Squyres Offers NASA Advice to Avoid Fate of China's 15th Century Treasure Ships

Squyres Offers NASA Advice to Avoid Fate of China's 15th Century Treasure Ships

Steve Squyres, father of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and newly appointed chairman of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), is offering NASA three keys to success for improving the way NASA’s space science projects are managed.

Speaking to the American Astronautical Society’s 50th Goddard Memorial Symposium, Squyres commented that although budget constraints are certainly a problem at NASA, some of the agency’s woes are self-inflicted because large cost overruns on some space science projects means less money is available for others.   His thinks NASA should follow these three tenets in managing its space science missions:

  • get independent cost estimates from experts who are not “optimists”
  • invest in needed technology up front instead of waiting until later in the project, and
  • do not allow requirements creep

That advice followed a history lesson about a path he hopes the United States avoids — the fate of China’s “treasure ships” that plied the world’s oceans in the 15th Century.  Calling the treasure ships the “Saturn V’s of their day,” Squyres recounted how for several decades under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He, the ships explored the world known to China at that time.   Political forces convinced a new emperor that the ships were not worth the cost and “argued to stop exploration.”  They won, he said, and the ships were burned.   China turned inwards, exploration became the province of Europeans, and “history became very different.”

As for U.S. exploration of space, Squyres expressed concern that NASA is missing one of four pieces of the human spaceflight puzzle.  The agency is facilitating companies to build commercial crew systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO), and building a new rocket and a new spacecraft to go beyond LEO, but the fourth piece — a habitat, or lander, or something else to enable humans to remain in space for long periods or land on the Moon or Mars is not being developed today.  The required piece is destination dependent and he declined to get into the debate over what the destination should be, but argued that explaining to stakeholders and the NASA workforce what the agency is trying to do is that much more difficult without knowing where we are headed.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is like Zheng He, Sqyures said, but can avoid Zheng’s fate by clearly articulating “what NASA is about and how it benefits our nation.  It should be easy to do.  The public is hungry for what NASA does.”

Editor’s Note:  Squyres spoke at the first day of the AAS meeting, March 28.  I gave the closing remarks that day referencing some of what Squyres and other speakers said.   I also recalled the vision laid out in the National Commission on Space report (of which I was Executive Director) and ruminated about how much further we might be along that path if the space station had been built on time and cost, and called on members of the space community to uniify on and articulate the case for the space program because NASA cannot do it alone.  The bullet points I used for my remarks are available on SpacePolicyOnline.com.


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