NASA’s mission is to pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research, while also inspiring the nation and the world. Employing a tradition of sound engineering judgment, innovative design, and meticulous planning, NASA has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to maximize results while minimizing risk to mission and crew.
Recently, however, a new NASA management team has proposed a 2011 budget that could be a major retreat from this noble tradition and could potentially maximize risks while minimizing results.
Driven by the desire of some to promote private space tourism and to also increase federal funding to academic institutions, it would totally abandon NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration mission to the Moon by scrapping the Constellation Program, which is actively developing the Orion crew exploration vehicle, Ares I crew launch vehicle, and Ares V cargo launch vehicle as replacements for the soon-to-be-retired Shuttle.
It is widely anticipated that in the future commercial space businesses will likely command a significant fraction of LEO traffic and that competition will result in a significant reduction in launch costs. This is because orbital tourism, although somewhat frivolous, does have the long-term potential for significant economies of scale. Furthermore, it would be highly desirable for the US to command a significant fraction of this market instead of foreign competitors.
The proposed 2011 NASA budget would depend entirely upon the competence of these businesses, none of whom have any demonstrated crew launch capabilities, and several of whom are relatively new and inexperienced. Their current spacecraft designs will probably require significant modification and testing before they can receive a human launch certification from NASA. The proposed premature selection of these businesses could potentially place human lives in jeopardy and force NASA to depend even longer upon Russia for access to the ISS.
Nevertheless, in the future, commercial crew launch could become a desirable secondary or even primary option for ISS transport.
Therefore, NASA should:
Even more disturbingly, the proposed budget fails to define a long-term manned exploration destination for NASA, although in recent days they have suggested that a hypothetical Mars mission sometime in the future might possibly benefit from their proposed academic research efforts. This vague proposal for manned exploration of the Martian surface can not be taken seriously when this same new management team simultaneously claims that the cost of a manned lunar exploration program would be prohibitive.
NASA cannot lead the world in space exploration if it does not know where it is going. It cannot ever succeed if it has no goals. Without realistic, consistent, Congressionally-mandated destinations, NASA would only become an even more tempting multi-billion dollar target for future budget cuts. And most of all, NASA cannot afford for this new management team to linger in indecision and uncertainty for a second year.
There are good technical arguments for putting human explorers on the surface of Mars. As successful as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been, in several years they have accomplished no more than an Astronaut could have achieved in a much shorter time.
However, another major problem with the hypothetical Mars mission argument is that a manned mission could be very counterproductive to the scientific search for life on Mars. Every time that an airlock would open, human bacteria and viruses would spew out into the Martian atmosphere, making it nearly impossible for astrobiologists to recognize and detect any native microorganisms. Therefore, a manned landing might only be wise after a thorough robotic search for life has been completed, which could easily take many decades.
This is a serious issue. There are even risks of contamination from rover missions. Surveyor 3 accidentally transported Earth bacteria to the lunar surface, which survived 3 years of total vacuum, extreme temperatures, and radiation, after which they were accidentally retrieved by Apollo 12 and are now thriving in a NASA laboratory.
The claimed justification for increased academic funding is advanced propulsion systems that could significantly reduce the transit times to and from Mars, reducing the crew’s exposure to radiation, assuming minimal nuclear power plant risks. However, with a manned Mars mission out of the picture, there is no immediate requirement for advanced propulsion systems. Lunar exploration will not require totally new technologies, since conventional chemical propulsion was shown to be more than adequate by our Apollo missions, more than 40 years ago.
Certainly, there is merit to funding academic research, some of which occasionally provides great benefits to society. However, the only significant barrier to current US manned space exploration is the engineering development and manufacturing of safe and effective spacecraft. Comparatively speaking, there is relatively little need for academic research.
The only stated justification for termination of the Moon exploration/development program was the argument that insufficient funding is being provided to NASA to be able to complete a first manned landing by the initial target date of 2020. However, unlike the 1960s space race, there is nothing particularly sacred about 2020. Should the first lunar mission be completed in 2024 or 2028, the popular effect will be the same renewed sense of national pride and accomplishment. Furthermore, this date can be easily pulled forward by a very modest (10%) increase in NASA’s funding, as well as through significant assistance from a team of trusted international partners.
On the lunar surface, exploration should be accomplished by teams of remote-controlled rovers and manned vehicles. Lunar development should be accomplished at manned outposts where periodic human service missions will install, maintain, and repair remotely-controlled resource utilization equipment for the generation of power, air, water, propellant, and building materials.
Furthermore, the short travel time to/from the Moon makes an emergency rescue mission much more plausible, and concurrent international lunar exploration efforts open up possibilities for mutual scientific and logistical assistance.
Therefore, NASA should:
Because the origin of life on Mars is the most important scientific question that needs to be answered, for the next several decades exploration will be accomplished by teams of autonomous rovers in combination with sample-return landers. Thus far, the most significant limitations of this approach have been the slow vehicle speeds due to the limited power output of solar panels, the limited autonomy of the rovers resulting in long communication delays when obtaining command updates from JPL, and the limited sensor bandwidth to ground controllers.
In addition to NASA, other international partners (ESA) are also working on rover exploration missions to Mars.
Although manned spacecraft in orbit around Mars could in theory provide faster command updates to rovers, the extreme crew risks and limited utility of such a mission suggest that it is a poor alternative compared to the development of smarter rovers that would require less frequent human intervention. Advanced rover software could easily be developed and tested on Mars-like terrain. In fact, a DARPA Grand Challenge style competition could be used to rapidly advance this technology. Even after the rovers have been in operation on the Martian surface, it will continue to be possible to upload software updates for improved autonomy.
Therefore, NASA should:
The Augustine Committee’s “Flexible Path” proposed sending manned missions to low-gravity destinations such as the moons of Mars, near earth objects, and Lagrange points. The main rationale was to find something interesting that could be accomplished without the Altair lunar lander, since they strongly argued that the Moon must be kept off-limits for the USA.
Some have described a Lagrange Point destination as a “mission to nowhere.” Unless we plan to park a large telescope or other instrument at that location, and it needs to be upgraded or fixed, (which could happen in the future), there wouldn’t be anything for the crew to accomplish, since they would be parked in empty space. Such a mission would not command public excitement and confidence.
There are two types of near earth objects. Comets are surrounded by a cloud of gas and a cluster of solid particles that could prove lethal to a manned spacecraft that approached too closely. Only unmanned probes, such as Deep Impact, would be appropriate in such dangerous territory.
The other type of near earth object would be an asteroid. Presumably, this mission would look for ways that the orbit of this type of object could be deflected, look at whether it could be exploited for mineral resources, and perform basic research into the origins of the solar system. Because these objects are so tiny, compared to the Earth, there would be almost no gravity. Legs might not be very useful. Planetary scientists would love to get close to these, although unmanned probes might also be a good bet.
The moons of Mars are quite possibly large captured asteroids, and many of the previous comments apply. The gravity on Phobos and Demos is sufficient that you might be able to stand on the surface, although walking would probably result in incredibly large strides. Manned missions to these moons will definitely take place in the future because there are scientists who would dearly love to get to know these bodies more intimately, just as they would love to learn more about our own Moon.
The pubic reaction to a manned mission to just Phobos and Demos, however, might not be nearly so enthusiastic. To take the risks of traveling all the way to Mars, and to not land on the surface could appear almost criminal to many people. That is why Phobos and Demos will probably be explored by unmanned probes until the magic day when we have decided that we can safely send men down to the surface of Mars, either because we are confident that life did not originate there, or because the explorers will always remain sealed tightly inside a mobile exploration vehicle, unable to step down onto the surface.