Will NASA have a Christmas gift for us this year?

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Published on: November 17, 2012

As we gain more distance from the election and watch as our elected leaders continue to posture along party lines, assuring continued gridlock with Congress that may indeed drive us over the fiscal cliff everyone is talking about, we also are seeing subtle signs of change within the Obama Administration.

Possibly as an example of that, on Friday NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced changes in leadership at both the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

At JSC, center director Mike Coats will be replaced by Ellen Ochoa – both of them outstanding and respected astronauts. At Glenn, center director Ray Lugo, who earned his management stripes here at the Kennedy Space Center, will be replaced by James Free.

Officially both changes are the result of announced retirements, but of course the rumor mill is filled with speculation that it ain’t necessarily so. Yet the specific details, if there are any, to me, are unimportant and just inside baseball talk.

What is important to note, I think, is that for whatever reason they are happening, changes are afoot at NASA.

Perhaps these moves, following so closely after the election, are the first gentle ripples hinting at a larger wave of change coming in the weeks and months ahead, not only with personnel, but with the direction NASA will be taking with its many programs.

In terms of NASA’s plans for human spaceflight, I don’t mean to suggest that we are suddenly going to abandon the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket or the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle. Those programs will continue to march along as long as Congress is willing to pay for them.

But it may mean that we will soon be hearing more specific details as to exactly how these still-developing capabilities will be used beyond the generic promises already stated that we plan to go to Mars sometime during the next 25 years, perhaps with a stop at an asteroid first.

I know that announcing such details would be welcome news for many within the space community who have found it difficult to embrace the notion of designing and building a capability, which the SLS and Orion represent, before the destination or mission is fully defined and understood.

That may be because historically in mission design, as in the example of Apollo, you start with a specific mission in mind, and then define how you are going to go about accomplishing the mission. What kind of spacecraft will you need? How big and heavy will it be? What type and size of launch vehicle will be required to properly send this spacecraft on its way?

As you begin to iron out the details, you must also take into account what existing capabilities are available to pull off the shelf to use, or how much of this will have to be designed and built from scratch? And how do the variables of schedule, funding and politics — at all levels — figure into the equation?

This is the traditional model for mission planning; the one taught in the textbooks used in every introductory course for astronautics or aerospace engineering. And it’s a reason, I think, that there are so many critics who believe the SLS and Orion are a rocket and a spacecraft without a purpose, without a clearly understood mission and are a capability without a destination, and therefore a foolish endeavor to pursue.

Now I know I’m not an engineer. I’ve never designed a mission or a rocket. In fact, when I fly model rockets they tend to fail in a spectacular manner, as was the case a few weeks ago with my return to flight of the Honest John.

But this notion that you always have to have a well-defined mission with a specific destination fully understood before you can then go design, build, test and fly the hardware to get you there just doesn’t make sense to me.

We don’t design or build cars or boats or airplanes that way. We design those other forms of transportation to give us a range of capabilities that don’t depend on a specific destination. I don’t buy a car just to drive home to Minnesota. I buy a car that allows me to drive a certain distance before refueling, carry a certain number of passengers and haul a certain amount of stuff in the trunk. Given those constraints, I’m free to go and do just about anything I want.

Why should it be different with spaceflight?

Why is SLS and Orion a futile effort because it allegedly has no mission; no destination? It seems to me this hardware gives us an extremely important and flexible capability to stage a variety of missions to several destinations, a capability this nation and its space cadets should find very appealing.

OK, yes, of course there are issues related to funding and politics that come into play here. We may not get the money we need to use this capability to reach any of these destinations – and that certainly is a fair point made by critics who ask why we are spending money on a capability if we’re not going to use it.

There is a concern that, to paraphrase a cliché, we won’t be able to have our toys and play with them too.

But if the space community is so hung up and bent over backwards on needing NASA to define specific missions for SLS and Orion to justify its existence, then it appears with hints and examples of change in the air, the space agency may grant that wish very soon.

If that happens, we can only hope the news will be backed up during the years to come by political and financial support from both the White House and Congress.

What a great Christmas gift that would make for all of us who want to expand our presence in the universe.

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