If you were around in the early 80’s this screen may be familiar to you. The Commodore 64 was a very popular home computer.  It was my primary computer until High School in 1989 (I happen to still have it).  When I look back at it I still find it amazing.

It was not a particularly amazing piece of hardware.  In fact, by the standards of the 80’s it was pretty ordinary.

What was amazing is what programmers managed to get it to do.

38911 bytes is nothing in 2009.  This web page you’re reading would not fit into the entire available memory of this computer.

Despite having very little memory, smart people still got it to run spreadsheets, word processors, CAD programs, financial software, and thousands of really fun games. The internet wasn’t widely used when the Commodore was popular, but you could get a modem and communicate with people all over the world.   Someone even wrote a Twitter client for the Commodore just last week.

Today’s computers have thousands of times more memory.  They run spreadsheets, word processors, CAD programs, financial software, games, the internet, and the almighty Twitter.

Fundamentally, we’re not doing much differently.  Sure, we can do those things faster, it’s much better looking, we can do more than one thing at a time, and the computers do more of the work for us.

I’m not discounting the progress we have made.  I’m a computer scientist by profession and I spend many of my waking hours creating and consuming this stuff.

But despite massive advances in memory and raw computer power, fundamentally, we’re still doing the same tasks.

Often times when you have many resources to do something, you tend to use all of the available resources to do that thing.

Let’s apply this to the US Space program today.

I’ve written before about how the US will not get close to meeting the goal to get humans back to the moon by 2020.

The goal today, whether or not you agree with it,  is fundamentally the same as it was in 1962:

Send people to the moon, have them do some science, and return them safely to the earth.

Landing on the moon in the 1960’s with limited technology and a short time frame was key to the success.  The engineers had to work with technologies that make our microwave ovens look like super computers.  Since President Kennedy set the goal to be on the moon in 8 years, project managers couldn’t take 5 years to make decisions and overrun costs.

They all had to make it work with what they had and they had to do it now.

If President Kennedy in 1962 had said “I think we should try and get to the moon by 1980, and then look to Mars by 1990” instead of “by the end of the decade”, we would never have made it at all.

Don’t make me quote Yoda on you here.

We would have spent the 1960’s evaluating rocket and spacecraft designs.  We would have spent the 1970’s arguing over those designs, and then setting up Presidential Commissions to review the progress we’d made, which amounted to effectively none.  By that time, we would have changed political administrations 3 or 4 times and diluted the original goal:

send a man to the moon… and return him safely to the earth.

The spaceships we may have built (or still had been planning to build) would be prettier, they would have been able to do more tasks at once, and they would have been able to do more of the work for us.

Fundamentally, they would accomplish the same task:  Send a man to the moon, do some research, and return him safely to the Earth.

The engineering details of how are separate from the when and why.

The Moon program in the 1960’s and the Commodore 64 in the 1980’s are examples of doing amazing tasks with very limited technologies.

For the current program:

  • The when is now.  Before another generation of kids misses out on exploration.
  • The why is because exploration is bigger than ourselves and more important than anything.
  • The how only matters when we agree on the other two.