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  This metaphor originally made a lot of sense to me.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


15 thoughts on “Pass the Baton or Short Track Speed Skater Push”

  1. Great blog post. What I am always scared of regarding the commercialization of space travel is the loss of public funding for space projects. Imagine the continued growth of Chinese economic might feeding into government funding of their space program. It is possible, to leap frog us because of our stagnant current nature (without any viable option to take over for the space shuttle). The lack of public funding only exasperates the problem. Sure commercial might be one ingredient but the handing off of all programs to commercial interests is one of the scariest thoughts I could think of.

  2. Great races and such a great event to see in Canada, Vancouver to date has been one of the best games in recent history (In my opinion.)

    Granted I may be biased as I work and live here

    Great article – Joel

  3. Great post indeed, NASA is in a unique position to be able to hand off the baton and push the team forward. Yet thinking as a team and not the competitor will be the key. If NASA wants to go into another event and leave the game to others indeed they will be missing an opportunity to evolve to the next step. NASA out of the race? I don't think so. As you implied there is a winning strategy; embrace the commercial outsiders as team members so the game can continue.

  4. “…in the event that commercial space should fall…”

    commercial space isn’t a discrete thing.

    there are a number of companies that can compete to do the same thing.

    if you think every american business will fail at space then you’ve got bigger problems because you don’t believe in americans.

  5. Not so fast. For now we still have a vision. It’s the Vision for Space Exploration that involves servicing ISS, lunar sorties and eventually going to Mars. There is no transition until congress votes on the president’s budget. And that’s a 2011 budget, not a 2010 budget. Several representatives sent a letter to Administrator Bolden telling him and “Tiger Teams” such as Lori Garver’s to stop the premature cancellation of Constellation.

    I am all for a booming commercial space industry that can take people into space. As far as I know, no one is stopping them.

  6. However, as more and more people are beginning to understand, sometimes our reality is shaped in ways that do not allow us to achieve the goals we have deep inside ourselves. Our dreams and inspirations come from observations of the world, combined with our pure interpretation of reality, that we once knew as a small child.

  7. Have you ever had an idea that your were so passionate about that you could not wait to get started on it, but other people told you it could not be done? Did this change your mind about pursuing your dream? When this happens over and over, we learn to expect that our dreams and ideas are not viable, that we can not do it, that we do not have good ideas or are not smart enough to see them through. This “formed belief” is simply not the truth.

  8. you must partner with private industry to drill into the moon at pole,habitat inside the moon,protected, water makes it easy,we must be first to this massive resourse,NASA has the expertice,private industry has the money,an effort similar to apollo has the potential to save not only NASA,but our country as well!it would be so easy compared to trying to live on surface

  9. hey Steven, thank you for taking time to share this with all the followers, appreciate you took time for it.

  10. NASA has a long history of developing experimental aerospace vehicles. The commercial sector can probably develop an adequate space capsule for access to LEO.

    But, there is still a need to continue development of space plane technology; the government must continue to act as the venture capitalist to bring this technology to maturity. Today, NASA should be able to justify developmental of an experimental orbiter program for something like a civilian version of the X-20 able to dock with ISS.

    Also, the commercial sector has not, it seems, done much to advance the state-of-the-art for booster propulsion. Development of the aero-spike engine seems to have died with the X-33 program; yet it is a promising concept that needs to be developed further.

    There are, no doubt, other promising technologies at NASA which were never advanced due to lack of funding.

    In response to your last paragraph, I recommend that you continue to develop experimental demonstration and crewed vehicles; but now for space flight. That is, all NASA space craft would be experimental, with the purpose of maturing technology so that the commercial sector can develop space travel into a new industrial area like aviation is today. Would like to help.

  11. Great post indeed, NASA is in a unique position to be able to hand off the baton and push the team forward. Yet thinking as a team and not the competitor will be the key. If NASA wants to go into another event and leave the game to others indeed they will be missing an opportunity to evolve to the next step. NASA out of the race? I don’t think so.

    kind regards

  12. commercial space is good only for billionaires, NASA should focus on giving information to people of this world outside our planet earth . But i didn’t really get what you mean to say in this line “In the event of a fall, a covering skater may tag the fallen skater and continue the race”. BTW, i love skating… It rocks…

  13. You are correct when you say you will need to give commercial concerns a push to keep the progress from lagging in the exchange. But I think the desire for profits will be all the push they need.

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