Getting Our Priorities Straight: Setting the SLS Vs Propellant Depot Argument In a Greater Context

By dennis_wingo
November 15, 2011
Filed under
Getting Our Priorities Straight: Setting the SLS Vs Propellant Depot Argument In a Greater Context

In October 2011 of a report leaked out of NASA showing that a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) architecture based upon the use of propellant depots vs the implementation of the heavy lift Space Launch System was being studied by NASA. Since that time much heat has been generated on both sides of this debate. However, the debate that is happening does not address the fundamental issue that has led us to the sorry state of affairs. The fundamental issue of concern is that NASA and the BEO exploration program are utterly irrelevant national needs in today’s trying times. Money is certainly not the problem. Insight can be gleaned by looking at an area where government funding in the last few years has dramatically outpaced spending on space.

Today the Department of Energy has a $40 billion dollar loan/subsidy/industry support budget most notoriously known by the $500 million dollar-plus failure of a loan to Solyndra. These loans, and any failures associated with them, have been justified by the fact that this program has funded “high risk” and “innovative” programs designed to help the U.S. transition to alternative energy sources. These loans have been provided to manufacturers, generation projects, and new technology development. The rationale for these loans and their benefit to the nation is to generate a new energy economy and create large numbers of green jobs.

Whether or not you agree with the premise of this program it has three crucial elements:

1. Well-funded loans/subsidies/grants to support innovative, high-risk new ventures.

2. The strategic rational for the money is that it serves a goal of creating a new alternative energy economy.

3. The implementation of the program is directly targeted to create lots of jobs in a new field that, if sustained, will directly help increase employment.

If you examine the use of stimulus funds from the American Recovery Act you will find a similar pattern. This expenditure has totaled well over $100 billion dollars since 2009, more than twice the entire NASA budget over this same period. This disparity has been around for a while and the reason for it was addressed by the late Dr. John Marburger in his iconic 2006 Goddard memorial symposium speech, to wit:

“Opportunities exist in other fields of physical science as well, such as nuclear and particle physics, space science and exploration, but these are not emphasized in the Competitiveness Initiative. Not that the U.S. is withdrawing from these fields, but ACI does signal an intention to fund the machinery of science in a way that ensures continued leadership in fields likely to have the greatest impact on future technology and innovation. The decision to make this needed adjustment for selected fields does not imply a downgrading of priority for other important areas of science, such as biomedical research and space science. These remain priorities, but the agencies that fund them are regarded as having budgets much more nearly commensurate with the opportunities, challenges, and benefits to be gained from pursuing these fields. As the nation pursues other critically important objectives, including reducing the budget deficit, the ACI gives priority to a small number of areas to ensure future U.S. economic competitiveness.

The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), as referenced in the preceding paragraph, is actually the foundation of the DoE program that has handed out the money provided under the American Recovery Act of 2009. The simple fact is that BEO space exploration is NOT considered by either party as truly contributing to the economic competitiveness of the nation, and considering the goals of ALL of the architectures developed by NASA since 2006, it is not that hard to see why.

Making BEO exploration relevant is the key and it begins with a statement of purpose. Again Dr. Marburger’s speech provides the money quote:

“The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.”

Dr. Marburger went on to say about this quote….

“The wording of this policy phrase is significant. It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security, and economic interests. Stated this way, the “fundamental goal” identifies the benefits against which the costs of exploration can be weighed. This is extremely important for policy making because science, security, and economic dimensions are shared by other federally funded activities. By linking costs to these common benefits it becomes possible, at least in principle, to weigh investments in space exploration against competing opportunities to achieve benefits of the same type.

The principal reason that NASA and our national space efforts are starved for funding today is that NASA did not listen to what Dr. Marburger said in his speech. They have continued blithely onward as if the mere fact that flags and footprints on the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars is a sufficient reason to open the federal coffers and fund space. As the Augustine II report and NASA’s continuing budget problems have shown, this is not the case. Until a change is made to bring more relevancy to BEO exploration, pain, loss, and failed programs will continue to be the norm.

