International Space Station, Source: NASA
Original written, 11 February 2010
Since the recent announcement of NASA's new direction as seen in President Obama's FY2011 budget, there has been some concern about the lack of milestones, deadlines, and destinations. Just how necessary are these, is the need the same for the profit-funded NewSpace industry and publicly-funded NASA programs, and how should they be determined?
Let's begin with milestones and deadlines. In this weeks' issue of Space News in an Op-Ed entitled "Change Springs Eternal," it is correctly pointed out that "The most useful innovations tend to be developed in response to specific mission requirements; history shows that pushing technology in hopes that a future application will reveal itself is more likely than not to waste money." But there is an important caveat to this statement; this may be true for most government funded and managed programs, but it doesn't necessarily apply to private sector innovation where development dollars aren't spent to meet politically derived and driven "mission requirements."
In the private sector there is only one mission requirement; generate positive cash flow and return a profit on the investment. In the private sector, there is only one deadline; get the product to market, preferably before the competition. All product development milestones are greatly influenced by this, and well-managed companies understand that success or failure in the marketplace is the sole determinant of whether or not to continue with a product's development. Like any other industry, this is how the NewSpace industry will need to operate if it is to survive and then thrive, and NASA will be just one of its markets.
Viewing suborbital and Earth-LEO transportation within this context is a radical departure, and a very scary proposition for many. But if the industry is successful at identifying and serving its markets, we will succeed beyond anything that NASA could ever accomplish on its own. NewSpace must determine and set its own milestones and deadlines within this context, rather than within our dysfunctional traditional government approach to space transportation.
As for NASA, should it have milestones and deadlines for its future R&D efforts? Certainly, but only if tied to real budgets and wisely considered and defined goals, and it is the goals that are the key. If NASA is going to develop new deep-space propulsion systems and heavy-lift launchers, how should the deadlines be determined? An arbitrary date by which the current or future President feels we should go to Mars? A date mandated by Congress by when we should visit an asteroid? I believe these approaches are wrong. All milestones, deadlines, and goals should be focused on one endeavor; the creation of an economically viable (profitable) space transportation system, regardless of where we want to go in the solar system.
Which brings us to the question of the need for declaring a destination (which is also part of the deadline issue). I've seen many calls for specific destinations like the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, and yet this is the wrong argument. There is but one destination that encompasses all other destinations; the solar system. But the only way to have it all is to proceed incrementally in our development of Earth-space transportation infrastructure. First we get it working... profitably... in sub-orbital flight, then to LEO, and then beyond. Will it take longer to return to the Moon, visit asteroids, and explore Mars and the distant planetary moons if we do it this way? Perhaps, but I don't think so. If we unleash the profit motive and combine it with focused government R&D for technology development, nothing can stop us. For all the worry about China planting its flag on the Moon before the U.S. returns there, they cannot beat America's private sector if we use it wisely in our space endeavors. A NASA sprint to the Moon or Mars is not sustainable and is unrealistic to expect when you consider our current fiscal situation.
The Cold War necessitated a fear-driven politically mandated deadline and destination, but that era is long gone. If we lose the solar system, it will not be for lack of deadlines and declared destinations. It will be because even as we segue to NewSpace for our short-term needs, we continue to behave as if government-determined deadlines and destinations are still the only way to drive our long-term desires.