NASA’s human spaceflight strategy, sustainability and growth

The reward is everyone’s ability to go further.

It’s not every day you are told your choices are not yours alone. Last year’s 2020 Space Council report did just this. NASA’s deep space exploration and the US commercial space sector are linked. The report was clear, a commercial space economy is “necessary” for NASA’s deep space presence to be sustainable after any first steps.

“This vision begins with a campaign to utilize Earth’s orbital environment, the surface of the Moon, and cis-lunar space to develop the critical technologies, operational capabilities, and commercial space economy necessary for a sustainable human presence n the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

Space Council 2020

A discussion about growth follows naturally the moment the word “economy” is in the fray.

Put another way, ambitious NASA missions happen to the degree prior steps flourish to where NASA can be one of many customers for those prior steps. Then NASA can move out – further. Inversely, a NASA focus on only its immediate mission, without space industry economic growth, substitutes a poor assumption, that its NASA’s budgets that grow instead. And not just grow, but grow significantly. This view is not new – that NASA human space exploration plans succeed if every step along the way drops its costs significantly once complete, freeing up budget resources for the next steps. (Jeff Greason captured this perfectly in 2011.)

Putting aside over-parsing the Space Council’s words and intent, the seed of a valuable idea persists – that when NASA human spaceflight acts as an investment to grow the non-NASA space sector, NASA can move on, becoming one of many customers for the earlier capabilities it helped create. NASA invests then reaps the reward. The reward is not just other’s economic benefit, a spin-off or a new technology – it’s the ability for NASA to move on.

Describing space sector growth is one thing, the eloquent phrasing of Marburger or Sagan. Quantifying growth is another matter, a discussion about economics, costs, budget prospects, all to connect just why a vision of many people on the Moon alongside a handful of government personnel is a necessity for those first steps to be sustained. If our vision is humans as a spacefaring civilization, but plans only go as far as first steps, we should feel obligated to fill in what joins the vision with the plan.

NASA usually remains an arms-length away from the concept of broad economic growth. Plans are linear “campaigns”, a lander, then a rover. Economic impacts are justified as the after-glow of spending in a sector or technology. More recently, NASA plans for LEO commercialization and private orbital platforms address growth in LEO human space activity. Here we move away from the notion that something new means stopping one investment to place resources elsewhere – in defense terms, strengthening your rear and maintaining your supply line.

The “off-books” concept

I propose an underlying quantifiable concept to reinforce and help understand how NASA missions can be thought of in terms of in broad economic investments. This begins by favoring partners and directions that grow non-NASA business. The quantifiable concept relies on S-curves. S-curves are among the first concepts we dive into in engineering, biology, math and economics. An S-curve represents growth over time (in calculus the integral or area under the curve). If the cumulative amount measured is an S-curve, that something is growing (say household product adoption of cell phones).

NASA’s budget is not growing along an S-curve – by definition no federal agencies budgets will ever do so. It’s inevitable that any vision growing human space activity is “off-book”. This is not about resources going un-reported. Rather, it’s in a way that reflects an investor and an industry. NASA has always played a critical role at the start of space sector S-curves, skipping from curve to curve like jumping from rock to rock to get to the other side of a very wide river – a river the scale of our solar system. The leap here is to where this concept becomes a driver of investment, the “necessary” part, a purposeful approach.

The NASA budget represented as a line increasing slightly year over year, left to right, with S-curves representing other market and dollar growth above that line growing much more rapidly. Credit: Edgar Zapata,
S-curves beget more S-curves, growth leaving behind capability to build more. Credit: Edgar Zapata,

Post-it note idea about S-curves. Credit: Edgar Zapata,
Because it’s time I got to that post-it note – a more rigorous analysis for another day – not just thinking outside the box, but eliminating it, to get sand-charts of budgets to add up with fantastic results.

Many investors will try to climb those S-curves (SpaceX, Chinese companies, small launch and satellite start-ups). The connecting tissue between visions, spacefaring, thousands of people, “incorporate the solar system into our economic sphere”, and numbers, funds, SPACs, or budgets, is really rather clear. These are exciting times. The challenge awaits – investments making each step along the way a market of many, so the reward is everyone’s ability to go further.

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