The Path Ahead for NASA: Lewis & Clark and the Settlers

By Keith Cowing
July 10, 2011
Filed under
The Path Ahead for NASA: Lewis & Clark and the Settlers

At a press conference at NASA KSC several days ago I asked the following question of NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver:

“Yesterday you went on SpaceX tour [with the media] here at the Cape. We all heard talk of launching the Falcon 9 rocket with single digit number of people using launch and mission control rooms smaller than the one we are in today. And they want to do it with even fewer people. And they have competitors. NASA is about to embark on development of SLS, Orion, missions to asteroids, and the continued operation of the ISS. Will NASA ever approach the levels of innovation and efficiency as are evidenced by SpaceX and other companies? If so, when? If not, why not? I guess the real question I have is, its the 21st century. Indeed we have already used up 10% of it. Can NASA continue to justify operations that use a marching army when the private sector can do it with a sprinting platoon?”

Garver replied “I think Space X couldn’t be doing what they are doing without NASA’s investments [in infrastructure]. They are utilizing investments already made. They are launching on a pad that the government built. Will NASA be using fewer people? I hope not if we did we’d be competing with the private sector. We will be doing the things that take more people. We want to be a smaller part of the operations and open up new markets. We are going to lower operational costs of ISS now that we have built it since the biggest costs are transport to and from the ISS. We are going to take NASA further. We at NASA will be doing the Lewis and Clark missions so that we can be followed by the settlers who are willing to take some risk. NASA is not changing its role at all in human spaceflight. We want [NASA] to exceed what it has been doing.”

If you check out this recent interview, Elon Musk on the future of space travel and exploration on American Public Radio’s ” Marketplace” you will see that Musk is very much aligned with Garver:

“RYSSDAL: You look at NASA though, and it’s one of the shining stars of American technology of the past fifty years, right? John Kennedy, we’re going to the moon, the whole deal. You come along and say, “I can do it cheaper, faster, and I would imagine you would also say, better.” Traditional supporters of NASA would say, “Wait a minute. This is the death of an American icon.” How do you respond?

MUSK: I think that’s really inaccurate. What I would really say is that I think there’s an evolution that’s necessary and that evolution involves a public and private partnership. There are lots of really smart, good people at NASA but they are somewhat tied up in the constraints of a government organization. In fact, many of our people at SpaceX came from NASA. So there are limits on what you can do as a government organization and at a very large one and there are limitations on what can be overcome by partnering with a fast-moving, entrepreneurial company like SpaceX. And then I’m sure there will be other companies as well. And so I think that is what yields the best result for the American people.”

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