Monthly Archives: April 2010

Psalm 46

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God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of  the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Memory is a funny thing; some days I cannot find where I put my car keys; but everywhere and anytime my memory is crystal clear as I remember January 31, 1986.  On a very slight rise beside two sapling trees just outside building 16 at Johnson Space Center, I was standing with hundreds of my co-workers for the Challenger memorial service.   The President was there, and spoke; there was a lengthy program and other speakers.  But what I remember most vividly was a young astronaut by the name of Charlie Bolden at the podium reading the 46th Psalm.

There was not a doubt in my body that he meant every word that he read.

These days there seems to be some debate about some things Charlie says.  

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; . . .  the earth melts.

Isn’t it interesting how the psalmist’s imagery can apply to many situations, even the current one?

When I say there is debate, I don’t just mean about the content, althought there is that.  Whether you agree with the plan, vision, change, whatever, or not, is your business.  The debate I am referencing is the question:  Does Charlie really believe all this, or is he just a pawn in the political process saying what they tell him to say?

You would never ask that question about the Charlie Bolden that I worked when he was on the crew and I was in Mission Control.   A straight shooting Marine Aviator, he was direct, to the point, and always, always, always honest to a fault.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day

Years later when Charlie served on various review boards and we interacted, he had not changed.  Always enthusiastic, ready to ask questions, astute in his observations, Charlie was still the Marine; integrity covered him like a mantle.

I am fortunate in that I can still talk with Charlie.  In fact, it was my privilege to spend one-on-one time with him after work recently.   We talked about many things but mostly about the future path for NASA – the plan which he has been speaking about. 

Here is my conclusion:  what Charlie says is what Charlie believes.  Do not be mistaken.  If he doesn’t believe it, he doesn’t say it.

Now you may still disagree with Charlie – that’s OK – but at least you should know that Charlie maintains his integrity.

That’s a role model we all can follow.

The Lord makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bows and shatters the spear.

 

 

 

Building the Railroad to Space

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As a young boy I was enthralled by the stories of building the first transcontinental railroad.  I still have the picture book from my school days which is full of black and white photos from 1868-9.  As an engineer, I am fascinated with the period locomotives, the rolling stock, the tunnels, the bridges.  As a program manager, I have an abiding interest in the logistics, the planning, and the execution of a project of such magnitude.

 Building the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868

So I was terribly surprised several years ago when I read my first “adult” history of the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Written by serious and professional historians, leaving behind the halcyon accounts which are carefully sanitized for young readers, I was surprised to find that the great achievement was not what I had been taught in my youth.  Yes, these serious histories told about surveying the route, building trestles over prairie coulees, digging tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, bridging the Green River, organizing the logistics of the work for record breaking track laying.  Yes, that was all there, but those herculean efforts were mere sidelights, incidental to the real story. 

 

 

Because the real story was about . . .  the money.

 

 

 

Everybody knew that railroad technology in the late 1860’s was fully capable to traverse the continent.  There was no question that rail travel from the eastern states to California was desirable.  The problem was the business case; the return on investment.

 

Do you see the parallels with today? 

 

Starting as early as 1827, railroad development in America was subsidized by government.  This followed the tradition of government subsidies to road builders and canal diggers.  Blame it on the city of Baltimore who was the first to devote public funds to the B&O Railroad (Baltimore and Ohio – yes, it’s on the monopoly board!).  In ’27 and ’28 the city invested the unimaginable sum of $1.5 million dollars.  It took more infusions of money and almost 20 years before the railroad reached Wheeling, West Virginia.  In my research it is unclear if the B&O ever really made it to Ohio. 

 

This sort of story happened all over the United States.  Cities and State governments poured money into the railroads.  Not always to good effect, one might note.  But it helped, in a major way, to develop the rail transportation system that is still in use today.  The Federal government lent a hand by donating almost 25 million acres, by 1850, to be used to subsidize railroad building.

 

So when the transcontinental railroad was proposed, the only real question was whether it would be profitable enough to pay back the capital investment which would be required for its construction.  The business establishment quickly came to a negative conclusion.

