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« Working Hand In Glove | Main | A Misleading Debate »

Where There's A Will

I don't have much time to write, but fortunately some of my readers do.

Mitchell Burnside Clapp, of Pioneer Rocketplane, has been commenting on spacesuit gloves in the previous post, but he also passes along some comments, via email, about how much smarter we are now than we were in the sixties.

I was thinking recently about NASA and its desire to invest heavily in new technologies to develop better launch vehicles. I know this is worthy work and that NASA's charter requires them to do a fair bit of this sort of thing, but I can't help be reminded of the kids who spend a hundred bucks on top of the line basketball shoes in the hopes that it will give them game.
You get game by doing the work. You get it by doing a hundred thousand free throws. You get it by running your legs into jelly until you can drive the lane. You get it by doing something other than layups at practice because anyone can make those shots and you don't always get them in real games. You get it by trying and failing and trying and failing and repeating the process until the ball goes swish, every single time.

It doesn't come from the shoes.

Okay, I'll get down off my metaphorical high-horse. Truth to tell, I suck at basketball. My strategy is always, 'pass the ball to the tall kid.'

But I've faced this a bunch of times in my own life. Haven't we all?

Ever say:

I'm not going to do a classical methods analysis because the fancy software I can't afford will solve it with a mouse click.

I'm not going to go jogging today because that promotional deal at the gym starts next month.

I'm having the crème bruleé tonight because I'm starting a diet tomorrow.

I'm not going to code this software tight because next year's hardware will run it fast enough.

Back in the 1960s, a time of incredible, inspirational, achievement in space, we had technology far less advanced than we have currently. Everyone knows about electronics of course, but even fairly straightforward things like welding, rocket engines, navigation, and so forth have advanced amazingly since the moon program. Our financial resources have grown immeasurably as well. But we are currently offered a plan to go back to the moon, and it?ll take twice as long as it did the first time. For me, the question is often, ?If they can put a man
on the moon, then why can?t they put a man on the moon??

What has changed? First, I think, is a lack of relevance to the ordinary person. People interested in space have never managed to make the case to the broader public that the scientific benefits, the prestige benefits, or the spinoff benefits are worth the expenditure. Rationally, they aren?t. We believe, almost as an article of received wisdom, that space is worth doing for inherent reasons, because it feeds something inside us. But that case has never been made clear to the people who are obliged to pay for it.

Secondly, of course, is the self-perpetuating notion that space is so colossally expensive that it can only be done by governments, when in fact it may be the other way around - it?s expensive because it?s done by governments. And a desire for ever more elegant technology before committing to actually building anything makes the status quo a way of life, permanently. At 41 years of age, I am below the average age for aerospace professionals still, when in nearly any other industry I would be above it, and in some regarded as quite over the hill.

In my opinion, the only way space will become a significant region of human activity is to make it pay for itself - to get people to invest in it, and to reward them handsomely for doing so. My own company is attempting one approach to this, and I?m sure many others are as well. Someone, eventually, will succeed, and space will become a routine place for people to travel to and work in and make livings from.

In the 1960s, there was a historically unique convergence of technical capability and political will. We are unlikely to see it again in our lifetimes. The will necessary to do the things in space that we all dream of, I conclude, must come from us alone.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that success, progress, and so on comes from doing the work. Nothing else.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 18, 2004 12:42 PM
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I absolutely agree. Government programs will always be a part of space, but it will never go very far if they are the focus. One of my biggest complaints with NASA is that they throw money away on projects that go nowhere instead of things that could make space pay - like researching reusable, reliable efficient rocket designs that could be turned over to business for further development - parts instead of whole ship designs. Or zero g materials research for space manufacturing. IF there was reliable launch service, and IF there was proved space manufacturing for advanced semiconductors, there would be a huge market right there. And I have little doubt something would turn up like that if the research was done.

On tech versus capability - there was some idiot on the History channel who said "The ancient Egyptians didn't have the technology to build the Pyramids. Something we don't understand yet must have been used." (He was implying aliens.)

In other words, less technology = stupid. Just because they didn't have our machines this fool assumed they were too stupid to build pyramids. Just as we couldn't go to the moon in the '60s. Right.

Posted by VR at February 18, 2004 04:09 PM

A lot of people would support a more focused effort into space exploration and migration. The old cliche... "where there's a will, there's a way" comes to mind, but the will as expressed above is more than just a desire.

