The Obama Space Vision for NASA: Massive Paradigm Shifts Ahead

By Keith Cowing
February 1, 2010
Filed under
The Obama Space Vision for NASA: Massive Paradigm Shifts Ahead

In announcing its $19.0 billion FY 2011 NASA budget today, the Obama Administration has made it very clear that it intends to attempt a paradigm shift in the way that America explores and utilizes space. The current plan NASA is following will be cancelled. But the intent to explore will remain and will be reconfigured into a new plan that openly taps private sector creativity while making certain that the taxpaying public is involved in an unprecedented fashion.

This plan for change comes with additional funds – to the tune of an additional $6 billion over FY 2011 to FY 2015 when compared to what the FY 2010 budget anticipated – approximately $700 million of which will appear in FY 2011. That means that NASA will get $100 billion over the next 5 years according to the White House’s plans.

In so doing, the White House is hoping to make a clean break with much of the old way of doing things at NASA. As they do, NASA will be pushed to broaden its vision, seek new partnerships, and transform its way of doing things. This will be unsettling to many people.

However, that break begins with some hard choices – most notably, the outright cancellation of The Constellation Program. Started shortly after President Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration” in 2004, Constellation was the umbrella activity for what eventually became development activities for the Ares launch vehicle family, the Orion crew module, and the Altair lunar lander. All of this now comes to a halt.

Plagued with insufficient budget resources, an overly ambitious schedule, uneven management, and lingering technical problems, Constellation soon became untenable in the eyes of the Presidential review commission charted to evaluate the program.

After spending between $8 and 9 billion on Constellation, the agency will now be directed to begin its orderly shutdown. An additional $ 2.5 billion ($1.9 billion in FY 2011 and $600 million in FY 2012) will be needed to facilitate the closeout of the program and any additional costs to the Space Shuttle program as it also winds down – without Constellation to serve as a buttress.

What do we get for this $8-9 billion? Launch of a cobbled together one of a kind rocket, a human-rated launcher design that never seemed to be ready for prime time, a crew transport that suffered as an innocent bystander as its launcher’s capabilities shrank, and a heavy launch vehicle inexorably linked to a smaller rocket that would never pass muster.

But we also witnessed a rekindling of overt exploration thinking at NASA with an almost Apollo era fervor at times. NASA’s “Desert RATS” tried out new mobility concepts in harsh terrains – and even showed them off in the Inaugural parade in 2009. NASA spent a lot of brain power on how we’d visit the Moon and what we’d do once we got there. Astrobiologists and astrogeologists worked through the questions they’d ask as they explored these new places, and … for half a decade, school children were told that they’d soon witness humans walking upon another world before their eyes in an ultra-virtual, web-centric way.

It is this aspect of the agency’s exploration activities that will now be built upon.

Alas, many of us think that we have unfinished business on the Moon and that this shift in policy is tantamount to ignoring this amazing world and potential resource. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What NASA’s “Flexible Path” eventually becomes will make that determination.

Either way, all of this is on hold – but not for long – and only in terms of hardware, not intent. America is going to pause, marshall its resources, divert from dead-end, 20th century approaches, and embrace new, 21st century compliant plans for the exploration and utilization of space.

The next generation of space explorers will not be disappointed. It would seem that the focus is now shifting and widening – from visiting one world – to visiting many worlds and places and establishing the infrastructure to allow choices to be made in a more pragmatic and flexible fashion.

Curiously, the approach that the Obama Administration is now about to take is very similar to the pragmatic, out of the box, “let a thousand flowers bloom” thinking that characterized NASA in the year or so after President Bush announced his plans for NASA. This short era of pragmatism came to a swift halt with the departure of Sean O’Keefe and Craig Steidle and the arrival of Mike Griffin, Doc Horowitz, and the ill-fated and myopic “Apollo on Steroids” approach to exploration.

The big question lingering in everyone’s mind is where will NASA go? Well, the large scale Bush-era plans for lunar exploration are no longer in play. That said, human visits to the Moon are not excluded either. While it has yet to be defined, the “Flexible Path that the Augustine Committee put forth (now called “FlexPath” by some) seeks to visit Near Earth Objects (NEOs), and perhaps the moons of Mars as a precursor to visits to Mars itself. Sortie visits to the Moon – perhaps as part of an international collaboration – are also under consideration.

