NASA finally has presented its plan for sending some government employees to the Moon and Mars using the solid-rocket boosters and stacked shuttle plan (spaceman-on-a-stick and shuttlesaurus). Well-timed as usual, it was sandwiched in between disasters and bad press for a weakened president.
Having been given the chance to reinvent themselves by the president’s vision, they defaulted to type. Ignoring any lessons we might have learned from past mega-contractor fiascos, they dropped the core goals of establishing a permanent presence in space, left the standing army of cost-plus contractors in place, cut out the innovative NewSpace firms who want to work on the project (or, as in the case of the Centennial Challenges left them to twist in the wind).
So if I may, I humbly offer a couple of observations and ideas for what to do next. First, regarding the so-called Apollo on steroids (or as I call Apollo old, fat and ugly): It’s dead Mike. That horse won’t run. That dog won’t hunt. The fat lady has sung. Or, to bring it closer to space, I’ll quote Bill Paxton in the film “Aliens”: “Game over, man!”
The bloated, business as usual, cost-plus, pork-based, design-bureau use-it-and-throw-it-away approach to space is a failure. The excitement and momentum that might have existed when the president aimed us toward the Moon, Mars and beyond has been squandered. It has been worn down by the dumping of vision in favor of pork, and the jettisoning of the president and Aldridge Commission’s declarations that frontier infrastructure building based on commercial enterprise is a prime goal. That vision was d umped in favor of getting a few folks on the Moon relatively quickly (for these timid times) and pretending that this will lead us on to Mars — with no intention of making either location supportable long term.
So what should NASA do now? Let’s begin by getting one thing clear: When it comes to sending humans into space, either we go to play, or we go to stay.
If we go to play, to plant the flag and say we crossed the goal line, then wait a few months, have your contractors change the pictures and vehicle names on their PowerPoint pioneering presentations and roll them back out. But understand this, if by some miracle you get funded, you are screwing future generations out of the grandest legacy of all times, and wasting taxpayer funds on a zombie-like walk towards the dead end of flags and footprints. But if that is fun for you and you can live with it, then go for it.
If however, our goal is expanding our civilization permanently into space, (I think you said that to the media recently, did you not Mr. Griffin?) then we need a whole different set of choices and decisions. It also will take courage, a commitment to really make substantial changes in how our space program operates, and a willingness to drop pet ideas in favor of ideas that will support the real goal of our human space program — the American led opening and settlement of the frontier.
Refocusing the plan
With permanence and settlement as the goal, then we must redefine the role of the public and private sectors when compared to all other past NASA activities in space. Primarily, you will have to study, ingest and operate from the principles that make this free enterprise democracy wealthy enough to give you jobs in the first place. You will have to re structure contracting methods to reward achievement and radical innovation rather than effort and incrementalism, and ask some who are used to centrally designing and controlling such things as transportation and operations to be satisfied with simply getting the job done rather than doing it themselves. And, here’s a tough one for you: Sometimes you are going to have to trust in American business and let them lead — with your support. Interestingly, this approach gets you an affordable, lower-overhead, sustainable and eventually even profit-creating process. Just these changes will send a signal of hope and opportunity and eventually widen the political constituency for settlement by creating jobs and wealth, and firing the imaginations of American taxpayers.
Here are a few more specific suggestions:
– NASA, with Congress, should change its central contracting method to pay for services and pay for delivery. It should make cost-plus contracts the exception rather than the norm. Multi year appropriations should be a part of this package.
– Starting with low Earth orbit, NASA should set up a management authority to run at least our part of the international space station (ISS) and mandate that its focus be on supporting and enabling commercial infrastructure. At the same time, that authority should not encourage commercial activities on ISS that might compete with real enterprises such as the space facility being developed by Bigelow Aerospace.
– All nation-to-nation barter deals should be banned unless a U.S. commercial solution has been tried first. On the other hand, NASA should push for exemptions to the export controls known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations to encourage international commercial partnerships.
