Plan B for Outer Space


As events unfold, it appears that the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), the President's plan to return humans to the Moon and then onto Mars, is on the classic pride-before-the-fall trajectory. In the spirit of collegial exchanges, I offer the following observations and thoughts for our recovery. To my fellow rocket scientists and space enthusiasts, the time has come let go of last century's space dreams and start working toward a more contemporary future.

Given the evidence and historical patterns, I estimate that the Vision will be abandoned in 1 to 7 years. Even the best scenarios play out like the history of the Space Station: schedule slips, busted budgets (both meanings), pork infestation, and still not able to complete its mission. Don't blame NASA, its supporting aerospace industry, congress, or even the big W. Don't expect them to devise a solution, either. The trends are more deeply ingrained than any bureaucracy can grasp. It is simply history repeating itself. The optimistic flipside is that history is equally replete with successful upstarts taking over when the big boys falter.

For those who don't know, pride before the fall refers to the pattern when mature organizations falter in the face of new challenges. Instead of adapting to contemporary opportunities and constraints, the organizations gut themselves in a last-ditch effort to recapture old glory. Failure becomes evident only when their "new" product fails to garner the expected enthusiasm. That failure is exacerbated when younger organizations step up to answer contemporary needs.

Compare this pattern to NASA and its supporting institutions. Using Mike Griffin's own words, NASA is doing "Apollo on Steroids" (2005). The allusion to falsified enhancements (steroids) is just too poetic to go unmentioned. Now consider the budget realities, which Wesley Huntress Jr. described as "Apollo on food stamps" (2006). To be a bit more specific, funding plans for this Vision were lowballed by roughly a factor of 2-3 (Averaging $2.4B/yr requested versus $6.7B/yr required [Congressional Budget Office 2004]). And now even these lowballed requests are coming in under-funded. Combined with ever-present unexpected expenses (e.g. Station overages, Katrina repairs), NASA is gutting itself to feed the Vision. Oddly, when Griffin responded to criticism about NASA's internal science cuts at a Goddard Space Symposium (Mar. 20th, 2007), he inferred that the cuts were because the science missions, themselves, were lowballed [Issues].

The list of NASA's internal cuts is too long to list here, but for illustrative purposes, here's just the items jettisoned during that same week as Griffin's lowball speech:

  • NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (research on the edge to sustain preeminence)
  • Red Planet Capital (commercial, entrepreneurial innovations to support the Vision)
  • Lunar Robotic Precursor Program (scouting ahead for the astronauts' Moon base)
  • Advanced Life Support (How to keep the astronauts well after we send them out there)
  • Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (something for the International Space Station to do)

Additionally, as an example of our degraded preeminence in aeronautics, Europe's Airbus A380, flew over our nation's capital that same week.

It is a telling sign of the times that also during that same week, Elon Musk's SpaceX, an emerging low-cost launch company, test-launched their Falcon-1 rocket. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin filed plans with the FAA for another round of launch and landing tests. Sir Branson's Virgin Galactic has booked 200 people for spaceflights planned to begin in 2009. New Mexico is getting ready to vote on building a spaceport to accommodate these commercial ventures. And there are others. This progress is just 3 years after Burt Rutan won the Ansari X Prize for the first private spaceflight. In step with the classic scenario, these upstarts are doing what the incumbent can't. This is likely to become the venue of future human spaceflight.

Typically incumbents will deny the trends and just intensify their retrograde efforts. The upstarts are dismissed as irrelevant when judged against the established visions. In this case, those visions are a half-century old, specifically the iconic images of Colliers magazine (1952-1954). This Man Conquers Space plan started with winged reusable space shuttles, large military-like space stations, missions to the Moon, and finally flotillas to Mars. It became the vision, blinding us to alternatives. In contrast, robotic space exploration, entrepreneurial joy rides, concerns about doomsday asteroids and the health of our planet, and the broader participation of the public just don't fit this old paradigm. After a half-century of intoxication on Colliers, it is beyond the incumbents to adapt to new opportunities and constraints.

