Quinquennial Follies

The Big Three -- useful?

The Big Three — useful or useless?

About every five years, a committee is trotted out to report on the status and future of human spaceflight. Each of these reports generates a lot of disruption, press reports and head scratching. When it all dies down, very little (if anything) is accomplished. The last three of these ponderous tomes generated over the past ten years nicely document the decline and fall of the American civil space program. I thought it might be instructive to examine them on a comparative basis, showing how the initial promise and optimism of each report led ultimately to disappointment, with the space program becoming less capable and less secure – a continuous downward trajectory for human space exploration.

Let us begin ten years ago with the emergence of the report that I was directly involved with – the Aldridge Report. This document was the product of a Presidential Commission. (Each succeeding report was produced by a group with less bureaucratic stature but increased scope of responsibility, which should tell you something right there.) The Aldridge effort was chartered to study and report on how the new Vision for Space Exploration (the VSE, articulated by President George W. Bush in January, 2004) should be implemented. Our task was not to question the direction or strategic aims of the VSE, but merely to understand how NASA should organize itself to execute it.

The Aldridge Commission members (who met for 6 months) were in agreement with the long-term aims of the VSE. However, there were individual differences over how to implement it, which generated extensive debate on exactly what steps were most important and critical, as opposed to which were merely optional and desirable. The Aldridge Commission report strongly favored a more streamlined and efficient space agency, including innovations such as creating incentive prizes and awards for technology development, contracting with commercial entities for launch services, and converting the NASA field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) – a model similar to that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run for the government by Caltech. One of our most important (and ignored) recommendations was to re-create the National Space Council, a White House-level body to oversee and periodically review agency progress on implementing the VSE – a step deemed vital to ensure continuity of purpose and as protection against any unraveling of the direction of the program. The VSE had strong bi-partisan support and had been blessed twice by the Congress, once under Republican Party leadership, once under Democratic Party leadership.

My personal disappointment with the aftermath of this report was the agency’s deft shrugging off of the oversight recommendation. Commission members were invited back to NASA Headquarters six months after the report had been submitted to receive a presentation on how well the agency had implemented our recommendations. Judging from the dog-and-pony show we received, it was clear that it was to be pretty much business as usual, which I suppose is not too surprising. No Administrator wants someone looking over their shoulder, criticizing their performance, or reminding them about what they were tasked to do. Thus, no executive oversight was created, a deficiency that would be felt sharply in the years ahead.

Five years after the Aldridge report, a new Presidential administration established the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a.k.a., the Augustine Committee (named for its Chairman, retired former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, Norman Augustine). Note that this was a committee (not a commission), which placed it one rung lower on the bureaucratic totem pole. (Our commissions were signed by the President; this committee’s appointments were from the Administrator of NASA. See this.) This group was chartered not only to review and evaluate NASA’s progress towards the implementation of its human spaceflight mission, but also to assess that mission and make recommendations as to whether a shift in goal, destination or emphasis was warranted. Like the Aldridge Commission five years earlier, the Augustine committee was to expire after 6 months.

Reportedly, this group used detailed technical analysis (by the Aerospace Corp.) to support their conclusions, although many of their ground rule assumptions could be questioned. Of course, one can always get the answer one is seeking by defining the boundary conditions accordingly. The Augustine Committee received presentations on the status of Project Constellation, NASA’s implementation of the VSE, derived from their own internal architecture study – the ESAS in 2006. They concluded that while the Constellation approach was technically sound, it would require more funding (an additional $3 billion per year) to meet its announced schedule (note: schedule, not deadline). They suggested that a better approach would be to pursue what they called the “Flexible Path,” in which technology would be pursued now and destinations would be picked later. They also introduced the possibility of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid as a destination alternative to the lunar surface (green eyeshade thinking, as no lander would be required with that choice – and thus, a lunar return would be eliminated).

The consequence of the Augustine report was a foregone conclusion. The administration provided the committee with artificially low budget numbers (the “FY 2010” budget line; see page 81 of Augustine), essentially guaranteeing that almost any forward path would be found to be “unaffordable.” It’s not like this administration had a problem with spending money – they had almost doubled the national debt through spending well over one trillion dollars per year on “economic stimulus,” none of which found its way into NASA coffers. Moreover, while it was often pointed out that the retirement of the Shuttle had been ordered by the previous administration, what was usually not also noted is that its retirement was being done as part of a process to replace the existing human spaceflight system with a new one. So, while development of the new system was terminated (with no replacement in sight) the old system was retired on schedule and sent off to museums with great fanfare. Agency direction and money was redirected to private companies to encourage the development of a commercial human spaceflight capability, and a vehicle(s) with which NASA would (ultimately) be able to purchase Earth to LEO transportation. We were (and remain) unable to transport astronauts into space and are dependent on Russia for a ride to our space station.

Congress did not stand idly by during this strategic confusion. After considerable whining and foot-dragging by NASA, Congress included specific direction to continue building the trans-LEO Orion spacecraft and a new, Shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle. This effort is proceeding, although NASA still has no well-defined strategic horizon or destination that would make sensible use of this vehicle. A human mission to Mars (the “ultimate goal”) is both technically and fiscally distant; agency “happy talk” about the imminence of such a mission is meaningless drivel. Because human missions to near-Earth asteroids were also determined to be infeasible, an “asteroid retrieval” stunt mission was presented as the next new destination – a make-work fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of having no place to send Orion and nothing to do once we got there (making it an easy target for criticism and future cancellation).

Now, five years after the Augustine Report, comes the National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration. This report, chartered by the Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, is a product of the Committee on Human Spaceflight, an ad hoc group appointed by NRC staff – and another rung down the bureaucratic ladder. Taking over three years (unlike the 6 month timeframe of the two earlier reports), this report canvassed the widest cross-section of the space community and American society to address the questions of “where and why” humans should go in space. The effort produced a massive 258-page book, delving into questions of possible destinations, public opinion, architectural variables, necessary technologies and the “pathways” that combine these variables into executable programs.

