Let's Stop Going in Circles - And Go Somewhere

The International Space Station doesn't go anywhere. Instead, it simply goes in circles - day in and day out. Much the same can be said for America's space policy - or lack thereof.

NASA excels when our nation has a clear, binding, national space policy - one energized by a compelling vision. Absent such a policy, our space infrastructure fragments into dueling factions - each with their own agenda. Without a clear mission NASA now seeks to maintain its own existence with its various missions (each with their own political constituency) cobbled together as an afterthought serving as a means whereby to accomplish this end.

To be certain, the ISS is a technological marvel - and bears powerful testimony to the people at NASA and its contractor family who turned a dream into reality. But funds are tight. Decades of financial mismanagement at NASA have eroded Congress' and the Administration's willingness to trust the agency thus tightening the funds further. The net result is that NASA now seeks to reduce the capability of the ISS - at the very moment that its promise can begin to be fulfilled.

The Space Station is at risk of being relegated to simply being a place for the Space Shuttle to visit so that crews can keep it running.

Doing the Impossible

Between the time I was 2 and when I turned 14 humanity went from zero spaceflight capability to putting humans on the Moon. To me, my first vision of spaceflight was one where quantum leaps were to be expected. I knew this because I saw these leaps happening before my own eyes. That expectation took a firm hold of me and hasn't left me - or many of my generation. Yet we, and the generation that has followed us, have been cheated of what could have been done in space.

In the following three decades we have yet to send humans back to the Moon. Indeed, it would probably take us longer to recreate the ability to "land humans on the Moon and return them safely to the Earth" than it did to do so the first time. As for sending humans to Mars - it was 20 years or so away when I was a kid. Thirty years later it is still that far off - if not further.

As for the ISS, we could have built this - and should have built this - a decade ago. Now that the ISS has managed to become reality we need to refocus it - and ourselves - towards the true exploration of space. We need to go somewhere for a change. We can't sit at home - or drive around the block - and call ourselves "explorers".

Bringing the ISS Back Into Focus

It is time to give the International Space Station a true mission. In so doing, perhaps we can move the entire agency towards a focused, common goal. Indeed, we should start treating the "expeditions" on the ISS as true expeditions.

I feel that the prime purpose of the ISS should be the flight certification of humans for travel across the inner solar system. We are ready for something more bold than just going in circles a few hundred miles overhead. We are ready for something that challenges our imagination and causes us to exceed our capabilities - and rewards us with first hand views of wonders no human eye has ever seen. Moreover we need to do something that inspires people - most notably the young.

We need a specific destination to focus our efforts: I vote for Mars.

Research on the human element aboard the ISS (and previously aboard the Space Shuttle) has been - and will continue to be - asymptotic. Absent any specific destination or timeline, it is possible for us to continually approach the answers we seek without ever actually answering the questions we ask. There is no timeline - ergo no urgency - hence any progress is acceptable. However, without a 'due date' such research will always remain unfocused - and incomplete.

Sean O'Keefe speaks of the need to conduct research into the "enabling technologies" before we go to Mars. He is quite right. A mission to a specific destination pulls the enabling technology along. Apollo certainly did that regardless of why the program existed in the first place (opinions on the politics differ widely). When equipped with a firm timeline, activities are forced into a sequential, prioritized arrangement of tasks.

When you seek to just go faster without a firm destination you end up going everywhere - and nowhere - at the same time. Such is the case with the ISS. Sailing ships were not continually enhanced to simply go faster - they were improved to go to specific locations - along specific trade routes - and to do so faster.

A research plan on the ISS should be constructed that systematically tackles and resolves the roadblocks to long duration spaceflight. The end result should be a set of design criteria for spacecraft and support systems that enables humans to travel to and from their destination and to perform their assigned tasks safely and productively. This can be achieved rather easily. Most of the research components are in place - they simply need a vastly better focus.

The decision to actually mount a mission to Mars does not have to be made yet - just the decision to prepare for one.

