September 8, 2012
Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation published a “free-enterprise” critique of the Republican platform in regard to the American civil space program. Indeed, the text of the space plank is vague (no doubt intentionally, so as to give the candidate maximum flexibility to structure the space program to align with his vision and goals for the country). But what I found most interesting was the underlying premise and assumptions in Tumlinson’s article, a worldview that I find striking.
In brief, Tumlinson approves of the current administration’s direction for our civil space program. The U.S. has stepped back from pushing toward the Moon, Mars and beyond and redirected NASA on a quest for “game-changing” technologies (to make spaceflight easier and less costly), while simultaneously transitioning launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) operations to private “commercial space” companies selected by our government to compete for research and development funding and contracts. Many see this as gutting NASA and the U.S. national space program. To be clear, the term “commercial space” in this context does not refer to the long-established commercial aerospace industry (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) but to a collection of startup companies dubbed “New Space” (typically, companies founded by internet billionaires who have spoken much and often about lofty space plans, but have actually flown in space very little).
Tumlinson criticizes the Republican space plank because it does not explicitly declare that a new administration would continue the current policy. In his view, the very idea of a federal government space program, including a NASA-developed and operated launch and flight system, is a throwback to 1960’s Cold War thinking. Instead, he envisions space as a field for new, flexible and innovative companies, untainted by stodgy engineering traditions or bloated bureaucracy. Many space advocates on the web hold this viewpoint – “If only government would get out of the way and give New Space a chance, there will be a renaissance in space travel!” But travel to where? And why?
The idea that LEO flight operations should be transitioned to the commercial sector is not new. It was a recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission report on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). NASA itself started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) in 2006, designed to nurture a nascent spaceflight industry by offering subsidies to companies to develop and fly vehicles that could provision and exchange crew aboard the International Space Station. That effort was envisioned as an adjunct to – not a replacement of – federal government spaceflight capability.
The termination of the VSE and the announcement of the “new direction” in space received high cover from the 2009 Augustine committee report, which concluded that the current “program of record” (e.g., Constellation) was unaffordable. The Augustine Committee received presentations with options to reconfigure Constellation whereby America could have returned to the Moon (to learn how to use resources found in space) under the existing budgetary cap, but they elected to start from first principles. Hence, we have something called Flexible Path, which doesn’t set a destination or a mission but calls on us “to develop technology” to go anywhere (unspecified) sometime in the future (also unspecified). With target dates of 2025 for a “possible” human mission to a near-Earth asteroid and a trip to Mars “sometime in the 2030’s,” timelines and milestones for the Flexible Path offer no clarity or purpose. Try getting a loan or finding investors using a “flexible” business plan.
Tumlinson argues that both political parties should embrace this new direction because New Space will create greater capability for lower cost sooner. He also makes much about the philosophical inclinations of the Republican Party (the “conservative” major party in American politics) – Why don’t the Republicans support free enterprise in space? Why are they putting obstacles in the way of all these new trailblazing entrepreneurs? As to those obstacles, it is unclear exactly what they are. True enough, there are regulatory and liability issues with private launch services, but not of such magnitude that they cannot be handled through the traditional means of indemnification (e.g., launch insurance).
The COTS program record of the past decade largely has not been a contract let for services, but a government grant for the technical development of launch vehicles and spacecraft. Close reading reveals the real issue: Tumlinson wants more of NASA’s shrinking budget to finance New Space companies. He is concerned that a new administration might cut off this flow of funding. However, what will cut off the flow of funding is having no market, no direction, and no architectural commitment – regardless of who occupies the White House.
The belief of many New Space advocates is that once they are established to supply and crew the ISS, abundant and robust private commercial markets will emerge for their transportation services. Although many possible services are envisioned, space tourism is the activity most often mentioned. Whether such a market emerges is problematic. Although Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a back-listed manifest of dozens of people desiring a suborbital thrill ride (at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars), those journeys are infinitely more affordable than a possible orbital trek (which will cost several tens of millions of dollars, at least initially). Nevertheless, there will no doubt be takers for a ticket. But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Despite labeling themselves “free marketers,” New Space (in its current configuration) looks no different than any other contractor furiously lobbying for government sponsorship through continuation of its subsidies. True free-market capitalists do not seek government funding to develop a product. Rather, they devise an answer to an unmet need, identify a market, seek investors and invest their own capital, provide a product or service and only remain viable by making a profit through the sale of their goods and services.
