Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Alan Stern on Reconnecting NASA via Space Applications

Imagine reconnecting NASA - Alan Stern at The Space Review - Stern's vision for a reformed NASA seems to be similar to that of Space Applications, although he'd like to get the needed funding by keeping programs within their budgets rather than shrinking or removing the Ares rockets and associated hardware. I'd suggest that one way to help keep programs within budget is simply to make them smaller and therefore easier to manage (from a "management" perspective as well as a political perspective). That's why I recommend lots of small application-oriented NASA missions, and it's one reason (among several) that I recommend shrinking or removing Ares and replacing them with commercial space transportation and practical space applications.

Stern advocates many of the same application areas that are stressed here, like education, environment monitoring, aeronautics, and commercial space development.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Seed Corn

Many organizations will respond to reduced budgets by protecting their big, remarkably expensive programs at all cost, and, to do that, will immediately eliminate virtually all of the small, low-cost programs and "different" approaches to meeting mission needs.

- James R. Wertz, president of Microcosm, Space News, October 27, 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


The Application area suggestions made here are not to be taken too strictly. They are just examples to set the tone and to give an idea of a better, application-oriented approach to NASA than the Constellation effort that is already taking a large portion of NASA’s budget, and will take even more upon Shuttle retirement. In reality, NASA should consult closely with experts and stakeholders in the various application areas, as well as the traditional and entrepreneurial commercial space communities, to determine how it can best contribute to these areas through space and aeronautics efforts. It is expected that changing NASA’s focus towards useful applications, use of commercial products whenever possible instead of in-house NASA development and operation, innovation, research, development, and demonstration, international cooperation, Cheap Access to Space, smaller missions, and synergy between human and robotic missions will result in great success for NASA, the U.S. commercial space industry, and the nation as a whole.

Assessment of Principles

The principles are also briefly evaluated.

1. Do not abandon exploration, including human and robotic missions to the Moon. – The plan eliminates much or all of the Constellation effort. However, it includes robotic exploration of the Moon and demonstrations of applications on the Moon. It also includes a more gradual build-up of NASA and commercial human spaceflight capabilities and infrastructure to allow more sustainable lunar development in the long run.

2. Do not leave human spaceflight “stuck in Low Earth Orbit”. - The plan eliminates much or all of the Constellation effort. However, it explicitly emphasizes that commercial space is to take over LEO access, space stations, and satellite servicing as soon as possible. NASA would gradually move beyond LEO as LEO missions are transferred to commercial space. It should be noted that one risk of Constellation, because of its high development and operations costs, is that Ares 1 and Orion will be built but the rest of that architecture will be cancelled. This would not only leave us “stuck in Low Earth Orbit”, but would also limit the political viability of commercial LEO space access.

3. Human and robotic areas should complement, not oppose, each other. – The Constellation effort has lost much of its support among the robotic science community because human spaceflight efforts have taken robotic space funding, even though it was problems in the human spaceflight areas (Shuttle costs, Constellation costs) that caused the budget overruns. This plan recognizes that the important applications of today, whether communications, Earth observations, military applications, or science, are all done mainly or entirely by robotic space systems. Instead of a human dash to the Moon, then, this plan emphasizes complimentary human and robotic missions. Humans are assigned much if not all of the job of satellite servicing, so humans become an integral part of the important space applications of today. As humans venture out to new locations like the Moon and asteroids, they are preceded by a thorough armada of robotic science, survey, human health, and engineering demonstration missions, again emphasizing cooperation between robots and humans. The plan also emphasizes suborbital space access, which can be done with both piloted and unpiloted vehicles.

4. Use NASA’s strengths and existing infrastructure (e.g.: robotic exploration, ISS). – This plan adds numerous robotic space missions. These would typically be small versions of the type of robotic missions NASA is known for. Because of cost constraints, many of them would be considered “Explorer-class” or even small satellites. The plan also emphasizes improvements in robotic satellite technology. It includes an increased emphasis on commercial use of the ISS, NASA use of commercial space stations, and multiple COTS vehicles for ISS cargo and crew access (complemented in 1 scenario by a downsized Ares/Orion). In contrast, Constellation does not include a COTS crew capability for ISS access, and the Ares schedule includes a large and growing gap of U.S. ISS crew transportation. Constellation also has reduced funding for ISS research, and doesn’t include incentives or business for commercial space stations. Constellation has actually in a sense taken away funding for robotic missions.

5. Do not rely on a single system, such as a single space transportation system. – This plan emphasizes multiple smaller systems whenever possible. Use of competitive and competing commercial services is encouraged. Multiple COTS vehicles are recommended. Multiple suborbital vehicles, X planes, and so on are featured throughout the plan. It is expected that some of the multiple approaches will fail. The plan may possibly take longer to reach the Moon because it will gradually grow redundant and complimentary useful space capabilities to make missions like the lunar one safer and more sustainable. In contrast, Constellation is literally a single giant system for the entire NASA space transportation, exploration, and space infrastructure effort. If this system fails in development or operation, the entire effort fails.

6. Emphasize smaller, manageable missions and incremental, achievable progress. – The plan emphasizes smaller robotic missions in areas like Environment and Education applications. Numerous small and manageable CATS demos are recommended. Incremental progress is advocated in demonstration missions that gradually improve specific space components like power systems (Energy application area) and communication systems (Communications and Media area). The plan for human spaceflight in the Exploration area is for more incremental and manageable steps that move outward gradually rather than a single big step to the Moon. Also, use of commercial suborbital rockets enables many smaller missions to take place. In contrast, Constellation involves a huge, difficult to manage rocket and spacecraft development program that seeks to make a great leap forward to the lunar surface.

7. Plan flexibility to adjust given changes in national priorities and opportunities. – In part because it consists of numerous smaller and shorter efforts, the approach advocated here is flexible and can be adjusted with minimal disruption. Different application areas can be emphasized and de-emphasized given changes in priorities. Specific programs that run into technical or budget problems can be cancelled with little effect on the overall effort, since most of the efforts are independent. Constellation, on the other hand, is extremely inflexible, since it’s a single multi-decade space transportation development program. It either all works, or all fails. There is no opportunity, short of cancelling Constellation, for taking advantage of commercial opportunities, new scientific or resource knowledge, or new priorities in Earthly problem areas.

8. Strengthen research and development (e.g.: NACA, New Millennium). – The proposed plan greatly strengthens NASA’s support of research and development. There is an emphasis on researching, developing, and demonstrating new satellite power systems in the Energy application area, new satellite communications technology in the Communications application area, and new satellite observation instruments in the Environment and Defense and Security application areas. International Space Station and commercial space station research and development are strengthened in the Medical, Health, and Biology application area. The Educational application area supports numerous university research projects. The Transportation application area supports research and development of space access technologies. The Education application area and others promote the use of innovation prizes to inspire research and development outside of NASA. The Constellation program has resulted in a significant reduction in NASA research and development on the ISS, in Aeronautics, and in Space and Earth Science. Even in space transportation, Constellation is not intended so much as a research and development effort as a rocket building effort based as closely as possible on existing and demonstrated technology (i.e. the Space Shuttle and Apollo). The idea of using what already exists has merit in many cases, so this approach of Constellation is not inherently a bad one; that depends on how well the existing pieces fit together. However, the point is that the Constellation effort shouldn’t be considered to be Research and Development since it deliberately tries to avoid new research and development. We can expect little innovation from Constellation other than the Constellation rockets and spacecraft themselves.

