Sunday, March 26, 2023

Appreciation, Giants, and Humanity's Legacy

March, 2023: NASA's integrated SLS rocket core stage for the future Artemis II mission (left); and a RS-25 engine undergoing its fourth full-scale hot fire test (right). The SLS core stage and the RS-25 rocket engines use liquid hydrogen and oxygen as propellants, the highest performance and most environmentally responsible propulsion system option for launch vehicles. (image credits: NASA)

NASA Roots

I'm currently participating in Charlie Pellerin's famous 4-D workshop on developing teams and leaders in four dimensions by measuring and managing social context fields with human physics. It was recommended to me by a retired NASA colleague I highly respect who said it was the best training he'd ever taken. The icing on the cake was it being offered free of charge to a small group of international participants remotely for one hour every week. Now at the midway point through the workshop, I think my colleague's high praise was an understatement.

Charlie was promoted to Director of Astrophysics at NASA in 1983, which was around the time my own career at NASA started as a recruited engineer from the electric power industry. While I was cutting my teeth on developing liquid hydrogen technologies and systems, Charlie was leading a multi-billion dollar program for a decade that launched twelve satellites, and included him inventing and implementing the $20 billion dollar Great Observatories Program.

His hero's journey included leading the development of the Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990 with a flawed mirror. He overcame that unfathomable setback by mounting a successful repair mission that fixed the telescope. For this NASA awarded him his second Outstanding Leadership Medal. He was also awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for leadership of the Astrophysics Program, and Presidential Rank awards from two past U.S. presidents. He later went on to teach leadership at the University of Colorado's business school and founded 4-D Systems to teach his methods to others.

Who Do We Appreciate?

All of this is offered as context to the assignment Charlie gave after last week's workshop session about the power of expressing appreciation. Completing the assignment got me thinking in broader terms with respect to the arc of my career; the progression of technology; and how things have evolved regarding who and what we appreciate.

I was very fortunate early in my career to work side-by-side with engineers from the Apollo era. Many of them had even worked for its precursor, NACA, that was formed after World War II to advance aeronautics and jet engine research. Besides learning a great deal from them about the technology of launch vehicles and spacecraft, they also modeled the behavior of humility despite their unique prowess as "rocket scientists".

To paraphrase and expand on Isaac Newton's famous quote, I've had the immense good fortune to not only stand on the shoulders of giants but to learn directly from them. Now it is my turn to teach (and continue learning) as a subject matter expert consultant to NASA's Human Landing System and other Artemis Program elements over the past several years. And the business of growing the next generation of giants continues with these new colleagues, teammates, and friends.

Artemis I launched on November 16, 2022 with the first spacecraft designed to take humans beyond earth orbit since the Apollo program. The mission successfully completed the journey to the moon and back with leadership from my friend and last boss at NASA (who was also my consulting collaborator before NASA stole him back :). An amazing accomplishment that will be followed by a crewed trip around the moon on Artemis II, and humans on the lunar surface on Artemis III for the first time since the 1970s. I could not be more proud of my colleagues and honored to have the privilege to continue working with them.

All of this has been accomplished by thousands of government workers, private sector contractors, and partners with public funds for a common shared goal. No other organization has ever put a human on another celestial body. With all its challenges, critics, and opportunities for improvement (don't we all have that?) - only NASA, its contractor team, and now its international partners has done it and is continuing to do it.

This is a good thing to remember at a time when our culture seems to promote the worship of capricious megalomaniacs who claim to have all the answers and take all the credit for the accomplishments of others. Humility, mutual respect, service to others, and collaboration in reaching important goals are worthy of our collective appreciation. On the other hand, hubris, intolerance, and the exploitation of others for self-enrichment and personal power is only worthy of our condemnation.

The Legacy of Our Species

In the much larger picture, if our space programs are building toward humans becoming an inter-planetary species, a reasonable question to ask is do we deserve it? Perhaps the answer is yes if we represent the galactic expansion of sentient benevolent beings. However, if we are metastasizing invaders that unsustainably exploit the resources of new worlds (and any inhabitants) in the way that we have throughout much our history, perhaps it would be better if we remain in the planetary womb of our creation.

I believe the ultimate test of that question is how we repair the damage we've inflicted, and continue to inflict, on our home planet. It is hard to justify moving into a new house and neighborhood when you've recklessly trashed your current home and continue to make it increasingly unlivable.

Crawl before you walk, walk before you run. As a species, we are still learning to crawl. Space exploration can help us learn how to begin taking our first steps, but it will be our progeny who learn to walk and eventually run. Perhaps even to other planets and extrasolar systems. In order for those future generations to thrive, we must learn how to live sustainably and re-establish a healthy global ecosystem or we will continue crawling toward our own extinction.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation LLC, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems for more than 40 years; and break-through liquid, slush, and gaseous hydrogen systems since the mid-1980s. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been a co-founder in seven technology startups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many organizations. Matt has three patents and more than 50 publications including the Cryogenic Fluid Management series. He also leads the monthly LH2 Era™ Webinar.