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NSRC 2020

exit sign
Will NASA take the off-ramp for real, substantial change? (courtesy of the authors)

License to change: will NASA?

A new administration is coming in very soon with a license to change. All areas of government seem to be taking on the challenge. During the transition, the outgoing regime is loudly defending Ares and the current administrator’s technical prowess, but even more is at stake at NASA, and this opportunity for authentic change is rare and not to be squandered.

Having just celebrated its 50th birthday, NASA has perhaps the only opportunity to get out of its mid-life crisis, step back, take a good hard look at itself at the unflattering reflection of its lagging abilities in space, and make bold changes, before the world passes it by.

If all the change envisioned is tweaking—cost-cutting trade-offs of favorite programs, preserving the status quo, job security, preserving ten aging centers with regional or private interests, or setting unattainable goals such as those of the last 10 years—this opportunity too will be wasted. We offer ten sign posts on the road to genuine strategic change in civil space for next eight years.

Even more is at stake at NASA, and this opportunity for authentic change is rare and not to be squandered.

NASA has come a long way from its original charter designed to establish a civilian space program focused on scientific and technological creativity both in space and in aeronautics. It started out with momentum. A systematic plan for the development of platforms, both robotic and manned, suggested incredible capabilities with a good dose of passion. Within 16 years political circumstances propelled NASA’s leadership. Voyager, Pioneer, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Viking, remotely piloted vehicles, short take-off and landing (STOL), swing-wing concepts, and more all dotted the atmosphere and outer space. With that came an explosion in scientific and technological advances that fired up the imagination of schoolchildren, established new fields of technology, and opened up commercial possibilities never before contemplated.

The country was uncertain about going to the Moon. But the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis changed matters. The president deemed space a safe competitive arena that demonstrated the nation’s muscle-flexing. A nation mourning for John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King was still compelled enough to propel the program for nine years and sustain its scientific pursuits of Skylab and Viking for the next seven years.

As NASA came out of this enthusiastic adolescence, it lost its will and purpose. It got bogged down with a sprawling and crumbling infrastructure, political haggling, and internal fiefdoms. For many it was now just a job. Passion and creativity waned. Political and budget cycles were shortened to unrealistic periods leaving graduate students unable to complete degrees in space-related sciences. College students moved on to more promising fields for inspiration, and NASA lost out on the best and the brightest.


Today, the ten-center ground infrastructure remains a drain on the NASA budget. Its burgeoning bureaucracy has discouraged many a good scientist and holds back innovation as well as collaborative arrangements for national and international cooperation. In addition, NASA’s documentation requirements to access space have grown with each administration. Space measured in weight of documents is a notorious deterrent to scientific and commercial progress. Unlike other countries, the annual US budget cycle hinders continuity and stability critical to successful scientific progress. Discontinued programs are costly and wasteful, leaving graduate students unable to complete degree requirements within a reasonable time frame, while many have abandoned the space program as their chosen career. Because of stop-and-start opportunities, engineering vision and enthusiasm have also waned. Students are more attracted to lucrative technological frontiers. This is not the profile of an organization positioned to compete or excel in space in the 21st century.

Today, American space innovation is also hampered by a 20th century aerospace industry that is punished unless it lobbies for status quo body count and cost-plus contracts, in lieu of innovation. Rather than rewarding creativity, this focus minimizes evolving the workforce, using only existing technologies that will be obsolescent by the time the next launcher enters service. In the end, this reactive strategy perennially holds NASA hostage to the past. Industry is not really the villain, however, as they generally do what they are encouraged to do by the government customer—one all too often welcomed to continue a private career by traveling through the revolving door.


Meanwhile, the global picture has changed. NASA has lost its global launch monopoly and leadership. Driven by enthusiasm and the profit incentive, the commercial and international space sectors have rapidly moved in and come of age. Activities ranging from satellite launch capabilities, commercial parabolic and suborbital manned flight, the building of satellites, and the planning of inflatable space stations are all now in open competition. Once the purview of a select few, human access to space is rapidly becoming accessible to all.

So, in the past eight years, what did NASA come up with to retain its global leadership? The reinvention of the Apollo program. This was sending humans back to the Moon, at a hugely inflated cost, under the guise of testing out systems for putting humans on Mars. Without wishing to deny the astronaut corps the long-awaited prize of one day following in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts, the value of returning to the Moon to stay as a testing base for Mars is slim. It would also divert funding away from crucial preparative work to enable a human mission to Mars before the end of this century.

Today, American space innovation is also hampered by a 20th century aerospace industry that is punished unless it lobbies for status quo body count and cost-plus contracts, in lieu of innovation.

Apart from the robotic work and orbiting lunar missions conducted by many countries, the greatest value of space exploration lies in commercial interests, whether as space travelers, explorers, lunar resource teams, or near-term terrestrial products and services. When NASA is ready to test technologies required for human Mars missions its interests would best be served by partnering with commercial interests. It would certainly be more cost-effective than going it alone.


