Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Throngs of excited participants crowd a recent NASA Technology Day

Throngs of excited participants crowd a recent NASA Technology Day exposition. (NASA)

In their own inimitable style, the latest NASA re-org has been trumpeted with the release of a platitude-filled announcement.  A new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has been founded to “be a catalyst for the creation of technologies and innovation needed to maintain NASA leadership in space while also benefiting America’s economy.”  This new directorate will supervise a “portfolio of investment” in a variety of key identified technologies needed to send humans “to an asteroid and Mars.”

This event is not surprising, as technology development was a key part of this administration’s 2010 re-vectoring of the agency.   Direction for the space program in part followed recommendations from the report of the 2009 Augustine Committee, which concluded that development of several new key space technologies were needed to enable human missions beyond LEO.

What, if anything, is wrong with this development?  Why not use a fraction of the agency’s budget to develop all those great new gadgets that will allow us to forge ahead in space?  In short, the issues in technology research are focus and pace.  Are we developing the right technology and will it be available in a timely manner?  Even more importantly, which technology needs are most pressing?  This is not merely a question of organizational or economic efficiency but one of actually producing real flight systems for genuine missions –assuming, of course, that is your true eventual goal.

The agency has a long tradition of creating roadmaps, documents that lay out certain technical needs and wants and the order in which they will need them.  Prior to the creation of this new mission directorate, NASA had an Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT), whose job was to set forth the paths by which certain technologies would be available at certain times.  Apparently, the OCT will still exist, but under the new Associate Administrator in the new STMD.  In fact, if you compare the “About Us” pages of the two offices, it is difficult to see much difference between them; they even highlight the same video.  According to the press release, the “Office of the Chief Technologist also will continue to develop strategic innovative partnerships, manage agency-level competitions and prize activities, as well as document and communicate the societal impacts of the agency’s technology efforts.”  So why create this new directorate?

I suspect that the real rationale for this newest layer of management and oversight is yet another attempt by the agency to convince people that we still have a viable space program and that we are going to forge ahead into the Solar System with a dazzling array of new and exciting machinery (“Phasers on stun, Mr. Sulu!”).  It certainly is true that some new technology development is needed to move humans significantly beyond LEO, but much of what we need (at least for the initial steps) is already in hand.  What is sorely lacking is the will to fly such missions.

Careful reading of the charter of this new directorate reveals a possible motivation for its creation:

By investing in bold, broadly applicable, disruptive technology that industry cannot tackle today, STMD seeks to mature the technology required for NASA’s future missions in science and exploration while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost for other government agencies and commercial space activities.  Research and technology development takes place within NASA Centers, in academia and industry, and leverages partnerships with other government agencies and international partners.  (link)

There’s that key word that we’ve seen many times before – “investing.”  In other words, the new directorate will dole out money.  Once again, the agency widget shop is open for business, with NASA Centers, academia and industry being the recipients of this taxpayer largess.  NASA’s mission statement is flexible: “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”   Note well:  space isn’t even mentioned in that mission statement – such a broad, unfocused direction makes it entirely suitable for funding technology development that doesn’t take NASA beyond low Earth obit, but redirects its ever shrinking budget to administration favorites like Earth observation and other various and sundry “green” directions.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with developing technology, but it should be done with purpose.  Unless you know exactly what you need and why you need it, you may build the best new widget available anywhere, but it may have no practical use or benefit.  Traditionally, whenever the agency “invests” in technology, a lot of hobby shop projects result.  If the widget doesn’t work at all or as well as anticipated, the design can be modified during next year’s proposal cycle.  On the other hand, if we are trying to build a real flight system, we have specific capability and performance goals that must be met on some schedule.  These goals act as a forcing function to make decisions, complete a development, get balky equipment to work, and conduct a flight mission.  In other words, we get the development of useful technology by setting requirements and flying missions, not by funding somebody’s science fair project.  True enough, pure research sometimes leads to promising breakthroughs, but such happens more often by chance than by plan – you might develop something useful eventually, though having a deadline more likely will lead to a technology breakthrough, than would random spending on somebody’s idea for the latest gadget.

Thus, NASA joins the long roster of other federal agencies that have turned away from the actual accomplishment of some mission or activity to one that promises to develop the means to carry out some mission or activity.  But this new path does offer one operational benefit to NASA – by “investing” in technology development, the undertaking of any actual mission can be indefinitely postponed.  “We’re just not ready to go anywhere – we need (fill-in-the-blank) technology first.”  There is less pressure on the agency to successfully conduct a space mission.  At the same time, the new path serves two additional purposes – it throws up a smokescreen to make the public think that you are accomplishing something with their tax money and at the same time, feeds (i.e., funds) the people who are your principal constituents, in this case, those in academia and industry that approve of the new direction.

Much process and no product.  America’s new normal.

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9 Responses to Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

  1. billgamesh says:

    “But this new path does offer one operational benefit to NASA – by “investing” in technology development, the undertaking of any actual mission can be indefinitely postponed. “We’re just not ready to go anywhere – we need (fill-in-the-blank) technology first.”

