To Bold(en)ly Go Where NASA Has Gone Before?

By Jeff Krukin, Posted 10/13/09

3 comments

The Change NASA Needs?, Source: Google Images

The Change NASA Needs?, Source: Google Images

Original written, 04 October 2009

According to a Sept. 10th article in The Wall Street Journal, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman Augustine, "... is recommending that NASA shelve its goal of rapidly returning to the moon and instead focus on nurturing a robust commercial space industry that can handle short-term objectives of the nation's space program, such as ferrying cargo and crew to the international space station."

If you've followed my writing during the last few years, you know that I've long advocated a space exploration/settlement/development schedule that is synchronized with and nurtures the evolving capabilities of the NewSpace industry, rather than attempt to meet a politically mandated deadline.

The four big questions before us are 1) does NASA want to follow the above recommendation, 2) will President Obama direct NASA to do so, 3) will Congress support or interfere with such a directive, and 4) would NASA do what it is told to do if so directed?

Here are my thoughts about the four questions:

1) In a Sept. 25th article in Space News, NASA Administrator Bolden says, “I would be telling you a lie if I told you we’re on board, we’re really excited about this.” And yet, while acknowledging that "Old habits die hard" and "Many of us who have grown up in the traditional space program, you know, we really believe we have all the answers," he does recognize the value of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

My interpretation: Bolden recognizes that NewSpace is important to NASA's success, yet he knows that there are many powerful NewSpace foes within NASA and Congress that he must either co-opt or crush if NASA and NewSpace are to achieve their full synergistic potential. Whichever path he chooses, it will be a path where NASA has already gone before, as it has already made both half-hearted and sincere efforts to nurture NewSpace, and it has worked hard to crush NewSpace companies such as Mir Corp. Perhaps even worse, it has ignored similar NewSpace advice from the past:

* In 1986, in the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, Congress created and President Reagan appointed The National Commission on Space. On p. 110 of its report, "Pioneering the Space Frontier," you will find this statement: "The Commission therefore recommends: That next-generation cargo and passenger transport vehicles be designed and developed to be readily operable by commercial firms after the operational phase is reached. The sooner the private sector can assume responsibility for design, specification, development, fabrication, fight test, production, and operation of space vehicles and launch and landing facilities, the sooner the United States can begin to pattern Earth-to-orbit transportation after commercial airline operations."

* In January 2004, President Bush directed NASA to a new "Moon, Mars and Beyond" mission and convened the "President's Commission on Implementation of United States Exploration Policy," which presented its recommendations in June 2004. Recommendation 3-1 states, "The Commission recommends NASA recognize and implement a far larger presence of private industry in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit. In NASA decisions, the preferred choice for operational activities must be competitively awarded contracts with private and non-profit organizations and NASA's role must be limited to only those areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity."

The results are the bleak options listed in the Augustine Committee report.

2) Among other things, I see in President Obama a manager who sincerely attempts to please all parties who will be affected by his decisions. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes all parties are willing to accept a compromise in which they all benefit more or less than they want. But sometimes a manager needs to crack heads, draw the line, and make it clear that not all parties can be made happy with a decision, and while some may be furious with the decision, that decision will be made in support of the greater good. I do not expect President Obama to dramatically change the status quo by directing NASA to do as reported in the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article.

3) Considering the to-be-expected efforts by Sen. Bill Nelson to save NASA jobs in Florida, and similar efforts by Sen. Richard Shelby, and the political ramifications thereof, I do not expect Congress to support dramatic changes at NASA.

4) Considering all the above, even if the President, Congress, and Administrator Bolden agreed to radically alter NASA's relationship with the NewSpace industry, I expect the "old habits" to which Bolden referred will fight progress every centimeter of the way, thereby continuing to delay, perhaps fatally, NASA's rejuvenation.

When it's all said and done, political inertia to maintain the status quo will over-power the political momentum for change, and the result will be NASA visibly struggling as NewSpace visibly advances.

Comments

The Art of The Probable

From: Kathleen Connell, 10/16/09

In other words we have a little something for everyone, except for those laid off. Really, can't we use attrition by retirement to move folks off the NASA roster, and get those savings? Kudos to Mr. Bigelow for his open discussion of commercial space and the Atlas V option. Clearly there is a need for a mix of space access vehicles, as these transitions take decades, and we should not be dependent on one system for human access to LEO.

Heavy Lift

From: Fred Willett, 10/14/09

Heavy lift costs too much and effectively hamstrings the rest of the space effort. And what do we have that really needs a havy lift right now anyway? A better plan is to go as far as we can on EELVs which exist right now. Build space infrastructure, fuel depots, tugs, etc, and when we get to the point where we've gone as far as we can with what we've got, then worry about building a heavy lift.

Is Bolden Bolder Than We Thought?

From: Richard Mains, 10/13/09

It looks like Bolden is going to recommend a strategy to Obama that is not the status quo that Krukin predicts, which is good news. Based on a news report just released at the International Astronautical Congress in Doejeon, South Korea, his plan is to "retire the Space Shuttle by the first quarter of 2011, keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating long after its planned 2015 retirement date, use commercial launch services - which may have a substantial international element - for cargo and crew transport to station, and develop a heavylift vehicle for exploration beyond low Earth orbit." This has the advantage of supporting the ISS and our international partners long enough to obtain a real payoff from the partner's combined investments. It also allows for an extended duration of providing commercial transport services for cargo and crew to the ISS. Only the nearer-term Ares I portion of Constellation would be terminated and the longer-term Ares V (lite) launcher could be developed, as funding becomes available, for transport beyond LEO. This path may be the infrastructure development compromise and NASA budget discipline that Obama can sell to congress.

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