July 21, 2019


NASA's Next 50 Years : A half-century after Apollo, the agency risks irrelevance. It's time for a real -- and different -- mission.  (Robert Zubrin, Summer 2019, New Atlantis)

NASA deserves a lot of credit. A space agency funded by 4 percent of the world's population, it is responsible for launching 100 percent of the rovers that have ever wheeled on Mars; all the probes that have visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto; nearly all the major space telescopes; and all the people who have ever walked on the Moon. But while its robotic planetary exploration and space astronomy programs continue to produce epic results, for nearly half a century its human spaceflight effort has been stuck in low Earth orbit.

The reason for this is simple: NASA's space science programs accomplish a lot because they are mission-driven. In contrast, the human spaceflight program has allowed itself to become constituency-driven (or, to put it less charitably, vendor-driven). In consequence, the space science programs spend money in order to do things, while the human spaceflight program does things in order to spend money. Thus, the efforts of the science programs are focused and directed, while those of the human spaceflight program are purposeless and entropic.

This was not always so. During the Apollo period, NASA's human spaceflight program was strongly mission-driven. We did not go to the Moon because there were three random constituency-backed programs to develop Saturn V boosters, command modules, and lunar excursion vehicles, which luckily happened to fit together, and which needed something to do to justify their funding. Rather, we had a clear goal -- sending humans to the Moon within a decade  -- from which we derived a mission plan, which then dictated vehicle designs, which in turn defined necessary technology developments. That's why the elements of the flight hardware set all fit together. But in the period since, with no clear mission, things have worked the other way.

Neither the space shuttle nor the International Space Station were designed as parts of any well-conceived plan to send humans to the Moon or Mars. Insistence that they be included as part of such programs only served to make them infeasible. More recently, other constituencies in NASA have made demands that any expedition to the Moon or Mars make use of new hobbyhorses, including variously a space station or asteroid fragment in lunar orbit, or high-powered electric propulsion, none of which are necessary, desirable, or arguably even acceptable for near-term human exploration.

NASA's current plan for the "Lunar Gateway" space station (formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway, and then until a few months ago as the "Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway," or LOP-G -- I am not making this up) is a case in point. If you want to understand the merit of this project, consider a business proposition where you are offered a chance to rent an office in Saskatoon. Under the terms proposed, you will need to pay to build the office building and agree to a thirty-year lease at $100,000 per month rent, with no exit clause. In addition, you will need to spend one month per year in Saskatoon and travel through Saskatoon on your way to anywhere else for the rest of your life.

That, in a nutshell, is the Gateway project. It will cost a fortune to build and a fortune to maintain, and it will add to the propulsion requirements and timing constraints of all missions to the Moon and Mars that are forced to stop there -- as they surely will, since otherwise the pointlessness of building it will be revealed to the public. It is not an asset but a liability, or rather an entitlement, created for no other purpose but to provide a mechanism to drain agency funds to NASA's largest contractors.

This is unacceptable. NASA's space program is our space program. It does not belong to the major aerospace contractors, or even to NASA's management. It belongs to us. That some of the money NASA's human spaceflight office throws around on useless projects might end up in the hands of entrepreneurial space companies is not enough. The American people deserve a space program that is really going somewhere. We are paying for it. We have a right to insist on real results.

The mission needs to come first. The NASA human spaceflight program needs a clear, driving goal, which should be to initiate a permanent human presence on the Moon and Mars within a decade. Such a deadline is as necessary as a defined destination, because without it, the goal has no force, and activities will continue to be directed by the entropic pressure of vendors or political constituencies, rather than by the alleged purpose.

Rather than continue paying for endless cost-plus contracts to "develop" things with no real purpose, NASA needs to set clear goals and contract for services to support those goals. So, for example, let's say enabling human lunar exploration is the goal -- as it currently supposedly is. NASA should put out a request for proposals to industry for systems to deliver cargos to the Moon, and astronauts round-trip, offering to match development costs dollar for dollar and to award a certain number of missions to the best bidders. Whoever got such a contract would be strongly incentivized to minimize development cost and time because they would be paying half the cost out of pocket and would not start making a profit until actual missions began.

Mr. Zubrin is always worth reading and this is no exception.  One of the best reasons to launch such a mission is to break us out of our current self-absorption feedback loop and turn our attention beyond ourselves.  There's a great bit in the 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast where Neil Armstrong (I think) is talking about going on a world tour after reaching the moon and instead of people congratulating him or America they all marvel at what "we" did.

Posted by at July 21, 2019 7:51 AM