Pass the Baton or Short Track Speed Skater Push


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  This metaphor originally made a lot of sense to me.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


Out there. Thataway


Ok, my turn.  Everyone and their sister have given their spin on the new NASA budget and the views have covered the full spectrum of the death of Human Spaceflight to the birth of a new era and the rebirth of robotic exploration.   But before I weigh in on the discussion I first would like to take my hat off to all of my friends and colleagues that have given so much of their lives, energy and passion to support the congressional and presidential direction of the previous administration.  As a government agency we know that we are subject to the winds of change with each election but it does not stop us from committing our hearts and minds to fulfilling the visions and expectations of the American public and the officials that they place in office.  There is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on regarding the Constellation program, but not enough is being said about the dedicated individuals that gave up time with family to help America retain its ability to reach to the stars.  Again, my hat goes off to them.


Now, back to the direction given by the President.  For me there are three main thrusts that I would like to offer my perspectives.  The first is the move to shift access to Low Earth Orbit to the commercial community.  Many are surprised by this move, but for me it was only a matter of time.  Back in 2008 I had shared how there was a growth in the commercial space community and we would eventually need to answer what affect this growth will have in our role in the Human Exploration of Space.  As I shared in It’s Getting Crowded out there, we would have to make a choice whether to compete in this era of growing capability or lead the way beyond earth’s orbit.  Well, the decision has been made for NASA and now we have to make it work.  It is akin to the explorers that would burn the ships in order to keep them from turning back.  NASA is being pushed to the stars and out of the access to space business.  That being said, NASA has a responsibility to work with the commercial community to share their 40 years of Human Spaceflight experience and expertise.  It is incumbent upon us to help them to learn from our successes and mistakes in the hope that they will not repeat the lessons we learned.  How this is to be done is yet to be defined but I for one am looking forward to the release of the strategy of how we make this transition. 


Secondly there is a return to “transformational technologies”.  I am amused by all of the eye rolling that is associated with that phrase.  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the Saturn V, transformational?  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the computers on the Lunar Lander transformational?  Isn’t the technology that allows us to look back to the birth of the universe transformational?  I think this agency has been and should always be about transformational technologies.  It has always been about pushing the envelope of what is possible or as some like to say “making science fiction a reality.”  Yes, I agree you cannot schedule when a miracle will occur.  We cannot say that “On July 29th, we will discover how to tap into the limitless supply of ‘zero point energy’ in the vacuum of space and it will enable us to power our voyage to Mars.”  No, but just because it can’t be scheduled doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to discover the next leap in technology.  Let commercial space focus on technologies that we know and let NASA focus on technologies yet to be discovered.


Finally there is the anxiety related to a lack of destination.  The recurring sentiment is that we need a bold direction like, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Similarly the question is raised, “How can we focus on transformational technologies if we don’t know where we are going?”  Although valid perspectives I believe that NASA has an opportunity to rethink how it explores.  We always think of exploring as starting from the Earth’s surface.  It focuses on a certain set of solutions that require breaking the gravitational pull of the Earth.  But what if we started thinking of exploration starting from space?  What would be required to start our journey from space?  What vehicle would be required if it never encountered the Earth’s atmosphere?  What would you need to create a vehicle in space?  NASA has learned quite a bit from its 10 years of constructing the International Space Station.  How can we use this knowledge to create an interplanetary vehicle?  What would it take to fuel a new vehicle in space?  With a space port would you have to limit your destinations?


Yes a destination would be nice, but I kind of like the perspective from Kirk in the first Star Trek movie when asked where they should go, “Out there, Thataway.”  NASA shouldn’t think point to point but create the ability for us to go “out there.”


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office