NASA needs more idealists

February 5, 2011 - Reading time: 7 minutes

It's fair to say that I'm full of ideas.  They aren't all good, and they aren't all original, but I like to think ahead and imagine possibilities.  It's why I enjoy science fiction, and it's why I wanted to work at NASA.  I always assumed that at NASA, I would be less likely to be told that my ideas were too "out there," since "out there" is NASA's business.

What I found when I got here is that "out there" is indeed a problem: NASA's business is in satisficing.  It's an underfunded federal jobs program meant to keep huge government contractors in business, not the bastion of high-risk, high-yield research and development that I had envisioned.

This comes up because of a conversation I had the other day with an "old timer" civil servant (he's not that old, but he has been at NASA for much longer than me).  I went to him seeking some advice on a politically expedient way of pitching a proposal that might be construed as stepping on someone's toes.  What I was proposing would replace a system that we're about to fly with something that's best described as TRL 4, 5 tops.  It's something that a few people were having great success with at Ames Research Center about a decade ago, until a budget cut killed the project; it has languished since then.  My idea involved taking the research from Ames and applying it to our project in a much more elegant and useful way than what we're flying.

The outcome of the conversation was twofold:

  1. "Working with Ames" is out of the question; they're already trying (with some success) to take control of this project from JSC; we recently got "screwed" by them and the project managers here would probably laugh at me if I proposed working with Ames.  It would be much more productive to just do the work on our own, reinventing the wheel as necessary, and leaving the outcome as a surprise lest Ames take more of our project (and budget).
  2. What we have is Good Enough.  "Better is often the enemy of good."  It's been said before, and in many cases I agree.  In this case I don't.  But he brought up a good point that's valid at NASA, even though it shouldn't be: if you want to replace something that works (to some degree), you've got to convince someone with resources why it's bad.  You have to have a Wrong that needs to be Righted, and management has to agree with your Wrongs.  If you can't convince the right people that it's Wrong, then either it isn't Wrong, or this isn't the time to change it (I would have to wait until different people, who can be convinced, are in charge).

On the surface, #1 is appalling and #2 is reasonable.  But if you think for a bit about where we are, #1 is even more appalling, and #2 becomes pathetic.  I won't address #1 because it speaks for itself.

#2 comes back to satisficing.  What I was told by my elder (whom I'm supposed to respect) is that it's proper to settle for "good enough."  His point was that good ideas abound, but personal interests and politics will always prevail so you have to work within the system, because radical change only has a chance in the face of abject failure.  As unpleasant as the thought may sound to a budding engineer, it is exactly how we work at NASA.  ISS crews are faced with a staggering array of workarounds, "known bugs," and poor designs that are flown to the station because they meet a schedule, not because they are good.  And once hardware has flown, it becomes even harder to make drastic changes, because so many resources were already expended to get the existing stuff up to the Station.  What I'm doing now is no different - I'm working to fly hardware and software, purchased or developed at taxpayer expense, that will probably never work well, but will probably be in use for a decade or more because it's "good enough."  The alternative - a year or two of R&D into a technology that has profound spinoff potential [1] - is a good idea, but there aren't enough Wrongs to justify pushing it now.

America chose to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard.  Today, we choose NOT to go to the moon, because it's too hard.  We choose to go to Mars, maybe, but using the architecture of the Apollo program because new ideas are too hard.  We choose workarounds over rework for the ISS program; not because rework is more expensive but because workarounds are easier politically (and - on a cost-plus contract - more profitable).

This is the attitude that must change for us to progress.  NASA is full of bright people who are in tune with the political realities of "how things work" at NASA.  It's easy to find someone who will explain that each center competes against all others, which is why we can't cooperate with them.  What we need instead is a NASA full of idealists, people who are impractical and who reject political expedience in favor of radical ideas and the high-risk, high-reward research that will lift humanity from this fragile oasis.  NASA is full of people who are more than happy to tell a young engineer why "you can't do that."  But humanity is most successful when it decides to challenge the odds and tackle the insurmountable - there should be no place for naysayers at NASA.

