Monday, June 22, 2009

The Swirl

First, I invite you to read Jeff Foust's latest piece on the Augustine Human Space Flight panel. Go ahead, I'll wait...

Now I'll throw my own shrimp on the barbie--gingerly, of course. I've got a stake in this business in the form of a day job. There's been enough attention paid to this matter that one can't help admire the tempest in a teapot. The contenders for leading America's next generation of space exploration include:
  • The Constellation Program as currently built: the Ares I crew launch vehicle for sending human beings in the Orion crew exploration vehicle into orbit, and the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, which can place the Altair lunar lander into orbit, along with an Earth departure stage (EDS). Missions to the International Space Station would require only Ares I and Orion. In a lunar exploration scenario, Ares V would launch Altair and the EDS into orbit. Next, Ares I launches Orion into orbit; Orion docks with Altair, and then the EDS fires its engine to send Orion and Altair toward the Moon.
  • United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, has suggested replacing Ares I with the "heavy" version of the Delta IV evolved expendable launch vehicle, which is already in existence, but doesn't have all the extra bells and whistles to make it "human rated."
  • A group of NASA and non-NASA people have proposed a Space Shuttle-based archiecture called DIRECT, which would maximize existing equipment by putting four Space Shuttle Main Engines on the bottom of an external tank, and then putting the Orion on top. A new upper stage would give the Orion enough oomph to get it into orbit for lunar missions. For lunar missions, two DIRECT vehicles would be used, with one launching Altair, one launching Orion and the Earth departure stage (I believe).
  • Others have suggested using wholly commercial launchers and spacecraft to support the International Space Station via the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The most likely candidate, if proven successful, would be SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher and six-person Dragon spacecraft.

And no doubt there are others. An impressive array of choices--more than America had ten years ago, at any rate--but how does one decide? I myself am a proud, self-proclaimed "English major" (M.A. University of Central Florida '02, lest you think my low-key pose is real). I'm not an engineer, I'm a policy guy.

It seems to me that the bigger picture is being lost in the swirl over the choice of rockets. Everyone's so concerned about the "horse race" between the various vehicles that they're overlooking where the horses might or should be going, which is really the most important part of this discussion. I love our space science programs--the rovers, the orbiters, the telescopes--but I would dearly love to see human beings (yes, Americans) plant Old Glory into an asteroid or Mars or the Moon again. We did it when I was born, f'r gosh sakes, certainly we can improve on that performance after 40 years!

But the bigger questions aren't just about flags and footprints. We had that, won a race, and then closed down the production lines for the Moon rockets because we thought the job was done. As a space advocate, beg to differ. We've learned more about the Moon in the past 40 years. We know that the place is rich in energy, actual (solar) and potential (helium-3, which can be used for fusion). It might have water ice, which would make long-term bases and settlements possible up there. That's what the LCROSS mission will hopefully find out in October.

But what are we going to do when we're up there? That's where the conversation has always fallen flat (one can see the results in the International Space Station). Here's a step-by-step progression of what's possible with current technology--whichever rockets we choose to build:

  1. Science performed by robotic vehicles, including Earth observation, planetary science, and astronomy.
  2. Robotic "virtual" entertainment (e.g. tele-operated rovers moving around the Moon under the control of private citizens back on Earth).
  3. Human exploration of other worlds, including the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.
  4. Space resource development, including investigating space solar power, helium-3, platinum-group metals, and anything we haven't seen yet for use in solving problems here on Earth.
  5. Basic science taking advantage of the near-vacuum and low gravity of the Moon or other bodies in the solar system.
  6. Manufacturing of new products taking advantage of the space environment.
  7. Handling or storage of materials too dangerous or precious to leave on Earth, such as nuclear waste, biotechnology, nanotechnology, cultural artifacts, or genetic "libraries" of all life on Earth.
  8. Space commerce, including space hotels, tourism, off-world banks, and space salvage--none of which require a permanent human presence in space to maintain.
  9. Space settlement, meaning permanent human habitations in orbit or on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids for scientific, commercial, or cultural reasons.

If I were President, I'd want to learn from the panel where the country should go and what we should do in space. From there, the hardware selections become more or less academic. If I had my choice, I'd keep shooting for the Moon, Mars, and beyond--let NASA keep doing what it's doing. I don't have a problem with a "mixed fleet" to low Earth orbit and the Space Station until the commercial sector gets established. Redundant capability to LEO might not be efficient, but it gives the country several options. But we need to keep NASA focused on the frontiers of science and engineering. Otherwise, what's the darned point?

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