Making the Case

Going through some old papers, I found a school publication which contained an essay I wrote in 1971.  If memory serves, I had just read Gerard K. O’Neill’s “The Case for Space”, and of course, the Apollo lunar expeditions were in full swing.  I would like to hear your thoughts on how these arguments have held up for the last four decades.  Are they true, has time shown them to be specious, or have they been overcome by events?  Your comments please on this tidbit of history.
Today’s Quest

A group of people stand, watching, on a beach.  A spark of light appears in the distance.  A pillar of angry red and orange smoke climbs in the sky.  A blast wave strikes the people, they are deafened by a roar.  The very ground begins to tremble, and a white spire takes off — takes off for the Moon!  Three men are going to the Moon!

But what are they leaving behind — here on the ‘good earth?”  Hunger, poverty, war.  In light of these pressing social needs why should we spend billions of dollars to send men to the moon?

Let’s take a look at each of these concerns:

WAR.  Wars have been fought for two reasons usually; for power and for territory.  Space encompasses both unlimited power and infinite territory.  Some people believe that we may substitute the conflict between man and man for the conflict between man and nature.  Many people, among them the imminent rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, believe that space exploration could become a possible alternative to war.

POVERTY.  First let me point out that of the billions of dollars spent thus far to explore space, not one dollar bill ended up on the Moon.  Every last penny was spent here on Earth.  There have been two traditional ways to cure poverty; give a man a handout or give a man a job.  The American way has always been to give a man a job; after all that is what our forefathers came to this country for; a job, an opportunity to better himself.  NASA at it height employed 400,000 men. 

HUNGER.  How can space exploration cure hunger?  Rockets can’t make food and as we all know there is hunger in America today.  Not starvation — a recent government report showed that while there was hunger no one starved to death in America.  In other countries this is not so.  Tomorrow there may be starvation in America as our population increases.  How are we to meet this need?  Space exploration has already given us food.  Two specific examples:  there are two bays in Florida.  One produces tons of shrimp every year.  The other, just like it and immediately next to it produced no shrimp.  The people there spent hundreds of dollars to find out why.  They tested the salinity of the water, the currents, and even seeded it with baby shrimp, but to no avail, the bay remained unproductive.  One picture from one Gemini flight showed the reason.  It seems that the current in one of the bays was circular and kept the shrimp in it.  In the other bay, however, the current swept the shrimp out to sea.  A fifteen foot breakwater was built, and now that bay too produces tons of shrimp every year.  Another example. Apollo 9, the last Apollo flight to remain in Earth orbit, in addition to testing out lunar hardware, did several experiments in relation to the Earth.  For example, it took pictures of the wheat belt of Kansas.  Wheat, as we all know makes bread which is the staff of life.  Wheat, however, is attacked by a disease called wheat rust.  The wheat plant, to fight off the infection, uses up more energy.  Some of this energy is given off in the form of heat.  On infrared film the Apollo 9 crew spotted the infected area.  Quick action by the Agriculture Department in cordoning off the diseased area made the wheat crop for 1969 (the year the Apollo 9 flew) the largest in our history.

But these are only small aids.  One must remember that the previous flights were only pioneering flights.  Toward the end of this decade with Skylab and other Space Stations in orbit, we will have constant surveillance where today we have only random pictures.

These are three of our major problems, but space exploration has given us other things.

Space exploration has given us advances in technology.  As the trite phrase has it, there is not enough room to list all the spinoffs from space technology so only one example will have to do.  The medical men wanted to know how a man’s body would react to spaceflight.  What is the astronauts’ heartbeat and blood pressure as they roar through space?  To meet this need sensors were developed.  These sensors have been adapted to hospitals where they have already saved thousands of lives.  It is estimated that 100,000 lives could be saved if these intensive care wards were put into general use all around the nation.

