NASA, aerospace, and optimism – in search of the right setting

It’s not surprising to see studies again showing optimism can help us live longer. There is a circularity here. Any news about being optimistic and living longer promising to live on quite a while. Good memes, by definition, persist, going from trending to chitchat, back to studies, and then appearing again in the news. There is no shortage of reasons why optimism and living longer go together, at least for individuals. Lower stress or adopting healthier behavior are among a laundry list of explanations. Yet what of organizations and optimism, like NASA?

Now 64 years old and going strong, NASA has a special relationship with optimism. On the one hand, NASA is often accused (as if pending trial) of being overly optimistic. It’s no wonder NASA projects cost many times and take many years longer than initially promised. Here, excessive optimism is cast as the culprit, alongside the scolding.

There is a flip side to optimism as a flaw. Here we embrace NASA’s bright-eyed optimism to walk away inspired. “Failure is not an option” is the one NASA motto in popular culture. Or at least it is, thanks to some artistic license and Hollywood. Still, imagine if that Apollo moment had gone sideways. Your spaceship has blown a gasket on the way to the Moon. One more like that and she’ll be blown to bits. There is the real risk of running out of oxygen or freezing to death, with no turning back, orbital mechanics, and all that, meaning this is not some movie where you turn around on a dime. This is physics, not fiction. The leader back on Earth says – “Let’s all do what we can to return our people safe and sound. We know the outcome is uncertain, but blah blah.” This version would not have won the motivational speech of the year award. A crisis is probably not the best time for blunt force realism. Instead, there was a much better pep talk, and two parts hard work and one part denial equaled success. Optimism lived another day.

“Yes. There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

NASA is not the only example of pathological optimism, or on the other hand, a necessary optimism worthy of praise. Wholly new start-ups, as well as new companies filled with experienced workforces, are also not immune to catching these variants of the Optimism-19 bug. The usual advertising is a high launch rate, a low cost, and a large, growing market. We will build it, and they will come – perhaps it’s an orbital space tourism, factory, or something or other spinning in the sky. It has everything except investors or details and those pesky equations adding up. Yet when it does add up, we rediscover Arthur C. Clarke’s 3 stages of an idea somewhere at the step about how “I said it was a good idea all along.” As a NASA mentor once said, it’s a special kind of engineer that walks into the room filled with manure on Christmas day and yells, “Yes. There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

The three stages of a revolutionary idea: 1 – It’s completely impossible, 2 – It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing, and 3 – I said it was a good idea all along. -Arthur C. Clarke

Yet knowing optimism can be good for you, or when it’s terrible, and that it’s in people and in places, is much clearer than understanding why. Here the reasoning gets murky. An evolutionary explanation posits that we ask what happens given the opposite? For individuals, this works. Optimism, even when it’s a delusion, must help more than hinder. That is, pessimism is not just biting, it bites you. Except quickly muddying things, this leads us to the vague idea of many different lids for every pot. Otherwise, we would all be optimists, and the realist, and definitely the pessimist, would have long gone extinct. Asking “why” optimism persists in organizations only gets more complicated.

NASA and the space sector have no shortage of wildly inspiring, innovative and, yes, very optimistic ideas. We might put astronauts into a chemical sleep for a trip to Mars, reducing the required air, food, water, and living space. We might use fungus, fed with nutrients, to turn inert, rocky dirt from asteroids into rich soil for planting. Taking some fungus and nutrients beats lugging massive amounts of fertile soil all the way from Earth. Energy sources developed for space can add to a robust, clean energy portfolio back on Earth.

 …optimism encourages us to make things real, even when they begin as a fiction.

There will never be a lack of Theranos’s going too far (will we end up at criminal optimism?) But 50 years from now, it’s a good bet someone remains inspired by Dr. McCoy’s salt-shaker medical thingy, and they are working to make it a reality. Like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, the ultimate metaphor for inspired scientists and engineers, optimism encourages us to make things real, even when they begin as a fiction. Not knowing that putting people on the Moon in a decade was impossible, NASA did it. Not knowing that new launchers and new spacecraft for a dime on the dollar were impossible, NASA and its partners went ahead and did it too.

All these NASA projects, and so its ambitions, live inside a budget that, contrary to popular belief, has been decreasing yearly for a very long time. This is the reality of a budget that does not keep up with inflation. Since 1995 NASA’s purchasing power has declined by about 20%. If NASA got $5 a year in 1995, today it is (really) getting $4. Practically speaking, you get a raise every year, but the rent goes up faster. In such an environment, the habitat for ideas, is it natural some projects mutate and become even more virulently optimistic than usual? Inversely, is NASA’s new partnerships approach to most all new contracts in spaceflight an adaptation? Here we have the optimism that competition and ingenuity will save the day – and fit in those constrained budgets when nothing added up before. As the Red Queen said in Alice in Wonderland, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Having seen enough numbers in aerospace projects never add up, what’s surprising is the widespread insistence to keep trying. (I was often the one who did the math.) Some of this drive is likely maladaptive, like turtle hatchlings – we do what we have always done. It succeeded before, so it will likely succeed again. But the world changes and that light the hatchlings head toward is now a beach house (and death.) Another part of this drive is very different, something hatchlings can’t do. It’s optimism as two parts hope and one part learning by trying. By learning, we can override some programming – correctly recognizing the Moonlight and heading out to sea.

Still, in 2022 no one can tell if NASA and the aerospace sector will find the perfect setting for our optimism dials anytime soon. (Bulls#*!–Impossible–Denial–Maybe–Difficult–Challenging–Achievable) But what is likely, is everyone keeps trying all the settings. And who knows, instead of doomscrolling, maybe we’ll also live longer and prosper the more we fiddle with this dial.

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