The Obama Plan: Risks Worth Taking

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The proposals for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program set forth in President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 budget proposals and clarifying remarks over the past month by science and technology adviser John Holdren and the NASA leadership most certainly do not represent, as has been widely reported, a stepping back from human spaceflight.

Proposing to continue to fly astronauts to the international space station (ISS) for at least five more years and to invest some $20 billion in support of new approaches to human journeys to orbit and beyond is hardly a call for retreat. Rather, the new strategy for space underpinning the president’s proposals fundamentally reflects a decision finally to put the Apollo-era approach to human spaceflight behind us, and to develop a 21st-century foundation on which future space exploration can be based. This strategic change does involve several areas of high risk, and thus its success cannot be certain. But if the United States is indeed to sustain a multidecade program of space exploration, accepting the core elements of the president’s proposal and taking a few years to rebuild the foundation for that future effort justify the associated risks.

By now the key elements of the new, long-term White House strategy for space should be clear, even though many specifics are still lacking. Those elements include giving the private sector a substantially larger role in providing transportation services to the ISS and other low Earth orbit destinations; investing in and then demonstrating a wide variety of technologies in the belief that some will prove to be “game changers” in enabling future travel to distant destinations; focusing on the neglected area of space propulsion to develop powerful and reliable rocket engines of U.S. manufacture, especially engines that can power the heavy-lift vehicle that the Augustine committee said was crucial to future exploration; and then, some five or so years in the future, deciding on the schedule and sequence of destinations for missions beyond Earth orbit and on what systems to build to maintain the United States in a leading position in the global space exploration effort. None of this can be done without at the same time ending the programs of the past such as the space shuttle and at least most of the “Apollo on steroids” Constellation program.

The most-talked-about risk associated with the new strategy, but perhaps the one easiest to overcome, is that the private sector could fail in its attempts to step up to the challenge of carrying people into orbit at an acceptable level of safety and at less cost than a government program managed in the traditional NASA way. Stung by the organizational failures at the root of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, NASA now has put in place an elaborate and so far successful approach to minimizing the shuttle’s risks. But this approach is very expensive, and likely would have made operation of the Ares 1 also a very costly proposition. The risk here is that NASA and the private sector cannot work together to develop an approach to maximizing safety for astronauts as they are launched aboard a privately developed and operated booster. To be avoided is making that approach as expensive as operating the shuttle, or for that matter launching national security payloads aboard an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. If good will and technical excellence are brought to this task by both NASA and the private sector, this is a challenge that can be met.

Another, much more fundamental, area of high risk is that the proposals for immediate changes in the human spaceflight program anticipate a choice that will not be made for some years. It makes no sense to invest many billions of dollars in generating and demonstrating new exploration-related technologies if there is no future decision to embody those technologies into new systems and capabilities aimed at journeys beyond Earth orbit. But there can be no guarantee that Barack Obama, as he completes a second term, or his successor will in fact ask the country to embark on a long-term program of human exploration. President Obama’s commitment to future exploration is likely to become clearer as he hosts the recently announced April 15 space conference in Florida, but many factors could intervene in coming years to change the priority he now assigns to space exploration. Just as the Democrat president proposes modifying the space vision set out by his Republican predecessor, so to a new president in 2016, or even 2012, might choose not to continue on the path now being proposed. An optimistic view is that by 2015 or so the opportunities for space exploration made possible by the investments being proposed now will be so compelling that any U.S. leader will be willing to make the long-term policy and financial commitments required. As John F. Kennedy said when he announced the decision to go to the Moon, “There is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.”

Another major area of concern has to do with the ability of the NASA work force to embrace and act on a truly post-Apollo approach to human spaceflight. A leading student of large organizations, Yale professor Garry Brewer, in 1989 observed that “NASA perfected itself in the reality of Apollo, but that success is past and the lessons from it are now obsolete, not to be flouted.” Brewer suggested that NASA “needs new ways of thinking, new people, and new means” to deal with its changed social, economic and political environment. This diagnosis remains valid more than two decades later.

What the new White House strategy for space attempts to do is steer NASA toward the “new ways of thinking” that Brewer saw as necessary for organizational revitalization. The NASA human spaceflight community of its own volition has historically been quite unlikely to make the major changes needed. Convincing an at best skeptical and more likely resistant organization and its industry allies to adapt well-established patterns of operation and thinking to new realities is indeed a very challenging undertaking. Yet the new strategy can be successful only if, after some period of transition, NASA as an institution steps up to the new approaches it is being asked to adopt. In the short run, NASA task forces are scrambling to put substance behind the sketchy outlines of the new approach made public on Feb. 1. The real challenge, presuming that the White House can persuade Congress not to put major roadblocks in the way of getting started in a new direction, is to embody that substance into new programs and projects implemented by NASA and its contractor work force with the energy, enthusiasm and technical excellence that the country expects. Having the NASA human spaceflight effort fall back after a year or two into the old ways of operating would undercut the intent of the new strategy.

The proposed new strategy for space can lead to expanded public-private sector partnerships, to investments in new technologies that can produce innovations of broad economic value, and to a revitalized civilian space agency. Most important, it lays the foundation for a sustainable and affordable decades-long effort to explore beyond Earth orbit. These are outcomes that justify accepting significant risks to achieve. The Augustine committee sought “a human spaceflight program worthy of a great nation.” The new White House approach can lead to such a program.

 

John M. Logsdon is professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.