15 April 2010
News - General (Good)
President Obama Puts NASA on a New Course
Halfway to everywhere
by Peter Wainwright
Today, April 15, 2010, at the Kennedy Space Center, President Obama revealed his plans for the future of NASA's space program: he's putting NASA on a new course.

There's a great deal to be enthusiastic about his speech. For the first time in a long time, it is possible to see a future NASA that is, finally, supporting the development of space commercially and socially, rather than hindering it. And it does so in a way that is good for NASA too.

Rather than build one vehicle for a specific mission and put a program around it, NASA will ratchet up in a series of technological steps, each building on the last. In other words, even though there is still an eventual goal to send humans to Mars -- in 2035 -- it's not a single-minded goal, such as the Apollo missions to reach the Moon. It's more like the series of missions, Mercury-Gemini-Apollo, each of which built on the foundation of the last.

As I wrote just earlier this week in response to the Asimov Debate, “But why does NASA's objective have to be a destination at all? Is that really the only kind of achievement that can stimulate the imagination?" It seems President Obama agrees with me.

NASA's new goals include:

  • Robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the sun's atmosphere.
  • New scouting missions to Mars and other destinations.
  • An advanced telescope to follow Hubble.
  • Increased Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of climate.
  • Testing and improving upon capabilities in space.

Obama said he hopes to improve

...technologies like more efficient life support systems to help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.

After discussing the revival of the Orion project as a crew return vehicle (CRV) for the International Space Station ( ISS) (now with extra extended life), Obama told NASA what he really wants for Christmas, 2015: a bulk cargo transporter to do the heavy lifting (quite literally) into low Earth orbit ( LEO).

This is more important than it might at first seem, for several reasons:

  • It gives NASA a clear short-term goal, with a deliverable. If you are of the mind that NASA needs goals, here is one.
  • Development of a bulk lifter is not a commercially viable proposal yet. For smaller stuff, there is already SpaceX's Falcon 9 (the first space vehicle Obama mentioned, briefly, at the start of his speech. That wasn't a coincidence.)
  • It gets NASA out of the way of commercial space efforts to build smaller launchers and passenger-capable vehicles. More importantly, it gets NASA out of perceived competition with space vehicle development companies.
  • It should provide a stream of technological progress that commercial efforts can benefit from.
  • Even if NASA doesn't succeed, commercial space industry will still do its part.

By the time this future lifter is operational, we would like to hope that commercial space efforts are ramping up to the point that they can make use of such a vehicle: Bigelow Aerospace are already launching space stations, but they'd certainly find some uses for a vehicle capable of launching much larger quantities of materials into space.

The catch to all this, of course, is that the commercial space industry doesn't have anything like the same record in terms of putting vehicles in space (at least, on their own. Building parts for NASA isn't the same thing).

Even so, there's an inherent risk in handing over the most important part of space development -- the future of manned space transportation -- to the private sector. But we at Space Future have been arguing that this is and was the right approach all along. Now, perhaps, we'll get to see if we're right.

The incremental steps proposed by the President have another important aspect too. Although not quite explicitly stated in his speech, Obama is talking about developing significant infrastructure in near-Earth space. One of the objectives of NASA's new lifter will be to put

... the crew capsules, propulsion systems and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space.

Implied in that statement is that any future Mars mission will be built in orbit and launched from orbit. (Another detail of the speech was that even Mars missions will be incrementally divided into one that just gets people there and back, and only then actually down to the surface and back.)

In other words, Obama seems to be agreeing with Heinlein and Stine -- LEO is halfway to anywhere, and building the technology to do that well opens the door to the rest of space. Perhaps permanently.

As Obama said,

Our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are sustainable and even indefinite.

As I wrote after the Asimov debate: everyone wins. Proponents of a return to the Moon get a better place to begin from. Proponents of a manned mission to Mars can now design vehicles that start and end their journey in space. The rest of us get a destination in orbit to visit and spacecraft that operate cheaply enough that we can afford to go there. Plus the economic stimulus all that implies.

This idea of incremental development isn't at all strange an idea in the commercial world -- most new products are built on the foundations of previous ones, either literally or through the experience of the company founders. That's how it works if you want to get investment, and the reason is that it reduces risk and increases the probability of success.

It is, dare we say it, the entrepreneurial approach.
Share |
Peter Wainwright 15 April 2010
Please send comments, critiques and queries to feedback@spacefuture.com.
All material copyright Space Future Consulting except as noted.