What Next for NASA?

What Next for NASA?

The next few months will be a critical time for space policy, in general, and NASA in particular. The Obama transition team is already preparing for a policy review, and groups like the Planetary Society are already beginning to make their recommendations on behalf of their interests.

The Foundation ought to be making its voice heard, too. But what should we say?

The last “space policy review,” during the Bush Administration, was very limited in scope. First, it was limited to looking at NASA, in isolation. The military, the private sector, and other government agencies were essentially ignored. Second, while participants claim to have examined a “full range of options,” the discussion was essentially limited to “Where should NASA go next?”

Thus, the White House considered options such an immediate sprint to Mars, a return to the Moon, sticking with ISS, even shutting NASA down completely. Implicitly in all those options, however, is the assumption that NASA’s mission is simply to “go somewhere.” No one ever asked why NASA was going, what it should be doing when it got there, or what national interests it was serving.

The Planetary Society’s recent report is similarly limited to “Where should NASA go?” Many other space groups will undoubtedly produce similar reports. It’s up to the Foundation to ask the more fundamental questions, like “what national interests should NASA serve” and “what’s the best way to serve those interests”? We, as a nation, need to answer those questions before we can decide which destinations NASA should go to or even whether it should go at all.

That said, we may not have time for such deep soul searching. The Bush Vision of Space Exploration is in deep trouble, and Obama advisors have indicated that fixing NASA may be high on their agenda. If that’s so, then we need to be ready to make specific, concrete recommendations very soon.

Here’s one idea I’d like to throw out. Jon Goff and Rand Simberg have been talking a lot about orbital propellent depots lately. The establishment of an orbital depot could support *any* orbital or deep-space goals the Administration might decide to pursue later on. It is destination independent. It would enable the establishment of new industries in LEO that take advantage of the propellant, and it would create an incentive for the development of new low-cost launch vehicles (including RLVs) that can deliver propellent. This may be the most effective thing NASA can do to incentive orbital (as opposed to suborbital) RLVs.  

What do you think? Should we get on the propellent depot bandwagon?

Another tactical recommendation we might make is the use of prizes. Lori Garver, who’s slated to play a key role in the transition, is a big fan of prizes, so this should be any easy sell. But what kind of prizes should we advocate?

On the high end, what about a one-billion dollar prize for a private expedition to the Moon, as Pete Worden advocated at the Marshall Institute a few years ago? Given the current economy, it could be argued that this is a bad time for prizes, since it will be hard for even the best teams to find private capital to pursue them. On the other hand, given an orbital propellent depot and something like Elon Musk’s Dragon capsule, it could be argued that a private expedition to the Moon is not all that hard.

We should also consider smaller prizes — I still believe there’s merit in the low-cost spacesuit prize that I had NASA sold on, before the money went away — and larger prizes — how about scaling up the lunar lander competition to demonstrate a piloted lander (which, coincidentally, would also demonstrated a VTOL suborbital RLV, with all that implies)?  

A few years ago, NASA kicked off Centennial Challenges with a big workshop to brainstorm prize ideas. That workshop has not been repeated since. Perhaps it’s time to hold another one. Maybe such a workshop could be held at someplace like, say, NASA Ames, perhaps coordinated and hosted by some nonprofit group in conjunction with an annual conference or something?  


  • eelv says:

    […] USAF and Big Aerospace already did much of what you suggest in developing the 2 EELV vehicles. …What Next for NASA?The next few months will be a critical time for space policy, in general, and NASA in particular. […]

  • Bob Werb says:

    My personal reaction is that as far as our public positions are concerned the Space Frontier Foundation is best served by sticking to the knitting.  The big fight right now is getting government out of the civil space launch business entirely.  Ares I is dying and choosing commercial alternatives is a winnable fight.

    We prefer on orbit assembly, fuel depots and lunar ships that can’t land because they build the cis-lunar infrastructure we want. They only want to build such things if they are cheaper, faster and better while preserving government funded jobs in the right districts. Is having this debate right now in the best interests of killing Ares I and replacing it with commercial alternatives?

    EELV and COTS-D right now and commercial launch evermore! (Cis-lunar infrastructure can wait.)

    Privately we can make the case for broader reform. Prizes in particular may well resonate with some in the incoming administration.


  • Edward.Wright says:

    EELV and COTS-D right now and commercial launch evermore! (Cis-lunar infrastructure can wait.)

    The Foundation fell into the “COTS uber alles” trap once before.

    Time marches on. ISS will reach the end of its design life in 2016. NASA and OMB may shrug their shoulders and say, “systems are capable of performing safely and effectively for well beyond their design life,” but this is nothing more than wishful thinking. (Remember how the same agenices complained that Mir was a “deathtrap”?) Yes, NASA could extend the life of ISS beyond 2016 with a lot of duck tape, but there isn’t money in the budget for that much duck tape. Nor has anyone identified any real mission (or even political purpose) that requires extending the life of ISS. Slapping a sign on the side that says “national laboratory” does not give it a purpose, just a name — a misleading name at that.

    Thus, it’s very dangerous to assume that ISS will remain operational past 2016.

    Again, time marches on. Even if NASA made COTS-D a top priority, it’s unlikely that any contracts could be awarded before the latter half of 2009. If it takes four years to develop a COTS-D capability, the first operational flights could not begin until late 2013. If it can be done in a near-miraculous two years, they might begin in late 2011.

    That means COTS-D will last for just 3-5 years before the ISS reaches the end of its design life. If you assume three crew changes per year, and three Americans in each crew, that’s a total (not annual) market of 27-45 seats. Not even enough to fill a 737. Then what? Does the company go out of business when ISS reaches end of life? Investors want to want see continuing markets, not dead-end business.

    That’s the optimistic picture. It assumes ISS makes it to end of design life — which is by no means assured. Any number of things could happen between now and then. Then there’s the foreign competition. Europe, China, even India are developing or proposing new capsules. Any one of those could capture the entire COTS-D business.

    With no guarantee of any on-going government business, COTS is not going to change the minds of any investor who isn’t already persuaded. That’s why OSC and SpaceX are the only player’s who’ve been successful in the COTS game. Elon isn’t doing Falcon and Dragon because he cares about COTS, but because he wants to go to Mars. COTS was not an incentive for him but simply a bit of gravy he could grab along the way. OSC, on the other hand, merely found it to be a useful source of funding for the “Delta 2 replacement” NASA wanted.


  • jkrukin says:

    Propellant depots are good because they are a natural part of commercial space transportation infrastructure, and they provide an opportunity for the traditional aerospace companies to slowly engage in an entirely new type of on-orbit construction (even if they’ll only do it if NASA pays for it).

    But that’s just one piece of the pie.  We should educate our new political leaders about the need for and benefits of a commercial Earth-orbit-Moon transporation infrastructure that is developed, owned, and operated by the private sector.  We can focus on EELV and COTS-D right now, but that doesn’t mean we have to exclude cis-lunar.  Instead, it is today’s foundation for what we need now, near-term (ISS transport), and long-term (the Moon).  All our knitting, to use Bob’s word, should be obviously leading to the complete garment, not just the sleeve.

  • Edward.Wright says:

    That said, it may not matter what NASA does with ISS because COTS does not actually purchase anything ISS needs. We are once again forgetting that COTS is merely a subsidized vehicle development program. It is not an ISS resupply program (much less a crew rotation program). NASA has not made even a conditional commitment to purchasing a single operational flight on any vehicle that may come out of the program. In fact, they have emphatically refused to do so.

    Again, any investor who’s done serious due diligence on COTS will know that.

    NASA should be helping to create a market for new vehicles.