Many of us working in or with NASA recognized that the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was a breakthrough, the necessary fulcrum needed to change our approach and direction to spaceflight. It was a program that would have opened the door to a wide variety of previously unobtainable missions. In this five-part series to establish and clarify the history and intent of the VSE, I’ve shared my insider’s perspective on why and how it was conceived, executed and eventually terminated – a cautionary tale, if you will, and hopefully, an instructive one. In this last post, I want to examine what lessons should be drawn from this history and how we should move forward in a positive way to have and to build a U.S. space program truly “worthy of a great nation.”
Because the agency’s initial response to the VSE was to focus on a human mission to Mars, NASA began to devise an Apollo-style architecture (as the Apollo program was the one successful operational template with which the agency was familiar). These decisions effectively derailed the incremental and sustainable approach for lunar return intended by the VSE. Such a result was not the intent of the program architects, nor that of many of us who were working with NASA in the immediate years following its announcement. Certainly I was not interested in participating in a new “Mission to Mars” effort doomed to failure from the beginning – many of us had already experienced this during the years of the Space Exploration Initiative (1989-1992), an earlier attempt to re-create the Apollo zeitgeist.
The relief many of us felt at the beginning of the VSE resulted from the belief that the lessons of the previous decade had been well learned and that a long overdue change was upon us. We soon became disabused of such a notion. Although many in the space community understood both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the new effort, the dominant culture in both the agency and industry was wedded to the old template. The effect of this attitude was to cement in many minds, both the impression and the reality, that we were “repeating” our previous space experience in an attempt to re-gain the glory of Apollo. Such a mindset eventually led to the inevitable characterization that the VSE was both “old hat” and unaffordable.
The current program direction (one of technology development coupled to the time honored promise of a human Mars mission – as yet unachievable but “perhaps twenty-five to thirty years down the road”) is a roadblock to implementing a program based on the use of off-planet resources. Flights to supply the International Space Station (ISS) using non-NASA spacecraft are portrayed as a “new” goal and direction for space, even though vehicle development (and now, its operational costs) have been and will continue to be largely billed to the American taxpayer. These days, getting our astronauts to the ISS (the space station we primarily designed, built and paid for) requires paying the going rate (get in line and reserve a seat) to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, or else stay home.
We find ourselves in the untenable situation of having a U.S. civil space program in complete disarray. NASA has a shrinking budget and no strategic direction. Our nation’s dire financial situation is rapidly approaching crisis proportions. It is highly likely that future space budgets will be flat at best, but more probably lower than current funding levels. Given this fiscal reality, how can we move forward in space?
Our current model of spaceflight (established sixty years ago) is to custom design and build spacecraft and then launch them on expendable vehicles – build, fly, use and discard. Born of necessity, this operational template ensures that spacecraft are complex, expensive and serve for a limited lifetime. It demands that we launch everything we need from Earth – from the bottom of the deepest gravity well in the inner Solar System – requiring significant energy (read “cost”) to reach an intended destination. Because we launch all mission pieces at once, spacecraft are mass- and power-limited and therefore capability-limited and they will remain so until we approach the problem of spaceflight using a different template. Expensive and difficult goals are achievable under constrained budgets by taking small incremental steps (affordable given yearly budgets) that build on and work together, thereby creating a large capability over time.
The difficulty of reaching low Earth orbit (LEO) limits our activities beyond. Yet nearly all of our modern space assets reside above LEO in cislunar – the zone of space between Earth and Moon. These satellites comprise the backbone of modern technical civilization and conduct such critical functions as communications, positioning, remote sensing, weather monitoring and national strategic surveillance. The size and capability of space assets are limited by the size of the largest rocket that can launch a given payload and on their preordained operational lifetime. But our experience working with the Shuttle and ISS programs has demonstrated that people and machines working together over time can assemble and maintain space systems as large, and operated as long, as desired. The problem is getting people and robots to these various points in cislunar space.
A major step towards becoming space faring is developing the freedom of movement and action throughout cislunar space. Recent robotic missions surveying the Moon show that the lunar poles contain significant amounts of water ice, perhaps the most useable resource for humans in space. As a consumable, H2O (water and oxygen) supports life. As shielding, a water barrier protects people from cosmic radiation. Water is a medium of energy storage; it can be dissociated into its component hydrogen and oxygen using electricity generated by sunlight. During local night or eclipse, these gases can be combined back into water, generating electricity. Finally, hydrogen and oxygen are the most powerful chemical rocket propellant, which opens the possibility for the Moon to becoming our first “off-shore” coaling station in the sea of cislunar space.
Because the Moon is close, the time-delay for a round-trip radio signal is less than three seconds. This gift of proximity makes it possible for machines under the control of operators on Earth to begin the initial work of establishing a demonstration resource processing facility on the Moon. Transit times to the Moon are as short as three days and launch opportunities are always available. Some peaks and crater rims near the ice-rich lunar poles experience nearly constant sunlight, permitting near-constant generation of electrical power with solar arrays. The individual pieces of equipment needed to begin the harvesting of lunar ice are small and can be launched on small and medium-lift rockets. This means that we can begin to install and operate a lunar polar resource extraction facility now, without waiting for the advent of a new, heavy lift launch system. This scaled, incremental architectural approach can fit under nearly any budgetary envelope and offers numerous, intermediate milestones to document accomplishment. Finally, the use of multiple, small steps facilitates participation of both international and commercial partners in the development of cislunar space.
Making cislunar space our next strategic horizon in space solves many problems. It creates a near term (decadal, not multi-decadal) goal against which progress can be demonstrated and measured – inviting a myriad of ideas and participation. It can be built in incremental steps, tailored to be affordable under a wide variety of restrictive budget regimes. It creates a lasting space faring infrastructure that allows people and machines access to all of the locations in cislunar space (location of scientific, economic and strategic assets). We will finally have laid the groundwork necessary to navigate past self-imposed roadblocks, thereby opening the Solar System to exploration through the creation of a space transportation network that allows routine departure and return to low Earth orbit.
Because we have become so dependent on space assets – technology that controls, assists and enhances so much in our daily lives, the aimless direction of our civil space program not only endangers the agency’s future, it also jeopardizes our national interests. By making routine access to cislunar space our goal – establishing a “transcontinental railroad” in space – we will have finally graduated from a “flags and footprints” model of human space travel to the creation, use and control of true, long term space faring capability. And we can do this in a manner that is scalable and thus affordable. It is the right direction for our civil space program in the new millennium.
Humans aren’t always smart enough to know in advance which scientific questions to ask. Through exploration, answers to questions we would not even have imagined are revealed. If we insist on knowing “Why?” before pushing forward with manned exploration, our nation will certainly suffer. Developing cislunar space is a challenging but achievable goal. We must proceed with the understanding that we will never be smart enough to know where this journey is taking us. But historical evidence proves that humanity always gains knowledge and reaps many benefits along the way.