Monday, June 15, 2015

Resurrecting the US space program -- a draft position paper in process

This is being discussed in several space organizations. As it happens, I am also up for election as one of the two candidates for new deputy chair (next chair presumed a year form now) of the IEEE-USA Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy (CTAP). I owed them a position paper anyway... and sent it out in the midst of the vote. We will see how much appetite their is for a vigorous effort to save the day here. (The vote is until midnight, and I gather I am ahead at present.)

Resurrecting the US Space Program

A draft position paper, ByPaul Werbos and Ed McCullough, June 15, 2015

1. Guiding Principles

Decades ago, the historian Spengler [1] described how civilizations on a path to collapse often go through periods of nostalgia, when people try to relive their collective childhood in a way which blocks them from facing up to new challenges and seals their doom. Many of us who strongly support the development of space worry that the US civilian space program is following that path, due in part to the power of groups hoping to revive public excitement through ever more boring reruns of the Apollo program,  aimed at planting flags and footprints on the moon or Mars, without making use of serious strategic analysis of what it might take to bring human settlement of space to the point of being self-sustaining economically,   and more useful to the earth. The Star Trek generation and the Tycho de Grasse generation understand that space has great potential, but are wisely skeptical on the whole about the present directions at NASA. This position paper calls for a radical change in priorities, to try to achieve that potential, and revive the true original spirit of Apollo.
            The original Apollo program was a fantastic success, and we can learn a lot from its lessons. The period of Apollo coincided with the fastest growth in overall productivity in the US economy in the twentieth century, related to the great slate of high risk advanced technology R&D which NASA initiated under Kennedy. Kennedy said: “We go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The current emphasis on proven technology and old pathways and things which are less demanding on the skills of the workforce  reverses the one aspect of Apollo that we really need to revive. Above all, we need to go back to dedicating a larger portion of the NASA budget to more aggressive, high risk advanced technology, and building the infrastructure – both human and material – needed to improve productivity in space.  This would be more difficult now than it would have been ten years ago, because of retirements and changes in corporate culture [15], but it can be done, if we apply enough determination and foresight. If it is not done, the story will not have a happy ending in any case.
            Many critics of space have asked: “Who needs humans in space at all?” Others have sometimes asked: “Who needs humans on earth either?” Our support for human growth on earth and in space is based on the fact that we are humans, and care about humans for their own sake, as a fundamental value.  Certainly there are great risks in trying to improve productivity, markets and infrastructure in space enough to create a growing human economy [2] there – but there are also risks of human extinction on the earth itself. The challenge is to create a strategy to maximize the probability that we achieve our larger goals, facing up to all the many uncertainties, and regularly asking ourselves how to adapt that strategy focusing on the larger goals themselves. This position paper gives a sketch of such a strategy.
            The hopes for human economic development in space, and for larger benefits to earth, do not rest on NASA alone.  DOD, other nations and the commercial private sector all have crucial roles to play, which are part of  any optimal strategy for NASA.  None of those other space programs are enough, on their present course, to bring us to the human settlement of space, without additional, catalytic efforts through NASA and Congress. New directions for collaboration and enhancing the activities of those partners, is a crucial opportunity in making the hope of success ever more real.
            Market economics says clearly that the government can have a proper role in this kind of venture, which some call “the moral equivalent of war.” Success in the human settlement of space will require investment in technologies too high-risk, too long-term in payoff, and with benefits too hard to limit to just one company for normal market mechanisms. Government investment is justified only if it focuses on those aspects of what is needed, and on general-use infrastructure, and continues to try to download as much as possible to the commercial market sector. A strong system of universities and small businesses, making use of high quality apolitical competitive review systems, is crucial, to enable success in this kind of high risk R&D, and also needs some reinvigoration at this time in the US. When government spending tilts towards large low-risk jobs programs, it strongly violates the basic principles of free market economics.

