There undoubtedly are tools or inputs other than space which would benefit America’s future. But I challenge you to find one that has already been proven to work (witness Apollo), and that can create the most benefits for the least cost. The input of a tiny fraction of the federal budget into the public space program would boost the economy, restore America’s innovativeness, and ensure our peaceful leadership among nations and restless young people around the world.
In sheer dollar calculations, the benefits over the next generation would total in the trillions. The cost: an additional $8 billion to the annual NASA budget.
Here are some general directions for spending that money, maximizing the public space program’s non-linear input to the American system. Yes, I am still king in this thought experiment. But the beautiful thing is, I don’t have to be. This all can work without a king.
1. Use space to help solve the big problems.
Rather than operating on the competing demands of space constituencies, NASA and the White House should expect space programs to help tackle the biggest challenges facing the country. Just to name a few…
Mission to Planet Earth.
Space offers an unparalleled vantage point for viewing Earth. Only by backing away from our planet can we truly see our tenuous life and how closely related we are. This perspective is critical if we are to understand enough about Earth to make good policy decisions on the ground. I’ve already described the space-based measurements that revolutionized weather prediction. That is just the tip of Earth system science iceberg (to use an unfortunate analogy). Only from space can we obtain the global data we need to unravel the mysteries of our home planet.
For example, it was satellite data that discovered the ozone hole in the 1980s. Satellite data are currently showing us how fast the Arctic sea ice is melting. We monitor pollution globally to improve air quality around our urban areas. And we are developing better knowledge of how the climate works, thanks to satellite measurements showing how much sunlight penetrates the clouds and hits Earth, and how much heat leaves it. Clouds may hold the clue to how to manage climate change in the coming century.
Clearly, Mission to Planet Earth is more than a science program. It provides the knowledge we need to make decisions, ranging from international policy to national laws, from state and local planning to business strategies. This mission even helps you and me decide how we will live—and what footprint we will leave for future generations.
Our next economy. Since the turn of the century, political leaders and prominent economists have described the problem of America’s economy as a loss of manufacturing jobs. This conclusion is understandable. The last century’s economy built itself off a growing middle class through well-paid manufacturing jobs; the middle class in turn could afford to buy the marvelous products of those factories—cars, televisions, washing machines—and they flew with the modern new airplanes in previously unimaginable numbers.
Yet that economy no longer drives America’s prosperity; manufacturing knowledge is now widely available. We have been transitioning to a new economy, a sea change that rivals the last century’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. Today we find ourselves competing with many other nations. Manufacturing expertise, once the purview of so-called developed nations, is now widespread—particularly in Asia and South America. To regain our competitive leadership, we need to build our economy on something new, using a quality and degree of expertise no other nation has obtained. What could that new economic engine be? And are we capable of creating it?
We have a brilliant precedent: the flying machine.
Just as we built the aircraft industry and the air transportation market that literally rose from it, we can do the same with low-cost space transportation. I have no doubt that it will be a driving force for the rest of this century. Inexpensive, reusable space vehicles will carry unprecedented amounts of cargo into low Earth orbit; carry passengers from one continent to the next in under two hours; build manufacturing facilities and commercial laboratories in microgravity environments; and, eventually, mine the treasures of asteroids beyond Mars. While some of this may sound far-fetched, imagine how someone in 1900 would respond to predictions of low-cost air travel, of air cargo, of the Boeing 747 and its cocktail lounges in the sky. Already, investors are betting billions in private capital on an equally brilliant space future. America has a natural advantage—and a big head start. To foster the next great, tech-driven economy, government and the private sector must work together to conquer the Gravity Well, with their combined efforts focused by our civil space program.
America’s imperiled reputation.
Over the last 100 years, brave Americans on the battlefield and industrious Americans back home played a major role in making the world’s citizens more free, secure, and prosperous. For most of that time, most of the world viewed us as—mostly—a force for good. Now we have another battle to fight. It’s one in which the enemy has new psychological advantages. Despots and fanatics paint a picture of America as intent on exploiting others for its own power and wealth. Our answer has been mostly military, with boots on the ground and drone strikes from the air. All with good reason. Yet we must not forget the wisdom of President Kennedy, who understood that we needed to win both the war and the argument. Persuasion, through demonstration of universally valued attributes, must supplement our military force. Kennedy knew that he couldn’t impose our capitalist system on other nations. He envisioned the Moon shots as a way to prove the superiority of the American Way without using force.
