An Open Letter to the National Research Council’s Committee on the Strategic Direction of NASA

Tonight I went to the web page for the National Research Council’s committee on the strategic direction of NASA. Here is the website, I invite everyone to go there and voice your own opinion.

I am annoyed at some of the questions, such as the question regarding humans/vs robots. This is a silly question for such an organization such as this to ask and misses the entire point about what strategic direction means. Another question asked about the strategic direction statement itself. The NASA strategic direction, vision and mission statements aren’t bad. That is not the point. The point is that the implementation of those high sounding words is atrocious. Anyway, I copied all the questions and my answers, and these are now open for your comments as well!! Maybe this public forum will help provide better information than the limited format that they used.

NASA’s Vision, Mission and Strategic Direction.
What is your understanding and opinion of NASA’s current vision, mission and strategic direction? If you think NASA’s vision, mission and strategic direction should different from the above, please state what they should be and why.

The vision and mission statement of NASA in their 2011 strategic plan are largely decoupled from the way that the strategic goal, especially #1 is implemented. 1.3 states:

“Develop an integrated architecture and capabilities for safe crewed and cargo missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

Currently, none of the BEO exploration architectures integrates ISS into its plan. It is merely assumed that ISS will not be around due to the long development period of the SLS HLV booster. The SLS booster, its cost, and long gestation is the flaw in the implementation of the Strategic direction. An alternate architecture integrating existing vehicles, advanced technology, and living off the land negates the need for the SLS.
The implementation plan that undergirds the utilization of an SLS heavy lift vehicle assumes that all payloads for human BEO missions will be lofted from the Earth. None of the design reference missions incorporate InSitu Resource Utilization (ISRU) in any serious manner. The reasons given are that ISRU is at a low Technical Readiness Level (TRL), yet there are no significant programs in NASA beyond Jerry Sanders modest efforts, in NASA’s strategic technology portfolio.

Without ISRU, no BEO exploration strategy is sustainable. At no time in human history has any exploration or colonization succeeded when reliant on supplies from home. NASA’s LRO, Mars, and other planetary missions indicate that our solar system is rich with resources, including fuels and metals, that would support a “living off the land” strategy.

The SLS centric architecture ignores ISS and wastes NASA’s flagship human spaceflight program. Its expense and long gestation time, renders human BEO exploration so far into the future as to be of little value to our society. It is recommended that the strategic plan be amended to incorporate “living off the land” as a central theme for sustainable human BEO exploration.

In your opinion, should NASA’s annual budget (currently about $18 billion) be substantially increased, be substantially decreased, or remain at about the current level – and why? [In responding to this question, assume that an increase in NASA’s budget would require reduction(s) elsewhere in the federal budget and, conversely, that a decrease in NASA’s budget would enable increased funding elsewhere in the federal budget.]

NASA’s budget is less important than the strategic direction and national priority. Today billions of dollars per year are wasted on a heavy lift vehicle with no funding for payloads and is not expected to be operational for another ten years. Reallocating this funding to advanced technology, in space systems, and more commercial integration would provide vastly more value to the American taxpayer.

As far as the budget goes, the budget is always given as the reason that we cannot do more in space. In this same amount of time, especially in the last several years the lie of this proposition has been made abundantly clear. Our nation has spent trillions of dollars on the financial system bail out, almost a trillion dollars in stimulus spending and barely a budge on the NASA budget. From 2001 to 2008 the budget of the education department increased more than twice NASA’s entire budget. Money is not the problem, the problem is priority.

NASA’s priority as integrated into national priorities, has been sorely shortchanged. Organizations such as the National Academies of Science and other like organizations have dominated the discussion regarding the strategic direction of NASA and hence NASA becomes yet another government science project. It has been observed that on this committee there is only one person with a robust business background. Additionally, there is no advocate for the economic development of the solar system and its strategic value to the nation. The solar system is rich in resources, resources that can make the difference in providing for the 9 billion humans who will be alive in less than 40 years.
Therefore the question is not budget, it is priority, and with the right priority our national space efforts should have a budget of at least $75 billion per year.
Human Component of Space Exploration.
In your opinion, what is the relative value of a space exploration program (to low-Earth orbit and beyond) that includes humans as compared to a space exploration program that is conducted exclusively with robotic, uncrewed spacecraft and rovers? That is, to what extent does a human presence add value to a space exploration program, and is it worth the cost and risk?

