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NASA’s new proving ground has much to prove

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Several recent meetings of top NASA and administration officials have provided a long-awaited look at the current NASA blueprint for sending human explorers to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. Speaking at the Humans 2 Mars Summit 2014 conference at George Washington University on April 22nd, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden outlined NASA’s latest plans and explained the rationale behind them. Refer to the conference website for a video recording of Administrator Bolden’s presentation.

NASA will take a three step approach. For the rest of this decade, the agency will use the International Space Station (ISS) to research life support systems necessary for sending astronauts deeper into space. In the 2020’s, NASA will use cis-lunar space (lunar orbit) as a “proving ground” for new technologies and capabilities needed to go to Mars. And finally, NASA will… go to Mars, sometime after 2030!

Congress and the manned spaceflight community have long accepted the importance of the first and last steps. What’s new is the middle step, the concept of using lunar orbit as a technology proving ground. This new step faces a tough up-hill fight, one that will go poorly for NASA if the agency fails to articulate the rationale and benefits behind their recent proposals.

Where did this proving ground idea come from?

The concept of using lunar orbit as a proving ground seemed to appear out of nowhere within the past few weeks. However, NASA now claims the idea evolved over several years. Administrator Bolden credits a speech by US President Barack Obama back in 2010 for getting the ball rolling.

The Obama-2010 speech outlined a vague plan for visiting an asteroid with human explorers around the year 2025 prior to sending an exploration team to Mars in the mid 2030’s. Just about every Mars expert immediately trashed this approach as a bloated detour, one of the few times in recorded history that Mars experts have ever agreed on anything.

But not so fast! NASA still had marching orders from above, and the agency needed to make the best of the situation. The administration saved the Orion space capsule from an early death, much to the delight of our local Colorado space community since the Orion capsule is being developed at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Canyon complex. NASA leadership also reincarnated plans for a heavy lift vehicle, now called the Space Launch System (or sometimes jokingly the Senate Launch System).

After a capsule and a rocket to launch it on, the next thing NASA needed was a destination, one that fit their new vision (i.e. an asteroid). Unfortunately, good asteroid destinations proved hard to find. The known near-Earth asteroid population doesn’t contain many good targets large enough to be detected - and with an orbit bringing the asteroid close enough to Earth. And thank goodness these asteroids are so hard to find… otherwise our fledgeling civilization may have already gone the way of the dinosaurs.

The Orion development team put together a very creative mission plan called “Plymouth Rock” to circumvent some of the difficulties. They found a few reasonable targets over the next decade and developed some creative ways to reach them. For reasons that are unclear, Plymouth Rock has failed to gain much traction within NASA and congress.

Instead, NASA announced a different approach last summer: rather than going to the asteroid, let’s bring the asteroid to us. This new plan, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), uses a robotic spacecraft to tow an asteroid closer to Earth, locking it into an orbit where astronauts can visit it any time over the next few decades.

Whether ARM will actually work or not is anyone’s guess. Based on past NASA history, we can expect ARM to blow through its initial budget quickly and extend through time indefinitely. Moving an asteroid or boulder from an asteroid may even end up becoming one of the most difficult and expensive endeavors ever undertaken at NASA.

Capabilities vs Destinations

To understand the next iterations in the plan, we need to segway to a parallel discussion within the space agency and greater spaceflight community. A much older debate poses the question, “Should NASA be destination-driven or capability-driven?”

The destination/capability debate traces its roots to the destination-driven Apollo era. NASA focused on the Moon in the 1960’s and achieved its goals - plus a whole lot more. Then the agency switched into a capability-driven mode from the 1970’s until the early 2000’s partly because it believed Mars to be a bridge too far - and too expensive. After spending as many inflation-adjusted dollars as in the Apollo era, NASA’s results fell far short: an aging (now retired) space shuttle fleet and a partially built International Space Station.

Around ten years ago, NASA briefly regained its mojo by switching back into destination mode under Administrator Mike Griffin. They focused on a specific goal, Mars, and streamlined a plan to reach the Red Planet by using the lunar surface as a proving ground for specific technologies.

This plan, dubbed Constellation, was relatively cheap and safe compared to the current plan. Unfortunately, politics got in the way. A new presidential administration in 2008 sought to erase all vestiges of the previous administration, so… NASA switched back into capability mode and embarked on a program of technology development under current Administrator Bolden.