The secret of Apollo: we shared it. Our President announced to the world a seemingly impossible goal, and then we openly communicated both our progress and our setbacks with people around the world. When we succeeded, we won more than a race against the Soviets. We won the hearts of countless individuals and national leaders, globally, without firing a gun.
This powerful tool of international influence is still available to us, if we choose to use it. But it must be awe-inspiring. We’ll get to that in a bit.
The scarcity of American STEM students.
Chapter Seven showed the scope of the problem while demonstrating how NASA can suck bright young minds into space. If I were king, I would set our nation’s space program on a trajectory that would inspire not just the international community but our own youth. Using the Gravity Well as a focusing challenge, we could, one step at a time, explore and settle the terrain of space in our neighborhood of the Solar System. Today we are well on the way toward a developed economy in low Earth orbit. Farther out, NASA missions can deliver outposts at the Lagrangian points, the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, all within the next generation of students. But only if we set our American know-how to the task. A full effort will guarantee a dramatic uptick in the number of students in math, engineering, science and technology students. And it will nurture highly paid American workers who will drive our economy well into the future. In short, the drawing power of space must be utilized strategically.
Our crumbling transportation system.
Our economy flows through efficient, clean, low-cost transportation. At the same time, we must reduce our use of fossil fuels if we want to limit climate change. NASA’s aeronautics technology can serve as the key to this effort by developing cleaner, safer, more efficient aircraft. The next generation air traffic control system is well within reach of near-term deployment. The FAA and NASA will have to work together with industry representatives; and research and contract funds need to be freed up to bring the system online.
Sometime in this century, people will be flying autonomous aircraft—the equivalent of the self-driving car. Personal air vehicles, perhaps powered by electric batteries, can help relieve our overcrowded airports, save land, and minimize emissions. Yet, over the past 30 years, budget cuts have hobbled NASA’s aeronautics mission. I would reinvigorate that mission to help create the next economy.
The need for a forward-looking American vision.
To maximize the space effect on all these problems, I would bring together teams consisting of key Cabinet members—State, Labor, Transportation, Commerce, and others. The goal should be to innovate solutions using space exploration, science from space, and technology for space. Our leaders must not view NASA merely as an exploration agency or a tech agency. It is both of these, of course. But in addition, the agency can serve as an essential tool to solve our problems.
Again, think of space as a sub-element in the complex American system, capable of producing an outsized effect. An American leader who takes this systems view will employ the brightest minds inside and out of government to craft a new vision for our nation—one based on the best we have to offer.
2. Fund NASA’s mandated missions.
Over the previous three decades, our nation’s leaders have reduced NASA’s buying power by 25%. This decline has spurred some destructive infighting among aerospace stakeholders. Private industry attacks NASA, saying the bureaucracy is too slow and risk averse. Universities attack NASA because their grant programs are getting cut. Scientists attack aeronautics, space technology, and human exploration because the money could be diverted to science missions.
If I were king, I would work to get everyone into sync. The academic community, industry, and NASA all must work together to move our programs forward. Exploration without science is shortsighted. Science without exploration engineering leads to a dead end. In order to gain understanding of Earth, we must get off it. To understand the Solar System, we must get out into it. Science and exploration will stall without technology, including aeronautics. Costs will rise, capability will shrink, and our leaders will see fit to reduce the public space program still further. The only choice for the space community is to work together.
I’m not being a Pollyanna here. One of the most politicized communities, academia, already does a good job at cooperating. Every ten years, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) brings the science community together to look at what we know already; and this group determines the highest-payoff investigations—what we need to know next, to know the most. The NAS gives that list to NASA, providing advice for setting the priorities for research in space.
We don’t have a similar method for human exploration—of polling experts to develop a decadal set of advice. One reason is that human space exploration is a relatively immature activity. Science has had a 500-year head start. While universities are set up to do astrophysics, with a department in most universities, that’s not true of human exploration. While I would stop short of establishing a human exploration department within universities, I would recruit the physics, chemistry, biology, and aerospace faculties, financial and business departments, and other disciplines. Together they can help develop the human exploration priorities in a reinvigorated and properly funded program.