– Greatly expand the Centennial Challenges program.
– Immediately cut contracts for commercial ISS resupply and eventually propellant transport to low Earth orbit .
– Immediately allocate money for vouchers, to help kick start the NewSpace sub orbital transportation industry, creating a market for ever higher rides for science payloads, astronauts and even teachers.
– Announce the shuttle program is over except for one last glorious flight to save the Hubble telescope. The agency should swallow a little short-term pride and buy a package deal of astronaut rides on the Soyuz (buy them at the current commercial rate, and get a discount for quantity — this really works every day outside of government ).
– If NASA cannot wiggle out of agreements to carry ISS components, often cited as the reason for keeping the shuttle going, either quickly build a shuttle-based side-mounted, arm-equipped, low-tech container or convert one of the shuttles to remote control ( the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Russians know how to do this one).
– With money saved by canceling the shuttle, NASA should offer at least three U.S. firms a total of $10 billion for the first demonstrations of fully re usable people carriers to low Earth orbit — to be delivered by 2010.
NASA should offer the winners multiyear contracts to carry astronauts to ISS and to board the translunar spacecraft. Offer to pay them around $5 million per low Earth orbit ride and let them sell the extra seats to anyone they want.
Back to the Moon — frontier style
Moving outwards, the Moon/Mars architecture should be redesigned to one that is frontier enabling rather than a dead end.
NASA should restart its long-led research support for interplanetary spaceships such as Prometheus and nuclear power sources for use in space. The agency should begin development of fully reusable low Earth orbit/Moon transportation systems. NASA should make all lunar robotic missions frontier science oriented, surveying resources and sites for the place we will put our first base. There should also be a priority search for big money payoffs like asteroid impact-based platinum.
Once selected, NASA should focus efforts on the chosen site and its environs:
– load the landers with commercially sponsored energy production and In Situ Resource Utilization experiments, and send rovers to explore the shadows and ice;
– build it up using transportation/habitation systems that are designed to be rough, tough and growable (nothing expendable allowed);
– p ut out a long-term lease-based prize/contingency contract to rent lunar surface habitats from the first two firms to demonstrate them here on Earth by keeping them going for six months or so in a lunar-analogous environment.
The whole package
Wrap all of this in a comprehensive package that you can sell to the people and Congress that is about opening the frontier for all of us! The focus should be on context, clarity, cohesiveness and common sense.
The American people need to know this is going somewhere, they need to see the point, they need to feel you are thinking long term, and they need to know you are not wasting their money. This is what NASA is missing right now. Show how each element leads inevitably toward our first outpost on the Moon and Mars, how they support the emerging private sector and help enable a renaissance in U.S. space. Show how it benefits the people through easier access to space themselves, potential new resources, inspiration for education, technological leadership and sheer national pride and hope.
Mr. Griffin, you can then point with your own pride at the race to build the first new orbital rocket ships and buildings in space and what it will mean as competition brings the costs down to show how wisely you are investing the taxpayers’ money.
You can point to real lunar base developments people can watch on TV, and the first images coming back from the lunar poles as brave little NASA rovers named in student contests and carrying student experiments march off into the shadows while announcers explain the importance of ice/water to living on other worlds.
But you can’t just talk the talk. You must walk the walk. You will have to fight for this; it cannot be an afterthought and it cannot be Plan B. You will encounter resistance. You will encounter turf-oriented twisting of the goal. You will have to tip over a few rice bowls. You will alienate some old constituents, but create many new ones.
Look, the game isn’t really over; it is just that you have been playing the wrong game with the wrong goal. Change it. Change it now and make that your legacy, for it will be a grand one. But I am certain if you do, we will be on the Moon and Mars sooner than expected, and at much less cost than the current plan. You will be seeding a NewSpace re naissance and put in place the building blocks of a permanent and expanding frontier.
Then we can both stay and play — except this time for keeps.
Rick Tumlinson is a space policy expert and editor of the just published Return to the Moon.