DARPA at 50DARPA celebrates 50 year anniversary

Published 16 May 2008

DARPA was created in 1958 following the Soviet surprise launch of Sputnik; President Dwight Eisenhower defined the new agency’s mission in three words: “prevent technological surprises”; according to current DARPA director Tony Tether, over the years DARPA has modified its mission by adding to “prevent technological surprises” an important component: “create them”

In 1957 the Soviet Union surprised that United States by launched Sputnik — the world’s first artificial satellite, thus heralding the dawn of the space age. President Dwight Eisenhower’s response was to create the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) with a straightforward mission: “prevent technological surprise”. Eisenhower hoped that the agency would produce revolutionary technologies and thus guarantee that never again would the U.S. military be caught unaware of an adversary’s technological progress. New Scientist’s Duncan Graham-Rowe writes that now in its fiftieth year, and a slightly different name — Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, or DAEPA - the organization has an impressive list of accomplishments. After playing an important role in the fledgling U.S. space program, DARPA developed the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS), stealth aircraft, and the precursor to the Internet. DARPA has also produced a fair share of clunkers, too. Over the years it has been widely criticized for investing millions of dollars in some, well, harebrained research schemes from futures markets aimed at predicting assassination attempts to mechanical elephants that could barge through jungle terrain unsuitable for wheeled vehicles.

Supporters of the agency’s approach argue, correctly in our view, that such failures are important to the culture that has made DARPA so successful. Tony Tether, DARPA’s director, says it is a “freedom to fail” that lets his staff discover truly revolutionary new technologies. “And fail we do,” he told an audience of 3,000 potential recruits at the DARPATech Symposium last year. “But that’s OK — failure sometimes happens when you are bringing new capabilities into reality,” he said. “You only really fail if you don’t learn what happened and stop trying to succeed — you have to try again, and again, and again.” This attitude sets DARPA apart from other research agencies. Indeed, DARPA has no laboratories or scientists of its own. Nor does it use any kind of peer review for assessing the viability of a project or program. Instead, the agency employs program managers who fund universities and businesses to carry out research which may otherwise be too risky for research agencies to back. Currently 140 program managers disburse some $2.9 billion of funding each year. Program managers act as judge, jury, and, if the research does not go well, executioner. This simple set-up lets DARPA enter new areas quickly, and pull out just as fast if the research turns out to be going nowhere. Ephrahim Garcia, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has worked on DARPA-funded research, and also served as a program manager for DARPA between 1998 and 2002. During his time at the agency, Garcia ran five programs on research such as morphing aircraft and exoskeletons, managing a budget of $20 to $30 million a year. Garcia says the limit to what gets funding is the imagination of each program manager and their ability to convince the director that an idea could improve US military capabilities. With the director’s calendar always full, just getting an appointment to discuss a new program may be tough. “You definitely had to have your elevator speech ready, so you could pitch it to him in 25 seconds or less,” he says. “I sometimes wished we had a taller building.”

The agency took just three months to set up back in 1958 and has not changed its way of doing business since. The only major change concerns the word “Defense: It was added to the agency’s name in 1972, removed in 1993, then reinstated in 1996. Another more subtle change in the mission of DARPA is not only to prevent technological surprises but, as Tether puts it, “create them”. Most of what sets the agency apart remains, however. In the years to come it seems destined to carry on inventing, innovating, and surprising. In the process it will surely continue to come up with some notable howlers. This, however, is all part of the process, says Garcia “If one out of 10 hits, and hits big, then it’s worth it,” he says.

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