Space  exploration has also brought gains in world prestige.  World prestige is a fickle but potent thing.  When the Russians put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, they gained much power from the acclaim.  Indeed, as a direct result of this prestige, the Russians went into East Berlin exactly three days after the flight and began building a wall.

Think what the world would feel about America if we had stayed home, the Russians had gone to the moon, and our only contribution to world affairs had been the war in Viet Nam.  We would then be reviled in the eyes of all men!

The American people also have gained much self confidence from our space flights.  We have many problems facing us, racial prejudice, war, famine, disease — all seemingly insoluble problems.  But remember, we are the nation that sent three men to the moon, and three men again, and three men again; we can do anything we put our minds to and this is the type of confidence that the American People need to solve these problems.

One final area.  Knowledge.  We all agree that space flights have brought us knowledge, but knowledge is an abstract thing.  What really is knowledge?  It is what makes us different from the cave men, indeed what makes the cave men different from the other animals of the forests is the knowledge to get in out of the rain.  Yes, space flight has brought us knowledge; and in the words of John Glenn as he spoke before Congress after his historic flight:  “Exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run — usually far greater than anything expected at the outset.”


So I offer this quaint historical essay, written with all the enthusiasm of youth, set in the language and culture of an earlier day — and I ask for your comments:  what has stood the test of time?  How has the rationale for space travel evolved over the years?  What has proven to be accurate and what was not?  I await your thoughts. 

Flying Really Fast

There aren’t many NASA types at the National Space Symposium this week.  This is the biggest aerospace convention of the year, and almost everybody is in Colorado Springs.  While the focus is on “national security space” there has been plenty of talk about how space observations are mandatory for climate monitoring, where satellite phone and TV communications are headed in the future, and how emerging commercial human space flight will be affected by government rules and regulations.

Most NASA people stayed home because of a restriction put into last year’s NASA budget greatly restricting the agency’s budget for conference attendance.  This is the only conference I am going to this year, for example.  It makes it hard to keep up with what is going on in the world.  But enough whining, that is not my point today.

I had a great conversation with the Air Force Research Lab guys about their X-51 hypersonic scram jet test which is coming up this fall.  I am particularly interested in the development of this technology since it will someday enable aircraft travel vastly more efficient and faster than what we currently suffer through.  Can you imagine being anywhere in the world within about an hour of takeoff?  That is the kind of travel that is possible.

The shuttle had an outstanding test last flight looking into the arcane science of how air closest to a flying vehicle (called the boundary layer) transitions from laminar to turbulent flow.  Early results indicate we had a controlled transition around Mach 16 versus the usual Mach 8.  This type of data is invaluable to the designers of future hypersonic aircraft.  And it can’t be gathered in wind tunnels or any other ground test.

Anyway, the X-51 is ready to take scram jet engines to the next level — This engine will run for up to 11 minutes which is a quantum leap past the current record holder of about 12 seconds.  The flight will take place over the Pacific Ocean this fall. 

I can’t wait to hear the results.  But even more than that, I can’t wait to get out of my trans-oceanic coach seat in one hour instead of eight!

Keep up the good work guys — keep pushing the envelope!

Encouraging Innovation at NASA

I have another video for you to watch, but before you do let me give you a little context.

On this date, March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, professor of Physics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts tried out his newest invention in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch near Auburn, Massachusetts.  Pretty old cabbages in that garden in March in Massachusetts.  Dr. Goddard’s invention?  The world’s very first liquid fueled rocket.  It flew; not very high nor very far, but it flew.  And attracted the attention of the town’s volunteer fire department – they asked Dr. Goddard not to do any more experiments there.

Dr. Goddard had carried on his work despite the fact that a few years earlier he was humiliated in a very public forum.  After he had delivered a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, the New York Times devoted several column inches in its editorial page to denigrate his thoughts.  Most quotable from the NY Times editorial was this comment about Dr. Goddard’s grasp of physics:  “”does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  A classic line if there ever was one.  I should note that in July 1969 (almost a half century later and well after Dr. Goddard’s death) the NY Times posted a correction with the words “The Times regrets its error.”  Indeed. 