Tumlinson bemoans the attitude of some politicians, ascribing venal and petty motives as to why they do not fully embrace the administration’s new direction, e.g., the oft-thrown label “space pork” to describe support for NASA’s Space Launch System. In regard to New Space companies, Tumlinson asserts that, “[We] have to both give them a chance and get out of the way.” But in fact, he does not want government to “get out of the way” – at least not while they’re still shoveling millions into New Space company coffers – nor when they need (and they will) a ruling on, or protection of, their property rights in space. Any entity that accepts government money is making a “deal with the devil,” whereby it is understood that such money comes with oversight requirements (as well it should, consisting of taxpayer dollars).
Successful commercialization of space has occurred in the past (e.g., COMSAT) and will occur in the future. But the creation of a select, subsidized, quasi-governmental industry is not by any stretch of the imagination what we commonly understand free market capitalism to mean. It is more akin to oligarchical corporatism, a common feature of the post-Soviet, Russian economy. True private sector space will be created and welcomed, but not through this mechanism, whose most worrisome accomplishment to date has been to effectively distract Americans from noticing the dismantling of their civil space program and preeminence in space.
July 19, 2012
The Moon, unlike Earth, has no global magnetic field but many surface locales of limited extent (tens of kilometers across) are magnetized. In many instances, these small areas of high magnetic intensity are associated with unusual patterns of surface brightness (albedo, or degree of reflectance) that occur in curved, blotchy or other strange “swirl-like” shapes. First observed by telescope, lunar scientists have been puzzled by the possible origin of what they imaginatively named “swirls.”
An example of a lunar swirl is a feature named Reiner γ (pronounced “Reiner gamma”), a bright splotch in southern Oceanus Procellarum, the dark mare region of the western near side. The name indicates that initially this feature was thought to be an isolated peak of highland material that juts up through the mare (lowercase Greek letters were assigned to such prominences in the old nomenclature.) However, even at very low sun elevations, close examination shows that this bright patch does not cast a shadow. It is simply a bright patch on the surface, one with diffuse and nebulous edges, yet clearly more reflective than the surrounding dark mare material. It does not appear to be associated with any crater or other surface feature. It’s as though someone smudged a finished painting of the lunar surface.
During later Apollo missions, orbiting vehicles released “subsatellites” (small spacecraft that continued to orbit the Moon long after the crews had left for home) carrying instruments to measure the Moon’s magnetic field. Interestingly, they found a very strong magnetic field enhancement around the Reiner γ feature. Moreover, numerous other swirls were found elsewhere on the Moon, especially on the floor of the huge South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin in Mare Ingenii on the far side, and on the eastern limb of the Moon near Mare Marginis. Each newly seen swirl was found to be associated with a magnetic anomaly. However, the converse statement is not true – not all magnetic anomalies have associated swirls.
Two principal models emerged to explain these relations. One model held that the swirls and the magnetism were contemporaneous – the swirls were surficial deposits caused by the scouring of the surface during the impact of a comet. In this model, the cometary coma (i.e., the dense gaseous “atmosphere” surrounding the icy nucleus) struck the Moon at high velocity, scouring the surface and increasing its brightness while at the same time embedding the soil with a strong magnetic field caused by the creation of an impact-generated plasma (high temperature, low density matter).
The other model suggested that the magnetic anomalies pre-dated and were the cause of the swirls. The lunar surface darkens and becomes redder with time owing to exposure to the solar wind (the stream of energetic particles – mostly protons – from the Sun). Strong, localized magnetic fields serve as protective “bubbles” that caused the incident solar wind to flow around these tiny areas, darkening the edges of the field bubbles with enhanced flow but preserving the inner zones (which were shielded from the solar wind) as bright patches. Thus, the bright parts of the swirls are areas that have not undergone “weathering” by the solar wind while the dark parts are zones that have experienced excessive space weathering.
It remained uncertain whether this postulated “magnetic bubble” effect would actually work but recent experiments suggest that these bubbles might well operate on the Moon. Scientists from the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, creating a “solar wind tunnel” to observe the interactions of streaming plasma and confined magnetic bubbles, successfully produced a magnetic bubble under simulated space conditions. They have compared the flow field around the laboratory magnetic bubble with the observations from orbiting spacecraft of lunar surface magnetism and find that the solar wind would be diverted around these magnetic anomalies on the Moon. If solar wind darkening is the primary process that darkens the surface, we may have an explanation for the creation of the bright swirls.
