There are only two ways that NASA can achieve more lofty goals in space – spend more money, or reduce the cost. The Apollo program successfully used the former strategy, but in the process demonstrated the difficulty of sustaining an expensive program during troubled economic and social times. The Space Shuttle program attempted the latter approach, but failed to significantly lower costs due to a combination of mistaken assumptions (including high flight rates), a design that may have been too aggressive, and the need for a small army of personnel to operate, with their associated salaries.
Regardless of the budget, NASA can get “more bang for the taxpayers’ buck” by leveraging the most efficient mechanism available for cost-reduction – free-market competition. Combined with an incremental approach that builds on the fruits of this competition, NASA could ultimately achieve greater goals than if they continued on their current path.
For decades, companies have pursued the concept of “commercial spaceflight”, but virtually every company has failed. However, the field appears to be finally growing through adolescence and into early adulthood as multiple commercial companies are successfully fielding significant spaceflight capabilities. Orbital Sciences and now SpaceX have successfully commercialized small satellite launchers (Pegasus and Falcon 1), and are on the cusp of fielding medium-lift launchers and cargo supply vehicles for the NASA COTS and CRS contracts (SpaceX’s Falcon 9/Dragon and OSC’s Taurus 2/Cygnus). Virgin Galactic is entering the flight-test phase of its eight-person suborbital commercial spaceflight program, while other companies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and others are making lower-profile, yet still significant contributions to the fields of vertical takeoff and landing (VTVL) and aircraft-like operations.
To take advantage of this “next space race”, NASA should cancel its Constellation program and all internal programs (such as the Ares I and Ares V) that could be more cost-effectively achieved by providing a customer to the free-market. Doing so should save money and/or allow more significant accomplishments while spurring US industry to greater competitiveness and creativity – potentially spawning new markets such as tourism, microgravity pharmacology research and manufacturing, and others yet to be identified.
In the process, NASA should abandon the current timeline for crewed lunar missions, and replace it with an incremental plan that builds capability sustainably over time, carefully laying a strong foundation for affordable, reliable and flexible transportation and the commercial utilization of space.
The goals of the program should be to expand human exploration, foster scientific and economic utilization of space resources, and eventually colonize the solar system, all at an economically sustainable rate. To provide direction, NASA should be looking at destinations that provide resources, scientific interest and technology development opportunities. This likely means exploring and utilizing the resources in the Earth-Moon system before moving on to near-Earth objects (NEO) to explore and utilize.
For simplicity of discussion, this can be thought of as occurring in a number of spirals or steps:
Spiral One: Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Infrastructure
- ISS crew transport (launcher and spaceship)
- Propellant depots
Spiral Two: Cislunar Infrastructure
- Cargo lift vehicle (25-75 mt)
- Earth Departure Stage (preferably reusable)
- Cislunar crew transport (preferably reusable)
- Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) or L1 propellant depot (architecture dependant)
Spiral Three: Lunar Exploration and Resource Utilization
- Lunar crew and cargo transportation (preferably reusable)
- Lunar resource extraction facilities
- Lunar power sources (including nuclear)
Spiral Four: Deep Space Exploration
- Deep space crew transportation
- Deep space crew habitation
- Simulated gravity studies and experiments
- Radiation mitigation studies and experiments
- Aerobraking studies and experiments
For each component of a spiral, NASA should ideally fund four competing options in two groups – two competing (yet compatible) “front burner” options that are on the critical path and fully funded, and two “back burner” options that are funded at lower levels to hopefully provide a seed for next generation capabilities.
To provide an example of how some of Spiral One might look (depending on the outcome of the competitions):
- ISS Crew transport (“front burner”) with all pieces interchangeable (i.e. Atlas V 401/Dragon or Falcon 9/Orion lite)
- Atlas V 401/Orion “lite” crew transport
- Falcon 9/Dragon crew transport
- ISS Crew transport (“back burner”): Two options, competitively awarded, possibly including: t/Space CXV, PlanetSpace, Orbital Sciences?
Spiral Two might include the following cargo lift vehicle options (depending on the outcome of the competitions):
- Delta IV Heavy (possibly upgraded to ~50 mt lift)
- Falcon 9 Heavy (possibly upgraded with hydrogen upper stage to ~50 mt lift)
- International cooperation from ESA (Ariane V) and others
By capitalizing on the continuing advances of the free-market, NASA can revolutionize itself and human spaceflight. While progress may be slower for the first few years as commercial capabilities are established, it should accelerate past what NASA could achieve using its current Constellation architecture. This would happen as the commercial spaceflight industry experiences a positive feedback loop where higher flight-rates (provided initially by NASA’s purchases) drive down costs, leading to greater potential for independent commercial utilization, leading to yet higher flight rates and even lower costs. As costs drop and technology matures, the scope of what NASA can accomplish should expand far beyond what is currently planned.
By taking bold action, NASA could save money, stimulate an exciting and inspiring new American industry, and achieve more than if it “stayed the course”.
Footnote: Thanks to Dr. Donald J Gerend and Miranda Veenhuysen for reviewing and providing thoughtful comments.