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