9. Get some results quickly. Don’t leave the main payoff for 16 years. – This proposal promotes small, quick, incremental improvements where payoffs can happen quickly. Small robotic missions can return results a lot earlier than 2020, even though Constellation has had a multi-year head start. More modest and focused COTS and other space transportation efforts are likely to return results like crewed access to the ISS before Constellation, thereby reducing the “gap”. The emphasis on commercial suborbital spaceflight tends to shorten the time to get back results, assuming this wave of suborbital vehicles is successfully built. The new NASA market proposed here would help increase the chance that that happens. The increased use of the ISS would return results quicker, since the ISS is already partially built. Finally, the human exploration of the deep oceans of the Earth can begin right away with existing classes of vehicles, and gradually increase in capability. Constellation, on the other hand, doesn’t return major results until 2020 or later, even if it succeeds. Constellation also includes a small number of robotic lunar exploration components like LRO (GRAIL is outside Constellation, in the Discovery program) that should in fact return early results. Those robotic efforts are outside the scope of the comparison taken here; there is no proposal to change those lunar robotic missions here, other than to ensure that more lunar robotic missions are added. Constellation’s intended mid-stream result of ISS crew transportation around 2015 is not considered a substantial advantage in the comparison, because one scenario here would continue a downsized Ares/Orion program (perhaps with a smaller crew size) that would more easily meet the ISS objective, and more importantly both scenarios here would include a strong COTS crew effort that should produce even better results.

10. Earn broad support beyond the program’s workers and contractors through demonstrated usefulness. Earn support from businesses, other Federal agencies, States, educational organizations, and science and engineering organizations. – It’s easy to identify Federal agencies that would benefit from the NASA efforts focused on application areas. The political constituencies for these Federal agencies would of course also benefit, and NASA would as a result earn support from these constituencies, and possibly more funding. The Energy application area would benefit the Department of Energy. The Environment application area would benefit NOAA, the EPA, the Interior Department, Department of Agriculture, and other agencies concerned with the environment. The Defense and Security application area would benefit the military, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies. There would be numerous opportunities for international cooperation with many smaller missions that would be useful to the State Department. The Health, Medicine, and Biology areas would help the efforts of the National Institute of Health and other agencies, and would also strive to help commercial operators offer cost-effective space-based health products and insights that could help the large government medical insurance agencies. Similar examples can be given for the various application areas, and many of these examples cross application areas. For example, NOAA and the military and intelligence agencies would benefit from frequent small NASA robotic missions across a number of the application areas that would encourage shared costs of using EELVs, new cost-effective launchers, and responsive, cost-effective small satellites. Meanwhile, the numerous efforts to encourage commercial space through developing technologies to the point of commercial interest, by offering numerous innovation incentive prizes, and by purchasing services from commercial space would result in support not just from the broad commercial space community, but also from the users of commercial space services. Science organizations would benefit from the strengthened emphasis on science in several of the application areas, and the low-cost access to commercial space services that science users could take advantage of. Educational organizations would benefit from the same efforts, as well as the strong Education application area. Constellation, on the other hand, has already alienated Science and Aeronautics organizations, has little to offer for other Federal or State agencies and their countless constituents, and does little for commercial space or the economy as a whole.

Assessment of Goals

Now a short amount of justification is given to show that each of the goals can be achieved with the previous proposal.

1. Be relevant; address problems whose solution is important to the nation. – By focusing NASA’s new efforts on application areas that are important to the nation based on common sense judgment and by actual government spending levels, the efforts should be relevant. In contrast, Constellation attempts to solve problems that are not obviously relevant or important to the nation (at least until additional lunar robotic demonstrations are performed and commercial infrastructure capabilities are developed) such as a government Heavy Lift Vehicle and a variant of Apollo.

2. Promote commercial space and international cooperation. – Commercial space is promoted by the increased attention to buying commercial services, hosted payloads, COTS and similar efforts, innovation prizes, progressively handing off human space capabilities like LEO access, LEO satellite servicing, and so on to commercial space, and development of advanced technology useful to commercial space, but not being funded by commercial space research and development. International cooperation is much easier to arrange with the small programs envisioned and emphasized here, such as suborbital spaceflight and small robotic space missions. International cooperation is already common on robotic space science missions. The restrained human Exploration mission plan outlined here almost requires international cooperation to achieve timely results. In contrast, Constellation is run by NASA rather than commercial space, and it involves no international cooperation. Any commercial space or international cooperation add-ons to Constellation are relegated to some vague and unspecified time in the distant future.

3. Encourage “Cheap Access to Space (CATS)”. – This plan emphasizes numerous small, focused CATS efforts, as well as larger COTS efforts that may move towards CATS, in the Transportation application area. The plan also encourages CATS through NASA purchase of commercial suborbital space services. These purchases will give incentives to develop more capable suborbital vehicles, as some NASA applications will require greater altitude, repeated testing, or more payload mass or volume. The plan also opens space markets that should encourage CATS, such as space station work, traditional communications satellite applications, environment satellites, planetary science missions, and more. Small missions are encouraged in those cases that are run by NASA, resulting in more frequent launches, sized appropriately for reusable launch vehicles, per funding dollar. Finally, the plan promotes NASA innovation prizes. It is expected that suborbital and orbital CATS capabilities would be the subject of many of these innovation prizes. In contrast, Constellation involves an expensive pair of NASA rockets. The launch cost per pound of the large Ares V compared to small, frequently used CATS vehicles can of course be debated; it is possible that the CATS capabilities that result from this effort would not match the per-pound capabilities of Ares V. It is suggested here that even if this is the case, the smaller rockets are more useful in a productive CATS sense. In addition, the markets and capabilities developed by this plan (possibly including reusable launch vehicles, useful lunar surface applications demonstrated, tugs, and space refueling) would make it easier to demonstrate a need for an HLV (if one exists), and make it easier to develop the HLV much later when its time may come.

4. Address the central goals of the VSE: Security, Economics, and Science. – This plan addresses Security head-on with its Defense and Security application area, and complimentary areas like the Environment application area’s Earth observation missions, the Transportation application area’s COTS and CATS efforts, satellite servicing efforts, suborbital spaceflight business, and more. It addresses Economics through a strong and comprehensive commercial space orientation, development of space infrastructure and other economically useful capabilities, emphasis on economically-useful science like Earth observations, and education of a space workforce. It emphasizes science in the Environment application area, aspects of the Exploration application area in the near term (exploring Earth’s oceans) and long term (exploring asteroids and/or the Moon), support for science research in the Education area, and robotic probe capability improvements and demonstrations in several areas. In contrast, Constellation offers little to the Security, Economics, and Science areas. If Constellation is successful, there may be some important science done after the human lunar missions start, but that is many years away, and highly speculative. Economic benefits of Constellation in the long term are even more speculative. This is in part due to the nature of lunar exploration, which requires more robotic demonstrations and surveys, CATS, space infrastructure, and commercial space capability to provide the technical and business foundation, as well as the rationale for the program. Constellation only addresses one part of the foundation needed, the space transportation part, and it does this on a risky, long schedule with an overly large budget. It has also been suggested that the Ares V rocket could provide useful capabilities for Security and Science. It is argued here that Security and Science needs are more aligned with responsive, cost-effective, and smaller rockets, space infrastructure, suborbital vehicles, and responsive commercial attitudes. Even the Titan launcher was too expensive for Defense applications, and was cancelled.

