As I watched the Winter Olympics this week I was struck with how it was a great metaphor for NASA and commercial space. I know it sounds like a stretch but let me explain. This week at the 13th Annual Federal Aviation Administration AST Space Transportation Conference, NASA’s Deputy Administrator Lori Garver reiterated NASA’s commitment to transition access to Low Earth Orbit to the commercial community. Before and after her speech there has been a lot written on both sides of the debate on the viability of commercial space and the impact to NASA’s Human Exploration capability.
Of course there is a lot of emotion tied to the arguments on either side, but for me what is missing is an informed dialogue of what it would take to make this transition successful. Many assume that the transition to the commercial community would be equivalent to NASA throwing 50 years of Human Spaceflight over the fence and saying “Good Luck.” This is irresponsible and would severely jeopardize the success of the commercial community. NASA has learned through the blood, sweat, tears and lives of some of our friends the difficulties that must be overcome to gain access to space. It is a lesson filled with what works and what must not be overlooked if you want to ensure the safe return of future space travelers. For me it is inconceivable to throw away that experience without ensuring that it is captured by the commercial space community.
So originally I thought that NASA must pass the baton to commercial space and ensure that it has the baton before we let go of it. This metaphor originally made a lot of sense to me. There is a handoff and not a toss over the wall and there is a confirmation that the baton is received before the runner takes off after the competition. Plus it is a team. The two are working together to ensure the success of American access to space. They are not competing against each other and the success of the recipient of the baton depends greatly on the racer that is handing off the baton.
Yet, as I watched Apollo Ono and the US Olympic short track relay team I realized that there is a flaw in just having a clean handoff. What impressed me about the speed skaters is how the team skates side by side to ensure that they are ready for the push. They have to match their speeds to ensure that the momentum is maintained. Then the momentum of the skater that is currently on the track is used to help accelerate the next person on the relay team. In addition there is a relay rule that was shared by the commentator that really hit home for me. In the event of a fall, a covering skater may tag the fallen skater and continue the race.
Therefore for me it is not a question of how do we handoff the responsibility of access to Low Earth Orbit to commercial space but how do we ensure that the commercial space community reaches a speed close to what NASA has obtained over the past 50 years so that NASA can push them off to continue the race? How do we set up the transition so that in the event that commercial space should fall, NASA can tag the fallen and temporarily continue the race? Yes I know, with the completion of the Shuttle program the push off is more of a challenge yet not impossible. NASA has a great deal of momentum after 50 years and the missing strategy is how to capitalize on this momentum to help push the commercial community. What does it mean in the access to space event to tag the fallen and temporarily continue the race? What is the strategy to ensure that NASA and the commercial community “skate” side by side to ensure that commercial space has the momentum to receive the push?
I believe that there is a winning strategy out there to ensure the success of commercial space and the launching of NASA beyond Earth’s orbit. So, who is up to the challenge of sitting down and defining this strategy?
Sharing the Vision,
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office