Where Is NASA Going and How Are We Going to Get There?


Everyone seems to be a little confused and in the dark about the direction NASA will be headed if Obama’s proposed FY2011 budget passes. Yesterday’s hastily called press briefing answered a few question, but not the big issues of where we’ll be going and how we’re going to get beyond low Earth orbit. Yes, Bolden did say that Mars is the ultimate destination but everyone knows we can’t just pick and go to Mars. NASA needs a vehicle to get there, and getting there will require doing it in incremental steps, such as going to the Moon or asteroids first. There’s no plan (yet) for a vehicle and no plans for those incremental steps. Hopefully Obama’s “Space Summit” on April 15 will provide some answers.

I’m of two minds about this whole deal.

First, I love the space shuttle. I’ve just spent two months at Kennedy Space Center. I experienced the launch of Endeavour, got to see Endeavour and Discovery up closer than I ever imagined, saw behind the scenes processing, met people who work with the shuttles every day, and talked with people whose livelihood depends on NASA sending people to space.

And admittedly, any talk of extending the shuttle program makes my heart leap just a little. It’s a beautiful, marvelous, incredible machine – many say the most complex device ever invented by humans. And why shouldn’t we keep flying it? NASA managers like Mike Moses, Mike Leinbach and John Shannon say that since the Columbia accident we now know the shuttle and understand the risks better than ever. Right now, it definitely would be safer to fly on a shuttle than to fly on a new, untested commercial rocket.

And the jobs lost – not only at KSC but at Johnson Space Center, other NASA centers and contractors — by ending the shuttle and canceling Constellation means individuals who have these incredible skill sets for getting people to space may not be needed anymore. There are things they know that just can’t be replaced, replicated or restarted five or ten years down the road.

Bolden said yesterday that there should be new jobs under the new budget which provides more money for NASA, but nobody really knows yet how many and where.

One of the most poignant questions asked by a reporter at yesterday’s press briefing came at the very end: What’s to say that when a new administration enters the White House that we won’t come back to starting over again with a whole new program?

“If we execute the budget as proposed and prove that we are on a sustainable path, that is the best protection for a subsequent administration not having to change course,” said Lori Garver, Deputy NASA Administrator. “That’s the goal, to not be in this position every four years. These technologies we will be developing will allow us to leave low Earth orbit and go to interesting places. We’ll be able to determine the best places to go, and we should have the data to do it and the capabilities to do it that are more affordable, which has been the goal since the beginning to the space program.”

So this is where my other mind kicks in.

Change is hard. It’s really hard when people’s lives and livelihood are affected. But without change, we get comfortable and getting comfortable means we do the same things over and over.

Running NASA the same way ever since the end of Apollo, while giving us the amazing vehicle that is the space shuttle, has not gotten humans beyond low Earth Orbit, and I think everyone agrees we want to be able to go other places.

Last year NASA turned 50 and there were some comments about NASA reaching middle age and acting like it, too. Change is what keeps us young, and change keeps us on our toes. When you’re willing to change and get out of your comfort zone, you make a commitment to the unknown. And that’s what NASA should be all about. Our memories can’t be bigger than our dreams.

Perhaps the hardest thing about these proposed changes to NASA is that Obama and Bolden are asking for change without telling us exactly what the change is. Maybe they don’t know yet, but this is something we can’t just figure out along the way.

There’s the famous saying that life is not about the destination but the journey, or the other saying that the best thing about being in a race is competing in it. But most journeys have a map and most races have a finish line.

If the proposed budget and plan goes through, this will give us a shot at journeying beyond. Now we just need to know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

I started writing this to report on yesterday’s briefing by Charlie Bolden, Lori Garver and other NASA officials, but clearly it turned into something different. Here are a few links to articles by other journalists who wrote about the briefing and what might be coming next:

Reuters: NASA Maps Plan for Revamped Space Program

NASA Chief Maps Out Space Agency’s Future Beyond Shuttle by Tariq Malik at Space.com

NASA Chief Charts Agency’s Shuttle-Less Future by Seth Borenstein, AP

The Write Stuff Blog at the Orlando Sentinel quickly distills what the changes will mean for the different NASA Centers:

Plans for Kennedy Space Center under Obama 2011 budget

What JSC can Expect from the NASA Reshuffle

What Marshall Can Expect from the NASA Reshuffle

Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger, The SciGuy: Job Cuts Worry Space Center Boss and Answers Coming Today on NASA’s Future

Congressional Reactions to NASA’s Work Assignments by Jeff Foust at Space Politics

NASA Announces Programs and Costs for the Next Five Years by Dennis Overbye, New York Times

And finally, this NASA budget page provides links to all the NASA documents published about the new budget

18 Replies to “Where Is NASA Going and How Are We Going to Get There?”

  1. Apparently the reshuffling of the world’s economic fortunes has left science at the bottom rung of the ladder. As a result space exploration has been placed into ‘survival mode’. This due mostly to certain strategically placed greedy entities making off with much of the ‘economic pie’ for their personal consumption. Unfair? You bet! Stupid? Too true, i.e. Where are the assets for intercepting a rogue comet or asteroid should that become necessary?

