|JSC's biggest metaphor is engulfed in flames||16 October 02010, 0:29|
|The Outpost tavern apparently burned down tonight.
Let me rephrase that.
The remains of the Outpost tavern, which had been balanced precariously on cinder blocks and scrap lumber for the last several months, apparently burned down tonight.
Let me rephrase further.
Another aging NASA institution died tonight.
Rest In Peace, The Outpost. Does this mean we can we get on with exploring?
Here's what I mean. The Outpost was an icon of the previous generation of NASA - test pilots, rough-and-tumble guys who blazed trails into outer space with their grit and determination. Or so the story went - when you delve deeper into the details, you find out that really it wasn't their grit at all - the Right Stuff that we all know so much about really had very little to do with humanity reaching space. The world, America, even NASA allowed the myth to continue because it made much better press - some superhuman beings stretched us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. To glamorize the engineers who actually made it happen: how boring!
Unfortunately, that view was allowed to persist long after it was useful. Today's NASA is hampered by many forces; one of the most detrimental is the crew office. The crew office is the greatest bastion of the Space Ego, where test pilots, sports heroes, and other mythical creatures can take refuge in perceived greatness. As we look beyond the moon for space missions, we are forced to accommodate "pilots" in our spacecraft, even though very little piloting is required - otherwise the crew is reduced to "Spam in a can."
Consider that phrase. It's used up by many astronauts who resent the idea of being a passenger in a vehicle being launched from Earth to Earth Orbit - after all, what is an Astronaut if He is not In Charge? An automated vehicle that deposits its crew and cargo into space is hardly worth the Bucks that Buck Rogers requires - Bucks must be spent to allow Buck to maintain his control!
But that's a waste. Any military aviator will tell you that modern military jets are not controlled by pilots - pilots merely suggest direction for the aircraft, and the aircraft does what it must. "Lieutenant Proof," they call them - aircraft so much smarter than their pilots that they can please all parties: they can correct for human hubris while still exciting their human cargo (excuse me: pilots).
The Outpost Tavern was an icon of 1970s and 1980s NASA. It was an Astronaut hangout; a place where the ordinary engineers who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX could rub elbows with the elite of the elite - the ones who enabled the Space Age by actually going into space. Those extraordinary men (so few women) went to space riding the contrails of the mighty Space Shuttle (recently fallen out of favor, sometimes) into the vast unknown void of ... Earth orbit. The GPS satellites that allow Google to tell us so much about ourselves and our destinies are at a higher orbit than most of the Shuttle missions reached. We omit that part from the epic stories we leave behind, because it fails to do justice to the heroism of our sainted ... pilots.
I work at NASA. I've wanted to work at NASA since I was in elementary school. It wasn't because I wanted to be an astronaut - I did, of course, and I still do, but there was something different - I wanted to be an Engineer at NASA. It was a weird quirk for a weird kid, I guess.
Yet here I am. After a quick period of disillusionment I've become some sort of cognitive module here, a real-life Sam Beckett: bouncing from project to project, hoping that the next one will be an inspired, useful bit of engineering that helps humanity both in space and on Earth.
That moment hasn't come yet, and I don't think it will until people let the past die the dignified death that it deserves. Yes, we did amazing things in the past. Yes, we went to the moon, and our ancestors deserve our respect and admiration for it.
Now it's 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle's proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it's hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology - it's because small-minded people won't let science fiction become reality.
Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday's paper heroes - Shuttle astronauts who can't bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren't viewed as heroes.
The leaders at JSC - the ones charged with moving the center towards its supposed Core Ideology of advancing human space exploration - cower in the darkness of the past; shortsighted and outmoded ideas that will doom the future America to mediocrity. Their unwillingness to seek out the new ideas within their organizations, to lead the future's charge with their as-yet untapped resources, hampers not only NASA's immediate goals, but America's (and our world's) future.
America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn't require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it - that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability - the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.
Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.