Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Twilight of U.S. Manned Spaceflight

Earlier this week NASA announced it had awarded $269 million to four companies to develop orbital spacecraft for human spaceflight. This is just the latest in a series of moves that hands over development and operation of spacecraft from NASA to private companies, many of which are startups. The expectation is that private companies will be able to do things faster, cheaper, and better.

While this announcement is a positive sign of things to come - it is clear that we have presided over the demise of our human spaceflight program. After 50 years of leadership in space, we will now watch China put a man in orbit and likely on the Moon in the next decade, and will be relegated to hitching rides on Russian rockets to get anything done in space. Even if we wanted to go to the Moon tomorrow, it would take us 10 years to get there since we lack the heavy lift capabilities we had 40 years ago. Pretty sad, given that there is more processing power in an iPad than NASA had on Apollo 11.

Some will say that these are economic realities - that we have bigger priorities here on Earth. While this is true, the writing has been on the wall for almost a decade, and it has been bad planning, not just budget restrictions, that have left us here. When I was at Boeing Phantom Works almost 10 years ago, it was already painfully clear that the Shuttle program no longer made sense from a strategic point of view, was old technology, and was not worth the cost. What did we do? We kept patching it up and extending the life of the program, without developing a plan for a cost effective replacement.

So what's the point's here? Organizations, big and small, need road maps to get to where they want to go. Some companies call this Next Generation Product Plans. Development efforts take time and money. Things have to be done in parallel. At the height of the iPod - Apple developed the iPhone (even though some said it would cannibalize sales of the former). At the height of the iPhone - Apple developed the iPad (Even though some said it would cannibalize sales of the former). Guess who just reported record sales & profits yesterday? Do you see a trend?

As we look at our Energy plan, Space program and Defense spending, we can't just focus investment on today's technology at the expense of tomorrow's. China has realized this better than anyone, and that is why they will not only be the leaders in space but also in renewables for years to come. Kicking the can down the road doesn't really do much good unless your job is to kick cans.

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