On the other hand, we could simply limp along on NASA’s current budget and shift more funding over to science programs. We could go to Mars with robots alone and still conduct good science. But that approach will never get us to Mars; and we happen to be humans, not robots. Imagine if we had only explored the American West using robots! Eliminating human space flight would abandon many of our most ambitious goals, including the establishment of extraterrestrial colonies, mineral extraction, and manufacturing.
Then again, we can’t abandon science for human space flight. In order to allow for human exploration on Mars, for example, we need to understand more about the property of its soils. Scientists have already discovered that the Martian surface contains a great many carcinogens. (Sorry, Matt Damon. Those potatoes might not have been as good for you as you thought.) We need more data to figure out how to make a spacesuit that can protect astronauts—and settlers.
The same goes for missions to asteroids. Human exploration and science need to work together if the space program is to serve the entire American system. Asteroid missions can work the way Apollo did. On the last several Apollo missions, the science community worked with the astronauts for many months to maximize the knowledge from human flights. The Apollo astronauts picked up many rocks on the Moon, and scientists are still getting data from them. We know much more about the history of the Solar System, Earth, and the Moon because of those rocks. Could they have been collected by remote vehicles? Certainly. But not as well. Human eyes, knowledge, and intelligence are far more capable of negotiating unknown environments than machines are. Besides the knowledge ore extracted from rocks, there is the knowledge that came from putting humans on a foreign body. That intelligence improves our lives on Earth and will help put us on Mars.
The answer to getting all these needs in sync lies in the budget. If you have the budget you need, it is much easier to put cooperative programs in place. A fully funded space program offers the single best answer to all of its stakeholders working together.
In relative terms, it’s not an expensive answer. If you were to create a normal-sized pie chart of the overall federal budget, NASA would be invisible. Suppose you doubled NASA’s budget. It would still fail to show up on that chart. And I am not suggesting a 200% increase. I’m proposing bumping up NASA’s budget by a third.
We’ve seen the benefits of funding NASA’s missions. During the Sixties, the space program jumpstarted the satellite and weather-prediction industries; these benefits more than paid for the agency’s entire budget. In fact, the tax revenues from those industries alone are enough to pay for NASA’s current budget.
But what we saw in the Sixties is not happening today. The current NASA is pulled in different directions by Congress and the White House. Both branches have excellent reasons for their policies, though those reasons are not well articulated for the public. The problem is that the budget has not allowed NASA to go in both directions at once.
The problem started during the George W. Bush administration, though the White House itself was not to blame. Bush’s NASA chief, Sean O’Keefe, came into office with some serious problems to solve. The International Space Station had a cost overrun of billions. O’Keefe brought an accounting eye to the agency; in a previous job at the Defense Department, he’d been known as the “Grim Reaper.” Several years after cutting costs at NASA, O’Keefe received another directive from the President: restructure further to prioritize a mission to Mars.
In 2004, President Bush himself came to headquarters to announce the mission. This was the only time a president came to NASA to speak to us during my entire career at the agency. Ever since President Nixon cancelled the Apollo Program, condemning us to the bottom of the Gravity Well, NASA has had to lower its sights for human exploration. With Bush, it looked to us at NASA that we were finally seeing a positive change in direction. Here was a president willing to take us beyond the Well, matching the ambition that the last Texan president had shown for space. The Bush policy sought to achieve NASA’s potential—inspiring the nation, pulling young people into STEM, and enhancing America’s international reputation. Congress, in a bipartisan move, actually authorized Bush’s vision, but the budget never caught up. Congress failed to appropriate the money to match the mission. Unfortunately, we never saw Bush at NASA again. In any case, his program, though well thought out, was not part of a broader national policy. Nor did he properly explain the Mars mission to the wider public, or make much of an attempt to garner its support.
Sean O’Keefe’s successor, Michael Griffin—an engineer and NASA veteran—tried to shift the existing budget to focus on getting to the Moon, the first step toward Mars. He took flak from the scientific community for pulling funds from the science mission to pay for human flight.
Then along came a new administration with different ideas.
President Barack Obama aimed to foster a new market for space transportation, just as NACA helped birth air transportation a century before. The new deputy administrator, Lori Garver, had previously worked for NASA in policy positions before joining a space lobbying group. She was a passionate advocate for commercial spaceflight, and brought that view with her when she joined Obama’s transition team before the inauguration. Technology and growth of a commercial space industry became the priorities. The goal was not just to enrich government contractors but to form a real market.