NASA’s main mission is to explore and discover. What then is NASA’s role in this next-generation manned lunar enterprise? It should be in developing cutting-edge technologies required by the commercial sector—a lunar lander or a lunar rover for instance, to advance both commercial and NASA’s scientific interests. In sum, doing what government should do, which is investing in enabling infrastructure to enable the development of a beneficial space economy. As with other areas of government-sponsored research, the cutting-edge advances must be handed over to commercial interests in an orderly and efficient manner. NASA should not be nor should it have ever been in space transportation operations. Such operations are best left to the private sector.


Another legacy of the outgoing administration is the removal of “understand and protect the home planet” from the NASA mission. Restoring this mission is a top priority. Scientists at the recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco reported that arctic ice is in a “death spiral” and that climate change does account for stronger, more frequent hurricanes. NASA must be a part of the global warming solution. NASA’s share of the global monitoring flotilla is a resource to humanity. Underfunded climate instruments need to be made operational soon. In addition, NASA has niche capabilities in clean technology engineering, wireless solar power terrestrial transmission research, and in extreme weather habitat enhancement. All of these kinds of innovative efforts should be encouraged.

This Earth-centric strategic priority not only preserves life on the only life-bearing planet we know, it is a tactical choice which creates political capital and allows NASA the credibility to do what it does best: scientific missions exploring the universe, returning lessons about the lifecycles of planets (including our own), developing advanced methods of monitoring the Earth’s environmental changes, transferring proven methodologies to operational agencies like NOAA, and following the Hubble telescope model sharing the excitement and benefits of these discoveries with young minds and the young at heart public.


Authentic change at NASA is also about embracing scientific priorities and adopting true international engagement rather than bartering and halting the fruitless debate that somehow proposes that science impedes crewed exploration. On the contrary, science enables exploration. Scientific missions that are too costly and complicated for any one country would best be done collaboratively with international partners. In this global age scientists all over the world have similar interests and are at similar levels of development though methodologies and perspectives may differ. This is a great opportunity to combine talents for the greater good, and enable exploration capability.

A manned mission to Mars will entail detailed planning that will vary depending on the knowledge gained from a systematic series of robotic precursor missions and thorough ground research. Much like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, a manned mission to Mars will depend on careful, detailed mapping and prospecting of the Mars terrain and resources. A human Mars mission is not like climbing Everest or exploring the poles, and these 20th century exploration analogs are neither subtle nor complex enough to help us understand how to move forward in space.


It is crucial to achieve return on existing ISS space infrastructure investment. The old NASA/aerospace arrangement of “propose, fund, build, and move-on” is a necrotic business model and has destroyed NASA’s former reputation as a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

A human Mars mission is not like climbing Everest or exploring the poles, and these 20th century exploration analogs are neither subtle nor complex enough to help us understand how to move forward in space.

The $100-billion International Space Station National Laboratory (ISSNL) is an extraordinary accomplishment. It must, for starters, be utilized as the ideal in-space testing ground for the human component. Risk management for human presence in microgravity has been advancing steadily with six-month increments of crew time aloft. These are already showing serious problems that need to be resolved by applying the scientific method. Six months in microgravity is a far cry from a two-to-three-year exploration mission with slow communication and no resupply or rescue potential. Designing launch, spacecraft, and habitat capabilities is the last, not the first, thing that needs to preoccupy planners when we can only guess at what the requirements might be. Empty rhetoric about exploring Mars, without mitigating human risk, has characterized the current vision to explore Mars. This is, on the present course, a hollow and cynical political game, since such a mission will happen on neither our nor our children’s watch with the current mentality. Disposing of current proven assets like the ISSNL in favor of new untested options is speculative and costly, and further drives a Mars mission into a receding point on the far horizon of human exploration and US leadership in space. Finally, research aboard ISSNL may lead to advances in terrestrial biosciences. Many more experiments are needed to explore and exploit this beneficial opportunity.


Should we be serious about exploring Mars, or any other destination, we first have to know from robotic precursors exactly what to expect to find and where to land. Next, from analogous simulations in microgravity, we must know what working conditions would Mars astronauts be expected to encounter and where one-third gravity may in fact be a bonus.

Robotic missions would provide the advanced information on weather and radiation hazards. As with the early days into space, and the established protocols of rigorous science, it stands to reason that biological specimens including plants and microorganisms should precede any human venture; that too should be preceded by equivalent study on the ISSNL so that expected risks may be calculated. Unfortunately, the recent shortsighted cancellation of the necessary ISSNL facilities and elimination of the microgravity science community will not enable similar testing of some mammalian species such as mice or rats before humans go to Mars or even stay in low Earth orbit (LEO) for a two-to-three-year duration. Further, from a national perspective, we have enabled state-of-the-art laboratories for partner countries on ISSNL, but our own partially-built facilities were mothballed. Thus, for want of a relatively modest science program, we may have only ourselves to blame for our growing international space exploration deficit in contrast to other nations. The hard fact is that now others may not only have the will to get to Mars before us, but the technical knowledge as well.