The public criticism confirmed Dr. Goddard’s introverted nature and he continued his work, mostly in secret and mostly in isolation for another quarter century.  Other, more knowledgeable folks, read his work and were enlightened by it.  In 1945, German engineers from Peenemunde, where rocketry had made huge – regrettable at the time – advances, when interrogated by their American captors about rockets, replied “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?”  They paid attention.  We did not.

We cannot afford to let good ideas slip from our grasp.  Innovation and creativity are the foundation on which our economy is really founded. 

So a few weeks ago, a team of folks at Johnson Space Center made a video report on what are some of the barriers to innovation at NASA.  A lot of you watched that video and many of the comments reported that these barriers exist in a wide spectrum of private and public organizations.  That video was an amalgam of the most egregious examples of poor communication and bad management that unfortunately still occurs from time to time in supposedly “creative” organizations.

Now the team has taken their list of proposed ways to overcome these barriers and turned them into another video.  This video is to produce discussion and thought.  Some of these ideas are better than others.  A couple of the proposals are being implemented at JSC at this time. 

So watch, and consider.  And ask this question — how are you helping to encourage creativity and innovation in your organization?


Lucky Tie

Even though I’m far from home and even farther from LC-39, I’ll be wearing my lucky shuttle tie tomorrow.  That is a particularly silly thing to do since the tie isn’t even very lucky.  We had plenty of launch scrubs when I wore that tie on launch day in either Mission Control or Launch Control.

But its what I can do to show my solidarity with the team these days.  NASA is one of the few organizations that puts it all on the line in public.  Most organizations have some kind of cover, but when the launch doesn’t go right, there is no cover.  The OCO boys sweated over a great spacecraft but some glitch in the fairing separation circuit got them.  That hurts. 

Tomorrow evening we’ll try to launch seven folks into low earth orbit.  That may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is far from a guaranteed success.  So cross your fingers, get out your four leaf clover, or whatever it takes, and lets hope for success.  One more time.

I’m out in Utah doing some management work for the agency, looking at the facilities which might be used for the next human carrying rocket.  It was particularly exciting because I got to walk right up to the first Orion Launch Escape rocket.  This beast will burn several thousand pounds of solid propellant in less than four seconds to get a crew out of trouble in a hurry.  Rocket serial number 00001 is out there on the factory floor ready to ship to White Sands Missile Range where it will be tested later this year. 

Overall, I saw lots of Ares 1 hardware.  The DM-1 (development motor) is a five segment giant that will be tested in late summer.  Everywhere I went we saw lots of new hardware coming together for the first time.  Progress is being made.

Sadly, I was in the refurbishment shop where they are working on the last set of shuttle booster hardware.  The old bird will be retired at the end of next year and any future refurbishments, if any, will be to make hardware available for the new Ares birds.

It has been particularly busy in space; a spacewalk today at the International Space Station was fully successful; the new Kepler telescope is being checked out after a successful delivery to space.   A few days ago there was a successful parachute test for the Constellation program.  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in final checkout on the ground.  Everywhere I go there is progress being made! 

But lets all watch tomorrow, because as we all know, its far from a sure thing.

Innovation,Dissent,Intellectual Property,and the Internet

This morning I moved the Barriers to Innovation video to the private section of you tube so most folks can’t watch it.  I really intended to delete it but can’t figure out how; so making the video private is the next best thing.  Some folks may wonder why I did that . . . and its a long story, so buckle in if you are up for it.

