A generation of space science can only be saved by radical change.
Cringlely usually talks about computer operating systems, software, etc. Here, he departs into a subject on interest to me – space travel. Back in the 60s, we all thought we would be much further along by now than we find ourselves in the present.
Some time around 1964 the political will to send mankind into space began to wane. It had completely vanished by 1972. There have been a few fits and starts, the latest being President Bush’s Moon to Mars proposal.
However, the usual suspects have pretty much dried up the budget needed to actually accomplish this proposal. Their congressional cries of ‘waste’, ‘feed the homeless first’, ‘free health care’, etc. have sucked the wind out of ever the decreasing discretionary Federal spending. One current Presidential Candidate – John Edwards aka the Silk Pony – has often stated that killing NASA would be the first thing he’d do, if elected.
Against this tide, runs private space developers, and large corporations offering prizes for this and that in the area of space travel. Cringely has put together a Team to attempt to win the Google Prize for a Lunar Rover. I wish them well.
Mostly, though, I want to cover what has emerged as the primary motivation behind Team Cringely, which is literally preserving the entire idea of going to space, an idea that – at least for America – is near death.
…to put it mildly…
On the government level, which is to say NASA, the space culture is one of risk aversion and budget preservation: all budgets are spent but most projects are canceled. Space technology is moving forward at a very slow rate, with propulsion systems, for example, little changed from 40 years ago. Moore’s Law has described many things, but serious space advancements aren’t among them. The result is that hard-won knowledge has retired with the men and women who developed it and we are substantially LESS able to go to the Moon today as a nation than we were 30 years ago.
Little known fact: after the last manned lunar shot in 1972, all the existing blueprints, models, dies, parts, etc. for the Saturn V booster where collected and destroyed.
So modern wealthy investors begin to pick up the slack while some of those people are still alive.
Well, all in all this is good news – sort of. Pouring more money into repeating the same old mistakes, but with private capital instead of NASA.
I suggest if you want fresh new ideas, you look back 43 years to the Project Orion – the Atomic Space Ship. Their motto, in case you do not know, was "Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970".
"…the first time in modern history that a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons." – Freeman Dyson.
This new space community needs to think bigger than a Lunar Rover – that may be a so-called Start, but really it’s a ho-hummer to most people here in the US and abroad.
The things which characterized the old NASA’s lunar space program – at least it’s public face – were Hope and Wonder. Where ever I traveled in the world in those days, those two things characterized people’s reactions – even a couple of KGB guys in an East/West German border town – after enough snoose – freely admitted that this one aspect of the US’s program they could not match – yet.. :)
The technology exists to do far better, only the will is lacking.