Monday, August 13, 2012

Solicitation for public comment from NASA's Strategic Direction Committee

I have decided to respond to a solicitation for public input regarding the future strategic directions of NASA.  This solicitation is put out by the National Academies and mandated by the US Congress. The dateline is the 17th of August of 2012.

I have no illusions that my comments on the various topics solicited will ever be read by any committee member, or even any human being in the intended audience. But that is not the primary reason why I decided to respond. I have had, for many years, ideas about what we can do to push our society and culture forward. So I took this opportunity to finally place some of these thoughts on paper. This solicitation became my catalyst to 'make my mark in the sand' or to  'state my case'  so to speak. A permanent, if somewhat electronically ethereal, statement of my opinions.

You learn things about yourself when writing such a document. Like for me, I was somewhat surprised to find out that I have enough of a nationalistic streak to want NASA to reserve it's exploratory missions, the flag planting missions, exclusively for itself. And apparently, it's a view I hold closely enough to put down on paper.

I see NASA's untapped potential to be actively used as a driver of ambition among the young adults of our country. I want to see emphasis given to science based curriculums in schools.  NASA should be the vehicle of choice. When it comes to the money, I pointed out that historically the cost has been fractions of a penny for every dollar that NASA derived technology has generated. If we do not invest, we stagnate. 

In case you didn't already know (or if you do go ahead and skip this paragraph :-). NASA at roughly $18 billion takes up less than one half of one cent ($0.0043) of every dollar the country spends. Compare this to say, Education which gets 4 times more or an overall of $0.02 per dollar spent,  then there's the in-famous Safety-net (entitlement) programs at $0.13, Defense is at $0.20, Welfare and Medicare together at $0.41 per dollar spent. Naturally I had suggested that they increase NASA's budget substantially. To at least a whopping whole $0.01. That's right! I asked that least one cent of every dollar the feds spends goes to investing in our collective tomorrows.

In some cases, the concepts proposed are at best unsupported or at worst prohibited under current law. NASA, for instance, is denied self-promotion. Which I think is a shame. We paid for the accomplishments, we are proud of the dedicated people who pulled them off. We should give NASA the ability to trumpet successes. Will it be propaganda? For sure some will see it that way, but it is also factual and the truth and we should be allowed to be proud of it.  Also it will go a long ways in debunking the many urban legends, myths and other misconceptions about NASA and it's accomplishments in particular and science in general.

What I am saying in many of my answers is, where it is appropriate, we can and should change the law.

The concepts and schemes proposed are bold and radical. But I was writing it to be so. To be, by design, a strategic document written in broader strokes than a tactical one dealing with the details of individual ideas.

I used plenty of technical terms, abbreviations and concepts in my essays without decoding them because of space constraints, expecting that the intended readers (if there are indeed any, but knowing what I know about these data collection systems I doubt there will be) would be technically versed and will understand my meaning and context.  If it seems like I performed a lot of extraneous hyphenation of words. I did. I'll admit to my verbosity and to premeditated circumvention of the "300 max words" validation algos that the input form employs.

My thanks goes out to the folks that have helped or offered suggestions with the grammar, style, and structure of my essays (you know who you are.. :-).

There were 9 questions in all. The first 2 dealt with name, institution and qualifications. The actual comments start from question 3. The following few blog entries are Chino's Take to questions asked in NASA's solicitation for comments. Comments on my comments are invited.


Question 3 -- NASA's Vision, Mission and Strategic Direction.

What is your understanding and opinion of NASA's current vision, mission and strategic direction? If you think NASA's vision, mission and strategic direction should different from the above, please state what they should be and why. 

NASA is America's organization mandated to look to the future of aeronautics and space exploration.

"To chart the course by pioneering new-technologies, methodologies and scientific-discoveries."

NASA's charter includes making huge and often unprofitable investments in treasure and unfortunately, sometimes in lives, necessary to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge that benefits the United-States and through her, all of humanity.

Every air-vehicle flying in the world today has some NASA legacy. With developing-nations on the rise, NASA's aeronautical work must be further challenged for the United-States to keep it's leadership in aviation.

NASA has pioneered and established the fundamental-technologies and methodologies of travel to LEO. Phasing it to the private sector with it's CCP and CCiCap programs and actively encouraging the growth of that sector at this point is the right thing to do.

