The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SLS launch illustration
When a new administration takes office, it should reconsider continued investment in the Space Launch System (above) in favorable of developing a more affordable space infrastructure. (credit: NASA)

A vision ahead

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On February 6, I attended a town hall meeting held by my congressman, Jim Sensenbrenner. I asked him what were the chances Congress will ever fund any significant payloads for the Space Launch System (SLS). He said zero. He also mentioned with a gleam in his eyes that he was the one who killed Shuttle-C over the objections of Trent Lott. He has a track record with NASA.

One common theme in the House hearing is that NASA does not have a viable plan to go to Mars, especially considering the budget levels likely to be available in the coming years.

Three days earlier, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee held a hearing on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans, a.k.a. the “Journey to Mars.” The committee heard testimony from three experts: Tom Young, a former NASA official and aerospace executive; John Sommerer, one of the authors of the 2012 National Academies’ study on human spaceflight; and Paul Spudis, a scientist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute. All three criticized the lack of a clear, realistic plan for NASA’s human spaceflight program.

As NASA moves forward with its plans for SLS/Orion, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and the Journey to Mars, there is definitely not universal support. One common theme in the House hearing is that NASA does not have a viable plan to go to Mars, especially considering the budget levels likely to be available in the coming years.

We are less than a year from a new administration taking office. NASA will be getting new leadership when that happens. When the new Congress is seated there is inevitably some shuffling of seats on committees, regardless of which party has control of the House and Senate. Some change is coming next year, but the question is just how significant it will be.

I highly doubt from what I hear from any of the presidential candidates, that adjusting NASA’s vision or lack thereof, depending upon your perspective, will be a priority of a new administration considering all the contentious issues facing the nation right now. But change in some form will be coming. It always does.

To me, it seems like a chorus of critics is growing like the one prior to the formation of the 2009 Augustine Committee. I was one voice in that chorus. I had a chance to ask Michael Griffin about the problems in the development of Ares I when he did a presentation at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2008. I was less than satisfied when he dismissed the issues as minor. I see backers of the current path dismissing budget realities as leading to a similar dead end. At some point, a chorus of “NASA, we have a problem” will be loud enough to be heard by the next administration and in the halls of Congress.

I wouldn’t expect any major course changes to even be seriously considered until late next year, when the 2018 budget proposal is being finalized.

Since we are in an election year, I don’t believe any decisions to make any major changes in NASA’s plans will happen until the dust of this election has settled. President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2017 has been delivered to Congress. Congress is working on their versions of it. It’s more likely that there will be another omnibus spending bill that will be similar to a real, on-time budget with no major changes to programs.

So when could a major change happen? If the next administration looks at NASA and reviews human spaceflight as the Obama Administration did, a review led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy could begin as soon as the spring of 2017. Another Augustine-type committee could be convened later in the year. However, I wouldn’t expect any major course changes to even be seriously considered until late next year, when the 2018 budget proposal is being finalized.

In the meantime, SLS/Orion will plod another year and a half towards the first flight with several more billion dollars spent. Commercial crew will get closer towards launch. Both SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will have flown, or will be nearly their first flights with astronauts on board. SpaceX will have probably been reusing first stages and Falcon Heavy should have had its first flight. United Launch Alliance (ULA) will likely have settled on a new engine for the first stage of their new Vulcan rocket and have advanced the design considerably. Orbital ATK should have their Antares rocket back on track launching cargo to the ISS. The ISS will be a year and a half closer to the end of its life, whenever that will be.

If either the new administration or Congress actually does review and modify NASA’s human spaceflight plans, the landscape will have changed significantly since the last Augustine Committee. If a review legitimately seeks to define a vision with realistic affordable goals, it needs to take into account where technology has advanced in recent years. In an era when my congressman says there is no chance NASA will get the money for significant payloads for SLS, a vision for NASA with clearly defined steps for human spaceflight is a necessity if NASA is to effectively spend the money it does get, instead of creating an embarrassing pork barrel program that adds to the public’s distrust of the government and the motives of politicians.