5. Develop useful space infrastructure. – This plan attempts to build a Cheap Access to Space infrastructure through NASA commercial buys, prizes, COTS, X planes, and similar efforts. It supports improving the International Space Station and encouraging additional space stations through NASA ticket purchases and other commercial arrangements. It promotes satellite servicing, including tugs, refueling, and maintenance capabilities. Instead of NASA developing these capabilities and keeping them, the model used is for NASA to either encourage commercial space to develop them, or for NASA to develop them and then pass them over to commercial space (purchasing the services if they are appropriate for NASA’s needs). In contrast, Constellation avoids developing useful space infrastructure. The Constellation space transportation system is largely or entirely discarded after each mission. In the distant future, lunar habitats may be built, but the usefulness of these habitats is severely restricted by the non-existence of the other space infrastructure that should come before the lunar habitats, like CATS, tugs, refueling, multiple space stations, and routine LEO and GEO space transportation.

NASA Areas

The previous sections have discussed the proposed new funding in terms of the application areas that could be addressed by the new funding. Application areas were viewed in terms of the types of Earth problems that could be solved. This section will discuss the same efforts from a different perspective – that of the NASA directorates or branches that would be involved. This different perspective may clarify some questions resulting from the unfamiliar application point of view on how the programs would be managed, organized, and run. The “buckets” that the application area funding might fall in, if NASA isn’t actually restructured to have an “application” focus, could be as shown below. It may be useful to think of the increases in funding for these 8 NASA areas to be roughly of the same order of magnitude as the funding for the 8 application areas – perhaps $500M to $900M per year for each area. Note that much of the funding would be directed “through” the NASA areas for purchase of commercial services, funding university research or space missions, and offering prizes for innovation.

1. Environment – Much of the Environment application area would fall here, typically as small missions to complement current NASA environmental satellite missions. However, many of the Environment application area projects would in fact not fall here; they would fall under planetary science, Commercial suborbital use, and other NASA areas.

2. Planetary science and demonstrations – This would include efforts from various application areas that perform demonstrations on the Moon, as well as comparative planetary science work in the Environment application area performed on other planets.

3. COTS – This would include the COTS efforts in the Transportation application area, and possibly supplemental funding from other areas that need COTS to work (Exploration, etc).

4. ISS and other space station support and use – This would include space station work done for the Health, Medicine, and Biology application area, any satellite servicing work involving space stations in the Exploration application area, Energy application area demonstrations like SPS and SRS tests using space stations, and any other uses of space stations.

5. Commercial suborbital use, Centennial Challenges, other prizes, and scholarships – This would include Environment, Defense and Security, Education, and Transportation use of commercial suborbital vehicles. It would also include Education prizes and scholarships. Prizes have been described mainly in terms of the Education application area in the preceding sections, but in fact they could and should come from any and all of the application areas.

6. New Millennium demonstrations; space infrastructure demonstration and development – Some of the Exploration application area work would fall under this category for space infrastructure. Many application areas, like Environment, Energy, Communication and Media, and Transportation, could also provide work for robotic technology demonstrations in the spirit of the New Millennium program or space infrastructure demonstrations.

7. Aeronautics – This would include projects in application areas that use aviation, like Defense and Security, Transportation, and Environment.

8. Human Satellite Servicing and Exploration – Obviously the Exploration application area is the centerpiece of this NASA area. However, work for this area could also come from other application areas, like the Environment and Defense and Security application areas, for example for servicing Earth observation satellites.

Note that the Education application area could, and probably would, provide work and capabilities for just about any of the above NASA areas.


It is reasonable to devote some of NASA’s efforts to exploration for the sake of exploration and development, rather than for solving immediate problems. Much of this already happens in the NASA Space Science program that this paper does not seek to change. In the less dramatic Constellation cutback scenario proposed here, the remaining Constellation budget would also be devoted to exploration once the ISS transportation mission has been achieved. Some of the application missions already described here have an exploration aspect, such as health, agriculture, environment, and energy experiments and demonstrations on the Moon or other planets. Many of these missions would have to be robotic at first (there being no means of transportation to the Moon or planets at first in this plan), but they would be done in many cases with the long-term goal of human missions in mind.

Nevertheless, a focused application area for exploration remains in this proposal. At $500M to $900M per year, it is much scaled back from the Constellation effort in funding. There is a strong prospect that it would result in a delay in human missions to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars compared to the Constellation plan, if that plan succeeds. However, the emphasis here on supporting commercial space, Cheap Access to Space, space infrastructure, and path-finding robotic demonstrations may result in a human program that is more cost-effective, more sustainable, and in the long run more productive than the transportation-only, single-effort, all-or-nothing, government built and run Constellation program.

1. Human Space Exploration - The general plan of the human missions here follows an incremental series of steps from replacing the Shuttle with private cargo and crew ISS and general LEO access (complemented by similar Ares/Orion capabilities in one scenario), followed by human satellite servicing, then human GEO access, and then a choice of human lunar orbit or human Lagrange point access. These would in turn be followed by human lunar or Near Earth asteroid access, respectively. Human missions to Mars could be a long-term goal. However, full attention would be paid mainly to the next 2 or 3 steps, and far-off steps would be left for later planning as infrastructure and capabilities increase. It should be kept in mind that this effort, although on a smaller scale than the current Constellation effort, is much greater than the almost non-existent effort to send humans beyond LEO and to explore the Moon with people and robots before the VSE. In early years the funding in this application area could supplement the COTS cargo and crew space access area of the Transportation application area if needed. It could also supplement the space medicine, hazards, and similar efforts of the Health, Medicine, and Biology application area, closed life support systems work in the Energy application area, or lunar or planetary demos in the Environment application area. It could also develop its own demonstrations and capabilities needed for exploration, such as space suits, lunar habitats and vehicles, more capable lunar robots based perhaps on private Google Lunar X PRIZE efforts, or infrastructure that enables greater access to space, such as in-space refueling. In the early years, the second priority of this application area (next to helping the Transportation application area with COTS, if needed) would be developing satellite servicing capabilities, likely based on Ares/Orion (if built) and COTS winners as part of the system architecture. These capabilities would include monitoring, refueling, tug operations, and swapping components like batteries and instruments in the style of Hubble servicing missions. Some of the satellite servicing capabilities could also be applied to solar system probes in an LEO check-out, fueling, or augmentation phase. Obviously satellite servicing is not exploration in itself, especially since it would begin in LEO. However, satellite servicing is a key step in building up exploration capabilities. Once satellite servicing capabilities are demonstrated adequately, they would be fully commercialized and NASA’s exploration efforts would be able to move out of LEO with systems based on earlier LEO cargo and crew space access vehicles and improvements that enable satellite servicing, which is a step in capability above simple LEO access that should make the next step, to GEO satellite servicing, easier. Eventually, LEO space access, LEO satellite servicing, and GEO satellite servicing would all be done by commercial space, and NASA would be able to move beyond GEO. Because the human exploration effort has funding levels that are restricted to part of the Exploration application area and whatever miscellaneous efforts of other application areas may contribute to exploration, these efforts will be forced to rely heavily on commercial space capabilities. If they are to proceed at a quicker pace, they will also need to rely heavily on international cooperation. The Constellation effort does not include commercial or international components in the space transportation system. However, it is conceivable that a smaller Exploration application area would collaborate more heavily with other space agencies to the extent that other agencies contribute major components to a human space exploration transportation system, enabling human exploration of, for example, the Moon to proceed earlier than is envisioned here.

