Congress, NASA, Pentagon, White House

Space policy issues for the next four years

On Monday, a panel of experts discussed the space policy issues that will be at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s second term at an event organized by the Secure World Foundation. There are, as one might expect, no shortage of challenges facing NASA, the White House, Congress, and other players in space policy, from budgets to strategy to international cooperation. A few key items that emerged from the discussion:

Budgets and strategy: A key near-term concern is what will happen to the budgets for NASA and other federal agencies with space activities, given the looming “fiscal cliff” and future budgets that are likely to be, at best, constrained. “The one certainty is that the budget situation is going to be pretty grim going forward,” said Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com. In particular, she warned NASA’s current plans, put into place by the 2010 authorization act, to develop both the Space Launch System/Orion and commercial crew vehicles is not affordable over the long term. “I don’t know if we’re looking at a train wreck that’s going to happen in the next year or two, or if we’re just going to end up stretching out programs.”

Such decisions will require better relations between the administration and Congress, Smith said. “The most important thing the Obama Administration is going to have to do is to continue working to reestablish trust with Congress,” she said. Relations have improved since 2010, “but I still sense that there is a little bit of nervousness on the part of Congress as to whether or not NASA is really committed to SLS and Orion, and whether or not they’re going to proceed with that program with the same vigor that they want to pursue commercial crew.” She added there’s still “a sense of unease” about NASA’s strategic direction, such as whether a human asteroid mission should remain a long-term space exploration goal.

Culture changes needed: Another key issue in a resource-constrained era is a willingness to adopt alternative approaches to doing business. One example is hosted payloads, where government agencies place payloads (communications transponders, scientific instruments, and so on) on commercial spacecraft. “Almost everyone agrees that hosted payloads… is a good idea,” said Patricia Cooper of the Satellite Industry Association. But hosted payloads pose challenges to the conventional way of doing business. “The administrative and programmatic bureaucracy and structure” of government agencies remain a barrier to more widespread use of hosted payloads, she said.

Similarly, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation noted that the military has made considerable investments in new capabilities in the area of space situational awareness (SSA), but is lagging in the “backend” of processing the data coming from various SSA sensors to identify potential collisions. The data processing challenges of SSA are minor compared to what’s in use already in the private sector by major Internet firms, but the military doesn’t appar open to alternative approaches from the commercial sector. “The institution and the culture are not able to deal with this kind of challenge,” he said of the military’s approach to SSA data analysis. “If you gave that problem to Google or Facebook, their interns could do it over the summer for a couple million dollars.”

Dealing with China: China is often considered the US’s biggest threat in space, but some panelists tried to play down a Sino-American space rivalry. “There is probably an overemphasis when we look at China to really think it’s about us, and and it’s not about us. It’s about them, and it’s about them in the region,” said Scott Pace of the Space Policy Institute. China’s growing space capabilities are a bigger issue in the Asia-Pacific region, including for countries like Japan and India.

China, Pace added, is seeking greater international cooperation, which others suggested could open new opportunities for cooperation with the US. “I would see forthcoming, maybe in the next four years of the Obama Administration, an opening on a government-to-government cooperative basis for space cooperation between the US and China,” said Eligar Sadeh of Astroconsulting International. “China really is looking for the United States to take the initiative and lead” on space cooperation between the two nations.

No code: Broader international cooperation, in the form of a code of conduct for outer space activities, is looking unlikely in the near future despite the support of the Obama Administration, panelists suggested. “It’s a good idea in principle,” Pace said. “However, I believe it’s largely dead.” Pace said the proposed code suffered from a lack of trust among developing space powers. “The diplomatic aspect of that has been so badly fumbled that I don’t really think there’s a prospect right now for how to move forward with it.” Another issue, Pace added, was domestic concerns about the code being the basis of a broader space arms control accord.

Weeden wasn’t quite as willing to write off the proposed code, calling it only “mostly dead,” but agreed its prospects weren’t good. “The problem is that the US isn’t driving the train on this, the European Union is,” he said. “There’s not a lot that the US can do to address some of the issues” with it. Even if there isn’t a code, he added, there is value in having international discussions on topics related to it to exchange various perspectives.

25 comments to Space policy issues for the next four years

  • amightywind

    What has international cooperation ever got the US? We are shackled by the budgetary chains of ISS, and subsidize nations where space is a low priority. We hand Russia international standing it does not merit. Collaborate with China? While their conquest of the South China Sea proceeds apace? If we collaborate with China we shall be played for the fool, again. The US should put international blinders on and build a Constellation-like capability. Then we can collaborate from a position of strength. The reason why this won’t happen is NASA is run by merchants, not engineers, and America is too stupid to notice the difference anymore.

