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Ares 1 illustration
Ares 1 will be canceled under the new policy, but are there likely scenarios where it could live on? (credit: NASA)

Prognosticating NASA’s future

<< page 1: sticks and stones may break our budgets

Since we already built the darn thing…

Extending US ISS participation to 2020 is the least controversial element of the new space policy. The only real factors mitigating against such a move are annual cost (which, barring any significant budget increase, would take away from other NASA pursuits) and hardware lifetime. The first element of the ISS was launched back in 1998: that’s more than ten years ago. Mir may have hung in there (more or less) for more than fifteen years, but towards the end it faced serious problems, least among them budgetary. Extending operations out to 2020 will mean buying in to some serious maintenance and refurbishment issues, including the possibility of replacing major components such as the solar arrays and their drive gimbals, airlock seals, life-support equipment, etc—and that stuff isn’t cheap.

But it certainly makes sense to use ISS as long as we can. Consequently the bounding scenarios here are a bit more simple:

(A3) NASA participation in ISS ceases before 2020, perhaps in 2014 or 2018; the other international partners continue operating ISS until they can’t maintain its equipment.

(B3) NASA participation in ISS continues until the spacecraft is deorbited sometime after 2020. NASA uses the ISS to support BEO exploration research objectives.

The fact that the International Space Station has been designated a national laboratory by Congress is a strong indicator that we’re going to maximize our nation’s return on its substantial investment. While it may not be as politically secure an institution as Lawrence Livermore or White Sands (no Congressional districts cover LEO), I’d say the chances of shutting it down prematurely (i.e., while it still functions adequately) are slim. If the next administration elected in 2012 or 2016 (or the current administration, changing its policy) redirects NASA to concentrate wholly on BEO operations, all NASA participation in the ISS may be pulled. This does not, however, rule out continued US commercial participation or ongoing participation by other US government entities, such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Academy of Sciences.

Programs have been cancelled (Constellation) and extended (ISS) before; a government institution completely changing horses (as in the planned switch to commercial crew) is an extremely rare turn of events.

The premise of NASA using the space station for BEO research (B3) isn’t too far-fetched, but don’t expect ISS to become a staging depot for missions beyond. Its high-inclination orbit (which accommodates Russia as a partner) is not particularly good energy- and phasing-wise for getting elsewhere in the solar system. Possible, but trouble enough to suggest that once NASA starts flying again beyond Earth orbit they’ll seek other avenues. Besides, by the likely time we’d ever be ready to head further out, portions of ISS would be at least 20 to 30 years old. Staging lunar return or a future Mars mission from ISS circa 2018 or later would be like servicing a Prius in a 1950s farm shed.

So, at a minimum, we should expect US government participation in the ISS to continue for at least the next four years, more likely the next six to ten, hardware permitting. (Private industry research will likely trickle along as well.) Of course, we can never forget that the Apollo program, with paid-for hardware already delivered, was cancelled even as the NASA team was hitting its stride in terms of maximizing scientific return. Hopefully that penny-wise and pound-foolish memory will lessen the chance of repeating such a scenario with our unique and paid-for orbiting research facility.

As for the ISS lasting beyond 2020? I suspect that only some major well-publicized public-oriented scientific breakthrough (e.g., a disease cure) tied directly to research aboard the orbiting laboratory could bring about such an ISS renaissance—presuming private industry didn’t step in at the smell of major profit potential and build their own smaller-scale replacement. The landscape of space might be significantly different ten years from now, in part due to the third major element of the new Obama space policy.

Big job, little business?

Now into the realm of the truly speculative, since this suggested policy element breaks so completely with the past. Programs have been cancelled (Constellation) and extended (ISS) before; a government institution completely changing horses is an extremely rare turn of events. The basic idea of this portion of the new policy directs NASA to hand over LEO access services to commercial providers so these companies can compete for NASA’s business of ferrying astronauts into low Earth orbit (especially to the ISS) and thereby help along the commercial space industry into a new paradigm. Theoretically this will spur innovation and drive down costs, freeing NASA to focus on future exploration beyond Earth orbit.

This is also where the imagined boundary scenarios of the new policy elements start to intertwine. Continued ISS operations, of course, would provide the primary market for this service. But since I’ve indicated above (A1, B1) that I do not expect NASA to lose its ability to fly its own people either into or through space (i.e., NASA will have its own spacecraft to design, control, and pilot somewhere), you’d think I’d consider this commercial provider element dead on arrival.

Not necessarily. Since a bracketing scenario for the fate of Constellation spacecraft (B1) would have NASA’s mission operations and development teams pursue a beyond-Earth-orbit (BEO) spacecraft, NASA astronauts riding as mere passengers on industry-provided LEO ferry vehicles remains an “acceptable” possibility.

