Charting a Course in Human Exploration

Testifying to the House Space Subcommittee on February 3, 2016.

Testifying to the House Space Subcommittee on February 3, 2016.  I’m the guy on the far right.

I had the honor of testifying to Congress again this week.  The hearing was before the House Subcommittee on Space and was entitled, “Charting a Course: Expert Perspectives on NASA’s Human Exploration Proposals.”  Although I will have some more detailed thoughts on this event later, I post here the links to the hearing web site, the charter, and my testimony.

Hearing website

Hearing Charter

Spudis testimony

Video of hearing

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 28 Comments

Reusable Launch Vehicles and Lunar Return

I have a new post up at Air & Space with some follow-on thoughts on the the long-term significance of SpaceX’s recent recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage.  Comment here if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 31 Comments

SpaceX’s Accomplishment

Space Shuttle Main Engines at the Cape -- reusable, but constant maintenance required. (NASA)

Space Shuttle Main Engines at the Cape — reusable, but constant maintenance required. (NASA)

The carnival sideshow that is our national manned space program continues apace. These past few months we’ve watched as the space “community” swooned over a movie depicting an astronaut forced by circumstance to innovate and survive alone on Mars. Nothing wrong with that, except for the reaction of a federal agency that imagines they are about to realize this future, a fantasy perhaps taken to heart after seeing their logo plastered all over the film’s stage equipment. Next, we were presented with a long interview with Elon Musk, who pontificated on his “plan” to create a sustainable human colony on Mars – in his lifetime. He was serious. And his remarks were taken seriously.

The latest entry in the parade of notable space “events,” is what some would have us believe heralds the advent of a new era in space transportation, one ushered in by the arrival of a “reusable launch vehicle system.” This comes after the first successful return and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage to its launch site. The space press, along with cable and network news, trumpeted this news with great fanfare. But does this event truly signal the beginning of a new paradigm for spaceflight? I submit that the real issue to address about reusable launch systems is not whether it can be done, but if it can be done and make economic sense. And that issue is not settled.

A launch system is much more than the rockets that we see leave from (or return to) the pad. A launch system embodies a design and operations concept, the necessary manufacturing infrastructure and supply chain to fabricate the vehicles, the facilities for launch preparation and operations, and the cost and difficulty of refurbishing and then reusing the vehicle. “Reusable” does not necessarily translate to “cheap” – the Space Shuttle was a reusable launch system. The reason Shuttle was expensive is that it took thousands of man-hours, work done by highly skilled (and highly paid) people, to refurbish and prepare the vehicle for each flight. These efforts involved more than repairing damage to the delicate thermal protection system (the famous tiles that covered the Shuttle body) and to the windows (actually more labor intensive than work on the thermal tiles). A great deal of time was spent servicing the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), which had to be removed from the vehicle, serviced (often with disassembly and complete replacement of major components, such as the nozzle or turbopump) and then re-assembled for the next flight.

SpaceX is taking the right approach to building a reusable launch system in that the first stage is the easiest part of an expendable vehicle to retrieve. It travels the least distance and is accelerated to slower speeds than any other part of the rocket. Bringing the first stage back to land is also a plus, in that it greatly simplifies vehicle retrieval and eliminates the corrosive effects of seawater on the engines. However, these benefits come with costs – a first stage capable of flying back to the launch site cannot lift as much payload as an expendable stage. This performance hit comes from the additional mass of the landing system (in the case of Falcon 9, retractable legs) along with propellant needed to decelerate the vehicle to a soft touchdown on its return to the launch site – fuel that cannot be used to push the payload into orbit.

Additionally, there is the cost of the design and testing of the retrieval system. Because SpaceX is a non-public company, we have no idea how much money was spent developing this first stage recovery system. But these costs, plus the others listed above, must be rolled into the price of any new Falcon 9 launch. We can’t know what savings are realized by this effort until the price that SpaceX charges for a Falcon 9 launch drops (and we know by how much). The largest new cost to SpaceX – the cost to operate a hypothetical reusable Falcon 9 launch system – is unknowable now because SpaceX doesn’t yet have one. Certainly the successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage booster is an accomplishment, but we do not know if such an event is routine or singular, what resources are needed to achieve it, and the impact such retrieval will have on the operating costs of the Falcon 9 system. It is not yet the revolution in space transportation being claimed by New Space cheerleaders and many in the space media, who are quick to circulate SpaceX press releases and throw-away interview comments, but slow to do any objective, in-depth technical research and analysis on what progress is being made and what it all means for the future of space travel and access.