2. Ocean Exploration – While NASA would be unable for an extended amount of time to reach the Lunar surface or asteroids with this plan, it would be able to start a new, real exploration program that would quickly be productive in an application sense, and would also strengthen NASA’s exploration capabilities. The way to do that is with an Earth ocean exploration program. NASA already explores the oceans through its remote sensing satellites. It already studies deep ocean hydrothermal vents and lakes buried under miles of Antarctic ice when it studies life in extreme environments. It already investigates the possibility of liquid oceans under the surface of gas giant moons, and even considers long-term missions to send subs to those moons. A vigorous program to explore and map the deep oceans of the Earth would be a useful complement to NASA’s space mission. The scientific benefits of such work would complement NASA’s planetary science work. The operational and engineering aspects of really running challenging exploration missions under the sea would complement NASA’s space operations and engineering efforts. It’s important to note that this effort could include efforts related to ocean settlement and resources.


NASA’s education funding is fairly small in the context of the funding levels proposed here. A roughly $500M to $900M increase in NASA funding for education purposes would represent a profound increase in attention to this important application area. As with most of the proposals here, the new funding would tend to be dedicated to educational space applications that happen to also help NASA achieve its space missions, including the key mission of helping the commercial space industry. This would be done by using commercial space services for educational purposes, as well as training the aerospace workforce that is needed by NASA, other government agencies, and commercial space.

1. Teachers in Space – A new “Teachers in Space” program for the new commercial suborbital space vehicles has already been proposed. In spite of the heading, the scope of the proposal described here is a bit broader than that one, although getting teachers into space is one way the effort could be implemented. The scale of the proposal here is perhaps a bit larger than the “Teachers in Space” proposal, which is possible because we have waved our hands in such a way as to make a significant portion of the Constellation funding available for education. Passenger safety for early suborbital passenger vehicles may be considered to be an issue, in which case experiments designed by teachers could be flown on these vehicles. Preferably both scenarios would happen. After all, some of the proposed suborbital vehicles are unmanned. The program would not be limited to teachers; its scope should include K-12, undergraduates, graduate students, university professors, and early government space employees, too. The program would not be limited to suborbital spaceflight for passengers or experiments. It would include anything from Zero-G flights, to existing suborbital rockets, to high-altitude balloon flights, future NewSpace suborbital rockets, and even small satellite or space station access for experiments. Whenever possible, the program would involve NASA purchasing tickets on commercial space or related vehicles for educational purposes like rewarding the “best” teachers or students, or simply giving access to space for students.

2. Student Competitions – Existing space and aviation student contests, like Cansat and Team America Rocketry Challenge, are an effective way to inspire students and to motivate them to learn about science, engineering, math, teamwork, and business. NASA could, in partnership with other interested organizations, increase the number and size of these challenges. Cash prizes are always appreciated, but prizes could also include educational components like scholarships, internships, or rewards to the sponsoring school to further add to the educational component.

3. Centennial Challenges – NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program has been shown to be a good motivator for university and high school student teams, and for education for people who otherwise are not students. Centennial Challenges also often are associated with related student challenges and other education initiatives. Sometimes the competitions are held on school campuses, or include an “Education Day” before the competition. At the same time, these challenges help solve problems of interest to NASA. It is suggested that Centennial Challenges be expanded with education in mind. The number of Centennial Challenges should be expanded considerably. The size of individual Centennial Challenges should be increased in many cases. There should be levels of prizes in each Centennial Challenge that are achievable by students. The subject matter of current Centennial Challenges tends to be oriented towards NASA’s missions, like Moon regolith excavation and processing. This should continue and more such competitions should be started, but the major focus of most of the new Centennial Challenges should be on using space to help solve problems on Earth, and giving incentives for innovations that solve problems for the broader space industry and all U.S. space agencies rather than just NASA. The allied organizations that run the competitions should be encouraged to offer educational materials related to their competition, to reach out to educational organizations, and to hold student competitions related to their main competition. As Centennial Challenges (or non-NASA prizes like the Ansari X PRIZE) are won, strong consideration should be made to continuing the competition with a new, more ambitious or complimentary round.

4. Funding Scholarships – NASA could fund scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students that are U.S. citizens in fields related to space and aeronautics using the new funding. This would help the nation’s educational efforts, and would also help NASA and the rest of the space industry. Space majors that could be funded might include Aerospace Engineering, Astronomy, Planetary Science, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics, Space Policy, Space Law, General Space Studies, Cosmology, and Aviation. Other majors that use space data, or that are Earth-focused majors that are complimentary to Planetary Science subjects, should also be included, like Geology, Atmospheric Science, Meteorology, Oceanography, Hydrology, Climatology, Remote Sensing, Geographical Information Systems, and other similar subjects. Suppose that $100M of the $500M or $900M per year is available for $10,000 scholarships. Ignoring administration overhead, that would enable 10,000 more scholarships in fields relevant to space each year. That would represent a dramatic increase in potential students earning space-related degrees, a big incentive for students to go to the trouble of earning those degrees, and more opportunities for space professors to teach and perhaps do space research as well.

5. University Space Projects – NASA could fund more university space projects of all sorts – experiments, robotic space missions, telescope observatories, data analysis, and more. Universities already play an important role in many of NASA’s programs – consider the University of California’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, the LASP and environmental science labs at the University of Colorado, the Planetary Science work at the University of Arizona, and many more. This new funding would expand the role of universities, and spread space capabilities to more universities and students. Projects that include students through graduate research assistantships and other educational jobs would be emphasized.

6. Space Museum Projects – NASA could get museums involved with more of its efforts with the additional funding. This would bring more talent to the NASA family. It would also allow NASA to contribute more to education that reaches the majority of students that aren’t in space fields.

Telecommunications and Media

The telecommunications and media area is primarily a commercial concern, so NASA’s newly funded efforts would be done with the goal of improving the capabilities and business strength of the nation’s large and entrepreneurial commercial space telecommunications businesses.

1. Use Commercial Communications Satellites – With the new funding, NASA could purchase commercial satellite and related ground services to achieve its missions. This might involve hosting NASA instruments on U.S. commercial communications satellites, buying communications satellite bandwidth, or funding deployment of commercial communications satellites in special configurations or orbits for NASA use.

2. Space Communication Research and Development – In cases where commercial space businesses do not have, and are not about to have, certain communications capabilities, NASA could do research, development, and demonstration of these technologies.

3. Space Media – NASA could purchase more media services for innovative space and aeronautics education and public relations purposes.

Because of the strength of the private telecommunications and media industries, and the importance of NASA avoiding competition with private businesses, it may be advisable to fund this application area at a lower level than the others. This should make more funding available for critical areas like Cheap Access to Space, commercial transportation of crew to space using COTS or a similar method, or other high priorities.


At this point, the funding scenarios that have been suggested to give context to the substantial but still limited scale of the proposed efforts should be well understood. At this point we can just jump right into the proposed efforts. Although the application areas described here have tended to be focused on Earth problems, it seems appropriate to dedicate the bulk of the newly available NASA funding in the Transportation application area to space and aeronautical transportation. Improvements in space transportation indirectly help solve problems on Earth through the space capabilities they allow to be efficiently transported.

1. Cheap Access to Space – In most cases, the proposals here have avoided suggesting what level of funding or priority level to assign to each effort, or even which efforts should be chosen at all should available funding to too limited to fund them all. However, Cheap Access to Space (CATS), or for many applications Cheap and Reliable Access to Space (CRATS), is considered to be so important to all space efforts that it’s suggested that the bulk of the funding in the Transportation application area be dedicated to CATS. As with most or all of the efforts suggested in this document, it’s assumed that the individual CATS efforts will be limited in funding and scale, and only through numerous small efforts will CATS gradually be achieved. CATS efforts could include space transportation research, prizes for improved private suborbital spaceflight capabilities, small and focused X plane demonstrations, and use of commercial suborbital vehicles to carry space access engineering tests. Possibly the largest effort would be a COTS or COTS-like effort for commercial crewed space and International Space Station access. This effort is important enough that in the scenario where the Ares and Orion transportation system is merely downsized and only about $500M per year is available for the Transportation application area, half or more of the Transportation application budget might need to be allocated to this crucial effort. It might be fair to say that the transportation effort may be important enough for the long-term success of all of the other efforts that this application area may need to be given some level of funding priority over the other application areas until a certain amount of success has been achieved. Note that the current COTS commercial cargo space launch program within the Constellation budget is not proposed to change here.

