Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Heavens and the Earth

I've received in the mail a copy of ... The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age originally published in 1985 by Walter A. McDougall. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1986.

The book was updated and reprinted in 1997 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, which is the copy I received.

McDougall wrote a new preface for the 1997 edition. He pulls no punches, and his comments about the state of the aerospace industry could have been written today.

Forty years into the Space Age one fact remains painfully clear: the biggest reason why so few promises have been fulfilled is that we are still blasting people and things into orbit with updated versions of 1940s German technology. In the long run, the chemical rocket is just not the key to the future, but NASA and its allies in the industry seem to have little interest in pursuing revolutionary launch technologies. In fact, the consolidation of the aerospace industry into fewer and bigger giants has only accelerated since the book appeared, the latest mergers being those of Lockheed/Martin/Grumman and Boeing/McDonnell/Douglas. Space technology is thus concentrated more and more in the hands of an industrial oligopoly contracting with a government oligopsony (NASA and the Air Force), neither of which has much incentive to make their existing technology obsolete.

In the next paragraph, McDougall seems to presage the rise of Elon Musk:

The way to restart the Space Age is to discover some new principle that makes spaceflight genuinely cheap, safe and routine. Under present circumstances, that breakthrough is more likely to be made by some twenty four-year-old visionary working in a garage in Los Angeles than by the engineers, laboring under political constraints in the laboratories of NASA or Rockwell.

For the record, in 1997 Elon Musk was 26 years old, living in the Silicon Valley creating Zip2, his first Internet business.

Mr. McDougall wasn't far off.

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