Drawing the short straw

“I think it’s fair to say that our review group drew the short straw, and I drew the shortest by having to actually do this presentation.”

Sally Ride, 2009
Dr. Sally Ride at the 2009 Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

It was August 2009 and Sally Ride was about to present charts about NASA’s possible futures. This was a meeting of the White House chartered “Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee”, not the first team (and probably not the last) to take a hard look at the future of space exploration and NASA. In 1988, a few weeks after I first arrived at Kennedy Space Center, I was given a book by my new supervisor – “Pioneering the Space Frontier”. This went on the reading pile alongside endless training material and Space Shuttle procedures to learn inside and out. The book was from a commission formed by Congress the year before the loss of Challenger in 1986. Eventually reading it, or more like drinking from a fire hose of information at the time, I was awed by everything that might be around the corner in the next 50 years. It struck me that a good part of this fantastic vision of the future could fall within my years at NASA. With good health, it could fall completely within my lifetime. There was a lot to do. Better get started I thought.

The cover of “Pioneering the Space Frontier”, 1986
Some of the inspiring artwork of McCall

Twenty-one years after first reading about what could be ahead for space exploration, I would end up supporting a very similar and grand committee. The questions had not changed, for NASA as for anyone – where are you going and what are you going to do when you get there? The “Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee” had been working hard on these questions as Sally Ride began her presentation. “I think it’s fair to say that our review group drew the short straw, and I drew the shortest by having to actually do this presentation” she said. To say “drew the short straw” was right on the mark. This was not where you got lucky and won. Physics and rockets and technology are the bread and butter of engineers and scientists. These are comfortable topics, defined, and often exciting. At NASA I saw very different reactions to the other important questions – what might it all cost? Does it add up? How soon? These questions made people uncomfortable. (Parenthetically, I had been answering questions like these for a few years before the 2009 committee. When the committee came about, I would try my best to answer similar questions for NASA Headquarters as part of the “Committee Staff”. It was here I first realized the challenge of answering questions about dollars and technology and NASA for a broad audience, an audience that did not have our secret decoder rings. This continues to be a worthwhile task. Or trying at least, and sometimes succeeding.)

As Sally Ride ended her presentation about the multi-verse of possible NASA budgets vs. possible projects it would have been impossible to see one future ahead. This was the last time to date that there would be any public presentation of this sort. The infamous “sand charts”, have not been seen since. They are now near extinct, or on the endangered species list at least. And yet here we are in 2021 with so many possibilities, NASA investments in partnerships and commercial services and new projects galore. Where are the sand charts looking at the possibilities? Might they still be spotted somewhere in the wild? Saying the team back in 2009 drew the short straw begins to answer this question. No sand charts ever add up to a compelling and beautiful vision of what may be as in those earlier visions from 1986. In good part this is because the sand charts fail to add up at all, even for just what they are – the dull press of numbers against reality. They could hardly be blamed for being obscure and uninspiring. But failing to add up is unpardonable. At least if adding up, the inspiring pictures of what may be would follow and the numbers could just as well be skipped over. Except the numbers didn’t add up then to go to those next steps and enlist the artists and our imaginations. And they still don’t.

One of the many sand charts presented by Dr. Sally Ride in 2009.

There is no spoon

My last public foray into sand charts would be in a paper published in 2017. There I covered plenty of possible futures that might lie ahead for NASA’s multi-verse of sorts. Yet what might be done for some stretch of dollars and technology and “what-if’s” still draws the short straw. There is not the same level of awe-inspiring pictures to be read into or from a series of sand charts, at least in so far as these are thought of as just NASA projects. And therein lies the rub, pointing the way out. The dilemma was always the same, a grand, beautiful vision of what may come, the artist capturing the spirit of progress and endless possibility – courtesy of NASA. Endless possibility and NASA budgets that are not endless do not attend the same party. The answer is in realizing, as the boy said in The Matrix, “there is no spoon”. Try to bend budgets to fit projects and dreams and you soon find the budgets just don’t bend. This points to the way out, that there are no budgets, there are no costs – but there are investments.

Off the beaten path, there is a way forward. There was never a way to have an Inspiration4 mission with four civilians show on a NASA budget sand chart. Or a hundred of these. One day we may say the same for an assortment of private space stations. Or for companies that provide refilling services for stages in space. Similarly, when looked at as layers of NASA investment dollars, daring visions can become reality, except they are on someone else’s sand charts, not NASA’s. If the public and the private join up as successfully as has happened before, it won’t feel like anyone drew the short straw.

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4 thoughts on “Drawing the short straw

  1. Thank you Edgar, Yesterday I was on a telecom with NASA Langley, for a Hypersonic Vehicle, and John Martin mentioned your name. I hope that all is well and enjoying this chapter of life. Frank


  2. Thank you Frank. Yes, I’m very much enjoying retirement here, or semi-retirement. Or lets just say “the sequel”. Hypersonics – now you have me thinking! So much to say there (minus all the stuff we can’t say that is).


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