International Repercussions [Part 2] The Power Vacuum

Future participants in the cislunar co-prosperity sphere

Future participants in the cislunar co-prosperity sphere

In my last post, I explored issues related to American abrogation of responsibility in the arena of international space cooperation, primarily as they pertain to the removal of the Moon from the “critical path” in the Global Exploration Roadmap and the subsequent confusion and dismay this decision has caused our international space partners. Having looked at how poorly considered, unilateral policy decisions affect our friends, one also must look at how it could affect a possible adversary. Although we have no declared space enemies, volatile political circumstances on Earth always contain the implicit threat of escalation and expansion into the realm of space. With the increasing reliance and dependence of modern technical civilization on satellite assets, such a threat will be greater in the future than has previously been the case.

Recent world events have documented our vulnerability in regards to both foreign partners and competitors. The strong disagreement between Russia and the United States over the political status of parts of the Ukraine is currently bleeding over into the realm of space cooperation. Although our principal joint space project (operation of the International Space Station) remains on track, bureaucratic directives have interfered with and stopped Russian-American cooperation on a variety of scientific efforts. One example is an international scientific workshop on the exploration of Venus (scheduled next month in Houston), which has been thrown into disarray due to escalating Russian-American tension.

Despite this tension, our space relationship with the Russians appears, for now, secure. However, current access for American crews to the ISS is dependent entirely on the Russian Soyuz, not to mention our use of Russian-built RD-180 engines in the United Launch Alliance Atlas launch vehicle family. If diplomatic relations continue to deteriorate and turn cold (or hot), we will be in the difficult and very publicly diminished position of losing all of these space capabilities at once. Russia’s military buildup and aggression toward its neighbors, coupled with their denial (or hiked price) of resources is instructive on what their posture in space will be. China, another space power, has also become increasingly assertive toward its neighbors in Asia. In both instances, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum that has been opened up by America’s retreat from influence on the world stage (which includes space).

Looking beyond the immediate near-term, what would poor relations with Russia mean for future space operations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)? The Russians have outlined their plans for future trans-LEO spaceflight in several venues. Remarkably and unsurprisingly, they intend to focus considerable effort on the Moon, beginning with a series of lander and rover spacecraft designed to examine and characterize the volatile deposits of the lunar poles. Initial efforts are entirely focused on robotic spacecraft, but there is nothing to stop the Russians from following these missions with human visits sometime after 2020. Indeed, recent remarks by Russia’s Deputy Premier Dmitri Rogozin have specifically outlined a vision of permanent Russian presence on the Moon within the next decade or so (the timescale is of less significance than their intent to accomplish it).

What are we to make of these claims? Who cares if Russia and China decide to do “what we did” over 40 years ago? The key difference is that they are not “doing what we did” nor are they emphasizing a lunar “touch-and-go” and an “exit strategy” so as to get on to Mars (NASA’s truncated version of a devolved Vision for Space Exploration, now totally abandoned). By focusing on polar exploration and resource characterization, Russia and China intend to go the Moon to stay. In the coming decades, such knowledge and capability will become increasingly vital and valuable, as the freedom of movement throughout cislunar space holds significant national security and economic ramifications.

I’ve outlined elsewhere the importance of cislunar space – the area between the Earth and the Moon, where most of our critical satellite assets reside. The power to freely come and go throughout this volume of space permits the holder to both protect their own space assets and to deny adversaries the use of their own. This development need not involve the weaponization of space or the deployment of offensive capabilities. Satellites are delicate physically and can be disabled through very simple expedients, such as snapping off an antenna or severing a cable. To realize this scenario, necessary capabilities are cislunar presence, the ability to maneuver throughout space (orbital changes, rendezvous and loiter), station-keeping with proximity operations and long-dwell times (preferably in high orbits well beyond LEO to mask both the presence and purpose of spacecraft). China has recently sent a variety of space probes to the Moon and beyond and has successfully demonstrated a mastery of these space skills and capabilities.

The Chinese Chang’E-2 mission, launched in 2010, was sent to the Moon to orbit it for a year and map the surface in greater detail than its predecessor Chang’E-1. After mapping the Moon, the spacecraft was sent to Sun-Earth L-2, the libration point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. It spent the next eight months at this L-2 point, loitering but available to depart and re-position on command. After this period, the probe was sent into orbit around the Sun, including maneuvering into a fly-by of the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis. Other Chinese satellite missions have experimented with orbital maneuvering and rendezvous; one satellite possessed a robotic arm and engaged in proximity operations with its sister craft. All of these new capabilities post-date the infamous 2007 Chinese interceptor mission that destroyed an obsolete satellite and left a cloud of orbital debris to interfere with future missions (and for which China endured justifiable international criticism). Chang’E-3 soft-landed and deployed a rover on the Moon last December; Chang’E-4, 5 and 6 are being built or designed for upcoming missions to the Moon.

The extensive and permanent presence of Russia and China in the frontier of space beyond LEO would not be such a concern if we were certain that other space powers would also be present there. Although the Europeans have outlined plans (as of yet, indefinite) for lunar missions in the coming years, as in most space activities they take primary cues from the United States (which has indicated that it does not intend to conduct lunar missions). However, U.S. human missions to cislunar space may occur, in particular, as part of the testing program for the SLS-Orion spacecraft. This includes the so-called Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), a concept being studied wherein a rock will be hauled to lunar orbit to allow astronauts to encounter it.