This is the old humans vs robots canard and truly has no place in the deliberations of such a body as this. To even ask this question indicates a serious misunderstanding of the value of the space enterprise to the nation and the world. It may be that this was placed here to simulate discussion and it is in this context that it will be answered.

We live on an Earth where in less than forty years we will have a population of over 9 billion people. There is a large school of thought that the resources of our planet cannot long sustain such a population and that it is inevitable that with the exhaustion of our resources our civilization will collapse. This is what I call a “one world” argument that ignores the vast resources of our solar system in energy, materials, and living space. In my chapter on Space Power Theory this was called “the geocentric mindset”. This mindset takes as a given that there is nothing of value in space, when nothing is farther from the truth.

The obverse of the geocentric one world mindset is the “Many Worlds” hypothesis.
The many worlds hypothesis has as its core the scientific fact that our solar system is rich with resources and that it is our goal not only to obtain these resources for the preservation and extension of our global civilization, it is our goal to take our civilization to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. In this many worlds hypothesis it is an intrinsic value that humans and machines together will create a solar system spanning civilization of unparalleled wealth, technology, and freedom. We have the technology, we have the financial ability, the question is whether our leaders have the vision to do their part to enable this future.

NASA Communications
Do you feel that NASA is very good, moderately good or not very good at communicating its vision, mission and strategic direction to its stakeholders, including the public? Why? How do you obtain information about NASA (TV news, websites, Twitter or other social media, etc.). If you think NASA’s communication strategy needs improvement, what specifically do you recommend? Why?

There are two NASA’s. The first NASA is the one that we who are insiders know about. The agency who is the hostage to political interests, where decisions are made not on what is in the best interest of the nation but on which senator has the best means of squeezing NASA to make it provide for his or her favorite pork barrel. This is the NASA that destroys the space shuttle program with no replacement. This is the NASA that spends more than a Nimitz class super carrier on a telescope. This is a NASA that never saw a budget that it could not overrun so badly as to endanger the entire NASA mission.

Then there is the NASA that the public sees. This is the NASA that, at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night, has several thousand people in the quad at NASA Ames to watch the landing of curiosity, and they weren’t all NASA employees or contractors. This is the NASA where at 10:30 in the evening in Los Angeles, you could not even get to the Griffith Park Observatory where several thousand more people were waiting for Curiosity’s landing. This is the NASA that, though it is 0.5% of the Federal budget, gets 98% of all government internet traffic, and drives entire sectors of the global internet bandwidth during moments like Curiosity’s landing.

No one gives a damn about NASA’s communication of its strategic direction, people care about results. The American public is far better at understanding what NASAs strategic direction should be and it is to the shame of the agency, these committees such as this, and the congress, that NASA is not what the American public think it should be. That is NASA’s biggest problem.

The recommendation is to do more exploration!

International Collaboration
Should the United States conduct future human space exploration efforts on its own, like the Apollo program, or should the United States conduct such efforts as collaborative international efforts, like the International Space Station? If you recommend the latter approach, should the United States insist on taking the lead role? Why?

The United States of America, even with its flaws, is the hope of the world. Of course we should collaborate with our international friends. That should not substitute for leadership. It should not be used as a means to cut the budget. Our leadership will do more to foster international collaboration than international collaboration will do to foster leadership.

It is time for us to lead.

Commercial Space Ventures
Should NASA and the federal government continue current efforts to encourage the development of a commercial space industry as is, or should it either curtail or expand these efforts? What specific actions would you recommend? Why?

