There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few days about OSTP Director John Marburger’s speech at the recent Goddard Memorial Symposium, but there were a couple of good points that I felt deserved repetition, and I also had a few thoughts I would like to add.
One of the memes that John started two years ago is the concept of extending our nation’s economic sphere throughout the Solar System. Early on in his speech, referring to the thriving commercial satellite market, John states that “Humanity has succeeded in incorporating Low and Geostationary Earth orbit in its economic sphere.” While I think he’s basically right, I’d just point out that LEO and GEO are still only on the fringes of our economic sphere. While there are a couple of (very large and profitable) niches that have been exploited in spite of the immature state of existing earth-to-orbit transportation systems, none of these markets really have succeeded in catalyzing further demand for other services in LEO and GEO. While lots of money is being made, and lots of useful services are being provided, we still have a long way to go before I’d really state that LEO and GEO are firmly within mankind’s “economic sphere”.
The most important idea from this speech is found in the next paragraph:
If we are serious about this, then our objective must be more than a disconnected series of missions, each conducted at huge expense and risk, and none building a lasting infrastructure to reduce the expense and risk of future operations. If we are serious, we will build capability, not just on the ground but in space. And our objective must be to make the use of space for human purposes a routine function.
He amplified this point a few paragraphs later:
Exploration that is not in support of something else strikes me as somehow selfish and unsatisfying, and not consistent with the fact that we are using public funds for this enterprise, no matter how small a fraction of the total budget they may be.
If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons.
I think that though this may not have been his intention, these quotes highlight most of my current frustration with NASA’s current approach to executing the Vision for Space Exploration. Having NASA develop its Constellation architecture means that 20 years from now, it will be just as hard for a commercial entity to get to the moon as it would be if Constellation was cancelled tomorrow. Nothing that is being done “reduces the risk or expense of future operations” or “makes the use of space for human purposes a routine function.” I’m glad that at least someone is trying to tie this all back to actual benefit to the nation. I’m also glad that John pointed out that the whole “NASA only spends less than 1% of the federal budget” line does not give NASA carte blanche to spend that money however it darned well pleases. That money is supposed to be spent in a way that furthers the national interest, preferably in a way that makes space more accessible for everyone.
Now, NASA isn’t completely neglecting its responsibility to help reduce the risk and expense of future commercial, defense, and NASA operations. They are doing such things as COTS and Centennial Challenges. And people in power seem to be finally wising-up to the idea that COTS is the only real hope for reducing the gap, and the only way to economically services the ISS once the Shuttle is finally retired. But I do think that it’s a big negative mark that the vast majority of the money NASA will spend over the next decade on Constellation has nothing to do with making the moon easier for everyone to access in the future.
There’s been talk from NASA and some of their less discerning fanboys of a “Lunar COTS”. Basically the idea is to waste $100-120B on using Constellation to setup a small ISS on the Moon, and then once its there start paying commercial entities to service said base. This creates an interesting situation. Since NASA won’t have done anything for over a decade to help make it easier for commercial entities to actually service the moon, they’ll either have to keep sustaining the base themselves while they spend the money to belatedly help develop that commercial capability. Or, if the commercial market has independently created that capability anyhow, that NASA base will likely be only a small niche market in the cislunar space. The smart thing to do would be to start finding ways to develop or promote those commercial capabilities from the start. Things like funding research or sponsoring prizes for fielding the technologies needed for propellant depots. Acting as a customer for commercial services especially on-orbit propellants. Acting as a better customer for commercially attained lunar environmental data. Finding ways to promote translunar tourism and eventually lunar orbital (or Lagrange point) stations. Finding ways consistent with federal laws to act as an anchor tenant, to champion these new technologies, to fund demonstrator missions, and even to put money aside in escrow for being a leading customer for these new capabilities.
For a short duration before Griffin got in as NASA’s administrator, NASA was actually acting in a way to more fully fulfill mandate to “promote commercial as well as international participation “to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.” Under the guidance of O’keefe and Steidle, NASA setup several billion dollars worth of “Human and Robotic Technologies” research to help develop and field the technologies that would allow it to more effectively achieve its exploration goals. It was set to operate its exploration architecture in a way to leverage to the maximum extent possible existing and future commercial capabilities. To act as though NASA can’t do that is to ignore the fact that that was its very plan up until Griffin took the reins.
I guess the question boils down to what Marburger said: do we intend to extend humanity’s economic sphere of influence to include the rest of the Solar System?
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