My Space Program

I’ve been very critical of NASA lately, and similar criticism to mine has been trickling out of the space blog community and into major news outlets. So, in all fairness, I would like to offer up some much more constructive thoughts.

If I suddenly became Dictator of NASA Authorization and Appropriation, this is what I would do: First, I would decouple the portions of the NASA budget that deal with science and with human spaceflight. Next, I would double (or triple!) both budgets. And then I would put the budget on a schedule in which it gets re-authorized every decade, rather than every year.

Finally, I would give NASA a mission for human spaceflight.

One finds many challenges in trying to come up with a solid mission for human space exploration. The mission must be simply stated, so that it is easily grasped by the community at large, has simple criteria for success, and gives scientists, engineers, and administrators maximum creative leeway. The mission must also have clear, tangible benefits to the public at large in order to maintain broad-based support. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the ideal mission for the program should be one that leads to a self-perpetuating endeavor of exploration. Those of us who see value in spaceflight want to go out and explore, and keep exploring, instead of reaching a goal and turning back, victory in hand.

In the political climate of the early 1960’s, reaching the Moon was the right mission. NASA was all about proving that our democratic society and civilian exploration program could beat the pants off our rivals’ soviet society and militarized rocket program. It was about spurring the development of high technology in this country. It was about national pride. It was about proving that we could do something awe-inspiring.

I think that we could use some of those initiatives again, but that our current society will not support a simple destination in space as a goal. I think that people today want to see immediate results from the exploration effort. They want to see a space program that pays for itself by giving them something to hold in their hand.

Paramount to the long-term success of this mission is its ability to survive success. In many ways, this is NASA’s problem. It went to the Moon, and the public began to question the need to go to the Moon any more. When the Apollo program ended, instead of a NASA that looked out to the next horizon, its reach diminished. Now NASA is in a position where its mission gets redefined too quickly for it to accomplish any goal. The space community squabbles over whether the exploration goal should be the Moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But I think we need a fundamentally new kind of goal: Often, the idea of a mission for NASA gets confused with the idea of a specific destination or a specific spacecraft program, but a “mission” is broader than both.  The problem is that NASA needs a focused effort, and that effort has to be harnessed in such a way that achievement of its goals perpetuates the mission instead of becoming a bygone climax.

I think the mission should be pushing the human presence out into the Solar System. And so here is what I would suggest for NASA’s human exploration goal:

Build and launch a human-carrying space vehicle, using no materials from the Earth, within the next 15 years.

That’s it. No engineering decisions, no restrictions on technology; a broad statement of an extremely big idea, simply stated. Oh, we can haggle over the precise wording or the timeframe, but I think this is it: the space exploration goal that could revitalize the space program.

You see, the goal I am setting is for a capability. I want to see humans figure out how to exploit space in an efficient and effective manner, and to prove it, I want to see them build a spacecraft in space. I don’t care where this happens: a crater foundry on the Moon, a near-Earth asteroid shipyard in an elliptical orbit, scaffolds on Utopia Planitia on Mars. Nor do I care where this spacecraft goes when it is launched. What I care about is this: in the process of achieving the goal I have stated, the space program is going to have to create an industrial and technological base, in space, that we don’t have at present. New technologies and products are going to come out of the space program on a weekly basis. The space program will create a foundation that our wider society can move onto. In other words, I want to see the space program create new industries, and I want it to drag them along with it into space and establish them firmly there. Think of this idea like spurring on an East India Trading company for space. So, I want to target the science and engineering of in-situ resource utilization and develop it into a discipline that will let human beings truly develop space.

Merely arriving at an asteroid – or even arriving at Mars – could be accomplished using technologies we have at our disposal right now. There are engineering challenges, to be sure; but we could potentially knock many of them off by optimizing known solutions. We only need put forward the effort and resources. Building something from scratch in space, though, will require some substantial new developments! Materials science, field medicine, robotics, chemistry, computing, electrical power generation, thermal management – all would likely have to jump forward in leaps and bounds. Tangible benefits would come out of such a program in many other disciplines, as well. I want average people getting to see and use devices that spin out of the space program at a pace that matches their expectations of high-tech fields. I want these devices and technologies making obvious differences and improvements to life on Earth: increasing our efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, making power more cheaply and more cleanly available, getting medicine into remote areas, growing food in truly sustainable ways to better support our populations – all things that are major problems in the world today, and all things that would have to happen to support a space-based industry.

I feel that it is very important for the timeframe on this goal to be ambitious. The reason is that I want to see space exploration become a high-tech industry again. It used to be – in the 1960’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. However, the most successful space programs and vehicles since then tend to be extremely conservative. For example: it used to be the case that the space program invented computer technology specifically for its new vehicles; now, the computers on spacecraft typically lag behind the state of the art by a decade or more. This is fine for the private sector if we care only about the bottom line of a single satellite, but it’s not good for long-term performance and I think our national space program should be reaching beyond those concerns. I feel strongly that the risks of new space technologies are often overestimated; but on top of that, I think we should be willing to take more risks with our astronauts! We should be filling our NASA missions with “firsts,” because only by doing so can we lay the groundwork for following developments. With that in mind, I would set a goal that requires entirely new engineering strategies and impose a deadline that forces rapid maturation of technology.

As the space program cranks out “firsts” related to building this ship, I want to see NASA taking full advantage of mass media. I want a Twitter feed posting pictures of spaceships under construction. I want the news showing astronauts each week, at least, doing things that look new: prospecting and mining on asteroids or the Moon, assembling huge structures, showing off how they support life in deep space with few resources from Earth. We should see astronauts, mission controllers, and engineers as heroes – as the people helping usher in new discoveries.

If the space program were to adopt my suggested goal, I can only speculate a little on how it would play out. I think asteroids would likely be the most obvious source for raw materials for the spacecraft – or might even be made into the spacecraft itself, if hollowed out in the classic sci-fi paradigm. I think that whatever asteroid or asteroids we choose to target would need vast solar power collectors to establish infrastructure. Closed-loop life support systems would likely be a key component of the set-up. And the space program would need a way to taxi astronauts up to space and back, as well as out to the asteroids and back. To do that, NASA would need to take advantage of affordable launch services from private companies and also develop or sponsor a fleet of interplanetary shuttlecraft. In all, I see the possibility for a lot of dramatic achievements – ending with a stirring first launch of the new spacegoing vessel from its drydock, of course!

That is what I want from my space program.

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