Are we there yet? How 'bout now?

October 4th will mark the 5th Anniversary of the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight of SpaceShipOne. That vehicle has even made it into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum as captured by my 10 year old son a few weeks ago:

IMG00028-20090728-1142

Wait.

It's been 5 years!!?!! Holy excessive punctuation!!

Seriously, that can't be right can it?

In 5 years, surely we were going to have tourist flights as a regular occurrence.  They should have at least flown hundreds of times by now right?

Yes, human space flight (as opposed to the robotic kind) is really hard. Humans need things, like air, water and food. Plus, they generally enjoy being let back on earth once their mission is complete. Also, there is the added question of what to do with all of that astronaut poo.

Still. We're a smart bunch. Why haven't we progressed?

In engineering and development, it's a common occurrence for small, agile teams with almost no resources or money to completely change an industry.  We see this time and again in technology and software development:

A small group of industry rebels makes an innovative spacecraft system in a shockingly short amount of time for an amount of money that the traditional space industry would spend on exploring the possibility of such a craft.  The rebels sweep in and scoop up the 10 million dollar prize.

They add hundreds of people to the team, plans are made, committees are called to come up with an action plan for the next big thing, lots of consulting...

And five years later their latest project looks far less fantastic than their original, prize winning one did.

Why is this?

Two things are missing in a large team:

  • Agility - You can move quickly and easily,  adapting to change and challenges with ease.
  • Urgency - The prize model is a competition.  No waiting for it to be "technically possible", you have to do it before the other guy solves the same problems you have.

I don't mean to be picking on these guys specifically. This is an epidemic within the space industry as a whole.

Can you imagine if Apple Computer put out the iPod, and then immediately announced that they're going to release the iPhone. Soon. Five years later, all you've seen is a press release, some screen shots and a fancy power point presentation.

This wouldn't fly in computer world, why are we operating this way in the space world?