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Making NASA Great Again

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Posted February 6, 2017

It was made public recently that Representative Jim Bridenstine has informed the Trump transition team that he is seeking to be the next NASA Administrator.[1]  This tremendously positive news as Rep. Bridenstine is a visionary individual who has shared his enthusiasm and vision via the American Space Renaissance Act and his Congressional blog of “Why the Moon Matters.”  In fact, I was contacted by his office late last year and provided them with a White Paper which forms the basis of this article.  Mr. Charlie Bolden, the current NASA Administrator has done an amazing and honorable job of leading the agency through many years.  Like myself, those that have had the privilege of working with, meeting or knowing him universally describe him as a stellar individual.

In the fifty-eight years since its inception, NASA has lost its agency-wide focus on exploration and cutting-edge aerospace research.  In order for America to regain and reassert its position as the world’s preeminent space-faring nation, a number of changes are warranted.  When President Trump nominates Rep. Bridenstine for this role, he will hit the ground running and it will be a tremendous step forward into a bright and exciting future for NASA.

National Space Policy Council

The National Space Policy Council was dissolved in 1993 during the administration of President George H. W. Bush.  The National Space Policy Council should be reinstituted, to help guide and author policy and chartered with developing a cohesive, visionary and integrated U.S. space policy.  I recommend that it be chaired by the Vice President. The Council should have four components or focus areas; NASA for space exploration, Commercial, Military, and International Partnerships.  A coherent vision and space policy will also assure help to ensure that our tax payer’s dollars are not spent on wasteful and/or duplicative efforts.  It is the stuff of science fiction but the threat is real – asteroids and meteors are known threats to our planet.  Once reestablished, the National Space Council should commission a small working group for to assess this threat and formulate ideas for planetary defense.  Addressing this future threat would profitably advance science and technology.

NASA’s Mission and Focus

Since the Apollo Program, the lack of a focused NASA mission, proper metrics for success and return on investment have resulted in an agency with a bloated,[2][3] inefficient management structure.[4][5][6]  Additionally, some say that the NASA culture has become risk adverse,[7] prone to requirements creep with frequent schedule slips and increased costs.

Crafting an inspiring and focused NASA mission that will last and be the best path to space exploration is in order.  Capturing inspiring stretch goals in NASA’s highest level mission statement serves to focus NASA’s talent, energy and inspire our nation.  In order for NASA to have an inspiring, singular, agency-wide focus and mission a possible new mission statement for NASA should be:

“Deep space exploration and advanced aeronautics.”

The challenges inherent in space exploration and initial colonization will necessarily drive science and engineering developments, discoveries, new intellectual property (IP) and progress with resulting spin-offs and returns on investment (ROI) to benefit our nation and “all humankind.[8]

Earth Science and Education

As a nation we are already making tremendous investments[9] in science with visionary leadership and important work from diverse organizations such as the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), Center for Disease Control (CDC), Dept of Energy (DOE), US Dept of Agriculture (USDA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to name a few.  Therefore, areas of NASA science efforts that do not support exploration, hypersonics or aviation should be transferred, with their funding, to other organizations.

Presently significant investments are being made in NASA’s Earth Science and Education programs and efforts.  Unfortunately, these missions and responsibilities dilute NASA’s focus.

NASA’s is asking for $2.03B for Earth Science in its FY2017 Budget Request.[10]  This work and funding should be moved to NOAA where the earth science mission and objectives would be more closely aligned and in support of the overall agency mission and objectives.  NOAA is better suited to the study of Earth Science and climate change while integrating those areas with its other focus areas.

In FY2016 NASA spent $115M on Education and is asking for $100.1M in its FY2017 Budget Request.[11]  The NASA Education mission and funding should be transferred and the U.S. Department of Education.  Moving NASA’s Earth Science to NOAA and the NASA’s Education to the U.S. Dept of Education will help NASA focus and help to streamline a bloated organizational structure.

A singular focus on space exploration, first steps:

We should use a lunar polar location as a testing and proving ground for our Mars exploration plans and then go to Mars.  To accomplish this robotic spacecraft should be developed and used to pre-position habitation modules (Habs), supplies, and systems on the moon.  Robotics, not humans, would be used for the assembly, testing, and operations of these systems.  We would use telemetry to monitor the tasks and assembly performances of building the exploration test site.  Robotic assets could also look for other materials which could be useful for additive manufacturing (3D printing) or other manufacturing methods in an in-situ approach.

The Moon’s poles are desirable to take advantage of the surface ice that was first theorized to exist there from the results of the Clementine mission[12] and further reinforced by results from the Lunar Prospector mission.  We could use the robotics to verify that water (ice) is available at the poles.  If water is obtainable at the poles we should develop and test the technology and systems to produce rocket propellant (RP) in the form of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOX) from water at the poles.  This technology and proof of concept then are a stepping stone for RP production on Mars, whether or not the RP manufactured on Mars is liquid hydrogen & LOX or liquid methane & LOX.

Following this vision and path, we will ship, assemble, test, learn and evaluate concepts and designs before we go onto Mars.  Basically, build, test and go.  Robotics is necessary to establish a prepared, ready and functioning Mars base before we send our first humans to Mars.