The most notable feature of the NRC report is its framework assumption: the purpose of a national human spaceflight program is “exploration.” Thus, the guiding questions of the NRC study are “how far can humans go?” and “what can they do when they get there?” This greatly circumscribes the actual possibilities of human spaceflight. One can imagine people doing many different things in space. Most certainly, scientific exploration is one of them, but it is by no means the only thing. The NRC report spent almost no time considering the broad field of space applications and utilization, in which people go to and come from various destinations in space, in order to accomplish a wide variety of tasks – to build, to provision, to mine, to remain, to observe, to prosper, to live. The entire field of creating wealth from space appears nowhere in the NRC report; it is only concerned with continuing the existing paradigm of launching self-contained missions from Earth, collecting data, and returning safely. Sustainability of the program – not human presence in space – is the objective.

Although the NRC report contains much solid analysis, it ultimately presents us with a future that is largely unattainable. Repeating the ingrained meme of “Mars is the ultimate goal” does nothing to chart the correct path forward from where we are now – a billion miles and a trillion dollars away from any human Mars mission. Instead, they could have endorsed an incremental and gradual extension of human reach – from LEO to cislunar to the lunar surface to trans-lunar to the planets. At each step, the capabilities and facilities needed to enable the next step are developed. In other words, we need to build a sustainable path using the resources already in space. If the alleged technical and policy “experts” on space do not advocate a logical and sensible path, why should we expect it from our political leaders? In order to assure private investors that their capital has some reasonable protections – that their involvement is worth taking a considerable risk for a suitable reward – a long-term, sustainable national effort in space must be demonstrated. Without it, neither program will be implemented, nor remain sustainable.

Our civil space program (and the future for commercial space) is diminished as each major report comes and goes. The impact of the latest NRC report was virtually nil – NASA continues to plan its asteroid retrieval stunt mission and the Potemkin Village “commercial space program” is trotted out to demonstrate that we are accomplishing something. Press releases and debuts of product mock-ups have replaced actual flight hardware and experience. The NASA budget remains static, while the agency and Administration have given Congress and the public no particular reason to believe it is going anywhere or doing anything to deserve any more funding than it’s currently getting.

Once America and her partners took on, executed and achieved great and challenging tasks – a hallmark of vibrant, healthy countries guided by interested, knowledgeable leadership. Now, challenges are being denied and death by committee has replaced hard work and breakthroughs. National advancement and achievement is stymied. Americans recognize that this is the wrong trajectory for the country and wince as the nation retreats further down the ladder. There will be no pride or excitement surrounding a program that continues in total disarray. There will be no great wave of interested students clamoring to excel and achieve. What’s up next for our national manned space flight program? What shape will the wrecking ball take and who will be tasked to deliver the deathblow? I shudder in anticipation of the next quinquennial report.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 22 Comments

A Lunar Road Trip

I have a new post up at Air & Space that describes an imaginary road trip across the surface of the Moon sometime in the no doubt distant future.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The Fog of Space Policy

Our national space policy -- clear as a bell.

Our national space policy — clear as a bell.

NASA recently announced its “down-select” of the two space contractors who will receive additional federal money to further develop a space vehicle to transport human crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Perhaps not too surprisingly, they chose the two companies whose vehicle concepts most closely resemble NASA’s own Orion capsule: the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2. A truly innovative design, the Dream Chaser lifting body of Sierra Nevada Corporation, was not selected. The ramifications of the selection illustrate some important facts about the current state of our national space program and the future of true commercial human spaceflight.

Conventional wisdom holds that we’re on the cusp of a new age of human spaceflight – a revolutionary transformation whereby space is opened to many users, rather than being available to only a few. It is proclaimed that with the development of commercial human transport to LEO and the accompanying advent of low cost launch services, the general public will soon be able to voyage into space. We are told that this follows an expected, natural progression, as private sector facilities and services always follow on the exploratory trail blazed by government or large, government-chartered efforts. NASA says that New Space companies are prepared to rush in where government has already trod. With this handoff, Mars is now the official exploratory horizon of our civil space efforts and all work shall be directed to that end, including the missions within the critical strategic arena of cislunar space, now deemed useful merely as a testing ground for “deep space vehicles” being designed to take us to Mars.

So, where are we in this “transformational” scenario? Let’s begin with a reality check on our current situation, as well as the likely prospects for the coming decades or so, a.k.a. “the near future.” Looking around, we see that the advent of commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur and, despite the hype, is not likely to occur for some time. Commercial operations have markets driven by needs and (to a much lesser extent) desires. At the moment, there is very little commercial demand for human flights to LEO. The belief of many New Space advocates – that there is an unrealized demand in space tourism or simply joy-riding into orbit – is not tenable. It’s been ten years since Space Ship One captured the Ansari X-Prize and we’ve yet to see a single, regularly scheduled commercial spaceflight company carrying paying passengers. True enough, seven people paid Russia for trips to space on the Soyuz, but these occurred on an ad hoc, non-scheduled basis and were more a procession of stunts than the purchases of a commercial service from a provider.

A notable effort to establish human spaceflight commerce in LEO is being undertaken by Bigelow Aerospace, with the aim of providing orbital facilities than can be leased out for whatever purpose a customer has in mind. Many hold the mistaken impression that Bigelow wants to build orbital hotels (probably because that’s how he made his fortune on Earth). However, his intention is to provide pressurized, human-qualified facilities in orbit without specifying how such facilities should be used. In technical terms, Bigelow’s company has made significant progress – they have successfully fabricated, launched into orbit and operated two prototype inflatable space structures. Yet no commercial flight to a Bigelow space station has occurred. The current focus of the company is to provide and operate an inflatable module to be attached to the ISS.

People should ask what’s holding up commercial human space efforts – that flood of commercial enterprises they’re being told are just itching to follow and fill the void left by NASA. One answer is that despite their best efforts to encourage its development, Bigelow Aerospace has been frustrated by the fact that no simple, inexpensive transportation system to and from LEO has emerged. In 2004, Bigelow offered a $50 million prize to find a provider who would develop such a system; that prize offer expired five years after its announcement without a single attempt to win it. So a commercial orbital facility remains a dream. To survive organizationally, Bigelow Aerospace has fallen back on the traditional venue of “Old Space” – being a contractor for NASA.

