How space policy can successfully meet up with space projects

To talk about NASA space exploration as policy, intersecting budgets as resources, is to witness a repeating crash between what and how. A step removed as the children of policy, plans are in one car and rarely strapped in. Projects, over inside the budget, are distracted checking texts. This might sound like an acutely pessimistic view, except that the evidence is there when we look. It turns out rocket science about getting to low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond is unforgiving of inconsistency, even as it offers a way forward with learning and innovation. This is clear when space exploration is seen as mere distances, the steps as we learn about our solar system coming along in sequence, with no skipping to jump to the head of the line.

Getting my bearings is how my first months passed at NASA. This branch is inside which division, inside which directorate inside which program? This valve pressurized or unpressurized, opens or closes which larger valve, connected to which stretch of the manifold? Where is that conference with the room numbering set by someone with too much time on their hands? Above all, if I am in operations, who did the development, and before that the research? It took a while to realize we had development with a small “d” and Development with a big “D,” the difference between trying, like Pinocchio, to become a real boy and actually getting the magic wand of approval. The figure below shows the connection between R&d, Development, and Operations in this view. Except the figure is close to “not even wrong,” if also a bit shy of “useful for congressional visits day.”

A simple, if overly simplistic, view of NASA spaceflight research feeding development, feeding eventual operational systems.
A simple, if overly simplistic, view of NASA spaceflight research feeding development, feeding eventual operational systems. Fixed, steady levels of each investment over time are shown, but this is not the case in practice.

Time was the missing element in getting my bearings about how operations was a step along a path in NASA coming from development and research. This seems obvious, and yet that was also part of the problem. Once an answer seems obvious, it stops further inquisition. Still, realizing a truism, there are worthwhile detours, like the debates about the technology valley of death. The difficulty of adopting research as part of a project’s go-to plan is stymied by the paradox of a project wanting innovation, to sell itself as improved, but not wanting innovation, to sell itself as low risk. Being the successor to what came before was a careful balancing act between wanting new and improved, minus the new. Yet worthwhile a detour as this might be, the time-relationship between research, development, and operations was really about much more. In the end, there is no way around “improved” – not just on performance, but on costs.

“You get to go to the next step when NASA funds free up from the previous step getting cheaper.”

This is not a new observation, but it’s still rare. Jeff Greason eloquently observed back in 2011, “for settlement to take place, NASA $$ required for each human being off the Earth must constantly decrease” (bold/italics by Greason). The view finally connects time and space. We must get to low Earth orbit before we go to the Moon. Or, with just a tad more energy, we skip by the Moon and go orbit Mars (albeit a much longer trip where you will need a proper spaceship, not just a spacecraft.) Each step is jumping from rock to rock to get across a river with no way to skip any stone. Physics is like that. But any step forward in space must be built on the journey to the previous rock becoming much cheaper over time. If your trip to low Earth orbit is still too expensive, you can only imagine your bill for the journey to Mars. For a budget going up a little over time, the figure below shows the mechanics of this relationship for NASA. You get to go to the next step when NASA funds free up from the previous step getting cheaper.

This is not the NASA budget, but it does show how getting to LEO, the Moon or Mars, and beyond is possible when having gotten as far as one step, that step gets ever cheaper, enabling the next step. As it becomes more affordable to get to Earth orbit, funds are freed up to remain in orbit, and to work on going beyond, in cis-lunar space. Then, as it gets cheaper to operate in cis-lunar space, funds are freed up to go beyond, to Mars, and so on. Inversely, if getting to Earth orbit consumes all your resources, you have none to go further, and so on. Credit: Edgar Zapata, zapatatalksnasa.com

It’s easy to say this entire notion of requiring cheaper steps farther in space, over time, was avoided in the Apollo program. Then, research went in that straight line to operational systems and men on the Moon. Yet our not having returned to the Moon since then is a counterpoint, showing that path is not likely to repeat. Alternately, it’s pointed out how NASA will reduce its needs on steps along the way. In this view, cheaper commercial crew and cargo systems replaced the Space Shuttle; the taxis are not quite as capable as the truck, but they do the trick, and predictably, budget resources shifted to the next steps. The recent NASA push for commercial space stations portends reduced NASA needs, a prelude to budget resources again moved to steps beyond Earth orbit. An optimist will point out that overall capabilities to get to LEO or live and work there will outshine anything to date, only not owned and operated by NASA. Yet within the physics and the costs, NASA does pretty well at one, the private sector in the other. It remains to be seen how, or if, they go forward together.

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