Have you tried to buy a telephone lately? Not a cell phone or a smart phone, a telephone that operates on a land line. If you live in a rural part of New Mexico and get terrible phone reception, or live behind A Mountain and get terrible cell phone reception, and don’t want to pay for “enhanced” cell phone service, a land line is necessary. Years ago I heard a story about a guy who went to the store to buy a pair of pants. The salesman handed him a pair in his size. The customer tried on the pants and they didn’t fit. “Oh, said the salesman, if you want them to fit, that’s $5 bucks extra.” When I had my own business, I remember the difficult days when you could not buy a telephone except from AT&T. The breakup of Ma Bell did not go well for the consumer initially, but eventually, an entire new telecommunications industry sprung up when cell phones created competition for Ma and her baby Bells.
In preparation for the next space symposium in October, I have been reading about the Bell Laboratories. Jon Gertner has written a book called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great American Age of Innovation. At the symposium, we examine topics that include emerging trends in the commercial space industry. One of these trends is the increased access to the International Space Station, ISS.
Half of the American portion of the ISS is now a national laboratory called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). To paraphrase its’ mission, Congress and NASA are tasked to use the ISS as a platform for innovation. Researchers, even fundraisers, educators, companies and federal agencies can use the ISS to conduct groundbreaking research. We have two national laboratories in New Mexico, Los Alamos and Sandia, and three research universities. New Mexico has leadership capability that goes deep into our history, we have a lot to offer this industry.
Let’s connect a few dots here. The United State spent $1.6 billion dollars each time we launched the Space Shuttle. In 1988, Space Shuttle Endeavour started construction on the ISS. For most of the last years of the life of the Shuttle program, the orbiters were ferrying humans to orbit to build the ISS. In 2011, the United States shut the Shuttle program down. The ISS was complete. Sort of. Keep reading.
In 2012, the Space X Falcon 9 delivered its Dragon capsule to the ISS. The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule were commercially developed and built by SpaceX, in partnership with NASA. Space X has received less than the cost of 1 Shuttle in this partnership with NASA to build a cargo carrier to the ISS. The trend has now begun to increase cargo flights by American’s to the ISS.
Last week, NASA announced the awarding of $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace Corporation to build an inflatable module which could reach the space station as soon as 2015. The New York Times reported, “That is a bargain-basement price compared with most equipment the United States and other countries send into space, and the Bigelow agreement could serve as a model for how NASA puts together missions at lower costs by using a Kmart strategy: buying off-the-shelf pieces instead of developing its own designs.
Mervin Kelly, Bell Labs research director and eventually its president had two rules that capture the importance not only of what SpaceX, and Bigelow are doing but how they are doing it. They are taking existing technologies and building them better, cheaper or both. Mr. Bigelow licensed the technology to build the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) from NASA. The BEAM is scheduled to launch aboard the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the station contracted by NASA, currently planned for 2015.
A 2008 study titled “Where Do Innovations Come From?” concluded that partnerships among corporations, government laboratories, and federally funded university researchers has become increasingly essential to the U.S. innovation pipeline over the past several decades. In 2006, for instance, “77 of the 88 U.S. entities” that produced significant innovations, capitalism is more deeply intertwined with government than many of us realize.” This is a trend we always explore at ISPCS.
The technologies the Bell Labs was responsible for inventing include integrated circuits, the transistor, they even began what is now wireless communications. I still have my IPhone, but at home I need a telephone operating on a land line. Past is Prologue.