The astute reader will note that while this bubble model might account for the origin of the swirls, it begs the question about what caused the magnetic field anomalies in the first place. That remains a mystery. It was noted many years ago by my colleague Lon Hood of the University of Arizona that many of the magnetic anomalies on the Moon are at the antipodes (i.e., 180° away from the center) of some of the youngest, large impact basins on the Moon. The largest concentration of both surface magnetic anomalies and swirls are on the floor of the large SPA basin, near Mare Ingenii on the lunar far side. This area is directly antipodal to the large, young Imbrium basin on the near side. Likewise, the Mare Marginis swirls and magnetic fields are antipodal to the Orientale basin on the western limb (the last of the large lunar multi-ring impact basins). Furthermore, as basins tend to cover the entire Moon, one can find a basin near the antipode of almost any given feature (note well: the swirl that started all this hubbub, Reiner γ, isn’t antipodal to anything in particular). But an even more significant issue is that while the basin antipodal association of many swirls is intriguing, it does not explain why we should see a zone of enhanced magnetization at such locations. Igneous intrusion, concentration of impact-generated plasmas and converging ballistic ejecta have all been proposed but no specific mechanism seems to emerge as the magnetic field creating event.
We are left with a continuing and highly unsatisfactory situation – a possible explanation for the development of surface swirls on the Moon and of their association with magnetic field bubbles, but we still don’t understand the origins of these fields, the cause of their shapes and intensities and how they fit into the continually vexing problem of lunar magnetism in general. Two steps forward and one step back. Lunar science marches on.
July 2, 2012
In the aftermath of a major Space Shuttle accident, an incumbent President decides that our civil space program needs a bold new strategic direction. In a major public speech, he outlines a path to return to the Moon and go to Mars. The space agency responds with full-color sales brochures, committee meetings, community workshops, and a thousand charts outlining the steps they will take to carry out the new direction. A couple of years pass, a new President takes office, and then – promptly cancels the initiative of the previous administration.
Sound familiar? This has happened in our space history – twice.
In 1989, after much agency soul-searching following the loss of seven crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, President George H. W. Bush took to the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced what was soon dubbed the “Space Exploration Initiative (SEI),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then to Mars. NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture imaginatively named the “90-Day Study.” It called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft and numerous robotic elements, including lunar and martian orbiters and landers (most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs). Financial analysts somehow arrived at an aggregate cost of $600 billion (which also included assembly of ISS) and everyone gasped.
After numerous politicians and bureaucrats scoffed disapproval, a special ad hoc group was convened to re-examine the objectives and devise a less expensive approach for implementing SEI. Their report was delivered and immediately put on the shelf. In the ensuing three years, a new NASA Administrator was named, Congress refused to increase the NASA budget, and President Clinton cancelled SEI.
In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing its crew of seven. The agency investigated and concluded that foam shed during launch destroyed the integrity of the vehicle’s thermal protection system, causing the loss of the Shuttle. In January of the following year, President George W. Bush announced a new strategic direction for space – the “Vision for Space Exploration (VSE),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit – first to the Moon and then to Mars. NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture to implement the new direction that called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft, and numerous robotic elements (including orbiters and landers for both the Moon and Mars – most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs).
Once again a committee was convened to examine the agency’s implementation of the new direction. Another report was written and put on a shelf. During numerous meetings and workshops spread over several years, an architecture emerged – accompanied by many charts (all electronic this time – technology marches on!). President Obama terminated the VSE in April, 2010 during a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (“We choose NOT to go to the Moon!” – the historical resonances astound!).
What, if anything, is to be learned from these two sequences of events? According to Mark Albrecht, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council in the Bush-41 White House, it means that the space agency is fundamentally broken – comprised of various constituencies that protect turf and resist implementing any new direction that may challenge or threaten their existence. However, there is another possible reading of the situation. The space agency was in a very different predicament during SEI than it was during the VSE. In 1990, NASA had a clear but unfulfilled mission – Space Station Freedom, for which not a single element had yet been launched. NASA’s anxiety at the time was uncertainty in being able to execute both Station and SEI simultaneously. The oft-quoted 30-year, $600 billion cost of SEI, repeated by the media to denigrate the effort, included construction and operation of Station, which was to serve as both an orbital platform for missions beyond LEO and as a source of hardware (e.g., habitation modules) that could be adapted to trans-LEO missions. Even so, most of the costing assumptions in the 90-Day Study were inflated beyond reason, presumably following in the footsteps of former NASA Administrator James Webb, who after reportedly being told that Apollo would cost about $20 billion, asked for more than $35 billion as a cushion.
