A popular photograph was released by NASA this week: the space shuttle docked with the space station. They’ve both been around for years, but it wasn’t until this week that they both were captured in one close-up. Two American space accomplishments, aided by international partners. And the end of an era. The shuttle program is effectively over. There is no new shuttle or station in NASA production. To me, one of the ultimate ironies is that the photo was taken by an Italian astronaut while aboard a Russian space capsule. Nice photo. Sad moment.
Do you remember the book and the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey? An icon of science fiction, it looked ahead from the mid-sixties prior to the landing on the moon, to where we might be three decades later. If you haven’t seen it or read it, try it, but don’t be surprised if you’re left a bit confused. At the time it pushed the limits of the implications of space travel and contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The special effects were revolutionary, and may seem simple, but keep in mind that very few computers were involved. The hardest part to believe may be that we thought we could go that far by 2001. We could have. We decided not to.
I was born in 1959, early in the Space Race, right after Sputnik scared America into catching up to the Soviets. Soon, President Kennedy challenged America to land on the moon, and we did. There was a call for mathematicians, engineers, and scientists for our collective and epic struggle. We made it to the moon and the call for technical types didn’t cease. I was good in math and science, and eventually got a bachelors and then a masters in aerospace (and ocean) engineering. (Check my bio for details.) The space shuttle had finally flown and even a newbie engineer could tell that we’d eventually need something better, and something designed more to commercial rather than military specifications. I interviewed as much as anyone but I only chased two job offers: Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and NASA. The NASA offer was sweet, and eventually turned into the group that designed the space station. The Boeing offer wasn’t as good, but they knew commercial better than NASA, and I wanted to seriously work on Commercial Space for the rest of my career. (And of course the career would last until I was 65, right?) I accepted the job to work on the 747, what I thought would be a good training ground for understanding large, complex, and reliable vehicles that paid for themselves. Next step, line myself up for the inevitable space shuttle replacement design group. Besides, I didn’t mind rain and thought I might like hiking and sailing and such.
My career only lasted 18 years (the story of my early retirement is in my book that is the basis for this blog), and it did pass through several years spent in the small Commercial Space division. I worked on rockets, shuttles, and satellites. I also learned a sad lesson. I was in a small design group when a new manager “corrected” our perception of our jobs. We were enthusiastically working on a long-overdue shuttle replacement. He pointed out that the company had greater incentives to design than to build. Subsequent designs for possible replacements were done under contract. Contracts made money, and they could always go back and get yet another design contract. Building the vehicle could make money, but design studies don’t crash; while an accident with something as risky as a new rocket could negatively impact the company’s finances, public image, especially if anyone was killed. I don’t remember his name. I don’t know if he was expressing a personal opinion or official corporate strategy. For all I know he was shuttled off for his comments. But his logic could explain why the majority of innovation and construction in space vehicles has taken so long and is happening outside the major corporate and governmental bureaucracies.
Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and Blue Origin are some of the commercial ventures designing, building, and flying new and innovative space vehicles. For them, success is directly tied to operating real vehicles. They are all small companies with engineers that are expected to get their hands dirty, or so I hear. They’ve all flown prototypes and have commercial customers. They are all, as I understand it, funded by IT wealth: respectively, Paul Allen, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. Commercial companies with much less budget, much smaller design and build groups, are rapidly replacing NASA’s capabilities. It is a mark of their success. I applaud them and their community of competitors. The comparison is also a sign of the inefficiencies of old, massive, entrenched organizations that survive on misplaced incentives.
My space remorse is personal. Years of college, years at work, and the realization that I was in the right place at the right time with the right skills, but that wrong set of something as abstract as corporate incentives could be the cause of so much waste.
My space remorse is also for America. I wasn’t the only engineer in that situation. I’ve known dozens and probably hundreds of fellow engineers whose expertise could have made a difference for our country and our planet. Following Kennedy’s dream and level of vision from the mid-sixties through to 2001 could have surpassed the movie’s technical accomplishments. We didn’t realize how quickly technology would change. Better access to space resources could have meant less use of earth-bound materials. Better self-sustainable systems, which are required in space, could have brought earth-bound sustainability sooner. Space allows industries and power supplies that aren’t economically feasible with current, which is also 1970, technology. I suspect commercial work in space would have uncovered discoveries as unexpected as what society found as we delved into the Information Age. At the time, there was no obvious path from an IBM PC to streaming Netflix on a cell phone.
Space isn’t the only place with stymied innovations. Think of other overly-bureaucractic institutions like health care and education. How many doctors, nurses, and teachers have fought for change within their systems, staring at needs, while unable to replace archaic or counter-productive incentive systems?
Space has finally found its innovators. Money, passion, and incentives were the key. Maybe the same can happen with health care and education. I’m an engineer. I don’t know as much about those areas. But I’ve witnessed massive waste of human potential and wondered how much better we all would be if that potential had been utilized.
I watch for trends and space was a trend that I invested in early with massive amounts of my time. Part of my remorse is from having guessed wrong, from having guessed that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to stagnate. Thirty years after I graduated, it looks like I might finally be right. It may be a bit late for my career (but call me, operators are standing by), but there is great opportunity for the newer generation. Maybe the same will soon be true throughout other aspects of our civilization.
In the meantime, America is counting on its entrepreneurs and those entrepreneurs are in a race with the governments of China and India. Those governments’ space bureaucracies aren’t old enough to be entrenched anachronisms. They’re still reaching for their Apollo Program. I’ve had enough remorse. It’s time to find something to celebrate.
PS I also have a first edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey for sale. Details available upon request.