First, let's compare NASA with another Administration, the FAA. Their mandate is actually much more complicated to convey than NASA's if you try to wade through the relevant legislation. Here's what the FAA have to say about themselves:
We're responsible for the safety of civil aviation. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the agency under the name Federal Aviation Agency. We adopted our present name in 1967 when we became a part of the Department of Transportation. Our major roles include:That's fairly straightforward. (Well, that last bit might need a little explanation. It pretty much covers American passenger craft until they reach orbit.)
- Regulating civil aviation to promote safety
- Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology
- Developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft
- Researching and developing the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics
- Developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation
- Regulating U.S. commercial space transportation
The legislation governing NASA, the Space Act (1958, amended), is much smaller and easier to read than that of the FAA. The Declaration of Policy and Purpose and section 203(a), Functions of the Administration are the most interesting part. Both those sections contain exactly the same phrase: seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space. Here's what NASA says they do:
NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research... NASA conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates:Note the difference? The FAA has a very clear understanding of the administration part of their job. Setting regulations. Setting standards. A system of air traffic control and navigation. And every part of what the FAA says it does contains the word "civil" (i.e. civilian) or "commercial".
- Aeronautics: pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve our ability to explore and which have practical applications on Earth.
- Exploration Systems: creates capabilities for sustainable human and robotic exploration.
- Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
- Space Operations: provides critical enabling technologies for much of the rest of NASA through the space shuttle, the International Space Station and flight support.
In fact, when you compare what the FAA says they do with what NASA says they do, it is apparent that the FAA serves civilians and commerce, but what NASA does is "improve our (NASA's?) ability to explore" or "provides critical enabling technologies for much of the rest of NASA" - in other words, NASA exists to enhance the capabilities of NASA. That's harsh, but do you see the word "commercial" or "civil" in NASA's mission directorates? Compared to the FAA, who is it that NASA is serving?
(The word "society" is there, true - but that word can mean anything one wants it to mean, including everyone in the world, and the description of the Science directorate is such a "motherhood issue" that I wouldn't change a word anyhow.)
NASA appears to have gotten stuck in part of the Space Act's section on Functions of the Administration, section 203(a)(1): plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities. That doesn't mean all of them, just do such activities. It doesn't mean building an entirely new set of rockets from scratch when comparable commercial alternatives are already available.
Section 203(a)(4) (seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space) and 203(a)(5) (encourage and provide for Federal Government use of commercially provided space services and hardware, consistent with the requirements of the Federal Government.) would pretty much prohibit such things as Ares-1 development altogether. Such a goal is too small for NASA. It would be like the FAA building their own planes instead of certifying planes built by the aircraft industry.
It should be noted that NASA does a bang-up job with section 203(a)(2) arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations. They are getting better with (3) provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof, but they can only do so much with ITAR in place.
The Aldridge commission recommended consolidating the various mission-focused enterprises within NASA's organizational structure into Science, Exploration, Aeronautics, and possibly Education. Notice something missing? Yep, the Space Operations mission directorate would be out, perhaps replaced by an Education directorate. I have something a different in mind. It might still be called Space Operations, but its function would in no way resemble the current directorate's stated purpose. More about that later.
The Aldridge commission also recommended a permanent space exploration steering council, a technical advisory board, a cost estimating organization, and special project teams on enabling technologies. I splashed some bits about the enabling technologies in developing space, because it gives some idea of the short-term goals NASA should be following, but this is just part of a larger realignment of NASA's mission (as currently envisaged by NASA) with its charter.
The FAA encourages the commercial use of airspace by providing structure: certifications for aircraft, air traffic control and navigation, pilot certification, maintenance records criteria, and so forth. Passenger and cargo planes would not be able to travel safely without this structure.
NASA can also encourage the commercial use of space, and not just by being a customer for rides to Low Earth Orbit. This is partly where these short-term enabling technologies projects come into play.
building the stepping stones
Commercial enterprises will do considerable research and development - just look at the contribution of Bell Labs to science - but there has to be some reasonable assessment of risk in order to please stockholders. If a development is too financially risky, such as developing cryogenic propellant storage and transfer in orbit, no company will be able to justify the investment to stockholders or investors no matter what the potential payoff. Nobody wants to be first, nobody wants to be third, everybody wants to be the second to get into something new.