About two years ago, Mike Coats who is the director of Johnson Space Center started a forward looking initiative to improve creativity and innovation within NASA.  This is a critical goal.  Great leaders have great vision and this was the start of a process to make us over as a more effective, innovative, inclusive, creative agency.  Last spring, seven teams were formed to examine ways in which JSC or NASA could be improved:  recruiting, mentoring, communications, work/life fit, communications, IT, and a team to examine the barriers to innovation.  Everybody reported out in January; several groups made videos, all the groups both identified problems and proposed solutions.  By the way, this was an officially sanctioned part time activity with appropriate charge codes — just for you folks that care about that sort of thing.  And it was very intentional to include contractor representation on each team.

But the barriers team video hit a chord with me and also with a lot of folks when we posted it on you tube.  Lots of comments, lots of views, lots of discussion.  I will say that NASA senior management took the video and its message very well.  Absolutely nobody has told me that posting that video was a problem.  (I wonder if the dissenters to that opinion feel stifled?)  Anyway, the barriers team wanted to also post their “solutions”.  Originally this was a power point chart presentation.  I am not a big fan of powerpoint chart presentations although the team had some good ideas.  So the team decided to stick together and make a video of the solutions — not just a power point, but use the same actors (themselves) and the same themes and show proposed solutions.

So they have been working on that for the last couple of weeks.  As they got the video ready to post, somebody asked if we should get permission to use the TV theme music.  Silly me, I hadn’t thought of that.  Of course TV theme music is intellectual property and is protected by numerous laws.

Even though most folks on the internet don’t seem to worry too much about those laws, we should set a good example.  So we asked permission to make and post a couple of videos with the TV theme music.  The response from those who hold the intellectual property rights for that was OK — but only for internal use — no you tube.


So, we have done the right thing and removed the old video — while we continue to negotiate with the music property owners.

At the very least, we should be able to repost the original and new video without the music in a few days. 

In the meantime, I hope we can post all the video reports from all the teams.  Even though these are all made by video amateurs, there are lots of great lessons and proposals which could make our organization — and perhaps any organization — more creative and innovative.  JSC is already moving out to implement some of the best recommendations.

More to come!


Project Management and Innovation

NASA puts on an outstanding training event every year for aspiring Project Managers.  About 1200 folks, both teachers and students, rendezvoused last week near the Kennedy Space Center for an intense two days of classes and panels on how to be a successful project manager.

The fundamentals of project management were firmly reinforced:  have a good plan, stick to requirements, control costs, provide schedule margin in high risk areas, etc.

It got me to thinking about how Project Management 101 could be seen as a barrier to innovation. 

When building something that has never been built before, innovation is critically important.   Innovation at all stages of a project is vital for the end product to be cost effective and carry out its intended function.  But what kind of innovation, and when, and how much?  There is the rub. 

In the barriers to innovation video that I referenced in an earlier blog post, one of the “evil supervisor” stops to innovative ideas was flatly state:  “there is no requirement for this”.   Anybody who has been to project management 101 knows that requirements creep has killed many a worthy project. 

Having a better idea, adding just one more function, tweaking the design through just one more iteration — all these things are wonderful, marvelous, the very lifebreath of a successful project — right up until the point where they kill the project by driving it way over budget, way behind schedule, or into an endless technology development cycle. 

Need a down to earth example?  Ok, but don’t spread this one around or it will get me in real trouble!  My wife came to me several  months ago with the requirement to replace the carpet in our dining room.  Well, the stuff is 20 years old and looks pretty ratty.  So I agreed; we decided on a budget, went shopping at the carpet store.  Our project was to replace the carpet, within a budget, certainly within a schedule (before next Thanksgiving!). 

Then a new requirement popped out:  before changing the carpet the walls should be painted.  Certainly makes sense; fresh paint was needed.  Nobody in their right mind replaces carpet first and paints later.  But adding this new requirement meant that the schedule  stretched out and the budget increased!  But there is more!  It only makes sense to replace the drapes, too.  One shouldn’t put old, dusty drapes back up when the paint is fresh and the carpet is new!  So another new requirement has been added, costs go up, schedule gets stretched out . . . and in the meantime the carpet we liked got discontinued by the factory.  Now, new carpet must be picked, at a higher price . . . .

