Putting Down NASA

Professor Hall, who teaches at Virginia Tech, recounts a visit by Commander Brian Binnie, one of Scaled Composites‘ SpaceShipOne pilots.

He mentions something that I was also slightly bothered by, when I drove up to Mojave to see a couple of the SpaceShipOne flights.

Later in the evening he gave an entertaining 90-minute lecture with powerpoint slides and embedded video to an audience of at least 1000 folks. Needless to say, he charmed the crowd with his anecdotes about the development, test, and successful flights of SpaceShipOne. He got quite a bit of laughter when he presented his one-chart description of “The Other Space Agency”: Nay-Say.

Professor Hall insightfully notes that Binnie’s comaprison of the Space Shuttle’s $30M crew compartment door and SpaceShipOne’s $20 door is not exactly comparing apples with apples, when you remember the functional and operational requirements that each had to meet.

In summary, much of his talk was fascinating, illuminating, and inspiring. But a substantial bit in the middle seemed to be based on the premise that anything that makes my competition sound bad makes me look good. In general, I disagree with that premise, and I hope that many of the VT students in the audience recognized the less-than-graceful tone that it set. I would rather that he had focused on the many challenges that the Scaled Composites team faced and how they overcame them, rather than spending time denigrating NASA and other X-Prize competitors.

Amen! NASA got repeated mentions by the announcers at the SpaceShipOne flights, as well as by Burt Rutan and the other various aerospace industry dignitaries. Much more often than not, those comments were derogatory, derisive, or dismissive.

Now, I’m among the first to admit and herald the accomplishments of Scaled Composites, and many other private enterprises. And certainly NASA has quite a bit of bureaucratic bloat. But personally, I don’t belive that Scaled would be where they are now without a significant amount of the research and development that NASA performed over the past four decades or so. I know people who would disagree with that statement, and even say that NASA has hindered, rather than helped, aerospace development, in particular, manned spaceflight. But that’s tough to prove. Just like with any technical area that the government is involved in, many people forget how much money is poured into research and development, not merely for end products, but for the tools and the knowledge to keep moving forward.

That’s similar to a question someone once asked me about the Mars rovers. If MER is so much more successful than the Mars Pathfinder rover, why didn’t we build MER in 1998? The easy answer is that we didn’t know how. Pathfinder proved the air-bag landing concept for a small payload, which enabled the larger MER vehicle. Pathfinder demonstrated very limited autonomous driving control, which improved to allow Opportunity to drive tens of meters on its own. And, as my elementary school principal was fonding of saying, so on and so forth.

All of that to say, that while Scaled may trumpet their complete lack of explicit government funding, I’m sure there’s much that was accomplished through indirect means. Purely from a programmatic view, Edwards AFB provided a lot of support, in the form of tracking, etc. But, more importantly, much of the general engineering knowledge about aerodynamics, thermodynamics, propulsion, guidance & control, etc. that went into the design and operation of SpaceShipOne probably came about through NASA research.

And please don’t take this as any sort of put-down to the accomplishments of the SpaceShipOne team. Frankly, I’m jealous. They deserve all the accolades that they’ve received and more. They successfully demonstrated an extremely novel and inexpensive concept, within a short amount of time. I just wish that sometimes, they didn’t make it out to be a zero-sum game, where they can only succeed at NASA’s cost.

Yes, I’m deliberately avoiding the question of whether NASA should limit itself to research and development at the expense of exploration, maybe another time…