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.