That sort of technology is a game-changer. Storage and transfer of propellant in orbit is one small step out of many small steps - rather than giant leaps. It has a cascading effect: it helps bootstrap other stepping stones, it means a huge increase in commercial rocket production and launch rate, which in turn means new private sector jobs, and incremental improvements in vehicle design causing a rapid increase in vehicle safety, and on and on and on. That's what makes it a stepping stone.
Let's assume success. Suppose NASA takes my advice ("hey! this random blogger has an idea! let's change our whole agency!") and changes all its centers into FFRDCs like the Jet Propulsion Lab and then starts working on stepping stones like a demonstration orbital propellant depot. And suppose further that they get the sucker working after some minor tweaks - that it stores (for example) liquid Oxygen and liquid Hydrogen with minimal boil off and can transfer these propellants to or from another spacecraft. The propellant depot is now at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 9! Hooray!
turning it up to 11
What should happen then is that NASA publishes the relevant data: the design of the coupling between the depot and the spacecraft, communications protocols for proximity operations, temperature control techniques, procedures for using boiloff as attitude control thrust, whatever. They would establish the regulations for such things as tolerances on the couplings, procedures for measurement of propellant transfer, temperature and pressure measurement guidelines for future depots, and so on. At times NASA would be working on this alongside such government organizations as the NIST and FCC and FAA, depending on the technology involved.
And then NASA would be the agency actually administering the use of that new technology: certifying the correctness (measured to within specified tolerances) of a coupling to the orbital version of a gas pump, for instance.
In short, NASA would be retiring much of the risk which would otherwise never be borne by commercial space companies, both the technical risk and the regulatory risk. If NASA demonstrates that an orbital propellant depot can work, sets the standards and regulations for operations, and then steps aside and administers those regulations, then private companies can step up and provide services. Companies that want to supply propellant to depots or launch depots or launch spacecraft to be refueled at depots would know exactly how to interface their craft with the depot, perhaps buying NASA-certified couplings from a choice of vendors, and would borrow some of the transfer and storage technology developed by NASA to actually do the job.
With all the stepping stone technologies I mentioned in developing space, NASA's role would be the same: identify a short-term enabling technology; get it working (i.e. retire the technical risk); publish specifications, standards, and regulations for the new technology (i.e. retire the regulatory risk); administer the certification processes and ensure regulatory compliance for using the new technology.
If NASA adopts a stepping-stones approach, then at any one time there would be several such enabling technologies being researched in parallel at varying levels of technical readiness. The Aldridge commission recommendations of a permanent space exploration steering council, a technical advisory board, and a cost estimating organization, would decide on which short term enabling technologies to pursue, and what strategy to use to develop the technology - not just up the existing Technology Readiness Level scale but beyond that into technical standards and specifications and regulations for commercial and civilian use.
Most of the enabling technologies I mentioned in developing space are at about a TRL of 2 to 4. What I am proposing is that NASA not stop at a TRL of 9 (Actual system 'flight proven' through successful mission operations) but that it extend its TRL rating system beyond 9 into TRL-10 (technical standards, specifications, and regulations regarding the new technology are developed, published, and implemented) and TRL-11 (the new technology is implemented by the industry and regulation, certification, industry standards and so forth are administered by NASA).
I mentioned the Space Operations directorate above and the Aldridge report idea of perhaps eliminating it or replacing it with an Education directorate. Instead, the Space Operations directorate would be the part of NASA responsible for those TRL-10 and TRL-11 stages, and would likely be heavily involved in data-gathering during the TRL-7-8-9 stages. (Several other functions would also fall under Space Operations such as satellite and orbital debris tracking, Near-Earth Asteroid tracking, and administration of the Deep Space Network.)
So how can NASA maximize the commercial use of space while developing these stepping-stone enabling technologies from low technology readiness level right up to TRL-11? And how does this promote the development of the space industry?
more Bang for the Buck (Rogers)
Let's extend the imaginary scenario above. Suppose NASA has demonstrated a working orbital propellant depot, published interface specifications and tolerances and regulations for proximity operations and protocols for delivering full tanks and so forth, and is now certifying components as compatible, regulation-compliant, and so on. What then?
