Giving NASA a clear mission
by G. Ryan Faith
|How is it that the agency that successfully sent people to the Moon in 1969 finds itself unable to do so today, despite tremendous technological developments, the available assistance of a number of spacefaring nations, and vast amounts of cumulative funding since the last lunar mission?|
The purpose of National Aeronautics and Space Act Of 1958 (“the Space Act”), which created NASA, was to “provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Unfortunately, this mandate provides no particular sense of direction or reason to carry out such activities. However, this vagueness of purpose wasn’t fully apparent when NASA was created, and wouldn’t be for many years. Shortly after its creation, NASA was tasked by President Kennedy on May 25, 1961 with the very specific mission of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” This concrete, if difficult, task became, at least in fact, NASA’s reason for existence until July 24, 1969. On that date, the crew of Apollo 11 safely returned to Earth after making a successful landing on the lunar surface, answering President Kennedy’s challenge. However, once NASA had met this challenge, the agency lost, at least in fact even if not in law, its specific reason to exist.
NASA’s precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was established in 1915 to help America achieve and maintain technological leadership in aviation. NACA’s role in achieving this objective was “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solutions”. At the dawn of the Space Age, it was entirely unclear whether or not it was even possible to send living creatures into space, let alone humans, and most certainly whether or not humans could successfully work and live in space. Given this basic uncertainty about whether or not human spaceflight was even possible, NASA’s focus on research and technology development matched both its mandate and circumstances.
Even after Alan Shepard became the first American in space with his May 5, 1961, suborbital flight, NASA was still addressing fundamental questions about the possibility of “flight… outside the earth’s atmosphere” as directed in the Space Act. Yet, twenty days later, President Kennedy gave a speech to a special joint session of Congress and called upon America to land a man on the surface of the Moon and return him safely to Earth before 1970, transforming NASA from a technology development agency into the de facto national space exploration agency.
The clarity and simplicity of this directive was critical in giving NASA a guiding star to follow. But the exclusive focus of Kennedy’s challenge on a specific destination—the Moon—meant that as of July 24, 1969—after Apollo 11 successfully had achieved the goal “of landing [men] on the Moon and returning [them] safely to the Earth”—NASA’s guiding star disappeared. Its mandate as the de facto national space exploration agency had expired.
|The exclusive focus of Kennedy’s challenge on a specific destination—the Moon—meant that as of July 24, 1969—after Apollo 11 successfully had achieved the goal “of landing [men] on the Moon and returning [them] safely to the Earth”—NASA’s guiding star disappeared.|
The expiration of that de facto mandate confined NASA to its existing de jure purpose: “to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes”. Given the nebulous nature of this directive, focus shifted to the list of nine benefits to be obtained from the fulfillment of NASA’s “research into the problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere.” Lacking any clear overarching direction for their activities, NASA directorates developed a measure of schizophrenia yielding ultimately to parasitic competition and senseless cannibalism. Should NASA focus on “preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology” or “cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations”? Which is a higher priority, the “expansion of human knowledge of the Earth” or “improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles”?
It may, at least sometimes, be possible to make some of these things fit together in a complementary fashion. However, NASA has generally been given insufficient policy or legislative guidance in determining which of the list of benefits to be obtained given in the Space Act can be compared, combined, balanced, or differentiated. Given the absence of any single clear objective, and faced with an ever-expanding list of new “top priorities” that the agency has been assigned over the years, it is no great surprise that the United States has not sent a person beyond low Earth orbit since 1972.
Since the end of Apollo, many people have earnestly been trying to recapture the purpose and mission that so successfully animated the national space program during the early days of the Space Age. The push to develop a Space Transportation System—the Space Shuttle—was one of the first efforts after Apollo to refocus the agency on a concrete, identifiable objective, with the implicit hope that, unlike the Moon challenge, achieving this objective wouldn’t lead the agency into a dead end, and would provide for further growth. In some respects, this was almost a return to the original purpose that guided NASA in its early days—“to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere”—but with a clearer notion of what developing this specific technology was to achieve. While the Shuttle was a vast improvement over Apollo and its predecessors in terms of cargo, crew size, mission duration, and a host of other capabilities, it never fully achieved anywhere near the degree of cost-effectiveness and reusability its original advocates had either sought or promised. More significantly, however, in becoming the main focus of NASA’s efforts, much like the first Moon landing, once the de facto agency mission had been achieved—the building and operation of the Space Shuttle—NASA’s focus reverted to the nine assorted benefits outlined in the Space Act. The main difference now was that the continuing operation of the Space Shuttle became the basic underlying purpose of the agency. At that point, the Shuttle program found itself trying to achieve the nine benefits outlined in the Space Act in order to justify its existence, while simultaneously competing for scarce remaining funds with other agency programs that were also seeking to achieve those same nine benefits.
