…Continuing with my fictional interview with the new NASA administrator:
Has NASA done a good job of explaining why we must return to the Moon?
In 2004, President Bush stated that one of our space goals would be to return to the Moon. Despite Mike Griffin’s articulate advocacy of the need for U.S. leadership in space, the president did not follow up his direction to NASA with a public campaign to explain those new goals. So a return to the Moon has been perceived by some as merely a Bush priority. We have lost sight since 2004 of how the lunar goal, and deep space exploration in general, fits into a larger strategy.
President Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, stated publicly that “the fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” Science alone is not a justification for our return to the Moon. “Exploration by a few is not the grandest achievement,” said Marburger a year ago. “Occupation by many is grander. Not necessarily in the sense of permanent human occupation, but in the sense of routine access to resources. The future I look for in the human space enterprise is one in which exploration has long since ceased and our successors reap the benefits of the new territories.”
We must always explore, but Marburger is right: we must bring the Moon, the asteroids, and the other resources ofspace within the economic sphere of the U.S. and our partners. My job is to convince the President, Congress and the public that vigorous leadership in space is important not just for science, but for a secure and peaceful economicfuture. We can’t sustain our preeminence in space unless our leaders, me included, articulate repeatedly why exploration is an indispensable national priority.
How will you strengthen NASA’s exploration agenda?
Leadership requires clearly set goals, funding stability, and program momentum — a series of achievements that demonstrates progress. Mike Griffin tried to establish goals and momentum, but he wasn’t given the promised funding. As a result, the nation now faces a five-year gap in U.S. manned launches from Kennedy Space Center; NASA will rely instead on Russia’s Soyuz to reach ISS. But the perceived impact of this gap can be lessened by getting Orion operational in early 2014. To make that happen and shrink that gap, I’ll have to win additional Orion funding from the President.
But that’s not enough. To maintain U.S. leadership in human spaceflight, the nation must commit to sending explorers not just to the ISS, but beyond LEO. By pulling back from deep space, we will confirm that, after forty years of foot-shuffling, Americans are turning away from the Moon, asteroids, and beyond. Our competitors will note that retreat, and I am certain some will move to seize the leadership we have ceded.
Such a retreat also breaks faith with NASA’s astronauts. Since 2004, they have accepted the risk of flying the shuttle, knowing that their commitment is buying time for completion of the Station and the building of new systems that will enable ground-breaking exploration at the Moon, asteroids, and beyond. Some of these explorers hope to fly the new Orion, and lead our return to deep space. President Obama and I should not ask these brave Americans to accept the risk of more shuttle missions, for example, without commensurate return. I think deep space exploration delivers that return. Accepting a stagnant status quo in LEO does not.
Here is what we can do in the next decade:
Even as we develop Orion and its Ares V deep-space booster, we can explore the Moon with a series of advanced robot explorers, as outlined by lunar scientist Paul Spudis. They can scout landing sites and prospect for water ice, volatiles, and attractive mineral deposits, and demonstrate the feasibility of resource extraction. If those resources justify establishment of an outpost, robot vehicles can reconnoiter a site, install navigational aids, and emplace habitat elements and supplies for later human explorers. Well before humans arrive, we can establish a sophisticated virtual presence on the Moon, material proof of the seriousness of our abilities and commitment.
Beyond the Moon, Orion and Ares will also bring within reach a small but fascinating population of Near Earth objects (mostly asteroids), prized for both scientific value and attractive resources (water-bearing minerals, for example). Setting out for these rocky footholds will be the most daring human expeditions in history, and confirm U.S. mastery of Earth-Moon space. Robotic and then human exploration of NEOs will provide invaluable deep space experience, open new economic opportunities, and provide hands-on engineering information needed for deflection of any NEO that threatens Earth. Want a “green” space mission? Defending Earth from a devastating impact would seem to fill the bill.
Disclaimer — This fictional interview reflects only the author’s views. — Disclaimer
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