2. Cheap In-Space Transportation – This effort would encourage improvements in transportation in space once Low Earth Orbit has been achieved. It could involve research, development, or demonstration of improved technologies for satellite, space vehicle, or space station transportation or station keeping, tugs, tethers, in-space refueling, or other mechanisms. It could also involve planetary surface or near surface transportation improvements, like improvements to rovers, balloons, landers, and similar vehicles.

3. Airplane Transportation Improvement – This effort would fund research and development of improvements to large and small commercial planes, air traffic control, unmanned air vehicles, and similar systems with direct applicability to everyday use on Earth.

4. Ground and Sea Transportation Improvements – NASA could investigate space-based improvements to ground transportation, such as improvements to GPS applications, ground vehicle tracking, and similar down-to-Earth applications. Many of these applications are readily addressed by the commercial market already, so NASA’s efforts in this area might be to develop improved satellite technologies for its space missions or as applied research projects that can be spun off to the military GPS satellites or the commercial satellites and from there applied to solve ground and sea transportation problems.

Health, Medicine, and Biology

It is suggested that NASA’s current efforts related to health and medicine be augmented with efforts like the ones described below. Again, one way to think about the scale of these new efforts is to consider the funding that would be available if the Constellation transportation program were cancelled, and the resulting funding were divided among several application areas like this one. Depending on the nature of the cancellation (cancellation of the entire ESAS program, or shrinking it to a small version of the astronaut LEO space access portion), varying amounts of funding would be available. A rough order of magnitude estimate of the available funding available once the Shuttle is retired might be $500M to $900M per application area.

1. Expand ISS Research - Medical and biological research efforts on the International Space Station could be increased. These research efforts might include studies of the effects of microgravity and other aspects of the space environment on plants and animals with either a view towards improving our ability to live and work in the space environment, or gaining insights into health and agriculture problems on Earth. It could also include pharmaceutical research. The priority of this effort should be to encourage non-NASA use of the ISS (for example, commercial, university, and other government agency use). It could include adding to ISS capabilities, for example with new commercial modules or lab hardware.

2. Use of Commercial Space Stations – NASA could become a customer for commercial space stations like those planned by Bigelow Aerospace. It could add to its ISS health, medicine, and biology research efforts through work on these separate space stations. Depending on the services offered by commercial vendors, this effort could include experiments on “man-tended” stations and unmanned commercial satellites.

3. NASA Infrastructure Demonstrations – NASA could undertake demonstration work that is useful to non-NASA space medicine, biology, health, and agriculture research programs. An example of such potential work is the NASA proposal for a Micro Reentry Vehicle Centennial Challenge. The goal in this case is routine transportation of small research samples or industrial products from space (for example, a space station) to Earth.

4. Suborbital Experiments – NASA could increase its use of commercial suborbital flights and parabolic flights for pharmaceutical, biological, and medical work. The goal is to encourage routine and repeated access to these platforms by NASA researchers and external but NASA-funded researchers.

5. Astrobiology – NASA could increase its efforts in its searches for life in our Solar System, like robotic efforts at Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This effort could also include increased funding for study of life in extreme environments on Earth, and the search for Earth-like extra-solar planets.

6. Telerobotic Medicine – Increased funding could be directed towards medical monitoring and treatment of astronauts from the Earth. Application to remote medicine on Earth is obvious.

7. Health and Medicine beyond LEO - Space medicine demonstrations and experiments could be sent to places like the Moon or Mars to test radiation, dust, or other hazards to astronauts there, as well as ways to address those hazards. Similar tests could be done for agriculture. Any such Moon or Mars experiment or demonstration effort would be intended to lay the groundwork for eventual human missions, whether by NASA or commercial ventures. Although the Constellation effort focuses on transportation of astronauts, it would be prudent to do a more thorough investigation of health hazards and ways such as agriculture to increase self-sufficiency before beginning an actual human program to the Moon or Mars. The idea is that the next human program should have a solid foundation, not just a transportation system, so it can result in settlement, not just “flags and footprints”.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Security and Defense

Much of the Security and Defense application area is similar to the Environment application area. Thus, the arguments for Earth Observation satellites, suborbital rocket use, small satellite use, satellite servicing, and hosted payloads also apply to the Security and Defense area. Many Earth Observations themselves are pertinent to military and reconnaissance agencies, for example, so NASA could improve such capabilities with security and defense needs in mind in much the same way that it could with environment monitoring in mind. Example applications include improved weather monitoring (NPOESS is funded by both NOAA and the Defense Department) and reconnaissance. Beyond the various applications, promoting satellite technology, suborbital rocket technology, small satellites, hosted payloads, launch vehicle use, and satellite servicing capabilities is helpful to Security and Defense agencies for many other missions beyond Earth Observation ones. Examples that would benefit from these efforts include military communications satellites and GPS satellites. Because of the strong overlap between the Environment and Security and Defense applications, instead of repeating the pertinent examples, this section will just note that the Security and Defense application area could represent another source of funding for this type of effort within NASA. However, a few new examples will be described.

1. Assist Defense and Intelligence Agencies – The first Security and Defense applications that typically come to mind are the major military and intelligence agencies with their own substantial space assets. However, these areas have their own space programs with obvious security requirements, so the nature of NASA’s efforts would not be primarily of developing technology for these agencies, but rather of opening up considerably new capabilities to them (like satellite servicing) or promotion of industries (suborbital vehicles, small satellites, launch vehicles) that these agencies can make use of.

2. Assist Homeland Security – Other Defense and Security agencies don’t have large space programs, but can benefit from NASA’s space efforts. For example, Homeland Security agencies can benefit from Earth Observation capabilities NASA could promote. They can also benefit from communication satellite technologies that NASA can promote. For example, these technologies help agencies monitor packages and maritime shipping containers, communicate using hand-held devices, and more. Many of these capabilities would not come from NASA, but from commercial satellites that would benefit from the types of NASA business, technology development, and shared costs described above.

3. Assist Disaster Response – Like Homeland Security agencies, disaster response agencies can benefit greatly from the increased Earth Observation measurements and satellite communication technologies that could be promoted by NASA, whether actually offered by NASA, NOAA, or private companies. Such measurements can help detect disasters early, such as tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, heat waves, fires, and other natural events. Early detection gives a better opportunity for evacuation and disaster response. Observation and communication technologies can also help with implementing disaster response, whether the event is a detectable natural event or a surprise man-made event such as a terrorist attack, an act of war, or an industrial accident. For example, observations help in disaster assessment, and satellite communications help with response coordination. The concepts that should be envisioned here include better and cheaper versions of the types of responses we have seen in recent years that have included innovative uses of space technology to improve disaster detection and response. They should also include new capabilities, though. Examples of these new capabilities might include space based power beamed or relayed from a satellite to a disaster area, quick movement of disaster response assets to a disaster site using point to point suborbital vehicles, and many other potential new capabilities that could be promoted by NASA, but currently aren’t because of the Constellation opportunity cost.

