Commentary | Human Space Exploration: Technology or Destination Driven?

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WASHINGTON — The deputy administrator of NASA and a former chairman of the U.S. House Science Committee debated July 17 a central issue in human spaceflight policy: Should the selection of missions and destinations drive technology development or should available technologies shape what missions the space agency pursues?

“We can’t just pick a place and go there just because we want to,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver during a panel session on exploration during the Future Space 2013 conference here. “We need to focus a little more on the why and the how than just the where.”

That emphasis on why and how, Garver said, shapes NASA’s plans for a mission to redirect a near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. She outlined several reasons for going to asteroids, including scientific knowledge, potential commercial applications of asteroid resources, and planetary defense. Moreover, asteroids are accessible with systems already under development, including the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew vehicle. 

“In particular, this mission was chosen because, regarding how we’re going to do it, we do know we have programs, SLS and Orion, that are going to deep space,” she said, “and we want to give them something very worthwhile to do.”

Former Congressman Robert Walker, who chaired the House Science Committee in the mid-1990s, took the opposite view. 

“For a long time, what we’ve done is that we’ve decided what technology we have the capacity to build, and then we decide on what missions we should do based upon that technology,” he said. “It seems to me that’s backwards. What it should be is that we decide what the mission should be and then design the technology and the infrastructure to support that mission.”

Walker said that NASA’s asteroid mission plans fell squarely in that technology-driven approach, and were not a compelling human spaceflight mission. “In my view, this is something that could be done robotically,” he said. Human missions to the Moon and Mars made more sense, he added, because of the prospects of permanent settlements there. “The goal of being on the Moon should be to go and be there permanently,” he said. “It’s the same thing for Mars and other places inside our solar system.”

Walker also recalled his experience as chair of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry in 2001–2002. “We said the mission should be the human exploration of the solar system during this century,” he said. The reason for such a bold goal, he said, was to help drive technology development in areas like nuclear propulsion. “If you have a mission big enough that you really want to achieve, what you get out of it is technologies, new partnerships, and a new exploration philosophy,” Walker said.

Those bold visions, though, run afoul of funding and other political constraints today, Garver said. “Without an outside force that gives you your purpose, you are not going to get consensus” on what NASA should be doing, Garver said. “We live in a different era than we did in Apollo. We have suffered, in my view, from trying to relive Apollo.”

In this environment, Garver said, affordability plays a much bigger factor in determining missions and developing technologies. In the case of NASA’s asteroid mission, she argued that means spending only “an extra one or two billion dollars” beyond what is already planned for SLS and Orion development. “I can’t believe that’s controversial,” she said.

“Would you rather have tens of billions of dollars and do a lunar mission? Sure. Do we?” she asked, turning to Walker. “No, we don’t,” he admitted.

One area the two agreed upon was that importance of involving the commercial sector in future exploration efforts. “You need the commercial sector to backfill behind you and ensure that the technologies you’re developing will be broadly applied beyond just the missions that you’re doing,” Walker said.

Garver said it was time to stop debating where to go and instead focus on carrying out any mission. “We’ve come to the point where we probably just need to just go do a mission,” she said, adding she felt it should be the proposed asteroid mission. “If that’s not people want to do, we can argue about something else and not go anywhere again for a while.”