An open letter to Gregg Easterbrook in response to recent commentary on the future of NASA


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The National Space Society has drafted the following response to Gregg Easterbrook's critique of NASA in the latest issue of Wired Magazine. As an experiment, NSS plans to finish this document via this wiki, where NSS members and the space community at large can add and edit in a collaborative process. Please read the piece first and contribute if you agree with its general positions. Click on the 'Edit' link above or at the bottom to begin your edits. Thank you for visiting the National Space Society wiki, and thank you for your contributions to the future of space exploration and development. This piece will be formally published on Monday, June 11th, 2007 -- the opening day of the Space Blitz on Capitol Hill, produced by NSS and the Space Exploration Alliance.

Dear Gregg,

Your recent piece in Wired made the assertion that NASA's priorities are misplaced. It was a thoughtful piece, but we respectfully disagree.

Let's begin with the obvious. Your list of four priorities conspicuously ignores the human exploration of space. The American public, in contrast, believes that human space exploration should be at the heart of NASA's efforts. That finding is consistent in poll after poll for the past forty years. No matter how much you disagree with your fellow citizens who foot the bill (and you have been disagreeing with them for many years), your opinion is in the minority.

You make it clear that you believe that NASA is headed in the wrong direction. However, NASA is changing, and changing for the better. Following the Columbia accident, it was evident that the country had to move beyond the space shuttle. Given that human exploration of space would remain a central part of NASA, there was broad national consensus that we needed to prepare to send our astronauts beyond Earth orbit, and retire the shuttle. The White House took those difficult steps, and set the agency on a path toward the Moon and Mars.

Now, let's take a deeper look at NASA's stated priorities, particularly with regard to the new lunar exploration program, which you disparage with rather dismissive language. Rather than taking your playful interpretation, we'll quote NASA directly, which recently spent much time and effort thinking this through.

The stated themes of NASA's lunar exploration program are: human civilization, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, global partnerships, economic expansion, and public engagement. While we can quibble on the margins, we believe this is a good foundation to build a space program on, and we think most Americans agree.

Every lunar exploration program, mission, flight project or research initiative NASA takes forward addresses one or more of these stated themes. As many of us understand, human lunar exploration is a logical and necessary "next step" in expanding our civilization into space and responsibly using the vast resources of space for the betterment of humanity.

Planned lunar activities bring possibilities for extending civilization beyond the Earth. These possibilities include the development of space resources in ways that could provide energy and materials to Earth utilizing methods that would not produce greenhouse gases. Using space to monitor and understand the Earth's climate is important and much has and will be done along these lines. As it turns out, the moon appears to offer the best vantage point for assessing Earth's solar energy budget

NASA's current mission slate as viewed from headquarters includes 70 missions http://www.nasa.gov/missions/current/index.html. Each of these missions has a web of involved individuals and organizations that spreads throughout our planet. Yes, NASA is at times a lumbering bureaucracy. It does, however, build spaceships. The work of the agency has profoundly changed what we know, and set in motion events and actions that have made for a better today and hold great promise for fostering better tomorrows. However, as currently funded at less than 0.7% of the federal budget, the appropriated funds are insufficient to accomplish the work at hand, much less all the work that could be done.

Beyond the lunar program, all of the major NASA priorities are being addressed at some level. A quick scan of the mission list reveals a wide range of research germane to the environment of Earth, the sun, and the rest of the planets in our solar system. NASA has made some initial steps in the realm of NEO detection and mitigation. Could the agency do more? Yes. But serious work will require serious additional investment, and it should not come at the expense of the human exploration mission America supports.

Increasing humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe is clearly a priority. The development of new launch systems that make the best use of technology at hand (such as Ares), and sponsoring the COTS program to foster a new generation of commercial launch vehicles has put the agency firmly on track to reduce launch costs. Can more be done? Certainly, but in order to have the future we would like to see come to pass we are going to have to pay for it.

Reducing the cost of space access is now being addressed by the private sector. NASA is now acting as a responsible potential customer of commercial launch services (COTS). The government has a poor record competing with the private sector in the arena of cost effectiveness. NASA spent many years and billions of dollars in pursuit of next generation launch technologies, with limited success. NASA has now wisely chosen to provide a market with exploration programs and to permit private enterprise to have a crack at making that affordable. In the meantime NASA is developing the Ares family of launch vehicles to provide the capabilities it requires to initiate the human exploration program until the market is able to offer cheaper alternatives.

As for the International Space Station, it is essential that we learn how to truly live and work in space, not just pay visits. The notion that the space station is pointless is like saying a house in construction isn't an ideal place to live. ISS is a vital national laboratory for learning how to live and build things in space. (The same is true for a lunar base for enabling us to use the resources of space and teaching us how to reach Mars.) As for favored contractors, the COTS program and the market established by exploration will open new venues for many companies and communities around the world to participate.

As for lunar accommodations, if the author would like to team with NASA, the twelve other international space agencies, and a host of commercial concerns that have signed up to help plan, develop, and execute lunar infrastructure, the opportunities exist. While an affirmation of the value of increasing humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe is appreciated, NASA must face the daily challenge of how to best orchestrate the resources to support this. When was the last time you let your congressman know that this matters to you?

As for the budget, there are typically at least two to four new flight projects proposed for budgetary consideration each year. Some years, NASA is authorized to fund multiple projects, other years none. Some flight project proposals get worked for a decade or more before they receive the funding go-ahead. In order to get the go-ahead a potential flight project has to be bounded in terms of cost, schedule and technical risk. In addition, the political will must exist to support its coming to fruition. Last but not least there is no science if the tools and scientists are not there to process and analyze the data.

Yet your commentary is not without merit. In the realm of space systems engineering everything must be questioned. The preservation of the institution of NASA has at times seemed to subsume the goals of the missions. NASA must change and evolve to ensure that available government resources are placed toward those missions in which NASA must lead, and foster those which NASA should support. Lastly, even NASA needs to know when it should get out of the way.

This is not the end of this discussion, but rather another entry point to the broader dialogue of how we ensure our government space programs are working productively with private space efforts to create a spacefaring civilization that brings deep and lasting benefits to humanity. That end goal is what the 20,000 members of the National Space Society have come together to work towards, and we invite everyone to join us in that worthy goal. Come join the discussion at http://wiki.nss.org

For more information about the National Space Society, visit: http://www.nss.org

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