The Future of NASA

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Earlier this week I mentioned that there is an ongoing evaluation of the future of human spaceflight at NASA. The so-called “Augustine commission” has been tasked to:

“conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. The Committee should aim to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle.”

The Augustine commission will not set NASA’s policy, that is done by the president. But all signs suggest that the recommendations of the commission will have a lot of weight in Washington. The good thing is that the commission is doing all that it can to get feedback from the public, including holding public meetings and showing an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and providing multiple other ways to contact them with your thoughts on the future of NASA. Here are mine:

NASA succeeded in sending men to the moon because there was a clear goal, a definite deadline, adequate funding, and nation-wide support. If we want to achieve great things with the human spaceflight program at NASA, all of those requirements need to be met.

The first is the easiest: What is the goal? You may not be surprised to hear that I think it should be to put a human on Mars. Many people at NASA agree: the new administrator certainly does, and his informal poll of NASA workers showed that they all agree. A nationwide poll was less decisive, with just 51% of people approving of a human mission to Mars. However, I think it’s also interesting that in that same poll it showed that in 1979, less than half of those polled thought the moon landings were worthwhile, but now 71% think they were worth it.  I’ll return to the role of public support later.

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The second requirement is a deadline. Since Apollo, NASA has not been very good with deadlines. I know firsthand from my experience with the Mars Science Laboratory that deadlines are missed. Our launch was delayed by two years. But an overarching deadline that applies to an entire portion of NASA carries more weight. When all the missions are aiming toward that deadline, there is more pressure for each individual mission to stay on schedule. Yes, the deadline will be arbitrary, just as JFK’s “land a man on the moon before the decade is out” was. But a focused goal and a realistic but challenging timeframe will galvanize the human spaceflight effort.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle (orange) consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

What about funding? Step one is to retire the space shuttle. It is a beautiful spacecraft, but it is godawful expensive, not to mention dangerous. And it can’t get us where we want to go. The shuttle’s only remaining role is to finish constructing NASA’s other money pit, the International Space Station. Once the station is finished and the shuttle is retired, a significant portion of NASA’s human spaceflight budget will be freed to work on the next generation of launch vehicles. Plus, as reported by NASA Watch:

There is a bit of gossip going around Washington that President Obama once mused that he’d give NASA money – a lot more money – if only they’d do something inspiring and relevant once again. The President talks repeatedly about sending humans to the Moon in the 1960’s as an example of what America can do when it puts its collective mind to something. He supposedly sought out Leonard Nimoy in a hotel once so he could give him the Vulcan salute. He talks about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders watching Apollo crews welcomed home. There is no need to instill any notions about the inspirational value of space exploration in this man’s head. He’s got plenty of it already.

That’s not money we can count on, but it is encouraging. And even without an increased budget, with the shuttle retired and the ISS finished, NASA will be able to do a lot with what it already has.

Finally, the most difficult point is nationwide public support. For Apollo, there were political motives. These days it is more difficult. The public really don’t care much about human spaceflight right now. The robots on Mars are more popular than the astronauts orbiting over our heads at this instant. Now, I love me some Mars robots, but that is not the way it should be! Still, there are glimmers of hope: the recent Hubble servicing mission got a lot of press. Why? Because it was compelling. It was a risky mission, but one that could only have been accomplished by astronauts.

I think the problem is not that there is a lack of support for NASA and human space exploration, but that there is a lack of support for “boring” human spaceflight. The moment the stakes are raised, literally, beyond low Earth orbit it will catch people’s attention. NASA needs to take risks again. As Grace Hopper once said, “A ship in a port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”

When I was in the NASA Academy in 2006, one of the most interesting people that I met was Alan Ladwig. He spoke to us about public engagement in space exploration and drove home a point that has stuck with me to this day: the power of Story. It’s a simple prescription: “Empathetic or engaging characters frustrated in their attempts to reach a well-defined goal.” Any writer knows that these are the fundamentals of a good story, and NASA needs to embrace this. Here’s how:

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NASA needs its astronauts to be heroes again, like the "Mercury Seven" shown here.

First, the characters. Astronauts should be heroes again! People still fawn over the astronauts from the early days of space exploration, but rarely even know the names of our current astronauts. The public needs to be able to relate to the astronauts, and also needs to look up to them. There are some good signs on this front, with astronauts like Mike Massimino and Mark Polansky and their successful tweets from space.

Second, the difficulties. NASA also needs to clearly show the emotions, frustrations, and challenges faced by every mission. Exploring space is hard, but currently NASA seems to want to make it look as easy as possible. But remember, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” If you hide the challenge, the emotion, the human side of what you are doing, then people will lose interest.

