Space Cowboys -- The Builders & The Dreamers
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Space Cowboys -- The Builders & The Dreamers

When Michael Haney, President of the Mentor Graphics User Group, stepped up to the podium in the San Jose Convention Center on May 4th to introduce this year's User2User conference keynote speaker - Rick Tumlinson - he described Tumlinson as "Part Agitator, Part Advocate." For those of us in the audience who knew little about Mr. Tumlinson, the ensuing hour was a revelation.

It's possible that most of the hundreds of people in the audience Thursday morning were there because it was one of the many events and sessions associated with the 3-day U2U conference. But the reason I was there - in my seat at the Convention Center by the distinctly early hour of 8 AM - was because I had been so intrigued by last year's U2U keynote speaker, and this year's address looked to be a continuation on a theme.

Last year's keynote speaker at the 2005 Mentor Conference in Santa Clara, was aviation and composite materials pioneer Burt Rutan, who had a standing-room-only audience eating out of his hand for over an hour. Of course, if you're easily offended by someone as supremely self-confident as Burt Rutan, a keynote address showcasing his accomplishments and ego would not be a good thing. But even those put off by Rutan's cockiness, can't help but respect the engineering and scientific advancements he has helped to realize - the various legendary aircraft that have come out of his company, Scaled Composites, and his team.

When it comes to engineering and technology, Rutan's the real thing. And he's got a lot of kindred spirit-ness with the folks who come to a Mentor Graphics Users Group meeting. His presentation last year and the dynamics with his audience - less than a year after winning the X-Prize with his SpaceShipOne sub-orbital vehicle - were a thing of great fascination. Even ESNUG's John Cooley seemed dazzled by Mr. Rutan, and stood in line with the rest of us afterwards to get his signature on our U2U conference badges.

Now fast forward to May 2006. Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, stands in front of a large Mentor Users Group audience of engineers and potential kindred spirits.

In his biography, Tumlinson is described as "one of the top one hundred most influential people in the space field by Space News." He's also described as a writer, a space exploration advocate who has testified numerous times in front of Congress, and someone who has been published or quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, The Economist, Readers Digest, and The Chinese People's Daily. He's also been seen on ABC, CBS, and the BBC. In addition, Tumlinson edited the newly released anthology of expert commentary, Return to the Moon.

That Mr. Tumlinson is a lively, impassioned speaker is not in doubt, it's his engineering credentials that fall a bit short - particularly as contrasted with Mr. Rutan's - not withstanding the fact that Tumlinson is one of the "founding trustees" of the now famous X-Prize that put $10 million in Rutan's pocket. (Actually, Rutan shared the prize money with many of his SpaceShipOne team members at Scaled Composites and his billionaire "angel" investor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)

Rick Tumlinson is a New Age Space Junkie and that's fabulous, but the longer he spoke, the more I wondered how quite so much psuedo-science could get a full hour of time in front of so many smart, scientifically literate people. But don't let me color your impressions prematurely. Here's what Tumlinson had to say - with the caveat that his comments have been filtered through an hour's worth of writer's cramp and bad note-taking penmanship.

Welcome to the Revolution - Tumlinson started by verbally genuflecting to the engineering talent arrayed across the room in front of him: "Welcome to the revolution - what you all are doing is feeding into this!"

He said he had originally planned over 50 slides for his PowerPoint presentation, but had decided instead to pare it down to just a few. He started by putting up a cartoon of several astronauts on an extra-terrestrial surface facing a pile of luggage. Tumlinson said the first reason we need to go further into space is to discover the planet where all lost luggage - and the odd sock here and there - end up. He got a big laugh from his audience, and then added the next two reasons: Going into space is the thing that gets him up in the morning, and "challenges are fun."

Tumlinson declared himself to be part of the New Space Establishment and said, "We have an opportunity today to create a synthesis between the Old Space Establishment and the New Space Establishment - an opportunity to create something that's incredible, amazing, and exciting."

From there, Tumlinson warned that his comments would veer into the distinctly philosophical, and he was right.

Rick Tumlinson, Philosopher - I grew up in the desert where I could easily see the sky, and I constantly asked myself, "Why are we here?" Unfortunately, we humans avoid the answer to that question by burying ourselves in a materialistic society.

It's true that some people look to faith for the answer, or to MTV, or by acquiring bling - one more silver Mercedes, or another car or a bigger house, through lots and lots of work. We're driven to get our kids into better and better schools, but we never stop and ask ourselves, "Why are we here?"

