Human Space Exploration: The Way Forward

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In response to a congressional directive, NASA requested the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management,” and in particular to examine NASA’s goals, objectives and strategies. The NRC report, issued Dec. 6, 2012, was titled “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus.” In part, it concluded that “the strategic importance of space is rising and the capabilities of other spacefaring nations are increasing, while U.S. leadership is faltering,” and NASA’s 2011 strategic plan “is vague and avoids stating priorities.”

Unfortunately, the situation is no better today, and even the long-term existence of U. S. human space exploration appears seriously at risk. Because U.S. astronauts must ride to space on Russian launchers, Russia will be seen as the geopolitical leader for at least four more years, perhaps even longer. Even China is launching people to orbit, while the United States is unable. What’s more, NASA is spending more than $3 billion per year on the Space Launch System and Orion capsule following an unsustainable trajectory that most likely will be abandoned in a few years. 

How on Earth did we let this happen? What can we learn from that process? 

The fundamental path for human space exploration was defined at the end of Apollo. Following the vision of Wernher von Braun, it consisted of a transportation system and space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) that would function as a research facility and staging base for further exploration into the solar system. A second space station, acting as a forward base camp beyond LEO, could follow. That fundamental plan is still valid today.

The space shuttle was the face of NASA to most of the world for 30 years, building the international space station and transporting astronauts to and from space. 

However, the shuttle was retired before its replacement was ready. Its budget replacement, the Constellation project, was then canceled because it was clearly unaffordable. The president’s first budget request for fiscal year 2010 contained no plans for human space exploration beyond the ISS, but the Congress revived the most costly part of Constellation in the form of SLS/Orion, which is also clearly unaffordable and has no practical, worthwhile objective or destination. 

Who is driving this bus? Where are we headed?

Nevertheless, there are three ongoing bright spots in NASA today.

The NASA science program of exploration with robots and telescopes is exciting to many inquiring minds who want to know, “What is out there, and how does our world relate to the solar system and the universe”? However, to maintain general public support, this world-class science program must be accompanied by a meaningful and affordable human space exploration program. 

Another bright spot is the ongoing success of the international space station, which has set the stage for the next incremental move for human space exploration outward into the solar system in geosynchronous Earth orbit or at a Lagrangian point (L1 or L2). SLS/Orion is not needed for this move; moreover, budget requirements of a continuing SLS/Orion project could preclude meaningful human space exploration beyond the ISS. 

A third bright spot is the continuing progress of commercial spaceflight systems and capabilities, aimed at more efficient transportation from Earth to the ISS. We must take extraordinary care to prevent a random accident from halting this extremely valuable way of conducting NASA business. 

NASA now has an opportunity to define a rational and affordable roadmap for human space exploration that can guide the U.S. space program, inspire Americans for decades to come and persist in times of changing administrations and changing budgets. In concert with the United States’ international partners, this policy and roadmap could become a positive part of the legacy of the current administration — or not.

First of all, and contrary to the way budgets and projects have been chosen in the past few years, America’s human space exploration program must be responsive to the American public’s expectations and investments of less than 0.5 percent of the annual federal budget. The American public wants and deserves:

  • The United States to be recognized as No. 1 in the world in mastering and utilizing unique and valuable regions in space. 
     
  • To periodically see U.S. astronauts launched on U.S. launchers, working in space doing things that no other nation can do. 
     
  • To see astronauts contributing to scientific knowledge in space, and to watch their safe return on live television.
     
  • The United States to be leading international efforts in space. Geopolitical leadership in space is very valuable to U.S. commercial and military interests.

It is especially important to note that NASA space activities have a disproportionately large leverage on the U.S. economy in the form of positive vibes and an optimistic outlook for U.S. citizens, and for U.S. geopolitical leadership in the world. 

Essentials for a rational and affordable human space exploration strategic plan must include:

Goals 

Both a near- and long-term goal for human space exploration could be as concise as, “Explore, occupy and utilize human presence in important strategic regions of space, moving in affordable increments from the ISS outward into the solar system.”

Incremental and cumulative achievement 

Build steppingstones that are significant accomplishments in themselves, and contribute directly toward long-term goals. Conduct periodic flights assuring incremental and cumulative achievement. Require that each mission or test contribute to the next or subsequent mission or achievement. Plan at least two human spaceflight missions per year beyond the ISS to report progress to the tax-paying public and to efficiently utilize large fixed costs.

Synergy

Integrate robotic and human projects to support each other. For much-needed efficiency, utilize commercial contracting methods, systems and capabilities when advantageous to all participants. 

Robotic spacecraft for long and dangerous missions 

Assign exploration beyond the Moon to robotic spacecraft and telescopes until long-duration human space missions are proved safe, reliable and affordable. Most exploration beyond the Moon can be done by robots for one-tenth the cost, while avoiding extreme risk to human life on very long trips. 

International cooperation

Include opportunities for meaningful international participation complementary to U.S. human space exploration. Cooperative ventures with the other spacefaring nations will attract and maintain U.S. and international support. The rest of the world will want to participate.

Specific destinations and schedules 

For even minimal efficiency, specific destination stations and schedules must be defined. Note that our major achievements — Apollo, shuttle, ISS — were never dependent on hundreds of millions of dollars or years-long “technology” developments. It is a lot easier to advocate new technology than it is to make it happen. 

Most advanced technology development should be done primarily by NASA civil servant personnel with little contracted to outside research organizations or industry. Larger technology development activities must be part of a defined project with definite schedules, and subject to the good judgment of a project manager who is held accountable for a given result on a given schedule and budget. 

Sustainable operations 

At whatever destination stations are chosen, sustained human presence is needed to assure long-term usefulness. They may be human-tended initially, with sustained occupancy to follow. 

Sustainable budgets 

Sustainable budgets are critical. The Augustine committee’s foremost recommendation was, “Whatever space program is ultimately selected, it must be matched with the resources needed for its execution.” Constellation was clearly a bridge too far. SLS/Orion will be a white elephant and is set to dissipate NASA resources for a very long time with very little useful result. As SLS/Orion is necessarily canceled, NASA needs to switch available funds to tasks that will contribute to the next destination station in geosynchronous orbit or at a Lagrangian point, while retaining critical skills in the space community. 

The overarching challenge to NASA is to define and execute exciting and inspiring programs that produce the greatest possible return to the American public within necessarily restricted budgets. 

It is clear that NASA, with strong White House support, must take the lead in this most important task. 

 

O. Glenn Smith is former manager of shuttle systems engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.