This typifies the risk of technology-oriented, rather than capability-oriented, goals. Once a given technology is developed, maintenance of that technology, rather than further expansion of basic capabilities, becomes paramount. Therefore, even though the primary reason for developing a Space Shuttle was to allow for cheap, easy, and routine access to space, once the Space Shuttle flew, the original reasons for making it receded into the background and attention shifted to flying the Space Shuttle in order to deliver the benefits delineated in the Space Act—the perverse result of which was the fact that the need to continue operation of the Shuttle ended up preserving the very same problems it had been intended to address. A similar evolution has been seen in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Even after overcoming great technical hurdles, the majority of reasons that the ISS was originally to be built have faded into the background, leaving the construction of the ISS itself as the main objective—not the delivery of the capabilities it was to have provided.
If neither technology-oriented nor destination-oriented objectives seem able to provide a sense of direction to guide the nation’s efforts in space, then what can? To approach this question, it is useful to ask why President Kennedy’s challenge to go to the Moon was so effective in providing NASA with leadership. The critical element of this challenge that, although never explicit, was so important to NASA’s health and growth during this period was the transformation—at least in fact, if not in law—into an exploration agency. If we wish to see NASA act effectively as a space exploration agency, then the most direct way to do this is to amend the Space Act to explicitly task the agency with the job of space exploration. However, before we do so, we must define what space exploration actually is.
Space exploration is the expansion of human influence in space.
|A mandate to explore that isn’t just understood, but is explicitly delineated in policy and law, will give the current and future NASA administrators a powerful leadership tool to restore NASA’s clear sense of purpose and mission.|
This definition of exploration is inherently one of capacity building. Human influence in space is a measure of our ability to do useful things beyond the Earth’s surface. In order to do something useful, there has to be some sort of human presence, either humans themselves or their robotic proxies. Once some measure of human influence has been established at some destination in space, there are two ways a space exploration agency can expand that influence. One, the agency can decrease the costs and increase the benefits of human influence at a given location until such influence becomes sufficiently useful that it is economically self-sustaining, at which point continued use of agency resources is unnecessary. Alternately, human influence can be extended to some new place that may in future become home to some form of self-supporting human influence. The key element is that such a mandate compels each step to build on past accomplishments and lay the groundwork for future missions.
In this framework, it is the Gemini program, rather than the Apollo program, that is the most successful spaceflight program of the 1960’s. The Gemini program built on Mercury and laid the technological foundation that ultimately led to a successful lunar landing. By contrast, after a mere six landings, the Apollo program didn’t lead to an expanded presence on the Moon. Instead, in 1979, almost ten years after the first Moon landing, the last remnants of the Apollo program, the Skylab space station, burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere leaving the United States with neither an operational vehicle to send people into space nor any particular destination to which they should be sent.
A mandate for expanding human influence can’t run out: it doesn’t punish success by eliminating the agency’s reason for being once a specific objective has been achieved. A mandate for extending human influence cannot get stuck on a particular technological path: if a given system isn’t expanding influence, then the system should be reworked or dropped in favor of a system that does. Defining the mission in this way also dictates that each individual mission has, at least as a secondary objective, the role of providing broader capabilities for a number of actors, including the private sector, to use in future missions.
There are a number of different ways that the nine benefits listed in the Space Act can be viewed if NASA is given an explicit mandate to extend human influence. But in such discussions it will be important to keep in mind that the main rationale for establishing space exploration as the NASA mandate is to provide a single overarching objective around which agency activities can be organized. Defining NASA’s mission as expanding human influence allows for all nine of the benefits outlined in the Space Act to be
But perhaps most importantly, with a mandate to explore that isn’t just understood, but is explicitly delineated in policy and law, will give the current and future NASA administrators a powerful leadership tool to restore NASA’s clear sense of purpose and mission.