[FoRK] Losing my religion

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Sat Feb 13 07:09:54 PST 2010

That pro-big government, big dreams, big ideas religion, that is.  Not that I ever had it, but...  I'd like to recount an experience that, had I been suffering from such, would certainly have "cured" me.

Some things are too important to leave to the dishonesty, fickleness and gnat-like attention spans of bureaucrats and politicians. 

Aaron mentioned "the space race" as an example of what government can accomplish (that, presumably, he doesn't believe is achievable via other means.) I'd submit that what our government has done with our "space program" over the last few decades is also a perfect example of government failure, of the cynicism and manipulation and betrayal that inevitably occurs *as a direct result of the structure of our system of governance.*

A few years ago I got to take a sort of "back stage tour" of Johnson Space Center near Houston.  A buddy of mine works for NASA, was a mission controller at the time, and I went down with Jen one weekend to take him up on a longstanding invitation.  We went to the campus on a Saturday and the first thing that struck me was --- nobody was there.  A few people here and there.  A handful of folks in the ISS control room and us, wandering around.  A security guard or two.  That was it.

The whole experience was like a Terry Gilliam nightmare as reimagined by William Gibson, then re-reimagined by Bruce Sterling.  It was like stepping into some weird, desolate, post-apocalyptic world.  The parts of the various buildings that were occupied were filled with surplus olive drab and gunship grey desks and filing cabinets, wooden chairs that were probably in low-level military officers' workspaces circa the end of WWII.  This was the nerve center of what remains of our once-great program, and it looked like it had been furnished by buying truckloads of battered, hard-used, low-end military surplus (which, actually, is about right.)  The computers on peoples' desks --- those that had them --- were all several generations old.  I saw more than one desk that had gear more outdated than that which I had available to me back in school, in the late 80s (yes, some actual, functioning pre-SPARC Suns, etc.)  A kind of functioning computer museum...

The buildings were sparsely occupied.  You'd see one wing, one side really, of a building furnished in the style described above.  Then you'd round a corner and go through a door into another part of the building and --- it was a wasteland.  It was like stepping behind a facade in a movie studio lot.  (No, not implying anything Beberg. ;-)  Entire wings of buildings, right around the corner from where current employees worked, covered in a layer of dust years thick.  Empty, except for the "trash."

The trash consisted of tons, literally, of three-hole paper, pages from manuals past, piled up many feet high, spilling over into drifts against the walls, strewn across the floor like forest humus.  Pages removed so that the binders could be reused;  no organization or filing, just not enough filing cabinets I guess.  Rolled tubes of engineering drawings and project plans --- dependencies diagrams in a notation I've never seen before, not PERTs or Gantts, something else entirely --- strewn about like jungle trees on a beach after a hurricane.  Among all that:  the manuals, plans, memos, documents, training materials, reports, etc. for programs past;  the collective know-how (acquired at such great cost) needed to build such things as an Atlas rocket.  We can't do that anymore, you know.

Building after building this was the case:  tiny little "islands" of occupied workspace in the midst of a barren sea, survivors huddled around the weak, flickering light of a beach campfire made by burning the drift pieces of their vessel, surrounded by darkness and solitude and the decaying remains of a past technology, shipwrecked.  Huddled together, perhaps, merely for each others comfort, hanging onto little scraps of a dream of civilization.

Then I saw it:  the thing that really drove it all home for me.  There is exactly one remaining (ostensibly) functional lunar lander trainer.  This was an actual, flying device that was used to train the Apollo astronauts in operating the landing module, a kind of dune buggy thing.  You'd think something this historical would at least be given some reverential treatment, perhaps retired to the Smithsonian.  

Not so.  It's presently just a dust-covered pile of junk hanging out in the far corner of a dust-choked, unlit corridor of a mostly-unused (except as a trash depot, as far as I can tell) 60s-era office building on a barely-populated, dingy campus littered with documentation and relics of our past glories, a testament to the ongoing failure and betrayal of all those big dreams.  Rusting away in the humid Gulf air, as that whole part of that building wasn't air conditioned and there are, or were, holes in the glass windows here and there.