So here are my suggested bounding scenarios for industry-provided LEO access:

(A4) The “Merchant Seven”, under the imposed weight of NASA’s stringent safety and engineering requirements, shrinks to one spacecraft provider and two or three booster providers. (Mergers may play a role here.) Said spacecraft will be designed to fly on any of the offered boosters, even as the booster providers tweak their designs to accommodate this flexibility. Since these non-negotiable NASA requirements increase development costs and this new spacecraft may become the only US access to LEO, the government provides more money to ensure available services.

(B4) To encourage innovation, the administration and/or Congress pressures NASA to relax its most stringent safety and engineering requirements regarding spacecraft and booster design. This enables three or four companies (merging may again take place) to reach unmanned flight testing, but only one or two succeed and begin ferrying crews to ISS. When serious problems arise, either

(B4.i) The government provides more money to fix the problems.

or

(B4.ii) US government contracts are cancelled and US astronauts hitch LEO rides with Russia (again) or China.

or

(B4.iii) Serious accident(s) bring US ISS participation to a close; all contracts get cancelled.

Now, I freely admit that these are almost stabs in the dark as much as bounding scenarios, but, in broad strokes, I would paint the “lower limit” as maintenance (after 2013 or so) of a minimum US LEO access capability for our astronauts, while the “upper limit”, at its most extreme, would have us completely lose our ability to fly our own astronauts into space unless NASA develops a ground-up Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) spacecraft and launcher.

NASA’s previous attempts to help jump-start “commercial” space services have had a rocky road, especially those that, like the current idea, placed NASA in the role of anchor tenant.

Keep in mind, however, that folks touting the novelty of this element—that it’s a “revolutionary” idea by seeking a commercial or industry-provided solution for space equipment and services—are slightly overstating their case. US industry has been providing all US spacecraft and their boosters since the space program’s inception. NASA hasn’t really built any spacecraft even if they always played a major role in designing and flying them; US industry has always done the final designing and building under cost-plus contracts, from Mercury through the US components of the ISS.

The difference, theoretically, is that now industry will invest private capital in the development phase and thereby will have a freer hand to innovate both in hardware and operations to find the cheapest (but still safe) means of providing the desired services to both NASA as well as other commercial entities (e.g., Bigelow Aerospace’s proposed commercial space stations).

But there is need for caution here. NASA’s previous attempts to help jump-start “commercial” space services have had a rocky road, especially those that, like the current idea, placed NASA in the role of anchor tenant. Just ask the folks who tried to launch the Industrial Space Facility. Aside from all the chaos derived from Congressional and administration wrangling, underneath it all was the inherent “conflict of interest” of NASA seeking a potentially cheaper substitute for its own nascent space station Freedom even as that program scrabbled for funds—and justification. Like with Constellation today, quite a few folks both inside and outside the agency were most intent to defend their turf against all possible competitors. In the end ISF finally faded away while NASA awarded its contract to a shuttle-based alternative.

And then there is the “requirements hammer”. NASA possesses, inside of any budget authority Congress grants it, amazing discretionary power to get what it wants or to do away with what it doesn’t want via the requirements it imposes on its industrial providers. The viability of this entire space policy element hinges on how stringent those requirements will be since ISS delivery services (and the associated fees they will generate) are the big, sure bet for any interested companies and their investors. Just as the government’s guarantees to—and its imposed requirements on—the railroads went hand in hand to shape the eventual success of commercial transcontinental rail service [4], the future of commercial human spaceflight will likely rest on NASA’s buying services from these companies and on NASA’s requirements imposed on them. NASA could even make the entire idea disappear by defining requirements too expensive for any profit-oriented company to meet.

Remember the X-33 program? If NASA had truly wanted a commercial shuttle follow-on back in the 1990s, a more evolved but less challenging two-stage design that built on shuttle lessons learned would have better matched the agency’s available funds and increased its chance for success. But by imposing the near-impossible requirement of single-stage-to-orbit (which in turn demanded too many technologies beyond reach), NASA effectively guaranteed that the shuttle program had no need to fear commercial competition. Granted, the program was conceived in large part to push the technologies involved, but the story of how that program unfolded—and failed—should be required reading for those involved in both the commercial LEO services and the technology push elements of the new space policy.

But if NASA is given permission to focus its BEO research on something concrete, such as an actual deep-space vehicle designed to go somewhere specific, Congress would likely feel satisfied regarding NASA’s human spaceflight birthright and NASA would likely be magnanimous enough to help industry to achieve the goal of “affordable” human LEO access. And if this is the case, given how difficult (that is, expensive) the task truly is, I fully expect the field of competition to shrink quickly: recall the thinning of Ansari X PRIZE challengers—and they were only attempting to scratch the edge of space.

