‘Drift Is The Most Dangerous Thing For NASA’

It’s easy to take the International Space Station for granted. It’s been planned, under construction and/or operated for decades. Humans have occupied it continuously for 4,684 days (close to 13 years) as of today. According to two space policy experts, however, NASA should already be thinking of what it’s going to do next after the station’s current agreement expires in 2020.

Ignoring the deadline, they said, could lead to consequences such as (in one scenario) the end of U.S. government spaceflight altogether.

Below are edited excerpts from two officials from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Scott Pace is its director, and John M. Logsdon is a professor emeritus. They spoke with reporters Thursday (Aug. 29) about the coming NASA budget decision and their views on the agency’s future.

We’d also like to get your feedback on their ideas, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Why the Senate allocated so much more money to NASA in fiscal 2014 than the House of Representatives:

Pace: In my view, the House numbers are complying with the Budget Control Act in terms of sequestration numbers. In the Senate, the numbers were not in line with the Budget Control Act, but reflected what the priorities of the authorization committee were … I would argue, and we’ll see if others agree, that the Senate has marginalized themselves in this discussion. The appropriations staff will have the larger say in that, but on the House side, the authorizors and the appropriators will be together because they have discussed what their priorities were.”

Where NASA’s direction comes from:

Logsdon: It’s a residual of 40 years of failure to reach consensus of what the U.S. should be doing in space and particularly, human spaceflight. In the first year and a half of the Nixon administration, he was faced with what to do after Apollo and basically punted. He said, “Let’s develop means, rather than set goals.” The means was the shuttle … The lack of leadership of this administration, which is not much different than most presidents since Nixon and including Nixon, have put us in a situation that is unfortunate, and, as Scott [Pace] says, leads to a lot of drift and lack of sense of purpose.

The biggest obstacle of NASA’s asteroid retrieval proposal:

Pace: [One goal for NASA often is to implement] priorities of decadal surveys from the National Academy of Sciences. Things like the asteroid redirect mission, which will burden portions of the human and science programs, have no decadal survey mention or no larger contribution to the science. It’s another capability-driven-evolution sort of project, with some very basic flaws to it in terms of not providing that long-term sense of strategic purpose.

Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.
Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.

If the International Space Station will be extended beyond 2020:

Logsdon: There’s not enough money to have a robust space exploration program and to use the space station at a $3 billion a year level in 2028. None of the current partners — with a possible exception of Canada — but certainly, Europe and Japan are not enthusiastic about spending money on space station post-2020. They really had to be dragged, their governments had to be dragged, to commit the funds for the extension to 2020. It’s not clear, if there is a decision to go beyond, whether the United States will have its early partners [committed.]

Pace: What happens with other major scientific facilities that NASA has, like the Hubble Space Telescope, is you have a senior review. After you’ve met the initial requirements [of the mission], you ask what is the facility costing me, what am I getting out of it, and make a decision whether to continue. You will see, in anticipation of 2020, you will see the beginnings of a senior review to see what will be in the NASA 2020 budget. It is dependent upon data being created now — the scientific and technical benefits — and where will the benefits flow for plans beyond space station. If there are no plans for human flight beyond space station … the default option is to do the station as long as it is technically capable, but eventually it will be deorbited. And there will be an end to U.S. government spaceflight.

A view of the International Space Station as seen by the last departing space shuttle crew, STS-135. Credit: NASA
A view of the International Space Station as seen by the last departing space shuttle crew, STS-135. Credit: NASA

If government-funded human spaceflight could end in the United States:

Pace: I can imagine a President presiding over the end of human spaceflight, not as a conscious decision but as an unfortunate accident. Drift is the most dangerous thing for NASA.

Logsdon: Would any President be willing to be that person to end the government-sponsored spaceflight program? I’m not sure the answer is no. It could be that a future President could say we’ve done it and there’s no future reasoning to continue at fairly high expense to continue to do it. But I would speculate the more likely answer, given the industrial and regional interests, is some sort of limping through human spaceflight. It’s more similar than different for the past four decades.

What NASA needs right now:

Logsdon: I’m taking less about the NASA leadership than I am the White House and Congressional leadership. What’s missing is a sense of strategic purpose of the organization, what should it be doing, and that is the job of a national leader. It is enunciating for NASA, as well as other government agencies, for what its long-term and even midterm strategic purpose is in terms of the natinoal interest ought to be.