4. Aeronautics Response – The previous discussions focused on the space capabilities that could be promoted better by NASA. However, clearly many Security and Defense scenarios would also benefit from new Aeronautics capabilities that could be promoted by NASA. These might include aerospace vehicle technologies that could be incorporated into military planes, technologies to thwart terrorist attacks in, or using, airplanes or airports, long duration and/or unmanned aircraft for observing or supplying disaster areas or potential disaster areas, and much more.

5. Detecting Asteroid or Comet Impacts – Although we are more familiar with Defense and Security issues based on human conflicts, accidents, and weather, asteroid and comet impacts on the Earth are also a real, credible concern, and NASA is an appropriate agency to address this concern. NASA’s Defense and Security application area could complement existing NASA efforts to detect and assess objects that may impact the Earth. These efforts have scientific and resource assessment benefits in addition to their Security aspect. They might take the form of prizes for amateur or professional astronomers that detect such impacts in advance, new ground-based observations, or space-based observations. Early detection could allow evacuation of the impact site, movement of the asteroid or comet out of the Earth’s path, or destruction of the comet or asteroid. One of the efforts promoted here is additional robotic planetary science missions. These could include additional comet or asteroid missions, which would help us characterize these bodies and develop better impact response plans. These missions would also improve our skills in getting to these objects, which improves our ability to affect them. Another effort that is promoted here is a gradual improvement of commercial and (if not cancelled) Ares/Orion capability from ISS support, to LEO satellite servicing, to GEO satellite servicing, to later capabilities. One path for these later capabilities is lunar orbit followed by lunar landing. Another path for these later capabilities is Lagrange point satellite servicing, followed by Near Earth asteroid missions. This second path would promote our ability to do something active about a predicted impact. It could be argued that the Constellation path with its Ares V heavy lift vehicle would be a better way to achieve such results. However, the Constellation path involves reaching the Moon by 2020 or so, followed by a lengthy build-up of a lunar base. Because of the funding such an effort would require, it’s suggested here that any capability for astronauts to visit asteroids would necessarily come much later. It’s also suggested that a path that includes smaller, easier incremental improvements (ISS to LEO to GEO to Lagrange Point to Near Earth Asteroid), no heavy lift launcher, more commercial infrastructure development, more emphasis on Cheap Access to Space, satellite servicing capabilities like in-space refueling, and similar features offers a better path for getting astronauts to asteroids.


Since our energy problems and opportunities are so intertwined with those of our environment, it’s appropriate to now address what NASA could do for the environment, given additional funding. The main example of NASA contribution to the environment, other than energy-related applications like those suitable for the preceding discussion, is NASA’s Earth observation satellite constellation and Earth observations from space stations. Complementing these efforts are NASA’s scientific investigations of other planets, the Sun, and Earth’s magnetosphere. These efforts allow comparative planetary science studies of the Earth, and allow scientists and operational environment managers to monitor the Earth’s environment in the context of its surroundings.

It is suggested here that in addition to NASA’s existing Earth Observation effort, an additional effort, perhaps on the scale of the $500M to $900M per year, would be appropriate, given the importance of monitoring and understanding our environment. This importance goes beyond the current discussion of global climate change. In fact Earth observation from space contributes countless benefits to citizens, businesses, Federal, State, and Local government agencies, and numerous other organizations. These benefits perhaps rival the practicality of those of the communications satellites, and in fact many of the suggested NASA research and demonstration efforts should be transitioned to the private sector once accomplished. Others should be transitioned to appropriate operational government agencies, such as NOAA, the USGS, or the Defense Department. These transitions will allow NASA to continually expand the research frontier in Earth observation.

Some suggested areas where NASA could contribute to helping us understand and manage the environment follow.

1. Build Proposed Observation Satellites – NASA could address some of the currently unfunded Earth observation missions documented in the National Academies’ Space Studies Board’s document “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond”. In addition to the inherent environmental science benefit of the Earth Observation measurements these new missions would produce, the additional missions would have a beneficial incremental effect on the launch vehicle and Earth Observation satellite industrial base used by the existing NASA and NOAA environment monitoring missions. For example, the additional launches would present an opportunity for lower per-launch cost for rockets in these mission classes as fixed costs are spread over more missions, as additional launch capacity is available in, for example, EELV-class rockets.

2. Complement Decadal Survey Earth Observations with Planetary and Other Observations – It is suggested that some of the additional environmental satellite funding be directed not on Earth Observation missions, but on Planetary Science and Solar Physics missions selected for their relevance to the Earth’s environment. As mentioned above, Planetary Science missions can serve an important comparative planetary science role in the study of many Earth features, such as climate, weather, atmosphere, cryosphere, volcanoes, geology, and even oceans, to name a few. Solar Physics missions can also shed light on the important effects the Sun has on the Earth’s environment.

3. Build Satellites for Transition to Operational Status – As NASA moves its research satellite capabilities to operational status in NOAA or the private sector, it can smooth this transition by building an additional identical or similar copy of the successful research satellite. This might give the operational organization a chance to learn about the satellite by operating it in orbit, for example, thereby easing the transition as it takes over building new versions of the satellite. This method can also serve as a backup in case of launch or other failure not inherent in the satellite design.

4. Perform Earth Monitoring Demonstrations on the Moon – NASA could address some of the ideas for monitoring the Earth and Sun from the surface of the Moon or lunar orbit described in the document “The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon: Final Report” by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. Additional details on such concepts can be found in the “NASA Advisory Council Workshop on Science Associated with the Lunar Exploration Architecture” at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Numerous White Papers and slide presentations outlining such concepts can be found, for example, at It should be noted that the budget increase in the proposal here for environmental work (as well as all the other application areas) comes at the expense of the Constellation lunar architecture. As a result, concepts that rely on Constellation could, of course, not happen with this proposal. However, this document does NOT propose abandoning the Return to the Moon effort. Instead, it proposes changing it so that it is started with a much more comprehensive robotic effort. In the meantime, the capabilities, infrastructure, and businesses required to implement a sustainable, affordable, and productive lunar return for humans are built. Later, after this foundation is built, humans would return to the Moon. One job that should happen immediately is an effort to demonstrate using robotics various useful things that can be done on and around the Moon, including Earth observations. In many cases, these lunar demonstrations will be useful for monitoring the Earth in and of themselves, but delivering only a small fraction of the benefit that such measurements can bring using larger-scale instruments built and maintained by lunar astronauts. In this way, the robotic and human programs complement, rather than oppose, each other in this proposal. The robotic efforts help show us many of the things we can do even more usefully on the Moon with people. Note that these demonstrations would be, given funding constraints, limited. Use of small, inexpensive, private vehicles like those that may come from the Google Lunar X PRIZE may be warranted in many cases.

5. Use Hosted Payloads - Because of the limited budget, it is recommended that hosting instrument payloads on commercial or international satellites be considered. These approaches strengthen the commercial satellite industry and cooperation with international allies, respectively.

6. Use Suborbital Vehicles - Because of the limited budget, it is recommended that use of low cost suborbital platforms be a considerable part of the added environment monitoring effort. This could take the form of traditional airplane and balloon platforms as well as traditional sounding rockets. It can also take the form of low cost, reusable commercial manned and unmanned suborbital vehicles. These vehicles can allow repeated sampling of the Earth’s middle atmosphere, testing of space-bound environmental satellite instruments and other satellite components, and remote sensing of various features of the Earth for both the benefits of the measurements themselves, and also for calibration reasons for orbiting remote sensing instruments. This approach will also have the benefit of helping the economy through the new suborbital reusable rocket industry, and fostering one important approach to Cheap Access to Space.