Despite this new emphasis, NASA continued to promise a Moon base by 2024. The Obama vision didn’t replace the Bush vision; the Republican Congress assured that wouldn’t happen. Instead, the new ambitions were simply added onto the old ones, without the budget to go with them.
That changed in 2010, when Obama cancelled the Moon base mission, announcing instead that NASA would send a mission to a nearby asteroid by 2025. No one had bothered to check that the deadline was literally impossible; a spacecraft could not physically reach any suitable asteroid by that time.
In short, Congress handed NASA one set of priorities, and the administration gave it another. The President’s priority on the commercial crew program offered a national benefit different from the Republicans’ priority—which essentially boiled down to building a big rocket. The White House’s commercial approach would create the next market and catalyze the next economy. Congress’s big-rocket approach would let us lead the world into space, while assuming incalculable risks that no company, or any other country, would take.
The choice never got made. Congress and the White House simply acted as if it were possible to get both the international leadership and the economic growth benefits without paying for both. Because the budget did not increase, the agency came under unprecedented criticism for failing to manage it properly. The fighting outside the agency resulted in wasted internal efforts. Schedules slipped, morale dropped. To critics of government, NASA seemed a prime example of bureaucrats gone wild.
Which would you choose: international influence through pre-eminence in space, or the next new economic market and the associated industries, companies, and jobs?
Now here’s a better question: why should we have to choose? Aren’t both worth the money? The previous chapters have sought to prove that they are. We want the leadership for our security, and we want to catalyze the commercial space program for our future prosperity. Does security outrank prosperity? Or would you choose the economy over safety? To my mind, both remain top national priorities. We should not rob Peter to pay Paul. To say we have to give one up in order to keep NASA’s budget level: that’s a false choice.
If we agree to keep all the programs with sufficient funding, then the next step is to build a program across those visions so that they mutually support each other. We need science to feed the knowledge ore and advance humanity. We need human exploration to inspire the world, and to create options to settle new world. We need aeronautics to help create the next aircraft, rockets, and control systems. And we need space technology to catalyze the next space economy. Fund them appropriately, and their sum is far greater than their parts.
And don’t just fund them over one congressional term, or one administration. We must fund them for a generation. If I were king, I would increase the overall NASA budget by about $1 billion each year for eight years and then sustain that level of investment.
3. Budget more sensibly.
The most efficient way to execute a project is to undertake an in-depth planning study followed by a design phase with rigorous reviews, then go through a build-and-test phase and, finally, flight. This process demands a certain funding profile to shorten the schedule and minimize total costs. The common way of federal budgeting, a “flat-funding” profile that maintains the same amount of money throughout a project’s lifespan, is inefficient.
What’s worse—and all too common—is leaders’ practice of starting, stopping, and restarting programs. That’s more than inefficient; it’s wasteful in the extreme.
Projects often suffer from both bad budgeting habits: flat funding and starting-and-stopping. Work gets going with an even budget, Congress changes the budget, and the project grinds to a halt. For example, some work got stopped on key subsystems for Orion, the deep space human spacecraft, in order to let the big-rocket Space Launch System catch up. Because of flat funding, NASA couldn’t work on both at once.
Similarly, key Earth science missions get stretched out in wasteful study phases that keep a core team together but without the funding to move forward smartly. The launch date for the high-priority Mars sample return mission, which will bring a piece of Mars back to Earth for laboratory analysis, has remained ten years away for over a generation now.
The alternative to flat funding is the deliberate injection of additional funds as a project meets key targets. This profile becomes feasible when Congress funds NASA with a budget with a steady increase of $1 billion a year over the next eight years.
4. Renew NASA itself.
The agency has been suffering for two decades from the effects of American indecision about its space program. Declining spending power has resulted in an aging infrastructure and, to some extent, a brain drain. Some of the most talented, experienced scientists and engineers are retiring or simply leaving. As with any large middle-aged organization, NASA needs some revitalization. This is not a reflection of NASA’s scientists’ and engineers’ ability or commitment. I know a great many of them, and, given the circumstances, their dedication has been amazing.
The good news: current leadership is working on renewing the agency.
The bad news: they’re working without the audacious national mission we need. It’s as if NASA is a comeback boxer given a workout plan without any fight scheduled.