 

So the Federal government had to step in and offer incentives and subsidies.  For example, the government provided to the builders a subsidy of $16,000 per mile of track laid (more if the terrain were mountainous).  And when the railroad was complete, the Federal government provided many sections of land (a section is one mile square) alongside the right of way.  Actually for ten miles either side of the track the land was surveyed into a checkerboard pattern with alternating squares given to the railroad as a subsidy and alternating sections retained by the Federal government. 

 

The technology was ready, the need was there, and with the subsidies the project took off.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 

So we should learn from this, right?  If we want the nation to have a “railroad to space” we should take this lesson from history and apply it today.  Perhaps it is not so important to argue about the configuration of the rocket or the exact parameters that its design must meet as it is to understand the financing and the provision that the government has to make to get a new industry started.

 

Hey, I’m just a government bureaucrat; I don’t know how business really works.  But this money thing seems really important to investors.  Maybe we should pay some attention to that, too.

 

I don’t know how incentives may work this time.  Clearly we don’t have land to give away along the road to space.  Does it involve tax breaks for investments in commercial human space services?  I don’t know.  But we need to give that as much thought as we give to the engineering standards and requirements.

 

In the final analysis, the Federal government made more money from land sales (all those sections near the right of way became very valuable) than the Federal government provided in subsidies.  In fact, one of the provisions was that Federal officials and military troops would travel for free on the transcontinental railroad; the Federal government “cost avoidance” in free travel for its military more than paid for the railroad subsidy.  So from a taxpayer standpoint it was a great investment!

 

And even more importantly, the railroads tied the nation together.  Rapid, reliable, economical transportation fueled American’s economy in vast and profound ways.  The galvanizing affect of doing something “that could not be done” gave the young nation a sense of pride and an example of what innovation and hard work could accomplish.

 

But the history lesson is not complete.  (Did you expect a rosy ending?)

 

Both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were in bankruptcy within 5 years of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.  New management adopted draconian business tactics to make the railroads profitable:  this gave rise to the “Robber Barons” of the “Gilded Age”.  And the railroads, especially the Central Pacific, invented that quaint practice that we call “lobbying”.  Yes, an entire additional “industry” was added to the national economy; this one centered in the District of Columbia.  You can make your own judgment about the value that lobbying has brought to the nation.

 

Finally, there was the Credit Mobilier scandal.  Many of the politicians which had to approve the subsidies for the transcontinental railroad bought stock in the railroad companies – or were given stock for their votes.  Money changed hands in ways that would be illegal today.  The resulting scandals went on for 40 years.  As one historian remarked, it took until all the politicians of 1870 had died before the mess was cleaned up. 

 

So we need to learn from that, too.  Hopefully the law will prevent those kinds of excesses from occurring.  Hopefully.

 

Anyway, when you hear folks talk about building a new industry, think about the business case. 

 

And what incentives the government may have to provide to get that industry to take off. 

 

Literally.

 

NASA's KSC railroad Engine #1

One tenth of one percent of anything

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

          Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

We really like to believe we have got it all figured out.  We feel that we know most everything.  Ask anybody on the street and they can tell you exactly how the world works.  We are sure of our place in it.  We have it all figured out, just like they taught us in school.

Right.

In Shakespeare’s most profound play there are several singular and remarkable statements about who we are and exactly how much we really know.  Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, at least before certain troubles called them home.  Horatio studies science – what they called in those days “natural philosophy”.  Like all good students of science, he believes that the universe is well understood and we know our place in it.  Hamlet is not so certain; you can almost hear his sarcasm as he tells his friend (in modern terms) “Your science doesn’t begin to understand the universe”.  The bard puts it more memorably, of course. 

 

In Shakespeare’s time, or Hamlet’s, the future was unimaginable.  Life and technology was not very different from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  There was not even the expectation that change was possible.  But a revolution was lurking, because “natural philosophers” (scientists) were finding out that just a little more about how the universe works. 