    • Fred Willett

      What has international cooperation ever got the US?
      Well that’s a silly statement. Maybe jf you go back a couple of centuries… but even then there was some co-operation across borders. Agreements on international postal services, rules for treating ambassadors, a common mapping system based on Grenich as zero longitude, but a system which benefits all mariners.
      Since those days the number of international agreements has grown exponentially. There are literally hundreds today.
      From the international body which regulates communications standards so that your phone in the US can talk to Joe Blows in the Yemmen, to the standards on shipping containers the adoption of which allows US goods to travel seamlessly by truck-rail-ship-rail-truck from the factory to a supermarket a continent or two away. All at a fraction of the pre-shipping container price.
      This interconnectedness of all peoples everywhere through a web of international agreements is the greatest fundamental fact of the modern world.
      If you don’t like it go back to your cave.
      If you don’t understand it you don’t understand the world at the beginning of the 21st century.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    “What has international cooperation ever got the US?”

    Cooperation with the Soviets/Russians in human space flight alone:

    Saved our asses after the Columbia disaster,

    Enabled what became the ISS to survive the SSC’s fate,

    Created Apollo-Soyuz, and

    Allowed dozens of U.S. experiments to fly on Soviet/Russian spacecraft all the way back to 1977.

    Outside human space flight, the modern satellite search-and-rescue signalling system evolved out of early Soviet/U.S. agreements and has saved hundreds (maybe thousands, IIRC) of lives.

    “The US should put international blinders on and build a Constellation-like capability. Then we can collaborate from a position of strength.”

    We’ve had to outsource the one lousy piece of exploration hardware in our plan, MPCV’s service module, to the Europeans precisely because our attempts to resurrect Constellation in the form of SLS/MPCV are so expensive that we can’t afford to fund any actual exploration hardware. Because of SLS/MPCV, we’re negotiating from a position of extreme budgetary weakness, and as a result, the Europeans are only going to provide one, maybe two, copies.

    It’s hard to think of a better way to cripple a human space exploration program and ensure that it never executes more than one or two missions (if that).

    “The reason why this won’t happen is NASA is run by merchants, not engineers,”

    I’m pretty sure Bolden, Garver, and Gerst have never been “merchants”.

    As for “engineers”, the best ones have left for SpaceX, Virgin, et al.

  • vulture4

    The US is deeply in debt and human spaceflight is not generating income. Who will pay for it? Even if we slashed Medicare and Social Security, sending older Americans into poverty and denying them essential care, conservatives would still demand lower taxes. If you are not prepared to pay more in taxes to fund Constellation, don’t expect anyone else to do so.

    Without high-tech manufacturing and exports we will not be able to afford human spaceflight. Under the Bush Administration the US lost the entire commercial launch business it had created. SpaceX, with government funds that will accelerate its R&D, is trying to get that business back, competing with ESA, Russia, and China.

    On China it seems the panel missed the point that the only real obstacle to working with China is in Congress, and there is apparently no way to change the situation.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi V4 –

      Our expendable launchers were shut down way before Bush Snr., as the Shuttle was going to be so cheap.
      I can’t remember which President that occurred under. In any case, of course more ATK grains were going to be used, so the decision easily went through.

      A lot of people talk a lot about China, but few of them know Chinese.

  • common sense

    Wow! What happened? People came to their senses!

    BTW I don’t think they missed the point on China. I suspect it was more to “inform” the players, including Congress, what China’s intentions actually are.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Culture changes needed: Another key issue in a resource-constrained era is a willingness to adopt alternative approaches to doing business.>>

    someone needs to figure out why NASA programs and projects cost so darn much? Why is SLS or Orion which are knockoffs of old hardware costing more to develop then the original hardware did?

    Go look at the Mariner 3 and 4 probes. Including Boosters the probes cost about 1/2 billion BOTH…I dont think that could be replicated today.

    RGO

  • Outsourcing the US space program through so called “international cooperation” has been a disaster. Competition is the primary catalyst for progress. Competition between the US and the Soviet Union got Americans into space in less than 4 years after the creation of NASA and Americans on the Moon in less than 12 years.

