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SLS illustration
As NASA works on the Space Launch System (above), the Orion spacecraft, and other elements of its exploration architecture, does the agency need a clearer definition of the goals of its human spaceflight program? (credit: NASA)

Seeking direction for space exploration

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On paper, at least, NASA’s human space exploration program has a clear direction in front of it. Two years ago this month, in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Barack Obama gave NASA its marching orders: a human mission to an asteroid by 2025, a human mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, followed by a landing on the Red Planet without a specified date, but soon enough thereafter that the now-50-year-old Obama said, “I expect to be around to see it.”

That set of goals, and the work underway on what are likely to be two of the key, if controversial, building blocks of the architecture to achieve those goals—the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft—give the appearance that NASA is moving full stream ahead on those exploration plans. Yet may feel uneasy about that plan, unconvinced that the goals and NASA’s implementation of that presidential direction are sustainable. In an era where a flat budget is considered a fiscal triumph, can NASA find a way to fit an ambitious exploration program within a tight budget, or else come up with a compelling case for such missions that can make the public and Congress willing to loosen their pursestrings a bit?

Exploration insomnia

One person who raises questions about NASA’s approach is Steve Squyres, the Cornell University planetary scientist who is the principal investigator of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) mission and serves as chairman of the NASA Advisory Council. Appearing at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium last week in the Washington, DC, suburbs, Squyres devoted his plenary talk to what he said keeps him up at night.

Sqyures said he doesn’t worry much about the perennial problem of long-term programs over shorter-term political cycles. “Losing sleep over stuff like that is like losing sleep over death and taxes: you’re going to do it, but it’s not going to do you much good.”

Squyres said he didn’t lose sleep over many of the day-to-day issues that dominate space policy debate, like the current gap in US human spaceflight capability that requires NASA to purchase seats on Soyuz flights to the ISS. “The fact that we are reliant on a foreign partner to access space right now is unfortunate, but I actually don’t lose a lot of sleep over this,” he said. “This is a temporary aberration in how we get astronauts into space.”

Likewise, he seemed satisfied with several aspects of NASA’s plan, including the development of SLS and Orion, as well as the agency’s commercial crew initiative. “I’ve become a true believer on commercial crew,” he said. While human spaceflight isn’t easy, he said that after half a century we should be at the point where crew transportation “should be routine enough that we can safely turn it over to competent commercial enterprises” and let NASA focus on exploration beyond Earth orbit.

Even the challenge of trying to do long-term missions within a political framework that functions on much shorter timeframes doesn’t faze Squyres much. “These are things that I lose some sleep over,” he said, “but to be honest, it’s always been this way, and it’s going to continue to be this way. Losing sleep over stuff like that is like losing sleep over death and taxes: you’re going to do it, but it’s not going to do you much good.”

So what issues that can be addressed keep Squyres up at night? He said it’s the lack of identification of the “next piece”, the components and systems needed to carry out human missions to destinations beyond Earth. For a mission to the Moon, he said, that would be the lander; for missions to near-Earth asteroids, it’s the life support systems needed for the multi-month voyages to the asteroid and back. “This I do lose a little sleep over,” he said.

“I do feel that, in the absence of that missing piece, it is harder than we would like it to be to clearly articulate to our stakeholders and to our workforce what the agency is trying to achieve,” he said. “In the absence of that, it makes it harder to get the job done.”

If NASA had a straightforward statement of the goals of its human space exploration program, Squyres said, “it would be a lot easier for us to clearly articulate those goals and to make those decisions going forward.”

A related, and more fundamental, issue in Squyres’s eyes is the lack of a clear statement of requirements for human spaceflight. He noted that the Mars Exploration Rovers mission had a half-page “mission success statement” that described the high-level requirements for the mission. “It provided an incredibly clear, crisp definition of what it was we were trying to do,” he said. “It lent a crystalline clarity to every single decision we ever had to make.” While there were times in the mission’s development, he recalled, they wondered if they would be able to do the mission, “there was never a moment when any of us questioned what it was we were trying to do.”

NASA’s human spaceflight program, he argued, could benefit from something similar. “I believe that if our human spaceflight enterprise has a clearer definition, something along these lines,” he said, pointing to the MER statement projected on the screen, “of what it is that we were trying to achieve, it would be a lot easier for us to clearly articulate those goals and to make those decisions going forward.”