Progress has never been easy.  The preface to The Modern System of Naval Architecture, published in the late 1800s, reads:

We the passing generation have had to grope our way out of the dark slowly and painfully, with trial and error.  But what has to be pardoned to us can no longer be pardoned to our successors, to whom we bequeath the costly knowledge and painful experiences that have cost us so dear, but which we have gladly earned, and now painstakingly contribute for their instruction, and the advancement of their future.

These are profound words from an intense era of discovery and invention, and I think that the engineers who created the Apollo spacecraft would agree with the sentiment.  What we must do now is demonstrate that we carry their banner in good faith: we do not rest on our laurels and wallow in the ease of precedent; we build on their successes, learn from their failures and ours, and our achievements are beyond their wildest imaginations.  We must measure by reward, not just risk, and act accordingly.  To do less is to resign ourselves to mediocrity - and that is not acceptable.

[1] What are the spinoffs?  Prosthetic limbs that work like real ones.  More responsive controls for cars, control rooms, airplanes, and spacecraft.  Improved medical monitoring.  Probably more.

Why STS-133 was scrubbed

November 9, 2010 - Reading time: 2 minutes

Historical note: all of this. I still agree with this 100%, inside NASA and also basically everywhere.

We know the official reasons for the series of STS-133 launch scrubs last week.  Weather, anomalous readings, and finally the hydrogen leak and subsequently noticed foam/ice issue.

Those things seem pretty familiar.  On the surface, they're reasonable.  Funny electrical readings - certainly a problem.  A leaking hydrogen valve - certainly a problem.  And we all know what foam and ice can do to an Orbiter.

What's not mentioned is why those problems occur.  Sure, there will be investigations and "root cause" analysis (a ridiculous pursuit with a worthless conclusion) but I think a lot of people miss the deeper issues at hand.

The Shuttle fleet has been flying for almost 30 years.  In that time, the STS has undergone a couple of major overhauls, with weight reductions and technology improvements.  But something has been missed in the 3 decades of operation: continuous, incremental improvements.

Shall I be charitable?  Fine.  There have been some incremental technology improvements and there have been some process improvements.  But not really to the degree there should have been.  The reason is simple and not uncommon in big organizations, but disappointing nonetheless: the Shuttle program suffers from a shortsighted institutional inertia. 

The inertia manifests itself in a simple way: when people find small problems, inefficiencies, or parts that could be improved, there is generally no action taken.  People can submit various types of requests, e-mail their managers, and so on, but the end result tends to be the same - you can't just make changes; the certification process is too expensive and time consuming, the risks are too high, the problems aren't bad enough to justify the expenditures.  Operational workarounds are always viewed as cheaper than actually fixing problems.  The result is a state of perpetual glitch - known problems, huge binders full of procedures and workarounds, an over-reliance on collegial knowledge.  Because change is difficult, maybe even a bit scary, it is not undertaken.  Changes that could result in workforce reductions are especially scary and unusual.  When looking at an individual improvement, it's not such a big deal.  A penny here, a penny there.  We can't do them all.  But en masse, the missed opportunities represent a significant cost to the program.

The result is a spacecraft and program that despite being fantastic, earn their reputations as unreliable, expensive, and inefficient.

Smart people at NASA are thwarted by layers of management who are afraid to take risks, unwilling to defend good ideas, and unable to drive improvements.  This is why STS-133 was scrubbed.

JSC's biggest metaphor is engulfed in flames

October 16, 2010 - Reading time: 6 minutes

Historical note: I was very proud of this post.  I remember writing it while under the influence of being annoyed by work, and distinctly recall that this was around the time that my view of NASA turned from one of hope and inspiration to one of disappointment.

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.

