I just suggested to a journalist trying to get up to speed on space policy to read the essay I wrote to them five years(!) ago. I think it holds up pretty well. It’s too bad they didn’t take my recommendations, not that Congress would have paid any attention:
Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, man’s future in space is too important to be left to NASA. After President Reagan proposed the creation of a national missile defense system in 1983, it became clear that the U.S. Air Force was not properly organized or motivated — and so a new agency was created to pursue the president’s vision. The new agency, today called the Missile Defense Agency, was very innovative and made great progress because it could focus on its one goal. Along those lines, the Bush administration might have done well to establish an Office of Space Development (with “exploration” being merely a means to an end) that could draw on other federal resources — not just NASA, but the Departments of Defense and Energy — as well as the private sector.
Of course, an independent space development organization with such power would be politically unfeasible. But that is part of the problem: our sclerotic space agency is subject to forces of legacy politics; it protects existing bureaucratic structures and emphasizes jobs over achievement; and it perversely rewards failure with more funds and punishes success with budget cuts. Short of an independent entity, the Augustine committee should at least revisit the Aldridge commission’s recommendation of converting the NASA centers to FFRDCs.
Assuming, though, that NASA in roughly its present form is here to stay, what should the Augustine committee recommend to put the agency back on the right course?
First, there is great irony (as space blogger Clark Lindsey has noted) in the fact that NASA has not successfully developed a launch system in decades, with many failed attempts, whereas it has developed many techniques and technologies for orbital assembly and operations — and yet it is pouring billions of dollars into the former and neglecting the latter. Critics often bemoan NASA’s abandonment of Saturn rocket technology upon the end of the Apollo era. But to abandon the orbital assembly and operations technology developed during the shuttle era — as the Constellation architecture implicitly does; it doesn’t even call for an airlock on the new crew capsule for the crew to conduct extravehicular activities — would be a much greater tragedy, because unlike the Saturn infrastructure it actually offers a path to a future of abundant low-cost space activities.
Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, infamously remarked that “you go to war with the army you have.” NASA should have planned on going to the Moon with the launch vehicles it had and not those it wanted to have; in retrospect, the agency should have been explicitly forbidden from developing a new launch system. Billions have already been wasted in developing a redundant launch capability when the focus should have been on getting beyond low Earth orbit. The space agency must finally, after half a century, be a good customer, and provide a market not for cost-plus contractors to build hardware at their direction, but for private transportation services. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program should be revitalized with additional funding, new entrants should be invited, and its role should be broadened far beyond the current charter to service the International Space Station — to supporting exploration itself. In addition, COTS D (for delivery of crew to the International Space Station in addition to cargo) should be immediately funded, to provide redundant means of getting passengers to and from orbit and the space station on American hardware. A robust COTS program, in combination with a requirement that companies begin to deliver hundreds of tons of propellant into orbit each year, would provide enough traffic and competition among launch providers to finally start to drive down the cost of access to space. This would be a welcome change from the stagnation of high launch costs over the past few decades, and an improvement over the promise of still higher costs from Constellation. The aim should be to develop architectures that are not dependent on any particular launcher but that are redundant both in their ability to get to orbit and to travel between nodes beyond Earth.
Third, the savings from avoiding the development of unnecessary new launch systems should be spent on resurrecting the Research and Technology program initiated by Admiral Steidle. Specifically, NASA should work on developing the tools and techniques needed to store and transfer cryogenic propellants in orbit. The agency should begin to define requirements for (redundant) propellant depots, and perform studies on optimal locations for such depots. NASA should perform experiments in propellant handling at the International Space Station, and it should lease space in a Bigelow orbital habitat at low inclination as a testbed for orbital transportation support operations. The agency should do with its space transportation needs what the U.S. Postal Service did with its airmail needs back in the thirties: create a vibrant new transportation industry. And it should provide the kind of technology development support that NASA’s predecessor, the old National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, did for aviation in the first half of the twentieth century.
Let us finally abandon our race with the Soviet Union, the race we won four decades ago against an adversary two decades vanquished and vanished. We don’t need to remake Apollo; we need to open up the new space frontier the way the old American frontier was opened. Let us unleash private enterprise and create not just jobs but true wealth. Let us innovate and find new ways for free men and women to use new resources. And let us work hard and risk greatly in the pursuit of our individual dreams — for it is those dreams, and our countless failures and triumphs along the way, that will determine man’s destiny beyond the Earth.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.