But the issue at hand is not where NASA goes as much as it is how NASA goes there. NASA is now walking away from the old, government-mandated approach that Mike Griffin put into place. During the 5 year space ahead, NASA will spend $7.8 billion on a new technology demonstration program that will look at advanced exploration capabilities. It will also spend $3.1 billion on R&D that looks into new propulsion systems and $3 billion on robotic precursors to scout ahead of future human crews.

In order to enhance the body of knowledge needed to support humans on long duration missions, NASA will increase the International Space Station’s Human Research Program by 42% over the next 5 years – and extend the lifetime of the ISS from 2016 to at east 2020. This increase will amount to $463 million more than the enacted FY 2010 budget and a total of $2 billion over the following 4 years when compared to what had been projected in the FY 2010 budget.

Specifically, NASA will invest in critical technology demonstrations to the tune of $7.822 billion between FY 2011 and FY 2015. This will include “Flagship demonstration programs” which will be funded at the level of $400 million to $1 billion over short periods (less than 5 years) and demonstrate critical technologies including in-orbit propellant transfer, inflatable modules, automated rendezvous and docking, and closed loop life support systems – all the things NASA will need to explore and utilize the inner solar system. In addition enabling technologies such as in situ resource utilization and advanced deep space propulsion will also be investigated.

NASA will continue to purse robotic precursor missions – “precursor” meaning that these missions seek to identify hazards and trail blaze new technologies that will eventually enable humans to follow in their tracks. NASA hopes that these missions will visit the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and LaGrange points and that they will serve to identify hazards and resources that will “determine the future course of the expansion of human civilization into space” (words NASA is using once again).

Suggested missions could include a robotic lander/rover on the moon that is teleoperated from Earth and a demonstration mission that processes lunar or asteroidal materials for use in various exploration scenarios.

To those who are paying close attention, you will soon see overt similarities in NASA’s new plans to explore and utilize cis-lunar and inner solar system locations with ideas and concepts proposed by Craig Steidle, Gary Martin’s NEXT team, Sally Ride’s old Office of Exploration, and even the National Commission on Space. Good ideas from decades past often come back, fresh and new, given enough time – just like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek have done recently.

However, the prime paradigm shift that NASA is being directed to make involves how people and cargo get into space – to the ISS and eventually, other locations. Between FY 2011 and FY 2015 NASA will spend $5.8 billion on commercial crew services and add $312 million in FY 2011 for additional commercial cargo support.

NASA will use commercial solicitations to seek private sector solutions to NASA launch needs. Existing and new launch systems will need to comply with NASA human rating requirements. Spacecraft that carry humans will, ideally, be capable of flying on multiple launch systems.

With the demise of Ares 1 comes the demise of its big sister Ares V. NASA is now going to look to the private sector to propose solutions to the agency’s heavy lift requirements. But NASA will continue to study technologies that can serve to shorten development and reduce cost. These will include advanced propulsion, in-space technologies, and will seek to utilize a broad array of partnerships between governmental, academic, commercial and international participants.

Contrary to various Internet rumors, NASA has not selected a preferred Shuttle-derived launch system to replace Ares 1 and Ares V – i.e, the Shuttle “Sidemount”, In-line, or “DIRECT” concepts. While thoroughly vetted and evaluated, are of these concepts all government-driven designs and are thus part of the old way of doing business. Future heavy lift solutions will be solicited from the private sector.

Given that the Space Shuttle needs to be able to be phased out after its 5 remaining flights without any support from Constellation, NASA will put an additional $600 million into the FY 2011 budget. This will support the program even if the last flights eventually happen in early CY 2011.

Shuttle managers have privately shared their concerns that it may be very difficult to keep the entire team together to fly out these remaining 5 missions now that the news of Constellation’s cancellation has been announced. And with the looming privatization/commercialization of human access to space for Americans, unanswered questions remain as to what to do with the workforce at JSC (and elsewhere) that has been built up over decades to support government-operated human spaceflight. What do you do with more than a hundred astronauts and the infrastructure that supports them?

The toll on KSC is not going to be insignificant either. There is no escaping that. Part of the $600 million for shuttle operations will be used to support transition activities that once sought to move some people over to Constellation and others to jobs outside of NASA. In addition, NASA will now seek to spend $1.929 billion between FY 2011 and FY 2015 to transform KSC into a “21st Century Launch Complex”. In so doing, NASA intends to increase the effectiveness of KSC’s range, clean up remaining environmental issues, alter the facilities layout and perimeter so as to enhance increased access, and improve the overall ability for KSC to process payloads.

