It’s The Journey That Matters, Not The Destination

The story broke yesterday that a group of scientists, astronauts, and other space enthusiasts is going to be meeting at Stanford next month to discuss an alternative to the Vision for Space Exploration. Clark and several others have already commented, but I figured I ought to throw in my two cents.

Basically, I’m skeptical.

While there are some good things in the plan, such as supposedly more commercial involvement, and destinations that tap better into some of the supposedly more pressing space-related concerns of the US populace (ie planetary defense against near-earth objects), there’s still a lot to be concerned about.

Are we going to see a repeat of what happened with the VSE, where there were all sorts of wonderful platitudes about commercial involvement at the start, that end up being effectively nothing in the end? I mean, COTS is great and all, but NASA spending $10B on its own in-house solution (that’s going to end up competing with COTS for ISS cargo/crew delivery when Ares V never gets built), while giving only $500M for more commercial approaches is not what we were led to believe back in the early days of the VSE. Once NASA gets its hands on this new plan, how much commercial content will really survive? If the only commercial involvement ends up being renting an extra Bigelow module or two, it won’t be a complete waste, but that’s not saying much.

At least from what I’ve seen, they still are talking about “giving America the Shaft”, and wasting countless billions on Ares V, and EDS. If they do that, they’re still going to have all the extremely expensive shuttle infrastructure that will have to get paid for every year. Sure, they’ll save a little on the edges by not having an LSAM line running, and possibly save a tiny bit by cutting back on the mission tempo (only one manned mission per year or every other year maybe)–though with how much of the money will be going to fixed infrastructure, the savings won’t really be that great.

What this new approach probably won’t do (any more than what we’re getting with the ESAS implementation of the VSE) is actually be relevant to the commercial development of space, or helping our civilization become a truly spacefaring one.

I guess people just get way too hung up on the destinations. Quite frankly, where NASA goes over the next 20 years is of almost trivial importance compared to how it goes there. For all I care, they could set their sites on performing manned exploration of Europa, just so long as they do it in a way that actually helps promote the development of the infrastructure we need to become a truly spacefaring society.

I know I keep hitting on these concepts over and over again, but that’s because while the meme is spreading, it still hasn’t really sunk in among those in power. There’s nowhere in the solar system that’s of such pressing importance as to justify a NASA designed and operated transportation system.

On the flip side, almost anywhere in the solar system is a good enough destination if NASA were to go with a truly commercial transportation system. One using commercial propellant depots in orbit that buy propellants from whoever can launch it cheapest, and sell it to whoever wants to move something around in space (both NASA, commercial entities, and other governments). One where NASA “astronauts” are passengers flying on commercial vehicles alongside cosmonauts, taikonauts, UKnauts, Koreanauts, ESAnauts, private (or government) customers going to Bigelow stations or on CSI or Space Adventure operated trips around the moon. One where NASA only builds and operates the actual spacecraft, not the launch vehicles. Because if NASA helps build up a commercial industry like that, we’ll end up getting not just whatever the destination de jour is, but everywhere else as well. Maybe NASA ends up spending most of its resources focused on putting boots on Mars, but with a propellant depot on orbit, and NASA acting as an anchor tenant with enough demand to help close the business cases for future RLVs, you’re going to see space travel cheap enough that a lot more people can get in the game, and a lot more destinations may be visited. While NASA’s off planting flags on Mars, some groups will be exploring NEOs, others will be offering tourist trips to and around the Moon, and others might even be building cloud colonies on Venus.

Anyhow, I think you get my point. We’ll see what this new group comes up with. They might surprise us, but for now I remain skeptical.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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8 Responses to It’s The Journey That Matters, Not The Destination

  1. laurel says:

    *First comment dance* (woohoo)

    I don’t have anything to say except yep I agree with what you’re saying. (Sorry, I just wanted to get that first comment dance in there.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    What I just read on the Aviation Leak site just seems like bull to me. If you are going to Mars, you damned well have to have experience in building a shelter and living there. You don’t get that holding on to an asteroid; you need something with a touch of gravity. While I agree that asteroid missions are important, they are an important as a part of the next stage, not as a substitute for it.
    The Mars Society seems to think that no preliminary work need to be done before we leap to Mars, like we pop out of the forehead of Zeus.
    I do see a role for Bigelow shelters in just about every destination on the drawing board (where does the UK think they will pop up with an ISS shelter for far more then they could buy one from the Vegas Boys?), but abandoning the Moon is just Stupid.

  3. Dave Salt says:

    Hi Jon,

    I think it all boils down to the simple fact that NASA needs to be told that its prime goal is to stimulate the commercial “exploitation” of space.

    From everything I’ve seen and from my own experience talking and working with NASA people, the basic problem is that NASA does things to suit its own purposes and to meet its own goals. This guiding principle means that the commercial benefits of anything NASA funds arise more by luck than judgment, which precisely is why they call it spin-off.

    I remember once talking to a senior engineer/manager at a Space Access conference. He’d just presented the concept for an Earth-Moon transfer stage that used aerobraking and was tying to drum up support for it as a technology demonstrator mission. However, when I asked him if he’d thought of pitching it as an enabler for future systems that would service the commercial GEO market, he seemed completely uninterested and unable to see the relevance.

    This guy was not stupid and knew exactly what I was talking about. He just could not see what benefit
    this approach would have because he had to sell this within NASA and there was nobody there who’s got a vested interested in this type of application.

    Given this “corporate mind-set”, it’s clear to me that NASA’s programmes will continue to be self-serving and blinkered for as long as NASA views it’s goals simply ends in themselves. Until it’s forced to view itself as an enabler for the wider commercial economy, I cannot see it ever changing for the better.

    Dave

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sign me up to build the floating cloud colonies on Venus.

    JP

  5. Jon Goff says:

    Dave,
    I agree that NASA seems to think that it’s goals (particularly the destination and science driven goals) are top priority. Just playing devil’s advocate though, but part of that may be due to them not knowing how to promote commercial industry anymore. Goals like set up a base on the moon for X number of warm bodies, perform Y missions per year (where X*Y is a roundoff error), are a lot easier than “promote commercial exploitation of space”.

    Of course, you’d think that a vague goal that’s harder to measure would be more appealing than one that’s easy to measure when they fail to achieve it…

    ~Jon

  6. Jon Goff says:

    JP,
    You build one, and I’ll buy a lot with a wonderful cloud view. I’ve got enough time before retirement that it isn’t ridiculous. Maybe Venus will be the next Florida?

    🙂

    ~Jon

  7. Mike Puckett says:

    Will Lando Calrissian be in charge of the clod city?

  8. David Stever says:

    The initial buzz for this has died down (maybe that pillow pushed into it’s face did the trick), and I hope I don’t hear this seriously discussed again. My first comments (I was the first anonymous commenter) still stand for my views. I think that stepping straight out to Mars without the technology to know what you are doing is just stupid and dangerous. I don’t want to send a crew out to their doom because they have no shelter experience.
    Having said that, the Mars Society notion of sending a fuel plant out before the crewed flight is a marvelous idea, one that NASA no doubt dropped because of it’s NIH blinders.

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