Status Report

Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Learning from dissent

By SpaceRef Editor
June 23, 2008
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Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Learning from dissent

If you listen with an open mind, you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you. Even questioning the fundamentals from time to time is a good exercise to make sure we are on the right track and not on the proverbial bus trip to Abilene.

I really resonated with the comment by Joe Fitzgerald of Boston, reading his children the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. When my children were small, we read the whole series at bedtime, one chapter a night. I particularly liked “Farmer Boy” but all of the books are good because they are true and very well told. After reading those books, I always wondered if I was tough enough to be a pioneer; probably not.

Joe thinks space exploration is a long way from Ma & Pa Ingalls setting out across the Midwest in their covered wagon. Turns out, I do too.

Some time back I had a great conversation with Mike Griffin where he pointed out that we are at the earliest stages of space exploration, and likened our times to the era of the Viking longboats. Those crude ships were just barely enough to get across the stormy Atlantic. Sometimes, not always. In space exploration we really need to get to the Caravel stage; which is still far short of the Clipper Ship phase, and light years from the jet aircraft stage.

In the 1850’s there was a proposal to build dirigibles to transport folks from the east coast to the California gold fields. At the time ballooning was immensely popular but the technology was immature. Still, it looked like a better option than taking five months across the mountains, prairies, and deserts on foot or by wagon. Sadly, the dirigibles never materialized. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed and a vastly less capable technology – steam locomotives – was used to cross the country in only seven days! I wonder how history would have been different if we had invested more in lighter than aircraft than in steam locomotives? Today everybody travels by air – just not dirigibles – while passenger trains are almost extinct.

Ma & Pa Ingalls will have to wait for a few more improvements in technology before we can get off the planet at anything like regular people prices. But I don’t think that we should give us seafaring just because all we have is a Viking longboat. We just have more impetus to build a better boat.

Point well taken, Joe; your comment certainly made me think.

Friday I had a “dissenting opinion” from a well respected source. Bob Thompson who was the first Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1974 to 1981 gave me a call. Bob is a man of vast talents who was responsible for building the Skylab space station before he was handed the near-impossible job to build the first reusable spacecraft. He is singularly proud of his accomplishment, as he should be.

Bob’s treatise was simple; we have got enough to do to master near earth space – low earth orbit to geosync – to keep us busy and learning for the next 30 to 50 years. His proposal is to keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date. I cannot do his argument justice here but it was fascinating to hear someone who is so completely counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom. It always makes me more thoughtful when the fundamentals are examined in a well considered way.

As a byproduct of this conversation I got a great recounting of the early days of Skylab and how many of the fundamental engineering tradeoffs were made in early Shuttle design. Extraordinarily educational. Lots to think about. I hope Bob and I get to debate this one some more.

After a weekend’s worth of thought, I am still, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to Bob’s opinion. A longer explanation is worthwhile but I am running out of time and space today. That will be a blog post for a future date.

Keep thinking and we’ll keep talking; all the while working toward the future.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to go help bail out the longboat a little bit . . . .

SpaceRef staff editor.