Pace: [The United States must determine] what is the role of international leadership in space for the United States and to what extent are we willing to make plans for beyond the station. 2020 is not that far away. The focus on NASA right now, with ISS, is utilization. The station has been a great diplomatic success, great technical success, but it’s not clear if it will be a great scientific success.

33 Replies to “‘Drift Is The Most Dangerous Thing For NASA’”

  1. It’s hard to imagine anyone considering the ISS of questionable scientific success. Where else could you do the sort of microgravity and life sciences research that happen onboard the Station every day?

    Unless the claim is that the research itself is of questionable benefit to humanity, in which case, you could probably use the same argument against the entire manned space program.

    1. I’d prefer NASA money to go into astronomy instead of into medical or whatever research. What astronomical science has the ISS produced, compared to the space telescopes or planetary probes and rovers? The ISS costs something like 50 ambituous interplanetary missions, or 10 Hubble space telescopes. What about 5 hubbles and 3 orbiters/rovers at each planet? Instead of one single microgravity medical lab in LEO.

      Humans were useful in space until robotics got more cost efficient. It won’t be rational to put humans in space until launch costs go down by really a very lot. All else is tourism and should be financed by the individual entertaintment consumer himself.

      1. It’s true that we can do a lot with robotics, but we’re nowhere near the point where robotic missions can be as effective as human ones; they are just cheaper and safer.

        Consider where Hubble would be without the manned space program to fix and upgrade it. Or look at the scientific work which was how much more scientific work and samples were returned from the Apollo missions compared to what we’ve done with the rovers we’ve sent there.

        I agree that keeping humans in LEO is getting a bit repetitive, but the scientific benefits of putting humans farther into space can’t be underestimated.

        Imagine how much science could be done with an observatory on the far side of the moon, shielded from the light and radio emissions from Earth; a permanent installation that could be maintained and upgraded over time by the on location staff. Or how much ground could be covered (literally and figuratively) on Mars by human astronauts that can think for themselves compared to rovers inching across the surface and waiting for commands.

      2. If human space flight came as a bonus, I don’t mind. And it will in the shape of private tourism. But today human space flight is generally enveloped together with astronomical science budgets. So there is an important trade-off there.

        LEO and even Moon have been reasonable for human space flight. But they get ever less so thanks to better robotics. And it is all tipping very quickly to further advantage for robots.

        Short distances like the Moon, remote control is to the advantage of robots. Long distances like Mars, life support is to the advantage of robots. When a rover mission on Mars can last for 10 years, “thinking on the site” is no longer a relevant argument for scientific research. Especially since a robot can work always in the harsh emptiness, while the astronaut needs extremely expensive baby sitting all of the time. Please, think about where this development is going!

        NASA and the general US space community is very very emotional about their dead space heros. For any European, it is a very exotic cultural twist in the midst of all pretended rationality and science. I know no better way to respect their lifes than by stop risking the lifes of others! Or is there an emotional irrational culture which for its own purpose requires ever more sacrifices of human lifes?

      3. Great logic .. first.. you compare apples to oranges then say the orange is rotten .. buy more apples.
        As far as the hubble, there was just as much pork for that. They could have built and launched news ones for the cost of repairing them.
        It will be great when a robot can replace you.

      4. The human space flight apples are in the same budget basket as are the scientific robotic missions. I didn’t mix’em up, the government did. And it did so because humans in space was a nice propaganda show until 40 years ago, in a ridiculous and dangerous military space race. Unfortunately, that kind of jippoo has remained a budgetary burden ever since, without any astronomical purpose.

        Today space should be explored rationally and for the peaceful purpose of astronomical science. Not as an anabolic steroide competition between militarized governments where poor individuals working as astronauts become hero symbols for military strength in some sick political game.

        Let tourists spend their own money for experiencing space the way that we all dreamt about as kids. But don’t mix up or sacrifice any science for that playful purpose.

      5. The analysis you offer is brilliant, flawless, undeniable and yet frequently over looked.

        We could have had a fleet of Hubbles (Space-borne Interferometer anyone?) for the same cost of keeping a single Hubble in service via the STS program.

    2. I question the scientific benefit of ISS. The discoveries I’ve seen from ISS have been meager, certainly not worth $150 billion. I am hoping I’m simply missing a lot of great research.

      Manned space exploration gave us better biomedical monitoring equipment for use on Earth. I’m not looking just at Earth, though. I love to explore. I want to know what lies over the horizon. I want to travel to these worlds, and learn for myself what they are like. So, I welcome technological development towards that goal.

