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The Children of Apollo & Visions for the Future

We were unwitting, but energetic, partners in a vast social contract: "Hey kids, study science, math and engineering! We're going to beat the Russians, and you'll go to the Moon, build space stations, and go to Mars!"
by Eric Strobel
Rosslyn - Oct 9, 2001
Many that browse this site (myself included) are 'Children of Apollo', whose most impressionable years were profoundly touched by Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

We were unwitting, but energetic, partners in a vast social contract: "Hey kids, study science, math and engineering! We're going to beat the Russians, and you'll go to the Moon, build space stations, and go to Mars!" Many columns have been written lately having two basic themes: 'Why 2001 isn't like 2001'; and 'Where's my flying car?' The reason for this is plain.

The social contract that prompted millions of parents to encourage their bright kids toward technical fields of study, lies shattered at our feet, as it was never really more than politically expedient rhetoric.

The Children of Apollo are uneasy; feeling vaguely cheated that the nation that went from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base in a single lifetime seems likely to go no further in their lifetimes. This sense of uneasiness is aggravated by the distinct potential of a less-than-mediocre future. Allow me to illustrate.

When I was a just barely a teenager, as Apollo was ending, I was outside one evening, weeding the garden. It was nearly sundown and my imagination wandered. I saw myself in that exact spot, some 60 years in the future; an old retired man puttering in the garden.

I looked up and saw a bright dot cross the sky. "Space station," my future self thought with a wistful sadness, knowing that there were only a handful of folks up where I'd dreamed of being and would never be.

As I stand now roughly halfway between the time of that 'vision' and it's possible fulfillment, the potential future is perhaps bleaker than I'd imagined.

Less than thirty years from now, the International Space Station will reach the end of its design lifetime at about the same time that Social Security and Medicare will be near their point of maximum fiscal stress. It is all too easy to see a future where even the status quo won't be maintained and the ISS will be deorbited with no replacement. We are not passive players on this stage. We see what might happen and we can take steps to change the outcome. We can make a far different, brighter, future.

Now, at this point, any number of space advocates would wax poetic as they detail their particular vision for the future. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm just not wise enough to claim that my vision has any special validity. There are just too many non-technical factors involved.

Instead, I'll share some musings on principles the space community should operate under as we progressively realize some form of our common desire to move outward. Briefly, the space community as a whole should focus on being ready to seize opportunities as they present themselves, or to make opportunities happen if need be.

'No Corners' is a rule that may be familiar to those that deal with system architectures. Simply put, it is fiendishly difficult to design an architecture from point solutions and have that architecture be robust to change.

Point solutions (or 'corner cases') can illustrate and instruct, but should not be the sole starting point for a system architecture design. For those not familiar with this domain, consider the game of chess.

Our journey toward becoming a spacefaring species is past the setpiece beginnings, but not yet in the endgame. When I learned the game, I was told that the only instruction that can be given for the midgame is to give your pieces mobility and have them cooperate. More than that cannot be said, as the details depend on what the board looks like. So, where am I going with this? As a community we need to position ourselves strategically and work together to the greatest extent possible, because we cannot yet see the details of the future as clearly as we'd like.

The Children of Apollo are trained, ready and in the prime of their lives, but many have ended up in careers far astray from aerospace. And many that are in aerospace aren't in positions that permit furthering the cause of space development.

Professional societies such as the AAS and AIAA represent one heck of a collective 'rolodex', with membership including virtually all the "movers and shakers" in space-related academia, industry, and government.

Can we not make this 'rolodex' available to the Children of Apollo (and others) in a form other than some mega-space-resume/job search engine? A resource based on career goals and interests, rather than current openings.

Let's go even further, extending this to fostering business partnerships and teaming arrangements, allowing motivated folks to remake their careers and increase their influence at their current company.

For those so inclined, and perhaps not directly interested in the aerospace industry, consider a resource that also connects folks with opportunities for public awareness, education, or political action. In this way, we can position our people to best advantage. Let's go even further afield here. The various corporations and wealthy individuals who participate in the space community represent a great deal of financial resources.

Is it not time, perhaps, to consider the private sector forming a foundation to offer NASA matching funds to spur efforts in particular directions, rather than the other way around? How long will it be before we can check "Pluto-Kuiper Express" on a United Way form?

When will we see members of the Planetary Society (for example) consult on some new video game in return for a part of the royalties being donated to the solar sail effort?

And where's my kids' box of cereal with the Pillars of Creation poster plus a money off coupon for the Hubble's Greatest Hits CD, proceeds of which go to construction of the NGST? Let's face it, if the Children of Apollo are to achieve an acceptable future, there must be a new social contract. This time, we forge this contract with ourselves. We cannot wait for government, or for society at large.

We need to achieve a robust social architecture that positions all of us to best use our abilities in the cause of space exploration and utilization, regardless of the political and societal winds that blow about us. If we want flying cars, we'd best roll up our sleeves and get to work. Nobody will build them for us; we must build them ourselves.

Eric Strobel is a physicist by training, but whose career has more often tended toward systems engineering.

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Where's My Flying Car?
Pasadena - Sept. 22, 2001
In 1981, when I was ten, my parents and I watched live on television as the very first shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral. I had such great hopes for the manned space program. I was excited because I thought the shuttle would take us to outer space. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to go to the Moon, Mars and the other planets.


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