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Scorpius lifts off
Private enterprises like Armadillo Aerospace are well aware of the complexity and risks associated with spaceflight, and are positioned to deal with them as well as, if not better than, governments. (credit: J. Foust)

Complexity and danger


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Is sending humans into space the riskiest venture ever undertaken by mankind? Are the required technologies more fiendishly complicated and the perils greater than any other feat of exploration in history? Are the difficulties such that only a centralized agency such as NASA, with close government oversight, can undertake this endeavor? These questions imply assumptions about the hazards of manned space flight and raise the question of whether we are mythologizing space travel. The challenges may seem unprecedented but people have trodden this path before to produce stunning achievements in environments every bit as hostile as space.

To turn myths into reality it is helpful to understand: how we build complex machines; our capacity for taking risks even as we strive for safety; and the fundamental role of NASA. The theme throughout is that no government has any right or duty to act as a gatekeeper to the worlds beyond Earth—they are open for all of us to explore and private enterprise will develop safe technologies that enable us to do so.

Complexity

Sending humans into space requires some incredibly complicated equipment. The Apollo program and the Shuttle introduced the most complex machines ever built. What we see standing on the launch pad is the final product containing millions of components. However, the method of a space vehicle’s construction is conceptually no different from any other machine that is assembled.

No government has any right or duty to act as a gatekeeper to the worlds beyond Earth—they are open for all of us to explore and private enterprise will develop safe technologies that enable us to do so.

The route to a final product starts with a design that leads to a manufacturing plan requiring selection of raw materials and production of components. As production proceeds, components are combined in sub-assemblies, sub-assemblies are integrated into larger assemblies, which are then joined together in modules, and modules are linked up to make the final product. This is how an automobile or a rocket is built: it is the sum of its parts. Quality and seamless integration are vital and there must be flawless interoperability between all units in the final machine. These attributes are rigorously tested at every stage.

The space entrepreneurs have already proved their capabilities in producing complex machines—SpaceShipOne, Falcon, and the lunar lander challengers—are great examples. Falcon 9 plus Dragon will be a significant step up the development curve. As the private firms build and launch more they will begin to develop many standardized elements that can be combined in many different forms to produce ranges of products for different purposes. The American System of Manufactures, born in the 19th century, still applies and it isn’t rocket science.

When a major failure does occur it is often caused by a faulty component, itself a trivial part of the complex machine: the botched repair job applying a patch to a steamboat’s boiler that led to a catastrophic explosion; the O-ring failure that downed a shuttle; the speed sensor that is believed to have malfunctioned to become a contributory factor in the loss of an airliner in mid-Atlantic. No matter how advanced the manufacturers’ and assemblers’ quality control methods become, these events are inevitable.

Danger

Space is a hostile environment presenting many hazards for human travellers. That knowledge should not deter us from boldly going; the history of mankind and its expansion is essentially a story of venturing into hostile environments, often with only the most basic tools and technologies. Humans may have been ignorant of the nature of the challenges they faced but figured out how to survive.

Going into space is as challenging as exploring, settling, and exploiting the islands of the Pacific. The risks are comparable, just different is all.

The most daring example of all is the exploration of the vast Pacific Ocean by the Polynesian people. While Europeans were sailing close to the coastlines of continents before developing navigational instruments that would allow them to venture onto the open ocean, voyagers from Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa began to settle islands in an ocean area of over 25 million square kilometers. The settlement took a thousand years to complete and involved finding and fixing in mind the position of islands, some of which were no more than a kilometers in diameter on which the highest landmark was a coconut tree. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific Ocean in the 16th century almost all the habitable islands had already been settled for centuries.

The voyaging was all the more remarkable since it was done in wooden canoes built with tools of stone, bone, and coral. The canoes were navigated without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. Their vessels were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 3,000 kilometers along the longest sea roads of Polynesia.

The risks were ever-present. As well as violent storms the voyagers may have fallen prey to hypothermia, thirst, or starvation. There was no way to call for help, rescue was impossible, death inevitable. Yet they prevailed in what was in its time an Apollo-scale “program” that lasted for a millennium.

Are we incapable of imagining such a heroic venture today? Have we become so constrained by risk assessments that, if we could take them back in time, we would prove Hawai‘i was unreachable and advise the Polynesians to stay put?

We do strive for perfection and have achieved a lot when it comes to engineering. To mitigate danger we have come to rely ever more heavily on technology to the extent that a modern airliner actually doesn’t need a human on the flight deck, computers do it all (as the joke predicted, there will be one human and a dog; the human is there to feed the dog; the dog’s job is to bite the human if he tries to touch anything). The unintended consequence is that with nothing to do, the crew ceases to pay attention even to intrusive alarms. Consider the recent case of the Northwest Airlines pilots who became so absorbed in their laptop PCs that they flew 240 kilometers past their destination. They were passengers on the plane, just like the folks at the back.

