The Trouble with Tall Ceilings


The current NASA appropriations struggle highlights a problem with our approach to the challenges of growing a sustainable human spaceflight industry. Using a singular approach centered on NASA missions, our solutions seem much like building ladders to reach a very tall ceiling. Each time we decide to change where we want to go, or what we want to do when we get there, we must start from the ground again and build anew. Worse, our current inability to dismantle one program and start another is creating an untenable situation where we risk spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a spacecraft to nowhere.

However, in seeing this confusion, it may be enough for us to realize that perhaps the best way to go farther is not to reach so high at once.

There is no shortage of exciting destinations in our solar system. For decades, we have driven ambitious exploration programs reaching ever-farther from one destination to another. In our pursuit, we bring to bear our strongest assets, the combined experience and ingenuity of NASA and our high-tech manufacturing base. Despite new companies reaching for opportunities in orbit, however, the human spaceflight industry remains primarily centered on the singular needs of NASA — needs that are unique to administration-dependent destinations. This results in a precarious situation, for if NASA is unable to gain adequate funding from Congress, the entirety of the human spaceflight industry is in danger of collapsing.

We need to revisit this arrangement and find a path forward that enhances NASA’s ability to continue to expand our scientific knowledge while it simultaneously creates opportunities for an emerging private sector. In this manner, we can expand and diversify a high-technology industry that is capable of creating jobs and revenue that contributes to our economy. Without such an approach, any direction a national space program undertakes will suffer a continuing vulnerability due to the government’s sole-consumer nature.

A logical place to begin to consider this matter, then, is to examine NASA’s past and present goals for human spaceflight. Over the last 50 years, there has been a consistent push to expand the range of human spaceflight, ranging from the Moon to Mars and other points along what is known as “the Flexible Path.” However, no matter where we go with human spaceflight, we must overcome the same gravitational well. In recognizing this, our attention is drawn to low Earth orbit (LEO) or Lagrange points. Indeed, these locations have long been considered for orbiting fuel depots or other station facilities.

With an orbital capability, we no longer would have to try and build everything on the ground, launching it on one massive rocket. It becomes easier and safer to transport components and fuel in smaller shipments to orbit using established technology, combine the individual pieces into larger and more complex craft, and send them off to farther and more-varied destinations. In this way, it has been argued, we can reach for any destination with minimal disruption.

The question of technology, as presently debated in Congress, then becomes twofold: What technologies allow for reliable travel to and from LEO, and what new technologies are needed to extend our reach to exploratory destinations? Clearly, both must be considered, but many of the questions regarding LEO already have been explored. This leaves the question of orbital assembly, which applies to both commercial assets and long-range exploration.

In addition to technology solutions, LEO also holds promise for the emerging private commercial sector (most notably Space Exploration Technologies Corp.). Not only would orbital stations provide manufacturing and support contracts, they also would provide initial destinations for an interested public consumer, creating a diverse demand for services that are outside NASA’s traditional purview. With greater participation, we gain the opportunity to increase both the incentive for more-efficient launch systems and the resource pool available to reach toward farther destinations. In this manner, we can build a broader platform capable of supporting many different federal and private programs simultaneously. Furthermore, we can harness the ensuing competitive forces and manufacturing redundancy to create a more cost-effective approach to space.

However, we must consider the ramifications of expanding LEO operations to the private sector. Historically, government programs have operated in an isolated manner on orbit, relying on expensive redundancy to meet their operational needs. In a government program, this can be acceptable. However, the private sector requires more-affordable solutions; we must focus on the means by which private industry on orbit handles risk and pursues profit.

Regulation is one approach, and already is under consideration. Equally as important, though, is providing a government means of addressing problems on orbit. This is not a new role for the government, as it provides similar means for the marine industry through a civilian Coast Guard; in other industries, this takes other forms. Such assistance increases confidence in expanding operations and reduces the costs of developing new vessels. Without this assistance, it is difficult to justify commercial operations in orbit.

Shifting NASA’s responsibilities to include addressing problems on orbit is not a monumental task. These responsibilities already are implied within the current NASA authorization, and the foundations of the required technologies exist. Furthermore, developing these technologies to encourage a sustainable human spaceflight industry provides a feasible and realistic path for future NASA exploration missions.

Given the reality of changing destinations, it is worthwhile to explore a path that allows us to adjust without needing to completely reorganize and re-examine the destination-specific challenges from first principles. Expanding NASA’s responsibilities to reduce the risks faced by an emerging private sector increases the resources available for reaching farther destinations without unrealistic strain. 

In building a broad, stable human spaceflight industry, we bring the goals of a national space program a bit closer to our reach, and we can accomplish them while keeping our feet solidly on the ground.


Gordon Smith is part of the DSER Strategy Group, a private resource dedicated to promoting a sustainable manned spaceflight industry. He is co-author of “Space Policy via Macro-Economic Analysis” and “Deep Space Emergency Response: An Example for U.S. Space Policy.”