NASA has also received that message from Sqyures through the NASA Advisory Council. One of the recommendations the council gave to NASA last month, after its most recent meeting, was to select a specific destination for human exploration, as well as the interim steps towards that long-term destination, as soon as possible. “Given the budget reality and development time for new hardware and software… now is the time to pick a specific destination in order to focus the NASA, international agencies and contractor teams on a specific destination, such as Mars,” the council’s recommendation stated.

Roadmaps and studies

Some at NASA believe they have destinations and rationale for human spaceflight clearly in place. “Why are we doing this, and where are we going?” asked Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, in a panel at the Goddard Memorial Symposium after Sqyures’s speech. “Why are we doing this? Well, it’s important. It matters to everything we do.” As for destinations, he said, “We are going to Mars. We are going to destinations between here and Mars: asteroids, the Moon, whatever it might be. But we are going places.”

Regarding destinations, another NASA official, John Olson, pointed out the work done by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, a group of 14 space agencies, including NASA, that have worked together to develop potential “roadmaps” for human space exploration beyond Earth. Its report, released last September, identifies two specific paths, both eventually leading to Mars. The main difference is the first destination beyond Earth orbit: one is an “Asteroid Next” approach that would go a near Earth asteroid, followed by the Moon and eventually Mars; the “Moon Next” alternative would start with a human return to the Moon before going to an asteroid and then Mars. “These are the amalgam of the international thought” on space exploration architectures, Olson said.

“We’re looking at a lot of options,” Dumbacher said of potential mission concepts. “We have to make sure we go through the right analysis to ferret out what the problems might be.”

Yet, it would seem that only one of those approaches, Asteroid Next, would be compatible with current US national policy as articulated by President Obama in his KSC speech two years ago. Does this create the potential for conflict should other nations decide the Moon Next approach is preferable? Olson said no, noting that the roadmaps are nonbinding documents, and that US policy is still based on going to asteroids first as part of a multi-destination approach. “The bottom line is a sustainable and affordable effort to have humans explore beyond low Earth orbit,” he said.

Olson added that NASA is working on a “180-day report” directed by Congress in the agency’s 2012 appropriations bill to refine its exploration plans, including discussions of specific destinations and objectives of future human exploration missions. That report, he said, will be completed by the end of this month. Additional internal studies are refining those exploration plans, he noted.

“We’re looking at a lot of options,” Dumbacher said. “We have to make sure we go through the right analysis to ferret out what the problems might be, what the ‘unknown unknowns’ might be, and sort through, based on our best experience and our best knowledge, how we would technically implement some of these options.”

Others are putting their hopes on an upcoming study that has been likened to a decadal study for human spaceflight. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed the space agency to contract with the National Academies in fiscal year 2012 for “a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight.” That study, which will provide recommendations for the period 2014 through 2023, is designed to be very broad, incorporating viewpoints from the scientific, commercial, and even national security communities.

At the Goddard Symposium, Olson said work on that study had yet to begin in earnest. The National Research Council’s board of governors recently reviewed and approved the “statement of task” for the project and submitted to NASA a detailed proposal for performing the study, he said. “It is focusing on the enduring questions, the rationale, the why,” he said of the upcoming study. “It is looking to be a fairly comprehensive activity, with several esteemed folks on panel.”

As currently planned, he added, the study would continue through the delivery of the committee’s final report in August 2014. That’s raised some concerns about just how effective such a study would be, especially if it calls for significant changes in how human spaceflight activities are carried out. By mid-2014 either the Obama Administration will be approaching its final two years in office and thus have little incentive to change course, or a new administration (if the eventual Republican nominee defeats Obama in this November’s election) will have already had the opportunity to put its own stamp on space policy.

In the meantime human spaceflight advocates will have to work to shore up their arguments for human space exploration, work on specific destinations, and refine their plans for carrying out proposed missions. Otherwise, in an environment where budget cuts, like the looming budget sequestration that could cut NASA’s budget by nearly ten percent unless counteracted by Congress, dominate the discussion, there will be plenty for space advocates to lose sleep about in the months to come.