      1. Here is an article on Wiki, which looks a bit dated, but can still give pointers to where to look for more information, if that’s what you want.

        Since ISS has been fully staffed, they keep visiting crew very busy, mostly with research. All participating agencies have sites and pages dedicated to research results, more or less updated and in English.
        Starting with NASA :

        One of my favourite stops :

      2. Your favourites are “having lunch” and “checking spacesuite”? If you wanna see a human eat and get dressed, then please raise a child and let the NASA dollars be spent on astronomy instead!
        (I think the ISS is just a kinky way of playing with people like dolls)

  2. I would like to see a shift in focus from a manned Mars mission to a Martian moon mission. Much more doable in the near future, still gets us in the “neighborhood” and allows for near-instantaneous robotic control of all sorts of mission to Mars itself. Save time, money, allows us to scout out the Martian surface in more depth and get us there sooner. We must recapture the imagination of the public before our entire space program withers.

  3. Let’s face it, greed will end up being the driving force behind further space exploration. No government is interested in for-the-common-good science. When it’s profitable, the governments will stick their noses back in and demand a piece of the pie.

  4. I think ISS should not be deorbited, at least not the whole structure. It costs $10k+/lb to put mass into orbit. We ought to use what we have. For example, we could turn it into an orbiting solar collector, beaming the PV electricity generated down to Earth.

    1. Yeah, robots could remission it. Tons of material in LEO is valuable. And unfortunately has been very costly.

    2. We should add to the ISS and recycle old components as they go.

      It would be interesting if they start to design tools that can process metals and recycle in orbit. This could become the basis to mine asteroids and build even bigger manned stations.

    3. I said the same thing about the fuel tank on the space
      shuttle. They go to the effort to carry, what is essentially 2 airtight tanks
      with insulation already covering it, almost up to LEO. How hard would it be to
      add a couple of fittings inside and out while it’s being manufactured to enable
      it to be connected to other Ext tanks, install some life support and solar
      panels to the preinstalled fittings and hey presto you have 2 huge hollow
      spaces ready for astronauts to move into.

      A bit late now I know, but I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.

      1. NASA said that anyone who wanted to use the shuttle’s external tanks after they were done with them was welcomed to them. No one ever took them up on the offer. Some people went as far as drawing pictures and making proposals.

  5. Years ago I recorded an album called Islands in Space based on Gerard K. O’Neill’s incredible vision for mining the moon for the resources to mass drive materials off the surface, capture, collect and smelt the material in space to construct quite reasonably sized space habitats (colonies in space) in synchronise orbit at L5. Since then we have seen billions and billions of dollars squandered on irrational fear and wars that have done nothing but divide humanity and compromise any imaginative use of our resources for a greater more positive future. We need to elevate our global humanity and seek more unifying projects like the International Space Station, but aim higher and with a wider field of vision. The potential wealth of resources in space, 24 hour crop growing cycles free of weather or pestilence and disease, infinite solar energy – it all adds up to massively creative and inspiring employment opportunities here on Earth and in space for a fraction of the cost of another middle east war. The lastest ‘capture an asteroid’ plan is a good start to a more grandiose and beneficial use of our time and space, imagine the potential if we would just focus and dream a little more creativity!

  6. After Constellation and now SLS/MPCV, I can safely ignore anything these two gentleman say, so forgive me if I haven’t bothered to read their screeds here.

  7. Here are some more opinions on the matter, collected by the Committee on Human Spaceflight of the National Research Council :

    I agree without reserve with
    Paving Stones for the Flexible Path Into the Solar System
    by Louis Friedman and Nathan Strange :


    I can’t help but see many of discussion on the theme more about food fight than technology and financing debate.

    As for why, where else ? Do we plan to go into sea like lemmings ? Birth control ?

    And even if, what about rising standards of the poor majority of the planet ?

    We need to expand into space or die like a rotten space seed and clock is ticking. We don’t have another 100 years without more room and resources for expansion.

    It doesn’t really matter who gets where first, all resources will end up in Earth’s economy, this way or another, for quite some more time.

    Planet should step together with this, spread out like a disease, with humanity as a vehicle, as a little payback for what we do to Gea.

  8. NASA as an entertainment center? Don’t you think that Hollywood and space tourists would take care of that part with their own money?

