Vice President Mike Pence announced Tuesday what may prove to be the boldest space challenge since President John F. Kennedy said in 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
In implementing President Trump’s historic vision for America to go beyond the moon and Mars, Pence sent a clear message that Americans will returning to the moon by 2024 – and we are going there to stay.
The boldness of the Trump-Pence plan can be seen in the fact that this new target is four years sooner than NASA’s most recent estimate. It is a strong response against NASA’s long history of budget overruns and project delays.
Pence made it clear that “what we need now is urgency,” and said the competition for American leadership in space is “not just competition against our adversaries; we’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.”
The vice president’s challenge to NASA was remarkably bold and direct. In his words, “failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the moon in the next five years is not an option.”
Trump and Pence are trying to reinvigorate, reorient?and redirect an existing, deeply entrenched bureaucracy with a long history of great achievements?– that is deeply committed to doing things how they’ve always been done.?
Pence signaled a profound move away from the traditional space bureaucracy.
“We’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” Pence said. “If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”
In some ways, Pence’s challenge is even greater than what was facing President Kennedy. It’s true that Kennedy was inventing a new organization and radically expanding the Washington bureaucracy. But that meant he was building something young, fresh, exciting and innovative.
Trump and Pence are trying to reinvigorate, reorient and redirect an existing, deeply entrenched bureaucracy with a long history of great achievements – that is deeply committed to doing things how they’ve always been done.
Furthermore, President Kennedy was able to use the threat of the Soviet Union to get a massive increase in space funding. At its peak in 1966, NASA was spending 4.4 percent of the federal budget. At that percentage in President Trump’s 2020 budget NASA would have a budget of $208.8 billion instead of $21 billion.
If NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had almost 10 times more money in his budget than he does now, he could do amazing things – but he doesn’t.
Pence recognizes that a new approach must compensate for the absence of new money. He said Tuesday that “we will call on NASA not just to adopt new policies but to embrace a new mindset. That begins with setting bold goals and staying on schedule … NASA must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
The Trump-Pence-Bridenstine team has two great advantages over the Kennedy era efforts in space.
First, we have a half century of developing new, better, more reliable and more flexible technology. The reusable rockets of SpaceX and Blue Origin are miraculous improvements on the rockets of the 1960s.
Radically smaller microelectronics, breakthroughs in materials technology, the development of 3D printing and the emergence of artificial intelligence all combine to give us a chance to do more in space – and do it better, faster and cheaper. However, this is only true if the bureaucracies can be overcome.
Second, there are now competitive companies that can undertake dramatic challenges previously unimagined for the private sector even 10 years ago.
Since the bold, exciting challenge of Pence’s speech, I have talked with key people in the private-sector space industry. They are prepared to enter a competition to put astronauts on the moon – and to stay there. Moreover, they say they can do so ahead of schedule and under budget.
The Trump administration should propose an open competition. It should not be about planning, engineering, paper pushing or having meetings. It should be about flying.
Boeing should be challenged to fully take over the Space Launch System project – for which it has been paid billions of dollars to manage in a traditional cost-plus process.
Boeing should be liberated from NASA’s traditional pattern of management, over-planning and underperforming. If Boeing could liberate its designers and engineers to be mission-oriented rather than process-dominated, the Space Launch System could leap forward and its price would drop.
At the same time, companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin should be invited into the competition. The central goal would be getting Americans back to the moon and keeping them there. Companies that meet the goals ahead of schedule should get a bonus. The first company to meet the project goals should get an even bigger bonus.
Furthermore, companies that come in under budget should be allowed to keep 20 percent of the savings. And there should be an opportunity for fully funded new entrants to come and compete.
Importantly, participants should be paid only for achievement – not for planning or process. One suggestion I have heard from industry was for companies to be paid a price per kilo of delivery on the surface of the moon.
There would have to be a lot of details worked out, but the excitement of a genuine American space race – with each company going all out – would inspire a new generation of Americans to go into space.
At the same time, each company would acquire new capabilities that would be a resource for our military, a building block for getting to Mars and beyond, and an enhancement for low-Earth orbit tourism and manufacturing.
This would be a bold implementation strategy worthy of the bold Trump-Pence vision.