Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
A recent hearing before the Senate Space Subcommittee clearly demonstrated the disarray into which our civil space program has fallen. The ostensible topic of the hearing was the President’s budget request for space, with the supposed goal of capturing an asteroid and returning it to Earth-Moon space to serve as a target for a human mission. The witnesses described what they perceived as the requirements for this and other missions, variously touching on an extension of the lifetime of ISS, the new SLS launch vehicle, “commercial” space and other topics.
While they strained to connect all the dots and make the case for each of these various and sundry activities and programs, it struck me how the witnesses and Senators were feeling around (but not touching) the biggest issue of all: Why human spaceflight? Or more specifically – Why should human spaceflight be the lynchpin of our national civil space program? We’ve never come to grips with this issue – it’s merely assumed to be axiomatic so the discussion of our national program then becomes reduced to arguments over destinations, space vehicles and modes of government contracting. Every time this issue is brought up, it is fobbed off as an action item to the National Academy to convene yet another group of greybeard “experts” who in their sage wisdom will adumbrate the mystical rationale that we all so eagerly seek.
Although having personally succumbed to the temptation to provide a rationale for human spaceflight many times before, now that we sit amongst the smoldering ruins of a once-great space program, perhaps we should take time once again to re-examine this issue from a different perspective. Just as the barbarian hordes lived in squalor after the fall of Rome because they could not repair the aqueducts built by their predecessors, we gaze at reposing Saturn Vs as strange artifacts of a former golden age, now reduced to tourist attractions – something to be checked off before taking the kids to Disney World.
Let me try to sum up the case by first tackling the need for a human spaceflight program. Humans are needed in space to do the things that machines cannot. At the moment – and I believe, for the foreseeable future – that includes the construction and maintenance of large, distributed systems in space. By this, I mean satellite systems that are too big and too complex to be launched directly from Earth into the high orbits beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), places that most rockets can’t reach. Over the last 50 years we’ve learned there are limits to the size and complexity of satellites that can fit onto a launch vehicle. We’ve also learned that larger, more capable systems are possible when assembled in orbit by people and machines. The ISS is only the most visible example of what I am describing. There also is the legacy of the Shuttle program, where we proved that the repair and upgrading of equipment in space is possible, as the spectacular 20-year life of the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated.
The problem with applying the paradigm of human-machine space assembly to all of our current satellite assets is that we have no way to get people from low earth orbit out to these other levels of Earth-Moon (cislunar) space, where these useful assets reside. People arrive in LEO with empty fuel tanks. Suppose that we had a way to re-fill them in orbit? We could then access those higher orbits where large satellite systems could be built and serviced. It is for this reason that I have advocated using the resources of the Moon to create such a reusable space transportation system – it opens up space to routine access by people and machines.
It seems to me that there are two philosophical viewpoints in regard to human spaceflight. The first views human missions as voyages into the unknown – daring leaps into the void to plant a flag, achieve a milestone, and to declare some kind of success in doing so. This concept is similar to mountain climbing – we do it because it is a challenge and because it is exciting. A corollary to this mentality is that we must press on to ever more distant space targets because, in the memorable phrase of one observer, we should not return to a destination because “we’ve been there.” By this measure, human space missions should be designed (as Star Trek put it) “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
In contrast, there is another view of spaceflight, one that was actually touched on in the hearing but not pursued to its logical conclusion. If space is a “new ocean” as John Kennedy once put it, then what we really desire is the ability to sail it, in many types of vehicles and for all kinds of reasons. Certainly, visiting new places and exploring new worlds would be a part of that. If we proceed down a logical path toward obtaining freedom of access to many different places, we would explore but we could also build, observe, repair and even dwell.
The conflict between these two alternative visions is often put into monetary terms, with some claiming that this latter template of spaceflight is something that we all want “eventually.” In fact, this difference of vision is more primal – whereas one faction sees spaceflight as a stunt, to be accomplished and completed, the other sees it as a field of human endeavor where ongoing activities become more expansive in reach and capability over time – maturing, if you will.
This is the nexus of the “Why?” question. Do we go into space to touch the marker and then scurry home as soon as we can? Or do we venture forth to touch, expand, complete and extend? This point is not merely a philosophical one but affects the entire approach and operational template of human spaceflight. We had the former type of program with Apollo, whose main goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon was accomplished brilliantly (then dismantled as soon as decently possible). The Shuttle/Station era, while certainly experimental in many respects, strove for the latter type of program, by promising (and partly delivering) routine access to and permanent presence of people in space. The tension behind these two perspectives underlies the debates about goals and destinations in space.
Now that Shuttle is gone and ISS is completed (with access dependent on Russian assets), we should bring this debate out into the open. It is not a debate to entrust to some committee of the National Academy of Sciences – they should certainly be involved but their perspectives are fairly narrow. As our elected government is the expression of national political will, this debate should be held in the open arena of the political process. What kind of space program should we have? Assuming that money to spend on space is and will likely remain limited in the future, we must carefully consider why we send people into space and what they will do there.
I suggest that a national space program of the future is likely to be “sustainable” only if it returns value for money. The amount spent is less important than what we are trying to achieve. A stunt mission to a destination designed solely around the need to be compatible with existing or projected hardware is the height of stupidity and a guarantee of future program termination (even if the mission is successful). We need to understand what we are trying to do before metal is cut for the next spacecraft. We have a government space program to do those things that the private sector is unable or unwilling to undertake. At the moment, that includes flight beyond LEO. We should build a program with small, incremental steps so that it is affordable under any likely budgetary conditions. Permanence, extensibility, and reusability are highly desirable and are to be preferred over unique, one-off systems and disposable vehicles.
This is the elephant in the room: Why should there be a national human spaceflight program? While this beast is clearly seen by many of us, it appears to be largely invisible to some elected and appointed officials and space experts whose concerns seem to be near-term, and focused solely on how much things cost.
Our space budget will continue to shrink because there is no compelling rationale to fly stunt missions (no matter how skillfully logic is twisted). To regain our lost footing we must begin with the understanding that becoming a space faring people is the long-term goal, not “Mars” nor the “Quest for Life Elsewhere.” Until then we will continue wasting time and money arguing about mission dates, acceptable levels of risk, reimbursable contracts, competitive contracts, open bidding, sequester – running around in circles over the “do nothing” distraction of the day. Until we have serious leadership, we will remain hostage to a disjointed, non-productive concept of bundling agency ideas for convenience not outcome. Once we are committed to becoming a space faring species there will be opportunity for all.