question was posed to Secretary Clinton as to what kind of WMD had been found in Libya to which she replied, “Bad ones.” When questioned as to if there were any sort of “good WMD” she answered, “Good WMDs are ones that we or our friends control. Bad ones are in the hands of bad people.”

Since shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi claimed to have given up on his own nuclear and WMD programs. It was asked why he would have Saddam Hussein’s WMD.

“You just said it,” answered Clinton. “He gave up his own WMD because he already had Saddam’s, why did he need his own?”

Asked if this will increase the US operation Odyssey Dawn from just enforcing a “No-Fly” or a “No-Fly and No-Drive” Zone to something else, Clinton remarked:

“The Kinetic Military Action in Libya should more properly be referred to as a ‘Flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ Zone.”

When the White House was called to have this matter confirmed by the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, the newly installed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded by saying, “Who?”

Current Defense Secretary Robert Gates was contacted for comment on the existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD in Libya. He responded by saying, “Ask Valerie Plame.”

More of this story to come as it breaks, today, the first day of April…

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Understanding Government Speak: Kinetic Military Action in Libya

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Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian, Middle East Revolution and Paddy Chayefsky

What do Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Steven Slater (the flight attendant who quit his job, grabbed a beer and slid down the emergency chute) have to do with protestors in the Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia? 

And what do any of these people have to do with a 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky?

A lot. In that film, “Network”, a fictional news anchor, Howard Beale, decides that he is “mad as hell,” and that he is “not going to take it anymore!” The network decides to keep him on the air, he becomes a phenomenon and called a Mad Prophet.

Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Flight attendant Steven Slater were all frustrated with their employers. They all left their jobs loudly rather than quietly and became folk heroes in the process. Folk heroes fueled by the internet social sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Chayefsky was three decades ahead of his time and the word “Network” today has a larger meaning. In the movie the public at large joined the “Mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore!” movement. Today people across the world are mad as hell.

People have been “mad as hell” for a while. The current global economic downturn has frustrated people across the planet. The difference is that now people have decided that they “…are not going to take it anymore.”  The internet and social networking in particular, are providing a way to express the anger.  More than that, the online world is providing a way to organize and get results.

The results are real. Conan O’Brian was able to keep his fan base despite being barred from broadcast television. Charlie Sheen may be onto a new career as an online Mad Prophet selling Tiger’s Blood and promoting “winning.” In the Middle East, two strongmen who held power for decades have fallen, one is in a civil war and others may still be deposed.  

The plot twist in the 1976 movie was that the “Network” decided to keep the Mad Prophet on the air in a cynical ploy for ratings. In today’s network, the TV Networks could not keep Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian off the air- at least not off the internet. Neither could an Egyptian state run TV station silence a Google manager.

When people are Mad as Hell in this new Communications/Information age, those in power will have to listen – they can no longer just pull the plug. The Mad as Hell side is “winning.”

That changes everything.

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Watson, Google, Egypt’s revolution, Saudi Kings, the price of oil and the Singularity

Watson the IBM Computer not only wins, but beats two of the biggest former human champions handily on the TV game show Jeopardy.

Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google, plays the part of Egypt’s Technological Cromwell and helps spark a revolution.

Raymond Kurzweil, a leading Artificial Intelligence expert predicts a “Singularity”, the day when Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence, as coming sooner rather than later.

All these events happened within days of each other – how are they related?

Just as the Twentieth Century was dominated by technological, social and political changes caused by the industrial revolution – we are seeing that the Twenty-First Century will be dominated by such changes caused by the information revolution.

We had begun to see signs of it before. When Barak Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democrat Party race for the Presidential nomination, it was a victory for the online world against what was viewed as the establishment.  Now we have the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East and elsewhere; partially spurred by revelations coming from Wikileaks.

The established political structures in the world are becoming as relevant as candle makers after Edison invented the light bulb and electrification of cities.

How is a King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who will be eighty-eight years old this August, to deal with this sort of a world? In fact, almost all of the large middle-eastern oil producers are in a similar predicament. They, and Russia, are right now “pinch points” in the world economy and therefore world politics. But even their economic clout could be threatened by the information revolutionaries.

Brilliant people all over the world are trying to figure out how to make a better battery. Combine a better battery with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or some other energy producing technology and crude oil could become as irrelevant as the telegraph much faster than any of us imagine. The oil producers would become less relevant as well.

Don’t think it could happen? In the late Nineteenth Century the “industrialized world” (Europe and the America’s) were facing a vast oil shortage – whale oil that is-until fossil fuels were placed into use. Henry Ford demanded that his engineers produce a V8 engine for the automobile, despite engineers assurances that it could not be done.

We are already facing a time of greater change for more of the world’s population since World War II. It may greater change, and upheaval, than any of us can even imagine.

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