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Atlantis after STS-135 landing
The end of the shuttle doesn’t mean the end of NASA, but it does represent an opportunity to rethink what a relevant human spaceflight program should be. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Avoiding “the end” of NASA


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Taylor Dinerman recently published an op-ed for the Hudson Institute that purports to link the supposed “end of NASA” with impacts to national security. Unfortunately, this is only one example of the pervasive attitude in much of the media that equates the successful final mission of the Space Shuttle program with the end of American manned spaceflight.

Some might even argue that, in the long run, NASA will do better to not fall back on old ways of doing business.

On its face, the argument doesn’t make much sense. The United States and its international partners have committed to extending operations on the International Space Station until, at least, 2020. After comments from Roskosmos deputy chief Vitaly Davidov about why we would need to de-orbit the ISS at the end of its mission were blown out proportion, NASA reiterated that work is underway to certify on-orbit components through 2028.

Congress has also made it abundantly clear that the roughly $100 billion investment in the only National Laboratory in microgravity is not to be squandered. NASA is in negotiations with the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS), a new non-profit organization, to manage research for the National Lab and bring in partners from industry, academia, and other government agencies.

Though American astronauts will be riding on Soyuz vehicles to get to the ISS until either commercial crew vehicles come online or the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, derived from the Lockheed Martin Orion crew exploration vehicle, is available, there is still plenty of work to be done on-orbit. For that matter, Soyuz has always been the primary crew transfer vehicle for the Space Station because the Shuttle could not provide persistent lifeboat capability.

Dinerman, in particular, claims that the end of the shuttle program threatens our ability to hold the high ground in space, both as a battlefield and in technological advancement. National security missions are the primary responsibility of the US military, not NASA, though. The US Air Force already spends more than $8 billion a year on unclassified space activities. That’s nearly half of NASA’s entire annual budget. Their recent test flights of the X-37 unmanned spaceplane demonstrator, launched on an expendable booster in the same family that may soon loft commercial crew vehicles, suggest that the Air Force has this mission well under control.

Some might even argue that, in the long run, NASA will do better to not fall back on old ways of doing business. Even Space Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon himself has said that the end of the shuttle gives NASA a sense of urgency, freed-up resources, and the ability to apply the knowledge of the Space Shuttle workforce to the next generation of NASA programs. Technological advancement is increasingly driven by the private sector, which is why the intelligence community created In-Q-Tel in 1999 to harness that rapid innovation. NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist is now trying to do much the same thing through its strategy of “push-pull” technology development that is designed to both address identified agency needs and provide room for breakthrough innovations to grow.

We have to focus NASA on missions that meet the nation’s strategic needs and that will essentially sell themselves to the public.

Many, including Dinerman, also appeal to spinoffs and dual-use technologies, such as solid rocket motors. While I agree that space exploration gives America benefits in soft power, the spinoffs argument is, frankly, weak. There must be a compelling, clearly defined rationale for space exploration that stands on its own. NASA especially should not be used to subsidize military hardware development costs, especially given the orders of magnitude greater resources the Pentagon has at its disposal. If the military needs solid rockets, the military should pay for it.

One would also think we’d learned our lesson about tailoring NASA requirements to an unfulfilled military mission with the Space Shuttle’s own development phase. Remember that the cross-range and payload bay requirements of the orbiter were defined to meet the Pentagon’s requirements, but the Air Force halted its plans to fly the shuttle after Challenger. All military launches are now performed by commercially-developed expendable boosters.

NASA can best keep America’s space industry “alive and healthy” by pushing back on the frontiers and developing new technologies, not acting as a life support system so the Pentagon might be able to develop new ICBMs decades down the road.

I do agree with the notion that NASA currently faces great uncertainty and a painful transition so long as our strategy for long-term human exploration remains in limbo. I also agree that a big part of the problem is a lack of leadership from both the White House and Congress on the issue. We have to focus NASA on missions that meet the nation’s strategic needs and that will essentially sell themselves to the public.

If NASA was figuring out how to build space-based solar power to reduce our dependence on coal and oil, I think people would get that because such an initiative has intrinsic and demonstrable value. If NASA was figuring out how to enable the economical mining of platinum-group metals in space to break China’s near-monopoly on those commodities, I think people would get that, too. No such strategy for exploring space while providing clear benefit back to the nation has been articulated, though.

