So here we are again. Yet another shuttle replacement has puttered along for a few years and been abandoned before first flight, and the contractors and their political patrons are tugging over the remains like crows tugging on bits of roadkill. Have we learned anything this time?

One thing we certainly didn’t learn is the danger of the circular firing squad, but let that pass.

I think the lesson NASA has to learn someday is that high-ticket programs with more than about a five-year time horizon are now politically impossible. That means that whatever you do, it has to be designed as a series of smaller steps, so as to avoid the churn that comes every time the White House changes hands. This isn’t an impossible requirement, but it means NASA has to relearn what it used to know about program management.

To an outsider, it seems self-evident that NASA’s procurement process is the thing that is broken, or we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Look at Falcon 9, from drawing board to successful first flight in much less than 10 years, and an expenditure on the order of half a billion dollars, and compare that with Ares 1, and tell me NASA still knows how to run programs. Compare it further with the program requirements documents for Mercury and Gemini, highly successful programs back when we knew a lot less about spaceflight than we do today.

There’s no way Ares 1 and the Orion crew capsule should have cost anywhere near what they were costing, or take anything like as much time as they were taking, to get up and fly. Whether the problem lies within NASA, or with the government procurement rules within which NASA is constrained to operate, is a question that needs answering. But the end result is the same: another decade lost, and American astronauts sitting by the side of the road with their thumbs out, waiting for the next Soyuz launch.

Arguably our most successful manned program, the Gemini program, was conducted from start to finish in less than five years. It cost (including 10 crewed flights) somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion adjusted for inflation — less than we have spent on Constellation/Ares without even making it to our first orbital test flight. Gemini did everything we need from a crewed spacecraft, at least until we get out of cislunar space. Put a beefed-up heat shield on it and it could have gone to the Moon, and there were some studies for that. That’s what we did when the U.S. had a cumulative total experience in manned spaceflight of three man-days — not man-years, not even man-months.

I am not an engineer. My degrees are in history and business. If I am anything, I am a historian. So, as a historian, I ask: What’s so hard about replicating this level of capability, with technology that’s 40 years more mature?

My answer is that the procurement process is broken. Tell me what’s incomplete or inadequate about the following fill-in-the-blanks paragraph (not page, and not book) as a complete solicitation:

“NASA seeks a crewed vehicle with the following performance specifications. The craft shall be able to carry a crew of not less than five (maximum crew member height 6-feet-2) to orbit, launched on a booster whose dynamic loading is not less than that experienced on an Atlas 5. The craft shall be able to rendezvous and dock with the international space station (ISS), and transfer crew without resort to unpressurized spacewalk. Pressurized cargo capacity shall be not less than X pounds, to be carried in pressurized volume of not less than X cubic feet. The dimensions of the largest pressurized storage locker shall be not less than X by X by X inches. The atmospheric system of the craft shall be compatible with ISS. Crew life support shall be sufficient for the entire crew for not less than X days. The craft shall have emergency escape system(s) capable of saving the crew in the event of launch vehicle failure during all phases of launch to orbit. Excess power capacity (above that required to run life support, communication/navigation and normal cabin instrumentation) shall be not less than X watts. The craft shall be capable of emergency repressurization in not less than X seconds. The craft shall be capable of autonomous communication and navigation leading to safe return to Earth from anywhere in cislunar space. It shall land on land, not water. It shall be capable of refurbishment and reflight for at least X times, with a refurbishment cost of not more than X dollars and time of not more than X days between reflights. The craft shall be capable of stays in space of not less than 12 months in a powered-down configuration, and be capable of coming from powered-down to emergency function levels of life support, communication/navigation and attitude control, in not more than X seconds. (Note: The capacity for long-term flight must be demonstrated in space on test flights, and demonstration of the associated capacities is not necessary before first crewed flights. Mission duration of at least X days is the only initial requirement). It shall have a delta-v capacity of not less than X feet per second. Design and test time for this craft shall be not more than four years. Spacecraft systems shall be at least one fault tolerant or designed with robust safety factors where redundancy is not possible. Odds of catastrophic failure leading to crew fatality shall be demonstrated to be not greater than 1 in 500. For this craft, NASA will contribute not more than X dollars to development cost (to be delivered in X installments over the development cycle from contract award to first crewed flight), and not more than X dollars per delivered flight article.”

Is anything missing from this design spec? Why should it not be considered the basis for bids on a contract? If I’m missing something, please educate me. And please — no lectures about the political impossibility of doing the right thing. If we can’t find the way back to a sane procurement process, let’s just fold up our tents and stop pretending that we’re going anywhere.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything. I think when you answer this question, you’ll know where NASA has gone wrong.


Clifford McMurray is a former executive vice president of the National Space Society and a member of several space advocacy organizations. The opinions expressed here are his own.