But we humans are a force for intelligence in the universe, a force to battle death. It's all about entropy. Life has arisen out of this entropy and created complexity and intelligence. We humans can be seen as custodians of life, and it's imperative that we take life out to those places that have never seen life.

Are there other planets that have life? Use an empirical method and you'll see this is the only planet with life, with intelligent life. Life on other planets is just not what I would wish for, or dream about. Don't expect ET to be arriving to meet Bubba in Arizona. Therefore, if you get Mr. Spock-like, you'll see that this is the only planet that has ever had life. That cockroach that you crushed today, might be a one-of-a-kind life form. It's like the Buddhists that move the worm aside to protect a living thing. The life forms here may be the only ones created.

We sit on a world that's precious. Is there a world somewhere else with life forms that are blobs with 3 eyes? No - the answer is almost at a theological level. It's our job to protect and spread life. We serve as the sensing mechanism for the universe. We are the eyes, ears, touch, and taste mechanism for the universe. Without us, the universe doesn't know itself. It's without senescence.

Does the tree that falls in the forest make a sound when it falls? No - it creates pressure waves. It doesn't create sound if there isn't a being present to receive it.

Rick Tumlinson, Theologian - We are the interpreters. We decide what is out there. Without us, the universe doesn't know it exists. We are how God knows of humanity, which knows of him. Without us, the universe is just dead matter and energy.

Robert Heinlein, the godfather of an entire genre of science-fiction literature, said in Stranger in a Strange Land, "I have reason to exist." His character, Valentine Michael Smith, gets killed in the end, but people in the book greet each other with, "Thou art God." To me, that's where it gets Biblical - God created us, and Adam and Eve's job was to name the things that are in God's creation.

Rick Tumlinson, Life Coach - Sometimes I hear people say, "You've done it all. There are no new places to go or things to do." Well, I have to tell them, "What are you talking about? There's much more coming. Much more to be seen. It's not the End of Days in any way at all!"

I have here a handful of sand. Each grain of sand is so tiny, I can probably hold thousands of grains of sand in my hand. Think about all of the grains of sand on all of the beaches in all of the world - there are more galaxies in the universe than all of those grains of sand on all of the beaches combined. We haven't even begun the beginning of the beginning of our exploration of the universe, but still people ask me, "Why should we break out of the earth?"

Then I have to calm myself down and say - "Think about it!" - and grab another handful of sand.

Rick Tumlinson, Survivalist - Then there's Armageddon, that big rock out there that's going to hit someday. The universe is full of stray boulders and we don't have any warning system. An asteroid could hit at any time, and we have proof.

Look at the far side of the moon. That's where all the craters are. The near side is more smooth because the Earth has taken all of the impacts that would have hit this side of the moon. We need to comprehend this. The dinosaurs didn't comprehend this, and that's why they are gone.

Rick Tumlinson, Explorer - Space exploration, moving outward, offers an exciting, dynamic future - something worth doing. Right now, we are all in one place. Even if you go camping, away from civilization, you can't get away. It's too crowded out there. It's getting hard to get away from each other.

The world is becoming more and more crowded and interdependent. Do we even have enough water for irrigation? We have to ask, what do we do next? When we break out of this cage, our vistas will become wider and wider. Space exploration will allow us to create opportunities for ourselves, and for our children.

Rick Tumlinson, Environmentalist - Then there's energy. Out there, we can collect sunshine 24 hours a day. We can also mine platinum deposits on the moon.

By the way, when I was young I went door to door collecting money for Green Peace. It's the thing we all did when we were young. Therefore, I have some tiny environmental credentials - just don't mention the Jeep that I drive today. The environmentalists say, "But if we colonize the moon, we'll ruin the moon's ecosystem and repeat the mistakes we've made here on Earth."

I say, "We can go to the moon and mine for platinum or gold, or instead we can rip the heart out of a living mountain here on Earth, create roads, and pollute the environment."

Rick Tumlinson, Team Captain - We need to move out into space. We need to take life where there is no life. And instead of the technological fire that has destroyed everything in its path as it has moved across the face of the Earth, we'll go out into space together. For the first time, we'll do this together. We need to create opportunities for our children. The only opportunity available to them today is an electronic reality where they blow people up inside of a video game.

Rick Tumlinson, Extreme Sport Evangelist - In our society, we're always saying, "We will need to be very careful." But people want to put themselves out there. That's what extreme sports are about! Did you see the Olympics? The crazy triple, quadruple jumps off the ski jumps?

People are trying to find excitement. When you're living on the edge, you become a human being in totality. And that's where our culture needs to get to. At the moment, it looks like we could get lazy, but we can't allow that as a manifestation of what humanity needs going forward.