And even then, if the one or two remaining competitors really became the only US providers of access to LEO (presuming the NASA BEO spacecraft were BEO-only with no LEO ferry capability), the government could very well end up stepping in with major funds to guarantee that access. In other words, after all the hullabaloo, we may end up right back where we started: a few large contractors providing a capability to the government for a cost-plus fee arrangement, i.e., scenario A1 above. But at least it can still be described as new and innovative—just under a new name.

The other bounding case (B4), I think, is less likely, if only because I don’t see NASA lessening its standards much if at all. One thing NASA possesses in the realm of spaceflight is hard-earned experience. Although the agency has occasionally forgotten lessons learned and/or blundered into errors in judgment, the mission operations folks will move very, very carefully into this new arrangement because they recognize it as being so new and their organization has suffered the dire consequences of not being diligent. Even so, the possibility of catastrophe remains; as the cliché goes, this is rocket science, after all. If such an accident were to result in loss of life, then, perhaps (B4.iii) might come to pass.

But such a sad outcome would likely depend strongly on the fate of the final element of the policy, the deep-space technology push.

How to go everywhere and nowhere at the same time

The final element of the new space policy is a multi-tiered space technology push allocating hundreds of millions of dollars per year to fund research ranging from university-level investigations of highly speculative concepts to hardware-pushing flight-test evaluations on $150 million–$1 billion demonstration missions. Its premise is to help along those “game-changing” technologies that might yield breakthroughs in various disciplines (e.g., heavy-lift launch propulsion, non-chemical space propulsion, power transfer, fuel depots, in-situ resource utilization) critical to future sustainable space exploration and exploitation. In other words, for the foreseeable future NASA’s BEO efforts will focus on perfecting the tools we need to go everywhere before we decide to employ them to go anywhere.

This of course is a step back/rethink from the destination-oriented Bush VSE, wherein the lunar surface would have served as the first steppingstone in an overarching strategy to bring the entire solar system into our economic sphere, as former presidential science advisor John Marburger once put it.

Is the new policy a pivotal transformative step that will propel us into the rest of the solar system, or is it a retreat from space exploration altogether?

And to the surprise of many, the new tech-push policy is even a step back from the Flexible Path strategy outlined by the administration’s own appointed Augustine Committee. Their preferred option specified no destination and every destination in a loosely defined architecture sometimes derided as “look-but-don’t-touch”. Landings appeared to be out, while flybys of asteroids, the Moon, Earth-Sun Lagrange points, and Mars (and its moons) were in. (One should note that this Flexible Path was similar to the original “Science Driven–Technology Enabled” stepping-stone strategy of NASA’s DPT/NEXT team.)

But even the Augustine Committee’s preferred BEO strategy focused on getting somebody to go somewhere; the new policy does not, at least not for the foreseeable future. Which is why quite a few folks are upset, since on the surface the policy seems to have our astronauts going nowhere at all, especially when compared to the intentions of the now-cancelled (though admittedly hard-pressed) Constellation program.

Thus we come to the crux of the matter, the billion-dollar question: is the new policy a pivotal transformative step that will propel us into the rest of the solar system, or is it a retreat from space exploration altogether? How can we possibly define boundaries that will potentially contain humankind’s eventual expansion into the cosmos?

Actually, it’s very easy, because it comes down to a simple matter of put up or shut up: one either does something for real or one (ultimately) merely creates technically well-supported viewgraphs indefinitely. Thus the two bounding scenarios for the technology initiative are:

(A5) NASA funds a disparate scattering of technology research projects across industry and academia, all pointed toward human deep-space missions whose actual realization always remains on the further edge of long-term budget cycles. Lots of paper, but no cutting of spacefaring metal beyond a few small-caliber unmanned missions. US astronauts travel no further than LEO for at least the next two or three decades.

(B5) NASA funds a nationwide but tightly-focused web of development programs each targeting a specific high-leverage enabling technology that will be flight-tested on actual exploration-driven missions to specific destinations: the lunar surface, asteroids, Mars and its moons, etc. Much research and development is focused toward immediate application; lots of “paper” to be sure, but paper directed toward real marked-on-the-calendar flight operations, including manned missions that begin flying within 10–15 years.

The former is what I originally envisioned in my prognostication way back in February of 2008: pure advanced studies ad infinitum. The latter is closer to the Augustine Committee’s recommended Flexible Path or even the original Bush/O’Keefe/Steidle VSE, where the technology push goes hand-in-hand with actual flight design and execution. (The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter Mission was just such an unmanned flight test for the now-dead Prometheus nuclear propulsion effort.)