Does the will truly exist?

What happened to those people in the 60's? Oh? I guess my question answers itself.

Posted by ken anthony at February 18, 2004 05:25 PM

Amen, Mitch. At _this_ rocket shop, we like to say, "first make it work, then make it work better." If we can't afford the fancy software, we'll kludge up a classical analysis, maybe in a spreadsheet. If we're not confident in the third decimal of the heat transfer (hell, sometimes the first!) we'll build a test article, run it, and see if it melts....

Yoda had it wrong, though. In order to do, you have to try (and fail a few times) first. Enough of this, anyway, I'm running an engine test in a few hours, have some fiddly bits to complete.

Posted by Doug Jones at February 19, 2004 07:21 AM

Some years ago I visited the museum in Roswell, NM. The Goddard exhibit was being re done so alot of signage was missing. In one case with various nozzles were several turbines made of chewing tobacco container lids. As you said the important thing is to first make it work. Poverty can be the mother of invention

Posted by bruce at February 19, 2004 10:08 AM

Inspirational, but it's delusional to think there's 'nothing instrinsically expensive about reaching space.' The fact is that building a machine complex enough to pull itself out of the gravity well is tough to do no matter who you are. Certainly private industry has the management and necessity to get it done cheaper than government--but not orders of magnitude so. This has been evidenced in multiple fields of endeavor prior to the advent of space transportation, and there's no miracle technology government is ignoring that will make space an exception until long after CATS is the norm.

Space is expensive with current efforts because it is nearly impossible to do with current technology anyway. No amount of hand-wringing or non-government financing will make it much cheaper until technology has advanced enough to make the aspects that are currently difficult and expensive cheap and reliable.

That being said, the only way to advance such technology in a consistent fashion is via CATS--but it will be CATS at a comparable cost to current government efforts, not a significantly lower cost. That's reality.

Posted by Tom Merkle at February 20, 2004 10:31 PM

Tom, with all due respect... What a crock! It's engineering and physics... the reason it's expensive is politics and lack of vision.

F=MA, you need thrust. You need structure that doesn't crush. You need staging, until we get better ways of generating thrust (which exist but are politically infeasible.) You need minimal guidance.

My 13yo son can build a rocket. Give him an engineering degree and a CAD system and he could build one to visit any destination in the solar system.

Perhaps what it needs are Russian's and Chinese because if we can't find the will and vision to do it, perhaps some other humans can carry the torch.

Go ahead and call me delusional, but you'll be eating your words in 2 or 3 decades.

Posted by ken anthony at February 22, 2004 10:53 AM

"...complaints with NASA is that they throw money away on projects..."

It's not just government agencies. When business gets too big the same thing happens. Years ago I worked for a fortune 500 manufacturer. They bought a half million dollar milling machine but ordered it with modifications. The thing sat on the shop floor for years, taking up space and never getting used. This type of thing is repeated over and over in large corporations.

My bet is that the big names in space are going to come from some of those ten person companies in Mojave and similar places.

Posted by ken anthony at February 22, 2004 12:21 PM


Please provide the technology that is supposed to be ?nearly impossible? to build. I?m not aware of any. In my poor delusional mind, the primary issues are (1) current rockets are only single use or mostly single use for a relatively small number of launches, instead of reusable, reliable designs used for a large number of launches (2) the primary technology base for most currently used systems dates back to the ?60s and ?70s with token improvements, and (3) operations are run by an army of workers. Take away the army of workers, stop replacing or rebuilding all the hardware, but leave fuel costs alone, and the price goes down orders of magnitude. The problem is operational, not technological.

Posted by VR at February 22, 2004 11:27 PM

ken anthony:

No argument on companies wasting money. The only real difference is that companies that waste too much money collapse, change their business, or are bought out by smarter companies. The government just raises taxes or borrows more money and keeps doing the same thing. Look at Amtrack ? every few years, Congress critters threaten to shut it down for exactly the same reasons, and it never happens. I also agree that the big aerospace companies aren?t going to be the ones to innovate, but not just because they are big ? they are too tightly locked in with the current space programs. But don?t be surprised if Boeing copies some innovative company after they prove the market, like IBM did with the Apple II.

Posted by VR at February 22, 2004 11:38 PM

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