7. Use Small Satellites - Because of the limited budget, it is recommended that small satellites be a considerable part of the added environment monitoring effort. A steady series of these lower cost satellites that tend to be less capable but more quickly developed than their larger counterparts can be expected to be a valuable complement to the existing environment satellites. Promoting small satellites also offers a market for smaller launch vehicles, which in turn provide an incentive for an achievable class of economical reusable launch vehicles.

8. Satellite Servicing – It is suggested that the additional environment funding be used as an opportunity to promote satellite servicing capabilities that would benefit future generations of Earth Observation satellites. The servicing could be done by robotic satellites or astronauts. Certainly, since the new funding would be coming from the Constellation program that emphasizes human missions, it would be appropriate to strongly consider satellite servicing by astronauts in many cases. This approach would continue the mutual support advocated here for robotic and human missions. Servicing might involve in-orbit satellite refueling, simple monitoring of satellite external appearance, replacing satellite instruments, batteries, or other components, and tug services to adjust satellite orbits. Tugs might also move satellites to a servicing orbit and location. Such servicing capabilities would require the satellites to be designed to allow easy servicing; this design work could be developed by this new environmental funding. In one of the scenarios hypothesized here, the Ares/Orion vehicles would be made, although probably in downsized form. In both scenarios, commercial space transportation vendors would be prevalent. In the first case, to prevent the NASA Ares/Orion vehicles from competing with the commercial vehicles for International Space Station servicing work, the NASA vehicles would be dedicated primarily to the new astronaut class of LEO satellite servicing missions, and only do ISS work as a backup to the commercial vehicles. Commercial vehicles would gradually move into LEO satellite servicing in this scenario, and ultimately the Ares/Orion vehicles would move entirely beyond LEO satellite servicing to GEO satellite servicing, and later to Lagrange point satellite servicing, gradually passing primary responsibility to commercial vehicles in each step. In the other scenario, the commercial vehicles take on all of these roles over time.

Considering NASA’s potential increased contribution to the environment from these areas combined with some of the other environmentally-relevant application areas described here, NASA has the opportunity to completely transform our understanding and monitoring of the Earth’s environment.


The first application area to be discussed for a new NASA effort is energy. With high gas prices, oil exporters that in many cases do not view or treat the United States as an ally, strategic vulnerability of oil to supply interruptions, balance of trade issues, and energy impacts on climate, efficient and cost-effective energy in various forms is becoming more and more of a national priority. The thought exercise that this section proposes is to imagine the kinds of contributions that NASA could make to our national energy needs, while at the same time continuing its role in space and aeronautics, if roughly $500M (in the scenario where this much funding is available for the new program because the Constellation program is downsized) or $900M (in the scenario where this much funding is available because the Constellation program is cancelled). The same type of thought exercise is suggested for all of the other application areas in later sections.

One point to remember is that not just one, but all of these eight $500M per year or $900M per year application efforts could be made if Constellation is replaced or downsized.

For energy, as with all of the other application areas, we need to stretch the budget so we can afford several projects. Large, expensive projects will unfortunately have to be postponed. The following efforts are mentioned as concepts to consider when building a program that will fit in a $500M or $1900M per year NASA energy application budget. It is well beyond the scope of this document to propose budgets or details for these ideas; budget, policy and application area experts would need to fill in the details to allow policy makers to select and define the most appropriate energy program. The purpose here is to show a few of many ways that NASA could contribute to this application and problem area while at the same time fulfilling its space and aeronautics mission.

1. Power Subsystem Improvements – NASA could perform research, development, and demonstration activities for improved satellite, spacecraft, or space station power systems like solar panels, batteries, fuel cells. The purpose would be not only to make the space components more efficient or cost effective, but to also spin off the improved technology for application in Earth energy production scenarios.

2. Power Use Improvements – NASA could perform research, development, and demonstration activities for improved satellite, spacecraft, or space station subsystems that use power more efficiently. This could include satellite instruments, computers, life support systems, and many other modules. The purpose would be not only to make the space components more efficient or cost effective, but to also spin off the improved technology for application in Earth energy efficiency scenarios.

3. Improved Earth Observation for Energy – NASA could perform additional Earth observation research and missions with the goal of better mapping characteristics of the Earth related to energy. The purpose would be to hand off these demonstrated capabilities to the private sector or to operational agencies like NOAA and the USGS. These missions could be done by Earth orbiting satellites, suborbital rockets, or both with suborbital rockets testing components meant for Earth orbit, or complementing orbital measurements. Many of these ideas have already started; in these cases, the efforts could be to improve temporal, spatial, or spectral coverage. Examples include mapping winds to help wind turbine placement, searching for oil, mapping tides, mapping potential dams, mapping subsurface water or geothermal temperature gradients, and designing efficient urban transportation networks.

4. Improved Airplane Fuel Efficiency – NASA’s aeronautics expertise could be used to strengthen research, development, and deployment of air fuel efficiency technology. This could range from more fuel efficient fighter aircraft, passenger and cargo jet liners, and even electric General Aviation planes. NASA already has a “General Aviation” Centennial Challenge for small aircraft fuel efficiency; this prize could be expanded considerably. NASA aeronautics could also help in designing more efficient airport operations and air traffic management systems. These efforts might even include demonstrating lighter than air ships for efficient transport for circumstances where quick delivery and large payload mass aren’t important business parameters.

5. Cheap Access to Space – Communication and GPS satellites are used for many energy-saving applications, like making surface and air transportation more efficient, telecommuting, and remote metering. NASA could perform research and X plane demonstrations of CATS vehicles to help bring lower launch costs to these communications and GPS satellites, thereby enabling the universe of these energy-saving applications to expand.

6. Space Weather Monitoring – NASA could improve its monitoring of the Sun and space weather using suborbital, Earth orbiting, and Lagrange point platforms. These are helpful in providing warnings for Earth power grids. NASA Solar and Space Weather research applications would ultimately be moved to the private sector, NOAA, or the Defense Department.

7. Solar Power Satellite or Power Relay Satellite Demonstration – A full-fledged Solar Power Satellite or Power Relay Satellite is probably beyond the scope of NASA, and at any rate would be difficult and expensive. This proposal is simply to retire some of the technical and perceived risk of such large-scale ventures by performing a small scale demonstration of power beaming or relay technologies in space. A variety of potential demonstrations could be done: beaming power from one space vehicle to another, beaming power on a small scale to Earth (perhaps simulating power for emergency disaster response applications rather than powering the national energy grid), or SPS/PRS subsystem demonstrations.

8. Helium 3 extraction Demonstration – As with Solar Power/Relay Satellites, fusion power using Helium 3 from the Moon is probably not a near-term possibility. However, a small lunar regolith processing demonstration to extract Helium 3, on Earth or possibly even a small robotic demonstration on the Moon itself, would retire risk for such a venture. It could also be useful as a demonstration for other regolith processing activities.

Each of these areas can be broken down into smaller sub-problems. In many cases it’s a matter of complementing existing NASA efforts that are not funded adequately considering the importance of the energy challenge our nation faces. There are many opportunities here for NASA to be a customer of, to work with, and to pass along technology to the private sector or operational agencies, and thereby provide important help to our economy and to the important work of other Federal agencies.

Budget Scenarios

The rest of this section will list some possible ways NASA could address the different application areas using space and aeronautics. For the sake of discussion, two scenarios are considered. In the first scenario, the Constellation program is removed entirely, and budgets are allocated and adjusted in such a way that roughly $7 billion dollars is made available to this new NASA application emphasis by the Constellation cancellation and Shuttle retirement. This amount is divided equally for 8 application areas to allow a discussion of what types of things might be accomplished with about $900M per year budgets for these 8 application areas.

