Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Giant launch pad refueling in Hawaii should put an end to our space ambitions

by Larry Geller

It seems some people took at look at an old oil rig and said, "Hey... what a great way to launch stuff into space!" Investors must have agreed. Check out the article in today's paper about this thing showing up briefly in Hawaii to refuel:

The vessel was built in 1982 as one of the world's largest oil rigs, and was used in the North Sea. It was converted into a launch platform in the mid-'90s.

The company says the ocean launch is cheaper and more reliable than a conventional satellite rocket launch on land. [Giant launch pad makes Isle pit stop - The Honolulu Advertiser - Hawaii's Newspaper]

An oil rig has large submerged hulls 'way down under the surface, where there are no waves. So the platform itself, up in the air, is actually resting on very stable supports, unaffected by your average surface chop. And it can move around. So it can go pick up the bird in California, float out to the equator, and at the right moment, launch it into space.

Investors obviously liked the idea. What they have not liked, of course, is the idea that Hawaii is an ideal place in the universe for doing the same thing.

Between 1988 and 1995 Hawaii had an Office of Space Industry that ate funds badly needed elsewhere (e.g., schools? fix the dams?) The idea was to promote a commercial spaceport in Kau, on the Big Island. We even had a Space Czar.

No one was biting. You may note that about this time the oil rig was converted. Why lug spacecraft up to the Kau desert to launch when you can just launch from the ship that picks them up? Duhhh. Skip Kau or any land-based launch site.

Everyone got it but our high-tech development people.

Public opposition also grew, and the Legislature cut funding in 1995.

Then, as now, Hawaii remains a number of small islands located far away from anything else, in the middle of the Pacific. But promoting high-tech is big business here, so dreams never die, they are simply recycled and new agencies brought into being.

Our poor schools. Hot, still lacking textbooks. But last session the Legislature apportioned $500,000 to Hawaii's space program. They passed SB907 into law. This bill begins:

The legislature finds that Hawaii's diverse natural resources, unique geographic terrain, first-class technological infrastructure, and resident scientific and engineering expertise make our island state an ideal location to develop, grow, and sustain a wide variety of aerospace-related activities.

As the oil rig launch pad demonstrates, having diverse natural resources and unique geographic terrain is optional for launching stuff into space. I doubt the platform has any natural resources at all, unless you can sit at the edge of it and throw a fishing line into the ocean.

Try and build a circuit board here. Our infrastructure is a bit hard to find. Our scientific and engineering expertise are not special, and our best graduates still flock to the Mainland for employment in their chosen fields. From 1988 to 1995 we couldn't begin or sustain a space industry; what exactly has changed? Other than the industry carrying on without us, and replacing our pet idea with a recycled oil platform.

Maybe a dream can come true. The measurement will be how many jobs are created. I don't mean in DBEDT and in the other agencies working to promote space projects, I mean in the projects themselves. Paying promoters is not the same as creating high-tech jobs. That $500,000 is not going into the pockets of our engineering graduates.

There's no harm in trying. We, the people, should keep watch on this, however. If the promoters keep coming back to the Legislature for more money to pump into what looks like a black hole, someone should suggest to our lawmakers that dreams don't repair schools nor keep our infrastructure intact.

Remember the dream of Hawaii as the communications center of the Pacific? Remember that we were supposed to be an international financial center? Were you told that we're in an ideal location to do international business, in a time zone between Asia and the US Mainland? Nevermind that that's pure bunk. The location is a liability that must be overcome.

The space dream is funded by our tax money. How many of us would choose this way to invest it?

We might attract far more jobs if people knew Hawaii had decent schools for their kids. Our kids might learn and make better decisions than their elders.


We've had this discussion before and YOU tip toed around my observation I made.

It seems you are perfectly willing to
criticize Hawaii's current economic model (of depending on real estate, construction, military, tourism).

But instead of pointing out industries we could bring here to diversify our economy, you point out our failures. Talk about being a hypocrite.

Anyone looking at Hawaii's attempt to bring high-tech businesses here would have to conclude it is not working. This is not being a hypocrite.

Even Guy Kawasaki, in a talk at the business school at UH, pointed out that the hype about being the center of this or that due to our location/time zone was crap. That wasn't his exact word, but you'd think people would catch on.

I've held consistently that we don't have a model of an alternate economy that works. So we keep pumping money into this or that, particularly into high-tech. Of course, there are some successes, but measured in jobs, we haven't found a way yet to diversify our economy.

I wish I had such a model (or suggestions of industries we could bring here) but after considerable study, I have not found industries that could be profitable here. The bean counters determine who comes or goes, not wishful thinking.

When I say "considerable study" I mean having reviewed hundreds of documents, principally annual reports and 10-Ks, trying to find what might work here. Industries don't usually thrive far from supplies, far from markets, and with high shipping costs.

The current price of oil has only made it worse, as has the outsourcing of most of what we thought we should be doing here.

That is exactly my point. We should not be putting Hawaii's many failures in diversifying our economy under the microscope.

Instead we should be trying to figure out where we can go from here. It is no secret that our current economic model of tourism, military, construction,and real estate is not sustainable.

In short, the plethora of problems Hawaii faces currently will never be solved until we look revising Hawaii's currently unsustainable economic model.

On a related note, its not just you. But I've noticed others criticize our current economic model. But fail to provide viable
suggestions on how Hawaii can be more sustainable. Thats why I made the hypocrite comment.

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