NASA's current space-exploration plans are results of a tumultuous-past and an uncertain-future. NASA's stated mission of exploring Mars or visiting a NEO is too narrow. Both Mars and NEOs should be missions within the scope of a imagination-capturing "Grand Mission" such as "Exploring the entire Solar-System within the next 30 years!"... Projects to probe the Jovian and Saturnian moons are well-developed. With commiserating funding NASA should initiate those and develop and execute plans for sending up-to-date missions to the rest of the Solar-System. Reinforcing a continuing-message that the United States are in deeds the drivers for advancement into tomorrow. Think big!. Set lofty goals!. NASA is the only 'space-exploring-organization' on Earth with the 'street-creds' to 'walk-their-talk'. Take advantage of this.

Further leverage NASA in education and especially as a 'driver-for-ambition'. Encourage the publication of NASA-derived lessons-and-imagery in textbooks. Establish and promote NASA branding.

Shape NASA as an enhanced diplomatic tool. The offer of a scientific-partnership might add fresh-air to an otherwise stale situation. Where possible, morph new challenges into space-races.


Question 4 -- Budget

In your opinion, should NASA's annual budget (currently about $18 billion) be substantially increased, be substantially decreased, or remain at about the current level – and why? [In responding to this question, assume that an increase in NASA's budget would require reduction(s) elsewhere in the federal budget and, conversely, that a decrease in NASA's budget would enable increased funding elsewhere in the federal budget.] 

NASA should be funded at level that is 1% - 1.5% of the nation's budget. Yes, two to three times higher than the current funding level.

We either make this critical long-term-investment, or we stagnate.

NASA-derived-technology is already the basis of many earthbound enterprises. NASA's proven ability to spin out technologies can be and must be driven to even more rewarding levels.

Every dollar spent on-or-by NASA is spent on Earth, mainly as American jobs. Leverage NASA's additional funding as an economic-force. It attracts educated, well payed citizenry who build communities and set higher standards of living. And in more ways than one, drive the 'desire for higher-education', which is currently a serious-issue in many parts of our nation. How much is that alone worth?

The space programs of the 1960s/70s captured and drove the imaginations of a couple of generations of young people who grew up and built Silicon Valley and myriad large and small high-tech industries across the country. The return from these industries in the form of corporate and personal taxation is above average. This alone makes adding to NASA's long term budget justifiable but it will also result in many intangible and some very tangible dividends to American industry, culture and lifestyle.

"But where will the money come from?".

An off-the-cuff answer would be, from where it was produced to fund the wars America engages in. Or the same-place the money comes from for bailing-out industries too-big-to-fail, NASA with it's network of industrial-and-academic partners is also too-big-to-fail... However, a couple necessarily-simplistic (space-constrained) possibilities:

Additional NASA funding could be *considered* funding *for* and *from* other federally-funded initiatives, in fields that it benefits, including education, medicine, technology, environmental-monitoring, especially of the military and intelligence-gathering, and
several others.

Consider allowing voluntary contributions from taxpayers similar to the collection of dollars for political-elections.


Question 5 -- Human Component of Space Exploration.

In your opinion, what is the relative value of a space exploration program (to low-Earth orbit and beyond) that includes humans as compared to a space exploration program that is conducted exclusively with robotic, uncrewed spacecraft and rovers? That is, to what extent does a human presence add value to a space exploration program, and is it worth the cost and risk?

All life is precious. Among human-endowments that robots lack are sentiency, intelligence, curiosity, appreciation, dexterity, and hopefully wisdom. Humans are more valuable than robots.

Our experiences and the results of our explorations have shown us that robots are capable of exploring the Solar-System very cost-effectively, with many missions running far beyond the project's life-expectancy. Robotic-exploration should be first-choice. Not only for safety-considerations but because driving space-based robotic-operations forward will result in advancements here at home and continue to add to the 'Return-On-Investment' (ROI) for NASA. The current Curiosity-mission is an example of where industry is interested-in everything from it's radiation-hardened-systems to it's Laser-induced-breakdown-spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument.

That said, the decision on when NASA send humans instead of robots should always rest upon the circumstances of the mission. NASA should not restrict exploration entirely to robots. Because of the same prior-mentioned human-endowments there will always be value to having humans in space.

Missions that have a certain-criticality will always require humans to be 'in-the-loop'. To that end NASA must always maintain human presence in space, on planets-and-moons. Learning how humans can live in-space and even more, because it is necessary, learning how humans can actually thrive in-space must be a continuing NASA priority.

