Direction for Space Needed

Alice and cheshire catA recently released report by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) has examined the current activities and future strategic direction of the U.S. civil space program.  The report concluded that NASA’s space program doesn’t have a direction and is unlikely to make significant progress without one.  And for this impasse, the report points to the nation’s political leadership.

Congress directed the NRC to undertake this study in 2011 in response to the administration discarding the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – a move undertaken without consulting Congress.  In place of the VSE vague notions were offered for developing new technology and the promise of future human missions to a near-Earth asteroid and possibly the moons of Mars.  No rationale or mission objective was outlined for these supposed goals and it was feared that this apparent lack of strategic direction was irretrievably destroying a national capability.

The NRC study found there was little support inside or outside the agency for a human asteroid mission.  They noted that over the years NASA has adopted many mission statements and objectives and that the verbiage has become increasingly vague with the passage of time.  The latest “vision statement” for the agency doesn’t even mention space (or aeronautics, for that matter), a curious omission for NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Ironically, the report noted that in 2008, the administration and the Congress, each under the control of different parties, both endorsed the VSE as the strategic direction in the authorization act of that year.  This political consensus was discarded without any debate (or even discussion) by the administration in 2010.  Subsequently, the new NASA authorization was a compromise between Congress and the administration, whereby the building of a new heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion crew vehicle, as well as funding for commercial crew transport to ISS, was allowed to proceed.  That plan of action however, was done amidst the confusion surrounding our strategic direction – the nation’s ultimate goals and objectives in space.

The new NRC report offered four possible fixes to this dilemma:

• Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs and improve efficiency;

• Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners;

• Increase the size of the NASA budget;

• Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile.

Interestingly, the report does not state the obvious conclusion – that if the first option has any validity, the last two options are not only pointless but actually undesirable from the standpoint of wise governing practice.  Why should we spend more money on something perceived to be of marginal value?  On the other hand, if the agency could be “restructured” to accomplish its mission with the current budgetary profile, why wouldn’t it be?

This report is a damning indictment of NASA and our current lack of direction in space.  The agency responded to it by reciting the roster of its current activities, with spokesman Doug Weaver issuing this statement:

“We’re fully utilizing the International Space Station; developing a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle capable of taking American astronauts into deep space; facilitating development of commercial capabilities for cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit; expanding our technological capabilities for the human and robotic missions of today and tomorrow; pursuing a robust portfolio of science missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope; developing faster and cleaner aircraft and inspiring the next generation of exploration leaders.”

Marcia Smith, a member of the NRC panel, responded with the wry observation that “If it takes you that many phrases to explain it, then you do not have a crisp, clear strategic vision.”  I have often expressed a similar thought – if you can’t state your mission in a single sentence, then you probably don’t know what it is.

Perhaps none of the four options outlined by the NRC report can successfully alter the current malaise of the agency.  Attempts to reform the way of doing business in the past have been less than successful.  Like most government entities, NASA is resistant to change and even more so to taking direction.  Much of the intent of the VSE was actively and continuously fought by elements within NASA.  If there is little enthusiasm for a human mission to a near Earth asteroid, that pattern is simply a continuation of the internal agency resistance to the lunar mission of the VSE.

Could a different approach be more productive?  During the past week, Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt spoke at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.  In the course of his talk, he once again outlined his proposal to replace the existing space agency with a new one specifically chartered to conduct human space missions beyond low Earth orbit, structured so as to permit new ideas and fresh thinking to get a fair hearing and if valid, implemented.  Certainly the NRC report could be read to lend support to such a suggestion.

The world has noticed that the United States is accomplishing less and less in space.  Actions speak louder than words.  Even though we continue to spend significant amounts of money on our space program, we get less for it and have no clear direction or goals.  Not knowing your strategic direction is one thing and not understanding how to fulfill it is another, but not acknowledging what is recognized by so many – that our space program is broken – is the most aimless and dangerous direction of all.