With Constellation coancelled, it is not clear what people will be doing in Huntsville either.

NASA will be looking into inesting in areas other than Space Shuttle and the International Space Station however. In the area of space technology, NASA will spend $3.968 billion between FY 2011 and FY 2014 on so-called “next generation technologies” which will serve to enhance America’s overall technological leadership in spaceflight. The intent is to start to really think outside the box and involve a wider array of partnerships in the private, non-profit, and educational sectors. This research will span a wide array of things from robotics to propulsion and new materials NASA will expand upon its current use of prizes and competitions to help spur innovation.

Over the past decade, NASA’s focus on Earth Science has faltered as it has across the Federal government. This will be rectified with a hefty budget that will increase the enacted FY 2010 budget by $382 million and then go on to add an additional $1.8 billion between FY 2011 and 2014. In addition to re-flying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, NASA will seek to accelerate the development of new satellites to observe Earth as well as support the existing flotilla of Earth observation spacecraft.

Planetary science will see much less of an increase than other parts of NASA. Its budget will ramp up from $1.486 billion in FY 2001 to $1.650 billion in FY 2015. Astrophysics will go from $1.076 billion in FY 2011 to $1.132 billion in FY 2015, and Heliophysics will go from $542 million in FY 2011 to $751 million in FY 2015. Some of the notable increases in space and planetary science, albeit small, include adding $16 million per year for the next 5 years to Near Earth Object (NEO) detection, restarting Plutonium-238 production with the Department of Energy for radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) construction, plans for a 2011 launch of Mars Science Laboratory, bringing the Mars 2016 mission into formulation, funding of James Webb Space Telescope at a 70% confidence level for a 2014 launch, and initiation of Solar Probe “Plus” mission.

Aeronautics, now referred to by NASA as “Aeronautics and Green Aviation”, often the forgotten sibling at NASA, will get a $73 million increase over the enacted FY 2010 budget and will get an additional $300 million between FY 2011 to FY 2014 compared to the FY 2010 budget. Specific increases will focus on $20 million annually for an aeronautics grant program for environmentally responsible aviation; $20 million annually for software to operate in the national airspace infrastructure; and $30 million annually to look into use of unmanned aircraft systems.

In addition to all of the discipline area expenditures, NASA needs to work on its own supportive infrastructure. The focus over the next 5 years will be on maintaining NASA’s 9 field centers and to find efficiencies while driving down operating costs and eliminating redundancies. Cross agency budgets will hover at around $3 billion per year will total $16.4 billion over 5 years while Construction and Environmental Compliance will stay at just under $400 million a year will total $1.921 billion over the same period.

After all is said and done with the science and technology, there is one more thing that the Obama Administration wants to focus on – education. Long a back water for personnel reassignment and a grab bag for earmarks, as well as suffering from a near total lack of attention under Mike Griffin, the White House is refocusing the agency’s attention on Education. This will be done by enhancing the NASA education budget from a projected annual level of around $126 million in the last budget to $146 million per year over the next 5 years. That’s an increase of $100 million over 5 years when compared to last year’s projections.

In addition to the recently announced “Summer of Innovation”, a $20 million project that will focus on STEM education over the next 3 years, NASA will be expanding its horizons when it comes to novel partnerships as and new ways of inspiring the next generation of space explorers. You can expect to see a focus on education weaved throughout all that NASA does as well as an enhanced focus on what has come to be called “participatory exploration” i.e. an overt attempt to greatly expand the ability of people in all walks of life to experience and actually participate in NASA’s various programs of research and exploration.

This plan is not without its perils. Congress has a lot invested in the status quo – and they are not at all shy of reminding everyone of that. Press releases will soon start to fly back and forth. In contrast to the 2004 VSE rollout, little advance preparation was done internally, and potential external allies and “stakeholders” were left in the dark – as was everyone else – until the last minute. As such, antibodies to this proposed overhaul of NASA will form the instant it is released. People do not like to be surprised like this.

This paradigm shift will be unsettling. It puts a lot people out of work and it rattles an endless number of cages and stove pipes and shifts sand out of almost everyone’s sandbox. But it also seeks to spark new ways of thinking that could inevitably lead to an expanding commercial and industrial base – not only on this planet – but above and beyond it.

NASA’s hardest task will not be building these new spacecraft or planning these new missions, but rather it will come on the form of convincing everyone inside and outside of the agency – that this is the way to go.
NASA FY 2011 Budget Info

OSTP Documents on NASA Budget

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.