The Space Foundation Report On Space Policy

I’m reading through it now. This phrase from page six jumped off the page at me:

This report does not advocate for space settlement or colonization; rather, it is focused on expanding the human sphere of influence.

My question: why not? They don’t explain.

I’m guessing that they assume that if they do so, they won’t be taken seriously (they saw what happened to Newt in the primary debates), but one can advocate settlement without advocating that NASA carry it out.

This I do agree with, though:

The Space Foundation believes the problems currently facing NASA exist primarily because the United States has never taken the time to figure out, at an existential level, what a space program does, why it does it, what it should do, and how to proceed. To be more precise, the United States has never grappled with the question of what belongs in its national civil space enterprise versus what belongs in a capacity-building space program or outside the public sector altogether.

I’ve been saying that for years:

If history is any guide, policymakers won’t ask the right questions, the useful questions, those fundamental metaquestions that haven’t been asked since the dawn of the space age and NASA’s founding. First and foremost among them are: Why do we have a “space program”? What are we trying to accomplish?

Every press interview, every congressional hearing, every blue-ribbon commission assumes answers to that question, and the assumption is assumed to be shared, and none of those assumptions are ever questioned.

They must be, because they’re not as obvious as many think, and they’re definitely not shared, at least by me, and I suspect by many others as well.

I predict, however, that like my advice, this report too will fall on deaf ears, and we’ll continue to blunder along, with no common understanding of why we’re spending this money, and for many, no understanding that there is none.

[Update a while later]

OK, on page 20, they list the original eight purposes of the space station:

  • a laboratory in space, for the conduct of science and the development of new technologies;
  • a permanent observatory, to look down upon the Earth and out at the universe;
  • a transportation node where payloads and vehicles are stationed, processed and propelled to their destinations;
  • a servicing facility, where these payloads and vehicles are maintained, and if necessary, repaired;
  • an assembly facility where, due to ample time on orbit and the presence of appropriate equipment, large structures are put together and checked out;
  • a manufacturing facility where human intelligence and the servicing capability of the Station combine to enhance commercial opportunities in space;
  • a storage depot where payloads and parts are kept on orbit for subsequent deployments; and
  • a staging base for more ambitious future missions.

Today, almost three decades and tens of billions of dollars later, the current ISS effectively meets only the first objective. This does not mean that large, complex projects should not or cannot be attempted. Rather, if NASA is given a task without sufficient resources, it must become NASA’s responsibility to say “Thanks, but no thanks” and find a different approach for accomplishing the goal. A long-term strategy is necessary to provide the criteria for NASA to make this decision and follow through. If NASA needs some capability, it should try to get it rather than building a piece of hardware that does not meet its objectives. NASA should take this step early in the process and with a viable plan to ensure the change of course does not result in a major decline or complete loss of capability.

What they don’t point out is that some of those objectives are fundamentally incompatible with each other. For instance, you don’t want to be doing microgravity research or production in a facility that is being banged around docking and assembling vehicles. Back in the eighties, people on the program noted that the requirements demanded something like running a hospital in a train station. So it wasn’t just a lack of resources that was causing the delays. NASA was really being asked to do the impossible, and it was suffering from exactly the same affliction that wrecked the Shuttle program — assuming that there were only enough resources to have one, so it had to be everything to everyone. And of course, the resulting complexity and cost made the assumption a self-fulfilling prophecy. And NASA cannot push back against this nonsense, because it is never taken well on the Hill, where no one really cares whether or not the program is achievable, as long as the money flows to the right districts and states. And unfortunately, the report is (at least so far) silent on this issue, which is the elephant in the space-policy room.

[Another update]

This part could be incorporated into my book:

Looking back at the era of Administrator Goldin’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” missions, truly trying to be the best in all three of these aspects means that risk is probably going to be the area most vulnerable to sacrifices. It is not surprising Cultural Issues at NASA 21 that the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” philosophy ultimately proved to be riskier than NASA or Congress was willing to countenance. In addition, the tendency to view the world in a technological framework means that NASA often wants to maximize performance. If project managers try to maximize performance and minimize risk, then cost and schedule tend to be less tightly controlled, as has been seen on numerous programs.

Bureaucracies usually try to mitigate risk by adding procedures and regulations to existing practices. This effort results in increased paperwork, overhead, and transaction costs that may ultimately outweigh the benefits of the regulation in the first place. For example, in the processing of the Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters, line workers proposed a procedural change that would speed up processing (and arguably make the process more reliable), but when they tried to introduce the change, they were told that it would be too expensive to change the applicable manuals and written procedures. The number of manuals and written procedures, in turn, arose from a desire to minimize risk by making sure everything is well documented. NASA ended up with a time-consuming, (potentially) less safe procedure, as an indirect result of behaviors intended to ensure safety.

Adding safety systems and redundancy increases the complexity of a system and introduces entirely new components that can break or malfunction, potentially increasing risk. In addition, flagging and marking everything can overwhelm operators, who then start treating potentially legitimate problems as acceptable because they have not yet failed. In the U.S. space program, it is very typical to try to increase safety (or at least reduce risk) by spending money. Many NASA activities end up being planned almost as rigorously as human spaceflight. This introduces rigidity, increased transaction costs, and inefficiencies in areas where a purely technical approach to risk management is not appropriate.

