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Earth's Groundhog Days Continue Thirty Years Later

The only scientist to ever visit the moon, Geologist-Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge, split boulder at Station 6 on the sloping base of North Massif during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA-3) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This picture was taken by Commander Eugene Cernan on the second last day (Dec 13, 1972) that man was on the moon.
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  • by John Carter McKnight
    Scottsdale - Dec 19, 2002
    Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Apollo program when Apollo 17 returned to Earth in a flawless splash down in the Pacific Ocean. It is also the day we abandoned the universe beyond low Earth orbit and to commemorate the event I propose that we move that quintessential American holiday forward a couple months and declare December 19 - Groundhog Day.

    As in the Bill Murray movie of the same name, our space efforts have been stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating the same events over and over until maybe, finally, we learn something and free ourselves to move on. Thirty years should be enough repetition of tax-financed circling in LEO: let's draw some conclusions and get on with building a spacefaring civilization.

    In the movie, Murray played a cynical drone of a TV weatherman, someone who'd chosen to ignore his own talents in order to cultivate a superficial appeal, to his audiences and to the people in his personal life.

    The repetition of one Groundhog Day forced him to develop skills and values enabling him to be of service to his community, to develop a popularity built on real utility and deep connection. NASA and the global space community, after a generation of Groundhog Days, are just beginning to learn the lessons that enabled Murray to break the cycle and move on.

    Some of those lessons are beginning to generate real change, the kind of change necessary to put an end to thirty years of more-of-the-same in space and launch us into an era of progress and transformation.

    What We're Doing Doesn't Work: If our goal is to build a permanent, sustainable human presence in space, we have to begin by acknowledging failure. We're not there; we don't have the "2001: A Space Odyssey" future.

    The observation is obvious, but much of the space community has failed to draw the logical conclusion: the methods we've been using to achieve our goals have failed.

    We've stuck ourselves with repetitive behaviors, and so we keep reliving Groundhog day. Dependence on governments and the aerospace giants who service them has failed.

    A space-enthusiast effort focused on government-agency boosterism has failed. Entrepreneurial efforts ungrounded in incrementalism and ruthless financial realism have failed. "Space is cool" educational programs have failed. Success will require not just new approaches but an end to wasting efforts on the old ones. You can't dig your way out of a hole.

    We're Only Fooling Ourselves: All of us in the space community have been like Murray's smarmy weatherman, pulling ever-more outrageous stunts, making increasingly grandiose claims, to grab the attention of fickle audiences. Nobody bought Murray's act, and nobody's buying ours.

    The primary work product of NASA and Big Aerospace is "viewgraph engineering:" ferociously expensive studies that generate beautiful artwork of cool spaceships - and nothing else. Nobody other than newcomers believes any of the stuff will ever be built.

    The cynicism behind such efforts, verging on corruption where public funds are involved, is corrosive to the credibility of the entire space enterprise. The same holds true with much of the outreach focused on schoolchildren: that captive audience has a fine nose for adult speciousness, and they're not buying outer-space gee-whiz: they can see the level of interest and attention paid to space by their parents and the media, and can see for themselves that the humans-in-space effort in particular is ghastly dull.

    To be sure, our messages to our children are more a product of wishful thinking than the intentional design of space Potemkin villages perpetrated on taxpayers, but the disconnect between reality and the empty flash of presentations is equally discrediting.

    Bureaucracies Aren't Bold: Another lesson that should be obvious, this one has escaped government space supporters and critics alike. Governmental efforts can't afford to fail, but they can afford not to succeed.

    "We're still working on it" prevents blame and ensures a continued supply of funding to manage what must be an oh-so intractable problem. "We thought we had it, but it blew up" leads to messy investigations.

    This simple rule of human behavior has several consequences for space. One is that very old technology will stay in service long past its intended life: better the devil you know.

    Another is that simultaneously, research and development will focus on the most distant, blue-sky, projects, ones that can safely be studied for generations without incurring the wrath of legislators expecting results. Ignored if possible and stamped out if necessary are the incremental advances and completely new products that are the staple of commercial efforts.

    Some of this is driven by the procurement process, which ensures that product development must meet current, not envisioned, needs, and must incur great documentation expense up front.

    Some of it is the inevitable product of the bureaucratic mindset, which in all times and cultures values stability and self-preservation over innovation and progress. Bureaucracies excel at repetition, at established and routine procedures - at being stuck in Groundhog Day.

