Saturday, July 16, 2005

NASA and omelet making

To prove my own laziness, I will now give y'all an excerpt from an e-mail I sent a friend:

It seems to me that the Shuttle is a clear case of over-engineering
and the managers are being entirely too cautious. Apparently only one
fuel sensor failed, but there are four of them and only two need to
work to avoid a problem. So the design builds in this huge degree of
redundancy, which negates the consequences of a single failure but
greatly increases the chance that something will fail, and then scraps
the launch because of the almost inevitable failure. No wonder it
costs billions of dollars for a single launch. Exploration requires a
little more testicular fortitude than they are willing to expend.

That was from a couple days ago. Now in the New York Times there is an article saying that NASA might actually grow a pair and send the Shuttle off with *gasp* only three of four sensors working.

The ultimate goal is to make space travel as cheap and common-place as air travel. After being in space almost fifty years we're alot further behind than we were at a comparable point in aeronautical history. At this point in time in aeronautical history we were on the verge of the 707 and cheap, safe, ubiquitous trans-continental travel. If we were near the same track when it came to space we would regularly be sending people to Mars without a second thought. But we're not. So the big question is why?

There are several answers. First, there just wasn't the same precursors for space-travel as there was and is for air travel. Before aircraft came along people were able to travel long distancesm, it just took longer because they had to travel by train or by sea. Airplanes were an incremental advance in transportation technology. The ability to travel to different planets has never before existed, so it's a much bigger jump. We had to crawl before we could run, so to speak. We're still in the crawling stage when it comes to space. But that doesn't fully answer the why.

That brings up the second reason: which is that there is no imperative to be in space. Traveling long distances on this planet makes sense for alot of reasons. It facilitates business, it makes more interesting vacations possible, there is a clear demand for intra-planet travel. There is no such demand to go to Mars. There are no businesses on Mars. There are no people on Mars (that we know of). That makes kind of a conundrum: in order for there to be demand to go to Mars we must already have some kind of presence there to make it worth it. It's easy to imagine a day in which space travel is common-place. When we've colonized other planets there will obviously be every incentive to have the ability to travel between planets. But it's a chicken or the egg thing. Before you can have a chicken you must have an egg (unless God just creates a chicken out of mid-air, but it's not a good idea to count on that).

The last reason we're so early in our inter-planetary travel capabilities is that we're developing them with two arms and a leg tied behind our back. When aviation was beginning the state-of-the-art was advanced by people taking risks to try out new things. Now, nobody takes any risks, least of all the entrenched bureaucracy of NASA. It costs billions of dollars to send the Shuttle into space and the reason it costs so much is, at least partly, because NASA spares no expense in creating redundant and safe systems on the shuttle. Which is all well and good, except that a price is paid for any level of safety. By placing the primary emphasis on safety (and for political reasons, I might add) the advancement of our understanding is retarded. So don't hold your breath waiting for NASA to lead the way to space. A much more promising route is to let risk-taking private entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan lead the way. As the saying goes, to make an omelet you've got to break a few eggs.

I didn't re-read this post due to laziness so I apologize for any typos, though I doubt I made any.


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