Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Education for NASA's VSE

The July 9 issue of Space News has an editorial entitled "A World-Class Work Force for Exploring Other Worlds" by David Black (former president of the University Space Research Association) and Dan Hastings (undergraduate dean at MIT). This editorial gives a summary of the conclusions of the National Research Council's report "Building a Better Workforce: Meeting the Future Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration".

One of the major conclusions of the report is that NASA needs to look out for itself and ensure that it has the workforce skills in engineering, project management, and systems engineering that it will need for the VSE. The available pool of talent is there, but the program is multi-decade so NASA needs to help at all educational levels. Furthermore, these disciplines require significant amounts of hands-on experience (and opportunities to make, and to learn from, mistakes) at progressively more challenging assignments, not just classroom lectures. As a result, the authors of the report emphasize the need for more small missions, such as suborbital missions, smallsats, Explorer missions, and high altitude balloon and aircraft missions to develop talent and experience at all educational levels. Unfortunately, these opportunities have been shrinking rather than increasing to meet the VSE needs.

The editorial doesn't, but the much more detailed report does, mention the opportunities that could become available in real-world but educational missions with NewSpace businesses, many of which were inspired by prizes like the X PRIZE and Lunar Lander Challenge:

"NASA can also accomplish multiple goals by providing support to the emerging sector of new, small rocket companies often referred to as the “entrepreneurial space” or “alt-space” (or “new space”) community. Although these companies often cannot compete with traditional aerospace companies in terms of entry-level salaries, they can promise new employees opportunities for innovation, responsibility, and a high degree of engagement. They can also offer superb value to NASA in some cases. For example, it has been reported that the SpaceShipOne suborbital manned spacecraft program" ... "accomplished by a company of ~100 employees, spent significantly less than the hundreds of millions of dollars estimated by standard cost models for the project if conducted by NASA or the traditional aerospace sector. By furthering its support of such entrepreneurial companies, NASA can simultaneously achieve value, increase the diversity of the marketplace, and encourage the education and training of entry-level employees."

The report and article both emphasize the educational potential of prizes. From the report:

"NASA also can emulate an inexpensive and effective method used successfully by the Department of Defense. The “Grand Challenge” prize, a $2 million cash prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), targeted university and amateur teams capable of developing autonomous vehicles." ... "The competition attracted entries from many of the country’s leading universities, most of which partnered with leading industrial companies that provided cash to and mentored the competing students. In the end, DARPA’s Grand Challenges program produced four winning teams and more than $170 million in investment over 2 years of competition. NASA could use its own Centennial Challenges prize program to achieve similar results, both financial and educational, by increasing the emphasis on this program beyond its current $9.7 million budget.

Previous prizes, ranging from the privately funded Ansari X PRIZE to the Department of Defense’s Grand Challenges, have shown a consistent ability to motivate a wide variety of individuals, many of them entry-level, to explore new solutions to longstanding problems and to conduct entire missions on extremely low budgets."

From the article:

"Our committee noted that nontraditional approaches to the agency's missions, such as the Centennial Challenges program, which awards prizes for developing innovative space hardware, also play a role in attracting skilled members of the work force from other areas. A recent example of this is the Astronaut Glove Challenge in which an unemployed engineer, who had left the aerospace sector a decade ago for apparently better prospects in the computer field, produced an astronaut glove that is superior to those currently in use. This was a dedicated and innovative worker whom the aerospace sector had lost, but has now regained due to a new way of engaging the engineering community."

I will just add that the VSE began with a reasonable amount of support from the entrepreneurial space, education, science, and environment communities. They saw the potential of the VSE to help their areas of interest. However, as the ESAS implementation of the VSE was formed into another NASA "space transportation corporation", and funding has been reduced (and VSE plans cancelled) in areas of interest to these communities, support has dropped considerably. In my opinion NASA needs to take serious steps with real consequences that can be felt soon to regain (political and cooperative) support from space entrepreneurs, the science community, the environmental community, and, as this report emphasizes, the educational community.

Greater support for appropriate prizes in NASA's Centennial Challenges program is one relatively cheap way to accomplish all 4 objectives. General support (for example, buying services, funding enhancements such as environmental and other science instruments compatible with suborbital or small space vehicles and their flight profiles, funding small university missions on suborbital vehicles, funding small lunar robotic missions) for entrepreneurial space business is another cost-effective way to do this. In particular, these avenues offer a great opportunity for small, educational missions that can grow the undergraduate students, graduate students, and beginning NASA/aerospace business employees into the lead talent ready for the big VSE missions.