    We Need to be Useful: Arguably, Apollo generated real utility for the American culture of its time. Soviet space efforts had severely threatened America's self-perception as a technologically advanced, can-do society. That image had to be redeemed, and through a grand gesture. Otherwise, the "space program" has provided little to meet the real needs of the community, be that America or the world.

    There have been quiet triumphs: the general ability of remote sensing data has made a real contribution to safety and prosperity. Certainly communications satellites have been an immense boon.

    billions of dollars later the promise of the Moon and the Apollo technology base is a fading memory of another time.
    But much space effort, including, often, this column, lack grounding in the needs of the community - as it perceives them, rather than as we wish it did. Ours is not an expansive, bold, frontier-oriented civilization.

    Projects designed to meet those needs will fail, for lack of demand. Scientific data is of only passing interest beyond a community of specialists: NASA's focus on scientific questions marginalizes its own efforts and leaves it open to charges of hypocrisy for projects with other, unconfessed, motivations, such as the ISS and the choice of Mars missions over those to Pluto or Europa.

    What would be useful? Efforts increasing interconnectedness and communications: commercial suborbital vehicles fit that bill. A counter to fears of terrorism, more than to its actuality - which is why ballistic missile defense remains a priority.

    So long as SUV sales continue to increase, our society remains unwilling to confront the consequences of its demands for energy and raw materials, and unwilling to perceive any need for change. Once it does, expansion of our material resource base may become useful quite soon, enabling solar power satellites and asteroid mining.

    We Need Skills: We really do have things to learn before we can live and work in space and expand outward through the solar system. By focusing on endless human microgravity studies - and ignoring Russian data in the field - NASA has squandered opportunities to grow and learn during its long Groundhog Day.

    Thirty years in LEO could have been put to use prototyping spacesuits, conducting crew composition studies, running simulated Mars missions, and developing a myriad other essential skills. Return to the Moon supporters have been among the most clear and consistent in recognizing and trying to address the need for many of these skills. We'll still have to learn them someday, and until we do, it'll remain Groundhog Day, and we'll keep endlessly repeating what we already know.

    We Need to Start Small and Persevere: On the final repetition of his Groundhog Day, Murray's character had become a competent emergency medic, a good dancer, and a terrific piano player. His transformations weren't magical, but were the product of lots of time to practice, during his infinitely looping day.

    The discipline to abandon his grandiose bluster in favor of daily incremental progress was one of the keys to his release. It is ours as well. A new generation of rocket entrepreneurs is starting small, building, testing and flying hardware in steady development.

    Some of them will succeed, unlike the purveyors of giant orbital vehicle designs and "spend twenty billion dollars and they'll come" business plans. Some of the current crop of grad students will persevere in their disciplines, moving on eventually from volunteering on analog missions to running the real thing.

    Some of the enthusiasts who keep working through this time when space is far from the public consciousness will hone immense talents to be applied when a new era opens. The grandiose dreamers won't be there, the burnouts won't be there. The folks who kept showing up for piano lessons will.

    To our credit, we're beginning to learn some of the lessons of Groundhog Day. Some of the space advocacy groups are turning from a futile focus on government towards private action - either directly, as with the Mars Society's habs, or indirectly, through the Space Frontier Foundation's focus on training and encouragement for space entrepreneurs.

    Those entrepreneurs are shedding the vices of their military-industrial competitors and taking a steady progression of small steps with real hardware. A very few advocates are beginning to address the question of how the space movement can be a productive, integrated, valued member of the global community.

    The Spacefaring Web, that network of scientists, entrepreneurs and advocates, is becoming real, and honest, and useful. Thirty years isn't too much time for that: progress tends to be made by the old guard dying off.

    We still have Groundhog Days ahead of us, but if we keep their lessons in mind, and if we persevere, one Groundhog Day not too long from now will be our last, and once again we'll move on, beyond Earth orbit and out for good into the universe.

    The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2002 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation. Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at [email protected]

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    I Have A Dream For The Democrats
    San Francisco - Dec 18, 2002
    As Republicans celebrate their historic win in the mid-term elections, it will be easy to forget that little has changed. The nation remains evenly divided and Congress remains closely split. We are still a nation at war with ourselves.

    Small Steps Keep Us Grounded
    Scottsdale - Nov 22, 2002
    NASA's recent budget request is uninspiring, reactive and constraining - and just what the doctor ordered. Agency Administrator Sean O'Keefe has apparently realized that our grandiose dreams of near-term space triumphs are simply shattered, leaving us - government, industry and advocacy alike - with the unglamorous work of living within our means, delivering on our promises, and slowly building a new space infrastructure, one that, this time, can last, writes John Carter McKnight.

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