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Space

Neil deGrasse Tyson Touches Off Debate With Remarks On Commercial Space (theverge.com) 373

MarkWhittington writes: In an interview published in The Verge, celebrity astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson touched off a firestorm when he suggested that commercial space was not going to lead the way to open up the high frontier. Tyson has started a live show that he calls "Delusions of Space Enthusiasts" in which he touched on, among other things, why the Apollo program did not lead to greater things in space exploration such as going to Mars. Tyson repeats conventional wisdom about Apollo and the Cold War. In any case, it is his remarks on commercial space that has caused the most irritation.
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Neil deGrasse Tyson Touches Off Debate With Remarks On Commercial Space

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  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:36PM (#51002569) Homepage

    Right now, the barrier to increasing use of space is the cost of launch. It's indeed true that, with launch costs at their current levels, utilization of space resources isn't likely to be commercially viable (at least, not for applications other than the ones already being done, such as observation and communication.)
    The critical question is, can the cost of getting to space be reduced? And if so, by how much?

    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      If space cannot be opened up to individuals then it will never be open at all. During the age of Columbus, any schmuck with a ship could go out exploring. Before that, any schmuck with even a tiny canoe could go exploring the high seas.

      The idea that Lorne Greene can launch a moon mission from his backyard has to become feasible before serious exploration of space happens.

      Private companies getting in the game are just a necessary natural evolution of the technology.

      • by Tailhook ( 98486 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:51PM (#51002733)

        any schmuck

        Columbus was sponsored by a wealthy and powerful sovereign government. 15th century schmucks were not involved.

        • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:26PM (#51003081)

          Columbus was sponsored by a wealthy and powerful sovereign government.

          He was indeed. But many follow on missions were privately funded. Governments funded the development of better compasses, sextants, chronometers, and better ships, as well as the initial voyages. But within a few decades, the spice trade, slave trade, and sugar/rum trade had made oceanic voyages profitable enough for the private sector to dominate.

          • Columbus was sponsored by a wealthy and powerful sovereign government.

            He was indeed. But many follow on missions were privately funded. Governments funded the development of better compasses, sextants, chronometers, and better ships, as well as the initial voyages. But within a few decades, the spice trade, slave trade, and sugar/rum trade had made oceanic voyages profitable enough for the private sector to dominate.

            Careful -- expand your horizons a bit. Your southern europe biases are showing. Government funded development of navigational tech and tools did occur and was helpful, as were the (morally dubious, in the case of the slave trade) motivations of commercial profit.

            But -- profit in and of itself is not a sufficient, or indeed, even a necessary condition for exploration. The islands of Polynesia were explored, settled and exploited at least a millenia before Europe even knew the earth was round, using only

            • by slew ( 2918 )

              But -- profit in and of itself is not a sufficient, or indeed, even a necessary condition for exploration. The islands of Polynesia were explored, settled and exploited at least a millenia before Europe even knew the earth was round, using only naked eye observations to navigate.

              You might argue that in the case of Polynesia, survival was the sufficient condition to explore and settle new islands. As the population grew and the resources diminished on islands, the populations were pushed to explore and settle new islands.

              And what about northern europe's contribution to exploration? When Erik the Red and his kin went a'viking, they took it across at least one ocean, with only their own eyesight to guide them.

              Wasn't Erik the Red evicted from iceland for murder? By all accounts I know about viking voyages were mostly to exploit resources as well, and very limited settlements were made due to poor relations with the native populations.

          • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

            So to cut to the chase. Government opened up new territories, protected them and the trade routes and private business just ruthlessly and very destructively exploited what Government had provided. Basically the same hold true of access to space. Private industry will not open up access to space, government will and then private industry will seek to ruthlessly and destructively exploit that ie a bunch of people will die and private enterprises takes it typical greed driven short cuts, guaranteed. So Neil

        • by Holi ( 250190 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:26PM (#51003083)
          And the Polynesian Islands were populated before Europe had boats. Your Eurocentric view is blocking you from seeing that explorers predate Columbus and made ocean crossings long before and without any backing from major wealth sources. We are talking BC thousands of years prior to Columbus' little voyage.
          • You make a good point about the Polynesians - their expertise at navigation and ocean survival dwarfed that of Europeans, until European technology advanced to the point that they could "brute force" a solution with compasses, astrolabes, and large, well-stocked ships.

