Bad Analogies are NOT an Option, Mr. Kranz

A post over at the Space Politics website discusses the recent testimony of Mr. Gene “Failure is Not an Option” Kranz, the longtime NASA Flight Director, at the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee on the planned reauthorization of NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration.

Now I must admit that I have always had an admiration for Mr. Kranz, based initially on the fine portrayal of him by Ed Harris in Apollo 13 (one of the greatest films ever made, IMHO), but further enhanced when I read historical accounts of his role at NASA through the decades.

As such, it pains me to hear him make the kind of simplistic, and erroneous, arguments that are regularly heard in the sector – in this case the mixing of examples by applying a poor or irrelevant analogy to try to make a point. Granted, this actually works in many cases because the listener is too ill-informed to recognize the weakness of the analogies (e.g., the “we can’t abandon our space effort because we’ll be like the Chinese emperor burning the fleet in the 1400s” argument is a classic example of stupidity at it’s finest).

Apparently in his passion for space, Mr. Kranz said the following:

“This is the best game plan that I have seen since the days of President Kennedy,” Kranz said of ESAS, comparing it to the DC-3 and the B-52. “The system that Griffin’s team is putting into place will be delivering for America 50 years later… so the message I would give to you and to the US Congress is to stay the course, stay on track.”

Small nitpicks here, sir – the DC-3 and the B-52 are reusable. They have inherent advantages based on thousand of flight cycles (and the ability to therefore do things like maintenance, tear-downs, inspections, improvements, modifications, etc). These are things that ELVs don’t (or can’t) have. Also, they had MANY copies built – allowing for economies of scale. NASA has always been limited by that simple problem – it could never procure enough copies of anything to reach scale. Unlike, say, DoD, which can procure 1000+ JSFs in a $200 Billion program. Whereas NASA can get 1.4 space stations for that price…

If you were really to pursue the line of reasoning that our space strategy should model the B-52 and/or DC-3, you would be arguing for NASA to shut down manned space, invest all $ into R&D for new propulsion systems (with reusability, reliability, high flight-rate between servicing, and maintenance being the primary concerns), new airframes/spaceframes, and the other kinds of things NASA/NACA engaged in back in the early years (pre-Apollo). Once we develop the “DC-3 of Space” then going to the Moon and Mars (and virtually anywhere in the Solar System) becomes a LOT easier. Frankly, $7b/year would be a HUGE (and valuable) investment in this sort of R&D… The Gap is the PERFECT opportunity to do this without the danger of the political suicide normally associated with the concept of Shutting Down Manned Space(tm).

Speaking of China, Mr. Kranz made another comment (at least in his written testimony):

China is importing “ITAR-free” satellites and other space technologies from a European company, thereby evading U.S. export controls that are intended to safeguard our national security. China is also developing its Long March 5 rocket that will be capable not only of delivering people to the moon, but also landing nuclear payloads anywhere in the United States.
It is time for our country and our nation’s leaders to tune in to these facts and back off of their naïve views of “space on the cheap” – other countries are making the necessary resource investments; and it’s time to do the same before the option to respond is no longer an option.

There are two issues i have with this “boo! be afraid!” statement – first, our development of a way back to the Moon and on to Mars will not prevent China from having their Long March 5, and we already have plenty of nuclear capability that can turn China into a large piece of porcelain should that come to pass. Second, they aren’t “evading” our ITAR restrictions – they are simply ignoring them. Ask Boeing about how much of a pain that was in the 90s when Airbus was selling jets to China to take advantage of our own export controls. The reality is that as long as other countries maintain a technical industrial base (such as in Europe, India, Russia, and Israel), that technical know-how will be available to virtually anyone who is willing to pay for it. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t change that.

10 thoughts on “Bad Analogies are NOT an Option, Mr. Kranz

  1. There’s nothing in the VSE to worry about because it’s no more likely to happen than Space Exploration Initiative. They should try for more than another 5 years of vapor.

  2. it pains me to hear him make the kind of simplistic, and erroneous, arguments that are regularly heard in the sector

    One guess as to where learned these arguments from.

    Granted, this actually works in many cases because the listener is too ill-informed to recognize the weakness of the analogies (e.g., the “we can’t abandon our space effort because we’ll be like the Chinese emperor burning the fleet in the 1400s” argument is a classic example of stupidity at it’s finest).

    There is a good analogy between Apollo/Shuttle/ISS and the Ming Fleets, but it’s not a flattering one for NASA. The short version: it requires economic size, compact muscle, and the meeting of existing commercial needs, rather than grand plans, grand size, and political glory, to effectively explore frontiers and conquer trade routes. As a result the Portuguese conquered the Asian trade routes rather than China conquering the European trade routes, despite China being far larger and wealthier and sending far larger missions overseas much sooner than Portugal. The Ming Fleets, like the big NASA projects, were dead-end exercises in fleeting glory.

  3. Mark Whittington over at the Curmudgeon’s Corner takes issue with my citing the flaws in the Chinese Fleet analogy, but in doing so misses the point.

    In the case of the Chinese treasure fleets which were burned, the Europeans stepped in to fill the void and ended up subjugating China for centuries while they expanded to colonize much of the “new world”. The flaw in citing this as an analogy to why we shouldn’t end the manned space program and give up the short-term goal of a lunar base (or a Mars base) is that there are no aliens hiding behind the asteroid belt waiting to sneak in and steal Mars out from us.

    If, instead, the concern is that the Chinese and/or other nation are going to go and “colonize” Mars or the Moon, I have three questions:
    1) Who cares?
    2) Why don’t we take a page from industry and be a “fast follower” and let THEM spend the $$$ to figure out how to do it and simply do it better, rather than the other way around?
    3) What prevents us from setting up our own bases even if they *are* on the Moon/Mars before us?