What do these facts say about possible markets for commercial human orbital flight? To me it says that despite slick New Space marketing, no robust demand for commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Both the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon 2 are prototype contractor space vehicles; they are specifically designed to service the International Space Station – and are funded by NASA. In the broadest sense, they simply represent space business as usual, albeit with a slightly modified contracting instrument.

And what of our national space program? Do these new developments (or more precisely, the lack of new development) in “commercial” spaceflight pick up where NASA left off? It’s hard to believe that commercial entities are back-filling capability in old areas (like cislunar space) for NASA when no capability is yet evident. However, this remains the agency’s attitude as they proclaim – “We’re on the critical path for Mars!” So, let’s examine that proposition.

The Orion spacecraft and SLS launch vehicle are designed for “deep space” exploration, i.e., human flight beyond LEO. When discussing these vehicles, NASA implies they are the pieces needed for future human Mars exploration. However, while they may be necessary pieces (that is debatable), they are not sufficient for a human mission to Mars. The SLS core stage can put about 70 metric tons into low earth orbit; a yet-to-be developed advanced version could ultimately put 120 tons into orbit. Yet, a human Mars mission powered with chemical-propellant requires at least 500-700 metric tons in LEO (perhaps more, depending upon the mission architecture and the opportunity provided by planetary alignment). Thus, at least 5 to 10 SLS vehicles are needed simply to get the required total mass into orbit (logistical problems of subdividing and packaging, preserving cryogenic propellant from boil-off, and assembly in space are left as an exercise for the student).

Next, envision the Orion spacecraft’s habitable volume, a space similar to a large walk-in closet – about 9 cubic meters (300 cubic feet, or a closet 5 by 10 by 6 feet in dimension). This volume must accommodate the 4-5 astronauts living in the spacecraft for almost three years. Clearly, Orion is not a suitable habitat for long-term living in space; it is simply an Earth-return vehicle designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at escape velocity (about 11 km/sec). Its limitations recall its origin – the Orion vehicle is a spacecraft designed for missions to and within cislunar space, i.e., trans-LEO missions of short duration (up to a month), with a high-velocity, aerothermal entry at the end. Thus, some type of habitation module (probably of ISS derivation) will be needed. I have not addressed the (currently unresolved) problem of entry, descent and landing on the martian surface (these problems are also left as an exercise for the student).

In short, we are still a considerable distance from a human Mars mission, an event so far in the future that I contend it literally makes no sense to discuss at this point how these pieces will be used. The current penchant of NASA to discuss hypothetical missions, like asteroid retrieval, is a de facto recognition of this situation. NASA – now “on its way to the stars” – has created a void in cislunar space. This condition must not be confused with a vacuum about to be filled with commerce. It is instead a playing field of unfulfilled promise, now abandoned, for which no commercial market of any potency or necessity yet exists.

The down-select of the two commercial vehicles for crew transport to ISS continues the lacuna in which we currently find ourselves. It remains neither a program with a sustainable destination nor with the means to get anywhere, yet one that insistently and repeatedly proclaims a firm possession of both. Once NASA had a vision that would demonstrate the economic potential of cislunar space but they retreated before it could happen. Regrettably, we find ourselves stranded in this relentless fog of space “transition,” arguing over rockets with no place to go, while other nations clearly see the potential that awaits in cislunar space and are firmly fixed on obtaining it.

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

American Space Program Reflects Standing in the World

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972.  Once unquestioned, now questionable.

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972. Once our dominance of space was unquestioned.  Now, it is questionable.

Graphic international news reports are testament to the fact that the world is an unstable and dangerous place. Because of Russian aggression and intransigence toward Ukraine, the state of relations between the United States and Russia continues to deteriorate. Half a world away in the East China Sea, a game of strategic cat-and-mouse is played where Chinese fighter planes buzz American surveillance flights in international waters and the Chinese navy throws its weight around in confrontations on the open ocean, including harassment of off-shore oil operations owned by Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations. American influence and reliability is increasingly doubted, mocked and challenged around the world. Relinquishing leadership has emboldened our enemies and worried our allies, forcing many countries to look to those projecting strength and resolve for their security. Because the U.S. has assumed a posture of withdrawal, we have created the power vacuum that is destabilizing the world.

These ongoing events place the current state of the American space program in stark relief. We continue to be dependent upon Russia for crew transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). A former NASA Administrator, who is not alone in his assessment, characterized this dependency as being “held hostage.” While we do have the ability to supply the ISS with procured cargo flights from American contractors, they have delivered only a fraction of their promised mass, leaving the vast bulk of ISS re-supply the domain of the Russian Progress (unmanned Soyuz) spacecraft. China has shown their resolve to dominate cislunar space. They are actively pursuing a program of missions to the Moon. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to fly anywhere throughout cislunar space and to rendezvous, loiter and encounter other satellite assets on station or en route to other destinations.

Our international space partners were blindsided by America’s unilateral decision to abandon the Moon – an agreed to destination and goal upon which they had been working. Meanwhile, our space agency continues to promote a stunt human mission to a “lassoed” asteroid, an idea nearly universally panned. And contrary to the realities of budget and capability, NASA continues to regale the nation with endless “happy talk” about eventual human missions to Mars, a goal that is well beyond the time horizon of any reasonable projection.

Why has it come to this? One might argue that the current strategic confusion about goals and destinations is merely a continuation of the ongoing struggle of human spaceflight to find a long-term, sustainable rationale after the end of the Apollo program. But this calculus would misread the past thirty years of space history. There has never been any doubt about the logical path beyond low Earth orbit for humans – it leads incrementally to high orbits in cislunar space, to the Moon and then to the planets beyond. Yes, it is physically possible to skip one or more of those steps (as Apollo demonstrated) but those detours lead to architectural shortcuts that, while perhaps necessary to meet short-term political considerations, do not lead to or drive long-term, sustainable human presence in space.

Many chalk up the current state of upheaval as the inevitable consequence of the end of Apollo, but we cannot remain in this spin cycle if we ever plan to move forward with a workable strategy. A current debate in space circles is not where to go, or what to do, but rather, how to do it.   Issues dividing the space community – the arguments keeping us stuck in low Earth orbit, focus mainly on means rather than ends, and rockets rather than destinations. Such debate reflects a paucity of national leadership and the natural movement by others to fill the vacuum left by this strategic confusion.

