Concluding my remarks from the Sept. 14, 2010 Capitol Hill forum hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association:
A Sustainable Way Forward
Our government should assure a vibrant and world-leading space program for its citizens, building on the successes of the past 50 years. The Augustine Committee a year ago explicitly called for a space program worthy of a great nation. What elements are needed to build and sustain such a program?
During my astronaut career during the 1990s and 2000s, the focus of NASA was on operating the shuttle and beginning the construction of the ISS. Ambitions to go beyond LEO or to build a successor to the shuttle met with failure, either due to technological overreach, or lack of funding–most often the latter. Even an attempt to build a U.S. lifeboat to reduce reliance on the Russian Soyuz fell victim to tight budgets, and the X-38 crew return vehicle never left its Johnson Space Center hangar. The most harmful effects over the past twenty years have been a lack of promised funding for NASA by policy makers, and a lack of stability and support in executing long-term programs and research. The current situation of reversing NASA’s direction in space with each change of administration is a terrible precedent and undermines both management and morale. The NASA policy whipsaw of early 2010 was very harmful, and completely avoidable.
Just before my crew suited up for launch on STS-98 on Feb. 7, 2001, we met with the NASA chief of human spaceflight, who told me he didn’t expect NASA astronauts to be ready to leave Earth orbit until 2012 or so. At the time, that date seemed infinitely far into the future, yet today we would be amazed–and grateful–to find the U.S. on the verge of exploring beyond the ISS. My boss’ prediction a decade ago proved too optimistic. How can we jump-start human exploration beyond LEO?
We must build on a foundation of assured access to LEO (see Part II). There are several solutions, using rapid development of a LEO-capable spacecraft and marrying it to a commercial booster to quickly achieve assured access to the ISS. Challenge NASA to do this within three years. Over the next five years, I recommend reducing national risk in maintaining LEO access by taking a conservative if more expensive approach: NASA should operate crew transport for the next 5 years, then transition to the most successful of the commercial ISS cargo carriers operating a safe, low-cost crew transport.
The drivers for our national human spaceflight program should be two-fold: a long-term commitment to the commercial and industrial development of space, and the development of the capability for planetary defense against an asteroid impact.
The first goal should be to increase the national wealth, and provide new opportunities for business, using the resources of near-Earth space (the Moon, nearby asteroids, and the constant supply of solar energy beyond LEO). NASA’s mission should be to catalyze commercial activity in space, based on the growing availability of space resources. We can tap the Moon and nearby asteroids for raw materials: water, bulk (mass) shielding, organic material for chemical processes, and even some rare strategic metals. NASA should prove the processes and their feasibility, enabling commercial entities to take over production and delivery to users. The availability of space resources on commercial scales will lower the cost of rocket propellant and life support materials in space, increasing our capability for more ambitious future exploration. Perhaps energy production in space will prove commercially viable, or perhaps not, but NASA should lead the way in proving the business case for practical solar energy delivery to Earth.
The second mission for NASA should be a program of robotic and human exploration of Near-Earth Asteroids, resulting in a capability to stop a future natural catastrophe from a cosmic impact. These recurring impacts (the last large impact occurred over Siberia a century ago) pose a risk of destruction far in excess of more familiar natural hazards, like earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes. Human exploration should be an integral part of understanding these bodies, sometimes threatening, but offering the most accessible resources for use in space. Actual deflection of a rogue asteroid would be done using robot spacecraft, but human explorers would quickly gather the necessary civil engineering data needed for a successful diversion. No benefit from future human space exploration will be so fundamental as the prevention of a future impact catastrophe, ending a cosmic process that has altered the course of life on Earth for 4.5 billion years.
As the Congress considers NASA’s future direction in the coming weeks, it should focus on the following areas:
- Heavy lift: The Congress should let NASA design the most efficient heavy lift system to enable beyond-LEO exploration, planning for minimum cost over at least thirty years of operation.
- Resources: Aim NASA’s exploration efforts at tapping practical sources of space resources, the basis for industrial development of space byU.S firms.
- Planetary defense: Give NASA the leadership role for the government’s planetary defense efforts, ensuring that NASA leads international efforts to prevent a future asteroid impact.
- Science: Use the resources of near-Earth space to lower the cost of space exploration and enable an aggressive, human-led scientific campaign into the solar system.
- Experience: Conduct human expeditions to nearby asteroids and the Moon to advance U.S. leadership in space technology and capability. The U.S. should take humanity “out of the cradle” — the Earth-Moon space.
- Research: Fund R&D that will enable more ambitious exploration, with nuclear power and propulsion in space the most valuable capability we will need over the next ten years.
These efforts will probably not fit within the current $19 billion NASA budget, but will certainly not exceed $21 or $22 billion annually. This amount is only about 0.6% of the current federal budget, and will restore the proper level of investment in space, which was about 1% of expenditures in 1990 (over 4% during Apollo).
Our nation should turn over to the next generation of explorers both a better technical capability in space than we currently possess, but also a firm commitment to keep the U.S. a leader in space exploration, with ambitions, goals, and the long-term financial support to match our nation’s tradition of pioneering. Space exploration has given us a past to be proud of, but we (and our policy makers) must do our part in 2010 to make possible an even brighter future for our nation, and our children–the explorers of the 21st Century.
I was honored to be part of the September 14, 2010 Aerospace Industries Association forum on Capitol Hill, along with such distinguished explorers as Buzz Aldrin, Brewster Shaw, and Frank Culbertson. I hope the decisions made this year about NASA’s direction will guarantee that we create a place at the table for America’s accomplished explorers of the future.