by Madhu Thangavelu for SpaceDaily.com
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Apr 14, 2016
It was heartening to see President Obama's tweet to congratulate Spacex on that picture perfect first stage touchdown on their "of course I still love you" drone ship in the Atlantic last week, heralding the arrival of a new era in rocketry, emphasizing affordability and sustainability, the hallmarks of the NewSpace movement . At the same time, it is perplexing that not one of the presidential candidates running for office has yet to mention, let alone pay lip service to the nation's space program that put, not one, but a dozen people on the Moon and brought them back safely, changing humanity's reach, aspirations and worldview forever.
Perhaps now is the time for candidates aspiring for the highest office to start painting bold visions for America's future, to consider a US Department of Space that can play a vital role both in the domestic and in the international policy of our nation. Besides helping to build up infrastructure of friendly nations, align the projects and goals of various spacefaring nations, assist in global space projects like space based solar power or building a planetary defense system to thwart potentially hazardous asteroids and comets, creating and running international manned missions to Mars, orbital space debris mitigation and monitoring and tackling various aspects of climate change, a Department of Space would also help to coordinate the activities of private fledging space companies here in America.
A range of options available to the next administration include asking NASA to play the role of global coordinator at one end to proposing a completely new organization and charter for space activity on the other. NASA could, in theory, create a new division to coordinate such activity, evolving and extending the ISS model of international collaboration, but such activity would clearly distract resources and personnel from NASA's leading-edge space technology and mission charter, and detract from the agency's core competence. The creation of a US Department of Space might however help to balance these two poles, and perhaps even play a catalytic role. And the private space sector could use a moderating, synergizing body between it and the government space sector.
Even before the imminent arrival of routine suborbital space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic, the FAA is involved, studying the potential impact and safety on airline traffic. As commercial space flight comes of age, we can expect the Dept. of Commerce, NOAA and OSHA to become important players as well. And the State Department has already played a notoriously myopic role in suppressing space commerce and setting a highly lucrativesatellite industry back for decades under the ITAR / MTCR pretext.
Global projects are different in mission and scope than national projects. Space projects like planetary defense, space based solar power platforms and orbital debris mitigation impact all people around the globe, and so such projects need a different kind of administration and charter. A world space organization along the lines of other UN agencies may be hard to evolve in the prevailing climate or from the existing charter of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs(OOSA).
NASA has a history of being told to do too much with too little for too long and may not be able to handle all these auxiliary functions that will be thrust upon it soon without radical changes to the agency's charter. It is perhaps better for the agency to stay close to its original charter, as the administrator Mr.Bolden has done so well, and provide leadership in its area of core competence; high risk technology development and deep space, endurance-class manned missions to destinations beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon, Mars and asteroids.
A Department of Space must not be misconstrued as a threat by Congress or the administration as a way to break up NASA or split up its already stretched budget. Nor should it be portrayed as a stealthy effort by the US Department of Defense trying to exert influence globally.
An USC team project from 2011 had presented a case that the Department of Space should operate at a budget level of some 60B dollars, consistent with other departments, of which NASA should have $20B to build, test and fly daring, leading-edge technology missions into deep space. The remaining $40B is suggested for the Dept. of Space that will then handle all the coordination functions between large global space infrastructure development projects, NASA and other partner nation agencies and the private sector.
Government and private space activities are both necessary to keep the space industry in good competitive shape. Just as the Human Genome Project was accelerated by Celera Genomics, a small biotech company, large government sponsored space programs can benefit from small space companies, acting as catalysts for quick results.
To quote president Lincoln, "Government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves", and laying down the framework for large space projects, like other public works for the common good, fall under this category. Large space infrastructure development projects cannot be initiated or created by private investors alone. Space solar power or orbital debris mitigation, fuel depots or interplanetary missions or even large space based observatories, all remain the domain of NASA and the government. However, building components and servicing these large systems, once put in place, could be a healthy sector for private space company participation.
The International Space Station(ISS) could be better managed by a separate organization modeled after the old Intelsat structure or similar, and space companies, especially these small and agile ones that produce at very high efficiency should be nurtured to support ISS operations, relieving NASA to accelerate the agency's cutting-edge goals. The role of the Dept. of Space must be one of coordination between government, international and private space activity, allowing NASA to better focus on the agency's unique pioneering exploration charter Should the 21st century creation and maintenance of National Security Infrastructure depend on DoD obsolete practices and a few established sole source suppliers, or should it be spread out over a much larger and more competitive commercial sector including small business ? If government civil jobs protection is the goal, then we might stay with status quo(though it appears clearly unsustainable), but if true jobs expansion is what we seek, then we might want a much more vigorous overhaul that includes private sector at the core of all formulation plans. Put into effect under the former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, it is good to see that this transition is already in progress, reshaping procurement and administration procedures, across all DoD units.
Human space activity remains a special arena of human endeavor that is able to bring the finest minds of diverse friendly nations together in peaceful projects of progressive development. Spacefaring nations that once aimed their nuclear arsenals at each other have now joined forces to support the buildup and operations of International space Station.
The next stage in this development is handing over the reins to global commerce and economic development. It is good to see this happening as private space companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic prepare their suborbital vehicles to jump start space tourism, and Spacex and Orbital Sciences start to service the global space infrastructure, starting with the ISS. It is good to see that a Spacex vehicle just docked the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to the ISS and that larger modules are planned.
We might do well to pay attention to the fact that eight minutes into flight, space travel puts people in a global regime, that upsets twentieth century political dogma and Machiavellian statecraft, and pushes us think as a truly globally connected species. Human space activity exemplifies Cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that holds all people everywhere share the same values while respecting cultural differences and accepting plurality. Facing global problems, both man-made and natural, of unprecedented proportions, we are truly blessed to be able to shape our destiny with timely progress in technologies that are at the core of human space activity.
Space remains the ultimate frontier, especially for those resilient economies, even during this downturn. Among all spacefaring nations today, the US constitution, that resonates with the freedom of Man, is the best suited for expanding space related activities. Can US space policy be reshaped to encompass a globally inclusive, civilian, cosmopolitan paradigm? Can the US shepherd the spacefaring nations of the world in undertaking visionary space infrastructure development projects to tackle global threats with large programs like planetary defense and orbital debris mitigation or monitoring pollution or climate change?
In this election year, rather than wait till the last minute to use NASA and space activity as one more item or hook on the debate agenda, it would be good to hear the views of the candidates and how they intend to articulate space activity, especially about nurturing the growth of an entirely new, innovative and homegrown private space industry. Despite the actions of these last few years by a polarized US Congress willing to self-inflict wounds even as a fragile global economy tries to recover, there are a few silver linings to the dark clouds on the horizon. One such arena of common pride among the leadership is NASA and space activity. Space activity has always been associated with progressive vision in modern society. Our leaders use it to excite the public and garner support in their constituencies. A department of Space would help inspire the next generation of space explorers and set them on a path of discovery and open up new opportunities.
As the established spacefaring nations start combining efforts with emerging space powers to plan and execute missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, the creation of a US Dept. of Space might help the US administration to synergetically combine the energies of both the government space programs of the world and coordinate the various private space projects as well as assist the globe of nations in peaceful collaboration through the pursuit of excellence in progressive, peaceful space activities. Such a department would also help spur the US space industry, a truly 21st century endeavor.
Madhu Thangavelu, Conductor, ASTE 527 Graduate Space Concepts Studio; Dept. of Astronautical Engineering and the School of Architecture - University of Southern California
University of Southern California
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