The valley of death

We knew the valley of death was up ahead, as we had been there many times before. Most wouldn’t make it. Well, to be truthful, we knew nearly none would make it. The valley of death was not a place though, so much as a phase. Wild ideas, new technology and all those exciting, innovative projects that got anywhere from a bit of seed funding to serious dollars would all have to pass through it.

In NASA-speak, technology has readiness levels. The levels go from one to nine. One is the kernel of an idea, a basic principle, while nine is flight-proven. New projects in need of technology want to improve yet steer away from anything new not at least at level seven – demonstrated already, close to the real thing. (Though a team-mate observed just recently how some projects crave technology at level twelve – obsolete.)

Death Valley National Park as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Somewhere around level four, when the gadget had to leave the lab, came the valley of death. A tad over-dramatic, maybe. Yet the analogy truthfully captured the difficulty projects faced leaving the nest and fending for themselves in the real world. It was a desert out there, the heat, the vultures, and no water. For a dose of perspective, or at least sympathy, if you had spent 10 years of your career on a technology and then the plan to put it on the Shuttle went up in smoke, it was easy to feel you had wandered into the valley of death. And you knew you were unlikely to make it to the next watering hole. Not to say the funding always went away, or your job. For many it was just back to the lab. Still more years could go by, trying again and again to get that next big step approved. You might even make it to the billion-dollar stage, around level six, only then to join the skeletons in the sand. Now perhaps 15 or 20 years had gone by.

This last month, NASA wrapped up testing on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To put some time to the project, I retired from NASA after 32 years having begun my career there in 1988. If you were in the earliest of studies about what comes after the Hubble space telescope you began your career only a few years after me. You could spend your entire professional career on the James Webb.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.

On the dollars, the $10 billion (so far) on the James Webb is about half of what NASA has spent (so far) on the Space Launch System. It is also about half of what NASA has spent (so far) on the Orion crew spacecraft. This does not include the European and Canadian contributions to the telescope. More so, the $10 billion might be thought rather reasonable – as the saying went in NASA project circles, a billion here, a billion there, before you know it you have real money. Yet this is not about a dollar amount, so much as a trend.

The survivors going through the valley of death are fewer each time. Each gets much more expensive, but budgets don’t get much more dollars. Inevitably, fewer survivors pass level seven.

These all seemed really clever observations at the time. Increasingly expensive technology, fixed budgets, and here we all go – into the valley of death. Denying anything was amiss, the conversation also veered into how the valley was part of life, natural in a research organization. A healthy research organization must have many more misses versus hits. But that too denies the trend, the fewer hits every year. Removing the NASA-speak, all this was another way of talking about an economist’s diminishing returns or low-hanging fruit. In the private sector it was the proverbial question – does it scale?

If a satellite could see the really impassable feature from travelers’ tales to the valley, it might see technology stagnation. Recently you can see the notion in physics, a lack of progress, as the 40 billion dollar collider is probably not forthcoming. Having picked the low-hanging fruit, we can’t just say next time go bigger. Where once you might go bigger and explore many places, now each day it’s fewer places. That’s not to say there is a consensus on technology stagnation as a phenom. Critics of the notion of technology stagnation have a conversation like Calvin and Hobbes, “not sure people have the brains to manage the technology they’ve got.” By this view, we already have god-like technology (if paleolithic brains). Yet the case is often made that technology advances more slowly every day regarding real impacts on real lives. Or, as many professionals note, it costs much more every day for the newly minted medical doctor to put up their shingle even as lifespans stagnate.

As I often saw in complex projects at NASA, the answer may be in-between these views. And sideways. Not quite stagnation, and definitely not quite God-like. This brings us back to the James Webb. A telescope gathering light is not like flowing electrons in transistors. Moore’s law does not apply. Twice a telescope diameter gets you four times as much light, and a lot more mass and complexity. The James Webb will deploy sun shields, a central tower, a secondary mirror, and a primary mirror, among other housekeeping (deploying antennas, radiators and more). All this will be at a distance from Earth well beyond the Moon.

A telescope for after the James Webb can follow a straight line, just going bigger. Simply put, more area means more light. Imagine then how soon to that next telescope, and for how much? Expectations are tricky, and technology expectations are the trickiest.

I have the privilege of supporting the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program as external council. The recent portfolio includes exciting ideas for how our next-generation telescopes might come about. A low-frequency radio telescope on the Moon? Build it from what’s there. (“FarView – An In Situ Manufactured Lunar Far Side Radio Observatory”). Another idea is to deploy a reflector 1 kilometer in diameter inside a lunar crater, packaged as a mesh. (“Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) on the Far-Side of the Moon”). Looking for small asteroids, the most plentiful and valuable for resources, and the easiest to get to? Combine new information processing capabilities with multiple small telescopes. (“Sutter Ultra: Breakthrough Space Telescope for Prospecting Asteroids”).

It was decades ago, a conference on hypersonics. An entire day was dedicated to wild ideas, and there was no lack of them. There were plasma deflectors to reduce shock waves on aircraft-like spaceplanes, laser craft, so huge ground lasers, and super-conducting innards in engines. Somehow the program manager had even finagled some funding for fusion energy (by asking it fit into an engine). These were days when even trying to figure out a little bending of time and space were on the table.

Today there is similarly no lack of wild ideas. The kids really are, alright. As well, there is no lack of experts and speakers and motivational optimists at the ready to repeat a mantra about innovation. (If anything, these are more abundant than ever.) Connect the decades though, and perhaps a lack of innovation is not the root problem. Recognizing the trend set by programs that go bigger every time, as Augustine noted, the single airplane eventually shared by the Air Force and the Navy, seems a more likely starting point.

More innovations need to make it past the valley of death, not fewer every year. Inversely, that means fewer eggs in the same basket, so there are actually funds available.  Figuring out how to do this may be the best innovation of them all.

Thoughts? Comments below.

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