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Orion illustration
Refining NASA’s exploration vision to encourage technology development and sustainability may be essential to its long-term odds for success. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Time for a new Vision

On January 20th 2009 we will inaugurate a new President and probably soon after will have a new NASA Administrator, regardless of who wins. Much has changed inside and outside of the space program since the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration. The Ares 1 rocket has gone through a questionable preliminary design review (PDR). There is dissent within NASA and within the interested public about which path to the Moon should be taken. Plans for supporting and accessing the International Space Station are up in the air. To top it off, the financial mess on Wall Street has everyone wondering how it’s going to affect government spending and the economy in general. It’s enough to make me want to pause and ponder if we’re on the right path with NASA.

When I read information that leaked out on the Ares 1 PDR, I almost thought it was a joke. Instead of the normal green, yellow and red categories for issues, NASA added green-yellow and yellow-red. In my opinion, it looks like this allowed them to move red unresolved critical issues into the yellow-red category to pass the review. NASA management has to know that this information would leak out and didn’t consider how this would play out in the public. It plays out as absurd. This has made me fairly sure that the next president is going to be forced to change course at NASA and, at least, adjust the Vision.

At times I wonder if people, me included, are being overly worried about what is going on. I wonder if it’s a small group of disgruntled people whose voices are magnified by the Internet. Are we alarmists for no good reason?

I have come to the conclusion that we as a species make major changes in direction either accidentally or when, through lack of planning and foresight, we are forced to. It is part of our nature that is both good and bad. Sticking with the tried and true works provided that surrounding circumstances don’t change, but it also destroys opportunity for improvement. I see this in my business, which develops software that is a radical change in how companies manufacture products. It is a hard sell. When we go in to a company and show them what we have, how it works, and what it has done for other companies, they get excited and want to talk with us. When they start realizing that they are going to have to change the fundamental ways they operate in getting engineering information to the shop floor, things slow down. What usually makes them pull the trigger to change is when they have major problems that could lead to disaster if they don’t change. Major change is hard for people to accept because there is usually a significant personal cost involved. Some jobs will change. Other jobs may just flat out be eliminated. People are scared of change and don’t do it easily.

The theme of change is a major part of this current presidential election. We’re running into problems that have been caused by our reluctance to admit problems that we knew existed. It isn’t a surprise to anyone who paid attention that growing dependency on foreign energy would eventually explode in our faces. While oil was cheap no one seemed to care that we have been selling our country piece by piece to pay for it. Enough people warned us that our oil addiction was funding terrorist groups and terrorist states before the attack of 9/11. Enough people warned us that we have been selling our country to pay for oil. Enough people warned us that personal debt through credit cards and adjustable rate mortgages were a disaster in the making. Enough people warned that a major hurricane would strike the Gulf Coast before Katrina, but we keep building in vulnerable areas thinking even still that it will happen elsewhere. We think this way because otherwise it would involve some personal hardship and sacrifice. We keep coming up with one economic bubble after another economic bubble that all eventually burst.

On the space advocacy websites I read some very pessimistic assessments of what is going on within NASA. At times I wonder if people, me included, are being overly worried about what is going on. I wonder if it’s a small group of disgruntled people whose voices are magnified by the Internet. Are we alarmists for no good reason?

Shortly out of college I found a job with a Fortune 500 manufacturing firm. I saw many things there that disturbed me about how they were operating. A friend of mine there said to me as I was talking to him about this, “You seem to complain a lot.” I stopped talking about the problems and eventually left the firm. I wondered after the comment if I was just young and naïve and maybe what I saw was just the way the business world worked. I was not wrong in this specific case. A few years after I left, the company came apart at the seams because of these very same problems I witnessed. The company sold off parts of itself and is now just a fraction of what it once was. What I read about NASA sounds very much like what I witnessed at this company and have also witnessed at some of the other companies my firm has done work for over the years. To paraphrase the poet-philosopher George Santayana, if we don’t learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them.

If NASA and the country are going to succeed in seeing better days ahead, we have to regularly assess if we are going down the right path. We have to assess if we have the right leaders to take us there. If NASA is going to be successful and relevant it needs to be seen as helping solve our nation’s problems. The first part of that is determining which problems NASA can and should help us address. The ones on my list include: technological leadership, scientific understanding of our universe, science and math education, environmental problems, energy problems, economic problems, foreign relations, and global leadership. If my list is correct, NASA can and should be a big part of our future. The question is just how the agency could help us address these issues.

When people sell the idea of going to the Moon or any other spending on NASA the talk invariably come to the technological spinoffs that have helped us in our everyday lives. I may be wrong on this, but my impression is that we don’t get as many revolutionary and useful spinoffs from NASA as we used to. I believe this is because NASA doesn’t push the technology envelope as much as they used to. The Ares rocket development is an example. In the early stages it is mostly a reengineering of existing technology into a new—and possibly seriously flawed—configuration to do a new job. I don’t see many spinoffs that will in the short-to-medium-term create any new products or industries.

