NASA, unleashed!

or, The “Apollo on Steroids” Critics Have Their Way

or, President Obama Comes Through On Space

I am simply thrilled at the prospects offered by the NASA budget released earlier today. In that budget, President Obama directed that NASA’s mission shift in scope in a dramatic way – a new paradigm, as all the media proclaim. That paradigm is this: NASA is going to stick its neck out. The space exploration business has grown to become incredibly risk-averse. NASA is now going to start experimenting more, trying new technologies, pushing the envelope, and playing with new strategies while leaving the more conservative aspects of spaceflight to others. NASA is going to lead while others follow. This ends a decades-long effort in which NASA was, essentially, playing catch-up with itself.

There’s a pretty good article about this on SpaceRef, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s statement on the NASA budget is available online. The new budget also comes Buzz-approved! I read through Bolden’s statement carefully, and I think it has some very, very exciting things to say about the future of the space program.

(Full disclosure: I was recently accepted as a NASA Student Ambassador. I’m all for positive outreach on behalf of the space agency. But the opinions you read here are my own!)

First and foremost:

President Obama today has given us a bold challenge — to become an engine of innovation, and the catalyst for an ambitious new space program that includes and inspires people around the world. With this budget and the steps it lays out, the United States and its partners in other nations, in industry, and in academia will pursue a more sustainable and affordable approach to spaceflight through the development of transformative technologies and systems. We will blaze a new trail of discovery and development. We will facilitate the growth of new commercial industries. And we will expand our understanding of the Earth, our solar system, and the universe beyond. To accomplish these objectives, the president has increased NASA’s budget over the next five years by 6 billion dollars, an extraordinary show of support in these tough budgetary times.

A six billion dollar increase, just after Obama announced a freeze on discretionary domestic spending. That is amazing news. It says, loud and clear, that the President believes that NASA is essential to our national economy, reputation, and technical ability. And that increase comes with directives to vigorously pursue “transformative” technologies.

The Constellation Program (CxP, in NASA parlance) was hamstrung from its very inception by two key points. CxP was suppose to put men on the Moon again, by 2020, but “using only existing technologies” and “within the existing budget.” The new NASA budget rejects both these fetters: it unchains NASA from the decades-old technology of the past, and it gives the agency the resources needed to pursue ambitious new exploration goals. Constellation was, in many ways, a reaction to the Space Shuttle disasters – a misguided thought that, since we lost astronauts on those storied vehicles but not on any capsule-based spaceflights, capsules are inherently safer. In fact, I feel that Constellation was one man’s reaction to the Space Shuttle disasters (former NASA administrator Michael Griffin), and the reason the Shuttles have become unsafe is that they are based on 30-year-old technology and were never meant to fly as long as they have. I’ve been confounded by that ultra-reactionary “with existing technology” constriction for some time now. Space flight is, and ought to be, adventure!

Let me say here that CxP was effectively dead before President Obama proposed cutting it from the budget. Hard as Constellation proponents may have found it to accept, the Augustine Commission did a solid, thorough fact-finding job. They determined, through painful examination, that schedule and budget overruns meant that the combination of the Ares I rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle would not be ready to service to International Space Station until 2018, at the earliest, and even with full funding. That means that ISS would likely not exist for very long, if at all, when Ares I would be ready to go there. Furthermore, they found that Ares V would not be ready to launch humans towards the Moon until 2028, well beyond the Vision for Space Exploration’s original goals. So all this buzz about Obama “killing” Constellation…is really old news. It’s simply a flat-out statement of the hard reality, and a re-introduction of pragmatic thinking.

Bolden had some good things to say about the existing work done on the Constellation Program, and his words should not be ignored:

With my deepest gratitude, I commend the hard work and dedication that thousands of NASA and contractor workers have given to Constellation over the last few years. Their commitment has brought great value to the agency, and they will have a pivotal role to play in our future path. Many of the things we’ve learned will be critical as we move forward.

The SpaceRef article I linked to above makes a similar point, specifically citing the Desert RATS program, which developed key exploration architectures and methods that could apply equally well to the Moon, Mars, asteroids – and hostile environments on Earth. I completely agree that the “exploration mindset” established by Constellation is a tremendous success for NASA, which has spent the last several decades dithering around in orbit. It was practically as Apollo 11 touched the Sea of Tranquility that President Nixon directed NASA to can the last couple Apollo missions and develop the low-orbit Space Shuttle. The Shuttle program has been punctuated by many major successes in orbital operations throughout the years – including satellite deployments and captures, the Hubble Telescope repair missions, EASE/ACCESS, and ISS construction. Yet it is difficult to sell these missions to the public as “exploration.” Science, yes. But we’re not expanding any frontiers. The Constellation Program at least gave NASA a sense of momentum again, and as Bolden said, that is a success that NASA needs to capitalize on.

