The Drive

Imagine, if you will, that a US government agency invented the automobile.

And for forty-five years, nobody else but the National Automobile Sales Agency produces any cars in this country. Not because of any particular regulation, you see – but because cars are complex machines that require precision workings and careful construction. They are expensive and require a significant investment in infrastructure. So, not everybody has a car, though plenty of people out there want one. And those people have to buy the cars developed by the US Car Program. Imagine. If you will.

Now suppose that the first batch of cars that the National Automobile Sales Agency were some real hot rods. They could tear all over the place, they looked downright sexy, and they inspired envy in all but the most curmudgeonly of observers. These cars were a source of national pride. People would travel from far and wide just to get a look at a Car Program showroom – or even just to meet those test drivers who shook down the cars on the federal test tracks.

But then, about thirty years ago (15-odd years after the car’s introduction to American drivers), the government decided that just blasting all over the roads wasn’t a great use of this invention. So the National Automobile Sales Agency set out to design a car that could be a workhorse for people. Suppose they rolled out something like those late-’80s-and-early-’90s Ford Taurus wagons that used to be all over the place. Functional, not that stylish. They can do a lot of things that you need. However, for the sake of this argument, let’s suppose that these wagons weren’t all that reliable. Or, at least, they worked long enough for all your errands and trips – but after each trip, you had to take it to the shop to get it looked at. This became so commonplace that everyone with one of these wagons just built a trip to their favorite Car Program mechanic into their travel itineraries, and the mechanics all did the same overhaul on every wagon that rolled into their shops. All this got built into the expense of owning an automobile, which climbed far above the initial sticker prices.

For some people, business was great.

And this went on for thirty years.

Then, forty-five years after the first National Automobile Sales Agency hot rods burned up their desert test tracks, an American start-up company unveils…oh, let’s say the Tesla Roadster. They plan to start marketing them as soon as they can, and they get initial support from the Car Agency, but they’re mostly on their own so it’s tough to get going.

But they do. After a couple test drives, they even win a highly publicized performance award. And then they start taking pre-orders.

Meanwhile, another American start-up company is working on prototypes. Their progress is less meteoric than Tesla’s, and they suffer some initial setbacks that make them something of a temporary laughingstock in the automotive enthusiast community. But then they roll out a model that has a couple reeeeeal good test drives. It’s something small, kinda sporty, useful, and most importantly, it comes at a fraction of the price that the Car Agency’s wagons have gotten to. Let’s say it’s a Honda Civic. But this company isn’t done shaking up the automotive community! Immediately after sales start on the Civic, this company announces that it plans to develop…hmmm…I know, the Subaru Outback! It’s comparable in functionality to the National Automobile Sales Agency wagon, but promises higher reliability and low, low prices. What’s more, this company has some additional plans – for a massive thing they call the “pickup truck.”

Now, the National Automobile Sales Agency is at a crossroads. It has big plans and big ideas. It hasn’t spent those thirty years with the wagon idling…but there are issues of cost, and infrastructure. If it had a much more economical way to get access to cars, it could get some sweet road trips going. So it starts thinking about ending production of the venerable, respectable old wagons. Instead, it would just buy some Civics and Outbacks and…”trucks” (when they come along) from this company. With all the extra cash it saved from buying those cars instead of building its own wagons (which, really, are far too expensive to keep on the road at this point and are old enough for antique plates in some states), the Car Program will purchase the infrastructure it needs to set up things like highways and bridges and interstates – things that will really enable Car Program drivers to go far, and go see the sights, and visit just about anywhere in the country. You know – the things that all Americans imagined the Car Program would be doing, before those wagons became so darned expensive and the ordinary citizens stopped paying attention to them.

Because, you see, the National Automobile Sales Agency gets its mandate and direction from Congress. Some Congressmen and -women come from districts that have profited extensively from the Car Program. Members of their districts are the mechanics who service all those wagons, keeping them on the road. Members of their districts are the gas station attendants fueling up those wagons. And members of their districts are the National Automobile Sales Agency employees building and selling those wagons.

(Well, actually, that’s not quite correct. I should have said, “and members of their districts are employees of large automotive corporations that have been subcontracted by the National Automotive Sales Agency to build and sell those wagons under the Agency banner,” but that sounds less appealing and doesn’t work as well for these Congressmen and -women when they are going for political soundbites.)

So, to Congress, the Car Program represents jobs. And, unlike many programs designed to stimulate the economy and create work for citizens, the Car Program is popular. People remember what those hot rods could do, and the mystique of those first test drivers still lingers throughout the country. Despite the promise that exists if the Car Program stops making its own wagons and contracts out for newer cars, Congress punts and punts, trying to keep the wagons on the road.

