Thursday, July 28, 2011

If NASA Would Do for Space Travel, What the Military Did for the Internet

Space-X's Falcon/Dragon launch vehicle blasts off
on the way to a successful 2 orbit mission and recovery.
Back in the beginning the Internet started out as an experiment by some academics to find a way to build a durable, communication system the military could use in the event of a major war. They came up with a nifty little plan using existing communications systems, deep redundancies, easy expansion capacity and a financial incentive for the private sector to invest their own money and, voila' - the Internet rose from nothing in less than two decades to rival television, radio and every other form of communication, not by replacing them by government fiat, but by offering those media a new way to promote what they were already doing pretty well.

It's a model for effective government participation in economic development. The feds did try to "improve" the Internet a couple of times, but in every case, their "better" systems were always outdated before they could get them deployed. They were consistently out-innovated by private sector scientists and entrepeneurs working quickly, efficiently and using their own dime.

We just retired the space shuttle after more than 3 decades of service and far more than that if you count the development time. The shuttle systems were so primitive, even by the time they launched the thing the first time that soon, astronauts were taking laptops into orbit with them to supplement the stone-age technology built into the spacecraft. The shuttle flew far longer than it should have and cost lives of astronauts, arguably because NASA lacked the flexibility and systems agility to address problems. The zero-defects approach of the Apollo program soon ossified into a zero-flexibility program that ignored individual innovation and even warnings from its people about problems because the leadership came to focus on mission objectives and began to dismiss anything that got in the way.

The new systems development process became so hidebound that the agency couldn't get a replacement launch system up and running before it had to shut down the shuttle program.

Don't get me wrong.  I think the space program needed the kick start it got from NASA to get rolling. That said, I actually think we're going to do better now that they more or less have to work with the private sector.

Some writer the other day commented on private space travel saying he "...was never a big fan of the private sector." I love when people say that sort of ignorant thing. The guy's a fan of nice clothes, good food, high quality entertainment, stylish cars and the Internet, but not of the "private sector" that makes those things possible. The government has its function in doing big things that are of national interest like interstate highways, space travel and making order out of the potential chaos on the airwaves as the communications industry sprang up. The Internet is a good example of how the government did something right. They kicked off the whole thing and then got out of the way and let the free market run with it. It's a good idea for the space exploration business too.

Space-X, Elon Musk's outfit, took just four years to put together a viable cargo and manned space launch system that costs about half what the government contracted systems cost for a single launch and they are doing cargo launches this year and could do a manned launch in another year if NASA can resist the urge to get in the way. And had NASA refrained from diddling with the process and playing Kingmaker back in the 90s when they first looked at allowing private sector spacecraft development, we'd already have a system that costs half of that rate per launch.

Ironically, I believe that the more they cut NASA's budget, the faster we're going to have privately owned and funded moon bases, Mars missions, asteroid harvesting and collision protection programs. It'll actually be nice to have the capability to send some roughnecks into space to redirect an asteroid should one decide to take aim at us someday. The movie "Armageddon" while reassuring, was total fantasy. Right now, if we saw an asteroid coming there wouldn't be anything we could do about it with the hardware we have.

The Book of Revelation describes a large object falling from the sky and crashing to Earth in the sea at the end of time. I 'spect Bruce and the boys ain't gonna make it to space in time to do anything about it. Thank you NASA (and I'm being sarcastic here) for dragging your feet and helping insure that the apocalypse arrives right on time!

Tom King

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