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It can be difficult for the public to understand how even successful programs like the ISS fit into a broader picture. (credit: NASA)

To reach ever further: a mission and a vision for NASA

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NASA holds a clear mandate from the nation to open space for civilian use. The agency has explored the universe beyond Earth robotically, expanded human presence into space, and exploited space for human benefit. Yet NASA has never articulated a simple, unifying vision that allows the American public to see its accomplishments in a larger context. Without that vision, NASA may seem to be lurching from one initiative to another as directed by the politics of the moment. Even when one of the agency’s programs achieves technical success, as the International Space Station has, without understanding how it fits into the broader context it gets criticized as a waste. It is time to articulate a clear and simple vision that encapsulates NASA’s past and present mission while pointing a direction to the future.

What’s a frontier for?

Space has been called a frontier. Through the early 20th century, Americans understood the word frontier as a clear, relevant reality, not a romantic metaphor. The frontier presented new land to be explored, tamed, then developed economically. America’s efforts to open then settle its western frontier were a source of pride, growth, power, and wealth. Today, the space frontier offers the prospects of similar benefits for the nation and humanity. NASA’s mission to lead human activity on the space frontier has three elements:

  • Explore space. NASA does this by acquiring new scientific knowledge of the universe.
  • Expand human activity in space. NASA does this by developing and demonstrating the needed technology.
  • Exploit the potential of space for human benefit and national wealth. NASA does this mainly by refining and validating spacecraft engineering principles and operational practices then transitioning routine activity to commercial sources.

As with any frontier, we are opening space in layers, with scientific exploration on the outer frontier, the technology for human activity in the middle frontier, and engineering and operations transforming the near frontier into a realm of ordinary activity for exploitation.

Even when one of the agency’s programs achieves technical success, as the ISS has, without understanding how it fits into the broader context it gets criticized as a waste.

NASA’s exploration of the near frontier, Earth orbital space, is mature. Technology has already expanded the uses this frontier beyond science, enabling systems that can exploit its economic potential. Communications satellites, earth observing systems, and navigation systems have made Earth orbital space into a realm or ordinary human activity for unmanned uses. The remaining challenge on the near frontier is to convert NASA’s investment in human space flight into economic activity. At that point, Earth orbital space will be assimilated into the full range of human activity and cease to be a frontier.

NASA’s exploration of today’s mid frontier, the inner solar system, is filling in our scientific understanding of the Moon, Sun, and inner planets, as well as asteroids and comets. The current challenges involve extending the capabilities for human touch, first with robotic landings on other celestial bodies, then with sample return missions, and finally with human presence. The technology to extend human touch will grow from both the unmanned systems that have already explored the mid frontier and other systems maturing on the near frontier.

Today’s far frontier—the remote solar system and the universe beyond—is yielding to humanity’s exploratory curiosity through orbital telescopes and interplanetary probes. When the time is ripe to expand human touch on this frontier, the needed technology will grow from what has been developed for the mid frontier.

NASA’s mission is to ensure the boundaries of these frontiers continually expand outward. Once the nearest frontier has been assimilated into the sphere of ordinary human activity, it will become the gateway to the next frontier, providing the knowledge, technology, engineering, and operations to keep humanity moving out into the cosmos.

No one today questions why Americans pushed the frontiers westward across the continent. Once human space flight in Earth orbital space has been converted to commercial enterprises and incorporated into the full spectrum of human activities, the template for NASA’s mission will have been fully established. The public will gain the benefits that derive from opening the space frontier and will support NASA’s activities on frontiers further out.

Coherence from context

Since the end of the Apollo program, NASA has pursued its space mission through a variety of major initiatives. Some succeeded, some failed, some evolved. Seen in the context of NASA’s mission to explore, expand into, then exploit space, this activity has not been a waste. Even the failures advanced our understanding of how to—and how not to—approach space.

The context of NASA’s three-fold mission on the space frontier reveals a narrative that creates coherence among the successes and the failures.

For example, in the 1970s the Apollo-era visionaries set human spaceflight in pursuit of reusable heavy-lift transportation to LEO. The successes and failures of the Shuttle program taught NASA invaluable lessons about the challenges of designing and operating such a complex system. These lessons were extended by X 33’s failure to achieve a generational advance in heavy-lift launch technology. Although the problems of criticality and complexity have, for now, limited the advance of heavy-lift technology, other initiatives provided a technological fallback. Even without heavy lift, it’s possible to field large, capable space systems using simpler, more robust space access combined with on-orbit assembly. The technology and techniques of on-orbit assembly began with Apollo’s rendezvous and docking, advanced with the on-orbit repair of Skylab, improved with the Shuttle-based servicing of Hubble and other satellites, incorporated lessons learned from the Russians on Shuttle-Mir, and culminated in the successful construction of ISS. This example shows NASA tenaciously pursuing a coherent and reasonable approach to expanding human presence into LEO while learning through trial and error the lessons needed to go further.

A similar story can be drawn from the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” approach to scientific exploration in the 1990s. The approach has been called a failure, but it proved beyond argument that when fielding space systems, rigorous engineering discipline repays its cost. This experience provides data that can be reviewed whenever NASA is tempted to, or chided to “do more with less.”

Although close observation might make NASA’s story look like a welter of half-baked programs and mixed successes, the context of NASA’s three-fold mission on the space frontier reveals a narrative that creates coherence among the successes and the failures.

Aeronautics in the context

The 20th century witnessed the opening of another frontier analogous to space: the air. NASA and its progenitor organization, NACA, opened this aeronautical frontier for human benefit using the same three-fold approach. They explored the science of aeronautics and the atmosphere; developed technology to expand human presence in the air into new realms of speed, capacity, efficiency, and safety; and established engineering and operational principles that allowed companies to exploit the economic potential of aviation. This work is mature, but it’s not finished. More understanding of the science behind aeronautics, propulsion, structures and materials, stability and dynamics, and atmospheric properties is enabling new technologies to further expand the speed, capacity, efficiency, and safety of flight through the atmosphere, which in turn open new areas for economic exploitation.

In the same way that there is no hard boundary between the atmosphere and space, neither is there a hard boundary between aeronautics and astronautics. Aeronautical knowledge and technology enable the trans-atmospheric phase of NASA’s space mission and lay the foundation for atmospheric flight on other planets. The technology to support people in stratospheric flight evolved into life-support in space. The criticality and complexity of aircraft systems provided the engineering and operational discipline that became the foundation for the even more critical and complex spacecraft systems.

The aeronautics component of NASA’s mission illustrates that even once a layer of the space frontier has been closed, NASA can continue to play a role in advancing the knowledge, technology, and operations for leading edge uses of the realm, providing on-going benefits from the nation’s investment.

A mission and a vision

This understanding now allows us to articulate what is, and has always been, NASA’s mission in aerospace and its vision for the future.

NASA’s Mission:
Explore Aerospace to Gain Scientific Knowledge
Expand Human Presence in Aerospace through Technology Development
Exploit Aerospace for Human Benefit by Developing Engineering and Operations Practices

NASA’s Vision for Aerospace:
To use that within our grasp,
To grasp that within our reach,
To reach ever further.