This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
It’s tough to be NASA in 2017. The last time anyone walked on the Moon was more than 40 years ago. The Space Shuttle has flown its last mission, and the only way to get to the International Space Station is on a Russian rocket. News headlines are confined to the agency’s role in studying climate change. Meanwhile, the commercial space industry is booming, throwing NASA’s comparatively sluggish pace into high relief.
Now, as the Trump administration begins to shape federal agencies around its own agenda, NASA’s future remains to be seen. It will be a few weeks before the budget that the White House sends to Congress reveals what might be next for NASA. But one thing is already clear: If the president aims for a grand, outer-space “moonshot” like some of his predecessors have, things aren’t likely to go well. In fact, the best way Trump can revitalize NASA is by keeping it focused on not-so-flashy yet crucial innovations.
Each new presidential administration seems compelled to reset the agency’s agenda, to put its own mark on the final frontier. In the 1990s, the mission was to build the Space Station as a precursor to visiting Mars. Then the George W. Bush administration decided to return to the Moon. The Obama administration targeted Mars once again—as well as manned exploration of near-Earth asteroids.
Any one of these moonshot missions would take decades to realize. But the odds of us attaining any of them shrink pretty much every eight years, when we change our mind about what we’re doing and why.
To be fair, some of this is baked into NASA’s DNA, ever since Kennedy’s famous, “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962. It was a brilliant vision and speech, but as soon as we reached the Moon, we started debating what NASA’s next big goal would be–without ever stopping to question whether the agency really needed to chase a new single big goal.
If the Trump administration shakes up NASA in the wrong way—toward yet another moonshot—we’ll perpetuate a cycle that’s kept the agency treading water for decades. Instead, NASA needs some time to focus on less high-flying work, namely developing the core technologies that will open up space for the next generation.
Let’s look into the future, say 50 years from now. Imagine humanity as a multiplanet species. We have thriving settlements in orbit and on Mars. Robots mine asteroids for water and rare elements. Daily hyper-spectral imagery is used to optimize agriculture and manage our climate. In-space manufacturing produces materials that are impossible to make on Earth. Space-based solar power stations beam green power down to Earth. Enormous telescopes capture images of planets around other stars and scour them for signs of life.
With the right investments, these sci-fi dreams are all achievable. But they all depend on new technologies that we haven’t spent the time or money developing yet–like in-space 3D printing to fabricate large structures in zero-G, in-space refueling technology, and robotic means of harnessing outer space’s in-situ resources.
It isn’t that these advancements are technologically infeasible in 2017; it’s just that none have yet had a chance to be demonstrated in space (mostly because, like most innovations, they aren’t likely to succeed the first time–which means a lot of money for probably few immediate returns).
Caught between limited budgets and grandiose, moonshot visions, NASA doesn’t have the tolerance for failure that ultimately drives progress. But if we make technological advancement the mission, then the only real failure is a failure to innovate.
So here’s a new mission for NASA that the Trump administration should seriously consider: Use the agency’s $19 billion annual budget to make this green, multiplanet future a reality. With refocused priorities, NASA could develop technologies that will truly open the space frontier–all within a single presidential administration. Here’s how:
1. Large-scale, in-space construction. The current Space Station was constructed by building modules on Earth and then bolting them together in space. But what if we could send up bulk raw materials and then 3D print the structure in space? By constructing in zero gravity, we could use a much less massive frame and greatly increase the total area of the structure.
Commercial space companies are rapidly reducing launch costs and ramping up to support weekly, or even more frequent, launches. So this kind of construction could be done with regular deliveries from Earth to an onsite team, not unlike a construction project in New York or Hong Kong.
This way, multiple big structures could be assembled in a short period of time–including space stations for dozens of astronauts to run experiments on everything from zero-gravity manufacturing to in-space biology; large telescopes capable of directly imaging planets around other stars; or in-space solar power stations capable of beaming power back to Earth.
2. In-space refueling. As Elon Musk is fond of saying, it would be crazy to fly from Los Angeles to New York and then throw away the 737 because we don’t know how to refill the fuel tanks. But NASA is still treating its spacecraft that way. Just adding the ability to launch spacecraft with empty tanks, and then separately send up the fuel, would greatly reduce mission costs and risk. There’s no reason we can’t do this in principle, but no previous mission has ever deemed it worth the cost of trying to demonstrate that tech for the first time.
3. Local resource utilization. Pioneers of the next frontier should take a lesson from those of the last one, who never lived in covered wagons longer than it took them to build a log cabin. Mars and the Moon both contain raw materials for construction and the extraction of water and atmospheres. Many asteroids also house significant amounts of water that can used to synthesize rocket fuel.
This is one of the most important building blocks for in-space operation at scale. But space missions aren’t designed this way–once again, because the technology hasn’t been demonstrated before, so it’s not something mission planners can depend on.
4. Developing human-robotic teams. We already know how to build self-driving cars on Earth, and construction and resource extraction in space will likewise be robotic. But complex manipulation and repair tasks will still require a human touch. Our in-space future will depend on autonomous robots remotely controlled by humans, plus some direct astronaut labor. We need to build out the technology for each of these modalities and show how they work together to accomplish complex tasks.
There are more than just these four technologies NASA will need to develop in order to truly open space up to the next generation. Others include in-space crop production, inflatable habitats, autonomous rendezvous and docking, and highly efficient ion thrusters, to name a few. But these are the best places to start, and with the right executive mandate, we can achieve all of them within the next decade or so.
This line of thinking leads to a very different vision for NASA–one that flies much closer to the ground, so to speak, at least for now. Instead of trying to get to the Moon or Mars using current technology, focus on developing the technology itself. NASA has done this for years in Aeronautics (the first “A” in NASA). The agency pioneered wind tunnels, worked through different approaches to air-traffic control, studied pilot fatigue and its role in air crashes, and, more broadly, built much of the core technology we take for granted every time we fly.
President Trump is all about shaking things up, and this approach to NASA would surely do that, while setting the agency up for real success. It would also cement U.S. leadership in space innovation and inaugurate a new era of public-private space partnership.
There are many things NASA does exceptionally well. Unmanned exploration missions continue to return spectacular results—witness the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the ongoing flood of data from the Mars rovers and orbiters. Science missions, from Hubble to WMAP, advance our fundamental understanding of the universe, and NASA continues to inspire generations of children who have at one time or another dreamt of becoming astronauts.
But we’ve reached a point where we won’t be able to push ahead without investing in the next generation of tech R&D. If NASA leads the way on that, the commercial space sector will follow. Other nations will follow. More sophisticated NASA missions to Mars, the Moon, asteroids, and more exotic destinations will suddenly become both affordable and achievable. The space frontier will open–and it won’t have taken another moonshot to do it.