The problems I have with NASA’s Journey to Mars start with Congress and the President ignoring budget realities that will become clear if SLS starts flying and has no missions beyond the first few test flights. The next issue I have is that there is no defined vision for why NASA wants people to go to Mars and what is to be done there. If a trip to Mars is just going to be another “flags and footprints” mission with minimal science, we’ll end up afterwards with another disappointed generation that will be mad because nothing of substance follows. Since the decision makers in both Congress and the White House will be long gone when this happens, there will be no accountability for the people making these decisions.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is a 20-year program that is poorly defined. It does not have a clearly defined goal of why NASA wants to go. It does not have a clearly defined goal of what to do on Mars.

The roughly $19 billion NASA spends each year is a lot of money, even though it is roughly one half of one percent of the projected $3.72 trillion total 2017 budget and below historical levels. If you add up what gets spent over the years, the sums are what the late Senator Everett Dirksen called “real money.” While I would like to see NASA get a significant budget increase if it would be spent wisely and efficiently, I believe Jim Sensenbrenner when he says it won’t happen. I also am highly skeptical that a budget increase would be spent wisely in our current environment. So any planning should not assume any significant budget increases down the road.

I personally think that, when NASA sets goals, it should always consider the possibility of enhancing space commerce, as the commercial cargo and crew are doing with the ISS. With the limits on NASA budgets, any commercial space infrastructure that can help share the costs of getting NASA’s human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit will stretch the dollars NASA does have. I’m a believer that, in most instances, private companies spend their money wiser than government agencies do. They are less likely to throw good money after bad and react faster when circumstances change because they have to.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is a 20-year program that is poorly defined. It does not have a clearly defined goal of why NASA wants to go. It does not have a clearly defined goal of what to do on Mars. Is it going to be a one-time mission? Once a visit is accomplished, will it become a “been there, done that” moment, and do we then set our sights on Ceres or some other target?

I get the impression that many of the people advocating going to Mars do so primarily because they want to see it happen in their lifetime. I too would like to see it, but not at the expense of developing a space infrastructure that helps ensure a long-term future for humans in space. I think that would be far more beneficial for the future of the human race. I also don’t want Mars taken off the table as an eventual goal.

NASA talks about getting to Mars in the mid-2030s. The problem I have with 20-year technology development programs is that they can’t fully anticipate the technology changes that will come along during that time frame. A perfect example is reusability that SpaceX is developing to lower launch costs. When you design a launcher and space capsule for use 20 years out, you lock out the features and benefits of evolving technology you could otherwise take advantage of.

One of the criticisms of the commercial approach to expanding step by step into cislunar space is that there is no 100-percent proof that there is a market for anyone of the services beyond government exploration. Michael Griffin said in his testimony before the House space subcommittee last month that he does not like that the lion’s share of funding for commercial space comes from government. He would prefer that this development would be fully privately funded. He is not alone. Those who favor NASA’s traditional way of developing things consider this a distraction. I think it is more because it infringes on their turf.

NASA, Congress, and the next President would be doing us a service if they considered what companies have to offer as the next administration develops its spaceflight plans.

At that hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher complained that funding long-term projects we can’t do defunds shorter-term projects we can. He also talked about the possibility of using fuel depots. I agree with him on his basic premises. Former astronaut Eileen Collins talked about privatizing the ISS instead of splashing it down sometime in the next decade. She also talked about the inclusion of commercial elements. It is obvious to me that there is little consensus on the best steps forward.

Last April, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) introduced the Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 2093) to try to bring some stability to NASA programs. According to his statement, $20 billion has been spent by NASA in the last 20 years on programs that have been canceled. The following is from the press release:

“The Space Leadership Preservation Act creates a 10-year term for the NASA Administrator to ensure decisions are made based on the best science available and to minimize the politics of changing administrations. It also establishes a Board of Directors similar to the National Science Board that governs the National Science Foundation. The board would consist of former astronauts and respected scientists appointed by Members of Congress who would help shape the agency’s annual budget request. They would also create a candidate pool from which the President would select the NASA Administrator.”

The one thing I think is missing from this passage is that decisions on NASA’s plans should not be purely based upon “the best science available.” This ignores that it should also be based on the business case of what NASA’s mission should be. If NASA’s mission includes enabling a commercial infrastructure in its wake, that should be part of the decision-making process. I personally believe that if a commercial infrastructure can be a reasonable byproduct of NASA’s missions, it should be.