Human spaceflight beyond LEO can be pursued through one of two means – a large, fully fueled vehicle can be launched directly from Earth (requiring the development of a heavy lift rocket) or a trans-LEO spacecraft can be launched as smaller pieces and built and fueled in space. The Apollo architecture used a heavy lift vehicle (Saturn V) to conduct a lunar landing mission with a single launch. This development accelerated the schedule by avoiding the need to construct a large infrastructure in Earth orbit to support a lunar mission. Thus, we fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge and won the Moon race in less than a decade but left no lasting legacy infrastructure in space. An alternative approach would have been to incrementally build systems and emplace assets at increasing distances from Earth, including way stations, assembly points and fueling depots. Such a system is more complex and takes longer to build, but it creates permanent spaceflight infrastructure that would allow us to make repeated trips to the Moon and elsewhere. The success of Apollo has made it difficult to wrap our heads around going back to square one and building a space faring system in a permanent, sustainable way.

The new heavy lift launch vehicle (the SLS system) came about not as a result of a carefully thought-out strategy for space exploration but through an act of Congress who, faced with agency intransigence, acted to save a vital U.S. capability. The SLS launch vehicle currently being built will put about 80 metric tons into LEO, less than the older Saturn V but much more than any current or envisioned alternative. A future version could put roughly the same payload mass into LEO as the Saturn V. Critics of this program argue from two perspectives – first, that the SLS system is too expensive, both as a program and (because of projected low flight rates) by individual launch. Moreover, they claim that development of the SLS keeps spaceflight as an exclusive conclave of the federal government, requiring enormous resources to keep the program going. In fact, there is nothing (except the availability of additional federal subsidies) stopping the private sector from proceeding with their own vehicle development, at whatever pace they choose.

Thus, as framed by many in the space community, we are presented with these alternatives – do we want a human spaceflight program operated largely as it has been in the past – as an Apollo Redux, run by the federal government, with large rockets sending people to Mars for flags-and-footprint missions and other entertaining space “firsts?” Or, do we want a de-centralized program run by private corporations, providing many long-term opportunities for a variety of players to do different things in space? A line has been drawn in the sand and many advocates on each side remain intransigent and vociferous.

To ensure that the U.S. retains and grows a strong space program, we need a federally run human space program that promotes decentralization as capabilities are proven to the point that the private sector can invest in it with confidence, knowing markets and profits will exist going forward. History bears out the importance and necessity of cooperation between business and government. We have vital and pressing national concerns in space and the federal government represents our collective needs and desires as a nation. The fact that we are falling behind both Russia and China in spaceflight (witnessing the reality of how that impacts others understanding of our nation’s vitality and as a force in the world) bothers some not a whit, but it should. Earthly conflicts and tensions in international relations inevitably spill over into space and any other theater in which countries compete.

Recent events demonstrate that conflict escalates when the U.S. projects impotence in international affairs. The downsizing of our military has projected weakness, raising concerns about our national security and commitments abroad. Coupled with indecision over our national and international policies, such weakness has invited aggression around the world. Likewise, our civil space program is very visibly being dismantled just as the theater of cislunar space assumes more economic and military importance globally. Cislunar is the zone of near-Earth space where all of our national security and commercial space assets are located – and currently, they have scant protection from hostile action. A strong, robust U.S. presence in cislunar space supports and protects the nation and the world through situational awareness, asset protection and power projection.

In space we’re faced with the same options as on Earth – accept our role as a world leader and protect the interests of our allies and ourselves, or shun confrontation and accept the dictates of others. Some argue that cooperation in space leads to better relations and harmony on Earth; tell that to the Ukraine and their nervous neighbors. Many applaud this disruption in American power and influence. That type of thinking is very dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the world. We must resume a leadership role – one that looks after our national interests, wherever they are found – here on Earth or out in space. Instead of drawing down and retreating, we must stop the bleeding, retain what is left, build it back up and design it for permanence. We need to stop wasting time and money toying around with stunts and too-far-in-the-future wishful thinking. Our leadership must get down to the basics of moving our economy and national interests into space. Other countries projecting power and influence are already many steps ahead and set on a clear path to cislunar dominance.

Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 34 Comments

Is Doing Something Better Than Doing Nothing?

Papa's got a brand new bag -- NASA's ARM mission.

Papa’s got a brand new bag — NASA’s ARM mission.

Ideas can come from anywhere and sometimes institutions are created with the express purpose of generating ideas from which advanced technologies, products or capabilities may eventuate. These “think-tanks” have occupied a prominent place in American history since World War II, a time when science and technology emerged as a critical part of our national intellectual infrastructure. A remarkable series of concepts were developed out of such efforts, including the transistor (Bell Labs), game theory (Rand Corp.), and the Internet (ARPA). Less well remembered are ideas that for various reasons didn’t pan out, such as the Picturephone (Bell Labs) and atomic bomb-powered spaceships (Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Institute for Advanced Studies).

The W.M. Keck Foundation privately funds the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS). Located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology, KISS conducts “think and do studies” whose aim is to generate advanced concepts for space missions in order to revolutionize our approach to and the implementation of spaceflight. They hold workshops on a variety of study efforts, ranging from sweeping strategies for space exploration to the outline of specific mission concepts. Workshops are conducted by Caltech and JPL staff members, with a smattering of outside invitees included to give the patina of soliciting a broad range of ideas. Interestingly, two concepts coming out of Keck workshops drew the sudden attention of the keepers of our national space program: the human Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) and the robotic Lunar Flashlight mission. Since these concepts were unveiled, the spaceflight community has been in turn bemused, amused and outraged. How does an idea (sometimes of multi-billion dollar scope) developed by a small group, with minimal input from the community at large, suddenly emerge as a national program? In the case of the ARM, it was a think-tank idea that fortuitously appeared at the right time.

In April of 2010, President Obama gave a speech on space policy at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In it, the President denigrated the idea of the United States returning to the lunar surface, advocating instead a human mission to an asteroid – allegedly as an interim deep-space step towards a human mission to Mars. It was quickly apparent that technical experts had not vetted this new policy idea and that its potential benefits (such as they are) were poorly articulated by the administration. Topping things off, no suitable near-Earth asteroid target – one that satisfied the various spacecraft, flight duration, abort and launch energy constraints – could be identified.

