My Take On Panel Exploring NASA's Human Space Flight Options

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I'm not sure I want my first post at to be controversial, rather than something focused on science education. But given there is an important briefing to NASA and the WH this Friday, and I've got an opinion on it, here goes.

The blue-ribbon panel tasked by the White House with reviewing NASA's current strategic plans for human space flight, and exploring other options, wraps up deliberations this week. They've been at it just 2 months, and this Friday Norman Augustine, the panel's chair, presents the list of options to new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and WH science and technology advisor John Holdren. I thought I'd weigh in.

I've been dwelling on an exchange that took place at a meeting last month between panel members Edward Crawley of MIT and Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace. It went to the heart of what I've been feeling for years. It addressed the fundamental driver for human space flight.

Crawley: "Our ultimate objective should be viewed as the exploration and eventual extension of human civilization of the solar system."

Greason: "I know this sounds terribly ambitious and dramatic, but if that is not the point of human space flight ... then what the hell are we doing?"

Yes! Something as challenging and expensive as a U.S. national human space flight program needs a strategic objective that derives from who we are as a species of explorers, not the destination flavor of the month (or administration.) If we are to be bold, then let our boldness reflect the need for journey written in our genes. We are born to learn, driven to explore, and this drive takes the form of simple questions like, "What might I find if I go in that direction far from home?", or, "I wonder what's under that rock?" Isn't this the essence of a child's curiosity? Isn't this fundamentally who we are?

Note that the child after lifting one rock and finding a brave new world beneath it, will then run to every rock in sight and lift them all. That's what is written in our genes, not the need to lift a specific rock over there.

In terms of human space flight, we've done a terrible job of lifting lots of rocks. Since the end of the Apollo era, we've concentrated on this one lone rock really close to us out of convenience, and then hit it with everything we had. As a grad student in astrophysics in the late 1980s, I remember attending a meeting of the Planetary Sciences Division of the American Astronomical Society, where we had an official briefing on plans for the International Space Station (then called Space Station Freedom). The planetary community saw no benefits from ISS. The briefer clearly knew this in advance. His approach to the community? "You're going to get the space station whether you like it or not so you might as well figure out what you're going to do with it." Back then it sounded like strategic planning from some alternate universe, and now the current perception that NASA has helped create is let's get the damn thing built quick, give it a few years, and then let it burn over the ocean. It's strategic planning in the absurd, and Americans should be downright angry that this is what transpired after the monumental national achievements of the Apollo era.

While the great debate in human space flight has raged for decades, and still rages on, America's' robotic exploration of the Solar System has been magnificent, lifting one rock after another. Right now you can eavesdrop on Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, and Cassini in orbit around Saturn more than 750 million miles (1.2 billion km) away. Go to their web sites and see the 'rocks' they've been lifting. We've visited planets with dozens of flyby spacecraft, orbiters, landers and rovers; slammed a spacecraft into a comet just to see what happened (we learned a great deal); and even orbited then landed on an asteroid. Four spacecraft are now beyond Pluto with greetings from Earth aboard. New Horizons is speeding toward a rendezvous with Pluto in 2015. MESSENGER encounters Mercury for a third time this Fall (September 29), and goes into orbit in 2011. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter entered lunar orbit on June 23, and on October 9, the LCROSS spacecraft will explore whether a rocket impact at the Moon's south pole will reveal the presence of water.

Gosh, we've been living the adventure on the robotic side for decades. It has been a space odyssey so very true to our genes, and as Americans we should be terribly proud.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am passionate about human space flight. I believe the idea of extending a human presence beyond Earth is the stuff that inspires a generation in ways that robotic exploration cannot. Look at Apollo. But I absolutely agree with Crawley and Greason. It is high time that we lay down a fundamental, bedrock, strategic plan for human space flight that captures what we humans are truly about. We need to venture ... out there, and in concert with our robots lift some rocks with human hands. And if you want practical, from a science and engineering vantage point humans add enormous capability to the tasks at hand. Cornell's Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, said it best when asked about the benefits of humans. He feels humans could do in a minute what his rovers can do in a day.