Can it thus be said that America will be on the cislunar frontier as well as these other nations?  Key considerations are the intent and outcome of these two different approaches. With the ARM, the United States has proposed conducting a one-off, “make work” mission solely for the purpose of being able to check off the box of doing something new by “visiting” an asteroid (a plan that has been met with derision by many in the space community). Unlike the Russian and Chinese plans, there is no effort to assay, develop and use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create cislunar permanence and new space faring capabilities. In short, the Russians and Chinese are making plans to be permanently present in cislunar space and on the Moon, while our present leadership is adamant that since “we’ve been there,” they have no interest in going back. As such, our options to participate or even have a voice in how the new cislunar frontier develops (or command the use of space assets that control and safeguard so much of our existence here on Earth) will be severely limited, if not completely curtailed.

Some may not worry about this development, as it will take at least a decade (perhaps more, perhaps less) until the importance of others’ presence (and our absence) becomes evident. However, decisions made now hold ominous scenarios from many perspectives. Those present on the frontier will make the rules of the road. If America is not there, our rights of passage, access and use of space and its resources are not guaranteed. In international relations, a power vacuum occurs when there is an absence of strong leadership and no regional presence (or plans for any) to secure and defend our national interests. Such a vacuum is always filled (often with malign powers and circumstances not to our benefit or advantage). Recent events have shown that relying upon foreign space powers may save small amounts of money in the near-term, but can cost us dearly in the long run.

We are not at war with either Russia or China but it is dangerous for U.S. leadership to allow the country to assume a vulnerable posture, as events outside of our control can quickly change. Weakness is an invitation for aggression; we are either space powerful or space vulnerable. There is no doubt that our satellite infrastructure represents a critical national asset and that its health and proper functionality are vital to the economy and security of the United States.

Abandoning our presence on the frontier of cislunar space and the lunar surface is not an option – at least not a rational, intelligent one. Our civil space program would serve vital national interests if it were re-vectored through cislunar space to take advantage of the natural logistics depot (in specific and limited locales) available on our Moon. In time, with our presence there, this new realm in space could be developed for commercial and economic expansion. But for now, we’re slipping further and further behind the eight ball, committed to performing space public relations stunts that give no lasting value for money spent and, as current events portend, leaves us exposed amid growing national security concerns.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 14 Comments

International Repercussions [Part 1] The Unreliable Partner

The Global Exploration Roadmap:  International consensus -- except for us.

The Global Exploration Roadmap: International consensus — except for us.

An interesting exchange occurred last week at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), when representatives from several national space agencies met to discuss the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) for spaceflight, which outlines the ambitions of nations that cooperate in space.  The nations currently involved in the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) meet periodically to discuss future plans and strategic directions, but all is not well among the international partners and some of these differences were hashed out at the meeting.  While there is strong sentiment among most nations to pursue a logical path of return to the Moon and the development of new spaceflight capabilities, one particularly recalcitrant member nation insists upon going down a different path.

In one particularly memorable session, Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera, in what appeared to be an impromptu aside before his presentation, strongly declared (in rebuttal to statements of previous NASA speakers) that the Moon is on the “critical path” to Mars.  Moreover, in relation to his assertion, he proclaimed, “I am not a liar.” (Remarkable that he felt the need to make this statement, but then, these are remarkable times.)  Robinson then proceeded to describe LRO mission results and persuasively outlined the case for lunar return as the next logical step in space.

Ordinarily, our international partners show a strong tendency to follow America’s lead in space.  When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in 2004, their initial response was to question the commitment of the United States to completing the ISS and operating it long enough to return research value for their considerable investment.  After receiving the necessary assurances, they were eager to participate in the VSE, attending at least two major conferences designed to gather and integrate the specific desires and requirements of each partner nation into a general strategy for lunar return.  This effort, which outlined the sequence of activities to be undertaken in space as part of a return to the Moon, resulted in the GER.  First published in 2007, the report has since been revised but lunar surface activities remain key features of the roadmap.

So, how is it that we now find ourselves at odds with our international partners in space? Immediately after the Obama Administration took office, it chartered a committee (led by former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine) to examine and review NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Although the Augustine Committee was not chartered to make specific recommendations, it was empowered to evaluate and cost out possible alternatives to the then-existing Project Constellation – NASA’s chosen launch architecture to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then ultimately, to Mars.  The committee report found that Constellation was technically feasible, but concluded that it was under-funded to the extent that the interim goal of lunar surface return by 2020 could not be met.

One misconception about the Augustine Report is that they recommended that the lunar surface mission of the VSE be eliminated.  They did not; they were concerned that the rate of spending on Constellation was inadequate to meet the 2020 target date (which was not a deadline) and recommended that the agency’s budget would have to be increased by roughly $3 billion per year to put the program “back on track.”  These figures came from budget run-out targets provided to the Committee by the Administration.  In other words, the Committee’s real conclusion was that given those assumed budget numbers, the lunar surface portion of the Constellation architecture did not close.  On that basis, they examined an alternative architecture that would conduct human visits to near-Earth asteroids instead of the lunar surface.  Their reasoning was that an asteroid mission was achievable at lower cost because it did not involve the development of a lander; the extremely low gravity of an asteroid would be more akin to a rendezvous than landing on a planetary surface.  Thus came about the  Flexible Path” and the idea that lunar surface missions were not on the “critical path” in the development of a human mission to Mars (where one would rightly assume a lander will be part of the architecture).  The Administration eagerly embraced this concept and in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, President Obama proclaimed that lunar return was unnecessary because “we’ve been there.”

The Administration thus eliminated the strategic direction of the space program solely by presidential fiat, using the Augustine Committee “finding” as its unspoken justification.  This decision was made without consultation with the Congress, various civil space “stakeholders” in industry, academia who were actively working on the VSE, and most especially, with the international partners.  At various meetings subsequent to the President’s speech, NASA attempted to explain the benefits of human missions to asteroids, but was hampered in this effort by several handicaps.  No asteroid suitable for a human rendezvous was immediately apparent.  The specific activities to be undertaken at the asteroid were uncertain and their supposed benefits unspecified.  Study revealed that human missions would spend months in the hard radiation environment of interplanetary space, with few or no opportunities for mission abort in case of difficulty – all with the aim of reaching and exploring a target whose utility and benefits were (and are) unknown.

