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NSRC 2020

 
Gemini
The new plan for NASA human spaceflight is designed to test the technologies and techniques needed for spaceflight beyond Earth orbit, just as Gemini did in the 1960s as a precursor to Apollo. (credit: NASA)

The new paradigm: Gemini on steroids


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Given the current political climate in Washington, the amount of misinformation being circulated about the Obama Administration’s new vision for NASA and, specifically, its new program of exploration is hardly surprising. Pundits and so-called experts have been wildly speculating about the (largely negative, it seems) ramifications of the new program, despite the fact that the six tiger teams charged with studying specific aspects of it and making recommendations that will flesh out the bare bones thus far announced will not be ready with their reports until at least June.

Apollo was possible due only to a unique convergence of political will and technological innovation. It is time to use a different paradigm that is better suited to today’s reality.

On several occasions, I have heard those with dissenting opinions—a list that includes everyone from academics to Congressmen—lament the lack of destinations and schedules. Some have even taken the paucity of detail thus far available to indicate that there is no destination and that the human spaceflight program has been abandoned. To them, I would say: Mars has always been the stated ultimate destination for humans; the details of sequence and schedules for intermediate destinations need not be stated immediately to make sense of the investments proposed by President Obama’s plans, but are being assessed; and even if the human exploration program were being cancelled (which it most certainly is not), Americans would still be going to the ISS. Therefore, just because one chooses to ignore the framework that has been publicized does not mean said framework does not exist.

Others have expressed the concern that lack of a rigid schedule of destinations and timelines will mean that exploration will take place haphazardly, without an overlying strategy that would maintain political, economic, and public support. To them, I would say: we are no longer living in the Apollo era. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was quite correct when she recently pointed out that NASA has been trying and failing to duplicate the goal-time paradigm of program management in human spaceflight for the last 40 years and that Apollo was possible due only to a unique convergence of political will and technological innovation. It is time to use a different paradigm that is better suited to today’s reality.

When specifying program requirements, there are three factors that dictate the form the program will take: goal, time, and cost. Attempting to control all three of these factors when setting program requirements is a recipe for failure. One reason President Kennedy’s 1961 declaration—“that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”—is considered to have been a model for setting program requirements is because he only specified two factors: time and goal. Since cost was left uncontrolled—and the political will to maintain the high cost of such an ambitious program was sustained for the duration of the stated timeframe—the goal was successfully met. This paradigm is unlikely to lead to sustainable programs in the present climate of political disunity and economic uncertainty.

The fact is, that although President Kennedy’s vision was realized, at the time he proposed it the United States had a total of 15 minutes and 22 seconds of manned spaceflight experience. The timeframe he indicated was meant to instill the sense of urgency the program needed to surpass the Soviet Union’s technical superiority in heavy lift and experiential superiority in manned spaceflight and was, therefore, largely an informed political gambit. NASA’s response to President Kennedy’s challenge was to devise the Gemini Project and retool Project Apollo. These projects were designed to acquire the capabilities—technical, managerial, and experiential—needed to fulfill the stated goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Before determining the shape the project missions might take, NASA had to first decide which capabilities would be required. Acquiring these capabilities drove the mission requirements for the Gemini Project in particular.

It is this project that tested the techniques and technologies that NASA had to master before the final proving of the Apollo architecture. Some examples include: the achievement of mission durations of at least eight days, the minimum needed to go to the Moon, study it, and return; the ability to rendezvous and dock while in orbit; and the development and testing of spacesuits so astronauts could explore the lunar surface upon arrival. The systematized methodology employed in Project Gemini, and later in Apollo, ensured that all needed capabilities had been acquired in early missions before later missions were attempted. It is this milestone-driven schedule that I believe NASA is proposing for the new exploration program.

The new exploration program will be more akin to “Gemini on Steroids”, advancing the technology and techniques necessary to achieve the goal of sustainable human exploration through development of the infrastructure that will take humans to Mars and beyond.

What sets the new exploration program apart from Project Gemini is the variety of destinations available to act as proving grounds for acquiring the capabilities necessary for an eventual mission to Mars. For example, in situ resource utilization techniques could be tested on near Earth objects as well as on the Moon or even on Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos. This plethora of possible testbeds not only makes the missions more dynamic, but also increases the potential for public engagement through the exploration of new destinations. Also unlike Project Gemini, a system has been established by which potential methods of acquiring the needed capabilities are identified and funded at increasing levels as their efficacy is demonstrated. This multi-tiered system of innovation nourishment will allow the organic development of technology rather than the top-down dictation of requirements that NASA has adopted in the past and will produce more innovative options at less expense.

This new paradigm consists of: milestone-driven program requirements; missions whose goals are determined by the program requirements and whose variable destinations are chosen based on their compatibility with mission requirements; and use of technology that has been nourished in NASA’s refreshed innovation engine according to program-driven needs. This paradigm has been created to meet the strategic goal of reaching, exploring, and inhabiting multiple destinations in our solar system and will increase the sustainability of US-led human exploration.

The Constellation Program has been called “Apollo on Steroids” because it updated Apollo-era architectural concepts and destinations while retaining politically driven goal-setting techniques. Because it tried to control goal, time, and cost, Constellation lacked innovation and sustainability. The new exploration program will be more akin to “Gemini on Steroids”, advancing the technology and techniques necessary to achieve the goal of sustainable human exploration through development of the infrastructure that will take humans to Mars and beyond.


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