Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Vision for Space Exploration: Quo Vadimus?

Just got back from ISDC 2007 in Dallas this Memorial Day weekend, where I gave this talk. I felt the need to evaluate publicly the current status of the Vision, particularly in regard to certain architectural decisions made by NASA over the past 3 years. Jeff Foust over at Space Politics has written a fairly accurate précis of my talk at the conference.

I’ve tried to evaluate this as honestly as I can. In brief, I find the current state of the VSE to be wanting in several respects (see presentation at Spudis Lunar Resources). In particular, many of the key recommendations of the Presidential Aldridge Commission have been ignored or poorly implemented. I am not Pollyanna; I recognize the fate of most commission reports is the dustbin. However, the Vision is not merely “the next mission for NASA” as the agency seems to assume. The Vision is an outline for an entirely new and different paradigm of space exploration, one in which we expand national participation in space by directly involving and getting investment from the private sector. It also involves using the unlimited material and energy resources of space to create new spacefaring capability.

These worthy goals seem as far away now as they ever have. I fear that NASA understands neither their new mission nor the philosophical underpinnings of it. The VSE in NASA terms has become all about building the new Orion and Ares vehicles with very little tying these spacecraft to their destinations – the Moon and beyond. The CEV without the Moon is merely Shuttle II – a vehicle without a destination.

One additional note on my advocacy of more robotic missions. This is not a self-serving career move as has been suggested by some posters at Jeff’s discussion board – I have enough data and scientific projects to last me well past my retirement. The robotic program is important because it is a tie to our destination. A robotic presence on the Moon prior to human arrival not only tests important processes we’ll be using on the Moon, particularly in regard to resource extraction (which we’ve never done), but also emplaces assets on the lunar surface for human use when crews finally arrive. But most importantly, it provides continuity in a program in which a full decade will elapse between the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the first human Orion landings. Our robotic presence on the Moon is both a statement of programmatic intent and a “claim stake” on rare and valuable lunar property. President Bush specifically called for a “series of robotic missions to the Moon” in his VSE speech* for these reasons – robotic missions are about much more than simply collecting new map data.

* “Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.” Reference

Friday, February 16, 2007

Others Won’t Pass Up This Opportunity

Don Beattie’s article in this week’s The Space Review comments unfavorably on my earlier effort to articulate a single, clear and understandable mission for America’s return to the Moon as part of the new Vision for Space Exploration. Beattie takes issue with my argument that the Moon is both the right destination and that the mission is to learn how to live and work productively on another world, with emphasis on understanding the role of using space resources.

Beattie says “We can ‘…do everything else that we want to do in space’ without detouring to the Moon.” Beattie contends that the Moon is passé – been there, done that – and it’s time to focus our energies on robotic exploration of Mars, where he perceives the “real science” is—a view shared by others in the planetary exploration community. His value judgment, that there’s nothing of interest on the Moon, a pronouncement gainsaid not merely by me, but by the entire planetary science community, who made aspects of lunar science fundamental in the latest NRC decadal study.

Beattie claims that the idea of using space resources is foolish; concept studies have shown that current techniques don’t pay for themselves and that, “There are no lunar resources that, when processed, would have any economic value if utilized on the Moon or returned to Earth.” Well, concept studies can show anything you want them to show, especially in areas for which we have literally no practical experience, like space resource utilization. Beattie condescendingly advises ISRU advocates to “reopen their chemistry and physics textbooks and spend some time with real-world mining and drilling operations.” In fact, many ISRU workers have extensive mining and engineering backgrounds; studies on lunar resource utilization have been done by such dilettantes as Don Burt, mineralogist and mining geologist from Arizona State University and institutions such as the Bechtel Corporation and Colorado School of Mines. Beattie’s second misjudgment comes from an uninformed assessment of the current marketplace (markets for unimagined products are always non-existent) and a misunderstanding of how resource utilization fits into the Vision.

