24 July 2009

The Future of NASA

Posted by Ryan

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Earlier this week I mentioned that there is an ongoing evaluation of the future of human spaceflight at NASA. The so-called “Augustine commission” has been tasked to:

“conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. The Committee should aim to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle.”

The Augustine commission will not set NASA’s policy, that is done by the president. But all signs suggest that the recommendations of the commission will have a lot of weight in Washington. The good thing is that the commission is doing all that it can to get feedback from the public, including holding public meetings and showing an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and providing multiple other ways to contact them with your thoughts on the future of NASA. Here are mine:

NASA succeeded in sending men to the moon because there was a clear goal, a definite deadline, adequate funding, and nation-wide support. If we want to achieve great things with the human spaceflight program at NASA, all of those requirements need to be met.

The first is the easiest: What is the goal? You may not be surprised to hear that I think it should be to put a human on Mars. Many people at NASA agree: the new administrator certainly does, and his informal poll of NASA workers showed that they all agree. A nationwide poll was less decisive, with just 51% of people approving of a human mission to Mars. However, I think it’s also interesting that in that same poll it showed that in 1979, less than half of those polled thought the moon landings were worthwhile, but now 71% think they were worth it.  I’ll return to the role of public support later.

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The second requirement is a deadline. Since Apollo, NASA has not been very good with deadlines. I know firsthand from my experience with the Mars Science Laboratory that deadlines are missed. Our launch was delayed by two years. But an overarching deadline that applies to an entire portion of NASA carries more weight. When all the missions are aiming toward that deadline, there is more pressure for each individual mission to stay on schedule. Yes, the deadline will be arbitrary, just as JFK’s “land a man on the moon before the decade is out” was. But a focused goal and a realistic but challenging timeframe will galvanize the human spaceflight effort.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle (orange) consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

What about funding? Step one is to retire the space shuttle. It is a beautiful spacecraft, but it is godawful expensive, not to mention dangerous. And it can’t get us where we want to go. The shuttle’s only remaining role is to finish constructing NASA’s other money pit, the International Space Station. Once the station is finished and the shuttle is retired, a significant portion of NASA’s human spaceflight budget will be freed to work on the next generation of launch vehicles. Plus, as reported by NASA Watch:

There is a bit of gossip going around Washington that President Obama once mused that he’d give NASA money – a lot more money – if only they’d do something inspiring and relevant once again. The President talks repeatedly about sending humans to the Moon in the 1960′s as an example of what America can do when it puts its collective mind to something. He supposedly sought out Leonard Nimoy in a hotel once so he could give him the Vulcan salute. He talks about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders watching Apollo crews welcomed home. There is no need to instill any notions about the inspirational value of space exploration in this man’s head. He’s got plenty of it already.

That’s not money we can count on, but it is encouraging. And even without an increased budget, with the shuttle retired and the ISS finished, NASA will be able to do a lot with what it already has.

Finally, the most difficult point is nationwide public support. For Apollo, there were political motives. These days it is more difficult. The public really don’t care much about human spaceflight right now. The robots on Mars are more popular than the astronauts orbiting over our heads at this instant. Now, I love me some Mars robots, but that is not the way it should be! Still, there are glimmers of hope: the recent Hubble servicing mission got a lot of press. Why? Because it was compelling. It was a risky mission, but one that could only have been accomplished by astronauts.

I think the problem is not that there is a lack of support for NASA and human space exploration, but that there is a lack of support for “boring” human spaceflight. The moment the stakes are raised, literally, beyond low Earth orbit it will catch people’s attention. NASA needs to take risks again. As Grace Hopper once said, “A ship in a port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”

When I was in the NASA Academy in 2006, one of the most interesting people that I met was Alan Ladwig. He spoke to us about public engagement in space exploration and drove home a point that has stuck with me to this day: the power of Story. It’s a simple prescription: “Empathetic or engaging characters frustrated in their attempts to reach a well-defined goal.” Any writer knows that these are the fundamentals of a good story, and NASA needs to embrace this. Here’s how:

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NASA needs its astronauts to be heroes again, like the "Mercury Seven" shown here.

First, the characters. Astronauts should be heroes again! People still fawn over the astronauts from the early days of space exploration, but rarely even know the names of our current astronauts. The public needs to be able to relate to the astronauts, and also needs to look up to them. There are some good signs on this front, with astronauts like Mike Massimino and Mark Polansky and their successful tweets from space.

Second, the difficulties. NASA also needs to clearly show the emotions, frustrations, and challenges faced by every mission. Exploring space is hard, but currently NASA seems to want to make it look as easy as possible. But remember, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” If you hide the challenge, the emotion, the human side of what you are doing, then people will lose interest.

And finally, the goal. If it is clear and it matters to the heroes of our story, be they NASA’s astronauts, scientists, engineers, or robots, then it will matter to the public. Of course, it is also important to be able to articulate clear benefits to space exploration, but those don’t matter nearly as much as most people think. The main thing is that the goal is clear and that it is important to the characters the public is rooting for.

Ever since Apollo, NASA has been faced with a chicken and egg problem: people aren’t interested in spaceflight because it is not as exciting anymore, but it is not as exciting anymore because there is no support to do anything more than send people to low Earth orbit.

We need to break that cycle and now is the chance. NASA needs to set a lofty goal: Humans on Mars. We need a deadline: Within 20 years. We need funding: the money freed up by the space shuttle and the space station. And we need public support, which is easier than you think to get, as long as we have a good story to tell.

And boy, do we ever.

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