Last time I wrote about the question of predictability for the outcome of the proposed commercial crew transportation services to provide routine and affordable access to low Earth orbit, given the uncertainties surrounding how NASA would procure those services and the lack of definitive requirements for universal access beyond transporting NASA astronauts to/from the International Space Station. Before moving to Part 2, I’d like to comment on the Request for Information released by NASA a few days after my original post. I’m encouraged by the information being sought by the RFI, in that it addresses both points I raised: what are the contracting mechanisms that should be used, and what fundamental broad requirements should NASA consider in its solicitation for those services down the road? Depending on the nature of the inputs, and how NASA responds to them, we could see a transformation in how NASA procures commercial crew transportation services.
In Part 2, I’ll explore a theoretical transition of NASA’s internal human spaceflight organizations from operations-focused to research- and development-focused. Here, I’ll address the following question: should the target be to return to the business models of the past that characterized NASA’s previous successes in human spaceflight, or to something completely different?
First, some background.
Recently, I read a thought-provoking piece entitled Developing Space that examines how human spaceflight got to where it is today, and raises a fundamental question on what the forward mission of NASA ought to be. At the heart of the piece is a driving concept that NASA should shift into the business of administering the stepping stones to the solar system, transforming itself from the Agency of the past that most equate with performing the activities in space, into the agency of the future that is the catalyst for others to achieve the results in space. Upon reading the details, I formed a picture in my mind of transformational change for NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor: the number, depth, and breath of pieces involved in the change is huge, and the outcome is unpredictable – and if implemented successfully, could be potentially limitless. Yet something was missing for me, and that something was a concrete picture of the broader future environment. Will the future be different than the past?
To help answer this question, I’ll consider the perspectives offered in Global Trends 2025, a semi-decennial report produced by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. The latest release is a forward look at the world in 2025, well within the realm of the current conversation concerning the future of human spaceflight. In the view of the document, we’re looking at a world markedly different than today’s world, or for that matter anything we’ve experienced to date.
First of all, we are seeing a tremendous shift in the international system – as constructed following the Second World War – into a form that may be almost unrecognizable by 2025. Gone are the competing ideological conflicts of the Cold War that saw the birth of NASA and the Apollo Program. Also disappearing will be the monopolar world of the last two decades dominated by the United States that saw the vast majority of the operational lifetime of the Space Shuttle and the construction of the International Space Station. In its place we will see a multipolar world driven by a globalizing economy with an historic shift of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and by the increasing weight of new players – especially China and India, and to a lesser extent Russia and Brazil. These four BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – are markedly different in their socioeconomic and political approaches from the United States and from each other, such that attempts to force a dialogue in terms of “one side versus the other” will miss critical elements. For example, an attempt to frame justifications for approaches to future human spaceflight endeavors into conversations about “beating China back to the Moon”, or the perceived ramifications of the inverse, drives the conversation backwards into a world dominated by two superpowers. Such a world is a world of the past, not of the future; the facts and current trends do not bear out a future dominated by two opposing ideologies in the timeframe of conversation. Therefore, our conversations about human spaceflight should take into account the future multipolar world that has as its cornerstone international participation that extends beyond the traditional spacefaring nations, one that expands cooperation to China, India, Brazil, and other emerging economies across the globe. One method to expand cooperation is through the emergence of multinational companies engaged on the forefront of space exploration; unfortunately, none exist today as of yet, likely due to the association of the high technology of spaceflight with armaments, and due to restrictions contained in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in the United States. Another way to expand international cooperation in space exploration is through government space agencies, similar to what we see in the case of the International Space Station Program today. With globalization in mind – and this is an important difference – the United States can no longer be the “big kid on the block” that dictates the endeavor unilaterally. Such an approach works in a monopolar world in which the lone economic superpower brings the vast majority of funding and drives the agenda; it will not work in the multipolar world to come. Multilateralism versus unilateralism in human spaceflight policy will be the key in an increasingly multipolar world, if we are to succeed.
Second is the recognition that there is an established relationship between achievements in science and technology and the economic growth of a nation. Central to this idea is the overall effectiveness of a nation’s process by which intellectual concepts are moved toward commercialization for the benefit of a national economy. The United States has led in this process for a long time; however, the rest of the world is catching up due to globalization and the unintended consequences of ITAR. For NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor to be relevant in an increasingly globalized future, it must shift from being a consumer of existing science and technology into being a crucible of creativity that helps drive the process of innovation in space exploration. This is not unfamiliar territory for the Agency – its human spaceflight endeavor once served as an important catalyst for scientific and technological innovation, centered around the Apollo Program. Nowadays we talk quite frequently how NASA is an inspiration for those pursuing careers rooted in the STEM areas – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and how many of us were inspired by NASA’s past achievements in human spaceflight. Yet this concept is more than about inspiring the youth around the world through the achievements of space exploration; it is about producing innovation in space exploration through utilization of unique opportunities offered by microgravity on the International Space Station, and by investing in new innovative technologies for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. A number of key technological breakthroughs are listed in Global Trends 2025; I postulate that NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor could make a contribution in many of them. For example, ubiquitous computing, clean water technologies, and energy storage technologies are the top three listed in the Probable category for breakthroughs between now and 2025, all of which can benefit through discoveries made in new technology innovations in human spaceflight. In the Possible category is biogerontechnology (technology related to the biological aging process), a clear potential research opportunity on the International Space Station. Finally, in the Plausible category are opportunities to contribute to service robotics and human cognitive augmentation technologies. If we align our human spaceflight technology innovations to these areas, imagine the possibilities for benefiting humanity beyond that of space exploration. It is for this possibility that I’m a strong advocate of this element of the new space policy. Strengthening of the space policy around these concepts is needed, because specific technological breakthroughs are hard to predict, and the path from achievements in science and technology to technological and economic growth is not always predictable.
The idea of changing NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor from performing the activities into serving as a catalyst is one of transformational change. The number, breadth, and depth of pieces involved are tremendous and greater in number than that which exists today. The outcomes in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world driven by scientific and technological breakthroughs are unpredictable. Therefore, for NASA’s human spaceflight endeavor to be relevant, transformational approaches in innovation, resources, leadership, people, and organizations are needed for the endeavor to be successful.