Making the Point

Recent news reports all point to the fact that, in all probability, NASA’s budget is going to decline, and markedly so. This is at the same time that up to $15 billion remains in the DoE account for loans to green companies and in the same week that a single high speed rail line in California is called “cost effective” even though the price has shot up from $33 billion to almost $100 billion dollars. Clearly the issue is not money. So why is there a battle to shave pennies and dimes in a fight between BEO architectures, especially since neither one of them have any relevance to our economic fortunes, at least in the mind of decision makers and check writers in our government? How do we change this? Is it NASA’s job to do economic development? If economic development is good for the DoE, why is it not good for NASA? NASA has been doing a form of economic stimulus by supporting the commercial crew and cargo program but that is a mere pittance of the monies gushing out of other agencies toward other goals. It is not like aerospace is irrelevant to the nation as today our aerospace products are our second highest value export behind computer equipment, beating agriculture in 2010 by $15 billion dollars with a total value of $81 billion dollars (source). In searching these export numbers you cannot even find wind turbines and solar panels, so why are we not investing in an industry that is one of our best export earners and is strategically valuable to the nation?

Getting the Philosophy Right

I hope that it is becoming clear that without getting the philosophy right, there is no chance that things related to the utilization of space will improve. This has been the experience of NASA since 1969 in its BEO exploration planning. It is clear that economic development, economic activity, and jobs are at the centerpiece of the vast majority of government discretionary spending for economic development.

The question then becomes, what type of exploration architecture will attract the funds required to be able to execute? It is almost universally understood in the community that the current execution plan for the Space Launch System (SLS) is doomed to failure. Even if it survives the budget process, there is no funding for the payloads for any mission nor is there a clearly defined mission or place to go with it. The defense penned by former NASA administrator Griffin did nothing to address this in his and Dr. Scott Pace’s defense of the SLS in the 2 November 2011 Space News article. At the end of the day, without a real plan, the U.S. lead in aerospace will continue to shrivel and yet another failed acronym will discourage another generation of Americans.

We must be unapologetic, and we must be forceful, and we must demand that the economic development of the solar system is the purpose and goal. This includes Human settlement of the Moon, Mars, and free space. The robotic missions of the past 30 years makes the resource potential clear and recent missions to the Moon have provided the validation of the speculations regarding off planet water and other resources first investigated by Apollo.

The development of the techniques and processes necessary to accomplish these goals can and will feed back into our terrestrial economy. Advanced robotics, resources extraction and utilization techniques, and the development of compact, powerful energy sources not based on hydrocarbons all have direct applications on the Earth. The construction of large systems in Earth orbit, derived from lunar materials will most effectively optimize the limited and valuable resource of geosynchronous orbit.

All of these things are well within our grasp today but the lack of capital has stunted growth in this area. It is my argument that the economic payback far higher than what we are getting with the current DoE energy program and that the majority of that money be redirected to space. Today, our current primitive communications infrastructure in GEO orbit is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output per year today. This is a good place to start and now is the time to do it. The politicians and pundits complain that we are in decline as a nation and a civilization is due to a lack of a plan and new ideas to stimulate the economy. The problem is that the perceived risk of space is far higher than it actually is, and that our community is perceived as out of touch. Until economic development in space is pushed into the forefront, the naysayers are right.

If not now, when? If not space, what? If not our generation, which one? Civilizations rise and fall on hope, and there is not a lot of hope for the future out there today. We have the capability in the space community to change that. It is time to do so. To circle back to the irrelevance issue, it is clear that the current NASA SLS based architecture has no goal beyond building the SLS and at some indefinite time in the future, when money may be available, that some type of BEO mission will be flown. The propellant depot idea at least has the potential for alternate uses but the strategic problem is the same, without a mission that has some meaning to the goal of economic development and settlement, all of these missions are missions to nowhere.