After an embarrassing few years of study, no candidate asteroid target had been identified.  Thus, in a “mountain-coming-to-Mohammed” moment, an idea emerged from an academic workshop.  This one had NASA hauling a small asteroid (or a bolder from a large asteroid) from its solar orbit into lunar orbit and then sending a human crew to rendezvous with it there.  This concept is the so-called “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (ARM) that NASA now touts as its next, new big thing.  ARM, it is claimed, will better prepare us for human Mars missions than lunar surface missions will.  But despite Charlie Bolden’s strident claims to the contrary, NASA has yet to make that case to Congress, to the space community, or to the public.

The stark contrast between America’s current path in space (a vague mission concept with uncertain benefits – its primary attraction being that it is “not the Moon”) and the strategic path outlined by the GER was strikingly apparent at this recent meeting.  Our international partners remain firm, convincingly insistent that returning to the Moon is a necessary requirement for future human missions to the planets.  A prominent member of the engineering space community has testified to Congress on the relative value of lunar vs. asteroid missions to long-range capability in space, presenting a clear articulation of the value of the Moon, alongside the uncertain and incomplete identification of the value of asteroid missions (particularly the ARM variety).  The scientific stakeholders have neither embraced nor rejected the ARM – they appear to be mostly puzzled by it (an attitude similar to that of the Congress).  The only groups vigorously defending the ARM are the original workshop members who devised it and the administration that embraced it.

Mark Robinson asked me if the rationale and justification for the ARM has ever been formally written down anywhere.  If it has, I am unaware of any documentation.  As near as I can tell, like Athena, it sprung forth from Zeus’ forehead, fully formed and complete (but without the attendant wisdom).  Our international partners (whom we’re told are vital to any human space endeavor) clearly see the value of lunar return and despite NASA’s continued claims to the contrary, these partners know that a lunar return is not “a repetition of what the United States did forty years ago.”   The benefits of lunar return build on that previous round of Apollo lunar exploration, which demonstrated the scientific and operational value of the Moon as a natural laboratory and testing ground in space.  Subsequent exploration, especially by several recent robotic lunar missions sent from a variety of countries, has only increased our appreciation of the Moon’s value as a key component in any long-range strategic path to the planets.  On the Moon, we will locate and extract those resources necessary to provision ourselves, thereby learning how to live and work effectively on another world (presumably this is the same aim and justification of a human Mars mission).

While NASA idles, contemplating the concept of an improvised space project of uncertain value, our international partners continue to plan for a return to the Moon.  Outside this organizational construct, other nations (particularly China) also have plans for the Moon.  My next post will consider these plans in more detail – what we know of them and their possible international ramifications.

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 20 Comments

The nomenclature “National Space Transportation System” will no longer be used

The elements of the von Braun space architecture lead to the development of a permanent space faring system.

The elements of the von Braun space architecture lead to the development of a permanent space faring system.

On 22 February 1990, Robert L. Crippen, then NASA Space Shuttle Director, issued a memo stating that due to the new “mixed fleet” strategy of using expendable boosters to supplement the Shuttle, the nomenclature “National Space Transportation System” would no longer be used, and the current nomenclature is simply “Space Shuttle Program.” – Dennis Jenkins, Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, The First 100 Missions, 2002, Voyageur Press, Stillwater MN, page v.

Toward the end of the Sixties, during the heady days of Apollo, NASA personnel were eagerly looking ahead to the next program.  Many believed that a human mission to Mars should follow Apollo.  However, both cost and a lack of relevant technology made this goal a bridge too far (as it still is today).  Despite the strong emotional pull of Mars, most engineers understood that a more incremental approach was needed.  Fortunately, more than 20 years previously, space guru Wernher von Braun had already outlined this architecture in his book Das Marsprojekt.  It was understandable and conceptually quite simple.

The von Braun plan utilized incremental steps.  Each step would extend our ability to put people and cargo into space.  We would first develop a reusable launch vehicle to get materials into Earth orbit.  We then would build a space station in Earth orbit to carry out a variety of scientific and engineering research and serve as a platform to assemble and service the spacecraft needed to go beyond Earth orbit.  A “moon tug” or orbital transfer vehicle would be built to get payloads into cislunar space (the space between Earth and Moon).  That development would allow us to access the Moon, first to orbit and then to land using a specialized transfer vehicle.  With these vehicles, a lunar outpost would be built – a place near the Earth where we would learn to live and work on another world.  Finally, an interplanetary vehicle would be built that could send people to Mars.

As each step built the necessary foundation for the next one to follow, this architecture was deemed achievable.  The range of access and space capability would increase over time and it allowed an affordable rate of development (no large funding increment was required at the beginning).  Why then, if this step-wise plan made so much sense, did America not pursue it?   We didn’t because geopolitical considerations trumped technical logic – the call wasn’t for an incremental space faring system but for one that would beat the Soviets by getting an American to the Moon first.  In order to do that, von Braun discarded his carefully considered, incremental master plan of permanent space access and replaced it with the Apollo mission plan – an architecture featuring a one-off, mega-booster with a disposable spacecraft.

Following the successful Apollo missions to the Moon, the Space Shuttle was envisioned as the first part in a return to the logical, step-wise von Braun architecture.  After the throwaway design of Apollo-Saturn, it was hoped that a reusable Shuttle would be more affordable.  In a perfect world, all Shuttle pieces would be reusable, with the main booster returned to the launch site after separating from the smaller orbital stage (which would continue to orbit).  Many different designs, developed by various NASA centers and aerospace companies, were considered.  A system to get both people and cargo into low Earth orbit would be the first step toward a permanent human program to journey to the planets.