    Short term investments are the rule of the day. Why would anyone risk unknown expenditures by going to the moon or Mars without a certain payoff? So.. I guess we’d better come up with one!

    The ultimate prank is to get the GREEDY to go in a direction that actually helps the rest of us move forward. We don’t live in a perfect world… so lets get the bastards to INVEST in something that will!

  2. Yeah… the shuttle is totally more sophisticated and advanced than ITER or the LHC. Totally:P.

    I hate it when people use that bullcrap line. The shuttle isn’t even REMOTELY close to the most complicated or advanced piece of equipment built by humans.

  3. I have to admit the shuttle is a beauty.

    The Shuttle is one of top sophisticated machines build, at the same time the cost of each launch and maintaining is extremely high. That is why its being canceled. Learn from the Russians, keep it simple.

  4. Well done Nancy. I like how you changed direction mid-story and embraced the idea that to ‘get out there’ we need to change how we approach space.

    It’s not going to be easy, nothing worth while ever is!


  5. Its all well and good… I guess.. but they have yet to answer the two most important questions that I have…. When will Americans be back on the moon? When will we begin our journey to Mars?
    Don’t get me wrong, I wish all the best for any country that is willing to do it and hope they will be successful. We’re talking about the progress of our species here.. Not a flag… I just want my questions answered… But I won’t get on my stump until after the 15th.. 🙂 .. Although I expect a vague “vision” speech..
    Given that the current administration and many in congress seem bent on controlling everything, perhaps when the next “space” company is on the verge of going belly up, they could step in and give them billions of dollars (the people’s money) to stay in business as long as they do what the Government wants.. Hopefully to build spacecraft to go to the moon and beyond..

  6. I hate it when people use that bullcrap line.

    I hear ya’. Another bullcrap line I hate (nothing personal, Nancy) is when people talks of “extending the shuttle program”, as if it isn’t mothballed already. The production lines, here for the external tanks, are disassembled and the know how people scattered.

    Famously, you “cant’ go back” in industrial production. The needed equipment and know how is either there or its impossible to reconstruct afterwards.

    ‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This shuttle is no more! She has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in space! If you hadn’t mentioned ‘er in an article ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Ers thermodynamical processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the launch pad! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-SHUTTLE!!

    For US to launch astronauts after the shuttle last tank is used (there is one reserve), a whole new system now needs to be developed.

  7. When will we begin our journey to Mars?

    Given that we have no current technology to land masses there > 1 metric ton, and AFAIU we now know that radiation will fry “Marstronauts” brains to incapability using current technology low energy orbits, it will take a few generations.

    My prediction is 2-3 generations (i.e > 20 years, one generation, for sure), since even if we have proposals for both (such as VASIMR engines for sufficiently short travel times to avoid harmful radiation doses), they will be sufficiently expensive to develop and use that no one will undertake the effort lightly.

  8. What I want to know is when will we regain the space flight capabilities our fathers had?

    The old saying was it would be 100 years before men set foot on the moon again.
    To that I always said “Horseshiat!’. We’ve got better computers, better materials, better maps, more understanding of the risks, more reliable engines, alternative propulsion options, better shielding and a broader array of tactics to try. We could build a program that would more than outdo anything made previously, We can go anywhere.

    …and now another decades past and the only moon program, the only serious beo effort in the works, has fallen victim to politics and greed. Here I am praying in vain that we could just revive the Saturn V.

    Von Braun was right. This isn’t about engineering, its about the will to proceed with more ambitious goals.
    If we want to go to the moon, mars, or anywhere then we have to find leaders who support a vision of exploration. Otherwise we’ll continue to be stuck with guys that always find themselves too busy working ‘real issues’ (like gay marriage) to understand the importance of spaceflight.

    I think the fight to close the gap or save any present day program is lost. We should focus on getting rid of the politicos that put us in this situation before we attempt to revive a manned space program.
    Otherwise we’ll be back here again in a decade, and that hundred year prediction will come true easily enough.

  9. I agree that the shuttle is a beautiful machine. I watched Columbia land at KSC (on the back of a 747) after it’s very first flight, and I thought “this is the beginning of the REAL space age”. It has enabled astronauts to do amazing things, but in the end, it cost far to much to operate and has only taken us to LEO. That would have been fine for 5-10 years, but we have been treading water (from a human exploration point of view) for 29 years.