The gentleman is correct in sitting

July 30, 2010 - Reading time: 6 minutes

Working at NASA was a childhood dream of mine.  At some level it was probably the common desire of a child growing up in the 1980s to be an astronaut, but for me I'd say it went further than that - I wanted to be a part of humanity's future; I wanted to be an explorer, an enabler, a part of the team that brought humanity up from the trenches and into a new era of enlightenment, exploration, and existence.  I saw NASA as the embodiment of this notion - they achieved the impossible as a matter of routine and their mission was to explore the universe, starting at the edge of our planet and working outwards.

That was 20 years ago.

This is now.

I did, through the convoluted maze of life, end up working at NASA.  Not as an astronaut, of course; I'm no test pilot, no highly-decorated military hero, certainly not a member of the caste of uniformed elites which gets chosen for that line of work.  I'm merely a contractor; a Project Engineer, that lowest form of life whose heroic deeds go unnoticed and unappreciated, but are vital for the success of nations - one pair of the feet on the ground that enable humanity to keep its head in the clouds.  I am young and hopeful; creative and open-minded; practical and productive; scorned and dismissed.

I write this as a member of a perpetual, self-renewing underclass: the future.  When politicians complain about saddling their children and grandchildren with debt, social problems, extremism, wars, pollution, and so on - that's my generation they're talking about, and the generations that will follow.

That is a profound problem: my future is being shaped by people who will not be around to take part in it.  My future will be a product of a past generation's needs, wants, and aspirations; their greed, corruption, and broken structure.  Today's politicians are better representatives of our world's checkered past than its potential future.

So when surveying the warped and broken future I've been given, it's tempting to blame today's politicians, but that's neither productive nor correct.  The blame rests squarely at the feet of my generation, those who are 25-35 years old: we are old enough to have a significant impact on the direction of our future, and young enough to care what happens in 50 years.  But we are also too vain, apathetic, self-absorbed, shortsighted, and unaware to affect positive changes.  We have care little for dogma unless it gets us something for free.  We don't educate ourselves; we don't vote; we don't write our elected officials; we don't participate in the process.  Instead we wait for work to be done, then complain that we don't like the results.  As it stands, our only hope for our own future is that the current generation of decision makers blunders onto a path that is not irreversibly destructive.

I work at NASA because I hope my children live in a time where the night sky is not an empty, foreboding vacuum, but a place of wonder and excitement and discovery; where universe is an unexplored country teeming with opportunity, not a pretty bit of custom-made scenery.  I want a future for them that is beyond my imagination, and today I freely give my heart and mind and body and soul in the hope, against all reason, of creating that future for them, out of the present.  There is still a small, undernourished part of me that views NASA as an integral part of that bright future; an organization of extraordinary people who can invent the impossible.

There is a lot of talk these days about the future of NASA; where do we go, how do we get there, what is the shape of our vehicle, and ... just who is this "we," anyway?  The fact that there is so much discussion is great.  The problem is that the wrong people are talking, and the structure of our future spacecraft and exploration missions are being decided by politicians, whose only stakes in the issue relate to their political careers.  They lack the competence (and interest) to specify the revolutionary hardware that will take humanity beyond the next threshold.  That lack is not the problem - our government is designed to account for this by encouraging competent people to counsel their elected officials.  The problem is that our politicians don't let their lack of competence or motivation stop them from making the sorts of decisions that should be made by engineers and scientists, because there is no positive force to guide them.

So we - the future - are about to be left with an architecture for space exploration that is provisional and limited; grafted together out of parts specified because of campaign contributions and aspirations for re-election, rather than efficiency or reliability or appropriateness.  We are sent on missions chosen out of misdirected national pride and fond memories of the past, rather than rational calculation and the needs of the future.

As this happens, my generation sits and watches - wallowing in self-pity, taking "no" for an answer.  If we take the initiative for our own future instead of waiting passively for it to happen, we have the tools and the knowledge to achieve great things.  Our children should be born in a world that is the cradle of humanity - not the container of it.  They should never remember a time when they were the tenants of a single, crowded, strained planet.

