Questions on NASA’s Future

(Originally posted on March 1, 2010 on the Space Tweep Society Blog.)

Earlier this month I shared with you my thoughts on NASA’s new vision and how the new vision could fail. And the weekend before the budget was unveiled I wrote about what I thought NASA should pursue in its future.

There has been no shortage of people sharing their thoughts on the FY2011 budget and the revamping of NASA and that is exactly how it should be.  People should be heard.  To date, the blog post in my opinion that sums things up the best is Changing Horses in Mid Stream.  If you haven’t read this one yet, it’s worth the time.

However, have you noticed that there isn’t a consensus in what is being said?  Which way should NASA go?  There are different camps.  Which one are you in?  Are you in the commercial camp?  The NASA only camp?  The Constellation camp?  The extend Shuttle camp?  There are too many to list.

Answer the following questions and include the why…then come back and see how I answered them.

1) Should Constellation be saved?

2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technogologies that will get us to Mars?

4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

*Comments have been ported over.


8 responses to “Questions on NASA’s Future

  1. 1) Should Constellation be saved? As much of it that makes sense for a stepped approach to get out of the Earth/Luna system.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?
    Depends on a real feasibility study and a realistic approach to closing the gap with a meaningful launch system(s). One that meets LEO and or a separate one for beyond LEO.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technogologies that will get us to Mars? Yes.

    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO? There are several ways to go. Depends on the mission and the problems were trying solve.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

    It is a benefit that was not part of it’s original mission or brand that has developed and is now part of the core whether it or any administration realizes it.

    John M Knight @johnmknight

  2. 1) Should Constellation be saved?

    With a new crew compartment I would think, should be the same or better than the one it will replace. I can see a lesser version being made if the crew could get to and from the landing or launch site in a day or less otherwise you will need facilities for the trips activities and sleeping quarters. Whether its a 2 day orbital rendezvous with the ISS or a weeks travel around the Moon or months travel to Mars we need a craft that can make the astronauts comfortable and get the job done at the same time.

    I think America’s future spaceflight craft should be revisited and all options should be vetted out in an Augustine type commission so that we get the craft we need, not a craft we are given. Have the need fit the mission or missions it will undertake and make a charter so its purpose and direction are known. It will be a system we will be using for another few decades and beyond so make it with all the leading technologies you can place in it.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

    The easy fix would be to stretch out the final missions over a longer distance.

    The hard fix would be adding more missions, more tanks would be needed . If this is the case I don’t want to go back to the older flaky tanks, given the chance I think we could refit the shuttle’s engines with newer more powerful models and move to a horizontal launch system where the tank is actually a jet outfitted with LOX engines to use the lift to get it to sub orbital heights and switch to rocket mode sending both of them in to orbit and the jet would return so you get a reusable main tank as well. Putting in this much work would make it part of our future fleet as well ,so newer shuttles would be made to replace the older ones as needed. This would cover our future manned flights just fine, but would still be in need of heavy launch vehicle for larger satellite payloads like the JWST.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technologies that will get us to Mars?

    Yes, and could be done with a shift from defense spending to the NASA budget by just a nudge while it would still be serving the same purpose would blast NASA’s budget out of this solar system.
    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

    Not really depends on what other vehicles you have at your disposal, A heavy lift vehicle would be needed for larger satellite launches like the JWST or boosting larger payloads to LEO as well as beyond LEO, if you have no LEO support structure like the ISS and LEO based refueling depots.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

    To show what mankind is capable of in positive ways. Whether working together as nations for a common goal or achieving what most would think of as fantasy and could never be done and making it an every day occurrence.


  3. 1) Should Constellation be saved?

    Parts of it should be saved. I don’t think we should restore it carte blanche. Orion had reached the point where I feel it was severly handicapped in terms of performance and capability. I personally blame Ares for the bulk of this, but I’m sure there are other contributing factors. It did have major problems, and NASA had major problems managing the program. But we should save some of the work that has been done. I like the idea of an “optimized Orion” that Lockheed is now looking at. It gets us off the ground again quickly, and we need that.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

    No. I’m a shuttle flight controller and have no idea what I’ll be doing next, but I still say no. The shuttle is fabulous, but it has to end sometime. NASA cannot move forward unless it can play with the money freed up by ending the shuttle program.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technogologies that will get us to Mars?

