Public vs. Private Feasibility Confusion

One of the biggest overarching problems in space exploration is a misplaced sense of where the Tinfoil Hat Line should lie relative to different applications.  Specifically, much of NASA’s activity and spending lies far to the safe and plausible side of the TFHL, while many private companies field proposals and businesses plans that are awesome on paper, but don’t have a clear path to success.

Some recent news that illustrates the division between NASA and industry around the TFHL:

The private company Golden Spike, proposing commercial flights to the moon by 2020, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise “one dollar for each mile to the moon.” This combination of space exploration, private enterprise, and crowdfunding is awesome in concept, and may cause optimists to shout “a new business model!” However, the actual amount of money that would be raised even if the project reached its goal is orders of magnitude below the amount that is actually necessary to do anything useful.  This fact sadly relegates the campaign to a publicity stunt along the lines of the standard excellent computer graphics and leaves the whole plan in the realm of “extremely cool, but very likely overambitious and lacking substance.”

In direct contrast to gung –ho private companies, NASA has proudly announced that the Orion crew capsule – which will serve a very similar purpose to Golden Spike technology and is essentially a high tech upgrade of the Apollo capsule of the 1970’s – could fly a manned mission “as soon as 2021.” One year after Golden Spike wants to get to the moon with technology built almost from scratch.  Now, I have little doubt that, assuming funding remains consistent (more on this later,) NASA can reach this goal, which is far on the safe side of the TFHL.

A second example of the conservative nature embedded in many of NASA’s missions is the next big planetary lander mission, slated for 2020 (apparently this decade is just too soon for anybody, NASA or not.) Where is the target you may ask? Europa, to investigate liquid water? Perhaps Phobos or Deimos to scout for a staging point for manned mars missions? Nope – the target is Mars, to look at its rocks and soil. A revolutionary mission indeed.

Note that much of the risk aversion in the NASA agenda does not originate internally, but is dictated from on high by congress and the presidency. Which of course raises questions regarding having 536 of the most risk averse individuals in the country dictating the policy of an organization who’s purpose is to push the limits of possibility.

This isn’t to say that NASA plans shouldn’t be feasible, nor that private enterprise shouldn’t attempt anything that pushes the boundaries of possibility. Rather, I would argue that the perception of where along the feasibility continuum their activities should fall needs to take an almost 180 degree turn.  Now that I’ve established this contrast, further posts will go into my how’s and why’s of such a change.

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The Tinfoil Hat Line

You may have wondered at the title of this blog: “The Tinfoil Hat.” Doesn’t that carry strong implications of quackery? Culturally, the tinfoil hat invokes ideas from which most people who consider themselves to be “real” scientists and intellectuals try their utmost to distance themselves.

While it’s true that there are many concepts that are absurd and infeasible, it is also possible to err in the opposite direction towards the safe and proven.  This contrast is especially true for ideas about space exploration, but is certainly present in any scientific discipline.

A discussion of these contrasts in continuum of usefulness and feasibility with my advisor, Mason Peck, gave rise to a concept that I like to call “the tinfoil hat line.” It is a very fuzzy conceptual line that separates safe, clearly feasible or proven ideas on one side, and absurd schemes and conjectures on the other.

Tinfoil Hat Line

The tinfoil hat line does not render judgment on the worthiness of an idea for further action.  The world needs people to propose and work on ideas on both sides of the line.  Long chains of mundane projects have led to the incremental improvements that have led to many miracles of modern life, but without the insane ideas, those chains of improvements may never have begun.

As I see it, the problems related to the tinfoil hat line are twofold:

  1. Misperception of the side of the line onto which a concept falls.
  2.  Poor thinking regarding the side of the line where a concept should live in the first place.

An example of the first issue are the myriad of space ventures trumpeted by the media as having imminent relevance, but closer inspection reveals that their business plans are along the lines of:

  1.  Awesome Space Idea and Cool Powerpoint
  2. . . .
  3. Profit / Humanity Expands Throughout The Solar System

The second issue is exemplified, in my mind, by the extreme aversion to risk that congress forces upon NASA.

There is much more to say about the tinfoil hat line and its relevance to space exploration and science, but I first wanted to introduce the concept and give you something to chew on, and explain the seemingly paradoxical name of this blog.

Hello World!

Rather than begin this blog with a manifesto, I’m going to (hopefully!) set a precedent for informative, to-the-point posts that are no longer than is necessary.

As with any blog, the primary objective here is to share my thoughts with you.  However, there isn’t exactly a plethora of aerospace/mechanical engineering graduate students with a degree in medieval history and a strong interest in economics and private enterprise.  My plan is to use this bizarre combination of perspectives to approach subjects from a direction well off of the beaten path.  Kind of like the platypuses of the idea world.

I will focus on the topic of space-exploration and engineering, but make no promises not to stray into ideas about science more broadly, the academic world of a graduate student or (horror!) random subjects that might be of interest.  There may be rants, but I will try to make them entertaining and useful – you have been warned!

And of course, dear reader, there is your entertainment to consider! If you wanted dry analysis or technical ramblings, you would be reading an academic journal right now.  Cue half of the audience closing the window and opening up a nice, dense PDF.

I intend to share ideas that will inform, entertain, and hopefully spawn some hybridized thinking of your own.  And please comment or otherwise get in touch with me – closing the loop isn’t just useful in engineering systems!