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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce 8 An Overview of NASA’s Suborbital Research Capabilities: Assessment, Findings, and Recommendations For over five decades the elements of NASA’s suborbital program—airborne, balloon, and sounding rockets—have provided vital technical support for NASA’s scientific mission success. These elements have supported a broad range of cutting-edge science and technology, some of which have led to Nobel prizes for research funded wholly or in part by the agency. The program has engaged large numbers of students, scientists, and engineers in the complexity of cradle-to-grave project definition, development, and operations. Many have gone on to become NASA principal investigators, systems and flight engineers, astronauts, and NASA project managers and administrators. The suborbital program, while vital to science advancement, has also provided the agency with essential elements in workforce training and development—a testing and proving ground for its people. Further, the program has provided NASA with a gateway to space. The suborbital program provides the strategic platform for scientific research and development that has reduced mission risk and has led to new techniques, technologies, and instruments that have flown on spaceflight missions. Without the suborbital program, major Earth science, solar-terrestrial, astrophysics, and planetary missions—such as Aura, CALIPSO, Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Hubble, Spitzer, and COBE, to name but a few—might not have been as successful. The suborbital program also provides important observational capabilities that directly support operating Earth science satellites. Furthermore, the suborbital program provides observations at angles close to the Sun of objects such as Mercury, comets and asteroids near perihelion, as well as observations of the cross section of Earth’s atmosphere, none of which can be accomplished with space-based assets. Although it is not part of the suborbital program per se, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will enable researchers to conduct suborbital infrared astronomy, offering opportunities not possible either from ground-based telescopes or from space telescopes: SOFIA will fly above most of the atmosphere’s water vapor and will allow researchers to interact with the instrumentation during the mission. NASA’s rich and luminous legacy was enabled through low-cost investments in the suborbital program. The committee could not find a NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) spaceflight project that was not enabled by, or has not benefited from, the suborbital program elements. The return on investment has been enormous. In short, the suborbital program provides the fuel for NASA’s central role as a leading science and technology engine for the United States. The committee heard from a large number of NASA staff, research scientists, educators, outreach specialists, representatives of the commercial spaceflight community, and others (the public agendas for the committee’s three meetings are presented in Appendix C). At its first and last meetings, the committee was briefed in closed session
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce by Lennard Fisk and Joseph Alexander, respectively committee chair and study director of the National Research Council’s ad hoc Committee on the Role and Scope of Mission-Enabling Activities in NASA’s Space and Earth Science Missions, which recently released a report on the appropriate roles for mission-enabling activities and metrics for assessing their effectiveness.1 That committee also evaluated how, from a strategic perspective, decisions should be made about balance between mission-related and mission-enabling elements of the overall program as well as balance between various elements within the mission-enabling component. Through review of reports and technical documents and through the distillation of the many presentations to the committee, the committee developed the following findings. The evidence and rationale for the following findings, and additional findings specific to each suborbital program element and other topics under the committee’s statement of task, are presented in Chapters 2 through 7, and pertinent sections of the report are noted in the list of overall findings below: Healthy and vigorous suborbital program elements play vital and necessary strategic roles in NASA’s research, innovation, education, employee development, and spaceflight mission success, thus providing the foundation for achievement of agency goals (Sections 2.1, 2.3, 3.4, 4.2, and 6.2). Suborbital program elements enable important discoveries in science, rapid response to unexpected, episodic phenomena, and a range of specialized capabilities that enable a wide variety of cutting-edge research in areas such as Earth observations, climate, astrophysics, and solar-terrestrial observations, as well as calibration and validation of satellite mission instruments and data (Sections 2.2, 3.1, 4.1, and 5.3). The suborbital program elements provide essential technical innovation and risk mitigation that benefit spaceflight missions through the development and demonstration of technology and instruments that later fly on NASA spacecraft (Sections 2.5, 3.1, 4.3, and 5.2). The suborbital elements provide effective, hands-on, engineering and management experience that transfers readily to NASA