Coalition for Deep Space Exploration recommends space priorities for next president
An industry-led policy paper released by the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration on June 21 recommends the next U.S. President and Congress preserve U.S. global leadership in space by continuing a bipartisan path to Mars, in keeping with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
The Coalition argues for increasing and improving commercial access to space while continuing NASA’s key programs. The programs cited in the paper include the International Space Station (ISS), Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew exploration vehicle, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Mars Insight, and Mars 2020 missions.
Given the contentious political environment in Washington, D.C., the Coalition’s first recommendation is for close alignment between the next Administration and Congress on space policy, priorities, and funding levels. The group is also concerned about the stability and ongoing support of NASA’s programs, as the report said they require long-lead times spanning multiple election cycles.
The second priority of the Coalition is ensuring robust and dependable U.S. access to deep space for all future exploration and science missions. This includes the earliest possible full development of the Orion crew vehicle and SLS rocket.
“We need to put massive payload[s] on the surface—habitats, provisions, ISRU plants, ascent vehicles, etc.,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, the Coalition’s Executive Director, told SpaceFlight Insider. “SLS is built for getting massive payloads over distance fast, reducing the number of launches, shortening the amount of time astronauts traveling in the Orion spacecraft are exposed to deep space, conducting science missions with faster returns.”
Dittmar also pointed to SLS’ range of payloads and noted there will be more opportunities for commercial activities in the future.
“Falcon Heavy, Vulcan, and others will find their niches,” Dittmar said.
For now, the paper envisions government support of SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and others providing transportation to low-Earth orbit as a step toward eventually making services in LEO sustainable without government support.
Continuing space-based science is a key part of the Coalition’s paper. It states that they seek to advance U.S. leadership and achievement in the field. This support includes continuing development of the Mars Insight and Mars 2020 missions, as well as studying the Moon via CubeSats (as part of the SLS/Orion EM-1 mission), and orbiter and lander missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. In addition to general knowledge and technological development, the group sees space science missions as an effective means of continuing U.S. engagement with the international science community.
The ISS, which could potentially stay in operation through 2028, is seen by the Coalition as a technology testbed and cornerstone of NASA’s comprehensive plan for future deep space exploration. NASA’s current plans for Mars exploration divide the exploration regions and capabilities into Earth-reliant, proving ground, and Earth-independent missions. The ISS serves as a key part of the Earth-reliant phase.
The group believes NASA’s research and testing on the space station should focus on validating both human and technical capabilities for long-duration space missions, while still in the relative safety of low-Earth orbit.
In addressing the growing domestic commercial space sector, the paper states that the next president should focus new transportation services on supporting NASA’s low-Earth orbit activities and missions without sacrificing safety and mission assurance. The Coalition does not believe these vehicles are yet capable of supporting human exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.
The paper is not entirely an example of NASA boosterism. The Coalition argues for streamlining NASA’s institutional footprint, bureaucracy, and procurement practices to ensure effective deployment of existing resources.
When asked about what specific practices or facilities they had in mind, Dittmar said that individual members of Congress and their constituents have concerns about closing NASA operations in their district, much like the response to downsizing bases within the Department of Defense via the Base Realignment and Closer (BRAC) process.
Without specifying any particular process or operation, Dittmar emphasized how cost savings from eliminating outdated or duplicate facilities could be spent directly on exploration efforts.
“Our statement was intended to support similar efforts currently undertaken by NASA itself and to encourage a new Congress and Administration to support them as well,” Dittmar said.
As a way of ensuring efficiency in developing technologies, the Coalition encouraged cooperation among the various government agencies using space assets, including the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA, FAA, and USGS. The paper urges this cooperation to continue, saying that it ensures the development of new technologies and space capabilities that directly support science, exploration, and national security needs.
The Coalition also recommended closer coordination among NASA’s various directorates when it comes to developing technologies that could benefit more than one area.
The paper made no suggestions regarding funding levels for NASA or space activities as a whole. Citing NASA’s challenges with trying to respond to different budget levels, Dittmar said that programs can face additional cost increases and schedule delays.
“We think it’s more important that Congress and the new Administration are aligned with regard to expectations, direction and budget than the actual dollar amount might be assuming that there are sufficient levels of funding overall,” Dittmar said.
What might happen, in the Coalition’s view, if the next President or Congress decides not to follow their recommendations and repeats the sort of change that happened in 2009 when the Obama administration cancelled the Constellation Program?
“We’ve had report after report, study after study which have pointed to the terrible effects on U.S. space programs and progress as a result of start, stop, start, progress, cancel, start over,” Dittmar said. “In fact, history is pretty darn consistent about this. There’s no reason to think such an eventuality would not have the same effects all over again.”
While there would be obvious effects on the NASA personnel and other civil servants working on SLS, Orion, or JWST, Dittmar said the most devastating effects would be on the industrial base. In particular, the cuts would specifically be to the hundreds of small and medium-size businesses serving as subcontractors to the big aerospace primes.
“Cancellation of these programs would do major damage to this tremendously important engine of innovation and job-creation,” Dittmer said.
As of this writing, the leading presidential candidates have said relatively little about the future direction of NASA or the U.S. direction in space.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.