Changing of the Guard

Next week, it will be 30 years since the last Apollo mission to the moon.

Many, perhaps most of the people who made that feat happen are either retired or no longer with us. They are the institutional memory of the early days of the space program. NASA is trying to preserve it, and more recent experience, by interviewing and capturing the knowledge of their veterans while it's still available to do so.

Back in the 50s and 60s, we were building new launch systems and high-performance aircraft every year or two--it was a veritable assembly line of aerospace innovation, with a wide variety of projects for people to work on, and develop cutting-edge (at the time) technology. However, we've slowed down greatly since then and have put into place cumbersome government procurement procedures, with set program phases tied inextricably to unavoidable budget cycles. We've reached the point where major interesting programs are now few and far between, and ponderously slow.

This has two results. First, within his or her career, your average engineer gets to work on many fewer programs these days, resulting in correspondingly less, and less diverse, experience. Second, it makes an engineering career much less fascinating, and much less of a draw to the best and brightest of our technologists. Nanotechnology, biomedical breakthroughs, computer graphics--all of these presently offer much greater challenges and excitement than aerospace engineering in general and NASA in particular.

Sadly, much of this knowledge was never written down, or if it was, it has been tossed out, like old cancelled checks and tax records. When I was working at Rockwell International a dozen years ago, President Bush (the first) announced a desire to go back to the moon and Mars. I wanted to resurrect the computer codes that had calculated the lunar trajectories during Apollo. I discovered that the last set of cardboard punchcards (which were the only way it had been stored) containing them had been disposed of a few weeks before.

Now, all of the hard-won knowledge that accumulated during the heady days of the X-15, and Apollo, and Ranger and Mariner, and dozens of other programs of which most today have never even heard, is dissipating into retirement or the grave. Worse, many of the things that these people know are less science than art, and not easily condensed into a textbook.

How to design a stable rocket propellant injector? How to shape a wing that will get a plane from the speed of an everyday airliner, through the turbulent hurricane fury of the transonic region, into a supersonic realm in which it outraces the sound of its own engines?

Some of these people, if in good health, remain available for consulting, but once in the grave, their secrets are lost to us forever, and in some ways, it sets us back years, and even decades.

NASA is to be commended for this program to capture what's about to be lost forever. Anything we can do to hold on to the fragile knowledge base that took us to the moon, or even, with all their flaws, built the space shuttle and other more modern programs, will reduce costs in the future should we once again revive the spirit necessary to take great steps on the high frontier.

Even from program white elephants (like the International Space Station) and total failures (like X-33) there are lessons to be learned. Though sadly, unlike the lessons of the early space age, those lessons are lessons of management caution, and more about what not to do than how to do them. This just goes to show that no program is utterly worthless--it can always serve as a bad example for a case study.

Along those lines, as the article points out, this ongoing exodus of industry and agency personnel represents a double edged sword, and reveals a silver lining to the retirement cloud.

As mentioned in the Washington Post article linked above, it's healthy for the industry to turn over its personnel, and bring in new blood. For at least some old dogs, the adage about new tricks is certainly true.

Yes, we're losing a lot of valuable knowledge and experience. On the other hand, we're also losing a lot of false certainties and misunderstood experience that's been holding us back for years, particularly among management. There's an old saying that "it's not so much what folks don't know that hurts them, as much as the things they know for darned sure that are wrong."

They know that we cannot have lower launch costs without new "technology."

They know that it takes billions of dollars to develop a new "low-cost" launch system.

They know that, unlike airplanes, launch vehicles require devices to blow up the vehicle if the slightest thing goes wrong.

They know that, unlike airplanes, putting pilots in space transports increases both development and operational costs by a large factor.

They know that no one in their right mind would pay money for a ride into space.

They know that only governments can fund space activities.

In other words, many in the industry remain certain of things that are absolutely wrong. Particularly (and sadly) many of them are in positions of authority, and with power over budgets, and program go-aheads, and young engineers' lives and careers.

Which is why, based on their sage and invalid advice, the new NASA administrator can also make mistaken pronouncements, to the detriment of progress.

I mourn the knowledge being lost. We must do everything possible to not only capture and preserve it, but honor those who achieved so much decades ago, and march forward on the shoulders of those giants.

At the same time, I rejoice at the thought that many of those who remain mired in the myths of the past will no longer hold us back.

We must hold on to the good, and build on it, while remembering that the Cold War is long over, and build a new space age on its unlamented ashes.

The torch has been passed to a new generation.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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