May 6, 2010

Messages from Outer Space

If you get within three football fields of a Space Shuttle launch you’ll be fried by the heat. Even beyond that distance the sound will kill you.

Recently I felt the power of a Shuttle liftoff as NASA’s guest for the launch of STS-131, the fourth to last Shuttle launch and the final one done at night. Our NASA hosts told us not to take photographs or we would lose the effect of the moment. Boy, were they right!

We’ve all seen the spectacle through a small aperture lens. It doesn’t do the moment justice. Yes, the fireball beneath the Shuttle is even more spectacular in person, but what can’t be captured is the tremendous thunder produced by 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The thunder is so loud, so forceful, and so sustained that your clothes flap as though you were standing in a wind storm.

So what does a Shuttle launch have to do with a column that normally muses about the mobile Internet? The Space Program is going through a change period which is trying to import Internet Age thinking into a legacy environment. Not surprisingly, infusing the kind of entrepreneurial thinking that produced the Internet and ubiquitous wireless connectivity into outer space is meeting with opposition.

During the Obama-Biden Transition I oversaw the team that was responsible for NASA and watched as some of these new ideas took shape. But I’m a tech guy, not a space guy and what’s more, I’m now a civilian with no dog in this hunt. But it sure seems as though what has become standard operating procedure in the IP tech world – the replacement of a command-and-control system with distributed activity – could find a home in our Space Program.

The year 1969 produced two world-changing events. In July mankind first set foot on the moon. Two months later the Internet was born as the first node of ARPANET was installed. One of the breakthroughs became dynamic and produced a landslide of innovative ideas, jobs and economic growth. The other, staffed by good and dedicated people and astronauts willing to risk their lives, became frozen in government systems.

The Space Program is today in the midst of what might be described as its own “analog to digital conversion.” I don’t mean this literally, of course; NASA is digital (although the Space Shuttle is a 1970s technology). What I mean has less to do with technology and a lot more to do with a way of thinking.

Paul Baran, the father of packet switching, tells the story of trying to explain digital switching to the circuit switched telephone people at AT&T. It was as if he was speaking Swahili, he chuckles today. People who grew up knowing that a circuit had to remain open couldn’t comprehend constantly breaking it during a digital transmission. The reaction of the incumbents in the space community to President Obama’s proposal to rethink NASA’s path forward by relying on non-government programs would seem to be a similar response. The idea of distributed space innovation is an unfathomable foreign language.

Internet Age thinking begins with distributed activity replacing centralized control. An analogy would be to compare Bell Labs and today’s entrepreneurs. In the days of the centralized telephone switch innovation was centralized as well. Bell Labs had more IQ per square foot than any other place on earth; giving us everything from the transistor to cellular telephony, all in a corporately-organized plan. In comparison, the distributed network that Paul Baran’s discovery enabled decentralized activity, introduced chaos rather than control, and the result was that innovation bloomed.

Today Bell Labs is gone. The historic facility that housed Bell Labs’ brainpower has been sold to a real estate developer for a mixed use project. No doubt some of the space in the new development will be occupied by entrepreneurs chasing an idea much like the innovators at Bell Labs chased theirs – but without centralized coordination.

NASA was the Bell Labs of Space. Like Bell Labs they delivered important innovations and added to our national pride. To continue a 20th Century command-and-control model in an era of distributed development is not in the best interest of NASA, however. We were once told the telephone network was so complex and essential to national security that it had to be protected from competition. Now we hear the same warnings with regard to the space program.

Just as new competitors broke the telephone monopoly, NASA has not remained immune to innovative competition. No longer is the U.S. Space Program the go-to party for the launch of commercial satellites; that mantel is now worn by a foreign commercial launch provider. In true distributed innovation U.S. entrepreneurs are also building their own competitive low earth orbit launch capability. NASA has previously indicated its desire to use that new U.S. commercial launch capacity to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

Manned space flight, however, is another matter. Yet after this year the U.S. will have no capacity to send astronauts into space on American launch vehicles. A decision by the Bush Administration to cancel the Space Shuttle denied this nation low earth orbit lift capacity. As a result of that earlier decision, Americans’ route to earth orbit will be hailing taxi rides on the Russian’s Soyuz spacecraft. We’ve already begun doing this; another U.S. crew is scheduled to ride a Soyuz to the International Space Station next month. It is imperative that we get Americans back in space on American launch vehicles as quickly as possible.

The Bush Administration also proposed the development of new launch systems. The Constellation Program would feature a heavy lift Constellation rocket and a smaller Ares low earth orbit rocket. At least for low earth orbit lifts, however, the American taxpayer may not have to be the taxi driver. We are already hiring others to launch our satellites and astronauts, why shouldn’t those we hire be Americans creating American jobs? The unmanned commercial launch vehicles need to be upgraded for human flight, but that is already underway.

Embracing commercial manned launches will not only save the taxpayer dollars, but also will put Americans back in space sooner by using enhanced versions of existing launch vehicles. It will also free our country from the exposure that some political event could affect Russia’s desire to send (and more importantly retrieve) our astronauts from the Space Station. Best of all, embracing commercial low earth orbit manned flight will allow NASA to focus on moving the edge of the envelope further out into space, including with manned missions.

Back in the original analog-to-digital days I can remember AT&T’s representatives warning of catastrophic job losses and damage to the national security if innovative competitors were allowed into their business. The same echoes surround the proposed NASA changes. Many of the Old Guard, launch system contractors, and their congressional supporters are bemoaning the thought of a competitive manned launch environment. We’ve heard all that before at the time of another “analog-to-digital” conversion. The earlier warnings not only failed to materialize, but just the opposite occurred as new, innovative and less expensive services came forward and economic growth and a new generation of jobs exploded.

The U.S. Space Program stands on the brink of its own analog-to-digital moment. For what it’s worth, the lesson on the ground is that embracing the new day of commercial entrepreneurs and innovators lifts us all onward and upward.