The Light Side of the Moon

I’ve always been greatly inspired by the U.S. mission to the moon. The moon mission drove my passion for electronics, computers, and science; as it did for many others. I’ve read quite a bit on the moon mission and watched quite a few documentaries on it. I recently watched a couple of episodes of “Moon Machines.” This series caused me to connect some thoughts I’ve had lately - none of which have anything to do with actually being on the moon.

It’s Not About the Moon

It always starts with a seemingly crazy idea. What is the farthest goal in space we could imagine? Putting a man on the moon.

Maybe there wasn’t much to see or do on the moon, but it was all about getting there. I firmly believe that this single achievement gave us the broadest advancement a society has ever had in a 10 year time span. Maybe the broadest advancement - period. Remember when someone said something couldn ’t be done? The response was always “if we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly do…”. It gave us a sense that anything is possible.

Perhaps the moon mission started as a political and nation-building goal. Of course there was the space race with the USSR. Coupled with our national desire to be number one and prevail in the race propelled us towards this goal. The end result, however, was much more wide-reaching. Yes, we “won” the space race, but I think it was realized as success for mankind, not just the U.S. So much of our technology today, what you’re able to do right now, can be traced back to the moon mission. We, as a global society, have benefited immensely from the moon mission.

There were legions of people that caused the moon landing go from a fanciful idea to a feasible one. These were just regular people assembled for one fantastic goal. Many people wanted to be involved with this mission. People want to be involved with something great. Truly, the landing happened (successfully) because the collective ideas of many. Those ideas were built upon the ideas of others. No one entity can own this achievement. Not one company. Not one nation. It was an achievement of the entire world.

Don’t believe me? Who was one of the driving forces behind the Apollo program? Wernher von Braun. That’s right - the guy who developed the V-2 rocket for the Germans. The rocket that was launched more than 3,000 times during WWII - mostly against London. The V-2 didn ’t inspire technological and social achievement. However, we might not have gotten to the moon if it wasn’t for von Braun. But it wasn’t just him. Robert Goddard, the U.S.-born “father” of modern rocketry, influenced von Braun. Goddard’s work is based on Russian-born Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s work. Goddard influenced Hermann Oberth, a Hungarian-born scientist, who later worked with von Braun in the U.S.

The idea of a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was originated by Yuri Kondratyuk (Russian) around 1916. John Houbolt at NASA thought this was the only way to land on the moon and return. But von Braun was strongly against this idea. However, thanks Houbolt’s conviction, he changed von Braun’s mind. Prior ideas, rethinking ideas, and arguing ideas are all elements of invention.

Connection is The Invention

All of the ideas and science which allowed us to get to the moon were derived and combined from others. These people and ideas came from all around the world; so it is truly a global accomplishment. All inventions are the combination - intentional or unintentional - of other ideas. No one can say that they truly “own” a new idea. To quote T. S. Eliot:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

This has been said in other forms:

Lesser artists borrow. Great artists steal.

has been attributed to Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso.  Newton said:

If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Where am I going with all of this? We can do great things by innovating on the ideas of others. That’s how it’s always worked. Imagine for a minute if the mathematics, philosophy, and logic of the Greeks was patented. It could have suppressed many follow-on innovations for many years to come. You know what? That’s what’s happening right now.

My own writing here is a connection of ideas to form yet another idea. What if all of these other ideas were controlled? I would not be able to say what I’m saying now. It would be a suppression of free speech.

Unfortunately, this is where things are headed. The way it’s going we’ll never have another “moon landing” because someone will have to own it. NBC would work out a deal with NASA for exclusive TV rights. Then we’ll only see what NBC thinks we should. Exclusive deals and proprietary intellectual property rights would drive up the cost of everything. We’d never even get to the moon.

Patent Lunacy

The current lifetime of a patent is 20 years. From 1861 to 1995, it was 17 years. From 1836 to 1861, it was 14 years with an optional 7 year extension. Prior to 1836, it was 14 years. Did ideas become more valuable recently? Twenty years is eons in the world of technology. More than a lifetime. It pretty much grants the patent holder exclusive extortion rights for the useful life of the invention. More recently, the mis-named “American Inventors Protection Act” of 1999 was seen by some to favor corporations over individual inventors. In 2002, this act was further amended (see and In 2005, 2007, and 2009, attempts have been made to pass a “Patent Reform Act”. Patents are becoming more and more the domain of large corporations. They are expensive to file and even more expensive to defend.

What happened? Mega corporations happened. Mega money happened. A company cannot create an idea. After all, a company is only made of the people which comprise it. A patent is actually granted to an individual, but almost always assigned (conveyed as property) to a company. Who profits the most from a patent? The company, not the inventor.

