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Goodnight, moon: What I learned from a space shuttle

By Carmi Levy, Betanews

Like many nighthawks across the continent, I found myself glued to more than one screen…all right, three. Plus my BlackBerry…as I watched this morning’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I observed the spectacle with a curious mixture of excitement and sadness because after the current STS-130 mission, the shuttle program has only four more scheduled flights before it’s grounded for good.

It’s not the retirement that gets me. Every technology has its day, and it’s fair to conclude that a system largely designed in the early 1970s has now served its purpose and should logically be replaced. It’s also fair to conclude that this same system was and is too complex to ever be fiscally feasible. Despite the orbiters’ reusability, which was supposed to drive down the cost of spaceflight, extensive maintenance in-between missions made the program even more expensive to fly than conventional expendable rockets. The shuttle’s inherent design flaws (you’ll never see humans riding below any other part of a space vehicle again) pretty much sealed its fate.

The absent successor

What irks me about the whole thing is the fact that when the shuttle program is over and done, there won’t be another program waiting in the wings to take over. President Obama’s 2010 budget announcement last week virtually killed funding for the Constellation program, which would have resulted in new hardware to take humans more safely into orbit, to the moon and beyond.

We’ve been down this road before. After the Apollo program ended with the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project in 1975, nearly six years passed before the US once again launched its own astronauts into space. Then as now, NASA lacked the funds because the US lacked the national will to prioritize spending on sending humans into space. Then as now, NASA found itself going up against a wartime government dealing with frightfully uncertain economic conditions. Then as now, NASA lost the battle and spent years twiddling its thumbs waiting for its new ride to be ready.

With Constellation now virtually dead, NASA doesn’t even have that comfort anymore. Had the key components for the regularly scheduled program already in progress — the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule — survived the axe, NASA would have had at least a five-year gap before its next launch. Now, it could be buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets indefinitely while it waits for commercial space interests to fill the giant void. While thousands of NASA employees wonder what tomorrow might bring (hint: it won’t be pretty) I can’t resist the urge to draw a personal connection.

Liftoff of Space Shuttle STS-130, perhaps the final nighttime liftoff in the shuttle program's history.  [Courtesy: NASA]

Liftoff of Space Shuttle STS-130, perhaps the final nighttime liftoff in the shuttle program’s history. [Courtesy: NASA]


Of cars and spaceships

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)My wife and I cart our kids around in a vehicle we affectionately call the “wondervan.” Despite our guilt over contributing to global warming, our car is an essential pillar of life for us and our kids. Like all vehicles, it has a finite lifespan, and we’re already planning for its replacement over the next couple of years. The plan will be relatively simple: Save up a lot of money, do a lot of research and preparation, drive to the dealer in the old car, and return home (somewhat poorer) in the new one.

The same process applies in the real world. Planning for any technology platform’s end-of-life is a fundamental requirement of any business in any sector. The laptops that your employees use and the servers they connect to can only last for so long. When they reach the inevitable point of no return — where the costs and risks of keeping them in service outweigh an investment in followon technology — it’s time to take the plunge. Your business can’t afford to be without laptops and servers until you decide you’ve got enough money saved up. The time to get off your duff and do something about it is not just before the thing dies an inglorious death or the vendor pulls its support. If you fail to bake lifecycle planning into your operations, your fate may be even more bleak than NASA’s. The agency, despite countless layoffs, will exist in some form by the time this is all over. Your business? Don’t hold your breath.

For a variety of self-inflicted and externally influenced reasons, NASA’s new business model will see it walking the proverbial five miles to school for a whole lot of years before a new vehicle, likely developed by commercial partners, is ready. The agency failed to anticipate upcoming change, and now thousands of its employees will pay the ultimate price. I’m going to guess the former Can-Do organization will have a tough time convincing us to stay engaged while its human spaceflight capability remains grounded.

Who do you trust?

Despite their obvious differences, businesses and government agencies are equally dependent on trust. Once stakeholders lose trust, it’s over. Would you willingly do business with an organization that failed to anticipate end-of-life for its core competency?

As you scope out potential partners, supply chain members and, yes, even customers, you’re making one judgment call after another, typically revolving around whether you think this outfit has the brains and the moxie to stick with you for mutual benefit. If its leadership is so blind that it can’t anticipate normal technology turnover, do you really want to be aligning yourself with it in the first place? Would you have any trust in its ability to balance near-term and long-term goals? I’m going to guess letting something like this happen would erode your confidence a bit.

In a year or two, my wife and I will take that infrequent trip to the dealer and return home with something newer, nicer, and safer than the vehicle it replaces. By then, NASA will be well into its human spaceflight stand down, waiting for the figurative bus while nations with bigger budgets and different priorities pass them by. I do hope businesses are studying this monumental gaffe and revisiting their technology investment roadmaps to ensure they, too, don’t get caught without the basic ability to keep themselves relevant.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2010

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