The end of an era .... the beginnings of another?
Last week in DC included a visit, a homage to our space roots at the National Air and Space Museum. My family was present for my daughter's award, which coincidentally was for an analysis of Mars conditions for life begun with the Viking lander - my dad fabricated and tested the transponder it used (along with a half dozen other museum exhibits too!).
I found myself recounting dozens of stories and "lessons learned", and getting into many discussions about specific missions and how certain presumptions tilted things rightly (and wrongly) for the evolution of entering the frontier of space, born as an exercise in cold war "soft power" conflict.
Even though the cold wars have been over for a couple of decades, neither NASA nor the aerospace industry have quite "moved on" to the necessary evolution to the next stage. Cold war relics (including myself!) still abound and seeming warp the present around the past in attempting to force a future that never seems to arrive.
Not unlike attempts to take a fish-oil company and rebrand it as a trendy "dot.com", yet retain its "fishy" origins.
We can already see that for things to go further, we can't do the huge "overwhelm and devastate" approaches appropriate for superpower competition - that trick hasn't worked for decades and ten's of billions. "Programs too big to fail" fail. Especially when we can least afford them to do so.
I won't bore you with the manifold political, structural, or social reasons - they're all contorted, contrived, and ... irrelevant.
However I will address "segment emergence" and the perception of brand as a critical element to breaking the nostalgic cycle that prevents us from entering into the next era that my children will thrive in. Read more ...
NASA was our response to Russian space exploration, and other government agencies and aerospace industry were the tools it used to craft responses. Black and white no gray.
Today we are immersed in a sea of gray with no black and white. True, there are always the nationalists of every country, attempting to manufacture/polarize "dark gray" into black and "light gray" into white for their own purposes.
But we are largely driven by "international partnerships" when, like with the unaffordable US-only "Space Station Freedom", need to operate with the even more expensive yet smaller "International Space Station" born of its parts.
The more frugal offerings here likely will come from commercial firms. Even the Chinese can't easily compel a frugal space exploration program like the Russians did in the past - commercial reuse and highly evolved systems require much specialization that needs constant involvement to refine.
Unlike the past, where superpowers could use their weapons arsenal systems to assemble "good enough" hardware to fly, frequently "stealing" from each other parts/ideas/skills as needed, we are getting to a level in the exploration game where we can't afford the economics of "good enough" but require "way better than good enough". As we did with the arrival of the personal computer.
America left the moon and retreated to low earth orbit because you could only push a "spam in a can" model so far before you started killing people and then a culture might demand to know what the ROI was on a highly expensive program that could at best return rocks not unlike ones at your feet on earth. It was an inspiring highest of high wire acts - some were even trying to stretch to go to Mars!
So we learned for 3 decades how to develop skills in space and how to cooperate to do so.
The next era is where commercial efforts displace the arsenal systems "hurry up and wait" with predictable metrics evolved to replace them. Because this is an emergence of a new business segment, there are no closed business models nor any expectation of stable served markets. Just a few hair brained ones. Not unlike the way the American west was prior to gold being discovered ... and no ones even hinting there's a millionth of a chance of anything remotely like gold being present.
This era must begin with no promises and preconceptions, simply to shed the contradictions of the beginnings of space exploration. Otherwise, the distortions of the past will continue to overwhelm the decision making process and we will continue to postpone the arrival of this new era because we as a society choose to cling to the past and relive it rather than have the courage to embrace the future, unknowns and all, and take it forth. Way past the moon.
My daughter did a knock-out speech in the acceptance of her award the next day. She had seen Viking, and had an immense exposure in being drenched in history. I believe it gave her the underpinnings of reaching beyond the present to a future that contained that unseen ROI on the trillions of investment that will be called upon to get it. Like Moses seeing the promised land he'd never touch, I'm thrilled she might feel it even if I can't but know it in theory.
Segment emergence is like this. You have to make a big, uncovered bet as an investment. Do all you like to secure it wisely (like eliminating the arsenal system involvement, whose point is not to do things best but to do things to "win" in a situation where you can define what "win" means ...), but you either "do or do not, there is no try".
That doesn't mean either that we blindly stumble about with no return possible. Robotics may allow us to, along the path of exploration, discover, develop, and adapt new resources off-world that incrementally build larger and larger ROI inducing businesses that we can "almost plan for".
Beginnings are fragile times, and this is at a time when people aren't in the mood for anything but quick flips that this certainly can never be.
When you look though for the biggest possible wins, the world changing forever ones though, and what causes someone to catch fire on the podium, this is where they will be found.