Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reinventing Innovation in the Exploration of Space

By Keith McDowell

They called it “Tang” – a fruit-flavored breakfast drink popularized by astronauts in the 1960s for its use in the manned spaceflight program. While often touted as a creation of NASA, Tang was actually invented by William A. Mitchell at General Foods Corporation in 1957 and initially was just another unsuccessful attempt to market a new beverage. But for me, Tang became something else entirely different. After consuming vast quantities of Tang in the fall of 1982 and spring of 1983 in order to stay sufficiently hydrated during a Sabbatical year spent in the dry, high-altitude environment of Los Alamos, New Mexico, I returned to my home in South Carolina to experience on my first day back the most dreaded of all pains, a kidney stone. It wasn’t just any old stone, but a uric acid crystal created from my over-consumption of the Vitamin C in Tang. At least, that was the story from my urologist. And yes, during my several days spent in the hospital, I left my wife with the dual tasks of tending to two young sons and unpacking the moving boxes. Sometimes, Mother Nature has an amusing sense of timing, the ire of wives notwithstanding.

While Tang is just one of many examples of innovations either created or popularized by NASA that ultimately became commercially viable, the question of using space exploration as a platform for innovation continues as a major issue in America, especially as we emerge from our current economic and financial crisis. Newt Gingrich in particular exploited this debate for political gain recently in the Florida primaries when he stated on January 25 in Cocoa Beach that “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.” How real is his pledge? Is it lunacy and a form of howling at the moon? Or is it the harbinger of a new American thrust in manned space exploration with colonization of the moon and the planets as the goal? And how about innovation? Is his pledge the most effective use of space exploration to achieve innovations that lead to successes in the commercial marketplace?

President John F. Kennedy inspired America in 1961 when he pledged to put a man on the moon. And Neil Armstrong’s “a giant leap for mankind” was just that – a historic moment with many implications including the purely political statement by America of being the leader of the world and the subsequent economic flow down from the new technologies and innovations needed to power the Space Race. But the exploration of space as practiced in the latter part of the twentieth century was but a moment in the expanse of history. Thanks for the memories, NASA, but it’s time for a new story.

For many the story of space exploration is one of high adventure with fictional heroes such as Buck Rogers, James Tiberius Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Jean Luc Picard, Worf and Mr. Spock taking on the aliens that most Americans believe actually exist in the real world and visit us in their Unidentified Flying Objects. But sadly that sense of high adventure on a new frontier has become jaded through saturation of our senses by the sci-fi genre, whether movie – I still like the campy black and white versions from the 1950s, TV series, or book.

And who really cares anymore if we have a moon colony or if a human being steps onto the surface of the planet Mars? Been there and done that – sort of. Let’s face it. Space exploration is a hard sell in America right now for many reasons. But whether the thrill is gone, the cost in resources and capital is too great, or we have more presenting needs right here on Planet Earth including reducing poverty or addressing America’s civil infrastructure, the exploration of space is one of those grand challenges that must be addressed by humankind. The issue for Americans is what course should we as a nation take? Indeed,  is there a best path forward? I have a few observations in that regard.

Let’s begin with the question of manned versus unmanned spaceflight as a tool for exploration. The answer is simple. The human body didn’t evolve to endure the rigors of outer space. End of debate. I like drinking Tang, but there is a limit or I pay the price. Furthermore, the enormous cost of the support structure for maintaining the human body in outer space is out of all proportion to the benefit of having a sentient and observant person being present. And guess what! Computers will become sentient long before a human being ever sets foot on Mars. It’s a no-brainer. Space will be explored by an exponentially improving cadre of autonomous robotic devices capable of mimicking every human skill in exquisite detail including reasoning. Yes, let’s colonize the moon, not with humans, but with American robots. We’ll leave it to the Chinese to discover the futility of manning-up on the moon. Hmm, did someone just mention the term “cylon?”

Along with robotic exploration of our solar system –  including the use of a variety of space-borne telescopes, observation platforms, and deep-space probes, America should focus on earth orbit. While vacations circling the earth from above will not be realistic for many decades – if ever, we must continue to explore and to exploit the commercial potential of earth orbit. And yes, that includes continued experiments with putting man into space and the effects on the human body. It also includes a major effort to develop a cost-effective launch vehicle to move lots of mass into orbit out of the gravity well surrounding our planet. That’s a very different proposition from attempting to develop an all-in-one launch vehicle suitable for any and all purposes. Surely we’ve learned our lessons from the program to create a joint strike fighter aircraft!

So who should do the earth-orbit deed – private industry or government? Many believe that the only reason we don’t already have a suitable, privately-financed vehicle to insert mass (or people) into orbit is the fact that NASA controls the space around our planet. Folks, it’s time to rewrite that story and to find a way for government to work with private industry and with entrepreneurs. Who knows? Maybe a space port in New Mexico is just the right answer. It’s time to find out.

For as long as I continue to live, I will never forget the morning of September 9, 2006, when the space shuttle Atlantis was launched at 11:44:55 EDT on the STS-115 “Return to Assembly” mission. Standing as a guest of NASA on the upper deck of OSB II, a building next to launch control and with the absolute best view of the launch, I vigorously waved a small American flag and cheered heartedly as the earth shook and the thunderous sound of the lift-off assaulted my hearing. Choked with emotion, I watched one of the greatest spectacles anyone has ever been privileged to see. But I knew then as I know now, it was the end of an era.

America must rewrite its plan for the exploration of space. And it must be done with ruthless efficiency using what we now know about space exploration and space science and how to optimize the benefits, not with the hubris of sending man into space – whatever the reason – or the emotions of the moment. The exploration of space continues to be one of the grand challenges of our time as well as a major source for innovation. Instead of opting for a moon colony simply to outrace the Chinese to the bottom, let’s pledge to optimally reset the equation and to enjoy once again the fruits of a well-conceived adventure in space. Just don’t plan on drinking too much Tang along the way.

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