The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mars astronaut illustration
Humans are essential to space exploration, and that requires roles for the public and private sectors. (credit: NASA)

Maps and buried treasure

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“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”– Joel Barker, Futurist

I recently proposed that a vision is needed that puts humans at the center of space exploration rather than treating them as an inconvenient intrusion (see “Complexity and danger”, The Space Review, January 4, 2010). I also focused on the crucial role of private enterprise in providing the means to realize that vision. President Obama appears to have arrived at similar conclusions. However, as Barker points out, dreams are necessary but we have to act as well. NASA has some vitally important actions to take, human explorers have hugely significant tasks as they begin exploring the worlds beyond, private enterprise will be the fundamental enabler, and some people will object to all of these things because of entrenched paradigms that constrain their thinking.

NASA as mapmaker

NASA role as the “Lewis and Clark” of space is an excellent analogy, but what should NASA do to fulfill this function? Like those explorers it needs to produce maps with levels of detail approaching those of the British Ordnance Survey.

NASA has some vitally important actions to take, human explorers have hugely significant tasks as they begin exploring the worlds beyond, private enterprise will be the fundamental enabler, and some people will object to all of these things because of entrenched paradigms that constrain their thinking.

The Ordnance Survey (OS) takes its name from the Board of Ordnance, which in the late 18th century was the department of state responsible for the defense of the realm. In 1791 the Board initiated a national mapping program, necessary because of the great inadequacies of earlier maps. At that time the French were threatening to invade England and the British Army urgently needed detailed, accurate mapping of the south coast of England at a scale of one inch to the mile; the Board of Ordnance undertook the survey and so the OS was born. The threat of invasion receded but it became apparent that there were a number of civilian uses for the mapping. The Industrial Revolution was underway, towns and communication networks expanded rapidly, and politicians, administrators, planners, and industrialists quickly recognized the value of accurate mapping at scales that would provide even greater levels of detail. By the mid 19th century OS had become the provider of a national survey for scientific, military, government, and public use; these maps are now equally indispensable for hikers, motorists, cyclists, mountain-climbers, archaeologists, and historians.

NASA’s aim should be to make maps with a granular level of detail that can be studied before a mission is mounted, just as I can use an OS map to gather an appreciation of the terrain before I set out on a hike and form a pretty good idea of what I’m going to have to deal with. It would take a very long time for NASA to map a whole planet or moon so it should concentrate on those sites, selected from data returned from orbiting surveyors, that seem to offer the most promising locations in which humans may safely land, supported by surface rovers to explore those particular sites to discover what people will find when they get there.

Is this a mammoth task? It’s large but doable if we assume that private enterprise could mass-produce rovers and the rockets to carry them on their missions. The existing Mars rovers provide a good template for stamping them out in quantity and lower-cost rockets are developing quickly using tried and tested technologies that work.

Humans finding buried treasure

Humans have a vital role in space exploration and exploitation. Consider these headlines: “Mars Rover Finds Interesting Rock” and “Mars Astronaut Picks up Rock, Discovers Critter.” Which one would create a storm in the world’s media?

Last September in England, the news broke of the largest-ever hoard of Saxon gold found by a man exploring a field with his metal detector. The number of artifacts, their designs, and quality will cause history to be rewritten. A robot explorer may never have uncovered this unless it had very special sensing gear and the ability to dig down a significant depth to uncover what it found. It would also have taken much longer than a human walking up and down that field at a faster pace without waiting for instructions from a remote controller on how far to move and in which direction. Likewise, we wouldn’t want to send a rover into thick undergrowth to look for something whereas a human can get in there with his detector and discover the treasure. Six years into its mission, the rover Spirit discovered something interesting below the surface when one of its wheels was spinning and scraped away the topsoil. It might have taken a human six hours or six days to discover the same thing. We get lucky faster than machines can!

There is much to be discovered out there, and nothing can truly be said to have been “discovered” until humans have seen it. To believe that space exploration should be left to robots means we will only see things second-hand. I can look at pictures in a cookbook but what’s the use if I’m barred from the kitchen? Photographs from Mars are nothing more than invitations to go and check it out personally—and dig.

NASA makes maps, humans do the exploration, the discovery, the science, and private enterprise plays a crucial enabling role—vision and action. History shows us that this is the right course, but some don’t agree.

Objection #1: orders of magnitude

When we look forward at what we have to do to achieve something, the challenge may seem to require an impossible order-of-magnitude leap. But when we look in the rear-view mirror at what we have achieved in the past we take for granted the orders-of-magnitude leaps we have already made. The paradigm is that space exploration is so difficult that it must exceed the intellectual power of entrepreneurs even to contemplate it let alone provide the means to do it.

It is patently wrong to assume that the NewSpace entrepreneurs are somehow incapable of creating solutions that are more complex than their current projects.