Congress passed an act a number of years ago which decreed that a project more than a certain percentage over budget or behind schedule should be cancelled.  That is where we are with the dining room.  Got to descope the requirements and try again.

But on the other hand, without appropriate innovation and upgrades, projects may succeed in building something less than what we could.  Something that costs too much to operate, for example, or fails to have an important feature that wasn’t included because of an oversight.

Summarily dismissing any new idea because “there is no requirement for this” is clearly wrong.  Nobody gets the requirements perfectly right the first time,  no matter how hard you try.

So, the art of project management includes listening to proposed innovators and thoroughly evaluating their ideas.  Unfortunately a lot of good ideas get left in the trash.  Not because they were not good ideas, but because at some point, somebody has to draw the line and say this much is good enough; we can’t afford any more. 

That is a conversation that is hard to have.  But it is important.


Akin’s laws of spacecraft design:

 #4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.

#13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

Yep, I think Dr. Akin is pretty smart.

Public Records,Official Secrets,and FOIA

After engaging in a few communications of late, I feel it is probably necessary to point out some information to all you internet road warriors.

First of all, blogs are public, not private, by design.  And once its out there, you can’t take it back.  Somebody has copied, downloaded, or otherwise distributed it.  So, if you have comments to the blog — and I approve them, which automatically and immediately posts them — well, they are out there and that is that.  No going back.

Second, please know that I am a government official.  Sounds funny to me, but there it is.  NOTHING you write to me is private.  No blog comment, no email, no regular letter.  There is a federal law and several regulations that say that correspondence with me (or anybody else in the government, by the way) is part of the official record and it is AGAINST THE LAW to remove, erase, or delete it.  Somewhere all my email is being archived, for example.  Who is going to look at all those terrabytes of data is problematic, but I am required to keep them, my agency is required to keep them. 

So, much as I appreciate your inputs, cards, letters, tweets, emails, etc., etc., once you write me, it is NOT PRIVATE.  You should have no expectation of privacy in that correspondence.  At least for anything sent to my work address, actual or virtual. 

Further, almost anything that I have in my files, actual or virtual — and this includes email, blog posts, etc. — is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  That means that if a citizen (typically but not always a representative of the news media) requests the information from me, I am compelled by Federal Law and regulations to turn it over to them unless it is covered by a very few restrictions.  Nothing you might send to me fits under those few restrictions.

So, not to turn you off, but you need to know that if you write me, email me, comment to my blog, whatever, that information is part of the public record and you have no expectation of privacy nor any recourse to have the information deleted or erased. 

So now you know.

Ghosts in the OPF

I had several meetings this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center.  As the hour grew late, most office folks left, and it was time for me to leave, too.  But before I did, I engaged in one of my favorite activities; visiting the Orbiter Processing Facility.  Now there are three OPF bays, one for each orbiter.  Today I visited the folks working second shift on the good ship Endeavour.  That is always a great treat.  All the folks are so proud of what they are doing and they can almost always take a break to explain what they are working on.  It is really a neat experience and I wish everybody could join in. 

But it was somewhat subdued on 2nd shift, and there were a lot of quiet pockets.  Nobody was around the front of the bird, for example, and its always a little spooky when you are by yourself.

A couple of years ago, I was at KSC on a holiday weekend.  Having gotten bored with the beach and other touristy occupations, I wandered up to the OPFs and carded in. 

And there I found myself alone with an orbiter.  Wow.  Even the Ops Desk at the front was empty.  All the lights were on, the airconditioning running, but nobody was there.  Just me and the orbiter.  I guess that the door to the white room and the crew module was locked up; and I wouldn’t try that by myself anyway (getting into a bunnie suit is an art).  I know enough NOT TO TOUCH ANYTHING and of course, not to cross any “clears” or restricted areas. 

