Technology stagnation and NASA – problem and opportunity

A picture of the tree line and blue sky. Credit: Edgar Zapata, zapatatalksnasa.com, with a 1957 Yashica LM TLR (light meter/twin lens reflex).
Blue sky ahead.

My job with NASA always meant looking ahead. Today I can’t help but look back. I am now retired, which I find an odd mix of calm, caffeinated and a sense “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” I arrived at Kennedy Space Center in 1988, a wonderful world of huge machines, buildings and Space Shuttles –machines ahead of their times. And so many people. All abuzz to send our explorers to the stars. Everyone who contributed went along as well, at least in spirit. Soon after, walls fell I thought would stand forever. I could not wait to see what more was around the corner.

Thirty-three years later, we’re sending astronauts to space again from KSC, after a 9-year stall, except fewer a year, in capsules not Shuttles. We have the International Space Station, a wonder of technology and possibility. Our (so far) permanent presence in Earth orbit has people racking up more time learning to live and work in space than Shuttle’s ever could. Yet plans for going further than low Earth orbit, people on the Moon or Mars with many people to follow, seem no closer now than when I first arrived at Kennedy.

Stagnation comes to mind and it turns out this is not a problem unique to NASA.

Technology stagnation is a big red button we ignore on the console because we assume progress is inevitable. Tyler Cowen wonderfully captured this problem in “The Great Stagnation”. A lack of innovation starves the supply side of an economy and leaves us endlessly only slightly improving what came before. Here there is no new and improved, just old and repackaged (something I’ll try to avoid for myself). Cowen reminds us how real economic growth comes from real innovation. We should be amazed at the changes in daily life over time, not from fiddling with GDP numbers.

Who are we? Grandma, wide-eyed in 1975, describing amazing changes you people wouldn’t believe, from the arrival of electricity, cars, and all those appliances, to advances in medicine, education, and a man on the Moon? Or will we try the wide eyed look one day about media on demand? Apologists that technology stagnation is not a thing narrow in – the industrial revolution, then a transportation revolution (Grandma), then a communications revolution (us recently). More will follow. Patience. This is hardly filling, “sit and wait your next turn”. Even the view there is no technology stagnation admits to pauses.

Jump ahead – what are the amazing changes in 2050 where life in 1975 is the old times? We’re on the edge of great change. I believe space exploration and development can be a big part of looking back amazed in 2050. Maybe the hassle for the day is finding a room at Lianmeng station for the layover in route to USiCorp, one of many asteroid facilities that are no longer news.

Yet to make the story in 2050 about amazing change of the good kind means investments in space about growth through innovation. This means difficult shifts away from providers and stakeholders in economic environments that lack competition. Any space exploration plans, public or private, mustn’t over-focus on boots-on-the-Moon or any single event with no plan for more. Getting there, staying there, and growing there will need competition to create innovations yet imagined, for dropping costs and prices, and for creating new customers and markets. This is all well beyond NASA needs.

Exploring other worlds, when “Earth is zoned residential and light industry” will require affordable, routine access to, through and from space for people, cargo and ships. This is not new or impossible – we’ve been here in previous transformations. These transformations always mean changing who, how, why. Start down this path and it’s not hard to see a world in 2050 looking back amazed at all the wonderful changes in our day-to-day life.

So, retired now after 32+ years with NASA I have so many thoughts still to share, from amazing times. Yet I also see many places we have been stuck, where innovation has stalled. As I said, my job with NASA always meant looking ahead, and I hope to keep doing that here in this blog. What role can NASA, the private sector, and space exploration play to make sure everyone looks back years from now amazed at the positive changes in their everyday lives? Let’s explore.

Edgar Zapata

April 6, 2021

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