First, I need to correct a possible misconception. A couple of people seemed to think I was being hard on the NASA engineers. Absolutely not. Nothing could be further from the truth. The space program could not have enjoyed success without outstanding engineers. From the beginning of the space program to the present, some of the very best around have contributed to its success.
My point was that poor management could stymie even the best engineers. In the specific cases of the space shuttle disasters it was not bad engineers but poor management that failed to assign appropriate resources to resolve long-standing problems. This is not my opinion, but accepted fact. After investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Rogers Commission concluded that NASA’s culture and decision-making was a major factor in the accident. In the case of space shuttle Columbia, NASA management knew for years about the damage to tiles and problems with the foam but failed to properly investigate.
The second reason for “just one more blog” on the space program was a recent newspaper article titled, “NASA’s Trajectory Unrealistic…”. It seems The Human Space Flight Plans Committee has been reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight program and is due to release its report at the end of this month. The article says the early indication is the Committee doesn’t think NASA is on the right track. There is a particularly interesting quote about the previous administration setting down a very good policy then not providing the funding to execute that policy. Maybe the Bush administration could be forgiven for believing the Hollywood or perhaps media image of President Kennedy dreaming a goal and schedule and the miracle workers of NASA successfully executing on that dream.
Unfortunately the Apollo success didn’t happen that way. It couldn’t have. For many years I’ve been bothered by the prevailing image that NASA magically executed an impromptu project on a schedule that Kennedy dreamed up. However, all of my professional experience has been that project disasters result when a bureaucrat imagines a project or schedule in isolation. This conflict was difficult to accept. I lived through enough of the space program that there was no way I could doubt the reality of the moon landing, yet disaster resulted from every situation I’d seen where the engineers were ordered to execute a project on a conjured schedule.
My conflict was finally resolved when I saw a biography of Wernher von Braun and then did some follow-up research. The paradigm I now choose to believe is nearly the exact opposite of the legend of how John Kennedy sent us to the moon. This new paradigm is that an experienced team of technical experts put together a project and schedule, and then executed it with minimal interference. This scenario matches exactly that which I’ve seen be successful over and over. The moon landing was not the creation of President Kennedy – he merely bought into von Braun’s dream and allowed experienced masters of technology to follow their passion. There was no “testosterone engineering” and there was only the good form of the “can-do” culture.
The “can-do” engineering culture comes in two flavors – good and evil. The GOOD “can-do”attitude says we can solve the hardest of problems and can make the most complicated devices work. The key words here are “solve” and “work” – as in we actually solve the problem and the device actually works. Sometimes the GOOD “can-do” attitude gets perverted into the EVIL “can-do” attitude by ignorant or malicious management. The evil “can-do” attitude degenerates into “testosterone engineering” where hard work substitutes for smart work and problems are ignored or prioritized out of existence instead of being solved. Scientific inquiry and good engineering suffer at the hands of “testosterone engineering” as blustering clowns and bumpkins run around posturing and pontificating.
I previously said, essentially, that NASA has little chance of returning to the moon and no chance of going to mars in the next few decades. Congress or the President cannot intelligently establish a schedule for anything. They lack the expertise and domain knowledge. In addition, setting any policy without the assurance of proper and continuing funding is worse than meaningless. Doing so simply causes the agency to waste money as they are whipped from one unrealistic goal to the next. Today, with an apathetic public, there is no chance, zero, zilch, of Congress holding the requirements steady and allocating a solid stream of funding to the space program. Things are bad now but in the future things will get much worse. The public will get far worse than apathetic as the population continues to climb, debt comes due on our previous largess, and the social security time bomb explodes. Joe-six-pack will not want to hear about the benefits of Velcro and Teflon when he has very real worries about feeding and providing for his family.
There was a brief moment in time where some talented dreamers were able to inspire the man-in-the-street with visions of Buck Rogers flying to other planets and with American heroes showing our cold-war enemies exactly who had the right stuff. For a brief moment in time these dreamers were able to gain access to sufficient public funds and not only put a man on the moon but inspired a generation of engineers who went on to create the microprocessor, personal computer, and The Internet.
Today Buck Rogers has lost his appeal and the average person has more important things to worry about than a stranger putting footprints on some dusty, dead planet. Today it seems to be an unrealistic pipe dream that we could use public funds to mount an efficient and successful human spaceflight program. There are too many special interests, too many pockets to grease, and too many conflicting needs for this too happen with any consistency. The NASA moon shot funding appears to have been a one-time event brought about by a brief confluence of diverse political combatants.
No, the only hope for a consistent stream of funding for human spaceflight is private money. Don’t laugh. I think this might be doable. My back of the envelope calculations say that $17 to $30 billion seed money would be required and then $8 to $12 billion per year. This is a lot of money, but just might be possible – perhaps 100,000,000 people annually contributing the equivalent of a few weeks of gas money. For this idea to be even remotely possible, we need the program leader to be very wealthy, technically knowledgeable, and able to give the assurance that at least most of the money is being well spent.
Hey Bill Gates – you’ve been retired long enough. Get started on this.