Fiscal realities quickly intruded on the design process.  After the massive expenditures needed for the Apollo program, politicians were in the market for an affordable space program.  As the Shuttle was (in part) “sold” on that basis, “design to cost” became the ruling principle.  This led to a vehicle design that featured partial reusability (with Shuttle orbiter and solid rocket boosters being recovered and reused); only the large external tank would be discarded.  Despite this design “compromise,” the basic template – the requirements of the first step of von Braun’s architecture of transporting people and cargo to and from LEO – was fulfilled.  In 1972, after some wrangling between Congress and the White House Bureau of Budget, the new program was approved and funded.

The new manned program was named the National Space Transportation System (STS), or Space Shuttle for short.  Up until now, manned flight programs had been given poetic, symbolic names, usually taken from mythology.  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo resonated with beauty and symbolism – humankind thundering into the heavens on a historic quest for knowledge and power.  This principle was first abandoned when the prosaically named Apollo Applications Program (the follow-on for the Apollo lunar missions that focused on Earth orbital missions using Apollo hardware) was renamed “Skylab.”  It was descriptive enough but hardly as inspiring as those derived from the Greco-Roman mythological canon.

Though long and cumbersome, the name “National Space Transportation System” was significant because the utilitarian essence of the von Braun architecture was implicit within it.  We were set on a course to establish a permanent space faring infrastructure.  The new vehicle would be part of a “transportation system,” not a one-off, space-stunt facilitator.  The Space Transportation System would contain all the pieces of von Braun’s plan operated as an end-to-end system.  When fully realized, this architecture (shuttle, station, orbital vehicle and interplanetary spacecraft) would maintain program continuity by routinely conducting a wide-variety of missions in LEO and beyond.

The space station was designed and configured as an extension of Shuttle – to serve not only as an orbital laboratory, but also as a staging area for missions beyond.  Each piece would be developed incrementally, enabling us to gradually and steadily extended human missions and operations in LEO out to cislunar space, then to the lunar surface and when ready, on to the planets.  Thus, the STS designation not only represented the Shuttle as an operational program but also envisioned a future in which we would continuously press and conquer the limits of human presence and influence in space.  Shuttle began flying in April of 1981.  It conducted scientific experiments, carried satellites into space and began answering our questions of how humans would fare in space.  Station was to follow next.

After the Challenger exploded during launch in 1986, the decision was made to develop and use a mixed fleet of space launch vehicles (including the expendables Atlas and Delta, in addition to the Shuttle).  This decision made sense from the perspective of one aspect of the Shuttle program, that of it being an all-purpose, reusable launch system.  What had been called the Space Transportation System was now dubbed simply the Space Shuttle Program.  However, with this seemingly trivial rewriting of the STS program name, the idea of an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (of which Shuttle was only the first piece) was jettisoned.  Perhaps a pale remnant of that original idea remained visible as, despite the memo from Bob Crippen quoted above, the “STS” and number designation remained as the official tag of each Shuttle mission.  In part, this institutional loss of focus is inevitable in a program of thirty years duration, wherein the people running the Shuttle program in its later phases did not fully understand (or simply forgot) the reasoning behind the program’s original architecture.

Space Station was designed for assembly in stages.  Segments were built and constructed with the participation of many countries and one by one, they were launched and transported to LEO on Shuttle flights.  Over the course of about 10 years, astronauts assembled the pieces into what is now called the International Space Station (ISS).  Wernher Von Braun’s moon tug and interplanetary spacecraft were never realized.  It now is 2014.  We can clearly see there is no longer a shuttle (except in museums).  The space transportation system never made it beyond LEO and we have no plans for the development of one.

Contradicting philosophies of spaceflight are sharply illustrated in this history of space programs.  The “Apollo template” envisions missions staged entirely from Earth – launched on massive rockets, carrying everything we need up from the Earth (with various components discarded as they’ve served their purpose), then ending with the return to Earth of a small vehicle carrying its human occupants.  In contrast, the “Shuttle template” consists of specialized vehicles, each serving one purpose and creating a gradual, permanent extension into space.  Each spacecraft is customized for use in its intended zone and reusable to the extent possible.  But these two templates (Apollo and Shuttle) are not mutually exclusive.  Parts of an extensible and reusable system can be launched initially using heavy lift vehicles.  By following this incremental architecture, a von Braunian space transportation system can be built that will enable dramatic and spectacular space accomplishments.  The construction of this system affords vast opportunities and gives us the necessary tools to realize true achievement and a return of value for money spent.

The question before us is:  Which transportation paradigm is most likely to develop a permanent and sustainable human presence in space (and all the technology and science that flows from it)?  We do know how to build an incremental space transportation system.  What we don’t seem able to do is embrace the necessary programmatic structure that facilitates a sustainable and permanent human presence in space.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology | 13 Comments

The Moon’s Mantle Muddle

A new post is up over at Air and Space about the search for material on the Moon from its mantle.  Comment here, if interested.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 6 Comments

Surrendering in Space

FNC panel 1

The discussion panel on the FNC program “Surrendering America,” March 28, 2014.

Last night the Fox News Channel ran a one-hour special report entitled Surrendering America.  The program focused on four major areas of national interest – ceding control of the Internet, reducing the U.S. military, restricting energy independence and our retreat from space.  The overarching theme of the program was national decline.  The inclusion of space as a concern drew my attention, as it is not usually viewed by the public as in decline (in large part because media coverage reflects their own lack of understanding and narrow knowledge of the subject).  So I was encouraged that the show’s producers viewed space as vital to U.S. national interests and watched to see how they perceived this surrender — the causes and motivations behind it and how they viewed the consequences of this weakened position.