The next step in developing a reusable Falcon 9 launch system is to refurbish a first stage and schedule it for another flight. That won’t happen immediately – apparently, this hardware will be kept on the ground, no doubt to be enshrined for posterity in a forthcoming museum. But this step is crucial – if it is found that preparing the recovered first stage for reuse costs more than building a new flight item, the system won’t pay for itself. To give but one example of a possible difficulty, it may turn out that at least some of the nine Merlin engines contained in the Falcon 9 first stage will need to be disassembled and extensively serviced after each flight. This was true for the SSMEs of the Shuttle, which underwent major servicing every 2-3 flights. While it is assumed that these costs will be less than the replacement cost of an expendable system, it won’t be known for certain until it has been done several dozen times. If a catastrophic failure is experienced during some future flight of a reused stage, launch insurance premiums will increase for the system (as they should) and these costs will need to be rolled into the price of space access. Look for the EPA to add a surcharge for something (or several somethings).

After the Space Shuttle’s first flight (1981), news stories were reporting on the advent of a “New Space Age,” of reusable rockets and routine access to orbit. As the program proceeded we realized that vehicle processing was a much more labor-intensive system than had been anticipated. Both expected and unexpected problems were identified and dealt with, at considerable cost. The determining factor as to whether this recent event is a genuine advancement or not, is if SpaceX can put a payload into orbit and charge significantly less than what they are currently getting – something we won’t know for a considerable time. After a single booster flies five or six times, and the price for launching a satellite comes down, then perhaps we can judge whether this is the great accomplishment its promoters claim it to be.

In the mean time, our inexorable “Journey to Mars” continues….

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 66 Comments

Simulating Human Space Missions

I have a new post up at Air & Space discussing the various simulations undertaken to prepare for future human space missions. Comment here if desired.

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration | 33 Comments

The New Space Resources Law – Close But No Cigar

Mining the Solar System -- does the new law make this more or less likely? (from Minestories.com)

Mining the Solar System — does the new law make this more or less likely? (from Minestories.com)

There’s some over-the-top commentary in the space press on the new “commercial space” bill just signed into law (The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, H.R. 2262). In particular, the law is touted as “… the single greatest recognition of property rights in history” by Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources Inc. , a company created to mine near-Earth asteroids. Now, thanks to this Congress and President, the unimaginable wealth of the universe has been dropped into our laps.

Really?

The actual section of the bill dealing with space resources (Title IV) is quite short and somewhat perfunctory. It defines a space resource (and that term is used: space resources not “asteroid” resources) as “an abiotic (non-biological) resource in situ in outer space.” Thus, the materials of planetary-sized objects (other than the Earth) are apparently covered, including lunar polar ice. The bill prescribes that the President shall “facilitate,” “discourage the creation of barriers to,” and “promote” commerce in-space resources, all very commendable (though vague) but also all acting under “appropriate Federal agencies.” So, if anyone thought that this bill would suddenly unleash a new gold rush, it will be one taken under careful bureaucratic supervision.

The best part of the bill comes in Section 51303, which essentially states that what you harvest from space, you own, along with the appropriate rights to keep, use, sell or trade it to any entity. This is a good thing, but arguably, we had this right already. Or did we? Was it arguable previously that we did not have this right, and that now, with a stroke of the pen, we do have it? What has changed?

A big sticking point remaining is that while the advent of this law may make New Space entrepreneurs feel better, it does not resolve the questionable international legal status of space resource utilization. The United States is not a signatory to the infamous 1979 Moon Treaty, which places lunar resources (and by extension, asteroid resources) under international “community” ownership. The Senate refused to ratify the Moon Treaty, but we are signatories to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars any territorial claim in space by any nation. Proponents of space resource utilization have long surmised that private claims on resources are not forbidden by this treaty; but individuals are subject to the laws of nations of which they are citizens, so a space miner could find himself in possession of a small asteroid, while at the same time have his terrestrial assets seized through some legal process or claim.