In the second scenario, the Constellation program survives, but is restricted to a smaller, less ambitious transportation system that simply transports a minimal crew of 2 to Low Earth Orbit destinations. This transportation system is developed on a stretched-out schedule. This restriction results in $4 billion per year for the application areas upon Shuttle retirement, or $500 million per year each if evenly divided.

These figures are just conceptual examples to illustrate the types of things that could be done as an alternative to Constellation. They are illustrations of the concept of “opportunity cost”, a concept that may be particularly relevant to the Constellation architecture. The particular scenarios are unlikely to happen, but the point is valid whether the actual budget for a particular new application area is $100 million per year or $2 billion per year.

Application Areas

The first goal to replace Constellation outlined above was “Be relevant; address problems whose solution is important to the nation”. One of the problems with the concept of a big effort to return to the Moon is that the public generally does not see the return to the Moon as important, or likely to solve their problems. It’s seen as a “nice to have”, and an expensive one at that. To address this common perception, it is suggested that the big “Apollo-style” push to return to the Moon be replaced with a set of NASA efforts that directly address the public’s concerns in an obvious way through space and aeronautics.

In such a change of emphasis, the lunar effort is not abandoned, as a certain level of effort towards exploration is appropriate and expected for NASA. However, addressing the public’s concerns is the central focus that replaces the Constellation program. When evaluating an effort that addresses a public need through space, but that doesn’t help return to the Moon, such an effort will tend to rank high in the evaluation. On the other hand, when evaluating an effort that doesn’t address a public need through space but does help return to the Moon, the effort will tend to rank low in the evaluation. Nevertheless, some pure “return to the Moon” effort is kept, and certainly an effort that both addresses a public need and helps return to the Moon is likely to be evaluated favorably.

It is difficult to truly know what public and national needs and desires are, but a common sense assessment can be made by reviewing the Federal budget, or by reading newspaper headlines. For the sake of argument, the following areas are considered to be important to the public:
  1. Energy
  2. Security and Defense
  3. Health, Medicine, and Biology
  4. Environment
  5. Transportation
  6. Telecommunications and Media
  7. Education
  8. Exploration

The first four of these areas are similar to the top 4 highest priorities for technology advancement cited in a poll in Fairfax County, Virginia (here's the link for the poll; also see this Space Politics post). These 4 areas accounted for 91% of those polled, so these areas should be featured prominently. The other areas (Transportation, Telecommunications and Media, and Exploration), although they ranked lower, can also be featured in a new space effort, since they did earn at least a small amount of recognition in the poll, and also because they lend themselves easily to NASA efforts. The other area, “Education”, was not mentioned in the poll about technology advancement. However, based on Federal, State, and Local government spending on education, on Democratic Presidential Candidate Obama’s original proposal to replace the return to the Moon effort with a new Federal education program, and on NASA’s existing and potential interactions in the educational sphere, it is considered an appropriate area of public concern for NASA’s new program to address.

Different Administrations and Congresses may weigh the value of these areas differently. It is not in the scope of this paper to pit one of these areas against another. Rather, the point of this paper is that, other than Exploration, the current Constellation effort does a rather weak job of addressing ANY of these quite valid public concerns. It is suggested here that the new effort that replaces Constellation can and should do a better job to help solve problems in several, or even all, of these areas. Such an approach would provide practical benefits to the taxpayers, and as a result would be more politically sustainable.

Approach and Criteria

The approach advocated here allows NASA to vigorously meet the following 5 simple but crucial goals in an obvious, understandable way:

  1. Be relevant; address problems whose solution is important to the nation.
  2. Promote commercial space and international cooperation.
  3. Encourage “Cheap Access to Space (CATS)”.
  4. Address the central goals of the VSE: Security, Economics, and Science.
  5. Develop useful space infrastructure.

The position taken here is that these goals are sufficiently important to form the rationale for the space program. Although the Constellation approach to the VSE was devised with some of the same goals, the position taken here is that the approach outlined below offers much better prospects of addressing most or all of these goals.

The approach advocated here is base on the following 10 principles:

  1. Do not abandon exploration, including human and robotic missions to the Moon.
  2. Do not leave human spaceflight “stuck in Low Earth Orbit”.
  3. Human and robotic areas should complement, not oppose, each other.
  4. Use NASA’s strengths and existing infrastructure (e.g.: robotic exploration, ISS).
  5. Do not rely on a single system, such as a single space transportation system.
  6. Emphasize smaller, manageable missions and incremental, achievable progress.
  7. Plan flexibility to adjust given changes in national priorities and opportunities.
  8. Strengthen research and development (e.g.: NACA, New Millenium).
  9. Get some results quickly. Don’t leave the main payoff for 16 years.
  10. Earn broad support beyond the program’s workers and contractors through demonstrated usefulness. Earn support from businesses, other Federal agencies, States, educational organizations, and science and engineering organizations.

The position taken here is that these approaches offer an improved chance of success from political, technical, financial, and management perspectives than the Constellation approach.

The central decision suggested here is to replace NASA’s Constellation program to build NASA rockets and space transportation systems to return to the Moon with a new set of NASA missions and programs. As a result of this central point, for simplicity it will be assumed that, while not flawless, the other NASA programs (Science, Aeronautics, etc.) are appropriate and will be taken as a baseline. In several cases responsibilities will be suggested for these areas. It should be understood that these are new responsibilities and any associated funding would be new funding added to the current base in these areas.


It has been noted recently by many observers that NASA is now at a crossroads. The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which most prominently directs NASA’s efforts towards a return of astronauts to the Moon along with additional solar system exploration, has been in effect for several years. However, the implementation of the vision has suffered from low levels of funding, public enthusiasm, commercial participation, international participation, and tangible results. The interested science community has, on the whole, not been an enthusiastic supporter of the effort since robotic science budgets were reduced to respond to problems in the human spaceflight missions. This problem, however, has recently been reduced by the addition of several robotic lunar science missions to follow the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA’s Ares and Orion crew transportation system that is part of the Moon transportation architecture, and is also a system to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station, has suffered from technical problems, schedule delays, and budget shortfalls. NASA plans to retire the Space Shuttle by 2010, and the Ares/Orion system isn’t expected to be ready until 2015 or later, which leaves NASA in the uncomfortable position of relying on the Russian Soyuz to maintain the Space Station. Another danger is that the Ares/Orion transportation may take so long to develop, and use so much money to develop and operate, that NASA is never able to build the much larger Ares V rocket and associated lunar transportation systems. This plausible and extremely unpleasant scenario not only abandons the return to the Moon, but also leaves NASA with a transportation system that would likely compete with commercial U.S. space transportation systems for jobs like International Space Station supply and crew rotation.

Meanwhile, in the larger world, a new U.S. Presidential Administration will soon take power. This new Administration will want to take a careful look at NASA’s current plan and judge its progress. It will also want to evaluate NASA’s goals and approach to achieving those goals. This will be done in the context of numerous competing political priorities. This document suggests changes that should be made to NASA’s goals by the incoming Administration, and the mindset used to reach those goals that should allow NASA to contribute more to larger national priorities. Using these guidelines, NASA should, at the same time that it contributes more to national priorities, be able to make progress towards the heart of the Vision for Space Exploration: human and robotic exploration, using signification commercial and international participation, to achieve useful economic, security, and scientific advances.