Put men (back) on the moon?  It's been almost an entire "working generation" (40 years) since we've done that.  We don't even know how to build a rocket that big anymore.  Those were the final accomplishments of our grandfathers' generation, really, for those of us now at or near the midpoint of our own working careers.  For most of that time the "great dream" of manned spaceflight has been realized merely by truck-driving into low earth orbit.  Now, we can argue about the legitimacy of manned spaceflight as a governmental priority, goal, etc. all we want;  but the reality is that politicians periodically invoke this dream in order to provide a sense of shared purpose, a glimpse of some imagined future, a notion of a frontier as-yet unexplored.  They do this, and have now done this for going on four decades, knowing full well that funding for each renewed attempt to reach further will ultimately meet the budgetary axe.

The people that work on these programs at NASA and its subcontractors are, without a doubt, true believers;  they carry the torch of the big dreams of a generation --- or two --- past, and how they manage to maintain their belief in the face of repeated government betrayals I have no idea.  Time after time they've piled into projects full of passion and enthusiasm and hope for the future only to have the rug yanked out from under them by the "VCs" that fund all this stuff --- our friends in Washington.  Yet they keep doing it, presumably because that particular dream dies hard.  And they keep getting betrayed.  Yet they keep going to work --- in this extremely surreal environment that is itself a testament to the failure of the system and their own history of betrayals.

It is extremely disheartening, too, to imagine all the billions and billions we've used to feed the massive bureaucracy that sits above the actual doers, the layers and layers of "management" types that run the geeks and nerds of NASA around a maze of broken promises like lab rats.  Really, the whole thing is a weird longitudinal psychological experiment at high cost:  a sadistic game of football played between Lucy and Charlie Brown.  Over, and over, and over...  and at such *massive* cost.  For what?  

All that technological potential, unrealized;  and, in some cases, that which was realized, subsequently lost.  Man-centuries lost.  Dreams promised but not delivered, repeatedly.  Billions upon billions of dollars wasted.

My buddy has spent most of his adult life working at NASA or, before that, working to get there.  I've known him since we were in school and, with a brief youthful exception, he has doggedly pursued the dream of flying in space himself without interruption for decades now.  Wouldn't even think about going and joining one of the private efforts, even now.  Nor would most of his colleagues;  it's weird, like some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, but the result of what one might almost regard as a kind of intentional conditioning, repeated trauma lovingly applied.  

I submit that not only has government failed us and --- most importantly --- failed the space geeks horribly and cynically, it has also failed society as a whole by its handling of our manned space program.  Why?  Its repeated failures actively discouraged smaller-scale, more-practical yet probably systemically more achievable private pursuit of many of these goals.  Each failure itself is a signal to the private sector:  see, we can't do this any more with huge organizations and billions of dollars, so don't even think about having the audacity to try this on your own.  

For nearly 4 decades the zombie-like state in which our government has maintained NASA has itself been a major barrier to entry for anyone else, and all the while our know-how has bled away.  Now we're going to have a to reinvent all of it all over again --- a nearly half-century setback --- in order to resume any manned program.  That or, like Finland and telecom, just leap past the legacy stuff.  And that's what the private guys, Bezos and Musk and all the rest, are attempting.  But it's taken four decades of government "suppression" --- whether intended or not --- for folks to get wise to this game, roll up their sleeves, and say "well, if anybody's going to do this it sure as hell isn't going to be the US government, so we might as well get busy.  If we want it to happen, we've got to make it happen ourselves."

Yet, I submit, the present outcome of all of this is inevitable, a kind of unavoidable systemic  inherent in our very structure of government.  It's not surprising at all;  the biggest surprise is that we actually managed to maintain the momentum for a decade sufficiently to actually get men to the moon in the first place, all those years ago.

So...  Some things are too important to leave to the dishonesty, fickleness and gnat-like attention spans of bureaucrats and politicians. 

Things like dreams.

If you don't believe me, see if you can arrange an "all-access" tour of JSC.  Take it, and tell me what you think.

Can politicians inspire greatness?  Absolutely;  no less than any other individual, and perhaps even more.  But the system itself is not reliable;  it  is not set up properly to maintain focus and resources on long-term goals.  The left often bemoans the problems created by the short-term profit obsessions of Wall Street and the private sector that, supposedly, undermine the ability to achieve long-term goals, to act responsibly and sustainably...  How odd then that they don't recognize the same cyclic pathology --- arguably worse, even more inevitable and severe --- in our system of government itself, exactly analogous, with only a slightly lower frequency.


More information about the FoRK mailing list