For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be – Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall
Where there is no vision, the people perish – Proverbs 29:18
Inscribed on the walls of the Science Committee Conference Room, House Rayburn 2318
Recently I had the honor of testifying before the House Subcommittee on Space. A hearing was called to address questions and concerns about “The Next Steps in Human Exploration.” The hearing charter focused on comparing a possible return to the Moon with a proposed mission to a near-Earth asteroid in preparation for human missions to Mars and points beyond. Sitting before the subcommittee with me were Lou Friedman, formerly of the Planetary Society – one of the architects of the proposed “haul asteroid” mission which had quite suddenly appeared in the administration’s proposed FY2014 budget, Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist and current chair of the NASA Advisory Council, and Doug Cooke, a former Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems at NASA, now president of his own consulting firm.
I’ve testified previously before Congressional committees (on both the Senate and House sides) and each time the opportunity has been interesting and educational. I am always impressed by the thoughtful nature of the members’ questions, belying their sometime public image as know-nothing time-servers. I sense that they want to do the correct thing for the nation and for their constituents. If there are differences of opinion, they appear to be honest ones. This is especially true in regard to our national civil space program, one of the rare areas of public policy that has historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support. The divide in belief on the value of space is philosophical, not political. Some on both sides “get it,” and some on both sides don’t.
I found that there is confusion and even some anger on the Hill over President Obama’s decision to abandon the Moon as the near-term goal of human spaceflight. Additionally, there is widespread puzzlement about the newly minted, asteroid retrieval concept – whether it will accomplish any scientific benefits, if it will prepare us for human missions beyond LEO, and what societal value it may or may not have. The question before the committee was how we might best move forward in space. As the discussion proceeded, it was patently clear that we desperately need a guiding vision with a strategic direction, one that constantly, incrementally and cost effectively creates and extends our space capabilities. It requires a plan with abundant milestones, intermediate in time and money, which will move humans beyond low Earth orbit.
Sitting before the committee, I read the words (quoted above) of Tennyson and Proverbs, a stark reminder of the importance of “vision” highlighted prominently on the wall behind the assembled committee. The 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was designed to extend human reach beyond low Earth orbit – throw open the door to opportunities on an extensible path forward. A key part of that vision (endorsed by two Congresses, under different leadership) was to learn how to use off-planet resources – the abundant material and energy wealth of the Solar System, beginning on the Moon – to create new spaceflight capabilities and commercial opportunities. The idea that lunar return was meant to be some sort of Apollo Redux, in which we would conduct super-sortie missions to a few landing sites and then depart for Mars was not the intent of lunar return in the VSE. Unfortunately, NASA itself helped play into the moronic “been there, done that” canard by emphasizing the same things that characterized Apollo – a program of custom built, one-off disposable spacecraft, launched into orbit on behemoth rockets.
An interesting moment in the hearing came when Squyres expressed concern that even if the Space Launch System (SLS) is completed, there will be no money to operate it or provide payloads for it. I believe this concern comes from a misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of the SLS – the launch vehicle mandated in the 2010 NASA authorization bill. I have written previously that because of the peculiar wording of that bill, there may have been an ulterior motive involved in such specificity, viz., that the SLS is Congress’ way of retaining a semblance of spaceflight capability within the agency, a national technical capability that they believed was discarded with undue haste and little serious thought. In such a scenario, the operational cost of SLS is not relevant, at least until an attainable, strategic horizon is recognized and adopted by a future administration. SLS is merely a mechanism to retain a national capability and operational spaceflight team, the hard-fought-for-and-won national treasure of space expertise which otherwise would be scattered to the winds.
I used my opportunity before the committee to submit a detailed architecture for building an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (see the links at end of my submitted testimony here). While we should not make a fetish of reusability, to create a lasting system (one that serves our diverse national needs in space), we need to adopt the ethic of a space “fleet” whereby ships operate in one locality in space and only there. One size does not fit all. Different functions require different kinds of ships and one might change vehicles several times in the course of a journey. In other words, we should begin to move from an Earth-based and dependent transportation system to a space-based and provisioned one. Harvesting lunar water is key to this development.
If we intend to go to the planets – to incorporate the Solar System into our social and economic sphere – we must understand and master the extraction and use of the indigenous resources of space. So why not start now on our nearby, accessible and useful Moon, where acquiring this skill can be done with some degree of ease and safety? Doug Cooke endorsed using the Moon as a resource and test-bed, stating his belief that the lunar surface offered the best place to develop the skills and technology needed for future human planetary missions.
In response to a member’s question about the possible advent of a new space race, Lou Friedman remarked that America and the Soviets raced to the Moon fifty years ago and found “no gold” there. But I contend, sometimes “gold” glistens instead of glitters and you must be able to recognize it. The abundant water ice of the lunar poles (already in Earth orbit and waiting to be collected and used) is pure spaceflight gold – the substance that permits permanence and utility for humans in space. Call it what you will – a race, a gold rush, a science and technology driver (all the above) – but while the rest of the world reaches for the lunar gold ring, we should not forfeit our participation in a growing space-based economy by focusing on a cobbled together asteroid junket.
There is nothing prohibiting us from returning to the Moon except for a stubborn, nonsensical insistence that there’s no reason to go back because “we’ve been there.” Of the four witnesses who testified on May 21, three believe that the Moon serves a critical role in preparing people for longer journeys. Our next steps from Earth should lead us back to the Moon for study and use – a lunar harbor from where travel into the larger Solar System begins. I believe that most of the committee members understand that. They are not fooled by proposals for “bread-and-circus” stunt missions to bag a space rock and then visit it because it is proclaimed to be the only place that we can get to. That’s putting a “happy face” on our space program and nothing more. It is a mission out of step with America and one that ignores words of wisdom spelled out on the House hearing room wall.
Links to the testimony of the four witnesses can be found at the Committee web site.