We must now say goodbye to the Space Transportation System vehicles, venerable craft that served as extremely capable in-orbit workhorses but do not bring us beyond the influence of the Earth. Still – let us not forget that while Apollo gave us the image of Spaceship Earth


the Space Shuttle gave us the image of Spaceship Man!

Bruce McCandless floating farther away from his spacecraft than anyone ever has before or since

I’m very excited to see that not only will we be honoring our commitments to NASA’s international partners and extending the lifetime of ISS to 2020 (and beyond?!), but NASA will also have a 40% larger budget for the International Space Station to conduct science as a national laboratory! Now we can see the orbital facility really take off in new discoveries, whether we must buy access from the Russians or not! The research possibilities are exciting – particularly because they will supposedly have a focus on enabling technologies for exploration, like new propulsion systems. Bolden mentions inflatable habitats and centrifuges explicitly – those are things that enable really long-duration missions, orbital space colonies, and large-scale space construction and operations!

Technology research like this forms the centerpiece of the new NASA budget. Bolden says:

Next, the president has laid out a dynamic plan for NASA to invest in critical and transformative technologies. These will enable our path beyond low Earth orbit through development of new launch and space transportation technologies, nimble construction capabilities on orbit, and new operations capabilities. Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year…. Imagine enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low Earth orbit, while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth.

New launch technologies? “Nimble” in-orbit construction techniques? Thousands of people living in space?! Hell yeah! Let’s take our ISS construction experience and supersize it. It sounds to me like Bolden is talking about setting up some space colonies – or at least the technologies for them. He’s talking about researching technology in such a way as to enable some real science-fiction-like prospects for human space exploration. “Trips to Mars that take weeks” probably means something really cool like solar sails or ion engines. It looks like they may be setting a lot of store in the VASIMR engine concept (though it’s currently unproven). So now we’re literally and seriously talking about assembling inflatable centrifuge habitats in orbit and sending them to Mars with plasma engines.

VASIMR test in a lab

Pardon me while I wipe my slobber off the keyboard…

There are several specific research programs to be implemented under this budget plan. First is what I call a spaceflight systems architecture program, with 7.8 gigadollars attached to it. (Reminder: giga = 10^9 = billion!) Compare that to the entire cost of the Constellation Program to date at ~$8-9 billion! According to Bolden, this program

will invent and demonstrate large-scale, new and novel approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots and rendezvous and docking technologies, and closed-loop life support systems.

Just to remind you all, “rendezvous and docking technologies” is a fairly good keyword category for my research. And “closed-loop life support” would be jargon for a self-sustaining space habitat, that recycles all its wastes and produces food for its astronauts!

The second research program is $3.1 billion for “aggressive” research and development into a heavy-lift capability. This is clearly geared towards filling the gap between the Shuttle and the previously envisioned introduction of the Ares V – which the Augustine Commission found would not likely enter service until the late 2020’s or 2030’s! It also may help mitigate some of the concern from the shift to private contractors for ISS launch services, and provide NASA’s Ares workforce somewhere to go. It’s a bone thrown to Marshall Spaceflight Center, but a very necessary one – private corporations aren’t going to develop a heavy-lift capacity unless they have a really lucrative return in mind.

Finally, there are almost 5 gigadollars for flight demonstrations of space technology in the research and development stage. I’ve seen mention of flagship-class missions devoted entirely to technology demos. This is incredible; and incredibly important. A great example of the success of a flight demo mission is Deep Space One, which established the ion engine as a viable and useful means of spacecraft propulsion. That was a small-scale mission, though. A “flagship” mission is something the size of Cassini or Galileo. Image one of those designed entirely to testing out new engines, new habitats, new power systems, new payloads – just for the sake of trying something new. These would be a shot in the arm for the risk-averse spacecraft industry, as NASA takes on the mantle of developing and proving new technologies that bring us ever-further into the new Space Age.

