Failure Is An Option

An Eccentric Anomaly: Ed Davies's Blog

We're coming up to the end of the last Space Shuttle mission. There's been a lot of agonizing about this being the end of US human spaceflight. Similarly, there's been a lot of wailing about the possible cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope and the general disarray of NASA's programs over the next few years.

Frankly, I think this is all a bit misguided.

Yes, just at the moment NASA is in a bit of a mess and it's not clear if and how it's to be sorted out. However, the termination of the Shuttle program and even any cancellation of the JWST are only symptoms and not the cause of the problem. If anything, the cancellations are part of the cure, much like cutting out a tumour, for an agency which has been sick for too long.

The Shuttle is essentially a failure in that it has not made access to space cheaper and it should have been canned ages ago. However, NASA has not been allowed to fail; it was politically impossible to go back to Congress and say "oops, sorry, the Shuttle wasn't such a good idea after all, can we have some more money to try something else please?" even though everybody knew that was what was really needed.

The lesson here, as in so many other places, is to avoid things being too big to fail.

Obviously we don't want silly failures (mixing up pounds and newtons then not having the resources to figure out why the consequences are a bit odd) but on the other hand we should accept that in an area of exploration and development some projects are not going to work out as expected and sometimes it's necessary to just write work already done off to experience.

This includes projects which are under-resourced where it might be better to just stop and do something else rather than carry on in hope (e.g., Beagle 2).

In general, what we need is lots of smaller projects rather than a few large ones. In particular, small projects should be used to develop technology to enable future ones which would currently be considered large to be done more simply. This toolmaking is, of course, the very essence of technological development but I often get the impression that space programs are managed more as a sequence of individual missions than as a long term program to build up capabilities.

For example, putting a big telescope in the vicinity of the Sun-Earth L2 point seems like a worthy project. Maybe, though, it would be better to work on improving the ability to assemble spacecraft in low Earth orbit (e.g., at the ISS) first, rather than spend huge sums on a one-shot attempt to have the telescope unfold itself after launch. It might even make sense to hold off on the project until human spaceflight to the Lagrange points becomes practical. At least that way you can worry less about the shape of the mirror.

Because you already know which of the precursor projects have succeeded before you decide on the architecture of your big project risks are much smaller. In the short run things take longer but overall you get more done in the long run.