Rick Tumlinson, International Economist - As everyone in China and India climbs up the economic ladder, they're going to want their own 3-car garage and their own big house. But the world can't handle it if everyone in China and India lives like the people in the suburbs of this town.

By the way, I know some of the scientists involved in greenhouse gas research, and they tell me about the ever-narrowing vista of possibilities here on Earth.

Rick Tumlinson, Advisor - So, those are just a few of the reasons we should be exploring space. Last week I was at a NASA workshop - they wanted our advice on why we should go back to the moon. We were split up into small discussion groups, and our group alone came up with 140 reasons why we should return to the moon. And that was just the moon! It didn't include other destinations.

Rick Tumlinson, Historian - When people came to the New World, they thought it was just to find lumber and gold. They didn't know they were going to also discover the Bill of Rights - and Microsoft. They didn't know they were going to create the greatest society that the world has ever known.

Now look at how we handled space exploration. I know you guys in this audience will get this - government explorers went out and back. They went to the moon, and there was so much potential. But it was handled very, very badly. I talk to people now who don't even believe that we ever went to the moon.

Alternatively, look at the Internet. That was an incredible frontier. If I had asked you 15 years ago what the Internet was, you would have said, "What is that?" The government created the Internet for its own purposes, and then they gave it to the people. And look at what happened when various creative minds applied themselves to the challenge. Even my mother now uses it - my little English mother who can just make tea. Now she's sending me photos of my nephew through the Internet.

The Apollo Program was never designed to open up space. It was designed to make us look like the biggest, baddest kid on the block. We were the leading, free enterprise democracy on the Earth, and we were competing with the two largest socialist countries on Earth - China and Russia. So we created a huge socialist bureaucracy called NASA, so we could stand on the shoulders of giants.

But it wasn't planned - there was no plan after Apollo. In fact there were 3 more Saturn rockets built that were never used. When you go to the NASA Space Center and see those rockets in the museum, you should be very sad. People wanted to do more, but Richard Nixon canceled the program. Nixon hated John Kennedy, and he must have hated waking up every day hearing compliments about Kennedy's space program - it must have driven him crazy. Also, an anti-science and engineering establishment culture had emerged at that time, and NASA looked intimidating. So the program was over.

Rick Tumlinson, Dreamer Denied - But dreamers still lived on. We had the Space Shuttle Program that was supposed to open up space. The program was originally pitched to Congress as being able to make 50 flights a year. But, it's been just a terrible failure of a program! Some of my best friends are Shuttle pilots, and right now they can't fly at all.

I grew up on the dream of Apollo, flipping on the TV and watching Captain Kirk. I felt if he could do it, I could do it. He had those cool-looking outfits - well, maybe they were a little tight - and always got the job done. And in the end he always got the girl. You roll all of this together and you say, "Wow - I could be part of this!"

But by 1982 and '83, bureaucratic compromise was the reality with the Shuttle Program. Suddenly the reusable rocket boosters were changed, and some contracts cancelled and re-assigned for political reasons. The central driver of the program became politics, and it ended up producing this "thing" called the Shuttle. By the mid 1980's, I was very upset and saying, "What's going on?"

Then the Cold War ended, and Congress started to say, "If space exploration is just about science, then just send robots." And I would agree - if it were just about science. But I don't believe that's what it's all about.

Rick Tumlinson, Dreamer Restored - Space exploration is about something that's steady and deep - and it's about human exploration. It's about a generation of people who believed in Apollo and The Dream, Star Wars and Star Trek. A generation who became educated and went on to found the industry and the telecommunications industry. I was one of those people who believed, which is why I helped found the X-Prize - a $10 million prize for the first privately built manned vehicle to reach the edge of space and return.

Burt Rutan won the prize in 2004, financed by Paul Allen. Paul is one of the original geeks. Paul was also somebody who was inspired by Star Trek. There are others, as well. Elan Musk founded PayPal and then sold it to eBay. The dream of his new company, SpaceX, is to get to Mars. And he may very well beat NASA!

Rick Tumlinson, Taxonomist - There are three categories of thinkers related to space exploration.

There the Werner Von Braun-ians: "We will build the largest rocket, and we are spending your tax dollars wisely."

There are the Carl Sagen-ites: "Look at space, but don't touch it" They're the voyeur type. JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech] goes into that category and I have no issue with that, because I love space. We've helped to fund some of their work, and we've also said it was important to save the Hubble Telescope. In fact, I know some astronauts who would put their lives at risk, to save the Hubble.

