Exploration: Process vs. Product
Dear Mars Science Laboratory team, Thank you!
In the middle of an ongoing and completely absurd debate about how much U.S. taxpayer money should be put into the pockets of congressional donors in the name of not building rockets that will not support the opening of space in any way, you are going exploring.
How crazy is that? It is hard to get my head around the idea that you are in the same space program as the people who are willing to kill our exploration and opening of space in the name of control, constituency and, of course, cash.
Indeed, it has often seemed over the years that there are two government space programs. One, like you, is bold and experimental in its style and approach — and yet building on its legacy to push outwards the boundaries of the known and drive back the edges of the frontier in science, knowledge and technology. Each step forward is into unknown territory, often simply guided by best guesses. This sometimes leads to higher costs and yes, even delays, but in the end there is always forward and outward motion. This is what the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) represents. Experimental, explorational science. Learning about Mars as a new world. Discovering new things that will tell us about the history of our solar system, help reveal the secrets of life and continue blazing the trail that may someday be traveled by the rest of us. You are NASA as Lewis and Clark or James Cook, and you make me proud.
And like our commercial sector, you give me and the millions of other Americans who are paying for this something for our money. You give us a product. New worlds explored, new knowledge, new technologies, and oh yes, you inspire us — clear payback for our national investment — and usually by doing things that would not happen any other way. Yes, some of your technologies spin off into our economy along the way as a bonus. And that is fine with me. I want you to go do science, go do exploration. It isn’t always about making money or directly enabling the private sector with every step of every project; that’s why this is a partnership. Yet even in that area you guys are doing things right.
For example, your MSL is flying to Mars on a commercial rocket. Having decided on your mission — i.e., what you wanted to accomplish at your destination — you hired a commercial launch provider to get you there. You didn’t have to design the rocket; you bought the ride. The product drove the process, not the other way around.
This stands in stark contrast with how some others in the U.S. space program operate, where process is not only the driver but exists independent of any specified product or goal. In fact, process and its profits are the goal. Those other folks don’t seem to care what I get for my tax money; they just want to be in control of a process, and the goal be dammed.
They are focused on process rather than product and systems rather than success. Unfortunately, without clear goals, the process becomes a performance, one easily subverted by those who have no interest in achieving anything but their own short-term gain. They aren’t doing this for science and exploration, but for show and exploitation. They are doing theater. They are mouthing scripts and performing intricate dances invoking exploration, but they are doing nothing but selling tickets to a show about putting on a show.
You, on the other hand, are the real deal. You may not be as efficient as our private sector, but you are doing something real, taking real risks, and staying focused on the product, not the process or the production.
MSL will fly to Mars. It may or may not succeed in its goals, but at least it has goals, and they are goals based on American values and ideals.
Your agency is about to face a budget cut that is deeper than anything since it was created. I want you to be able to keep on exploring. When it comes to the fat-cutting that lies ahead, I and others are going to fight to make sure it is the process and the pork it creates that are removed, not the product. You will have to tighten your belts, to be sure, but know those who are wrapping themselves in your sailcloth are not your friends. They do not care if you ever voyage again. These others will fail in their attempts to subvert our space program to their ends; the question is how much they will waste that could be spent exploring before they do.
We who fight to turn space into a new economic frontier need you. You and your friends who want to return to the Moon, and those who want to develop the tools to make sure we can go to both places and anywhere else and not just stay but prosper, are our trailblazers. You are the ones who can work on things we can’t yet afford to work on. You are the ones who can go out there and tell us what you find. You are the ones who keep the fire of imagination lit. You make the government side of the multibillion-dollar investment we call our space program worth it.
And you need us. If we succeed in developing low-cost commercial access to space you will be able to explore and do more science than has ever been done before. For every monster government rocket that doesn’t fly, we will fly dozens, and you will be able to buy those rides for pennies on the dollar. For every meddlesome minuet of control we don’t have to dance on the stage of process, our costs will drop, our efficiency will increase, your opportunities will rise and the return on our taxpayer investment in you will soar. In the meantime, we will build and drive the trucks and ships, we will follow the trails you blaze, and we will turn what you find in those places you explore into new places for Americans to create wealth and homes.
This is a partnership, based on exploration and enterprise. Those who would gut your budgets to do what we can do better for you are not your friends. We are. Science and business are based on product. We deliver you to the destination, you deliver the data. Simple, elegant. A marriage to make the heavens ours.
I and the millions of others who are giving you our money and trust offer you our support and look forward to what is coming next. We want to see the results of life tests and feel the power of human life as we look through the helmet camera of the first woman to peer over the edge of the Valles Marineris. We want you to light the imaginations of new generations while we will give them the chance to build lives, careers and fortunes in this amazing field and eventually follow you to the edge of the known.
As I have said before, you just keep on exploring, and leave the driving to us. I salute you, MSL team, and wish you Godspeed.
Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant in the space industry.