Old-school enthusiasts argue that they just need more support, like back in the Apollo days, but lasting forever. They pine for another Sputnik moment, presumably now from the Chinese. But rather than excitement, the launch of the first Chinese astronaut (2005) and the more recent news of Chinese/ Russian collaborations on Mars explorations, met with indifference. Consider, instead, the findings of a recent survey, where younger citizens are more inspired by Mars rovers (84%) than by sending humans to the Moon (29%) [Workshop, Dittmar 2006]. There is interest in aerospace, but just not in the bygone visions.

When it comes to funding, predictable support exists. NASA's budget has been steady for years, hovering around $17 Billion, +/-5% (in 2007 dollars) [Trends 2007]. Granted, this is not enough to fulfill the Colliers visions and fulfill the responsibility for preeminence in air and spaceflight, but this is what our society has chosen to devote through NASA. Which do you think is more realistic; notching up the budget in perpetuity, or finding different worthy goals that are more affordable and applicable than 1950's icons?

Imagine what the artists and pioneers behind the Colliers vision might have done with our current situation; knowing the ease and effectiveness of robotic exploration, the potential for citizen joyrides into space, the shift from cold war to global economics, the societal impact of seeing our Pale Blue Dot from space, the interconnectedness across the world via the Internet, the revelation that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs, and the implications of global warming. For example, picture a future where you can tune into live video and sound from rovers on Mars; the Saturn moon Titan; or swimming in the oceans of the Jovian moon Europa. Imagine taking your turn at driving a lunar rover, remotely. Imagine booking a one-nighter in an orbiting hotel. Imagine the security from knowing that your home planet is under constant watch to protect its environment and to deflect incoming asteroids. There is plenty of good stuff from which to cast new, inspiring, and productive visions.

While our traditional space program continues its fatal trajectory, entrepreneurs are creating a new paradigm of human spaceflight. The thrill of space is being brought to the people rather than being the sole province of an elite astronaut corps. What is missing is the means to take full advantage of robotic exploration, addressing Earth protection, and sustaining preeminence in the research to keep us economically ahead of the game. Aerospace prowess requires keeping our visions up to date too, rather than clinging to retro rockets.

Perhaps it will take the fall of "the vision" before the rest of the upstarts, those pioneers who can step up to this challenge, can emerge. For my colleagues in the aerospace arena, I say start working on a backup plan. I know I am.

The author, a rocket scientist for a major aerospace organization, has been advised to publish under a pseudonym due to the current "culture" [Cowing] within the space program.

NASA & Budget References:

Budgetary Analysis of NASA's New Vision for Space Exploration. (2004) Congressional Budget Office, Washington DC: (Sept.).

Cowing, K. (2007), The Bigger Problem - Yes, Its NASA Culture, (4-Apr), Accessed 4 Apr 2007.

Dittmar, M. L. (in press). The Market Study for Space Exploration, 2nd ed., Dittmar Associates, Inc., Houston, TX (see Accessed 4 April 2007.

Huntress, Jr., Wesley T. (2006) House Science Committee Hearing on NASA FY 2007 Science Budget. (2 Mar.) Accessed 28 Mar. 2006.

Issues Du Jour - Mike Griffin. (2007) SpaceRef Interactive Inc. (21 Mar.)., Accessed 29 Mar. 2007.

NASA Cuts Funding to Purdue. (2007), WLFI-TV via WISH-TV, (29 Mar.). Accessed 29 Mar. 2007.

Trends and Projections in the NASA Budget, FY 2000-2012. (2007) American Association for the Advancement of Science, (7 Mar.), Accessed 20 March 2007.

Vision for Space Exploration. (2004) National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington DC. NP-2004-01-334-HQ.

Workshop Report: Building and Maintaining the Constituency for Long-Term Space Exploration (2006) George Mason University (9 Oct.), 4 April 2007

Entrepreneurial Space References

Boyle, Alan (2007) Rocket Revelations, MSNBC, Cosmic Log (23 Mar.) Accessed 29 Mar 2007

X PRIZE Foundation. (2006) Accessed 13 Mar. 2006.

Historic Pattern References

Foster, Richard N. (1986) Innovation: The Attacker's Advantage. New York NY: Summit Books.

Henderson, Rebecca M. and Kim B. Clark. (1990) Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technology and the Failure of Established Firms. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35 Cornell University: 9-30.

Utterback, James M. (1994) Dominant Designs and the Survival of Firms. Ch. 2. in Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation. Harvard Business School Press.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.