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Fallen From the Stars

State of the Union: Maintaining intergenerational technical knowledge is hard; building on it is even harder.
(By NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Easily missed in the rest of the news this week, what with Donald Trump’s iconic mugshot, a Republican debate, and the apparent assassination of Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, was the crash of Russia’s Luna-25 moon lander. We did not miss it here at TAC, with a piece from the premier American analyst of the Russian space program, former NASA engineer James Oberg. 

Oberg tells a sad story of industrial and technical decline. The Soviet space program rivaled America’s, and offered good salaries and high prestige to the USSR’s best and brightest engineers. Not so today, and with a decline in funding and prestige and the passage of time has come a loss of the tacit knowledge that only comes from experience and is passed from skilled technician to skilled technician in long acquaintance and apprenticeship. 


Regarding research space missions beyond low Earth orbit, over the last three decades you could have counted the number of successful Russian lunar and planetary missions on the fingers of no hands—zero. This means that an entire generation of spaceflight engineers and scientists have retired or died at their desks without passing on to their successors the practiced judgment and insights needed to minimize reliability threats to such missions. Any new teams will have to go through the learning curve all over again by trial and error.

Russian culture makes the problem even worse. In the good old days, their spaceflight teams stressed training in terms of apprenticeships where new guys followed old guys around for five or ten years to pick up their unwritten rules. However, as a matter of job security, the experienced workers did not openly document their own hard-earned insights except in personal notebooks, often in their own codes.

That is, they deliberately made themselves irreplaceable, which wouldn’t have been a problem if they had also made themselves immortal. In the real world, however, in a Russia where decades of space exploration retreat provided little experience and useful job instincts, this left the replacement cadres with low-paid, inexperienced personnel. It may already be too late even to hope for a quick return to 1980s levels of aerospace industrial competence.

Some of this story is Russia’s alone. Some of it does not apply to the United States, or to our space program, which thanks to public-private partnerships like SpaceX continues to innovate. But the risks here do apply to American industrial capacity and technical knowhow in general, because they are risks rooted in human nature and the limits of human knowledge. And that is something to be aware of, if we look around and wonder why the future of our Cold War dreams is all so much vaporware. 


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