Note: The following is a fictional (as reading the last sentence will clearly indicate) but completely plausible account from a historical counterfactual perspective. Happy New Year!
Reflecting on the last decade of U.S. space accomplishment, it is apparent that the strategic direction of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) first outlined by President Bush on January 14, 2004 has dramatically transformed the civil space program of the United States. Instead of drifting aimlessly, as had been our wont, we are now poised to expand outward with activities undreamed of only a few years ago – ready to set sail into the Solar System with both humans and machines. It is important to revisit this decade of events to appreciate what (and who) is responsible for the developments that cemented this enviable level of space capability – the effort keeping us at the forefront of space development.
Only ten years ago, in the immediate aftermath of its announcement, we were in great danger of losing the Vision. Many in NASA and within the larger space community misinterpreted the new direction, thinking it to be an “Apollo-to-Mars” effort. The NASA Administrator quickly set things (and those attempting to corral or derail the effort) straight by clearly articulating the goal and outlining how it would be achieved. The purpose of the VSE was not to create a crash program for a human landing on Mars (premature from both a technical and a fiscal perspective) but rather, to undertake a new and different approach – one designed to give the United States lasting, permanent space faring capability through the use of the material and energy resources of space. Over the years such an approach had been thought about and discussed but never attempted. By gaining the ability to provision ourselves in space, the tyranny of the rocket equation could be defeated. The Administrator quickly terminated the far-as-the-eye-could-see series of “road mapping” exercises (recognizing that we were wasting time and money) and put agency personnel on notice that the purpose of this new effort was to fly missions and collect critical information to implement the VSE, not to study it interminably.
The first steps were to return Shuttle to flight and complete the International Space Station (ISS). Shuttle flights resumed in 2005 and the assembly of the ISS was completed after 20 more flights. As Shuttle was completing its final ISS missions, the reliable Shuttle hardware was simultaneously being developed into the new Neptune launch vehicle – an affordable Shuttle side-mount rocket that we now depend on to regularly and reliably supply our space efforts. This heavy lift vehicle, with almost 80 metric tons of capacity, has proven to be more than adequate in supplying the needs of lunar return. Since Neptune was developed entirely with existing Shuttle pieces, we were able to use the manufacturing facilities at Michoud and the vehicle-processing infrastructure at the Cape without making significant modifications. More than any other early effort of the VSE, the development of Shuttle side-mount Neptune (versus the development of a wholly new launch system) was the key decision that advanced our return to the Moon. Because Neptune was developed in parallel with the completion and retirement of the Space Shuttle, we experienced an interval of less than a year when our civil program could not send people into space.
By virtue of the way the universe is put together, the Moon with its resources is key for the creation of new spaceflight capability. When the Vision was formulated, we suspected the Moon contained those resources needed to build a permanent presence off-planet. At that time, there was evidence for water ice at the lunar poles but it was fragmentary and inconclusive. To get the new initiative off and running, a robust program of robotic space missions (including orbiters, probes and landers) was initiated. With these spacecraft successively documenting the presence and nature of ice at the poles, the idea of harvesting polar ice as the principal activity on the lunar surface was validated.
The production of water from lunar materials by the lander Agricola was a critical milestone in space expansion. This experiment demonstrated that water could be mined from lunar polar regolith (although at the time, we were still a long way from making water extraction a winning proposition). The next advance came with the adaptation and application of the terrestrial Frasch mining process to the polar deposits of the Moon. By microwave sintering an impermeable layer over the water-bearing lunar soil, we were able to pump steam into the subsurface to melt the ice and mobilize the resulting water for easy removal. This process made possible the extraction of water without excavating tons of soil for feedstock; mining water on the Moon became easier, less energy intensive and more efficient.
We now have processing equipment in operation on the Moon, controlled remotely by telerobotic means from Earth. We’re using this equipment to build up a stockpile of water and to assemble the surface habitat we’ll be using for human occupation later this year. Let us pause and consider this remarkable achievement – the complete assembly of what is essentially a small space station on the lunar surface, assembled and controlled robotically from Earth. The human crew will not arrive carrying supplies on their backs like the Apollo astronauts, but will instead move into a fully operational facility. In preparation for fuel production (fuel enabling our return to Earth and eventually elsewhere in the Solar System) our robotic cryogenic systems have produced test amounts of liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the lunar water. This important step (previously demonstrated at bench scale at Outpost) completes the chain – giving us a continuously supplied cislunar transportation system.
Our international partners ESA and Japan augmented the automated lunar outpost with the recent completion of the L-1 staging node – fabricated and assembled in space. Ultimately, this small, human-tended outpost in Earth-Moon space will serve as an offshore fueling station, where water from the lunar poles will be shipped and stored in preparation for its conversion into propellant. Currently, L-1 is resupplied from Earth using contract carriers, but soon it will be supplied from the Moon. Provisioned with lunar produced consumables, this station will serve as a way station for crews en route to and from Outpost at the North Pole of the Moon and other destinations in cislunar space.
By using an incremental, step-wise approach, yearly measurable progress could be documented; significant intermediate milestones were met. This approach ensured a solid base of political support over its ten years of development. In retrospect, this maintenance of support was critical to the success of the VSE. If we had adopted a path whereby significant accomplishment would not come until the out-years, it is conceivable that political support at either the Congressional or Executive level would have seriously eroded and jeopardized the program. Instead, thanks largely to the lunar program’s record of steady and continuous accomplishment, we’ve seen the agency’s budget increase over the last ten years, despite a decline in funding for other federal agencies.
Implementing the VSE under the severe cost constraints laid out at its beginning was challenging. Its success came about through the extensive use of existing Shuttle assets, a step-wise, robust robotic program (that has already emplaced most of the lunar surface equipment), from the division of program responsibilities among our international partners, and an unwavering and continuous commitment from the government in the face of ongoing national and international economic difficulties. The success of this program is a testament to their resolve in completing a program that has set this nation on a strong economic course with national security value.
With the abrupt arrival of China as a major space-faring power in this area, most observers now recognize that an American presence ensures that a market-based economic system will prevail on the space frontier. Had we not taken up this challenge, the United States would have been left behind, watching while the rules of space industrialization were drawn up by powers less than sympathetic to the dynamics of free societies and free markets. It is apparent by the culmination of these much-anticipated events that our presence in cislunar space and on the Moon is of one vital national interest and concern, and that it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Ten years ago, we took a critical turn on the road to our future in space. We now have a reliable, sustainable launch system based on Shuttle hardware. We have no need to pay foreign countries to carry our crews into orbit. We have built a cislunar transportation system with way stations for assembly and fueling. And we have assembled an automated, operating lunar surface outpost, ready to receive its first human inhabitants. If we’d chosen a different path we would be looking instead at a cartoon space program, a series of stunts, imaginary missions and PowerPoint slides featuring wonderful computer-derived artwork of destinations and missions that would be achieved – someday (We promise!). Leadership has been key.
Thankfully, we chose instead to pursue a program of achievement. It’s been a great decade for America’s space program.