Bolden also mentions $3 billion earmarked for robotic “exploration precursor” missions. These are not just robot explorers like the Mars Exploration Rovers. They are robotic missions dedicated specifically towards paving the way for human exploration: finding new exploration targets, testing experimental approaches towards getting to destinations, building on successes, perhaps even establishing infrastructure for and cooperating with crewed missions.

Now, I’d better devote some mention to these destinations.

Obama will probably articulate his NASA vision more clearly in a speech later this week, but it looks like he’s bought the Augustine Commission’s suggestion of a “flexible path” for the space program. In Bolden’s words,

Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of “firsts;” and imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world.

…while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth.

In the “flexible path” exploration architecture, NASA does not explicitly set landing on the Moon or Mars as a goal. Instead, the agency sends crewed missions to live and work away from Earth at the Lagrange points, prospect on near-Earth asteroids, set up observing stations on the moons of Mars, or even drop in for a visit to the inner Solar System.

The criticism I have heard of this path is that planetary landings are much more exciting and feel much more like an “end goal.” Does the public really care about an astronaut getting into a halo orbit about an imaginary point in space?

Here is why I think this “steady stream of ‘firsts'” matters a great deal:

My generation, and whatever we call the generation after mine, has grown up with the legacy of the Moon landings. As much of a technical achievement as I realize a lunar return would be…I want to see something else. But more important than maintaining my interest is maintaining the interest of all the people Twittering over celebrity gossip. NASA needs public interest to keeps its missions going, and my Internet-induced-ADD generation requires that NASA be constantly churning out achievements in order to maintain that public interest. The flexible path gives NASA that ability – while still maintaining the option and ability to land on the Moon and Mars when the opportunity arises.

Another good reason to pursue this path is that it would highlight the actions and achievements of small crews of astronauts at unprecedented distances from home. It could make astronauts heroes again. With social media connecting those astronauts to people on Earth in near-real-time, while they shoot back pictures of a thumb-at-arm’s-length-sized Earth and deal with the challenges of spaceflight, NASA could have all the public relations goodwill it could ever want! Remember how John Glenn, Al Shepard, and Gus Grissom were household names? Remember how we celebrated the achievements of the first spacewalk, the first docking, the first time two manned missions flew simultaneously?

Following the flexible path architecture would also require a suite of new vehicles. I find that idea fantastically exciting. From 1961 to 1973, NASA developed and flew five totally different crewed spacecraft with totally different missions: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo CSM and LM, and Skylab. What if we could do the same again, for interplanetary operations, asteroid landings, and planetary flybys?

I do have some apprehensions about the new budget and new plans. I’d feel much better about the ISS-access and heavy-lift gaps if SpaceX was a lot closer to launching the Falcon 9. All in all, though, I’m really excited about all the technology R&D, the new focus on science, the relaxation of the “existing technology” restrictions, the expanded budget, and the thought that now NASA will be the trailblazer for space operations – again! We might call this the “Columbus Model:” private enterprise won’t do something as costly as exploration without a guaranteed dividend. It requires the investment of a national government to get things started, develop the infrastructure and technology, and demonstrate the resources to be had before entrepreneurs will risk their own dollars. I sure hope it works, and I sure hope that we weather the gap between launch vehicles.

But as a space exploration technology research and development kind of guy, I am pretty excited about all this!

5 thoughts on “NASA, unleashed!”

  1. Sigh. And in three years, when there’s a new president, the paradigm will shift again and NASA will be left scrambling again to accommodate the paradigm du jour. While the ideas behind this paradigm shift may be productive, they are astoundingly tone-deaf to the concerns of Congress (not that I’m a fan of Congress). These changes are so large (and the number of jobs lost in Florida and Alabama so great) that Congress is guaranteed to have a kanipshin. What I unfortunately expect to happen is that Congress is going to complain loud enough that some semblance of CxP is going to remain on life support (burning through billions pointlessly) while billions get dumped into ATK and ULA (which can’t really do anything much more efficiently than NASA when it comes to new building).

  2. Yes, I agree that another shift would derail things. That was one of the HSF Committee’s findings – that it’s not good for NASA to get a new directive every 4-8 years. Of course, we haven’t heard a lot of leadership direction for NASA yet, just the budget. It’ll be interesting to see what Obama directs them to do, specifically, in his rumored upcoming space policy address.

    In general, though, I think Obama came through in a big way on space policy. Interesting that he also came through in a rather Republican way with all this pro-commercial stuff…

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