Commentary | Space Leadership for a Difficult Time

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I spent most of my career on the space shuttle. Today, however, I want to concentrate on the future.

The real difficulty with NASA’s exploration plans is not in building rockets or spacecraft or picking destinations, but in keeping our national leadership focused on the importance of space exploration.  

That is what I would like to spend my time on today.

I am very interested in the history and technology so it is probably no surprise this includes the building of the Transcontinental Railroad a century and a half ago. It was a great national project that literally transformed our nation.  

After witnessing tests of the shuttle solid-rocket boosters in Utah, I kidnapped several shuttle managers and took them over the ridge line seven miles from the rocket test to the National Historic Site commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad — the Golden Spike.   

Some years earlier, I had read the great historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It in the World” about the building of the railroad. I had expected that book to be about blasting tunnels through the Sierra Nevadas or building trestles across the Platte and the Snake rivers or even about the encounters with Native Americans. There was some of that in the book, but Ambrose concentrated on what was really important in constructing the railroad: How did they get the money?  

That was a fascinating story of creativity in the extreme, risk taking, influencing, and skirting the boundaries of ethics. While the conventional wisdom of all the well-established railroad builders was that building the Pacific Railroad would take two or more decades and would never turn a profit, upstart non-railroad entrepreneurs got approval, raised the money, built it in less than five years and walked away rich men.

Historical analogies are tricky, but there are lessons to be learned here.  

Remember the great scene in “The Right Stuff” where the test pilots are asked by the newspaper reporter, “What makes an airplane fly?” — the correct answer to that question is “funding.”

For more than a quarter of a century, dreamers and schemers had written, talked and lobbied about a railroad to the Pacific; a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was exposed to the idea when he represented the railroads. He was so sold on the idea he bought land in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the railroad might start. It didn’t hurt that the Iowa delegation was critical to his presidential nomination shortly afterward.  

Private industry — mostly upstart newcomers, not the traditional railroad builders — got the approval to build it. Their financing was extremely creative, even to the point of providing stock shares to congressmen — which led a few years later to the Credit Mobilier scandal. But the original investors became wealthy men, including a grocery store clerk named Stanford who became governor and had a university named for him.

The government gave the railroads land that they could sell and in return was guaranteed free passage for Army troops on the railroad — which turned out to be one of the best taxpayer investments in the history of the nation.

What creative ideas can we use today?

NASA has an ambitious plan to replace low Earth orbit transportation with commercial vehicles, keep using the international space station as a research platform, build a new deep-space exploration vehicle in Orion, and build the large rocket necessary to enable deep-space exploration in the Space Launch System (SLS). Initially, these assets will be used for a very interesting Asteroid Retrieval Mission — a great engineering and operations test of the new capabilities, but not a true scientific goal or a long-term strategy.  

I have a great deal of confidence that NASA and industry can build the large rocket and the deep-space exploration vehicle. I know the people and the organizations, and they are credible and capable and can accomplish the technical feat.

The central problem remains: Where does the money come from? Are we really down to counting on Congress to save the space program?  

The current plan is fragile in the political and financial maelstrom that is Washington.  

Planning to fly once every three or four years does not make a viable program.

Continuing to develop programs in the same old ways almost certainly will lead to cancellation yet again.

It is time to try new strategies.

Necessity is the mother of invention. 

How motivated are we to make this latest attempt a success? Is it all about short-term corporate profits or is it about building a new exploration system that our country needs?

It is clear that NASA is getting the message. All the senior officials now talk about keeping costs contained to make the program sustainable. An excellent briefing last fall on the SLS program showed that significant steps are being taken to keep the costs down. In recent weeks, interviews were published with NASA’s Todd May and Mike Kynard in which they emphasized the steps the SLS program is taking to cut development costs. The head of mission operations just reported that over the last three years the operating costs for international space station mission control had been reduced to one-third of what they were previously. Yesterday I toured the United Launch Alliance facility in Decatur, Ala. — an impressive model of modern industrial efficiency.

These are outstanding efforts.

Will they be enough to see these systems through development and into operations? In today’s federal budget environment, I fear they will not.

So what is required? I have no succinct answers except to redouble our efforts.

If we truly believe that space exploration is an endeavor worthy of our passion, we must strive for higher efforts.

We must redouble our efforts to be innovative and creative. We can start by adopting some of the energy and creativity shown by new players in our industry.

Consider the suborbital spaceflight field. Not that the problem is as hard, but how are they creatively financing new craft with no government money?  

A serious group is proposing a privately funded Moon mission. Is it credible? Possibly. Will they succeed? It’s a long shot. Is there a lesson for us there? Absolutely.

True profit-making business has proved to be far more sustainable than depending on the government. There is much talk about “the business case” — how can that be made to work for exploration initiatives?

Look at the commercial resupply program. With a taxpayer investment of less than $1.5 billion, two new launch vehicles and cargo spacecraft are flying to the international space station. That is an economy unheard of in today’s space industry. How did those two companies do it?

I will fully admit that I am not a fan of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). I expected to be joining the chorus of “I told you so” when they crashed and burned. But even though they had their difficulties, they are succeeding. It would behoove us to learn what new tricks are making them effective and apply them to exploration activities.  

A different model is Orbital Sciences Corp. with its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule. Operating on a shoestring budget, they brought a new vehicle and spacecraft on line. How were they successful? Are we paying attention?

It is a time for revolutionary action. The fundamental goals for deep-space exploration have not changed, but we must be as innovative in our business practices as we are in our engineering to advance in this field.  

We must examine all our processes and practices — the very things that have made us successful — and see which are truly value-added. Then we should jettison those that are not and consider jettisoning those that are marginal contributors. 

This is not a call to build a program that leads to accidents — we were foolish in both Challenger and Columbia — rather, this is a call to learn from the mistakes of the past and work really hard to be creative and innovative to make the future sustainable.

What is our choice? If we abandon the dream, our children will pay the price.

Or do we take a page from our history and make deep-space exploration a reality through hard work, determination and creativity? It really will “serve to organize and measure the best in us,” as President John F. Kennedy said in his 1962 Moon speech.

History waits on no one. We choose our destiny; it is not foreordained that America will lead in space or in any other endeavor.  Whether we lead or follow is a choice that we will make — and pay the consequences.

Actions by other nations may not catch the popular imagination today, but they will pass us and reap the rewards if we turn back.

Many of you have heard me speak about the choices that nations made 500 years ago; about China’s choosing to turn inward and Europe’s choosing to go forward. The history of the last 500 years has been the history of the West. Are we going to continue that legacy, or let others make the history of coming years?

We stand at a unique place in our history. It is not for the faint of heart. It is easy to despair, it would be easy to give up, and it would be easy to daydream of other days. But this is the place that history has chosen for us. We might have wished to live in simpler times, or easier times, but this is the time we have been given.  

What will we choose?  

I suggest we go forward even though it is hard, even though the future is uncertain.

Would you really rather have it any other way?

 

Wayne Hale is a former NASA space shuttle program manager.