Monocultures

Dan’s most recent blog entry, which was a reply to my last post, got me thinking about something. One of my biggests problems with NASA, that I didn’t realize until someone else pointed it out was their emphasis on singular solutions. There is always the space shuttle, the space station, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a Lunar Base.

As an aside, this kind of reminds me of my reaction when a coworker of mine who has been married for several years tells me that he and his wife have decided that they want to have a kid. It’s good they decided to do so, I think they’ll be very glad they made the decision. But just one?

Getting back to the original point, there’s something inherently disturbing in a vision that is so monoculture. Such systems are inherently fragile. What happens if you have an accident with your single version CEV? Will all manned US spaceflight get put on hold for another two or three years like the last two times? Hopefully not, because in spite of NASA’s fetish for monomania, there may very well be commercial competitors in the near term.

Another problem with such monocultures is that they tend to scare away new engineers. It took nearly 20 years to go from the start of one gigaproject (Shuttle) until the next one started (the Space Station), and now another (CEV). How many kids would be interested in working for car companies if there were only one national car model, and it only came out once every decade? This is a serious problem due to what is often called the “greying” of the aerospace workforce. While the average age for engineers at my company is only about 26, we’re definitely an exception to the rule. Many of the larger aerospace companies, and NASA are looking at having many of their key engineers retiring over the next few years, without any accompanying surge of new blood in the field.

Lastly, this sort of monculture is incapable of enabling the actual settlement and development of the solar system. To become a truly interplantery society, we need a situation where there are dozens of different spacecraft design flying people to orbit, dozens of settlements and stations in various earth orbits, several dozen communities on the moon, maybe some on Mars and Venus, and the asteroids. Not just one of each.

I could go on flogging this dead horse, but I think you can see my point.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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8 Responses to Monocultures

  1. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    Another problem with mono-solutions is there expense. Can you imagine the cost of a national car built by GM for the government? $150,000 easy.

    Yet one more problem is the lack of focus. If you build one craft, it has to be everything to all people. As Socrates said, there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations. So a number of specialized crafts would each be better at their job than one single type of ship was at anything.

  2. Norden says:

    This is one way the cancellation of MOL and other military programs cost us.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Dan,

    Yeah, there’s a real danger with a one-sized fits all vehicle. Of course, I think recently the Shuttle has been used as a bad example for taking this argument too far. Hmm….methinks me smells another blog post coming on…….

  4. Kelly Starks says:

    You again miss the true key advantage of maga projects. If everyone is stuck in the same boat. No one can afford to vote against it without steping on some constituant. There is political power in ver consolidation. 😉

  5. Kelly Starks says:

    On a more serious point. One size fit all is the trend across all agencies. It’s why the Navys stocking air craft carriers with little more then variations of F-18s, etc. If you can’t get your job done without a fleet, you’re doomed since odds are at least one of the fleet of programs will get “trimmed” in some budget negotiation. “After all NASA only lost one of its new vehicle development programs – so don’t be greedy.” And realistically one jack of all trade ship development program doesn’t always cost as much as a fleet of specialists. So it’s not a bad way to go if you want to get something usable out of Washington. Hell Shuttle was the only survivor out of the Shuttle/station/deepspace-maned-craft post Apollo proposal.

  6. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    Yeah but the F-18 is a fighter jet. They don’t use it for cargo and transport.

    Also I am really speaking about thinking out to the future. If people are living on the Moon, you would probably need a few different kinds of transport.

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Dan,

    Yeah, I’d be really amazed if cislunar space ends up being truly settled without at least a dozen different styles of vehicles being put into use. In the commercial air transport industry, even though there are only two remaining big players, you still have dozens of different airplane sorts. Not everyone needs a new 787 or A380. Some people are just happy with a 737, etc.

  8. Kelly Starks says:

    > Also I am really speaking about
    > thinking out to the future. If
    > people are living on the Moon,
    > you would probably need a few
    > different kinds of transport.

    Long term I agree. but given the primary factor in launch costs (in a
    reasonably designed craft) is a high enough flight rate. If you only have a few hundred flights a year, its probably is cheaper to use one jack of all trade craft fleet, then have a fleet of several types of craft – none of which fly very often.

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