Space technology, meet 2023

A new year forces us to look back and get our bearings before focusing on what’s ahead. Milestones do that, whether beautiful or sad. On these occasions, we draw a mental line precisely marking time to a spot, with everything else on the other side. Similarly, the loss of Challenger, the fall of the Berlin wall, 9/11, and the loss of Columbia mark the zones on my mental map of time. North, south, before, after. What is different with the new year is many of us pause and do this together.

In our space sector, it’s the time of year when we count launches, talk breakthroughs, and list hits, misses, and notable events. But looking forward, the same old questions stick around, like when will we get back to the Moon, when will we go to Mars, and what’s it all been for? As if a singular foot on another planet means so much more, we stand ready to mark the map of our short stay with amazement, saying, “here everything changed.” And then we ask for more.

Years ago, in another NASA Moon program, the day’s meeting seamlessly became the evening’s dinner. Our space crowd talked shop long after the drone of the day’s discussion ended. This was more the norm than the exception, a poor habit, and this day was no different. What was different was the degree of disagreement over what landing on the Moon meant. What would it be for? The conversation began innocently enough, the chit-chat about how to land on the Moon. This was a friendly, technical back and forth about lunar landers, technology, and design. It did not end as casually as it began.

As if this was a movie’s back story filling a dystopian world with factions, let’s just say we had lunar lander factions. I was in the group that wanted to do something very different, better than how NASA had landed on the Moon before. We should start with a non-toxic fuel and oxidizer and go from there. This was rather take-no-prisoners non-negotiable, as far as we “ops” folk at KSC were concerned. More importantly, I did not see this as a technical decision but as a matter of why we were going to the Moon at all. Obviously, we had to figure out how to go there often, so affordably, and more efficiently, paving the way for many others to follow. How we got to the Moon was as important as getting there. Having NASA astronauts back on the Moon was incidental, a means to an end, not an end in itself. The details might be debated, but not this. The program management agreed on the lander design and improvements, if not bothering with the broader reasoning. But with the meeting over, it became apparent not everyone was on board.

The dissent at dinner began slowly, around being practical. The argument went that we would have enough difficulties just landing people on the Moon and that this alone would be an accomplishment. Even repeating a small Apollo-like (toxic and expendable) lunar lander was “possibly a reach too far.” The ambition of a better, bigger lander would put the program at risk of doing nothing at all. So much for a vote of confidence in the next generation (mine).

For those wanting to do more, the reply was straightforward. If all we ended up doing was “flags and footprints,” we might as well not do anything. Doing nothing at all was a risk worth taking to do something worthwhile. A return to the Moon had to be about so much more, or what’s it all been for? Also, if you believed a little old-fashioned lunar lander was a stretch, we had more considerable problems than budgets or lunar landers.

In a sense, not long after, events proved both sides of this debate had a point. The Constellation program was canceled (of a sort), and NASA would not return to a lunar lander till years later. Ambition did do us in. Plans did not meet up with resources, and not by a little. They were not in the same county. But on returning to lunar landers, NASA opted to think about more than just landing. NASA’s selection of the SpaceX Starship as a lunar lander makes previous lunar landers quaint by comparison. As if the design and scale are not ambitious enough, this lander also redefines the relationship between NASA and industry.

The Apollo lunar lander (left), the Altair lunar lander as envisioned circa 2010 (artists concept), and the NASA and SpaceX lunar lander in development. Note the scale differences – especially the size of the astronaut next to the Starship lunar lander (right).

When I began writing this blog, I thought my regular topic would be space technology. My thoughts were on technology stagnation, too, with technology that seems eternally ten years away. In a way, our conversation years ago about landers showed where some stood on the topic. For some, too much ambition was impractical. For others, it was the whole point.

We can debate and envision and work toward different possibilities all day. I will miss the mark on every one of these. What matters is heading in the right direction, coming close more often than not while enjoying the journey. Technology starts many conversations that end up at a good place, asking why.

Technology stagnation is not a settled topic, with naysayers pointing out we have plenty to be amazed about, just different. After a lifetime, our parents easily pointed out long lists of all the very imposing, substantive changes in their daily lives. By 1987 there was a computer in our home – with floppy disks and a noisy dot matrix printer, filling up what used to be a big open space on my desk. By 2000 I could hear the reminiscing clearly in my head, now memorized. It was about the world before so many cars and roads, TVs and jets, and pills for this and gizmos for that. And before those computers. But with each year, it seemed my generation might not be up to having their own story about so much remarkable change, things seeming to slow to a crawl. One day someone says we need a lunar lander like the one from 40 years ago, but that might prove beyond our skill.

Right along follow cautionary voices about how it was unrealistic to expect technology to shift people’s lives as much as previous revolutions. We just aren’t built to handle that much change. Or we are in a revolution after all, but with so much change, we’ve grown used to shrugging it all off. Otherwise, we’d never get through our day. After the first few technology revolutions, we will naturally feel the next ones seem passe, no matter the advance. Those AI’s doing art or convincingly chatting as they make up answers that ring true? We won’t be impressed till one tries to purposely kill us. With style. Then too, not everyone could cope with a pandemic and science giving us a vaccine only one year later, so how would we handle flying cars anyway?

Those dates used to be “the future”

As we talk about technological advances or not, we fall into this usual back and forth. The optimist predictably presents inspiring stories about people, inventors, and their breakthroughs. The anecdotal evidence about our passion for discovery is meant to silence the downers. The opposing view is invariably top-down, whipping out graphs with measures of productivity, how fast we are going versus how fast we went before. Spoiler alert – we are going slower now. As an engineer and a number cruncher, I admit to being swayed by the latter camp. Inspiring individual stories aside, the data says we are more stuck than moving.

Together with the ambition of Starships as lunar landers, we have the NASA Artemis plan for only yearly crewed lunar missions. But as we talked about years ago, ambition is no guarantee of success. And always, someone will say a Moon landing every year for a short stay would be a grand accomplishment. But progress is not Goldilocks trying out one speed here and another there, settling in the middle with just right. “Two Moon rockets walked into a bar, tied at the hip” might be the start of a good joke. Or it’s for real and 2023, a year we used to see in sci-fi novels when it seemed anything might fly, including us, to the Moon. At the end of this story, some astronauts on the Moon should become many more people, much more often. It’s only then we will look back in wonder mixed with feeling it’s all quite normal, as we push further.

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