Vision Impaired

First, Nail Down the Mission

Would More Money Improve NASA?

NASA’s New Mission and the Cult of Management

Paradigms Lost

Vision Statements for Non-visionaries

 

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15 Responses to Direction for Space Needed

  1. Pingback: Mission: Tomorrow » Direction for Space Needed | Spudis Lunar Resources

  2. A small, permanently manned, water, air, and fuel producing outpost at one of the lunar poles is essential for any nation interested in dramatically reducing the cost of space travel while also rapidly expanding its economic and strategic realm to the rest of the solar system.

    This has been obvious, IMO, since significant amounts of water was detected at the lunar poles.

    Every poll that I’ve conducted and every poll that I’ve seen has shown lot’s of public interest in developing a permanent outpost on the lunar surface whether your on the left or on the right. But there was little public support for any manned asteroid missions. And China, Russia, Japan and Europe have all expressed interest in establishing a permanent human presence on the surface of the Moon.

    NASA needs to focus on establishing a permanent water, air, and fuel producing outpost on the lunar surface by the early 2020s. Once that’s done, it will be easy, IMO, to use the infrastructure developed for such a lunar outpost program to establish a similar permanent presence on the moons of Mars (Deimos and Phobos) and on the surface of Mars by the early 2030′s.

    I think outsourcing America’s space program for the sake of international cooperation (the ISS program, Russian manned launch services, and now the MPCV Service Module) has been a mistake that has not saved this country any money– but has only cost us jobs. However, helping private American companies to develop their own manned spaceflight capability while still maintaining a viable Federal manned space program is mutually beneficial to NASA and to private industry.

    Even if you increased NASA’s entire budget by 50%, NASA would still represent less than 1% of annual Federal expenditures. But all that’s really needed to have a sustainable Federal manned space program is only a 50% increase in the– manned spaceflight related expenditures– that President Obama inherited from George Bush.

    The first year that Obama was in office, NASA was spending about $3 billion a year on the Shuttle, $2 billion a year on the ISS, and $3.4 billion a year on the Constellation program. A 50% increase in an annual $8.4 billion dollar a year manned spaceflight related budget ($12.6 billion a year) should be plenty enough funding for the next ten to twenty years to establish a permanent human presence on the surface of the Moon, the moons of Mars, and on the surface of Mars while also continuing the ISS and Commercial Crew Development programs. And it should be even easier, once NASA no longer has to fund the ISS and Commercial Crew development programs after the end of this decade.

    We really need to stop being penny wise and pound foolish with NASA’s manned space program!

    Marcel F. Williams

  3. Warren Platts says:

    Paul, (excellent distillation of a rather long and dry report BTW) do you think that the NRC report might possibly result in a reorientation back to the Moon once again?

    • Paul Spudis says:

      do you think that the NRC report might possibly result in a reorientation back to the Moon once again?

      If it did, would NASA do any better this time than they did last time?

    • Warren Platts says:

      Right. I see what you’re saying: it could wind up being a sequel to the CxP movie starring Eros V, especially if the Mars faction retains control–the architecture would still be for Mars, costing $150B+, and take decades to unfold.

      However, the one thing that’s changed is now there appears on the horizon a semi-viable, “commercial” proposal that’s nearly an order of magnitude cheaper than even the 2009 ULA “commercial” architecture. IF the NASA was ordered to forget about NEA’s and focus on the Moon for now, it would seem hard to argue against NOT availing themselves with surface missions for $1.5B each.

      Sure, these would be simple, sample return missions leaving no lasting infrastructure, but what we need right now are scouting missions: these human missions would be cheap enough to serve the function of robotic precursor missions that have little political support–Decadal Survey doesn’t want to divert money to Lunar missions, and the HSF department doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on robots. For $3B/year, you could have two, high-quality, hand picked sample return missions per year.

