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The Totalitarian Temptation in Space

Teaser: Peter Diamandis' (pictured) controversial comments reveal an unpleasant historical truth: Space technology thrived under the bloody dictatorships of the 20th century and has languished since they fell. But nostalgia for death camps isn't a winning sales strategy.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) May 21, 2006
One of my earliest columns for SpaceDaily criticized the frequent use of inappropriate and misleading historical analogies by promoters of outer space. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.

One of the most persistent analogy abusers is X-Prize and Rocket Racing League promoter Peter Diamandis. His whole career as a space activist is based on the idea that rocket prizes and rocket races can be a major driver of an independent non-governmental space industry. In turn, this concept is based on an erroneous view of the Golden Age of Aviation.

It is simply not true that air prizes and air races played a major role in developing modern aviation technology in the 1920-1940 period. There is no major technical innovation that can be traced to racing aircraft.

There is no "Roscoe Turner cowling" or "Amelia Earhart wing section" or "Granville Brothers tail". Lindbergh's prize-winning flight didn't lead to trans-Atlantic passenger service or anything except celebrity status for Lindbergh.

The major driver in the evolution of the modern airplane was government-funded research at government labs such as NACA, RAE, and TsAGI. These establishments with their huge wind tunnels and staffs of civil-service scientists provided the real sparkplug for the Golden Age. The backyard designers and major firms alike relied totally on basic research performed at these government labs and published in long rows of "grey literature" reports.

But Diamandis and his followers ignore all this. To them, the Ortieg Prize led directly to the DC-3 and the labors of thousands at the NACA centers counted for nothing. After all, NACA was the predecessor of NASA which to libertarian Space Cadets is the source of all evil.

The latest example of Diamandis' distorted view of history comes by way of Keith Cowing at NASAWatch. This is what Diamandis said at the 2006 International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles:

DIAMANDIS: If you look back at what von Braun did in Nazi Germany it was incredible what you can do with literally a dictatorship. Look at the numbers. 6,000 V-2s built. 6,000 missiles were built in Nazi Germany. The recurring cost was $13,000 a launch for those vehicles. You can bring the cost down with mass production. We'll come back to what will drive ... [Multiple audience comments -- "SLAVE LABOR"]

DIAMANDIS: Yea, and slave labor, Sorry.


DIAMANDIS: But you know - again to you, the rest of us would happily be slave labor for that mission... Can you erase that from the video tape?


The context of these comments was an argument that mass production of space hardware can radically reduce the cost. Diamandis is again using an incorrect historical analogy to promote a dubious idea.

The Nazi rocket program is not an example of how rockets can be developed and produced cheaply; in fact it was a preview of the bloated, inefficient Cold War space programs that the community hates.

The V-2 failed as a weapon system precisely because it was far too expensive to produce (even with skilled workers who were not paid or even fed adequately). Each V-2 cost about 1/6 as much as a Lancaster heavy bomber. But the reusable bomber delivered about 130 tons of ordnance during an average operational lifetime instead of the paltry 1 ton warhead of the expendable rocket.

One postwar report concluded that relative to the size of the two war economies, the V-2 had a total program cost almost as large as the US atomic bomb program. The Manhattan Project would have produced about seven 20-kiloton bombs per month if full production had been achieved; Germany produced about 650 rockets per month that only delivered the equivalent of about 0.4 kiloton.

The V-2 program flourished in the Third Reich only because of the technical and economic illiteracy of the uneducated working-class leadership of the National Socialist Party. Germany was unable to launch a strategic bombing offensive due to the complete managerial and technical failure of the He177 bomber and Me210 escort fighter programs.

Hitler was desperate to find some way of hitting back at Britain and the expert salesmanship of Werner von Braun appealed to his romantic, irrational, pre-industrial mindset.

A similar sales presentation to the US Army and Navy by Robert Goddard in 1940 was rejected because he was dealing with career military officers trained to consider the tactical utility and economic viability of weapons programs.