spaceflight missions. These opportunities, which provide for cradle-to-grave hands-on mission experiences and training for students, researchers, principal investigators, project managers, and engineers, are vital to future U.S. space endeavors (Sections 2.3, 3.3, 4.3, 6.2, and 6.3). The suborbital program elements have a rich history in training and workforce development for NASA and the space research community. However, NASA’s current approach in using the suborbital program elements to train future scientists and engineers and to develop the NASA workforce, while productive, is fragmented and ad hoc. This approach results in richer training opportunities for experimental scientists than for engineers, systems engineers, or managers (Sections 2.3, 2.5, 3.3, 4.3, 5.6, 6.2, and 6.3). As currently implemented by NASA, suborbital program elements and facilities are insufficiently funded and hence not fully or effectively used. Support is inadequate for payload construction and for the development of key technologies such as detectors, lightweight optics, and so on. The suborbital program elements are dependent on reimbursable funding; inadequate research and analysis (R&A) funding has led to the number of flights becoming so low that the program is jeopardized (Sections 2.1, 3.2, and 4.4). Resource issues have led to a situation in which all three suborbital program elements are managed in what can best be described as a reactionary mode. The three elements are not managed as a set of linked programs with appropriate attention to developing the capabilities that are or will be needed to address the science priorities of today, tomorrow, and the longer term. As a consequence, NASA’s future is being put unnecessarily at risk (Sections 2.2, 2.5, 3.3, 4.2). NASA’s suborbital program elements and their associated R&A support do not have a clear champion and do not have a well-defined and integrated long-term strategic plan. Management of the elements of the suborbital program is appropriately distributed to different divisions of SMD, close to their user bases, but no one is charged with or accountable for viewing suborbital capabilities as a whole and developing an appropriate and necessary funding plan for them. Given the synergy between different suborbital programs in terms of both equipment and science goals, a lack of central oversight is inefficient. A further consequence of the lack of central oversight is that 1 National Research Council, An Enabling Foundation for NASA’s Earth and Space Science Missions, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2009.
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce the suborbital program is not effectively integrated into NASA’s overall plans for meeting the needs of research scientists, for meeting NASA’s own mission and institutional needs, or for establishing future priorities (Sections 2.5, 3.2, 4.2, and 4.5). NASA’s current view of the suborbital program as a “capability” balanced to current funding limitations has resulted in a lack of managerial ownership and stewardship of this vital national capability. This has in turn led to a steady and serious erosion of capabilities, because no one is charged with or accountable for viewing the suborbital capabilities as a whole and developing appropriate and necessary strategic plans (Sections 2.5, 3.2, 4.2, and 4.5). Performance metrics either do not exist or are too disordered. Changes in NASA’s organizational structure and accounting processes do not allow NASA to quantify annual and longer-term program execution. NASA thus lacks insight to manage researchers, advance technology, or improve facilities and capabilities. In this environment, further confounded by agency-level funding constraints and changing national priorities, NASA has incrementally and inadvertently put this foundation program in jeopardy and added unnecessary risk to NASA’s capabilities for addressing important national needs (Sections 2.1, 2.5, 4.1, and 4.2). Limited support for suborbital missions has resulted in fewer balloon flights and rocket launches and reduced aircraft flight time, and, consequently, has extended the time between missions. Because of these reductions and delays, linked to limited R&A funding, too few students are being attracted to and trained in space and Earth science research, which threatens the pipeline of future NASA principal investigators (PIs), project managers, and systems engineers (Sections 2.1, 2.5, 3.2, 4.2, and 4.4). The current funding situation severely limits lifecycle training opportunities for PIs, project managers, and engineers, which in turn increases the risk profile for future major NASA missions needing a proven and experienced workforce (Sections 2.5, 3.3, 4.3, 6.2, and 6.3). Near-term critical points of failure exist for suborbital elements. The airborne program suffers from old hardware and infrastructure, which is nearly or in some cases already unsustainable, and requires recapitalization and modernization efforts to enable continued operation. The sounding rocket program is plagued with low, inefficient production runs of rocket motors, which potentially lead to large variability in system performance and quality. Similarly, the balloon program is challenged with supplier base issues, where a single balloon vendor requires a critical production rate to remain viable (Sections 2.5, 3.2, and 4.2). Modest investments that can produce significant capability advancements for rockets (e.g., short-duration