Sunday, August 24, 2008

Application Areas

The first goal to replace Constellation outlined above was “Be relevant; address problems whose solution is important to the nation”. One of the problems with the concept of a big effort to return to the Moon is that the public generally does not see the return to the Moon as important, or likely to solve their problems. It’s seen as a “nice to have”, and an expensive one at that. To address this common perception, it is suggested that the big “Apollo-style” push to return to the Moon be replaced with a set of NASA efforts that directly address the public’s concerns in an obvious way through space and aeronautics.

In such a change of emphasis, the lunar effort is not abandoned, as a certain level of effort towards exploration is appropriate and expected for NASA. However, addressing the public’s concerns is the central focus that replaces the Constellation program. When evaluating an effort that addresses a public need through space, but that doesn’t help return to the Moon, such an effort will tend to rank high in the evaluation. On the other hand, when evaluating an effort that doesn’t address a public need through space but does help return to the Moon, the effort will tend to rank low in the evaluation. Nevertheless, some pure “return to the Moon” effort is kept, and certainly an effort that both addresses a public need and helps return to the Moon is likely to be evaluated favorably.

It is difficult to truly know what public and national needs and desires are, but a common sense assessment can be made by reviewing the Federal budget, or by reading newspaper headlines. For the sake of argument, the following areas are considered to be important to the public:
  1. Energy
  2. Security and Defense
  3. Health, Medicine, and Biology
  4. Environment
  5. Transportation
  6. Telecommunications and Media
  7. Education
  8. Exploration

The first four of these areas are similar to the top 4 highest priorities for technology advancement cited in a poll in Fairfax County, Virginia (here's the link for the poll; also see this Space Politics post). These 4 areas accounted for 91% of those polled, so these areas should be featured prominently. The other areas (Transportation, Telecommunications and Media, and Exploration), although they ranked lower, can also be featured in a new space effort, since they did earn at least a small amount of recognition in the poll, and also because they lend themselves easily to NASA efforts. The other area, “Education”, was not mentioned in the poll about technology advancement. However, based on Federal, State, and Local government spending on education, on Democratic Presidential Candidate Obama’s original proposal to replace the return to the Moon effort with a new Federal education program, and on NASA’s existing and potential interactions in the educational sphere, it is considered an appropriate area of public concern for NASA’s new program to address.

Different Administrations and Congresses may weigh the value of these areas differently. It is not in the scope of this paper to pit one of these areas against another. Rather, the point of this paper is that, other than Exploration, the current Constellation effort does a rather weak job of addressing ANY of these quite valid public concerns. It is suggested here that the new effort that replaces Constellation can and should do a better job to help solve problems in several, or even all, of these areas. Such an approach would provide practical benefits to the taxpayers, and as a result would be more politically sustainable.

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