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A down-to-earth space program

An Obama administration panel has come up with a vision that is a combination of practical steps and inspiring explorations.

September 14, 2009|William Sweet | William Sweet is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His views are his own.

For the last five years, the United States has been saddled with a space program that manages to be both unrealistic and uninspiring. It's unrealistic because it depends on funding and technology that are not available, and uninspiring because it proposes a mere repeat visit to the moon -- and not very soon at that -- and a trip to Mars that is way too far off to excite any young person alive today.

Last week, a panel of former astronauts and space entrepreneurs convened by the Obama administration to review the 2004 program released its preliminary findings, which offer a way out of our space dilemma. Though the panel's conclusions are couched in the dry, analytic language favored by policy wonks, it will be a pity if they fall into the oblivion that is so often the destiny of such exercises.

In 2004, President George W. Bush promulgated a space vision calling for the development of two new rockets, Ares I and V, to jointly carry crew and equipment into low-Earth orbit and then on to the moon. Basically, the elements of the mission dubbed Constellation -- rockets, exploration and landing vehicles -- looked a lot like the Apollo program's, except that everything would be bigger and more capable. Meanwhile, however, early retirement of the space shuttle would leave the United States unable to service the International Space Station and at the mercy, for the next five to 10 years, of other countries to put this country's people and stuff into orbit.

Although the rationale for returning to the moon was to ultimately send astronauts to Mars, perhaps in two or three decades' time, that explanation made little sense. "Saying that we have to go to the moon to get to Mars is kind of like saying that in order to get to Europe from New York City, we need to go to Montauk Point on eastern Long Island first," commented Donald Rapp, the author of "Human Missions to Mars," a book on enabling technologies needed for Mars missions.

A mission to Mars and back using conventional rocket technology would take about two years, and the simple fact is that we don't know how to keep four astronauts cramped in a capsule safe from deadly radiation, physically fit, sane and satisfied for that length of time.

"Scientists estimate that astronauts on a 1,000-day mission will be exposed to just over 1 sievert of radiation, equal to about 26,00 dental X-rays," reported IEEE Spectrum, a technology magazine.

The smart money says that when we do finally go to Mars, it won't be by standard chemical propulsion. It will be by some novel technology, perhaps nuclear-powered thermal or ion propulsion. Because we don't know now what technology it will be, we don't know whether establishing a base on the moon first would be necessary or even helpful.

The Obama review panel, chaired by former Lockheed Chief Executive Norman Augustine, said the Bush plan could be realized only with sharply increased spending, and it came up with alternative visions for space exploration relying on different combinations of some common elements: develop a single new heavy lifter, Ares V (Lite), rather than two rockets, for missions into the inner solar system; turn over routine lifting into low-Earth orbit to the private sector; extend the lives of the space shuttle and the space station; and adopt a "flexible path" to Mars -- the "ultimate" but "not the best first destination" -- with visits to a variety of destinations such as asteroids, the Martian moons and the points where the Earth's and the sun's gravity fields are in equilibrium.

A series of ever-more challenging landings would provide the public and stakeholders with a series of "firsts," to sustain interest and motivation.

This "steppingstone" vision draws on a number of earlier top-level reports and enjoys wide support in the astronautic and space exploration communities.

The panel also argued for extending the space station's life -- an idea international partners would embrace -- by saying it seems unwise on the face of it "to de-orbit the station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life." The station has cost tens of billions of dollars to build and operate, and Europe, Canada and Japan contributed sizable shares.

Those partners have been frustrated by the delays in getting the station up and running, and by its scheduled demise. By the time the station was built, its original commercial and scientific backers had lost interest and the attention of the coming generation had drifted elsewhere, complained Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director-general of the European Space Agency. "We have to define milestones that are challenging enough" to engage young people's interest and keep them engaged, he said.

If there is one inconsistency in the review panel's report, it has to do with future funding. To accommodate either a revised version of the current plan or some version of the flexible steppingstone proposals, it recommends sharply boosting space exploration funding by $3 billion a year by 2014. But as its summary report points out:

"Space exploration has become a global enterprise. Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA's. ... Actively engaging international partners ... could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources and enhance the exploration enterprise."

If that's so, shouldn't it be possible to get Europe and Japan, and perhaps even China, India and Russia, to shoulder more of the costs -- and reap more of the benefits?

This more focused vision for exploration would help us fully appreciate our place in the solar system.

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