I have hope that the next president and Congress will craft just such a mission. When they do, though, they must include a study of how to upgrade NASA to meet the challenge. That includes improving the ways the agency interacts with other parts of the executive branch.
Just as importantly, space must be de-politicized. The space program already has citizens’ widespread bipartisan support. There’s no reason for the political parties to carry out their ideological agendas with space. Solving our nation’s problems, spurring the economy, inspiring STEM, leading the world: All Americans want these things. As the next chapter will argue, space is too big for provincial politics. And the space program itself represents the best expression of the American destiny.
5. Inspire the public with an audacious mission.
To realize the national benefits I’ve described will require a degree of presidential and congressional leadership that we have not seen in a long time. More importantly, space must have the backing of the rest of us. Each of us needs to understand the broad benefits. And we must demand that our leadership ensure we reap the rewards of having the most advanced spacefaring technologies in the world.
For any of this—the leadership and the support—to happen, first we need a vision. We need a mission that strains our capabilities, one that’s hard. NASA hard. The ideal mission will have certain characteristics:
It will seem crazy to skeptics, while stretching our belief in ourselves. Just as Kennedy’s call for going to the Moon, this new mission must thrust right up to the edge of impossibility.
It will be nonpartisan and represent no particular ideology, except the characteristic American quest for invention and discovery.
It will be new, exceeding all the goals of previous presidents. Bigger and newer than Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a Moon base. More daring even than George W. Bush’s call for a base on Mars. Bolder than Barack Obama’s plan for capturing an asteroid.
It will deliver—immediately and in the long run—all the economic, STEM, and international benefits.
What in heaven could such a mission be? I’ve been suggesting it throughout this book. It’s the Gravity Well.
The mission itself will not be enough. The next president should enshrine that mission within a vision, one that describes the best possible future for America and the planet. This vision, too, must be bold enough to stretch credulity while captivating our nation’s most restless young intellects. It could go something like this:
“Our generation is about to take the first step toward turning Earth into a homeland that guarantees every individual the right to reach their potential. We will achieve this feat by stepping up and away from Earth.”
The President will then describe the Gravity Well, the definable part of the near Solar System that will serve as our next, greatest frontier. “Conquering this Well,” he will say, “means exploring it, then settling it—much the way we explored and settled the vast American frontier. And in doing that, we will find riches we can only begin to imagine.
“We will manufacture new machines, and create new generations of computers fully capable of artificial intelligence. We will invent new smart materials, with clothing that changes temperature with the weather, and self-healing polymers. We will have new medicines, developed in microgravity environments. We will tap into limitless supplies of energy without causing any harm to our planet. Future generations may even grow enough food in space to satisfy everyone. One day, our children’s children will turn vast tracts of Earth into parks, because they will have all the terrain, and all the space, they need, off this planet.
“This vision sounds far-fetched, I know. But so did President John F. Kennedy’s call for landing people on the Moon and bringing them back safely. When he made that call in 1961, commercial airplane flight was barely 50 years old. Only a tiny fraction of Americans had even flown in an airplane. And who would have thought that that our giant leap into space would come with so many added benefits, like accurate weather prediction, GPS, and our smartphones that communicate with satellites?
“It has been more than half a century since President Kennedy made that call. And now it is time for a new vision, one that reaps even greater benefits.
“Ten years from now, we will have a base on the Moon. Twenty years from now, astronauts will be operating on a permanent base on Mars. Twenty-five years from now, we will be mining the asteroids near and beyond Mars. A single asteroid, no wider than your living room, can contain $10 billion worth of gold, along with platinum, tungsten, and the rare earth metals we desperately need here, where supplies are running low. Along with those metals, we’ll extract iron, nickel, aluminum and titanium to construct new bases on Mars and in space. On other asteroids we’ll obtain water and oxygen to sustain life, as well as hydrogen, oxygen, and ammonia for fuel.
“Beyond those 25 years, we will create an economy in the Gravity Well that dwarfs the one on our planet. We will achieve a global prosperity that we cannot fully imagine today—just as no one could envision the wealth we have achieved since the Wright brothers first took to the sky.
“But first, we must step up and climb to the top of the Well. If we do that—if we meet that challenge—then we will be known as the generation who opened up the terrain of space, who settled the newest, greatest frontier. Future generations will remember us for our courage and our boldness. And they will remember us for something even more important: That we did it peacefully.”