    Its obvious that the goal of the ruling oligarchy in China is complete economic domination of both the heavens and the Earth. And the Chinese ruling oligarchy sees no reason why this can’t be achieved as long as the US corporations continue to appease them and as long as the US government has decided to minimize its financial investment in non military related scientific research and technology– especially in space.

    Attempting to compete with China by trying to be pure laissez faire capitalist is like trying to win a world boxing title with one arm tied behind your back. China is using both capitalism and government to economically dominate the world, following the US example from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, a period of US government and private investment in science and technology that made the US the richest and most powerful nation on Earth!

    Marcel F. Williams

    • I firmly agree! If China was smart, it would create its own Constellation-class cislunar capability, and forget all about the “let’s-just-copy-the-ISS” paradigm. Sure, the Red Flag would then be the next national banner raised upon Luna, but we completely blew our once great chances of getting there next, first, when Project Constellation was unjustly terminated, just to give the AMATEURS & HOBBYISTS a crack at actual spacecraft building! Whenever Chinese spacemen reach Luna, or even just Lunar orbit, it will reveal instantly a full level of technological superiority, to the West. The sleeping giant of America has gone into its deepest narcoleptic slumber, with regard to spaceflight, since 2010, when President BO declared the Lunar goal to be over with.

  • mike shupp

    Bob Oler:

    Engineering (and programming) projects ROUTINELY overrun their budgets, generally by factor of about 2. This has been true for virtually every major space project, every programming job since the invention of resident operating systems, every civil engineering job since tunnels were dug for NYC subways, every ship since Brumel’s GREAT EASTERN back in the 1850′s, etc.

    No one’s devised a cure for this. It seems to be just part of our culture. (Helpful reading, Brooks on THE MYTHICAL MAN MONTH, Norm Augustine’s AUGUSTINE’S LAWS, anything by Tom DeMarco/)

    Does NASA really stand out as especially bad? Somehow, I skep.

  • mike shupp

    Bob Oler:

    Engineering (and programming) projects ROUTINELY overrun their budgets, generally by factor of about 2. This has been true for virtually every major space project, every programming job since the invention of resident operating systems, every civil engineering job since tunnels were dug for NYC subways, every ship since Brumel’s GREAT EASTERN back in the 1850′s, etc.

    No one’s devised a cure for this. It seems to be just part of our culture. (Helpful reading, Brooks on THE MYTHICAL MAN MONTH, Norm Augustine’s AUGUSTINE’S LAWS, anything by Tom DeMarco.)

    Does NASA really stand out as especially bad? Somehow, I skep.

    • Robert G. Oler

      mike shupp
      December 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm · Reply

      Bob Oler:

      Engineering (and programming) projects ROUTINELY overrun their budgets, generally by factor of about 2>>

      if we were seeing “overruns” of two then we might have something to talk about…but we are not seeing that.

      The space station was billed as an 8 billion dollar facility that housed at least 8 and maybe more people. That was in 1984. Even running the inflation numbers the 100-200 billion (depending on how you count) is not a factor of 2 and what we got on ISS is no where near what was promised. How much was spent on the “prop module” before they simply gave up because they couldnt define the cost? Same with a US ACRV

      In the interium NASA worked through a series of projects (ALS/NLS, Venture Star …the list goes on) that they simply gave up on because no one could put a “number” on what they would cost and even come close.

      the LAST and I mean the LAST program NASA was able to come within a factor of 2 on was the shuttle…and now we have the spectacle of NASA trying to simply build a heavy lift version of shuttle rocket components (IE Shuttle C) and a redo of APollo and no one will even estimate a top end number.

      And none of this is really “new” things. OK dont know how much it cost to build the Lunar Module? Yeah no one has done that before. Name me one thing NASA is doing now that has not been done before?

      There is no excuse for NASA management except incompetence. RGO

      • E.P. Grondine

        Hi RGO –

        “There is no excuse for NASA management except incompetence.”

        I’ll have to differ with you on that, as I can think of a whole lot of them.

  • Robert G. Oler

    The other things that is needed besides NASA growing some engineering and cost competency is some political reality.

    Remember the EML station that people like Logsdon were saying was “approved”…The White House is shooting that down pretty hard now (Space.com)

    NASA cannot even make the space station work so why start another one. come on people move into the real world. RGO

  • amightywind

    Saved our asses after the Columbia disaster, Enabled what became the ISS to survive the SSC’s fate,

    A two year shuttle stand-down would not have ended ISS, unfortunately.

    Created Apollo-Soyuz, and

    A utterly pointless mission.

