NASA urged to return to its roots

Filed under: Aerospace/Defense,Photo,Print | Tags:, ,

Orion is one of the vehicles that could return the U.S. to space flight. A new report suggests projects like this should be NASA’s sole mission.

“The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” — author Robert Heinlein.

The Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation agrees, and wants NASA to return to its exploration roots.

The foundation issued a report in December that not only points out the problems that plague the space agency, but also a way to fix them. And they’ve encapsulated it in a single word: pioneering.

Not everyone likes the plan, but almost everyone agrees that NASA needs a new direction.

“Industry, I think, wants stability and continuity,” said Vicky Lea, aviation and industry manager for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and manager of the Colorado Space Coalition, a member organization that includes the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. “That’s what’s been lacking. They want a direction, so they know where to invest and what’s expected of them.”

In many ways, the Space Foundation report provides that guidance. Among other things, it recommends that NASA’s administrator be appointed to a fixed five-year term, so it’s not tossed about on varying political winds.

The report points out that NASA started as a space exploration agency in 1958– and seems to have gone backward as the Space Act that created it has been amended throughout the years, splitting its focus.

“The administrator was asked by Congress which missions were most important,” said Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham. “He, of course, said all of them were equally important. My thinking is that if you have 26 separate missions, you have no mission at all.”

Once the biggest player in space, NASA now represents only 6 percent of the total $290 billion spent globally on space.

“NASA is no longer the sole creator and manager of the entire U.S. national civil space enterprise,” the report said. “As the space program has evolved we have witnessed frequent redirection and constantly shifting priorities at NASA, mixed signals from Congress and the administration, organizational conflicts and the lack of a singular purpose …”

A single mission

The Space Foundation believes NASA’s mission should be exploration — and nothing else. It’s a bold statement, Pulham admits, but one that’s gained a surprising amount of support.

“We unveiled this on Capitol Hill in December, and it was well received,” he said. We’ve even spoken to staff at the White House. There’s a great deal of interest, the vibe out there is good.”

Congressional interest is imperative, because the foundation’s report suggests changing the Space Act to make exploration the primary purpose — going to other planets, asteroids, possibly even a return to the moon.

Pulham believes NASA should divest itself of all activities that aren’t pushing space exploration, including satellite development, aviation, science experiments, telescope launches.

The report also suggests that NASA create a 10-year plan with specific goals and a 30-year plan that provides the broader strategic context.

Tectonic shift

NASA was created in 1958 and sent astronauts to the moon in 1969. But the last time people set foot on another celestial body was 1972.

The lack of space travel was the impetus for the report, Pulham said. When NASA retired the space shuttle with no other means of getting Americans into space, he thought it was time to act.

The solution: NASA had to go back to its roots, and needed to be independent of political influence. It needed to be free of some of the roles that could be taken on by other government entities. For instance, NASA handles satellites, but that work could be done at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. It also dabbles in some aviation research and development, but that could be done at the National Transportation Safety Board. Other missions could be handed off to the private sector, Pulham said.

Powerful detractors

But not everybody’s on board for a change in NASA missions. Frank Slazer, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association, says taking missions away from NASA could dilute interest in other missions, things like low-earth-orbit satellites, telescope missions and the Mars rover.

“NASA has years of experience in aeronautics science, things that don’t have a ‘pioneering’ background,” he said. “It’s played a pivotal role in developing technology that private industry has taken and used elsewhere. They’ve had groundbreaking work in aviation, safety and other technology. We’ve developed technology from space research.”

Slazer points to the satellite industry as an example. Now a multi-billion-dollar industry that provides technology for everything from satellite television to banking transactions, the satellite program was originally developed at NASA.

“The focus is on research and development,” he said. “Not on the pioneering aspect. NASA’s even developed some technology that has nothing to do with space.”

Airport runways and interstate highways now have grooves in the pavement, thanks to NASA research that showed the move improved traction.

Slazer is even skeptical about the proposal to create fixed terms for the NASA administrator.

“If the administrator is appointed by the previous president, he’ll be an outsider to the next president,” he said. “While a fixed term sounds good, I’ve been around Washington long enough to know that it could leave him a political orphan.”

Colorado’s industry

In Colorado, the report’s gotten positive reviews, Lea said. The state’s industry has a big role in deep space exploration.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is developing the Dream Chaser, a suborbital spacecraft that is being designed in Louisville. The Dream Chaser received a certification products contract from NASA, which will allow it to provide transportation to the International Space Station, and move it along the road to government certification as a commercial crew transportation system. The contract is worth $10 million and work will be completed in 2014.

The Orion space vehicle is being developed by NASA and Lockheed Martin to travel into deep space, Lea said.

“What I’ve heard from our industry members is that they are pleased with the report,” Lea said. “Colorado companies think it’s time to get NASA back on track to exploration. It’s exciting to think of the science behind exploring deep space. And it leaves private space companies to do the more routine stuff.”

For Pulham, the work is just starting. The Space Foundation staff in the Springs and at the nation’s capital are working to develop legislation to make the pioneering report a reality. It’s a long-term project, he says, but he thinks it’s an important one. And the detractors don’t worry him.

“There are always what I call ‘anti-bodies,’” he said, “people who don’t like change. But we haven’t seen very much of that with this report. NASA is such a well-loved agency, everyone — on both sides of the aisle — wants to see it succeed. We think this report is the first step in that journey.”