Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… this time around, we direct our attention toward a new report issued by a NASA advisory panel, which gave the U.S. space agency several recommendations for its future operations. We’ll be analyzing 1) the review panel’s findings for NASA’s performance in 2021, 2) why there is a need for “rapid changes,” especially regarding human space exploration, 3) the reason the panel calls some of NASA’s programs “disaggregated”, and what that means, and 4) what the outlook is for NASA as we look ahead at the next 20 years, and the possibility of Moon bases, and even manned missions to Mars.
Quote of the Week
“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”
And with that all out of the way, let’s take a look at what a NASA advisory board recently had to say about how things are going, and where things are currently headed for the U.S. space Agency.
Panel Calls on NASA to Review Its Human Space exploration Efforts
According to an annual report released earlier this month by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), safety advisors to NASA are calling on the U.S. space agency to improve its efforts involving human space exploration, and a range of other issues.
The report, based on ASAP’s assessment of NASA’s operations and various missions during 2021, presented considerations for special areas of focus that it examined at the request of NASA leadership, along with the panel’s own findings and recommendations based in part on previous examinations.
“As part of this report, the Panel has identified a series of issues that NASA will need to address with respect to its plans and aspirations for the future,” the report’s authors state. This includes “how [NASA] intends to interact with both commercial and international partners; its risk management approach; and its changing workforce and infrastructure needs.”
Since 1968, ASAP has served as the primary source for critical evaluations of NASA and its operations. Following the Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, where seven crew members were killed as the spacecraft disintegrated during reentry, Congress mandated that ASAP be tasked with presenting an annual report to the Administrator of NASA and to Congress.
According to its website, ASAP’s annual report “is to examine NASA’s compliance with the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), as well as NASA’s management and culture related to safety.”
Within the most recent report, its authors present “three specific top-level recommendations as improvement opportunities related to NASA’s Strategic Vision and Guiding Principles, Agency Governance, and Program Management.” These are not only aimed at improving areas where NASA’s performance needed it in 2021, but ASAP’s review also outlines what will become critical areas of focus for the space agency over the next several decades.
Rapid Changes Needed (ASAP)
At the heart of ASAP’s evaluation for NASA’s 2021 operations are what it terms the “rapid changes occurring in space technology, investment, and operations,” with a central focus on the increasing involvement of commercial partners with NASA’s operations, and how this is changing NASA’s work, as well as the requirements for its future operations; human space exploration being chief among these.
Of primary interest with regard to burgeoning commercial sector involvement in space exploration is that it is driven by groups “interested in pursuits beyond those driven by government requirements”, a dynamic which ASAP says will define “an inflection point for the space sector.” This movement away from space missions that are focused solely on objectives with pertinence only to government is leading not only to new space industries, but an “increasingly broad and technologically sophisticated set of capabilities” resulting from such private sector growth.
While it is expected that benefits from such industrial growth will extend well beyond just space exploration in the years ahead, the panel concludes that predicting the eventual outcomes of this remains difficult, and thereby presents certain challenges for NASA as it plans for future human space exploration and other missions in the coming decades.
“Disaggregated”: Key Areas Where Improvement is Needed
Several missions were discussed in the report, with the panel recommending ways that they might be improved. One specific area ASAP examined involves certain political dynamics surrounding NASA’s Constellation program, which the report says “has led to a cautious stance among NASA leaders driven by the assumption that having an Apollo-like program now is a problematic political optic,” with additional fears that it and similar programs could become “a possible target for cancellation by a future Administration.”
The result of such concerns has been what the panel calls a “disaggregated” program structure that NASA has continued to operate within, which the space agency appears to have adopted as its “preferred business and risk management model”, the report’s authors say.
Rather than offsetting risk potentials, the panel concludes that NASA’s disaggregated structure will have a negative impact in the longer term, as it is “essentially an untried approach for an integrated systems engineering effort of this magnitude and complexity.”
Other programs the panel focused on in its 2021 analysis included NASA’s Artemis program, which it says would benefit from leadership under a single manager. This, in addition to the institution of a formal program architecture for the program, the absence of which may give rise to confusion of “both employees and contractors about who is ultimately responsible and accountable.”
Outlook: NASA in the Next 20 Years
“As this transformation progresses, it is hard to predict the array of human space flight activities that might be under way 20 years from now,” the report states, presenting examples that range from the existence of multiple space stations in orbit, to allocating the south pole of the Moon as “the site of a major scientific research base, complete with habitats and mining sites.”
The prospects for future explorations of Mars were not left off the table in the ASAP report, with its authors noting that it is “certainly possible that before two decades pass, astronauts will have landed on Mars,” further driving home the necessity for ensuring optimal conditions for spaceflight in future NASA missions.
“If these trends continue,” the report states, “the Panel believes it is crucial for NASA to strategically evaluate the path ahead and determine the future shape of the organization.” The report also emphasizes that in the coming decades, NASA “will need to operate differently—from strategic planning and how it approaches program management, to workforce development, facility maintenance, acquisition strategies, contract types, and partnerships.”
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