Tuesday, July 29, 2008

NASA at 50

Fifty years ago today, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, creating NASA. The agency thus created has led the American space effort, and has had its share of both triumph and tragedy. To mark the day, I'm hashing out a quick review of NASA's record: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

Without doubt, NASA's signature triumph was putting an American on the Moon, and bringing him back safely. I think a good argument could be made that this was our finest hour. We built the most powerful machines in history, not for conquest, not for destruction, but for exploration ... to go somewhere we'd never been, and to learn something we didn't know before. And they answered the challenge head-on: between the day Kennedy laid the challenge down on May 25, 1961 and the day Columbia splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969 was a span of only 8 years, 1 month, and 29 days. (Fun trivia fact: both dates were Thursdays, so the span was exactly 426 weeks.) Only eight years to invent procedures and spacecraft that had never existed before, to accomplish a task they weren't sure was even possible when they started. And they haven't slacked off on the unmanned exploration front: NASA's robots have visited every planet in the Solar System, saving only Pluto (which was a planet, at the time of NASA's inception). To this we can add Hubble, which has revolutionized our understanding of astronomy. Neither has aeronautics been forgotten: the laboratories continue to forge ahead with propulsion research, test-flying a Mach 8 scramjet for the first time last year. We have much to be proud of, for our paltry expenditures.

The Bad

There have been a few miscues, some would even say more than a few. The Block I Apollo spacecraft was a total goat-rope that ended up costing the lives of three good men in the Apollo 1 fire. A stem-to-stern redesign resulted in a pretty good spacecraft, but still. Your design process really ought not involve smoking a crew if you can help it. This is a pattern that seems to repeat itself every 15-20 years. Good engineering practice gets overtaken by hasty dumb-ass, and the predictable thing happens. Mind you, flight test is a dangerous business. Back in the late 50s and early 60s, when the early astronauts were cutting their teeth in the flight test business, you'd expect to lose several pilots during a test program. Losses incurred while you're pressing the outside of the envelope are one thing. Losses incurred through complacent inattention are another thing entirely. The former is a cost of doing business, the latter is entirely avoidable. And we've lost seventeen good men and women to the latter, seventeen too many. Let's hope the lessons stay learned this time, and we don't have a repeat in the 2016-2020 time-frame.

The Ugly

When you compare the agency in its early years to what you see today, you wonder why it only took a little more than eight years to go from a President's say-so to landing on the Moon, and today we'll spin our wheels for at least ten more years and still be a year or two away. The answer is really quite simple. It's a fully-matured bureaucracy now, in a way that it wasn't, back in the day. Young organizations travel light and move fast, everyone's focused on the mission like a laser beam. Nothing else mattered. Today, it's very much a 9-to-5 outfit ... and really, is that such a bad thing? When I think of all the wrecked families that littered the roadside on the way to Tranquility Base, maybe not. That's a bit of history we need not repeat. Still, they've developed a very strict, very rigid way of doing business that they will not depart from. That makes it hard to innovate. It makes for a slow-moving organization, one that people will begin to lose patience with, by and by.

The Future

They will continue to do their work, be it good, bad, or indifferent. It's a Federal bureaucracy, and therefore very unlikely to be shut down anytime real soon. And their best work is quite good indeed, even today. But what I do see happening, is that they'll lose the initiative in the American space effort. Maybe in fifteen years, twenty at the most, the center of gravity of the American space effort will be firmly in private industry, in places like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. They're stalking the wild greenback, and won't let ceremony stand in their way. Which is fine. It may even allow NASA to rediscover what I think is, at bottom, its real mission.

You see, in my opinion, NASA's job isn't really to put a person on Mars. NASA's real job is to figure out the technology to let the National Geographic Society put some people on Mars. Or how about Survivor: Olympus Mons? Now, wouldn't that be a sight to see?

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