NASA, Moon to Mars, and the predictably likely and unlikely

No one was buying it. It’s the moment after NASA’s Constellation Moon program awaited someone saying the time of death, but before the same offices circled the wagons to defend something, anything, preserving parts of the soon-to-end Shuttle program. One of our first points noted our work was officially sanctioned. Not that the Secretary wouldn’t later disavow any knowledge of our actions.

We presented a path forward. Inside that path were assorted variations. A different rocket. Different arrangements. More optimism. More pessimism. The visuals were “sand charts” – these particular ones infamous for trying to fit all the sand, the project costs, inside pretty average NASA budget outlooks. There were no rose-colored glasses here. The team’s charter emphasized thinking inside the box, the budget box, that is. Keeping projects well inside the green box overlay, like a missile lock, meant we would likely hit our target. Likely. Ambitious space projects and their outcomes are never guaranteed, but what is likely, with difficulties, should beat the improbable or the impossible. Or so we thought.

Our look ahead did not assume budgets went up much at all. On this, we were miserly about NASA’s prospects and the generosity of Congress. We avoided the peanut butter spread of effort over so many years as to beg for irrelevance. The longer your projects take, the probability of being overcome by events approaches one.

We also shared our disclaimers about the technical uncertainties sure to cause problems. But more so, “non-technical” matters ate at the heart of the proposed direction. Technology and engineering are often the least of your concerns. Still, the umpteenth versions of the future fit inside the budget boxes nicely, with results sooner rather than later. Eyes wide open, we knew a large ship does not turn on a dime. Even so, we learned highly improbable wins out over likely but difficult when the highly improbable path is easier in the near term.

A longer view will not be so optimistic, recognizing recent years as the seven fat cows, knowing the dream has a sequel.

It’s now May of 2023. We hear NASA landing people on the Moon in 2025 is, what would be the phrase – improbable. Well, highly unlikely.

As NASA also announced a partnership with Blue Origin for a second lunar lander, it remains a winning bet to say all Moon to Mars costs must fit into mundane budgets. You might assume many good years with generous budget increases, but you should also bet these will always be less than inflation. A longer view will not be so optimistic, recognizing recent years as the seven fat cows, knowing the dream has a sequel. Another good bet is we see the occasional spurt of budget growth. Treat this as an exception, not a rule. Lastly, throw in a few bad years when the NASA budget drops. Just to keep things interesting.

As storytelling goes, and I’ve seen this first hand, all this talk about budgets and costs and – yawn – loses the audience. Are you still reading this? Eyeballs roll back in heads further than I believed physically possible. Talking about the technology, from rockets to spaceships to missions fitting inside budgets, or the commercial growth outside the budget box, gets you people excusing themselves to take a call.

Yet none of this was really about “sand charts” – proving 10 pounds won’t fit in a 3-pound bag. Or finding the 3-pounds that did the job better but no one wanted.

One of many “sand charts” – call them alternate history short stories. From “NASA Human Spaceflight Scenarios, Do All Our Models Still Say ‘No’?” Edgar Zapata, AIAA, 2017.

While criticism of NASA often mentions analysis paralysis, the opposite, analysis avoidance, is the pendulum swinging all the other way. One day, the gods tell me they “don’t think there’s any advantage to having a real plan.” (A few years earlier, this sense was essentially out there.) This line evolves as we are told the following year that NASA will save money by not knowing (or helping anyone figure out) what a lunar mission will cost.

Even as SpaceX launches once a week, the world could use another competitor doing the same. For any Boeing, there must be an Airbus.

NASA now possesses a colossally diverse portfolio in human spaceflight. This contrasts starkly with the relatively monolithic Shuttle or Shuttle/ISS periods through 2011. There are now investments in private space stations for what comes after the International Space Station. NASA will one-day “rent” rooms in these (though the initiative struggles to gather budget dollars.) Then, if you want and need NASA to become one of many customers, other investments are looking at production and applications in low Earth orbit – the goods and services taking place at the private space stations. Supply, meet demand. We also have the SpaceX and Blue Origin lunar landers. These require in-space refueling for lunar exploration – the technology so centric to our alternate histories long ago. This means refueling tankers and refueling stations (the once-verboten propellant depots) – so more spaceships. There are space suits, of course. And we also get a Gateway lunar space station due to limitations on the Orion crewed spacecraft. To top it off, we have investments in small commercial lunar landers – with three small companies set to deliver NASA instruments to the Moon this year.

This portfolio (similarly in the NASA Science side of the house) stretches out inside budgets now bemoaned as insufficient. In the days of force-fitting spaceships into NASA budgets, we knew that overcoming limitations first meant understanding them. If you want to get out of a budget box, you must accept you are in one – long term. The increasing use of commercial public-private partnerships indirectly admits the NASA budget box exists. Our inconvenient math years ago was, at the time, a bridge too far, moving most of NASA’s space transportation into commercial services. (Otherwise, our reply to anyone asking for directions was you can’t get there from here.) But the additional commercial moves to date are likely not far enough.

Even as SpaceX launches once a week, the world could use another competitor doing the same. For any Boeing, there must be an Airbus. And onward, from transportation to space, to transports in space, to staying in space.

This was never about the space systems first or only. This was about the box. It is always advantageous to accept and understand budget realities and continue trying to overcome them. Denial is not a strategy. Even if you’ve been given your marching orders (by Congress or the Whitehouse) to simply try and make do, there is no need to actively avoid self-awareness.

This is a sea change – from being told that “commercial” for cargo to the ISS was not a model for more projects.

The path a dedicated NASA team proposed over a decade ago centered on in-space refueling, partnerships,  commercial services, and favoring partners committed to growing non-NASA business. Today, refueling is back where its advocacy was once labeled unproductive. NASA also continues adding commercial partnerships to its plans for lunar exploration. This is a sea change – from being told that “commercial” for cargo to the ISS was not a model for more projects. Now we have many such NASA partnerships. Add another one to the list this last week.

Suppose we want to have increasing numbers of people and goods going back and forth between Earth and space, and increasing numbers of people continuously working and living in space. Suppose we want to increasingly include the solar system in Earth’s economic sphere. This will be “off books” – outside of NASAs budgets. This will not show up in the sand charts. But this will come about by first accepting the NASA budget box for what it is, not by waiting for a messianic moment of congressional largesse. Accepting too that while Congress may not be on board with all this, it’s amazing to see the latitude NASA has found so far.

So – a working assumption (an old one): NASA human spaceflight and space exploration will advance to the degree a non-NASA economy of people and products in space grows. Join this to a clear-eyed acceptance of budget limitations. Avoid analysis avoidance. Yes, sand charts can be productive. Find more  – latitude – to fund projects with an eye to non-NASA space sector growth, while also meeting NASA mission needs. Who knows, we may meet with success sooner rather than later, before being overcome by events entirely. The alternative? Well, there will always be budgets to blame.

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