November 18, 2008
Considerable buzz was generated in space circles last week when The Planetary Society, the keepers of Carl Sagan’s flame, released a report that recommended a re-orientation of the Vision for Space Exploration. This report was based in part on the results of an invitation-only workshop held at Stanford University last February. The object of that workshop was to examine U. S. national space policy with the specific aim of determining whether goals intermediate to a human mission to Mars other than the Moon were feasible and desirable.
Anyone who knows the history of Sagan and The Planetary Society (TPS) could probably guess what the conclusion of this workshop was going to be. Carl was famous for his opinion that our Moon was “boring” whereas Mars, as a possible cradle of early primitive life, was a fitting object for intensive scientific exploration. This premise in fact has guided most of the robotic exploration of the Solar System by NASA for the past 30 years. While lunar scientists couldn’t convince NASA to send a polar orbiter to the Moon until the ultra-cheap Lunar Prospector in 1998, Mars has seen a flotilla of spacecraft probe its secrets, measuring and mapping every quantity known to man both from orbit and the surface.
Wonder of wonders! The new report recommends that exploration of the Moon be “deferred.” In favor of what? Human missions to the Lagrangian points (areas in space that are fixed relative to large bodies, such as the Earth and Sun) and a near-Earth asteroid. So instead of the “boring Moon” – a little planet with a complex history closely tied to the origin and evolution of the Earth – they want human missions to empty points in space and to investigate the abundant and varied problems posed by large orbiting rocks.
A lot of the chatter about the Planetary Society report has focused on whether the report missed the point of going to the Moon – the “we-must-learn-to-crawl-before-we-can-walk” argument of using the Moon as a training ground for Mars. Some point out that we have very little experience in living and working on other planetary surfaces. We do not have the long-lived, ultra-reliable subsystems needed to fly missions of very long duration and limited abort capability. By going to the Moon, we can develop those technologies and learn those skills needed to live, work on, and explore any planet.
I submit that their counter-arguments miss the point. The basic assumption of the TPS report is that the purpose of the space program is scientific exploration and that academic scientists should determine where and how program money is spent. This worldview (called “Saganism” by space advocates) has long prevailed among space scientists, the Science sections of NASA, and portions of the space community. A corollary of Saganism is that the Quest for Life Elsewhere is and ought to be the principal mission of NASA. Former Administrator of the agency Dan Goldin, for one, subscribed to this view.
One of the most interesting (and little-known) aspects of the Vision is that its object is much greater than exploration alone. A startling aspect of the original Vision was making the use of lunar and space resources a key objective of lunar return. Almost everyone ignored both the intent and purpose of such an inclusion. Fundamentally, it’s about expanding the economic sphere of mankind from low Earth orbit to cislunar space and beyond. In other words, we hope to use the material and energy resources of space to create new markets, new capabilities and new opportunities. This aspect of the Vision was brilliantly illuminated and elaborated upon in an overlooked speech by Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger at the Goddard Symposium in 2006.
Space is a big place and ripe with many possibilities. The Planetary Society wants to keep it a sanctuary for science, regulated and ruled by scientists for scientific purposes. The Vision is about expanding opportunities in space for many different and varied parties, including scientists. The Moon is included because it is the first place near the Earth that has the material and energy resources to allow us to understand if using space resources is possible and if so, how difficult that might be. This objective is not merely designed to lower the costs of future space missions, but to understand what it takes for humankind to live off-planet. If people are to have a future in space, we simply must learn how to extract and produce what they need from what’s already there; we cannot drag everything we need with us from the deep gravity well of the Earth.
Science or settlement? The Quest for Life Elsewhere or the Quest for Prosperity Here? Policy and direction set by an elite priesthood or by a free market? Those arguments are at the root of the policy debate initiated by the TPS report.
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