            I don't think it's particularly applicable though - barring some radically new technologies getting to space is going to be a "brute force" endeavor for the foreseeable future. Even if SpaceX can bring launch costs down by an order of magnitu

          • by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @04:02PM (#51004425)

            however, we don't know the reasons the Polynesians expanded. It is highly doubtful a lone couple of polynesians set sail on the high seas to find new islands. The amount of provisioning and boat building required would indicate at least local levels of cooperation and contribution that would most likely be analogous to modern government sponsorship of exploration and colonization. These aren't the brave, rugged capitalist individualists you are looking for, either.

          • And the Polynesian Islands were populated before Europe had boats.

            No, they weren't.

            "Polynesian ancestors settled in Samoa around 800 BC, colonized the central Society Islands between AD 1025 and 1120 and dispersed to New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui and other locations between AD 1190 and 1290."
            http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/ike/... [hawaii.edu]

            Your Eurocentric view is blocking you from seeing that explorers predate Columbus and made ocean crossings long before

            Yes, that part is right.

        • Columbus was sponsored by a wealthy and powerful sovereign government. 15th century schmucks were not involved.

          More than half of Columbus' voyage was financed by private investors. And it is misleading to refer to the rest of the funding as coming from a "wealthy and powerful sovereign government"; technically, the Spanish crown may have been that, but in the end, it was simply Queen Isabella deciding how to spend her money; she could have just as well spent that money on a new palace or pet dalmatians. It

          • the Spanish crown may have been that, but in the end, it was simply Queen Isabella deciding how to spend her money

            Queen Isabella was the government of Spain.

            You think she earned that money?

            • By being the Queen, that's kind of how it worked back then, it was a paying gig if people paid you to be their queen.
            • Queen Isabella was the government of Spain. You think she earned that money?

              Who cares what you call it? The question is what she did and why she did it. And the fact is that she didn't act anything like NASA or Congress, she didn't take any extraordinary risks, and she wasn't even essential to the voyage. So, deGrasse-Tyson's analogy is simply wrong.

        • any schmuck

          Columbus was sponsored by a wealthy and powerful sovereign government. 15th century schmucks were not involved.

          Any wealthy schmuck then. And we seem to have a few of those trying to get to space nowadays. (JK ;)

      • During the age of Columbus, any schmuck with a ship could go out exploring.

        Not the big voyages. Those required the resources and backing of governments. A large sailing vessel in those days was equivalent to a SpaceX rocket rocket today. Hugely expensive and state of the art technology. Columbus could only do his voyage because he was backed by the crown. It wasn't until centuries later that "any schmuck with a ship" could set sail for wherever. People didn't sail across the Atlantic until a government backed expedition (Columbus) proved that there was something out there wo

        • by Holi ( 250190 )
          That's not quite accurate. I mean the bit about Columbus is, but remember Columbus was not the first person to cross the Atlantic. Eric Thorvaldsson (Eric the Red) reached Newfoundland without the backing of the crown and did it long before Columbus was conceived.
          • by Holi ( 250190 )
            Quick fix. Sorry it was Leif Erikson, his son that made it to Canada.
            • And their colony failed. The Spanish, Portuguese, English and French colonies in the New World succeeded because the governments that ran those colonies backed them financially and militarily. At least in the case of the English, owners/shareholders of colonials often received economic monopolies, giving them substantial impetus to make colonies economically viable in fairly short order.

              And even though colonies could obviously become self-sustaining in pretty short order, they still required a significant a

        • by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:23PM (#51003061)

          In the 15th Century every early exploration of any note was government sponsored to some degree.

          Although, it is important to note that at that time, there was a fuzzier line between the "government" and the people who had capital to send voyages. Queen Isabella provided money of her own for the voyage, as opposed to money raised directly in a tax and budgeted for the exploration.

