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Seeking Synergy To Return To The Moon

The various branches of our Department of Defense have had successful symbiotic relationships with the civilian space program and could step up synergetic activities to help tighten both schedule and budget.
by Madhu Thangavelu
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Jul 06, 2009
At the start of the Obama administration, our young and energetic president made clear that NASA must shed its ennui and business as usual attitude and get back to executing some bold and daring projects. He appointed a transition team to look into changes.

At that time, I recall there was talk of bringing various seemingly disparate agencies and departments together, especially the Department of Defense, to seek out and employ inherent synergies, to make NASA projects happen faster, better and cheaper(remember that mantra from another era?)and most of all, execute awe-inspiring missions!

Even though NASA has sought such synergies in the past and continues to engage in such activities today, this call from the new administration set many minds thinking about the possibilities, in the light of a new age of internet broadband communications and advanced information technologies, routinely in use for interagency and governmental intra-departmental support.

What are some of the agencies and how could they provide vital and timely, synergetic support to NASA human spaceflight goals and missions, and for "Return the Moon" missions in particular, in the context of the prevailing economic downturn?

The Department of Energy, for instance, could outfit NASA missions with a variety of nuclear power sources for lunar habitats, scientific payloads and spacecraft, based on work already accomplished decades ago.

A whole new class of highly efficient nuclear propulsion systems and bimodal systems(those which supply both power and propulsion) also await in the wings, once such nuclear systems become available to the civilian space program.

The various branches of our Department of Defense have had successful symbiotic relationships with the civilian space program and could step up synergetic activities to help tighten both schedule and budget.

For example, the USAF currently fields launchers which could be used for early return to the Moon missions, while the new family of Ares vehicles are being tested and certified. This could narrow the gap in heavy lift launch capability that seems to be hounding missions projected in the 2010-2014 timeframe, following shuttle retirement.

Since the early precursor activity suggest robotic and cargo missions to the Moon, crew rating of these existing heavy lift vehicles may not be a prime concern. However, it is crucial that the development of much larger launchers continue unhampered because ambitious missions planned and their payloads and support logistics involved clearly indicate the need for them, even while maturing a variety of critical "living off the land" technologies.

The US Navy has operated nuclear submarines for half a century and accumulated much information on endurance-class missions which could provide critical nuclear power systems operations data and human factors experience. The Navy has also had a long standing relationship with NASA in crew recovery operations and could possibly support a global recovery or rescue mission, allowing round-the-clock abort operations from anywhere on the lunar surface.

This crucial last minute scenario, if things go wrong during their tour of duty on the Moon, would otherwise require major additional investment in spacecraft capability.

The US Army's involvement goes back to the time of the beginning of US manned spaceflight when advanced construction teams outlined lunar base projects such as Project Horizon. Equipment, strategies and techniques employed in erecting battlefield shelters today could provide concept springboards for rapid deployment of habitats and allied infrastructure on the Moon.

A critical emerging asset is private sector capability in space activity that is energized by the same paradigm shift in widely available super computation, information and communication platforms. Vehicles, equipment, support infrastructure and operations which could be fielded only by large government agencies just a decade ago are now being rolled out by much smaller, far more agile private entities.

These companies anticipate large profit margins by eliminating exorbitant bureaucratic and legacy overheads, accrued over half a century, which continue to plague the delivery efficiency of government agencies and their traditional industry partners.

The design of spacecraft and space activity was one of the pioneering interdisciplinary fields and hence the oft quoted term "rocket science" which implies system complexity and extremely tight tolerances for components, all operating in an unforgiving environment.

It combined physics of the cosmos, chemistry of fuels, mathematics of celestial and spacecraft motion, and stretched the boundaries of engineering methods in testing materials and certifying these complex systems and vehicles for safety and reliability in the extreme environment of space.

By introducing humans to operate these complex vehicles and execute missions in outer space, the scope and complexity of space activity broadened even further. It added yet another layer of sophistication. By cross-cutting orthodox disciplines in the physical sciences and biology, human space activity integrated critical life sciences, medical technologies and aerospace medicine to keep the crew safe, fit and productive during the course of the mission.

Human space activity is a typical example of an interdisciplinary endeavor. However, much of the expertise still resides within NASA. Universities and other specialized schools are experimenting to see if it is possible to integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines and structure it in such a way to produce professionals who can create new opportunities by innovative handling of rapidly accumulating knowledge or "intelligence explosion" or complexity of the real world, which seems to be accelerating at an exponential rate.

The International Space University offers a prime example of a school that was born of the need to educate and train professionals in interdisciplinary space activity, not to mention that as the world became smaller through communication, it is possible to bring nations together in a common pursuit of knowledge and excellence. The Singularity University proposes to elevate this interdisciplinary, intercultural and international education model to a new level of sophistication.

