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NASA’s recent emphasis on a return to the Moon has come, in part, at the expense of advanced technology demonstration programs. (credit: NASA)

To boldly go: the urgent need for a revitalized investment in space technology

Introduction

At the beginning of the space age, the United States realized that preeminence in space exploration and development could only be achieved through a commitment to robust investments in advanced space research and technology. Starting with the Kennedy Administration, and continuing until just the past four years, the US civil space program has been characterized not only by remarkable achievements in space (e.g., Surveyor, Mercury, Pioneer, Gemini, Apollo, and other programs), but also by ambitious investments in space technology. For example, in the mid-1960s, NASA’s investment in advanced space research and technology was approximately $1 billion per year (in current year dollars), and was directed toward truly ambitious technical objectives such as nuclear propulsion, high-energy cryogenic engines, thermal protection for reusable launch vehicles, electric propulsion, solar energy, automation and robotics, and more. For its day, NASA’s advanced space research and technology program was truly transformational—pressing the frontiers in technology and enabling the space missions of the 1970s and 1980s to achieve goals that were unimaginable for any other nation in the world.

Unfortunately, the US investment in advanced research and technology for space exploration and development has been reduced to historically low levels, and concurrently has been focused more narrowly than ever before on immediate system designs and development projects.

That foundation of research and technology investments resulted not only in new “widgets” to put on the shelf, but also in a variety of important new space systems concepts, companies, and individual subject matter experts—the human foundations of excellence in the aerospace industry of the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. This “orchard of innovation” yielded missions such as the Viking landers and orbiters at Mars (1976) and the Voyager missions to the outer planets; systems such as the Space Shuttle (1981–present); and, international initiatives such as the International Space Station (1982–present). At the same time, these technological foundations (systems, technologies, facilities, and skilled people) benefited a wide range of critical national security space missions.

Unfortunately, the US investment in advanced research and technology for space exploration and development has been reduced to historically low levels, and concurrently has been focused more narrowly than ever before on immediate system designs and development projects. In many respects, the current budget is little more than an “advanced development” program with minimal opportunity for innovation and essentially no possibility that an invention arising from civil space research and technology programs could influence system design decisions, inform budget estimates or inspire new, more ambitious space program goals.

The challenge today

Space has never been more important to our national security than it is today. The opportunities for truly profound scientific discoveries through space exploration have never been greater. And the pace of international development of new capabilities for space operations has never been faster.

Federal budgets for advanced research and technology to enable future space exploration and development have been reduced in scope and focused on near-term system developments to the point that US preeminence in space activities is in question. NASA’s advanced space research and technology budget was over $2 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2005, with a focus on objectives five to ten years in the future and with the purpose of informing program and design decisions, while retiring both technical and budget risks of those future programs. The President’s FY 2007 budget for NASA exploration technology declined to less than $700 million, and of that only a small fraction (perhaps less than $200 million) still addressed longer-term objectives. The corresponding budgets in 2008 and 2009 were further reduced. Little to none of the remaining investment deals with enabling fundamentally new goals or objectives, or dramatically reducing expected costs. With these funding levels and program goals, it is unlikely that the US will maintain leadership in space exploration beyond the current generation of projects—all of which are founded on the “seed corn” harvested from past investments in innovative new space capabilities. Further, declining support for space research and technology is creating an innovation vacuum in the US as small business opportunities evaporate, and funding for universities and students vanishes. This trend jeopardizes America’s long-term leadership in space exploration and development, and damages our ability to achieve important national security goals.

History

Since the conclusion of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, the US space program has experienced varying levels of support from national leaders in the White House and the US Congress. Moreover, during most of that time human exploration beyond low Earth orbit has been “off the agenda”, with the exception of the short-lived Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) of 1989–1993. During the same period, US robotic exploration has had a number of tremendous successes, primarily involving the outer planets (e.g., Voyager spacecraft, Galileo, and more recently, Cassini), but also the inner solar system (e.g., Viking on Mars, Magellan at Venus), and the recent series of Mars missions (e.g., Pathfinder/Sojourner, Mars Observer, Spirit and Opportunity). However, these programs have tended to reflect one-of-a-kind successes with a minimal number of spacecraft and missions using common systems or technologies, resulting in continuing very high costs.

Various attempts to create a foundation of common technologies and modular spacecraft have failed. Similarly, attempts to bridge the gap between robotic mission systems technologies and human space flight technologies (e.g., “Platform Z” from the early Space Station Freedom program) have failed. The most notable successes in this vein arose from the in-space assembly and spacecraft servicing capabilities of the Space Shuttle, first in the early 1980s with the Solar Max servicing mission, then with the series of hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, and finally with the assembly of the International Space Station. However, these achievements were far more the exception than the rule. For the most part human and robotic exploration systems and technologies became increasingly isolated beginning in the 1970s.

More recently

Following the Columbia tragedy in 2003, the direction of the US space program was again the subject of intense discussion (led by the White House) and including various agencies and organizations. The result, announced in January 2004, was the “Vision for Space Exploration” (VSE).

