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There may be many problems apparent at NASA and among the U.S. aerospace giants these days, but there also are signs that space exploration is about to undergo a renaissance, with an explosion of creativity unseen in decades.
To explain this conclusion will require telling a personal anecdote, which begins in the mid-1980s.
At the time, I had become fascinated with the sport of caving and was getting involved in several exploration projects. Together with other enthusiasts, we pushed the limits of known caves to find virgin and previously unexplored passages – to go literally where no one had gone before.
Most American cavers in the 1980s still used carbide lamps, technology first developed in the 1800s for miners, whereby water would drip onto carbide to generate acetylene gas that, once ignited, would produce a bright flame.
The light that came from these carbide lights was unmatched, a soft and clear glow that was easy on the eyes.
In contrast, the electric lights of the time produced a harsh light with uneven illumination. Moreover, carbide was lightweight and compact, able to fit easily on a caving helmet, while electric lamps required heavy battery packs worn on a belt around the waist.
Carbide lamps had problems, which is why many cavers, including myself, wanted alternatives. They required endless maintenance and care to make them work properly. You also had to carry lots of gear to keep them running, including spare water and carbide as well as a place to safely store waste carbide.
Finding an alternative, however, was impossible. In the 1980s no suitable and comparable electric headlamp existed, despite the passing of more than three-quarters of a century since Edison had invented the light bulb. If the existing electric headlamps did not require a heavy or clunky belt battery pack, they were so badly designed they usually would break after one use.
Nor was this lack of good electric headlamps a problem only for cavers. The entire outdoor market, from backpackers to rock climbers to emergency rescue crews, needed a brighter, more dependable and compact illumination device, but could not find one.
Even more puzzling, despite such a strong need, no American companies came forward to try to capture the market. Except for a single family of compact electric headlamps made by one French company and produced only near the end of 1980s, no new headlamps of any practicality emerged for the outdoor market. Even the French version had its problems – the lamp was not very bright and its light was harsh and uneven.
Fast forward 15 years: With the advent of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs — whose development occurred partly because scientists needed a lightweight and dependable way to illuminate greenhouses on the space shuttle – there now are more a dozen small American companies designing and marketing a whole range of electric headlamps for the outdoor market.
All are far superior to carbide – or any conventional electric lamp for that matter – and have made all previous products obsolete.
What does this have to do with the American aerospace industry?
Consider how little innovation occurred there during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Just as there were no American headlamps developed and sold during that period – despite a desperate need – very few novel ideas appeared in the aerospace market. Except for the creation of one new launch company, Orbital Sciences, the industry establishment was content to rest on its laurels, doing the same old stuff for the government over and over again.
Today, things are far different. Leading-edge companies like Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and Elon Musk’s SpaceX share the stage with dozens of start-ups, from the recently reborn Kistler Aerospace of Kirkland, Wash. – with its reusable K-1 rocket aimed at providing cargo to the International Space Station – to suborbital companies such as Rocketplane of Oklahoma City, Okla., which hopes to fly its first space tourist by 2007.
Just like the companies that began building LED headlamps, these new space firms all have raised and spent significant investment capital on rocket designs that are wildly creative and vastly different from one another.
Nor has this burst of creativity been limited to these two industries. From the rebirth of the inner cities to the birth of the computer industry and the Worldwide Web, U.S. society is increasingly undergoing an explosion of new ingenuity and inspiration.
What has caused this change? Why has innovation suddenly become so ubiquitous when it was so rare only two decades ago?
Trying to pinpoint an explanation for such social upheaval is difficult, but there is at least one consideration that – though it cannot possibly provide more than a small part of the answer – might at least clarify the difference between then and now.
When I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, there were only three television networks, several dozen radio stations and a handful of newspapers.
Not only did most of these media outlets take pretty much same perspective on almost any issue of importance, their limited number restricted the amount of information available on any one subject.
Thus, exposed to such a narrow range of viewpoints, my generation got little practice in objectively judging many contrasting ideas or facts and thoughtfully weighing them to come up with a reasoned conclusion.
For the last decade or so, however, kids have been raised in an atmosphere of wild and enthusiastic intellectual turmoil. They can choose from hundreds of cable stations, talk radio and the vast variety of the Internet to seek answers to questions about any subject from many viewpoints.
In other words, they have been raised knowing there is no such thing as accepted wisdom. Though they might hear an issue or idea argued from one perspective, they know they can quickly ferret out another that might be perhaps even more persuasive.
Possessed with such a complex world view, it should not be surprising if today’s enterprisers are far more willing to attempt to design, build and sell a new range of products – from headlamps to low-cost rockets.
Having an open-minded perspective, they know just because something has been done one way for decades it is not a reason to continue in the same manner. In fact, it might very well be a reason not to, and instead to devise a new approach to the problem.
Based on these patterns, the curtain might very well be rising on a new technological renaissance, making the colonization of the solar system in the coming decades not only possible, but very likely.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian and the author of “The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space.” His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.