Commentary | U.S. Needs Near-term Results in Human Space Exploration

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Next January will see the eighth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which set the nation on a renewed course to send Americans to explore beyond Earth orbit.

Eight years — that’s about how long it took from John Kennedy’s lunar landing challenge in 1961 to the accomplishment of that goal in 1969. Yet, eight years after the 2004 VSE announcement by another, we are hardly closer to venturing beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) with humans than we were when these goals were first announced.

The reasons for the lack of quicker progress are many, as are those who share the blame. But identifying either those reasons or their culprits isn’t what is most important.

What is important, in our estimation, is to avoid the missteps of the recent past and to accelerate progress in order to capture public and political imaginations. More specifically, we believe it is necessary to find a way for human exploration beyond LEO to begin in this very decade.

Unfortunately, the just-announced Space Launch System (SLS)’s first crew flight date goal is 2021, still fully 10 years from now. And that’s the best case.

We hope the noble goals and intended timetable set by lawmakers and NASA for SLS can be met, but we believe that 2021 for the first crewed flight is simply too distant to ensure exploration sustainability — so distant, in fact, that it ultimately may lead us away from the exploration actually intended.

Since accelerating SLS itself is not fiscally feasible, one is led to ask: What can be done?

We believe the solution boils down to one word: pragmatism.

Pragmatism means exchanging more perfect solutions for more practical ones by using existing systems, modified to the least extent practical, to accelerate the pace of exploration.

We therefore urge an approach that obtains near-term results — i.e., human exploration beyond LEO — as quickly and as pragmatically as possible. In an era when budgets are shrinking, as are both public and political attention spans, we believe this course is a must for human space exploration in the United States.

Specifically, what does this course imply? It means two things:

  • Establishing a commercial crew capability to LEO and the international space station as rapidly as possible, in order to expeditiously free up resources within the human spaceflight budget for exploration, rather than expensive Soyuz seats.
  • Using the savings accrued by adopting commercial crew to jump-start human exploration beyond LEO before SLS is ready. This can be accomplished by developing orbital refueling for and then human-rating one or more existing rockets to carry out simple exploration missions — such as lunar/near-Earth object flybys and orbiters — using the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or other crewed spacecraft that can be ready by mid-decade.

Studies we and others have been involved in over the past 18 months have shown that this kind of pragmatic approach is feasible.

We believe that as soon as actual human visits to nearby worlds begin, the public excitement, scientific results and other benefits of this exploration will strengthen the desire for more of it, sustaining both SLS itself and NASA’s exploration objectives set in the 2020s and beyond.

There is no need for us to begin political games. Nor is there a need for new mandates, visions or elections. We must instead find ways to provide nearer-term exploration.

So let’s accelerate and invigorate human space exploration with human missions launched before this decade is out. In doing so, the exploration community can achieve the sustainability that has eluded us so far, and show a nation and the world just how creative and productive Americans of this generation can be in human space exploration.

S. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist and aerospace consultant. He is NASA’s former associate administrator in charge of science, and he serves as the chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group. Gerry Griffin is an aerospace engineer, an Apollo flight director, and the former director of the Johnson Space Center. He also served as the associate administrator for external relations and assistant administrator for legislative affairs at NASA headquarters.