    Allowed dozens of U.S. experiments to fly on Soviet/Russian spacecraft all the way back to 1977.

    Trivialities like these only highlight your weak argument.

    Again, think carefully about the real benefits of so-called collaboration in space. We are maker among takers (for now at least.). For how long will we play the magnanimous chump?

    We’ve had to outsource the one lousy piece of exploration hardware in our plan, MPCV’s service module, to the Europeans precisely because our attempts to resurrect Constellation in the form of SLS/MPCV are so expensive that we can’t afford to fund any actual exploration hardware.

    More likely this is a political sop to European contractors on their last legs.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi AW –

      “More likely this is a political sop to European contractors on their last legs.”

      Hilarious. Absolutely hilarous.
      Keep up the good work. :p)

    • I totally agree with these assessments! Apollo-Soyuz TP was indeed a big waste of good spacecraft hardware. The U.S. & U.S.S.R should’ve linked up crafts in Lunar orbit, or even rendezvoused on the Lunar surface. The Soyuz in its Zond variation was very capable of conducting a Cislunar journey, (even though flying an actual joint mission with America might’ve required a couple of preliminary/demonstrative flights on their own, akin to our Apollos 8,9,&10). Such LEO-centric thinking, has literally never got us anywhere. Plus, Whoopie!—yet still MORE petty “experimenting” in an LEO station! This kind of mega-expensive child’s play has been done thousands of times since the Soviets had the Salyut station orbited in the 1970′s! Come on, boys! Isn’t it high time NASA breaks orbit, and heads out into deep cislunar space, once again?!

  • Robert G. Oler

    “There is probably an overemphasis when we look at China to really think it’s about us, and and it’s not about us. It’s about them, and it’s about them in the region,” said Scott Pace of the Space Policy Institute. China’s growing space capabilities are a bigger issue in the Asia-Pacific region, including for countries like Japan and India.”

    Scott, dont you ever tire of getting things so wrong that they are 180 degrees out of reality? Why dont you take a time out and try and regain some sense of sanity take Whittingon with you RGO

  • If SpaceX successfully launches a Falcon heavy within a couple of years, Inwould imagine that it could throw a wrench in the plans for SLS since a couple of them docked in LEO would be more capable than the starting SLS and would be far less expensive. That fact would permanently be sitting in the room every time the SLS was brought up in discussion.

    • Neil Shipley

      DoD have just awarded a launch to SpaceX for the FH and another for the F9v1.1. That’s now 2 rides for the new lv, one commercial, one government. Actually, SpaceX being a private company, probably views both as the same type – commercial contracts.

  • Fred Willett

    4 years from now commercial cargo will be a well established business. Commercial crew hardware will be flying and first crew will have flown to space, if not to the ISS.
    Falcon Heavy will be flying routinely at 53t for $125M a flight while SLS will have spent north of $12B and still won’t have flown… that is, if it’s not been cancelled.

  • Bill

    Orion and SLS will fall by the wayside. Orion has several tragic flaws and one of them is that it is so expensive. And besides once the manned Dragon and CST are flying in a couple years Orion is most certainly not needed-its completely redundant.

    The expense of the NASA programs is a result of collusion between contractors soaking the US taxpayer for everything they can get with lousy NASA managers who themselves have no technical abilities, including no ability to manage contracts.

  • James

    “Culture changes needed: Another key issue in a resource-constrained era is a willingness to adopt alternative approaches to doing business”t

    Not a chance on culture change. Too impossible a task. Easier and cheaper to simply cut content. Robotic, Human, makes no difference; the NASA culture is too resistant to change. Witness Columbia after Challenger. Witness JWST & MSL after hosts of other overruns.

    SLS’s ancestors (Venture Star, OSP, you name it) have laid the ground work for its failure as well. The more things change the more they stay the same!

  • Vid

    The issue that needs to be addressed is a national strategy for space industrialization of which a major building block will be space-based solar power. Space industrialization will make possible a civilization that spans the solar system over the coming centuries. A strategy for space industrialization does not need to look ahead centuries from now. A 50 year plan would make clear what should come first – the Moon, Mars or a mission to an asteroid. 50 years is a typical planning horizon for large scale infrastructure projects. We have the technology to start the industrialization of space. The Moon is the closest body to the Earth with resources needed to build an industrial civilization. The Moon has resources that could be used to build system of power plants in Earth orbit to provide carbon free power to even the remotest places on Earth that could accelerate economic development of China, India and Africa, while creating millions of high paying jobs in the US, EU, Latin America

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