And here we see where the remnants of Constellation (B1, B2) might rise from the ashes. Both a BEO spacecraft and a heavy-lift booster would benefit from advanced technologies; in fact, they could serve as platforms for developing and validating such technologies, even as they carry astronauts back to the Moon and beyond.

Which will the future more likely resemble? Tough to call, but I suspect/hope that somewhere inbetween these two boundaries the administration and Congressional critics of the new policy will find a viable compromise that has us sending folks somewhere inside of ten years.

Projects, projects everywhere

So there is hope for the future: astronauts may be going somewhere beyond Earth orbit inside of fifteen years and private enterprise might be following close behind. But as I contemplate boundary (A5) and set it against the drawn-out back-and-forth wanderings of Obama’s position on space during the past two years, my most suspicious musings can’t help but fester.

Recall my observation above regarding the difference in resilience between a government program and a government institution. A government program, even one with well-defined objectives and substantial hardware in place, is easily more susceptible to cancellation compared to an established institution.

While the future may be bright, the possibility exists that it will be very, very bleak.

But this new space policy doesn’t even establish an integrated program as much as it seeds a number of separate projects, especially the technology-push portion: lots and lots of separate efforts and competitive pursuits, most not directly connected to or dependent upon any others. Think of how much easier it would be to zero out individual project allocations compared to an entire program’s pages of integrated items. This, in fact, is precisely what happened to the Bush VSE spiral approach to make way for Constellation, and that was at the NASA administrator’s own bidding! Each research line item that had individually addressed any deep-space enabling technology (nuclear propulsion, life-sciences ISS work, etc) was zeroed out to (try to) pay for Ares, Orion, Altair, and lunar outpost work. Ironic, huh? Ironic, and terribly sad.

Consequently, this new tech-push policy element of so many separate projects, combined with the possibilities inherent in the other elements, may just be setting our future in space tottering on the edge of a very sharp budget knife. But where will that future fall?

Glorious future or ignominious end? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

Let us consider, among all these boundary conditions, the “best” (toward robust US space efforts) and “worst” (toward minimal US space efforts) possible outcomes. Theoretically, of course, private industry may successfully claw its way into space in the coming years. But I personally don’t see it reaching beyond LEO on its own for a long time, especially in terms of flying people. So what happens with NASA is, I think, still the big game.

Best

  1. NASA and industry develop, within the next 15–20 years, a LEO crew access vehicle, a crewed deep-space vehicle, and a launch vehicle complement sufficient to support sustainable operations in LEO and beyond.
  2. US ISS operations continue through 2020 (or beyond).
  3. NASA begins executing BEO human exploration that evaluates/exploits advanced technologies inside of fifteen years.

Worst

  1. NASA’s stripped-down LEO capsule ferry program is cancelled as BEO spacecraft and advanced launch vehicle development remain always in development, never production.
  2. US participation in the ISS ceases by 2015.
  3. US exploration beyond Earth orbit remains a minimum suite of unmanned missions while technology research (but little development) continues indefinitely.

While the future may be bright, the possibility exists that it will be very, very bleak. Make no mistake: taken together, the worst-case, not-too-implausible outcomes unfolding together would make future US human space exploration highly vulnerable to complete cancellation.

Whether or not this is the underlying intent of the administration’s policy, well, I’ll leave that for the most extreme Obama supporters and critics—and any conspiracy theorists—to hash out. Perhaps all such nefarious doubts will be laid to rest at the President’s April 15 space summit in Florida.

But one can’t help but wonder: Isn’t it curious (like the low-key rollout of this space policy was curious) that the administration has chosen that particular day, the one day every year that typically finds taxpayers most ill humored toward their federal government, to highlight the question of spending increased billions of their hard-earned tax dollars on space?

I doubt even Jules Verne could have foreseen a coincidence like that.

Perhaps the future is anybody’s guess after all.

References

[1] Burgess, Douglas R. Jr., Seize the Trident: The Race for Superliner Supremacy and How It Altered the Great War, McGraw-Hill, 2005.

[2] Jackson, Al, Mahoney, Bob, and Rogers, Jon, 2001: A Space Odyssey 40 Years Later: Yesterday’s Tomorrow, AIAA Houston Horizons, http://www.aiaa-houston.org/ (in work), October 2008.

[3] Witmer, Lawrence M., The Evolution of the Antorbital Cavity of Archosaurs: A Study in the Soft-Tissue Reconstruction in the Fossil Record with an Analysis of the Function of Pneumaticity, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 3, 1997.

[4] Ambrose, Stephen E., Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869, Simon & Schuster, 2000.


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