A Path to the Stars

>> Friday, September 18, 2009

Hey, how about a bit a little rocket scientist stuff? The other day, I read a very interesting article, basically a criticism of our current direction regarding space exploration. It involved contrasting the original Vision for Space Exploration and the directions we've gone. It's a very interesting topic and, but it's not the part I want to talk about here.

What I want to talk about is a rather central argument is his case: the one should devise your strategy based on your objectives rather than making a design and trying to build your needs to suit it. It's an interesting argument and it makes sense to me.

The thing is, when you're doing anything, space exploration included, you should start with a thorough understanding of what you want to do and why. NASA has taken a lot of flack for asking people why we want to go to the moon. We should know why we're going (and my own thoughts on why going to the moon in a meaningful permanent way are echoed in that article).

But it's true for more than space exploration. Anything you want to do, particularly with public funds, should follow a need. When you've identified the need, understand why it's necessary, strategy should follow based on how best to attain address the need with the capabilities at hand. Unfortunately, if you haven't articulated the need, why it's necessary, you can be distracted.

Am I confusing you?

Let me give you a hypothetical situation in how one can be distracted. Let's say you live somewhere prone to wildfires. You have some helicopters that can drop water, but what you really need is a water bomber, a big amphibious plane that can scoop water up itself and let her go without having to get recharged in an airport. You've got a tight budget, but you think it's doable. So, you decide to build one. You want to use the same local talent that developed your helicopters because, hey, you know them and they're eager to work on the new project rather than face unemployment. In fact, as you discuss their situation, you realize that these jobs depend on you and you find yourself committed to making sure they stay busy working on the project even the most of the people at the facility do helicopter maintenance and your bomber won't be done for a couple years.

And then, as you're working specs, they tell you it would be better if the plane had a larger range so it could get to other areas as well. That increases the size of the fuel tanks and decreased water carrying capacity. Then they find that the structure to scoop up the water is problematic so they recommend going back to the airport to refuel and reload and change the design... Change after change comes through with the idea of making the aircraft more versatile and compatible with their existing facilities, so you have to shorten the wings but now you have a lift problem so you have to cut back on the water capacity. Meanwhile, people are spending time month after month, of your money working on something, except the design you hear isn't anything like you wanted and doesn't meet any of your original needs. A prototype's coming, but you've used up all your faults and it no longer carries much more than the original helicopters and is so versatile it doesn't do the job you had in mind at all well.

So you sell it to fedex, which buys up the shortfall between the money you had to spend and the amount you spent keeping the everyone employed and building the prototype. And you're still there with a need and a fleet of helicopters that never did the job you needed, but are all you have.

If you design to the need and never lose focus on that, however, never let some nice-to-have that were never a part of the necessity drive you away from the original need, it's amazing what one can do.

Just food for thought. Actually, there's quite a bit there worth thinking about.


  • Jeff King

    i can see how projects lose their effectiveness over the time it takes to complete them. Not to mention the people making the judgment call are normally not there all the time, nor is that person the one who needed the project in the first place.

    If something is new/original it is normal to waist a lot of time and money to get it right. To find out later what you have built is obsolete and worthless and the process starts all over again. And the only thing the previous project was only good for was learning from the few mistakes that were made. So you don’t commit them on this project and hopefully one day the stars align and it works….

    Sorry kind of went on a tangent there. The best thing going into space did for us was drive technology ahead by leaps and bound. Hopefully we can get back to that soon, our economy needs it.

    Because new technology drives new products, and people to buy new stuff and new stuff equals new jobs and new attitudes and new thoughts with new opportunities. That allows the future prosperity to dream that their future is alive and full of wonders…

    Well I’ll end it there, since it makes sense to only meself.

  • The Mother

    This reminded me of a documentary I watched on a new military plane in development. They started out to make one plane for all three branches of the armed forces, but the navy wanted this and the army wanted that.

    And before they knew it, their nice, cheap, one sized fits all plane became three separate prototypes.

    They still managed to produce it less expensively than starting with three totally different designs (which is a feat in itself), but it wasn't quite what they had envisioned.

  • Roy

    Oddly enough, this reminds me of one of the basic rules of story writing - never just start writing a story; choose where you want to go (ending) and a basic way to get there (plot outline). Without them you end up going off on all kinds of meanderings and tangents and lose the thread of the story.

    Yeah, I know. How bourgeois and linear of me! I actually like to read stories rather than get lost in stream-of-consciousness stuff.

  • Relax Max

    I once thought NASA's objective was space exploration. Now I see it is really doing experiments on a space station. At first I had the wild notion that if we built a huge space station, we could use it as a platform to go to other planets because we wouldn't have to waste all that fuel blasting off from earth. Boy was I wrong. But I was young and still had dreams and imagination.

    What is NASA's mission? I mean other than self-perpetuating employment and justification of huge financial appropriations? Anybody over there still have a dream? Or have all those dreamer folks long since retired or died?

  • Relax Max

    What I mean is, I can't think of any way one can make plans based on actual objectives if the objectives aren't clearly defined. My comment wasn't meant to insult you or NASA; your post just seemed to point to a glaring lack of objectives in your own back yard.

  • Stephanie B

    You're quite percipient. Relax Max.

    I don't think it's that we have no more dreamers. Who makes the decisions? And are they listening to the dreamers?

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