The program was divided into four segments, one for each area of national concern.  A five-minute news overview preceded each segment, followed by a four-member panel discussion of each report’s content.  Space advocates should take sober notice that the panelists – all well-read, highly regarded Beltway pundits (from both ends of the political spectrum) – appear to be fairly uninformed about many of the space policy issues.  But consider: they are representative of the intelligent general public, to whom we wish to convince of the value and importance of space.

All the panelists recognize that we are no longer the space power that we once were, although each had differing views of the causes and importance of such a decline.  Kirsten Powers claimed that space spending had to be cut because of our enormous debt/deficit problem.  George Will noted that the fiscal demands of the entitlement state are squeezing out all discretionary spending – the category in which the space program falls.  Joe Trippi dutifully recited the administration talking points that we are moving forward to asteroid landings and human Mars missions in the 2030s.  Charles Krauthammer opined that decline was a choice, not an inevitable fact of life.  In his view, our great national wealth and technology base need only be harnessed through visionary leadership, something lacking in the current environment.  Although rife with misinformation and an incomplete understanding of some of the issues, in policy terms, these comments bound the national debate (such as it is) about our civil space program.

Consider that some adopt the view that “everything is okay” because there are missions flying (few understand that those missions are running on fumes and were authorized under a previous administration).  They believe that unnamed “technologies” will fill in any gaps.  This viewpoint mirrors the administration’s declaration that they do have a strategic direction and are implementing it – if only Congress would spend more money on “commercial” space.  In fact, commercial space is moving ahead about as fast as it can; they have already missed several milestones on the road to “human-rating” their space vehicles.  It is not clear that spending more federal money on this program would result in the advent of a commercial crew transportation system any earlier than is currently planned (ca. 2017, if then).  No one on the panel (including the moderator, Bret Baier) mentioned the SLS/Orion program, designed (by Congress) to replace the canceled Constellation system.  This launch vehicle and spacecraft is on track to provide a U.S. human cislunar capability sometime after 2020, so we are not totally bereft of any effort to devise a federal transportation system for humans to space.

A more enlightening discussion would have examined NASA’s long-term goals and strategic direction in space.  Though alluded to in several places (mostly by Trippi in regard to “human missions to an asteroid”), the panel members are apparently unaware that the administration’s goal has been downsized to studying the concept of hauling a small asteroid back to lunar orbit, where it can be visited by a human crew.  Krauthammer mentioned a lunar base and human Mars missions but did not elaborate on their value or difficulty.  The sense of the panel seemed to be that our civil space program exists primarily as a symbol of national technical means and greatness – a trivialization of the nation’s space program by both sides of the ideological spectrum (from the left because “we can’t afford it” and from the right because its value is primarily “symbolic”).

Curiously, the major theme developed during the other three segments of the show emphasized their importance to our national security.  Security concerns and implications are clearly evident in relinquishing our control of the Internet, reducing our military capabilities and creating self-imposed roadblocks to our energy independence.  But their concern for the value of space and our retreat in that arena was seen primarily as being symbolic and not as a practical loss.  I do not deny the importance of symbolism, but the space program has always been an integral part of our national defense posture, not only from the direct value of military space (non-NASA) but also from the relevance of our civil space efforts to national security.

NASA missions have blazed the trail to future theaters of operation; these are national concerns vital to defense needs and they have been a well-understood driver of our technical and economic vitality.  The value of space assets – communications satellites, GPS, reconnaissance and remote sensing and detection – were all developed in tandem by both military and civil space, with such intertwining that it is impossible to separate the two.  The space theater of the future is cislunar space, where most of our satellite assets (critical to military action and economic stability on the Earth) reside.  Such satellites are extremely vulnerable and the fact that we currently lack a means to protect and routinely and repeatedly access them is a national security concern of major significance.  That this concern was not touched on during the program was striking.  It is not enough to know that space is symbolic of our national mood.  The nation must also understand that there are concrete negative implications if we retreat in our pursuit of space leadership.  Those who are not space powerful are space vulnerable.

As we continue to increase our already heavy reliance on satellite assets in deep space, the need to have the ability to access and use those various locales becomes more acute.  The idea that cislunar space can be developed solely by commercial entities is a misguided and myopic conceit of the current leadership.  Historically, the federal government (in both military and civil guise) has always been present on the frontier, in tandem and simultaneously with entrepreneurs, miners, farmers and settlers.  They are necessary for the protection of those activities and to ensure that national and individual legal norms are served and observed.  If we are absent from the cislunar frontier, there is no assurance that free markets, the rule of law and democratic pluralism will be present there.  This is the principal reason why a federal agency (who, after all, are nothing more than our proxies in collective and international arenas) must be present in all of the future zones of human activities beyond low Earth orbit.

All of these points about the practical national value of the space program are lost on the current administration and agency leadership (and it must said, also on many in the space community).  In their view, the space program is primarily for spectacle – a series of PR stunts designed to amuse the American people, much as the gladiatorial contests of imperial Rome were used to pacify a restless and entitled public.  Therefore, they believe that it is optional and disposable.  Yes, national greatness is important and the civil space program is a symbol of that greatness (though NASA has been getting an extended ride on the wave of Apollo accomplishments for some time now).  But, we keep hearing the proud American boast that America has done all those things that nations such as China, Russia, India and Japan are attempting to do (and are doing) now.  We are told that they are just trying to prove themselves in space – joining the club, so to speak (a club in which we have let our membership lapse, so that we now have to buy rides to the ISS on Russian rockets).