One item that really needs to be cleared up before we beginning any major new undertakings is the future of the ISS. It is a truly magnificent piece of engineering. But what do we need it for? How long do we need it? Is there potential in privatizing it as Collins mentioned? Can its job be done better and more cost effectively by a new station, or stations, either NASA owned or commercially owned with NASA as a tenant? What missions beyond low earth orbit will it need to support? How does it fit in with other infrastructure that could be developed? What will be the role of international partners including commercial entities? Should China be invited to join in? Who should have input in answering these questions?

NASA is working at various stages of development on components that could be used to go to a variety of destinations beyond low earth orbit for a variety of reasons. Commercial entities like SpaceX, ULA, Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital ATK, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems, and many others have ideas. I am a fan of the current and planned products of these companies. NASA, Congress, and the next President would be doing us a service if they considered what these companies have to offer as the next administration develops its spaceflight plans.

There are several potential areas where I see commercial opportunities opening up that can help build up space infrastructure. A deep space habitat somewhere in the vicinity of the Moon does not have to be only for NASA’s use. If it is designed to be flexible and expandable, it could be have commercial modules accessible to anyone wanting to operate near or on the Moon, or to use it as a staging location for deep space missions. A communications network throughout cislunar space could easily be a commercial operation. It could be home to a fuel depot and a servicing and repair center, especially someone can close the business case for using fuel from lunar resources.

We don’t have to give up on Mars by taking shorter and more attainable steps. We can expand Earth’s economic sphere throughout cislunar space and beyond.

NASA is working on the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, which I am not a fan of. I do however like the idea of large reusable tugs using Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) or Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP). I would prefer to see missions to Phobos and Deimos bringing sensors and possibly bringing back samples using these tugs. I don’t see why these tugs couldn’t be commercially owned operating from Earth Moon L1 or L2 regularly flying to Mars or other destinations and back. I can imagine the sample extraction tools on one of these missions being provided by one or more of the companies interested in asteroid mining. It would be a great opportunity for them to develop the technology they need while fulfilling a scientific mission for NASA.

Commercially owned solar-electric propulsion tugs for carrying cargo from low Earth orbit to the lunar vicinity and every place in-between, such as geostationary orbit, is another potential market. As geostationary orbit slots eventually fill up, there may be a need for larger platforms with multiple payloads attached that would need servicing either by robots or possibly humans. We won’t know if other markets like space tourism, satellite servicing, fuel depots, space-based solar power, and orbital debris removal, have a chance to be commercially viable until a supporting infrastructure is in place. That infrastructure is where I see the potential in for a great thriving future.

If the next President and Congress would embrace a plan for NASA that helps develop a government and commercial cislunar infrastructure for both human and robotic operations, we would have a better future in space. It is too early to commit to plan to put humans on Mars without understanding why we specifically should go there in the 2030s and what we want to do there. In the meantime, a vigorous robotic exploration program could be in place that helps us better understand Mars and prepare for eventual human missions there, once we can come to a consensus on what they should be and what we can afford.

I have always liked the idea of building up an automated base on Mars prior to human missions. It could be used to demonstrate precision landing techniques that human missions will require. It could put in place power plants. either nuclear or solar. It could test advanced robotic technology. Just imagine something like Boston Dynamics’ Atlas droid at the base assembling systems, repairing equipment, cleaning solar panels, and exploring. We could land larger automated laboratories that could do far greater science on samples retrieved from a large radius around the base. A Red Dragon capsule landing at the base could contain an array of fairly sophisticated equipment that could detect if there is life in the samples. A powerful microscope that could see microbes or fossils of microbes could be included.

We don’t have to give up on Mars by taking shorter and more attainable steps. We can expand Earth’s economic sphere throughout cislunar space and beyond. We can have steady inspiring advances with the budget levels expected for NASA. If canceling SLS and Orion and using rockets from SpaceX, Orbital ATK, ULA, and Blue Origin would free up resources for more meaningful short-term goals, I would be fully in favor of it.

I believe space has amazing potential in the coming decades, both in exploration and commercial development, and it should be a higher priority for both government and commercial entities. We are looking for ways to improve economic growth and to inspire a new generation; we are seeking answers to questions to satisfy our innate curiosity and our human desire for pushing boundaries and exploring. If we can develop reasonable goals with reasonable timeframes, there is a bright future for us to grab.