I believe this is because NASA doesn’t push the technology envelope as much as they used to. I don’t see many spinoffs that will in the short- to medium-term create any new products or industries.

Michael Griffin said during his presentation at the EAA AirVenture 2008 this past summer that government agencies can’t take big risks because if they fail, as many will because they are high risk, the people involved will be hauled in front of Congressional hearings and blamed for taking unwarranted risks (see “Michael Griffin at Oshkosh”, The Space Review, August 4, 2008). Such risk aversion goes beyond NASA, however. We have become much more risk averse as a society. Risk takers in this litigious society are punished more for failure than ever before. Without the willingness to risk some failures, we lose the opportunity for greater rewards and the opportunity to be the world’s economic leader. We should be willing at times to go ahead with a great risk and acknowledge up front that we might fail. And if we fail, we need to dust ourselves off and try again. Just like economic bubbles, we know we will fail at times, we just don’t know when and how badly. I do know that we will all ultimately fail far worse if we don’t take risks. I don’t equate legitimate risk taking with Wall Street bankers reselling junk loans and risking other people’s money by building a house of cards. I also do not equate taking a legitimate risk with actions we take when denying to ourselves that an obvious risk exists.

NASA spins off new technology by pushing the envelope and taking risks. I agree with Michael Griffin that we should test VASIMR engine technology on the ISS. Not only could it one day shorten travel time to destinations throughout the solar system, this pushing of technology in plasma physics may have other benefits down the road. If it is designed to help reboost the ISS with its high specific impulse, it could also reduce the need to carry fuel to the station.

The ISS is being ignored in the benefits it can bring both the space program and society at large. It is a testbed for technology that will be needed as we move beyond Earth orbit. In addition to possibly testing new forms of low-thrust high-impulse propulsion, it has revealed problems with the SARJ joint which allows the station’s solar panels to track the Sun. That joint may be similar to what may be used in slowly-rotating solar panels needed at a lunar base at one of the poles. Something similar to a SARJ joint may also be needed for the solar panels on a solar power satellite in geosynchronous orbit and the microwave transmitter that beams the power to Earth if a fully electronically steerable beam turns out to not be practical. It is the ideal place to study the effects of microgravity on the human body. This research, including why microgravity reduces the production of T-cells in human beings, could have profound benefits for life down here.

I have in part the heart of an explorer. I always want to see what’s over the next hill. I also have in part the heart of an engineer. I want to create new technology and better ways of doing things. I also in part have the heart of a businessman. Economic development through free enterprise is in my opinion the best, but not the only, way to improve the human condition. I also have in part the heart of an environmentalist. I want a world that is safe, healthy, and preserves as much of our wildlife heritage as is possible and practical while balancing other needs. I also don’t believe that these ideals have to be too much in conflict with each other. I also believe that NASA can be a tool to help in each of these areas. These are the principles I would base my goals for NASA on.

To begin with, NASA and the private space sector need access to space that is safe, reliable, more affordable, and flexible. This extends from suborbital flights to lunar orbit for both people and cargo. In the long term NASA needs to be a customer of these launch services from the private sector. These services need to come from a variety of providers so we are never again left with gaps or dependence on one possible unreliable foreign choice or any other single weak link. NASA needs to develop and push and fund the expensive risky technology that the private sector can eventually take over completely. NASA needs to lead in the scientific exploration that can eventually lead to commercial economic development in orbit, on the Moon and beyond, and back here on Earth.

One overriding philosophy that I think is important in tackling space goals is that now when we set a goal to go somewhere, whether it’s the Moon, Mars, or building space-based solar power systems, it is that we are going to stay. That is why I like the fact that a lunar base is included in the return plans to the Moon. Any other approach, in my opinion, will lead us to only go once or a few times and then abandon it like Apollo. If that means no human landing on Mars in my lifetime, so be it. The human race will be better off in the long run.

One specific goal I think NASA should have is a firm commitment to taking advantage of our investment in the ISS. We need to use it to not only test out technology to be used elsewhere in space, but also for basic research that it is well suited for.

I don’t know for sure if the Direct 2.0 approach is better than the current Constellation architecture. However, after reading the details on their website, I strongly suspect that it is for a number of reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay (see “Saving America’s space program”, The Space Review, August 11, 2008). I think the next president needs to be very careful when he selects the next NASA administrator, just as he needs to be careful in picking every key member of his administration. A judge of a good leader of a large organization is really how well they screen and bring in the people that execute the direction that they set. The next president needs to be able to trust that these people will do a good job of running their departments given the philosophy and direction set by the president. The next NASA administrator needs to fairly assess if Direct 2.0 is the right direction to jump before the current path destroys the infrastructure that this plan would need.

