An interesting exchange occurred last week at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), when representatives from several national space agencies met to discuss the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) for spaceflight, which outlines the ambitions of nations that cooperate in space. The nations currently involved in the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) meet periodically to discuss future plans and strategic directions, but all is not well among the international partners and some of these differences were hashed out at the meeting. While there is strong sentiment among most nations to pursue a logical path of return to the Moon and the development of new spaceflight capabilities, one particularly recalcitrant member nation insists upon going down a different path.
In one particularly memorable session, Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera, in what appeared to be an impromptu aside before his presentation, strongly declared (in rebuttal to statements of previous NASA speakers) that the Moon is on the “critical path” to Mars. Moreover, in relation to his assertion, he proclaimed, “I am not a liar.” (Remarkable that he felt the need to make this statement, but then, these are remarkable times.) Robinson then proceeded to describe LRO mission results and persuasively outlined the case for lunar return as the next logical step in space.
Ordinarily, our international partners show a strong tendency to follow America’s lead in space. When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in 2004, their initial response was to question the commitment of the United States to completing the ISS and operating it long enough to return research value for their considerable investment. After receiving the necessary assurances, they were eager to participate in the VSE, attending at least two major conferences designed to gather and integrate the specific desires and requirements of each partner nation into a general strategy for lunar return. This effort, which outlined the sequence of activities to be undertaken in space as part of a return to the Moon, resulted in the GER. First published in 2007, the report has since been revised but lunar surface activities remain key features of the roadmap.
So, how is it that we now find ourselves at odds with our international partners in space? Immediately after the Obama Administration took office, it chartered a committee (led by former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine) to examine and review NASA’s human spaceflight program. Although the Augustine Committee was not chartered to make specific recommendations, it was empowered to evaluate and cost out possible alternatives to the then-existing Project Constellation – NASA’s chosen launch architecture to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then ultimately, to Mars. The committee report found that Constellation was technically feasible, but concluded that it was under-funded to the extent that the interim goal of lunar surface return by 2020 could not be met.
One misconception about the Augustine Report is that they recommended that the lunar surface mission of the VSE be eliminated. They did not; they were concerned that the rate of spending on Constellation was inadequate to meet the 2020 target date (which was not a deadline) and recommended that the agency’s budget would have to be increased by roughly $3 billion per year to put the program “back on track.” These figures came from budget run-out targets provided to the Committee by the Administration. In other words, the Committee’s real conclusion was that given those assumed budget numbers, the lunar surface portion of the Constellation architecture did not close. On that basis, they examined an alternative architecture that would conduct human visits to near-Earth asteroids instead of the lunar surface. Their reasoning was that an asteroid mission was achievable at lower cost because it did not involve the development of a lander; the extremely low gravity of an asteroid would be more akin to a rendezvous than landing on a planetary surface. Thus came about the “Flexible Path” and the idea that lunar surface missions were not on the “critical path” in the development of a human mission to Mars (where one would rightly assume a lander will be part of the architecture). The Administration eagerly embraced this concept and in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, President Obama proclaimed that lunar return was unnecessary because “we’ve been there.”
The Administration thus eliminated the strategic direction of the space program solely by presidential fiat, using the Augustine Committee “finding” as its unspoken justification. This decision was made without consultation with the Congress, various civil space “stakeholders” in industry, academia who were actively working on the VSE, and most especially, with the international partners. At various meetings subsequent to the President’s speech, NASA attempted to explain the benefits of human missions to asteroids, but was hampered in this effort by several handicaps. No asteroid suitable for a human rendezvous was immediately apparent. The specific activities to be undertaken at the asteroid were uncertain and their supposed benefits unspecified. Study revealed that human missions would spend months in the hard radiation environment of interplanetary space, with few or no opportunities for mission abort in case of difficulty – all with the aim of reaching and exploring a target whose utility and benefits were (and are) unknown.
After an embarrassing few years of study, no candidate asteroid target had been identified. Thus, in a “mountain-coming-to-Mohammed” moment, an idea emerged from an academic workshop. This one had NASA hauling a small asteroid (or a bolder from a large asteroid) from its solar orbit into lunar orbit and then sending a human crew to rendezvous with it there. This concept is the so-called “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (ARM) that NASA now touts as its next, new big thing. ARM, it is claimed, will better prepare us for human Mars missions than lunar surface missions will. But despite Charlie Bolden’s strident claims to the contrary, NASA has yet to make that case to Congress, to the space community, or to the public.
The stark contrast between America’s current path in space (a vague mission concept with uncertain benefits – its primary attraction being that it is “not the Moon”) and the strategic path outlined by the GER was strikingly apparent at this recent meeting. Our international partners remain firm, convincingly insistent that returning to the Moon is a necessary requirement for future human missions to the planets. A prominent member of the engineering space community has testified to Congress on the relative value of lunar vs. asteroid missions to long-range capability in space, presenting a clear articulation of the value of the Moon, alongside the uncertain and incomplete identification of the value of asteroid missions (particularly the ARM variety). The scientific stakeholders have neither embraced nor rejected the ARM – they appear to be mostly puzzled by it (an attitude similar to that of the Congress). The only groups vigorously defending the ARM are the original workshop members who devised it and the administration that embraced it.
Mark Robinson asked me if the rationale and justification for the ARM has ever been formally written down anywhere. If it has, I am unaware of any documentation. As near as I can tell, like Athena, it sprung forth from Zeus’ forehead, fully formed and complete (but without the attendant wisdom). Our international partners (whom we’re told are vital to any human space endeavor) clearly see the value of lunar return and despite NASA’s continued claims to the contrary, these partners know that a lunar return is not “a repetition of what the United States did forty years ago.” The benefits of lunar return build on that previous round of Apollo lunar exploration, which demonstrated the scientific and operational value of the Moon as a natural laboratory and testing ground in space. Subsequent exploration, especially by several recent robotic lunar missions sent from a variety of countries, has only increased our appreciation of the Moon’s value as a key component in any long-range strategic path to the planets. On the Moon, we will locate and extract those resources necessary to provision ourselves, thereby learning how to live and work effectively on another world (presumably this is the same aim and justification of a human Mars mission).
While NASA idles, contemplating the concept of an improvised space project of uncertain value, our international partners continue to plan for a return to the Moon. Outside this organizational construct, other nations (particularly China) also have plans for the Moon. My next post will consider these plans in more detail – what we know of them and their possible international ramifications.