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.