It might have come as too much of an exogenous shock for some at Space 2010, but Bran Ferren certainly fired up the crowd when asked what his first step would be to boost public interest in space and revive U.S. leadership.
“I'd start by dissolving NASA and then starting again. I'd create the National Exploration Agency - searching for life, protecting our nation and inspiring the next generation.” Speaking at the AIAA conference in Anaheim, Calif., Ferren says the ‘NEA’ would include sea as well as space. “These are the areas to explore, and we should make it a national priority. Everyone will finish work at NASA on Friday and on Monday start work at NEA and help invent the future.”
With a reputation for plain, but inspirational speaking, Ferren is the co-chairman and chief creative office of Applied Minds, a California-based company that provides advanced technology, creative design, and consulting services to a variety of clients, including Walt Disney, the Defense Dept, GM and…er….NASA.
A self-confessed space nut, Ferren is actually a huge fan of NASA but pulls no punches when it comes to his views on the need for drastic change. “We’ve lost the ball with both the public and the leadership, and that isn’t good.” Referring to the NASA TV channel as an example he says “see what the viewer stats are like compared to The Golf Channel, or The Dead Rat Channel and you’ll see how much trouble we are in.”
Despite the overwhelming public interest for events such as coverage of the Mars rovers he says coverage of the International Space Station falls far short of the goal. “If you want to capture the imagination of the next generation and the public, you’re not going to do it with programs like that.”
Where are the crowds today? Image from 1969 as people watch the Apollo 11 landing in New York. (http://21stcenturywaves.com)
Ferren paints a gloomy picture as he charts the passage of America’s space enterprise from the glory days to today. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab were achieved in an eight-year span. “These days we’re lucky if we get a single request for proposals out in eight years. We became risk adverse and we are in the era of boring space. We were in the era of better, faster, cheaper. It didn’t get better, faster or cheaper, it just got boring,” he says.
“Ask anyone in the street to name to name a scientist and you get the deer in the headlights look. They might say Einstein. So you say ‘OK, I mean a living scientist,’ and they might reply Carl Sagan. ‘No, he’s dead.’” Just as telling, he asked almost 1,000 attendees at the conference if they could say how many astronauts are currently aboard the ISS. Few hands were visible, and none at all when he asked – “can you name them?”
“If you, a group of people who are passionate about space can’t do that, imagine what it is like for people in the street? Yet, ask virtually anyone to name a rap or other music artist and they’ll give you plenty of names. There are no role models.”
So what to do? Here are a few pointers from Ferren:
- Vision. You need a clearly articulated vision of why what you’re doing is exciting and interesting – and by the way, it’s got to be. If you fail along the way people will be far more proud of you for trying.
- Encourage the group of ‘take no prisoners’ space entrepreneurs, and don’t let them be ‘bought up’ by bigger corporations.
- Talent. You’d better understand you’re in a death fight for the best talent. You can’t do the hard things with OK people. You need brilliant people.
- Systems engineering. We’ve got to get back to understanding systems engineering. We used to be great at that, but now we have to get over the American Achilles heel of being fascinated with complex solutions to simple problems. (Here he cites the U.S. development of the zero-gravity Fisher pen. “The Soviets used a pencil.”)
- Education. We’re not going back to the Moon with a nation of dummies. Education is in a state of freefall and it’s our fault when the most sophisticated technology in the school is the metal detector to frisk kids for weapons. Education is the single most important thing there can possibly be if you want a viable space industry.