      I realize that “commercial space” is something of a misnomer; yet nevertheless these guys seem able to get things done for a lot less than people at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Politically, we could sell it as the only practical way to beat the Chinese back to the Moon! ;-)

  4. gbaikie says:

    “The report concluded that NASA’s space program doesn’t have a direction and is unlikely to make significant progress without one. And for this impasse, the report points to the nation’s political leadership.”

    This like blaming political leadership for losing a war. The military is responsible for winning or losing a war. The military should not expect too much help from political leadership.
    The main thing the political leadership does is start a war.
    The political leadership started NASA, and it is NASA responsibility to make political leadership have easier time managing NASA.
    Because generally, political leadership are generally hopeless.

    Ask yourselves does NASA actually want to be ruled by political leadership, or would rather keep these guys in the dark and feed them manure?
    The NASA bureaucracy is unmanageable, just like all government bureaucracies. So it seems to me NASA owns this war it is losing.
    And about only political leadership available is fire all of the upper management: because they are ultimately not doing their jobs, and to shake up the joint- and therefore putting political leadership in charge.

    Problem is the political leadership doesn’t want to be in charge. So they pay the big bucks to top management to do it. Who then waste the public’s time and money, and bend to political pressure
    from political leadership.
    If they were not screwing up, they would not need to bend so much to political leadership, instead they would bend the political leadership. But this requires talent- and brown nosing isn’t the talent needed.

    “Congress directed the NRC to undertake this study in 2011 in response to the administration discarding the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – a move undertaken without consulting Congress. In place of the VSE vague notions were offered for developing new technology and the promise of future human missions to a near-Earth asteroid and possibly the moons of Mars. No rationale or mission objective was outlined for these supposed goals and it was feared that this apparent lack of strategic direction was irretrievably destroying a national capability.”

    But this years after NASA had already screw up Bush’s NASA direction. NASA was given adequate political leadership, and it failed to take the ball.
    Obama has no leadership skill, and he could not managed a lemonade stand. Which is isn’t hugely different than other presidents. Considering this, Obama is providing NASA more opportunity to lead. It’s not Obama’s fault. Obama could doing a far worse job in regarding NASA, if Obama wanted [or was interested] to lead NASA.
    So Obama didn’t screw up things up for NASA, Obama was simply following the Bush lead as best he was able to do. Problem was NASA was a mess in terms of direction [before Obama got into office], rather than going in the right direction and that somehow Obama or Congress messed it up.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      This like blaming political leadership for losing a war. The military is responsible for winning or losing a war

      Guess what — political leadership can and does lose wars, like Vietnam.

      But this years after NASA had already screw up Bush’s NASA direction. NASA was given adequate political leadership, and it failed to take the ball

      Yes, and I have written on the same for the past two years.

      My purpose here is not to “assign blame” for the current mess of space policy, but to try to identify a way forward. What struck me as I read the NRC report was how it lent support to Jack Schmitt’s proposal for the creation of a new entity to execute our civil space program. In effect, the NRC report concludes that: 1) we currently have no long-range strategic direction in space; and 2) if we had one, it is unlikely that the current agency would be able to execute it (NB: they did not say this — I am simply reading their report and taking its conclusions at face value.)

      • gbaikie says:

        “In effect, the NRC report concludes that: 1) we currently have no long-range strategic direction in space; and 2) if we had one, it is unlikely that the current agency would be able to execute it ”

        Well, I could agree with this.
        But this does not change political leadership, it gives the job of NASA executives to a body which could possibly be more trustworthy.
        And/or perhaps such a body could be more objective.

        Though no guarantees on either of those points.
        And one could say one of the main purposes of NASA is to be such a body.

        I would say a fundamental aspect of NASA is to help political leaders steer a path in a potential future which may involves opening the space frontier.

        We could replace NASA. Or give NASA some competition in this task- at least we might get some oppositional viewpoints.
        This might reduce NASA lying [yes, spinning is kinder term] to Congress by some amount.