In contrast, the VSE came along just as NASA was in the middle of ISS construction, with the program’s end clearly in sight. There was no future plan for human spaceflight beyond Shuttle/ISS and the agency sorely needed some high-level direction. The idea of Shuttle replacement came from the Columbia Accident Investigations Board report, which contended that the Shuttle system was inherently dangerous and that we ought to develop a new space transportation system as soon as possible. In contrast to uninformed reporting and Internet mythology, President Bush did not “retire” the Shuttle – he ordered that it first be brought back to flight status (so that ISS construction could be completed) and then transitioned and replaced with new human spacecraft capable of journeys beyond LEO (which became the now-cancelled Project Constellation). In contrast to SEI, the VSE came to NASA with price limits already in place – after a small incremental increase in the early years, it was to cost no more than we were then spending on human spaceflight (about $8 billion per year) with funding available from the gradual decline in spending on the Shuttle/Station program. Finally, unlike SEI, which never had much Congressional support, NASA was given two Authorization bills (in 2005 and 2008) that strongly endorsed the VSE (many VSE goals, though ignored, remain in the current 2010 Authorization).
Although neither SEI nor the VSE succeeded in their principal objectives of sending people beyond low Earth orbit, they did manage to greatly advance our understanding of just what is at stake. In the case of the former, a variety of people from the defense and civil space sectors worked together on SEI, creating networks that advanced an outbound agenda. One accomplishment was the Clementine mission, a joint effort by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NASA. Flying in 1994, Clementine successfully mapped the entire Moon in eleven spectral bands, mapping its mineral composition in detail. Clementine made the first global topographic map of that body and most significantly, found evidence for the presence of water ice in the dark areas near the south pole of the Moon. The success of Clementine led to the Lunar Prospector mission, a robotic orbiter flown under NASA’s Discovery program, that both confirmed the excess hydrogen at the poles of the Moon and globally mapped the Moon’s chemical composition.
The intriguing results from Clementine and Lunar Prospector resulted in an international fleet of six spacecraft being sent to the Moon in the past decade, adding to our knowledge of the processes, history and potential utility of that body. From this exploration, we now know that the Moon contains millions of tons of harvestable water. We possess detailed maps of lunar physical and compositional properties. In short, we now know that the Moon is habitable and is both an appropriate near-term destination for people and a unique enabling asset for future spaceflight within and beyond the Earth-Moon system.
Now, just as we find the Moon to be an attractive destination, we shrink away from the challenge, watching as others blaze trails we once traveled. We willingly accept the pablum to not fret over new space powers who do not cancel their programs. We are told they have not yet done all that we have and that we still carry the mantle of the world’s leading space power. This is not logical. Similar thoughts once prevailed in Portugal, during an earlier age of exploration. One doesn’t assume or retain the mantle of leadership by fiat or declaration – it must be earned and exercised. Perhaps the real issue is not whether NASA is up to the task but rather, whether we as Americans are blind to the truth, unable to recognize that by having our nation withdraw from this arena, that we are retreating from our position, thereby ceding our prosperity, leadership and greatness to other nations who do have the will and the vision to press forward.
June 19, 2012
With the weekend launch of the latest Shenzhou spacecraft and its successful rendezvous and docking with an orbiting space station, world attention is once again focused on China’s flourishing space program. Although China’s human spaceflight efforts currently focus on low Earth orbit, in recent years they have sent two robotic orbital spacecraft to the Moon and have announced their intentions for a lunar lander/rover mission. These efforts lead many in the west to speculate that a presence on the Moon is a likely and realistic goal for China’s space future. In terms of the possible purpose for such lunar efforts, things are little more vague. Most assume that China will go to the Moon for reasons similar to the geopolitical motives that impelled America to undertake the Apollo missions. While some actually welcome China’s aspirations to conquer the Moon, other space observers smirk at their apparent willingness to (as they characterize it) “waste billions of dollars to repeat what America did thirty years ago.” Others understand why China aims for the Moon.
The United States currently has no strategic space goal. Many in the U.S. space community argue that the development of commercial launch services through federal subsidies is a goal. To smooth the path for this approach, calls for consensus have been made by some New Space advocates. Funding to support the research and development costs of these new commercial services would come by excising chunks of the rapidly dwindling NASA budget. “Flat or declining” now describes the American civil space program budget and regularly reaching LEO to supply ISS has become our “new” vision.