2. A Vision of What NASA Could Be

High productivity in any organization (or research project) depends critically on having a very clear and ambitious long-term target, not only to focus effort within the organization but to inspire people and overcome the petty distractions which can cause stagnation in any aspect of human life.
            For NASA, we propose that there should be a core focus on achieving the target suggested above: to achieve technology, new markets, infrastructure and life support for humans in space (whether NASA or nonNASA) great enough to initiate self-sustaining human presence and growth in space – a  “tradeoff economy [2]” for humans in space.  How to do that is an optimization problem – how to maximize the probability that humans someday do get to that point,  and how to minimize the time between now and then. The mathematics of this kind of optimization should have absolute priority over the myopic kinds of bean counting which have often led to grossly suboptimal policies in the past. For example, the cost per pound of getting to low earth orbit (LEO) is one crucial metric of progress towards these goals, but the requirement is for costs which are low enough ($500/kg or less) under conditions of multiple launches, after the initial RD&D is complete;  the selection between options for the space shuttle, at the start of that program, put heavy emphasis on short-term variables. It is conceivable that we would already be at $500/kg-LEO today, supporting a much larger volume of activities in space at a lower cost, if we had selected the original more aggressive proposal from Mueller of NASA, which better reflected the spirit of the Apollo era [3].
            In order to do justice to this optimization problem in real time, year after year, there should be greater use of an open, analytic process of revisiting the “decision trees” [5,12] which we face., and which change every year, if we develop new technology and new knowledge as fast as we should. A well-constructed process should naturally reflect concepts like technology readiness levels, like build a little and test a little, and like the value of buying information [5]. Not only strategic plans but actual budgets, at the highest level, should be continuously adapted in accord with the shifting needs of the larger goal of human settlement of space, and of other values to society. Key information should also be digitized in an organized fashion, as it is developed, with a kind of succession plan, so that we do not ever in the future face the risk of technology loss which we face today. Given constraints on resources, the goal of not losing technology which may be crucial in the future is perhaps thge most urgent task now before us.
            Having a strong core mission/target is essential, but there is also a compelling need for NASA to support other activities which leverage its capabilities. Studies of defense spending [4] have shown how gross inefficiencies and gaps can arise when policy is carved up into separate organizations or stovepipes which focus only on their core mission to the exclusion of all else. Therefore, we propose that all NASA funding decisions be based on a kind of cost-benefit analysis (accounting for uncertainties [5]), where benefit is the sum of two benefits:

(1) (CORE MERIT) Impact on the core mission, the accomplishment of a “takeoff economy” for humans in space; and

(2) (BROADER IMPACT) the extra benefit to other important national goals which results from leveraging the use of unique NASA capabilities developed as a benefit of the core mission.

These are the two foundations of the NASA we would like to see. The remainder of this white paper will describe the new opportunities in these two areas in more detail.

3. Requirements of the Core Mission

To achieve  a takeoff economy for humans in space, NASA support activities aimed at building the four pillars which our hopes here rest on:

1. NEW MARKETS from space to earth, large enough and tricky enough to create "multiplier" effects beyond what the existing applications in space provide. Energy from space [6,7] and  space "tourism" (which is sometimes just recreation and sometimes more serious) are the two obvious possibilities, but we are open to others, such as geoengineering, or higher levels of communication capabilities to bring better internet capabilities to the poorest people on earth. Whatever the risks in these markets, we need to do the best we can to open up the full potential of the new markets, both through changed regulation and technology development. That's a top priority.

2. ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY will also be crucial to making space activities sustainable, affordable and profitable on a larger scale. Most urgent is the development of new technology to allow reusable access to space at minimum marginal cost, designed with foresight, looking ahead to the hope of large launch volumes to serve new markets [8]. DARPA's XS-1 project is a unique shining light in this space, but earlier projects at the height of the cold war (like Science dawn, RASV and TAV) developed low-cost technology still essential to the possibilities before us. IEEE does not actually take a position on who develops this technology -- new space, old space or governments. Rather, it will try to provide encouragement and support for any player ready to do the serious advanced technology work. In addition to access to space, better technology for transportation beyond low earth orbit is also essential, and other elements of crucial economic infrastructure to improve cost-effectiveness of all efforts in space, even to the end of the solar system and beyond.  Among the most important options in this area would be: (1)  restructuring and extension of the SLS program (without reducing spending per year) to move as soon as possible and as completely as possible away from government-developed expendable rockets, to at least partially reusable concepts, such as shuttle-derived vehicles, using passive hot structures to withstand re-entry; or (2) a reusable booster to be companion to X37B, in a joint NASA-DOD effort organized like NASP but based on rocket technologies ready for full-scale development and testing here and now [8]. Air-breathing hypersonic technologies offer real hope of even lower costs in the future, but the long-term success of such efforts will be strongly endangered if we do not begin full-scale development and testing now of technologies which will also be needed for such airbreathers.