This is my call to my generation.  We will live in a future of our own making.  It is our responsibility, to ourselves and our posterity, to design that future to be better than the present.  Now is the time to make hard choices - to invest in our own future.   Now is the time to move out of the proverbial basement; to stop living off the glory and accomplishments of our parents and grandparents and start solving our own problems.  We are the richest and best-educated generation in the history of this world - and there are plenty of us at NASA.  We need to make our voices heard within the organization - to speak up and take the risks that our managers don't want to take, and not fear failure.  We need to rid ourselves of the tyranny of evaluation, and know that we are not beholden to the past.  Never accept that "it can't be done" - that notion is the sanctuary of fools, who seek the ease of well-worn paths instead of the challenge of creating new ones.  This is NASA - the response to "it can't be done" should be a chuckle and a solution, not a demoralized hunt for a well-used alternative.

Stop twittering, start speaking.  Stop waiting for direction, make your own direction.  It's up to us to decide what possibilities our futures hold, then to act and make those possibilities happen. For all of our sake: start thinking, start acting!

Rules for Radicals

May 30, 2010 - Reading time: 8 minutes

Historical note: Throughout my entire career I've had a pattern of sending strongly-worded e-mails to people I shouldn't.  This continues today.  Also: man, this post brings back good and bad memories.  Also: most of the e-mails I'm thinking of were a lot more caustic.

Note: as noted in a previous post, this is a lightly edited copy of an e-mail that I sent to co-workers recently.  The lab I work in is meant to explore advanced human interface methods for future crewed spacecraft.  As it is, a great deal of my time is spent trying desperately to wring funding and other resources (such as lab space) out of our organization so that we can actually perform some of this R&D work.  This message reflects my take on the process and why it's important to continue trying.

We are extremists; what we pursue is radical.  We recognize that the status quo is not acceptable going forward.  When others gush about the NASA that they've seen in movies, we exchange knowing glances of derision and bemusement.  As NASA looks to the future and wonders how to move forward, we ask for nothing less than the fabled paradigm shift - not in the self-destructive Kuhnian sense, nor the cliché MBA sense, but an acknowledgment that our current ways are holding us back, and we need to shed the shackles of the previous generation before we can truly extend our reach to the stars.

We are beholden to preferences of the heroes of a bygone era.  The explorers of our youth - test pilots and athletes, Buzz Aldrin and Sonny Carter - these are not the heroes of the future.   They are pilots and athletes, those with the "right stuff" in a physical and experiential sense that holds little relevance in a post-LEO NASA.

The explorers of the future will not be test pilots, sports heroes, or other mythical creatures.  They will be engineers and scientists; practical people who have capabilities well-suited to the mundane life of research, observation, and maintenance.  They may be occasionally called on to fly, maneuver, and meet daunting challenges, but they will not revel in these experiences - their heroism will be in the manipulation of data, the solving of practical problems, and the other details that make the life of an engineer or researcher so unique.

To support this new breed of hero, NASA needs to reform its notion of space travel and spacecraft.  The notion of a cockpit is no longer relevant.  Nor is the notion of Mission Control.  Realtime monitoring and control of a spacecraft that is on or around Mars is not an option from Earth - the roundtrip time for data transmission makes fine-grained control of a crewed spacecraft impractical and dangerous.  Control must be relinquished to the astronauts, which means they must be trusted as creative, informed problem solvers.  Beyond LEO, the astronauts won't be flying - they will be passengers on a vehicle that is taking them to faraway places, mimicking the most vital aspects of Earth and ignoring all others.  For the first few months of their journey, they will be sending messages back home, performing science experiments, and maintaining this vehicle, the first of its kind, as it carries them to their destination.  Once there, it will deposit them safely in a place where no human has gone before, and these ambassadors of humanity will take our first steps onto another celestial body - a planet, asteroid, or moon - not as the romanticized heroes of our youth, but as ordinary humans who have accomplished extraordinary feats through the labors of their peers.

