Op-ed | Upon Closer Look, NASA’s Exploration Systems are Game-Changers

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The costs and benefits of NASA’s deep space exploration and science programs are popular topics in policy circles and social media discussions this election year.  As the industry team supporting NASA’s deep space ambitions, we believe that informed dialogue and understanding of the key systems under development to achieve those goals is in the interest of all Americans.

NASA’s deep space programs will push human exploration farther into space than we have ever gone before. With the funding levels appropriated by Congress in the FY16 omnibus, the systems that will enable this — the Space Launch System, or SLS, and the Orion crew vehicle – are on track for launch of an uncrewed test mission in 2018, and a crewed mission in 2021.

The SLS is tremendously flexible, adaptable, and powerful — a genuine game-changer in the history of space flight. It will carry three times more than the Space Shuttle and, eventually, fly faster than anything human beings have ever hurled toward the heavens. Crews voyaging deep into the solar system will benefit from reduced risk relative to slower journeys, while the speed of the SLS will cut years off of planetary science missions.

Further, every launch of the SLS can enable multiple missions. This begins with the rocket’s first flight, which will include not only hundreds of tests on its own systems, but a “shakedown” cruise of the Orion spaceship — to the far side of the Moon, no less — and deployment of over a dozen small science payloads, each one generating science returns to a team of researchers.

Current discussions about the order in which NASA will conduct some of its early deep space missions illustrate the tremendous power and flexibility of the system. A 2008 study by the National Research Council described massive telescopes that will revolutionize astronomy.  Planning for an outer-world mission to Europa has already begun.  With sufficient lead-time and funding the space agency can be opportunistic, dropping in a mission as needed or desired. The SLS positions NASA to take advantage of technical advances, incorporating new solutions for deep space challenges as they emerge.

The point is that there has never been a launch system like this — one that can deliver NASA human exploration and science missions throughout the solar system.

This type of capability doesn’t come easy or cheap.  But as I pointed out earlier this month, the biggest risk to SLS’s utility is not the “price tag.” SLS development is currently on budget.  Initial funding is in the pipeline for development of out-year missions, including Europa and a deep space habitat that will be home to astronauts on their voyage into the solar system.

The greatest challenge is budget stability. For the last several years the President’s budget request and congressional appropriations have been out of sync, forcing NASA and its contractors to work at a slower pace under greater budget pressure for the first part of the year until congressional appropriations are set at the necessary levels. This draws out the program and drives up costs. Reduction of political uncertainty together with budget stability would significantly reduce costs and clarify planning.

Even so, and in spite of these difficulties, these programs continue to progress. The addition of an Exploration Upper Stage, increasing the lifting power and range of the rocket, was recently given the green light by Congress and will help fling open the doors to our solar system by the early 2020’s. The enhanced SLS and Orion will put humans in deep space — building habitats near the Moon, enabling lunar expeditions and missions, and bringing along partners old and new in planning and carrying out missions to Mars.

Artist's concept of a four-engine Exploration Upper Stage for NASA's Space Launch System. Credit: Boeing
Artist’s concept of a four-engine Exploration Upper Stage for NASA’s Space Launch System. Credit: Boeing

The benefits to the nation will be enormous. NASA’s deep space programs – including the James Webb Space Telescope, also on track to launch in 2018 – will enable new ventures and cooperation in science, exploration, and commerce. We will strengthen our alliances with nations interested in the peaceful uses of outer space to advance our mutual objectives. Meanwhile the frontiers enabled by SLS and opened by NASA will be available to all Americans for development. The knowledge gained from deep space science and exploration missions will inform both private investment and public institutions.

All of this will take time, and we are currently in a political and social climate where near-term payoffs drive discussion. To be sure, we must applaud innovation, welcome new approaches, and celebrate breakthroughs in science and technology as they occur. But we must also have the commitment to continue the course on which we are set, and the vision to pursue the benefits returned to us from our long-term national investment in space exploration and science.


Mary Lynne Dittmar is executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.