And finally, the goal. If it is clear and it matters to the heroes of our story, be they NASA’s astronauts, scientists, engineers, or robots, then it will matter to the public. Of course, it is also important to be able to articulate clear benefits to space exploration, but those don’t matter nearly as much as most people think. The main thing is that the goal is clear and that it is important to the characters the public is rooting for.

Ever since Apollo, NASA has been faced with a chicken and egg problem: people aren’t interested in spaceflight because it is not as exciting anymore, but it is not as exciting anymore because there is no support to do anything more than send people to low Earth orbit.

We need to break that cycle and now is the chance. NASA needs to set a lofty goal: Humans on Mars. We need a deadline: Within 20 years. We need funding: the money freed up by the space shuttle and the space station. And we need public support, which is easier than you think to get, as long as we have a good story to tell.

And boy, do we ever.

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17 Comments on “The Future of NASA”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Well said.

  2. Lucy Says:

    My fear is that NASA spending, along with all other federal spending, is only stable now because they’re trying to stimulate the economy. As soon as the economy starts to show signs of life, everyone will be terrified of the deficit and start cutting back everything that could be considered even remotely discretionary, such as space exploration. Not that I have a good plan to change that. Could NASA possibly end up high enough on the national priority list to avoid being cut, let alone given a mandate for a new Mars program?

    • Ryan Says:

      You’re right, that’s a pretty big concern. I think the best we can do is set an ambitious plan, and get it far enough along that it would look bad for politicians to cut it.

      A lot of public support would help with this, but also the shuttle retirement means that a lot of NASA jobs are shifting over to being dependent on constructing the next rockets, and that will get certain congress members to root for NASA.


  3. As well as those four things don’t you need some sort of continuing way forward? Especially after Apollo, people will say ‘What next?’ to the goal of putting a man on Mars. Presumably the answer is sustained exploration, bases of the Antarctica kind, and maybe settlement, but that has to seem credible.

    I think that’s where analogies with people like Columbus fall down. They set out, not knowing what they’d find, but when they got there, there were people already there, which for a number of reasons meant that follow-up and expansion were easier, not harder, than the initial venture (the western habit of airbrushing the indigenous people from history doesn’t help here). With space exploration it’s the other way round.

    • Ryan Says:

      You’re right about needing an ongoing goal also. I think the obvious next step for Mars would be to establish a permanent, self-sufficient presence. Follow-up will be hard, but not necessarily harder. The ability to land on Mars is the hardest part. Landing multiple missions in the same place and beginning to build a base is a matter of persistence. And of course you can’t have that sort of persistence unless you keep the missions interesting to the public. Take a look at this info about public involvement in space, because it addresses the “Apollo 12″ or “Who flew the Atlantic Second?” syndrome: http://astrosun2.astro.cornell.edu/~randerson/Temp/public_engagement_in_space1.pdf

      I imagine there would also be lots of side-goals and side missions that could be framed as steps along the path to the Big Goals. The trick is to make these smaller steps always point in the direction of the main goal, and not to let them distract or get bogged down.

  4. Kenneth Says:

    Nice article. My personal preference though is that humans should return to the moon, this time to STAY. I see no point at this point in history to push on towards Mars. The BIG picture here that many people often forget is that humans will eventually colonize the solar system. Colonizing the moon is a logical first step. Like they say, “you must learn to walk before you can run.” The moon is big, it’s close, it has water and minerals to sustain a colony, and we already have a blueprint in how to get there and back safely.

    • Ryan Says:

      I agree that we should colonize the moon, but I think setting it as the goal of human spaceflight is a recipe for a dead-end. There is no convincing evidence of water on the moon, and even if it’s there it is at the poles, which are very difficult to get to.
      I don’t think a colony on the moon is enough to excite people and rally public support. Or if it is, then it needs to be pitched to the public better than it has been because the general response to Constellation outside of space enthusiasts has been apathy.

      I would love to see a moon colony, and I think it would be a lot easier than a Mars colony, but setting the moon as your goal may mean you don’t get out of the gate. I’d rather see a human spaceflight program similar to Mercury, Gemini & Apollo, where each program builds on the previous one to achieve a final goal. Maybe the “Gemini” of this new space program could be a mission to colonize the moon.

  5. Bob Carver Says:

    We’re overlooking the biggest motivation for colonizing the Moon: Taking the High Ground.

    If we bypass colonizing the Moon and go for Mars directly, we leave the Moon open for China to colonize. Not only that, China already has plans for mining the Moon and sending refined metals back to Earth. And, how do you think they will do that? A catapult (railgun, possibly, or similar technology). Once they have a catapult capable of launching payloads to Earth, they also have a devastating military advantage over us. Think about a trainload of rock heading for a major US city at 7 kilometers per second and you see the potential destruction it would cause.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to fund colonizing the Moon when the ultimate price is survival of the USA.