But it is really an interesting experience to be with a living breathing orbiter, all by yourself.  Thinking of all the places it has been; all the people it has carried, and all the thousands of folks who have worked on her, getting the ship ready to fly.  All in dead silence. 

And it always makes me think of all the people who wanted to go, some of them in the worst way.  People who have never had their chance to fly in space; at least not yet. 

Maybe someday.

Well, tonight I got to look at tiles being densified and applied around the nose landing gear door; SMTCH harnesses being connected in the mid body; valve and plumbing tests being run on the OMS.  The tires and wheels are off and I got a good look at the brakes, something you don’t normally get to see.  No access to the aft, so I couldn’t trace out the pressurization plumbing to see where the flow control valves, those little rascals, are hiding. 

I hope you all get the opportunity to do that some day — before we’re through.


The Power of Accepting Criticism

Update Sunday Feb. 22 . . . .
The initiator of the email change has written and asked that I remove the original text.  As you can see, I have complied with that request.  I stand by my apology to the folks who have done great work in hypersonic research. 

The Power of Accepting Criticism


Next week I am on the agenda of the NASA Project Management Challenge training event to give a talk on “The Power of Accepting Criticism”.  This was a talk that I planned to give last year, but a conflict caused me to back out at the last minute.  So up until last evening, I was feeling pretty good about having the speech ready, it was written a year ago, with only minor updates to polish it up.


Now I think I’m going to tear that speech up and write a new one.  Same topic, new info.  All because of an email exchange I had last evening.


Here is what I got – not as a comment to my blog, but as a direct email — as I was waiting for my plane to take me home:



<Original email text deleted at the request of the initiator>




On my blackberry I thumbed out a quick reply explaining my blog and felt pretty good that the note would assuage the email author. 


I was wrong.  Here was his response to my flimsy explanation:



<Original email text deleted at the request of the originator>


Double Ouch!


I had three and a half hours of electronic isolation on the plane last night to ponder this exchange.  Here is my conclusion:


He’s right. 


I did a tremendous disservice to those folks who have worked diligently in the area of hypersonic flight.  A number of teams have launched test vehicles:  Australian, Russian, others.  The most impressive was the NASA Hyper-X test program which had two very successful tests about five years ago.  Summarizing these efforts in two or three superficial sentences clearly demeans their achievements.  I would offer a humble apology to those who labor in this field, particularly all of those who on the Hyper-X project.


In review, it is clear that I have become lax in my technical explanations.  It is the height of laziness to brush off a subject because it is hard to explain to the lay public and therefore not to make the effort.  So I pledge to renew my efforts to be more technically precise in these posts while still attempting to make some of these subjects clear to the non-expert reader.


Second, I promise, no more whiny blogs about postings on the internet.  The nature of some of the discourse on the internet is simply a fact of twenty first century life which I am not going to be able to change and therefore it is unworthy of my complaint. 


Finally, no more putting down the public because they are not experts in the space field.  My job here should be education, not criticism.


Well, enough for one day.  I have a speech to revise.

Just put chicken wire in it!

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #19:  The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field.  If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.  

Dr. David Akin is the Director of the Space Systems Lab at the University of Maryland.  I have not met him, but I admire his writing.   I haven’t taken a class from him but the school of spaceflight hard knocks apparently uses his textbook.

A comment to one of my earlier blogs came in last evening.  The writer states that he had personally developed a method of making an immense amount of electricity essentially out of nothing.  We should get together, he continued, so he could share his plans with us, but he had to be careful to protect the patent by not giving out too many details.

Sigh.  Talk about unfamiliar with the basic concept. 

I did not post the comment.  Can you guess why?