As I note in the book, the Orion Launch Abort System is a perfect example of the problem of the introduction of complex systems for safety. But I would also add that a “purely technical approach to risk management” is essential if we are to ever make human spaceflight affordable. That is the fundamental theme of my book.

8 thoughts on “The Space Foundation Report On Space Policy”

  1. Rand,

    What do you expect?

    NASA was created in a panic during the Cold War. Its signature project, Apollo, was also in response to the panic over Russian space advances.

    Once we beat the Russians to the Moon its national security function basically ended, but because President Johnson, who was its key champion, spread the pork out over multiple Congressional Districts it continued to exist, which is what he intended when he spread the pork around. The result is that since Apollo, NASA, like a headless chicken, has stumbled around since for a defining purpose.

    As a side note, I see this recommended revision to the NASA Act as being supportive of space settlements. The appear to use the word “pioneering” as a politically safe replacement for settlement.

    [[[Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the unique competence in scientific and engineering systems of the Administration also be directed toward the pioneering of space. Such competence shall be conducted so as to contribute to the objectives of increasing access to destinations in space, exploring the possible options for development at these destinations, demonstrating the engineering feasibility of development, and transitioning those activities to other parts of government or the public as a whole.]]

  2. I’d back up and ask if establishing an agreed upon overall purpose is even necessary or beneficial, recognizing that a hundred differing and often contrary thoughts and implementations usually produce better outcomes than getting everyone on the same page, pursuing a single goal with a single vision. If you tried to apply the criteria to other productive avenues the results might be seen as stiffling.

    For an obvious example, what should our goal be with PC or communications technology? To answer that question beyond nearly meaningless generalities and vague and evasive “sidewalk interview” answers would probably rule out 95% of the ways we’re beneficially using PC’s and cell phones. If we’d asked and answered such a question back in the late 70’s or early 80’s, we’d have PC’s that were very good at storing recipes and balancing check books. Ask a decade later and we’d have really good, dedicated e-mail machines.

    If you ask a Soviet-style question (“What is our purpose? What should be the focus of the next 5-year plan?”), you necessarily get a Soviet style answer (“To increase agricultural production and expand our sphere of influence, leading toward our goal of a utopian existence!”), because the question is constraining.

    What should we do in space? Anything we can think of, and lots of it, especially things that make people say, “Now that’s just crazy! Hey, can I do that too?”

    1. I agree. Space exploration is uncharted territory and using stiff procedures to provide novel things seldom works properly. There is a need of room for exploration of alternatives to existing technologies and business models.
      I think the proposed SLS systems suffered from this. When governments are developing complex projects to solve new problems the spiral development model works best in the long run. They also need to test more and spend less time on paper models. NASA needs to be willing to fund redundant prototypes to test new technology along the way for a working solution. In this juncture when there is plenty of private funding for space launch vehicles NASA would be better off funding technology demonstrators for key technologies to provide support for a manned access to space rather than pursuing custom built launch vehicles.

      1. A good illustration of this was when a few years ago I was working with a firm looking to send a private lander to the Moon. I meant with folks at a couple of the major aerospace firms to get cost data. I asked point blank what it would cost to put a rover on the Moon. They estimated $50-60 million. I asked them why the different in price from the cost of NASA missions of a $500 to billion. Their response.

        The contractor would have complete control of designing and building. NO Review Panels, Progress Reports, making and documenting changes because of changes in funding or mission requirement, or just because some NASA engineer got a bright idea one night and now wants to do it their way…

        The instrumentation, cameras etc. would be off the shelf. NO R&D to design the latest and greatest, no constant changes to the design to accommodate changes to instrumentation some whim of a scientist while going through the design progress.

        Use flight proven hardware, lots of backups for old missions are sitting around in warehouses. So NO series of tests to qualify it, document it, review it, change it, document the changes, etc, etc. In short just turning the engineers loose and barring the paper pushers and suits from the factory and any involvement in the process until it lands on the Moon 🙂

  3. Clearly, if NASA were actually held responsible for its goals it would be considered a failure and unfunded.

    As George points out, it may accidently do good work simply because it has no direction. Before Apollo 11, many didn’t think we could survive on the moon. Today many say the same thing about mars.

    Others will say, “ok, we can survive, but not sustainably because of the expense of support.”

    Colonization is a existential issue but one that seems to have no hurry involved. We know earth will die (is that awareness broad?) We just don’t expect it anytime soon even though it could happen at any time.

    Even if aware that it could happen any time, that doesn’t help with survival. Even with a robust space program, most of humanity wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it. You just can’t transport billions away from a dying world. Even if you could, you might not have anywhere to take them (the death event could be solar system wide.)

    Beyond all that, there’s always the universal, “So, what’s in it for me?”

    This is why colonization needs to be a private venture. Get all the funds you can from NASA but ultimately ignore them.

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