    • Ryan Says:

      We aren’t at war with China, and I hope that’s not what it takes to motivate space exploration.

      Also, China has just recently put a person in orbit. I am not too worried about railgun-toting mining bases quite yet.

      Rather than fear-mongering, I think it would be more productive to have China join as a partner on the ISS and on any potential lunar or martian base.

  6. Bob Carver Says:

    Not at war with China? Not a hot war, yes. But, we are definitely moving toward confrontation with that very ambitious (and still Communist) state. You may not realize it, but China is going to dominate the US economically and militarily if we don’t get off dead center and realize we’ve been disadvantaged by their currency manipulation which allows them to dominate world trade and take jobs from the US. These are the kind of tensions which triggered World War II and if you stick your head in the sand, you will fail to realize the threat that’s growing by the day.

    China has no interest in cooperation in space. Their goal is dominant the planet.

    • Ryan Says:

      I’m well aware that China is a rising world power. I think most people who are paying attention are aware of that. That may make them our competition, but not our enemy. My head isn’t in the sand, I just think treating others as if they are enemies is the fastest way to make them.

      But back to space: I think China’s interest in space is primarily symbolic. It’s their way of announcing that they are a world power. And even if it is their intent, I think we’re a long way off from their space program being a military threat. I suspect the cost of sending things into space is still high enough that it’s much more effective to just launch an ICBM than to have space-based weapons.

  7. Bob Carver Says:

    Ryan,

    “Let’s all be friends.” Fine, as long as the other guy knows you’re keeping your eye on him. The Chinese have plans:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1997747.stm “China sets date for the Moon”

    “China says it is planning to establish a base on the Moon to exploit its mineral resources.”

    “A chief scientist with China’s Moon exploration programme, Ouyang Ziyuan, said that the country was planning to launch its first mission to the Moon in 2010.”

    He reportedly told the Beijing Morning Post: “Our long-term goal is to set up a base on the Moon and mine its riches for the benefit of humanity.”

    As for ICBMs. they are vulnerable to interception (current interceptors are working well and will only improve in the future).

    The cost of launching an attack from the Moon is minimal if a base is already in existence. Much cheaper and more reliable than ICBMs.

  8. Bob Carver Says:

    Paul Spudis makes an excellent case for why we should aim to build a base on the Moon rather than trying for Mars directly. In a nutshell, we can’t get to Mars from Earth (we’ve been trying for the last 30 years and have failed), but mining the resources on the Moon will allow us to go anywhere in the Solar System. See http://www.spudislunarresources.com/Opinion_Editorial/spaceshow2.htm

  9. Nicole Says:

    The problem with retiring the shuttle when we have nothing to replace it is that we effectively abandon the ISS. None of our international partners, including the Russians, have anything like the lifting capabilities of the shuttle. While Soyuz capsules are capable of some supply and crew exchange with the station, their lifting power is extremely limited. If you take a look at what happened while the fleet was grounded post-Columbia, scientific investigation on the ISS basically came to a complete halt simply because the Soyuz couldn’t carry supplies for the astronauts and equipment for experiments.

    It’s taken us much longer and much more money than originally planned to get the ISS flying. It’s not even completely constructed yet and it’s a real waste just to let that die as soon as it is.

    That said, I agree that NASA needs an inspiring long-term goal and that that goal has to be focused beyond LEO. I just hate to see all the good that the shuttle and station have been evaporate.

    • Ryan Says:

      Yeah, since watching the Augustine commission’s public meetings, I have a better appreciation for how difficult the situation is. It looks like ending the shuttle doesn’t save as much as I thought and that the ISS is only really useful with the shuttle flying. But then, we need to move on from shuttle/ISS to get beyond LEO.

      I don’t know how that’s going to happen. I certainly don’t envy Augustine et al.

  10. Bob Carver Says:

    The shuttle is too expensive and dangerous to operate and should have been replaced long ago when we learned it was not an adequate solution to getting payloads to LEO. Yes, it’s a shame we didn’t, but that’s water under the bridge. We need to cut our losses as quickly as possible now and move on.

    I think something like Reaction Engine’s Skylon spaceplane may be the solution to getting payloads to LEO safely and cheaply. One of that group will be interviewed on the Space Show this Thursday (9:30-11:30 PDT). Hopefully, he will have good news concerning progress on Skylon.


  11. [...] beyond low-earth orbit, it also remembers how to get the world excited again. I’ve talked about this before and Potter puts his finger on it: NASA needs heroes again, and people need to be comfortable with [...]


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