    We have all the technology needed to set up a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. Any missions BELO (Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit) will require some form of nuclear propulsion. LEO is not the place to assemble, test, and launch such nuclear missions. If the propulsion system is high thrust and high ISP then “fast” missions to mars without a massive radiation shield might be practical. But Mars is not the best destination- all the interesting places to go are moons in the outer solar system. Mars seems to be “just close enough” but all things considered I do not believe so.
    As for an asteroid mission that is a waste of time; no possible value in such a human mission.

    A Moonbase near the polar ice deposits is the only logical place to go.

    As for new technology- what kind of propulsion system is going to be used? Nuclear Thermal Rockets seem the easy (cheap) way to go but really there is no cheap.

    Whatever form of nuclear propulsion is used it will be assembled, tested, and launched from a Moonbase.

    Anything else is just a waste of time.

  2. Stanley Clark says:

    I don’t remember which Greek it was that said “We reoranize every so often to give the appearance of progress.” This appears to be one of those reoraniztions.

  3. The top priority of America’s– manned– space program should be focused on utilizing extraterrestrial resources to establish a permanent human presence beyond the surface of the Earth while also finding out if it is even biologically possible for humans to permanently live and reproduce beyond the Earth’s environment. Such knowledge would have enormous implications for the economic, sociological, and biological future of our civilization and our species.

    Humans are obviously not going to live and reproduce in a microgravity environment until we finally deploy rotating structures that can produce artificial gravity. Yet there is no serious artificial gravity program at NASA.

    We also need to find out if humans and other animals can permanently adapt and reproduce under the low gravity environments on the surface of the Moon and Mars without any serious deleterious effects. Yet this administration doesn’t even want to place permanent outposts on the Moon and Mars.

    Just being content with humans floating around in inherently deleterious microgravity environments, as we have for the last 40 years since the end of Apollo, or funding manned stunts to the asteroids is a huge waste of tax payer dollars.

    NASA needs to be allowed to focus its manned spaceflight efforts on pioneering the solar system again so that privateers can use that knowledge to colonize and industrialize the New Frontier.

    Its that simple, IMO.

    Marcel F. Williams

  4. Somehow, the Obama space strategy feels more and more like one of those “heist” movies where the Brinks truck gets diverted down a deserted detour, and something really bad for American space exploration is just around the corner.

    Constellation had it’s flaws, but at least we had a destination and a clear plan to get there, like in the days of Apollo when every NASA employee had a printed sign, prominently displayed, that simply said: “The Moon”

  5. Ron says:

    I agree with the points in the article. Great article, Paul!

    I would enhance what you wrote by adding further that there’s a lot of remote control or telerobitics work which could be done right now on the Moon (e.g., establishing ground truth for orbital observations, finding concentrations of various ores, doing exploratory drilling for ice at the poles, etc.) using existing ETO launchers like Delta IV and Atlas 5. These telerobots could be delivered to the lunar surface with landers which would require no new breakthrough technologies. Landing such telerobots on the Moon would require neither SLS nor propellant depots nor any form of unobtanium.

    We can get started on the road to ISRU and sustainability in space using the technologies we already have in hand now.

  6. billgamesh says:

    Ron brings up a good question; why have there never been any rover missions on the Moon? I mean, Gee whiz, we should have had little robots rolling all over the poles twenty years ago.
    It must be incredibly frustrating for the intelligentsia (the smart Phd’s who know the Moon is the next place to go. Not Mars, not an asteroid, not another space station- the place where there is water and solar energy and material to build a colony.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      why have there never been any rover missions on the Moon?

      Such was planned as part of the precursor robotic program associated with lunar return. The first polar rover mission was postponed to support cost issues with the Ares I development. When the VSE was cancelled, that mission went away completely.

    • Ron says:

      By the way… Opportunity has driven 22.11 miles in a decade on Mars. Soon, its odometry might surpass that of Lunokhod 2, which drove 23 miles on the Moon in 1972.

  7. Robert Clark says:

    A key technology development NASA needs to finance is lightweighting of its stages. ULA discussed at the NewSpace 2012 conference that increasing the propellant ratio, equivalently the mass ratio, is far and above the best way to improve performance:

    NewSpace 2012: Space Alternative Architectures.

    As discussed in this blog post by Jon Goff, ULA has argued for applying already known lightweighting techniques, such as using aluminum-lithium instead of steel, to Centaur-style upper stages:

    Centaur Based Earth Departure Stage.
    Nov 16th, 2006 by Jonathan Goff

    According to ULA, on a 40 mT version, you can raise the mass-ratio from the current 10 to 1 to the 20 to 1 range. What’s notable is that this will allow a single in-space stage to make the round trip from LEO to the lunar surface and back again, carrying a Dragon-sized capsule.

    NASA is investigating using composite tanks for use on a proposed SLS upper stage, but this is for the Earth Departure Stage(EDS) that wouldn’t even be deployed until the 2030 time frame, if funded:

    Boeing Develops Game-Changing Composite Propellant Tank.
    Posted by Doug Messier on December 13, 2012, at 5:27 am in News.

    But the 5.4 meter wide version expected to be completed by 2014 could already be used on a 40mT-sized Centaur that would result in an even lighter stage than the aluminum-lithium ULA version. This single stage could be used on the Falcon Heavy scheduled for first launch in 2014 and the SLS first version scheduled for first launch in 2017 to produce a lunar landing vehicle.

    Bob Clark

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