The VSE as formulated originally was much more than a new justification for human space flight. Rather, the Vision addressed the full range of human and robotic exploration, as well as a revitalization of advanced space research and technology with far-reaching implications. The original VSE strategy placed strong emphasis on studies, research, and technology developments that would in time inform decisions regarding architectures and systems for (1) a Space Shuttle replacement; (2) annual robotic technology missions to the Moon; (3) a human return to the Moon to establish a permanent presence; (4) new space observatories to explore the universe beyond our solar system; (5) a campaign of robotic missions to Mars and beyond; and more.

With current funding levels and program goals, it is unlikely that the US will maintain leadership in space exploration beyond the current generation of projects—all of which are founded on the “seed corn” harvested from past investments in innovative new space capabilities.

However, in 2005 NASA shifted to a dramatically different approach to exploration and related technology developments with the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. ESAS results placed exclusive emphasis on a US human lunar return and in an attempt to accelerate the first operational capability for the “crew exploration vehicle”—a capsule-based Space Shuttle replacement. To achieve this focus, numerous strategic changes were necessary. References to other aspects of space science and exploration were dropped, as was integrated planning of human and robotic exploration missions.

For example, the initially planned annual campaign of robotic technology missions to the Moon was reduced to a single orbiter and one lunar lander mission, and these retained little or no role in guiding design decisions for human lunar systems. Also, to avoid technology-related risks, a range of lifecycle cost-related architectural options were eliminated from consideration, including in-space assembly of lunar transportation systems, in-space fueling and servicing, reusable lunar transportation systems, and others. The result was a family of systems for low Earth orbit access and a return to the Moon that involved a re-sized, Apollo-like architectural approach, with a heavy-lift launch vehicle and expendable transportation system elements.

Significant shifts in agency budgets followed these new strategic directions, including drastic reductions in advanced space research and technology development, and a redefinition of remaining investments as “technology development”, focused on already-made design decisions. This shift in strategy was epitomized by NASA’s elimination of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC) on the grounds of budget constraints, despite that fact that NIAC represented less than one third of one percent of the agency’s annual budget. The real point was that NIAC no longer had a legitimate role given NASA’s new approach to innovation: low engineering risk designs, and modest technology developments focused on those designs.

Unfortunately, the elimination of design-to-cost and investments in longer-term innovation have come with a price. By recent estimates, the transportation-related cost of a single human mission to the Moon using the present, low-technology design solution will exceed $5 billion; transportation for two crewed lunar missions per year would require approximately 60% of NASA’s annual budget. Moreover, in-house agency subject matter expertise has been severely affected, as has the Agency’s contribution to US space technology leadership.

Overall, the ambitious goals that were articulated by the White House in 2004 have been pushed into the indefinite future. A permanent human outpost of the Moon, development of lunar resources, deployment of large space observatories, and ambitious missions to the outer planets: all of these have been pushed out into the future by 20 years or more. Moreover, it is difficult to envision how such goals could ever be achieved using current systems concepts and concomitant prohibitively high costs. Only new systems concepts, enabled by focused space research and technology developments, can change this assessment.

At the same time, real progress continues to be made by the international space community, grounded in steady investments in new technologies and systems—and resulting in regular accomplishments in space systems. The international flotilla of robotic space missions to the Moon illustrates this point: the US contribution of a single orbiter and a future lander are largely indistinguishable from the missions of other countries. Without an adequate strategy for, and more robust investment in, advanced space research and technology, long-term US preeminence in space exploration and development is doubtful.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) of the US Department of Defense (DOD) provides a useful example for how long-term but focused government research and technology advancement may be pursued. In particular, the ONR uses four complementary program strategies: a foundation of in-house subject matter expertise, sustained basic research and technology investments, development and demonstration of prototypes, and a focus on future capabilities.

The concept of “Future Naval Capabilities” (FNCs) is used by the ONR to focus advanced research and technology (R&T) efforts around novel systems and concepts of operations. FNCs allow a range of R&T investments to be coordinated around specific new capabilities—even though the details of those systems designs have not yet been finalized, nor development programs approved. Also, the ONR uses the concept of “Innovative Naval Prototypes” (INPs) to orchestrate a range of ongoing R&T and draw the results of those efforts into nearer-term demonstrations of working prototypes and test-beds. INPs are characterized by ambitious technical objectives, and their potential to truly transform future naval operations.

In addition, the ONR has preserved for over 60 years a commitment to long lead, discipline-oriented research and technology development. These investments have been responsible for advances in areas as diverse as materials, electronics, communications, power, and others—but all leading toward naval preeminence. And finally, DOD investments have maintained a foundation of in-house subject matter expertise at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and other installations. Over the years, these in-house experts have enabled more effective technology investment decisions and, working with civilian and uniformed leaders better system acquisition decisions.

Novel technologies and systems concepts must be matured and validated before decisions are made regarding the detailed designs of future space systems.

