From 'flags and footprints' to having a routine presence in space

From 'flags and footprints' to having a routine presence in space
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE’s signing of Space Policy Directive 1 once again gives NASA a mission adjustment and beneficial goals. The directive recommits NASA to:

“Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”

With the recent successes by the commercial sector, the space domain is no longer for governments by governments: NASA and the U.S. government require a fundamental change in tactics. While activities in space will always remain linked to Earth, shifting their “center” and expanding infrastructure from the surface of the Earth into Earth’s orbits and beyond by efficiently leveraging commercial capabilities is key to beginning the transition from “flags and footprints” to routine activities and presence in space.

“One mission, one destination” is the typical strategic mindset common to NASA’s science and human exploration missions, which results in developing required capabilities from scratch (e.g. SkyCrane) or looking at reusing existing technologies for other mission uses with minimal design change (heritage technology is preferred assuming that it drives down mission costs, a fact not always true, especially if such capabilities do not exist anymore — e.g. Orion TPS).


Next, the technology maturation process, unfolds in a linear fashion with the ultimate objective of transitioning to the NASA program that established the requirement. This process sacrifices science and the ability to iterate fastdoes not incentivize providers to develop affordable and systematic capabilities, and the consideration of economic intelligence and market pull is anything but strategic (engagement model with industry is secondary, i.e “work for hire” contracts, and commercialization is serendipitous). As the sole customer, NASA/the government needs to maintain the unique infrastructure needed for these missions and maintains large per mission costs.

While science missions are largely competitive and outcome focused, human missions start by establishing a destination — the political choice of Moon or Mars — often becoming a solution in search of a problem. Since the Apollo era, the overall result of this “swing” approach has basically resulted in “grounding” the human space program, negatively affecting the morale of the working force, and making many feel that it is little more than a job welfare program.

From an HR perspective, NASA, like any other government organization, is a great example of Peter’s principle, structured and incentivized by the slogan “the hierarchy needs to be preserved by all costs”, frequently leading to the alienation or outright removal of highly competent people focused on problem solving and with a desire of seeing accelerated progress. 

Within the last decade, the private sector has fundamentally changed the way humanity is gaining access to, and using, space through accelerated developments, scaled up utilization and democratization. This shift has spurred a whole New Space Economy emerged primarily around business opportunities with more immediate return like, launch, remote sensing, imaging, and small satellites. Long-term business opportunities include more challenging, but equally lucrative, verticals like space manufacturing, asteroid mining, space tourism, and settlement.

For the government, this paradigm shift represents more than just a great opportunity to leverage commercial capabilities and to harness innovation and entrepreneurship; the growth in commercial space has ushered in a new era of space development and signaled the end of space as a government only domain. This shift in space development is not temporary. The United States has been slow to recognize this transformation and that is a problem.

NASA, as a public space agency with a broad mission, has played a critical role developing much of initial intellectual property at the foundation of these recent innovations and is perfectly capable of conducting many of its core activities, including improving our fundamental understanding of the Universe. What needs to be change is the lack of coherence in the evolution of space exploration and exploitation, primarily the direct competition between government and commercial efforts in human exploration.

To achieve a sustainable presence in space with commercial and international partners allowing both human and robotic exploration (as Space Policy Directive – 1 outlines), NASA’s new focus should be on development, deployment, and maintenance of:

1. Multipurpose mission concepts:

Key to such successful developments are upfront considerations to maximize the economic potential of developed technologies through technology readiness and economic convergence (i.e. the technology itself may not necessarily need to mature but the understanding of its economic potential does) and effective bridging between supply, demand, and capital.

2. A robust space-based infrastructure:

This infrastructure should encompass three spheres of activity with corresponding set transition plans: (1) Earth and Earth orbits (expansion from ISS to other capabilities; fully transition to commercial in next decade) (2) cislunar space and Mars (establish space infrastructure such as communication, refueling, supply, transit stations) together with industry for common use, and (3) deep space.

Across the U.S. economy there are examples of public-private partnerships encouraging economic efficiency and growth: The government funds and oversees the effort while utilizing the private sector for efficiencies gained through the capitalist system. Space exploration should be no different: Key space infrastructure could be managed through NASA/government similarly to the way the country currently builds roads and other terrestrial public infrastructure to stimulate commercially enabled multipurpose mission concepts. 

For this change to take effect, it needs the collective bipartisan support of the U.S. government in both Congress and the White House that includes legal and structural mechanisms to set in place long term plans enduring through multiple election cycles. The United States cannot continue to waste resources by frequently changing the mission direction of major NASA efforts. The need for such an approach will only increase as international competition over the exploration and exploitation of space continues to accelerate.

It is imperative that the United States redirects NASA’s mission and align its internal mode of operation to prioritize effective partnerships and to focus in building together with the commercial sector an efficient and systematic space industrial base for current and future generations’ routine presence in space.

Gravity free regards! 

Dr. Ioana Cozmuta is senior R&D engineer and Commercial Microgravity Lead with Science and Technology Corporation and provides Industry Engagement and Commercial Space Partnerships support to the Space Portal @NASA Silicon Valley. An entrepreneur herself, Dr. Cozmuta serves as independent technical and business advisor to a variety of organizations.

Adam Routh is a research associate with the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security where he focuses on national security space policy. He is also a former member of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.