Last month’s national election results have confounded this year’s annual crop of retrospective pieces on space. Instead of a guarantee of business as usual, America has elected a President that defies normal political calculation. Hanging in the balance are questions over what President Donald Trump will do about the U.S. space program. His statements over the course of the 2016 campaign have been ambiguous, first advancing the idea that filling in America’s potholes was more important than space, then proclaiming that our civil space program was one of the things that “make America great.” So what might this ambiguity of attitude portend for the coming years?
Decisions made over the last eight years have left us with a hollowed out space program and an agency in complete disarray. So regardless of which strategic direction the new Trump administration decides to pursue, they must first repair the agency tasked with executing our national space policy. Appallingly, a programmatic decision made in conjunction with the earlier Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) architecture (the retirement of the Space Shuttle) was not halted in light of President Obama’s cancellation of that direction, and instead, was permitted (with great fanfare) to proceed apace as these workhorses were shuttled off to museums. That decision terminated America’s ability to deliver astronauts to space, while at the same time, Mars was proclaimed as the agency’s end goal. Lunar return was declared a dead-end repeat of past glories, unworthy of our efforts and replaced with a call for the development of technology for a “Journey to Mars” sometime in the distant future.
Vague promises of an “asteroid mission” and the far-off Mars journey couldn’t fill the void left by the termination of the VSE. A call to permit the more nimble “private sector” to develop and provide human transportation to and from the International Space Station was touted as a new way of conducting spaceflight, but nothing from that quarter is yet available to deliver American crews to space. No American human spaceflight capability – government or private – exists and we continue to purchase Soyuz seats from the Russians as our only access to the ISS, a facility that America largely built and paid for.
The relevance of this history is that the current version of NASA has seen the hemorrhage of competent, experienced spaceflight personnel, along with many businesses that have simply faded away. Hanging around waiting for someone to decide where and how to proceed does not feed families or attract talent. So many of the people who had prepared and operated the Shuttle system were lost to retirement, workforce reduction, and to their own crippling frustration and eventual resignation over an apparently nonexistent future in space.
Meanwhile, NASA management resorts to producing meaningless PR hype (“#Journey to Mars”), hoping to convince the public that the agency is viable and on-track for a human Mars mission “sometime in the 2030s.” In fact, the #Journey to Mars is a complete fraud. There is no architecture that enables a 2030’s mission, no strategy to develop one, and no money to implement such a plan, even if one existed.
The net effect of this institutional drift and strategic confusion is an agency bereft of technical knowledge and capability, an entity claiming to be going somewhere, but without any knowledge of how or when it will do so. Despite a reasonably constant budget of about $20 billion per year (not chicken-feed by any stretch of the imagination), the current program is a hodge-podge of disconnected, disparate efforts that have led to no new or innovative capabilities. Is there a way to recover from this state of disarray? There is, but it will take both strong leadership and purposeful conviction to do so.
Honesty about our situation is the first step. We need to recognize that recovery will not come overnight and that a careful, but constant, movement towards a clear direction of reform and retrenchment must begin. There is no “Journey to Mars,” except in the minds and fantasies of some space buffs. We do not have the technological base, the skilled personnel, or the money to conduct a human mission to Mars by the end of the 2030s. There is no government space hardware or infrastructure to conduct an Apollo-type “flags-and-footprints” mission to Mars on decadal timescales. And there are no reusable “Mars Colonial Transports” waiting to whisk hundreds off to the new world to begin construction of Muskopolis. Dreams and inspiration are important, but human endeavor is ultimately answerable to nature. Facts and a workable architecture must exist in the mix if America wants a stake in a future space economy.
The only way we will ever get to Mars is by incrementally developing an expanding, space-based transportation infrastructure, one that gradually extends human reach – first beyond LEO, and then beyond cislunar space – into the Solar System. The key missing skill set necessary to build such a system is the knowledge and ability to find and use what exists in space to create new spaceflight capabilities.
It is for this reason that I advocate a return to the Moon – not to “plant the seventh American flag” or to one-up the Chinese – but to go and learn how to use and exploit what the Moon has to offer. I often hear the argument that it will “cost more to go to the Moon and make rocket propellant for a Mars mission than it would to launch the water directly from Earth.” This belief nicely misses the whole point of going to the Moon. We do not go there simply to “make propellant” but to learn how to make propellant – and all of the other commodities necessary to sail on the ocean of space. Using off-planet resources is a skill set that must be mastered in order to become a true space faring species.
To return to a vibrant, forward-moving civil space program, we need to plan and execute a series of small robotic missions to the lunar poles to characterize their environments and prospect for water ice. When the Vision for Space Exploration was announced in 2004, we did not know to what extent water was present on the Moon. Now we know that promising deposits exist close to areas of near-permanent sunlight near both poles. Because the availability of power is of overriding importance in any off-planet environment, we can confine our detailed explorations to within a few tens of kilometers of these sunlit areas. This localization simplifies prospecting requirements. Initial work can be done with inexpensive, small, expendable spacecraft, such as hard landers and small, fixed soft-landers, eventually followed up by long-lived surface rovers (depending on the findings of the earlier missions). These surveys will reveal in short order the optimum locations for future surface operations.
After the best locations have been identified, a series of increasingly sophisticated robotic craft can land near the site to demonstrate that the ice can be recovered and processed. After that is done, building infrastructure for a lunar outpost can begin. The basic needs are water-bearing feedstock (ore), a nearby zone of near-constant sunlight for power generation, solar arrays to generate that power, and a small array of equipment to harvest, extract and store the water. These tasks do not require a huge industrial facility on the Moon – the initial robotic equipment needed to undertake this work has a total mass of about 20 tones. Emplacement of all the equipment necessary for initial operations on the lunar surface would require only 2-3 launches of the forthcoming SLS heavy lift launch vehicle.
The Orion spacecraft and its SLS launch vehicle are currently in final stages of development, with initial test flights planned for 2018. We can use these existing systems to return to the Moon; indeed, as the remnants of the cancelled Constellation program, they are already optimized for cislunar missions. The only missing piece is a lander to put people on to the lunar surface. NASA’s Altair lander program was cancelled in 2011, but fortunately, a lander may be ready very soon. The United Launch Alliance has outlined a plan for a human-rated lander based around the venerable Centaur stage, using modified RL-10 engines. This vehicle is almost perfectly configured to return people to the Moon, as it is intended to be reusable and utilizes the LOX-hydrogen propellant that we will produce on the lunar surface.
By re-focusing the agency toward the achievable and enabling, instead of the improbable, unrealistic and unattainable, we will be on the Moon developing a permanent, space-based transportation system that opens many possible destinations in space – and all doable within the agency’s existing (or slightly enhanced) budget.
We must return to a program template that knows how to distinguish reality from fantasy. And we must follow a path designed for space permanence, one that assures our nation’s leadership in space. This recovery will happen by a return to the Moon to learn how to use its resources. There we will add to our skill set and demonstrate what is possible – and create an atmosphere in which entrepreneurs can use that knowledge to build new space industries. Our space program requires clear direction, decisive leadership and competent technical implementation. We need for those who understand this – those willing to pursue these vital tasks – to speak up, engage and make our space program great again.