Saturday, June 02, 2012

Trip Report: The Global Space Exploration Conference

It isn’t just NASA that spends time thinking about where humanity will go next in space. Russia, Canada, China, India, the European Union, and Brazil have their own space agencies, as do some nations that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, including Ukraine, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Not all of these nations are launching rockets, satellites, and people into space, but those who have an interest in advancing their technology are at least taking the time to pay attention to space. Back in 2007, when the Constellation Program was still active, NASA invited the world’s other space agencies to discuss the future of human space exploration. That group, which travels under the easy-to-say name of the International Space Exploration Coordinating Group (ISECG), in turn, developed a document called the Global Space Exploration Roadmap, which laid out in general terms where the 17-nation ISECG thought human space exploration might be going.

The ISECG hosted their first Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) last week. I attended while wearing my NASA hat and got recruited by Jason, my buddy at Zero Point Frontiers, to become a "rapporteur" (fancy French word meaning reporter, or rapper, for all I know) for the sessions dedicated to discussing and improving the Roadmap. Below are some of the thoughts I gleaned during my adventures.


The debate regarding the next destination(s) for human spaceflight is not settled yet:
·        Commercial space advocates tend to support human missions to an asteroid, the current U.S. policy.
·        Scientists, members of the international community, and some members of the U.S. space community (Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, Lunar and Planetary Institute scientist PaulSpudis, Dynetics executives Steve Cook and David King) favor going to the moon first.
·       The Mars Society (Robert Zubrin, et al.), Explore Mars Inc., and other focused advocacy organizations are obviously focused on Mars.

There was still consensus at GLEX on Mars as the “ultimate” destination for the foreseeable future, but as one panelist noted, “The rest of the universe is out there.”

Capability- vs. Mission-Driven Framework

The capabilities-vs.-missions debate generated a lot of conversation at GLEX. For clarification: a "capabilities-driven" space architecture means that a space agency focuses on developing generalized hardware for getting to or working in space without a specific destination in mind; a mission-driven architecture would focus all technology development on getting to a specific destination. The Apollo Program might be seen as the prototypical mission-driven program while the Space Shuttle was a capability-driven program. The debate comprises several components and viewpoints:

·        Missions are easier to keep “sold” with elected officials and the general public because there is a definite goal/end in mind. Not everyone is vehicle or technology focused. Others just want to know what we’ll do when we get to the destination.
·        Ends (missions) shape means (vehicles, infrastructure, and technologies) and thus budgets. Abandonment of either can create wasted effort.
·        Some believe that hardware cannot be designed properly without a specific mission.
·        The lack of a mission focus runs the risk of technology projects becoming ends unto themselves, becoming endless “science projects” without real-world application.
·        Capabilities can be kept under budget caps more easily.

International Participation

International partners are still concerned about where they can participate within the current exploration architecture. Mars Exploration Rover lead scientist Steve Squyres suggested that the long-term plans for robotic expeditions to Mars would be ideal. In the human spaceflight world, NASA is speaking with ESA about developing Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle as an Orion Service Module. A lot of emphasis was placed on using the International Space Station as a base from which to test long-duration, high-reliability life-support systems prior to missions to an asteroid or Mars.

Space Launch System (SLS)

The GLEX audience, working from the Global Exploration Roadmap, agreed that a heavy-lift launch vehicle (such as the Space Launch System NASA's developing at Marshall Space Flight Center) was a necessary starting-point technology for long-term human space exploration. The heavy-lift rocket was taken as a given, with most of the concern directed toward the next generation of vehicles/technologies (i.e., the stuff we'll use at our chosen destination, whatever that turns out to be). There was some concern about how to plan for the next generation of hardware when the destination question was still unsettled.

Commercial Space
With SpaceX making history last week as the first commercial entity to launch and berth a spacecraft at the International Space Station, it was impossible to avoid discussions about what role the commercial sector might play in our future in space. One thing I learned in a previous job is that the civil society and private sectors are much stronger in the United States than other parts of the world. The vigorous discussions we're having in the U.S. space community over what government should do in space vs. commercial providers aren't as prevalent elsewhere--in short, most nations assume that the private sector will follow their government's lead and provide whatever technologies or vehicles the government needs rather than pursuing ends of their own.

Be that as it may, the U.S. commercial space sector--both the traditional aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed and newcomers like SpaceX--seem likely to let NASA lead in some instances and try to take the initiative in others. For instance, the newly formed Planetary Resources, is looking to mine an asteroid for profit; Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable private space stations; while Stratolaunch is looking to air-launch SpaceX rockets without government funding. However, until prices come down substantially (it's $200,000 to fly to suborbital space on Virgin Galactic, $20 million to fly to the International Space Station, $100 million to fly around the Moon--the latter two through Space Adventures), space tourism will remain a sport for the rich for the foreseeable future.

One thing that was abundantly clear from listening to the private sector panel was that more customers are needed to make space a flourishing economic sphere a reality. Right now, aside from communication satellite companies, governments are the primary customers for space products and services. Mike Griffin labeled that government contracts for space activities are a "procurement, not a strategy." When it comes to human exploration beyond Earth orbit, though, I'm guessing that private-sector companies are going to continue to follow the government's lead for the time being. Exploration is high-risk and expensive with an uncertain payoff, things which make venture capitalists nervous. That said, there's always the unexpected. Will the government establish a lunar base so commercial companies provide high-priced cargo supply services like they do for ISS today? Will private companies or other nations try to mine Helium-3 or platinum on the moon or on an asteroid? Interesting times ahead.


Constrained budgets continue to be a challenge, not just for NASA, but also many national space agencies due to worldwide economic uncertainty, particularly in the European Union. Most national space agencies are starting to make long-range plans that assume flat budgets in the coming years.

Like I said, interesting times ahead, my friends. Stay tuned. There's bound to be more excitement to come.

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