The fact that the American space program was considered to be a critical part of a program entitled “Surrendering America” tells you much about where we are as a nation.  The concerns outlined in this program are all real and valid, yet incomplete.  It is indeed “a surrender” and in this case (as Krauthammer put it), decline is a choice, not an inevitable fact of nature.  Kirsten Powers sees our current lack of direction as a mere “pause,” yet it becomes increasingly clear with time that this condition is a planned outcome, not some inadvertent and unintentional development.  George Will pointed out a salient fact that most of the others ignored – the human capital of our national space program is dissipating.  People have to support their families and cannot wait indefinitely for the problems of our space program to resolve themselves.  This is the real reason why Congress mandated a specific design for SLS – this vehicle is not a flight program, but a placeholder, designed to keep at least a nucleus of spaceflight capability together for some future time when new leadership might pick up the broken pieces of a once-great program and attempt to again move us forward in space.

Host Bret Baier concluded by saying that if we are surrendering as a nation, we need to do so with our eyes open and with full knowledge of the consequences of such policies.  I applaud Fox News for taking on this topic.  Although it was not as complete and as insightful as it could have been, it dramatized our current dilemma in civil space and recognized one salient fact to which many are oblivious: decline creeps in slowly and unobserved.  And usually, you don’t realize that what you once had is gone until it is too late to retrieve it.  With this surrender of vital national assets, it becomes clear that not only have we been set on a self-crippling path, one that sees us relinquishing personal responsibility within our society, but also one that now accepts that our nation is turning away from collective responsibility for events on the world stage.

Taken individually, the four segments of Surrendering America are disturbing. Taken together, the totality is frightening. By choosing this path, we are willingly giving away our security and in doing so, denying our children their national birthright of freedom and liberty.

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 37 Comments

The Promise of Astronomy on the Moon

In a new post over at Air & Space, I consider the history of efforts to conduct astronomical observations from the lunar surface.  Comment here if so inclined.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Naming names

The cratered highlands of Mars -- so few names, so many holes.

The cratered highlands of Mars — so few names, so many holes (U.S. Geological Survey topographic map)

Step right up and name that crater or mountain or molehill or patera (a fancy name for a saucer-like depression on Mars or Io)!  I mean, why not?  You’re a person, right?   You have rights!  Demand them!  Go name that crater.  You are free to name anything, anywhere in the universe.  Many people have.  Of course, no one has to use it – who will even know of its existence?  That’s not what you had in mind, you say?  But if you fork over cash to have something named after you (or a family member, a pet or your favorite burger joint) certainly it would have more credibility.  Right?  After all, some might claim that’s essentially what the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Nomenclature Committee is all about – a group of volunteer scientists, following agreed upon rules, assigning names to extraterrestrial features.

You might question the right of the IAU to make these decisions.  Why wouldn’t your name, duly purchased and recorded on a web site, garner proper recognition and instant stature?  It may well come to pass that sometime in the future, extraterrestrial bodies may be occupied by local populations who will then assume the right to name geographic features as they see fit (as we do here on Earth).  But for now, scientists use this scheme because they are the ones using the planetary nomenclature.  So, before you open your wallet, let me explain a bit of history about how and why landforms are named.

A key point about nomenclature is that it has no value unless it is standardized.  Nomenclature is primarily for the convenience of researchers and scientists who work on those objects – they need to refer to some geographic location when discussing process or history.  Planetary nomenclature serves the same purpose on extraterrestrial bodies that it serves on Earth – a shorthand way to refer to a locale without having to specify exact coordinates that a reader would have to look up on a map or globe.  The object of nomenclature is to devise a shorthand that instantly creates a mental image of a location; that mass of knowledge must (at least partly) already reside in the mind of the reader.  The gradual accumulation of such knowledge is only possible because scientists (who work and study these locales) have agreed among themselves to use a standard scheme of nomenclature.

To bring some order to the chaos, the scientific community organized the IAU nomenclature committees.  These committees use agreed upon rules to create banks of names for surface features, to which they are assigned as needed.  The rules are designed to assign different classes of names for differing categories of landforms, and different planets and satellites.  For example, the Moon (the first object to have its surface features named) is somewhat of a patchwork, reflecting its complex heritage.  Lunar craters are named for deceased scientists, engineers and explorers.  To have a feature named for someone, that person must have made a significant contribution to knowledge or human achievement, and have been dead for three years.  Later innovations to this scheme for the planets, reserves different classes of names for different objects.  For example, features on Mercury are named for artists, while small features on Venus are named for famous women.  Logically, craters on Mars (the planet named for the Roman god of war) should be given the names of famous military figures, but the delicate sensibilities of academia overruled that eminently logical suggestion.  So Mars craters (like those on the Moon) are named for scientists and engineers who have contributed to the exploration of Mars.

I don’t claim that this process has always been logical.  Nonetheless, this system – with all of its flaws – has well served the scientific and exploration community for many years.  When the IAU system stumbles and imposes some egregiously stupid edict, the user community can simply ignore them and continue to use the older, existing names.  This happened in the mid-1970s, when hundreds of lunar names were discarded and new names assigned with no apparent thought or logic.  Active lunar scientists continued to use the older names in defiance of the IAU edict.  The IAU finally and quietly surrendered twenty years later and the old naming system of primary and satellite craters was preserved.

Despite the passage of time and the assignment of names to many landforms in space, it seems all that unnamed space real estate is too big an opportunity for some to pass up.  So a company called Uwingu is offering to affix the name of your choice to a feature of your choice (or one they’ll choose) on Mars, for a fee.  The purchased name will be affixed to the crater and maintained in a database on the Uwingu web site.  Naming rights for features currently holding IAU names are not for “sale.”  Currently up on the block however, is a large inventory of small, as yet unnamed craters on Mars (500,000) – mountains, hills and canyons will be offered for “sale” soon.  The cost of crater names varies according to the prominence of the feature you select.  Our local Solar System not to your liking?  Then for $4.99 you can nominate a name for an exoplanet.  If it gets 1000 “votes” (at $0.99 per vote), your name will be affixed to your adopted exoplanet.

