It's 'Make or Break' Time for NASA

Part of the problem of such a commission will be in determining the requirements for the planned systems. The original Bush VSE called for a lunar base which would be used to support missions to other destinations, including the asteroids and Mars. But with a new administration, the door has been opened to revisit that decision, and the acting administrator seemed tentative on the issue during hearings a couple weeks ago. If the commission has to consider not only hardware, but national goals, it will complicate its job greatly, but it may be necessary to get sound space policy.

So here's some advice for the new commission.

1. Stand on the shoulders of giants

Go back and read (or reread) the report of the Aldridge Commission that was issued after the announcement of the VSE back in 2004. Note how far NASA's current plans have drifted from its recommendations to be affordable and sustainable, to support national security, and to incorporate the commercial sector (and no, that doesn't mean giving cost-plust contracts to ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin).

Then go dust off the reports from the contractors for the Concept Exploration and Refinement (CE&R) studies that NASA's Sean O'Keefe and Craig Steidle commissioned. These reports examined many innovative alternatives that Mike Griffin completely ignored when he replaced the former and came in with his own ideas. Of course read the ESAS report used to justify NASA's decisions (whose critical appendices including study assumptions only became public in the last few days) and scrutinize it for biases in the assumptions that may have influenced the results, consciously or otherwise. Read the recent Aerospace report on alternatives.

2. Don't design to a narrow mission requirement

It shouldn't matter whether it is lunar sortie versus lunar base versus some other destination. Rather, consider an architecture that can address a broad range of requirements beyond low earth orbit. But in order to do that, we need a true equivalent of the Interstate Highway System, not a rerun of Apollo. We don't just need an infrastructure that is affordable and sustainable. It must also be scalable, to allow an expansion of activity as budgets and markets permit in the future.

This means that it should have low, rather than high marginal costs. The current NASA plan is none of the above, with an estimated cost of several billion dollars per lunar mission, even ignoring the development costs. Getting marginal costs low implies reusability of the hardware, which in turn implies fueling it in orbit and on the moon, with depots throughout cis-lunar space.

3. Embrace and incorporate the private sector in the plans

Ultimately, that's the only way we will really bring down costs and expand markets and human activity in space. Don't let NASA once again build a redundant, expensive, expendable launch system for its own narrow uses that ignores all of the nation's other space needs.

4. Ignore the politics

Yes, of course Senator Shelby (R-AL) is going to want to see a new vehicle developed in Huntsville, Alabama, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is going to want to ensure the maintenance of jobs at the Cape, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and various Houston-area congressmen are going to want to maintain jobs at Johnson Space Center That will take priority in their minds over actual accomplishments in space.

But your job is to tell the policymakers how to give the taxpayers the best value for their money -- and how to maximize our space faring capabilities as soon as possible, so that if we do see something coming at us or find riches off the planet, we can take advantage of it.

Think of yourself  like a Base Closing and Realignment Commission that provides recommendations for the nation as a whole, not local interests. Let the politicians argue about how to preserve jobs (while ignoring all of the jobs and wealth not being created due to the opportunity costs of their parochial decisions).

5. Finally, give us an affordable vision for a future in space that can excite all of us, and not just those who like to watch astronauts on television a couple of times a year

I know that it may seem old fashioned in an era of "Hope and Change,"  but give us -- half a century after Sputnik and two decades after the end of the Cold War -- an inclusive space program for the rest of us, based on the traditional American values of individualism and free enterprise.