Former Astronaut: NASA Needs to Launch Early and Often

Former astronaut Ed Lu – now program manager for advanced projects at Google – contrasts the way NASA and Silicon Valley launch projects in an op-ed in The New York Times:

In Silicon Valley we have a saying: launch early, launch often. It’s an acknowledgment that successful, innovative companies are the ones that rapidly try new ideas, see what works, improve their products and repeat. Businesses that launch frequently are also able to take advantage of economies of scale to make launchings faster and easier. In many ways, the key to innovation is speed of execution.

NASA, an agency that depends on innovation, could benefit from the same mindset. To meet its new goals for human spaceflight, NASA must be able to be creative and take risks, or else it will be unable to adapt to new technology and changing political realities. Grand plans stretching over decades will become irrelevant and eventually collapse.

In the 12 years before I left NASA in 2007, we averaged about four space shuttle launchings per year. We had periods when the rate was even lower: in the late ’90s, during the early construction phase of the International Space Station, and in 2003, in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. I saw firsthand the harm that low launching rates do to innovation.

With precious few flights, every available opportunity to test new equipment or run scientific investigations was filled for years into the future, and this discouraged engineers from trying out new ideas. Without actual flight test data on, for example, prototypes for new life-support equipment, management was forced to substitute analysis for real engineering experience.

Lu’s answer is that the U.S. needs to build simpler rockets that can fly more often, as does Russia with its Soyuz booster. This sounds about right.

The one thing he doesn’t mention – and the biggest difference between NASA and Silicon Valley – is the profit incentive. There are huge financial upsides to launching software or product. Failures don’t always have the same consequences in Silicon Valley as they do for a public government agency.

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