Then there are the Gerard O'Neill-ites: "Space is the High Frontier." [O'Neill was a professor of physics at Princeton, and wrote The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.] Burt Rutan and Elan Musk are in that category.

There's also a company called XCOR here in California, which is designing a sub-orbital vehicle that can pop out a satellite and deposit it into orbit. They are also out-of-the-box thinkers, and know that every problem and every solution is different.

Then there's Richard Branson from Virgin Airlines. He's partnering with Burt Rutan [The Spaceship Company is co-owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Scaled Composites] and is now talking about Space Tourism. I don't really like that term - if you climb Mount Everest, you're not a tourist. However, I do know people who want to go up, and then want to jump out and dive back to Earth. That will probably be happening within 2 years.

But all of these guys are working on the model of pay for delivery. The Government must be able to understand this. After all, they use FedEx, where you pay for something and then it's delivered. But instead, the Government signs contracts with Lockheed Martin and pays them millions of dollars up front, whether or not we go to the moon.

Rick Tumlinson, Insider - I was at the White House [in 2004], sitting right in front of George Bush when he said we're going to go back to the moon. I'm a Texan, and I was sitting very close to him. George Bush is a Texan, and he meant what he said. But the distance from his mouth to NASA is a distance as far as from here to the moon. NASA just wants to keep paying more money to Lockheed and Boeing, but it will collapse.

The play of Government is a power play, but NASA will go away. You won't need them anymore. The pay-for-delivery companies will build the infrastructure to go the Moon, and to Mars, and beyond. NASA may be the Lewis and Clark, but the O'Neill-ites will be the ones who will live out there and settle in those locations.

Rick Tumlinson, Visionary - The Earth is just on the edge of a bubble, and we need to expand out. We need Lewis and Clark to push out from the edge, and then we need to create an infrastructure so the shopkeepers can follow.

In the Old World, they knew how to move up and down the coasts, to hire people and move goods. Now we are creating companies that will take care of this beyond the bubble. We will create settlements, permanence, experience that location, and then move on again, beyond ourselves to create more societies at the edge. Someday flowers will grow on the moon - trees will grow on the moon. Children will live there, or on Saturn. And they'll look back at the Earth and be proud of the place that they came from.

If God created us to send ourselves out into space, he would create a moon to call us. There is a moon, and it calls to us to create opportunities. It's an exciting time! You and your children can make the most of it. Step up and make it happen. It's a great time to be alive!

The Rick Tumlinson Fan Club & Others …

After Rick Tumlinson finished his lengthy address, an attendee made his way to the microphone on the floor of the ballroom. He was visibly enthused:

"Mr. Tumlinson, I salute you! And, we get it! There are a thousand scientists and engineers here, and they're all pushing the envelope and pushing electrons! Thank you for sharing The Dream with us!"

There was a rousing round of affirming applause from the huge audience. The commendation was so thorough, I thought maybe I had under-estimated the quality of Mr. Tumlinson's address. Perhaps the natural skepticism of a journalist had ill served me in this particular instance. Maybe I need to start believing.

The event wrapped up and I made my way out to the lobby of the Convention Center along with everyone else, to sit and enjoy some of Mentor Graphics' coffee while waiting for the next session to begin (a nuts-and-bolts discussion of DFT scan chains and a refreshing re-anchoring back into the world of gated clocks and PLLs).

As I waited in line at the coffee station, I thought about the audience; it was weighted heavily, I suspected, with folks from mil-aero. How did they feel about Tumlinson's scathing criticisms of their industry? I also thought about terra-forming - the process of reshaping other worlds to create habitats suitable for human life forms. Were Mil-Aero life forms the ones who would choose to go to these new worlds? Or would these new worlds be populated instead by Space Cowboy life forms? And would they be drinking lattes, or a straight-up cup of joe? With those questions unresolved, I took my coffee and found a seat.

As I sat looking at my notes, a group of engineers sat down nearby at the same large round table where I was parked. They had also been in the 8-to-9 AM keynote and were discussing Tumlinson's address. I kept my eyes on my notebook, but boldly jotted down their comments:

"What did you think of the talk?"

"Well, it was kind of like last year [Burt Rutan]. Same theme, two years in a row - quit being safe and get government out of it. What did you think?"

"Yeah, well I liked last year's better. This guy was a little fuzzy - more of a dreamer than a builder."

I picked up my cup of coffee and moved to a different table. I tended to agree with their sentiments, but I didn't want them to think I had been eavesdropping.

[Editor's Note: The photos in this article come from (Rick Tumlinson), Wikipedia (Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne, Starship Enterprise, and the cup of coffee), (The God's Eye Nebula), and (XCOR vehicle).]