Saturday, July 9, 2011

Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi


My earliest and fondest childhood memory was the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16th, 40 years ago. I remember how inspired and awed I was by that event. It, more than anything else, drove me to science and engineering. I won’t wax nostalgic too much, but suffice it to say that my office is still dominated by a 6 foot by 4 foot photo of Armstrong’s first boot print in lunar dust.

Apollo was a symbol of greatness. Of can do. We lost men, but we pressed on. It was something the nation could rally around in troubled time (summer of ‘69 wasn’t such a hot period for America).

Those days are over because as of today, July 8th 2011, America is no longer able to put a man in space.

How do I feel about it?

Not too bad actually. NASA served its purpose, it bootstrapped the space race by funding the development of needed technologies and showing that space travel can be done.

But like all government agencies, time hasn’t been kind to NASA. The single minded, driven overachiever of the 60th is now a bloated, slow moving, risk averse behemoth.

Government is good at marshaling national resources for a grand purpose with national consensus: WW II, Moon shot, ... But eventually the bureaucracy takes over, inefficiency and risk averseness become the norm. Consensus breaks down and strategy and vision become directed by a Congress than changes every 2 years.

NASA is not the right framework for the next chapter in this story. The free market is.

The good news is that, thanks to NASA, there now exists a number of private companies leading the way in space research.

The traditional aerospace companies will be there but also exciting newcomers such as SpaceX which is developing cheap traditional liquid fuel, reusable boosters.

Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites continues to break the mold in manned space flight. That suborbital flight of Space Ship One in September of 2004 was, to me, as exciting as July of 1969.

So, the final score? Space Ship 1 – Government 0