That’s what you’re buying.  No one is obligated to use your name or even to look it up.  It won’t appear on any map product except those that Uwingu may produce.  If you’re good with that, go forth and more power to you.  But don’t be upset because no one uses your bought and paid for name.   Uwingu informs buyers that their purchased names are not recognized by NASA or other space agencies – “yet”  (implying that might change in the future).  The site goes on to advise that for scientific papers, you and others are free to “reference them using their citation number in Name Database Registry.”

My sense is that people do this because they imagine they will achieve an immortality of sorts by having their name affixed to some extraterrestrial object.  Having it compiled in some web site database adds authenticity to the process, regardless of whether anyone consults that data or not.  But you don’t need to pay Uwingu to do this – there’s nothing stopping you from putting your name on features on your own web site.  Eventually, someone may click on it (assuming you continue to pay for the web hosting).

I find this new Uwingu scheme offensive because it preys on the ignorance and trust of the general public.  Most people don’t know the reasons for the procedures of planetary nomenclature or the agreed upon rules.  They like the idea of having their name associated with something, so they buy the website pitch.  A similar idea was unveiled a few years ago with something called the International Star Registry, which would name, not simply some dinky crater after you, but a star – possibly one that’s at the center of an entire system of planets!  Of course, any possible inhabitants of that system would be blissfully unaware of your existence, but it might certainly enhance your self-esteem.

Caveat Emptor!

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy | 8 Comments

Science and Human Spaceflight

Astronaut John Young on the Moon in 1972.

Astronaut John Young on the Moon in 1972.

A perennial debate among the community of space policy “experts” (whose number apparently consists of about 4/5 of the Earth’s population) is about the value of human spaceflight.  As is the wont in such debates, science and its relation to human missions often emerges as a theme.  One might think that nothing new could possibly be said about this issue – and they’d be largely correct.  Nonetheless, the most recent kerfuffle caught my eye, in part because of the large degree of ignorance associated with the arguments advanced.

This flare-up was generated by a piece at Slate from science journalist Charles Seife.  Although written ostensibly about the “purpose of NASA,” Seife uses that rhetorical question to springboard his advocacy for the termination of human spaceflight.  His piece has most of the usual canards in common with other literature in this regard – the science is poor, it’s too expensive, it’s too dangerous.  Seife cites the Hubble servicing missions as an example of human spaceflight’s “alleged” benefits and claims that for what those five Shuttle missions cost, we could have built two new Hubble telescopes.  He might want to look at the funding history of the James Webb Space Telescope before he trots out that argument.  But the more culpable point that Seife doesn’t mention is that without the Shuttle missions, we would never have had a Hubble Space Telescope at all – the telescope as initially launched had a flaw in its optics that required a human mission and on-orbit servicing to correct.  A human spaceflight: the difference between the creation of the premier scientific instrument of our time and an orbiting paperweight.

Seife believes NASA is dishonestly trying to justify its existence on the basis of a search for extraterrestrial life.  Although I partly agree with this complaint, in fact, this “justification” is not NASA’s doing – if he wants to indict someone for advocacy of this crusade, he should begin with Carl Sagan and thirty years of Star Trek re-runs.  NASA latched onto the Quest for Life Elsewhere meme because they thought it would justify funding for human missions to Mars – and it has remained their fantasy destination for well over 50 years.  And this brings us to Seife’s real beef – those damnable, worthless human space missions.  Seife is enamored of the agency’s many robotic missions, claiming they do more science for less money, but nowhere in his piece does he back up his assumption that science is the only (or even the principal) objective for a national civil space program.

I have discussed the scientific value of human spaceflight previously.  The claim that robotic spaceflight is superior to the human variety usually relies on an alleged cost-benefit argument.  This equation assumes that “science return” can be measured, usually by some quasi-quantitative assessment, such as the number of papers published or Nobel prizes awarded.  Unfortunately, science return is difficult to quantify.  Typically, there’s a lag time before we recognize the true significance of some results and understand exactly how and where they fit into a broader pattern of knowledge and utility.  A human’s ability to contextualize and adapt to their surroundings gives them superior abilities and unprecedented flexibility that enriches scientific return.

Let us recall the scientific buzz about the Apollo missions in the decade after the program ended.  Quite aside from the dismissal of the entire effort by many in the chattering classes (“All we got from the Moon was a box full of rocks!”), many scientists claimed that the Apollo explorations had been all but worthless.  The carping began even before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface; with limited time and mobility, the crew had to hurry through a sample collection routine that was strictly choreographed, thus limiting the documentation and study of the environment of the samples.  Physicist Ralph Lapp wrote before the lunar landing that after Apollo had achieved its goal of landing a man on the Moon, the human program should be terminated and Apollo hardware “reserved for future unmanned missions to the planets” (exactly how one would use an Apollo Command Module to explore Jupiter was left as an exercise for the student).  Famous-for-being-an-ex-astronaut Brian O’Leary whined that science was being given short shrift in the planning for the Apollo missions.  Even Eugene Shoemaker, one of my personal heroes and the founder of modern planetary science, complained about the poor mission planning that resulted in a less-than-optimum system for the exploration of the lunar surface.