Here on earth, the ROI for NASA's Human-Spaceflight-Programs manifests itself in the life-sciences, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, responsible habitation and others, and includes many intangible returns like creating ambition among our young adults.

If one could ask any of our explorers who did not come home if it was worth risking their lives. While that question cannot be asked nor any answers recorded I suspect that it would be a unanimous "YES!"

While a life cannot be qualified or quantified in any tangible terms, just ask ourselves, how many lives do we willingly commit to gaining-inches-in-conflicts vs giant-leaps-for-our-nation?

Is the cost in human lives too high? No.


Question 6 -- NASA Communications

Do you feel that NASA is very good, moderately good or not very good at communicating its vision, mission and strategic direction to its stakeholders, including the public? Why? How do you obtain information about NASA (TV news, websites, Twitter or other social media, etc.). If you think NASA's communication strategy needs improvement, what specifically do you recommend? Why?

NASA must have it's mandate for outreach reinforced.

While NASA's PAO should be applauded for the work they've done in supplying data to the folks that actively seek the information, NASA must do better at spreading-the-word among the folks with less knowledge of it's goals-and-achievements.

NASA's recent-successes with publicizing the Curiosity-Mission's EDL-Event and similarly the ISS's capture-and-subsequent-berthing of SpaceX's Falcon-Capsule are examples of tapping-into the worldwide-following and enthusiasm that NASA generates. The publicity ensured these otherwise-engineering-triumphs continue to make the front-pages of major newspapers and news-outlets and generate discussions all around the world! Both are results of well-thought-out, finely-targeted, outreach-campaigns using modern-social-media-tools.  However, both also exposed that in today's world of 4sec-soundbytes, fast-video-edits and 27sec-attention-spans that NASA can do better at expectation-management. Exposure is a doubled-edged-sword.

NASA has the 'not-fully-exploited' potential to drive-ambition in our schools. The sixties and early seventies was a period when NASA was among, if-not-the premiere organizations-to-work-for. American-Education was concurrently-driven to be the best in the world, populating technology-hubs like Silicon-Valley and Medical-Alley. Even parents outside-of-America wanted American-Educations for their children, the results of which today are the many highly-regarded scientists, doctors, educators, engineers and other professionals that are naturalized-citizens whose contributions have brought an abundance-of-wealth for our country.

NASA should seek-the-authority to promote itself, and branding built upon it's reputation-for-excellence. A discreet NASA-brand that establishes the integrity of its products as up-to-date, science-based, facts.

Use NASA's data-and-brand heavily in textbooks for our public-schools. Build curriculums around NASA missions and objectives covering everything from basic-arithmetic to advanced-physics to civics and social-studies. Personally, I would like to see astronauts-characters replace some of the cartoon-protagonists that populate our pre-school and early-school textbook-illustrations. Lets set-ambition early!.

Efforts should be taken to further-promote NASA as one of America's shinning stars. A place every school-kid in the world wants to grow up to work at.   


Question 8 -- Commercial Space Venture

Should NASA and the federal government continue current efforts to encourage the development of a commercial space industry as is, or should it either curtail or expand these efforts? What specific actions would you recommend? Why?

NASA's current measured-approach to the commercial-space-industry is a well thought-out process that stands an astoundingly-excellent chance of nurturing a nascent high-technology industry into fruition in the shortest amount of time possible while maintaining the highest safety standards and at the lowest possible cost!

The Commercial-Crew (CCP) and Commercial-Crew-Integrated-Capability (CCiCap) programs are NASA-engineered-processes which will be studied in future references like almost all of NASA's endeavors are. This one will be on how to birth, incubate and establish a competitive multi-player industry, essentially from the ground up with fixed timeline-and-funding.

Examples of other successful NASA-encouraged space-based enterprises include the fast-maturing 'commercial-data' industry with US heavyweights like Hughes-Space-Systems and GlobalStar, and the adolescent 'camera-in-the-sky' industry dominated by American commercial entities DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.

Moving forward, considerations for privatization and commercialization could be given to other selected NASA missions where there are or-can-be commercial (fee-paying) customers besides NASA. Perhaps these could include any earth-observation-services remaining within NASA's portfolio along with space-weather monitoring and even research, the search for NEOs etc.

