TCS Daily

A Pack, Not a Herd (Again)

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 12, 2003 12:00 AM

The loss of Columbia has raised a lot of interesting questions about the future of human spaceflight, and I'm gratified to see that even folks who are often dense about the subject, like the editors of the New York Times, seem to be catching on to the notion that human spaceflight should be about something more than just orbiting the Earth endlessly. Despite all the problems we're sure to face in the near future, it seems likely that we'll come out of this with a better and more ambitious space program, aimed at putting people on the Moon and Mars on a permanent basis. That's a good thing.

But it's not what I'm going to write about today. Instead, I'm struck by the difference between the investigation of the Challenger accident and the investigation of Columbia's loss. The Challenger investigation was a closed-door affair, one involving experts and committees. Outsiders weren't welcome.

With Columbia, on the other hand, NASA has been far more open. Witnesses have been interviewed, amateurs have been called on to supply photos and videos from the re-entry and takeoff (there's even a NASA upload page so that people can supply this sort of information directly), and in general NASA seems willing to accept help and information from just about anyone.

Some of this, of course, is driven by public relations concerns - just as much of the closed nature of the Challenger investigation was. Also, NASA had a pretty good idea of what went wrong with Challenger right away, while in the case of Columbia things are a bit more mysterious. Still, what we're seeing here is a distinct shift in NASA's way of doing business: from "we're the pros from Dover" to "we appreciate any help you can provide."

That sort of change isn't easy for a bureaucracy, especially one that has prized its expertise and uniqueness for decades. But that's part of the point. If NASA can do this, then just about any part of the government can. And maybe some others should start.

Homeland security might be one place. The powers-that-be faced yet another embarrassment when a boatload of armed Cuban border guards docked in Key West and eight occupants got off, clad in camo and wearing sidearms, and wandered around until a Key West police officer asked them what they were doing there. Could a decentralized approach have done better? It could hardly do worse.

The late, and largely unlamented TIPS program was an effort to implement such a strategy. It foundered largely on public perceptions that it was really designed to encourage spying outside the confines of the Constitution (why should the authorities get a warrant if they could ask the cable guy to "take a look around" when he's visiting?)

A decentralized homeland security system would have to address these concerns. It would also have to bring together lots of fragmented information, make it easy to index, and somehow allow for rating sources for reliability. I don't know how to do that (I'm a law professor, not a systems analyst) but I suspect that some people out there do. I also suspect that investing money and effort into creating such a system would do more good than the latest "Patriot Act II" legislation is likely to do.

Properly run, a decentralized system would also take power out of the hands of a bureaucracy and put it into the hands of the populace as a whole. That would also help to address fears, overblown but not irrational, that the current "homeland security" effort is moving us in the direction of a police state. The cyberwar against Al Qaeda is another place where coordinated-but-decentralized efforts might bear fruit. Such efforts are already underway on a private basis, but the government's role is unimpressive, to put it mildly, at present.

Will the government learn how to call on citizens' efforts in a constructive way? NASA's effort is a good start. Whether the ball keeps rolling will depend on whether smart politicians and managers are smart enough to follow its lead.

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