Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fruitful Path

After President Obama released a budget that called for a sharp change in NASA's direction last year, I wrote a piece for the SEDS newsletter, NOVA, defending the policy change. The idea was hotly contested since it called for a radical change in the way NASA does business with its contractors. Rather than doing most of its engineering in-house and closely supervising contractors under cost-plus contractors, the idea was that NASA should move toward encouraging private sector development of transportation services to space and buy these services as a commercial customer. Since politicians usually don't like things that rock the boat, and this rocked a lot of boats all at once, there was a lot of rage in Congress against the idea, and I think it still needs defending a year later. Here's a piece I recently wrote for NOVA about why this is a good move for NASA:

Recently I had the chance to represent the students of Texas A&M at a meeting with a veteran member of the aerospace industry. Given his extensive experience as a professor early in the aerospace engineering department’s history at A&M, the Southwest Research Institute, NASA Johnson Space Center, and the National Academy of Engineering, I found his insight into the field interesting and illuminating. Still, I couldn’t help but be bothered by a few comments he made about NASA, its history, and its current status.

It took eight years to go from Alan Shepherd’s first suborbital hop in Mercury to the bootprints of Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon. In the last eight years, he asked, what has NASA accomplished that could possibly compare to this technological leap? Not much, the students replied, questioning why the NASA of the 1960s seemed so different from the NASA of the 2010s.

His reply was direction. While NASA managed a number of smaller scientific and aeronautics missions during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the reason for its existence could be fully described in one sentence: “To achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.” It would take at least a paragraph, and probably several, to completely outline NASA’s mission today. Clearly our national space program has become a much more diverse endeavor over the last 40 years, and many of the Apollo generation claim that it has suffered from requirement bloat. Give NASA a simple, grand mission, and rebooting human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit will follow naturally, the argument goes.

It’s an appealing argument, to be sure, and it’s not entirely false. Given a clear directive and adequate funding, I’m sure NASA could return astronauts to the Moon or send them to the asteroids in a decade or so without changing the way it does business. Many in industry and congress are lobbying for the development of heavy-lift launch vehicles and a restoration of elements of the Constellation program because they see the clarity of this path. Unfortunately, while the path of business-as-usual and clear, simple directives can accomplish great things in the near-term, it does so at great cost and leaves long-term prospects for space exploration and settlement barren.

We rightly hail the Apollo program as a major achievement of human ingenuity and industry, and marvel that the engineers of the day could go so far with tools so primitive by today’s standards. But in lauding the accomplishments of Apollo, the legacy of the program is often forgotten. It turns out that the fastest, most straightforward path to the Moon didn’t lead to an enduring long-term human presence in space. The requirements of the Apollo program were well-posed but misleading from the more poorly-posed requirements of how to enable lasting human presence beyond LEO. The dilemma NASA now faces is this: either opt for a clear path to a near-term objective, or a murkier path that seeks the long-term optimum. I argue that though the long-term path may delay human departure from LEO and requires a paradigm shift in NASA’s operations, this is the fruitful path for the agency’s – and humanity’s – future.

What does NASA need to do in-house to enable an enduring presence beyond Earth orbit? Not human-rated launch vehicles, since Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and SpaceX offer options that can be adapted for crew launch for less than the price of a single shuttle launch. Not a Space Shuttle extension, since the shuttle’s program cost is prohibitive to the development of major new hardware. Not even heavy-lift launch vehicles, since their extraordinary development and operation cost outweigh the benefit form eliminating on-orbit construction given realistic assumptions about these costs. The private aerospace sector is ready today or very close to ready to provide NASA all the services it requires between the Earth’s surface and LEO. It’s time for NASA to harness this capability and work on the problems of keeping astronauts alive and productive in deep space, not the problem of lifting off the ground.

Since launch and crew transport have traditionally been a mainstay of NASA human spaceflight, this notion is a radical one. The suggestion that our national space program abandon the launch vehicle business enrages politicians concerned about rocking the boat at their local NASA centers, but this is a necessary step if we truly want to develop robust vehicles for human spaceflight. If much of NASA’s annual budget is devoted to the design, development, and production of launch systems, there simply won’t be enough resources to go around to design the spacecraft we need to maintain a permanent presence on the Moon and journey to the asteroids and beyond. To make a Moon base, you need to design a Moon base, not a rocket.

Ultimately the goals of most space advocates are the same. We all want to see humanity’s reach extend beyond the limit of the atmosphere, and one day this will mean the exploration of deep space and a permanent human presence there. The opinions diverge on the best way to achieve this, and I argue that leveraging the capabilities of the private sector, as NASA plans to do through commercial crew development and cargo resupply programs, is the most fruitful path to restarting human exploration beyond LEO in a sustainable way. As long as NASA insists on developing all its launch vehicles and transports in-house and through cost-plus contracting, the growth of humanity in space will be limited. By working with the private sector and splitting responsibilities for transport to and beyond LEO, NASA will begin the march toward a true frontier in space, though this march may look quite different from the drama of Apollo. But for building a true frontier, it’s the slow, methodical steps that count, not the grand drama.

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