Try as we might we can’t engineer out human failings. The steamboat captain so desperate to get on with the voyage he sought, and got, a quick and dirty repair job on the boiler; the engineers who were so anxious to launch on time they ignored a warning about abnormally cold conditions, decided on “go”, and watched as the O-ring failed; the pilots who were alleged to be so concerned with keeping to schedule they stayed on the planned route, flew into a massive storm, and had no idea their airspeed was too high thanks to a faulty sensor. In these cases the component failure was overshadowed by the human one.

Does all that mean we are now so dumbed-down that we can’t control anything more complicated than a Wal-Mart shopping cart? Is the Polynesian achievement beyond our capabilities today? Going into space is as challenging as exploring, settling, and exploiting the islands of the Pacific. The risks are comparable, just different is all. Humans will make mistakes and components will fail—always. Get over it.

In praise of the amateur

Captain Cook’s expeditions into the Pacific used ships purchased by the Royal Navy and refitted in its dockyards to the best standards of the day. Yet the crew were mightily surprised at the sheer speed of the Polynesian canoes that traveled “three miles to our two” as they sliced through the waves with a forward end “as fine as a knife.” The canoes could be fitted with a simple sail woven from coconut or pandanus leaves that out-performed the full spread of canvas on the naval ships. This technological prowess was created with stone-age tools.

The contrast between the government-funded might of the Royal Navy’s ships and the trial-and-error approach of the Polynesians that produced craft perfectly designed for their purposes provides a useful metaphor. Today, we might bet on SpaceX, Armadillo, or Unreasonable Rocket rather than a government agency to produce a comparable advance in space travel.

NASA

After 50 years in the driver’s seat it is not surprising that some see NASA as the only qualified entity capable of dealing with the complexities and dangers of going into space. But, despite its history of stunning achievements, it is an organization like any other—created to fulfill a purpose and needing to acquire the necessary physical assets and human resources to achieve its goals. However, an organization’s capability is entirely dependant on the skills of its people; in that regard, NASA has no natural monopoly since it has to fish in the same talent pool as other bodies needing those skills.

In partnership, NASA and American space entrepreneurs could focus on the preparations for mankind’s greatest-ever adventure.

Private enterprise also attracts many highly-skilled people who develop great capabilities in the firms that employ them. Indeed, there are those who would much prefer to work in a small, innovative firm—or start their own—rather than risk being suffocated by the bureaucracy that inevitably grows in large organizations, particularly those that have the government as pace-setter and paymaster. From the NewSpace companies’ perspective, they are looking for the kind of people who are hands-on, ready to bend their own metal. This type of dream it, build it, test it, rework it environment is hard to replicate in the large enterprise. The results from a “just do it” culture are of as high a quality as we might expect from the giant organization and may even be higher if we factor in the entrepreneurial urge to keep things simple rather than overcomplicated. Talented people care about their reputations, too; they would rather be remembered for creating the successful Model T than putting their names on the Ford Pinto. As they develop, the space industry start-ups will build capabilities that match NASA’s and may even exceed them in time.

What, therefore, should we demand of NASA in the next 50 years?

During the last half-century the challenge of sending humans into space has been consigned to the periphery. It has been perceived as a messy, complex, dangerous, and costly business with no clear purpose. Now is the time to make it crystal clear.

Some of us reject the thinking that our planet is a comfortable maximum-security prison. This is not a jail, it’s a launch pad. Earth is not our final destination; it’s merely the departure lounge. We urgently need a new sense of “manifest destiny” that puts mankind front and center in space exploration. We, not just robots, need to visit sites for our future homes, playgrounds, and workshops.

NASA’s greatest contribution will be to conduct missions that survey possible destinations, describe the problems of getting to and from them, what environmental threats may be expected, and what resources can be exploited; the sole purpose is to facilitate human exploration of the solar system. Once that information is available, private enterprise will work out how to get there, how to survive, and how to exploit whatever is discovered.

Uniquely, America has both NASA and a growing band of space entrepreneurs with talented people building credible hardware. In partnership, they could focus on the preparations for mankind’s greatest-ever adventure.

The one small problem is the government. Despite a growing, though reluctant, awareness that private enterprise may have a significant role to play, the emphasis seems to be on seeking commercial support only for what NASA is trying to do anyway. This largely vision-free space policy is neither ambitious enough nor does it put human spaceflight center-stage where it rightfully belongs. Wrenching space exploration free from the gravity well of Washington may be tougher than departing Earth. But that’s what the space advocacy groups are there to do.

Conclusion

Human presence in space requires complex machines and the means to protect space voyagers. The challenges can seem overwhelming. Yet humanity has never had the capabilities it possesses today. We already know more about the composition of the surface of Mars, its atmosphere, and its weather patterns, than a Polynesian might have known about an island just over the horizon.

The exploration and settlement of the Pacific did not depend on a central government—there wasn’t one—and no “Vision for Pacific Exploration” to be implemented by a government agency. A Tahitian fisherman, at his own risk, could set out in a flimsy boat and reach Hawai‘i thousands of miles away. With nothing more than his ability to read the ocean and the sky, including some stars, he memorized his starting and arrival positions so that he could return home and then repeat the journey. His memory was his only guarantee of survival.

With today’s dazzling array of complex technologies and the skills to use them, aren’t we at least as capable as that fisherman and as ready to launch into danger?


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