Though universities are seeing an increase in Astronautics enrollment, allowing schools to even offer independent graduate programs focused purely in this discipline, they still remain the most underutilized of institutions, which NASA could put to much better use.

Graduate schools could provide NASA with out-of-the-box alternative visions in a range of topics from alternative visions and concepts for entire missions to life sciences and human factors research, developing creative ideas for systems and components.

In an effort to encourage alternative approaches, NASA, through the SBIR, the defunct NIAC, and USRA among other vehicles, routinely announce opportunities, but they are often very narrow in scope and strictly adhere to the rules and bureaucracy of the agency's mono-culture. Under such constrained conditions, it is hardly possible to create, let alone offer innovative, out-of -the-box concepts for further agency investigation.

More recently, through prizes modeled after the X-Prize and DARPA Challenge, the agency seems to be opening up to the possibility of "casting the net widely", with fewer strings attached, and the returns are starting to show.

So, in an effort to foster a plethora of truly radical ideas from our creative youth, it would be very useful for the agency to think up new ways to partner with many more universities, with fewer strings attached, especially since it is very economical to engage faculty and graduate students in a variety of interdisciplinary activities.

While joining forces can save precious resources, there are some areas where it may make sense to separate them. Historically, complex projects from the Parthenon to the Polaris, from the Apollo program and the Human Genome project to the World Wide Web and the GPS, all have had to deal with a pyramid of power centers.

They are the client or user, the resource provider or investor, the architect and the builder, and in some cases, an independent reviewer and arbitrator, when the architect is unable to remain neutral.

In the case of NASA, it appears that the agency grapples with all these functions simultaneously, internally, and that is not a good strategy because the needs and requirements, the agenda which drives each of them, the ambition that motivates them, and the very cultures of the power centers of this pyramid are different.

How might one sort and reallocate these functions at NASA. It is not easy since manned spaceflight projects, as mentioned earlier, are inherently interdisciplinary in nature. However, to first order, it might seem that since NASA is an elite, cutting-edge, projects driven engineering organization, with an engineering "build and fly" philosophy at its core, they must focus on delivering engineering products.

Space Science might be better conducted by the National Science Foundation, the study of climate, including space and planetary climate and weather could be done by NOAA, and mapping and geology related activity conducted by USGS and NRO. NIH might provide the framework for crew health and human factors.

What does it mean for NASA's budget? Yes, it means more complex resource and budget sharing with these and other organizations which offer synergetic potential. How to accomplish it without compromising national security is a challenge and advances in handling sensitive information may offer new solutions to this old problem.

Globally, the last decade saw several more nations enter the space activity arena with bold plans in their future. Space programs, due to their interdisciplinary nature and diverse high-technology needs, still remain at the organizational cutting-edge, pushing nations and their infrastructures to seek out and achieve new levels of excellence and efficiency.

Can nations which have pursued space activity at their pinnacles of policy, technological prowess and national prestige, come together to conduct joint missions to return humanity to the Moon and beyond ? Perhaps the International Space Station provides a framework to build upon. However, the struggle to realize that project, the attempts to reduce its scope and even scuttle it, shows how hard it is to align international partners to execute a complex mission. Whether this is the way to proceed in a world in economic doldrums surely needs more careful analyses.

Perhaps there are lessons in the ISS learning curve to help streamline that model for a vigorous, synergetic program to return to the Moon with even more international partnership? Or, at the very least, robotic programs which have matured nicely in several space-faring nations, could be a great arena for international collaboration, while NASA could lead the way in human spaceflight, teaming with the international community on a variety of telerobotic projects.

Again, it is prudent to design missions employing robots and humans in synergy and not pitch one vital philosophy against the other, seeking sheer, near term economic benefits.

As the president's newly appointed commission looks at all the options, relating to both technical and policy aspects of manned spaceflight, I am sure the seasoned members are reaching beyond NASA walls and the space community, searching for awe-inspiring visions for the 21st century and ways to execute them.

Just as no futurist foresaw the internet in the '80s and none ever dreamt, even at the turn of the millennium, that inventions like the Youtube and iPhone would dance on that platform, creating social networking with vital ramifications for governments and policy makers, it is humbling to keep in mind that brilliant ideas, bold visions which change our world for the better, almost always come from outside, fresh and free of our oft narrow and jaded scientific and technical views, and often without notice!

Perhaps our job is not to try to forcefully invent the future, but prepare and be ready for its arrival, and nurture it after it is born. As Neil Armstrong quoted from St.Exupery's Little Prince at the graduation commencement address at USC a few years ago, " As for the future, your task is not to foresee, but to enable it."

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