In contrast, China is conducting an incremental, step-wise effort to gradually but inexorably extend their reach and influence in space, first into low Earth orbit and then into cislunar space and beyond. Their approach uses a variety of hardware derived from existing systems while adding new capabilities over time. China appears to be focused and following clear, long-range goals in space. Because we do not look ahead on timescales of 20-30 years (accustomed instead to a 5-10 year timeframe), we have no long-range strategy to guide what we build or a plan for securing any long-term space goals.
Certainly wide-ranging concerns propel China’s push for human space access, some that can be envisioned now and some that cannot. But fundamentally, they have accepted the proposition that freedom of space in the 21st century is equivalent to the principle of freedom of the seas that governed 19th and 20th century geopolitics. In short, such a principle comprises the ability to project power and to protect national interests whenever and wherever China might be confronted within the strategic theater in question, in this case, the domain of cislunar space.
I have written before on the economic, strategic and scientific value of cislunar space, the zone in which virtually all of our space assets and satellites reside. China intends to preserve her freedom of action by creating a spaceflight capability that can access and use any location of cislunar space, up to and including the lunar surface. To build a sustainable space program using incremental, cumulative steps, it makes no sense to “leapfrog” over (or to ignore) the intermediate locations from which space faring capability and utility can be demonstrated, established and used.
Much of the published speculation on China’s interest in the Moon focuses on mining the Moon for the nuclear fusion fuel 3He or substances found on the lunar surface, such as titanium or rare earth elements. In fact, one of the simplest substances found on the Moon has enormous value in space – water. Water can be used to support human life, as a medium of energy storage, and as rocket propellant. Water is the currency of spaceflight and one of the most valuable, usable substances we could obtain from any extraterrestrial object.
If I wanted to establish a secure foothold for my country in cislunar space, I would secure the territory near the poles of the Moon. We know from the results of several recent probes that the lunar poles contain billions of tons of water, much of it chemically unbound as ice, a particularly easy form to harvest, concentrate and use. Material and energy resources, concentrated together in a compact location are assets of immense economic and strategic value. Wars have been waged over less.
International treaty prohibits claims of extraterrestrial territory by national entities. But treaties are “gentlemen’s agreements” and sometimes nations do not behave like gentlemen. There is no mechanism to enforce the 1967 Outer Space Treaty except for a given country’s unwillingness to undergo international opprobrium. Moreover, a country can withdraw from the treaty at will. China tends to do what it wants to do, unless the economic or political price is perceived to be too high. The potential of the Moon and cislunar space may outweigh their sense of geopolitical risk or concern about international ostracism.
What does this mean for the United States? To listen to many in the space press, nothing. A quick yawn and then back to propagandizing for more federal dollars to be passed on to new space companies. But ultimately, it could mean that their libertarian dreams of a profit-making space frontier will never come to pass. If free market capitalism and democratic political institutions are to have a future in the new frontier of space, entities, investors and consumers who share these values must secure a notable presence. If the United States has a vigorous civil space program that creates a permanent presence there, such a system may have a chance to take root. Conversely, our absence is almost a guarantee that our system and values will not be the guiding paradigm on the new frontier.
For many observers, an absent America (or with a mere supporting role) would be acceptable. They believe America is what’s wrong with the world and that it’s high time that we step aside (in their opinion to one of subservience and irrelevance – certainly not one of power projection or as an economic engine and technology driver). Parties (and countries) that lead make the rules. While China has a great industrial base and a large, seemingly market-based economic system, it is actually a system of big government corporatism, where central planners decide which industries shall be allowed to grow and in what direction – capitalism, under total governmental control.
China is a rapidly advancing technically and is one of our largest trading partners, attributes beneficial in relationships between equals. Historically, once a shift occurs in the status of partners, relationships change. Because China’s influence in the world is growing, it is vital that we discuss and weigh these facts. Our national economic and security interests cannot be jeopardized by a misguided rush to hand our space future over to companies who are in the imagining stage of what China just accomplished this weekend.
June 5, 2012
Where does the Moon fit into plans for future human space exploration? From reading the space media, you might get the idea that the very notion is dead and buried, killed by President Obama’s casual dismissal of the idea in a speech over two years ago at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, followed this year by Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks on the Moon during the Republican primaries. Nevertheless, many in the international community (and in the United States) are keeping the lunar flame alive for a variety of reasons, not the least among them being that it is understood that politicians aren’t rocket scientists – nor should we expect them to be.