When we were in the return to flight phase for the shuttle following the Columbia accident, we actively solicited public input.  We hoped that there were some good ideas out there in the public which might allow us to improve the shuttle and make it safer.  We set up a web page and an e-mail account for anybody and everybody to send their suggestions in.  We got hundreds, thousands of suggestions.  We studied them all, read them thoroughly, and responded to them individually.  It was a lot of work.  A couple of small businesses in the insulating foam world suggested that they had a product that might help.  On review, their formulations were not suited to space flight applications.  Nice thought though.  We got plenty of  . . . how can I say this delicately . . . nut case inputs.  Seriously there are people out there that need medication.  Maybe they are on it and the institution just lets them write letters.  There is the “numbers guy” for example . . . but the really nut case inputs are easily screened out.  What was the number one suggestion we got to improve the shuttle?  It had to do with the foam on the external tank.  The most popular idea – you got it from the title of today’s blog — just put chicken wire in it.

My grandparents lived in a house that was stucco sided.  That is how you put on stucco — cover your wall with chicken wire (or something a lot like it) and then apply the gooey substance that hardens and is held on to the house by the chicken wire.

We finally had to write up a form letter explaining why this was not a good idea.  I am not going to repeat it here.  Just suffice to say that some very elementary tests and analysis showed that having wire in the foam would lead to worse problems. 

I recently talked to the engineer who handled the web page and all our public input.  Out of the hundreds of submissions, did we actually get any ideas that turned out to be helpful.  Long silence on the other end of the phone.  Not really came the reluctant response.

During STS-51 when we tried to retrieve the errant Intelsat V communications spacecraft and had some difficulties capturing it, lots of folks called in to NASA asking why we didn’t just use suction cups on the spacecraft?  Hmm.  Vacuum.  Hmm.  Similarly, the suggestions to use magnets to capture the bird fell short when you realize that neither the structure (aluminum) nor the covering (glass solar cells) were magnetic.

I was disappointed.  But not, I guess, surprised.  Most of the technical subjects related to rocketry, space flight, and orbital mechanics is foreign to the everyday world that we all inhabit.  Not too many folks encounter cryogenic fluids in their day to day job, for example.

So were we wrong to ask?  Were we wrong to spend the time and effort to review all those inputs?  I don’t think so.  There is always the possibility that there is a genius out there that has THE suggestion, or at least the rudimentary idea of a suggestion that could lead to a breakthrough.  But those type of inputs are rare.  Generally, it turns out, folks who have studied and worked for many years on a complex and arcane technical subject really do know what they are doing.  The experts generally do have the right answer, or at least a number of options which may work with associated pro’s and con’s.  Just because the experts tell you that your idea won’t work doesn’t make you the next Edison . . .

I have to admit that this doesn’t sit well with me.  I’d like to believe that there are folks out there that can help us solve our problems if we would just ask for their inputs.  I hope you folks reading this will prove me right and that I am not just a cockeyed wishful thinker.

But you have got to do your homework.  The plan you propose should not violate the fundamental laws of physics and thermodynamics.  If you do propose such a plan — well, as I have heard it said, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary support.  Handwaving does not cut it.  Oh, Dr. Akin has it again:

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #1:  Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.

And there is no shortage of unsubstantiated opinions. 

In fact, another of my disappointments is in the blog-o-sphere.  NPR recently had a book interview with an author who had written an treatise discussing why the internet is so full of vituperation, mis-information, and down right personal attacks.  Being on the internet is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t mind — and in fact welcome — a civil disagreement and constructive discussion.  But some days it seems like the internet is full of people pushing their own opinions with no facts to back them up and then engaging in the most offensive personal attacks possible when people disagree with them.  Whew.  Is there some place that you get points for being clever and vindictive in your responses?

So; I am still looking for good help, good constructive, grounded suggestions or discussions on how to improve things in the nation’s space program:  both technical and managerial.  If you just want to play some nastygram game, we’re not interested.

And if you want to make a technical suggestion, I am all ears — but I’ll really be impressed if your suggestion comes with analysis which doesn’t violate the laws of physics.  And I’ll really appreciate it if the discussion remains civil.