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NSRC 2020

 
CEV and LSAM approach the Moon
Many see the Vision for Space Exploration as simply following in the footsteps of Apollo with few significant technological advances over existing systems. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Is NASA afraid to take risks?

I recently spoke with the owner of a small business that had just returned from a trade mission to China. He related to me how different it was to sell his company’s products to Chinese companies. On his trip he visited eight companies and explained to them how his products work and how they can help these factories operate more efficiently. He received orders for pilot projects from all eight companies before his two-week trip was over. His experience trying to sell new technology to US companies has been radically different and significantly more difficult.

This business owner’s experience trying to sell to US companies has been much more in line with my experience. I live in Wisconsin where the people have a reputation of being very reluctant to change. The decision making process here is very slow and bureaucratic. There is a great reluctance to make radical changes. Wisconsin businesses were nearly dead last in the country in incorporating personal computers into business operations. Wisconsin is also near dead last in per capita venture capital spending.

When economic success has passed from one generation to the next I believe that the sense of open frontiers is not always passed on. The next generations are in part shaped by a fear of failure and not living up to the accomplishments of those who blazed the trail.

In the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century Wisconsin, like much of the Midwest, became the machine shop to the world. Several large manufacturing companies such as Oshkosh Truck, Rockwell, Giddings & Lewis, Allen Bradley, Briggs and Stratton, Allis Chalmers, and Harnischfeger started in this area, revolutionizing heavy industry producing trucks, machine tools, engines, industrial controls, etc. helping to create the middle class in the United States. These companies were quite often started by recent immigrants coming to the land of opportunity to live the American dream. How did a region that led the world in innovation less than a century ago become so reluctant to take chances to keep leaping ahead? Is this similar to NASA’s current decision making process? Is the country as a whole heading down the same path?

What do present-day Chinese companies have in common with Wisconsin and other Midwest manufacturers from around 1900? I think that the biggest common factor is and was a sense of unlimited possibility. When economic success has passed from one generation to the next I believe that the sense of open frontiers is not always passed on. The next generations are in part shaped by a fear of failure and not living up to the accomplishments of those who blazed the trail.

Taking a risk means risking failure. Just about every entrepreneur I know knows the stress and the risk associated with trying to bring a new idea to market. If you fail, there is quite often no safety net to catch you. You are risking your very future. Not taking risks is, however, in my opinion an even bigger danger.

A friend of mine was telling me about a neighbor of his. The man owned a large machine shop he had taken over from his father. When automated CNC machine tools started becoming common he refused to buy them. He was in his early fifties and thought he could operate with older manually controlled machines until his retirement, leaving the problem of updating operations to his successor. Within a few years he couldn’t compete with modernized shops and his business went under. The sale of his business to fund his retirement never happened.

I’ve been told by employees of potential customers that if they take a risk on something new and it fails, they’ll be fired. I’ve heard from others selling high-tech products that they hear the same thing from time to time. I’ve heard from some of these companies that competition from China is ravaging their businesses. I also hear from some companies that are open to new ideas, though, that China is a great market for them. Punishing employees for taking chances to improve a business is usually a bad idea. It creates a culture of stagnation and stifles innovation.

NASA is trying to carry out the Vision for Space Exploration without trying any radical new technology. It is a plan that is using mostly tried-and-true technology. It isn’t pushing the technology envelope in almost any aspect of it. Over the past few decades NASA has studied, and occasionally started development on, radical innovative ideas. When it comes to fully committing and taking the risk that could fail, they have usually backed off. I wonder if that stems from a fear of failure and the resulting repercussions, or have they made a realistic assessment that these programs are really too risky to work.

The COTS procurement of cargo and crew transport to the ISS is a chance for NASA to potentially take a few risks. It has yet to be seen if NASA will actually spend the $500 million they say they will. If they do, there is no guarantee that the COTS procurement will actually produce a workable transport system. Not taking the risk means that a revolutionary approach to orbital access will not happen for a while. However, taking the risk means that it at least has a chance.

There is no guarantee that the COTS procurement will actually produce a workable transport system. Not taking the risk means that a revolutionary approach to orbital access will not happen for a while. However, taking the risk means that it at least has a chance.

I interviewed a Chinese student for a job opening we had. He told me that his parents’ income had grown probably by a factor of one hundred over the last decade. He was looking for experience in America to bring back to China. He wanted to go back because he was thrilled by the unlimited opportunities that were waiting for him. It is the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that I would like to think my great-great-grandfather had when he arrived in this country in 1832. It is a willingness to take risks to succeed.

I do not want NASA to shy away from taking risks in developing technology and opening up access to space because they are a showcase for the rest of the country. US companies have to keep that sense of unlimited possibilities if they are to continue to lead in innovation. Not just for the space program, but for the country as a whole; we need to recapture the attitude that built this country. If NASA takes some risks in human spaceflight and really succeeds it would help keep us in the lead economically and politically. Playing it safe and shying away from risk is, unfortunately, contagious and a recipe for decline.

I don’t believe that most people that think NASA should be taking greater risks are advocating taking foolish chances that put the lives of astronauts at undue peril. The risks I—and I assume many others—are thinking of involves trying unconventional methods and technologies for exploring space. The COTS program will reach a point where NASA will have to commit funds and prove they are willing to take some risks. It will be interesting to see if they follow through, or back off like they have so often done lately. It would be nice to see them take some risks and follow through in the plans to return to the Moon. It would prove to me that they are not afraid to take the right kind of risks.


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