We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive. – C. S. Lewis
Administrator Charles Bolden, seeking to sway future national space policy as we approach a post-Obama NASA, pressed the point that the agency’s current path is just fine and that he doesn’t want anyone interfering with “progress” made under his leadership. A variety of published opinion seconds that narrative, noting that constantly changing the emphasis and direction of a program generally leads to no progress at all.
In order to accept these judgments, one must agree that the general direction and well being of the agency is a positive one. I would argue just the reverse. The complete lack of strategic vision currently extant in our civil space program has led to organizational chaos and inexorable decline. Questions about the lack of clear direction, the articulation of intermediate milestones, and the absence of any roadmap for accomplishment dominate Congressional hearings and inquiries, and the writings of informed observers. Bolden’s complaint about the doleful effects of “shifting gears” for NASA is disingenuous, as a hard-won, bipartisan consensus for strategic direction in civil space was cavalierly discarded in 2010.
Let us pause from these philosophical ponderings for a moment and consider the current status of the American civil space program. The International Space Station is operating at full capacity, even though we must procure our access to it from the Russians. Six years after its initiation, the so-called “Commercial Crew” program has yet to fly a single test article (the crewed Dragon is not the same vehicle as the cargo carrier). Research on the ISS focuses primarily on life and materials science, with little engineering experimentation on deep spaceflight technology being conducted. Such research would be relevant to future NASA activities, but leadership is lacking.
We’re told that the overall strategic direction of NASA is a human mission to Mars, memorably typified by the Internet hashtag #JourneytoMars, carrying with it all the semblance of reality that such a designation implies. There’s been no revision to the Mars Design Reference Mission (current version, DRM 5.0, dated July 2009) or even a vague articulation of general principles for a mission design. That architecture employed elements of unobtainium, such as a nuclear thermal rocket. We’ve had promotion of the “testing ground” concept for deep space human missions in cislunar space, but no concrete mission plans beyond the heavily criticized “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (formerly “Asteroid Retrieval Mission,” but always the ARM), designed to deflect public attention away from the fact that no real plan for human spaceflight beyond LEO exists.
The ARM is cloaked in the façade of “technology development,” with specific reference to the need for development of the solar electric propulsion (SEP) – the current bag of magic beans that allegedly will carry us to Mars. In reality, SEP is already a well-developed technology (the asteroid mission Dawn uses it) and one need not haul a space rock to develop something already in use. In truth, SEP could be employed to transport cargo throughout cislunar space and for use on the Moon. Simply put, the tyranny of the rocket equation rules, so all spaceflight and human missions to Mars require that thousands of tons of mass be sent at high velocities along precisely calculated paths. No technical solution, short of anti-gravity, can cut this Gordian Knot.
But more than simply lacking a means of how to get there, no one has yet to articulate a viable reason for the journey. There are numerous vague assertions that we are searching for martian life or preparing to “place life there” (by colonization), but the first rationale is hardly enough to justify a 50-year, trillion dollar federal program and the latter is sheer fantasy. What will humans on Mars do? Explore? Great, but then what? Public appetites for the new and exciting are easily and quickly satiated. Some long-term benefit is needed to justify the levels of expenditure human Mars missions require. Perhaps there are useful minerals to mine on Mars or some other product of significant financial value, but at the moment, we have no idea if, where, or how they might occur. Colonists must do something with their time, and simply surviving is not enough to justify it as the ultimate goal (although that will be the principal preoccupation of early Mars settlers). Besides, there is the issue of whether “colonization” is an appropriate function of a government-run space program.
Should other NASA activities become the new focus of the agency? Although there is a widespread notion that unmanned (robotic) missions are the “jewel in the crown” of the agency, we are in fact reaching a point of diminishing returns in that arena as well. With the reconnaissance of the Solar System largely complete (we have sent missions to all the planets, including asteroids and comets), the focus of new robotic planetary missions is on answering increasingly detailed – and increasingly arcane – scientific questions. These new generations of spacecraft are both more capable and more expensive. Yet such missions produce information that is much less comprehensible to the taxpaying public. The James Webb Space Telescope – at a cost of almost $10 billion – is likely to be the last of the large space-based astronomical facilities. Monitoring of the Earth’s environment from space is an agency activity that has become increasingly politicized over the past few years, generating much ill will throughout the communities involved. This area is likely to become more, not less, contentious over time. Aeronautics is a minor activity and will continue to be unremarkable, in both budget and accomplishment.
Yet we are being told to “stay the course.”
NASA supporters usually mean this phrase in a relatively restricted sense. They claim that with the Orion and SLS development coming along reasonably well, those programs should be kept funded and on track. Given that the alternatives amount to nothing, it’s not an unreasonable calculus. But both projects need something to do and someplace to go. Given their origins as vehicles designed to enable human flights within cislunar space, this is the logical arena in which to operate. But in this case, the “where” leaves begging the question of the “what?” Besides the ARM, it has been proposed to develop a cislunar “habitat” to be deployed somewhere in the vicinity of the Moon. But what shall we do there? A small habitat in deep space, outside the van Allen radiation belts of the Earth, will be exposed to both galactic cosmic rays and (potentially fatal) coronal mass ejections from the Sun. Such a vehicle will need some type of significant shielding for long-term habitation.
Of course, the obvious answer to the problem of what to do is to return to the surface of the Moon and develop its resources to enable more distant space goals. But under the current regime, it has been decreed that such thinking is not permitted within the agency. (Although there is no formal written policy stating this, my sources attest to its reality nonetheless.) This discouragement of any logical thinking appears to be solely in response to the absurd decree by President Obama in 2010 that there was no need to go to the Moon because “we’ve been there.”
A blatantly misdirected policy program compels us to change course. Why choose to remain idle instead of re-vectoring back to the more promising path? The “Journey to Mars” is a fraud and commercial human spaceflight has yet to take off (and, there is reason to suspect that such endeavor is far distant). So we are left – not simply with nothing, but worse than nothing – a “nothing” that is being marketed as having value and being imminent. The next administration might appoint another “blue-ribbon commission” to review our space program, but the last time that was done, it was a policy disaster. We were on a perfectly acceptable and useful track in the development of human spaceflight eight years ago. We still have the pieces needed to pick up where we left off and head back to the Moon. And there, we will learn how to explore, live and prosper in space using the resources of the Moon.