With all those specifications and regulations and so forth available to civilians, businesses can begin building matching couplings, programming their software to comply with the proximity operations regulations, that sort of thing. They don't have to do it all from scratch. They already know it will work.
And they don't have to do it all. A single company doesn't have to do everything. Company A might just include orbital propellant depot couplings to their product line, since they have expertise in manufacturing precision machining of the alloy required. Company B might buy that coupling and include it on their (launched empty) second stage of their Whizbang rocket. And NASA itself might buy it for their own use in other stepping stone technologies like a bus - or might just buy a portion of a Whizbang rocket payload to launch a deep-space robotic exploration mission, refueled in orbit for the second leg of its journey.
NASA can also encourage commercial use of space as it develops these stepping stone technologies up the Technology Readiness Levels. In many cases, the entire problem doesn't need to be solved at once. A perfect example of this is the Centennial Challenges program. This program is a tiny, tiny fraction of NASA's budget, and at that spread over many years, but the results are remarkable.
If this same idea - prizes awarded for targeted innovations in key areas - is broadened in scope, with prize values scaled according to the value to the agency, NASA can apply leverage to that money that would be impossible if NASA simply spent it in-house working on the same problems, while at the same time engaging the public directly and expanding the base of the space industry.
These prizes are a good way to get a technology from TRL-2 (Technology concept and/or application formulated) to TRL-4 (Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment). Further "relevant environment" tests and improvements could either be undertaken at one of the NASA centers or opened up to the industry in the form of more prizes or commercial contracts. In all cases, the question should be, "can we use the industry to provide leverage?"
Prizes are also a good way for start-up space businesses to find a niche or several niches in what is to become a large industry. A small space business might start by just making the precision propellant couplings needed to refuel booster stages, or by just making astronaut gloves, or by making the software, actuators, and engines necessary for lunar landers. In fact, in the case of the lunar landers, there were three such companies involved and all now have a firm toehold in the industry.
NASA can also use commercial space launch providers - both suborbital and orbital - to bring some of these stepping stone technologies up through TRL-7 (System prototype demonstration in a space environment), TRL-8 (Actual system completed and 'flight qualified' through test and demonstration (ground or space)), and TRL-9 (Actual system 'flight proven' through successful mission operations), either by purchasing the entire available payload or just a portion of the payload. Such contracts would be paid for results, not cost-plus accounting which pays for costs incurred.
Once the technology has advanced to TRL-11, it is possible to get businesses in seemingly unrelated industries to become involved in the space industry. For example, a company like Nike or Reebok could start mass-producing spacesuits.
restating NASA's mission statement
NASA is the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, not the National Aeronautic and Space Industry. Everything an organization does stems from its mission statement. Extending space technology beyond flight testing and validation into industry standards and specifications and regulations allows the space industry to participate in implementing stepping stone technologies in operational systems. Incentives like prizes and contracts (and other things NASA can't do but Congress can, such as Zero Gee Zero Tax) will help leverage NASA's budget for developing the stepping stone technologies.
These stepping stones and commercial involvement also assist NASA's Science and Exploration efforts. For example, today if we want to send a rover to Mars we launch it on the (commercial!) Delta rocket. It carries its fully-fueled second stage all the way from the ground to orbit, then discards the first stage and uses the second to go to Mars.
However, if NASA develops (up to TRL-11) propellant depots and bus stations, then the second stage can be launched empty and a much larger, heavier payload can be put on top. The first stage gets discarded (and perhaps recovered and reused) and the second stage refuels in orbit, and is checked out by astronauts at the bus station. Perhaps the second stage takes it to the Earth-moon L1 propellant depot, where it is again refueled, some other previously launched components added, and then sent on its way to Mars. In the end, NASA gets a much bigger, more reliable payload for the dollar.
So, this brings me to NASA's mission statement, mentioned above. It needs to change to reflect the new civil and commercial (rather than NASA-centric) orientation. Here goes:
NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research... NASA conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates:How's that?
- Aeronautics: pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve America's ability to explore and which have practical applications for civil aeronautics.
- Exploration Systems: works with industry to create capabilities for commercially-sustainable human and robotic exploration and utilization of the solar system.
- Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
- Space Operations: provides critical enabling technologies for civil space utilization, certifies and regulates those technologies for civil use, and provides flight support, deep space communications, and object tracking.