To put it bluntly we’ve been spinning our wheels in terms of human space exploration. It was well over 40 years ago that we first placed one of our own on the moon and in the time since then we’ve tentatively sent out our robotic companions to do the exploring for us, staying in the relative safety of low earth orbit ever since. There is no one entity that we can blame for this, more it is a sign of the malaise that took over once the space race was won and there was no longer any political motivation to push the final frontier further. The last decade has seen a few ambitious plans put into motion in order to start pushing that envelope once again, but none of them are to bear fruit for at least a decade.
Of course I’m not expecting that we’ll see another space race any time soon, we’re far too engaged in fixing economic problems right now for another pissing contest between superpowers. However that doesn’t mean that the groundwork can’t be done for a time when countries are ready to pursue space travel with renewed vigour and NASA is doing just that with their roadmap for space exploration:
Human and robotic exploration of the Moon, asteroids, and Mars will strengthen and enrich humanity’s future, bringing nations together in a common cause, revealing new knowledge, inspiring people, and stimulating technical and commercial innovation. As more nations undertake space exploration activities, they see the importance of partnering to achieve their objectives. Building on the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the first 50 years of human spaceflight have resulted in strong partnerships that have brought discoveries, innovations, and inspiration to all mankind. Discoveries we have made together have opened our eyes to the benefits of continuing to expand our reach.
NASA’s roadmap lays out 2 options for the future of manned missions beyond low earth orbit with both of them converging on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. The first being called “Asteroid Next” which would see our next target being a near earth asteroid favouring the development of deep space technologies. The second is “Moon Next” which would see humanity return to our celestial sister and use it as a test bed for technologies that would enable humans to survive in Mars’ harsh climate. Both options are equally valid, but they are not without their drawbacks.
First let’s have a look at Asteroid Next. The most interesting part of this idea is the establishment of a Deep Space Habitat at the Earth-Moon lagrangian point. Now you might think that this is somewhat pointless when we have the International Space Station but establishing a base beyond the comforts of low earth orbit poses many significant challenges. The ISS as it stands doesn’t have the required shielding to protect it’s occupants past its current orbital altitude and a habitat at L1 or L2 would need significant redesigns. However such rework would form the basis of the module that would carry our explorers to Mars as the requirements for a habitat and interplanetary transport are nearly identical.
Having a base at the lagrangian points also opens up nearly any destination within our solar system and could serve as an excellent base for future missions. The energy required to go from one such points to anywhere in the solar system is quite minimal and well suited to high efficiency engines like ion-thrusters. Having a presence out there would make a perfect base for sending up unmanned equipment prior to sending them to Mars or beyond.
Asteroid Next however doesn’t make any mention of technology development for Mars settlement meaning that the missions to Mars that followed would probably be short lived like their Apollo ancestors were. Asteroid Next then is very much like its predecessors in that regard, being a lot more like a one-shot event that something that would be repeatable for decades to come. This would see us push the boundaries much more aggressively (we could conceivably send a DSH to Mars by 2030) but at the risk of history repeating itself, seeing such missions as one offs.
Moon Next then sees us forego advancing deep space technologies in favour of returning to the moon and establishing a base there. This delays developing deep space technologies in favour of developing, testing and deploying habitats and supporting infrastructure in a much hasher climate than what will be faced on Mars. Technologies like the Deep Space Habitat will still need to be developed as they are crucial for the journey to Mars however Moon Next would see them developed well over a decade later than Asteroid Next. Moon Next would also see humanities base of operations be that of a small moon colony rather than a base at a lagrangian point which is advantageous in terms of resources (if we can develop technology to harvest some of the Moon’s resources) but does require much more energy in order to launch missions from there.
Going to the Moon before Mars might seem like we’re just repeating what we’ve already done but establishing a base there would be highly advantageous to future missions, and not just future exploration. There are many cases for radio telescopes on the far side of the moon (shielded from all the signals that currently pollute Earth) and there’s the very tantalizing prospect of constructing giant optical observatories that make us of the non-existent atmosphere and low gravity. However going for the Moon first means that a potential Mars shot will be delayed much longer than it would be if we pursued deep space technologies first.
After considering both options I believe our best bet is to go with the Moon Next option. If Mars was the only goal we had Asteroid Next would be the way to go but the potential benefits of a lunar base are just too good to pass up, even if it means not getting to Mars for another decade. Many of the technologies used in developing a lunar base will be transferable to both Mars missions as well as other deep space activities. It’s a tough choice for NASA though as the arguments are equally strong for supporting Asteroid Next and I’ll be watching the debate over these two ideas unfold with a keen interest.
NASA’s in a real pickle at the moment. After having their budget repeatedly slashed year after year by various governments looking to save a few dollars and the scope of their works ever increasing they’re now faced with the challenge of choosing their future direction. A white house panel recently convened on the subject and had several proposals put forth, half of them requiring a cash injection to the beleaguered agency to the tune of $3 billion a year. It would seem the idea of visiting a Near Earth Object (NEO) has gained some traction recently:
BOULDER, Colo. – Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.
Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.
In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.
If they are to follow such a plan (assuming it came from the white house panel’s proposals) it does have some interesting consequences for NASA. First of all it’s one of the more expensive options, meaning that their budget would need to be increased to cope with it. Secondly it would see the shuttle program extended for another year delaying its retirement until 2011. It would also see NASA divert their focus from the shuttle replacement Ares-I in favour of using commercial options like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, only relying on their launch capabilities as a backup. The last, and probably most important aspect, would be that America would no longer cease its involvement in the International Space Station in 2015, instead continuing until 2020. All of these points show a shift from traditional NASA thinking and it has me wondering where the push is coming from.
In all honesty visiting a NEO would make for an interesting mission. It would be a long duration flight of around 6 months with a maximum of a couple weeks spent actually in and around the object in question. The real benefit of such a mission isn’t so much in the science we can do at the asteroid (we’ve already done that) but in the verification that the new hardware is capable of such long duration flights. It’s definitely a step forward in terms of capability, but will it really serve as the stepping stone for manned missions to Mars and beyond?
Buzz Aldrin thinks not, and he’s been an advocate for NASA to focus on going directly to Mars for quite some time. His plan does seem incredibly sensible to me as collaborating with other space faring nations whilst pushing the envelope in terms of deep space exploration means that NASA can get the best of both worlds. I’m sure that Roscosmos and the ESA would jump at the opportunity to establish a presence on the moon as they did with the ISS. The main issue that Buzz hits on quite succinctly is that NASA should be actively seeking collaboration from international partners for projects such as a moon base as these have significant scientific benefits. It would be hard to justify it as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond, but as an international effort it almost looks like a no-brain-er.
It’s a troubling time for NASA as they’ve been presented with a whole swath of options and are faced with the hard choice of cutting back on their core programs or attempting the next-to-impossible by squeezing more cash out of congress. The next year will see many changes happen with the impending retirement of the shuttle and the realization of fully private launch capabilities so we can rest assured that NASA’s future won’t be in question for much longer.
I just wish they’d make up their minds about the shuttle so I can plan my trip over there to see the last shuttle launch 😉