I truly hope the panel puts forth some strategic options that are built on Crawley's and Greason's views. But after yesterday's public deliberations, the current budget constraints appear to rule out any option -- including the current NASA strategic trajectory.

It now appears that the Obama Administration will be handed a fundamental question -- will America re-affirm a commitment to a strong human space flight program, requiring a significant increase in budget regardless of option? I believe that it must. I also believe that the program must fundamentally embrace Crawley's and Greason's views -- an approach that doesn't put all our budgetary eggs in one destination basket, and that doesn't relegate successful missions to a future so distant that our children will be middle-aged before they see it happen.

This is cross-posted at Blog on the Universe where there are links to other resources on human space flight and the nature of exploration.

It is also a featured post in the politics section at the Huffington Post


I honestly couldn't have said it better myself. We need some more motivation in this country.


I'm sorry, but the US has still to recover from the recession and bail outs, China and Arabs own all the dollars, two wars to pay off, reset the military once they are won, and health care to take care of.

There is zero chance of anything good happening to NASA's budget.


The tiny amount that NASA now gets is far too little to have any affect on any of the things that you pointed out Booban.
It does not even qualify as noise (I am sure you understand what noise is in the engineering sense), let alone a bump in the road. This years federal budget is running just about $4 trillion (with a deficit of about $1.5 trillion), which puts NASA's less than $20 billion dollar budget at less than 0.50 %. Back in the days when we could seemingly accomplish almost anything in space (the Apollo era of the 1960's) NASA's budget averaged just about 2.0 % of the federal budget with an actual high of 4.0 % in 1965.

And this was the same era when we started the "War on Poverty", and were fighting an incredibly expensive war in Viet Nahm, all at the same time, and somehow doing this with far less deficits than we are now. Oh, and we also were engaged in the heart of the Cold War with the USSR all at the same time!

We could do it then, and at the same time have a far better employment situation in this country. I know this, as I was one of the some 400,000 employed on the Apollo project alone!

And now, we are not even capable of raising NASA's budget to a far more reasonable level of even 1.0% of the federal budget? I too, and indeed sorry, but I just don't see it.

Heck, for most of us, this increase does not even have to happen all at once, In fact just dumping double the amount of funds on NASA at once, quite probably would NOT be good for even NASA itself, and might indeed result in a lot of unnecessary waste!

I have proposed for a long time now, that what NASA really needs is a steady increase in its budget that it can count on, as most of NASA's projects (whether robotic probes, or manned space flight) are indeed long term in nature, and therefore require a steady source of funding. A steady 10% over the level of inflation (whatever that level is, which for the last decade or so has been running at about 3 % per year on average) would eventually get NASA up to the necessary 1.0% of the federal budget within a decade or so.

That would be sufficient to get us back to the moon in a meaningful manner by 2020, and on to Mars (especially using materials mined from the moon) by 2030! At the same time it is also enough to have both meaningful space science and Aeronautics programs at NASA, not only giving meaningful employment to scientists, engineers, and manufacturing people, but even showing the next generation of students in school that there might just be future for them in such areas as science and engineering and manufacturing technologies. And without this kind of a boost to those particular areas, eventually the US is going to become a backwater, and then a third world country anyway. And then we will NEVER be able to do the things that you and other Luddites seem to think are so important, as the LAST great industry this country has that runs in the black as far as foreign exchange goes IS the scientific, and engineering, and manufacturing segments of our still great aerospace industry! So without that, we basically have NOTHING that the rest of the world gives a damn about anyway!

NASA, despite the usual governmental inefficiencies, has always been the great driver of that aerospace industry. And therefore has always been more that worth the tiny amount that we relatively spend on it in the federal budget. So, in its infinite wisdom let the Congress just go ahead and kill off the only goose we still have left that lays those golden eggs! And then, just how is this country going to compete with those countries that are smart enough to nurture their own geese?

As a patriotic American, is that worth thinking about or not? :x :x


A view I agree with.