We have gotten along fine without this law for the last 50 years, largely because no commercial entity is anywhere close to actually accessing and using an off-Earth resource. Now that we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs in space and drooling over the advent of entrepreneurial exploitation of space resources, companies and advocacy groups loudly and persistently call for government action and laws to “make it so.” But one can imagine a variety of circumstances in which this law will make no difference whatsoever. If a private company engaged in some activity that involved exploitation of an extraterrestrial resource of limited extent (e.g., a rich deposit of ice on the Moon near permanent sunlight) and their possession of that resource was challenged by some nation-state present nearby, how might the American government react? Presumably, peaceful diplomatic means would be pursued at first, but then when they can’t-don’t-won’t agree, then what?

The U.S. federal government guarantees the rights of American citizens (including corporations) to their property and is responsible for resolving conflicts. Often conflicts escalate to higher levels, up to and including stalemates (that block free enterprise) and confrontations that decide the outcome. Would the United States go to war over a dispute involving space resources that some company might have with another nation? I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is no – and other countries (and investors) will know this.

There are many reasons I advocate a return to the Moon as our next national goal in space and one reason, not often considered, is the establishment of an American right of access to space and its resources. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, despite appearances, does not establish this right. Laws that we pass are not binding on other nations or entities outside the boundaries of the United States. Ultimately, future disputes (and make no mistake, there will be some, despite the best intentions of all parties) must be settled between entities of comparable status and between their parent nations. Thus, I contend that we must have “skin in the game” at an international level, not only at the corporate one.

Declaring the rights of our citizens to find and exploit space resources is one thing; defending that right in a potentially hostile world is another. In the same way that ships operated under American registry are protected by the diplomatic, economic and military power of the American government, future space businesses will look to their government (as they must and have a right to) to protect their rights, enforce contracts and act as an insulating layer between them and the cold realities of global politics (what’s written on paper is only as good as your ability to enforce it, or ignore it). In its earliest stages, the financial stakes are likely to be small and not well understood in terms of their national economic and security implications, so it is unlikely that the federal government would “go to the mat” to defend the interests of a small (somewhat experimental) business.

But when taking the long-view (that of any serious investor), if that same government’s own right of access to and use of some extraterrestrial resource were threatened, the full weight of that government’s various assets would be brought to bear on a resolution of that threat (or whose mere presence would short-circuit outside agression to begin with). This is one reason why the utilization of space resources – an activity critical to the long-term future of humanity in space – is not only an appropriate activity for the federal civil space program, it is an essential one, in anticipation of and in parallel with private development of these resources. Right now, we are uncertain just how difficult it is to extract and use space resources for a variety of applications. In short, this activity is an engineering research and development effort. This is exactly what NASA was established to do – to determine if space-related activities and technologies are possible and if they are, to then encourage the private sector to engage in such activities, using the results of government-funded research to grow their investments and expand our economy.

So while I applaud this bipartisan effort to legally endorse the principle of space resource utilization, it is not sufficient. Instead of pursuing wasteful public relations stunts designed to convince the public that we are on our way to Mars, NASA should instead work on understanding how the material and energy resources of near-Earth space – particularly the water at the poles of the Moon – can be used to create new spacefaring capability. The federal government should do this because the creation of routine access to cislunar space is important to our national strategic and commercial interests. It is also vital to establish our national rights and obligations within the world spacefaring community. U.S. commercial space companies will be there once they know that their nation’s leaders understand the stakes involved and are ready to lead on this new frontier.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 12 Comments

Another Way to Land on the Moon

New post up at Air & Space in which I describe my idea for a robotic mission to the lunar poles that uses multiple hard landing probes to measure water contents.  Comment on the idea here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space technology, Space transportation | 18 Comments

Blame Game

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally to blame.”President Ronald Reagan, March 8, 1983

Wayne Hale’s speech at the 2015 von Braun Symposium in Huntsville is getting some attention in the space policy commentariat. Hale talks to “the family,” as he puts it – meaning, I suppose, the space flight community (which is a family of sorts, as in the Sopranos). He urges us to stop “squabbling” amongst ourselves, and “get on with it.” If you seek someone to “blame” for the current stasis of our civil space program, he opines, “look in the mirror.”