The Plan

Specifically, I propose that the 'focus' of this plan should be for NASA to provide the design criteria at the start of FY 2011 for a spacecraft capable of carrying humans to Mars and back. These criteria should be of sufficient maturity to allow the fabrication and design of a spacecraft capable of departure to Mars within 4 years i.e. the 2015-2016 timeframe.

To meet this departure date, data would need to be provided at the onset of FY 2010 such that the appropriate proposal solicitations and reviews be performed for a FY 2011 project start. In order to have the design specs in FY 2010, a research program to identify human requirements - and recommended countermeasures should be completed at the onset of FY 2009.

For research data to be available for FY 2009, a research program wherein human and animal test subjects are exposed for up to 2 years of continuous spaceflight with some humans and animals utilizing countermeasures (exercise, pharmaceutical regimens, centrifugation, etc.). This would require that a statistically significant number of research specimens (human and animal) begin their long term exposure in FY 2005. These studies should be inherently empirical and iterative such that lessons learned can be immediately be fed back into the course of research.

For a research program to begin in earnest in FY 2005 an Announcement of Opportunity should be released by NASA in FY 2004 - preferably FY 2003. Clearly, given current activities, this is not going to happen and this entire timetable needs to be moved a year or more to the right.

The current REMAP activity is looking to prioritize the science objectives of the ISS, yet is doing so according to the status quo i.e. the "stovepiped" interests of a myriad of politically-backed factions. Moreover, according to current NASA planning, the ISS crew will be limited to 3 individuals. That means fewer people to conduct science and fewer people to serve as test subjects. In addition, the ISS Centrifuge Accommodation Module and its suite of research facilities, critical to this research, won't find their way into space for many years.

If we want to go to Mars we need to start now. We don't need to make the final, formal commitment to go for a number of years, but we do have to start laying the ground work against a commonly agreed to end point. The ISS is the perfect place to start.

The Benefits Of A Systematic Research Plan

If we discover that centrifugation is the only viable means to prevent deleterious health and performance problems then we're talking about some significant cost and design impacts. If - and I am sticking my neck out as a space biologist - it is found that intermittent centrifugation - or gravity levels at less than 1 G (say .38g) is all that is required to 'remind" one's body of gravity, then simpler systems such as the human-powered centrifuge under development at NASA may suffice. It is also possible that no centrifugation whatsoever may be required and that exercise and pharmacological treatments may suffice to reduce the risks to an acceptable level.

We won't know until we try. We won't get answers in a meaningful time frame if we won't exert some collective discipline and set deadlines for ourselves.

A substantial amount of preparatory work has already been done on humans, animals, and cell cultures that could allow a clear flow chart to be developed in a very short period of time. It has been done before. I have piles of these reports in my garage. Indeed, had we decided to set a date for ourselves 10 or 15 years ago we could have answered these questions by now.

We more or less know what happens to humans after one year in space and have a partial understanding of why and how it happens. With a clear objective placed above all of this research the gaps in knowledge could be closed (certainly narrowed) in short order.

Without a coordinated and milestone driven plan, spacecraft designs will need to be very conservative and cover all bases - a time proven way to drive up costs. If, that is, we ever get the collective courage to actually try and design a mission to send humans to Mars. The previous Administration issued edicts to NASA wherein they were prohibited from even discussing human missions to Mars.

Other Uses for ISS - And Other Users

What about all the other things that people want to do on the ISS? What about the other participating nations? During trips to and from Mars there will be both the opportunity and the need to conduct research that is not directly in support of mission objectives - research with intrinsic scientific importance. Such is the case on the ISS. Biomedical research that does not specifically address the goal of flight qualifying humans should be moved to a separate program - but it should not be ignored. Microgravity and Materials Science research slated for the ISS should continue.

Not to be superficial - but all of these human research specimens are going to need something to do. Indeed, getting the data required to answer the questions such that the necessary design criteria can eventually be distilled is going to require a crew of at least 7 - probably more. Moreover, given the expense of operating the ISS, everything the crew does should be of the highest scientific merit.