    1. Yes the capturing of the imagination of the public is important if you want people to follow a science and technology career. My whole life is based around the fact that some guy landed on the moon and I want to go there too. It inspired me to go into a technological careerer that I hope finally will put me onto the moon.

  9. Sure, the governments want to eliminate space exploration. They see no economic benefit. Forward thinkers will realize the riches present in the asteroids. The current thinking is we must spread out, not just for our economical goals, but to spread ourselves out. We are sitting ducks on this blue planet. Our planet is due for another bad event.

  10. It is a basic fundamental human instinct to explore and go where no man has gone before and learn how to accomplish that which is impossible today. The biggest problem with NASA is they would spend $100 Million on researching how to get a ball point pen to work in space while the entire private sector is just smart enough to bring along a box of pencils. When NASA is serious about meaningful scientific benefits through the ISS and space exploration itself they will open ALL of their resources and funding to collaborative projects with the American private sector.
    The second most basic instinct NASA could exploit would be human GREED!! Lets say NASA uses the Martian Curiosity mission to find gold, diamonds or other rare minerals…… Even if it was a lie…..it would spark the greatest gold rush/ space race in world history….Think about it….Overnight NASA would have a trillion dollars of purses opened up to it for collaboration with the American private sector to get us to Mars NEXT year instead of 2030…..I say American private sector because nowhere on the planet is there a better example of adventurous explorer adrenalin junkies than right here in the good ole U.S.of A………AND THATS HOW I WOULD FIX NASA!!!!

  11. The engineering knowledge and practice at building in space was well worth the cost. Hopefully it will lead to bigger and greater things.

    Unfortunately, “drift” seems to be the order of the day from this US administration on EVERYTHING — not just NASA and the ISS.

  12. You need a plan that ends up making money. Flying a manned mission to Mars is going to be insanely expensive and a bit boring in the end. Asteroid mining has potential, so focus on that and stick to a plan. Once people can make money out of space the rest is history. Look at Foxtel and GPS. Cut out the idealism and chase the $s.

    1. “You need a plan that ends up making money…[]…Asteroid mining has potential.”

      No and No.

      (1) The leading business model for getting to Mars is the Musk idea which solves the money problem from the out-set: Siphoning revenues from already viable businesses that are Earth based such as Telsa Motors and Solar City.

      Further, the satellite launch business complete with the worlds soon-to-be and only reusable launch vehicle, SpaceX and their F-9R, will add greatly to revenues for a Mars shot as well as providing the required industrial base and technical know-how.

      Going to Mars doesn’t need to profitable.

      (2) Regarding Asteroid mining. There doesn’t seem to be a single item on the Minerals/Metals and Commodities page of my local paper that isn’t VASTLY cheaper to mine here on Earth compared to sourcing it from an asteroid. Mining the seabed particularly around geologically active sites will precede the mining of asteroids.

      1. ” Going to Mars doesn’t need to be profitable.” Agreed – but it does need to be safe to encourage billions to be invested in it. Right now, it just isn’t safe – need new technologies to cut down flight time or have enroute bases or… something.
        Yes cheaper to mine on Earth – but there’s more material volume in space. If rare metals weren’t rare new manufacturing processes could arise. It’s a way forward.

  13. Depends up on what and how much risk there are after a certain period without spending a lot just for maintenance ISS, but my idea is to open ISS to authorized organizations for testing robots, humanoids or 3D printer to manipulate fixing equipments remotely, it can also be a great testing environment for newly invented barriers from space debris or that sorts, without risking an actual human staying up there.

    Number of longer distance manned space travel may get increased soon after 2025 or 30, I assume that there will be a good number of demands at least to offset the cost of keep ISS in orbit.

    This will be a good study for more quantity focused “station”, the second ISS for number of human and materials that current ISS can’t handle well.

  14. — The biggest problem with NASA is they would spend $100 Million on
    researching how to get a ball point pen to work in space while the
    entire private sector is just smart enough to bring along a box of
    pencils. —

    That claims is a hoax.

    Commercial companies also become greedy, look at Google.

  15. a big monkey wrench in that idea is that gold and diamonds are just not valuable enough to be worth the cost of going to Mars and launching them back to Earth. such a venture would not turn a profit.

  16. OT (partially): In the picture above, astronaut Drew Feustel exits the ISS through an airlock. I’m wondering why the external hatch of the airlock looks so a) flimsy, and b) charred at the left edge?

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