Friday, September 02, 2005

Back From the Final Frontier

Some long-delayed thoughts on the recent Space Shuttle mission:

On the one hand, I am a bit disappointed that they were so ready to call off all future missions.

On the other hand, it's somewhat refreshing to see that they're actually paying attention to their flight safety rules.

But on the gripping hand, isn't it way past time to put that sucker up on blocks and build something new? Preferably before it manages to smoke another crew.

Expanding one at a time:

One of my gripes about modern America is how we've become almost obsessively risk-averse. We won't dare anything, if there's a chance of something bad happening. We insist on perfect safety. We insist on absolute reliability. When I look back on who we were forty and fifty years ago, it makes me want to cry, sometimes. Once, we were a people who were prepared to pay any price, bear any burden, dare any deed. Say what you want about John Kennedy's policies, he was a man who called his nation to dream big and dare great things. If we would fail, at least we would fail grandly. If we were to miss, it wouldn't be because we didn't aim high enough. Now, far too often, it seems as though we set low goals, and fail to achieve them.

On the other hand ...

NASA's problems also stem from an eagerness to rush ahead when they've got good reason to suspect that not everything is quite as it should be. Such as, for instance, launching a mission when icicles were hanging off the Orbiter the day before launch. Prudence, in the form of properly-written and observed mission rules, might dictate that you hold on a bit. "Go-fever" always says, go ahead! That's what lost us Challenger. Remember my diatribe about Blaine Hammond a few posts back? How the position of Safety Officer seemed like a dumping-ground for unwanted talent? Maybe, just maybe, that's changed. If that's the case, this may actually turn out to be an encouraging development. A sign that the powers that be really got it this time.

But on the gripping hand ...

Isn't this latest grounding of the Shuttle simply an acknowledgement that it's time to let this old dog go to sleep? When the design was frozen, gas was cheap, no one had ever even heard of disco, and I still thought girls had cooties. That was over thirty years ago, people! It's getting harder and harder to find spare parts for the bloody thing! Ever try to find a water pump for a '73 Buick? Yeah, good luck with that.

Look, it was a marvelous vehicle in its day. It was a bold experiment. We thought that one multi-faceted vehicle would be able to cover all of America's space launch needs. As it's turned out, that isn't true. It couldn't. And now, in its old age, we're finding that it can't even put people into space reliably.

What we need is a vehicle designed according to a whole new concept. A design that's operations-driven, not performance-driven.

Consider a Maserati: a performance-driven design if ever there was one. When it's running right, there's nothing that moves quite like it. But it takes an awful lot of TLC from a highly-skilled mechanic to make it run right.

But on the other hand, consider a Honda: not precisely built for speed. It moves, but that's about all you can say for it. But, it won't darken a mechanic's door for the first two or three years that you own it. THAT'S operations-driven design.

NASA doesn't seem to get it, yet. But that's OK. There are several who do. Rutan does. Elon Musk of SpaceX does. So do a few others. There are enough of them, and their backers have sufficiently deep pockets, that in ten years the center of gravity of the American space effort will be in private industry, not in government laboratories. And where they lead, NASA will be compelled to follow.

A bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. Maybe that's what's been missing, all along.

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