The Global Exploration Conference (GLEX) held last month in Washington DC was remarkable for the fact that most of our international space partners are proceeding with plans for lunar return as though its abandonment had never occurred. The Russians were particularly eager to express their desire to establish capability on the Moon at the meeting, while in recent months strong interest in permanent lunar return has been expressed by the Europeans, Canada, India, Japan and of course, China. Moreover, unlike many within our own national space agency, the world sees the Moon not simply as a box to be checked-off on the way to Mars but as the enabling asset for space exploration. As Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos put it, “It’s a new Moon,” pointing out that the recently confirmed discovery of water at the poles of the Moon enables sustainable, permanent habitation of that body and the creation of new capabilities for voyages to the planets.
Our international space partners believe that spaceflight beyond LEO should entail incremental steps that will gradually extend reach and capability. Once such a paradigm is adopted, expensive designer missions to plant a flag or do a “touch-and-go” at an asteroid are seen as having limited value and making no economic sense. On the other hand, the gradual expansion beyond LEO using nearby assets builds a permanent, lasting space faring capability. The Moon fits into such a scheme by virtue of both its proximity and usefulness. In the absence of some technical miracle, such as the discovery of new physics that fundamentally change the nature of spaceflight, we are wedded to rocket technology for the foreseeable future. The rocket equation dictates that it will remain difficult and expensive to reach space and operate there. Given such problems, some now recognize and conclude that the Moon offers provisioning capability and for this reason and many others, is a desirable destination and near-term goal.
Our pioneering (and current) model of space access requires launching everything from Earth’s surface, taking months to complete a mission, yet gathering minimal information (due to limited time in the vicinity of its designated target) and leaving no lasting or reusable infrastructure in space. This template guarantees that human spaceflights will be infrequent, expensive and subject to abrupt cancellation due to political whims. If one views the civil space program primarily as an annoying expenditure whose ambitions must be constrained by making a previously small portion of the program (such as “commercial” launch services) the raison d’être of the entire effort and deferring any real goals to an indefinite and nebulous future, our current path might seem completely reasonable. However, it appears that the international community believes that space is a real theater of human endeavor and their goal is to make it part of their domain and utility – until recently, also a goal of the American space program. Perhaps it still is.
Despite common perception, the Moon has not been officially abandoned as a goal for the United States space program. The current NASA Authorization Act of 2010 lays out the goals and approaches to be followed by the agency in executing its mission. The Findings by the Congress (section 301) outlines the rationale and goals of the space agency’s human exploration efforts. As I have written previously, in the seven points dealing with future agency activities, cislunar space is mentioned in four and the lunar surface is called out twice as destinations. Development of the ability to use the in situ resources of space to create infrastructure is specifically cited in Sec. 301a (4). The entire section 301 is worth a careful reading. It calls for a program that uses a gradual, incremental approach to the extension of human reach in space beyond LEO, specifically specifying both commercial and international participation. There is nothing in the current law that is at odds with the plans and desires of the international community as expressed at the recent GLEX meeting. The only place one reads about the Moon being abandoned as a national goal for America is in the press and such cases, it is always in the context of a single off-hand remark in one Presidential speech.
From the perspective of two years later, that off-hand remark sounds increasingly ill thought-out and hollow. Given its context in the speech, the statement seems to derive from the idea that lunar return must perforce be a repeat of the Apollo experience of 30 years ago. NASA itself has fed this idea, depicting the return to the Moon as the equivalent of a Gemini program within the Apollo-to-Mars fixation of many in the agency. In their 2006 preliminary plans for lunar return, NASA started out properly by describing the development of an outpost at one of the poles of the Moon and emphasizing human presence and development, but over the next few years architectural studies increasingly drifted away from an outpost and towards the sortie concept, in which we would stage (entirely from Earth) and execute one-off missions to sites of scientific interest all over the Moon for visits of limited duration. Such an exploration approach dissipates assets and thus increases costs and reduces surface capability and infrastructure. It was this exploratory approach to lunar return that the Augustine committee evaluated and declared to be “unaffordable,” not the concept of building a centralized outpost that could support ISRU and space development (an approach that the committee did not even consider).
President Obama signed the NASA Authorization bill of 2010 – a bill crafted when his party controlled Congress – and the findings presented in that bill are now law. So even though the agency and most of the media seem to be blissfully unaware of it, NASA has been charged by Congress to develop space systems capable of conducting missions to and throughout cislunar space, including to the lunar surface. Our international partners agree with this intended direction, convinced that the Moon is the appropriate next destination for humans in space.
NASA’s reluctance to go in this direction, even while other nations are making plans, forfeits the opportunity for our international leadership in space. Our space program has to demonstrate the feasibility of using lunar resources to secure us a place as participants and entrepreneurs in the vast economic future of space.
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