NASA is a primary customer of hundreds of businesses around the country. Some are seeded by NASA, many more have had successful technology transfers from NASA. Commercial ventures are nothing new to NASA. This practice must be maintained and indeed, further encouraged. While it may not be the primary reason why NASA was established, the nation benefits from the wealth of NASA-derived-technology that enhances our everyday lives because of commercialization.

NASA should reserve for itself the high-risk, seldom-profitable but high-glory missions of trailblazing. NASA is tasked to do the things that have not been done, to discover things-and-places never before discovered. Akin with historical pathfinder flag-carrying organizations like the English and Dutch East-India companies or the first 'path-finding-flag-carrying' European expeditions to The-Americas initiated by Christopher Columbus, NASA is America's Flag Carrier.


Question 7 -- International Collaboration

Should the United States conduct future human space exploration efforts on its own, like the Apollo program, or should the United States conduct such efforts as collaborative international efforts, like the International Space Station? If you recommend the latter approach, should the United States insist on taking the lead role? Why?

History shows that scientific collaboration has customarily risen above the political fray and is in effect 'border-less'. Examples abound throughout history, from the earliest cross-border collaborations of the The-Royal-Society to the Apollo-Soyuz experiments to the present day Higgs boson collaboration.

Professional-Organizations that exists today for every field of engineering and chemistry, the sciences, medicine and education, shows the international scope of science. The rosters of the IEEE, ACS, ISO, SAE, to name just a few of these organizations, are filled with American and non-American members. Information has traditionally flowed freely among these professionals, discoveries are peer reviewed and hailed globally.

Collaboration is a scientific way-of-life.

NASA should continue to invite partners for *routine* [see-last-paragraph-question#8] missions of scientific discovery. These partnerships should ideally include proportional-sharing of the cost, expertise, and responsibility. The rewards benefits the world.

Also ideally, American *scientific-missions* would include instruments and/or personnel from non-American entities, and reciprocally, missions led by our offshore partners would carry American instruments and one day include American astronauts.

American leadership in space exploration is indisputable, a fact acknowledged internationally, and as such there will be few if any objections to American commanded missions for any foreseeable shared-missions. However, if/when mission circumstances arise that such insistence is necessary, it must be reasoned upon clear and accepted sets of mission parameters.

Scientific collaboration as a diplomatic way-of-life?

NASA has an largely unused potential as a powerful-diplomatic-toolkit, not only with friends in the international community but also foes on the world-stage.

Ingratiating ourselves with less-than-friendly entities need not cost much more than the sharing of earth-science data. Diplomatic-impasses with advanced-nations might be 'moved-forward' with offers to 'reset' with shared aeronautical or space-based experiments and missions.

While those are simplistic, space-constrained suggestions, consider this, NASA can be the tool we use to realize our vision for the world.


Question 9 -- Other Remarks

Are there any additional comments regarding NASA's strategic direction that you would like to make?
NASA needs a PAC (Political-Action-Committee) championing it's causes in both legislative and public arenas. A PAC will set-the-record-straight in-so-many-ways. A PAC can be a powerful-3-way-interface with the-public, government, and NASA. How do we make-this-happen?

Legislation should be sought to place NASA beyond the political-vagaries of each election-cycle by fixing NASA's funding to a level pegged to the national-budget or the GDP effectively voiding further-use of NASA as a political-football. More importantly, this gives NASA credibility, confidence and the ability to design and execute long-range and even multi-decadal plans which are a necessity in aeronautical-research and space-exploration.

Should NASA set up a system-for-endowments?. Similar to hospitals and institutions-of-higher-learning should NASA actively sought endowments from wealthy-individuals to fund some of it's smaller projects?. Along with benefits to the estate for contributions the concept of this type of legacy will certainly be attractive to many individuals and even organizations. --The law doesn't allow individual contributions to a federal agency and the ethics and practicality of this concept have yet to be fully-thought-through.

NASA's single tallest hurdle is not in the air or in space nor it is even technological. It is here on earth with re-capturing the hearts and minds of the citizenry. As Abe 'The-Man' Lincoln famously puts it "With public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed."

NASA has brought our nation both glory and wealth. In the forming of your recommendations keep history in perspective, that although the cost for the glory has been very high, monetarily it is only pennies or less of every dollar the wealth has brought in.

As much as possible please keep my comments as a single-document. It was written and meant to be delivered as a single essay.

Finally, thank you for this opportunity to 'place my thoughts on paper'.

Michael Chino Yap
Aug 16th 2012