Well, okay. I have. And what I see is a guy who’s devoted his life to the movement of people beyond LEO, sometimes wrong about specifics but more often right about major trends and strategic direction. And there isn’t a doubt in my mind that in this sorry saga of the decline and fall of American spaceflight, there are people who deserve blame. I reject – completely and utterly – the concept that somehow, “all of us” (including those who have realized that this is no longer the era of Apollo and that new approaches are necessary) are responsible for the American civil space program going to Hell in a hand-basket. While it is clear that some of us have tried to find a path forward without doubling the NASA budget, or demanding a national commitment to an Apollo-like effort, it is equally clear that others have promoted just such an unsustainable path, either through poorly reasoned devotion to a flags-and-footprints Mars mission, ignorance of history, or in a deliberate effort to foster chaos and the demise of American manned spaceflight.

We have a limited amount of resources to expend on space – an expensive undertaking no matter how you slice it – and that means that choices must be made. Some programs are achievable and some are not. Some destinations can serve as a springboard to real and lasting capability in space and some don’t. Some efforts are politically sustainable and provide payback on reasonable time-scales and some do not. The siren call of Kumbaya, group hugs and all of us “getting along” is as useless as it is childish. We have wasted the last seven years in the challenge of moving humans beyond LEO and there is no doubt in my mind that some are blameworthy.

A large collective effort requires leadership for success. When such leadership fails, those responsible for that failure often affix blame for their misguided policies (or their failed attempt to shift direction for ideological reasons) on those who had relied on sound leadership. Dissent from the chosen path is viewed as disruption. Recently, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden claimed that we are pursuing a “visionary path” and that any re-vectoring by the agency from it would bring “disaster.” Such caution was not a concern five years ago when the current administration unilaterally decided to terminate the strategic direction of the civil space program. Bolden is saying “I can do whatever I want, but you can’t make any changes to it.” This plaintive whining sounds like (and should be read as) the parting words of a lame duck who knows his “strategic path” has little chance of remaining in place past his tenure of office.

Are dissenters from the current path the villains of the space program? Are all of us guilty of the non-progress and aimlessness currently evident in civil space? If the agency’s “Journey to Mars” (which is neither a “journey” nor will it take anyone to Mars) is fundamentally misguided (either through inadvertent or deliberate misdirection), then who has standing to make that case? And if it is determined that the current path will not lead to the capabilities and missions promised, on what possible basis should we continue in that direction? If you find yourself traveling down the wrong road, stopping and turning around is the first step towards fixing the problem.

In 2010, President Obama cancelled the Vision for Space Exploration. Initially, it was claimed that this was merely the termination of an unsustainable program (Project Constellation), based on the report of the 2009 Augustine committee. But not only was Constellation ended, its initial destination (the Moon) was also written out of future plans. The Augustine committee did not recommend this – they specifically made no recommendations, but offered alternative paths to future directions in human spaceflight, including the lunar surface. It was the President himself who removed the Moon from the critical path, for reasons that appear trivial (“We’ve been there!”) and specious. The removal of the lunar surface as a destination for the American civil space program left a predictable and obvious gap – a manned Mars mission is (and has been) so far in the future, that we are incapable (literally) of drawing up a working blueprint for how to achieve it.

We are told by Bolden that the President has “set us on a visionary course” for space. But there is no identified path to get us from where we are (low Earth orbit) to Mars. The agency’s recent release of the “Journey to Mars” report merely outlines current projects (mostly the Orion spacecraft and the SLS launch vehicle), hints at some possible missions in cislunar space (a “habitat” in deep space), and gives little attention to the difficulties, and no discussion of, the expense required to solve the knotty technical issues that separate us from the first human mission to the surface of Mars. This is a “visionary course?”

By setting the goal of a Mars mission as the only rationale for human spaceflight, the administration does accomplish some political aims. The mission is certainly imaginative, as it is beyond our current capabilities and thus, this is a “future-” oriented project. Estimates suggest that we will be ready to attempt a human mission to the surface of Mars sometime in the late 2030s (more likely, 2050 and beyond). Because that goal is so distant and undefined, virtually any space activity can be claimed to be relevant to its achievement. Setting such a distant goal assures that no meaningful mission funding will be needed during the current administration’s term of office. As they say, talk is cheap – we are drowning in a sea of talk about future space utopias.

So damn those stupid space advocates! All they do is argue!

You’re damned if you advocate for a program – you are blocking consensus by creating division and are therefore, a roadblock to progress. (Some ideas ARE better than others.)