This was a serious embarrassment – a major re-vectoring of the human spaceflight program had been carried out by executive fiat with no suitable target destination identified (all dressed up and no place to go). Enter the Keck Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Since we cannot find a suitable asteroid to journey out to, it proposed hauling an asteroid back into lunar orbit and then going there to examine it. Never mind that the very idea largely negates the alleged principal advantage of an asteroid mission as a Mars precursor – to check out long-duration, deep spaceflight systems and procedures. Of course, one could accomplish such technology validation in cislunar space and on the Moon, but that uncomfortable fact would fly in the face of the President’s claim that there’s no national need to go back to the Moon because “We’ve been there.”

As far as scientific return goes, retrieval of an asteroid to lunar orbit does not advance the science of small Solar System objects one whit. We already have abundant samples of near-Earth objects in the form of meteorites, and we’ve conducted, or will soon conduct, extensive exploration of asteroids by a variety of robotic flybys, orbiters, landers and samplers.

To counter the growing chorus sharply criticizing the asteroid mission, and to obscure the many questionable judgments on display in the President’s 2010 KSC space speech, the ARM concept was eagerly seized upon by the agency. As a rationale for a strategic change in the national space direction, ARM is pretty thin gruel. Despite their best efforts to put lipstick on this pig, ARM continues to come in for criticism from a variety of directions, including former NASA management, space advocates, and the scientific community. In fact, about the only people strongly supporting the ARM are its original Keck workshop advocates.

A new robotic mission called Lunar Flashlight is another Keck workshop idea. This micro-sat mission concept involves sending a small package of cubesats (miniaturized spacecraft packaged as 10-cm cubes), along with a large solar sail, into lunar orbit. To look for evidence of hydrated material, the solar sail will attempt to reflect sunlight into the permanently dark areas near the poles in a bid to obtain near-infrared spectra of the soils in these craters.

Multiple scientific and technical issues can be identified with this mission concept. It is not clear that enough sunlight can be reflected into the permanently dark areas near the Moon’s poles to illuminate the soil and obtain good spectra from Lunar Flashlight. But more importantly, we already know from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) laser altimetry that bright surface deposits occur in polar dark areas and that clear evidence of water frost is seen in UV imaging of some dark regions (although not in others). One of the biggest drawbacks to Lunar Flashlight is that a variety of evidence (including neutron spectroscopy and radar) suggests that much of the polar water on the Moon is found at depths of a few cm to tens of cm below the surface, thus rendering images of the surface spectra largely irrelevant to a quantitative inventory of polar volatiles.

In any event, Lunar Flashlight is a possible future robotic mission, probably because it is cheap (although no cost data have been provided as yet). The spacecraft launches as a secondary payload, hitchhiking a ride to GEO transfer orbit, whence it flies itself to the Moon. Lunar Flashlight is not the only possible lunar ice-detection mission considered in the Keck study, but reading through the workshop presentations illustrates a dearth of imagination. For example, the use of penetrators to obtain sub-surface polar information is discussed, but not hard-landing surface probes, cushioned by crushable enclosures. This may seem to be a “way out” idea in its own right, but this type of probe was built to fly to the Moon in the 1960s as a deployable part of the hard-landing Ranger spacecraft.

Given their influence on American space policy to date, one shudders to imagine what other ideas might arise from future Keck workshops – skywriting in orbit and hamsters to Jupiter are all in play. The space program is trapped in an irretrievable death spiral, where foolish ideas are pitched and adopted, then discarded as their public relations value declines once the concept is critically scrutinized. With each of these episodes, our nation and national space program lag further behind and lose more credibility. Instead of designing a technically credible space program that extends our reach into space, we are regaled with an endless parade of proposals for silly stunts. In regard to human spaceflight, we sometimes hear that “doing something” is better than “doing nothing.” Doing nothing might be a better option when the “something” being proposed is patently absurd. A static program might alert the public to what has been happening to our national space program.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 52 Comments

Moon First – Mine the Asteroids Later

I have a new post up at Air & Space on mining asteroids for water and platinum.  This piece extends some of the arguments I have made previously in my three-part series on lunar versus asteroid missions:

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 21 Comments

Buzz Moons Lunar Return

"So, this is a model of our future asteroid destination?"  "No, Mr. President -- this IS our destination!"

“So, this is a model of our future asteroid destination?” “No, Mr. President — this IS our destination!”

On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has laid out his case for the immediate adoption of a new national goal in space – a human mission to Mars. Though such is (allegedly) already our national “horizon” goal for human spaceflight, I do take his meaning – that he is dissatisfied with the current progress along this strategic path and suspects (rightly, in my opinion) that we are not really serious about Mars as our space goal.

In his piece for Time magazine, Buzz outlines and answers several questions he feels that, we as a nation, must answer. He invites the reader to consider their own responses to his hypothetical questions. I accept his invitation and provide here my answers.

1. Does the United States wish to continue leading human exploration of space or leave it to Russia, China, India or some other nation to take over?

This is actually a very good question. Buzz answers emphatically “Yes!” but public feeling about space is largely one of indifference. The erosion of American space leadership has been gradual enough such that most people (who think very little about space policy) have not even noticed it. When they do notice, they tend to shrug their shoulders. But this question does not really refer to opinions held by the public at large, but rather to the decision-makers within the American political system. Looked at from that perspective, the answer to the question is clearly “No,” in that there is a general refusal to support a unified, long-term strategic direction in space (either in terms of goals or funding). True enough, some politicians are very supportive of civil space, having worked hard in their attempt to set the program on a sustainable track. But they are as much a minority within their sub-group as space buffs are within the general populace.

2. Does it not make good sense for the U.S. to take the high ground by establishing cooperative U.S.-China relations in space?

It does not, at least not at this stage in our relations with them. Buzz makes an analogy to the alleged benefits of Apollo-Soyuz. However, that program (which only consisted of one mission) was largely a public relations stunt, designed to defuse immediate geopolitical tensions and did not lead to any significant cooperation or follow-on work in space (the agreement to build ISS together came 20 years later, after the fall of the USSR). Moreover, as the then-recent winners of the Moon race with the Soviets, America came to Apollo-Soyuz from a position of strength and could afford to be generous. The Chinese space program is run by their military and has already conducted several missions of a decidedly menacing character. I do not object to cooperation with the Chinese, but only after we have developed an independent cislunar capability, comparable to the one China is currently developing.

