A statement in this post by Clark Lindsey (and a further comment by Gary Hudson) on Hobbyspace reminded me why I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the term “sustainability” as it regards space exploration. I think the danger stems from how ambiguous the term can be. When you say “sustainable space development” to someone like Clark, Gary, or myself, it evokes concepts such as enabling a robust commercial spaceflight industry and acting as an anchor tenant for critical space infrastructure. But NASA uses “sustainability” in a completely different light. Under Griffinomics, ESAS is supposedly “sustainable” because Congress is unlikely to cut NASA’s manned spaceflight program much compared to what it’s getting right now, and therefore even if the architecture they pick is very expensive, it can still be perpetuated indefinitely off of bureaucratic inertia and parochial interests. Inspiring, huh?

A much better metric is the one given in Marburger’s speech: namely is our architecture being developed in such a way as to reduce the risk and cost of future operations? In manufacturing, there’s a concept called “continual improvement”. Basically the idea is that in a healthy system, you should be continually reducing scrap rate, increasing efficiency, decreasing lead time, etc. I think the idea of continual improvement is a good one for space development as well. A healthy and effective national space program would be one that is continually investing a sizable chunk of its public funds into creating or promoting the creation of new technologies, techniques, infrastructures, and markets that make future operations (manned and unmanned) less expensive, lower risk, higher payback etc.

To me the difference between the idea of continual improvement and Griffin’s idea of sustainability is the difference between innovation and inertia.

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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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5 Responses to Sustainability

  1. Randy Campbell says:

    I posted this over at TransTerrestrial but it seems more appropriate, (and much more likley to get a response :o) here so forgive the ‘spam’ but:

    “Sustainability” and the idea of LEO/L-X infrastructure as well as “expanded” manned presence in space seems to be the theme of most of the discussion on how the VSE/ESAS should be run by NASA, but I’m a bit confussed as to how this ‘applies’ the argument since it wasn’t what Congress has been telling NASA to do and much as I loved the concept of the VSE Congress has never been really ‘open’ to advancing manned space flight and even less so allowing NASA to do it.

    I’ve often heard that NASA has “failed” the VSE and “defied” the Presidents mandates etc. My difficulty with this though is while the President can (and did) present suggestions for goals and programs for NASA he has no power what-so-ever to actually assign NASA tasks, approve or disapprove financial or materials resources or programs all that being Congress’ duty being overall in charge of line-by-line authorization and mission direction of NASA.

    Since it is Congress that has specifically forbidden any development of technology or programs that can “directly” relate to sending people to Mars it would stand to reason that they would also oppose NASA participation in any activity that would expand manned space flight into LEO or beyond wouldn’t it?

    If someone can give me a more indepth explination or set me straight I’d appreciate it, but right at this moment I have to agree with:
    “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’ then is Congress the opposite of Progress?”


  2. Jon Goff says:

    I’d be really surprised if Congress were to block funding for any activity that would expand “manned spaceflight into LEO or beyond”. It’s a completely different situation from Mars exploration. Most congressmen see Mars exploration as a hugely expensive open-ended commitment with very little in near-term benefit to be had. Funding technologies that help make space cheaper and safer, and that expand commercial spaceflight throughout cislunar space could be sold on a completely different basis. First off, unlike a Mars mission, there are real near-term markets that could be stimulated by the activity. Second, if done correctly, it can make it easier to do more capable unmanned exploration as well, which might be appealing to science sorts. I could go on.

    But basically I think there’s fundamental differences between what I’m proposing and a flags-and-footprints Mars expedition, which is what Congress was trying to block funding for.


  3. gravityloss says:

    This is self-advertisement, but I blogged on how even this politics and funding interest group game can be boiled down by analysis and has been done by Lunar Base Quarterly.


  4. gravityloss says:

    I think it’s a good way of putting it: possibility for continual improvement, and I totally and completely agree with you on this one.

  5. Habitat Hermit says:

    [Happened to spot this here first rather than over at Rand’s so I’ll post here.]

    About Congress’ “Mars ban” I think it makes sense from another point of view as well; following the VSE timetable. The VSE is pretty much structured on a “do this first then you can do that” basis and what Congress said (as I’ve understood it) is that NASA is banned from doing anything that relates solely to humans on Mars i.e. parts of the VSE they shouldn’t be thinking about until they’ve done Luna.

    Perhaps it was merely accidental, I can’t say for sure either way.

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