As for the other nations involved in the ISS program (something we in the U.S. seem to conveniently forget about each time we redesign the ISS) they should be invited to participate in this 'Human Flight Certification Program' as well - or be allowed to use their allocations on the ISS as they deem fit. Clearly, as was the case with the ISS, a mission to Mars is not going to be cheap. Nor does the U.S. have all the answers needed to get humans there. The value of multinational participation is as relevant- perhaps more so for going to Mars as it was for the ISS. Perhaps adopting this research focus on the ISS might lead to some decreased confusion on any future mission to Mars.


Sean O'Keefe shies away from embracing specific destinations - be they Pluto, Mars, or anywhere else. He has said that we should only pick a destination if going to that destination is the best way to answer valid questions - questions backed by solid science. Fair enough. Going somewhere simply because some people feel some grand compulsion to go - and to do so at a huge societal cost - is not enough. There has to be a clear scientific reason to go.

The past 40 years of space exploration have been accomplished with guidance from innumerable advisory panels composed of top scientists and engineers. Out of these various reports have come a number of questions deemed worthy of answering. The origin of our planet and how studying other worlds can help us understand our own. The origin and evolution of life - and, once again, how the study of life on other worlds (extant or extinct) would help us to understand not only our own world - but also the context against which life exist elsewhere in the universe.

In each report issued over the past decades Mars repeatedly pops up as a location (hence a destination) where we can go in an effort to try and answer many of these questions. In many ways, Mars is very much like Earth. In many other ways it is utterly different. With every mission we sent to the planet the suitability of this world for answering these questions becomes more apparent. Indeed, every mission also breeds more questions than answers.

In the course of space 'exploration', everything is a destination. That is the whole point of exploration in the first place. In many cases we send out robots. In others, we send ourselves. In advance of sending missions, we use our telescopes to do an initial reconnaissance. But in each case it is a specific location - a 'destination' that we study.

Why Go Now? Why Not Wait ?

Sending robotic precursors to Mars is a wise and prudent way to make the initial reconnaissance of the planet. That is how we began to explore the Moon before sending humans. However, we will soon run up against a technological limit wherein humans represent a greater ability to collect in situ data than do robots. If we wait for robots to catch up with the ability of a human to observe and explore we will be waiting decades to get answers robotically that we could get much sooner with humans.

Sean O'Keefe is currently pursuing a path wherein the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission - which would have launched in 2004 and arrived at Pluto in 2015 - is now cancelled. His rationale: by the time the spacecraft gets there, the answers might not be relevant to the questions we will then be asking. Moreover, it will only collect science for several months during its flyby.

Instead, O'Keefe wants to develop new nuclear propulsion and power systems such that a spacecraft can do more once it gets there. Alas, under O'Keefe's plan such a nuclear Pluto mission won't get there any sooner than the current Pluto mission would. Indeed, there is no money for such a mission - nor any firm due date for the advanced propulsion and power systems it would use.

Should we develop nuclear power and propulsion systems to make planetary missions capable of greater scientific return? Absolutely. Should we put everything on hold until that capability comes online - when we have the capability to start exploring now? No.

If we were to follow this logic everyday with our purchase of personal computers we'd be forever waiting to buy one since we know that each year's current model can run circles around the previous year's. Why buy a computer today if there will be a better one on sale next year? Answer: because you need one now and you have the money with which to buy it.

NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Science, Ed Weiler justifies NASA's new nuclear initiative as follows: "We currently use covered wagons [to explore the solar system]. We want to develop steam engines to get the locomotives out there to explore the solar system." A similar mindset often crops up when human missions to Mars are discussed.

Some would say that we should sit here on Earth and cool our heels while we develop rockets that can get us to Mars in a few months - and do so under constant acceleration/deceleration thus making the microgravity issue a moot point. That's fine - but how many years will we have to wait?

With all due respect to Dr. Weiler's analogy, we haven't even used the covered wagons yet. To extend his logic, why wait just for locomotives - why not hold out for jet planes? We can do things now - and we should do them now - not wait at home, forever polishing our tools, but never getting them dirty.

Humans have always used technology as soon as it was available to see what is over the next hill, or across the ocean. If it wasn't available, the yearning to go to these places drove them to develop it.

