by edward wright
The team that built NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity are being hailed as geniuses, because the landing worked. If the landing hadn’t worked, they would be treated like dogs. Both are unfair. The judgment is based on a single data point.
If NASA tried the MSL landing ten times, how many trials would be successful? Ten? Nine? Or only one? We don’t really know. Did the MSL team just get lucky?
This is a common problem in space exploration. Most of the feats we attempt are one of a kind, or few of a kind. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get good statistics on them.
That’s one reason why the new reusable suborbital vehicles are so important. The high flight rates will allow us to obtain valid statistical data on a great many systems, and that data will be very important for designing future orbital systems.
Of course, statistics are irrelevant if decision makers don’t use them or don’t understand them. Congress canceled NASA’s “cheaper, better, faster” planetary program after a few failures. In actuality, there was no evidence that cheaper, better, faster missions failed at a higher rate than traditional, more expensive programs, but Congress did not understand the statistics. Of course, more expensive traditional programs can afford to spend more on lobbyists – that was undoubtedly a factor, too – and NASA Administrator Dan Goldin deserves his share of the blame, too, for throwing cheaper, better, faster under the bus.
It’s unsurprising that politicians don’t understand statistics, a subject rarely taught in law schools and political science departments. This lack of technical understanding at the top level is one of the weaknesses of politically funded space exploration. Apple became the most successful technology company on Earth because Steve Jobs was a techie who was intimately involved in decision making at every level. Many would call him a micromanager. Congress, by comparison, is a collection of Dilbertesque pointy-headed bosses. Most of them would say, “I can learn what I need to know” – but very few of them have actually learned very much about space technology. In fairness, it’s hard to see how the average Congressman could learn much about space technology and still have time to do all the things he needs to do to get reelected.
We are not suggesting more scientists and engineers should be elected to Congress. It’s up to the voters to decide who they want to represent them, and there are a great many other factors that go into determining who would be a good representative. Nor are we suggesting Congress should abrogate its responsibility to oversee NASA programs and simply trust NASA technologists to do the right thing, as some in the space community suggest. Technocracy is an appealing form of government, in concept, but dangerous in practice. A democratic republic, for all its flaws, remains the best form devised by man.
What we are suggesting is that space exploration will be more successful to the extent that we get it out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of obsessive compulsive technology managers like Steve Jobs. Elon Musk is a current candidate to be the Steve Jobs of space exploration – there will be many more candidates in the future. If politicians want America’s space program to be successful, the best thing they can do is to make that transition as smooth as possible.
Edward Wright is chairman of the United States Rocket Academy and project manager of Citizens in Space.