Unburying the lede

The idea: How each step we explore beyond Earth can only happen if the previous step gets cheaper.

I must back-track and unbury the lede from my previous post. Especially as we start the new year and NASA’s budget continues at 2021 levels for 2022 (in beltway-talk, congress passed a “continuing resolution.“) This idea, in the figure above, shows how each step we explore beyond Earth can only happen if the previous step gets cheaper. Much cheaper. (I’m told this is the lede I buried.)

This idea rests on the NASA budget for context. If lower costs are the picture, NASA’s budget is the frame, or the straitjacket, depending on your view. If NASA’s budget only goes up a little every year, the cost of getting to Earth orbit must drop before going further. Else, where did the funds for the next step come from? The idea repeats, a step beyond the Moon is possible only after living and working on the Moon is so much more affordable than at first.

Otherwise, plans to go into deep space will be like asking directions and being told, “you can’t get there from here.”

Living and working in space is a step in the middle, as we have done since November 2000 at the International Space Station. Each step, getting to orbit, and staying there, must get cheaper to free up resources to go further. Otherwise, plans to go into deep space will be like asking directions and being told, “you can’t get there from here.”

All the while, NASA’s budget has seemingly shot up like a rocket. But take the red pill, get your location, and it has actually gone down. Inflation really is a thing, after all. Yet even this view is generous. There are holes aplenty in assuming the cost of a constant set of NASA-ish aerospace goods, parts, services, research, and technology have gone up over time only as little as the official NASA inflation index says. Nonetheless, even using the (optimistic) official NASA inflation index, NASA’s purchase power has declined by about a fifth since 1995 (actually 21%, to be accurate.)

Graph showing the NASA budget since 1995 by area of investment/program. The NASA budget since 1995 has lost 21% of its purchasing power. Look at another way, if the 1995 budget had kept up with inflation as reflected in NASA's own inflation tables, this year's $23 billion dollar budget would be $29 billion.
The NASA budget since 1995 has lost 21% of its purchasing power. Looked at another way, if the 1995 budget had kept up with inflation as reflected in NASA’s own inflation tables, this year’s $23 billion dollar budget would be $29 billion.

There are different paths to making the cost of each physical step drop dramatically, from getting to Earth’s orbit to going further in relevant timeframes. (What feels like relevance being another matter.) But first, to be clear, these are costs dropping to NASA, a limited form of a much bigger question. Second, simply diverting budget resources away from one step to the next would look nearly identical in the budget graph. And therein lies the rub, as jumping ahead must be accompanied by another question – how best do we sustain our leap outward as we explore?

Here, the Earth orbit economy is strong and makes life better for people on Earth, from new medicines to materials.

In one path, innovative public and private investments assure costs drop in steps to the left (getting to orbit, staying there). At the extreme, costs (and so prices) drop so much that NASA can do even more in low Earth orbit for a fraction of what it once spent. In this model, NASA might have dozens of its astronaut researchers in rotation one day, getting there so cheap and staying aboard private space stations as more of a scheduling issue than a matter of budgets. Prior development, public (NASA) and private, can make this future a reality, conceivably soon. If a decade is soon anyway. The budget graph would look like the figure above, and it’s easy to see the staying power behind each step. Here, the Earth orbit economy is strong and makes life better for people on Earth, from new medicines to materials. Once maintained by a thin thread back to Earth, the outposts are now towns with diverse, robust connections and supply lines.

Alternately, there is the outward dash. Here the idea every step must cost less along the way outward transforms into “we will spend less on each step.” A military strategist will relate, considering how to grab the far-off target of value so quickly, with such surprise, that there is no need to secure the rear or strengthen your supply lines along the way. You are moving too fast to stop and reinforce steps along the way anyway. That is until you pause to figure out how to hold on to your gains. This strategy also assumes speed, so the outward dash is not overcome by events – an inevitable outcome if moving too slow. (Or so much for the dash part of the outward dash.)

For sure, NASA will get a new budget for 2022 – and the inside baseball will soon be about “carry-over” (of dollars, into 2023) and other tricks. And only time will tell if this idea about steps getting cheaper –as a requirement– is really so, as stated. But, for now, the optimists among us will see a budget half full and the strategy to match. 

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