Patents stifle innovation for the period of the grant - by definition. It is the right to exclude others from using the invention. Some arguments are made that this allows the patent holder to invest in and develop the invention. This is a macro-view. What if an idea wasn’t patented and free for everyone to use? A strong ecosystem of inventions and improvements around the idea would ensue. A whole economy would ensue. It’s possible that a greater profit on the whole, and a greater good for society, would be made.

Take software for example. Because of some key court decisions, the ability to patent software algorithms was secured by the early 1990s. Prior to this, we all developed and innovated based on well-known algorithms. What if the algorithms in Knuth’s books were patented? What if every algorithm in every text book you ever read was patented? We couldn’t use them. Software wouldn’t be anywhere close to where it is today. But that’s where it’s headed.

Take a look at IP Alliance says that encouraging free/open source makes you an enemy of the USA and When using open source makes you an enemy of the state. Who’s included in the IIPA? That’s right - our friends at the RIAA and MPAA. What software does the RIAA’s site run on?

Server: Apache 
X-Powered-By: PHP/5.2.10

But of course - they use two very popular open source packages! Irony at its best. So I guess the RIAA, by their own policy, is an enemy of the state. But of course, I’m probably breaking some sort of IP law by reporting this.

Open Source software (FOSS) is an excellent demonstration of how an IP-free ecosystem works. Companies monetarily benefit everyday from the use of open source. If it weren’t for open source, we wouldn’t have the Internet and web that we have today. The Internet protocol (TCP/IP) was developed in an open environment and specification process. Possibly the most widely-used implementation is based on Bill Joy’s BSD work - all open source. Linux - run on many web servers today - is open source. It’s quite possible that your cell phone contains open source software. Corporations benefit from not having to reinvent the wheel with every phone. The proliferation of many things on the Internet wouldn’t have occurred, nor succeeded, if they were wrapped up in one company’s proprietary technology.

Where are They Now?

What about the big patents? Did a patent give a company a competitive advantage to stay at the fore-front of their invention? Edison and the light bulb: today there’s proliferation of Edison electric companies, but you don’t go out and buy an Edison-brand light bulb. Nope. It took an ecosystem to make the light bulb a common commodity. Edison found more value in providing the electricity to the bulb than the bulb itself.

Bell and the telephone. When AT&T’s patent expired in 1894, a huge ecosystem of phone companies emerged. Telephones took off. Then AT&T started buying up the phone companies and was later converted to a government sanctioned monopoly. AT&T benefited from the ubiquity of the telephone after an ecosystem was created. In 1984, it was broken up and the flood gates opened again. Many companies started producing phones. Bell was forced into realizing there’s more value in providing the phone service than the phone itself.

Henry Ford fought a long-battle to invalidate George Selden’s much earlier car patent. He won the case, invalidated the patent, and opened the doors for all car manufacturers. This is a prime example where the elimination of a patent grew a huge ecosystem. Car manufacturers were freed from Selden’s licensing and pricing restrictions.

Return to the Moon

In January 2004, President Bush called for a return to the moon by 2015. Okay - that only works once. We’ve already done it. A return to the moon now would not be for national spirit, societal development, nor any other noble goal. Straight from the NASA web site: The Moon Mining Activity … Why Return to the Moon Before Going to Mars? Ah - the profit motive. There won’t be any big technological advancement out of that mission. Maybe Mars is a better idea. Or the ocean.

Here’s a lighter take on it: If Man Walked on the Moon Today.

Who won the space race? We all did. By “we” I mean the entire planet. Where is the USSR now? It doesn’t exist. What if the USSR would have made it to the moon first? Would everyone win? The U.S. would be in a much different technological position than it is now. Most likely, the Internet wouldn’t exist either.

The U.S. is the only country to-date which has put men on the moon. 41 years have gone by and no one else has attempted it. Maybe it’s because we were the only ones crazy enough to do so. I think it’s because the U.S. is open and free-thinking. Free and open always win.

Recommended viewing: Moon Machines: Software for the Apollo Mission

Recommended reading: Finding a fair price for free knowledge

The moon mission is also an epic tale of reliability. But that is another blog post…

Archived Comments

TS -

I do agree with most of the points you’ve made. The only one I could argue - what if Russia went to the Moon first. See, the fact that Gagarin was the first in space, prompted US to go further. So, if a Russian was on the Moon first, US would have set even bigger goal. I think, when one is motivated by a grand idea or vision, it always benefits all, not just one. But, if you only think of your “own” benefit, it most likely will harm the rest.

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