    Definitely. I think unmanned is most likely, and I really hope to see a large slate of new unmanned missions to various destinations (Mars, Moon, asteroids, etc) proposed as part of the new direction.

    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

    I don’t know. Considering today’s technology, probably yes. But who knows what we might be able to come up with if we’re able to force the issue.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

    I LOVE NASA. But I have to be honest — the vast majority do not view NASA as something that is vital to the success of our country. Therefore if we don’t inspire people, if we don’t make people say “oh that’s cool, that’s worth the money we spent” then NASA will die. That’s the challenge, and it’s a tough one — make people decide that even though they don’t see us as absolutely necessary, they think the stuff we do is cool enough to keep us around.


  4. Great approach and challenge. Here goes:

    (1) Yes and no. We need to take the best in design and concept from Constellation and go forward with a compromise design/concept. That allows us to not only explore the moon, but start the process of full fledged solar system exploration. We keep Orion, but find a different way to get it up there.Using a mix of new and existing systems and designs comes to mind. This is the kind of thing we (science and engineering) are good at, really good at.

    (2) Absolutely extend the shuttle which includes spending the dollars to bring the support network back on line. The private sector boys will get there, but we (NASA) must be the ultimate authority in deciding when they are totally human flight safe. Until then we need more than Soyuz because that price is going up, and also politics could shut it down for us in a flash. Most importantly shuttle is more than support for the ISS, shuttle could also start to be a space junk controller. This is vital before we have a major tragedy. Lastly, without the shuttle support I fear the the ISS support up to 2020 may not be supported. This would be a terrible engineering and scientific loss/defeat.

    (3) Absolutely, and mostly robotically while we (NASA) come up with the “kluge: design I discuss in (1) above. We (NASA) also cannot let even robotic exploration lag. If we fall behind, we could reach a point where we never catch up to the detriment of our entire technological standing.

    (4) Depends how, where we are going and who is going along. VASIMR concept could be the doorway to a non-heavly lift launch capability but depending upon the Delta Vees needed to start toward a destination can determine how we go about it, but I would say NO hlv from NEO.

    (5) Holy Moses, without inspiration we would not even be where we (NASA) are today. WE need more of it now, more than ever, and the absence of a clear goal or set of goals leaves us floundering and dispirited. I am so dreadfully tired of pretty speeches with nothing behind them. I sum up how we (engineering and science in America) really react to problems. (a) Some say oh well maybe next time, and (b) the engineers say, “for crying out loud, lets fix it NOW! So we are capable of our own inspiration. I am so happy that the Wright brothers did not give up, and when they had early failures, they said lets fix it now! They remain our ongoing, everlasting inspiration. So LET’S FIX IT NOW, and get going.


  5. As promised, here are my thoughts to the questions you have taken the time to answer.

    1) Should Constellation be saved? No. The program as it was should not be saved for two simple reasons. One, it was severely underfunded for many years and that cost us what the program was designed to be. With every new Fiscal Year and reduced budget, more aspects of the program had to be delayed, deferred, or cut. Two, the chosen architecture (Ares I, Ares V, Orion, EDS, Altair, Lunar Surface Systems) did have technical problems (like all new designs), however it reduced vehicle capability. Now is the time to take the best of Constellation and apply it to the #newvision.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap? No. For 6-7 years now the plan has been to complete the building of the space station and retire the space station. This has been coming and NASA was working on a solution to have a new vehicle flying. However, Congress obviously was not paying attention then because they continued to cut the funding for Constellation over and over again. Now, they want NASA to try and figure out how to continue flying Shuttle until a new vehicle is ready to replace it but within the proposed FY2011 budget. Here’s why I say don’t continue to fly the space shuttle. The space shuttle is an expensive vehicle to fly. For as long as you continue to fly it without fully funding it and a replacement vehicle you will never (yes, never) leave Low Earth Orbit. 30 years of flying shuttle and at least 24 funded replacement vehicles (and canceled) are proof of this.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technogologies that will get us to Mars? Yes. Why can’t we get to Mars today? Because for the type of propulsion that is available today we don’t have the capability to protect humans for that duration of time in space and exposed to radiation, bone loss, etc. However, it will take many years/decade(s) before we will get to Mars and we should be building up experience and capabilities all along the way.