That is why anyone who was paying attention to space policy over the past few years should not have been surprised when the Constellation Program was canceled. The Augustine Committee made it abundantly clear that the status quo was unaffordable and unsustainable. Continuing with the Constellation plan would have put the ISS in the Pacific Ocean in 2016 and left an increasingly expensive Orion/Ares 1 stack with nowhere to go for decades. They found that the Ares 5 rocket would not have been ready until the mid-2020s and a new lunar lander would not have been available until the 2030s.

Unequivocally, I think that would have been the end of the NASA manned space program. What President or Congress would have continued with a program that could do nothing but fly four people at a time in LEO for 20 (or more) years? Constellation was not only underfunded and behind schedule, it would have torn down the entire rest of the manned space program just to keep chugging along.

We in the technical world share some of the blame for this, though. The Vision for Space Exploration and the 2004 Aldridge Commission were explicitly clear that NASA should not build new booster rockets unless it was absolutely necessary to do so. Instead, NASA under Administrator Mike Griffin went with the “Apollo on steroids” approach that would have given us—eventually—the Ares 1 and 5 rockets.

We need a framework bridging the strategic and political needs of the nation and the technical expertise of NASA to develop a relevant national human spaceflight program.

We allowed ourselves to focus more on building rockets to get to space than developing the systems to do actual work when we get there. We failed to manage all of our stakeholder relationships and their expectations, in terms of cost, schedule, scope, and politics. Mike Griffin had a grand strategy to make Constellation too painful to cancel, gambled big, and lost.

The sad consequence is that Constellation would not have returned America to the Moon simply because neither the Bush Administration nor Congress ever provided NASA with the funds it estimated it needed to make the initial schedule. The program’s inability to close its business case, as assessed by both the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office, threatened the entire enterprise.

The Constellation Program was well on the road to ruin even before President Obama was elected, despite the tendency of some to lay everything that ails NASA at his feet. It was so far behind schedule that we weren’t even going to be doing flags-and-footprints missions for another two decades, much less build a lunar outpost, even with the billions of taxpayer dollars already spent.

Unfortunately, many of those same mistakes seem like they are about to be repeated. Despite mandating the construction of a crew capsule derived from Orion and a “Space Launch System” heavy-lift rocket, Congress still hasn’t provided budget for missions or mission systems. They’ve put the cart before the horse and threaten to put SLS on the same unsustainable path that doomed the Constellation Program. It’s not just that Congress wants NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket. It’s that they want NASA to do it with greater constraints on the engines, boosters, cost, and schedule than even Constellation. This is design-by-committee at its worst.

Those same politicians threaten to cut funds for commercial crew vehicle development, which is arguably our best chance at restoring American human access to low Earth orbit. This is a competitive process that is bringing out the best in the US aerospace industry. Boeing is bringing its spaceflight heritage to bear with the CST-100 capsule. SpaceX, the first private company to launch, orbit, and recover its own capsule, is proposing a crewed version of its Dragon capsule that will soon be delivering cargo to the ISS. Sierra Nevada Corporation, with its lifting body design, and Blue Origin’s biconic capsule are in the running, as well. It is that very tension between the traditional and “NewSpace” firms that will enable America to have “assured, low cost access” to space.

These companies are trying to provide a much-needed service to NASA by ensuring continuous access to the International Space Station, but some in Congress would rather we spend billions of dollars on a heavy-lift rocket just so we can say we have it—and so taxpayer money will keep flowing to their states. I doubt any of the representatives or senators, or their staffers, who insist that SLS is “the law” can actually explain what purpose the rocket will serve, beyond vague assurances that we “need” it to go back to the Moon or on to Mars.

This situation illustrates just why we need to move beyond reliance on a single political champion, like Kennedy was for Apollo. We need a framework bridging the strategic and political needs of the nation and the technical expertise of NASA to develop a relevant national human spaceflight program. We need to have the technical and programmatic ability to design an exploration strategy that makes sense within the budget and also leverages the strengths of public-private partnerships. The science community already has a similar process that largely works: the decadal survey. We can be ambitious again, but we need to connect the dots in a way that no one seems to be doing right now. That is the only way we will escape this malaise and build the future we have all dreamed of.


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