NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has now put in place an approach to implement U.S. President George W. Bush’s vision for space exploration that mixes a number of engineering solutions from the shuttle (the shuttle-derived technology roadmap) with new approaches to Moon and Mars exploration.
Unfortunately, the business plan underlying the architecture is seriously flawed. The administrator combines an attack on the U.S. aerospace prime contractors with a displacement of the alliances these contractors have with the global space industry.
Without crafting an exploration enterprise that combines the best efforts of experienced aerospace prime contractors with their global partners, it will be difficult to succeed. Boeing has demonstrated with its new commercial aircraft, the 787, that mastering the global supply chain is crucial to building a competitive aircraft today. Boeing also has worked worldwide on building missile defense approaches. Lockheed Martin has shaped a global alliance to build the Joint Strike Fighter. The Aegis ship defense system has grown into a sea-based missile defense system in part based on the ability of Lockheed Martin to work with foreign partners to build a global Aegis fleet. Northrop Grumman works with foreign partners on a number of defense initiatives in the networking area, such as the Eurohawk.
There are a number of difficulties with the current U.S. approach to the future of human spaceflight that need to be addressed.
First, the public-private partnerships that were put in place in the 1990s, including the United Space Alliance joint venture to support the space shuttle system, cannot simply be wished out of existence.
Indeed, the key requirement will be to bring the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) effort — the planned program for replacing the space shuttle — together in some way with a migration of the logistics support of the shuttle. It is politically difficult to envision a termination of the shuttle or shortening of the shuttle’s life without the United Space Alliance joint venture being part of the solution to a new logistics enterprise to support CEV.
Indeed, one solution for the CEV competition is to set up a national team where one pole of the team shapes the vehicle and the other pole shapes the logistics system within which the CEV will be embedded to become a successful system.
Second, shutting down the shuttle early is one of the few realistic solutions to getting the funding for the new architecture. After the largest partner modules are launched via the shuttle, what remains can be satisfied by the use of alternative launch options. This could entail use of foreign providers (the Russians via Soyuz or ATV via Europe) and/or the modification of the shuttle into an unmanned cargo carrier after a limited number of manned missions. This modification would require the U.S. prime contractors to engage in brokered solutions with NASA.
Third, Mr. Griffin wishes to restore the central role of the NASA centers and to eliminate the lead systems integrator role of the prime contractors. Clearly, the primes are willing to engage in redefining the public-private partnership to shape a new relationship for the 21st century. But there are key realities that NASA needs to recognize: it does not have the business talent in the centers to manage discrete business operations; it cannot subcontract to itself (such as the proposed management of the Moon rover); and it cannot manage a fragile global supply chain. Lead Systems Integrators have been crucial to all of these functions.
Fourth, there is no need to duplicate spending and expertise, which already resides in the prime contractors. A partnership with the primes is crucial to transition to a number of the key capabilities for the exploration enterprise. For example, Lockheed Martin has the heat shield expertise available to transition to support the exploration architecture. The Stardust capsule (which flew to Comet Wild 2) coming back in January from outer space will be the fastest re-entry ever made. It uses a phonolic impregnated carbon ablator heat shield. The capsules which go to Mars use Lockheed heat shields as well and use super light ablator technology. Why duplicate these efforts in the NASA centers simply to “re-energize” NASA.
Although the exploration architecture is based on a number of Apollo concepts this is not the era of Apollo. The U.S. government is not about to generate the cash or intellectual capital to support the architecture. To generate the intellectual and financial capital necessary to move ahead, NASA needs an exploration enterprise with the full engagement of the private sector here and abroad.
To leverage foreign governmental support, the involvement of the private sector abroad is crucial. An enterprise approach akin to what the U.S. government has followed in Deepwater whereby industry works with the global supply chain to provide for cost-effective solutions for the U.S. Coast Guard is an appropriate model for the exploration enterprise. Primes working closely with NASA to engage foreign industry in shaping the choices of foreign governments to pursue their space efforts is the best solution in an era of globalization and limited resources for space exploration. The alternative is to encourage the potential partners — Europe, Russia, India, Japan and China — to simply work together as best they can to create an alternative to a NASA-led enterprise.
Mr. Griffin has provided an exciting vision; he now needs a realistic business plan to implement the architecture and to engage foreign partners. They will not simply stand aside while the United States starts building what Mr. Griffin calls the highway of the space future with the possibility of merely working on the off ramps. The danger is that the vision will end up looking like Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) pet bridge project connecting a small town in Alaska to an even tinier island — a project its critics have appropriately dubbed “the bridge to nowhere.”
Robbin Laird, PhD, is a Washington- and Paris-based aerospace and defense industrial consultant.