Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NASA's vision--thoughts by Jeff Volosin

Well stated with minor differences.

"Some Thoughts on the NASA Vision"


Jeff Volosin

February 15th, 2010


I mean no disrespect - but - I am tired of listening to Dr. Spudis, Dr. Griffin and all of the other, whiney, Baby Boomer, Cold Warrior, Manifest Destiny driven individuals who are still trying to live out their 1950's childhood dreams - at taxpayer expense.

Like many of you, for the past 25 years, I have played my own minor role in a vibrant NASA. I have watched as NASA has pushed back the limits of robotic exploration of the solar system with ever more complex and capable probes. In addition, I have seen NASA greatly expanded our view of the Earth - helping us better understand how our environment is changing and how human activities and natural processes contribute to that change. In contrast, human spaceflight has, just during my career, driven off a cliff.

Early in my career, there were exciting Shuttle missions, including satellite deployments, satellite repair missions, complex Spacelab missions, and DoD missions that added significantly to our understanding of how humans could best contribute to NASA and national goals. And then, human exploration drove into a 30 year, $100 billion ditch called the ISS - a mission that really never had a clear goal - a mission that always tried to be everything to everyone - a mission that once we got even vaguely close to bringing it to reality - all of a sudden seemed like a giant albatross that was keeping us from more important goals.

Well, guess what, the Vision for Space Exploration and the Constellation Program it spawned is deja vu all over again. We really never had a compelling reason to send humans back to the Moon - no more compelling then the myriad of hollow reasons we had for wanting to build that space station so badly. More than that, we really, really don't have a compelling reason to set up a permanent presence on the lunar surface - we really don't - We just feel compelled to live out the game plan that we all grew up with - the game plan that Dr. von Braun and his colleagues designed in the 1950's - the game plan that fed the science fiction of our childhood - the game plan that involves beating somebody to somewhere (especially beating those darned communists) to prove that we - are the greatest country in the world.

I just imagine 50 years and a few hundred billion dollars from now, that fancy, everything to everyone lunar outpost will be coming together - and - by golly - it will be the next albatross - with all the NASA human spaceflight engineering folks saying, "Come on now - we need to get on to Mars - screw the Moon!" Somehow, between ISS and Constellation, human spaceflight is starting to look a lot like a jobs program for engineers - not a key part of NASA's mission - where just building "it" (e.g., ISS, lunar outpost) is the goal in itself - odd - very odd - and very unsatisfying....

This whole - lunar outpost leading to permanent presence- and then on to Mars - game-plan sounds, at least to me, dated, overly simplistic and no longer relevant to a 21st century world. The originators of this storyline lived long ago. They didn't know how the world would evolve - but - based on their existing knowledge of the cosmos, their available technologies and the existing political environment - they painted a vision where expansion of the United States through the conquering of territory (harkening back to all those Monroe Doctrine slide shows we saw in grade school) and chest beating through technology shownmanship (soft power I guess that is) would supposedly bring our enemies to their knees in awe.

These individuals didn't know how computer and robotic technologies would evolve - how virtual presence would provide large numbers of humans with opportunities to experience all sorts of environments through surrogates - without the need for a human to always be directly involved on the pointy-end of exploration. They just couldn't imagine the world of the 21st century - so - why - why I ask - do we feel obliged to continue to execute the game plan designed all those years ago - we can do better than that!!!

Maybe our (by "our" I mean those of us directly supporting or passionately connected to NASA) problem is that we can't let go of our collective childhood dream. I grew up in a world where trips to Disney's Tomorrowland and stories in Popular Mechanics told me that our destiny was to explore - first the Moon and then Mars. But wait - they also told me that there would be giant cities on the ocean floor someday and that we would all have personnel aircraft in the future instead of cars - of course that would be until the Jetson's technology finally came around and we moved into the clouds - houses on stilts - cruising around in little domed Frisbees - hmmm - maybe all dreams don't particularly need to come true.

Willey Ley, Wernher von Braun, Chesley Bonestell - they wrote it down for me in Collier's magazine - they drew me beautiful pictures of what it would be like - and - humans were always front and center in this vision - well not just humans - Americans. So - in some ways - I hate to shake off this dream as much as anyone - but - would it be sacrilegious to say it - maybe this vision no longer applies to the world that exists in the 21st century.

I enjoyed the old yarn that Dr. Spudis spun regarding how we cede power by deferring implementation of this tired old game plan while others (especially communists and former communists) move methodically toward execution. Reminds me of the stories grandpa used to tell around the dinner table - we had heard them so many times before - but - it always made you feel warm and comfy to hear them again. I'm not sure that the 21st century world is painted in the black and white of the cold war that drives this thinking.

What does it mean to have soft power these days? Well, as an example, we have watched as over the past few decades countries around the world have raced to build taller and taller buildings. We haven't participated in the race, have we ceded soft power in this field where we once dominated? I personally am not worried about the fact that the tallest buildings are no longer in the U.S. In fact, I think it is a bit quaint and kind of silly that some countries are still spending gobs of money on this race to the sky. On the other hand, maybe in the 21st century, there are some areas where we should worry about our soft power.

Here are a few soft power metrics that maybe Americans should be worried about: France generates ~75% of its electrical power through nuclear reactors - we generate ~50% of our electrical power through coal, our infant mortality rate is higher than over 25 other countries, our life expectancy is shorter than over 45 other countries, we are one of the largest debtor nations in the world. Call me odd - but - in a list of 21st century soft power metrics - I don't believe that human spaceflight holds the same treasured place in the world of soft power as it did last time we raced to the Moon (and I don't think that those of us who love NASA - yelling to the rest of the country that human spaceflight is still relevant to soft power - is going to change this situation. It may actually start to make us look a bit dated and foolish). And - hey - in a world of Al Qaeda and an "Axis of Evil" - I am way more worried about "hard" power - rogue states - loose nuclear material - dirty bombs - etc. than I am about soft power - especially soft power as executed through human spaceflight to the Moon (really - say that slowly to yourselves- it does sound a bit silly - doesn't it?).