3. Does it make sense for the U.S. to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to mount a new Apollo-style program to return to the moon?

No and no one is advocating this! Even more pertinent, why make this argument now, as the current administration terminated our return to the Moon four years ago? Still, it’s the oft-repeated straw man argument when space missions, money and motives are debated. As I have detailed many times, the true purpose of the VSE was to return to the Moon with the goal of learning how to live and work there for increasingly extended periods of time. Key to the VSE architecture was the development of our ability to extract the material and energy resources of the Moon (and space in general) – simply, to learn how to use what we find in space in order to live, work and travel in space. This has never been done by any nation or entity; acquiring this skill-set is essential to becoming space faring – possessing the ability to provision ourselves off-planet, unchained from the tyranny of the rocket equation.

4. And shouldn’t the U.S. develop the technological capabilities needed to land humans on Mars by first traveling to a nearby asteroid for research and development purposes?

This assertion is placed in the sequence so as to appear to be a logical conclusion from the previous question, but in actual fact is a complete non-sequitur. Buzz makes no clear case that a human asteroid mission contributes in any way to a human Mars mission, except to the extent that both are beyond the orbit of the Moon. Long-duration spaceflight, closed-loop life support, fault-tolerant systems are all needed for Mars missions, but those goals are being pursued (and developed) today using the International Space Station and other near-Earth space missions. Asteroid missions do nothing to develop planetary surface systems – such as landers and surface rovers (both of which could be developed by human presence on the Moon). Most critically, human asteroid missions essentially do nothing to help us learn how to extract and use planetary resources. Asteroids contain water at low concentrations, but for reachable near-Earth asteroids, that water is chemically bound in mineral structures, thus processing is very different from the harvesting and use of water ice (the preferred method of extracting water on both the Moon and on Mars). Finally, the biggest technical challenge to a human Mars mission (one that is currently unsolved) is the Entry-Descent-Landing (EDL) problem. In short, we cannot land massive payloads on Mars with the proven methods used by the robotic Mars landers to date. This is a problem that must be solved; one can argue that lunar return will not solve it but most certainly, neither does a mission to an asteroid.

5. And speaking of Mars, are we prepared as a nation to take the necessary steps to explore Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a manned settlement on that planet?

Here is Buzz’s rhetorical “trump card,” a question to which we all are expected to shout, “Yes!” then march on Capitol Hill demanding that the federal money spigot be opened in order to build colonies on Mars. This is a deeply held conviction of many in the Mars advocacy community. Yet, within Buzz’s column (and the recent NRC report on Human Spaceflight), one will search in vain for any reason why. Lip service is paid to a Quest-for-Life motivation and for an understanding of our planetary origins, but beyond that, there is no justification as to why Mars is our “ultimate goal,” except to the extent that it always has been.

As far as the idea of settlement goes, I am unaware of any previous federal government program that has settled anything (historically, the federal government has taken action to ensure that a region is NOT settled). Government can enable settlement through incentives and guarantees of security. But if space is ever settled, it will likely be done by entities for reasons largely unknown to us today. There is simply no compelling need for the national government to “settle space.” That said, the government could undertake a scientific and engineering research program to understand how humans could access and remain at distant localities in space for increasing periods of time, including the use of off-planet resources. Such a space program could create the capability to build large structures in space, such as distributed aperture communications and observation systems or solar power satellites to develop a clean and efficient global system of energy distribution. A space program of this type would both challenge and reward – returning value on the investment. Such a program could naturally lead to the eventual “settlement” of space, and thereby bring space development into our economic sphere.

There seems to be a notion that somehow, the new emphasis on “private” spaceflight will take up the slack for a faltering and fading federal space program. The recent piece in The Daily Caller by Andrew Follett is full of misstatements and inaccuracies, including the notion that somehow SpaceX has provided multiples of space capability for a fraction of NASA’s cost. Andrew seems to be unaware that a single Shuttle launch could carry 18,600 kg up to the ISS, more than five and a half times the capacity of the SpaceX Dragon (3300 kg), so its actual cost per pound to orbit is lower than the Falcon 9, not higher. Moreover, even SpaceX itself (via its Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell) is advocating for more NASA funding. Despite their hype about Mars colonization, SpaceX has yet to launch a human into space nor have they sent a payload beyond geosynchronous orbit. Follett repeats the fallacy that we are in a better technological position to go to Mars now than we were 50 years ago to go to the Moon, again fundamentally misunderstanding both the current engineering state-of-the-art, national security and the political climate of the nation. A realistic, sustainable strategic approach (along with fewer, pie-in-the-sky New Space “commercials”) will be necessary if our space program is to survive.

The questions Buzz proposes are useful in framing the terms of our national debate on the goals and paths of our civil space program. It’s just that my answers to his questions are very different from the ones he draws. Buzz Aldrin has been to the Moon but, as he notes, he is now in his 8th decade. That means there are two generations alive that did not experience this great American accomplishment – you had to have been alive during Apollo to understand the difference that exists between these two perspectives. In the 45 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew to the lunar surface, we have acquired vast amounts of new data about the Moon and its resources. We now recognize its utility – an aspect about which we knew very little when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the Moon.   By returning to Moon to build an affordable, extensible space faring system (one that moves us beyond the impasse that’s prevented us from capitalizing on the great national accomplishment of Apollo 11), we (and those who were not alive then) can celebrate the renewed journey and the experience the joy of knowing that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 41 Comments

New post at Air & Space: Apollo 15

A somewhat offbeat contribution on this Moon landing anniversary day.  The month of July is witness to several different space history milestones.  Over at The Once and Future Moon, I discuss how I was inspired by the Apollo 15 mission, July 1971.  Comment here, if inclined.