          However, as Queen, her jewels and her personal wealth were effectively derived from her position as a ruler.

          Prince Henry the Navigator was in a similar position. He was rich, but mostly rich because he was a royal who had estates and money derived from his position related to the government.

          There was no commercial interest, or any individual ship which was involved in the exploration of the Americas at that time.

          You would likely have been better off discussing the Viking voyages, which is more of a scenario where voyages of relatively small ships fitted out for trade and raiding eventually got to North America.

        • Not the big voyages. Those required the resources and backing of governments.

          Columbus' voyage was already predominantly privately financed. Furthermore, Queen Isabella contributed nothing like a modern government to the exploration effort, she merely acted as another investor with money that she pretty much had sole control over. If Queen Isabelle she hadn't paid for it, Columbus could well have found the balance of the funding from other private investors, or simply scaled back the voyage a little (after a

      • During the age of Columbus, any schmuck with a ship could go out exploring.

        No they could not unless they had the backing of someone wealthy to pay for the ships, equipment and salaries needed. However they were willing to pay for it because while it was expensive and dangerous they were motivated by a variety of things: hope of treasure to plunder, land to lay claim to and knowledge of distant peoples and creature to learn about.

        It's a bit sad that someone who calls themselves a scientist thinks that the only reason anyone will ever do anything is purely for money. The ability

        • by Sperbels ( 1008585 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:40PM (#51003185)

          No they could not unless they had the backing of someone wealthy to pay for the ships

          Yes they could. People cross the ocean in small boats all of the time. And just look at the Pacific? All of those islands were colonized by people with Stone Age level tech. It's not a great analogy to space, but surely you don't need a billion dollar rocket to get into orbit. Surely it can be made more affordable, and that's what they're trying to do.

          • Those small boats do not make a global commerce systems, they're not relevant to discussion. Vikings in north america were more like our moon landings than a space colony that mines and manufacturers.

            • Of course they're relevant. You're looking at exploiting a vast new territory. You have to have pioneers to go out there and figure out where the pitfalls and useful stuff are. They're not going to go out on tankers, cargoships, and passenger liners. They'll take small "boats".
        • He was commenting on the commercialization of space travel.

          By definition, that is a profit-seeking proposition and there is no profit to be had now and probably 100 years from now.

          That is why NASA is doing the exploring in the past and now.

      • Tyson's subtext is that he somehow doesn't trust non-governmental organizations to conduct themselves in space according to his NPR vision of the proper role of Washington.

        Because the technology for manned exploration is in such an early stage of development, we can't sit here and plan how it might develop over the rest of the century. Since NASA has a good track record on automated science, we can assume that it will direct more generations of scientific probes, but we have no confidence that it can plan r

    • In the very long run, probably. But I think there's probably a route to increasing space exploration and utilization by explicitly avoiding the cost of Earth-to-orbit transport costs. The plan I've seen that has some promise goes as follows:

      1. Find some metal-rich and volatiles-rich asteroids and comets (not exactly rare in the Asteroid Belt). Tow these asteroids into a near-Earth orbit and begin extraction and smelting.
      2. Set up manufacturing facilities in Earth orbit to build spacecraft and satellites.
      2a.

      • by plopez ( 54068 )

        see my comment http://science.slashdot.org/co... [slashdot.org]

        how much is all of this going to cost?

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      In other words, you can't cheat gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. No one seems to listen, but my initial assessment is that the shear amount of energy required to launch a viable space colony is going to be prohibitive. I have never seen a detailed mass and energy budget for a colony. When exploring the New World you know how far to go, how many supplies to take with you, you had tools you could use to extract resources to support a colony etc. And even then colonies failed.

      Thought experiment:
      What is

      • No one seems to listen, but my initial assessment is that the shear amount of energy required to launch a viable space colony is going to be prohibitive.

        The energy quantities are no problem, it's the energy density that's the issue.