3. NONTERRESTRIAL materials are another basic pillar of humanity's hope for self-sustaining economic growth in space. This will take more time than the initial development of new markets, but it is an essential requirement which we must meet sooner or later. We have no interest in putting flags and footprints on the moon for their own sake  -- but we do have an interest in rational steps as part of a strategy to get real economic value from the moon and from the asteroids, and eventually Mars. The economic history of earth tells us that the best strategy is not to develop just one source of materials, but all of them, starting with what is easiest to get to, and planning to transition the key decisions about priorities into market systems as soon as they become able to take over. It is important that our “decision trees” account for a variety of materials and production technologies (e.g. [13,14]), and that key capabilities not be lost. There should be a new push for crossdisciplinary research, cutting across lunar chemical engineering, manufacturing and propulsion, and accounting for the new findings from the LCROSS satellite, to try to develop higher performance new options in this sector.

4. HUMAN ABILITY to live and work in space, in the long term, is the fourth and final fundamental pillar of human settlement, and another basic commitment. To make this real, we agree, at a minimum, that human presence in space should remain continuous and permanent, initially through ISS but through larger, expanded systems in the future, without any retreat.

4. Broader Benefits With Especially Important Potential

Among the most important new broader benefits possible from NASA and form its partnerships are:

(1) Better understanding and imaging of the earth, such as the need to better understand and predict the climate variables which could lead to a global H2S emissions disaster, like what caused most of the mass extinctions in previous earth history. This would leverage existing NASA partnerships with NOAA, ESA and the Navy, to better monitor levels of oxygen and nutrients at depth in a coarse grid

(2) Combining low-cost launch and massive new communications satellites, and related work, reaching out to provide K-12 education by internet to the "other 3 billion" (O3B), in public-private partnerships;

(3) Technological breakthroughs in imaging of objects in space (asteroids, sun, astrophysics) using new quantum and/or constellation technologies to massively improve resolution and create other new capabilities [9,10,11];

(4) Space-based missile defense... where a factor of 10 reduction in $/kg-LEO equates to having ten times as much mass in orbit for the same launch cost;

(5) Advanced physics experiments in space, exploiting either the unique observation platform or exploiting the safety benefit of doing some things off the surface of the earth;

(6) Developing geoengineering capabilities, such as low-cost mirrors, which are strongly advocated by Abdul Kalam, the popular past President of India, as another option for energy from space;.


1. Spengler, Oswald. The decline of the West. Oxford University Press, 1991.
2. Rostow, Walt Whitman. The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
3. George E. Mueller, The new future for manned spacecraft developments (Manned spacecraft developments, considering Apollo Applications Program, space station establishment, space shuttle operations and payload cost), Astronautics and Aeronautics, Vol. 7, pp. 24-32. 1969.
4. Charles J. Hitch, Economics of defense in the nuclear age. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, 1967,
5. Raiffa, Howard. "Decision analysis: introductory lectures on choices under uncertainty." Addison-Wesley, 1968.
6. Mankins, John. The Case for Space Solar Power. Virginia Edition Publishing, 2014.
7. Paul Werbos, Reviewing Space Solar Power policy, Ad Astrra, Vol. 26, No.2, 2014,
8. IEEE , Low Cost Access to Space, Position Paper,  February 2014.)
9. Hyland, David C., Jon Winkeller, Robert Mosher, Anif Momin, Gerardo Iglesias, Quentin Donnellan, Jerry Stanley et al. "A conceptual design for an exoplanet imager." In Optical Engineering+ Applications, pp. 66930K-66930K. International Society for Optics and Photonics, 2007.
10 Jianbin Liu, Yu Zhou and Fuli Li,  Changing two-photon correlation into anticorrelation by superposing thermal and laser light, See also Ruifeng Liu and Fuli Li, Effects of photon bunching on ghost imagining and interference, presented at Princeton-TAMU Workshop on Classical-Quantum Interface, Princeton U., May 2015.
11.Strekalov, Dmitry V., Baris I. Erkmen, and Nan Yu. "Ghost Imaging of Space Objects." Journal of Physics: Conference Series. Vol. 414. No. 1. IOP Publishing, 2013.
12.  Frank Lewis and Derong Liu, eds. Reinforcement learning and approximate dynamic programming for feedback control. Vol. 17. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
13. See Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium ((PTMSS), Also see and

15. Bainbridge, William Sims, ed. Leadership in science and technology: A reference handbook. Sage Publications, 2011.

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