So - other than doing what that little boy on the back window of my uncle's Ford truck is doing to that Chevy emblem in the lower left corner of the image - what do I propose to substitute for the magical dream of my childhood - a dream developed by the "gods" of space exploration. Well - I propose a renaissance at NASA. Everyone take a deep breath, look at what we do well, look at where we have failed - then - set some clear goals for Space Exploration that address the real technical and political challenges of today. Then, determine, based on our experience, what role humans are best suited for in helping achieve these goals - and - what role robots are best suited to play. I may not have the answers - but - here are some ideas to start the conversation:

1) Bring back Prometheus - except - this time - on steroids (to coin a phrase). Working with DOE and DoD, NASA should push toward developing the most advanced and safest nuclear reactors that the world has ever seen. These reactors would permit development of game-changing planetary probes to revolutionize our understanding of the solar system (OK - they may have some really relevant 21st century spin off applications as well). Imagine applying this technology to a mission to send a giant, multi-megawatt robotic submarine crashing through the ice on Enceladus to explore its ocean (warning: please don't spin this into a yarn about the need for Ares 5 - autonomous rendezvous and docking really isn't that hard - so - multiple launches of an existing heavy lifter - would be just fine).

Imagine using advanced optical communications technologies to send back high definition video of this event so that people around the world can watch the story as it unfolds (OK - a little time delayed - but - you know what I mean). Now that's exploration that will make other nations take notice - people will be glued to their TVs around the world - with one common thought - wow - those Americans kick-butt - soft power galore....

2) Set up a series of robotic base-camps on Mars. Working in conjunction with other nations, set up base-camps where rovers can be serviced and repaired by other robots (now there is a job for Robonaut!). Base-camps where the caching of interesting samples can be centralized and where robotically operated analysis tools can further prioritize samples that require return to Earth for further analysis. These base-camps would also serve as departure/arrival points for sample return missions ferrying samples back to Earth. A few of these camps set up near "areas of interest" on Mars - may be the key to starting a new chapter in our understanding of this planet - and - may help us decide whether some day we might want to send humans to Mars. Again, my premise is - this should no longer be a given - we should send humans to Mars at a point in history where we have a good reason to initiate this investment.

Just because Mars is the closest planet to us that wouldn't crush and fry us - isn't a reason to go there. But - if we pull off a robotic program on this scale - and find some key findings that require human investigation because they are beyond the capabilities of the robots - sending humans would be a great deal simpler at that point since many of the technological challenges related to sending humans to Mars would have been overcome.

3) For those who have a passion for the human explorer. For now, why not focus these astronauts on the one activity that has actually captured the interest of a good number of average Americans - satellite repair. Based on our experiences with the Hubble Space Telescope and other Shuttle based repair missions - and- the construction of the ISS, we are perfectly positioned to be the country that leads the way in developing large human tended satellites of the future for Earth and Space Sciences that can be serviced and expanded over time to increase their data gathering capabilities. We could even react to specific threats (hard power threats) by changing out sensors and components on military satellites as well - creating a much more adaptive system in space than any other country. Going even a step further - with the bazillion satellites sitting in GEO that provide critical communication services - isn't it time to develop a way to repair and upgrade these expensive assets - human ingenuity and creativity would be much more valuable for these tasks compared to robots.

All the other satellite launching nations would want to be involved with NASA's space program if we were the country to establish this capability first (my thought is that this would be way cooler (and way more strategically important from a soft power standpoint) than collecting revenue by charging other countries to fly astronauts on an antiquated Soyuz that was designed over 40 years ago - that really doesn't scare me much). Oh no - I can hear the whining already - humans in Earth orbit - oh no - stuck again. Maybe not stuck - maybe using our experience to execute a human program that optimizes the role of the human for purposes where humans kick butt over robots (new mindset - new vision).

4) Along with this new mission for humans in space - NASA should - for the millionth time - drive toward development of a single-stage-to-orbit capability for crew. Imagine a day where astronauts file a flight plan prior to jumping into their spacecraft (which can be parked on the flight line of any major airport in the country) and take off (in any weather - without the need for a Mission Control) to go up for the day to service a satellite in LEO or GEO or to visit the ISS. Again, highly reactive - mega soft power - maybe even a bit of hard power capability. I don't think that commercial providers are ready to take this step without NASA leading since a great deal of the ideas for getting people into orbit commercially leverage simpler technology solutions developed by NASA many years ago (like a capsule on a rocket).

We all have our dreams - I just shared a few of mine to try to illustrate a point. They may sound too "hard" (especially compared to sticking a capsule on a SRB) - but - that used to be the way that NASA worked - making the impossible happen - day after day. My goal is just to say - it is time for a "Tea Party" at NASA - especially when it comes to the role of human spaceflight. It is time to drag the Agency we all love away from the over-bearing and over-controlling voices of the past. They are trying to lead us down a blind alley - a blind alley that they don't see because their vision is clouded by their childhood dreams.

A NASA for the 21st century is waiting to be defined - let's all try to focus on shaking off that past - and using the creativity, inspiration and capability of the younger generations of this Agency and this country - to go boldy - and I mean boldy - into the future.

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