How the 'Medici Effect' shaped the development of NASA
From The Houston Examiner
The first commonly recognized example of the phenomenon called “associated fluency” arose in Renaissance Florence, when the Medici family brought together a group of artists, engineers, scientists, and poets and patronized them. The result, which author Frans Johansson called "the Medici Effect,” led to an explosion of ideas and innovations stemming from the interactions of men from different backgrounds and ways of thinking. Many great figures of the Italian Renaissance, including Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, contributed to the original Medici effect and were products of it. The artisans brought together by the Medici created numerous innovations in art, architecture, and engineering that heralded the end of the Middle Ages and presaged the beginning of modernity.
A more modern example of the Medici Effect concerns the creation and the evolution of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was created in 1958 to be the government agency that would answer the challenge of the space race posed by the Soviet Union. The space agency brought together experts from NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, three then existing national laboratories, the Langley Aeronautics Laboratory, the Ames Aeronautics Laboratory, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and elements from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Navy Research Laboratory. Later, when President Kennedy issued the challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, a portion of the scientific community, the commercial aerospace industry, and the United States military joined the effort.
The confluence of these ideas, along with the generous commitment of tax payer money, had the desired effect. A Man walked on the moon just eight years after Kennedy issued his challenge. But the feat might not have taken place had it not been for the modern version of the Medici Effect, someone coming up with an idea from out of the blue.
When Kennedy first proposed the moon landing goal, two ways of getting there were in competition. The first method was called “Direct Ascent” which would have involved launching one spacecraft on a super rocket that would go to the moon, land in it, and then return. The other was called “Earth Orbit Rendezvous, which would have involved assembling the moon ship in low Earth orbit and then sending it to the moon. Both methods were too expensive and would take too long to accomplish in the time frame set forth by President Kennedy.
Fortunately, an engineer working at Langley named John Houbell came up with a third method, called the “Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.” The LOR involved splitting the moon ship into two pieces, the main Apollo spacecraft and the lunar module. The Apollo spacecraft would take the astronauts to lunar orbit. Then, two of the astronauts would board the lunar module to the lunar surface, explore, and then return to the Apollo spacecraft. The lunar module would be discarded and the astronauts would return home in the remaining part of the moon ship.
At first, NASA was skeptical of the plan. The LOR would involve the main Apollo spacecraft making complicated maneuvers to rendezvous and dock with the lunar module while they were in transit to the moon. But the fact that the LOR would take less fuel, less payload, and could be done for the time and money available. Even so, it took extraordinary efforts by Dr. Houbell, breaking the bureaucratic chain of command, to get his NASA bosses to listen.
Fast forward decades later and we see a NASA that has, in the estimation of many, has become stale and bureaucratic. Large scale space projects have often featured mountains of paperwork and infighting that has led to cost overruns and schedule slippages. Many projects that have run afoul of this phenomenon have found themselves canceled by an exasperated Congress.
In 2004, a number of things began to change. President George W. Bush announced an initiative in which the space shuttle would be replaced by commercially developed and operated spacecraft, leaving NASA to refocus its attention on deep space exploration. Later that year, a privately built craft called SpaceShipOne flew a number of suborbital flights in quick succession, proving that the private sector could fly in space without government help.
The Bush commercial space initiative, which was later expanded by President Obama, has brought a new group of companies called “New Space,” young, entrepreneurial enterprises that are unfettered by bureaucratic rules or old ways of thinking. NASA soon saw the advantages of alliances with these new companies, such as SpaceX.
One example of how the Medici Effect has returned to NASA happened recently when SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk and a NASA engineer named Dan Rasky were in a meeting with nine or ten other engineers discussing how best to develop a heat shield for the crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft. At one point, Musk turned to Rasky and asked him what he thought.
Rasky suggested that SpaceX manufacture the heat shield in-house, using a material he had invented. That way the company would maintain flexibility to modify it for future spacecraft.
On the spot, Musk declared that would be what SpaceX would do. Rasky was amazed since at NASA such a decision would require a great deal of paperwork and meetings lasting weeks to validate.
SpaceX got the benefit of a NASA veteran’s input for the approach to building a crucial part of a spacecraft. Rasky, in turn, saw a new way of making decisions that he will take back to the space agency, perhaps to its benefit as well.\