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.
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.