You’re damned if you lobby for a specific policy over another – you are either encouraging government “pork” or commercial “cronyism.” (We must work together, but we need sustainability.)

You’re damned if you don’t “excite the public” – you haven’t touched the right nerve that opens the spigot to a torrent of government funding. (After 60 years, there is no evidence whatsoever that “public excitement” drives space accomplishment.)

So by all means, let us look into the mirror. Not all in life is relative – some things are right and some things are wrong. Pursuing a flags-and-footprints, manned Mars mission run along the lines of the Apollo program is a fool’s errand. The historical circumstances that made Apollo possible (e.g., Cold War, an expansive aerospace industrial infrastructure) are no longer operative. We must design and advance a human presence in space beyond LEO using an incremental, cumulative and affordable architecture. Some of us are trying to do exactly that. Others aren’t.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 50 Comments

The Colorado Plateau – An Impact Feature?

Some geological thoughts while driving across the country.  Could the Colorado Plateau Be an Ancient Impact Scar?  Comments welcome.
Posted in Lunar Science, planetary exploration | 9 Comments

Lunar Water Creates New Capabilities in Space

I have a new post up at Air & Space on the real value of going to the Moon to learn how to extract, process and use the water at the poles.  Comment here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 26 Comments

NASA = Mars = Delusional

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System - Film at Eleven.

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System – Film at Eleven.

The release of a hit movie about the adventures of an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, coupled with the “discovery” of liquid water running on the surface of Mars, has been an intoxicating moment in an otherwise dry spell for the Marsophiles at our national space agency. This confluence of events, accompanied by hosanna-singing press coverage (at least partly orchestrated by the agency itself), has advocates toasting each other – our “#JourneyToMars” is proceeding apace. Hallelujah! Our national space program might be saved!

Then again, maybe not. How much of this hype is rooted in real accomplishment and how much is mere puffery? If finding “water on Mars” sounds familiar, that’s because finding “water on Mars” is announced every couple of years and each time, we get the same breathless assertions that “human missions” to the planet (sometimes even habitation) are now possible. But is any of this true?

Publishing a scientific paper does not mean that its conclusions are correct or that a problem has been solved. Even if the new interpretation is correct, it does nothing to advance the cause of a human Mars mission; it is only an incremental advance in our knowledge of the planet (previous alternative explanations for crater wall streaks did not involve the flow of liquid water).

Some news accounts assert that the availability of liquid water makes human surface missions easier to undertake, as water is a vital consumable for long-term presence of people on the martian surface. However, this liquid water is extremely saline (a brine) and needs extensive distillation and processing to make it useable, requiring much more energy than would be needed to simply melt ground ice, which is already relatively pure and whose presence on the planet has been known for the last 40 years. The existence of saline brines is geologically interesting but it has no significant implications for sustaining a human presence.

The real impact of this discovery relates to the supposed link between liquid water and the possible emergence and presence of microbial life. The Quest for Life Elsewhere obsession has consumed NASA for over 50 years. The “Follow the water” strategy for Mars was a surrogate for the “look for the bugs” quest. In an amusing twist, the increasing likelihood of microbes existing on Mars creates a problem for a NASA intent on sending astronauts there, as we could permanently contaminate the martian biosphere, rendering future scientific results questionable to the extent that they might be unanswerable. This mindset is expressed in a recent Planetary Society blog post, where potential Mars astronauts are characterized as possessing “filthy meatbag bodies” that should be kept in orbit, so as not to irreversibly change the Eden-like martian surface.

New scientific discoveries enjoy short press cycles and then rapidly exit, stage left. But not to worry, the real event – the one that NASA is hitching their star to – is the release of the movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, in which an astronaut struggles for survival after being accidentally left behind during a future human mission to Mars. The story is entertaining and I enjoyed the book (I have not seen the movie). It reminded me of another movie with a very similar plotline, the classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun and nobody in Hollywood ever lost box office by re-making something previously done. What is remarkable is the agency’s clear intent (during a time of unclear goals) of hitching their Mars mission dreams to the movie’s anticipated popularity.

