With the new administration’s Space Council meeting for the first time this week (or soon), it’s natural to look back at the comings and goings of US space policy. A casual observer might assign a shape to the blurry happenings and seemingly important pronouncements about the direction for NASA over the years. If you have spent enough time inside the beltway or industry, the shape may seem circular. The sense of Deja-vu is easy, everyone again parsing each word with bated breath, awaiting the big speech, or oh so excited over some little-noted change they insist means so much more. This was the case with the last Space Council and all the committees and speeches before that. As engineers, we could be predisposed to seeing circular patterns, going back to the drawing board (now nearly an AI) many times before finishing a design. Do enough back and forth between what’s needed and what’s designed, and the circling back in space policy seems similar. This is the generous view, versus the sense of going in circles forever, the final design never quite finished. Alternately, it will also happen some see the news over time as a line, with committees formed, then disbanded, then reformed again, all a few steps forward if two steps back. Except looking for a pattern in all this neglects something – the passage of time.
“Overcome by events” was the coroner’s official cause of death. There was much debate about which of the events was the ailment that pushed the project over the brink. This is also a story with a circular shape, where NASA projects are trapped in the wheel of life, escaping only once canceled. The progression of the disease is predictable. Take too long to show progress, change direction too often reacting to plans not going as planned, and before you know it the support you once had loses interest. Life being relative, it’s not that the project moved slower. It’s that the world around us was speeding up. Going at the usual pace now seems sluggish. Among the events affecting NASA’s projects are the changes in administrations and representatives, but so too technology and expectations. This may all seem unpredictable, leading to some throwing up of hands while declaring an intractable problem – an inability to make progress in the midst of too much change.
…the way to look at this is as an evolution, not motion. But if Space Councils, events, technology and NASA are all evolving, what are they evolving towards?
Yet, a case can be made that events and NASA projects are an eco-system of sorts, one never really getting the better of the other. It’s not a circle of life or some progression on a line, forward or back, but rather a whole. Perhaps the way to look at this is as an evolution, not motion. But if Space Councils, events, technology and NASA are all evolving, what are they evolving towards?
Systems that evolve are tricky. Evolutionary biologists have models for why certain behaviors or traits arise. For starters, remember it’s all random. But in the randomness, nature never ceases to amaze, all manner of traits thriving in a particular environment, over time that is. This is how you get a lovely peacock and its tail, which makes no sense at all if you go about trying to explain it as just some circular feedback or a linear progression. That large tail – what a disadvantage climbing or fleeing and expending energy! In practice, it not only works, it works beautifully. You need the peahen, for starters, with (by chance) a particular visual sensitivity, so the peacock’s tail is stimulating. By chance (again), it happens long, pretty tails require an incredibly healthy circulatory system. This is one theory anyway. The end result would never have been predicted, where beauty meets fitness.
And yet, not all systems evolve to create something so beautiful as a colorful bird. Isaac Asimov is remembered for his Foundation series of books, also in the news of late, now finally becoming a TV series. (Spoiler: The TV show is not like the books, which would have required three simple rooms, two spaceships, and a brief view from orbit of a planet nearly covered over in structures. And then only two to three people talking at a time, debating over and over – what will we do? And why does it not matter?) I can’t help but think Asimov thought of each part of the books in reverse, a simple resolution to each story, where organizations and their events evolve oh so predictably. That is if the characters thought a little more about what was happening as an evolving whole, with unbending inevitability.
In one Foundation story, after much running and chasing and some space battles, we learn that there was never really much to worry about. All this fuss for nothing. Your little evolving corner of the galaxy will never be bothered by a strong general from the old, declining empire. Strong generals turn their sights to the throne. So strong emperors make sure there are no strong generals. So those generals that might one day threaten your little corner of the galaxy? Don’t worry, be happy. Asimov showed a system (albeit in decline) where all the feedback loops meant life would be fine for the planets far from a declining empire. At worse, they only had to deal occasionally with the nuisance of weak generals from the old empire.
For NASA, space exploration, and technology projects, it’s also a jungle out there – an economic, cultural, and political one. But, of course, if speaking about systems that naturally evolve and space exploration, we want more peacock, less decaying empire. Sure, if it’s Groundhog Day (the movie) all over again, we will start off in a crisis over the repetition, but we must find personal growth in the end. Feedback loops can be fed from the inside, as Bill Murray found out making the best of it every day. You exit the wheel of life when you are free of the impoverished conceptions that held you in it. But it helps to exit the loop that seems a trap if you understand just what the loop is in the first place.
What defines the feedback loop between events, time, and NASA programs? It’s tempting to say the loop is all about mere change. Looked at this way, the loop is all noise and no signal. Yet program cancelations, that occasional extinction event, must also play a role. In grammar school, we all learned about the white moth and the industrial revolution. Here is this common white moth, all of a sudden at a disadvantage as trees darken with soot from coal. You are now easy pickings for the birds. This is one of the most common examples of natural selection at work in a short time. Eventually, it’s the brown moths, once rare, that become common.
For one, there will be programs that favor mobility, moving fast enough to stay inside the windows of change. For another, there will be programs that focus on defenses, institutions not missions.
So, what does an environment of instability favor in space exploration programs? Suppose we think of instability as too many changes inside the window in which a program can mature and stand firm. It’s easy to imagine the moths that will be favored by such an environment. For one, there will be programs that favor mobility, moving fast enough to stay inside the windows of change. For another, there will be programs that focus on defenses, institutions not missions. We see shades of these fitness pressures inside NASA today, a mix of commercial and traditional programs. “Innovation through desperation” for the commercial programs may as well be an admission the budgets are not there, but the need is strong. The survivor with fitness is not the commercial program, but rather the need, like getting cargo and crew to the ISS. Inversely, instability in the environment can be seen as a variant strain of lack of direction, favoring programs built to keep the burner warm until a direction becomes clear.
This is, still, speculation about pressures reinforcing each other, loops of one form or another, leading to inevitable outcomes. Yet there is an element that works against the inevitable, that vague thing we call “choice.” If we admit to constant change, occasionally one of those wild-cards will be a choice. In my decades at NASA, I learned “choice” is highly under-rated. It’s assumed large organizations have even larger processes; every path is already laid out before you can even think about it. So, moments of choice are rare, except the choice to do the best job you can. But I also learned rare does not mean never. And perhaps this reflects on the recent moment in NASA, where a need for a lunar lander is leading us to a Starship. Where once there was a debate over a small expendable old-school lander, or a larger reusable one, we’ve now ended up on a path to huge reusable spaceships that can also be reusable landers. Just when you thought you had it all figured out, the pattern, the loop or the line, or the reinforcing pressures, up, down, or sideways, you remember, never underestimate the mutations.