    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO? No. There are more than one way to do things. Heavy-lift is an option. But, so is rendezvous and docking modules in Low Earth Orbit, utilizing propellant depots, and many more great ideas.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA? Simply to inspire future generations who will grow up to be the next explorers.


  6. Well we agree on most things. Let me explain why I support a shuttle extension. (1) It will in essence be both same old shuttle and new shuttle. New shuttle will be the transport vehicle for putting in LEO the modules that will become the items you point out can replace or displace the HLV. Now (2) is that the shuttle continues to be a major preparatory program for astronauts only this time it will be both NASA and private sector. Yeah, the PS will eventually have human rated LEO vehicles but while they work to get there, shuttle will carry on and will prep the very people that will eventually fly in the PS spacecraft. When it comes to astronaut training and prep, there is no on else equal to NASA. This is critical and should not be an option with respect to future human spaceflight. Yes, again, PS in time will carry its own weight and that is good, but if we rush into it we rush right over a cliff. Lets avoid that.

    Lastly, MOMENTUM. This is the most critical element. We cannot allow NASA and its many contractor to collapse back into a half academic R&D dance that does not moves us very far forward. We have that momentum now, and must sustain it, passing on part of it to our PS friends, but in a safe, secure and successful process. Meanwhile no pauses please.



  7. I started typing this up the first evening this was posted, but never quite finished. Here my thoughts (txflygirl, it looks like we think alike on most of these questions):

    1) Should Constellation be saved?

    Partially. The problem is that Constellation was never properly funded for success. The choice is to increase funding or re-envision it. Giving the reality of the federal budget deficits, I think the latter is the more practical approach. Figure out which pieces of the Constellation program have matured enough and some how make them part of the “new vision.”

    On a related note, I was somewhat disappointed when Constellation was originally announced because it didn’t seem like we were going to push the bounds of new technology as much as I would have liked to have seen. Going back to capsules seems like such a huge step backwards after the shuttle. Economically, it might have made sense to do “Apollo on Steriods,” but it was not necessarily a bold vision. Perhaps this is part of the reason it hasn’t captured the public’s hearts and minds.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

    Yes, with a very limited flight schedule, 1-2 flights per year. Not only does it help to close the gap, it helps to maintain more of the workforce. But this should be done with net new funds. If Congress is as serious about their concerns over the “new vision” as they say they are, I think they can find $1B-$2B more a year to keep the shuttle flying until a new US vehicle (either NASA or commercial) is ready.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technogologies that will get us to Mars?

    Yes. I think this is critical in fact.

    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

    Not necessarily. Although I am not an aerospace engineer, the concept of constructing an “interplanetary shuttle” at the ISS by ferrying up crew, propulsion, and fuel modules on smaller, unmanned rockets (Atlas, Delta, Falcon, take your pick) seems feasible to me.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

    NASA’s existence depends upon its ability to generate political capital. Its ability to inspire is one of its primary keys to creating political capital, which can come in the following forms (among others):

    – “Economic power.” In order for the US to be successful in the 21st century, it must do a better job on encouraging its young people to study science, technology, engineering and math. I think many of us here can attest to NASA’s ability to do this, perhaps better than anything else.

    – “Soft Power” that makes people across the world look upon the US favorably.


  8. 1) Should Constellation be saved?

    No, but as much of the workforce and relevant designs of the rockets and crew vehicle should be carried over to heavy launch vehicle development.

    2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

    No. The time to save the shuttle is long past. It’s astronomically high launch cost has been hampering human spaceflight for years. And even if we did want to save it, my understanding is that the supporting industries that build critical components have already lost that capability, and that it would take time and even more money to regain that ability.

    3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technologies that will get us to Mars?

    Yes. I don’t think there is any doubt about this, and listening to remarks from the NASA administrator makes it clear that he agrees. NASA and the white house did a poor job of making this clear when the new budget was rolled out, but I think the intention is to follow something similar to the “flexible path” option suggested by the Augustine commission. The moon would be one possible destination among many, with a long term goal of humans on Mars.

    4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

    Probably. The alternative would be to have numerous cheap launches and orbital fuel depots, but the space station has shown us the difficulty of assembling complex spacecraft in orbit.

    5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

    Inspiration is NASA’s job, and without it, support for space exploration will erode. With it, NASA will become more popular and politicians will be more willing to properly fund NASA programs.