There are a variety of business models that might be considered for space research and technology development. However, the strategies used by the ONR for its investments seem especially appropriate to the long-term character of the challenge of space exploration and development. For civil space exploration and development, these would be: (1) maintenance of in-house NASA subject matter expertise in relevant technologies; (2) sustained, discipline-oriented investment in basic research and technology at NASA centers, universities, and small businesses; (3) development and demonstration of transformational systems prototypes in partnerships involving NASA, major industry and others; and (4) a sustained focus on future space capabilities. And the results of these investments must be harvested before designs are finalized and system acquisition programs started.

Assessment

It is hardly consistent with the aspirations of Americans to “go where everyone has been before…” However, it is fantasy to suppose that the civil space program can affordably accomplish ambitious goals and objectives in space using systems concepts and technologies of the last century. Novel technologies and systems concepts must be matured and validated before decisions are made regarding the detailed designs of future space systems. In fact, numerous reports over a period of decades have established the criticality of a robust and focused investment in advanced research and technology, including the findings of several National Commissions, committees of the National Academy of Sciences, and others.

Stable, robust, long-term federal investments in advanced research and technology for future civil space capabilities—funded at a level sufficient to assure US preeminence in space science, exploration, and utilization—are critical if we are to meet the challenges of this century: achieving ambitious goals in science and exploration, delivering on the promise of space to contribute to a strong national economy, maintaining a skilled aerospace workforce, and providing the foundations for future national security.

It is time for the Congress and the White House—recognizing the challenges facing this nation’s space sector—to articulate and implement a strategy to revitalize advanced space research and technology and to make a sustained commitment to the implementation of that strategy. The recently chartered national study on the future of human space exploration, chaired by Norm Augustine, should take up this task.

What should be done?

The following actions are needed now:

The federal government should revitalize its investment to invent and develop innovative new technologies for space science, exploration, and development, consistent with assuring US preeminence in space activities and industry’s ability to adopt these innovations for application in future space missions and markets.

A balanced distribution should be created in the allocation of revitalized advanced space research and technology funding among more basic research efforts, technology maturation, and demonstrations of new technologies. These investments should be guided by the goal of creating ambitious new “future space capabilities”—well-enough defined to inform technology investments, but flexible enough to allow the results of those investments to influence designs, reduce costs, and enable new and more ambitious science goals. In establishing these investments, NASA must seek and embrace inputs from outside the agency (including other agencies, industry, academia) to develop, review, and recommend NASA advanced space research and technology plans, programs, and strategies.

NASA in-house space research and technology (performed by engineers and technical specialists) should be restored, in balance with increased external research (by industry and academia). Funding for university research should also be targeted toward producing graduates with advanced degrees to support the follow-on work that will be undertaken by industry.

We need to reconsider what makes an ambitious space program worth a substantial investment of public dollars—and consider again the historical and future importance of advancing space technology and developing truly new and valuable space capabilities for the public, the nation, and the world.

To achieve the purposes for which it was created, NASA must maintain the excellence of its workforce and their expertise in a wide array of cutting-edge new technologies. As they enter the workforce, it will be impossible to attract the “best and the brightest” to federal service without a foundation of cutting-edge research and technology program opportunities. Moreover, a healthy NASA workforce, armed with appropriate skills and secure in its future, will provide better oversight for technical system procurement and program management. This competence will result in better performing systems, better ability to meet schedule, more productive interactions with other stakeholders in the aerospace enterprise, and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Although NASA must accommodate changing priorities and budgets, it must also ensure that it does not lose the important skills and knowledge currently possessed by its workers. NASA also must continue to ensure that the NASA workforce gains the new competencies needed in the aerospace industry of the future.

In order accelerate the transition of novel technologies into transformational future space capabilities NASA must invest in demonstrations of innovative space prototypes on the ground and in space. Innovative space prototypes should be implemented in coordination with the DoD, academia, and industry; and wherever possible with co-funding with the private sector in order to speed the application of these new capabilities in creating new space industries.

To implement these recommendations effectively, focused and timely near term action is essential:

  • The National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council) should be chartered to conduct an independent, visionary study to identify 6–12 transformational “future space capabilities” that would—if developed—enable a wide range of new, ambitious, and affordable space exploration and development. These future space capabilities would in turn drive planning for government and industry research and technology investments.
  • The Administration should develop—in consultation with the US Congress, and using NASA as its executive agent—a strategic research and technology development roadmap that establishes a baseline for achieving these goals, including objectives, schedules, milestones and budgets.
  • This roadmap should be used to provide the basis for future US investments in advanced space research and technology development and demonstrations.

The US space program needs more than a national discussion of what human exploration should do next: International Space Station research versus lunar outposts versus asteroid sorties versus human Mars missions, and so on. These are important questions. Even more, however, we need to set in place basic policies that can endure from one administration to the next. We need to reconsider what makes an ambitious space program worth a substantial investment of public dollars—and consider again the historical and future importance of advancing space technology and developing truly new and valuable space capabilities for the public, the nation, and the world.

Acknowledgement

This essay owes a considerable debt to various discussions and a draft white paper developed last year by the AIAA Space Exploration Program Committee. To the AIAA members who contributed to those conversations: thank you. Of course, the views expressed herein are my own.


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