I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961
The entire human endeavor of spaceflight is — without a doubt — one of the greatest achievements in the history of humanity. Looking up into the heavens certainly provides some spectacular sights and a huge amount of insight into how space, stars, and galaxies work, among a myriad of other things. (And click the image below for an amazing high-resolution version.)
But my two biggest complaints about the space program of late have been its failure to spark excitement among the general public as it did in the 1960s, and its inability to excite the commercial sector in terms of investment purposes.
Which of course begs the questions, how do we excite the public the same way proposing putting a man on the Moon did in 1961, and how do we get private companies involved to help with this tremendous effort?
The first question has an easy answer. (Especially if you’ve ever seen Total Recall.) It’s Mars! The big problems with mission plans to Mars, historically, is that they’ve required all of the following:
- huge leaps in technology,
- massive increases in funding which do not materialize, and
- a singular, continued vision over a timespan of many decades.
So when I read the transcript of Obama’s speech yesterday, where he laid out in broad strokes his vision for the future of our endeavors in space, I was initially skeptical. After all, a soundbite like this is only too familiar to me coming out of a President’s mouth.
By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.
But — despite the fact that this is the main message that has made it into popular media — this is not the main crux of Obama’s proposal. This is only the long-term vision he has in mind. Instead, his proposal (which you can download a summary of here) consists of these major points:
- The behemoth nightmare that was Constellation is out. The best parts of it, like the Orion Crew Capsule, will have their developments restructured to better suit our needs.
- The ISS will live! Not only does the plan include keeping the International Space Station around into the 2020s, but NASA will increase the total number of astronaut-hours in space by over 80,000 over the next decade.
- The shuttle will, indeed, be retired. What will replace it, if not Constellation? A combination of two things. To get astronauts up into space, a new commercial space transportation industry will be jump-started, creating an estimated 10,000 jobs over the next 5 years.
- But what of heavy payload lifting? That responsibility will fall on NASA, on a timetable that will actually be two years ahead of Constellation. Over the next five years, NASA will spend over $3 billion on R&D for new technologies to lift heavy loads into space. And perhaps most importantly,
- NASA’s budget is being sizably increased to accomplish these new goals. By a lot. How much is a lot? By six billion dollars over the next five years. In other words, unlike the Bush plan, these new NASA endeavors don’t mean cutting basic research; their funding is being increased to cover the costs of these new proposals!
I am over the Moon about this!
The investment in commercial space travel is the huge change that I’m completely in support of. For far too long, NASA has been the only game in town (okay, NASA and Russia) to put humans into space. All the while, things like SpaceShip One, the Ansari X-Prize, and Branson’s Virgin Galactic have been generating more excitement than NASA about manned spaceflight! I think this is hugely overdue, and should lead to perhaps the most exciting new type of job one can imagine, the commercial astronaut!
Next, we come to the development of new technologies in heavy payload lifting. The Constellation program, for all the hoopla surrounding it, offered practically no advantages over the ancient Saturn V rocket programme. The call and commitment (especially the monetary commitment) to develop a new heavy-lift method should be hugely profitable in terms of aerospace and aeronautics development, as this has historically always been the case.
So what’s Obama’s exciting intermediate goal?
Missions to asteroids! This is done under the pretense of protecting Earth from possible future catastrophic collisions. It’s a worthy goal, even if it’s an unlikely event in the near-term (next thousand years) future. Why is it still a worthy goal? Because we will achieve the following:
- We will send humans out farther into space than ever before, and bring them back!
- We will land on the first bodies not gravitationally bound to us, and
- that exert no notable gravitational force on their own! And finally,
- if we’re lucky, we will find some very rare elements in abundance on these asteroids, providing a possible commercial benefit!
Going to space to mine asteroids, can you imagine?! You can read more about the asteroid mission here.
Of course, you have to ask yourself, is there a downside to this new vision? Of course there is.
The return to the Moon is getting scrapped. Some are extremely disappointed by this. I’m not. Why not?
Yes, we need to figure out how to survive in space for long periods of time, but to my mind, being on the Moon is no better than being on the ISS! Hell, it’s no better than being on Mir, for that matter. The vision for multi-hundred day missions on a round-trip to an asteroid — even a near-Earth asteroid — should give us a huge handle on how to do that.
This practice also gives us an added bonus that no one’s talking about. Recognize these objects?
They look an awful lot like asteroids, don’t they? That’s because Mars’ two moons, Deimos and Phobos (above), are probably captured asteroids! If we can land on a near-Earth asteroid and return to Earth, there’s no reason why the next step wouldn’t be to land on one of Mars’ Moons, slingshot back around Mars, and return to Earth! Going to the Moon would only be an important goal if we had long-term plans to establish a permanently manned base on Mars, and frankly, I don’t think that needs to be in the cards for the first pioneers.
So that’s our new space vision in a nutshell, and I am stoked about it, as it’s a huge improvement over what we have now. If it goes as planned. What do you think?