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Minotaur 4 launch
One future for NASA may involve leveraging its expertise in developing and managing spaceports for commercial customers, among other areas. (credit: J. Foust)

A new debate


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The first half of this year has been, at a minimum, very interesting and may be of seminal importance. In early February, President Obama announced his plans for NASA and then, in early June, came the successful launch of Falcon 9 carrying a boilerplate model of the Dragon spacecraft. Both events have generated a heated debate about the future of America’s space program and the relationship, roles, and relative merits of a government-funded agency and private enterprise.

As passionate as this debate has become (and it’s far from over) it fails to comprehend the seismic importance of these events and the far-reaching, game-changing effects they will have. Therefore we need to ask: Is this the right debate? Is it time to change the objective of the discussion from what to do with NASA, to thinking about the organizations that are vital to capture the opportunities of space in the future?

Interpreting the two events, it’s clear that the Obama plan marks the beginning of the endgame for NASA while the Falcon 9 triumph marks the dawn of what comes next: one of those, “The King is dead, long live the King” moments.

Is it time to change the objective of the discussion from what to do with NASA, to thinking about the organizations that are vital to capture the opportunities of space in the future?

It’s time to think the unthinkable: shifting the paradigm away from preserving a monolithic government space agency with private enterprise consigned to a mere supporting role, toward designing a new model where innovative private firms take the lead supported by organizations that may only be partly taxpayer-funded and will be expected, in time, to generate most of their own revenues.

The need to reimagine an organization is something every CEO has to undertake at some time. It often becomes necessary for the leader to ask the question: Are we organized in the right way to be successful in the future, and if not, what do we have to change to get us there? This is the moment when the CEO suspects that the whole organization may be less than the sum of its parts.

A way of approaching this problem is to look again at the organization through a new lens that, rather than seeing a monolithic structure of divisions and functions, focuses instead on the portfolio of capabilities that the organization has built up over time. A company will have competences in many areas, some of which it may want to retain and develop while allowing them greater autonomy, others might be spun off, some activities may be outsourced, and others shuttered. This could be the basis for deciding the fate of NASA: seeing it as a portfolio of capabilities and deciding how these can be separated out and deployed in new ways. The goal is to distance these new entities from the damaging impact of ever-fluctuating short-term political priorities and endless nickel-and-diming budget wrangles, instead transitioning them to a more commercially-minded, semi- or wholly-privatized productive existence.

Viewed in this way, NASA offers three main areas of capability that can be transformed into separate entities: planning complex missions, research and development in advanced systems and technologies, and provision of launch services. The principal roles of these bodies are outlined below.

Planning complex missions

NASA has a long history of planning complex missions and though the personnel involved will have changed over the years, the organization retains significant capability to undertake this work.

In its new role, the Mission Planning Group will provide a consultancy service to clients who wish to prepare for a particular project. It will create fully-costed plans evaluating different launch vehicle, spacecraft, and technology options, providing detailed specifications. The group may undertake negotiations on behalf of its clients with suppliers to procure off-the-shelf or custom-made systems or act as an advisor to those conducting their own contract negotiations.

The missions themselves may be for exploration and mapping using orbiting observatories or surface robotic rovers, as well as manned missions designed for short-term exploratory stays or longer-term surface sojourns that will require habitats for temporary or permanent accommodation. In short, any mission from LEO to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. (Astronaut selection and training could be outsourced to a private venture such as NASTAR).

The rapid growth of private space companies offers new opportunities at lower costs, enabling advocates to seriously consider mounting their own projects rather than lobbying government to do so.

The group’s clients will include the government and any of its agencies including the military, companies who want evaluate particular uses of near space or more distant resources for potential exploitation, universities and other research bodies for science projects, space advocacy groups who want to scope out a particular mission, and even organizations such as the National Geographic Society or environmental groups. Clients will be responsible for designing their own payloads, which they may build themselves or subcontract to other suppliers based on their own specifications.

The consultancy service offered need not be confined to domestic clients. It may also be provided to other countries that do not possess the range of skills and experience NASA has acquired but nevertheless wish to mount projects in space and need to understand the options, costs, and complexity involved (subject to ITAR while it lasts).

