Pencils and pens

Pencil lies
Pencil lies

In the early years of space flight, both Russians and Americans used pencils in space. Unfortunately, pencil lead is made of graphite, a highly conductive material. Snapped graphite leads and particles in zero gravity are hugely problematic, as they will get sucked into the air ventilation or electronic equipment, easily causing shorts or fires in the pure oxygen environment of a capsule.

After the fire in Apollo 1 which killed all the astronauts on board, NASA required a writing instrument that wasn’t a fire hazard. Fisher spent over a million dollars (of his own money) creating a pressurized ball point pen, which NASA bought at $2.95 each. The Russian space program also switched over from pencils shortly after.

40 years later snide morons on the internet still snigger about it, because snide morons on the internet never know what they are talking about.

A collaborative nebula

According to this meandering article in the MIT Technology Review The Apollo Program brought to bear some amazing resources:

In all, NASA spent $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today’s dollars, on Apollo; at its peak in the mid-1960s, the agency enjoyed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.

Yes, I know that comparing today’s NASA (at just over 18K employees, and half a percent of the budget) is not fair. But I am more concerned with the collaboration bit: 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies. I wonder what those numbers are today, in the age of the internet? I would expect them to be incalculable, but I see no evidence of that.

I re-iterate: what does/can NASA do to engage all levels of participation?

NASA et alia are already getting some “public” participation through prizes, a practice that dates back to the 16th C. Famous examples include the Longitude prize of 1714, and more recently, the X-Prize. But competitive systems are not collaborative, and although excellent ideas can be discovered from the edges of the network, the power of the network itself is not leveraged in development or creation of an idea.

Science and engineering research is obviously one way that space agencies are drawing upon the network of universities, but I am talking about an even wider base, including enthusiasts, scitizens, amateurs and secondary professionals. I draw your attention to the collaborative design platform OpenIDEO. This is an interesting experiment to discover and develop solutions proposed from the edge of the network. Do the world’s space agencies have something like this? Can we build it?

Levels of participation

I recently finished reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s books Space Chronicles and Death by Black Hole. NdT’s position on space exploration can be boiled down to:

  • it wasn’t science nor charisma that got the US into space: it was war
  • maybe China will motivate the US in the post-Cold War era
  • the joy of discovery should be a motivation
  • as well as inspiring our young ones to “shoot for the stars”
  • when people ask why we spend so much up there when we have so many problems down here, point out that asteroids prove not all problems are earthbound, some are earth bound
  • plus, NASA’s budget amounts to just half a penny on the tax dollar

NdT is a huge supporter of NASA and would like to see that rise to 2 cents on the dollar. In terms of private activity in space, he subscribes to Saganism: namely, the private sector should be active in LEO and the public sector should be pushing the frontiers.

I find that a bit grating. Maybe as an academic (ie. used to depending on government funding), NdT is biased towards government leadership as much as I am biased against it as a entrepreneur/startup guy. Relying on government for long-term leadership is a fool’s game, as I think the slow decline of NASA bears out. I would love to see the space community transcend governmental strictures. Yes, I think government has a role, just not a central one.

The power of the network

(To get a better sense of my thinking here, check my reviews of Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities and Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect.)

The network is a powerful social organization that can render results far greater than its individual components. Just ask Wikipedia. Hell, the greatest network we have ever built was made to exchange scientific knowledge!

Rather than the bureaucratic hierarchies of national governments leading the human endeavour in space, the larger space community should take charge. There are many, many other organizations outside of NASA, ESA, JAXA etc that are a part of the space community. Lots grass roots and citizen-led organizations that want to participate in the exploration of space, for example:

Plus all the universities and private space companies.

Steven Johnson likes to say that “innovation often comes from the edge of the network.” The greater space community should be looking to link up all the disparate networks we have to find innovative solutions to the problems of exploring space.

Space problems: a levels analysis

Obviously there are a ton of problems that need tackling. For example:


Engineering problems

propulsion, heat distribution in space, etc


Science problems

oh my god a ton of these


Environment problems

medical, generation of air, food & fuel


Market problems

creating viable space markets, funding


The Asteroid problem

detection, prediction, redirection/destruction

Often the argument is that only national governments can bring about the capital to build infrastructure to explore space. That is why out of 200+ nations there are only two space-faring nations: Russia and China (sorry America, as soon as the SLS is ready, you will be re-upgraded). However, there is still much that a network could acheive.

I would reorganize these problems into three levels: Earthbound, LEO and Deep space (which could be further broken down into interplanetary, interstellar and intergalactic). Saganites tend to want to limit private participation to LEO. I contend that private organizations could be active anywhere along the stack.

Private organizations without their own space infrastructure can contribute knowledge and expertise to solve many of the engineering, science, environmental, market, and PR problems listed above. Admittedly, some problems will require the sheer weight of the bureaucracy, but that is okay. I don’t want to exlude them, just restructure their position within the network.

The issues now become: how do NASA et al. harness the power of the network? And more importantly, how can citizens (who have long since given up on joining NASA) get connected to the network? Finally, what do the leaders of a greater space community look like?

SkyCube: Kickstarter Satellite

On Kickstarter.

A nano-satellite that lets you take Earth images and “tweet” from space, then inflates a visible balloon, and de-orbits cleanly.

These sound kind of like the mini satellites that Planetary Resources envisions using to spot asteroids to mine. From a New Scientist interview with Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki:

How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need - and are they anything like Hubble?

Eric Anderson: We’d like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the
next five years, some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They’re a lot less
capable than Hubble, which is a billion dollar space vehicle the size of a
school bus. Our telescopes - which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft - are
cubes half-a-metre on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the
first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a
high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line.
They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging
capability.

Chris Lewicki: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch.
Making them the size of a mini fridge, with 22-centimetre-diameter optics,
hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.