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From a 'cold potato' to a 'dead horse' …

22. May 2013, 13.57, Jan Wörner, 4 Comment/s
Some time ago, in this blog, I wrote about a heated debate concerning a 'cold potato'; back then, I discussed the relationship between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU). Germany does not support the current efforts to integrate ESA into the EU. We consider an intergovernmental European Space Agency to be necessary for a sustainable way of working. Time has passed, and the 'cold potato' has become a 'dead horse'. It has been clear for some time that this integration is not only illogical, but also unworkable.

The metaphor of the 'dead horse' is attributed to the Dakota Indians, and runs as follows: "If you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount." This wisdom is not being taken into consideration by all participants in the current discussion. Instead, other ways are currently being used to solve the 'problem', loosely based on a blog post by Ken Homer:

  • Buying a stronger whip.
  • Changing riders.
  • Threatening the horse with termination.
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  • Visiting other sites to see how others ride dead horses.
  • Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
  • Re-classifying the dead horse as 'living impaired'.
  • Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
  • Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed.
  • Attempting to mount multiple dead horses in hopes that one of them will spring to life.
  • Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse’s performance.
  • Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.
  • Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead, and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses.
  • Re-writing the expected performance requirements for all horses.
  • Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

(Source: Homer, Ken: "Riding a Dead Horse - The Wisdom of the Dakota Indians", 2008)

Yes, every now and again, I catch myself doing this as well. There have been instances where I have had an idea that I have continued to pursue even when the hopelessness of it has long been evident. The personal challenge is to determine whether the horse is really dead or whether it can be kept alive to reach the desired goal, by changing the direction of travel or its pace, or by taking a suitable break. This might sound simple, but it is very difficult to achieve, and is often only accomplished through dialogue with peers or even complete outsiders. Sadly, good advice is rare…

As discussed above, and explained in my previous blog post it is clear that the relationship between ESA and the EU has been defined by a series of very fruitful discussions with the European Commission. In these discussions, the path towards intensified cooperation has been outlined, without losing the important advantages that ESA offers, particularly its direct control by representatives of the Member States, the optional programmes, and 'geographical return' as an instrument of national space policy. Now, instead of continuing to pursue the 'dead horse' – a pointless integration of ESA with the European Commission – it is important to develop the details of the cooperation. At the same time, the principle of avoiding duplication must apply. Here, attention must be given to the future positioning of the European GNSS Agency, GSA; this should not become a new space agency, but must utilise ESA and its expertise.

Top image: This EU flag flew with ESA astronaut André Kuipers on the Delta Mission. Credit: ESA.


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  • By Robert Clark on 28.05.2013
    The geographical return you mentioned as positive will make it difficult for the ESA to cut costs. NASA has proven with its commercial spaceflight program that 90%(!) of the development cost can be cut when following a commercial approach to launcher/spacecraft development. As the EU has no geographical return restrictions maybe they should administer a corresponding commercial spaceflight program for Europe. Doing so could finally give Europe the long sought manned spaceflight capability: On the lasting importance of the SpaceX accomplishment, Page 3: towards European human spaceflight. http://exoscientist.blogspot.com/2013/05/on-lasting-importance-of-spacex.html Bob Clark