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?

4 thoughts on “Are we there yet? How ’bout now?

  1. I think it kind of boils down to direction. With contests there is a clear direction. Everything is focused on getting things done by X date to win it all. If you think about it, all the great space advances have happened because of a contest. First to space, first to the moon, X prize, etc. Some may not have been formal contests, but they were contests. With contests you can't allow committees and general slowness to creep into your processes. You have problems that need to get solved, and fast.It seems like the only recent venture to understand this and not only build real hardware and make money is SpaceX. They do their work in house, and just build most things themselves. This allows them to keep their agility despite a larger company. It doesn't hurt that everything Elon Musk touches – turns to gold.The other thing that will eventually help drive this is…MONEY! If some company can figure out a new propulsion method that increases performance by %50 with 10% of the rocket fuel that today's rockets use, they'll command the market. I think the same is true for communications. Figure out a way to send data by tight beam lasers not just a few miles, but thousands, and you'll command the way we do business. This is all space tech that will drive the industry just like it did in the 60's. Not only is it space tech, but its tech that we DESPERATELY need to continue space exploration. The infrastructure (rocket engines, communications, mission planning, launch locations) is horribly outdated and completely plateaued. We can't really make faster chemical reaction engines. You can't make electromagnetic waves go faster than 300,000km/sec. We're at a standstill until the next huge technology leap happens. I think nanotechnology is probably the best shot we've got. We're counting on you, private space. You're our only hope. 🙂

  2. I think it kind of boils down to direction. With contests there is a clear direction. Everything is focused on getting things done by X date to win it all. If you think about it, all the great space advances have happened because of a contest. First to space, first to the moon, X prize, etc. Some may not have been formal contests, but they were contests. With contests you can't allow committees and general slowness to creep into your processes. You have problems that need to get solved, and fast.It seems like the only recent venture to understand this and not only build real hardware and make money is SpaceX. They do their work in house, and just build most things themselves. This allows them to keep their agility despite a larger company. It doesn't hurt that everything Elon Musk touches – turns to gold.The other thing that will eventually help drive this is…MONEY! If some company can figure out a new propulsion method that increases performance by %50 with 10% of the rocket fuel that today's rockets use, they'll command the market. I think the same is true for communications. Figure out a way to send data by tight beam lasers not just a few miles, but thousands, and you'll command the way we do business. This is all space tech that will drive the industry just like it did in the 60's. Not only is it space tech, but its tech that we DESPERATELY need to continue space exploration. The infrastructure (rocket engines, communications, mission planning, launch locations) is horribly outdated and completely plateaued. We can't really make faster chemical reaction engines. You can't make electromagnetic waves go faster than 300,000km/sec. We're at a standstill until the next huge technology leap happens. I think nanotechnology is probably the best shot we've got. We're counting on you, private space. You're our only hope. 🙂

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