    It’s a badly flawed analogy. Period.

  4. Whittington responded to my comment above as follows:

    The Portuguese, as part of a government funded operation started by Prince Henry the Navigator that was the NASA of its era, took about a century mapping routes around Africa before they arrived at the spice markets of the Indies. Using the Space Cynic approach, they should have given up some time in the early 15th Century. But the Portuguese persevered and became a major trading power in their time.

    This response is very far off the mark. The “Space Cynic approach”, as I understand it, is to focus on making money rather than on pursuing preconceived daydreams. If a solid business based on common sense rather than daydreaming cannot be created today, it should wait for the future. And that is just the approach Prince Henry and his cynical cronies took.

    While Prince Henry certainly threw in some of his own funds, which originally coming from land rents and tariffs and the like might be labeled “government”, the explorations were from the first to last structured as profit-making operations. Portugal made large profits trading with Africans down the Atlantic coast long before Dias rounded the Cape. They did not pursue any grand goal resembling “we want to pioneer a new route to Asia, we know just where that route is, and we don’t care how long it takes or how much money we spend doing it.” They couldn’t have — the dominant cartographic belief of the time was that there was no such route, and Portugal was a tiny nation and its princes did not have much money to spend. Instead, they made money as they went along. They developed made a profitable, and thus self-sustaining, business out of exploration and sea trade with distant lands. The Chinese did not. Thus the Portuguese and not the Chinese put themselves in a position to both discover the route and take advantage of it.

    If the Ming Chinese had been as far sighted, trade and political power would have surely been developed in the wake of Zheng’s voyages.

    This is the trouble with “ifs”. The Ming thought they were far-sighted. NASA thinks it is far-sighted. Many space fans too think they know just how space will be conquered — first a Shuttle (oops, can’t say that any more, now we have to call it an RLV, as if that is some entirely different approach), then a Space Station, then a Moon Base, then a Mars Mission, just as Von Braun so prophetically laid it out in Collier’s fifty-five years ago. This is not far-sightedness, it is religion.

    If the Chinese build Ming Moon Base for the sake of political glory and “farsightedness”, they will be repeating the same stupid mistakes they made five hundred years ago, and that NASA has more recently made.

  5. Shubber makes some excellent points here – after all, the English were latecomers to the New World, and thrived despite settling areas with far fewer resources than the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. This illustrates not only that execution is much more important than order of arrival, but that, ultimately, “what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it.” I.e., England wanted to recreate itself abroad, while Spain and Portugal just wanted to soak up the riches of other lands. A concern, however, is that we (the United States) will play the role of the Netherlands rather than England: If you recall, the Dutch colonial endeavors, despite being quite advanced from a business perspective, were crushed by the simple might of Britain.

    Agility and profitability did not save them from being overwhelmed by the scale of another country’s massive expenditures, regardless of relative efficiency. So, if space is treated largely as a vanity project for prestige, it will fail. If it’s treated as just a business, it will fail or be overwhelmed by more seriously committed endeavors. It’s important to keep in mind (even outside of space issues) that business is just a means to an end, not the end in itself.

  6. Even though this is off the subject I have to say this. The book about Apollo 13 titled LOST MOON by Jeffrey Kluger and Jim Lovell is Fantastic. The documentary titled Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back is also Superb (Unfortunately, if you get the DVD there’s some very good music left out of the original and it does make a difference). Now, no matter how much I hate to say it the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks is just “okay” in my opinion. It just can’t compare to the real story via the book and documentary. Still, the audiences loved the movie and that says a lot about how something space related can ignite public imagination.

  7. I’m not so sure England wanted to recreate it self in the new world, but they obviously did have the better model. Absent parliamentary representation, the colonies were forms of exploitation as well. However, they were sustainable forms of exploitation. The Spanish crown screwed itself later with politically unwise actions and a tendency to default on it’s loans.

    I think history will show the real powerhouse behind the English model is the way they put people to work in the northern colonies that permitted them to grow into a middle class. I happened back home too and you can see it if you look to what the Puritans did. After their civil war they continued to go through social revolutions and wound up benefiting to a great extent economically. I’m doubtful the Crown or Parliament did any of it intentionally, but accidents can be useful to us if we bother to learn the historical details.

    I think we should be suspect of all analogies in our domain. They seem to be used less for fact correlation and more for ax grinding. The folks who fail to understand the Chinese withdrawal are just as bad as those who fail to see how certain European sovereigns chose unwisely and others got lucky. 8)

  8. Ultimately, all analogies are bad analogies when the subject is so far removed from previous experience. All we can truly look to is common sense, the limited history of space thus far, and a willingness to try and fail so we can discover how to succeed. Still, we must realize that this doesn’t negate the utility of centrally planned programs, it simply illustrates that the plans undertaken so far have had a flawed basis – i.e., they were intended to achieve the wrong goals.

    Is it possible to move a government bureaucracy into a frame of mind where its objectives are ongoing, evolution-oriented, and organic rather than Point A –> Point B, mission-oriented, and discrete? Difficult, of course, but I would say the same of getting businesses into that frame of mind and away from following short-term profit to nowhere.

    Insofar as we choose to use analogies, I would therefore substantially agree with Shubber that NASA follows the Chinese model, but would add that entrepreneurial space as advocated by the Cynics (and many environmental-minded space advocates) would follow an even more limited and crippled pathway than the Dutch model. For human expansion to succeed and flourish, it has to be the ultimate priority, and the means must be regarded agnostically.

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