NASA and the U.S. Space Industry, Collaboration not Competition

NASA competition with industry is not healthy nor is it a part of NASA’s charter.  Looking back at the Space Shuttle story provides a historic example and perspective.

Early concept of operations for the Space Shuttle envisioned that the Space Shuttle would operate at 52 missions a year[13] and become the pre-eminent means for low-cost delivery for payloads of all types to low earth orbit (LEO).  In other words, the shuttle was supposed to serve as the primary U.S. launch provider.  This led to the unintended consequences of a multi-decade lull in the investment and development of commercial launch vehicles in the U.S. and the rocket engines to power them.  The results are two-fold, the loss of U.S. leadership as a space-faring nation and that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V expendable launch vehicle requires Russian RD180 engines.

Human rated commercial capsules or lifting bodies such as Sierra Nevada Corporations Dreamchaser, that are launch vehicle agnostic, are a flexible mean to put humans in space.  Similarly, launch vehicle agnostic transport to put robots and hardware on the Moon as a precursor to Mars, are wise investments.

As touched on above, Atlas V launch vehicle requires Russian RD180 engines.  As a space-faring nation, NASA and the U.S. space industry should focus how to best accelerate the development, testing and fielding a number of rocket engines that are made in the U.S.  Having three or more domestic commercially viable launch providers supplementing NASA’s SLS, with multiple options for the US made engines, serves our national security space and commercial space needs and supports a more cost-effective space exploration program.

A number of very promising US made rocket engines are in development.  In no particular order, the engines in development are the SpaceX Raptor (methane-LOX), Blue Origin’s BE-4 and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1.  The BE-4 and AR1 are compatible with the Atlas V and potentially also with ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle which is currently in development.  How could NASA collaborate with the U.S. space industry to accelerate the development, testing, certification and manufacture of these and future rocket engines?

A colleague and former employee of mine, Mr. Don Kaderbek, is presently the Senior Manager for Test and Integration with SpaceX at their engine development and test facility in McGregor, Texas.  Don and I frequently discuss the U.S. space industry, NASA and the issues and challenges they face.  In discussing the SpaceX Raptor engine and launch vehicles we brainstormed how promising developments such as these could be accelerated.  We believe an innovative opportunity exists for NASA collaboration with industry include using the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) with its staff, manufacturing expertise, and facilities for accelerated production of these new commercial engines and launch vehicles.  Additionally, the NASA Stennis Space Center has tremendous capabilities and investments in rocket engine test stands[14] such as the A-3 test stand[15] that could be used to accelerate the testing of these new “made in the USA” rocket engines.  Presently the MAF and its approximately 400 staff are being used by NASA for SLS assembly and production.

Charles Camarda, Ph.D. and Astronaut is presently the Senior Advisor for Engineering Development at NASA Langley Research Center and he has also contributed to this white paper development.  Charlie and I were in the same Astronaut Class and it was Charlie’s tremendous knowledge and expertise in materials science and dogged determination that led to the breakthrough and determination of the root cause of the loss of STS-107 and our friends.  Dr. Camarda recommends, and I concur, that the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama should focus on basic and applied research to support the next generation of rocket engines, cryogenic tankage, robotic in-space servicing and refueling of satellites.

International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) currently consumes a reported $3B[16] a year.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in January of 2015 stated that “The world of low-Earth orbit belongs to Industry….If we don’t have a viable, vibrant low-Earth orbit infrastructure supported by them [commercial industry], we’re not getting there [Mars],[17][18]”  On August 20, 2016, commercialization[19] of the ISS was discussed by the NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, Mr. Bill Hill.

Extrapolating and taking these points a step further then, NASA should relegate low earth orbit (LEO) and cis-lunar space to our aggressive, innovative and capable commercial space industry.  This would allow NASA to focus on exploration.

The ISS itself is in LEO.  If NASA is already considering the commercialization of the ISS, what then are possible alternatives for the administration and operation of the ISS?  In 2011 NASA wisely chose[20] the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to the sole manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory.  Turning the administration and operation of the ISS over to a civic/private entity[21] with the primary goal of operating the ISS as our first spaceport could facilitate the commercialization of LEO and exploration missions.  This would free up the ISS operations part of the annual NASA budget for exploration out of low earth orbit.  CASIS should continue to manage science aboard the ISS under a future civic/private entity for administration and operations.

Hypersonics

To help counter the emerging threats of Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons NASA should partner with the DoD and industry.  One option is that both NASA and the DoD through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)work together and conduct focused basic and applied research.  A second option would be for the government to fund industry to do the work through contract research and development (CRAD).

NASA should continue to support the current and future needs of aviation, as its predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) did.  Recommended areas of investment include developments that may support the FAA’s NextGen program, managing the tsunami of drones and UAVs within our airspace, autonomous flight capabilities, nondestructive testing for metal and composite aircraft and the list goes on.

NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC)

The NESC was created to address the agency’s lack of a strong program-independent resource to provide programs with an alternate perspective on difficult technical issues.[22]  The safety advocate and watchdog functions of the NESC were part of its original charter and focus as established by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).  However, as detailed in Astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda’s white paper on this subject, the NESC may have gravitated away from being an independent safety advocate at NASA.[23]  It is worthwhile to note that Dr. Camarda was serving as the NESC Deputy Director for Advance Projects at the time in August of 2007.

Either the NESC needs leadership and organizational change or perhaps the taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth from this organization?  An analysis should be considered as to whether a commercial organization, under contract, could provide more effective independent safety and engineering review and advocate functions at a lower cost.  The conclusions and recommendations from that future analysis should be reported to the NASA Administrator for decision and action.

Recommendations:    

1. Reestablish the National Space Policy Council with a focus on NASA, Commercial U.S. space industry, Department of Defense (DoD) and International Partnerships.

2. Refocus NASA:

A. Change NASA’s mission to “Deep space exploration and advanced aeronautics.”

B. Move Earth Science from NASA to NOAA.

C. Move NASA’s Education programs to the Department of Education.

3. NASA out of low earth orbit (LEO) and onto space exploration: This should be pursued through the human exploration and colonization of space via a step-wise, affordable approach that optimizes technology developments of value beyond human presence.  Specifically, start with robotic lunar missions to a lunar pole for proof of concept and technology maturation prior Mars missions.

4. Support and collaboration with industry not competition:

A. Accelerate the development, manufacture, and operation of U.S. made rocket engines.

B. NASA basic and applied research in hypersonics and other areas to support our national interests (defense), space exploration and aviation.

5. International Space Station (ISS) administration and operations could be turned over to a future civic/private entity with science aboard the ISS continuing under the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). NASA budget savings could then be applied to exploration.

The NASA Engineering and Safety Center was established following the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) conclusions and recommendations.  The NESC may not be adequately addressing its function as an independent safety and engineering organization for NASA.  This should be studied and if determined to be true, alternatives to resolve this should be brought forward to the NASA Administrator.

Special thanks to contributors and editors to the White Paper and this article:  Mr. Scott Rayder, Senior Advisor to the President at University Corporation for Atmospheric Research & Vice President of the UCAR Foundation, Frank Curran, Ph.D. retired NASA rocket scientist, Mr. Donald Kaderbek, Senior Manager for Test and Integration with SpaceX and Charles Camarda, Ph.D., the Senior Advisor for Engineering Development at the NASA Langley Research Center.

Written by Christopher J. Loria, MPA, Astronaut / Loria Consulting, LLC, [email protected]

[1] https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/317580-jim-bridenstine-for-nasa-administrator

[2]https://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-02-06/news/0302060315_1_space-shuttle-program-challenger-accident-privatizing

[3] Senate Testimony, Oct. 29, 2003, Mr. Rick Tumlinson

[4] https://www.forbes.com/2006/01/18/space-silicon-valley_cz_rk_0118space-talent.html

[5] https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/04/without-nasa-there-would-be-no-spacex-and-its-brilliant-boat-landing/

[6] NASA IG Audit Report IG-12-021, also see https://blogs.nasa.gov/waynehalesblog/2010/01/22/post_1264172421785/, also see https://spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=48222

[7] https://www.thespacereview.com/article/2939/1

[8] NASA was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958.  The NASA vision statement is: “We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.

[9] Numerous government agencies and labs have science within their mission set.  For example, the web site www.science.gov covers over 200 govt. funded diverse science topics from “Advanced Power Reactor Technologies” to “Worms, Fungi and other Primitives”

[10] NASA FY 2017 President’s Budget Request Summary

[11] Ibid

[12] Clementine was a joint project between the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NASA.  Clementine was launched on 25 January 1994 at 16:34 UTC (12:34 PM EDT) from Vandenberg AFB aboard a Titan IIG rocket. After two Earth flybys, lunar insertion was achieved on February 21. Lunar mapping took place over approximately two months, in two parts.

[13] https://www.thespacereview.com/article/2939/1

[14] NASA IG-13-008 – Efforts to Reduce Unneeded Infrastructure and Facilities

[15] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/12/15/nasas-349-million-monument-to-its-drift/

[16] https://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/nasa-ig-iss-cost-u-s-75-billion-so-far-estimates-of-future-costs-overly-optimistic\

[17] https://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/bigelow-aerospace/beam-spacex-bigelows-prototype-habitat-loaded-onto-crs-8-dragon/

[18] https://bigelowaerospace.com/beam/

[19] https://www.neowin.net/forum/topic/1306410-nasa-considers-handing-over-iss-to-a-private-company/

[20] https://www.iss-casis.org/About/AboutCASIS.aspx

[21] Senate Testimony, Oct. 29, 2003, Mr. Rick Tumlinson

[22] https://appel.nasa.gov/2013/10/17/the-nesc-a-decade-of-learning/

[23] White Paper, “A Dissenting Opinion Which Questions the Flight Rationale or All Space Shuttle Flights Post STS-114 and Proposes a Root Cause” Dr. Charles Camarda, Astronaut, Deputy Director for Advanced Projects, NESC, August 2007

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