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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: Continuing the discussion

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008

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About 48 hours after having posted a short example on Columbus, I hope you have reached some conclusions. I'd like to continue this discussion just a bit longer.

So the question, as posed by the University of Strathclyde, is this: 'Was Columbus voyage of discover a program ("tactical") success or failure; and was it a Strategic success or failure?" The point being, what can we learn for space exploration.

On a couple of different forums and by email I have received several interesting but brief votes for success or failure.

When we were studying how to reform the Shuttle Mission Management Team following Columbia, one of the best lessons we gained from a lot of academic and consultant forums was this: it is important to properly frame the question.

So I left you with the question: success or failure, and whose?

From the Native American standpoint, the voyage of Columbus represented a catastrophic strategic failure. If the natives of San Salvadore had risen up en mass and slaughtered the Europeans, nothing would have been heard from Columbus; and his opponents would have carried the day. European discovery and all its catastrophic consequences for native Americans might have been delayed by centuries. So if you take that point of view, strategic failure.

Alternatively, Columbus himself believed to his deathbed that he had actually discovered the route to the spice islands, China, and Japan. If you had asked him, he would have emphatically told you that the voyage was a tactical ("program") success.

Isabella's motives (and Ferdinand's too) are harder to discern. If their goal was to enrich Spain and increase international respect (and envy) for Spain, then the voyage was a tactical ("program") success. Some historians have stated that the Spanish royal couple mostly wanted to get rid of the pesky Italian and they saw a way to get rid of certain Portuguese maritime merchants that were causing them problems. Strategically you could argue that they succeeded here as well.

In the very long run, Spain's whole mind set defeated their ambitions in the new world and Spain sunk into 3rd rate status among nations. So how long is "strategic" success good for? It took the better part of a century to get to the apex, and another century to fall.

But my thesis is that taking the simplistic view of history and putting each expedition into the "successful" or "failure" bins defeats the possibility of learning from history. The lessons are too complex, too rich, and too contradictory to put in a Venn diagram.

So back to my example story from Columbus and the hurricane. What can we learn that is applicable to space exploration?

Lets start with a very simple observations: you should listen to folks who have experience. Columbus and his crew knew the signs of impending weather. They tried to warn others who laughed at them. Then Columbus and his crew took cover. How does that apply to spaceflight? There are a lot of folks that make specious claims of being able to do things cheaper, faster (and better?) than those who have gone before. While incremental improvements are possible, amazing predictions from folks who have no experience in the stormy waters of rocketry are probably direct descendants of Bobadilla. Don't laugh at experience, search it out and study it.

Explorers enable colonization, economic exploitation, and the advance of civilization. Explorers frequently make lousy administrative leaders for the colony, the businessmen, or the rest of civilization. Use people where their talents lie; don't try to make them into something that they are not, have no interest in, have no experience about. Keep the explorers exploring.

How about the theme that very small investments in exploration can result in huge rewards. Isabella and Ferdinand invested a pittance in three very small ships and skimped on their outfitting costs; one can argue that economically that was the best investment in history. Frequently the proponents of NASA cite studies that show for every dollar spent on the space program, new technologies and businesses result which in turn improve our economy by $4, $7, or $9 depending on how finely you slice the model? Is 0.6% of the national budget an excessive amount to spend on the future of humankind, especially when it turns out to be a goose that lays golden eggs for the near term economic health of the country (and we need something!).

We could go on. I worry that the internet age with its 12 sentence blogs and 5 second soundbite attention span does not have the patience to learn from history. And you know what happens to folks that fail to learn from history.

Some time in the future we'll discuss the Darien get rich quick scheme, how it plays into Scottish mythology, and how present day interest in Glasgow in Scottish devolution (independence) played a major role in the business school thinking of the Strathclyde paper which mostly picked failed expeditions lead by the English. There is a history lesson there, too.

Keep your eyes open. As Yogi Berra once said "You can observe a lot by just watching."

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