orbital flights), balloons (super-pressure long-duration balloons), and aircraft (routine unmanned aircraft system flights) would provide for rapid advances in many fields of science (Sections 2.2, 2.5, 3.2, 3.4, and 4.5). SOFIA has been a long-term development effort that will provide a platform for future infrared instrumentation development with potential for major scientific discovery because the platform will allow routine access to infrared frequencies not accessible from the ground or from other spacecraft (Section 5.7). If and when the objectives of the developers are realized, commercial suborbital flights may open an interesting range of low-cost educational and research opportunities that may lend themselves to support by a variety of government sponsors. The committee was pleased to see that the developers and NASA are working with potential users in the space research community to better define how this new capability can augment the existing suborbital capabilities that are essential to NASA’s spaceflight missions (Section 7.5). Put succinctly, whether because of budget cuts, changing priorities, full cost accounting, outsourcing, development of government-owned, contractor-operated facilities, or other complexities and challenges facing NASA and its suborbital program, the committee could not escape the ineluctable conclusion that NASA has lost its bearings with respect to the suborbital program’s essential importance to the future of the agency. What was alarming to the committee is that these capabilities and therefore the engine of NASA’s success are slipping away, viewed as merely facilities to meet demand, not as the heart of the agency. The committee decided in general not to rely on documentation of the evolution of the funding of the suborbital program because changes over time in NASA’s complex accounting procedures make it extremely difficult to obtain meaningful trends. Nonetheless, the funding necessary for a robust and healthy suborbital program is modest both in absolute terms and certainly in terms of NASA’s overall budget. The lack of sufficient funding for
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce the suborbital program appears to be driven more by NASA priorities than by the overall NASA budget. Under budget pressures, NASA appears to ignore the warning that the declining health of the suborbital program might presage the fate of the rest of NASA’s capabilities as well. The space workforce is fundamentally a craft-based “guild,” where knowledge is passed from generation to generation. However … process-profit focus has profoundly affected the aerospace workforce … science and engineering is treated as a commodity … [which] … has broken … the generation-to-generation training thread within the entire aerospace enterprise. —Steve Battel, President, Battel Engineering The science yield of suborbital programs and the opportunities for training they provide are so central to NASA’s mission and future that the committee recommends a marked change of course. The committee’s recommendations below cut across all suborbital program elements. Additional discussion of these recommendations and the findings that support them are provided in Chapters 2 through 7, which address specific elements of the suborbital program. Recommendation 1: NASA should undertake the restoration of the suborbital program as a foundation for meeting its mission responsibilities, workforce requirements, instrumentation development needs, and anticipated capability requirements. To do so, NASA should reorder its priorities to increase funding for suborbital programs. Recommendation 2: NASA should assign a program lead to the staff of the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate to coordinate the suborbital program. This lead would be responsible for the development of short- and long-term strategic plans for maintaining, renewing, and extending suborbital facilities and capabilities. Further, the lead would monitor progress toward strategic objectives and advocate for enhanced suborbital activities, workforce development, and integration of suborbital activities within NASA. Recommendation 3: To increase the number of space scientists, engineers, and system engineers with hands-on training, NASA should use the suborbital program elements as an integral part of on-the-job training and career development for engineers, experimental scientists, systems engineers, and project managers. Recommendation 4: NASA should make essential investments in stabilizing and advancing the capabilities in each of the suborbital program elements, including the development of ultralong-duration super-pressure balloons with the capability to carry 2 to 3 tons of payload to 130,000 feet, the execution of a thorough conceptual study of a short-duration orbital capability for sounding rockets, and the modernization of the core suborbital airborne fleet. (The committee notes that it was not asked to prioritize the different elements of the suborbital program, but such a prioritization should be an integral part of implementing this recommendation.) Recommendation 5: NASA should continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments. Given that the commercial developers stated to the committee that they do not need NASA funding to meet their business objectives, this entrepreneurial approach offers the potential for a range of opportunities for low-cost quick access to space that may benefit NASA as well as other federal agencies.