        But no doubt some could make the argument that money would corrupt it [or dingbats will corrupt it] but I would say power and distraction from purpose [the normal things] is a better explanation- but not the only problem, or major problem

        One could do things which could be as successful or better in terms of re-organizing NASA.
        But, there nothing stopping NASA from getting it’s act together- other than it’s executives.

        But maybe all that’s needed is firing some executives who are slightly
        more socialist than average, and then focus on starting markets in space.

  5. Nixon, a Republican, and a Democrat dominated Congress decided to end NASA’s beyond LEO program and to decommission NASA’s beyond LEO infrastructure back in the early 1970s. Politically, this was pretty easy to do since the Soviet Union had backed out of any manned beyond LEO efforts after the Apollo Moon landings.

    NASA has always had an internal war between those who felt that too much money is spent on manned space travel and too little has been spent on the robotic exploration of space. However, I think it is clear that NASA’s greatest glory since the end of the Apollo era has been its robotic exploration of space. NASA has sent robots to the surface of Mars, probes to the outer planets, and spectacular observations of the universe have been made from the Hubble telescope. There is simply no private or public space organization that even comes close to what NASA has accomplished in space over the past 40 years with its unmanned machines. Its simply astonishing!

    But since the end of Apollo, NASA’s manned space program has simply been a make-work program for astronauts: mere symbols of NASA’s former era of manned space pioneering.

    As the new era of private commercial manned space programs rapidly approaches there are now many libertarians who believe that NASA really shouldn’t have a manned space program at all!

    But a public manned space program has a totally different agenda than private profit based commercial space programs. So there is no need for one to eliminate the other since both private and public space programs are mutually beneficial to each other.

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Eric Hedman says:

      People keep forgetting it was Johnson, not Nixon, who shutdown production of Saturn V rockets before Nixon even took office.

      • Johnson had 17 Saturn V rockets built. So there was no logical reason for Johnson to continue building more Saturn V rockets at that time since his administration would be over in January of 1969. In fact, only one manned Saturn V mission occurred during his remaining time in office (Apollo 8).

        But enough Saturn V rockets were already built by the Johnson administration to continue the Apollo program well past Nixon’s first term in office. If Nixon wanted more, he could have had more built. And all kinds of post Apollo options were presented to him by NASA for the utilization of the Saturn V. But Nixon wouldn’t even use the last two Saturn V rockets he had available to him.

        Marcel F. Williams

    • Warren Platts says:

      If we can get the cost of crewed missions to the Moon down to on the order of $1B, that’s competitive with the cost of sophisticated rover missions. This would allow a lot of basic Lunar, planetary science to be done on the Exploration dime, resulting in effect a transfer payment to the SMD, but without resulting in more robotic spacecraft.

  6. Robert Clark says:

    Hello again Warren. I believe it can be brought down to the few hundred million dollar range if the Falcon Heavy is available since it could be done using a single launch by following the Early Lunar Access architecture, http://www.astronautix.com/craft/earccess.htm .

    Bob Clark

  7. gbaikie says:

    “If we can get the cost of crewed missions to the Moon down to on the order of $1B, that’s competitive with the cost of sophisticated rover missions. ”

    Per crew, that should be fairly easy, $1B per 4 crew might be a bit harder.

    Economics, might say bigger crew and staying longer, but fewer crew
    and staying shorter is actually more economical for NASA.

    Or a commercial enterprise is always going to try for bigger crew
    [more passengers] and staying longer.
    But NASA isn’t a commercial enterprise. NASA should be a non-commercial
    enterprise, which is always attempting to assist US commerce and commerce in
    general [in regard to space activities].

    So, think NASA should focus on 1 or 2 crew, shorter time periods on the Moon
    and more trips to Moon.
    And similar with Manned Mars. Though a big advantage of the Moon as
    compared to Mars is you do shorter trips, fewer crew and more trips.

  8. Pingback: Growing Interest in Lunar Resources | Spudis Lunar Resources Blog

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