Also, Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle has the third of his pieces on the state of the American civil space program up today.  He spoke to me about the value of the Moon and that topic is discussed in the story.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 15 Comments

Ten Easy Pieces

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

This weekend (July 20, 2014) is the anniversary of the first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission. No doubt much ink will be spilt on “perspective” pieces, noting the glory days of Apollo and contrasting them (no doubt unfavorably) with the current situation in our civil space program. Rather than adding to the random noise with yet another harangue about the advent of a space doomsday, I offer the following – a selection of ten quotes from some of my previous posts here at SLR and over at Air & Space magazine.

When we went to the Moon 45 years ago, it was to demonstrate the superiority of our system over that of the Soviet Union. Additionally, we were able to conduct the first scientific reconnaissance of another world. Both of these were momentous events. What we did not know then was the true value of the Moon. The Moon has utility and therefore, value.  Recent discoveries have shown that large quantities of water exist near the poles of the Moon, near localities of near-permanent sunlight, thus providing the material and energy resources needed to create new spaceflight capabilities from what we find in space, rather than what we can lug up there with us.  The Moon is not simply an interesting destination in space; it is an enabling asset for human spaceflight.

It has been two generations since Apollo and the manned Moon landings. Forty-five years ago, the Apollo astronauts were flesh and blood heroes – their achievements inspired us all and encouraged scholastic and career excellence. The dreams of science-fiction inspired many of us to pursue careers in space. Today, we still flock to see science-fiction movies and are entertained (some would say narcotized) by special effects and computer fantasy. But do we still seek to implement our dreams? Or are we content with the fantasy?

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Pt. 1)

February 2009:  The rocks brought back from the Moon told us the story of the Solar System’s early history, details both surprising and astonishing.  It was a time when planets collided and giant asteroids blew holes in planetary crusts hundreds to thousands of kilometers across.  The outer part of the Moon completely melted, forming a global ocean of liquid rock.  Our ideas about planetary formation and evolution had to be re-written from scratch after Apollo. What does this have to do with human exploration?  Because people went to the Moon, we now have a completely different view of how life has evolved on Earth.  That’s a bold assertion, but I believe it to be true.

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Part 2)

March 2009: A robotic rover can be designed to collect a sample, but it cannot be designed to collect the correct sample.  Field work involves posing and answering conceptual questions in real time, when emerging models and ideas can be tested in the field.  It is a complex and iterative process; we sometimes spend years at certain field sites on the Earth, asking and answering different and ever more detailed scientific questions.  Our objective in the geological exploration of the Moon is knowledge and understanding.  A rock is just a rock, a piece of data.  It is not knowledge.  Robots collect data, not knowledge.

Stuck in Transit – Unchaining Ourselves From the Rocket Equation

March 2010:  We can wait and hope for the proposed technology development program to provide us with magic beans, or we can begin that process now by returning to the Moon with robots and humans to learn how to harvest and use its material and energy resources.  Creating a sustainable system of space faring that can take us anywhere we want to go would be a real accomplishment.  By gaining this knowledge and expertise, mankind will be free to choose many space goals, thereby achieving “at will” space destination capability.

Can we afford to return to the Moon?

December 2010: Rather than shut up, I now put up.  I have submitted a paper for publication in the Proceedings of Space Manufacturing 14, the conference in late October sponsored by the Space Studies Institute.  My co-author Tony Lavoie and I have developed an architecture that returns America to the Moon with a specific mission in an affordable way.

From “One Small Step” to Settlement

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

June 2011: Settlement is a valid long-term goal for humanity in space – but we must have something with a practical and political payoff in the near-term.

Technical Readiness

November 2012: In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man.

“Where, Why and How?” – Concerns of the House Subcommittee on Space

May 2013:  I used my opportunity before the committee to submit a detailed architecture for building an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (see the links at end of my submitted testimony here).  While we should not make a fetish of reusability, to create a lasting system (one that serves our diverse national needs in space), we need to adopt the ethic of a space “fleet” whereby ships operate in one locality in space and only there.  One size does not fit all.  Different functions require different kinds of ships and one might change vehicles several times in the course of a journey.  In other words, we should begin to move from an Earth-based and dependent transportation system to a space-based and provisioned one. Harvesting lunar water is key to this development.

Mining the Moon, Fueling the Future

December 2013:  The real value of extraterrestrial mining is accessing material outside of Earth’s gravity well and making products that enable and create new capabilities in space and on other worlds.  So far, we have not found any deposits of unknown materials in space that cannot be found on Earth (the “unobtainium” beloved of science fiction writers).  But we have found deposits of common materials that, while having no economic value for return to Earth, have enormous value in space.  Anything that we can find and use on another world means that much less material that has to be launched from the surface of the Earth.  With launch costs of many thousands of dollars per pound, every bit of mass that we can find and use in space is that much less budget-busting dumb mass hauled up from Earth.

Lunar Forensic Files: Studying Life’s Processes and Origins on the Moon

February 2014: As we continue to study the Moon, we find that it offers much more than one might suspect at first glance.  The Moon’s early history reveals the secrets of planetary assembly, impact bombardment, global melting and differentiation into core, mantle and crust.  Its middle history tells us about the thermal evolution of planets, as internal heat spawned the volcanism that resurfaced part of the Moon and operates on all of the terrestrial planets.  The continued impact history recorded in the Moon’s surface layer documents a phase of Earth history missing from our terrestrial geological record, including the possibility of episodic waves of impacts that are at least partly responsible for extinctions of life recorded in the fossil record.  This same surficial layer also records the history and output of our Sun, the provider of energy to the planets and the principal driver of climate change on Earth.  The interconnections between the various branches of lunar science with the other sciences grow more evident and more significant over time.

Surrendering in Space

March 2014:  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.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 29 Comments

Why We’re Not Going To Mars

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

In our never ending debate over the direction of U.S. space policy, you’ve no doubt heard the claim that for a human mission to Mars, we have more technology available to us than President Kennedy had available to him when he declared the Apollo Moon landing goal in 1961. Those making this assertion are likely referring to the oft-mentioned “information revolution,” whereby the computing power that guided Apollo to the Moon can fit inside a thimble, rather than the large, suitcase-sized boxes that the old system required. But computers and avionics, while essential, hardly make up a complete and operational spaceflight capability.

