Cheat-Seeking Missles

Monday, April 07, 2008

Thank You, Sputnik!

When Ronald Reagan launched the Star Wars missile defense system initiative, the Soviet Union responded by collapsing.

Thirty years earlier, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States responded by creating DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

What a good deal we got!

DARPA is turning 50 this year, and it's been a productive half-century, as Stephen Barr at WaPo points out today.

If we went no farther than the Internet, DARPA would have been successful enough. Lawrence G. Roberts led a small DARPA team that in 1967 designed the network that evolved into the Internet. He describes it as:
"Putting A and B together and getting Z. Taking obscure things and seeing there is an intersection there."
That doesn't seem like the normal way government agencies do things, but DARPA isn't like other government agencies, which is why it has given us much more -- the fundamental technology behind the computer mouse, the Saturn booster rocket, stealth technology and pilotless drones. On the drawing boards: two-way speech translation systems, artificial limbs controlled by the brain with dexterity and sensation feedback, and who knows what else.

All of which begs the question: How can this government agency be so darned effective when most wallow in bureaucracy, lack of inspiration and waste. There is a reason: DARPA isn't like other government bureaucracies:

Unlike most federal agencies, DARPA operates with little red tape. It has only two management layers, encouraging the rapid flow of ideas and decisions.

About 240 people work at DARPA, and 120 of them are program managers and office directors on appointments of four to six years. The agency does not own or operate labs, but sponsors research carried out by industry and universities.

By rotating technical professionals every few years, DARPA has "a constant freshness of people and energy," [agency director Anthony J.] Tether said. "Everything else we do stems from that."

Small, compact, outsourced, fresh. Imagine what could happen if we DARPAtized all levels of government!

Perhaps they could do so research in that area ... and given the nature of government, by the time DARPA's centennial comes around, nothing will have gotten better.

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