NASA Needs To Think Bigger

Jan 9, 2020
Firstly, let me say that I love NASA and have since I was a child. I am approaching Social Security FRA these days. Space exploration, NASA and humans in space has been a life-long love for me. I also worked at Kennedy Space Center for a couple of years right when they retired the space shuttle. I don't have a Phd, but I do have an MBA. Here are some of my thoughts about how NASA lost it's way after Apollo and it needs to thing bigger than the ISS, the Moon and low-orbiting missions.

The Shuttle was a marvelous amalgam of technology, which failed to live up to it's promise and killed a dozen astronauts and civilians along the way. The ISS is a waste of money and has forced NASA into a myopic vision of it's greater purpose. We already went to the moon and there isn't much there. Going back is a very costly waste of time. I read an article a few weeks back where the General Auditor for NASA's moon budget estimated the cost of each moon launch at 4 billion dollars. They indicated that it was not a sustainable model - it would bankrupt NASA and cause severe repercussions in the Federal budget. Let's move on from the moon and low orbit stations.

Let's think in terms of a high orbit platform - permanent waypoint 24,000 miles above the Earth. Think of it like the platform you use to get on and off the train at the train station. So, where's the space train you ask? Patience and a long time horizon is required and a lot of money over many, many years. The space platform becomes a multiuse vehicle for shuttling material, supplies and humans back and forth from Earth on a daily or weekly basis. Why? Because, after you build the space platform you are going to build an interstellar spaceship, one that makes it's own artificial gravity (centrifugal) for long-duration spaceflight. A ship that grows it's own food and makes it's own oxygen and recycles water to sustain a dozen or more space travelers. This interstellar spaceship comes with it's own fleet of landing shuttles. It can go to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn's moons and to the outer planets. It stays in orbit as the shuttles ferry space explorers back and forth to the surface. This ship's missions will be measured in years, a 5 year mission to explore new planets and space phenomenon....kind of like that TV show, you know. Will the space platform and the interstellar spaceship cost a lot of money? Hell yes, but we stretch it over a long period of time like 50 years or more. It's like paying a mortgage on a house, but for something grander that's worthy of the human spirit.

So why do we need to think in terms of such a grand vision. Their are two reasons why. Firstly, as much as I have a mixed admiration for Elon Musk, despite his planet-sized ego and misguided antics on a world stage, I do agree with him on one point. We need an insurance policy for the human race. Just in case we really screw up our planet beyond the point of no return, we should make sure our species endures and doesn't fade into extinction. Secondly, humans are explorers. We are infinitely curious, bold and adventurous. Think of all the crazy navigators and explorers who sailed across the oceans centuries ago to find new worlds here on Earth. That is what we are - we are explorers and we want to know what's out there beyond the orbit of our moon. We need to dream bigger and so does NASA.
Aug 8, 2021
I'm Australian, NASA isn't part of my tax bill. So, I guess, none of my business... I get that space was so expensive, so exploration and science were government funded, it needed the likes of NASA to do the moon missions etc.

Stay in the policy space for the regulation of space activities and international coordination. Keep operating infrastructure such as tracking and launch facilities so that other entities don't have to invest in that and let's those entities engage in their core areas. Keep those sorts of things as their core activities, but achieve a lot more with their science budget if they were more involved in grant funding than doing the missions themselves.

e.g. grants for the likes of the James Webb telescope etc. as opposed to doing the mission (with outsourced contracting). 10 billion for the James Webb, the levels of waste and snouts in the trough is mind boggling... Funding Space suit research and engineering at a few universities over the decades - there wouldn't be a current space suit issue, with the unit cost also ending up a lot more reasonable.
Jan 29, 2020
If ice is needed for radiation shielding, I imagine some ships to Mars orbit using something instead of ice that still contains hydrogen, and then beyond Mars using ice hulled ships.
It is interesting you mention train travel. I'm learning about micro-crack modelling in materials. You need defenses against electrons, charged ions, photon radiation, meteorites...if you knew where the meteorites were at space that isn't too densely mattered, you could worry less about micro-meteorite impact. So if you could 3d print or press radar dish materials in space, and you had a mine anywhere but Earth, you could line a corridor between here and Mars, and then Mars and Jupiter orbit, of radar dishes. You might line up the corridor orbiting the Sun at Mars's closest Earth approach, or it might travel along-side Earth further from the Sun. It would be twice as durable on belt asteroids. Once ship self explosions are mitigated, then this looks like the next easiest risk to mitigate by creating a WW2 curtain defence of England, to where-ever we are prospecting or doing science (up to Pluto maybe). Past the heliopause radiation will matter more.
Example, a refractory atom or particle in a lattice might keep radiation damage from spreading via heat, whereas if there was no radar corridor you would need that atom/particle to be a nano-object selected for damping or hardness properties.
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Nov 26, 2022
I attended a conversation with former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a space conference. When the matter of economic sustainability was discussed, his definition is the sustainability of NASA itself in continuing to maintain political support, to continue to exist, and receive funding. Their mission profiles are "sustainable" in this regard and generally avoid risk to life that can put a halt on NASA's funding. Mission failures that result in the loss of life often cause politicians to reconsider NASA at an existential level. This forces NASA to play it safe and be extremely conservative.

Even within this straightjacket, the folks at NASA have tried to incrementally think bigger. Space Shuttle was supposed to fly 10x more often than it did and bring cost savings along with it. The Artemis Program is like the ISS version 2, only around the Moon, and with its lunar lander. Its initial mission is to put a team on the lunar south pole with the goal of mining ice for fuel. That could in turn be placed into low Earth orbit into fuel storage, which would significantly reduce the cost of sending humans to the Moon. The Artemis Program has a lot of promise.


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