Are Science Missions on a Dangerous Collision Course?

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NASA’s flagship-class missions — the projects that enable history-setting scientific advances in our knowledge of the universe (for example, Voyager, Viking, the Hubble Space Telescope and now the James Webb Space Telescope) — have become increasingly expensive, as it has been noted recently and frequently.

The increasing costs have two principal components: endemic overruns, which often can be corrected with appropriately designed cost incentives, and intrinsically growing mission complexity and difficulty, which stem from our having already launched the simpler and easier missions.

Thus, space science faces the strategic, long-term problem of two colliding trends: the intrinsically increasing cost of space science projects and the approximately constant level of funds available for them.

The collision course means that the trailblazing projects, which will expand the understanding and the reach of our knowledge, will have to be spaced further and further apart until the spacing will exceed the professional lifetime of the scientists, who will then abandon the field, if they want to continue to be productive. This will mark the end of our ability to expand the knowledge of our universe.

Forecasts are unquestionably somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, they are useful to frame the issue and its urgency: Extrapolations of past trends of budgets and of project costs are consistent with a doubling of the spacing of major projects in about one to at most two decades and a quadrupling in about two to three decades.

There are two obvious remedies to delay such an unwelcome scenario: 1) reduce costs, by means of technology advances; 2) increase total funding available, by changing the “value proposition.”

Some have proposed a third way: sharing costs by sharing development costs with other nations. For a variety of reasons and owing to administrative and political complexities, often this approach has not reduced costs significantly for any of the partners, nor has it been an encouraging systemic remedy.

Historic overruns of the international space station and this year’s termination — in President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request — of the remarkable NASA/European Space Agency engagement for Mars exploration are but two examples of the unremarkable record of such collaborations. In any case, much has been said and written about this third way and there is no need to revisit it.

The increase of the standard of living in the past few centuries of Western civilization has been, at the core, the result of technological innovation: so must the space science program pursue technology development aggressively in order that — as it has occurred even in its recent past — much, much more can be achieved with less and less. For example, the Webb telescope is estimated to cost only about one-quarter of Hubble per unit area of observational aperture, thanks to technological advances.

Unfortunately, the burden of advancing technology may be greater in the future. In the past, space science has been able to take advantage of technology originally developed for defense purposes; however, this is less likely to occur in the future owing to growing divergence of technical requirements (e.g., cryogenic observatories).  

Therefore, increasing the total funding must be considered. This will be a more difficult and complex matter than the challenge of the many necessary technological advances.

Increasing the funding level involves upgrading and modernizing the business model of the space science undertaking. First, the space science community has to disabuse itself of the notion that “money” is the obstacle. The problem is not the quantity of money required, rather it is the “value proposition”: the relationship between that quantity and the value of what space science offers.

A quick reminder may clarify this point: Just a few years ago the federal government found — in a matter of just a few days — the many tens of billions of dollars needed to make whole several insurance contracts held by the failing AIG, because the “value” of those contracts was perceived to be

worth that much. These were not even public contracts, just private ones. On the other hand, space science, a public undertaking, is — at this juncture — requiring billions of dollars, not many tens of billions; hence, it is a far smaller financial challenge for the federal government.

So, how can one increase the “value proposition”? As it is well known, there are two elements here: quality of the product and value to the customers.

The former — quality — is already recognized worldwide and will undoubtedly continue to increase on its own, owing to the unparalleled and demonstrated ingenuity, inventiveness and, especially, competitiveness of U.S. space scientists.

The latter — value — has to improve in both of its two factors: the number of customers and the value for each customer. Admittedly, this is the greatest challenge for NASA and for the space science community: however, the opportunity is unprecedented.

As many recognize, American society — and, in fact, most of the modern world — is at the beginning of a revolutionary transformation caused by information technology advances. Many observers believe the transformation is already and will continue to be at least as profound and structurally revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution of the past centuries: the population will acquire new habits, new mind-sets and, especially, new value systems. Some of its embryonic manifestations are becoming more evident in the many habits bred by Internet use.

The opportunity for NASA and for space science, in particular, is to first set aside the previous and current paradigms and “business models” formulated half a century ago, and then leap ahead, begin to understand these changes, lead in their development and insert itself as an agent able to reach and deliver those “new values” to many more than was ever possible in the past century.

 

Giulio Varsi, now retired, served as deputy assistant associate administrator for technology in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.