 

Copernicus and Kepler built on the observations of Tycho Brahe and found that we were not the center of the universe; other planets revolved around the sun, and so do we.  This improved understanding of the universe, plus maybe a falling apple, inspired Newton to formulate new laws of science.  Laws that became the basis of a technological and social revolution:  steam power and the industrial revolution.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine steam engines, railways, and the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.  But those changes can be directly mapped from a better understanding of the universe.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, everyone was certain, just like Horatio, that we perfectly understood our place in the cosmos and the laws that govern the universe.  But William and Caroline Herschel made astounding observations of the universe that once more changed our understanding of where we are.  We live in a galaxy of other stars; the Milky Way is not merely a glowing cloud but what we have come to call a galaxy, an island universe.  And once again, we were surprised to find that humanity is not at the center of it.  Herschel did more, discovering something we now call infrared radiation.    Nobody knew what those discoveries meant and where they would lead, or if indeed they would lead anywhere.  It took James Clerk Maxwell in a later century to discover the laws of physics that were evident only after the Herschel’s observations inspired wonder.   Newton’s laws did not explain everything, it seems.  Maxwell’s laws opened the veil of the universe a little bit more.

In the 19th century we thought we knew everything.  But radio, television, and the applications of electricity were unimaginable.  Only after Maxwell’s laws were put to work did amazing new industries that were previously inconceivable come into being.  The first American Nobel Prize winner (in Physics) Albert A. Michelson observed in 1894:  “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the 6th decimal place.”  And the director of the US Patent office famously lobbied for the dissolution of his agency since all possible practical inventions had already been discovered.

Don’t laugh at them; they have good company.  We are in that company today.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Hubble started making observations with the new Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson and observed astounding facts.  There are other galaxies.  And we are not at the center of them.  And they are moving at incredible speeds.  Around the same time, a Swiss patent office clerk, inspired by the observations of the universe around us, postulated new physical laws.  In 1900 nobody could conceive of digital electronics, computers, and their infinite variations; these inventions were literally unimaginable.  After all we knew everything there was to know, what else could there be? 

Now, of course, we know everything about the universe.  All the laws of nature have been discovered and published by Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton.  All the possible industries have been invented.  Probably time to think about closing the patent office again.

But wait. 

Hubble’s namesake has made some very troubling observations.  Almost impossible to understand.  Observations that don’t fit with the laws of Newton, Maxwell, or even Einstein.  Not only are we not at the center of the universe, but we don’t even know what the universe is.  Turns out that all our observations, all our patient learning, has been made looking at only about 5% of the universe.  Dark matter and dark energy and something that is accelerating the motions of the galaxies are at work; 95% of the universe is both unobserved and not understood.  Some cosmologists even believe there are complete other universes in dimensions we just can’t quite see. 

Where does this go?  Who will explain it to us?  When will the next Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein appear?  Unfortunately serendipity does not arrive on a precise schedule.  Great leaps in human understanding of the universe are not predictable in their occurrence.  Genius does not punch a time clock.  But one thing is true; we have to first understand that we don’t understand.  Then someone will be inspired to figure it out.  Probably she or he is out there today, working on the equations, getting ready to publish the paper that will win the Nobel Prize.  Or it may be a century or two.  Whenever it happens, it will come because we were willing to observe, explore, question. 

What will it mean? 

Only one prediction can be made with certainty:  we have no idea.  There is no way we can predict what that next level of understanding of the universe will bring.  There is no way to imagine the industries that will result.  There is no way to imagine what our great grandchildren’s lives will be like.  No way.

Could Shakespeare and Horatio have imagined the internet? 

That is where we are. 

Why do I write about this?  Because we must keep the search for knowledge going.  Where it leads I don’t know, but every leap had lead to better lives for all mankind.  If we don’t continue to search, to observe, to explore, we will cease to innovate, cease to grow, and start to die.

As the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once observed:  “We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything.”  Better keep the patent office open.

So will we fly someday to the stars?  Einstein says never.  But what does a patent office clerk know?  I’d subscribe to Robert Goddard’s sunny optimism in his valedictory address:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”