Wanted: Freedom

by Dale M. Gray

One of the hallmarks of an active frontier is "unsupervised activity". Because advances are so rapid, overseeing bureaucracies are unable to keep up with the rate of change and as a result participants are often left to their own devices. With little paper to push, frontier participants are free to devote their full energies to their pursuits. The resulting rapid advances push the frontier even further ahead of supervision. Indeed, often the only check on the breakneck speed of viable frontiers is the high number of failures that occur in a normal frontier venue.

A recent biography of Richard Battin, who directed the effort to produce guidance software for the Moon landings, illustrates the freedom of action on a frontier.

NASA was preoccupied first with the early Mercury missions and then with the Gemini program, so they left MIT mostly alone to work out the details. Key engineering decisions could be made easily, even in the corridors. "Never in the history of technology has there ever been a situation like that and never will there be again," Battin says fondly. "It was an amazing experience!" (Paul Fjeld special to space.com).

In the early days of the personal computer revolution, conventions such as a 24-hour schedule, social lives and a healthy diet were discarded to allow participants to push the frontier forward. The result was the only standard by which they were measured. There was no elaborate hierarchy or social structure.

"(At Intel) everyone was on a first name basis. There were no reserve parking spaces. No offices, only cubicles. It's still true today. . . "It is very important that those people that have the knowledge are the ones that make the decisions." stated Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. "So we set up something where everyone who had the knowledge had an equal say in what was going on" (Triumph of the Nerds, PBS).

Similar stories have emerged out of the infant stages of nearly every frontier. Mountain men spoke of the days when they trapped beaver as Free Trappers with no one to tell them when or where to trap. Miners wrote of the free wheeling days when they scattered across the landscape panning gold. Ranchers recall with feeling the days before the range was fenced in and cattle expanded across the west. Barn-stormers with their canvas and wire bi-planes provided airshows wherever they could find a flat field near a likely looking town.

So where are these free-wheeling days of rocketry? Instead we have a Shuttle that has been repeatedly delayed by committees who's mantra is "Safer, Safer, Safer". The Shuttle showed itself to be robust when it managed to fly smoothly to orbit despite tripping circuit breakers and a small hydrogen leak. It proved itself to be a well-designed machine that can work through adversity. Managers were justified in their concern and the subsequent examination of the wiring of the fleet. Problems were apparent and needed to be corrected. This is understandable. However, what is less understandable is the delay of the Shuttle Discovery's mission to the Hubble due to the eleventh hour replacement of one of the main engines. The cause for the delay was a quarter inch segment of a drill bit that had broken off and fallen in the coolant loop. The drill bit problem has been known by the engineers for a long time, but for some reason, mission managers waited through month after month of delays to deal with it. The engine is now slated for replacement on the launch pad.

To be fair, there has never been a frontier whose stakes were so high, and whose every move was monitored and endlessly discussed. The frontier advance has been covered and smothered by bureaucracy that has been told that safety and not progress is paramount. They control the Shuttle and therefore control access to space.

I have been told that we need to have Cheap Access to Space (CATS) to make space a true frontier. However, space industry this past year generated $66 billion in revenue. The old adage states "it is not how much you spend, it is how much you make!" Space access doesn't need to be "Cheap". Space needs to be "Free". Free of constant, overwhelming bureaucratic oversight. Free to fail. Free to succeed.

Governments and their attendant bureaucracies need to get out of the Low Earth Orbit launch business as soon as possible.