It is likely that the Mission Planning Group will require some government financing at the outset. This could be relatively modest since the group only need comprise a small number of permanent experts together with administrative functions; people with special expertise may be brought into the organization for short-term assignments on specific projects (as in DARPA). All clients, including domestic and foreign governments, will pay a fee for the consultancy service provided either on a per-project basis or a per diem basis for short-term work as appropriate. Over time the need for government funding should reduce as revenues rise. However, this group may also be asked to provide space-related educational outreach to schools and universities, which may be an area that attracts government funds.

One class of clients has already been mentioned, namely, space advocacy groups. We may be at a point in time where these bodies could think about moving from a proselytizing role to actual fundraising activities to conduct their missions of choice, as The Planetary Society is already doing. The rapid growth of private space companies offers new opportunities at lower costs, enabling advocates to seriously consider mounting their own projects rather than lobbying government to do so.

In performing its work the Mission Planning Group will frequently want to draw on the expertise and output of the next group.

Research and development

Based on NASA’s existing research facilities, the R&D Group will have a major ongoing role in developing a new range of technologies that will advance the nation’s ability to explore and exploit space.

There are many areas of research that will lead to major discoveries and inventions that private enterprise, in turn, will develop into seminal innovations. Among them are: advanced propulsion systems; advanced launchers and spaceship designs; advanced robotics; new forms of power generation and delivery; advanced space communications; human life-support systems for long duration flights, long stays on orbiting space platforms, and surface sojourns including safe habitats; advanced materials research and new manufacturing methods; and research into the long-term effects of the space environment on human health.

Like other research institutes, this body will be part-funded by government grants to conduct specific programs of national importance and by private industry on a fee-per-project basis. Over time it would be able to generate a potentially significant revenue stream from an intellectual property portfolio of discoveries and inventions that could be licensed or sold to private industry. It may also spin off startups in which it retains an interest for some time while the firm stabilizes and scales up, similar to the way Stanford University has spawned so many Silicon Valley ventures.

Taking the National Institutes of Health as a parallel, the R&D Group could also be a conduit for receiving government funds, which it would then deploy as grants to other research projects at schools, universities, technical institutes, and technology startups, where these may produce promising discoveries and inventions of importance for the space industry.

The R&D Group might also engage in educational outreach programs to enlist schools and universities in space studies. These may attract government funds, grants from charitable foundations that focus on educational projects, and even endowments.

Launch services group

From the Apollo era to the Shuttle age, NASA has had vast experience in building launch facilities and managing the complexities of launching vehicles into space. Now that America is on the verge of rapid growth in the commercial space sector, this capability could be harnessed to support the new industry.

At the dawn of a new age in space access, why should NASA retain its central role and relegate the commercial sector to peripheral supporting activities?

The Launch Services Group would provide, maintain, and build new launch facilities and control centers to serve private space firms as well as government programs. The group may also provide telemetry monitoring and data processing services to smaller clients, spaceport design and engineering consultancy to other launch-site developers, space traffic control, and monitoring the near-Earth environment to identify and track hazards such as space weather and the orbiting space junk. Revenue would be raised through takeoff and landing fees and other levies to support the “common good” services such as space traffic control. In addition, the group would charge fees for consultancy to spaceport developers at home as well as overseas. The government would be just one of the clients paying for the services of this group.

Regarding space traffic control, the number of launches can be expected to rise substantially in the future as more of the private companies stabilize their hardware and begin regular operations. The need to coordinate launch activity from many sites across the country will become a pressing need and will require greater coordination with air traffic control. When spacegoing activity reaches some threshold point it may be necessary to combine air and space traffic control in one organization.

Why do this?

Imagine that the government decided to establish the first airline, built airports in the few cities it chose to serve, and commissioned custom-built airplanes to fly the routes, all with taxpayers’ money funding a large organization headed by a political appointee to run the operation. Go further and imagine the skies filling up with off-the-shelf airplanes produced by private firms and flown by commercial airlines serving myriad airports across the country and overseas. In this scenario, what would be the point of the government clinging on to its airline operation and debating whether it will continue to fund only limited short-haul services while leaving intercontinental services until some vague future date with indeterminate funding? This is pretty much what happens with government’s control over NASA—it is set up to fail.