Goddard's rockets were in many ways more technically advanced than von Braun's, but still they didn't fill any military function that conventional aircraft could not perform better and cheaper. Ballistic missiles didn't become rational weapons until the first lightweight nuclear warheads appeared around 1952.

But the most criticized aspect of the Diamandis speech is his statement that any true-blue space cadet would gladly serve as one of the slave laborers who were literally worked to death in the underground V-2 factory at Nordhausen/Camp Dora. After a transcript of his comments was posted at NASAWatch, he apologized for this.

It's easy to understand why Diamandis said this. He was only expressing in public what a lot of Space Cadets say in private: The conquest of space is so important a goal that any means is justified to bring it about. This dangerous philosophy is surprisingly common in internet chat about space.

When hard-core Space Cadets are talking only to each other, they speak wistfully about bad developments that would incidentally promote space flight. They get nostalgic for the Cold War and hope that Czar Vlad really does make rump Russia into a dangerous superpower again. They actively promote a "New Space Race" between the US and China.

They fantasize about various elaborate future space weapon systems onto which they could piggyback their pet projects.

And like all ideological fanatics, they cannot understand why the average citizen does not share their obsession and mostly ignores their propaganda. They seethe with frustration and frequently denounce the general voting public as ignorant dolts. They loathe the complex political horse-trading that has crippled the International Space Station and produced the ever-changing return-to-the-Moon program.

With this background it is not surprising that many Space Cadets have developed a subtle anti-democracy, pro-totalitarian bias: "Just think how much easier March Storm would be if we only had to convince one politician instead of 535. And wouldn't it be great if that one man could just order giant space facilities built right now, without all these annoying cost-benefit studies and environmental impact statements!"

It's hard for moderate Space Cadets to disagree with the fanatics because history supports them. Space travel is mostly the creation of Hitler, Stalin, and Khrushchev. Peenemunde and Baikonur were mostly built by slave labor. And the normal democratic bourgeois world did have to be forced into space by megalomaniac dictators.

But the fact that space travel originated in this way does not make it right, no matter what the current and future benefits might be.

Von Braun was wrong to continue working with the Germany Army after Hitler seized power. He could have left Germany like Willy Ley. He could have resigned his position and returned to the family estate like his father who was Minister of Agriculture. As a qualified pilot assigned a personal aircraft, he could easily have flow over the Baltic to neutral Sweden even after the war began.

Sergei Korolev was wrong to continue working for Stalin after he had seen the Kolyma death camps from the inside. He could have fled the Soviet empire during his 1944 visit to the British Zone of occupied Germany. He could have "internally migrated" to a career that didn't involve giving an insane tyrant the means to blow up the world.

But von Braun and Korolev didn't do these things because they had a religious devotion to space travel and thought that they could get it by selling out to irrational dictators. They knew that rational democratic states like Sweden and Britain would never fund their work. Even in the United States, von Braun and his fellow Paperclips were kept largely idle for many years until the threat from Stalin became obvious.

Many modern Space Cadets share this religious devotion and still worship these men. There has been some limited public criticism of Von Braun's culpability, but none of Korolev's. Many modern space enthusiasts approve of this sell-out mentality and only regret that there is nobody around today for them to sell out to.

To the dedicated space fanatic, space is so important that it doesn't matter if London or New York is destroyed along the way, or thousands of innocent people are worked and starved to death.

So Diamandis probably thought that he was safe in praising Nazi efficiency. After all, he was talking to an audience of people who had actually paid money to hear pro-space propaganda. Instead, he discovered that some space activists still have a moral sense.

I can only hope that this incident will open the eyes the extremists to the dangerous road they are on, and leads them to reject it. As long as the space activist community tolerates this sort of thinking, it will be written off by mainstream society as a fringe movement of nutty enthusiasts. It will never have the kind of influence with the public that it craves. And it will continue to lose the support of more and more moderates like me.

Jeffrey F. Bell is a former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.

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