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?