Everything we have around us today is vastly more complicated than what we had years ago. We have progressed from the tepee, which required some engineering skill and the selection of appropriate materials provided by nature, to the iconic Empire State Building, which also requires the same skills and choice of materials, man-made in that case. How many orders of magnitude greater is the tower versus the tepee? The same human mind devised both structures. The difference between the two achievements results from centuries of discovery and learning. Now we are able to learn much faster thanks to directed research programs and our ability to design and stress-test new buildings or devices using computer simulations—a process that may take days rather than generations. The logic of this argument is evident everywhere we look: orders of magnitude separate the roof of the Sistine Chapel from primitive cave paintings; the clothes you’re wearing are made from vastly more complex materials than the home-spun or knitted garments your ancestors wore; my computer has capabilities that are off the scale compared with what was available to NASA 40 years ago.

These advances were not made in one giant leap. Innovators moved from one stepping-stone to the next until they arrived at a new capability. That’s how the exploration of our universe will develop: stepping-stones in technologies that will take us from one landing site to the next as we set out to explore.

It is patently wrong to assume that the NewSpace entrepreneurs are somehow incapable of creating solutions that are more complex than their current projects. This suggestion is not merely wrong, it is insulting. Great minds conceiving great things will never be the sole province of governments or their agencies.

Objection #2: cost

Have we become so inured to the notion that space missions are inherently massively expensive that we have forgotten that entrepreneurs will find cheaper alternatives?

One of the great lessons of the Industrial Revolution is not just that we can make anything, but that if we make stuff in sufficiently large quantities the unit cost plummets: economies of scale, typified by the Ford-style production line. If NASA adopts the Lewis and Clark surveying-mapmaking role and increases the mission launch rate it can kick start a process of mass production in rockets and spacecraft. Bigelow’s developing space habitats will provide another impetus for this innovation. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to re-open some shuttered car plants in Michigan to start producing the vehicles that human explorers are going to need.

The paradigm of too-costly-to-contemplate needs to change to a model that allows private enterprise to do what it has always done – reinvent the product design and manufacturing process to bring costs and end-user prices down to the market-unlocking tipping point.

Objection #3: but is there a market?

In classical economics, a market can only function when a product or service is created and offered for sale. If the offering meets a need (solves a problem) then buyers and sellers will appear, begin to trade, and prices are set. Entrepreneurs can assume there are pre-existing markets only for the basics of human existence, namely food, shelter, and clothing; everything else is discretionary. There is no pre-existing mass market for any space activity because we have been led to believe that space access is prohibitively expensive so that it simply doesn’t figure in our plans, whether we dream of being tourists or want to conduct experiments. As long as we cling to the paradigm that cost is an insurmountable barrier and markets don’t exist, we will never go into space, no markets will appear, and the view will prevail that since there is no obvious, useful purpose in human space travel any cost involved in trying to do it is wasteful—the self-fulfilling prophesy in action.

My inner Ayn Rand might object to government funding but at least it’s a better use of money than bailing out bankers.

It is true that new-to-the-world offerings do not have markets ready and waiting. Any market that may arise is notoriously difficult to predict since people do not line up to buy something when they can’t even imagine the possibility of it being provided. And when a market does appear it may not be what was expected. Consider the recent article in the New York Times highlighting the rapidly growing trend for senior citizens to go on adventure trips. One study values the so-called “experiential” market involving sensation and adventure at around $56 billion annually. Tour companies are seeing double-digit increases in older travelers looking for these options rather than going on yet another cruise. One man, 89 years young, has taken up wing walking. Last summer, he strapped his feet to the top of a single-engine biplane, like the daredevils of aviation’s early days, and flew across the English Channel at 160 miles per hour — with nothing between him and the wild blue yonder but goggles and layers of clothing to fight the wind-chill. You have to wonder if a suborbital jaunt with Virgin would be as exciting!

Objection #4: funding

The sum of the first three paradigms produces a fourth: with orders-of-magnitude complexity, high cost, and no obvious markets, it will be extremely difficult to attract investors since there is no obvious return.

There was a time when this did seem to be a major problem, but not anymore. The last few years have seen several milestone events starting with SpaceShipOne and on through the successful flights of Falcon 1 and the Lunar Lander Challenge entries. Now we have gotten past the laughter stage and people are beginning to sit up and take notice. A couple of successful flights of Falcon 9 and the floodgates may open. If the rumors become reality then NASA will involve private enterprise to a much larger extent and money will flow. My inner Ayn Rand might object to government funding but at least it’s a better use of money than bailing out bankers.

Innovators have rarely found money growing on trees. That has hardly ever been more than a temporary impediment to their progress.

A new paradigm

The last 50 years are history and we can’t change that. We can decide that the next half-century will be different: “we can believe in change”, to paraphrase a well-known campaign slogan. The new model spells the end of government monopoly and the opening up of space to entrepreneurial dynamism providing access to all who want to explore and exploit the solar system; the determination must be to replace the “Right Stuff” fixation with the “Wright Stuff” paradigm—that’s what brought us to today and will take us into the future.

Vision and action can change everything—despite the objections.