The Benefit of Setting a Herculean Goal

NASA is not the only high tech entity that has done impossible things. A decade or so ago, the people proposing that we sequence the human genome were often met with laughter - and then suggestions that we wait a decade or so until the technology to do such a Herculean task was available. The logic being that 'if we wait until we are smarter we can do the work in less time'.

Instead, the project moved ahead - at first by brute force, later, spurred on by commercial innovations themselves spawned by early the frustration from early phases of the program. The goal itself caused a constant rethinking and refining of the technology.

The net result was that the human genome (and a number of other organisms too) was sequenced years earlier than had been thought possible - and at a level of certainty that would not have been foreseen even by the most optimistic of the project's proponents.

Moreover, when the White House held a ceremony to "declare victory", the head of the government's genome program - and the head of the lead commercial consortium that had more or less beat the government to the finish line, stood side by side, smiling. This was probably the most unforeseen event of all.

Don't Just Send Money

I am certainly not suggesting that anyone throw money at NASA. Recent revelations about the veracity of its financial records suggest that NASA is years away from being able to understand what things cost - much less state costs for future missions with any level of certainty.

To be certain, NASA's track record - even when it has a firm deadline is often far from desirable. Ronald Reagan challenged the U.S. to have a space station in orbit by 1992 at a cost of $8 billion. A decade behind schedule and many times the original cost, most of the talk is now focused on limiting its capabilities - not providing them.

It is hard to deny the validity of an argument that NASA has shown itself to be incapable of consistent cost and schedule performance - even if it has notable, well-funded and focused successes (which are often forgotten). The same agency that stunned the world with Mars Pathfinder in 1997 crashed two perfectly good spacecraft into the same planet 2 years later for stupid and utterly avoidable reasons.

Sean O'Keefe's self-professed 'bean counter' background is what our nation's space program needs at this point. Indeed, without a wholesale overhaul of NASA's finances, the agency won't be allowed to send humans anywhere outside of low Earth orbit.

As Senator Ron Wyden said in hearings on NASA's budget last week "I am looking forward to hearings in the future where we do not have to talk about accounting. I am interested in 'the vision' - Mars and the exciting [Hubble] pictures. There is no way we will get to that place and to be able to put dreams into reality if you have GAO putting out reports that the agency's books are in a shambles. This is a swamp - a financial morass that needs to be drained."

But fixing the books is not what is going to send humans outwards into the solar system. Rather, it is simply the price of readmission to such endeavors that Congress and the White House have imposed upon NASA. NASA needs programmatic vision and focus - as well as financial discipline.

In closing

Re-dedicating the International Space Station to the specific task of flight certifying humans for travel to Mars - on a fixed schedule - and then holding to that schedule would bring a long absent focus and general direction to this meritorious but meandering program.

It would also serve to fuel the imagination of the people to whom the future truly belongs: our children. Every night a bright light would fly over their house. Inside would be people getting ready to go to Mars. Kids don't get excited about esoteric science. They do get excited about exploring other planets.

This would also serve to restore hope and confidence to those of us who grew up expecting NASA to do the impossible - and pulling it off.

In his first major policy speech last month, Sean O'Keefe spoke passionately of inspiring the next generation of explorers " as only NASA can."

Going in circles is not the way to do that. We need to go somewhere once again.

Related Links

  • 10 May 2002: Sean O'Keefe Testifes On NASA's Budget Before the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, SpaceRef
  • 12 April 2002: O'Keefe Does Lunch With The Press, SpaceRef
  • 12 April 2002: Administrator Unveils Future Vision and a Renewed Journey of Learning, NASA HQ
  • 26 March 2002: O'Keefe's First Law: It's Not Where You Go - But How You Get There, SpaceRef
  • 3 March 2002: Sean O'Keefe Testifies on NASA's FY 2003 Budget Before the House Science Committee (Part 1), SpaceRef
  • 27 February 2002: O'Keefe Lays Out Timeframe for Decisions on Key NASA Programs, House Scinece Committee
  • 8 January 2002: Mr. O'Keefe Meets the Press
  • 1 January 2002: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision - Part 2
  • 16 December 2001: The O'Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA

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