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President-elect Joe Biden faces tough questions about what NASA’s future direction in human spaceflight should be. (credit: Adam Schultz/Biden for President)

Closing the business case


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The American people have spoken. At noon on January 20, 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration will end four years of chaos passing for governance. The new administration’s underlying goal must be making government work again.

Key to that goal is to regain social trust with both the citizenry of the United States and other governments of the world. Social trust forms when people and organizations accomplish the things that are proposed. In government it means organizations succeeding in making the lives of the people who pay the bills measurably better.

Returning to the Moon in 2024 is a Diablo Canyon: a dead end with no goals that make success not only improbable and risky but also ephemeral.

A new NASA administrator should not just advocate policies that can be accomplished for a reasonable amount of investment in a set period. The policy goals should go further, creating results that the partners in it—the American people, and other governments—see as reinforcing the desire for additional ventures.

The Democratic Party platform concerning spaceflight says, “We support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, take the next step in exploring our solar system.” How to do that?

Returning to the Moon in 2024 is a Diablo Canyon: a dead end with no goals that make success not only improbable and risky but also ephemeral. Bootprints on the Moon, even by the first woman, will make Artemis an identical twin of Apollo, fading quickly in public relevance and into unaffordability.

Change requires heeding the words of former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden: “Closing a business case for commercial human spaceflight is hard to make, but it is something that we cannot not do.” He pointed the way by saying, “It’s okay for NASA to be an anchor tenant.” (see “The three administrators”, The Space Review, October 12, 2020) It is not only “okay,” it is essential.

The US economy is resilient in crisis and expansive in normal times because there are metrics for products that define success or failure. From idea conception to product use, the metrics serve as a guide for management decisions and the allocation of resources.

Products that fail to meet performance metrics are the subject of new management or are terminated. Value returned by performance of the investment closes the business case by setting the stage for further development. Closing the business case is the ultimate definer of success.

The difference between the Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Falcon series is not the technology or the expertise of the people involved. It is the definition of success.

SLS lacks metrics that would cause its supporters to question the spending of taxpayer money. The spending is the goal. SLS management, both government and at the prime contractor Boeing, has become comfortable with that knowledge. Failure is routinely tolerated. After a decade and tens of billions, SLS has no realistic schedule or price metrics for completion or operation.

Schedule and cost sensitive government programs, such as deep solar system exploration programs, are leaving SLS. It has been reduced to simply flying Orion. This is failure in all but name.

This is the goal NASA must achieve. This does not mean unisex boot prints on the Moon in the next four years. Instead, it can summon a new space age, one with across-the-board progress.

Commercial vehicles must meet metrics of cost, capability, and reliability, with the exceptions of the requirement for dual-path access and niche markets. SpaceX Falcon is well on its way to dominating the launch market.

Throughout the worlds spacefaring community, both its goal of lowering the cost of access and its design is being imitated. If ULA’s Vulcan or Blue Origin’s New Glenn cannot compete against the Falcon series, they will fail.

SpaceX Starship effort is a direct legacy of Falcon’s commercial success. When Starship flies, the business case of the Falcon series boosters will have closed.

This is the promise of “anchor tenant” roles by NASA. The nightmare was the other entrant in commercial crew. Boeing’s Starliner is a mirror of SLS. Its inaugural voyage last December had extensive failures not because of its innovative technology but the failure of management to make routine technology perform. The vehicle cost more to develop and probably more to fly than its competitor.

NASA has admitted their oversight was lax because they felt secure with Boeing. Boeing mangers did not take the competition, NASA managers, or its obligations seriously: a catastrophic but familiar cycle illustrative of the rot that SLS has caused.

Policy should take the new path. SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada (to name a few) have demonstrated that vehicles can be built by private industry to reasonable metrics that have reasonable development cost, operational capability, and future development paths. As secondary, purely commercial applications of these vehicles start to emerge, the business case for them is at least emerging.

This is the cycle that “building back better” requires and will make future NASA human space programs successful. This is the goal NASA must achieve. This does not mean unisex boot prints on the Moon in the next four years. Instead, it can summon a new space age, one with across-the-board progress. Installation of private modules on the space station securing the massive American and foreign investment as modules age, including replacing failing Russian modules. Continued development of both the human and robotic capability to refurbish satellites of increasing complexity with a Hubble revisit.

The lunar Gateway should not only be accessed with commercially launched, developed, and operated vehicles. Development and deployment should occur with commercial launch vehicles carrying commercially procured modules. Treated as the humanity’s first interplanetary vessel, it should be a technology hub for future crewed and uncrewed vehicles. Automation should be stressed in both ground and flight operations, lowering cost.

An immediate mission of the Gateway would be to deploy and recover reusable lunar vehicles to start extensive robotic exploration and utilization of the Moon. A co-equal mission would be assisting the development of innovative technologies such as on-orbit refueling, long-lived orbital stages, and centrifuges.

Anchored by the federal government, eventually one or more of the business cases will close and human spaceflight will get on a secure footing.

As ISS set the model for government-to-government operation the new station will set the pathway for future commercial involvement. Companies should be required to make an investment in the product, gain their reward by successful development of the product, and pay the price for failure. Private investment in the Gateway and lunar exploration should earn the ability to participate in its commercial activities and reap profits from them.

This will revitalize both aerospace industry and, yes, NASA. The industry needs both the breath of free enterprise and competition to renew it. NASA needs a new relationship with both industry and the American people to move into the future does not revisit the past.

Anchored by the federal government, eventually one or more of the business cases will close and human spaceflight will get on a secure footing. Like the airmail service and its connection with commercial aviation, this is the giant leap that will long be remembered.


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