NASA cannot support humanity's next steps beyond Earth's gentle clutches with our current attitude toward space travel.  We live in an artificial reality created by the Cold War - fighter jets; hand controllers and heads-down cockpits; pilots and commanders and civilians.  "Mission Specialist" is still an official term of disdain bestowed upon those civil servants who may make it in to space but will never sit in the "captain's chair," commanding a craft as it valiantly thrusts away from the planet.  In the future, the Mission Specialist must be held paramount, and "piloting" duties left to computers and automated systems.

This is the backdrop upon which our lab begins.  The traditional spacecraft that we all recognize: Apollo, STS/Shuttle, Orion, or even the Starship Enterprise - these craft are based on notions that no longer apply.  To breach the new frontier we require a craft whose design acknowledges that life and success depend on data, and human effort centers around understanding and manipulating this æther or Cyberspace; not limited by a predefined structure but free to navigate through it as the mission drives it to evolve and grow.

To accomplish this, we must abandon our current structure.  The Unified User Interface is not just an interesting concept, but a necessity.  Any compromise that secures the power, authority, or ego for any person or group at the expense of flexibility and autonomy will doom our explorers to an uncertain fate.  If data rule, then data must be available in all places and at all times, in whatever form is appropriate, to whoever needs them.  Making that possible is the mission of our lab.  To achieve it, we must start with our own rules:

  1. When anyone gives us the go-ahead, run like hell.  Be ready with shopping lists and ideas.  Buy equipment, supplies, and services.  Fill lab space.  Bring in matrix support.  Spend materials dollars within weeks and service budgets as soon as possible.  Use letters of intent if necessary.  Resources are fleeting and hard to come by, so we have to be prepared to take advantage of what we find quickly before it evaporates.
  2. Keep asking and rephrasing the question until the answer is "yes."  A compromise is better than a loss.  Sometimes it's OK to start with half of what we want and negotiate later.  If we don't get all that we wanted, at least we got something.
  3. Compromise is only good if it actually benefits us.  Don't negotiate away our principles; if a project keeps us busy but doesn't get us closer to our goals, we don't have to take it.  Let other groups pursue ill-conceived ideas and fail on their own time.  We'll have our own failures; we don't need to take on others'.
  4. When we get the floor, make our point clearly.  Metaphorical hand-waving has its place, but if we're called on to make our point to simple people, make simple points.  Appeals to national pride, institutional inertia, or local jobs are all relevant and easily understandable in various situations.
  5. Get in arguments with difficult people.  You know who they are; so does everyone else.  NASA is filled with people who apparently feel their duty is to be contrary and impede progress.  David wins by engaging Goliath, even if he is pummeled to dirt.  Actually defeating Goliath is merely a bonus.
  6. Champion ideas that overreach.  Don't reach for what's safe - that's not what we're here for.  The low-hanging fruit is for the lumbering herbivores who thrive in the status quo.  If we advocate what's safe, we may be more likely to stay employed, but we have failed our constituents - humans - who expect us to work miracles on their behalf, not to be avoid risk out of self-interest.
  7. Don't be afraid of failure.  Hollywood gave us the phrase "Failure is not an option," but in the R&D world failure is not just an option - it's a constant reality.  When time and money are on the line but lives are not, we're able to experiment and accept some risk.  Failure presents itself as a bad word, but any good engineer will assure you that failure is an important predecessor (and successor) to success.  Everything we try won't work; that's what experimentation is for.
  8. Success breeds success.  We must dedicate time to using what resources we have to create persuasive demonstrations of concepts and technology and win converts.  One by one we can create an army of foot soldiers who will generate interest for us.

The work we are seeking is not only interesting, exciting, and fun - it is vital for the success of future NASA missions.  To pursue it, we need to overcome disinterest and skepticism; being motivated and professional, and keeping these rules in mind, is a good place to start.

Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

May 29, 2010 - Reading time: 4 minutes

There was some post on the internet recently about Rules for Radicals - I don't remember where exactly it was and don't really care; it was some trite thing about Thinking Outside The Box or some such nonsense.  But after skimming over the article, I realized that several of the notions actually apply to what I do at work.

For those who don't know: I work with a very small group of people at Johnson Space Center researching advanced human interfaces for future crewed spacecraft.  Technically we're a Constellation lab, which means that if the proposed FY2011 budget is approved, my work becomes de-funded and I'm out job hunting.

At least that's the first thing that people think when I tell them I work in a Constellation lab.  It's not what I think though.  The Constellation program has advanced the state of the art in many spacecraft systems (including regenerative environmental systems, high-speed data networks, automated systems), but beyond that I personally don't believe that it's the right vehicle for the future.  My personal opinion is that the architecture is a nostalgic throwback dreamed up by uncreative people, and it will not serve us well once it is created.  The future isn't a 2-week round trip to the moon, or a small crew ferry vehicle for the ISS (the latter is the only thing being designed right now).  The future is a spacecraft designed and built for long-duration missions to celestial bodies: moons, asteroids, and planets.  Orion won't take us there, for several reasons.

In all the patriotic hand-wringing about gaps and job loss, people are forgetting that we're not designing a vehicle that is appropriate for a long-duration mission to Mars.  I think this fact rests in the back of many minds, but the only things we are able to focus on are Orion 1 and Orion 2, which are moving us toward a 4-person capsule that can only survive unassisted for long enough to reach the ISS.  Is this progress?

A new kind of space mission demands a new kind of spacecraft, and we're not creating one.  My constant frustration at work is that despite the fact that people are aware of this, there is no funding or desire to actually do the kind of basic research and blank-paper design that will be required to make the new spacecraft happen.  The FY2011 budget actually makes the funding available and enforces the desire, which is why it's so important to pass it - "saving" Constellation as a jobs program is a waste of time and money.  Continuing development of Ares/Orion to minimize the "gap" is also a poor choice; the gap will be there regardless and once we're able to launch a crewed Orion capsule, we're stuck with a very expensive suite of machines and processes that aren't robust enough to do the things we need.

While the notion of designing a vehicle I personally dislike is somewhat frustrating, I'm well aware that I'm not the smartest person at NASA and given such a complex problem (how do we explore space?) there are bound to be a multitude of paths that can be followed.  I don't feel that my dislike of an idea makes it bad (a quick read of the discourse on the proposed NASA budget will show you that this attitude is unusual).  My frustration comes from the fact that so many people in positions of power at NASA are uncreative, uninformed, and unmotivated.  There is no will to explore new ideas; there is no tolerance for risk; there doesn't even seem to be a recognition that we're making shortsighted decisions that will become very costly in the future.  The recent NRC report on the state of NASA labs was dead on target when it made the point that R&D labs are forced to use their limited resources buying basic equipment and begging for further resources; it's a big part of what I do.  Though the report explicitly did not address JSC, the little R&D work that we do is hobbled by the same problems that frustrate scientists and engineers at other centers.

When I'm wallowing in frustration, I write long-winded ranty e-mails and fire them off to co-workers and managers.  It's somewhat therapeutic, but in the end it's worthless because my co-workers and managers are not motivated enough to pursue important changes.  Since I don't know anyone who is motivated, I'm going to start posting them here as well.  If you're patient and bored, you can kill some time every once in a while wading through my nonsense, until someone at work finds it and I end up unemployed, living under an overpass or something.  Ah, the grand possibilities of the future!

Oh yeah

May 26, 2010 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I'm in Seattle, WA for the SID 2010 conference this week.  I've been pushing a human interface architecture at work (now it's "our" architecture) and a lot of features of it seem to work well using transparent and/or flexible displays.

OLED displays can be flexible, transparent, or both - seemingly perfect.  Electrophoretic ink technology can be flexible; I haven't seen any transparent e-ink displays but don't see why that's not possible (in fact I expect that it is).  There are quantum dot displays which are cool, but I don't think they're going to be transparent or flexible.

