Future of NASA

The Wrong Stuff: NASA, Amtrak, and why the answer really is 42

I recently argued that the single greatest risk factor on the planet was the divergence in “corporate culture” between two rather small plots of U.S. real estate: Washington, DC, and Silicon Valley. Two communities bound together by their deeply geographical identity, a disdain for one another, and hubris off the charts. They just happen to be the two most consequent communities in the Solar System. What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico (unless, that is, it involves the cartels). What happens in SV and DC sends seismic shocks through the crust of the 3rd rock from the sun.

It may seem unfair to put Amtrak and NASA in the same sentence. But they just happen to be transportation organizations funded by the federal government. Amtrak, home of the slowest fast train on the planet (the, ahem, surely, ironically named Acela),respectfully engages technology that has changed little since Stevenson’s day: Rails, carriages, and an engine to pull the latter over the former. The only major variant in railroadland worldwide is the Maglev, now embraced by China: magnetic levitation in an electric version of the reversed vacuum cleaner that enables hovercraft to be ships that rarely touch the water. (Point to note: so much of our 21st century excitement is in response to advances in essentially 19th century tech. The telephone and the typewriter have been hybridized to produce mobile devices; their functionality derives from extra bandwidth more than any other factor. QWERTY rules. That’s why Siri is so significant; it’s actually new. But we digress.) My point is not to argue that we need vast investment, federal and private, in a U.S.-wide 21st century railroad system. Ca va sans dire. And maybe the Chinese should run the engineering. (DC-NYC in one hour; DC/NYC-LA/SF in 10?)

NASA’s core problem is that it is starting to look more and more like Amtrak. At one level that is ridiculous. Not only have its engineers performed feats of utter brilliance that even now seem way beyond the best of the brightest a whole generation later in China and India and for that matter Europe. But as budgets are cut to the quick and the body politic on both sides of the aisle seems hardly to be dominated by visionaries, it can’t be easy to run the agency whose signature achievement happened before everyone under 42 was born (and everyone under 60 could vote). It is not that the agency has lacked visionaries and plans. But how do you top the trip to the moon? Plainly, with the lunar base that everyone over 42 read about when we were kids; and the manned missions to Mars and beyond that the sci-fi writers convinced us would come next and that space engineers have been champing at the budget to get on with ever since.

So what’s the problem? Well, cash, branding, the federal mindset, and now: Space-X and the ubiquitous Richard Branson (whose hand I once shook and on one of whose airplanes I am currently writing) are making it hard to argue for $18bn a year for a mission that’s plainly been derailed (to resort to an Amtrak metaphor). Trips to earth-orbit space may well become utilities, in private hands. The mystique of escaping earth’s pull has folded. And NASA looks like your grandparents’ idea of the right stuff. I mean, look at the logo. Look at the tagline. $18 bn for that?

NASA peeps tend to look back to their great days, and believe that after JFK’s speech and the vast excitement generated by the Moon mission the key is still space. People back then really, really wanted to go into space. Why don’t they want to now? We seem to have flipped; our cosmos is now micro not macro. The most advanced technology and the hottest draw for engineers is the iPhone, a machine for games and music and chat; a private, personal universe. Reality has become social and virtual. How lame is it to want to be an astronaut? My suspicion is it’s way down there with becoming an engineer on the railroad; which is what we all wanted in the 50s and 60s before we decided to shift allegiance from Casey Jones to Neil Armstrong.

However: the excitement of the 60s had little to do with the Moon. It had everything to do with the future. Our iconic embodiment was The Jetsons, the cartoon TV show that brilliantly captured the vision of a tech-enabled world. It seems never have occurred to the Jetson generation that handheld devices would drive the future. Or that in 50 years we would have forgotten the Moon, abandoned the planets, with our space policy focused on a job-sharing dealie with the post-Soviets on an orbiting Bed and Breakfast.

It was the future that grabbed us back then. That place which draws us like a siren. Which we shape with every choice we make. Which at that point was brilliantly grasped by JFK, our best speech-maker in a century. Which sufficiently grasped the American psyche that, across administrations and congresses, it actually happened. 42 years ago.

So what’s NASA to do? For one thing, let’s give its engineers first shot at the Great American Railroad Project, before we outsource to Beijing. Which somewhat illustrates my point. NASAdoes a lot more than space travel (no bad thing, since we aren’t doing much of that at all). It employs and contracts with the world’s greatest network of engineering whizzes. .

But back to the future. NASA’s glory days were in an America escaping the vicissitudes of wartime restrictions and rejoicing in normality plus refrigerators and TVs. Everyone was worried about the Soviets, yet confident in gung-ho can-do right-stuff solutions and yearning for a tomorrow that seemed bright with technology. That future meant space. But space as subset. NASA isn’t the National Aeronautical and Space Administration at all. It’s the National Future Agency which, time was, dabbled in space, and will do again. We aren’t from the Moon. We happened to go there back in 1969, way past. At root, if we are NASA, we are from the future.

That’s why the fixation with the Moon landing has been slowly doing something terrible to the agency’s image, turning it into a museum of the past. America at its best has always been defined by the future. NASA has the future at its feet. There is certainly no serious competition from any other agency within the federal government.

We are aching for visionary, future-oriented, federal leadership, to engage with transportation systems terrestrial and inter-planetary. Our railways are a joke to anyone who has traveled in Europe, let alone Asia; and as someone recently pointed out (cruelly though not inaccurately) the story of our space program makes perfect sense – if you read it backwards: now we have no human-lift capacity; then we have capacity and use it for earth orbit; then we go to the moon.

How about the tagline, “We’re from the Future”? How about a steady, grandiose, exposition (fromNASA grandees, celebs, pols, anyone who can be got on board) of the narrative of the future, its potentials, its choices, its closeness. How about engaging with Disney and MTV and gamers and sci-fi writers to mash-up a future for America that hits our imagination out of the park?

And so we return to a theme we have explored already. The long term (which is the term of “real life”) versus the short (of politics and big biz). Unless America can mount the long term and stay in the saddle, there is not much else to say. Yet that will take leadership, which is why this discussion of federal investments in transportation goes well beyond the organizations in our gunsights.

NASA’s ambiguous achievement, in the eyes of America, has been to celebrate the 42-year-old past, and turn the future into a complex airplane they actually decided to call the Shuttle; utility space transportation, aptly named. Meanwhile, on the railroad front, don’t forget who started it. Railroad pioneer Stevenson was a visionary. When he built his little steam engine and sent it off down its track at 29 mph he inaugurated a new age that drove the industrial revolution, led to the rise of the west, and now to the rise of the locomotively-driven east. But he was not interested in utility transportation. I’m sure we all remember the name of his locomotive, which set the pattern for 150 years of rail transportation. He didn’t call it the Shuttle. He called it the Rocket.

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