Phil Plait, Buzz Aldrin, and Tom Jones have op-eds in the New York Post recently giving their thoughts on NASA’s future and direction. I have some thoughts as well.
The fact that NASA is floundering is now beyond dispute. Why NASA is floundering escapes my reasoning. In 2004 then President Bush articulated a vision for NASA. This vision was well thought out by many of my colleagues and presented to Bush, who then directed NASA to pursue this vision. This vision is the right thing for NASA and should be the guiding light not only for Human Exploration Systems but all of NASA. The vision includes not only sending humans around the Solar System, but also basic and fundamental research necessary for human understanding of the Universe.
NASA unfortunately saw “return to the Moon, then go to Mars and beyond” and missed the meat and potatoes of the vision. One can hardly blame NASA as many media outlets and some space exploration advocacy groups missed the primary points as well. The President’s vision was not so much about going to the Moon and Mars as much as it was about a sustainable effort for humanity to extend our presence beyond Earth. NASA is to lead the way for future pioneers to invest in and settle space. The opening section of “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery: The President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration” states this purpose plainly:
Like the explorers of the past and the pioneers of flight in the last century, we cannot today identify all that we will gain from space exploration; we are confident, nonetheless, that the eventual return will be great. Like their efforts, the success of future U.S. space exploration will unfold over generations.
The goal and objectives are plain as to how this will occur. And yet NASA is doing very little to reach the objectives and fails miserably at reaching the goal outlined in the vision. There is a better way, and NASA needs to take the entire vision to heart.
Here is the heart of the vision from the Goal and Objectives:
The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.
• Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
• Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
• Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
• Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.
I have emphasized several key words in the Goal and Objectives section.
First is a robust space exploration program, in other words the program must succeed given a wide range of conditions. That would include budget reductions due to economic difficulties, launch vehicle failures and stand-downs, and individual project failures as well as budget increases, rapid successes, and new technology developments that make everything easier and less costly. Lots of redundant projects delivering key capabilities, especially if they can complement each other, are far more robust than a single key project that runs into many expensive technical hurdles. Being robust means being able to cancel a project with high cost overruns and schedule slips without hurting the program.
Second is “sustained and affordable”, a clever way to get a neo-conservative to say sustainable. In short it needs to be done with a NASA budget of ~$15 billion a year with the flexibility to use more or less while minimizing the impact to long run costs. Additionally, it should not be a program that negatively impacts other important NASA activities. Bonus points for a program that becomes politically sustainable by having measurable positive impacts to both scientific and economic activity.
Third is infrastructures. Several of my friends and colleagues have presented persuasive arguments that a space faring infrastructure includes on-orbit resupply such as fuel depots, on-orbit assembly and construction, and in-situ resource development and use. This is also an important component of sustainability.
The last term I emphasized is commercial participation. In order to be robust, there must be a certain breadth and depth of providers as infrastructure. The only way to get this is to have many providers both competing and cooperating with each other on lots of different small projects.
Each of the objectives I highlighted come together as part of the goal of a robust space program. There is at least one area in which NASA is on the right track – Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). In the COTS program, we have already seen that the program is at least somewhat robust in that one provider failed to meet its commitments and was dropped with only minimal impact to getting the service NASA wants. It is sustainable in that the services now awarded under contract are in fact affordable, SpaceX looks to be in position to deliver supplies to ISS at a price marginally better than buying payload space from the Russians. By looking to multiple commercial providers to meet NASA needs, NASA is far more likely to achieve its goals.
Neil Armstrong said (or meant to say) “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The giant leap came from making a small step, the latest of a very long series of very small steps. Any robust, sustainable program of space exploration is going to be a lot of small steps. NASA should manage it that way, not as a giant leap. NASA should be letting a large number of small, fixed-price, tied to performance contracts that gradually builds up a space faring infrastructure and sustainably puts people on the moon while maintaining ISS obligations and other science efforts. Existing launch vehicles could be used to get the first several lunar sorties by 2020, while orbital facilities and other infrastructure is developed. As the infrastructure improves, better robotic and human missions become feasible. Take it slow, make sure each step provides economic and/or scientific value on its own and trumpet each small success. By doing lots of small steps, it will not be long before a huge radio telescope array covers the backside of the moon, probes are landing on Galilean moons, repair missions to space based telescopes in L2 are being conducted, people are vacationing at Shackleton Crater, astronauts are brushing the dust off Spirit and Opportunity on Mars, and an interstellar probe is heading to Gliese 581.