Time for a Decadal Survey on Human Spaceflight

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For good or bad, it appears that the U.S. human spaceflight program, in the absence of strategic threats (i.e., the race to the Moon) and with international agreements making it difficult to break our commitment (i.e., the international space station), is not sustainable beyond changes in political administrations or administrators.

When you look at the billions of dollars the United States (both government and private industry) has invested over the last 20 years in noble programs like the Delta Clipper-Experimental, the Advanced Launch System, the National Launch System, X-33/VentureStar, X-34, the Space Launch Initiative, Liquid Flyback Boosters and Constellation (to mention only a few), we could have been back to the Moon and close to going to Mars. Each of these programs started with much fanfare as the “next generation” and “bold new step.”

In 2002, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe canceled the X-38/Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) program with the argument that if we were going to spend that much money, wouldn’t it be better to build a vehicle that could not only bring crew back from the space station in case of an emergency, but also be able to take crew up to the space station? So the CRV program was replaced with the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program, which would launch on top of an expendable rocket like the Atlas 5 or Delta 4. After several years of development, the OSP program was canceled in 2005 by then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and replaced by the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), based on the idea that it would be better to build a newer vehicle that not only could take humans up and back from the space station but also allow us to return to the Moon by 2020 as part of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Then in April, President Barack Obama announced that the CEV/Orion was being repurposed as a rescue vehicle for the space station — back to where we were in 2002. We have come full circle in 10 years after billions of dollars and are no closer to returning to the Moon or having a U.S.-based rescue vehicle.

I agree with the Space News Commentary this year by Chuck Atkins and Elizabeth Newton, “Take the Chaos Out of U.S. Space Policy” [May 10, page 15]: “The United States needs a better way of setting priorities, goals and missions for human space exploration than was used during Cold War conditions.”

The common perception is that the direction of human spaceflight is usually forged by just a few people. Even some of the blue-ribbon panels, whether it was the Aldridge commission, the Augustine commission or the Ride report, end up being limited in scope and participation. In contrast, the highly successful science missions are driven not by presidential edicts, but by a peer-reviewed collective process from the entire community. The science community establishes the scientific priorities, the engineering community establishes what is feasible and NASA plans and executes based on those inputs. It is time to follow a similar model for human spaceflight as a way to increase broader buy-in and eventual sustainability of the human spaceflight program.

To this point, I was elated to see the recent NASA authorization act call for an “Independent Study on Human Exploration of Space” (Section 204). Features of this independent study need to include:

  • Peer review and participation. Open up the process like NASA’s decadal surveys to invite broader participation, exchange of ideas, white papers, concepts, destinations, missions, purposes, approaches and priorities from the entire community and all of the stakeholders in human spaceflight, including the science community, academia and the industrial base. The authorization act calls for a “broad spectrum of participation including civil, commercial, international, scientific and national security interests.” Given the eventual involvement of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, they should be part of the process as well. 
  • Balance of bias. Let’s face it: It is impossible to establish a totally unbiased panel to develop priorities and recommendations. The decadal surveys recognize the various conflicts of interests and attempt to balance the bias on the committees. While there may be a Mars advocate on the committee, it also will have a Moon advocate, a small-bodies advocate, and so on.
  • No rush. The science decadal surveys take two years to complete. They are not 90-day blue-ribbon panels. They take the time to really listen to the community and study the options. The Augustine committee ended up having only a couple of weeks to look at cost assessments developed by the Aerospace Corp. We’re talking about billions of dollars of investments. Shouldn’t we take more than 90 days to plan? 
  • Development of a decadal survey for human spaceflight. Establish recommendations and priorities for the next 10 to 20 years understanding that there will be another decadal survey in 10 years to factor in the discoveries, technology trends and developments over the next decade. Some will argue that due to the long lead nature of human spaceflight versus science missions, we need to plan for 20 to 30 years, but at this point of scrapping our plans every four years, I would be happy if we could demonstrate a plan for 10 years and have it sustain over a couple of administrations. The authorization act calls for a review and prioritization of scientific, engineering, economic and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration to improve the overall human condition. Findings and recommendations are for 2014 through 2023.
  • Independent leadership. The authorization act calls for an “independent” study led by the National Academies. Let’s take the politics (as much as possible) out of the human spaceflight program. The White House and NASA should be participants, but not leading the activity. Even with two separate House authorization acts and support from Democrats and Republicans, the Vision for Space Exploration is still referred to as the “Bush plan.” The current plan is being hailed or criticized as the “Obama plan.” Let’s make the real vision for exploration and human spaceflight the “American plan.”
  • Rigorous mission planning. Even a few years ago some of the science decadal survey missions had trouble with significant cost growth. To improve the process, NASA and the National Academies have bolstered the level of mission planning and cost analysis for recent decadal surveys to provide better-informed decision-making. The advanced concept development capabilities at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center and Applied Physics Laboratory are being used as never before to define the technical feasibility, technology readiness and cost of each potential mission.

Such a decadal survey would provide NASA with the best thinking on the purpose and direction of the human spaceflight/exploration program and enable the agency to focus on implementing the recommendations.

While there seems to be general support for such a decadal survey, we also need to understand the limitations of such a process and manage expectations given the differences between the human spaceflight program and the science missions. A few areas include:

  • Minding the gap. The science missions include a very diverse set of competing individual missions, whether it is for a Mercury lander, Mars Sample Return or a mission to Europa. The human spaceflight program is more limited in destinations, timeframe, goals and feasibility. Is it possible to come up with a realistically affordable portfolio of human missions that encompasses a sustainable human exploration program integrated with the robotic science missions?
  • Building consensus. Most people do not disagree with the various visions or goals put forth to enable exploration beyond low Earth orbit, whether it is to the Moon, asteroids or Mars. They would like to see it all. The debates and animosity tend to be created around the solutions put forth to achieve such goals: Is it shuttle derived, is it commercial, does it use big solids, is it all liquid-based propulsion, does it use propellant farms, etc.?
  • Blocking out politics. While the science missions are not void of politics, they pale in comparison with how political the human spaceflight program has become. Decisions between science missions may impact specific institutions and states for a few years, but decisions on the human spaceflight program can impact states and the industrial base for decades.

However, despite the potential limitations, I believe it is time to execute such a participatory process to build consensus and chart our course forward. If we don’t, we are likely to find ourselves continually changing the human spaceflight program every four to six years.

 

Walt Faulconer is president of Strategic Space Solutions LLC, consulting on business strategies for the national security, commercial and civilian space markets.