    The “program of record” was designed to do both the LEO mission (albeit much less capably than the shuttle) and also leave earth orbit for the moon and other destinations. Because it had to do both, it did neither very well. Too many compromises, too far behind schedule, too much over cost, and continuing technical “challenges.

    I believe the new budget proposal gives us a second chance; a chance to do it right. By turning orbital access over to the commercial world (who might also find other uses for their hardware, such as taking regular people to space), NASA can focus their effort on a true spacecraft designed to fly FROM earth orbit to points beyond, and not required to enter the earth’s atmosphere (no requirement to be a capsule, have wings, thermal protection etc). The future will inevitably consist of such spacecraft plying the inner solar system. I want to see that within my lifetime.

  10. …. speculating is just boring.

    Let’s wait to 15th April before having this debate, you know, putting the hors before the cart!

    All I read is premonitions of the future in the desperate hope that someone might be right in their pitiful clandestine opinions.

    Where are the tea leaves and the chicken entrails, fellas?

  11. I’m confused by the “incremental” comments. Just how does going to the moon help us get to Mars?

    One of the major challenges we face in getting to and from Mars is building a machine that will support human life for that amount of time. Even during the EDO missions the longest mission kept Columbia on orbit for 17 days. One EDO mission was cut short after 3 days. Compare that to a mission to Mars using proposed VASIMR technologies: 2 months transit time to get there, time on orbit and for surface operations, and 2 months transit for return.

    ISS, with all it’s facility for storage and its solar panel farm, has to be resupplied some what more frequently than that, not just with consumables, but with spare/replacement parts. ISS has the advantage that the supply depot is just a few hundred miles (and just a few weeks) away. Further, in the event of a truly catastrophic system or component failure, safe haven is just a few hundred miles and a few hours away.

    ISS is an amazing complex, but it requires on-going monitoring and maintenance, plus a multi-national ground support team. Going to the moon required a large team of people on the ground keeping 3 men safe and operational for 10 to 12 days. Going to Mars isn’t just an incremental step from going to the moon, it’s a much more difficult endeavor and I don’t know that we know how to do that.

    Certainly we know how to keep robotic systems operating for multiples of the times of human missions to Mars. Look at Spirit and Opportunity, Cassini, Pioneer and Voyager, Ulysses, etc. Yet, we don’t do that reliably. We also have MPL, Beagle, Phobos 1 and 2, etc.

    How do we take what we know about robotic systems and extend that to making human supporting systems that will function in harsh environments for the duration of a manned mission to and from Mars? How do you do that when you can’t call for the repairman to make a house call? How do we properly demonstrate that we’ve learned how to make such systems? Do we even know what the issues are that prevent us from making such systems?

    Until we can make considerable process in answering these questions, I’m not convinced that we should be looking at building booster systems capable of taking us beyond LEO.

  12. @Hon. Salacious B. Crumb

    Actually speculation has a function. It is feed-back to those in charge that they better come up with something good instead of some fuzzy promise. It pushes them a bit.

  13. I have no idea when the US will be back on the Moon or past LEO, but I do know that many other countries will be exploring Mars and the moon long before the US gets there too.

  14. @Olaf
    It might be a bit late for them to invent a new plan, politically speaking.

    Since last year and the Augustine commission we’ve been expecting something grand or well detailed at least.
    The old plan, for its flaws, had time lines and goals (Which is how we know it strayed). That’s been replaced with a giant question mark.

    We’re expecting Obama to rectify that on the 15th by adding details…
    I’ve got a nasty suspicion that what he’s coming to say is that the idea of time lines and goals is old school thinking, and the question mark is the more enlightened approach. Time lines are no longer in vogue and NASA should just, you know, do stuff.

    Obviously he’ll be long gone before the results are proven one way or another. But I suspect that, given a presidential order to wander from its mission, NASA will wander to the fullest.

  15. @Maxwell
    I also think that the plan is to promis stuff and push it to the next president to clean up the mess.

    What worries me is that the promised extra money for NASA will also be shifted to the next president.

    I do expect a reduction of children choosing for science since they have no real hero in space.

  16. The idea we are “goin’ to Mars” is probably pipe dreaming. Seriously, a plausibly reasonable program to return to the moon, or at least build the Ares large launcher, is being scrapped with vague ideas of some 10-100 times larger program for boots on Mars?! Folks this is pure nonsense. The idea we are turning LEO over to private companies is some sort of window dressing. There is no way private industry can support manned spaceflight — even if to just LEO. All of this sounds to me as a way of closing down the whole manned space program without actually saying it.

    It might be that the majority of humans who will ever fly in space have already done so.


  17. I think Obama needs to back up and think and charlie Bolden has to get some courage and not be a yes man.
    Obama seems to be of the mind to put us reverse in many ways.

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