But then came a decade of detailed study of the returned data and samples.  The science from that effort revolutionized not only planetary science, but influenced other branches of science as well, most notably, the connection between extinctions in the fossil record of Earth and asteroid impact.  We now think that impact may be one of the principal drivers in the evolution of life –massive ecological voids are created by impact catastrophes.  These voids are then filled by rapid speciation and the emergence of new life groups.  Impacts appear to serve the same function for evolution that wildfires serve for forest growth – a periodic “wiping of the slate” to permit new growth.  This view of the evolutionary process was barely imagined prior to the advent of evidence for impact-induced extinctions.  Such recognition came as a result of the study of Apollo lunar samples and the need to understand the physical and chemical effects of hypervelocity impact.

Needless to say, such a scientific advance was not anticipated, either before or even in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo program.  On a very basic level, the value of scientific exploration is not quantifiable.  When a scientist or a journalist presumes to speak for the scientific community as whole and declares that some science is “worthless” or “second-rate,” they are actually expressing the limitations of their own imaginations and expertise, not necessarily the true value of an experiment or program.  In Seife’s article, he claims that the science performed on the International Space Station is published only in “third or fourth tier journals.”  The fact is, we don’t know what (if any) science done on ISS will ultimately be of lasting or revealing value.  That’s the beauty of scientific research – sometimes, disfavored ideas turn out to have the most profound implications.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of the ISS science will turn out to be significant.  But that is actually beside my main point:  those who critique human spaceflight by claiming it is not scientifically worthwhile on a cost-effectiveness basis do not know (quite literally) what they are talking about.  With no leadership and direction, these “controversies” have produced community in-fighting and contributed to the deconstruction the U.S. space program.  Whether crafted this way by design or not, it has had the same effect.

The current National Academy Committee on Human Spaceflight is reportedly studying the rationale and benefits of humans in space.  I hear on good authority that this panel is struggling with their task.   I find it particularly distressing that they are having difficulty comprehending the idea that human missions contribute significantly to scientific advancement – in some cases in totally unexpected directions.  It makes me wonder who they are listening to – Seife perhaps?  If such is the case, they need to solicit and include more diverse – and expert – opinions.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space policy | 10 Comments

You too, Yutu?

Some thoughts on the possible state of the Chang’E 3 mission to the Moon are posted at Air & Space, for your consideration and reading pleasure.

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Property, Problems and Promise of Lunar Dirt

The Yutu rover on the Moon -- dirty job?

The Yutu rover on the Moon — a dirty job?

News reports are giving conflicting information about the state of the Chang’E 3 rover Yutu.  Some claim that the rover is dead while others indicate that it is responding to radio signals, although it is uncertain whether it will obtain full functionality.  Despite this uncertainty, I’m reading reports attributing the demise of Yutu to the baneful effects of lunar dust.  The idea being advanced is that the angular and abrasive dust of the lunar surface has probably jammed the moving parts of the rover and possibly coated parts of the structure, resulting in increasing heating of the rover during the lunar day.

There is no reason to believe that Yutu’s problems are related to dust.  Lunar dust was a known factor before the flight of Chang’E 3 and given how well things have progressed to date, I cannot believe that its builders were ignorant of the possible negative effects of dust.  Fears of these effects are greatly exaggerated.  Dust was a problem during the Apollo program because we did not fully understand all of its properties when the equipment used during those missions was being designed.  We have since accumulated an enormous amount of information on dust and have developed a variety of different strategies to cope with and mitigate problems.  It is much more likely that software or some mechanical-electrical component has failed on the rover.  This is harder to diagnose and fix (if possible), but don’t believe all the horror stories you are seeing about the “deadly dust of the Moon.”

It is important to understand the properties of lunar soil, along with its challenges and advantages in order to properly report on our current understanding of the lunar surface.  Two U.S. lunar orbital missions, LRO and LADEE (selected to fly during the last administration) are currently orbiting the Moon and collecting more data.

Linked below is information about our current understanding of the properties, problems and promise of the Moon’s regolith.

The Deadly Dust of the Moon

Another idea is to keep the suits outside, leaving the interior of the habitat completely dust free.  But no matter how carefully we avoid it, some dust will get into places we want to keep clean.  Brushing only seems to grind it into porous surfaces.  But amazingly enough, we have found that much of the dust is magnetic.  Vapor-deposited metallic iron coats the surfaces of many mineral and glass dust grains.  This so-called “nanophase iron” (from its extremely small size) makes the dust easily attracted to a simple magnet.  A brush made with magnetic bristles will clean surfaces of most of the dust.  Incidentally, this same property permits the lunar soil to be fused into glass using low-energy microwaves, allowing us to “pave” roads and landing pads near and around the lunar outpost and to make bricks for construction and radiation shielding…”

Regolith: The Other Lunar Resource
“…The ground up regolith is a readily available building material for construction on the lunar surface.  It is an aggregate in the same sense as on Earth, but with some significant differences.  We could make lime and water from the surface materials of the Moon but it is very time and energy intensive.  Thus, we must adapt and modify terrestrial practice to take advantage of the unique nature of lunar materials.  The fractal grain size in the regolith means that we can obtain any specific size fraction we want through mechanical sorting (raking and sieving).  Instead of water-set lime-based cement, we can use glass to cement particulate material together.  Regolith can be sintered into bricks and blocks, as well as roads and landing pads, using thermal energy (passive solar, concentrated by focusing mirrors) or microwaves that can melt grain edges into a hard, durable ceramic…”

LADEE: Measuring Almost Nothing and Looking for the Almost Invisible

The LADEE mission seeks the faintest of lunar phenomena

“…The day and night hemispheres have different fluxes of electrons from the solar wind and thus, the presence of the terminator can induce an electrical charge in surface materials.  It is postulated that this charge might levitate smaller dust particles such that they would hover above the surface.  LADEE will attempt to detect and map this dust, both by searching for scattered sunlight with its ultraviolet spectrometer and via the direct detection of dust particles in flight with an instrument on the top of the orbiting spacecraft…”

 

 

 

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 21 Comments