Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Talk and Action

On the Space Generation Talk mailing list, there's an interview with an SGAC member, Iole-Michela De Angelis, and the concluding Q&A echoes a persistent problem in space activism:
What question would you like to ask other SGAC people?
Why do we spend so much time talking instead of doing things?
This message came hot on the heels of calls for more information about internships ("Give us something to do!"), and a forwarded plea for work leads from Robert Goehlich, who would seem to be as employable as any young person in Before that, there was a debate over space property rights and global equity for lunar resources that included Michael Mealing, who started RocketForge with the idea that open source processes might be applied to the problem of cheap access to space. An early conclusion of the discussion of the raison d'etre for that site was that doing open source for hardware was harder, because hardware is harder. (And rocket science involves some pretty hard hardware.) I note that RocketForge seems increasingly concerned with a futuristic horizon that many erstwhile space activists have drifted into discussion about: the Singularity, the coming of super-intelligent AI. Which at this point, like cheap access to space, is mainly just talk.

Why is there so little to do except talk? I'm reminded of a gritty reality: nothing happens until you make a sale. Before that, the best you can do is build something you hope you can sell.

SGAC is about youth input to UN space policy. Which is to say, all it has for sale to its "client" is talk -- and talk that's about what to talk about at the UN. The only forms of payment are (1) the satisfaction of being listened to, and (2) the satisfaction of seeing the UN adopt SGAC recommendations. The SGAC "sells" to members the promise of becoming influential. But if its influence only on how others talk, its ultimately not fruitful influence.

Within its limits (and while trying to push those limits), I think the SGAC should focus as much as possible on what benefits of space could be sold directly to the citizens of the UN member states. That's the UN's ultimate constituency, and thus SGAC's as well. Those benefits should be as visible and tangible as possible.

It's not an easy problem to address, I'll admit. As one wag had it, "If God had intended us to go into space, he would have given us more money." And a great many of the UN member states are poor, so the question of what to sell into a market with little purchasing power only makes the question more difficult. But there is hope.

We want space to be important. We want to be important in developing it. We want the benefits to be felt widely -- globally, in fact. The challenge is to make more of the people of this world feel like they can be an important part of developing space. Anything else will mean either losing people's attention, or never getting it in the first place.

It's nice to be listened to, but actions speak louder than words, and effective action commands more respect. Let me rephrase the problem in more concrete terms: what would you take into a developing-world town that would (1) make the benefits of space tangible and visible for the residents, and (2) offer them the opportunity to contribute actively themselves to bringing the benefits of space closer?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

CMM SEI and how to organize discussion

On the Space Generation Talk mailing list, Jose Aban and Jim Volp raise a perennial question:
When you have a whole lot of people who have a whole lot to talk about over periods of years, how do organize that?
Jose sounds more like a top-down design kind of guy on that thread, Jim a little more bottom-up. I actually sympathize with both positions. If you've got a good organizational template, why not reuse it? But as Jim Volp points out, imposing organizational templates can be like doing a skin graft -- there's the possibility of rejection.

I wish I had the answer. But maybe I have a clue.

Back in the days when people talked about the software crisis as if it might be solved someday, software methodologists saw the first glimmerings of the idea for an organization metric eventually called the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). As formulated by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) associated with Carnegie Mellon University, the CMM had 5 levels:

  1. Initial
  2. Repeatable
  3. Defined
  4. Managed
  5. Optimizing
Some have proposed a Level 0: Incomplete/Negligent. And, not entirely tongue in cheek, three negative levels: Obstructive, Contemptuous, and worst of all, Undermining.

How do you get to a target level? Unfortunately for companies that would like to be graded at Level 4 or 5, despite little attention to process, it's like every other learning curve in this world. You have to crawl, then walk, then run and then fly before you can reach space, much less orbit. In short, what they learned was this:

  • You have to start at Level 1
  • You can't skip steps.

  • I'd like to make two observations about this.

    (1) An organization that has reached a high organizational process level may not be very prepared to host new activities, because there's so often a focus on how to fit any new work into the process. (Correllary: the template from a highly organized process will likely result in skin-graft rejection when applied to a less-developed organization.)

    (2) Even in high-process-level organizations, there is seldom a process applied organization-wide for estimating what level a new activity should start at, and making sure it doesn't sink after it's started. (Remember, even from Level 1, you can sink. Who hasn't seen it?) Some projects don't need to start at Level 1 because they are hived off smoothly from a Level 2 or higher project. Perhaps most do, however.

    Some large aerospace companies have worked around the first problem, by inaugurating a skunkworks for new, risky, innovative projects. Often, they were able to justify departures from mainstream corporate practices because of the ultrasecret nature of the project -- the extra secrecy was itself an added process burden, they might have argued, so why add "business as usual" as a drag force? They didn't expose their fresh, young, energetic talent to the corporation's whole mature development process. To some extent, they actually shielded them from it.

    As for the second problem, it's quite common to have "intrapreneurs" in large organizations, well-connected innovators (or at least, innovation-sniffers) near the top, marshalling resources informally when they see a good idea. However, when you lose them, you lose the process that's captive in the brains. That loss is especially damaging when the process is owned by two top executives and you lose them both in the same year, as happened to the instrument company Tektronix at one point.

    The good news here: I think you can form renewable organs even within a Level 1 organization (which themselves have to start from Level 1 and hang there for a while) that perform two functions:

    (1) Assessing the level at which a proposed new activity might best start
    (2) Pushing activities to the highest maturity levels they need to reach in their project lifetimes in order to be effective.

    These organs within the organization need not have any formal authority. It would probably be enough for them simply to operate, evaluate, and educate. I would make some suggestions about how they ought to be organized, but doing so would imply an arrogant assumption that I know what they should look like at Level 2 ("Repeatable"), when I don't even know what they should look like at Level 1 ("Initial").

    Monday, September 26, 2005

    The Wisconsin Project calls for interns

    I just ran across the Wisconsin Project while researching ITAR and launch technology export controls. It's in the U.S., and thus requires a right to work in the U.S. However, they don't require a security clearance, and they operate in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin, presumably in part for the academic freedom benefits.

    This organization appears to be a balanced source of useful information. I was amused by how one Project report baldly uses "spy satellite" to describe an orbiting object that the launching country, in its UN registration, chose to characterize as little more an experiment in satellite technology. I found especially amusing the quote from a government official saying that the rocket that launched this satellite poses no threat to neighboring countries because .... it only goes straight up. Hm, where is there a stable orbit straight up? A spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit -- I guess that might be a first. Wait, no ... you still need a non-vertical kickstage delta-V for GEO .... Well, with the Earth's rotational delta-V at the launch zone, you can get an orbit established at ... Hey! That doesn't square with U.N.-registered orbital elements! And what would it do way out there anyway? Spy on the Moon?! Oh, I'm so confused now ....

    Space can't yield significantly greater benefits without improvements in launch economics, and since all launch technologies are dual-use, regulation is a fait accompli. So, for the foreseeable future, getting more effective, lower-cost regulation won't be possible without more openness, and without more openness, relaxing ITAR to help globalize the launch industry for more competitiveness might be impossible. The Wisconsin Project appears to play a useful role in creating more openness. It's non-partisan, and doesn't play favorities among nations as far as I can tell, so it might be worth looking into for SGAC members in search of career-building internships.

    -michael turner