By Sreedhar Kajeepeta
Constant innovation is a daily pursuit for some. That is certainly true of the space exploration field, which has always been an abundant source of awe and inspiration for people in all walks of life. The wonder of space has been mighty inescapable to man ever since the dawn of civilization, but what inspires space explorers to indulge in such brave adventures and what motivates scientists to be lost in all the brain-bending and painstaking research behind the scenes remains a mystery.
A few years ago at an IBM conference, the keynote speaker, Burt Rutan, offered an unexpected and rather uplifting answer to that question. Rutan is the American aerospace engineer famous for his Model 76 Voyager aircraft, which made history on December 14, 1986 when pilots Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan—Burt’s brother—flew around the world nonstop on one tank of gas. Burt Rutan also designed SpaceshipOne, the first privately funded spacecraft to enter the realm of space—in 2004.
In his keynote address at that event, Rutan said: "Personally for me, it is the software industry that inspires me to do what I do. You guys are always innovating and creating technologies like the Internet, Web, and creating wonderful solutions on top of them." And this was before the Apple iPhone and the cloud.
It was rather kind of Rutan to say that about our industry. His words made the conference attendees feel proud of the game-changing work we all do in the software industry, and made us realize that we can all inspire our own heroes in turn with sincerity of purpose and dedication to our craft.
Are Our Heroes in Trouble?
Lately, however, certain events—not the least of which is the decommissioning of the space shuttle program—and a general lack of understanding around the future plans of NASA, the global leader in space exploration, seem to have cast a spell of doubt and made this beacon of our inspiration flicker.
Some have even gone to the extent of saying that the last flight of the shuttle—the Atlantis—on July 8, 2011, was a swan song for NASA. Well then, for those who are busy singing those blues and for those of us who have been tuned into them, here is an attempt to say that the pessimism is ill-advised and that it is time for us to look up to our heroes once again—if only to learn from how smartly they are weathering the storm of economic crisis.
The truth is the broader mission of NASA is very much alive and well, and with the recent changes, NASA is only trying to bring in newer elements of prioritization—toward even greater human and robotic space exploration: better alignment with costs and budgets, and broader levels of collaboration with commercial sector and other global space programs.
One Constellation Doesn’t Make a Universe
The naysayers may be misguided. It is true that the budget announced in March 2010 didn’t include any funding for NASA’s Constellation Program, which was to develop next-generation vehicles—Ares I and Ares V—that replace the shuttle. Many don’t realize that the budget was a net boost rather than a cut for NASA.
From the then-current budget of $18.7 billion, the change represented an increase of about $1 billion per year, because the shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) support have been taking up a significant chunk of NASA’s overall—and rather humble—budget of $15 to more than $20 billion for the next few years. (See Figure 1.)
So, the challenge of repurposing those dollars would only allow NASA to apply greater thrust toward future exploration missions, human/robotic technologies, and next-generation crew vehicles. The new missions already speak for how NASA is reaching out to the commercial sector on the one hand and co-leaders in space exploration across the globe on the other to leverage the efforts and budgets of both in order to sustain the momentum and to broaden the scope of space exploration.
NASA has collaborated with the private commercial sector with its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative since 2009. CCDev has a lot going for it already. (See Table 1.) In terms of reaching out to global partners, NASA is now counting on Russia, Europe, and Japan to keep the ISS stocked. It is important to reiterate that NASA and its international partners want to keep the ISS running at least until 2020.
Beyond the splashy, albeit iconic, shuttle/ISS-centric programs, NASA has been able to advance the cause further on many other tracks, such as robotics technology and many interplanetary exploratory missions.
Feet on the Ground Too
Let us also take a look at how NASA has contributed over the years to the broader fields of science and engineering, our overall economy, and—as an element of curiosity—our own IT industry.
Science and Engineering. As we would expect, NASA’s close involvement in research and development related to this area has resulted in a rich set of contributions to computer systems miniaturization, guidance and navigation systems, control and propulsion systems, development of ultra-high reliability hardware and software, wireless digital communications, data encryption systems, hand-held video systems, robotics, programmable memories, and advanced materials development—such as coatings and shielding, durable plastics, and high-temperature refractory materials. Recent high-water marks to showcase NASA’s impact on our daily lives include:
- Boeing’s "greener" and quieter next-generation jumbo jet, the Dreamliner 787, which made its maiden passenger voyage in October 2011, benefitted from a specially modified engine that is packed with microphones and other sound-measuring equipment.
- Back in October 2010, we all witnessed on live TV the daring and inspiring global effort to rescue 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2,400 feet below the desert in Copiapo for more than 60 days. NASA’s engineer Clinton Cragg—a member of a safety troubleshooting team formed in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster—designed the escape pod for this effort.
Overall Economy. Some independent studies showed that each dollar spent on research and development returns an average of slightly more than seven dollars in gross national product (GNP) over an 18-year period following the expenditure. NASA’s Inventions and Contributions Board (ICB) report of 2003 says the impact of NASA’s achievements on the broader economy was in excess of $300 billion, reflecting only the contributions from human space flights in the preceding 12 years.
IT. The very term "software engineering" is credited to NASA’s computer scientist and mathematician Margaret Hamilton, who played a key role in the success of Apollo, Skylab, and shuttle missions. Her work became the foundation for ultra-reliable software design and testing. NASA and Japan’s National Institute of Informatics (NII) are leading the efforts in interoperability of cloud computing platforms with their respective initiatives of Nebula and NII’s Cloud.
NASA is taking its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program ahead into the immediate future with CCDev 2 and has intensified activities with existing and new CCDev partners/contractors.
NASA says it will also fund the development of at least two space taxi proposals that could send astronauts into orbit aboard U.S. vehicles by 2017.
Honoring the memory of James Webb, NASA’s administrator who developed the Apollo program, NASA is launching the next-generation Hubble telescope by 2018.
- NASA is unrelenting about continuing "to boldly go where no man has gone before," to borrow a line from Star Trek. Here are a couple of exciting projects to illustrate that point:
- NASA’s interstellar mission Voyager 1—launched in 1977 and now 11 billion miles from Earth—continues to head forward while being in touch with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and is about to break away from the heliosheath, the region where the Sun’s influence wanes and interstellar space begins.
- NASA is now considering sending a probe to splash down into one of the methane lakes of Saturn’s moon, Titan—the only other place in the solar system known to have liquid lakes of any kind. The mission, called the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), is one of three finalists competing for a chance to fly in 2016 and is expected to reach Titan by 2023.
To conclude the discussion, let us go back to the Apollo 13 mission and its rather inspiring 1995 movie adaptation. Let us recall how undauntedly flight director Gene Kranz—Ed Harris in the movie—looks disaster squarely in the eye and energizes his team with his rallying cry of "failure is not an option," and how that call made all the difference in bringing astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert safely back home.
Much like what Kranz did on that mission, NASA and the entire global space community is moving forward, armed now with a greater sense of collaboration and frugality, toward newer heights of exploration and service for mankind. NASA’s staff seems to get up every morning with a resolution that says "turning back is not an option," which makes all that they do appear like having fun.
As we congratulate them on their countless daring missions, let us spend a moment of reflection and recommit ourselves to being involved in innovations in our respective fields that are very worthy of Burt Rutan’s generous compliments for our industry.