      • Tge laws of thermodynamic are only involved in so far as they help to calculate how much gas at what temperature and pressure fits into a given volume.
        For rocket starts they are irrelevant.
        And you can forget: 'booster efficiency increases by 25%' Our 'rocket technology' is as close to the optimum as we can get, there is perhaps 1% - 2% margin where still can make ground, but thats it.

        Regarding your calculations, you can easy do that your own.
        Number of people times the years they stay equals the amount of f

    • There are only two developments that could lower the energy cost of a space launch significantly: 1: Practical fusion power, and 2: Breaking the laws of physics as we currently know them.

      So for the foreseeable future, private space travel will never happen except as an amusement for the hyper-rich, due to the amount of energy required. See also: supersonic passenger flight.

      • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

        This is not true, really. We could quite conceivably construct catapult systems or other efficient means of getting cargo into orbit.

        What we really lack is the will to build such things because even though the eventual payoff would be absolutely unprecedented, there is a colossal upfront cost to realize it and we simply can't force ourselves to either "just do it" or we lose interest when we try and do such things slowly over time.

        Nevertheless, providing the ability to obtain resources from the rest of the

        • If you designed something that could launch a payload with enough force to enter orbit, it would burn up exiting the launcher. Think of the heat involved in an orbital reentry, you would be generating those kinds of speeds at ground level, where the air is denser, and somehow, maintaining enough energy to make it into orbit? The numbers just don't work out.

      • Even if we completely ignore all the other technology options, mass production by itself could significantly lower costs.
      • ...

        So for the foreseeable future, private space travel will never happen except as an amusement for the hyper-rich, due to the amount of energy required...

        A very common, completely incorrect notion. The cost of space flight has nothing to do with the amount of energy required. If rocket fuel were completely free it would not significantly affect the cost of space flight; the fuel cost on a rocket launch is roughly 0.01% of the overall cost. The high cost is entirely due to the cost of space flight hardware, which costs $10,000/lb or more, and is currently non-reusable, and the cost of the ground infrastructure required to support it.

        Recall that even a mundan

        • 0.01%? Some quick searching tells me that it costs $225M for a Soyuz launch with a full crew. Are you saying it costs somewhere near $22.5k to fuel up a Soyuz rocket? That's half the cost of fueling up a private jet.

          And that's a pretty good comparison to use. If space travel were as affordable as private jet flight, which is far closer to Star Trek than it is to today's reality, it would still be only an amusement for the hyper-rich, unaffordable to the vast majority of earth's populace.

    • Right now, the barrier to increasing use of space is the cost of launch.

      Reports are that SpaceX has reduced the cost to launch by an order of magnitude (or more).

    • And if so, by how much?

      Using one of my favourite rules from mathematics, L'Hôpital's rule, the lower bound is the cost of energy. Which is about $0.67/kg [wolframalpha.com]

  • by known_coward_69 ( 4151743 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:38PM (#51002583)
    used to be they were only for governments and large corporations. now the military is buying the same tech as everyone else because it's better than their custom made stuff. same thing with commercial space. there will be a lot of investment which will drop the costs of launches and it will get ahead of NASA
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      now the military is buying the same tech as everyone else because it's better than their custom made stuff.

      That's not entirely true. Often the difference is simply not enough to justify the huge price difference.

      For example, a $500 "battle grade" hammer may be able to survive being run over by a tank during battle, but is that really worth the extra $460, or is it better to live with occasional flattened hammers and spend the $460 elsewhere.

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:45PM (#51002683)

    I've listened to NdGT talk about this topic a fair bit and I agree with his basic thesis that private companies will not lead the way to Mars or even the Moon. You simply cannot make a credible business case for a private company to do it. I'm an engineer but I'm also a certified accountant. I've pitched investors on projects and the problem is largely an economic one. Paraphrasing his arguments the risks are large and substantially unquantifiable, the ROI is unknown and will take many years if not decades and the amount of money required for large exploration projects is huge. The only institution which is in a position to spend large amounts of money on something with big risks, huge costs and completely uncertain payoffs are governments. Once some of the risks have been quantified and enough information becomes available to make a reasonable guess at an ROI and time frame for the investment, THEN private enterprise can jump in.

