How to Reduce Churn in NASA Human Space Exploration


Widely recognized and lamented, the start-stop churn in NASA human space exploration results in waste in both fiscal and human terms. How can this churn be minimized? How can human space exploration be made to stay the course, be made sustainable across administrations, across budget crises, across generations — across setbacks and accomplishments? Not to suffer the same fate as Apollo, how do we continue human exploration of Mars after the first several landings? And how do we defeat the “been there, done that” platitude that can rob exploration of its richness?

The ultimate source of sustainability is relevance to stakeholders — relevance actually experienced by stakeholders, not just claimed by NASA, and relevance commensurate with the level of resource required from stakeholders. Little noticed is the fact that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 established the framework to promote human space exploration sustainability. It did so by laying out relevance-based goals and by mandating an independent study by the National Academies to recommend priorities and the path forward for 2014 to 2023 to pursue the goals.

The act’s Section 202 states that U.S. human spaceflight and exploration’s long-term goal is “to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international partners.” Specifically, it is to:

  • Sustain the capability for long-duration presence in low Earth orbit using the international space station and commercial capability.
  • Determine if humans can live in an extended manner in space with decreasing reliance on Earth.
  • Identify roles that space resources could play in meeting national and global needs.
  • Lay the foundation for sustainable economic activities in space.
  • Maximize the role that human exploration plays in advancing knowledge of the universe, supporting U.S. security and global competitiveness, and inspiring young people.
  • Build upon the international space station partnership agreements and experience.

Establishing these goals is critical because, as the Augustine committee rightly noted, “Planning a human spaceflight program should start with … the goals to be accomplished by the program … its raison d’être, not … which object in space to visit. Too often … planning … has begun with ‘where’ rather than ‘why’.” And one might add that on occasion planning has begun with “what.” Our community has been so energetic in advocating destinations and vehicles that we appear to think that they are the “why,” which defeats sustainability.

These goals, a fundamental expression of “why,” serve several critical functions. Most importantly, they are the basis for setting priorities to determine the most relevant path through the destination-capability trade space. Having a path makes human space exploration coherent and provides the basis for measuring progress. “Why” makes human space exploration an intelligible and, one hopes, compelling whole that promotes stakeholder understanding and support. “Why” also differentiates human space exploration from its competitors in creating value, such as other ways to inspire young people or support competitiveness. There is a fundamental difference between “why” NASA should have a human space exploration program and its value.

The act’s Section 204 mandates an independent study by the National Academies, with broad participation and input, to provide findings and recommendations for 2014 to 2023 on:

  • The goals, core capabilities and direction of human space exploration.
  • The relationship of national goals to capabilities, robotic activities, technologies and missions.
  • Prioritization of scientific, engineering, economic and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration to improve the overall human condition.

Just as establishing goals is critical to relevance and sustainability, so too is undertaking this independent study by the National Academies. It implements the goals by recommending, within policy and budget guidance, priorities and the 10-year path forward through the destination-capability trade space. With significant societal as well as technical considerations, this study will not be unlike the Earth science decadal survey the National Academy of Science conducts now.

It is important that this study includes thought leaders in culture, commerce and history, in addition to scientists and engineers. It should include people who understand who we are as Americans, where we’ve been and where we want to go — and who understand the broad sweep of human endeavor. People like Betty Sue Flowers, director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, editor of Joseph Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth,” and a member of Shell Oil’s future scenarios strategy team. People like James Cameron, master of the public imagination. People like Robert McCormick Adams, anthropologist, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and expert on circumstances that drive technological change. People like Oprah Winfrey, who both shape our culture and help us live in it. People like Warren Buffett, master of American business. People who, in addition to shaping the recommendations, will be expert at explaining them to the public and generating excitement about their pursuit.

It is important that this study be given realistic budget constraints and be tasked to develop options if the budget constraints change during the decade. It is important that this study truly engage the public using state-of-the-art tools such as the deliberative polling process of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy. It is also important that this study be formulated with the expectation that it will be repeated in 10 years to assess progress and make course corrections.

This independent study promises to have more impact than previous studies because it is mandated by law and is framed by relevance-based goals also mandated by law; it will be based on realistic budget constraints; it will be populated by both technical and relevance experts; it will be conducted with the expectation that another study will be conducted in 10 years; and there is broad recognition that the churn must end.


Mark Craig is NASA account manager for SAIC and a retired NASA engineer, manager and executive (1967-2005).