Silicon Insider: Orphans Preferred

At last, we are going back to the moon. After 30 years of denial, we appear to have finally accepted mankind's destiny to explore the stars.

Unfortunately, while the tools we use to get there will be 21st century, some of the underlying attitudes may still be stuck in the 1950s.

Here's the deal: On Monday, NASA unveiled its master plan for putting men (and women this time) back on the moon, and from there, on to Mars. The goal for the first lunar landing is 2018, and is estimated to cost $104 billion.

A Mix of Old and New

According to NASA's plan, this exploration will be accomplished using a combination of Apollo and space shuttle technologies -- i.e., a rocket that will be nearly as tall, and even heavier, than the Saturn V, and that will launch a "crew exploration vehicle" into space. The rocket, as with Apollo, will be largely lost in the launch, while the crew vehicle will be reusable up to 10 times.

This rocket will put into low orbit with the actual moon rocket, as well as the lunar lander. This will in turn be joined by the crew exploration vehicle -- and, once joined, they will fire off on the three-day voyage to the moon.

Once at the moon, a la Apollo, the spacecraft, composed of separate crew and service modules, will orbit -- and here's where it gets interesting -- while the lunar lander will travel down to the moon's surface and back multiple times. This will enable astronauts to stay on the moon for months at a time, exploring, researching sustained life on the moon, and developing processes for creating fuel for the far longer trip to Mars.

One of the anticipated glories of the new NASA Lunar Mission will be its showcasing how far technology has come since the days of the Apollo 11 -- which seemed so sophisticated at the time, but in retrospect, looks like the American Flyer in the first round-the-world road race.

The new rockets will be lighter, more powerful and safer, thanks to breakthroughs in propellants, composite materials and guidance systems. And the crew exploration vehicle will feature powerful solid-state computation and communications systems that couldn't have even been imagined in the old slide rule and vacuum tube days of early NASA. Perhaps most breathtaking of all, the lunar rover will occasionally travel to and from the moon unmanned, piloted entirely by robotics.

Exciting New Tech, But…

It is all very exciting… and long overdue. The Gen X-ers seem especially excited, as well they should be. Not only were they born too late to see the last moon landing, but at last, they may have found the great generational quest they've been longing and training (think computer games, robotic competitions, Star Wars/Trek, extreme sports, etc.) for their entire lives.

Some, like Elon Musk, couldn't wait for NASA. He took the millions he made founding PayPal and started Space Explorations Technology, the celebrated new rocket launch company. As it happens, Elon and I made a small side bet a couple years ago after he predicted to me that he would put a man on Mars within 15 years. It is a bet I sincerely hope to lose.

But the enthusiasm of Gen X-ers for space exploration should also be a warning. The more you ponder NASA's new plan the more you realize that it is fundamentally flawed. While the NASA lunar exploration plan is up-to-date on all of the new technologies invented over the last 50 years, philosophically and organizationally it is still trapped in the big business/big government paradigm of the '50s.

Cultures of Bygone Eras

Like many established bureaucracies, NASA has largely failed to account for the generational -- and attendant cultural -- shift that has taken place outside of its walls. After my father retired from the Air Force, he went to work for NASA, and thus I spent a lot of the '60s hanging out (and eventually interning) at NASA's Ames Research Center. Looking at the old photos and memorabilia from that era, I am reminded that it was another country. NASA was the glorious culmination of an organizational culture that had its birth in the late 1930s at places like General Motors, was literally battle tested in World War II, and perfected in the corporate America of the 1950s.

The space program was the culmination of that culture, manned by the ex-GIs of the so-called "Greatest Generation" and led by the middle-aged men of the previous, arguably even greater, generation -- those men and women born in the late 19th century, who came of age in the '20s. This group, the most extraordinary of any in American history, save the founders, included the likes of Eisenhower, Marshall, Dulles, Watson and Sloan.

It experienced more change than any generation that has ever lived. (My grandmother, who spent her infancy in a dugout cave on the Cherokee Strip, lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon). And they knew how to build and manage huge, bureaucratic organizations. They also had millions of WWII vets, with their unique combination of discipline, duty and independent thinking, to fill those organizations. Between them, they created the wealthiest society in history, defeated totalitarianism and reached the moon. It is a legacy that will resound through history.

