Space, risk and Mars

The same day Orbital Science’s rocket blew up on take off, producing a fireball that would make Colonel Kilgore salivate, NASA issued a broad call for deep space exploration proposals from outside groups. In the days since, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space plane broke up in a test flight, hoisting space tourism on to the homepages of the world’s media.

Explosion of Orbital Science's rocket on launch pad
Explosion of Orbital Science’s rocket on launch pad

If the impact of NASA’s Broad Area Announcement on Deep Space is overshadowed by the glare of these two accidents, the public can be forgiven. After all, it’s been quite a while since NASA took credible steps toward a manned-mission to Mars. This time NASA’s call is to the public, businesses and international organizations for proposals on advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites. A big ask, indeed, even if NASA is offering to share the reward with partners.

NASA says it “intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations.”

 Public-private partnerships of this type help NASA stimulate the US space industry while working to expand the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space.

What’s sure is that for a long-term Mars mission to work, on the ground something must change. What’s needed is the unspoken sense of purpose and direction that was in place around the US space program. Space, during the historical Cold War, was a matter of national security and national pride. It was also a venue for the expression of human yearning to reach new heights and accomplish previously unimaginable feats.

As the events of the last week have reminded the public, space is risky and space is hard. But risk is necessary  in order to achieve breakthroughs. I’ve quoted author Neal Stephenson on risk and I will quote him again:

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable…Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off.

Can we really say the scientists and engineers are being pushed to the limits of what they can imagine today? More likely, bureaucracy and hierarchy are the new challenge for scientists and researchers. Stephenson, in his essay, makes the point about how risk is drummed out of projects by hierarchy. One unintended

Virgin space plane breaking up
Virgin space plane breaking up

effect of the internet is how too much awareness of an area of research and potential pitfalls stymies projects at premature stages.

Anthropologist author David Graeber makes a similar point. He believes the rise of what he calls “bureaucratic technologies” have somehow supplanted the kind of “poetic technology” that flourished during the historical Cold War and would be involved in getting humanity to Mars today.

In 2012, he said:

In a way big science is even bigger than it was in 1950s and 1960s but they’ve redirected it in completely different directions. If the reason why we don’t have robots that can take down my laundry, is that 95 per cent of all robotics research is funnelled through the Pentagon, why don’t we have gigantic killer robots shooting death rays from of their eyes?

Graeber says the culprit is “bureaucratic technologies” and he points to the internet, as well, as a prime example. It now allows us to more digital paperwork than ever before. Graeber describes a “fusion of education, corporate and government bureaucracy” that formed a “marketising bureaucracy” with the result that for a lot of organizations and leaders concluded the most important activity was for everyone to “spend most of their time selling things to each other.”

To me, personally, that’s the triumph of freemarket ideology over the better imagination of societies, people and thinkers. It has been true not just in the corporate world, but in the world of academia, publishing, and many others – all of which have been seduced or coerced by the market. One of those values is for

Image from China's moon flyby probe.
Image from China’s moon flyby probe.

organizations to shun risk with the promise of a quantifiable reward locked in. If you’re having trouble imagining an example, look to the chief executive officer meeting market expectations on a quarterly basis. What incentive does he have to go back to the drawing board on an existing business when it’s so difficult to forecast what future revenues and profits would look like? What if the change in the business is greeted with a plummeting stock price? Hence, the institutional bias is for a lot of continuity between past business and future business. Apple’s successive iPhone models are just variations on previous models – for a reason.

So, in a risk-averse environment, how is NASA and its private sector partners going to get past this inertia? Well, the public will have to embrace risk in this area. Not recklessness. But risk. Why will they embrace risk? Because, it will become clearer that the world is once again a risky and  destabilized place. The post-Cold War calm has passed. The ability for the West to ensure security is related to space (think of GPS and satellites, to name a few). China, since the Gulf War of 1991 and the War in Yugoslavia, has desired to counter the US advantage in space. Today, there is no one human who Westerners can thank more for reminding them of growing risks in the world than Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s rhetoric toward the West has already gone nuclear. He just needs to keep talking.

There is another factor. National pride and national destiny. The same week of the space-related accidents, China sent a probe to the moon and back, in anticipation of a mission that will land on the moon, and eventually in anticipation of a human trip to the moon. Done with maximum secrecy, the results of the missions will probably get more people in the West asking about Mars.

The equation around risk and Mars can then change.

It will no longer simply be expensive and distant. There will be the implicit risk of not going, of seeing NASA atrophy while Russia builds new generation ICBMs and China uses space to tell a story of its own “inevitable” rise. In the West, there will be the presumption that a Mars mission will be hard – but that, to paraphrase John F Kennedy, is exactly why the West should go.

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