Anyway.  So there's this display technology that's perpetually 5 years out and sure enough, at SID 2010, OLED is only really present on the 6th floor (where they're talking about what will overtake LCDs in 5 years).  Meanwhile on the 4th floor at the trade show booths, it's all 3D (yawn), touch (yawn), and LCD.  LCD doesn't get a yawn mainly because there are some VERY impressive LCD displays out there (NEC in particular had LCD displays that could easily be mistaken for OLED, or real life).  (Aside: lots of noise about in-plane switching LCDs, which is what's on the iPad.  Seen a few iPads here, not in use by people but at booths.  I'm still 0% impressed with the iPad; hardware, software, concept.  Sorry ...)

As in most trade shows, the people on the 4th floor frequently don't know much about what they're showing off.  In this particular case, new display technologies tend to come from Japan, South Korea, or Western Europe so there are a lot of people with very thick accents around.  Actually I was a bit disappointed at the lack of US representation; apparently very few US institutions are pushing display technology.  By contrast, the European Union has invested heavily in display technology (among other things) the last several years, and it shows - a huge Western European contingent was there.  Germany, in particular, filled a large section of floor space with a coordinated set of booths.

I have another day here, but I expect that I'll leave somewhat disappointed in the prospects.  Transparent, flexible OLED displays exist in the lab, but nobody is willing to move them to commercial products for some reason.  The best example I've seen so far is a Samsung laptop with a 14.1" transparent OLED display, which works a lot better than you would think.  How many of them exist?  Apparently just the one.  Are they planning to start commercial sales of them?  Maybe later.  Which is what they said last year.

Playing the NASA card got at least a few of the people interested, so I may yet have work to do after this fiscal year (if NASA will support this work - they should, but that's a rant for another day).

FSMspeed, Atlantis

May 14, 2010 - Reading time: 2 minutes

Historical note: this was a post that I started and never finished. That's why there are so many [things] that seem like they are incomplete.  I never posted this but the end of the Shuttle program was a big deal for me so I'm posting it now.

Atlantis is back in space, for its final voyage.  Every Shuttle mission these days seems to have more meaning, as we approach the end of the Shuttle program and the orbiters are flying their final missions.  Atlantis has had a short but distinguished career; it has helped us explore the solar system [Magellan], view the universe [Hubble], and [other thing].  It has served as a vehicle of diplomacy [Shuttle-Mir], and brought [x] modules and other ingredients for life to the International Space Station.

And soon, it will be decommissioned.

For someone in my generation, it is truly the end of an era.  Our parents may have Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but we grew up with the Shuttle - the most complex and capable vehicle ever designed, and one whose vast capabilities no government or corporation has even considered duplicating.

Against this backdrop, a few of us are working on creating some sort of successor.  The shape and capabilities of that successor were decided for us by men who looked to the past for inspiration and economy.  The Constellation had lofty goals, but the vehicles chosen to reach those goals are lacking in many ways.

From a technical standpoint, the vehicles were never intended to be great.  Launched by rockets vaguely reminiscent of the Space Transportation System (why not just use the STS?), the Orion capsule and Altair lander were going to face a rougher ride to orbit of any spacecraft ever designed.  Then once in space, we find that NASA has reversed the trend of making larger, more comfortable vehicles, and instead made Orion a cramped, monolithic space with no privacy; no place for science; [no other thing].  The Altair lander would barely be bigger from the crew's perspective.  The "architecture" neglected science, crew health care systems, living quarters, privacy, and []; it was designed to re-use as much as possible from existing aircraft or the intellectual property of large [lockmart] and incompetent [honeywell] contractors in order to reduce development time and cost and just get something into space quickly.  Guess what: that wasn't going to happen; all of those pieces don't fit together cleanly and are not capable of doing what we need in a true vehicle of exploration.

[Rant!  Rant!  Rant!  I need to come back to this later]