A valuable lesson learned about destination vs capability modes involves the cost. Capability mode tends to be far, far more expensive when measured against real results. The shortest and simplest explanation for this is the obvious fact that capability-driven projects have no incentive to reach a conclusion. Once a capability has been fully developed, research funding and staff disappear… and in a bureaucratic environment, funding and staff must never disappear.

So when you hear Administrator Bolden complaining about a lack of budget in his recent presentation, insert “due to our desire to operate in capability mode” onto the end of each sentence. NASA created its current budget constraints and now must live within them.

Capability testing in lunar orbit

This brings us to the recent announcements by Bolden and others in the current administration about what NASA will do next. The ARM mission needs a place to store its asteroid, one that’s useful for developing capabilities should anyone ever decide to take a trip to Mars. NASA now believes that cis-lunar space fits their needs better than anywhere else, as evidenced by a memo to the NASA Advisory Council released last week.

To see if capability development in lunar orbit actually makes sense as a Mars precursor, we should consider what capabilities NASA still needs to develop prior to a Mars mission with human explorers. The list is pretty short: 1) a better landing system enabling larger payloads; 2) a more capable rocket; 3) a life support system capable of 180 days in space; 4) long-duration Mars habitats; 5) a better Earth return strategy.

Of the capabilities on this list, #1 is under active development, SLS achieves #2, and Orion achieves #3. None of these three capabilities require lunar orbit as a proving ground, though Orion radiation testing must happen somewhere outside the Earth’s magnetosphere. Lunar orbit could suffice for testing Orion, but anywhere else would be just as good or better.

The fourth capability, long duration habitats, is unique to the surface of Mars. Testing can only be done there, though some specific components and technologies can be tested on ISS.

The fifth capability, Earth-return, could almost be considered optional since other Mars mission plans like Mars-One don’t require an immediate return to Earth (while in fact enabling it). However, NASA still operates within an antiquated paradigm forbidding any discussion of delayed-return missions. They simply won’t consider going to Mars until they have planned the return leg in excruciating detail.

So the real question becomes: “What Mars-to-Earth return capabilities can NASA test in lunar orbit?” Alas, beyond basic lunar orbital rendezvous (already achieved in 1969), the answer appears to be: “Nothing.” The hardest parts of the return from Mars to Earth involve surface rendezvous, fuel generation, dust contamination, and years-long maintenance of unmanned systems in a hostile surface environment. Testing solutions for these problems in lunar orbit makes no sense.

I invite anyone from NASA management to answer the question above differently - or a broader question about general Mars capability testing in lunar orbit. Until they can identify specific benefits, clearly and concisely enough to satisfy friendly critics like your Examiner, they will never, ever be able to sell the ARM approach as a Mars precursor mission to tougher critics in Congress or the general public.

Speaking of tougher critics, the Washington Post just ran an op-ed hatchet job on Administrator Bolden’s speech. Minus some inane blather about robotic missions and out-of-context ramblings about extra-solar destinations or aliens that have nothing to do with the current topic, this article presents an excellent example of NASA’s uphill fight to educate the general public about their new direction and priorities. Expect to hear some of these warped arguments frequently over the next few years.

Other specifics in Bolden’s speech

Several other items in the speech are worth mentioning. Administrator Bolden talked about the importance of learning how to “maneuver” in lunar orbit, and he also referred to the upcoming Mars landing system tests in June off the coast of Hawaii (see the link above, #1 in the capabilities list).

He longingly referred several times to Apollo’s budget, which peaked at 4% of the US budget in the late 1960’s, but rightly called any expectations of this level of public support “unrealistic.” He did leave the door open for a smaller figure, perhaps 1%… which would still require Congress to double the NASA budget. The chances of this seem near-zero unless NASA can articulate its vision and satisfy its most vocal critics.

Fortunately, money is the least of NASA’s problems. Administrator Bolden even referred to the real issues in his presentation: complexity and risk. It’s nice to know he “gets it.” Until the rest of NASA somehow learns this lesson, asteroids/ARM, the Moon, and Mars will all remain out of reach.

Bolden also made a very astute comment: “There are a thousand different ways to do what we want to do.” He mentioned this when talking about people with unrealistic budget expectations who were trying to drive NASA in different directions. One wonders if he realizes his comment also applies to his own budget-busting, capability-driven mode of operation.

NASA could develop a 1000 different space mission plans and capabilities over the next 4000 presidential administrations. Will any of these actually take humanity to Mars and beyond? The answer is a resounding “no” until some future NASA administrator resists the siren’s call of Just One More Capability… and actually decides it’s time to go.