Op-ed | NASA: Need Another Space Assignment?
Civil aviation is one of the premiere success stories of the 20th century. Airmail was authorized by the US government in 1911 and began scheduled service in 1918. The federal government then authorized private contractors to carry the mail in 1925. An aviation boom followed. With the establishment of passenger airline service — initiated by the Air Commerce Act of 1926 — federal authorities established air routes, mandated standards for navigation, outlined licensing procedures for pilots, provided certification for aircraft, and created accident investigation standards. Commercial aviation was turned over to private industry and flourished. With full deregulation in 1978, aviation became more affordable, competitive and safer than ever.
Here’s what did not happen next: the government did not step back in, redefine the routes, and nationalize the airlines who were plying ever-wider routes across the US and the globe. To do so would obviously have spelled disaster.
Sadly, some members of Congress are ready to do just that in space. They are preparing to turn back the clock and shut the door on an emerging golden age of lunar exploration and development. While the National Space Council has laid out a clear path to a prosperous American future in space and NASA leadership have embraced ambitious goals with quick and efficient plans, H.R. 5666, the National Aeronautics Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020, would return American spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit to governmental control. It would dictate the destination — Mars — and engineer the systems — governmental landers on governmental rockets.
In contrast to NASA’s current, innovative plan to return to the moon with a robust, competitive mix of commercial and governmental hardware, H.R. 5666 would send only a handful of short sortie human missions to the moon, abandoning the significant water and metal resources there to our international competitors. These are the resources that will unlock sustainable access to the rest of the our solar system and define the future of humanity for years to come.
Our congressional rocket scientists have not surprisingly designed the most expensive solution with the lowest possible economic return. H.R. 5666 would mandate “a minimum set of human and robotic lunar surface activities that must be completed to enable a human mission to Mars” — a certain path to high cost, low return missions, and the likely collapse of a space program capable of surviving a change in administrations. Worse, the plan mandates that NASA own its landers and rely only on the long-delayed and grossly over-budget Space Launch System for carriage.
Who wins here? In the short run, the traditional aerospace giants who have had trouble delivering their systems will keep plodding along. Who loses? Ultracompetitive and efficient companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, who have been demonstrating the technical and economic superiority of their innovative spaceflight methods. In fact, Congress’s plan is terrible for our revered traditional firms in the long run, because it subsidizes their noncompetitive postures and kills a future market full of opportunities for them. And who will pay? The American taxpayer, who will bear the burden of Congress choosing the least expeditious and most expensive toll road in the heavens.
If you have a sense of Déjà vu, you’re not alone. We’ve seen this space opera before. When President Obama took office, George W. Bush’s Constellation moon program was terminated. Prominent voices, including moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, decried that decision. They dreaded the fallow period in American space activity that would follow the shuttle program. What NASA got instead was an endless “Journey to Mars,” a program that would theoretically put humans on the Red Planet in no specific year using a rocket specified by senatorial rocket scientists. Nobody outside of NASA’s communication department, the kids at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center and science fiction authors took the Journey to Mars seriously. NASA wasn’t building any landers, ascent vehicles or habitats to serve as Mark Watney’s Martian potato farm. Needing to actually send the rocket somewhere, NASA concocted the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an unloved muddle that most everyone was happy to see the Trump transition team lay its ax to.
H.R. 5666’s top-down, government-owned plan is like a bad sequel to a bad movie. The world’s premiere space agency is proceeding with SLS/Orion and also plans to work with entrepreneurial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin who, according to NASA’s own internal studies, can provide routine services (and even novel ones like lunar landings) for as little as 10 percent of the conventional approach. The public also loves the new excitement these firms have brought to spaceflight. So why would the House not listen to the world’s greatest experts who are in their ultimate employ or to their constituents? Use your imagination. (hint: entrenched financial and political interests).
Space enthusiasts have long pined for another “Kennedy moment,” in which the President would stride to the podium to announce a new, dramatic and time-delimited space goal that would galvanize NASA and the aerospace industry to do what they do best. Unfortunately, in the three attempts since 1961 (Space Station Freedom under Ronald Reagan, the Space Exploration Initiative under George H.W. Bush, and the Constellation program under George W. Bush) none were sufficiently funded, and none gathered broad support from the Congress or the public. They all hung on the Hill and damaged public confidence in NASA’s ability to execute on human spaceflight programs. One more cancellation or extended delay of a large program — in this case, the Artemis lunar landing by 2024 — could be calamitous for NASA’s image. Our international partners in space who would like to invest millions into helping NASA achieve these ambitious goals are aghast. Why should they invest in another politically doomed U.S. program when they can surely count on the Chinese to achieve their stated goals? Does the U.S. Congress seriously want to see European and Canadian astronauts beaming down at them from a Chinese space station?
Humans on Mars can wait. It can wait until we have worked out the many complex technical challenges, such as long-term life support tech, radiation abatement, and learning to work in an environment saturated with dangerous and potentially toxic dust. Mars can wait until these technologies have been tested and proved by working on the lunar surface and in lunar orbit aboard an orbiting platform, the Gateway. Mars can also wait until we learn how to “live off the land” on the moon by using lunar resources — that’s why very smart people in China and India are dedicating vast resources in their national space programs to accomplish that lunar goal. (If they succeed in doing so before the U.S. does, it could become much more difficult to accomplish that goal ourselves.) Finally, Mars can wait until cislunar infrastructure exists to make the push for the Red Planet affordable, sustainable and realistic. Otherwise we are likely to find ourselves spent and exhausted, both in terms of public support and national treasure, when H.R. 5666’s pointless Martian sorties — should they ever occur — lose their excitement, just as the Apollo program did in 1972.
Finally, a return to closed-end Apollo-style human spaceflight programs, which will ignore the critical development of sustainable orbital and cislunar infrastructure, cripples our ability to respond quickly to potential foreign interference with American space assets. Russia and China are developing an increasingly robust ability to field tactical weapons in space and to interdict American assets there. Space infrastructure, developed by entrepreneurial companies, would establish an inherently strong cislunar posture for America — defending a territory is ultimately about occupying and exploiting it. H.R. 5666’s expeditionary mentality would blow right past the development of enduring infrastructure and economic development, leaving the protection of timid U.S. space assets to strictly military operators as the only responses the weak can make in the face of aggression, concession or violence.
Those on the Hill should listen to the distant echoes of the Space Race and learn. Reject the drumbeat of nationalism and antiquated governmental models. NASA is on the right course, with the right leadership and the support of our entrepreneurs and our international partners; let them do their job. Most importantly, embrace the most significant lesson of the 21st century: releasing space to free enterprise will secure prosperity for the next generation of Americans, just as releasing the internet from the grasp of government did for their grandparents.
Greg Autry is founder of the Commercial Spaceflight Initiative at the University of Southern California. He served as a member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team and as the White House liaison to NASA. He is Vice President of Space Development at the National Space Society.
Rod Pyle has authored 15 books on spaceflight, including 2019’s Space 2.0 with a foreword by Buzz Aldrin. He is a consultant and keynote speaker for aerospace and in public venues, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Ad Astra, the print periodical of the National Space Society. Rod can be heard on iHeart’s Cool Space News podcast.