1.  Zero G Zero Tax

Zero G Zero Tax (ZGZT) is a tax policy whereby federal taxes on profits, and investment capital gains are taxed at zero percent for a period of twenty years. Existing industries such as communications and remote sensing are excluded. The internet has exploded into a complete revolution of the way our entire civilization works, and this was aided by a favorable tax policy. The economic development of the solar system is more important to our global family than even the Internet.

2. Large Scale Prizes

The use of prizes in history to foster innovation is well known. The design of every locomotive on rails is directly descended from a prize competition in 1825 for a viable system to move freight and people over rails. The Ortieg prize in the early 20th century provided the incentive that allowed Charles Lindberg to raise the funds that he needed to build and fly the Spirit of St. Louis over the Atlantic and change the aviation world. The Ansari X prize provided the incentive that enabled Burt Rutan to build Spaceship 1, who’s commercial descendant will enter service carrying passengers within the next several months.

Prizes must be sized to provide enough financial incentive to recoup most of not all of the commercial cost of a venture and be structured to enable a sustainable market after the prize is won.

Prize 1: The Humans to the Moon prize.

A prize of $5 billion dollars to the company/group/organization who can place three humans on the Moon, keep them there for six months, and return them safely to the Earth.

Prize 2: The propellant prize.

A prize of $5 billion dollars for the first ton of propellant derived from lunar resources and returned to low Earth Orbit at the International Space Station or other low orbit.

Other Remarks
Are there any additional comments regarding NASA’s strategic direction that you would like to make?

It is unfortunate that the composition of this NRC council on NASA’s strategic direction has no core member from the commercial space industry. The credentials of the members are stellar within their realms but these are narrow areas of expertise that do not allow for the long view or the broad outlook that the nation demands in charting the strategic direction of the nation’s space efforts.

It is recommended that the NRC team doing this effort bring together the nation’s experts and futurists in this arena and to strongly consider the role of the economic development and even colonization of the solar system not as quaint science fiction, but as concrete goals to be obtained by our generation.


7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the National Research Council’s Committee on the Strategic Direction of NASA

  1. I hope you did not write something that will annoy the Committee members so they will stop reading and ignore you.

    I am annoyed at some of the questions, such as the question regarding humans/vs robots. This is a silly question …

  2. The best “end of the world” concept is when there are 2 or more of them handling tennis matches, child-rearing, chamber of commerce meetings, etc. A good program focus for Government is space solar power, which puts ISRU to work on and around the moon, opens the pathway for orbital settlement, science, security, and commerce, and strings the solar system in long slow fashion for telephone, wi-fi, and electrical power service. I suspect this activity is what Kubrick had in mind for his singular contribution to the space film genre.

    SLS is short-sighted, and sucks considerable money out of this future.

  3. “living off the land negates the need for the SLS”

    I completely agree.  As I see it, the SLS is needed to boost large quantities of fuel to send Earth-integrated payloads BEO.  With propellant from the Moon, huge EDSs are unnecessary.

    Regarding the budget, my emphasis is on spending what money we have smarter first.  More money can come later if we need it.  But first, kill the commercially unnecessary SLS and use the commercially supported Falcon Heavy.  The savings could resurrect all sorts of NASA priorities.

    Humans vs Robots – Agree that it is frustrating to see this issue coming up yet once again.  Each has it’s place: Robotic only = distant science.  Telerobotic = Lunar mining. Manned = Experiments re: space impact on humans, orbital assembly of satellites, on-site repair and production of lunar mining telebots, settlement of Moon, Mars, & beyond.

    “98% of all government internet traffic”

    Wow!  I had no idea!

    “No one gives a damn about NASA’s communication of its strategic direction, people care about results”

    Totally agree.

    I prefer milestone payments and guaranteed payments for service.  I am concerned that companies may not be willing to spend very large sums for only a chance at a large prize.  Also, NASA needs more than a ton of propellant in LEO (or L1).  A Lunar COTS program makes sense to me.

  4. Excellent post, and as usual I find myself vehemently agreeing with you. The SLS will be killed sooner or later, there’s no way funding will be continued until 2032. The only question is when it will be killed, and how much money it will have sucked out of the budget by then.

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