Scientific advancement is going to require heavy lift, experts say

by

COLORADO SPRINGS – The next big leaps in scientific discovery and exploration, including Mars missions and large space telescopes, will require heavy-lift launch capability, a panel of experts said Wednesday at the 33rd Space Symposium.

With current rockets “we’re able to get one metric ton on the surface,” said John Grunsfeld, the former NASA associate administrator for science. “We really need to be able to get five or ten metric ton pieces to assemble the ability to get people on the surface of Mars.”

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew on five shuttle missions, said heavy lift helps get not only humans to Mars, but their scientific equipment as well.

“By getting human-scale systems where the future astronauts could live, you also have the ability to bring amazing analytical instrumentation: mass spectrometers, scanning electron microscopes, the kinds of tools we have on Earth that are just too big to put in a robotic probe,” he said.

The pace of scientific discovery from robotic rovers on Mars is “painfully slow,” Grunsfeld said, but would go much faster if heavy lift can help get humans to the surface.

Meanwhile, scientific systems in orbit around Earth are suffering from the “tyranny of the fairing,” said Jonathan Arenberg, chief engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman.

JWST was designed to launch in 2018 in an existing five-meter fairing. But more advanced telescopes that can look deeper into space will need larger mirrors, which means larger fairings and thus greater lift capacity, Arenberg said.

“Most of the promised scientific land is beyond the [limits of current launch], it’s not accessible with current boosters,” he said. “Scientific advancement, the kind of wonder and awe that we want to give ourselves and the next generation, requires these larger boosters. It gives us greater mass and volume to space. It’s an efficient means of getting even larger systems into space.”

“Only a large telescope,” Arenberg continued, “can help us identify whether life is prevalent or habitability is prevalent in the universe.”

Grunsfeld expressed optimism about what could be possible in the future, noting that current launch capabilities are small compared to what’s planned to come online soon, including SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and NASA’s Space Launch System.

JWST, whose primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, is “the best we can do today,” he said, but being able to answer questions like how the universe developed or whether life exists outside Earth requires even larger telescopes in orbit.

“Imagine what we could do putting the pieces of a telescope into a fairing and having astronauts go up and assemble it,” said Grunsfeld, who flew on three Hubble Space Telescope repair missions. “We need to be bold. We needed to be bold to do Hubble. We’re audacious with the James Webb Space Telescope, but we know how to build bigger.”