17 October 2010

Outpost Tavern and the End of an Era

Posted by Ryan Anderson

The Outpost Tavern burned down Friday night. The Outpost was a rickety little tavern in Houston a couple miles from Johnson Space Center, famous as a hang-out for astronauts and other NASA folks. It went out of business earlier this year and it has apparently now met its fiery demise.

I first visited the Outpost when I was in the 2006 Goddard NASA Academy. 20 of us showed up without notice at this little bar with one bartender and a couple of regulars. They were completely overwhelmed by the sudden burst of business, but amazingly, the regulars got up and lent the bartender a hand in the kitchen, and we all got our burgers and beer in impressively little time. We followed the tradition and signed our names to a dollar bill and posted it on the wall along with all the other signed bills and various astronaut paraphernalia.

Future NASA heroes enjoying dinner at The Outpost.

But I mention the end of the Outpost not just so I can share that anecdote with you. I mentioned it because I came across an interesting commentary on the Outpost as a metaphor for NASA in general over at Elliott Potter’s blog Implementation, Detail.

This excerpt really stood out to me:

Now it’s 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle’s proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it’s hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology – it’s because small-minded people won’t let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday’s paper heroes – Shuttle astronauts who can’t bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren’t viewed as heroes.

I agree with most of this, but I think more than just the Old Guard lament the loss of the Outpost and the era that it stood for. I certainly am sad to see it go even though I share Potter’s disappointment with the tendency for NASA to cling to the past. The early days of NASA have become almost mythological precisely because there were heroes, and it’s very difficult for people to imagine a different type of NASA with different types of heroes. But that’s exactly what we need. The tendency has always been to try to recreate those glory days of NASA, but we live in a different world and we have to accept there are other ways for space exploration to advance.

I sincerely hope that as NASA attempts to move forward and send humans to Near Earth Objects and other destinations beyond low-earth orbit, it also remembers how to get the world excited again. I’ve talked about this before and Potter puts his finger on it: NASA needs heroes again, and people need to be comfortable with scientists and engineers being those heroes rather than Buck Rodgers-style steely-eyed missile men. You can show the average person all the spectacular pictures of space that you like, but they won’t truly get excited about what NASA does unless there is a human element to connect with. Human space exploration is perfect for building this connection with the public, but somehow NASA has lost the ability or the willingness to play on the inherent human drama of what it does.

I’ll close with the eloquent conclusion to Elliott Potter’s post because it sums things up better than I can:

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn’t require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it – that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability – the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.