While celebrated by many segments within the space community, the recent nomination by the White House of Congressman James Bridenstine (R-OK) to become the twelfth administrator of NASA also drew unexpected criticism. Now in his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Bridenstine has demonstrated an extraordinary interest in American space programs, both military and civilian. He is the author and sponsor of a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, an ambitious re-imagining of America’s space program and a re-writing of the agency’s charter around the “Pioneering Doctrine.” This doctrine encompasses three principal objectives for the agency: 1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System; 2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others; and 3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others. I will examine each objective in turn.
The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System. Expanding human “reach” is an activity that I’ve always believed formed the core of NASA’s mission. A human “sphere of influence” encompasses the projection and use of both robotic and human assets, and the presence of one does not obviate the other. This might seem self-evident, but in the past it generally has not been part of the NASA modus. The robotic program, as currently configured, exists mostly to address the wants of scientists who produce long wish lists of missions and experiments in “decadal studies”—outlining their desires for the coming ten years. On the human side, some attention is given to developing “precursor” robotic missions that gather scientific and engineering data designed to assure the safety and success of subsequent human missions. But in broad terms, both streams tend to operate separately and independently. What if these two streams were integrated into one?
The question should not be “Robot or human mission?” but, “How shall we best utilize the unique capabilities of each to accomplish our space goals?” One approach might be to tightly integrate robots and humans into mission plans, whereby they work together to accomplish new and previously unreachable objectives. As an example, the architecture that Tony Lavoie and I published in 2011 (and revised in 2016) to explore the potential of resource utilization establishes an outpost on the Moon using both machines and people to create a permanent, sustainable space transportation system. In this architecture, robots set up and begin the initial work on the Moon; people follow later, when the facility is operational and mature. Such a symbiotic relationship between robotic and human spaceflight was utilized and proven during assembly of the International Space Station and should now be applied to missions beyond low Earth orbit.
To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others. The second objective encapsulates the imperative of keeping NASA a “cutting edge” entity that pushes the envelope of spaceflight. But more than simply “going where no one has gone before,” it also charges the agency with enabling the subsequent exploration and use of new destinations by a variety of users, both public and private. For example, an outpost emplaced at one of the poles of the Moon by NASA would demonstrate that it is possible for such an enterprise to be undertaken and operated, and would serve as the nucleus of a commercial operation through proof-of-concept demonstrations of techniques and technology. Structured like this, NASA’s goal is not to “mine the Moon,” but to establish that the Moon can be mined, and to open the window on what new technology development is needed for such a task. This type of activity reflects one of the classic agency missions of technology transfer—one of the principal reasons for the existence of a civil space program.
To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others. The third objective helps to enable and incentivize the second objective. A variety of assets in near-Earth space must be developed and deployed in order for significant commercial activity to occur. As an illustration of this, consider that reliable navigation and communication is required for assets in space, on Earth and on the lunar surface. Because of the highly oblique solar illumination and the extensive local topographic relief at the Moon’s poles, it is particularly difficult to know exactly where you are in the polar regions of the Moon. These conditions impede reliable communication between individual surface units and with control centers on Earth. The solution to both these problems is the deployment of a constellation of communication and navigation satellites in lunar orbit. Ideally, these assets would become part of a cislunar GPS system, available for use by any entity to navigate throughout cislunar space and for use in conducting complex surface operations on the lunar surface. The development of this kind of permanent, sustainable spacefaring infrastructure serves both government and societal interests.
These three “Pioneering Doctrines” embrace a bold statement of purpose for NASA: to extend our reach with machines and people beyond low Earth orbit, into deep space and to the objects of the Solar System. Under such a charter, the mission of the agency becomes nothing less than the opening up of the entire space frontier to exploration, use and development. This was one of the original purposes behind the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, a goal that got lost in bureaucratic make-work minutiae of objectives and roadmaps. By maintaining and holding firm to a clear vision of space development beyond low Earth orbit, NASA can push the envelope while at the same time offering practical value for its cost.
Of course, these “doctrines” are part of Jim Bridenstine’s proposed legislation, which has not yet been formally adopted as law, and thus is not presently a new code for NASA. However, they do shine a light on his thinking, and they give us some insight into his philosophical preferences for the space program. I contend that the Pioneering Doctrine is exactly what NASA has desperately needed for over a decade—reachable goals against which progress can be measured, while offering value for expenditure. By pursuing these ends, we can begin to move humanity off the planet and into deep space, surely a worthy goal for any space program.
I think that a NASA administrator who strives for these ends will be an asset to the nation and just might be able to save a faltering program from collapse. We’ve had a decade of the fraudulent “Journey to Mars”—spending over $26 billion for no real achievement or new capability. In fact, by discarding the Space Shuttle in favor of “commercial crew transport,” we lost capability and saved nothing. This ongoing chaos stems from strategic confusion over what the NASA mission is, where it is going, and how it is executing its programs. An administrator with a clear vision oriented toward the creation of new capabilities is a good first step toward fixing NASA’s problems. Jim Bridenstine needs to be rapidly confirmed by the Senate. The sooner he gets on the job, the better for America’s future in space.