“What if we modified the main deflector to emit an inverse tachyon pulse, that might scan beyond the subspace barrier.” In a pinch to explain something complex? Use technobabble, courtesy of Star Trek (TNG). Remember, there is no limit to the functionality of your main deflector. Fortunately for Trek, it’s easy to follow what it all means as the crew pushes buttons to save the day. That or a wrench that looks suspiciously like a tuning fork also does the trick. Quickly translating odd phrases into action is one way to move a story right along, all without worrying about making sense of what Picard just said.
In the real world, though, if space is hard, translating NASA-speak into English is even harder, by 3.14 orders of magnitude, with a confidence level of 95%. Two recent NASA reports just beg for a poor translation. Though, if you know Klingon or Spanish and want to translate to English, you know there are always some concepts that just don’t translate. Still, there is value in the effort.
Technobabble is not the sole domain of NASA. Even writing about technobabble falls into the trappings of technocratic speech. Take the statement “the function of technocratic discourse in public policy is to advocate and promulgate a highly contentious political and economic agenda under the guise of scientific objectivity and political impartiality.” (The authors make an excellent case.) Still, we could use a dual-screen. On the other screen, a translation, “if you can’t explain it simply, you probably don’t understand it.” A second translation below that, “beware people talking in circles.”
This week, the first NASA report is from Inspector General Paul K. Martin summing up NASA’s progress on its Moon program, Artemis. “Moreover, our detailed examination of Artemis program contracts found its costs unsustainable.” The curious part of the report is that one word – unsustainable. Such harsh language is usually scant in reports by someone inside NASA, but outside the NASA project they are critiquing. Still, some possible translations for “unsustainable” help simplify. Not that there is not a dictionary definition, even one that offers a good analogy, like “upsetting the ecological balance by depleting natural resources.“
But some more straightforward translation is still possible. Unsustainable as meaning “this won’t end well” is just four words, none more than one syllable, and capturing the feeling. A literal Spanish version of this, “eso no acaba bien” is more substantial, with heart, and closer to what unsustainable is all about here. Another translation comes courtesy of everyone’s favorite engineer, so much more human-seeming than us real ones, where unsustainable comes out the universal translator as Scotty saying, “I cannae change the laws of physics.”
The inspector general also provided numbers – “our estimate of a $4.1 billion per-launch cost of the SLS/Orion system for at least the first four Artemis missions.” Translating this one is tricky without seeing the math. Inevitably there comes a year when a NASA project says it is operational, in a broad sense, unrelated to detailed dollar flows and mind-numbing accounting. A simple translation, first going to Klingon and then to English, to best capture the feeling on hearing “four-point one billion per launch” is “take all the budgets for all this stuff, add them up, and divide by the number of launches in that time, and you get about 4 billion.” Some translations just fail. Setting the universal translator “simplify” setting to maximum spits out a better version, just three words, again one syllable each – “that’s not good.” The IG goes on to talk about cost-plus contracts as the cause of such high costs, or for the uninitiated – assorted ways of saying “never buy in a sellers’ market.”
The second recent NASA report provides a more positive note. It was published on February 9th with little fanfare (compared to the prior IG report). Here, NASA Associate Administrator James Free provided testimony to the US Senate subcommittee on space and science. He focuses on the “New Space Environment,” but this has nothing to do with space debris and everything to do with partnerships. Partnerships can be that deflector shield of late, handy in a pinch but leaving questions about how that really works. There must be something about exploring space beyond difficult to express, as the excitement, inspiration, and awe are left behind when trying to answer the question – how are we doing?
Perhaps space exploration is ineffable here on the ground too, but saying that would be too easy. Partnerships are essential in the search for how unlimited horizons meet limited budgets. So what are partnerships, roughly translated? It would not be oversimplifying to say a partnership is NASA (public) and a company (private) “moving forward, together.” Public-private partnerships align everyone’s incentives in ways a “cost-plus” contract cannot. This makes sense. Real partners sink or swim together, and how could we envision exploring space otherwise?
The contrast could not be starker when comparing the testimony by Associate Administrator Free and that of NASA Inspector General Martin. We call engineering about a month apart to ask “how are we doing,” only to get two very different replies. One, a sense things are amiss, another saying they are on it, and they have an idea. The unknown possibilities are around the corner, and it’s time to see if we can modify that deflector shield – queue action, moving forward, together.