    We largely admire companies like SpaceX but SpaceX isn't doing anything wildly outside what NASA has already done. They're not sending probes to Mars, they are just improving the economics and a bit of the technology for chemical rockets - a technology we've had for 60+ years. People talk about mining asteroids but no private body is funding the exploration to go find them much less developing the technology to actually do something economically useful. The cost is too big, the returns too uncertain and the risks are still largely unknown. It's why we still need NASA out there on the frontier. Leave the launches to SpaceX and others and get NASA out into the solar system doing the cutting edge research and exploration we so desperately need. We don't need NASA building rockets, we need them figuring out how to get us permanently more than 200 miles from the surface of the Earth.

    • by bigpat ( 158134 )

      Yes, but if it isn't eventually economical for private investors then it isn't sustainable for government funded adventurism either. Government needs to have a return on investment more than turning over more rocks on barren worlds. At some point economics really is a reflection of resource utilization and availability and not just some abstract concept where the Federal Reserve can just add a few zeros on the computer for some spreading around money.

      • Valid points, but I think the distinction is that if the general public wants a business to take on debt to perform some function for the public, well that ain't going to happen unless the shareholders want it. Shareholders are shareholders because they want to turn a profit, preferably quickly; they tend to have a dim opinion of things with an unknown return potential at some vaguely distant time in the future with a quantifiably negative impact on dividends in the near term. That's the trade-off of publi

        • by bigpat ( 158134 )

          I think bottom line is that it is too expensive and therefore not sustainable to settle or explore space much further either funded through taxation, private fundraising or speculative investment. If launch costs come down and other technology makes it easier then either public or private efforts can do it. In terms of speculative investment... I agree there is no prospect for financial returns on any reasonable time frame so things like asteroid mining are not going to attract large investment until the

    • You simply cannot make a credible business case for a private company to do it.

      It really depends how much cheaper it can get. I don't claim to know the answer to that. At some point, tourism becomes a reasonable business plan.

    • by orlanz ( 882574 )

      Well said. People just don't understand this concept that corporations, even those global conglomerates like Siemens, Tata, Hilti, etc which are bigger than many governments do not embark on these expensive, high risk endeavors. Even simple Earth stuff like figher jets, and battle ships have massive amounts of government backing for the proof of concept designs. Exploring space is going beyond the moon and that is far more complicated than what we do on Earth.

      Big companies in general are risk averse; dec

    • by bgarcia ( 33222 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:55PM (#51003345) Homepage Journal
      Elon Musk's goal is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars. In order for that to happen, he decided that he would have enough people volunteering to immigrate to Mars to make that happen if he can bring the cost of a ticket to Mars down to $500,000. And in order for that to happen, he needs to find a way to severely bring down the cost of launching rockets.

      SpaceX's goal is not the usual corporate goal of making quarterly profits for the shareholders. He is keeping SpaceX private because he knows his goals would never be reached if he were to make it a publicly-owned company.

      So while NdGT is probably correct, I think the only reason he will be correct in this case is that Elon Musk will die of old age before SpaceX gets far enough along to make a Mars colony a reality. But I'm really, really hoping that Musk can pull this off.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:51PM (#51002731) Journal
    If anything, it seems like deGrasse came closer to giving team Space!!! what they wanted to hear than I would have expected, in that he left open the implication that nation states might develop serious interest in colonizing nearby rocks and would then very likely find themselves in need of contractors for various purposes; and enable some more fully private side activities.

    The ROI of getting things into earth orbit is well established; and it has a correspondingly robust market, with more outfits clamoring to enter it. Satellites are all sorts of useful and need more or less continual replacement, repair, and so on. Nobody doubts that.

    The technical feasibility of snagging asteroids and chopping them up is still in the more speculative stages; but that also has an obvious possible ROI if the technical challenges can be overcome.