The goal of resource extraction in lunar return is not to “create economic value,” but rather to process resources on the Moon to discover their potential and determine if they do have economic and exploratory value. If humanity is to have a role in future space exploration, we must learn to cut the cord of Earth-based logistics. Unlike Beattie’s experts, I have no idea if lunar and other space resources can be used to create new capabilities or not but myself and many space-faring nations are eager to find out. The Moon offers us the ability to experiment with a variety of techniques and products along with a space platform where we can evaluate the difficulty of their production and their utility when made available. This is a challenging goal, one where federal engineering R&D can experiment with processes and techniques yet too difficult and too uncertain for the private sector. We go to the Moon to find out if living there is possible—our nation and the world will benefit (as other countries realize), as it strengthens our technological and scientific hand. And if we succeed, we will move into the Solar System.

Beattie dismisses the attraction of the lunar poles. Beyond the potential for water ice and the realization that many countries are preparing scientific expeditions to the Moon, there is the obvious advantage of near-permanent sunlight available at several spots near the poles. This sunlight and the benign thermal environment at the poles allows humans to stay on the Moon throughout the 14-day nighttime without resorting to nuclear reactors for surface power, an alternate solution that greatly increases cost and bureaucratic red tape. It’s the sunlight that makes the poles attractive—water, if present, is icing on the cake.

From his response to my article A Moon Full of Opportunity, it is clear Beattie doesn’t want a permanent human presence on the Moon or for that matter, anywhere else in space. His vision for space exploration appears to be a science-driven program whereby robots send us postcards from space. As I said in my TSR article, people differ on where NASA funding should go. I think that a program designed to learn how to use off-Earth resources to create new industry in space opens up new opportunities for wealth creation, inspiration, human commerce… and science. It is a very different vision from those who think we should have a small, government-controlled program, offering limited access to space to a small subsection of the populace to conduct an extremely narrow range of activities.

Should the Vision for Space Exploration open up space for all constituents, with an eye toward engaging the private sector, or leave it as a government-funded, private playground for academia? Readers can decide for themselves which vision is broader, richer and ultimately, self-sustaining.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

“Stuck on the Moon”

Another aspect of Lou Friedman’s recent rant about the shortcomings of NASA’s new lunar architecture is his fear the we will get “stuck on the Moon.” By this, he means that NASA will become so involved in the construction and maintenance of lunar outpost infrastructure that there will be no resources left for a human mission to Mars.

This attitude fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the Vision for Space Exploration. Friedman’s not alone; many at NASA are under similar misapprehensions. In the decade before the announcement of the VSE, many in the space community had pressed repeatedly for a national commitment to a human mission to Mars. In fact, the Mars Society was founded on this single assumption: that Mars is the only destination for humans in space. When the VSE was announced, many in this group assumed that their fondest desires had been answered, a manned mission to Mars.

In fact, the Vision has a different set of goals. Our “ultimate destination” is nothing less than the entire solar system. Yes, a human Mars mission figures prominently in Vision documents, but the VSE also mentions “other destinations.” And that’s a whole other story.

A speech last year by Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger is a key document on the fundamental purposes of the Vision. This exposition makes it clear that the Vision is much more than simply a “Mars mission” – or even a simply a lunar one. Its purpose is nothing less than the expansion of humanity into the solar system. That’s why particular emphasis is placed on the use of space resources, the materials and energy found naturally in space, gathered and turned into usable form. By harnessing space resources, we begin to “cut the cord” with the Earth, critical skills needed by any true space-faring species. We begin to do this on the Moon, simply because it’s close and has the resources needed to learn how to do this.

Friedman sees the Moon as an obstacle – a stone in his path on the way to Mars. I see it as a stone too – a stepping stone. On the Moon, we will learn how to live on another world, protect ourselves, provide for, and build a transportation system that will permit us to go anywhere we want, with whatever capabilities we need, for as long as we need. We do not have such capabilities now and the only way we can ever get them is begin to use what we find in space to create them. This will enable not only trips to Mars, but other journeys into the rest of the solar system.

Stuck on the Moon? Hardly. The Moon will soon become part of man’s world. We will continue to expand our reach into space …one step, and one planet at a time.