With no viable alternative in sight, this model made sense if the United States wanted to establish a commanding presence in space. However, the situation will be radically different going forward. SpaceShipOne proved the potential and Falcon 9 powerfully demonstrated the capability of private enterprise to successfully design, build, and fly sophisticated hardware. At the dawn of a new age in space access, why should NASA retain its central role and relegate the commercial sector to peripheral supporting activities? This is a crumbs-off-the-table approach rather than giving private enterprise its head. Better to utilize NASA’s capabilities in new, wealth-generating ways to support the commercial sector.

Indeed, without the need to support the old NASA, the question arises: How many space programs will politicians choose to fund? If the answer is between few and zero, then perhaps they never were motivated by a grand vision for space exploration but simply saw NASA as a jobs-creation agency. How many politicians have campaigned and been elected on a platform to aggressively pursue any space program? Even if such a paragon was elected, there would be a thousand other priorities demanding attention and money; the space effort would rapidly slide down the list into the “Nice to have—one day” section. This is a fact of life: NASA has never and will never overcome that constraint no matter how much we may wish it could or how many talented people work for the agency.

NASA should be reconfigured as the servant of industry not the other way around, with its capabilities deployed in more productive ways in the service of that industry and the nation.

America is the preeminent spacefaring nation. It is also the world leader in discovery, invention, and innovation. Restructuring its space efforts in the way described above will spur innovation and enhance the nation’s pre-eminence. As the frequency of launches increases the companies involved will rapidly climb the learning curve. Greater access to space at lower cost will enable a significant increase in science, technology, industrial, and commercial projects, as well as suborbital or orbital tourism, with some or all of these missions utilizing commercial space stations such as those being developed by Bigelow. Within a relatively short time frame there may be more launches in a month (or a week) than all the world’s centralized space agencies combined will undertake in a year. This will deliver a unique advantage to America in space and a dramatic boost to its economy here on Earth.

If the government does decide to undertake a mission of national or international importance, or chooses to fund “Lewis and Clark” exploration missions, then contracts can be negotiated with the three groups outlined above to plan the mission including use of commercially available hardware, research any new vehicles or technologies required and contract for their construction, and then manage the launch—all for the appropriate fees.

President Obama campaigned on a theme of change—here’s one to work on.

What comes next?

The ideas in this article are intended to be a thought-starter to promote a new, and I believe, more exciting and fruitful discussion. Clearly there is a mass of details to be worked out and I have deliberately not attempted to address them; that needs a book, not an article. But let us focus on priority #1, which is to agree on this principle: NASA should be reconfigured as the servant of industry not the other way around, with its capabilities deployed in more productive ways in the service of that industry and the nation. What split is appropriate, how long it might take, how it is funded and much more comes later.

This requires all of us to climb the opposite of the learning curve: the forgetting curve. When changing an organization and what it does becomes a matter of urgency, people not only have to learn the new, they must also let go of the old. The status quo may be comfortable but it is never the way forward.

In case all of this strikes you as too radical, then consider: as taxpayers you own NASA therefore its fate is rightly in your hands, so put it out of its misery.

Who will be the champion?

Having argued to break up one organization I am now asking for a new one.

There are more space advocacy groups than anyone can shake a stick at. But to promote anything like the ideas I’ve outlined, one powerful group needs to take it to Washington. It may be unreasonable to expect the existing groups to merge into one but they might consider forming a meta-group that would represent all of them and their various objectives in space. Ideally this would be lead by a nationally-known and respected person who can open doors and get his or her phone calls answered. An exemplar would be Charlton Heston, who was the point man for the NRA: everybody knew who he was, what he stood for, and the strength of his views. I’m sure you’ll have your own nominations for this role but whoever it is they’ll need gravitas.

It’s the beginning of a post-NASA world. How will we now organize to capture the limitless opportunities in space?

Let’s debate that.


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