(Again, that sentence is not quite right. It’s not so much that the Car Program would “stop making its own wagons” and instead buy them from someone else. It’s more like the program would switch subcontractors – to one which offers a more competitive product.)

Eventually, they grudgingly decide that the Car Program does need something new, but instead of telling the Program to do the procurement and design work on their own, they direct the Agency to develop a hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. (That’s what kind of car design I imagine would come out of a Congressional subcommittee.) And they make sure to apportion parts of this work out to as many states as they can.

But still, some politicians decry this move. They are afraid of all the Taurus wagon jobs that will be lost if the Agency moves to something new. So, despite the facts that the wagons are thirty years old, they are unsustainably expensive to operate, they aren’t taking the Car Program to all the places it could (or should want to) go, and that the Outbacks made by the start-up company have pretty much already obsoleted the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed (not to mention the older Taurus wagons), these politicians argue that the wagons should be kept on the road artificially. Just to keep the wagon-related jobs going. (For a truly ironic twist, a lot of these politicians are Republican.)

And I sit here and think, “But I want to drive on the highway. I don’t want to pay very much, but I still want to see the Grand Canyon. I want other people to do the same. And I think the Car Program could get back to its roots, and really push the boundaries of what we can do with cars – if it isn’t saddled with the burden of having to re-think all the same problems of wheels and engines. If it just buys perfectly good (and inexpensive!) cars from this start-up company, it will free up resources to develop all those bridges and ferries and tunnels that can take cars places that they’ve never been able to go before. Because the strong suit of the National Automobile Sales Agency isn’t that of being an entrenched bureaucracy full of sinecure positions – it’s of taking the big risks that the private companies never will and thus giving our entire society the big benefits of those long shots.”

In case you haven’t guessed it, I didn’t give the Car Agency the acronym “N. A. S. A.” for nothing.

You see, it’s the day that the Space Shuttle Endeavour – my favorite space shuttle, the only one I got to see launch in person – took flight for the last time. And the headlining articles about the launch were things like this: “Workers Left Rattled By Final Shuttle Launches.” The biggest concerns: Where will all the Shuttle Program jobs go when the Shuttle stops flying?

In that article, one Space Coast resident is actually quoted as calling the retirement of the 30-year-old Shuttle program “insane.”

I sympathize with the human aspect of the story, but at the same time…”insane?” I think not. To me, the most important thing about the space program is the space travel. I think it would be insane to keep the Shuttles flying for much longer. I wasn’t stretching the truth much in my little scenario – in some states, the Space Shuttles could have antique license plates. If they were cars. The Space Shuttle Program is older than I am. Okay, Congress, I grew up steeped in space enthusiasm, got a physics degree, got a Ph.D. in spacecraft engineering, and now I’m ready to push the boundaries of space exploration all the way to – oh, what? You want NASA to keep doing the same thing it was doing before I was born, just to keep certain specific jobs safe? No, thanks. Suddenly the “Space Age” really does look forty years old to me.

What strikes me as really insane is the Congressional shortsightedness that has kept NASA from following through on a coherent vision to replace the Space Shuttles. I had no problem with President Obama’s plans – look at the numbers: SpaceX developed a rocket just as capable as Ares I, but SpaceX managed to leapfrog the Constellation schedule and blow the Constellation program budget out of the water. I can totally understand pointing at the Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon capsule and telling NASA, “Hey, um, how about you just buy some of those?” It just makes good business sense. And it would let NASA spend its valuable time and resources on doing the things that I really would like to see the agency do. The things I know it could be capable of, because it once was. Like go to Mars, or put an way station in deep space, or send robots to sail the seas of Titan, or build self-sustaining habitats so that people can really live and work in space. As if directing NASA to do those things won’t create tons of high-paying jobs to replace or exceed the losses!

But instead, Congress fought tooth and nail for an extra Shuttle launch and ordered up the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. And they have no idea where that clunker-to-be is supposed to be going. It’s pretty much set up to fail, and I am completely convinced that the Virgin Galactics, SpaceXs, and other new-space companies of the country (and the world) are going to be light-years ahead NASA in the coming decades unless Congress gets some long-term thinking going in its science and space committees.

These last Space Shuttle launches are bittersweet events – as is the end of any program marked by eye-opening achievements. The last launches were always going to be bittersweet – especially for idealists like me.

But there is a right way to do this. As I said, if there’s some long-term thinking in Congress again – giving NASA lofty missions and appropriate resources, without designing its hardware by committee – we could do this the correct way. The way we used to do it.

You see, Gemini XII was the final flight of the Gemini program. No more Gemini were launched after that. The spacecraft were grounded, retired, and mothballed to museums. But that final flight wasn’t so bittersweet.

Because less than a year after Gemini XII, the first Saturn V rumbled skyward, and less than a year after that, astronauts on board Apollo 7 gazed down at the Earth.

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