1pi·o·neer noun\ˌpī-ə-ˈnir\ : someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area – Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary
In Pioneering Space (the latest report released by NASA), much is made over the use of the word “pioneer.” Apparently, we are no longer exploring space – we are pioneering. This new term is discussed in detail within the pages of this brief document, carefully distinguishing how pioneering differs from simply exploring. In short, according to the agency, to pioneer means to go somewhere with an intent to stay there. It implies permanence and presence. This verbiage is directed toward their plans for human missions, as part of a “pathway to Mars,” but they make much of near-term activities in “cislunar space,” by which they mean the “vicinity” – not the surface – of the Moon.
With a cursory read, the new report seems to say the right words and terms – permanent, Earth-independent, expanding human presence. It claims the new path is “incremental” and “sustainable.” They roll out what they call an “Evolvable Mars Campaign,” laying great stock in each of those three carefully chosen words – it is “evolvable” because new technologies will be gradually introduced as they become available. It is focused on “Mars” as the “ultimate goal,” repeating the pattern of the last 50 years of space policy. And it is a “campaign” – less a new spaceflight program than a series of independent missions that connect thematically to the long-range “ultimate objective.”
After this rhetoric is absorbed, one must ask: Is what they have planned really congruent to what is claimed in the prefacing remarks of this document? A key insight of the early statements is that as spacefarers, we should be moving in the direction of permanence and incrementally expanding our presence. I completely agree with this attitude and have advocated exactly such an ethic on this blog and elsewhere for decades. However, the specific activities outlined in the remainder of the document seem to disconnect with this (laudable) set of goals laid down at the outset.
Rather than “cutting the cord” with Earth and permitting permanent presence, human missions to “cislunar” (as they define it) entail repetitious one-off trips using disposable spacecraft to set regions in free space (for periods of up to a few days or couple of weeks). Every mission is entirely self-contained, with launch of all equipment and consumables from Earth’s surface. No permanent assets are emplaced; each mission will carry its own spacecraft, which will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a scenario straight from the Apollo template. No planetary destinations are visited or studied; spacecraft are put into “DRO” (distant, retrograde orbit – the new buzz term this report offers up). Oh, by the way, that DRO is around the object-that-cannot-be-named and the Orion will rendezvous with pre-emplaced targets, in the case of the ARM, a previously captured piece of rock.
There are no plans to develop and use any indigenous resources of space, except for the sunlight that will generate power from the solar arrays of the Orion spacecraft. Despite the fact that we will orbit an object that possesses billions of tons of water, no attempt will be made to harvest and use that resource. It is possible that the asteroid brought back into DRO might contain water, but there is no description of any type of water extraction experiment to be done during the ARM, nor will the Orion spacecraft have the facilities to conduct such experimentation. As near as I can tell from the document, the primary value of these missions is to give the crew “deep space exposure,” which in this instance involves the same micro-gravity environment currently experienced on the ISS, with the added bonus feature of greater exposure to (and risk from) both energetic solar particle events and cosmic rays from deep space.
In brief, this new “pathway” is the very antithesis of space permanence and Earth-independence. And the conundrum we find ourselves in is entirely the result of the agency’s dogmatic, categorical and incomprehensible refusal to consider the value of lunar surface missions as a necessary part of any program to develop the capability for interplanetary human spaceflight. Nothing about the plan outlined in Pioneering Space is “permanent” – no long-term infrastructure of space-based assets is established by these flights. Each mission is a self-contained one-off “stunt” that leaves no lasting legacy to build on. It does not “evolve” because each mission essentially repeats all the steps of the mission before it, orbiting the object-that-cannot-be-named in differing places for varying times, but accomplishing very little. Every gram of air, water and rocket fuel must be dragged up from the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, the deepest one of all the inner planets. This is not “Earth-independence.”
What would a genuine evolving and capable program look like? We would establish expanding spheres of human “reach” and operational experience. The program would proceed in increments, gradually but continuously expanding our theater of operations. Emphasis would be placed on developing human-tended staging and transfer nodes at increasing distances from Earth, starting possibly at GEO but extending later to the Earth-Moon L-points, low lunar orbit and the lunar surface. We would begin to assess the nature of the water resources of the lunar poles and experiment with their extraction, processing and use, both on the Moon and in cislunar space. We would launch vehicles and equipment designed to be based permanently in space, so that they are always available and will not have to be discarded and then re-launched from Earth after each mission. And most importantly, we would re-supply our travels from the material and energy resources that we now know to be abundant in cislunar space, most especially, the enabling asset of lunar water and its myriad uses.
If we desire to “pioneer” the space frontier, there are certain skills we must master. Settlers in the American west had to know how to clear land, hunt and fish for food, build shelter, develop clean and reliable water delivery, and establish presence by homesteading on the frontier. In a similar manner, space pioneers have skills to learn. We must learn how to supply ourselves from what’s locally available. We must learn to cope with the harsh environments of both interplanetary space and the surfaces of alien worlds. We must learn how to build redundant, fault-tolerant and repairable systems capable of long-duration operation. And we must assemble this constellation of different systems in an incremental, affordable and capable manner.
Challenging indeed. But that’s what a pioneer understands their job to be and what they set out to do. From the verb:
- pi·o·neered, pi·o·neer·ing: to open up (an area) or prepare (a way); rockets that pioneered outer space; to settle (a region). – The Free Dictionary