How was it possible that within the span of only a few years, a country that had not yet been able to send a man into orbit was able to land two men on the Moon? For over 50 years, space advocates have been talking about sending people to Mars. Yet projected launch dates for the first voyage continually recede into the dim future, currently estimated as occurring in the mid-to-late 2030s at best, but more likely after 2050 in more candid assessments. What has happened to us as a nation that would cause this huge disparity? Could it be we are not as technically literate and advanced as we believe we are? Have we ridden too long on the Apollo wave of excellence? We appear stranded – left behind, dreaming and talking of space but not conquering it.

The success of Apollo can be attributed to many factors, but one aspect often overlooked is that Apollo was a program of the Cold War – a successor to World War II, the greatest marshaling of national will and capability in human history. Several recent books have examined the role of industry and the technical infrastructure developed and used to win the Second World War – how the latent industrial power of America was harnessed and unleashed against the war machines of both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. The massive production capability of American industry supplied an abundance of matériel to our armed forces. In the roughly 1300 days of America’s participation in World War II, the United States produced over 100,000 tanks, almost 200,000 fighter and heavy bomber aircraft, 160 aircraft carriers, 350 destroyers, and over 200 submarines. Whatever setbacks we received on the battlefields of the world, it was not for a lack of tools (nor the will) with which to fight.

This enormous American manufacturing capacity was complemented by a concerted effort to use our abundant scientific and engineering talent pool to aid the war effort. The contributions of science and engineering were numerous, ranging from proximity fuses, to radar, to the ultimate scientific/engineering achievement of the war, the atomic bomb. These efforts not only created “wonder weapons” to serve the fight for freedom, they also produced a trained and dedicated work force – a group of people willing to endure long, hard, anonymous hours of work using their maximum (and considerable) brainpower to solve nearly intractable problems.

This marshaled capability could have dissipated into nothing at the end of the war but it didn’t because the people and facilities that defeated the Axis and restored peace to the world were necessary to contain the ambitions of a new and rapacious superpower – the aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, a long period of world tension. Rather than putting an emphasis on the production of matériel, this war required an even greater intellectual effort and more brainpower than the just-concluded “War to End All Wars.” In a real sense, the Cold War was a “technician’s struggle,” with East and West continually engaged in a global contest of technical achievement and one-upsmanship, all with the aim of attaining a military edge over their opponent to advance and secure their nation’s position in the world. The space program was an outgrowth of this mindset and struggle.

With the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), it was clear that launches into space were now possible and that the battle of ideas and ideals would inevitably spill into the heavens. The Space Race became another battleground in the relatively bloodless, ideological Cold War struggle. Each new space accomplishment was heralded not only as an achievement in its own right, but also as an example of the superiority of a politico-economic system. When President John F. Kennedy advocated the landing of a man on the Moon “by the end of the decade,” he was throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the Soviet Union: We will do this – are you able to?

In doing so, Kennedy was able to draw on the enormous scientific and technical infrastructure built up over the course of a twenty-year Cold War (itself a legacy of the previous capacity used to win World War II). This infrastructure was much more than factories, laboratories and advanced machinery – it was powered by Americans who possessed the culture and character needed to make it all work as a unified whole. The generation that fought and won the Cold War was largely the same one that fought and won the Second World War – those men and women shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression, who sacrificed for their families and for their country. They were willing to work the long, hard hours beyond a daily punch-in to complete whatever job had to be done (and done correctly) to keep and protect a nation and a way of life. In short, it was the so-called “Greatest Generation” – those who fought back tyranny and won, who took us to the Moon.

Over time, people and ideas pass away and memories fade. After the fall of the USSR, the enormous technical infrastructure that won this triumph was allowed to atrophy and dissipate. I have always thought that the 1989 declaration of the Human Space Initiative (later re-named the Space Exploration Initiative – SEI) of President George H.W. Bush (a WWII veteran) was our leadership’s recognition of the danger of letting this capability lapse and thus, coupled it to a suitable challenge for America’s scientific and engineering community (one that would keep sharp our capacity to fight some future technocratic war or struggle – a sentiment and truth we should always reflect upon). Historically, exploration is an activity used to keep a country’s military engaged during long periods of relative peace (e.g., The H.M.S. Challenger’s oceanographic survey in the latter part of the 19th Century). In this sense, President Bush believed a challenging goal in space would serve to maintain this critical national capability, a capability bought and paid-for with decades of blood and treasure.

However, SEI was not supported by the Congress and the technological infrastructure that won the Cold War evaporated. Numerous small, high-tech companies that supported military and space needs in previous decades were allowed to fold or were absorbed by mega-conglomerates. The contraction was not only permitted to occur, but was actually encouraged by ideological opponents of the “military-industrial complex,” the allegedly evil coalescence of the high-tech, federal contractor firms that helped to win the Cold War. The so-called “boom” of high-tech in the late 1990s was largely consumer-oriented and did not produce the needed pieces of a space faring capability.

So, here we find ourselves in the new millennium. Are we “more technically advanced” than when JFK annunciated the goal of a lunar landing within a decade? I think not. Not only has our enormous and varied technical industrial capacity vanished, its engine – the people who made it all work – are gone (laid off, retired or dead). Too many of the current generation lack an understanding of history. They are not motivated by an understanding and belief in American exceptionalism – the foundation that animated past generations to greatness. They have not learned (or have not been taught, so do not possess) the ethic of self-sacrifice of their parents and grandparents – those tough, smart generations that defeated the Nazis, brought down the Soviets, and built a technically advanced American civilization, wealthy – and generous – almost beyond imagination. That nation has been slowly receding into the mists of history, leaving behind but a shell of what it once was and what it was capable of doing.

This is not the same country that sent people to the Moon in less than a decade. We have become a generation of self-absorbed takers, vegetating on and destroying the accumulated wealth and accomplishment of our formerly great nation. We spin fantasy when we talk about going to Mars. We’re not going to Mars – or anywhere else in space – until we are willing to sacrifice, roll up our sleeves and begin working to rebuild what we once had. Until then, our future in space will remain limited to Powerpoint presentations and recollections of what the Greatest Generation was able to achieve.

Note:  I was a guest on The Space Show this week, discussing this topic and also the new NRC report, the subject of my last blog post.  You can listen to the podcast from this link.

Posted in planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 33 Comments