NASA: The Next Generations

But the wonderful '20s people are gone. And the "Greatest Generation" is attending funerals and lining up for early bird specials.

This next great Era of Exploration will be directed by Baby Boomers, run by Gen X-ers, and its greatest heroes are probably right now sitting in second grade class in Boise, Bangalore and Beijing. The first generation defined itself by its contempt for big organizations, the second by its indifference, and the third thinks Mommy and her laptop go to work at Starbucks.

These are the people who are going to power a giant government bureaucracy to the planets? I don't think so.

Meanwhile, toss in the same old politics as usual -- Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is complaining about the gap between the last shuttle flight (2010) and the first exploration vehicle flight (2012) and the effect it will have on jobs in Houston -- and you have all the ingredients for same old rudderless politics-over-exploration NASA of the last 30 years.

No, if NASA is going to do this right, it must evolve structurally as much as it has technologically. And that begins with a recognition that we live in a new world of adaptive enterprises, rapid implementation of new ideas, flexible work teams that (thanks to the Web) can encompass millions of people, commercial over governmental solutions, multi-media promotion, venture capital, flat organizations, empowered employee decision-making, and most of all, high-risk entrepreneurship.

Points They'll Relate To

Let me be more specific:

Entrepreneurship -- almost all innovation and job growth in the U.S. economy takes place in small, young companies. Plus, there are probably a million or more Gen X-ers out there trained during the boom as entrepreneurs -- and ready to get back at it. Yet, NASA, despite making some noises about reaching out to those hot young space companies in the private sector, still seems dedicated to the old top-down approach. Better that $104 billion be treated as venture capital money, spurring new ideas and ferocious competition among smart start-ups in the private sector, rather than guarantee GS-12 jobs in Houston.

Liberty and Equality -- The United States of America was built on representative democracy and free commerce. As the U.S. reaches out to touch alien worlds, why shouldn't our explorers carry that same message -- much as we have done in terrestrial places like Japan, Germany and Iraq? If we are going to send a group to the moon and leave them there for a few months, then they should vote in both terrestrial and lunar (and eventually Martian) elections -- thus setting the precedent for all time, as the British did at Roanoke and Jamestown, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony. By the same token, soon after an established colony is set up on the moon, it should be open to commercial interests -- resource extraction, communications, tourism, etc. Love it or hate it, private property is at the heart of all innovation, long-term planning and infrastructure improvement. If corporations and entrepreneurs had been able to invest in and draw competitive advantages from the Apollo missions, we'd still be on the moon.

Engagement -- If Gen X-ers and Millennials know little about large companies, they do know, perhaps more than anyone before them, about mass movements. Every night, millions of kids around the world jump onto AOL Instant Messaging, or play CounterStrike -- and within these worlds they have improvised highly sophisticated social and information distribution structures. Just as television was the key to engaging a generation of Boomers with the Space Program, the Web -- live sites, blogs, chatrooms, bulletin boards, and a whole lot of things we can't imagine yet -- will tie the next two generations to the lunar and Martian expeditions. There is a lot of brainpower there, too, that could -- and should -- be tapped. Imagine Apollo 13 with 20 million young imaginations trying to come up with the best solution for getting home. Or, a million young geologists helping to identify that one strange Martian rock. The universe is a very strange place -- and we are going to need all of the brainpower we can harness to deal with it.

Risk -- The biggest mistake NASA made in its first half-century was to make space exploration look increasingly benign and the organization itself appear mistake-free. While that was understandable -- they wanted to keep the kiddies engaged -- it obviously backfired. Turning Challenger into the Magic School Bus, then blowing it up, did a lot more psychic damage to kids than just telling them up front that space was dangerous as hell and that a lot of people would die getting there. Nobody ever expected Magellan's ships to come home; and when the great Cook sailed up the Thames with his entire crew intact, it was justly seen as a miracle, not the assumed result. Great achievement requires great risk, and great risk sometimes means terrible losses. Work for perfection, but accept the danger, and don't shy from the truth.

This is, after all, the "Jackass" and X-Games generation. They like risk. Remember that famous 1859 California newspaper want ad for the Pony Express?

"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows.

Not over 18. Must be expert riders.

Willing to risk death daily.

Orphans preferred."

Let that, with a few edits, be NASA's new astronaut employment ad on Craig's List.