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space (spās) n. 1. space beyond the atmosphere of the earth.

prag·ma·tism (prgm-tzm) n. A way of approaching situations or solving problems that emphasizes practical applications and consequences.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I was thinking this morning, what is the thing that most differentiates modern NASA from Apollo NASA and new space companies, like T/Space or SpaceX? I was also thinking about the common issues between software engineering and space engineering (for lack of a better term). I think these two things are related.

What is NASA? They are currently a typical government agency. So what does that mean? Well it todays world, it means they are risk averse, slow to move, and hard to stop once they get some momentum.

"Hey that sounds like DOD contractors," you say. I know, I had the same thought. I have worked at large contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed. I have also worked at smaller, more streamlined contractors, like Applied Data Trends where I work now.

The main difference I have noticed is product. A Raytheon (just as a for instance) will spend months, if not years, setting up requirements, making thousands of pages of design, and setting up procedures. Without producing a single line of code for the product. At a smaller shop, we do all the the same stuff but we are writing code while we do it. Therefore, at least in my experience, a lot of low level stuff gets flushed out early and more testing gets done throughout the project.

"Your point?" you ask now. Well I noticed how surprised NASA was when T/Space actually went out and built a scale model of there CXV and did drop testing with the $20 million or so they gave them. It was my understanding that NASA was expecting a power point show. With Lockheed or Boeing, I suspect that is what they would have gotten. T/Space, like a small software shop, built a prototype. They got the same benefits as software prototyping from what I can tell. You work out the kinks in the real world, not on paper.

I think NASA used to be like this. In the 50s and 60s they built, or paid for, lots of new rocket families, such as Redstone, Atlas, Titan, and Saturn. They went out and built stuff. They were not afraid to fail. They had fun and tried ideas out.

I think, like computers, space engineering is a young field. It needs to play a little and stretch its boundaries. We can't process what we don't truly understand yet. Sure be safe, but let engineers be engineers. Get out the tinker toys and build something new.


Anonymous said...

"I think NASA used to be like this. In the 50s and 60s they built, or paid for, lots of new rocket families, such as Redstone, Atlas, Titan, and Saturn."

Anonymous said...

If you believe NASA paid for any of those except Saturn, you'll have a hard time understanding the history of space since then.

In fact, DoD spent about 2.5 Apollo budgets in 1953-63 to develop large engines, staging, high-performance materials and fabrication techniques, avionics, tracking, and re-entry technology for ICBMs... electronics and downlinks for the first spysats... in effect, most of what would go into Apollo except Saturn and the manned spacecraft themselves.

A lot of the "what happened to the cool NASA of the 1960s?" meme can be traced to not realizing that.

Dan Schrimpsher said...

Well if you want to get picky, but many of the people who worked with DOD on ICBMS later moved to NASA to work on Apollo. Werner Van Braun worked the Redstone rocket under the ABMA which was launched in 1953 (about 4 years before NASA came into existance). He was later the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Titan was developed by the USAF as a backup to the Atlas beggining in 1954. In 1958 NASA helpled blowup the first Titan I at Cape Canaveral :)

Atlas was begun in 1946 and sucessfully tested in 1959, but was mainly used by NASA for the Mercury missions.

And if you want to be really picky, neither the USAF, Army, nor NASA built most of these, but rather the contractors, which for our purposes here, amount to the same thing. Working for Lockheed is very much like working for the goverment, you just make slides to answer the slides the official government employees show.