One specific goal I think NASA should have is a firm commitment to taking advantage of our investment in the ISS. We need to use it to not only test out technology to be used elsewhere in space, but also for basic research that it is well suited for. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment should be launched: it is something that can really help us understand the structure of the universe. We should retrieve the Centrifuge Accommodation Module from the Japanese parking lot it has been dumped on, finish it, and fly it. Studying the effects of different levels of gravity on physical and biological systems will probably really help us understand them significantly better. And finally contracting out flights of crew and cargo to the ISS is a way to really try to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of access to low Earth orbit.

One element I don’t like about the plans to return to the Moon is that it seems like a long, thin fragile supply line with no safe havens along the way in case of trouble. I would like to see the development of fuel depots and stations in low Earth and lunar orbits. This could reduce the size needed for heavy lift vehicles and open a market for COTS like supplying of fuel to orbit. It could also speed the development of use of lunar oxygen reducing the need for transport from Earth.

The ISS is in the wrong orbit to support returning to the Moon as a way station. With Russia’s limit in possible orbital inclinations launching from their territory, it is unlikely that it would be politically viable to change the orbit with electrodynamic tethers. Fuel depots and co-orbiting stations in a more equatorial orbit are something that could support both lunar missions and possibly flights to build and support solar power satellites if they turn out to be technologically and financially realistic. Commercial stations designed to support both possibilities are what could eventually make large scale commercial spaceflight a realistic outcome. The technological risk of developing fuel depots with low boil off rates of fuels is probably high. But that is the type of risk with a small scale demonstrator that is perfect for NASA to take on. If it works, it can then be commercialized where NASA and others buy fuel and oxidizer in orbit.

The recent demo for a Discovery Channel show of beaming power between two of the Hawaiian Islands was a way of publicly showing that the technology is possible (see “A step forward for space solar power”, The Space Review, September 15, 2008). Because of the risk and the long lead time before a large-scale deployment, investing in a proof-of-concept demonstration from the ISS or a small-scale test satellite in geosynchronous orbit is something that a partnership between NASA, the Department of Energy, and the private sector is suited for.

A strategy for Mars should be a steady improvement of capabilities, hopefully with international partners so we can afford it. We need to develop a sample return mission. We need to really know what Mars is like so we know what local resources will be available and dangers present for the first human explorers. The cost of bringing resources to Mars is far greater than it is for the Moon. That is one reason I would like see us develop experience finding and using lunar resources. If we can’t afford to do it alone, we need to bring in international partners and give them a significant stake in the mission. It could mean development of new capabilities sooner rather than later.

After returning samples from a couple of sites on Mars it will be time to start planning where the potential first base should be. This would include additional scout missions to closely examine a few sites to make sure there are local resources accessible, interesting science to be done, and stable ground for building a base that can grow. After that, the serious planning for the type of infrastructure in orbit and on the surface should begin.

The US can lead by example in the peaceful expansion of our economy and quality of life. We can partner with our friends so that everybody rises together and learns to trust former adversaries and improves the chances of living peacefully together on this planet.

On Mars it may make sense to first build a robotically maintained base. This could include power plants, in situ fuel production plants, plants to extract water from subsurface ice, and robotic rovers to build and maintain new infrastructure. The advances in robotics and artificial intelligence needed for such tasks could be a huge boon for Earth based spinoffs. Delivering smaller payloads than required for human crews could be done with smaller, less expensive launch vehicles and earlier. The technology for precision landings at the base could be developed before a human ever arrives. When humans do arrive they will find a robust base that will greatly increase their chances of survival and of making the place a permanent home.

All of these goals I have laid out could have great impact here at home. The US can lead by example in the peaceful expansion of our economy and quality of life. We can partner with our friends so that everybody rises together and learns to trust former adversaries and improves the chances of living peacefully together on this planet. We can take the risks that drive our technological innovations. If we can maintain a vision, we can inspire our youth to excel in science and math because they will know there will be stable careers in these challenging arenas. We can push ahead with goals that will in the centuries ahead provide multiple off-Earth homes for our descendents. We can provide the firm foothold in space that our ancestors did for us on this continent allowing for wealth and lifestyles they couldn’t even dream of. I believe that it is what we owe the generations ahead and can still greatly benefit ourselves in the next few decades. We need to carry out a strong vision that keeps us in the lead in an ever more competitive world. We need a vision for NASA that is part of a new bold vision for our country. I may be a dreamer, but it is what I want from our next President, our next Congress, and our next NASA Administrator. I want this because without dreams we die inside a little by little until we have nothing left.


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