    The case for the moon or mars, though, isn't just a matter of corporate shortsightedness, it's a matter of "Please, tell me about the ROI, within, say, the next 250 years...". Planetary colonization would undoubtedly be cool; and might be something that a nation state would get interested in as part of a prestige contest(like, say, the last time we were at all serious about the moon); but nobody ever seems to have any plans, aside from vague references to Helium 3, for what would make lunar or martian living more cost effective than some sort of aggressive colonization of underutilized desert regions or something similarly unsexy. The bounteous iron mines of mars? The endless plains of razor-sharp, static-clinging, vitrified silicates of the moon?
    • by bigpat ( 158134 )

      The one case of government funded exploration of the moon wasn't even sustained for ten years. I think what we can say now is that with currently available or even planned technology that space colonization just isn't going to happen regardless of the funding mechanism.

  • by erp_consultant ( 2614861 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @12:54PM (#51002763)

    We seem to have gotten away from this in recent years but space exploration is a perfect example of what government SHOULD be doing. These kinds of exploration programs are not economically viable for commercial enterprises. Government needs to pave the way first. This is something at JFK understood all too well.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Government needs to pave the way first.

      We tried that with the moon. What happened? Next to nothing for half a century. The Apollo program didn't advance space travel, it held it back, by focusing on the wrong technologies.

      These kinds of exploration programs are not economically viable for commercial enterprises.

      Manned space exploration isn't economically viable for anybody at this point. It's not a question of whether private investors have sufficient resources (they most certainly do), it's whether there i

      • "We tried that with the moon. What happened? Next to nothing for half a century. The Apollo program didn't advance space travel, it held it back, by focusing on the wrong technologies." - That is an interesting take on it. My point was that without the Apollo program we never would have gotten to the moon in the first place. Which wrong technologies are you referring to?

        "Manned space exploration isn't economically viable for anybody at this point." - And that is precisely why government needs to take the le

        • My point was that without the Apollo program we never would have gotten to the moon in the first place. Which wrong technologies are you referring to?

          All the boring nitty-gritty engineering that was necessary to make it happen. The Apollo space program sucked up the engineering resources of nearly half a million engineers, scientists, and technicians for a decade. Think of all the useful stuff those people could have done, instead of working out how to build life support systems and flight control systems o

  • While some may dream of using Earth's energy resources to acquire extraterrestrial mineral resources, it won't happen until the spacers become self-sufficient in energy, and maybe even export a little back to the home world.

    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

      I think energy is the first thing we will be able to get from space, not materials. Space based solar is a project that will provide energy, but without the major concerns of mining and transporting actual matter to Earth. And as you pointed out, once there is sufficient space based power, the mining can become profitable both in space, and in providing materials for Earth.

      The sun itself is probably the best energy source we have at this time and it will scale up very well over time. If we can figure out

  • I've tried but I cannot respect this guy. Seems that everything he does drips of condescension.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by rubycodez ( 864176 )

      Because he chooses legitimate targets worthy of contempt, such as string theorists. Don't shoot the messenger, don't let the truth butthurt you

    • by TheSync ( 5291 )

      The touch screen discussion was bogus - it was invented by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK in 1965.

  • by cellocgw ( 617879 ) <cellocgw@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday November 25, 2015 @01:44PM (#51003219) Journal

    As others have pointed out, the gravity well makes launch costs prohibitive. It also makes getting that load of ore from a captured meteor back down without another dinosaur extinction difficult.

    Even with a few dozen engineering hurdles completely unsolved, a tethered station on a space elevator is really the only way to lift mass (you know, people and equipment) with any kind of reasonable energy-to-mass ratio.

    • And as soon as we can make single-walled carbon nanotubes in sufficient length to make a weave that can reach to GEO, then the price of getting to space becomes cheap.

      The "only way" is currently not viable as the record SWCNT is.... huh. About 1/2 a meter in 2013... Wow, the last I looked they were struggling for centimetres. That's really encouraging.

      So... It's coming. But in the meantime, it's rockets all the way up.

  • He didn't say anything remotely controversial or anything that isn't obvious. A for-profit corporation figuring out how to get to Mars or doing any expensive basic research? No. Of course, not. Just won't happen.

"I say we take off; nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." - Corporal Hicks, in "Aliens"

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