We are adrift and it’s not clear there is any hope for us. Politicians are good at some things but long-term strategy is not one of them, particularly in our instant gratification fantasy addled society. Space is an area where this is demonstrated again and again. While it is simply amazing what engineers and scientists have done with the space program given the horrific level of uncertainty and outright incompetence they have had to deal with from above, it is heart-rending to think of what could have been accomplished if leadership had been competent and the visions stable over time.
Look at what the Space entrepreneurs (scaled composites, virgin galactic, space x, orbital science, etc) have accomplished since they essentially gave up on the gov’t. They are using technology developed by the US, European and even Russian (best cheap rocket engines in the world) space programs. But much of the technology being used is far from bleeding edge. How can it be that Elon Musk (Space X Falcon) can confidently say that he can develop a heavy (medium heavy) lifter that can reach the goal of $1000/lb. A goal that has evaded the US big boys for something like 20 years and do it with functionally tiny amounts of money?
Because……….I was on a call today talking about a program very near to my heart (in real life) and our customer mentioned that he’d recently had a success where he demonstrated insertion of a new technology to the gov’t. When demonstrating to the gov’t customer one of the gov’t program guy’s asked how long and how much it had taken, and was blown away, ‘How did could you do this in such a short time with so little money?’ The contractor looked the gov’t guy in the eye and said, “Because the gov’t wasn’t involved.”
His team had identified the problem, figured out the solution, implemented it and put on this demonstration for a fraction of what it would have cost because he could do it quickly, No CYA and Second Guessing that a normal program entails. If his team had to trade-off something like weight for performance, or ruggedness for cost, they could make the decision in only the time they needed to work it out then move on.
He didn’t have to start out with a study, then develop a spec, have that spec mangled and twenty pages of gov’t specs added to it, then either compete for the job or send it out for competitive bid, set up a gov’t audited program with gov’t audited subcontracts and then carry out the work with every step requiring a sign off and every other step requiring a wait while a bureaucrat made up his/her mind, and/or went home early for a long weekend.
That sort of process is required for the most trivial of programs selling hardware to the gov’t today. If the gov’t were adding value by being the top-level engineer (true until post Apollo) it might be at least acceptable, but the gov’t long ago lost most of its competent people, today they are just a layer of semi technically literate auditors. When you look at the paragraph above and understand that is what one has to go through to change a voltage regulator or a belt pulley on what is essentially a truck and multiply that by a thousand times when talking about a whole vehicle, tens or hundreds of thousands of times for a spacecraft, it’s actually amazing we get anything done.
Why has it come to this, because of CYA and a lack of creative destruction in the gov’t. It’s too strong to say that nothing ever dies in the gov’t it’s also not a bad approximation. The system we have today is the equivalent of sedimentary rock built up by hundreds of thousands CYA rules accreting one on top of the other.
We keep coming up with these grandiose plans, but they mean nothing in the long-term because they are not long-term. And the smaller programs that get some traction are less and less able to break through the near impenetrable impediment that is the space industrial complex and its layers of CYA rules.