It's 'Make or Break' Time for NASA

The results of misbegotten space policy choices over the past decades are finally coming to a head in the new administration. The cans have been kicked down the road as far as possible with regard to when to retire the space shuttle, and the future of NASA's human space flight program in general and the International Space Station (ISS) in particular. Indeed, we're reaching a point of no return.

Fortunately, at least some uncertainty has been reduced with recent reports that the U.S. is moving toward a decision to continue supporting ISS through 2020, despite the fact that it will add a couple of billion dollars per year to the NASA budget -- something not anticipated in previous plans. But this makes the issue of how we will service the ISS  all the more important.

NASA recently provided policy makers with two shuttle extension plans: one to 2012 and the other to 2015. But despite attempts by Florida legislators to extend the program, external tank production has been shut down. This means that there will be a limited number of flights that the system can perform, regardless of how long we continue to fly, because each flight requires a tank.

And even at a low flight rate, the program is very expensive on an annual basis, putting further pressure on the budget. Once we run out of tanks, the program will end, with nothing in place to allow us to get astronauts to and from the ISS. This will make us dependent on the Russians into the indefinite future for human space transportation, unless SpaceX can come through soon with the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule.

Since the decision seems to be irreversible -- or at least no reversal is in the cards since the president's proposed budget doesn't contemplate it  -- this makes the decision of what will replace that capability ever more urgent.

Unfortunately, Ares I and Orion -- the launch vehicle and capsule that are supposed to allow us to get astronauts to and from earth orbit (and eventually, in conjunction with other hardware elements, all the way to the lunar surface and back by the end of the next decade) -- are far over budget and behind schedule. The original plan laid out in President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" (VSE) five years ago was initial capability to orbit earth in 2014, implying only a three-year "gap" with a planned shuttle shutdown in 2010. Since then, the schedule has slipped to at least 2015, with little confidence of actually making that date.

With regard to the budget growth, NASA's own projected costs to first lunar landing have risen from an initial estimate of $52 billion to $97 billion currently, and the Congressional Budget Office not unreasonably projects additional growth to more than $100 billion, based on program history. While this may seem like couch cushion change in the current environment of trillion-dollar deficits, the pressure to cut it will be intense.

Even ignoring the budget and schedule issues, there are serious concerns about what we will get for the money. The technical issues of vibration in the first stage, potential drift into the tower during liftoff, underperformance of the vehicle, and excess weight of the capsule and service module have resulted in NASA reducing the initial crew size to orbit from six to four. Moreover, the Aerospace Corporation has reportedly recently performed a study indicating that using existing launch vehicles for the Orion could save a significant amount of money without reducing crew safety.

With all of these issues on the table, and the fact that NASA still lacks a permanent administrator (Deputy Administrator Chris Scolese has been the acting administrator since Mike Griffin left in January), it isn't surprising that the administration has decided to pull together an independent blue-ribbon commission to look over the situation and make some recommendations.

The commission will reportedly be headed by Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and former head of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He will no doubt be viewed as a good candidate for such a job (he headed a previous commission on space policy almost two decades ago, though many of his recommendations, including a budget increase for NASA of 10 percent per year, were ignored). The only issue with him may be a potential conflict of interest in that he may still own Lockheed Martin stock, and they manufacture the Atlas V, one of the vehicles that could compete with the Ares I.

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.