We have no alternatives to ISSNL for human-tended science in space at present. Despite years of extensive countermeasure development and testing, such procedures have proven inadequate. Restoring an on-board artificial gravity capability should be reconsidered or, at least, investigated systematically as is done by other countries.


It is our firm belief that we cannot be ready to send humans to Mars by 2050 as long as we pursue the fallacious path of the current approach. It would seem logical and ethical that in order to contemplate sending humans on a mission to Mars and, in addition, to gain as much information as possible about the destination, at least seven distinct elements must be in place:

  • Detailed knowledge of the Mars terrain, environment, and resources relevant to human habitation collected from a progressive series of robotic precursor missions;
  • A reliable completely closed life support system including, air, water, food and waste management;
  • Radiation protection;
  • Behavior and performance maintenance and selection procedures for extended compatibility in long stays in confined, remote simulation conditions;
  • Basic self-sufficient medical car;
  • Proven effective, practical, preventive and therapeutic countermeasures to known or yet to be identified microgravity-induced health hazards; and
  • A new concept of a space suit that is generic (not custom-made), flexible, comfortable, resilient, and reparable so that it can be worn daily for long hours with suitable protection from environmental hazards. Advances in such a suit and portable life support should be equivalent to the technological leap from the iron scaphander of sponge divers of the 19th century to today’s wetsuit and diving gear.


These elements have to be in place and tested on the ISSNL or similar commercial LEO station before considering moving ahead with the development of the relevant launch, spacecraft, and habitat capabilities. Just as it takes around 20 years to bring an experimental drug to market, it may take at least the same time for out-of-the-box creative thinking to arrive at the point of testing the evolutionary spacecraft needed for Mars exploration. Sustained support and commitment is crucial to the success of such a venture. On the other hand, any launch or spacecraft design started now to take humans to Mars will be obsolete by 2050. Creative brains of young scientists and engineers across the country must be brought together. The defunct Advanced Concepts Program may be one model that, together with prize-type motivation, could stimulate NASA’s creative juices once more. And, as we have advocated earlier, the entrepreneurial space sector should be brought into the next Mars mission architecture not as a “contractor” but as a partner.

NASA can indeed reclaim its former true leadership. But it must first shed its hubris and capitalize on the accomplishments of those who are successful by following in their footsteps.

For change agents, it is crucial to learn from mistakes. Since 1976 NASA has repeatedly failed in that the decision to build a spacecraft preceded the requirements for its use. The Shuttle was rescued and the best was made of it as a science platform thanks to the development by the Europeans of the Skylab-type Spacelab. This allowed for sophisticated research in life and microgravity sciences to be carried out in space for the first time since Skylab. Once more science-driven requirements for the ISSNL facilities were ignored, leading to less-than-optimal utilization potential. Yet again the international partners are coming to the rescue of science providing capabilities in their facilities and willingness to share.

But the projected lifespan of the ISSNL is short. There is so much to do. As in the past the outgoing NASA was unable to recognize the critical role of the ISS in achieving their stated exploration goals let alone scientific research. Stealing from science to support transportation has been counterproductive. I tend to believe this is not through malfeasance but through NASA’s lack of vision in developing a tactical strategy to achieve its own ultimate goal.


The value of the Constellation project is and must be thoroughly and openly reassessed. Parts of it may be sufficiently advanced to bring value to the human spaceflight program. For others, alternate solutions should be considered. Both the Defense Department and the commercial sector are actively pursuing and succeeding in developing a variety of launch capabilities. The proven success of the Atlas 5 has reclaimed US leadership in the launch sector. Commercial companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences with their Falcon and Taurus rockets and Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft are edging in. Is it now time to take advantage of such progress and purchase rides to space, rather than continuing to compete with the private sector through the ten-center organizational scheme? In addition, open government and Web 2.0 allow all Americans to participate in the process and to assess the arguments and decisions made. Competence is many-faceted, and a competent, self-confident NASA will be an open one. Deals done in smoke-filled back rooms got us here, so perhaps it is time to try something new to get where we really want to go in space.

The global stage has changed in fifty years. International, commercial, and non-profit participants are now entrenched in the space arena. NASA can indeed reclaim its former true leadership. But it must first shed its hubris and capitalize on the accomplishments of those who are successful by following in their footsteps. It must address the generational challenge of our era, climate change, with a vigor that makes up for wasted time. It must revitalize NASA’s traditional creativity in aeronautics. NASA must acknowledge the value of the ISSNL to mount a science-informed successful mission to Mars, with the help of commercial players. Finally, it is time to let go of the ten-center political hydra that drains the agency of critical resources, or expect to ask the taxpayer to increase NASA’s budget in order to do the job it is asked to do. And NASA must intentionally return benefits via space-based economic development as it goes forward.

Now, surely, must be the time to step back and take a long hard look at where NASA’s future should lie in the new and vibrant world of space. That’s what real change is all about.