Burgeoning commercial space industry Posted on Nov 30, 2009 02:48:27 PM |
Wayne Hale

The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka “Augustine Committee”) has finalized its report and it is no surprise that the proposals and alternatives offered there have been the subject of much review and evaluation by NASA leadership and space policy makers.

Re-reading the report last week I was struck by an early sentence in the executive summary which was repeated in the body of the report:

“. . . there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry.”

OK, I’m an Engineer, not an English major so I had to look it up:

bur⋅geon [bur-juh n]

to grow or develop quickly; flourish

to begin to grow, as a bud; put forth buds, shoots, etc., as a plant (often fol. by out, forth).

ME burjon, burion; shoot, bud, deriv. of LL burra wool, fluff


Let’s see; in the USA we have, what, three or four space launch vehicle manufacturers in active production? Is that "burgeoning?"

Sea Launch, one of the most innovative companies in both their business model and their technical approach is in bankruptcy court. Two of the “old space” major players have formed a joint venture to pool their launch capabilities and fly maybe 5 or 6 times in a good year. The geosynchronous satellite market has largely gone overseas to Ariane or India or China.

As my father, the CPA, taught me: for a business to stay in business, it must make a profit. That is what businesses do. If there is no return on investment, they go out of business. It is not just the technical challenge, nor the production challenge; it is the business challenge and profitability which are inhibiting commercial space flight. If somebody can do the job cheaper than your company, then you are in real trouble business-wise. Ergo, commercial satellites have gone "off shore."

There are a couple of smaller, entrepreneurial, companies which are making good progress toward medium launch vehicle operations. We applaud them and wish them well and have in fact provided some fiscal support.

But compare where the US commercial space launch business is today with the situation a decade ago when there were at least dozen firms in the space launch business. The proper adjective for US commercial space flight should be “moribund” rather than “burgeoning.”

Not that there aren’t a lot of folks out there who have an idea, a concept, some preliminary engineering feasibility studies and some hopeful powerpoint charts trying to attract venture capital. There are a lot of those folks. Many of these are pursuing the technically simpler and much cheaper sub orbital “market.” Even that is a struggle as we can see by the serious “gap” in suborbital capability since Space Ship One flew twice in 2003 and the next flight maybe in 2010.

But any student of space flight knows that recent history is littered with the wreckage of serious commercial space launch companies hat failed. Just a few names to jog your memory: Conestoga, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kistler . . . fill in your own favorites. Several of these had serious financial backing, great technical teams, and some even built and launched flight hardware. All are gone.

On my spaceflight shelf is a slim volume with the title “LEO on the Cheap” written by a guy who should have known better. In the 1980’s there was a German organization called OTRAG that had a great plan to get to earth orbit cheaply. Nothing ever came of it.

All of these fledgling companies share a common belief, that getting to LEO should be easy: just eliminate the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the government or of the “old space” (aka military-industrial-complex) guys and apply the latest management theories and – voila’ - cheap, regular, plentiful access to space will immediately follow.

Many people wishfully believe that it is that easy. I personally wish it were that easy. I cannot tell you how much I wish it were that easy. But if wishes had wings then pigs could fly.

If we are to reawaken the US commercial space launch industry and build it into a vibrant, competitive (which is to say, cheaper), reliable, regular space launch business, many things will need to be addressed. From my knothole it would appear that the ITAR laws are one of the critical components that prevent competition. And ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its merits in a dangerous world.

By Federal statute and general interest, NASA is encouraging, promoting, and even to some extent enabling commercial space flight in the US. Could more be done? Absolutely, and we should. Will there be problems along the way? No doubt. Will astounding breakthroughs in cost reduction appear? I doubt it.

Commercial air travel required the revolution from propellers to jets to become really viable. I suspect space travel will require something similar. As long as we rely on chemical rocket propulsion it is likely we will see only incremental cost decreases.

I wish you would find that breakthrough. Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod through trying to incrementally improve the biplanes. And the business ain’t “burgeoning”.
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