NASA’s manned space efforts relate not so much to current accomplishment but rather to publicizing promised future accomplishments. In the case of The Martian, the agency’s PR warp engine has slipped into hyper-drive. Leading this media charm barrage is a 19-page memo sent out to agency employees instructing them how to take advantage of the release of a new movie about Mars. Among the gems in this document are mantras to be chanted (“NASA = Mars, Mars = NASA”), sage advice (“Be a Martian”), technically true but misleading exaggerations (“NASA is at Mars”) and aspirational self-deception (“NASA is working on sending people to Mars”). But it doesn’t stop there. This top-level direction is followed by a dozen more pages of lists of PR events, movie screenings, astronaut appearances, and the invidious “talking points,” those full-metal jacketed rhetorical bullets loaded in the firearms of modern societal discourse.

Apparently, NASA believes that as this movie takes off in popularity, a public wound-up about space exploration will demand that the agency be showered with additional money. Once that happens, the Marsophiles say they will achieve their human mission to Mars fantasy sooner than the “sometime within the next 25 years” timeline currently in place. This is inline with the agency’s unsuccessful 50-year strategy of believing that in order to stay in business they must generate enthusiastic public support (apparently they are the only federal agency that has adopted this mindset). Thus, Congress and the administration have not been excluded from this PR blitz strategy, which includes a date-unspecified “White House screening” of the film. Instead of actually doing something, we can all watch the movie. It isn’t surprising that the public has become cynical about what is science and what is politics – what is real and what isn’t. “Science” has become a useful political tool and because of that, the credibility of scientific inquiry and the public’s understanding of science and how it works have suffered greatly.

Reporter Eric Berger complains that nothing in the new movie shows the presence of New Space companies, those allegedly private sector, commercial entities that are currently taking the universe by storm. Science writer Ed Regis thinks we should forget about “settling Mars” because people have unrealistic views about the hazards of such an activity. (Done Ed – nothing in NASA’s current plans leads to anything remotely resembling human settlement of another world.) The Explore Mars crowd urges everyone to “stay the course” on NASA’s humans to Mars efforts, without explaining (do they even know?) exactly why anyone should desire this course of action (a “world class” example of how politicized science has done great harm to the public’s understanding, expectations and to their education about what is possible).

NASA’s #JourneyToMars, Inspiration Mars, Mars One, and Elon Musk’s settlement fantasies all fall into the category of what I call the Mars obsession, the spaceflight idée fixe that has kept us busy with devising new architectures and composing beautiful artwork for the past 25 years, but has not advanced any actual spaceflight. Instead of focusing our efforts on an achievable, extendable goal, like building a cislunar transportation infrastructure that could carry us to the planets, we obsess on pie-in-the-sky Mars missions and Hollywood productions that whip up unrealistic expectations, yet accomplish nothing. As mission rationale, Mars advocates have nothing beyond some esoteric science questions (“Do microbes exist in seeping brines on crater walls?”) or wildly unrealistic dreams of planetary settlement (the logistical requirements of which are not even understood, let alone being addressed).

I have little doubt that unless something changes, NASA will “stay the course” they’re wedded to. Politicians, focused on other things, go along with NASA’s Mars dreams because they don’t have to pony up any additional money – they can just smile, cheer and say, “someday – soon.” Some agency employees are okay with “the mission” because they don’t have to do any real engineering – honing instead their considerable Powerpoint skills. The entertainment world likes it because they already work in the field of fiction. And space advocates? Well, they like anything that talks about future space activities – because talking is what they do best.

Going beyond LEO requires us to develop a new mindset and a new approach. We need to build an incremental spaceflight system that advances first to cislunar space, then to the Moon, and then into the Solar System beyond. It should be composed of small pieces sent into space on any available launch vehicle. It must have a flexible plan of deployment and operations, adjustable to budgetary boom and bust cycles (mostly bust for the foreseeable future). And most importantly, to create new spaceflight capabilities, we must learn how to use the vast material and energy resources of space. I advocate going to the Moon to do this because it is close and it has the resources that we need. And learning to use extraterrestrial resources is a skill that we must master if we are ever to become truly “spacefaring.”   When a program is realistic and sound, you don’t need to go begging hat in hand to the public, or face ridicule for shamelessly associating yourself with a popular science fiction space movie to suggest that you’re on the right path. When there truly is a real program, business, success and money will follow.

Enjoy The Martian but don’t take it too seriously. Remember all this hoopla next time – along with the wasted time, the wasted budget and the lack of progress.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 56 Comments